Stone Telling

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Eight Legs of Grandmother Spider

by Catherynne Valente


I will go,
said a double-jointed voice
out of the dark.

I will fetch the sun
from the country of fire
and bring it back
safe as bread.

In the black,
the only sound
was icicles jangling
on frozen fur.

said the animals,
huddled one against the other,
Possum will go.
He is bigger than you,
and he can hide the sun in his bristle-tail.

Balanced on her basket-web
over the lightless water,
Spider shrugged
and sighed.


   I was four—
four, and you were seventy-two,
in your silver wheelchair,
black and green afghan
over corduroyed knees,
with my skinny arms
wrapped around you,
and your hands on my new dress.
I curled into sleep on your knitted lap
breathing your smell
of cinnamon and antiseptic cream.

The TV gurgled lazily,
cartoons and mint toothpaste ads
and my hair was tangled
in the pretty beads around your neck
those tight black curls
and my brown ringlets
twisting to make a second chain.

Both of us snored a little,
soft as cats,
covered in light
like your heavy orange rhododendrons,
light drifting in
through the windows
that would have been washed
when you got around to it.


In the black,
the only sound
was Possum
whimpering and licking
his pink tail, scalded bald.

I will go,
said a silk-sticky voice
out of the dark.

I will fetch the sun
from the other side of the world
and bring it back
safe as swaddling.

Chattering jaws
gnawed frostbitten bones
and pupils were open pools
in shivering skulls.

said the animals,
groping for purchase
in the shadows.
Buzzard is cleverer than you,
and besides,
he can fly.
He will balance the sun on his head,
like a woman carrying water.

Busy wrapping a bee
in gauze,
Spider shrugged
and sighed.


You hands were folded over my shoulders,
the hands of a chicken farmer
who wrung the necks of roosters
up north of Talequah for forty years—
           whose mother
was pale enough to pass,
but for that sleek braided hair
and those too-black eyes,
           whose handsome husband left her with six children,
           whose red-headed daughters ran off to Los Angeles together
and came home every night smelling
of movie popcorn and orange soda,
           whose grand-daughter was a beautiful actress
and went to a grand university,
           whose great-granddaughter was four,
was four,
and still moved her lips when she read.


In the black,
the only sound
was Buzzard
cawing and rubbing
his pink head, scalded
to a bald wrinkle.

I will go,
came a thick-bellied voice
out of the dark.

I will fetch the sun
from the land of light
and bring it back
safe as sealing wax.

Horns butted against antlers
against feathers against fins,
so lost were all things
in the murk of the world.

Go, then,
said the animals
since Possum and Buzzard
were burned up like birch bark.
Go, fetch the sun for us,
we are so cold,
and so blind—
the kittens’ eyes do not open,
the larvae do not hatch
the chicks do not break their eggs.

Spry on eight grey legs,
Spider shrugged,
and climbed over the shale,
silk drifting behind her.


Later my aunts would tell me
that when I was born
You held me first of anyone
and wept over my dark little head.
They said we looked like a photograph
they have of you,
black-haired infant
in the arms of your mother
in the days when she would whisper
when she knew no one would hear:
aquetsi ageyutsa,
aquetsi uwoduhi ageyutsa.

They said my pupils were open pools;
I looked up at you
and your tears splashed
on my cheeks,
that first evening
in the hospital over the sea
when the white sailboats
were tipped in gold
and rocked like a lullaby on the slow water.

You sang to me
in the white walled maternity ward
whispering and crooning—
but it is only a story I have been told
I can’t recall your voice,
or what song it might have been.


The sun scorched the basket,
of course.

And her legs, not so different
in thickness
from the coffer-straw,
singed at the tips
like used matches.

But for them,
she put the fire
like a bright ball of dough
into the clay,
and it made of the clay a kiln,
and it made of the kiln an oven,
and it made of the oven a womb.

For them,
she melted the ice
from her own small, grey body
and with the sun
like a corn-cake frying beneath her,
she boiled herself
into day,
a little dark speck
against the sudden blaze.


It was so simple and quiet:
                  I woke up
and you didn’t.

I was four;
I couldn’t understand, quite,
but I started to scream,
babbling for you,
tugging at your hands,
your chicken-throttling hands,
your seed-scattering hands,

your sun-stealing hands.

And all I have of you now
is your nose and high forehead
and this sleek hair,
these too-black eyes—
and how I held you last of anyone,
                  that you died in my arms when I was four years old
and the late afternoon sun
lay in your lap like a baby.

Born in the Pacific Northwest in 1979, Catherynne M. Valente is the author of over a dozen works of fiction and poetry, including Palimpsest (a finalist for the 2010 Hugo Award), the Orphan’s Tales series, and the crowdfunded phenomenon The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Own Making, which won the Andre Norton Award. She also is the winner of the Tiptree Award, the Mythopoeic Award, the Rhysling Award, and the Million Writers Award. She was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award in 2007 and 2009, and the Lambda and Hugo Awards in 2010. She lives on an island off the coast of Maine with her partner, two dogs, and an enormous cat.

This poem originally appeared in Mythic, edited by Mike Allen (2006).

Photography: "Spider-man" by Krisztina Tordai