Colt Walker :: “How to Make Thross Dye”

Stage One: Gathering

Harvest the thross nettle as the summer wanes and gives way to the winds of fall.

Thross is ripe when the yellow flowers hang straight down off their racemes and their petals are slightly wrinkled. It is a very small window of time. Too soon, and the dye will be green and watery. Too late, and it will be dull.

Keep an eye on the sky as you gather. Listen for the tack, tack, tack of raindrops on the forest canopy, be sensitive to changes in the air. Don’t get caught outside if the shepherd dogs of wind and lightning come out to keep the clouds in line.

It was storming like that when I found her, and those were my first and second mistakes, respectively. She was lying at the edge of the woods with a circle of bleeding holes in her side. “Found,” in the theoretical sense. “Tripped over,” in the practical. “Circle,” theoretically. Practically, like something had sunk its teeth in, aiming to kill.

Thross is the last dye of the fruitful months, and it’s the most time consuming to make. Bring at least two baskets as you gather and try to fill them both every day. You do not want to encounter a large patch of ripe thross and have no way to carry it home. Likewise, you do not want to have so little you cannot turn it into anything useful.

My foot connected with something solid-but-soft and I hit the ground. The wind ripped my baskets from my hands, trailing thross behind them. I scrambled after them, but my fingers closed on empty air as the winds lifted the baskets into the sky like dogs playing keepaway with sticks or bits of game.

I squinted back through the rain to see what I had tripped on. A dark, irregular lump on the ground. At first I thought it was some kind of animal carcass. Then I realized it was some kind of person carcass. And then it groaned, shuddering in pain, delineating itself as not a carcass at all.

Be careful of strangers. Thross grows in remote places. Your family depends on this dye to keep from starving during the storming months, so your safety is paramount. Keep a sharp mind about you. Don’t do anything rash.

Hello?” I screamed, pressing my hands to the sides of her face. Rain roared all around us. I could barely hear my own voice as it left my mouth. Her jaw was slack, eyes trembling feebly below their lids. She was alive. Somewhat.

If I left her there and ran for the town I would definitely survive, and she most definitely would not. If I took her with me, then maybe both of us had a chance. Maybe.

Well, my baskets were gone, my hands were free.

I took her by the arm and hoisted her across my shoulders, the way I saw men carrying wounded animals in from the pastures sometimes. I was not strong like the blacksmith or any of the farmers’ boys. My knees buckled as I tried to get to my feet.

Lightning flashed, illuminating the entire world in sharp white lines. Every midair raindrop stood out like a shard of shining crystal, and I thought I saw a canine face in the haze. I thought I saw a huge, lurking form. A dog. A wolf. Two times my height. It prowled in tightening circles, grinned at me, rain dripping from its muzzle.

Then thunder came on lightning’s heels and shook the very earth below my knees.

It came so close I felt its fur brush my forearm, coarse and soaking wet. Wind blew through in its wake. It snapped at the woman’s arm and I jerked away.

Then the lightning came again, thunder immediately on top of it and the smell of ozone singed my nostrils. Again, again, again. The wolf was gone but I heard a ferocious snarl somewhere else in the rain and a chorus of answering barks. There were more, they were fighting. The wind rose in time with their howls. Lightning seared my vision with each bite.

I staggered to my feet, bowing under the weight of the woman on my shoulders. While the shepherd dogs were distracted, I turned towards home.


Stage Two: Processing

Continue to wear gloves as you separate the flowers from the stems. The central stems and the racemes of the plant are covered in stinging trichomes. And the trichomes on the racemes are smaller and finer: harder to remove if your skin is uncalloused.

I wore a different pair of gloves as I stitched shut the holes in the woman’s side. I didn’t want to contaminate the thross blossoms with any blood, sweat, or dirt, and she had plenty. Her breathing was ragged, like she was having a bad dream, but I didn’t know what to do about that. Outside the wind rose and fell erratically, perfectly matched to the sporadic movement of her chest. I didn’t know what to do about that either.

Separate the blossoms from their stamen and the petals from the pistils. Save the anthers separate from the rest in a smooth container that will not absorb the pollen. Later use it to deepen the color of the dye.

With a needle and uncolored thread string the petals into long chains. Hang these in an environment with little moisture so they will dry without mold.

Don’t bruise the petals. Be as gentle as you would if you were making stitches in living skin.

After I tied the final knot and wiped away the blood, I sat back and stared at her. This wasn’t good. My mother was at her sister’s house, helping take care of her newborns. But my father was at a meeting of the Fellowship of Good Men. He would be back soon. What would he say when he found a strange woman lying on our hearth?

Briefly I thought of putting her back outside. She had a much better chance of surviving now that her wounds were closed. Full honesty: that was an assumption. I was a dyemaker, not a healer.

But the wind was blowing so fiercely that the door was stuck shut. When I put my shoulder against it and shoved, it didn’t move. Rain struck the door like the wind was trying to force its way through to the inside of the house. The shepherds were fierce today. The sheep were wailing.

I was halfway through the flowers I’d gathered yesterday when the wind dropped, all at once. The loose shingles on the roof stopped banging against the rafters. The rainfall outside sounded muted, gentle. 

The woman was staring at me. Her eyes were filled with liquid black from pupil to pupil. I startled, knocking my bowl of thross off balance. Yellow petals scattered across the floor in a wide arc.

She looked to her left, to her right, at her hands, at her fingers. She made a fist like it was a novel concept.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

Her head whipped up and she stared at me again. She was wearing an animal pelt as a cloak and no other clothing. The fur was a color I’d never seen before. “A name? I don’t know.”

“Where are you from?”

“I don’t know.”

“You have to remember something. Anything at all.”

Her expression grew troubled. She was amnesiac. Either that, or a criminal, hiding her past. I thought of my father and which explanation he would jump to believe, and what would follow that. I set the bowl back on the table. “Can I give you a name?”

She pondered this, then shrugged. Okay, permission.

“Noma,” I said. “Good to meet you. I’m Xandra.”

“Noma.” Her top lip lifted in a minute smile and I could see sharp white teeth behind it. “Xandra.”

Noma. Nameless Woman. Good enough for now, until her memories returned.

Did you ever find an injured animal as a child? A bird that flew into a window, a fox kit half drowned in the rain? What did your parents say to you when you wrapped it in your coat and took it home? Sure, you can take care of it until it’s better. But don’t give it a name or you’ll get too attached. It’s a wild thing. It can’t stay with you forever. It has to return eventually.


Stage Three: Blanching

To blanche, suspend the strings of dried thross in the dye vats. Gather armloads of slow-burning wood. The vats must be kept at a constant temperature for about two weeks, and the fire must never go out.

Fill the vats with rainwater that has been strained at least three times. Some say that only sky sheep tears will bring out true thross yellow, that all the success is dependent on the gods and their magic and not the elbow grease the dyemaker actually contributes.

I don’t believe it. The gods contribute nothing to the dye’s success unless you can put them to work and make them apply elbow grease of their own, but what god would come down from the heavens to dry flowers?

I showed Noma how to tease the thross apart and string the petals into long garlands. It gave me more time to scrub the dye vats over and again so nothing would contaminate the pigment. It kept her useful, and if she was useful that was one less reason for my father to throw her out.

He didn’t like her. She was a strange woman from out of nowhere and supposedly she remembered none of what came before. To him she was undeniably dangerous. What had she done in her last community so that she’d been alone in the woods, unconscious as a storm rolled in overhead?

Whenever she noticed his displeased stare she would bare her teeth. Noma was decidedly canine. It was a worrying characteristic. My worry exponentiated when the Elios boys returned a week early from their hunt with nothing to show for it.

The Good Fellowship called a meeting. My stomach turned as my father lifted two skinny rabbits by their hind legs and held them up for everyone to see. The boys’ game bags lay empty at his feet. A town’s worth of eyes turned on the Elios family.

Now there was no large store of meat to trade for. Not only would the Elios family be empty handed for the storming months, the rest of the town would be hungry as well.

Angry murmuring turned to a rumble that threatened to spill over. My father waved his arms overhead, commanding attention.

“We need volunteers! Another hunting trip!”

Noma’s hand shot into the air. My father frowned at me and shook his head. People turned to see what he was looking at. I felt the weight of their gazes fall all at once.

“Come with me,” I muttered, pulling her out of the town hall.

Once we were outside, Noma got started. “He needed volunteers,” she said. “No one else wanted to, and I am an excellent hunter.”

“You remember doing that? You were allowed to hunt?”

“No, they didn’t like me. That’s why I’m here.” She tossed her head, and if her pupils were distinguishable I could have imagined her rolling her eyes. “I hate your town, Xandra. There’s no freedom here. And the sheep are always crying. You should do something about that.”

I realized my hand was still wrapped around her wrist. I laced our fingers together instead, swinging our thross-stained hands between us. “It’s not my area of expertise.”

She exhaled in a disappointed way, and around us the breeze rustled the grass into waves and sent the few clouds overhead scudding towards the sea.

Interlude: Other Uses

Do not throw any part of the thross away. The stamens can be dried and brewed into a bracing, spicy tea that clears the chest of thickness and warms the body like nothing else.

Three days after the Good Fellowship meeting, I brought a jar of dried stamens to my aunt’s house. Her newborns had developed thick sounding coughs. She and my mother hoped that the tea would clear their throats and lungs before the storms worsened.

My aunt lived on the other side of town. Noma came with me, morning fog rolling away from her with every step. We passed the Elios’ cabin on our way to the main road and I could see Farmer Kennedy standing there with a bucket in one hand and a limply struggling chicken in the other.

“Farmer Kennedy,” I said. Once I sold the dye I would buy from him first: grains and flours and pickled vegetables to line the empty shelves back home.

“Xandra,” he said. “Dyemaker. Your father back yet?”

The chicken swinging from his right hand kicked feebly. I eyed it, and the windows of the Elios’ cabin, which were still dark. I knew what he was about to do. “No sir, the hunting party hasn’t returned.”

“Mmph.” He set the bucket down and held the chicken over it, grasping around the neck with two hands. His right hand twisted left and his left hand twisted right.

Noma yelped.

The chicken was dead, but Kennedy didn’t stop twisting until its head dropped into the bucket. Then he took the bleeding stump of the neck and started scrawling obscenities on the cabin windows. Curses for bringing the town misfortune. Prayers calling down the shepherd dogs, prayers for them to use their mighty jaws.

I inhaled through my mouth to stifle my nausea. Noma stared at the writing, transfixed. Chicken blood dripped down the glass and gathered on the sill.


Stage Four: Reducing

“There’s nothing out there,” my father announced.

I almost dropped my fire iron into the gently smoldering embers under the dye vat. Behind me there was a thud thud thud and I turned around to see Noma sheepishly picking up the armload of wood she dropped.

“You’re back early,” I said. “What do you mean, nothing out there?”

He sat and squinted up at the sky, at the clouds grazing on the horizon. “There’s no game,” he said. “Nothing to hunt. It’s like the whole forest is dead.”

“Dead?” Noma breathed.

“We were going to stick it out. We weren’t going to come back until we had enough meat for the town, no matter how long it took. But we came back early, with our bags empty and our knives still clean.” His gaze swiveled and landed on Noma. “Do you know why?”

She made a displeased sound deep in her throat. “Are you saying I had some part in this? I didn’t touch any of your game.”

“Every morning we found large pawprints near our camp.” He spread his hands out. Placed them thumb to thumb. “As wide as both my hands together. They would come in from the woods, circle our tents, then disappear. And we didn’t know what was making them. But I saw it last night.”

I didn’t like the look on Noma’s face. I didn’t like the look on my father’s.

“It was a dog. As big as a horse. I saw it pacing through the rain, but its coat was dry.” There was reverence in my father’s voice. “It had a whole deer hanging out of its mouth. Dead, of course. Stomach hanging half open. It looked at me with black, black eyes. And then it jumped into the air. Lightning flashed, and it was gone. I thought I was hallucinating. But its prints were there in the morning, filled with water.”

There was a moment of silence. Dread ran down my spine like ice water. A lightning dog. One of the storm gods. I felt that I knew why it had come down from the sky to hunt our forest. My father knew too.

“Your suspicions incriminated me,” Noma spat. “Nothing I did. What are you even accusing me of?”

“Do I have to accuse you of anything? A week after my daughter finds you alone in the woods all the wildlife disappears. We are visited by one of the shepherd dogs. My suspicions came after you incriminated yourself.”

Noma hurled down the firewood and disappeared around the side of the house. My father’s eyes said, all of this is your fault.

I didn’t think that was very fair.

Once all the pigment has been leeched from the thross petals, pull the strings out of the vats. The bleached flowers have no other uses. Burn them, bury them, use them as compost.

Now the difficult part begins.

All the water in the vats must be reduced at a slow, gradual rate until there is nothing but color left at the bottom of the vat. The fires under the vats require frequent, almost constant attention. Prepare to lose a lot of sleep for this dye.

I got up in the middle of the night to check the vats and felt sick to my stomach. Noma was gone. Outside, rain pummeled the windows, but the storm was relatively quiet. There was no lightning or wind for now.

I turned up the collar of my coat and made my way to the lean-to with no walls and the makeshift roof where the dye vats were kept. The embers under the vats looked slightly sick, so I added a layer of strong kindling to each fire. In a few hours I would wake up and do it again.

This is why thross dye is so expensive. The buyers are paying you to wake up and get rained on multiple times a night.

Outside the lean-to the wind was beginning to pick up. I squinted against the raindrops driving into my eyes and then I saw it.

A dog. Huge. Twice as tall as me. Static sparks clinging to its fur and lightning winding through its teeth. It was leaping onto its hind legs, frolicking through the rain, tail wagging as it snapped its jaws at the sheep clouds overhead.

And Noma was playing with it. Dashing in circles and leaping into the air. She ran her hands along its sides and snapped her jaws at the sky in the exact same way. The wind whipped around them, part of the dance. Her face was full of delight.

My heart punched the walls of my chest. Maybe it was fear, maybe it was something else, maybe it was both.

Theoretically, I should have done something about this. Put a stop to it? Joined in? Gotten my father so he could deal with it?

Realistically, I had a long night ahead of me, caring for the dye, and my bed was probably still warm.

I went back inside.

It was not lost on me that the lightning dog’s fur was the same color as the cloak that Noma had arrived in.


Stage Five: Mordanting

The thross provides the color, but without a base for that color to attach to, the dye will be like water. This is what mordanting does for the dye. It strengthens its color and allows it to attach to fabrics.

My dyes are famous for their richness, their body, the way they glow on whatever they’re applied to. Here is my secret, the one taught to my mother by hers before her and so forth.

Cobalt mussels cling to the rocks in droves, so thick there’s no space between them. The outsides of their shells are crusted with brine and algae, the insides of the shells glow with soft mother of pearl.

The mother of pearl mordants the dye. Scrape it off the insides of the shell with a fine knife and grind it into finer powder. Stir it into the vats just before the final water in the reduction process evaporates, incorporating it well. The mix must be homogenous.

Noma followed me to the beach early in the morning while the tide was still far out. We waded out to the tidepools sticking up from the water, surf sliding in and out around our ankles. The rocks were behemoths covered in thick carpets of mussels. The fog made a clear radius around us, rolling away with every step forward. I glanced at Noma, side-eye, but she didn’t care about the natural world’s anomalous behavior.

Actually, her anomalous behavior.

I couldn’t get the image of the lightning dog out of my head.

I’ve heard of some mussel farmers who smash them off the rocks with hammers or scrape them off in great batches at the root. Don’t do this. It destroys the mussel beds and ensures that there will be none later, when you or your children are about to go hungry and you need a mordant so you can sell your bottle of dye.

I showed Noma how to grasp the mussel near its base and rock it back and forth until it came loose and detached. She got the hang of it fast. But she shoved her hands viciously into the sharp mussel beds. It was like she didn’t care if they carved her up. When she dropped a handful of mussels into the basket, I expected to see blood dripping into the pile.

I took her hand and turned it back and forth. Her fingertips were covered in small cuts and scrapes, but there was no blood. No pain, nothing. In fact, she said, “What?” and peered at her hands like she was expecting to find some microscopic, other issue. She bled when she first arrived. That I remembered clearly. Did this mean she was dying, or did this mean her strength was coming back? 

“Noma,” I said. “What . . . what is wrong with you?”

“I don’t think you’re supposed to ask me that.”

“Well, what the hell else am I supposed to ask you?” I pulled my gloves from my pocket and shoved them onto her hands, finger by finger. “Why were you abandoned in the storm? Should I be letting you live in my house?”

By the storm.”


She scrambled up the wide of the boulder, mussels cracking under her feet, and stared out at the horizon with a weirdly intense gaze. I thought of hunting dogs whose ears tilt forward when they’re listening for something.


She looked down at me. “I was abandoned by the storm. No- not abandoned. Excised.”


“They chased me out, bit me until I bled like mortals do, threw me down to earth.” Her face was alert, full of certain fervor. The excitement of remembering. The adrenaline of realizing who she was, what she was.

The breeze picked up, lifting the ends of my hair. Turned into a real wind, blew sea spray against my face, whistling through the fine holes in the tidepool rocks.

Noma was breathing hard. Without a doubt, the two were connected. “They didn’t expect me to live. I wasn’t supposed to. But you found me. Now I’m free.”

I could feel every pulse of my heart. A certain feeling arising in my own chest. “Listen,” I said, before it could grow and I would have to parse what it meant. “Listen. I saw you with the wolf last night.”

“I know.”

“Noma, what’s going on? Why is that dog here?”

The wind swirled with increasing intensity. “It came to find me,” she said. “It fought when the storm cast me out. We used to be one and they tore us apart. But we’ve found our way to earth now. We’re out. We can go anywhere.”

She jumped down. Water splashed up to our knees.

“Come with,” she said, so close I smelled petrichor on her skin.  “Come with me.”

What? No- no I can’t do that.”

“I hate this town. I know you hate it too. It’s not right for you.”

I stepped back. “Compared to what? What other place would there be?”

“I don’t know. We can find one. Maybe we can build one.”

My heart, thrumming. That certain feeling in full bloom

Some of it was terror. Somehow, I’d gone against the schemes of the shepherd dogs. And hadn’t misfortune run rampant through the town since that day? Hadn’t we been cursed?

But more of it was something else. My own adrenaline, my own realizations. 

The sun shone behind Noma’s head like a corona. Maybe I loved the storm more than I feared it.


Stage Six: Grinding

The Elios boys wanted to wipe the blood off their windows and atone for their mistakes.

Noma and I were finishing the dye when they cornered the wolf. She ground the thross pigment into a fine powder and I weighed out each dose in careful measure to sell.

I held the scoop of dye pigment above the weight balance scale and tapped the powder out until the two plates evened out. I shook the powder into a bottle and corked it tightly.

Noma’s head jerked up. Her hand stilled on the mortar and pestle and she looked over her shoulder, staring out of the lean-to.

“What is it?” I asked. Then I heard it too. Shouting, coming closer, and then thunder shook the air.

Noma jumped to her feet. “I have to go,” she said. Very carefully she set down the mortar full of dye, which I appreciated, and then she shot out of the lean-to.

I hesitated for a moment, trying to convince myself that I wouldn’t follow Noma into some undoubtedly dangerous unknown. But it was inevitable. I grabbed the pestle before I ran after her.

The Elios boys had the dog surrounded, menacing it with spears made of hunting knives tied to long stakes. The dog snarled and snapped at them but it couldn’t get past their spears. A broken shaft hung out of its flank. One of the boys lay moaning in the grass.

A gale roared down from the heavens, whipping my hair past my face, throwing the trees to and fro. The air swelled with rage.

Noma sprinted up and slashed her nails across the tallest boys back. I think his name was Andrew, and he screamed terribly. The back of his shirt flapped open. So did the skin of his back.

The dog growled. The rumble shook the earth. It spread its jaws apart far wider than any normal dog could. Streams of lightning danced from tooth to tooth. It lunged at the final Elios boy, teeth bared, mouth crackling with power. The boy shoved the spear at its chest. Somehow he missed the vital parts. Maybe because gods have thick skin. The spear drove a full foot into the side of the dog’s chest, under its fur, but the dog still kept coming. The boy shrieked once and only once. His throat spilt onto the grass. The wind filled my nose with the smell of burnt meat.

I froze, trembling, knuckles white around the stone pestle. Noma was vicious. The dog was huge. The boy was just a boy with a long stick. Who was I supposed to hit?

Andrew held his spear crosswise as Noma spun to face him and shoved her back, shoved her to the ground. She threw her arms up to block as whipped the knife end of the spear up. It sliced across her hand and her face. The wind stuttered. Howled ferociously and shoved him to the side. He stumbled down on one knee.

Noma struggled to get up. There was no blood — she didn’t bleed anymore — but she was dazed. I rushed forward. I didn’t even think. I swung the pestle into the back of Andrew’s head. Hard stone. Thross yellow printed on his soft skull. He toppled face first.

The wolf plowed into me with the force of a mountain. Thunder impacted every one of my bones. My vision burned, full of lightning. I cried out for Noma, cried out for her to help me, because what else could I do? I could hear her shouting. It should have been hard, over the roaring gale, but her voice was one with the wind.

The dog pulled back, the pressure relented. I gasped for air, inhaled the smell of bitter ozone.

Noma pulled me to my feet. The Elios boys were down, but three of us weren’t alone.

A few men were rushing towards us with blades drawn. My father was first among them and I almost cried with relief. He would stop all of this and put the world back upright. 

But then I saw dark murder in the whites of his eyes. He wasn’t looking at Noma, or the wolf, though the storm bellowed with determination.

He was going to kill me.

Are you coming?” the wind screamed around me. Noma was towering astride the wolf. No — she was the wolf. She, the wolf, the shepherd dog of wind and lightning, was straining towards the sky. I reached upwards. I wanted to go with her.

But my father grabbed me, and cold, sharp steel nosed my side. I swung out wildly and the pestle connected with his face. Bright yellow thross. Dark red stain. Blood flowed from both of us and we sank to the earth together.

I caught a last glimpse of her as the storm bore her up.

By now you must know what to do. You’ve blanched and reduced the thross, incorporated mordant, ground it into powder as fine as dust.

Check the color. Do you have to squint to look at it directly? Pure thross pigment is like the gods — painful to look at. The human eye can’t process something so bright.

Surely now you know what comes next? You’ve spent weeks with this dye. Every waking hour dedicated to it. Your mind consumed by it.

The dye cannot remain in its bottles forever. It would be a waste to keep it there. It will go out with the merchants and the traders, into the world. It was never meant to be yours.

You knew this day was coming. The wolf that fell into your forest must go back to the sky.


Colt Walker (they/them) is a Filipino-American writer from the high desert. Their work is queer and speculative, focused on that tenuous place where the human and the mysterious interact. Right now, they’re pursuing a bachelor’s in astrophysics. Yesterday, they walked into some wet concrete. This is their first published work. @coltmvswalker.