Now this is the manner of a soot-web’s construction.
First one sees soot gusting through the air. Then the patterns of it become oddly persistent. They cling together through a logic of their own, lemma to lemma, corollary to corollary, each a piece of a puzzle whose logic is fundamentally different from the logic of the world.
The patterns thicken.
Soon there is nothing but darkness. Soon the mind is absorbed entirely in the web and cannot perceive the ordinary nature of the world. Soon experience is held together not by perception, maya, by the appearance of material existence, but rather by soot and a distant, bleak, and horrid song.
This is the song of the spider.
To stumble into a soot-web is to find that, no matter in which direction one turns oneself, one pulls oneself further and further away from world and sound. The very strength of reason and perception that you would normally use to drag yourself away only entangles you further, drowning your senses and your hypotheses in fear and the terrible dark.
Accept it and it deepens; reject it and it grows stronger.
The pressure of your awareness against the soot-web gives it strength, no matter which you choose.
It is 1979 and Melanie is 7 and she has stowed away upon a tramp steamship to get away from Billy and his gang. This seemed a fine idea at first, romantic, even; and then a painfully bad idea as the realities of it grew starker; and finally the most terrible of follies when she stumbled into the soot-web of the spider.
Her world grew dark.
Her world grew very dark, in the soot-web of the spider, and she found no walls as she walked through the deepening shadows; no walls, no portholes, no boilers, and no stairs, but only a slurry of soot and darkness that became more painful with every breath.
And now the spider sings.
The spider sings as she stumbles in the dark. It sings of joy. It sings of stowaways and children-food—and in its song, the last two concepts reveal themselves the same. Its song is distant, tinny, horrible, and fierce, but not entirely regrettable; for it has within it echoes and reifications of the great song that is the world.
Melanie cannot criticize. She only can object.
“I’m not a child!” she says. “I’m seven.”
To this the spider laughs.
And Melanie howls, and she strikes fiercely at the dark, but to no end; and finally, defeated, she shrinks in on herself upon the web, and waits she there to die.
[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]
Time passes. Melanie does not move. The spider sidles close along the web.
Silently, softly, it touches her foot with one great reaching leg.
She slashes out at it. It vents a cry. It discovers that Melanie has had a knife gripped in her hand.
It skitters back.
The flesh of the spider is serrated and awful. She has cut it, and it bleeds, but she herself is bleeding from its touch.
“Oh, vile,” says the spider. “Oh so very vile, to pretend to death to lure me in.”
Melanie’s eyes are sunken.
She is barely sane.
“Come back and fight,” she says.
But the spider simply sits, far away upon the web, and sings.
The darkness is great and poisonous and thick.
Melanie’s mind flails as her hand had flailed. The patterns of her thoughts become oddly persistent. They cling together through a logic of their own, lemma to lemma, corollary to corollary, each new thought suggesting another thought as truth. Something moves inside her spirit. Suddenly she needs to speak.
She interrupts the spider’s song.
“What’s gray,” Melanie says, “and wrinkly, and lives at the top of a tree.”
The song fades.
It doesn’t come out as a question. Her throat is too clotted up with fear. The words hurt too much when she tries to say them and she can’t manage the rising inflection on the final sounds that turns English sentences to questions.
The spider stops and thinks about the riddle anyway.
“I would say,” it finally says, “ ‘A dying bird, wrapped in the web of a treetop spider.’ ”
“No,” says Melanie.
“It is an elephant.”
She can see the glints of spider-eyes within the soot.
“That is inaccurate,” says the spider.
“It is an elephant,” says Melanie, “that has chosen to live at the top of a tree. Now you go.”
The spider is nonplussed.
“I do not do riddles,” says the spider.
Melanie is feral and intense.
Her eyes, her face, her entire body has become a vehicle for her insistence: now you go. It burns as fierce as any light.
“But I suppose I would ask,” the spider says, “ ‘what stands on eight legs in the morning; and one leg in the evening; and on something that isn’t a leg at all, in day?’ ”
The pressure of Melanie’s will abates.
She is baffled by the last two parts, but the first part gives the game away. She says, “A spider.”
The soot-spider hisses in its breath. A spider! Born to walk on eight legs, and descending into the afterlife on a single silken thread, and standing on a soot-web in between—
It had not seriously expected that Melanie would guess.
“Yes?” Melanie asks.
“Yes,” the spider concedes.
“What’s gray and wrinkly and fights fires?” Melanie asks.
The spider is suddenly quite near. It is staring into her eyes. It is angry.
“Elephants do not fight fires,” says the spider. “Your theory is not correct.”
Her knife is out. She has stabbed its eye. It is screaming. It is staggering back. She has seized its fang, she is trying to snap it off, she is trying to snap the fang away and drive it back into the flesh of the soot-spider.
She is too weak. She is too slow.
The spider has evaded her. It is screaming, it is furious, it has struck her with one leg, it has knocked the knife away from her to fall somewhere in the dark, it has skittered off, and the spider has skittered off, and the fang that Melanie tugged at would not break off in her hand.
She lays there hopelessly in the dark, and bleeds.
“It is not correct,” protests the spider.
“I didn’t say it was an elephant,” Melanie decides.
The spider sulks. It has rarely been so wounded in its life. If there were a reputable doctor on the tramp ship that was willing to treat soot-spiders it would probably abandon the entire encounter and go to see them; but there is not.
The patterns thicken.
Melanie laughs. She cannot stop laughing.
“It’s a really old fireman,” Melanie says.
And it is beautiful, it is perfect, it delights her; and it is like lightning coursing through her, as the spider shifts its weight, the sudden realization that even when she’s laughing she can die.
Next Week: part 6, and someone you’ve probably been waiting for a good long while in hopes you’d see!
In the meantime, consider . . .
- reading more awesome Hitherby stories about ships and the sea
- staring in puzzlement, as commenter xavid has already done, at the potentially connected legend, The Frog and the Thorn or, for that matter,
- at the Flash game Rabbits for My Closet
- offering your thoughts on the kinds of things you care about in an ePub edition of the forthcoming RPG Nobilis, over on rpg.net
- reading a complete and finished and you-will-never-have-to-wait-for-the-next-entry webcomic like Ms. Reitz’ Unicorn Jelly or Mr. Kilgannon and Mr. Sachs’ A Miracle of Science!
- buying, and then watching, Kino’s Journey. If you put the boxed set on your kitchen table and watch it carefully it will move! Later you will tell your friends and the nice police officers will take you to a nice, clean place that has many fascinating wonders of this sort!
- ever thought of asking me for advice on writing or, for that matter, life? Cut out the middlemoran and just go read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet! Warning: like all great white dead dudes he has some issues, but I forgive him, because he’s Rilke
- boggling at elaborate real-world time-travel plots whose purpose I have not quite yet discerned
- finding cool things to play at Play This Thing!
- clicking random stuff on the Hunger Site, or even
- acquiring valuable new skills!