“Good morning, Miss M.”
The voice, lecherous as a dank cellar draft, seemed to travel low to the ground, as if slithering out from beneath a rock. She instantly froze, the spoon halfway to her mouth. She’d heard that voice once before, here on this very same glade, and knew that it originated from a primal and universally shared nightmare. Her skin, pupils, every follicle of hair reacted protectively as icy adrenaline surged to oil her limbs. She dared not turn around, as she knew with all certainty that what had crept upon her was a lethal, liquid-black grotesquery unparalleled in her world.
Highly venomous, but not a snake. Not any reptile.
“Sorry to interrupt your breakfast,” said the Spider, “but I’ve again intentions to make you my own.”
Greta Muffet turned the handle and unleashed the flatulence of ancient plumbing. The sink and surrounding counter bucked and hiccupped as the spigot coughed like an emphysemic before finally releasing a meager stream of rust-tinted water.
Eventually colors and pressures equalized, but not without some grumblings. Much like the inner pipes of an old man, she thought, although it was an old woman for whom she made this thrice-weekly trip; her dedication to the tired, to the infirm.
Or, to be quite accurate, the convalescent.
Kettle under faucet, Greta waited patiently. It was tea time, a particularly endearing staple of her country, just as was the morality angle, although she normally didn’t have her tea until five, when she preferred fancier flavors from the Darjeeling regions over those with names of once-popular Prime Ministers. But Lilith Dodd was an old woman and was stubbornly fond of her Earl Grey at noon. Fond the same way she once was of her many children, all grown and long gone now. Gone for good, the grudges of incessant whippings and diets of thin broth keeping them away.
As mentioned, Lilith Dodd is an old woman and now lives a mostly solitary life, one grown sedentary inside a largely dilapidated and laceless shoe, one held together only by prayer and the cobbler’s annual stitching efforts. It stunk vaguely of mink oil and spilt wine, and its many curtains when sent fluttering in distant rooms suggested a lively haunting by a troupe of barefoot children.
Greta winced. Through the kitchen window, the late afternoon sun was making an effervescent spectacle of the old woman’s porcelain egg collection displayed in the adjacent dining room. All examples were neatly arranged upon tiny stands behind the curved glass of an old oak hutch. Some bore intricate carvings, some were gilded, others hinged and painted with opulent designs… Greta took almost as much pleasure in them as did Lilith, the faux Fabergé ones especially.
Greta Muffet lifted the kettle from the sink and onto an adjacent gas burner, one of three belonging to a necessarily thin though free-standing porcelain stove of a previous century’s design.
“A pinch of orange rind, a teaspoon of honey,” Lilith mulishly reminded from her rocker, creaking away, “then a quick stir or two to keep the color sunny.”
Greta smiled, just a little. “I’ve not forgotten, Aunt Lily.” Not a true aunt, but after so long it got to feeling that way, so certain affectations found purchase, and stuck.
“And I should think a halfpenny roll would be in proper order, dear.”
“No rolls, I’m afraid, nor crumpets,” Greta said, “but I can have you a vanilla scone in a jiff.”
“Warmed with clotted cream, then.”
She adjusted the flame, then her shawl (always a nagging draft here in the shoe), and stared out the window above the sink; beyond the tilted plane of a flower planter and the golden heads of its drooping mums; beyond the bleached designs and leaking limbs of long-discarded toys and into a starkness that, daytime or night, always seemed to saturate in any direction the unenthusiastic distance of her sight.
She brought her focus back in; back to the four partitioned panes (spring, summer, fall, and winter, she mused), and found that they were edged with grime and mildew, so much like the cataracts of regret that have built upon the periphery of her own seasons. Upon the lens of her reminiscence. She reached out and lightly fingered the hazing, her first impression to liken it to a thin layer of webbing, of spun silk, but she quickly jerked away from that comparison despite its aptness. Not to do so was to invite a profound depressive mood.
Or, to be quite accurate, agitate an already existing one.
She sighed. Wednesday’s child is full of woe.
Lilith did the best she could to stretch out her left leg, giving acute consideration to the seeping bandages thick around her calf. “Doctor Salinas mentioned that the wound’s healing nicely,” she said, “and the scarring should be minimal, but a dent it will undoubtedly leave.” …creak, creak, creak… “Just an awful, awful bite. What was it that he called it? ‘Necrotic’ something…”
“Necrotic arachnidism,” Greta said, specific with the consonants.
“Yes, yes, a most defiling tongue-twister.” Lilith shivered. “The punctures are abhorrent, their smell growing sour, one can’t possibly take a long enough shower.”
Greta agreed, having once experienced the leprous feelings that were the aftereffect of her own encounter. The second one. And although she’d not been bitten as had Lilith, she often wished otherwise. “By the way, how are you doing with the antibiotics?” she asked. “They still making you nauseous?”
“I’m making sure to take them with bread and dairy,” Lilith said. “Oh, did I tell you that the president of the homeowners’ association came by yesterday? Apparently, he wants me to speak at the next meeting. As ruthless crimes go, mine has been considered brutal enough to hopefully inspire a majority vote on the implementation of a Neighborhood Watch program.” …creak… creak…creak… “I’m thinking of showing, but I’ve no way of going.”
Still staring vacantly at the window, Greta said, “I’ll be happy to take you. Just give me some notice.”
“Then notice you shall have. Next Tuesday at eight pm sharp. Wee Willie Winkie’s place.”
Greta simply nodded, then opened a faded tin and began spooning its dark contents into a tea ball.
The creaking chair stopped. “You seem especially distant today, dear,” Lilith observed. “To mention Wee Willie reminds me that you both wear enduring garments, his made of night clothes, yours of melancholy.” The chair started up again. “What has you so occupied?”
Greta finally turned, her fingers fumbling at the embroidered fringe of her apron. “It’s just…it’s just that we almost lost you. If I had acted responsibly, unselfishly, those many years ago… Well, I like to think that the vicious assault upon you would have never happened, as the Spider would still be incarcerated. Perhaps even dead by now, a victim of his own irony with the isolation having ultimately left him a dry, hollow shell.”
The kettle began to whistle. Greta snatched it and immediately poured the boiling water into a cup for such intentions; beneath was a matching saucer, both designs of twisting vines.
“You did what you had to do, dear,” Lilith said. “No one knows how they will act when confronted with the Spider.”
“That’s because no one has lived to tell after being bitten,” Greta said, fondly steeping the tea ball. “Except you.”
Lilith shrugged diffidently. “What’s most important is that you forgive yourself. It’s been too many years to carry that guilt.”
As if there should be a statute of limitations for that kind of remorse, Greta thought.
A black, keratin dagger caressed her cheek. “Sweet, sweet Miss. M. Soon, we shall see.” His breath was fusty, slightly fetid, and she turned away. There, she beheld the bulbous abdomen as it moved in liquid, vulgar ways. Two black spinnerets groped the air like the fleshy stubs of an amputee, then a fine spray of silk lighted upon her shoes. “Just in case you were to find your heels again,” said the Spider.
Greta pinched her eyes closed, and begged wetly from a trembling lip. She said that there were things she wished to live for; that youth had all but abandoned her, this was true, but life still maintained a certain preciousness, and was not desired to be lost just yet. Not like this.
Dear, sir, please: not like this.
“Perhaps an exchange, then?” offered the Spider.
Another black appendage wrapped around her waist and pulled her closer, her tuffet no longer holding her weight. “A covenant, if you will. A solemn agreement just between us.”
Her knees gave out, yet she still remained upright in the Spider’s hydraulic grasp. She was still in possession of her bowl, though it was sloping now, her curds and whey slipping out, warm on her fingers as were the tears upon her cheeks.
“The three little kittens, all plump with pie,” whispered the Spider. “Tell me their whereabouts when their mother is indisposed, and I shall leave you to only the silk around your ankles. If not, then I will leave your desiccated remains to the discretion of the wind.”
Greta sighed. “I didn’t make a clean getaway,” she reminded. “For my own freedom I told him when and where the three kittens could be found unprotected. I practically drew him a map!”
“Yes, it was you or the fur balls,” she agreed. “Difficult choices. But it’s not like you betrayed your own kind. You followed a hierarchy. You know your link in the food chain. Nothing to be ashamed of. Besides, if it had been me, I would have sold out Little Tom Tinker’s dog. Keeps crapping in my begonias.” She cackled at this, then resumed with a shake of her finger: “You can bet your pease porridge that had the roles been reversed and those kitties had had larger brains and opposable thumbs, then you’d have been offered up just as effortlessly had directions to your own whereabouts been solicited.”
Just as effortlessly? Aghast, Greta said, “I assure you that my decision was not without a fair amount of angst! And if I may remind you, their mother had to be put down, the grief having left her without a proper mind.”
“I didn’t mean to minimize the consequences, dear, just illuminate the obvious.”
Greta shook her head. “Why I couldn’t muster the nerve to run the second time…”
“Your decision not to will haunt you till the end,” Lilith guaranteed her. Then, with less fuss than one might have expected, she stood, wavering ever so slightly. She cinched her frazzled terry robe, and said, “Let’s forget the scone. I’ll just take my tea in the living room.”
“On the couch, then,” Greta said after her. “I’ll fix you up with some fresh dressings, and iodine.”
Lilith ignored the couch and sought the comfort of another chair; this one encompassing with frayed wingbacks of a paisley design, and a welcomingly plush cushion, while its still-lissome mechanisms produced a silent rocking. A sewing basket sat just to its left, which she regarded approvingly.
Moments later, the china clinked deliciously as Greta handed her the tea. “Be careful not to burn yourself,” she said, then disappeared toward the back of the shoe, in search of clean gauze and tinctured antiseptics. And perhaps a moment of peace.
Lilith blew little puffs into the cup, savoring the heady aroma. Against the west wall stood a grandfather clock, its hickory surface striated with the worn, tiny paths of a sharp-nailed rodent. Below, in no particular order about the floor, sat a dozen mousetraps baited with morsels of cheddar. None of them was sprung.
She glanced expectantly at the clock’s face, painted with a rather unsettling depiction of a cow in some kind of lunar orbit. The hands were about to strike the hour.
It was nearly time.
Suddenly reminded of something, Lilith straightened out her better leg and pushed herself up and out of the chair, then quickly hobbled to the oak hutch ensconcing her cherished porcelain egg collection. She opened the cabinet and quickly gathered up her treasures into a receiving pouch she’d made from a slip of her robe, then shuffled over to a distant cedar trunk, which she opened and therein delicately deposited the items, one at a time, upon a quilt sewn by a relative long dead, and whose name she could no longer remember.
Winded somewhat, she limped back to her chair. There, she took a moment to remind herself that with age comes wisdom, and it was an utter fool who did not see the landscape changing. The once heavy and enduring vintage atmosphere of a quaint existence had been sucked out, now replaced by a lighter, crisper, cleaner air, free of those particulates that amounted to so much…disingenuousness.
Then she disappeared into a dark, recent memory…
Pinned to the ground, a black dagger securing each splayed arm, Lilith stared defiantly into those eight eyes. “Just make it quick, you filthy bugger!”
A guffaw. “You look like something that crawled away from some distant and unforgiving autumn,” the Spider observed. “Something parched and in search of chlorophyll.” He tilted in, as if attempting to gain a better focus. “Why I even bother—”
“Then why do you?” she spat.
The Spider seemed to suckle upon this bit of insolence. Then he said, “Tell me, do you keep that vinegar in a flask and close to your breast?” He thought another moment. “Yes,” he decided as he inched even closer. “Perhaps such guile might work to my advantage. And well to your salvation.”
Lilith stared uncertainly, hopefully then, into those black marbles. “A favor, I’m guessing?”
Greta returned from the shadowy recesses of the shoe, her stride somewhat stilted, hesitant; her arms limp at her sides, her possession free of any medicinal supplies. She was staring out from behind a puzzled expression.
Lilith looked up from her reverie. “Why, dear, you look as if you’ve just discovered something most perplexing.”
“I…the back door has been secured from the inside. Fortified with…spun silk… The staircase, too, prohibiting access to…to the upper chambers.”
Lilith nodded that she understood, then retrieved her cup and saucer from the tray table alongside. She sipped quietly, reservedly, as if having returned to some kind of relevant contemplation.
Now Greta was gaping at the oak hutch; at all of the empty little pedestals within. “What …what has happened to your beautiful eggs? They were there just moments ago.”
“I had to move them, dear. There’s sure to be quite the commotion, and I didn’t feel it prudent to leave them in its potential path.”
Greta was now wringing her hands; her eyes displaying an alarming wideness. “A commotion? Of what sort?”
Lilith didn’t answer, just kept sipping.
Something large just then went skittering by the kitchen window; a sickeningly lurid frolic of branching appendages.
Then, at the front door, an urgent tapping.
Lilith raised her eyes to the sound. “Just one moment, please,” she requested of the caller.
Fixed in place, Greta was nonetheless searching anxiously for a way out: a window, another door…
“The bite was really just a teeny nip,” Lilith confessed.” A warning of what was to come if I didn’t hold up my end of the deal.” She shrugged. “And to facilitate some subterfuge, to be sure.”
Greta’s knees and shoulders were now experiencing an affliction of tremors. “You sold me out to the Spider?”
“Oh, let’s call it what it is, dear: a sacrifice. Just as were those naughty little kittens.”
“I don’t…understand. I’ve long been your friend. I take care of you, bathe you—”
“I’m sorry, dear. I really am. But we’ve been withering on the vine, all of us here. Nobody reads us anymore, and those who do don’t take us seriously. So, it’s time to stop the pretenses.” She sighed. “I’ve often wondered if perhaps that was the reason for the brevity of our individual stories. Yours, for instance, is but one stanza. I used to think that your tale was to simply illustrate the universal fear of arachnids, and mine the consequences children must face when guilty of bad behavior. But, perhaps the shortness of our stories is evidence only of their lacking, of their incompleteness.”
“Why, yes, dear. They were left unfinished so that history might eventually shore them up; that, their vagueness might finally surrender to those starker inevitabilities that we have for so long only insinuated.” She returned her tea cup and saucer to the portable stand. “Yes, I’m afraid change is in the air.” She cackled some more. “That is, for everyone except the Spider.” She shook a crooked finger. “He will always have but one role; his lines forever memorized.”
As a path of wetness blossomed downward upon Greta’s pant leg, Lilith reached into the nearby sewing bag and pulled out a pair of darning needles, then a bolt of sienna colored wool. She began to maneuver her sentences as deftly as she crocheted the yarn. “Our dawns were but quaint utterances, but what shimmer upon our sunsets are harsher ramblings. Diatribes, I should think, against the insincerities.”
Amid her own quaking terror, Greta noticed something perhaps even more terrifying than what awaited her on the other side of the door. “Your occasional rhyming…it’s—”
“Gone, gone, gone!” Lilith shook her head. “Haven’t you been listening? From now onward there will be no more rhyming, no more paying allegiance. Our country’s dead, so should be its anthem.”
Greta could only stare. Then, pitifully remembering her earlier promise, she entreated, “But…Wee Willie Winkie’s place.” Her breaths had grown quicker, sharper; her voice now a crackling cellophane version of its former self. “How…how will you make the meeting?”
Lilith clucked disapprovingly. “My poor, poor dear. Not only are you a self-loathing bitch, but you’re also not a very bright one,” she said, punctuating the remark with an exaggerated crocheted loop.
Now the hitches, the threatening sob. “He’ll do you like he did me,” Greta warned, pointing at the door. “He’s a liar, and not to be trusted. I am your proof – this act about to be committed against me – that he will renege on his promise.”
“I know, dear. I really do. But I’ll advance a proposition of my own: I’ll offer him the whereabouts of my children.” Her lips formed a vile, crooked grin. “But just one at a time. By portioning them out, I’ll be assured a very long reprieve. For, as you know, I have so many, many children.”
Then Lilith raised her voice to the door and said, finally, “Come in.”
This is Jon Michael Kelley’s third story to appear on this site. Other credits include Qualia Nous (2014 Bram Stoker Award Finalist for Best Anthology) by Written Backwards Press; Sensorama by Eibonvale Press; and Firbolg Publishing’s ambitious literary series Enter at Your Own Risk: Dark Muses, Spoken Silences; and Dark Passages II: Tales from the Black Highway by Skinwalker Press.