Escape Pod 285: Jaiden’s Weaver
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By Mary Robinette Kowal
I was never one of those girls who fell in love with horses. For one thing, on our part of New Oregon they were largely impractical animals. Most of the countryside consisted of forests attached to sheer hills and you wanted to ride something with a little more clinging ability. So from the time I was, well, from the time I can remember I wanted a teddy bear spider more than I wanted to breathe.
The problem is that teddy bear spiders were not cheap, especially not for a pioneer family trying to make a go of it.
Mom and Dad had moved us out of Landington in the first wave of expansion, to take advantage of the homesteading act. Our new place was way out on the eastern side of the Olson mountains where Dad had found this natural level patch about halfway up a forested ridge, so we got sunshine all year round, except for the weeks in spring and autumn when the shadow of our planet’s rings passed over us. Our simple extruded concrete house had nothing going for it except a view of the valley, which faced due south to where the rings were like a giant arch in the sky. Even as a twelve-year-old, angry at being taken away from our livewalls in town to this dead structure, I fell in love with the wild beauty of the trees clinging to the sheer faces of the valley walls.
The only thing that would have made it better was a teddy bear spider so I could go exploring on my own. I felt trapped by the walls of the house and the valley. I had this dream that, if I had a spider, that I’d be able to sell its weavings for enough to install livewalls in my room. That’s not as crazy as it sounds; teddy-bear spider weavings are collected all over the colonies and sell for insane amounts of money.
I had a search setup so anytime there was news of a teddy bear spider or a new tube surfaced, I’d be right there, watching those adorable long-legged beasts. I loved their plump furry faces and wanted to run my fingers through their silky russet fur.
I wonder what goes through a survey team’s mind when they name things. I mean a teddy bear spider isn’t a bear and it isn’t a spider, but it looks like both those things. On the other hand, a fartycat looks nothing like a cat. They do stink, though.
Not quite a year after we’d moved, one of my city friends had forwarded an ad from a local board which set my heart to racing.
Teddy bear spider eggs: 75NOD shipped direct.
See, I’d been looking at adult or adolescent teddies which cost more than my folks had set aside for me to go to university. It hadn’t even occurred to me that I could raise one up myself. My mindless yearning changed into purpose.
I slapped that ad onto a piece of epaper and ran into the kitchen. “Dad! Mom! Look at this.”
Dad glanced up from the eggs he was cracking into a bowl and pursed his lips the way he always did right before saying _no._ “Jaiden, that’s a lot of money.”
I waved the ad again as if it were a token to get me on a ride at the fair. “We’d make back the money when the teddy started to weave. Please? I’ve seen their weavings in stores for hundreds of NOD.”
Mom ganged up on me. “That’s how much the store sells a weaving for, it’s not how much they pay for them. Even if it were, you’re not just talking the cost of the eggs. It’s the cost of feeding it, housing it, vet bills…”
I knew better than to keep arguing. Sometimes if I waited and tried again later, I could get them to change their minds. Still holding the ad, I went outside and plopped on the log bench Dad had made for the front of the house. The broad silver band of the ring spanned the sky, blocked by only a few clouds. In school I’d read about Earth and how it didn’t have a ring at all, but it’s hard to imagine life without that constant band of silver in the sky.
As the days shortened, the sun was starting to skirt the edge of the ring and I could see the band of its shadow laying across the land to the south of us. It wouldn’t be long until we hit the Dark Days which signaled the end of autumn.
I know some people like the diffuse light when the sun is behind the ring, but I can’t stand the way the land feels perpetually overcast, particularly when you can see blue sky, which means that to the south or north of you, it’s a pretty day. It’s funny how solid the rings look from the ground the rest of the year. You have to wait until the Dark Days to see the sun filtered through the ring to remember that the ring is made up of rocks and dust. When I was little, my grandma used to tell me that the ring was a teddy bear spider’s weaving hung up in the sky to dry. Which, if I’d thought about it I’d have known
was foolishness since a teddy’s weaving was golden and not silver.
The only good thing about the Dark Days, to my eye, was that it meant we’d exchange presents on Bottom Day, when the sun passed under the ring and we returned to full light again. It occurred to me that maybe, if I kept hinting, my folks might give me a teddy egg for Bottom Day. It seemed like that would be fitting and all.
The Dark Days fell on us about a week later and it hit me harder than it had ever done in the city. The artificial street lights and the hustle bustle of the city kept you from feeling the gloom so much. Not that it got full dark, even out where we were, but it was gray and dreary. The cold front that followed the shadow of the rings across the surface of the planet brought rain with it, which left me trapped in the house with my family.
Really, the rains only lasted a few days but when they passed, we were into the cold spell. It wasn’t as cold as full winter would be, but Mom made me bundle up anyway. My jacket was smart enough to regulate the temperature, but she also wanted me to wear the hat and scarf she’d knitted. They were clunky things of red wool that always needed adjusting. As soon as I was out of sight, I took them off and hung them on a tree branch, making a note to pass back the same way when I came home. Mom was so proud of having made something herself, that I’d hate to lose them.
I needed thin saplings so I could weave them into the sort of basketry nesting house that teddies liked. I’d downloaded the DIY instructions onto my handy and the multitool which Dad had given me last Bottom Day had a small handsaw on it. If Mom and Dad gave me an egg for Bottom Day I needed to make sure it had a home. Besides, showing them that I could build the nesting house would prove I could take care of a teddy.
I staggered into the house close to dinner time, leaves sticking in my hair and mud coating my rump where I’d slid down the hill, hauling saplings.
Mom picked a leaf out of my hair. “Where’s your hat and scarf?”
I winced. “I was hot so I hung them on a branch while I was cutting saplings for a nesting house.”
She rubbed her forehead like I’d pained her somehow. “If you can’t keep track of your things, I don’t know how you think you can take care of a pet.”
The air and everything tightened in my throat and my eyes burned, but I refused to cry. “I’ll go get them.”
I ran out the door before she could say anything else. Mom hollered my name, but I didn’t stop until I was at the tree where I’d left them.
The scarf was there, but not my hat.
I finally saw the bright red wool, way up in a tree. A fuzzywyrm had snagged it and was building a nest for the winter. With no way to get the hat, I took the scarf and trudged home. The pile of saplings looked like garbage.
That sense of despair lasted, oh, I’d say overnight. The moment I’d finished schoolwork the next day I was outside, putting the nesting house together. My folks said not a word about it the whole time I worked.
By the time New Oregon’s orbit brought our axial tilt around far enough for the sun to peek under the ring, I was well-nigh unto frantic. See, Mom and Dad went into town right before the end of the Dark Days. If they were going to get an egg for me, that was the time to do it.
Bottom Day morning dawned, and I do mean dawned, bright and clear. You don’t know how much you miss the sun until you’ve gone weeks without seeing more than a filtered spot in the sky. I bounded out of bed and stood in the sunbeam that angled in my window. It heated me through until sheer excitement sent me running to the kitchen. No one else was up, but the disc with our Bottom Day gifts was already laid out.
The piece of paper that held the clue about where to find my gift was the same pale gold as a teddy-bear spider’s egg. I was supposed to wait until they got up, but that was totally impossible, so I peeked.
“A bower of sticks you have made,
There you’ll find the gift we gave.”
I squealed when I read it. Down the hall, I heard one of them stirring, but I was halfway out the door by then. The morning dew soaked through my socks as I ran to the nesting house.
The hut of twisted saplings leaned to one side but it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Dew coated it and each droplet shone like LEDs had been embedded in the wood. I ducked under the low doorway and there, tucked in the corner, was my gift, wrapped in the same pale gold as my clue. It was about three times larger than I’d expected and for a minute I thought they’d gotten me more than one egg, before realizing it was protective padding. As carefully as I could, I peeled off the paper.
Inside was a teddy bear spider toy, a plush confection, complete with its own “egg” for playing at hatching. It was a glorious toy and I hated it.
If you ever have children, don’t do this to them.
I had been so sure they were going to give me an egg that I felt as if I’d had one and lost it. I couldn’t even touch the thing.
Mom came out about then. “Jaiden?”
I screamed something, probably that I hated her, and took off running. Branches caught me in the face and snarled in my hair. I went down the mountain because it was faster than going up and all I wanted was to get away. If I had fallen, I wouldn’t have cared. I think some part of me wanted to fall, wanted my parents to understand how much they had hurt me.
Dad found me sitting on a little level spot. I don’t remember stopping.
He crouched beside me. “Honey, I’m sorry. I thought you’d like the toy.”
“Yeah. If I was six.” I wouldn’t look at him.
“I know how much you wanted a teddy, but we can’t afford one.” He sighed and inched closer. “You don’t think I’d disappoint my little girl if I had a choice, do you?”
Of course I did. And I didn’t, at the same time. I’d pretty much run myself out so I just shrugged.
We didn’t say much else, but I let him fly me home with the jetpack.
I don’t know if this makes sense to you. How you can want something so much, you make yourself sick. And when it looks like you’re going to get it, then to have it yanked away — no, not yanked away, for it to have never existed… Do you understand that?
The same way I tried to tear down the nesting house, I canceled all my searches for teddy bear spider news and tubes. But the yearning came back. If anything, stronger than before. And it occurred to me that I could earn the money and buy the teddy bear spider egg myself.
So at night after the folks had gone to bed, I pretended I was an adult — which is not as hard as you think — and did small Mechanical Turk jobs for people. Nothing shocking, just sorting data for a few cents at a time. The whole time I kept thinking about how much money we could sell its weavings for and how I’d make all this money back just from those. I pictured riding my teddy down the cliffs and how we’d cling to the side like it was nothing.
At the tail end of winter, the planet’s tilt made the sun pass behind the rings on its journey to the top edge. For some reason, this transit never seems as bad as when it drops under. I suppose it’s because you know spring is coming.
Now, I’ll tell you, I didn’t have much hope when Top Day came. My parents seemed to opt for a neutral gift rather than risking another outburst. They gave me a whole NOD, which, considering my allowance was 5 pence was an amazing display of largess. I thanked them and immediately tucked it away with my other savings.
But we were well into summer before my account hit the magical 75 NOD.
My hands started shaking and sweat greased them so I could hardly hold anything. It took three tries to remember where I’d saved that old ad. I called it up and fired a message off to the breeder, suddenly sure the address was no good, or he’d stopped selling them or the price had risen or any number of things.
Fellow didn’t write to me until the next day. Another one of those neo-Luddites that limited their online time. His message was terse, as most of them are.
“Eggs available. Sex not guaranteed. Send delivery address with payment.” And then his bank number for the deposit.
I almost squeed myself, filling all that in and counting the days before the egg would get here.
I was out tidying the nesting house when Dad bellowed my name — my whole name too — so I knew I’d done something wrong. I ran to the house but stopped before I was all the way in the door.
Sitting on the small wood coffee table was a white parcel. Even from the door, I could see my name on it.
I’d never seen my dad angry before. Irritated, maybe. Disappointed, yes. But not angry. Not furious. His face was red and blotchy. There was a vein in the middle of his forehead I’d never seen before. It was a little purple snake of rage living under his skin.
“Jaiden. What is this?”
I wasn’t even all the way in the house but I stopped moving. I opened my mouth but no sound came out. Trying again, my voice squeaked into being. “It’s my teddy egg.”
Dad pointed at the box. “Didn’t your mother and I say you couldn’t have a teddy bear spider?”
“You said we couldn’t afford to buy one. I bought it on my own.”
Dad’s jaw tightened. “Did you? And how exactly could you afford that?”
“I’ve been saving all year. I worked odd jobs being a Mechanical Turk. I did web design for neo-Luddites. I worked in the field.” As I said that, it was like strength came back into my body. “I earned it.”
Dad worked his jaw for a moment and that vein in his forehead died away. He hung his head, then picked the box up. “Okay. Let’s tell your mother.”
How Dad explained it to Mom, I’ll never know.
It seemed as if, once the egg arrived my folks joined me in the anticipation of its hatching. I’d sit in the nesting house, my school work in my lap during the last weeks, and Mom would sit with me, knitting. I don’t know if she was there to make sure I did my homework, or because she found the bower of woven branches peaceful.
“Jaiden?” Her voice was almost reverent.
When I looked up, she was staring at my egg. A sound I had taken for a branch scratching the side of our house came again. At the same time, the egg rocked slightly.
I dumped my work without any care and scrambled across the dirt floor on my knees, scarcely daring to breath.
What’s the longest you’ve ever wanted something for? It felt like every day I had ever wanted that teddy bear spider all piled in my body at once, ready to split my skin down all the seams. I couldn’t breathe for the pressure of my wish finally coming true.
Oh, how I wanted to help it out of the egg, but I knew it had to come out on its own. I wouldn’t have a role until it was free and then — then I wasn’t ready. I didn’t have the fruit paste its mother would have given it or the towel to help wipe the moisture from its limbs so it would imprint on me.
I must have made some sound of despair because Mom said, “What is it?”
I told her what I’d forgotten and then, bless her, she said, “You stay. I’ll get them.”
I stayed. Oh, how I stayed. I don’t remember Mom coming back but I know she did because I had the towel and fruit paste when I needed it. But everything else, I remember as if I were still living it. Each tiny rock of the egg. The barely audible scritching from inside.
The moment when the first triangular piece of egg broke away from the end, a strange, almost acrid smell came from the interior. I strained to see in that opening for the first glimpse of my teddy, but it was still too soon to touch the egg.
The process of hatching took most of an hour. When my teddy pushed its head out of the egg. Damp, with the fur matted against its head, it seemed almost entirely helpless. It chirruped, like a cricket, and tumbled free.
Using the towel, I wiped its face, the way its mother would lick it dry and the teddy pushed against my hand.
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a newly hatched teddy bear spider. When they first come out, they look like nothing so much as a drowned house cat. By the time they are dry, their downy baby fur has sprung out to give them the plumpness you associate with them. Their ears are outsized to their heads yet and their eyes are closed for the first several hours after hatching. The combination makes them seem adorable and helpless.
“Well,” Mom said, “is it a boy or a girl?”
I pulled the towel away to look for ovipositors and noticed — I don’t understand how I didn’t notice until then — but I finally noticed my teddy was missing a leg.
I remembered to look for the ovipositors. “A girl.”
Then I counted again, touching each long leg. My teddy squirmed with pleasure as I fondled her toes. She cooed. Oh, my heart melted even as I was dying inside. All I could think about was that I had somehow caused the leg to be missing. That I had mishandled the egg or the nesting house hadn’t been the right temperature.
“What are you going to call her?” Mom knelt beside me to look into the bundle.
“Kallisto. Kali for short.” I’d thought that was terribly clever. Two goddesses from ancient religions, referenced with a single name. Except my poor teddy didn’t have eight arms like Kali the destroyer, she only had seven.
“What’s the matter?” Mom stroked my head.
I pulled the towel back to show her the place on Kali’s side where her eighth leg should have been. It was one of her hind limbs, designed for weaving. Mom didn’t say anything. She kissed me on the forehead and went inside.
I leaned against the wall of the nesting house and rocked my baby teddy. They really do look like teddy bears, you know. Especially when they are young and about the right size. The illusion vanishes when they open their mouths, of course, and the three lobes of flesh part, right along the lines of the threads of a stuffed bear’s mouth. But even that was a source of utter fascination to me. Her long coiled tongue looked like a pink seashell or party favor and it quested out of her mouth for the fruit paste as if it were an extra arm. If only she had come with a spare.
Mom and Dad came out later and crowded into the nesting house with us. I had spent the intervening time memorizing the features of my teddy. Kali was asleep in my arms, and her whole body pulsed with her breath. I was imagining it, of course, but it seemed as if she were already bigger than when she had come out of the egg. Teddies grow at a monstrous rate, nearly reaching their full size in their first year. I wouldn’t try to ride her until she was two, of course, but she’d be nearly large enough for me to by next Top Day.
Dad cleared his throat. “Jaiden, we need to talk to you about the teddy.”
Without even looking at him, I knew something bad was coming, the way his voice was careful and neutral.
“I earned her.” At the time, the only thing I could figure was they were going to complain again about having the teddy at all. “I earned money to buy her egg and I’ll earn money to pay for her keep.”
Dad tried again. “Your mother said the teddy is deformed.”
I didn’t say anything to that. Sure she was missing a leg, but one look at her perfect face would tell you that deformed was the wrong word to use.
Into my silence, Mom said, “We spoke to the man who sold the egg to you. He said he’d replace the egg.”
Now two thoughts went through my head at the same time. One was that they couldn’t have spoken to him, because he was a neo-Luddite and didn’t give out his number. The second and more pressing thing was that Mom had said, “replace.”
“She’s mine.” I clutched her tighter. I’d fallen in love, you see? It didn’t matter one whit that she was missing a leg. She had seven more and wasn’t she the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen? If you look at a picture of her face, I’d defy you to find a teddy bear spider with a more perfect set of features.
Mom and Dad looked at each other like they were trying to double their strength. “She needs to be put down.”
I don’t remember which of them said that. It might as well have been both of them.
Dad held out his hands. “I’ll take care of it honey. She won’t feel a thing. The man will send you another.”
“No. Kali is mine and I love her.” Now you might argue about what a thirteen-year-old could know about love or whether it was possible to learn to love something in the span of time I’d held Kali, but what you can’t argue about is how deeply I felt it. I’d loved Kali since before I saw her, since the first moment I held that egg in my hands. She represented all of my hopes and efforts for the last year, and she might be flawed, but no other egg would be as thoroughly mine.
Mom opened her mouth to try again but I cut her off. “I earned her and I can choose what to do with her, can’t I?”
“But she’ll never weave and won’t be able to carry you up the cliffs. What good is she?” Dad gestured at the leftover fruit paste. “She’s going to be a burden. An expensive pet.”
“She’s mine.” I glared at them.
To my amazement, Mom put her hand on Dad’s arm. “Ken, let her keep it.”
You’ve never met my parents but all my experience with them told me that Dad was the softie and Mom was the rule maker. Later I asked her why she let me keep Kali. She said, “You were looking at her like she was your firstborn. I knew you’d never forgive us if we took her away.”
And she would have been right.
The funny thing was, Kali had no idea she was missing a leg. She scrambled up hills as if she were meant to be seven-legged. When she got old enough, I’d ride her and we’d ramble through the mountains for hours, exploring all the places I wanted to go but couldn’t on my own. She loved nothing better than to climb to the top of the mountain and look out at everything around us. I’d lean between her legs and she’d rest her head on my shoulder, chirruping with contentment.
She even helped around the farm. We spent one summer helping Dad string irrigation lines between the terraces of the farm. It would have been tricky work with the jetpack, or just climbing by human power, but Kali could cling to the cliffs like they were level ground.
And then, when she was three, and the sun entered the ring heading toward winter, Kali started to weave, as they do. I guess the weaving is something that’s genetically encoded in them, because all teddies follow the same pattern and I don’t know how else they’d learn it.
Kali’s now, Kali’s was different. The missing leg, you see? It’s the first time I think she knew something was wrong with her, because she had that pattern in her head, but she didn’t have the equipment to make it go right. My beautiful girl tore out three weaves and snapped at me when I tried to help. I wished we spoke a common language, but there was no way I could explain to her that she was deformed. In fact, it was the first time I’d thought it since she hatched. My heart broke all over again, watching her try to weave and fail.
On Bottom Day, I went outside before my parents were up, to take Kali
her present. She met me at the front door the way she did every morning, her whole body vibrating and dancing with delight. If I’d had my way, she would have slept inside with me, but even I had to admit a full-grown teddy bear spider was just too big for a house.
She had this funny little hop she’d do when she was excited where she’d bounce about a foot off the ground. I had wanted to get out to her nesting house with the gift before she woke, but that was clearly a vain hope. I gave her the honeyed fruitroll and let her wrap her long tongue around it.
Chirruping, she took it and bounded toward her nesting house. Evidently I didn’t follow fast enough because Kali came back and nudged me from behind.
“Hey!” I laughed. “Cut it out. I haven’t got any more.”
She pushed me again and I started to get the sense she had something to show me. Now, you’ve probably already figured it out, but I’ll tell you I hadn’t an inkling.
Kali had figured out how to weave.
The sun hadn’t risen high enough to get into the nesting house, but the weaving seemed to make its own light. Normally, a teddy will just make one per season, but it was like Kali had gotten so excited to finally sort out how, she had made two. Each of them had the thousands of dense strands of golden silk you think about when you think about a teddy’s weaving, but instead of being in the traditional pattern, Kali had made a spiral galaxy of her own invention. The arms rotated out in a pinwheel with thinner, gossamer sections in between. She’d incorporated bits of the landscape into the weavings, like they always do, but one of them took my breath away so fast I had to sit.
Embroidered into the fabric was a weathered strand of red wool. She’d found that old hat Mom had made me, out in the fuzzywyrm’s tree, and built it into her weaving. I started to cry, until I realized Kali didn’t understand how happy she’d made me. Jumping up, I rubbed her soft ears and told her over and over what a good girl she was, until she shimmered with happiness.
We sold one of the weavings online at auction for a ridiculous sum on account of it being unique.
The other one? The one with my hat woven in.
That one’s got my past and my future woven in it. I’d sooner stop breathing than sell either.
About the Author
Mary Robinette Kowal
Mary Robinette Kowal is the author of historical fantasy novels: The GlamouristHistories series and Ghost Talkers. She has received the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, three Hugo awards, the RT Reviews award for Best Fantasy Novel, and has been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards. Her stories appear in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, and several Year’s Best anthologies. Mary, a professional puppeteer, also performs as a voice actor (SAG/AFTRA), recording fiction for authors including Seanan McGuire, Cory Doctorow, and John Scalzi. She lives in Chicago with her husband Rob and over a dozen manual typewriters.
About the Narrator
Since her first sale in 1987, Kij Johnson has sold dozens of short stories to markets including Amazing Stories, Analog, Asimov’s, Duelist Magazine, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Realms of Fantasy. She won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for the best short story of 1994 for her novelette in Asimov’s, “Fox Magic.” In 2001, she won the International Association for the Fantastic in the Art’s Crawford Award for best new fantasy novelist of the year. Her short story “The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change” was on the final ballot for the 2007 Nebula Award and the World Fantasy Award, and it was a nominee for the Sturgeon and Hugo awards. In 2009, she won the World Fantasy for “26 Monkeys, Also The Abyss,” which was also a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula. She won the 2010 Nebula for “Spar,” the 2011 Nebula for “Ponies” (also a finalist for the Hugo and World Fantasy). In 2012, she won both the Nebula and Hugo for “The Man Who Bridged The Mist.”