The Poet and the Spider
by Cynthia So
You saw the Empress once, when you were still a pillow-cheeked and blossom-mouthed child. She was tall and severe, and the train of her yellow dress flowed behind her for miles and miles, a river of pure gold. You stood behind your mother and wanted to bathe yourself in that river, and the Empress turned, her crown twinkling like a cosmos of cold stars, and she looked at you. You told everyone in your village afterwards that the Empress looked at you.
It was only for a moment. Her head was briefly inclined in your direction, and then it wasn’t. She kept walking. The river of gold frothed sumptuously past for hours, until at midday a woman interrupted it. She wore a black dress that spilled from her shoulders like ink. She held a brush in one hand, and in her other she held aloft the yellow fabric, on which she wrote in decisive strokes. In her wake, the river was no longer pure, muddied by dense black columns of characters.
You remember sucking in a huge, trembling breath as you gaped at the woman and her clever brush, at the ink-drawn characters swimming like little black fish. She had a servant, a pillow-cheeked and blossom-mouthed child just like you, who clutched an inkstone and an inkstick and was diligently grinding more ink; her cheeks were plumped up in concentration. She had a whole sack full of inksticks, that child.
All of you stood watching the procession until the sun grew tired and drew over itself the blanket of night, and even then you did not see the end of the train. Your parents went home, but you borrowed an oil lamp from a friendly woman and sat on a low rock, mesmerized by the poem that cascaded past, your hand outstretched so that the light would fall upon it. It was impossible to read it clearly, but you caught phrases here and there, and they illuminated your heart like fireflies.
When the end of the train had passed and you were left with only the brown dirt of the empty street, you made your way home in the pallid dawn and drowned in dreams of deep pools of midnight ink, and characters that darted quicker than fish, slipping gleefully through your grasp.
A herald came this morning to your village and unwound his scroll, announcing in his thundering voice that the Court Poet was dead, and that examinations would be held for a new Court Poet at the end of this year. The herald droned on about funeral arrangements, and applications and eligibility and rules.
You listened to all of it.
You are eligible. And you will apply. You will apply. You have been writing poems for the past dozen years, ever since you saw the Empress’ Tour and the Poem of the Land. But you have spent half the day rereading some of your poems, and none of them are good enough. None of them make you feel the way that river of gold did; none of them hold the same power as the Empress’ gaze—of considering something and revealing it at the same time.
Your baby sister was born after the Empress’ Tour came to your part of the country; she never saw the Poem of the Land. When you used to tuck her into bed, you would whisper lines from the Poem to her instead of singing lullabies. You looked at her tiny pink face that had never known the river of gold, and you pitied her. Now she is older, and she helps at your parents’ shop, but you are a useless daughter—you who sit at home and write inferior poetry that will never earn any grains of rice.
If you were appointed Court Poet, you would be able to read the Poem of the Land in its entirety. You would gain the keys to the Palace of the Poem of the Land, where the river of gold is kept, where it pours from the atrium of the main entrance into the next room, and from that room to the next, until it returns to the entrance hall again—and so on, a hundred times over. You hear that each room is so wide it could contain your whole village, that there are so many rooms that one would die of thirst before making it around the complex just once. The Poem took the Empress and the Court Poet five years to complete. You guess it would take you half that time to read it all. Of course, once you were Court Poet you would not have the leisure to dally all day in the Palace of the Poem of the Land. You would be busy composing the next great work.
You’re never going to be appointed Court Poet.
You slump over your desk.
Your mother wants you to get married to the tailor’s son. In the tailor’s shop there are ravels upon ravels of fabric, but none of them are yellow. That is the Empress’ colour, and no one else may wear it. Still, there is so much softness in the tailor’s shop, and every other colour imaginable—red and purple and blue and green. It wouldn’t be so bad to be the tailor’s son’s wife . . .
A spider scuttles across the desk, close by your nose. So close you see only a blur of too many legs. You jump up, slamming your hands down on the edge of the desk. The spider saunters, undaunted, over one of your poems, performing a graceful dance on its paper-thin legs.
You have an idea. Not an idea for a poem, no. But you have an idea.
In the Poem of the Land, you glimpsed a collection of lines that referred to the Spider Sisters of the West who, like the Empress, are lovers of rhythm and metre, and strict critics. If anyone could help you write poetry that would secure the Empress’ favour, surely it would be these Spider Sisters, these connoisseurs of literature.
You pack a bag and head west, leaving a couplet for your parents to explain where you have gone. You have never travelled beyond your nearest town, where you saw the Poem as a small, nervous eight-year-old. You catch public wagons where you can, and where there are no wagons, you walk. You don’t know how to ride a horse. As you travel, you write about the lakes and mountains you see, and the people you come across. There is the woman who has a thousand spoons, each made of a different type of wood or metal or stone, or yet other materials: one she wove from vines, another sewn silk. She claims to know the recipes for a thousand soups, and for each recipe there is only one spoon that will stir it to perfection. There is the person who plays the guzheng so beautifully that clouds gather to listen and weep over their village whenever they pluck its trembling strings with their long fingers. You stand in the misty drizzle, listening to the way the guzheng and its player ache for each other, and understand why even the heavens are moved. You cry for loves you have not yet loved.
You reach the region where the Spider Sisters are said to live, and tiptoe into the caves with a blazing torch. You wade through webs, clutching the strap of your satchel, so heavy with the weight of all the poems you have written during your journey. There are so many caves, a maze of webs and dust and little else; you become afraid that this sprawling spread of caves may be as enormous as the Palace of the Poem of the Land, and that you’ll die of thirst before finding the Spider Sisters.
You are dizzy, and the webs look like fine silver chains looping around you to shackle you and hold you fast.
Out of the corner of your eye, a fearful typhoon of legs whips your heart into a frantic pounding. You whirl around to face the monster head on: its small black abdomen and its long black legs and its multitude of black eyes. It would probably be as tall as you if it weren’t elevated, poised on the web in the centre of the cave, not balanced but careening, tilted toward you with all eight legs crooked and jabbing out in furious angles. It looks as if every inch of its body is covered in thorns. Its fangs ooze venom.
You swear out loud.
You knew you were looking for the Spider Sisters. Somehow you had imagined them to look a little less . . . spidery. Stupid of you, really. But . . . they read poetry! You cannot be blamed for supposing they would more closely resemble humans. You certainly didn’t expect them to regard you as their next meal. But you only caught a scattering of verses from the Poem of the Land; you must have missed the lines that mentioned how terrifying the Sisters are.
Then again, they are spiders. That should have been all the warning you needed.
“You have destroyed my work,” the spider accuses. Its—her voice crackles like the snap of dead twigs. Now that the spider has spoken, it is easier to remember that she is one of the Sisters.
“Oh.” You don’t need to turn back to survey the extent to which you have ruined the network of webs that you tramped through. “I’m sorry.”
“What’s that in your satchel?” A thick, shimmering, tar-black drop beads and falls from her mouth like a deadly jewel. The ground sizzles.
You imagine that venom burning through everything you have created, and you clutch the strap of your satchel tighter. “My poems.”
“Let’s have a look.” The spider indicates the space in front of her with an oddly elegant sweep of a leg. Your hand shakes as you dip into your bag and pick out a poem and lay it gently on the web, inviting the spider to stare at it with her many eyes.
You wet your lips. “Do you have a name?”
The spider doesn’t answer. She looks down with her drooling mouth, but it appears to you as though she’s careful not to splash the paper, her head leaning back just far enough. Her eyes flick back to you, hard and bright and ravenous. “You should not talk to me when I am reading.” Now her voice is haughty and high, like the clinking of wine cups.
“Well? What do you think?” The strap is getting all twisted in your hand.
You’re twenty years old, but tears well in your eyes as soon as you hear that. It would probably hurt less if she devoured you right now, slurped your soul from your body the same way you slurped a bowl full of noodles for dinner last night.
“But,” she continues, “it’s not so awful that I cannot bear but to eat you right away. It happened with some other fellows who came by recently, you know. Their bodies were as dry as their poems.” You don’t know how, but all of the spider’s eyes seem to narrow in distaste. “You’re here because you want to apply for the position of Court Poet, are you not?”
You nod, your throat scratchy and lungs shallow.
“If you want me to help you, we could make a deal. I will be your mentor from now until the examinations. If you succeed, you will not have to pay any price at all. However, if you fail those examinations, I will eat you.” The spider leans so close you can smell the venom on her breath, pungent as sun-dried tangerine peel. Your stomach heaves at the sight of all those intent and hungry eyes, so near and unblinking.
You try to think of the river of gold; of the Empress’ gaze upon you, fleeting but startling. Here in this dark cave, with the spider’s many eyes scrutinizing you, surrounded by a silver web that glitters by your torchlight, the river of gold and the Empress are distant and unreachable.
Still, this is the only thing you’ve ever done with your life. This bag of poems is yours. And the spider hasn’t eaten you. Yet.
You swallow. “All right.”
You’re snatched up by the spider’s legs before you can take another breath. Your torch falls from your grasp and is snuffed out; you can’t see a thing. Maybe you’re being eaten after all. You squeeze your eyes shut, but all you feel is the rush of air past your face, and jolts and judders as if riding a wagon along a bumpy path.
You’re going to be sick. You’re going to be sick. You’re going to be—
Warmth on your cheeks. A glow behind your eyelids. You open your eyes as you’re lowered to the ground, grass tickling your nape. You have to blink several times, sunlight too overwhelming after the cave. The spider looms above you, but you’re outside, in the crisp, open air, and you’re alive.
Now that you’re lying below the spider and light is plentiful, you can see that she is not black all over: her belly is purple. And her spines mustn’t be as sharp as they look. You aren’t bleeding anywhere, despite being carried on a rough journey by those spiky legs.
“You asked for my name,” she says. “I am the Spider of Bruises and Plums.”
You refrain from commenting upon the length of the name. “Spider of Bruises and Plums,” you say, “would you come back to my village with me?”
“I can’t travel into the human world like this,” she says, and a radiant violet sphere envelops her. When the light fades, she’s a young woman, like you. Except beautiful, with a pale, perfect face and long, obedient hair. Her dress is diaphanous and silken, the colour of her spider belly, of glossy, ripening eggplants in the summer sun, but embroidered with subtle silver stitches.
There is a strangely shaped comb in her hair, a little like an eight-legged spider, encrusted with amethysts, but otherwise there’s no hint she’s not human.
Even so, when you look at her, you feel the same prickly anxiety.
“Shall we?” she says, offering her hand to you.
You take it and together pull yourself up. Her fingers are delicate as frost, and just as cold.
You make it home. Months have passed since you first set out, and you now have less than half a year to prepare. There are some abandoned mines near your village; the Spider of Bruises and Plums takes up residence there.
It was an ordeal getting home. Men were always leering at Bruises and Plums. You’ve always known that you were plain; with your cropped hair and your worn, ashen clothes, you are invisible to men most of the time. But the way they looked at Bruises and Plums made your puny fists itch; you wanted to give them plum-coloured bruises. An abyss of horror widened in you, and you forgot you were ever terrified of Bruises and Plums to begin with.
One night, Bruises and Plums, who always reverts to her spider form when the two of you are alone, asked, “Are you jealous of me?”
“What?” You pulled your blanket up to your chin. You slept under the bare sky more often than not, unless you met someone kind enough to let you have a bed for free. And with the way men eyed Bruises and Plums, you couldn’t be sure it was just kindness anymore.
“Men look at me and not at you,” Bruises and Plums said. “I’ve noticed how tight your shoulders become whenever they look at me. Are you jealous of me?”
You could have scoffed. “Jealous? I’m angry. Nobody should look at you like you’re meat.”
“You looked at me like I was a monster.”
You shivered, and not just because of the chilled night. “You did threaten to eat me.”
“You mean, I looked at you like you were meat.”
“It’s not the same,” you hissed, throwing your blanket off and sitting up. Bruises and Plums was a jagged tangle of legs on the ground, fractured by the moon into so many shadows.
“Yes, it’s not the same because I know I can eat those men whenever I like.” Bruises and Plums was still so infuriatingly nonchalant. “You, on the other hand, were defenceless against me.”
There was a barely restrained beast in you, wild and scrabbling, but you weren’t sure why. “I don’t want men to look at me. I don’t want them to look at you, either.”
Bruises and Plums was silent. You rested your chin on your knees, goosebumps rising along your arms as you glared into her crowd of eyes.
“You don’t look at me like I’m a monster anymore,” she murmured after a while, the crescent cusp of the moon reflected in every one of her eyes.
Anyway, you’re home now, in your safe little village. Your parents were barely upset with you having been gone so long, resigned to the incomprehensible ways of their impious daughter. Your sister is livid and refuses to speak to you for a whole week.
You meet Bruises and Plums every day in the mines; she reads your poems and utters condescending remarks about your lexical choices and your atrocious neglect of tone patterns. Every day you venture down into her new home, her web has grown a little larger and more complicated. You are always cautious not to disturb any part of it.
You sneak her portions of food from home, dishes of braised pork belly and stewed taro. She is skeptical at first, prodding at the pieces of food with the tips of her bristling legs, but ends up declaring, “This is nice, though not as delicious as your soul would be.”
You are quite sure this is a joke; the glint of malice in her eyes is as generously sugared and warming as a bowl of sweet potato and ginger soup, your favourite dessert.
“Why do you want to become Court Poet?” Bruises and Plums asks after having calmed from a particularly heated debate about caesuras. She is adamant that your poems don’t contain as many caesuras as they ought to, and that “By the heavens, caesuras are meant to occur before the last three syllables in a line, not wherever you feel like shoving them!”
You tell her about the time you saw the Poem of the Land and the Empress.
“Ah yes.” Bruises and Plums sighs. “They visited us. The Empress had heard of us and our love of reading. She explained to us the project that she and her Court Poet were undertaking. When she spoke of her Poet it was with such sparkling praise that she could have made her own jewelled crown out of her regard! The Poet followed a week or two later. She admired the Empress greatly for conceiving of the project in the first place, and told us that she was so looking forward to the day she would draw the final stroke on the last character of the poem, and be able to look upon her Empress again. Her eyes held more wistfulness than a willow.”
You imagine the Court Poet lifting her brush from the golden dress for the last time and looking up to meet her Empress’ gaze; you imagine them recognizing each other’s longing, and the Poet taking the only step that still remained for her, toward her Empress, until what had been the entire span of their country and all its secrets and stories was crushed to nothing between the meeting of their bodies.
You blink away the vision and shift closer to your spider, the immaterial distance between you suddenly bitter and yawning. In her infinite eyes you cannot see the wistfulness of a willow, but are they not similar to those pools of midnight ink you dreamed of drowning in so long ago?
“Do you miss your sisters?” you ask Bruises and Plums.
She had mentioned one of her sisters, and you realize that you never even saw them. You went looking for the Spider Sisters, who number seven in total, and ran into only Bruises and Plums—or maybe she ran into you—and the two of you walked away from the caves without you even glimpsing another spindly, barbed leg.
“Of course,” she says. “The Spider of Blood and Cherries most of all. She’s the closest to me. We like all the same poems.”
It hasn’t even occurred to you that the Sisters would not share the same taste in poetry. You are slightly indignant now, wondering if you might have met a sister less antagonistic toward your writing. “Did you fight with any of them?”
“We are sisters,” Bruises and Plums says, with a sly tilt of her head. “Do you fight with your sister?”
Your sister only recently smiled at you for the first time since you returned from your trip. “You know I do.”
“We have the most vicious fights. I almost bit the head off one of my sisters once. I think Blood and I might be the most violent. It’s in our names.”
“Whose head did you almost bite off? Was it Blood’s?” It occurs to you that you could shorten Bruises and Plums’ name further, but you don’t think you want to. Just Bruises or just Plums wouldn’t fit right.
“No. It was Jade and Cabbages.”
You snort. “Jade and Cabbages? Really?”
“Don’t make fun of her name.” Bruises and Plums sounds stern; there’s disapproval in her voice, like wood scraping against wood, but she is grinning and showing her fangs, as so often these days, to let you know exactly how harmless she is. “Only her sisters are allowed to mock her.”
“Tell me all their names.” You slide yourself underneath her. This is the place you feel safest in the world, down below her purple underbelly, encircled by her eight legs like thin, spiny columns.
“So you know Blood and Cherries, and Jade and Cabbages. There’s also Sunflowers and Egg Yolks.” You laugh again, and are swatted by a leg. “Snow and Milk. Dusk and Tangerines. Seawater and Sky.”
“And Bruises and Plums,” you whisper.
“You must be lonely here.” You reach up and rub a hand over that purple belly; it feels soft as silk. “I’m sorry for taking you away from your big family.”
“I came of my own accord, sweet one.” Her voice is a low, rumbly purr; you might think yourself dealing with a cat instead of a spider. “Besides, I will return to them at the end of the year.”
“Right. After you’ve snacked on my juicy soul.”
“Who knows? There may be hope for you yet.”
She peers down at you, her eyes fathomless and dark, and you feel a queer twang inside, as though someone is playing the guzheng between your ribs. You don’t think there’s any hope for you at all.
While Bruises and Plums is reading your latest work, you’re studying the intricate web around you. It’s so complex it doesn’t really look like a spider’s web. It looks more like a tapestry, but you are surely not viewing it from the right perspective because it doesn’t cohere into a picture. You’ve been more and more curious about it lately, trying to discern meaning in its patterns: the density of threads in one area compared to the sparseness in another; the shapes that the threads form, some angular and some round, octagons and ovals, frenzied spirals and relaxed waves.
You’d be content to look at it without knowing what it is, but you can feel understanding flutter in your chest, a fledgling sparrow on brave, untried wings. “It’s a language.”
“How many times have I told you not to speak to me while I’m reading?” Bruises and Plums’ harsh voice cracks like a branch underfoot. It brings you right back to when you first met: You have destroyed my work.
“It’s a poem!” You leap to your feet. “Your web. It’s a poem, isn’t it?”
“Of course it’s a poem. Have you ever known a passionate reader who doesn’t like to write?” Her voice is tender now, proud.
The sparrow in your chest sinks to your stomach, petrified. “I’m so sorry . . . I completely wrecked your poem when we met.”
Bruises and Plums doesn’t speak. She bobs up and down, her legs bending and straightening, as she does when she’s nervous. Then she scoots nearer to you in a flickering of legs, and with one of them she nudges your foot shyly. “I took you away from those caves as soon as I could because I knew that if Blood found you she’d kill you without hesitating, without listening to you, without reading your poems. She doesn’t tolerate anyone coming into our caves and tearing our work to shreds.”
“Oh. Heavens, I didn’t know.” You raise your hand and touch her face, next to her leftmost eye. Her hairs feel more brambly there, but you don’t flinch, and she doesn’t draw back. “Would you . . . Would you teach me how to read your poem?”
“You only have three months until the examinations. Wouldn’t you rather focus on your own poetry?”
“I want to know what your writing is like. If you’re going to be my mentor, I need to know that you aren’t secretly a terrible poet.” You smile at her.
“How dare you! I’m an excellent poet.” She pivots on her legs and points to a patch of her web, tracing over it. “This means moon.”
You laugh. Naturally—no poem is complete without the moon.
You have to set out tomorrow and head north if you’re going to make it to the capital in time for the first examination, but instead of packing you’re out in a field, on your knees. You crawl all over the damp grass, sitting back every now and then to catch your breath and review your progress.
When it is done, you return to the old mines to find your spider, calling her name. She appears, her legs slanted at a degree that suggests mild annoyance. “You should be sleeping.”
“Come with me.”
You bring her to the field. Glancing over it again, it looks as if someone has unrolled several balls of yarn and unruly cats have chased them all over. Even with hours of diligence, your human hands cannot make a bundle of string look as refined and ethereal as spider-spun gossamer. You did all you could, though, and if you shove away the insistence of your inner critic—who of course sounds like Bruises and Plums now—you can recognize your own craft: the playful tides to the east, the steep ridges to the west, and between them, a host of other shapes, pebbles and tiles and little leafy diamonds. The whole of it like a map of a country, extending across the field.
Bruises and Plums leans back on all her legs as if she’s been hit by a gust of wind, her way of expressing surprise.
She scutters over the field, and you feel as if you’re being examined and will be given a mark that means either life or death, even though you know that she is long past killing you.
She tuts. “Sloppy work.” She pushes the string with the tip of her leg to adjust it. “I’m certain you wanted to say ‘belonging’ instead of ‘buns,’ did you not?”
“Yes,” you mumble, embarrassed.
She has to correct a few more errors, but then, finally, she is speechless. She hovers next to you, reading your poem all over again. You do not interrupt her.
“Honestly,” she says, her voice jangly like the chaotic clanging of cymbals, “this is most unusual. I don’t know how to react. You’re lucky I’m not just eating you out of sheer panic.”
She swivels around and stares at you. Your heart is wild and your cheeks are hot. You aren’t afraid of her, but you’re afraid.
“Are you still going to the capital to sit the examinations?” she asks.
“I’ve thought every day about what you told me, about the Empress and the last Court Poet. And I don’t think anyone is ever going to be able to replace the Empress’ Poet. I think, when I’m with you . . . I’m already someone’s poet. Which is what I’m trying to say with this”—you gesture to the strings—“unless you can’t tell because I’m just such an awful poet.”
“You’re far from awful.” Bruises and Plums’ voice is as hushed as a silvery web. “Thanks to me.”
She presses her leg against yours and you giggle. She spins a thread in front of you, a pattern that she taught you once: it’s the word for when a spider loves someone so much she wants to bite their head off, but she tries her best not to.
The thread gleams rich and silver in the moonlight. You wrap your arms at once around all eight skinny, inky legs and rub your cheek against your spider’s briary face, heedless of the scratches; you feel just the way the Court Poet must have felt when she finished the Poem of the Land, unwilling to ever let any distance come between her and her Empress again.
“If I never sit those exams, I’ll never fail them. So you can never eat me now, Bruises and Plums.”
Let others have the river of gold. To you, the web of silver is worth far more.
About the Author
Cynthia So is a queer Chinese writer from Hong Kong, living in London. She spent her undergrad crying over poets that have been dead for 2,000 years, give or take. (She’s graduated now, but still crying.) Her fiction has appeared in Anathema and Arsenika. She can be found on Twitter @cynaesthete.
About the Narrator
Eliza Chan is a Scottish-Chinese writer published in Fantasy Magazine, Fox Spirit’s Asian Monsters, Persistent Visions and Mithila Review. She writes about East Asian mythology, British folklore and madwomen in the attic, but preferably all three at once.