In the Company of Spiders by Hermine Robinson

The spider made herself at home in Grandma’s parlour. She sat in the wingback chair reserved for guests, with her hands folded neatly across her lap. This particular spider was dressed in widow’s black, accented with jewel tones of ruby, emerald and cobalt outlined with gold. She clashed with the beige, flocked wallpaper and the faded, chintz upholstery of the parlour and sitting there – comfortably settled in the chair – the spider surveyed the room with a critical eye as if deciding how to redecorate.

Joel peered at the spider from the safety of the hallway. He remained tucked out of sight behind the heavy, oak, doorframe – nothing visible except his straw-coloured hair and wide blue eyes – but still the spider spied him and she beckoned with a crooked finger. Come now boy, let me see you. Joel ducked out of sight. His thumb found temporary refuge in his mouth until he remembered he was a big boy, almost five. His grandmother said big boys did not suck their thumbs. Big boys were not afraid of spiders either. Joel peeked around the doorframe again. The spider, still firmly ensconced in the wingback chair looked relaxed, indifferent. He stepped into the doorway to challenge the intruder’s presence with faux courage. This was his home after all.

The spider’s thin lips curved subtly upward, but the glint in her eye bespoke predation rather than pleasantry. “Come child, step a little closer so I can get a good look at you,” she said. “These old eyes aren’t what they used to be.”

Joel shook his head and clasped his itchy, twitchy thumb behind his back. He did not know what to say to spiders so he said nothing and waited for his grandmother to finish her busyness in the kitchen. The spider sat back and waited too, her perfect patience betrayed by unnecessary fussing with the pleats of her knee-length skirt.

Joel’s grandmother emerged from the kitchen carrying a large tray. “Oh, there you are, Joel. Come and meet our guest.” Grandma poured rose-coloured tea into a delicate cup and saucer set decorated with hand-painted pansies and rimmed in gold against a band of sapphire blue. The spider accepted the fragrant tea with a nod but declined the offer of sugar cookies carefully arranged on a matching plate.

“Don’t be shy, Joel,” his grandmother said. “Say hello to my dear, old friend, Mrs. Agnes Weaver.”

“Honestly, Lillian, we’re not that old,” Mrs. Weaver said with a laugh. Her first sip of tea marred the cup’s gilt rim with the crimson imprint of her lipstick. She gestured at the plate of cookies. “Perhaps the boy would like some?”

Joel shook his head and swallowed the saliva pooling beneath his tongue. The pale, wafer thin morsels – so different from the basic, brown molasses cookies his grandmother usually served at snack time – were set too close to the spider, Mrs. Weaver.

“This is my grandson, Joel.” Grandma pushed the reluctant boy forward. “He’s just playing shy.”

“Grandson?” Agnes raised an eyebrow. “You’re saying that he is Caroline’s boy, then?”

“Yes. He’s Caroline’s boy.” Joel’s grandmother smoothed the blunt edge of her reply with a distracted sweep of her hands across the floral apron she wore over her finest dress, the one she usually saved for church. Joel felt a thin, thrumming strand of tension between the women. He looked up at his grandmother and detected something new. There was a hard core beneath the velvety exterior that had always defined her in his young mind. Two spiders? Yes. He saw it now, his grandmother’s brown, house spider persona. It was muted when compared to the glossy, jewelled exoskeleton Mrs. Weaver presented to the world, but no less dangerous when something threatened her carefully crafted web. Joel squirmed as the spiders exchanged pleasantries with tight smiles and carefully chosen words, but there was no escape. Grandma anchored him with a featherweight hand on his shoulder. Joel gripped his thumb behind his back and stared down at his toes wiggling in their socks while the women’s conversation buzzed in his ears.

Agnes paused to take another sip of tea before perching the delicate cup and saucer on the near edge of the table at her left elbow. “How old are you, Joel?” She asked.

Joel held up four fingers.

“Almost five,” his grandmother clarified.

“A delightful age.” Agnes waved a seemingly careless hand and her left elbow came within a hair’s breadth of the precariously placed cup and saucer as she spoke. “Although, my dear Lillian, I imagine that raising a second generation – raising grandchildren – can hardly be easy.”

“Well, imagine is all that you can do, I suppose,” Joel’s grandmother countered. “Not having had any children or grandchildren of your own.” Her hand gripped a little tighter on Joel’s shoulder.

“Please, Lillian, do play nice. We both know who won the prize. After all, you married for love, and I married for something else.” Mrs. Weaver shifted slightly, allowing a pale beam of sunlight to glint off the numerous rings adorning her thin fingers. She gestured in the direction of the dated draperies and a parlour palm. “We can’t all be the beneficiaries of such domestic bliss, Lily. You and Leonard made a nice life together. As for me, well, each and every one of my husbands was a good man in his own way.” The black widow jangled the jewelled bracelet at her wrist as if to make her point and Joel held his breath as once again her errant elbow put the carefully balanced teacup and saucer in peril. He glanced up at her and Mrs. Weaver favoured him with a tight smile below dark eyes. If Joel had known such a word, he would have called it a malevolent gaze, but he did not need fancy words to recognize it as a spider assessing her prey.

Joel stood fast, reassured by his grandmother’s comforting, unadorned hand gently holding him in place. True to her plain, brown spider nature, Grandma’s only jewellery was a solitary gold band suspended on a chain around her neck. It was Grandpa’s ring, a widow’s keepsake she wore close to her heart and never removed for fear it would be lost.

Not lost! Stolen, just like Grandma’s own rings were stolen, to be pawned for drugs by their addict mother, Caroline. This was just one of the untidy truths that Joel’s older sister, Erica, whispered to him when their grandmother was out of earshot. Joel wished his sister was here now, to help him make sense of Agnes Weaver’s visit but Erica was in school, taking extra classes. She was a full year behind in her high school studies compared to other girls her age – held back for some secret reason at the age of thirteen – but she was working hard to catch up and Erica seemed determined to make good by finishing her education.

So I can take care of my little man,  Erica often said. Then she would tousle Joel’s hair before turning back to her textbooks set out on the kitchen table after supper. From her station at the sink, their grandmother would mutter cautions. Be careful girl, the truth is a tangled web and your life is complicated enough. Leave things be as they are, at least for now. Erica always gave Joel a knowing smile at those times and he knew there were more untidy truths she had yet to share. Despite those moments of tension, Joel sensed his grandmother’s pride in Erica. His sister had already ‘made good’ compared to their wayward mother, Caroline.

Joel’s only memory of his mother was vague and frightening. An emaciated woman had pounded on the door one night. She and Grandma argued on the doorstep before Grandma finally relented and let her in. Erica had demanded that Caroline leave and cried angry tears before she took refuge in her bedroom, dragging Joel with her. Caroline stayed for a week, sleeping away the daylight hours before skulking out at night. An addict. A thief. She disrupted their lives like a fever – unexpected and debilitating – until one night, like a wraith, she disappeared for good and was gone as quickly as she came.

As if Joel’s thoughts about his sister and mother had conjured them to Agnes Weaver’s mind, the woman asked. “So, Lillian, how is your granddaughter, Erica? She’s doing well, I hope. And what of Caroline?”

“Erica is back in school and taking responsibility for her life.” Joel felt the tremor in Grandma’s fingers as she patted his shoulder. “Caroline is…still lost.”

“I understand,” Agnes replied, raising one pencilled eyebrow. “Not in front of the boy.” She waved her hand, intending to dismiss Joel, but as she brought down her left elbow it caught the edge of the saucer still balanced on the verge of the side table. The cup launched tea into Agnes’s lap before it came to rest beside her in the chair. The saucer tipped itself into her purse, where it wedged neatly between a pocketbook and a pair of gloves.

“No harm done,” said Grandma, retrieving the undamaged cup and saucer. “It was a soft landing.”

Agnes stood up and tea dripped from her lap onto the carpet. “Well, I suppose I must get going.”

“It’s such a shame you have to cut your visit short,” replied Joel’s grandmother, although she did not offer up so much as a tea towel to blot the dampness from Mrs. Weaver’s pleated skirt.

Joel followed the two women to the door where they said their goodbyes. Down at the bottom of the path, their unwelcome visitor turned back and waved. Joel shuddered. He looked up at his grandmother and said, “Mrs. Weaver is the perfect name for a spider.”

Grandma smiled. “A spider? What a funny thing to say.” But she nodded in agreement as if considering the matter.

As they watched Agnes Weaver disappear down the lane, a man drove up in a dark sedan. Joel did not recognize the yellow seal on the door of the vehicle but his grandmother gave a low guttural moan when the car parked in front of their house and a stranger stepped out. The man wore a black suit, sombre and funereal, and he did not smile when he approached them on the step and addressed Joel’s grandmother. “Are you Mrs. Webb?” He asked. The man consulted the piece of paper in his hand. “Mrs. Lillian Webb, mother of Caroline Olivia Webb?” He waited for Joel’s grandmother to nod. “I’m sorry Mrs. Webb. It is my sad duty to inform you –”

The gilt edged cup and saucer slipped from Grandma’s hands and shattered at their feet.

 

Hermine Robinson loves all things short fiction and refuses to be the place where perfectly good ideas come to die. In 2012 she went from scribbling to submitting and since then her work has appeared in numerous print and on-line publications, including; FreeFall Magazine, Fabula Argentea, Every Day Fiction and Vine Leaves Literary Journal. Hermine is married with two children and most people know her by the nickname, Minkee.

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