Farther, Sayeth the Spider

By James la Vigne

he word rishida has the twin meaning of “name” and “spirit.” To give a name is to give life and form; the human power to do so is what keeps the Void beyond the Mountains at bay. After the death of her father, the girl wanders from the Village with the pretext of searching for flowers to honor him. When close to dark she returns empty-handed and quiet no one questions her. Every day she ventures farther. She hopes to glimpse something as-yet nameless, something yet to emerge from non-being, and with a carefully chosen (as-yet unspoken) utterance to make it part of the World.

One day as the sun embraces two peaks she halts, for the way forward is blocked by an enormous spider’s web. Unnatural patterns are spun into the silk. She steps closer. Were she literate, she would recognize these patterns as the glyphs of an arcane, long-dead alphabet, one that sang the verse of a civilization that thrived and perished before the Village was founded along the river bank. She checks the points of contact between the web and the surrounding trees and brush for the resident spider but can’t locate it. Now she hears a tenuous ghost voice, a dry subverbal utterance that seems to come from everywhere and nowhere. She can feel it like a mild quake of the earth. The spider crawls into sight: a female black widow, much too small to have produced such vast intricate webbing. It moves toward the web’s center, where it stops. Its legs continue to wriggle, and it displays the marking on its abdomen, a symbol whose meaning is more entrenched even than language. At last it greets the girl in her tongue, the physical force of its introduction now absent.

She replies politely as her father taught her.

“What is your name?” the spider asks.

“Lenasta,” she replies.

“Pleased to meet you,” the spider says. “I am—” It pronounces a string of syllables impossible for her to repeat.

“Spiders don’t have names,” she points out.

“You have come far from the Village,” it observes.

“Not so far I can’t get back before dark,” the girl replies, looking over her shoulder. The cold line of the river cuts through the green and brown of the terrain. The smear of tan and red along on the bank has housed every one of her memories so far, and someday would be where she would be buried unwed and childless like Tesha. She turns back to the spider.

“But you must go farther,” it tells her. It spins more silk until the girl can discern a new vision of her future in the very curves and intersections of the web.

***

The girl comes across a narrow path through the Mountains, which she has understood to be unscalable except by goats and the gods. The light retreats like slow fingers over the slopes. Hours later she encounters on the other side not a Void to be named into existence, but a world that pulses with familiarity. The moonlit trees shaking around her, the smell of the blossoming hyacinths, the earth soft under her feet, the very air she inhales–all are like the reflections she used to ponder in the river when she washed her family’s clothes. Having brought no provisions and having nothing to eat or drink but a scant few berries, she grows thirsty and famished but continues, assured by what she saw in the spider’s web. At last she grows too weary to continue. She uses a pile of fallen leaves for a pillow and sleeps in the dirt. She dreams but on waking she remembers little: whispers, mountains flattening into what would be called valleys, the peel of an orange in her father’s hands.

When she wakes, she finds a pile of rocks topped with cooked meat (rabbit) and a pot of water, which first she sips, then guzzles: cold and fresh like the water from a way downstream from the Village. The birds are busy with songs in the trees. When she stands, she strains to remember which direction to go: the cluster of bark and leaves in every direction gives her no hints. After filling herself on meat and berries, she finally wonders who had left these provisions for her, if only for a moment. She can hear something and follows the sound until she discovers a stream just wide enough to prevent leaping across without getting wet. She fills the pot and follows the river until she finds a middle-aged man rinsing rags in it, the first true stranger of the girl’s life. His language is familiar enough for them to converse politely, but on the way to his hut he uses a few words unlike any she had heard before, such as entoya, which means “to discover,” but she does not pester him with questions. He feeds her and then leads her to the village.

The huts become more common. They are clay and stone habitats she was familiar with, but many-chambered and taller, and all of them were adorned with strange coils. Soon the villagers gather to hear her story. She tells them she comes from over the Mountains, which shocks them since they are too treacherous to scale. They ask her why she fled from home if not war or famine–two more words the girl does not know. She cannot tell them of her quest for the Void, to go beyond human boundaries to usher into this world something new. After the crowd disbands the girl meets the leader, who is the elderly widow of her predecessor. The leader takes the girl into her dwelling. She allows the girl to inspect curtains, hinged wooden doors and separate rooms instead of one common living space. Offering to house the girl, she talks in a near-whisper, wrapped in the alien glow of candles.

That night a boy emerges from the woodlands, one she knows from the village, though not very well.

***

“You could have been killed,” the widow says some days later. “By man or beast. The wilderness is no safe place, even for a grown woman.”

The destiny the spider wove for her precluded the risks of the journey. “The danger didn’t bother me,” she says.

“Why did you leave your home?”

“I left a place,” she answers, “but it wasn’t home.”

***

Though she is female, in light of her natural inquisitiveness, the widow ensures that the girl receives proper instruction from the resident sages, alongside the boy. They learn to read and write in several languages. They learn of geometry and empires, of cities across the sea so vast you couldn’t hope to cross them in a day’s journey. They adopt temperamental new gods. They learn that history doesn’t vanish like a long gust of wind or cycle like the seasons but accumulates forever in books. They learn of wealth and nobility and the instruments of war. They learn of romantic, rather than ritual, love. They learn lyrical and epic poetry, some of it by heart. She learns of Platonic ideals and comes to recognize that her childhood had been spent in a cave.

The girl learns the traditional songs on the lyzat, a wooden string instrument. She learns Sappho’s most beloved songs and soon sets her favorite passages of Homer to music. She plays these songs while seated on the stone barrier to the central basin, smiling at the passersby. Next, she composes her own songs. She sings of the spright flowers of Phoenicia and the shimmering shores of Thrace and the rugged cliffs of Britannia, of the legendary creatures of Ovid and Virgil, of the plight of those who suffered Jupiter’s wrath. She sings of love and heartbreak. People linger around the basin. Soon there is a small crowd before she arrives. One day she debuts a song, after which she receives applause so effusive that she flushes. “Thank you,” she says.

That night she dreams of the spider spinning letters into its web, but she still can’t read them. The words disintegrate and from a blue mist the future appears again, clearer than before: “You must go farther.”

***

The widow sends the pair to the city to continue their education, alongside an elderly guide. The roads here are like flowing rivers cutting through an endless landscape of impossible architecture. At first, she greets everyone on the street, but the guide quickly dissuades her of this practice. They rent a house that was built by carpenters rather than its owners or their servants. The profiled faces on the coins are replicated with perfect precision. The pair stop at every sculpture and fountain; in particular, she admires one depicting the birth of Minerva from Jupiter’s head, water cascading over the skull from around the infant’s waist. When they visit a library, the girl encounters a map of the world–every patch of land scaled, settled into, and named. Descending the steps of the library she halts to ask the boy what lay beyond this lapping sea before them.

He hesitates while her gaze is fixed upon the sea. “There are islands,” he replies at last. “To the west and—”

“What are they called?”

“Well, there’s Corsica,” he answers, pointing though her face is averted. “And then there’s—”

“And east!” she exclaims, turning. “I suppose you know what is over those mountains?”

“There isn’t much but small towns. But if you go far enough, you’ll reach the Adriatic Sea.”

“And then what?”

Again, he hesitates.

“What’s beyond the Adriatic Sea? I suppose it has a name?”

“You know the answers as well as I do.”

The girl sinks onto the stone steps and weeps. People on their way into the library pass them without much concern.

The boy sits beside her. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Did I say something?”

She shakes her head.

“What’s troubling you?”

“Names,” she manages.

“Names,” he repeats. The sound of the fitful sea.

She stops sobbing. “Everything has a name,” she says.

“I’m afraid I don’t understand you sometimes. You are a strange girl.”

“When I was a child,” she begins, sniffling, “I thought our village was all there was. I thought that mountains that surrounded it were the boundary of existence, and past them there was only Nothingness. I left to escape from such a small place. But I was wrong. Beyond the mountains there were just more trees, more water, more people, more mountains! The farther I go,” she concludes, “the smaller the world appears. Everything has been discovered, named, and put into books.”

“I feel the same way,” he says.

“Really?”

“Yes, the Village was the world. It’s quite a shock to be here.”

“Yes,” she says, standing back up, “but a thousand thousands of people have lived here.”

“You want to go somewhere new?” the boy says, more confidently than before.

“Not just that, I want to create something new. Something beautiful.”

“What about your songs?” the boy asks. “They are new. And you created them. And they are beautiful to me, every time I hear them.”

“I’m not talking about those,” the girl responds.

***

The girl performs in a public square outside the bustling marketplace. People linger for a song or two. As night gathers, an elderly man watches her for some time before he invites her to entertain an audience during the intermissions of a theatrical attraction two nights later. There, the audience in the outdoor amphitheater dwarfs the village of her birth. When the performance begins the actors’ voices are carried with such clarity it is a though they are conversing casually just a few paces away. She realizes that the visceral content of her planned songs might not mesh well with its tone. She opts to play something more low-key. When she is called onto stage her smiling companion wishes her good luck. A wall of faces rising to meet the somber tree in the distance, every one of them possessing some name unknown to her. Afterward the elderly man asks her to join the performers and owners for a small party. At this point her companion departs, but not before effusive praise for her performance. At the party the girl gets intoxicated for the first time in her life.

The next morning, down some crooked alleyway she encounters the spider’s web. The earth trembles with its indecipherable voice before it speaks plainly, “You have come far, my dear.”

“O thank you, my guide,” she says. “I had the best day of my life and owe it to your wisdom!”

“But you must go farther,” it replies, spinning her future into its web.

***

“I don’t want to go back,” the girl says, her feet bare on the cold floor of her quarters.

“You can’t just abandon your home,” the boy replies, peering out the window toward the shoreline.

“My home is here.”

The boy turns to face her. “For how long?” he asks. “How long before you decide your home is somewhere else? Out there somewhere? Whatever you’re looking for you won’t find it here.”

“You don’t know that.”

“I do!” he insists, stepping closer. “You left the village of your birth because it was too small, and then the next one. And now we’re in Rome, the greatest city ever built, and still it will be too small for you.”

“No. I’m happy here!” she exclaims. “Actually happy.”

“Are you?”

“Yes. And I was never happy in the villages. But I am now, here. This is where I always belonged.”

“But it won’t last!” He sits beside her on the bed. “Soon you’ll have visited every shrine and seen every sculpture and performed every venue and at the Colosseum. And then what?”

“Well, what about you?” she counters. “Haven’t you been with me all this way? What are you looking for?”

He thinks a moment. “Sometimes I wonder myself,” he says as though to himself, thumbing at the fabric of the bed between them.

“Then Rome isn’t enough for you either.”

“You’re right. I didn’t come for Rome.”

A gull squawks outside. His gaze is hot against her cheek, but she watches the doorknob as though expecting it to turn.

“I didn’t leave the village,” the boy begins, “because it was small. I had no concept of size. I didn’t leave the village because a voice called me from beyond the mountains. I heard only the voices of my family and the villagers. I was happy there. I was happy to learn my father’s skill, to marry and raise children and die a hundred passi from where I was born.”

She expected him to go on, but he didn’t. “Do you mean that you are not happier here?” she asked. “Or that you wish you had never left?”

“No,” he replied. “I mean only that I could have lived my life there. But you couldn’t have. I think your father was the last thing that kept you connected, and when he died, you were lost. You started going on long walks and wouldn’t return until nightfall. I was worried you would get lost or worse. And then one day you didn’t turn back, and I couldn’t leave you alone in the wilderness. It was dark and–”

“You followed me into the mountains?”

“Yes. What else could I do? I didn’t—”

The girl’s spine straightens as she gasps at a realization. “And it was you who left the meat and water while I slept?”

“Yes, that was me. You had gone far without anything to eat or drink and I didn’t want you to be afraid. Then you continued away from the village and I had to make a decision.”

“To go back alone or—”

“To stay with you.”

“I always thought,” she says into her hands. She begins to cry. “I always thought no one would have cared if I left.”

“I did, for one. And I’m sure they did too. Your mother and sister, I’m sure they missed you very much.”

“Do you think so?” she says.

“Yes,” he replies. “But I doubt they were surprised. You were always…separate. When we were little, I remember we would play our games, but you preferred to spend the afternoon on the riverbed, drawing shapes in the sand with a stick.”

“I remember that.” She stops crying. The gull squawks, closer to the window. She rests her head upon his shoulder. He embraces her. “Do you miss your family?”

“Of course.”

“You want to go back to the village.”

“Our village, yes,” he replies.

“But I can’t go back,” she says. Her hand grips the neck of the lyzat in its spot on her bed. “You can go back. But I can’t.”

“Maybe I can’t either. I tried. I walked ten mile passi along the mountainside and couldn’t find the path we had taken through them. It was almost as though it had closed up after us. I don’t think I can go back either. Not unless–” He doesn’t finish his sentence.

The girl considers this mystery with closed eyes. The gull squawks yet again, now closer, as though stubbornly searching for some kernel on a barren shore. The sound of a thousand thousand gulls on this endless coast. “Unless?” she asks.

The boy disengages her from his. embrace. “There is something I need to show you,” he whispers.

“Yes?”

“I am afraid.”

“You can show me.”

“OK.” He stands with his back to her. Then he seems to be unbuttoning his shirt. Swiftly he drops the shirt from his shoulders, revealing nothing unusual in his muscular backside–no noticeable scars or strange birthmarks.

“I hope you have something else to show me,” she remarks.

“I do.”

The boy turns around. And there, hovering at the midpoint of his sternum, is a black luminous gem, the glare of its surface shifting as though from candlelight or a distant lightning storm. Here it is, unmistakably, the chaotic Void which had called to her since before the spider had urged her onward armed with a vision of the future, the thing she had travelled from the isolated village over mountains and seas, woodlands and cities, to discover. Every step of the way, she hadn’t been chasing it, but fleeing from it. Yet still it had always been at her side, all the way to Rome.

A silence ensues, the thing between them like a sleeping infant they are wary to disturb. Their eyes meet.

“You,” the girl begins.

“You’re the only person who can see it,” the boy explains, “but it’s been with me since my youth.”

“All this time,” she says, almost inaudibly.

“I always believed that it first appeared the moment I fell in love with you. It was painful because I never thought you could love anyone–especially me–and so I thought it would be my burden forever.”

“I do love you,” she proclaims.

“If that’s the case,” he wonders, “then why doesn’t it go away?”

“I know what to do,” she says. “Sit down beside me.”

He complies. She puts a hand to the black gem. It is warm and pulses under her palm like a living thing. She presses it to his chest. She knows the word to pronounce, and it is in her native tongue. “Rishita,” she says as though pronouncing a spell.

They embrace. The scent of his neck is new. The gull’s squawk is new. When they let go something pings against the floor: a necklace with a golden key strung to it. The girl picks it up and stashes it into her pocket.

She looks into his eyes, a gentle brown that could be the start of her most beautiful song yet.

***

The couple return to the second village and marry. At the wedding the girl doubles as the bride and the entertainment. She plays a few of her old songs as well as a few composed for the event, never to be played again. She sings solo until the last song, which is a duet between her and her husband, who sings timidly with a flushed face. She, too, abandons the theatrics of earlier performances for this song. At the close of this song they kiss, and the villagers applaud.

After this unusual wedding, the couple retire to the elderly widow’s house. The widow is ill and was unable to attend. They find her out of bed for the first time in days, sitting in a chair facing the entrance, a blanket draped over her lap. “Greetings to the happy couple,” she says in a withered voice. While they talk with the widow, they must stand very close to hear her. “I knew this day would come,” she proclaims, “the moment you arrived. It is no accident you both come from the same world. That bond is stronger than you think.” She coughs quietly and the couple wait. “Have you ever thought of returning home?” The boy explains that he has, mentioning the mysterious disappearance of the passage through the mountains. “Such things don’t vanish,” the widow assures them. “You will find your way home.” She has a dog and a pair of mules prepared for them, alongside enough provisions to last a week’s journey. The girl brings her lyzat to introduce her family and the rest of the village to the pleasures of a non-percussive music.

They set off, going over their recollections of the passage on the way to the mountains. The girl’s recollections are far spottier and vaguer than the boy’s, but there are points of agreement. The boy having already failed to find a path at a foot of the mountain, they decide to climb up a few hundred passi to search for passages at that elevation. The slopes look as impossible as their reputation, but after a few hours they chance upon a promising passage that cuts into the mountainside. They follow this path until they reach, alas, a monstrous spider’s web spread from slope to slope.

Before the boy can react to this peculiar sight—before he can discern the innumerable hieroglyphs or feel the vibration of the tiny spider’s voice—the girl launches herself into the wall of silk to tear it down with windmill arms. In her frenzy the girl gets web into her clothes and hair and face. The spider does not appear with the scant offerings of the future or its admonishments to “go farther.” She wants only to walk beside this man who has been with her since before she ever recognized it. Stumbling and breathless she declares the path no longer obstructed. As they continue the boy simply remarks that she is a strange girl while he removes web from her face and hair.

The sun sets and the couple unfurl their blankets to sleep. They start a campfire and eat. The girl falls asleep and dreams. She dreams of the village, empty except her father, who she finds crouched at a cup of tea in their old hut. The walls are far away, almost nonexistent. He is smaller than she remembers. He shivers from a coldness the girl does not feel, perhaps the coldness of being a ghost. “Did you find any pretty rocks today?” he asks. She tells him she has. He asks to see it and she produces the glassy black gem of the Void. He turns it in his hands. “Rocks never change,” he says as it shifts and morphs. “This is a relic of the time before there was man, when there was only the land, the river, and the gods in the mountains.” Her mother and sister suddenly crowd the room, and her father remembers he died long ago and disappears. The girl awakens and reaches for her lyzat.

Her husband is sitting upright beside her in the moonlight, for the fire has died. “You’re awake,” he says.

“Have you been awake this whole time?” she asks.

“Oh, I awoke just before you,” he says, but she knows he is lying.

“When we get there,” she says, “nothing is going to be the same, is it?”

“All the better,” he yawns. He lies down and puts an arm over her. “Go back to sleep.”

 

 

——————–

James la Vigne is a fiction writer and accused poet living in Seattle Washington, where he trains wooden parrots to sit very still. His stories and flights of fancy have appeared or are forthcoming in Cardinal Sins, Literary Heist, Metaworker, Modern Literature, Grey Sparrow, and Headway.


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