stories

Author’s note: The story below was first published in Issue 14 of A cappella Zoo; click here to order the issue in print. 

The Spider Garden

They are up in the rooftop greenhouse. The woman speaks, and the girl listens. “The spiders are fond of a certain tree,” the woman says. “They build their webs in its branches. This tree only grows in a few places, and they will not build anywhere else. When your mother and I were girls, we had a whole grove of these, in the valley just below our village.”

The girl says nothing. It has been a week since she came here, and two weeks since she finished the sixth grade. Her parents are taking time to figure things out, so while her friends are busy off at camp or spending time out by the pool, she has come into the city to stay with her aunt, a high-priced tailor specializing in spidersilk. This craft is a relic of their homeland, a craft known here in America as telaculture, and in their family by some other name, some older name. The girl has never been able to pronounce it. All around them, glass enclosures shelter trees with broad waxy leaves. There is a sound of running water. From the branches stretch great silver fans of silk, and there is a faint rustling, as of animals shifting in their sleep. The woman studies the enclosures, then turns back to her niece.

“These should be ready in a day or so,” she says. “The key is not to feed them the first week. The dead locusts foul up the silk, so each time we move the spiders, we have to give them time to set up. Harvest their first batches, then feed and start the process over.” She smiles. Her features are lined but elegant, her dark hair woven with gray. “You’re still frightened, aren’t you?”

The girl only looks at the trees.

“It’s alright,” her aunt says. “It’s natural to fear a thing when we don’t understand it. Maybe even afterward. A little bit of fear helps to keep us in awe, helps to keep us respectful.”

The girl says nothing. Up one arm, her aunt has a swirling tattoo. It resembles a web, though the flesh beneath it is warped, as if it had been melted. The girl asks, “Did the bite make you get that? To cover it up?”

“To reveal its true beauty,” she says. “I was wrong. It isn’t the spiders you’re afraid of, is it? It’s me.”

The girl lies. “I’m not afraid of anything.”

“No.” Her aunt smiles. “You know, when your mother and I were girls, people used to come to our house from miles around. They sought out our mother’s garments for special occasions – weddings, funerals, christenings. It was said that the spidersilk invited good luck, but no one ever viewed our family as lucky. We lived in a shack at the edge of our village. Other children called our mother the witch, called her the spider-lady. When the revolution happened the army came through in their trucks, destroyed our looms and every last tree in our grove. They called what our mother did superstition, called it a corrupting influence.” She frowns. “How old are you now?”

“Twelve.” The girl has a sudden feeling of being unclothed.

“You’re becoming a woman,” her aunt says. “Perhaps when you’re grown, you’ll know what it is to be hated for what you represent.” A strange look crosses her face. “Perhaps you already do.”

That night, after her aunt has gone to sleep, the girl slips back up to the rooftop. She opens the door to the greenhouse, is frozen in the entry by what she sees. The spiders have emerged. They crouch upon their webs by the hundreds, as large as tarantulas but iridescent, shimmering in hues of blue and green and gold. She remembers then her father’s shadow in the doorway at night. Her mother’s punishing silences. She has that feeling of being naked again, that recalled sense of horror and shame and disgust, but the spiders are above such feelings. They shine like scarabs beneath the moonlight. Their many eyes are liquid and patient, unknowable. They are silent as only spiders can be silent, and the girl closes her eyes, imagines she can hear them breathing.