Setting My Spider Free
by Caroline M. Yoachim
Cool air swirled in through the window and carried with it the faint tapping of claws scratching against stone. A spiderling was climbing my tower.
Lilymiya stirred. She’d spent the daylight hours in her corner with all her legs fanned out across the floor, trying to ward off the summer heat. My poor spider. Her fur, so thick and comforting in the winter, was patchy and ragged. Clumps of it gathered along the base of the walls, and thick strands clung to the grimy sweat on my skin.
The spiderling appeared on my windowsill. It was medium-sized — bigger than a loaf of bread, but a hundredth the size of Lilymiya. I didn’t want it to disturb the webs that decorated my walls, so I reached up and grabbed it with both hands. The spiderling twirled its legs in the empty air as it tried to cool itself.
Mama had overburdened it. There was a chunk of dark chocolate fastened to one of its hindlegs, and Gran’s gathering box was tied to its back. The box was exquisite, covered on the outside with gray spiderleather. Gran had soaked the leather to make it soft and then carved each panel with delicate patterns. The designs were inspired by the webs of her first spider. I shifted the spiderling until its weight rested on my hip and untied the twine that held the gathering box in place.
Gran had given me the box last summer, before she died. She was such a remarkable woman. Her leatherwork was beautiful, but it was more than that. She’d had a contentedness about her after she came down from her tower. She had done what she wanted with her life. I set the box on my table next to a stack of half-finished sheet music.
The spiderling on my hip squirmed, calling me out of my reverie. I took the chocolate from its leg and popped it into my mouth. The bittersweet taste reminded me of pain.
Pain, of course, reminded me of Lilymiya. Her name meant beautiful pain, and it suited her. She’d watched from her corner while I’d unloaded the gathering box and the chocolate, but seeing me eat reminded her that she was hungry too. She snatched the spiderling from my hip with one foreleg. It was barely big enough to be an appetizer. I had a hard time believing that Lilymiya had ever been so small. It wouldn’t be long before she’d grown too large for our tower chamber, even though its single room was bigger than all of Mama’s cottage, with a ceiling three times as high.
The spiderling did not diminish Lilymiya’s hunger. She slid her legs out along the wall, brushing against strands of web that stretched from the floor to the ceiling in intricate patterns. The crystal strands were valuable, but what I loved were the designs that Lilymiya spun. The sparkling lines curved and intertwined to create the impression of a river overflowing after the spring rains. I stroked a strand of web, careful not to sweep it off the wall. Touching it gave me strength against pain, and I would need my strength.
Lilymiya lifted herself off the floor. Her movement sent wisps of fur swirling around the room and into the webs. I’d need to clean before she started to spin again, but she wouldn’t wait for me to do it now. I stepped away from the wall into the center of the room.
She circled me. I was half her size, and she could devour me, if she wanted to. I held my arms out to her, forearms raised above my head and hands bent backwards to expose my wrists. Lilymiya drove her fangs down through my palms. She pushed down through my hands and into my wrists. I tried not to move, only to breathe. Tears welled up, but I did not cry. I tilted my head backwards. Inhale. Exhale. My wrists swelled with the fullness of her fangs; they burned from her venom. She pulled away and left behind a throbbing emptiness. The room slipped in and out of focus. Lilymiya lowered her mouth to my palms and kissed out my blood.
She drank deeply, then pulled away from me. My wrists burned. I staggered to the wall and gathered a handful of web. With a slow and constant pull, I tore the web from the wall, careful not to break the strands so even the web that was high above my head came free as part of a single woven cloth. It gave Lilymiya a clean canvass and also let me wrap the old webs around my wounded wrists to dull the pain. Far too soon, I forced myself to slide the webs off my arms. I plucked out the bits of Lilymiya’s fur and put the web into Gran’s gathering box.
Lilymiya danced her artwork onto my walls, and I had no thought to spare on anything else. Music churned inside me as I watched her. Each thread became a note. I sang as she spun, and the web vibrated with my voice as the notes poured out of me. This would be our song, Lilymiya’s and mine, the culmination of all our efforts.
Lilymiya kept spinning, a cascade of strands flowing over the stones and crashing against the floor. It was splashing water. Mist and rainbows. A symphony of nature drawn in crystal and echoed in my voice.
Then my notes fell away from the pattern. My voice faltered. Pain shot through my wrists.
I fell against the wall and pressed my forearms against the stones above my head. The pressure reopened my wounds. My back arched and waves of pain released waves of tears, flooding into my eyes and running down my face. The pain sucked out my breath. I gasped for air and with each breath I could taste the salt of my tears. Inhale. Inhale. I sputtered and coughed.
My blood stained the web, and my body blocked off part of the wall, but Lilymiya danced around me.
When Lilymiya was finished, she went back to her corner. I followed her and snuggled into her fur. She smelled like chamomile. I focused on the smell, and on her softness against my bare skin. I tried to ignore the pain in my arms. I may have slept, I don’t remember. When I pulled away from Lilymiya’s fur, it was morning.
Mama sent up a spiderling. She sent milk chocolate, which was sickly sweet and I hated that. Mama knew it too, and it was her way of telling me how disappointed she was that I hadn’t sent down any music. She’d never wanted me to choose this life, she’d never forgiven Gran for loving her spiders more than her children. It wasn’t true, of course, but it was what Mama thought. In her eyes, I abandoned her too. Mama’s bitterness made me wonder whether I wanted to come down from my tower between spiders — how could I start a family if all I did was hurt them?
I unloaded the rest of the supplies that Mama sent, put away the nuts and berries and bread. Lilymiya ate the spiderling. The hunk of milk chocolate sat on my table, an inedible reminder of my failure to produce music. Next to it was Gran’s gathering box. She had turned her webs into art. I picked up the box, stroked the soft leather. Maybe there was music in her leatherwork.
I held the box before me and tried to sing its patterns. High notes flowed from my throat, then lower ones, but the melody eluded me. There was something lost when we made art from the spiders’ webs — something different went into the leather than what I wove into my songs. And yet, for all its incompleteness, Gran’s leatherwork felt whole.
My songs were lacking something.
Last night’s web was still clear on the walls; Lilymiya had not moved enough to get her fur all over everything. The webs shimmered in the morning light. Maybe this time I could hold onto the song. My voice rang out strong and true, the same melody as before. As I sang, my eyes traced the strands, but I found myself pulled to the spot where my blood stained the web, where my form disrupted part of the pattern. The song was ruined.
I ripped down the webs and added them to Gran’s gathering box. Mama could sell it at market, maybe that would appease her. I whistled for a spiderling, one strong enough to carry Gran’s box. The scratch of legs on stone came drifting up the wall, and a particularly large spiderling climbed onto my windowsill. It squirmed at the sight of Lilymiya, lifting one or two legs at a time and then putting them back down in the same place, something I’d never seen a spiderling do before. I didn’t think they were that smart. Or maybe it wasn’t so smart — Lilymiya only got to eat the incoming spiderlings, I needed the outgoing spiderlings to take things down to the ground.
I fastened the box to the spiderling’s back and wrote a note to Mama reminding her that I preferred dark chocolate. It scurried back down the wall of my tower. If it lived long enough, that spiderling might make a good spider. It wouldn’t have to last much longer if it wanted to be mine. Lilymiya was getting too big for my tower. If I didn’t let her go soon, she wouldn’t fit through the window. But I still hadn’t captured her art.
Several days passed. There were dirty webs on the walls again, and Lilymiya slunk around the edges of the room. She stared at me as she moved. I looked down at my wrists, only partially healed from her last feeding. Her venom used to help me heal faster, but either I was becoming immune or she was feeding so often it didn’t matter. Could I put myself through the dark chocolate pain that released Lilymiya’s beauty? I trailed my fingers along my forearm. I wanted to climb out my window and down to the ground. I hated my pain more than I loved it, and I wanted Mama to hold me. I wanted to quit.
Lilymiya’s movement changed. She was not pacing now, but stalking around the room. There was a pattern inside of her that wanted to get out. It made her predatory and fierce. Seeing her made me yearn for the pattern too. I had to see this through. My palms started to sweat. What if I couldn’t give enough of myself to sustain her? I was running out of self to give.
I looked up at a tiny patch of star-encrusted sky. The window was wide, but only an arm’s length tall — a window fit for a prison. Lilymiya was my prisoner. I held her here in the darkness of my tower. She spun webs just for me, so that I could write the music of her art, but she was growing beyond this room. Her patterns were too big to be contained. Even if I couldn’t capture her song, I had to let her go.
She circled the tower so fast that fur flew everywhere and her last pattern was peeled from the walls. I should have taken the webs down yesterday. I had no excuse, Mama had sent Gran’s gathering box back up after she’d emptied it. I studied it, so perfect in the center of my table. How had Gran done it, how had she found the essence of the webs? What was Lilymiya’s song? It was time to let her go, but I wasn’t ready. I was so close.
My eyes caught Lilymiya’s and she was still. We could go together. At least part way.
She stood below my window, and I climbed onto her back. Her fur was warm against my bare feet. The sky stretched out above me as I poked my head outside. I pushed off from Lilymiya and scurried up the rock wall like the spiderlings did. There were plenty of handholds and footholds, and it was an easy climb. Moonlight gave the top of the tower a silver glow. Under the endless stars I felt insignificant and small, so I turned over and pressed my stomach into the cool stone. I stuck my head out over the edge and looked down. The window was such a tiny slit.
Lilymiya’s forelegs appeared in the center of the sill — close together at first, then she spread them wider. Her first pair of midlegs appeared, one on each side of the forelegs. For a moment, Lilymiya’s body blocked the entire window.
She was flexible, and she collapsed herself into a shape she’d never been before, long and flat. Two heartbeats later, she was on the roof with me. She crawled behind me and let me lean against her. Reassured by her presence, I looked out across the world beyond my tower, beneath the starry sky. Other towers rose up from the land, delicate like spider legs. As a child, I’d seen many towers from the ground, but they looked different from up here, closer together somehow. I’d spent long enough inside that I had forgotten — I was not alone in my loneliness.
As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I noticed that threads of crystal bridged the gap between some of the towers. Many of the towers, but not mine. They shimmered against the night. A pattern beyond a single room. My mind exploded with notes, a melody awash with harmonies.
It was time for one last try with Lilymiya, one chance to free her song before I let her go. I turned to her and offered her my wrists. She plunged into them and drank from me more deeply than she ever had before. My world was pain and stars and spiderweb strands, all swirled together in the dark chocolate madness of my mind.
My chest tightened and tears poured from my eyes. Still, Lilymiya kept pulling me out of myself. She drank until I was empty. I reached out for her fur, but she was already pulling away. I clutched my bleeding wrists to my chest and collapsed onto the unyielding stone of my tower. Lilymiya was spinning, dancing, circling around me and weaving her pattern around my fallen form. Each circle took her farther away from me, out to the edge of the tower. She leapt into the night, trailing threads of crystal behind her. Her body was graceful in flight.
She landed on the next tower, attached her threads, and looked back. She was my pain, my art, my love, my life — and she was leaving me.
I wanted to call her back, to lean against her one more time. I wanted to bury myself in her fur and find my comfort there. She waited on the next tower, but she did not return. She was waiting for me to say goodbye, to let her go. It was time for her to go and find other spiders, the ones that spun their webs between the towers. She would find a mate and have spiderlings, and one day those spiderlings would inspire someone’s art. I didn’t care.
There would be other spiders for me, she was my first, but not my only, not my last. I knew the truth in my mind, but my heart ached for her. I couldn’t let her go. How could I? And yet, how could I keep her here, with all the world beyond us?
I raised myself up from the stone, pushed my shoulders back, and saw the design she had woven around me. My outline was clear in the center of the web, I could see the silhouette of my head, my shoulders, my feet. It was my shadow, woven into Lilymiya’s web, and in the center the stone was stained with the blood from my wrists. That was what made Gran’s gathering box complete — she had put herself into the work, given everything she had. That was the secret, and now that I’d discovered it, I could feel music rising up within me.
I kissed my fingertips and held them out to Lilymiya.
She took off again, leaping further into the night, merging her web into something that was greater than any single pattern. Someday I might compose the symphony of those far-reaching strands, but, for now, I knelt down and touched a single thread. Our song started here, in the pattern that was all Lilymiya’s, but also all mine.
Lilymiya was free, and as she disappeared into the distance, I stood in the shadow of my own footprints and sang our song into the night.
About the Author
Hugo and three-time Nebula Award finalist Caroline M. Yoachim is the author of dozens of short stories, appearing in Asimov’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, and Lightspeed, among other places. Her work has been reprinted in multiple year’s best anthologies and translated into Chinese, Spanish, Polish and Czech. Yoachim’s debut short story collection, Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World & Other Stories, came out in 2016.
About the Narrator
Amy is a voiceover actress and character talent, who has read several excellent stories for EscapePod, including Black Swan Oracle, Immersion, and The Heart of the Machine.
About the Artist
Barry is a game developer based in Bournemouth, England making freemium games for clients such LEGO and the BBC. His latest game is breaking all records on iOS, not surprising with a title like L”. It’s for younger kids, but if you fancy blasting alien brains check out LEGO Hero Factory Brain Attack.
All this game developing has meant that Barry hasn’t been as active in the podcasting and fiction world as he used to be. He still does the occasional narration for other shows, such as The Drabblecast, and appears on Cast of Wonders from time to time.