This variety of spider is born dead, Noll told us. Stiff packets of chitin and darkness. Teensy tiny organs rattling like dried beans if we listened with the right tools (which Noll had). Out-of-state scientist come with his white van and silver knives to explain to us what our forest held. Only when someone warmed these spiders, he said, provided a violent friction from the mashing of flesh (like their mommies) or the point of a needle (like Noll) did they wriggle to life.
• • •
Noll asked could he pick us up at midnight and we said, Okay. Yawning the word as if our maiden chests didn’t hum under threadbare dresses. Okay. Whenever. Midnight was when the spiders grew active and stirred from spider dreams. We lapsed into dreams of our own while waiting, tangled into a many-legged organism of sisterhood breathing with one sticky breath. Our lids grew heavy. We yawned, rubbed gunk that crumbled from our lashes like tiny eggs.
The world flared red and a thousand thin legs danced in the veins of our shut eyes. Noll’s van swinging up the drive. Shoot, we said, shielding our faces. Cut your lights. His sweaty hands helped us in. We sucked the sweets he fed us and grew heavy, stretched out to sleep across the plastic tubs laid in the back. Each one just long enough for each of us. Felt him touch us then like a husband in the dark, his knife parting our clothes. We smiled at the tickle. Two hours later woke up as Noll poured our clacking bones into the forest.
• • •
We went along because he’d asked so nice. A pretty blue fire he built us, that night he proposed our forest trip. I want to know what’s in there, he teased as he tapped our heads, and we giggled.
Used to be that marriageable girls went collecting for wedding trousseaus in these parts. When these were mountains and not nubs, when there were husbands to be had. When we had tongues we rolled the word around: Trousseau. Imagining ancestral mothers and aunts garlanded with flowers, animal pelts scribbled on their nether sides with ropy veins. Strictly superstition, frowned the scientists. Now open wide and say AH! Same way they always spoke of the centuries before they kept a record, before their cameras arrived bobbing along our misty roads. Planted beside our sag-mouthed scarecrows. Hoping to spy the secret of our long mountain lives. We chain-smoked, stared into the blinking red eyes. Inconclusive, the scientists sighed and back they went. Except for Noll. Different, him. A hunger to prod and rip and taste and know everything we showed. He even ate possum, tearing the meat bare-handed with no mind for its bloody drips. Fixing us all the while with his pretty green eyes.
So we spread our knees at his chemical flame, warming. Eying him sideways and long-lashed, in the manner of deer observing the hunter from behind a blind of trees: hard-horned but shy.
• • •
Sure enough we tumbled out the van at the hour of spiders. Lay studying their shiny mandibles, their characteristic bristle pattern. As Noll had instructed. Hours passed, then years, before we remembered to yawn. Time moves funny in our forest. The scientists who siphoned and magnified our blood declared us inbred, deviants, but it wasn’t on purpose like they said. How were we to avoid our own great-great-grandaunts and cousins wandering out of the forest with lace collars flapping on their high breasts, a mess of kids raised before realizing: oops. You’d need keen eyes to tell that style of collar hadn’t been seen since eighteen and ninety-two when the machines unhooked our mountain and left it a laceless, coalless scar. Real keen eyes and us half-blind from the acid fog. Anyhow, we implore you to think on what scientists know and don’t—they who “discovered” extinct fish swimming cool as you please in our caves. Time moved funny. Trees molted, mold grew, animals died and turned to mush then bog then peat then coal and all of this happened again and again every second. We yawned and remembered our original purpose. Gone collecting. By the time we rose, shaking off years of dirt, we’d acquired skeins of spider silk. Egg sacs bumping on our ribs like dark jewels. A worthy trousseau.
• • •
No one had to tell us marriage is the end of the fairy tale. Noll’s no prince. We saw his flaws a while back. Under his beard, his weak chin. Under his carpet, bloodstains. Still. Make a meal of what you got, our mother and great-great-grandaunt said. She’d managed to raise us before anyone realized she was dead, and even after that she soldiered on, dropping fingerbones into bread dough and clattering advice from her jaw: That price is a joke. Rain coming heavy this year. We’d even dug her up to ask about Noll before we went collecting. Her verdict: Mean but whip-smart. The right women can make him into something. We accepted that he was work. So when we turned up on Noll’s doorstep some years later (walking slow without muscles) and found the green bleached from his eyes, we accepted this, and when he crossed his liver-spotted hands and opened his gums to scream, we accepted this, and when he stomped the spiders we’d carried so thoughtfully between our ribs we were a little angry, sure, but we had centuries to learn each other’s ways and looking at him we remembered our wedding night in the van, him bearing down in the dark so dear and skinny and hungry, silver tools penetrating us down to joy and bone. The way he peeled off dresses, skins, muscles. Most of all the way he cradled our brains so tenderly in his tubs. Studying us as if we were the precious things. Us! We would have blushed if we could. The spiders’ legs went pitter-patter among our ribs. Hi, honey, we said.
C Pam Zhang is an MFA candidate at Vanderbilt University. Her work appears or is imminent in Day One and The Moth. She’s been recognized by The Masters Review contest and the Summer Literary Seminars contest. In recent years she’s lived in Nashville, Bangkok, San Francisco, and on Twitter as @cpamzhang.