Momma cradled the wolf spider in her palm, watching me. “Dana, you need to trust your voice to sing the weaving songs. And your fingers to weave. That’s the only thing that will save my granddaughter.”
“Dana, you need to trust your voice to sing the weaving songs. And your fingers to weave. That’s the only thing that will save my granddaughter.”
I slung my purse over my shoulder and jingled the U-Haul keys at her. “My fingers work just fine. They’re perfect for moving that steering wheel and taking Abby—taking my daughter—away from this web-ridden place.”
“My fingers work just fine. They’re perfect for moving that steering wheel and taking Abby—taking my daughter—away from this web-ridden place.”
I started to climb into the U-Haul driver’s seat, but somewhere across the woods, Abby’s singing voice broke out. A song about tradition and healing, full of more sadness and longing than a twelve-year-old should know.
It was too late. The threat of leaving the holler had made Abby run off to Grandmother Spider.
Momma and Abby had been trying to change my mind for weeks. They had crushed boxes and ripped up my apartment lease, but I’d been determined to start a new life. My nursing diploma meant I could heal more people down at the valley hospital, more than Momma could with her spider webs or Abby with her clever fingers and woven spider nests.
Abby’s strong notes belted, and I clenched my fist until the keys cut in. I stepped off the running board back into the muddy yard. I couldn’t leave Abby, not with Grandmother Spider.
No Fitzgerald woman of this century had ever seen the creature. Tales sung through weaving songs had been passed down about my half-breed great-great-grandmother waking up in bed to see a giant spider suspended overhead, singing songs only women could understand. This was no herbal lore, no clever potion magic. Grandmother Spider had strong powers, it was said; strong enough to heal all but the worst sickness. Or, she could take you away, bewitch you for all eternity. Or punish you by filling the air with disease and death. No Fitzgerald woman had dared to stop weaving since.
Ever since the Greely girl had died of cancer and I had announced the move, neighbors up and down the holler had grown ill: pale, frail, feverish, with faint lines appearing on their skin, as if webs were attempting to push through to the surface. Momma and Abby had taken their fingers and traced the lines, trying to read them just like they do webs, the designs usually spelling out cures. Cut on the leg? Dress the wound with a web. Asthma? Roll up a web and swallow it. But, now, Grandmother Spider no longer spoke to them through the silk threads.
They blamed me.
I pressed my fingertips together; a dexterity exercise Momma had taught me.
“Show me where Abby is. Take me to Grandmother Spider.”
“You better ready your fingers more than that.” She stroked her wolf spider and tiny specks of babies scurried from its back and formed a design in her other palm. A map of the woods.
With Momma reluctantly leading the way, I trekked after her through the elm grove, between gray tree trunks, crushing dead leaves under my feet. Abby’s song wound around us. Dead spiders appeared, their silent bodies stuck to leaves, bark, and twigs. I choked, as if the air in those woods wouldn’t allow any of my simple songs. I thrust past drooping strands of tarry webs.
Momma stopped, and I almost crashed into her. A broken orb-web, the size of a coffin, hung between two poplars. I recognized Abby’s hand, the patterns only she could make by pulling and twisting strands of web. I picked at the viscid silk and handed the clump to Momma.
“Where is she?”
Momma took the ball of web and her fingers began to loop and knot, loop and knot. After a few minutes, she had a web the size of a human head. She hesitated, keeping it in her lap.
“Dana, are you sure you want to see?”
I raised it high. In the spaces between the silk threads, I could see Abby scurrying along on gangly spider legs, catching beetles, grasshoppers, and moths in her sweep net. I frowned at Momma.
“What’s she doing?”
“She’s turning. She’ll be working endlessly to collect food for Grandmother.”
“How do we get her back?”
Momma’s smile was weary and sad as only a Fitzgerald’s can be.
“I suspect two threads are needed: a mother’s love and a healer’s skill. You’ve got to weave a web to complete the bridge.” She sat on a stump.
I thought of the Greely girl, how my web couldn’t stop the cancer transforming her body. The healing gift had skipped a generation. My webs were always too fine and too cluttered, not like the clear, lacelike patterns of Momma’s and Abby’s.
I took a deep breath. Over the years, I had watched Momma’s double weave variation, but I’d never been successful, not even once. I held the ball of webbing high and adjusted the tension of the strands and worked my fingers until they tingled so much that I had to stop. Only one suspension line was complete.
“I can’t do it, Momma. I can’t.”
“You’ve forgotten how a web is brought forth with song.”
I rasped out a few flat notes then faltered.
“I’m not like you and Abby.”
“Don’t you remember when you were Abby’s age? You would sit in front of the terrariums for hours singing to the spiders.”
The memories I had before the Greely girl’s sickness were cocooned inside me. I hummed under my breath and imagined my fingers ripping through the cocoon. My shaky voice steadied as I spun complicated connections, angles, and tensions. A lop-sided Y-structure marking the hub of the orb-portal was soon complete. It resembled a child’s drawing. I looked at Momma.
“It’ll do. Things can pass through, now.” She shuddered.
On the far side, Abby still continued to scuttle about with her sweep net.
“It’s time to come on home,” I called.
She stopped; her spider legs wobbled a bit. “Grandmother Spider’s not feeling so good. I’m keeping her company.”
“I’m sure she’ll be better before too long.”
“Not if you’re still planning on leaving.”
Grandmother Spider’s face loomed out of the portal. She pushed through the portal, fat coarse-haired body almost catching in the opening. Three legs scrabbled in the air, inches from my face. A wavering song broke from the back of her throat, like a scratched vinyl recording of an ancient song.
Behind me, Momma whimpered.
I quickly wove strands together, a cable as thick as my wrist. Grandmother Spider’s grotesque eyes swiveled toward what I held and then she nodded, once, twice, and gently took the cable between her claws before she forced her way back through the portal.
Momma’s voice shook. “What do you make of that?”
“There’s supposed to be a silk thread between us and you. Between all of us Fitzgerald women, right down the line. I had snapped it.”
Abby stuck a leg, her own human leg, out of the portal. When she squeezed her head through, a bit of web stuck to her hair.
We all sang of faith and of release as we walked back through the grove. Our singing shook leaves from the trees and the air soon filled with spiders, ballooning on the breeze, following our voices. Together we would heal the wounds of the holler and even the valley, or offer comfort to those that were not long for this world.
Sometimes all we have is a song.
Brigitte N. McCray is a 2014 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and earned her MFA in creative writing from Virginia Commonwealth University and her Ph.D. in English from Louisiana State University. Her fiction, poetry, essays, and book reviews have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Cease, Cows, UNBUILD Walls, Prick of the Spindle, Mythic Delirium, Southern Humanities Review, storySouth, Red Rock Review, and elsewhere. She has also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize for her poem “The Bean Nighe of the Wash-N-Go.”