I sat alone in my old goatskin tent. Waiting, like I had for the last forty years, for Aunt Benesret to come back. Waiting to inherit her loom and her craft, the mastery of the Four Profound Weaves. I wasn’t sure how long I’d been sitting like this, and it was dark in the tent; I no longer knew day from night. When the faded red woven tapestry at the entrance shifted aside, I drew my breath sharply, waiting for my aunt’s thin, almost skeletal hand—but it was not Benesret. Of course not. Instead, one of my grand-nieces stepped in, plump and full of life, bedecked in embroideries and circlets hammered with snakes. Her eyes shone like stars in the gloom.
R. B. Lemberg’s first foray into long-form fiction has left me breathless. The Four Profound Weaves is a love ballad sung straight into the hearts of those who most need to hear it. I was instantly captivated by the poetic, lyrical prose and drawn in with dreams of sandbirds. It’s the queer, Middle-Eastern fairy tale we’ve been waiting for.
The story is told via the voices of two trans main characters whose fates are entwined with one another. They are old – their joints ache, and their bodies are beginning to fail them with so many years weighing down on their bones. Uiziya made her transformation when she was very young, as is the way of her people. She has always been loved and accepted for who she is, and her carpet of transformation was woven by her friends and family for her when she needed it. The nameless man, nen-sasair, son of sandbirds, had a very different experience. In his culture, he’s still viewed as a particularly rebellious woman who is interested in manly pursuits. His people, the Khana, view him as a particularly old tomboy and reject his chosen identity.
It was here, at this very place, in this dust, on the outskirts of the snake-Surun’ encampment, I had stood in my cloth made of winds, the weave of transformation my friends and my grandchildren had woven for me out of love. I’d lifted my arms to the sky and the sandbirds had come to me, sent to me by the goddess Bird and summoned by the cloth of winds. They were birds of bright fire that fell from the sky and cocooned me, until I could see and hear nothing except the warmth and the feathers enveloping me and the threads of the wind singing each to each until my whole skin was ignited by the sun, my body changing and changed by the malleable flame. And when it was done, I sang. I sang as the wind and the feathers dissolved into sand under my feet; I sang because my transformation was complete. I sang the dawnsong—the sacred melody that the men of my people sing, standing on the roof of the men’s quarter every morning.
Change and transformation are consistent themes throughout the novella. The weaves themselves represent it – one thing may be worked and woven into a new form, but at the price of losing its previous form forever. Uiziya’s people, the snake-Surun’, know this well. They are traders, creating beautiful weaves of sand and wind. When they trade their weaves, they understand that this is not something that can be undone. Each weave has their heart and soul poured into it, but to keep it would be to stagnate – much as Uiziya has done.
Uiziya knew from a young age that she wished to follow in the footsteps of her aunt, Benesret. Benesret, however, was exiled from the snake-Surun’ for her crimes against their people. She has waited and waited for forty years for Benesret to return and seek her out, to teach her the last two of the Four Profound Weaves. She waits and waits to no avail. She stagnates, unchanging and lifeless. Benesret does not return. She, too, has stagnated in her own way.
It is not until nen-sasair and Uiziya seek out Benesret by their own volition that they come closer to understanding the final two Profound Weaves. When they reach her in the high desert, they find that she has woven her own encampment of death. By devouring the souls of those who come to her, she steals their essence and weaves their bones into her own designs. Uiziya begs her to teach her again, to teach her to weave from Hope and Bone. Benesret makes her a deal: she will teach her, but only if she gives herself to her aunt. Uiziya agrees, and Benesret’s diamondflies begin to devour the threads of her body. Her body begins to disintegrate, bit by bit, until nen-sasair negotiates to save her life in a desperate plea: he will go and retrieve Benesret’s great weave, a carpet of Hope, from the Collector.
The Collector holds the Khana in a vicious grasp. He rejects change and seeks to freeze both himself and his collection as they are in the moment. The journey Uiziya and nen-sasair must undertake to liberate the carpet of Hope from his clutches is harrowing, and it will change both of them irrevocably. They must face the changes they’ve denied within themselves and accept who they were, who they are, and who they will be. Until they can do that, there is no path for them to move forward. Moving forward is only possible through change.
“Change is the world’s greatest danger. Around the world you and others, old woman, chafe at my rule, forever desiring a change, yet change destroys all. If not for that power of change, we would not need to die. But you people do not understand. You rebel, you wander from place to place, you chafe at my rule, thinking that something else, somewhere else, would be better. It isn’t. But I save you. I am the one who is centered and stable, anchoring the whole world from my rainbow-tiered court, unmoved by world’s wildness, contained in my birdcage throne. The best of the world comes to me, and I save it from change and I save it from you, who know only dirt even as you make treasure. The treasure is only safe in my palace. Separated from your stench and squalor, forever locked in my coffers. Are you satisfied?”
This tale is told with some of the most beautiful, evocative prose I’ve encountered. It creates an underlying, rhythmic fugue beneath the story, allowing the sense that there is an additional, meta layer to the novella. RB Lemberg weaves words into a thick, luxurious tapestry even as the characters it depicts weave sand, wind, hope, and death. The goddess Bird perches atop the fabric, lending it a sense of gravitas and purpose, even as her brother Kimri lurks in the shadows.
Truly, it’s not just accepting change that matters. It’s also about listening to those around you. It’s about voices being heard and woven into the fabric of your own, personal worldview. In order to master the last of the weaves, it’s not death that Uiziya must master. Rather, it’s the ability to listen and amplify voices that have been silenced. In listening, she can help them change into something new.
I shifted, relieving the pain of sitting too still. I was not done listening to bones, but my listening acquired a lilt, a shape, a feel. I needed to make a loom from my sisters, and I needed a yarn made of them. I needed to give them a shape which the goddess Bird could not give, for she came to look for these souls and was thwarted, and then she sent mortal birds to find out what went amiss, and they all died here as well.
This was my first introduction to RB Lemberg’s Birdverse stories, and it served very well in this regard. I’ve left this novella hungry for more, and I fully intend to read their short fiction over the next few weeks. Their world is beautifully realized. I could feel the edges of their short stories peeking out beneath the narrative of The Four Profound Weaves – never so much that it distracted, but just enough to pique my curiosity.
Many novellas feel like a novel that has been scrunched and shaved and warped to fit into a smaller format. The Four Profound Weaves has not had this treatment. It feels whole – it is one singular piece of cloth. It is not a patchwork. It is not shoehorned into a short format. It is a myth that was embroidered into an existing weave. It is beautiful, delicate, and ephemeral. I can genuinely say that I will be talking about this book for a long time to come. I loved it.
R.B. Lemberg is a queer, bigender immigrant from Eastern Europe and Israel. Their work has appeared in Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Unlikely Story, Uncanny, and other venues, and has been a finalist for the Nebula, Crawford, and other awards
Recommended for fans of:
- The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander
- Los Nefilim by T. Frohock
- The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow
Have you read this book? What did you think? Do you have any questions about it?
Let me know in the comments below!