This story was found enmeshed in shadowy corners and along forgotten window ledges…
A small boy stood at the bottom of the stairs to the garret and called up to the Pilgrim Woman.
‘The Lord’s not here yet,’ he said. ‘Can I ask you something?’
The Pilgrim Woman came down. She sat on a low step so that her head was level with his.
‘What’s your secret? Do you have a huge book of stories you’ve learned by heart – or do you just make them up?’
She leaned forwards and the coins on her scarves tinkled. ‘Here’s the threefold trick of it.’ She held up her left hand and tapped one finger at a time. ‘One: I read and read and read – anything, anywhere. Two: I watch and I listen to everyone, everywhere and- ‘ she whispered in his ear, ‘Three: I beg, steal and borrow.’
The boy covered his mouth. His eyes stretched. The Pilgrim Woman nodded and jingled.
‘Today’s story I begged from a generous sea-lassie. Maybe one day you’ll hear her tell it her own way.’
The Lord-by-the-Sea bustled in with his servants and his wine. It was time for the next tale – or she would lose her place.
There was once a girl who was frightened of spiders – any sort of spider: From the tiniest money spider, smaller than an ant that you and I would let run across our palms for luck, to the bulge-bodied garden spiders that lurked and grew fat in her family’s greenhouse and sheds.
She would squeal if a little one floated past her on its gossamer thread. She would cower if a big one edged out on its web in the garage. She would not sit still if one ran across the floor. She had to pull up her feet and clutch her knees to her ribs.
They terrified her. But for all that, mindful of her grandmother’s words since she was little, she would not kill them. Which was just as well.
She would sweep the runners out of the kitchen door with the longest handled broom she could find. She would catch the web-spinners in a fishing net and toss unharmed into the garden. Some she had to place a glass over and leave for others to remove. But she would not kill them, no matter how much they haunted her troubled dreams.
It was the hooked legs and the too-many-ness of them; the scuttling gait that she could never predict; the bulbous bodies of some and the spindly limbs of others. They all gave her the shudders.
Now it happened that her mother became ill and went to hospital. Her father was far away with his work overseas, and so the girl was sent to stay with her grandmother’s house.
The girl was glad to return to that warm and loving place she remembered from being tiny. She helped her grandmother with heavy things: carrying coal for the fire, fetching potatoes from the cellar and hanging out wet laundry. One washday, her grandmother noticed the girl duck away from the corner of the kitchen door-frame even though she carried a heavy basket of damp sheets.
‘Whatever are you doing, lass?’
‘Getting away from that spider – I cannot bear them.’
The grandmother came over and looked up at the huge spider sitting in the corner of a web. She shook her head.
‘Pay no mind to her, Charlotte,’ she said.’The lass knows nowt.’
The girl dumped the basket on the floor.
‘You’re talking with that horrible ugly creature, Nanna?’
‘Aye – and you’ll pay her your respects to her and be kind if you’ve any sense.’
The grandmother grasped the girl’s wrist firmly and pulled her upstairs to the first landing. She pointed up at a neat web that radiated across the skylight.
‘What do you think keeps all the nightmares away when you’re here fretting about your mam?’
Before the girl could answer, she had her along the corridor to the bathroom. Two spiders twirled above the tub, as delicate as single dandelion seeds.
‘Who do you think scares off the twin fears that your mam might die and your father won’t come back?’
The girl sucked her lips in and said nothing.
The grandmother went down the corridor, opened a cupboard and took out a torch. She whispered a thank you before she closed the door on the cobwebbed shelves.
‘To your room, lass.’
The girl took hold of her grandmother’s arm and they climbed to the tiny top bedroom.
‘Now look under the bed.’
‘There’s a monster under there?’ the grandmother finished.
She switched on the torch and gestured for the girl to kneel. ‘Take a look.’
With her trousers pulled tight round her legs, and poised as far away from the darkness as she could manage, the girl peeped under the bed. The smell of lavender sheets comforted her. Not a thing lurked.
‘See – nowt.’
The girl nodded.
‘And I’ll tell you for why. Guardian angels don’t allus come all feathery and prettified. The ones in our family have eight legs – and eight eyes to look out for evil.’
The girl stood up.
‘So that’s why you taught me:
If you wish to live and thrive
Let the spider
The grandmother pulled the girl into a soft hold. She smoothed the girl’s hair as she spoke.
‘Aye – there’s nowt to fear from an ugly outside. It’s what goes on beneath as matters.’
Image: Cobwebbed Window by Shayn Morrow
Original story concept by Carmen Thompson