They fought so fiercely that final time that Orghethah almost severed three of his legs, and Unnefthal retaliated by beating her stomach so hard the carapace fractured. When it was over she crouched in the middle of her home and glared up at him, the pain in her body an elixir of rage. Wincing, she raised one of her arms and spat out a sound:
Meters above, his eyes blinked in quick succession and he raised a crushed arm back at her.
“HATE,” he returned.
She watched his little brown body crawl from the edge of the branch above her and hoist himself up onto the strands of silk that led up to his own home. Her heart hurt. Of course she did not really hate—not with all of her. Of course all of her eyes could not look away from the precious painful shape of his retreating body, a body she had clung to, a body she had run from. The shape of it made a membrane across her vision; his phantom stayed with her in his absence. Once he had crawled from sight she wilted down into the silk of her own home and closed her eyes.
The children returned in their hundreds, swarming over to her from the edges of her house where they had cowered during the fight.
They did not heed her protests. They were trying to help her with her pain, covering her abdomen entirely and warming it with their bumping bodies. She braced herself against the ground, placing each foot in silken rungs, and began to cry as the floor bowed with the added weight of her children.
Children she had never wanted.
Water started to fall. Looking up, she saw the sky form a dark latticework across the ceiling of the forest. Raindrops as big as berries fell and made the house tremble. She hauled herself across its surface to its edge, taking cover within a hollow in the trunk of the tree. Her children wriggled and clambered over her with excitement. She shook them free of her neck and head and then gave up; they kept moving, they kept coming back. She closed her eyes as kicking legs found purchase on her face.
Orghethah retreated into the past.
The endless days in the forest: a giantscape of wood and leaf, of the sound of birds and the invisible channels of wind and scent. The feeling of life, and her at the center, and of never being so alone. She could barely remember her own childhood, was close to none of her brothers and sisters—if any were even still alive.
There had been violence in that home. Her parents lashing each other with cruel words. Her mother’s little ‘accidents’, the strange breakages that tore her mother’s body and mother’s web alike, each morning. The father, smaller by half, a little and furious thing, explaining everything away. How clumsy her mother was. How negligent.
Her mother had decapitated him one day, gore making gauntlets of her pedipalps, and before she left the squalling spiderlings she had imparted a name: Imimemnah, Mother of Memories. The one you seek when the weight of the past became too great. As if that was an apology; as if that could remedy anything. That, and the sight of her mother’s hair-spined body disappearing up into black canopy, were the last memories of her mother.
Orghethah remembered it.
Pulsing pain in her stomach wrenched her into the now. Small children whined in her ears, their voices disturbingly like the shrill cries of the prey that blundered into her home. Resolute, Orghethah moved out into the rain-soaked night, heading for the dark heart of the wood. The place where most dared not tread; where the silence was suffocating and the buildings of trees crushed down, severing voice, stilling movement . . .
The children wriggled and romped across her back but their movements were forgotten, inconsequential. The rain battered her body and tangled in her hairs yet her legs moved inexorably, step after myriad step. Over branch and limb and bark: over the entanglements of leaves, and the green surface of life itself.
Children dropped from her, wailing and wandering back to the hole in the tree. Some disappeared entirely. It did not matter. She had too many, anyway. She was aware of this atavistic sense of repeating: the mother’s retreat. It was a connection. There was a fierce pride in it, a depraved pride.
Orghethah reached the end of the branch and thought to look one last time towards the direction of Unnefthal—but she did not. “FORGET!” she wailed. Her children wailed in unison.
She fastened a strand of silk to the tapering end of a twig and sailed out into the night. The children screamed louder; one or two more lost their balance and fell into the darkness below.
Orghethah was going to the place where memories were laid to rest. She would forget these tiny tragedies too, in time. She was going to see Imimemnah, Mother of Memories. She knew the way. Upon hearing the name: all of her kind deed. The site was in the sound: topography hidden in its syllables.
Her body hit another tree that reared out of the darkness. The impact sent new fire into her wounds; more of her children fell. Clinging onto the bark with all of her legs she gasped an apology to them.
An image returned. The web: alone in the black, rising out of the wilderness. Him in the middle. “NO.” Him, with arms outstretched, calling for her to COME BACK, to NOT LEAVE ME. “NO.”
Orghethah began to climb, arm over trembling arm, moving with frenzied speed. The wind was picking up. She felt the writhing masses on her back move and moan, felt gusts of air wring her body. In these moments she would freeze and press her body to the bark and wait. The load on her back became lighter and lighter. Children fell from her like a rain of sparks, summer days when the star’s light turned cruel and punishing. Burning what the forest no longer wanted.
When the wind had died and the rain lessened to a hissing sheet she fastened another strand to a branchling and leapt. There was a euphoria to this jump into the waiting dark: the chemical rush of fear and exhilaration a toxic blend that erased past and future and gave her the feeling of NOW, of nothing else, of NO-ONE ELSE. MY-SELF.
The darkness always ended. There was another impact.
She clung to safety and took breath, waiting for the pain to subside, and remembered, and listened. Orghethah quieted herself, feeling with her heart and mind for a pull, the slightest tug of anything within her—like the first, tentative touch of her prey.
She felt it.
Instantly she swung out. There was a magnetism to it; as she made her way across the trees she felt the pull strengthen, felt the weight of her memories become a chain that drove her into darkness and gave her purpose.
There was the memory of having been with her progeny: the faintest tickle on her back. There was the feeling of being lighter than the air.
Her leaps became shorter, the impacts more brutal. The trees were indeed closing together, pressing and tangling together like lovers. It became harder to determine where one branch ended and another began. Vegetation, wood, foliage meshed in ecstatic structure. Orghethah had never been so far from home and yet she felt less alone than she had in years. Each leg was bruised and her stomach roiled with nausea and yet she felt manic happiness; she could have kept on in this way forever. Shapes and colors raised a chorus behind her eyes.
The darkness ruptured as a million lights illuminated all at once. They glinted and gleamed: pearlescent promises of eyes, perhaps—or jewels. Orghethah could almost touch them as she swung out.
Abruptly she was caught. Her body careened straight into a strand of silk so thick it could never have been created by another person. The strand bowed with her weight then sprang back, fastening like amber across her stomach. Juddering motion made her retch, and the last of her children was knocked clean from her back; it shrieked and died, falling away.
Orghethah knew better than to struggle. Her fluids thickened, fattening her limbs. Her vision weirded. The boundaries of things began to bleed.
The pearls were beads of moisture arranged in divine symmetry across a vast, octagonal silken structure. They captured the moonlight that filtered down through the trees.
Orghethah was stunned into silence. She had never seen a home so vast. She tried to move her hindmost legs and found that they, too, were held rigid. Silken rungs trembled with her weight but held, and would continue to hold. Only two of her arms were free.
Orghethah raised one of them and brought its trembling tip to the surface of the great house. Carefully, breathlessly, she strummed the thread that had caught her across the belly: a slow, strong beat, distinguishing her movement from the quick and frantic struggles of prey. Lightly, like the softest caress, so that it would not stick. A bass rumble rippled out in both directions. Light scintillated as the beads quivered, sending a message out across each vein of silk. Orghethah began to count.
“ONE, TWO, THREE.”
She strummed again: the same strength, the same beat.
A cranial humming enveloped her, coming from below. Fear crept in now: fear, despite everything. She wondered if this were yet another folly in the carnival of follies that made up her life. Now, here in this dark place, they marched out of the mausoleum of her memories, marched right out onto the great house and tumbled to the floor into silk-wrapped bundles. Her mother. Her father. Her children: each child she had sacrificed on her journey. Earlier memories, too. Figures she had entirely forgotten, or thought she had forgotten—except she knew and had always known that nothing was ever forgotten.
The brown body she had grown to know so well had appeared to her on a night like this, when she was sheltering from the rain. She had liked the shapes of him: the slight crooks of his mouth, the tiny hairs on his eight, strong legs. The way the light conjured landscapes in his eyes.
He had offered support, companionship, and had asked her in return: WILL YOU LOVE ME. Orghethah had thought that perhaps here, in him, was the answer to a question so large and terrifying that she was only just beginning to be able to articulate it. It was the question that had sent her running that day from her family.
Unnefthal had lied. She had lied too, only she hadn’t realized it until much later. Lies had inaugurated their first nights of vigorous, desperate sex: the clinging of their bodies together, thrilled by the exhilaration at the obliteration of all else but the two of them. The moment of two-ness inscribing the knowledge in their flesh that in this, for the ecstatic present I am not alone.
The moment did not last.
Orghethah found the barb of his sex distasteful. The animal mechanics of him destroyed her lust, and then it began to eat away at her love. She longed to embrace someone with her own body, with her own desires. Unnefthal knew this.
Then there were children.
Orghethah supposed she could not help but feel some primal satisfaction at passing on genetic matter, and so—rightly—did not trust this particular feeling of happiness. Unnefthal was enthusiastic at the prospect of fatherhood and meanderingly attentive, one day bringing berries and small insects for her to eat, the next disappearing for days on end. Resentment gathered like squalling clouds within them both.
Then, all of a sudden, she had realized a truth so simple that it stopped her entirely, made her jaws gape and her spinneret sag silken strands, forgotten, the wriggling meal before her stilling and half-bound, her children so much vapor. It was a drug, a fire catching. It lit something huge: her happiness was not to be found outside of herself, and anything or anyone would never come close.
Orghethah started to create art. She ventured down to the forest floor and began collecting berries, crushing them with her front legs and dying the silk that she made. Sculpted things that she tried to make beautiful but oh, the children scuttled, and the children swarmed, and Unnefthal grew jealous of the attention her craft was consuming.
He had approached her one day and glared at her latest work: a delicate, half-sized figure of another woman, raising her front four legs in silent plea. The sculpture’s mouth was curved and elegant, the eyes delicately molded and polished with Orghethah’s own saliva.
“WHO?” Unnefthal had demanded.
“MINE,” she had replied. With one leg she had touched her brow, then touched the sculpture. “MINE.”
“NO RIGHT,” he had growled. His body had bristled; the eyes were not so kind now, catching murderous light. He did not try to strike her—not then—but when he destroyed her creation with kicks and clumsy punches she beat him almost to death. The children had watched.
Fear had paralyzed her. She did not want to create any more, could not bear it; not because she feared he would harm her, but that he would so easily and so readily crush the questions she was asking of life: questions she shaped and sculpted and colored with her hands and breath and body.
It was too tiring for them to live with that much anger. He had to destroy, and he had to run. And he had to lie to her and say that she was the only one and she had to writhe underneath him and dream of the wet shining orbs of another’s sex and a story she would spin in art tomorrow, when the day might not be so busy, shredding her time, insistently. It always was, though. It always was.
The figures faded. There were no jewels on this silk any more. There were wriggling, writhing bundles: an entanglement of pain. The more they struggled the more they wounded her, and Orghethah began a keening, and below her still the rumbling, the sensation of breath—something nearing. She raised her arm and strummed a final time; the vibrations made these phantasms tangle ever more cruelly in silk. This time she misjudged the force of her touch. This time she could not pull her arm away. She lay pinioned, surrounded by the prey of her memories, waiting, watching, looking down. The blackness between the silken strands was no longer vacant.
At first Orghethah could not make sense of what she was seeing. It was another forest beneath her: spires and spines and domes of a landscape. Something shone.
All of a sudden she took it in, took it all in: and the vastness of her, the sheer gigant beauty of her endless form stopped her breath. Beneath the web and the baubles of light loomed Imimemnah, herself. She reared up out of the darkness, pushing herself nearer to the surface of her silken home. The beads of moisture caught the light of the stars above and reflected it back, making millions, illuminating her.
Then she was on the other side of the silk; realities reversed, the mirror-plane of her image became her living body, and Orghethah was beheld. Seen.
The Mother was endless. Her legs moved in quick jags as she drew the webbed remnants of Orghethah’s life around her in a tight circle. Her head was an elegant disk, but her body . . . Huge, bulbous, and polished like glass, her abdomen was another world held, Atlas-like, behind her. The surface of it whorled with countless, nameless colors, giving the impression of unfathomable depth. Orghethah gazed up at her and could barely make out the glinting bowls of the other’s eyes.
“MOTHER,” she croaked.
A deep, rumbling sound emanated from Imimemnah as she rubbed her arms together over the silk-wrapped parcels of pain. Then Orghethah recognized words.
It was not a question. Orghethah struggled to move her head and could not.
Bending down, Imimemnah brought her grizzled head to face Orghethah’s. The smaller woman could not scream, so great was her terror: Imimemnah’s mouthparts alone were the length of her own body and then some. Orghethah’s eyes roved around to take in the bound forms of her loves, all the objects of her life, and, caught between mortal terror and grief, she began to weep.
Tepid liquid fell on her. Rough and bristling hands shucked her free of the silk, Imimemnah’s saliva dissolving the adhesive that had held her fast. Orghethah found herself standing on her own feet—legs still sore, but standing nonetheless.
The other woman drew back and folded her legs to make eight peaks about her abdomen. All of her eyes drank in Orghethah; she faced eight reflections of herself cringing on concave, black membrane. The glass world of Imimemnah’s abdomen began to glow.
The women bore witness to each other. Orghethah’s fear faded, changing into something like hope. It was true. Her mother had been right. It was all true. There was understanding there in the monstrous form of Imimemnah, the Mother of Memories: the one you seek, with offerings from your life, when you want to forget.
“YES.” Orghethah replied. As if it were necessary. “YOURS. TAKE.”
Imimemnah moved her head in a slow nod and gestured with a blade-like arm to the ground.
Orghethah obeyed, taking in the shrouded forms that she had been avoiding. Their combined weight, and the weight of Imimemnah herself, made the structure dip into a vast concave: they were all held in its center. The beads of moisture had tracked down in rivulets and streams and pooled about the silk-wrapped forms that Orghethah had summoned.
“ONE BY ONE,” Imimemnah purred. “ONE BY ONE.” Orghethah nodded. Tears fell endlessly from her. “FIRST?”
This was easy. The smaller woman pointed to the wriggling figure of one of her most hated brothers. A small, powerfully built man who had dominated her childhood with a character at once bullying and pathetic: a private brute of a man who was slighted by everything and laughed and joked at his perceived attackers and came home and howled and cursed at his family in futile recompense.
Imimemnah’s jaws opened. A muffled howl issued from the silk bundle that held the phantasm of her brother—and then he was gone, huffed down into Imimemnah’s gullet, her smaller fingers pushing his convulsing body further and deeper in until even the kicking points of his feet were no longer visible. Muscles convulsed along the length of her neck and thorax. Red light bled out onto the silk: the orb of Imimemnah’s body changed. Transparent flutes curled about it like atmosphere, the colors fading and bleeding into a hot, primal pulse.
She saw her brother dance across the surface of the orb, her brother as he always was: that raised fist, the pouting and imploring mouth. Orghethah bristled with an emotion she had never felt before, not ever. It was terrible and she wanted more. Hers was a boulder heaved over the edge of a precipice: there was nothing left to do but give herself to the euphoria of the fall.
Orghethah gestured with her arms, quickening. She fed Imimemnah the rest of her siblings—there were so many wasted lives! Then came the fruitless efforts of everything she had ever started. Everything that she had spent her time alive—living breath—trying to finish in the hope that perhaps this, perhaps that would bring if not happiness then at least satisfaction. Silk-wrapped fragments of failed art: waste, more waste. Little trinkets she had made for her friends, that had been forgotten, or unfinished. There were many of those. Each held a regret. She commanded Imimemnah devour them all: parcel after parcel disappeared into the whickering black hunger of her mouth. But so potent was her trance that Orghethah did not notice the other woman’s increasing, shuddering effort, the struggle to swallow and keep down the dross of a life lived bitterly.
Orghethah was in the thick of it. Her arms waved wildly, pointing now to this memory, now that, keening for Imimemnah to gorge and gorge and gorge. Tiny creatures she had tried to keep alive for companionship. Notes she had scrawled on roughage: prayers to a God she wasn’t sure existed for happiness and health to her loved ones. The visions of furtive caresses she had shared with her once-dear friend Eghrethah. The flowers Unnefthal had given her early in their courtship. The nameless woman. Her children.
Unnefthal . . .
Above her was a firmament of light. Imimemnah’s body glowed fat and huge, containing the multitudes of sorrow and flickering forms of pain and beauty that was her life. The great woman wavered, standing upon a house that now bowed with weight too great for Orghethah to carry any longer. There was one form left, still precious, enshrouded in silk, still heart-rendingly beautiful even in his whimpering and bounded half-life.
“TAKE,” she whispered. The building shook around her, the pooled pearlescence wetting her feet.
Bass retching noises pulsed into her brain. Orghethah tore her eyes away from the form of her lover and looked up.
Imimemnah’s luminous body tottered, bloated and eldritch, pulsing light. Her legs shuddered and clear liquid grizzled her mouth and fell in strings to the silken floor. Her eight black eyes were bright and unfocussed. The woman shook her head, trailing saliva.
Orghethah didn’t understand at first. Then she raged.
All the distance she had traveled, all that unraveling of time and space, to get here! The decision to make a break with the past and bring it all here—all of it—and to fold the line of her life in half and say now this is when it all stops and this is where I go forward, renewed. Why did Imimemnah not take this last and most terrible memory? Had her own mother lied to her, all those years ago?
The other woman’s voice growled out and crushed her protests.
“I CANNOT TAKE ALL. THIS LAST YOU MUST.”
Imimemnah crouched back on her haunches. Her swollen body dimmed along with her eyes; they took on a hooded expression, and her jaws stilled. Her legs bristled and stilled, the hairs flattening.
Orghethah stared at the bundle containing Unnefthal, fighting a rising sickness within her stomach. Is this how it was to end? This silk-wrapped love story, this fearsome, fighting warstory: by taking him in her jaws and—who could do that? Who?
Imimemnah’s eyes glowed.
“YOU THINK I CAN?”
Orghethah took in the ruinous form of the other woman and covered her face with her hands and wept, and howled, and raged. Seething emotions rent her mercilessly, and every passing moment was sharp with the shock of not having been knocked dead by the brutality of feeling within her.
It was too much for anyone to bear—and a final barrier broke within her. Orghethah rushed forward and took hold of Unnefthal with her second pair of arms, raising the second to strike and bracing her weight against her back legs. With swift practiced strokes she tore the veil from around his head.
He had never looked so beautiful.
Bruised, terrified, brown eyes open, the endearing dome of his head tilted up at her beseechingly, the mouthparts curling in sorrow that had finality in it. This was no memory, no phantasm.
This was the living Unnefthal.
Her grip on him tightened; her forearms wavered.
“MOTHER, TELL ME WHAT TO DO,” she cried.
Imimemnah, Mother of Memories, was silent. She may have been a statue, or a calcified corpse. Her house was dull and all its luminosity, and all of hers, had faded. There was a web in a barscape of trees, in darkness, in the dead hours of a night. Two figures, one holding the other. A man and a woman. That was all.
Orghethah had seen this before.
The memory roared up with the searing clarity of a rising star: it was the bloodied day she had left home. Her mother, menaced by her father for the final time. Her mother deciding: ENOUGH. Her mother seizing her father and dragging him into her open jaws—and the young Orghethah crying, watching it all. And her mother’s shame and shock at being seen in the height of her fury. And her mother turning to face Orghethah, the spasming body of her father half-swallowed, kicking his legs all the while, and her mother gabbling words with her jaws flesh-full:
Just sounds, over and over, too far to stop the feeding, too ashamed to finish it quickly. Tumbling jumbled syllables over and over beneath saucer-wide eyes and flailing limbs.
Imimemnah, Mother of Memories.
What else could it have been?
Where else could her mother’s words have led her except here?
In that re-membering Orghethah realized the price pain required. Unnefthal looked at her and their eyes met: eight and eight. He knew it was finished then. She did too. She could not do it, though. Not like this. Not with him watching her with—yes, there was still love there. Love, undying after everything. The ferocity of it still held them together.
“HATE!” Orghethah screamed. She did not convince even herself. She began to wrap his head with silk again, moving her spinneret around him in unsteady circles. The sight of it was unbearable. Up to the chin, then the mouth, then the beautiful bases of his eyes: eyes that never left her own. A lifetime passed and it was done.
Orghethah clutched his bundled body against her own.
Then, then, she opened her mouth to eat of him—and as her face drew near to his, perhaps he felt the warmth of her, or the smell of her, so close through the veil, and he said:
Orghethah closed her eyes, shuddering.
Something like a sigh rattled the fibers around his mouth. Silent beats passed. When she moved again, opening her tear-lined jaws, another word, fainter this time, came from him, muffled by silk:
Forgiveness placed cool hands on both of them. Just like that the color of her life changed, turning to perfect purity. She finally knew the answer.
Ravening, weeping with joy, warmed with peace and accepting everything, Orghethah answered.
Orghethah pushed him up into her mouthparts, his head sliding easily in between her jaws, the jaws learning the shape of his exoskeleton even through the silk. Orghethah was gentle, assuredly, as she coaxed him all the way in.
Across the galaxied surface of Imimemnah’s huge body: the act was recorded, replayed in bioluminescence, replayed in filigree.