Erdene and Saken held open a large sack; Maydan, the woman who'd tended Tamar's feet, gathered up the shorn hair and dumped it into the sack. When every sc.r.a.p had been retrieved, the sack was closed and shaken vigorously, then emptied out onto the reed mat. The women carefully distributed the hair so that it was evenly scattered over the mat; there was enough that at least a scattering of hair could reach from end to end. Even with it all mixed together, I thought I saw a handful of reddish hair that had come from Tamar. Then they took out big handfuls of black wool from the other sack, and spread it out over the mat, fluffy, thick, and even.
"The water's ready," Erdene said.
Janiya had stood back for this entire operation; now she took her place at one end of the mat and gestured; the sisterhood formed a circle around it, clasping hands. I counted, for the first time: with Tamar and me, there were twenty-one women in the sisterhood. "We are sisters, bound through our duty,"
Janiya said. "We are sisters, bound in shared water. We are sisters, bound through the mingling of our bodies." She paused, and Saken and Erdene picked up the kettle and poured steaming water down over the wool, hair, and mat, soaking every inch.
"Bound in Arachne's tightest web; wrapped in Arachne's purest cloth," Janiya said. "Bind us together, bind us together, make us one."
We broke the circle and stepped back; three of the other women rolled up the mat, the wet wool and hair bound inside. They each pinned the, mat under one knee to press it tightly together. When it was done, they tied it shut. The ritual complete, Saken happily brought out the jug of k.u.miss again, but thankfully didn't try to force any of it on me.
"What was that about?" Tamar whispered. I shrugged. Saken couldn't have overheard, but she came over when she was done filling cups to explain.
"We'll drag that along behind our horses tomorrow," she said. "The wool and our hair will lock together and become black felt-we call it sister-cloth. We'll cut up the felt and use it to make vests." She smiled and lifted the jug. "More k.u.miss?"
"No thank you," I said.
Her face fell slightly and she said, "You've been through a lot. If you want to go lie down, I can show you where you'll sleep."
"I'd appreciate that," I said, so Saken showed me to a spot in one of the yurts. Apparently I was supposed to just lie down on the rugs on the floor; she gave me one of the pillows-it had a quilted applique of a sun and a spider-and a blanket, which was relatively unadorned, only having alternating stripes of yellow and white.
"Good night," she said kindly.
Tamar lay down beside me. "You can stay out by the fire if you want," I said as she
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