Oifa lays Carna down at the gnarled roots of the spider tree. She brushes her mother’s hair with her hands and manages a small, sad smile. “Ma loved the spiders,” she says, her voice soft and barely above a whisper. “Every night they would meet in her dreams, and she’d tell stories. They liked fairy tales the best.”
I don’t answer. Instead, I try not to breathe, or move, or make any sound that will disturb her. I feel like an intruder, as if I’ve stumbled upon this moment by chance. I’m no longer Oifa’s husband; I don’t exist. Right now, there is only a daughter and her dead mother - and, of course, the spiders.
Oifa’s eyes glisten, her lower lip trembles, but to her credit she doesn’t cry.
A cool wind plays across the lakes, but the water is untouched and remains smooth, a perfect blue reflection of the sky. Sand lifts from the dunes in swirling dervishes before tumbling over the Edge and into the nothingness below. I don’t like being this close to the Edge, my skin prickles, and I feel a chill despite the rising heat of the day. In my youth, the men of the tribe would dare each other to peer into its cold depths, but I never could. If you stare long enough into the dark, the dark will stare back. Carna told me that. It came to her in a dream from another world. Carna always had prophetic dreams; that was the reason the spiders liked her. The guardians of the Edge eat the knowledge of worlds, as we might eat fruit. I shuffle closer to Oifa and tighten my grip upon my ceremonial blade. The thought unnerves me.
Carna’s stories are the stuff of legends. We grew up with them. I manage my own smile and can almost see Carna as she once was: an ethereal creature as insubstantial as smoke.
“There was a princess,” Carna had told me, “who loved an impossible man. She thought him up one day: a scribble with chalk upon the palace walls. In her dreams she gave him clothes, hair, and a sparkle to his eyes. They often walked together in imagined woods of centaurs, fauns, and goblins. They made love in the gardens of her mind. Then one day she fell ill, bitten by the sly vipers that hid in the shallows of the lakes. In the heat of her fever she forgot her name, how to speak, laugh, even that she was a princess. When the fever burnt from her system like wildfire, she couldn’t remember her love – the memory vague as if lost in fog. He was half a man, his face a ragged hole, and she had become half a princess without him. It was more than her heart could bear. She leaped over the Edge into the gap between worlds and became nothing but a dream. In that way, at least, she is reunited with her love.”
Oifa sighs and stands up; it’s a slow process. She looks old beyond her years. I step towards her, hands outstretched.
“Get away.” Her voice is twisted and full of hate, her eyes thin strips. “I have to finish this. You have no part.”
“That isn’t fair.” I reach out my hand, but she recoils. “Carna was mother to us all.”
Her eyes are dark pits. “If you interfere, I will never forgive you. They will never forgive you.”
I want to hold her close. I am a soldier. I can provide. But I won’t. She’s right. This is Oifa’s time: not mine. I won’t bring her shame.
The wind has picked up, the breeze now ruffles my hair, and I pull grey strands from my eyes. The sun is rising over the lakes. I can see the villages in the distance and the curl of smoke from the early morning fires. We’ll hunt today in Carna’s honour. We’ll bring sacrifices and treasures to mourn her passing.
“There was once a boy who dreamed of being a spider,” Oifa says. The tree trembles, and the silk webs in its branches tinkle like the chiming of a thousand silver bells. “He would capture spiders and keep them in his room. The spiders grew in size, as did he, until he was a pale and bloated thing. His parents petitioned a shaman for help, but when he arrived it was too late. The boy had died, wrapped in a cocoon, his head open like a new and exotic flower. His insides were missing: not eaten or dissolved. Simply gone, transformed into . . .” she shrugs and stares over the Edge. ”That summer, when the days were hottest and even the earth burnt beneath our feet, the tribesmen found webs as big as rope and eight-legged tracks the size of a man.”
The sun burns away the wisps of a lingering mist, and Oifa places her hand upon the peeling flesh of the tree. “Carna dreamed of you, also.” Her voice breaks, and a single tear rolls down her powdered cheek. “In your own way, I think you loved her for it. So I return my mother to her dreams, where she will be forever at peace.”
The spiders spill from the tree, so many to be a black, tumbling tide. From vast goliath spiders to the deadly funnel webs. Their eyes glitter with anticipation, and they sweep over Carna like a funeral shroud.
Oifa turns away, her shoulders sag, and she is once again the woman I fell in love with - my wife; my Oifa.
“Come on,” I say, “you don’t need to see this.”
I lead Oifa to the village. Only once do I look back. Carna has been lifted into the tree, her arms folded across her chest. The leaves part with a gentle sigh, and she vanishes into its depths. The tree groans, and the roots writhe, digging deeper into the earth. New branches sprout from the old, their leaves a rich, luxuriant red.
Oifa’s hand tightens around my own. She places her head upon my shoulder and keeps her eyes on the path ahead. She doesn’t want to know what becomes of her mother.
Perhaps, that is for the best.