Silk Will Hold Her Bones To­gether

The Iowa Review - - THE IOWA REVIEW - Me­gan Lee Beals

Ivan drove her to the hos­pi­tal again be­cause she wouldn’t stop shout­ing and he’d had enough of her shout­ing over new imag­ined in­juries and the bruises from nowhere that she might have done to her­self. This time it was a spi­der in her heart and he told her that was im­pos­si­ble but she in­sisted it was in there and now they were in the car and Til­lie’s frail frame was crum­pled against the door of the car barely held erect by the tension of the seat­belt but at least she wore the seat­belt. Ivan was an­gry but he did not want to be. They didn’t have the money for the hos­pi­tal bills and he knew his in­sur­ance would be search­ing for signs of Til­lie’s abuse of the sys­tem; he could not take an­other pry­ing phone call, find­ing new words to in­sist that she did not care for drugs, she was just scared, al­ways scared when she wasn’t paint­ing, and she hadn’t fin­ished a paint­ing in weeks. Her il­lus­tra­tions for that pic­ture book were al­ready over­due which would be an­other phone call and he could get an­other ex­ten­sion maybe a couple of weeks, enough to get over th­ese thoughts of spi­ders but not enough to let her fin­ish the project. There were sketches in the stu­dio. He could send those while she came back to her­self. She really was ill and he was be­ing un­kind, hy­per­bolic; she did stop her shout­ing just as soon as he put her in the car. He slid his hand down from the stick shift to rest it on her thigh and Ivan hoped she could see he still loved her even though there was no spi­der in her heart. She wasn’t ly­ing to him on pur­pose; some­thing, not spi­ders, was wrong. She was pale and her pulse was fast. Her eyes flit­ted un­der heavy lids and she locked his eyes to hers at the stop­light even though she hadn’t the strength to turn her head. He saw that she un­der­stood the mean­ing of his hand upon her thigh and he squeezed her thigh be­cause she still loved him back through this mad­ness. “Thank you,” she whis­pered and her eyes drifted down, glaz­ing over be­cause of a spi­der in her heart of all things. Last month she was grow­ing scales on her legs un­til the der­ma­tol­o­gist rec­om­mended a mois­tur­izer. “It’s go­ing to be noth­ing,” he warned her in the car and he was right. The doc­tors found no cause for her ar­rhyth­mic heart. They kept her overnight and looked at the heart from ev­ery an­gle but they did not find a spi­der or a prob­lem and fi­nally the doc­tors told him she was do­ing it to her­self. She be­lieved there was a spi­der in her heart and that be­lief was

killing her. And Ivan told her this, gen­tly, the way he helped to re­move the scales from her legs one by one and brought her back to Til­lie from the brink of Scaly Mon­ster with just the warmth of his hands and a fra­grance-free hy­poal­ler­genic lo­tion. “It’s all in your head, Til­lie.” “No,” she croaked. “The spi­der’s in my heart.” And there was noth­ing more he could say so he called her older sis­ter Mavis. The prob­lem was in her head, psy­cho­so­matic, heart shut­ting down, and Til­lie was never arachno­pho­bic be­fore. Mavis hung up the phone be­fore Ivan found the courage to beg Please, Mavis, do not be em­bar­rass­ing in the hos­pi­tal. He could have pleaded all night on the phone, but still she would ar­rive with hawk­ish yel­low eye shadow and a thick em­broi­dery thread of the same color knot­ted around her left wrist. He swal­lowed his heart and of­fered his hand to the woman and tried not to see where she had em­broi­dered the thread into the palm around the thumb to stitch the pinky and ring to­gether. They shook as if she weren’t in­sane and his knees shook but he held fiercely onto his nor­mal­ity in the face of this dif­fi­cult and fright­en­ing older sis­ter for Til­lie’s sake. Mavis mut­tered a hello be­cause she knew that she scared him and she did not want the good hus­band to be scared. But for all Ivan’s good­ness, he was full of mis­takes. His shirt was im­prop­erly but­toned and Mavis gripped his hand tight and barked at him to take out the top but­ton of his shirt, how dare he keep an even num­ber with his dear wife in such a frag­ile state and he cor­rected his but­tons thank­ing God that at least she’d combed her hair. Mavis ejected his hand from hers and walked quickly with stiff shoul­ders to the room where her lit­tle sis­ter slept. He fol­lowed af­ter, strid­ing longer than his legs cared to. He should have led the woman to Til­lie’s room, but Mavis was ten years Til­lie’s se­nior and like a mother and sis­ter both. Her du­al­ity left him for­ever shad­owed be­hind her, and when she paused at the door to tell him she’d see Til­lie alone and he’d had enough time sit­ting at her bed­side, he had no choice but to drift back to the wait­ing room and stare at the wall. “Lit­tle dove,” said Mavis as she latched the door. Til­lie stirred un­der the white sheets and smiled when she rec­og­nized her vis­i­tor. Her sis­ter had come to save her again. Amidst the gloom of the hos­pi­tal room she saw yel­low wrapped around Mavis’s wrist and yel­low painted on her eye­lids and that was ex­cit­ing be­cause it must mean some­thing magic, for Mavis was al­ways steeped in mean­ing. “You’re scar­ing your hus­band. He says you’ve got a spi­der.” “Ivan doesn’t be­lieve me... ”

“It’s no won­der. Spi­ders don’t be­long in hearts.” Mavis fin­gered the em­broi­dery thread where it was sewn into the skin. Yel­low cast il­lu­mi­na­tion; it let her see the ter­ri­ble lit­tle crea­ture in­side her sis­ter’s heart, patch­ing up the holes it ate with spi­der silk. The silk was weak and the holes were killing her. Noth­ing can fix a spi­der in the heart. “He thinks I’m crazy.” “We are crazy,” said Mavis. “There’s no fix­ing this, lit­tle dove.” Til­lie frowned, and she sat up in the bed. “I can’t leave Ivan alone,” she said. “We need each other. It isn’t fair to leave him alone.” Mavis could fix any prob­lem she had. Al­ways for a price, for Mavis was no ma­gi­cian, but Til­lie floated through her youth with­out worry or care be­cause her el­der sis­ter al­ways neatly tucked in the fly­away pieces that Til­lie’s breezy na­ture left be­hind. And Mavis did her duty with­out com­plaint; she had a fo­cus for her in­ces­sant need to or­der and sort un­til Ivan came like a light­house into Til­lie’s life, and Mavis drifted north to or­der some­thing else. “I can’t fix death, Clothilde.” Mavis turned Til­lie’s hand over, fin­ger­ing the heart mon­i­tor on the end of Til­lie’s fin­ger as if she were about to pluck it like a grape. “Let me take you home.” Til­lie chewed her lip and the spi­der chewed the aor­tic valve. The girl winced, tears in her eyes. “I’m dy­ing.” Mavis nod­ded. “You don’t want to die in this place, Clothilde. Let’s get you out of here.” “I don’t want to die at all! Please, Mavis. Fix it.” Mavis plunged her cold hand down the hos­pi­tal gown and pressed the em­broi­dered palm to Til­lie’s heart. The spi­der’s legs scut­tled in­side her breast and Mavis could feel them move against the skin. Til­lie gasped. She knew it was there, but never had she felt it so close to the sur­face. Mavis gave a small grunt; it was a very big spi­der. “You’ve killed my sis­ter,” whis­pered Mavis. “And you’re al­most dead your­self.” The spi­der drew back un­der Mavis’s palm then turned and leaned its fat body against the in­side of Til­lie’s skin so Mavis could feel its bulk. Mavis’s eyes went wide. “She’s preg­nant,” whis­pered Mavis. “She’ll die be­fore the eggs hatch. You’ll die with her.” Til­lie pulled Mavis’s arm out of the gown and pressed hands against her own heart to feel the spi­der, but the crea­ture had al­ready gone back to its chew­ing and weav­ing. “Make the ba­bies live on for me. Ivan shouldn’t be alone. Please, Mavis.”

And Mavis could refuse her sis­ter noth­ing, so she spoke to Til­lie’s heart and or­dered the wretched preg­nant spi­der to lay a spin­dle of eggs, one thou­sand ex­actly, in­side of Til­lie’s skull.

The hos­pi­tal re­leased Til­lie into her hus­band’s care, and Ivan drove the sis­ters home and made the stu­dio a bed­room. There was a guest room up­stairs for Mavis, who would stay un­til the spi­ders hatched and per­haps a lit­tle af­ter, and the stu­dio was for Til­lie, who had trou­ble with the stairs. Her heart was im­prov­ing, she told Ivan, now that she knew it was all in her mind, but still she shuf­fled from stu­dio to kitchen to bath and her fee­ble cough wor­ried him. Mavis was in the house like a sin­is­ter cloud and Mavis took care of all her sis­ter’s ails and the two women would ex­change their se­cret glances and Til­lie would pull at her bangs un­til they swept down to her eyes. The egg sac ges­tated just un­der her brow, tremor­ing with her thoughts. Mavis told her the eggs didn’t show through her skull, the spi­der couldn’t eat the bone, but still she felt them and she was so close to Ivan that surely he could see any­thing she could feel. Ivan saw a sick woman do­ing her best to be brave. In her shadow, though, was the woman he fell in love with, who would be strong for him when he couldn’t be, who was funny at all the right mo­ments. It was bet­ter to have her home, even with the strange and imag­ined ill­ness that per­sisted af­ter her sis­ter came to stay. The spi­der died as Ivan kissed his wife goodnight. He tucked her into the stu­dio’s sickbed and Til­lie slumped against the pil­low. He hov­ered over her, afraid that her own con­vic­tions had fi­nally killed her, but she breathed deeply with her own strength and held him close, know­ing it was the last time she’d see him as her­self and she whis­pered all the things she loved best about him. “Now go to bed, honey. I’ll be fine down here, and I’ll see you in the morn­ing,” she said with a bright and healthy smile as she squeezed his hand enough to hurt. He kissed her head and went up­stairs. Til­lie died just af­ter two that morn­ing, and the spi­der’s sac broke open in­side her skull. One thou­sand spi­ders spilled out, clam­ber­ing on top of each other with their fangs gnash­ing against spi­der sis­ter and brother, but some gauzy mem­ory, the dis­tant thun­der of Mavis’s voice di­rected the tiny specks to find food not in the weak­est of their ranks, but in the brain they were born upon. The spi­ders de­voured Til­lie’s cool­ing brain and as they ate up her con­scious­ness, it joined them fast to each other and the spi­ders found them­selves want­ing all of Til­lie’s wants. Mavis woke as the spin­dle picked clean the in­side of Til­lie’s skull, and she

ran down­stairs to find the spi­ders work­ing at the lungs, press­ing them to dis­cover speech, and the corpse lay moan­ing softly in its emp­tied bow­els. “Oh, God,” said Mavis and she rushed to the crea­ture’s side. Its hands stirred to touch her as Mavis scooped the body into her arms. “I was asleep I meant to move you to the bath­tub . . . ” The head lolled as the spi­ders tied their silk and cinched the threaded mus­cles to bring the neck back to its place, and a clutch of them pulled at the mus­cles in the face, gar­bling un­til they found the proper shapes for sound and to­gether they spoke. “Mavis?” asked the spi­ders with her sis­ter’s hol­low voice and Mavis clinched her fin­gers so hard that she might have bruised Til­lie’s skin were the body still liv­ing. “S-sorry,” said Mavis. Her eyes fo­cused for­ward to avoid see­ing the body in her arms. The spi­ders in Til­lie’s neck found their strands and pulled the head to let the two specks sit­ting on sticky eye­balls see their res­cuer; the bril­liant and beau­ti­ful Mavis who let both sis­ter and spi­der live. The spi­ders saw through the two on the eyes that Mavis would not let go, and one thou­sand spi­ders sighed out of joy and love. “We made a mess of the bed­ding when she died. It’s ru­ined, isn’t it?” asked the spi­ders as Mavis laid her sis­ter’s still-clothed body into the bath­tub. “It is,” she said, and she lifted the night­shirt over Til­lie’s head. The spi­ders wrenched the arms to try and help but the hands flopped up to smack Mavis on the nose. Mavis squinted, fight­ing down the tears that ran up hot, and the spi­ders if they’d had tears would have cried to see her hurt. “We didn’t mean to!” The older woman shushed the wheezy corpse and ran the bath­wa­ter. She di­rected the spi­ders to eat up her sis­ter’s blood be­fore it started pool­ing in her feet and but­tocks and ruin Til­lie’s color. Mavis would take care of the bed­ding, and she did so by hos­ing it off in the back­yard and dis­pos­ing of the sheets in the garbage bin. The mat­tress was hor­ri­ble. She drowned it in bleach. Mavis came back in­side to find the spi­ders us­ing Til­lie’s hands to twist the faucet han­dle, shut­ting off the wa­ter that flowed around her in spi­rals of brown and black. “You’re learn­ing fast,” said Mavis and the corpse smiled at her and nod­ded. Mavis let the body soak, then bid it stand so she could hose off the poor thing with the show­er­head, but the spi­ders could not bring the body to stand. “We can get the hands right . . . the legs might take time.”

“Pull the stop­per, then,” said Mavis. “We’ll run an­other bath.” “Til­lie thought a lot about hands. We could use them al­most im­me­di­ately, but there’s just some­thing about the legs . . . .” The spi­ders pre­sented Mavis with the left hand while us­ing the right to reach through the soiled brown wa­ter and pull the stop­per. Through the skin Mavis saw spi­ders work­ing the ten­dons. They scut­tled around to pull the webs, flut­ter­ing a friendly wave. “Hello, Mavis.” Mavis grasped the fin­gers and placed them into the new clear bath­wa­ter and she worked up a lather in her hands to run over her sis­ter’s filthy skin. The spi­ders low­ered Til­lie’s head and two watched as six­teen in each hand ran fin­gers across the skin of Til­lie’s legs. A swarm was run­ning through her thighs, rush­ing to eat the blood be­fore it pooled. “It was very kind of you to give us a chance,” said the spi­ders. “He shouldn’t have to live with­out her,” said Mavis. “Not for some fool no­tion com­mit­ted by your mother.” She tut­ted to think of a spi­der liv­ing in a heart and turned the body around to tilt the chin and clean around the neck. “I love you, Mavis.” Mavis fo­cused on the tiny spi­ders in her sis­ter’s eyes, each no big­ger than the head of a pin, and al­though she could not read them she knew the spi­ders told the truth. They were fed on Til­lie’s brain, her mind, and her soul, and Til­lie was so full of love for ev­ery­one that Mavis al­ways felt like a ghost around her. And here Mavis sat with Til­lie emp­tied of her­self, full up again with spi­ders, and Mavis still felt ghostly as she rinsed the soap from her lit­tle sis­ter’s breast. The light hit an im­per­fec­tion in Til­lie’s skin as the wa­ter ran down her chest, and Mavis placed her hand over the in­ert body of the spi­der that curled in­side her dead sis­ter’s heart. “May I have this?” asked Mavis. The spi­ders moved Til­lie’s hands up to guard their mother. “Do you love me back?” Mavis turned away from her so that the spi­ders would not see her cry. The spi­ders, be­ing min­utes old, had never seen Mavis cry, but in all of Til­lie’s de­voured mem­o­ries they had no ref­er­ence for the mo­ment. It was as if the ground had turned to jelly. Til­lie’s hands fell away from the bump of the spi­der. Twelve spi­ders crawled out of Til­lie’s open mouth, the ven­tur­ous mem­bers of the spin­dle who won­dered bravely if they ought to leap down into the bath­wa­ter and drown them­selves to let the dead truly die.

“I miss her,” said Mavis, who had calmed enough to speak and the twelve ven­tur­ous spi­ders crawled back in­side Til­lie’s mouth be­cause they could aban­don a corpse but they could never aban­don Mavis. “Here, take it. There’s a knife in the cup­board.” Til­lie had left it there with the pill bot­tles. Noth­ing else could take the paint out from un­der her fin­ger­nails. The spi­ders pulled Til­lie’s arm up and tapped over the fat heart spi­der with two out­stretched fin­gers. “We only want to be like her, Mavis. We’re sorry to have made you cry. Til­lie never would have made you cry.” Til­lie’s head tipped up, away from the heart, and Mavis slit open the blood­less skin. It fell away from a shiny black ab­domen and Mavis could not will her­self to reach in­side the corpse. The spi­ders stuck Til­lie’s fin­gers into the in­ci­sion and plucked out their mother’s body. Its long bent legs curled in to­ward its belly and it looked it­self like a fos­silized heart. Mavis watched as the spi­ders pulsed un­der the cut, tum­bling over each other un­til a few seam­stresses rose up and nicked the skin, then threaded the in­ci­sion to­gether with silk and sewed it from the back­side with such fine stitches that the cut may have never been. Mavis took the spi­der’s body, too light for the dam­age she’d made, and slipped it in her bathrobe pocket so she’d have some­thing to bury while her sis­ter’s body still walked. Then she rinsed the soap from Til­lie’s skin and helped her out of the tub. She sat the body against the sink with legs ex­tended out. The spi­ders rested Til­lie’s hands on the floor, locked the arms in place, and to­gether the thou­sand spi­ders en­joyed a smile on Til­lie’s face. “It’s all right if you can’t love me, Mavis. You know we aren’t her. But I think we’re get­ting the hang of this . . . Ivan will love me. I al­ready love him so much.” Mavis brushed the tears from her eyes and breathed deep enough to cover her sor­row and fo­cused on the smil­ing crea­ture on the floor. “Let’s get you dried and dressed, then,” and she bit her tongue be­fore she could ac­ci­den­tally ut­ter the words “lit­tle dove.”

Ivan woke to the smell of pan­cakes waft­ing from down­stairs that cov­ered the lin­ger­ing smell of death. Mavis was cook­ing and Til­lie waved cheer­ily at him from the ta­ble. She pointed to a bot­tle. “Did you know we have black­berry syrup? I for­got we had this!” And Ivan swept it off the ta­ble to scru­ti­nize its date of pro­duc­tion. “You prob­a­bly shouldn’t eat this,” he said as Til­lie held a bit of pan­cake to her mouth and a flood of spi­ders poured from around her teeth to de­vour their first taste of break­fast. Ivan flinched, slightly, but he could

not have seen any­thing so hor­rid in their bright happy kitchen so he placed the bot­tle back down and saw noth­ing but the bot­tle. “I’ll throw it out af­ter to­day.” Mavis placed a stack of pan­cakes in front of him and turned her head to sti­fle a yawn. “Mavis is go­ing back home to­day,” said Til­lie. She sounded so happy. He’d not heard that tone in her voice in years. “Been too long away from work,” mut­tered Mavis as she in­spected a mis­shapen pan­cake, then ate it plain while she poured more bat­ter onto the skil­let. “I should get back to work, too,” said the spi­ders. “I’ve got those paint­ings to fin­ish and I’m feel­ing so much bet­ter to­day. Aside from the legs, of course.” “What’s hap­pened with your legs?” asked Ivan. “Par­a­lyzed,” said Mavis. “Tem­po­rar­ily.” Til­lie held up her hands, smiled at her hus­band, and wrested the con­ver­sa­tion away from med­i­cal con­cerns. She could not be rushed to the doc­tor. The spi­ders could never see a doc­tor. “All the stress of the past few weeks, I’m sure. It’s psy­cho­so­matic, isn’t it, Mavis? She bought us a wheel­chair for the mean­time and I’ll be fine in a few days.” Til­lie pushed her plate aside and reached across the ta­ble to take Ivan’s beau­ti­ful hands. He held hers, they were so cold and dry, and her eyes were milky, but she squeezed him tight and toyed with his fin­gers and he’d never felt more loved. “All right, Tills. But I’m tak­ing you to the doc­tor if it doesn’t go away.” “Deal.” Mavis flipped the last of the cakes onto a plate and turned off the stove. “Cab will be here in a few min­utes. I’ve al­ready packed.” She glided past Ivan and leaned down close to her lit­tle sis­ter’s body and looked into the murky eyes, meet­ing the black spi­ders dis­guised against her pupils. “Be good, Clothilde,” she said, and pressed a small box into the cold hands. The spi­ders cinched the fin­gers tight around it. “What is this?” “A gift.” The spi­ders would need it soon. Til­lie’s face pulled up to grin widely at Mavis. “I’ll be a good Clothilde,” said the spi­ders and al­ready they had man­aged to fig­ure out laugh­ter. “The best I can be.” Ivan rolled his eyes, but he chuck­led be­cause it had been too long since his wife last made a bad joke. Mavis went rigid at the spi­ders’ dar­ing, but she was com­forted to know that there was not a sin­gle crea­ture

of mal­ice within the spin­dle of spi­ders. Mavis bent and kissed Til­lie’s head, then left to find her suit­case and to wait out by the curb. “Go with her, Ivan,” said the spi­ders. “At least help her with the bags.” “She doesn’t want my help,” said Ivan. “Mavis never needs help, dear. That’s why she de­serves it.” He could have swept her out of the chair and kissed her on the ta­ble. In­stead he kissed Til­lie’s too-cold, too-hard fin­gers and went to find Mavis’s lug­gage. She had al­ready car­ried most of it to the curb. Ivan found her keys on the cof­fee ta­ble and ran out to meet her. “Thank you, Mavis,” he said, be­cause she had given him back his wife. It might have wor­ried him that Mavis looked so sad if he could have ever re­mem­bered her as happy. “She still loves you, Ivan,” said Mavis and she meant the spi­ders who had eaten through Til­lie’s brain loved him just as much as Til­lie ever had, but Ivan heard only for­give­ness for his beastly tem­per about the med­i­cal bills and for­give­ness for ever think­ing Til­lie could not love him through her fits of mad­ness. He was faith­less. He did not de­serve the woman who was in­side wrap­ping up pan­cakes from her wheel­chair. “I love you, too,” said Mavis, be­cause she did, and she had never told him be­fore, and be­cause the cab had ar­rived and she would not have to stay to ex­plain her­self. He was a good man; he’d been good to her sis­ter. The spi­ders would be good to him. Poor man.

There were eye­balls in the box that Mavis gave her sis­ter. Carved from wood, hol­low at the back with the pupils carved out to give the spi­ders a place to see. Mavis had painted them and pol­ished them and lac­quered them un­til they had the same wet gleam of Til­lie’s eyes, and the spi­ders held them to their hu­man face in the mir­ror, as­ton­ished at their com­plex­ity; their irises were in­laid with shim­mery threads taken from a sweater Ivan had bought to match her eyes. The spi­ders pushed the wheel­chair back to close the bath­room door. They turned the lock, then cupped their hands un­der Til­lie’s chin. The spi­ders that stood on the eyes crawled up to rest on the brows and the oth­ers in her face nib­bled at the nerves, build­ing upon them­selves, crowd­ing the sock­ets un­til the ten­dons sev­ered and the eyes popped into her await­ing hands. The eyes were clouded, dy­ing, and the spi­ders de­voured them while the hands fit Mavis’s gift into their sock­ets. The spi­ders gave a cau­tious blink to test the po­si­tion, and once sat­is­fied they wound the wooden eyes into the web op­er­at­ing Til­lie’s face and the swarm scur­ried back in­side her mouth. Ivan knocked on the door. “Do you need any help?”

She flushed the toi­let and ran the faucet. “Just fin­ish­ing, love!” She rinsed the hands and wished she could tell her hus­band of Mavis’s clev­er­ness. For all the years she’d been Til­lie, artis­tic tal­ent had be­longed more to the younger sis­ter, and Mavis never let on that she could craft. But if she spoke of the eyes, she’d have to speak of the spi­ders, and as Ivan helped her with the door she pushed her­self up in the chair to give him a kiss. He leaned down and the lips stuck slightly on his stub­ble and the skin tore as he pulled away. The spi­ders worked the skin back to­gether when Til­lie dis­cretely turned her head. “Mavis said she loved me,” said Ivan. He wasn’t sure what to make of it but the spi­ders un­der­stood. “She al­ways has. She’s just ter­ri­ble with words.” “She made me undo a but­ton in the hos­pi­tal,” he said and he was un­sure if Mavis was ei­ther loopy or a witch in con­trol of some strange cos­mic bal­ance. What­ever she’d done, it seemed to have worked on all but Til­lie’s legs.

The spi­ders prac­ticed legs when Ivan left for work. They pushed and pried the toes un­til a nail came off, but no mat­ter how they stretched the feet, the spin­dle found no pur­chase in the ground, nor could they bal­ance the un­gainly torso upon two un­steady stems. They stood, bracing the hands be­tween the wall and the heavy draft­ing desk, but the legs could not be prop­erly spaced with­out tear­ing out the ten­dons, and there weren’t enough feet to stay up­right. A few spun webs through­out the stu­dio to keep Til­lie still, but the poor pup­pet just hung from the rafters like the dead thing she was. Hours passed with­out progress and the spi­der in Til­lie’s left eye knew that they would never walk on two legs. The spi­ders un­pinned her from the web and let the corpse col­lapse back into her wheel­chair. “We’ll paint in­stead,” thought one and the rest agreed be­cause if Til­lie could still paint she would be happy. They painted all evening and were still at the draft­ing desk when Ivan came home and he would have been happy to see her at the water­col­ors again were it not for all the spiderwebs that he re­fused to see drift­ing over­head. “How are your legs?” he asked and the spi­ders frowned. They didn’t want to lie. “They’ll be bet­ter in a week, I’m sure.” But they were not, and dur­ing the week the spi­ders ate ev­ery­thing in the house. The spi­ders were new, they ate like the young do, first de­vour­ing all but the mum­mi­fied lungs in­side Til­lie’s chest, re­plac­ing mus­cle and skin with cord and cloth made of spi­der silk. And once the

body could not sus­tain their hunger, the spin­dle turned to the pantry. Ivan came home to find Til­lie sit­ting on the counter shov­el­ing hand­fuls of dry oat­meal to her mouth where a clutch of spi­ders scur­ried over one an­other to eat what the hands were offering. They ran back in­side the corpse’s mouth too late not to be seen, but Ivan did not see be­cause spi­ders were all in her head, and we are past that now, there is no spi­der there is only Til­lie who is cu­ri­ously hun­gry. “Honey, get down from there, please,” said Ivan and he ran to help her off the counter be­fore she hurt her­self. He grabbed around her chest, un­der the arms, and lifted the sack of spi­ders back down into the chair. She was light for all the food she’d been eat­ing, and her skin too springy. The mus­cle had been re­placed with cord and fluff. “Sorry, sweetie,” said Til­lie as the spi­ders rushed back down to take their place among the bones. “I didn’t know when you’d be home. I haven’t started on din­ner.” “I’m not hun­gry,” said Ivan. He hadn’t been since Mavis left. Both he and Til­lie were com­ing apart but Til­lie didn’t seem to no­tice, not even when her hair had fallen out in the shower. He watched it come away in clumps be­cause he helped her in the shower so she wouldn’t slip and bash her skull and the hair was fill­ing in quickly but not brown the way it was be­fore. Til­lie’s new hair was soft and fine and translu­cent as spi­der silk and there were shad­ows mov­ing un­der her skin, scut­tling, big as beans. “I’ll put the stew on, any­way,” said the spi­ders. “You’ll be hun­gry later.” But he hardly ate and the spi­ders fin­ished off the pot. It wor­ried them to see him grow­ing thin. He moved list­lessly through the house, avoid­ing her wheel­chair and he slept up­stairs while she took the new mat­tress in the stu­dio un­der webs and paints and him. She was lonely, so was Ivan, so she wheeled over to the stairs one night and called up to their bed­room. “Ivan?” He drifted down­stairs with cir­cles un­der his eyes. “Can I come up to bed with you?” “The stairs,” he mut­tered, but she lifted her­self off the chair and be­gan to pull her­self back­ward up the stairs, lifting her whole body with her arms. The spi­ders were strong and the body was light, but Ivan hated to see his wife put so much ef­fort out for him. He bent down to lift her and the spi­ders held their breath, so still while he had the body draped over his arms and he car­ried her up­stairs to the bed­room, but he did not sleep. The body shar­ing his bed was cold, it was too light,

and the flesh was lumpy un­der the flaw­less white skin. The spi­ders were out­grow­ing their body. “I’ve missed you, Ivan,” said the spi­ders. The face was turned to him, the use­less legs bent back to give him space. “I’m tired, Tills,” he said. He shifted away and closed his eyes. The left eye crawled out of Til­lie’s open mouth to rest on Ivan’s pil­low. She bowed her head and stroked a sin­gle hair of his beau­ti­ful enor­mous head with her claw and she looked down to where the corpse sprawled on his bed. It was bulging at the belly from the spin­dle’s girth and its skin was writhing from the cease­less shift­ing of eight thou­sand legs. The left eye brushed her poi­son fangs against the hair in her claw and she wished that she could hold him but he was so big and not even a thou­sand spi­ders could be enough for him, so she buried her legs in the pil­low and tried to cozy in the heat from his head, but he shot to the edge of the bed and ran his hands over his hair to be rid of the hor­rid crawl­ing night­mares that plagued him when­ever his wife was near. The left eye scur­ried back in­side and di­rected the spi­ders to va­cate Til­lie’s corpse. No more than could fit Til­lie’s frame would stay in­side her at any time. The rest would stock the cor­ners of the house and wait for their turn among the in­ti­mate bones. The spin­dle si­lently car­ried the body down to the stu­dio where it be­longed, so that Ivan could sleep with­out fear. Til­lie was the proper shape again, but Ivan was afraid of his sweet and car­ing wife who in­sisted she did not see the spi­ders stalk­ing the cor­ners of their house, get­ting big­ger day by day, much too big for a thou­sand to fit in­side a corpse, no more than a hun­dred could fit in­side her now, and they moved un­der her skin as big as bee­tles. He saw their nubby bod­ies pro­trud­ing from the knuck­les and un­derneath the sad im­i­ta­tion of Til­lie’s per­fect ears. She cooked for him, cared for him, surely he’d need to eat some­thing and when she brought him din­ner one day he caught the cold dead hand and pulled her wheel­chair close. “Who are you?” Ivan asked the spi­ders while he stared into the painted eyes. The spi­ders pulled up at Til­lie’s mouth, they wheezed a lit­tle chuckle out of the dry lungs, and the spi­der in her mouth who wore soft leather over his legs to act as a tongue clucked against the corpse’s teeth and asked, “What­ever do you mean?” Ivan caught the jaw in his hand and stared where the pupil was not a pupil but just a hole with glim­mer­ing red eyes be­hind. “Spi­ders,” he whis­pered, and the left eye gave up Til­lie’s ghost. Its leg pro­truded from the pupil, and Ivan backed away, spilling a plate of some­thing

on the floor while he leapt back so fast that a piece of Til­lie’s soul was crushed un­der his foot. The spi­ders to­gether flinched and the wooden eye popped out to roll across the floor. “Ivan, wait!” they said, and those who couldn’t fit among the bones rose up un­derneath the corpse, prop­ping the use­less legs as they scur­ried for­ward to take him up and em­brace him and ex­plain that they were a gift from Til­lie so he’d never be alone. He was cor­nered, sur­rounded by the horde, and with no place else to turn he put his face in the cor­ner so at least he could not see. And Til­lie placed her hand on his shoul­der and the spi­ders let her down to the floor so she was just shorter than him, and they whis­pered gen­tly, “Ivan I’m so sorry it was a ter­ri­ble prank. I’ll stop this fool­ish spi­der talk.” It was all just in her head. He turned around and saw his wife stand­ing be­fore him in a dark and glit­ter­ing skirt and Til­lie’s hair had al­ways been white and the pupils were black, any red be­hind the pupil was a trick of the light. He em­braced his frag­ile, lovely wife, and she held him back, and his love for her was ec­static and wild like eight thou­sand legs rac­ing up and down his skin.

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