Now Melanie is in the soot-web of the spider, and she is laughing.
She is laughing because she has posed a riddle and its answer—
Q: What is gray and wrinkly and fights fires?
A: A really old fireman.
—and, mostly, because she’s seven.
She may be about to die. She is terrified and she is hurting and she doesn’t understand why or what she did to deserve it or how it came to be—but she’s still seven.
The joke is funny.
If you’re seven, you’re probably incapacitated with hilarity right now. You’re falling over and may be too lost in your amusement to make sensible observations about this story.
If the spider were seven, it would have mixed feelings—it is, after all, wounded—but probably it too would laugh.
It is not.
In absolute time, it is somewhat younger than seven. In soot-years, it is much older. There are spiders that can live out the long aeons of the world, ageless as the sky. There are spiders that can sleep upon an acorn and wake up upon an oak.
Soot-spiders are not that sort.
For a soot-spider, waiting out a single child’s dehydration so it can eat them is a substantial portion of its life; the window to amuse a soot-spider with jokes like these is hours wide, at most, and long since past.
“I should not talk to you,” says the spider.
It says this in the voice of someone realizing something they would never have imagined could be true. Children are tasty, but dangerously insane.
“I should not get close to you and I should not talk to you. Not until you die.”
[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]
“But it’s your turn,” Melanie says.
“I hate you,” says the spider. She’d stabbed it earlier, right in the eye. “I do not want to take a turn.”
Melanie goes silent.
She isn’t criticizing its choice and she isn’t praising it. She’s just letting the spider get more stressed, in the dark, in the awkward silence, with its wound.
Her own breath is ragged and full of pain.
There’s a bit of time where it thinks that possibly she is crying. Possibly she is not.
“Fine,” it says.
If she had just said something, instead of crying, it might have gone back to singing its song. Or rushed her, in hopes of killing her before she could use the knife. It seems unlikely to the spider that she has found the knife again, in any case, so this would probably be safe.
But she isn’t talking, and she isn’t moving, and it can’t help thinking about riddles, now, and when one occurs to it at last the pressure to say the just-thought-of riddle merges with the mad and painful pounding in its wounded head.
“The night is weeping,” says the spider. “The sun is rising. Look! The last tears of the night have yet to fall.”
Melanie doesn’t even realize at first that it’s a riddle.
She thinks the spider is making some kind of stupid poetic comment on the fact that one or both of them will die. It disgusts her. It irritates her. She clings stubbornly to her silence in hopes of forcing a riddle out.
When she finally realizes that the spider’s words are a riddle, it is beyond her.
She cannot grasp it.
The spider, uncomfortable in the silence, makes a tentative movement on the web. Melanie’s heart nearly bursts with the panic of it. It is only then, as she sits up suddenly and hugs her chest to hold in the pounding of her heart, that she thinks of the spider’s first riddle and its answer and she understands.
Q: 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?
A: A spider.
If you were a spider, you would probably think this riddle very deep and very insightful, but you would also have a fuzzy, eight-eyed face.
“It’s dew,” Melanie says.
Or, yes, a fuzzy, seven-eyed face, if one eye’d been stabbed out.
“The tears are dew. The tears of the night are dew, caught on a web.”
It surprises the seven-eyed spider how much this answer warms it.
It doesn’t care about stumping her. Not really. And it’ll hate her whether she can answer its riddles or she can’t. So the answer she’s given just bursts into a little bubble of happiness and pride inside the spider, because it’s not about her and it—it’s just a confirmation that the spider had asked a good and meaningful riddle after all.
“Yes,” it says.
Yes, it is dew.
It knows it will regret asking. It knows it should stop there—but to give her a turn when it has taken one is fair, and besides, it is used to Melanie now.
How bad can it be?
And Melanie is cunning.
Oh, Melanie is terribly, terribly cunning, for a seven-year-old girl.
“Why do people hurt?” she asks. “Why do people have to suffer, and fear, and die?”
The spider’s mind goes totally and entirely blank.
This is a harder riddle than it expected. It is, in fact, one of the hardest riddles in the world.
An egg? the spider thinks.
It is numb down its right side.
An egg? A dinosaur? A grape?
A grape is a purple fruit that is not particularly responsible for the pervasive universal characteristic of suffering. Anybody attempting to blame this characteristic on the grapes has not completely thought through their theodicy.
That its thoughts are slow is not the spider’s fault.
Its head is not very clear. The knife, it thinks, in the pressing dark, might conceivably have reached its brain; and it realizes, after a moment, that it is thinking about answers to a different color of riddle entirely.
Next week: A Study in Entanglement (VII/VII). I could tell you why you have to wait, but then the soot-spider would kill Melanie and the later parts of this story wouldn’t make any sense!
In the meantime, perhaps you’d enjoy
- reading the surprising number of entries on this site about spiders
- or this site’s extensive discussion of Jesus, Hopping Vampire, and the Enemies of God!
- reading Umineko no Naku Koro ni, which you can do! If you are not in, say, China! Not that I’m bitterer than five-day-old tea or anything!
- writing my Nobilis editor and telling him that bitterer is SO a word. You will have to figure out who he is first and find out his email on your own because I am only a LITTLE bit mean
- we should also contact the English Language Institute and see if we can’t make it official!
- you might also enjoy anticipating Nobilis, elegantly, over at rpg.net; or
- studying the list of countries properly beginning with “the,” such as “the Yemen,” if you know what I mean or the list of places with fewer than ten residents! Someone should help those places! They’re lonely!