Maybe tonight isn’t the time, now that there is a trickster in my belly.
I gobbled him up, swallowed him down, all his hairy little legs tickling and swirling in my throat until he landed there, deep inside my gut. It was not an unpleasant sensation and when it was done, I had changed. If I were at home, they’d steam him out over hot rocks, but I’m nowhere near home and now that he’s in place, I don’t want to go anywhere, but I promised her a visit. I’ll keep him tucked away in my secret place and pretend I never ate him.
A cool, clear sky stretches out above me and I’m driving down a road surrounded by wide, green spaces and fluttering grasses and in the distance I can see clouds gathering and preparing for their long trek over the darkening plains. My destination is a small house neatly parted from the road by a thicket of trees and in it lives an old woman with hair like night. She could tell me how to live with this secret, for I believe she has one, too, though I had planned this trip long before I ate him.
My wheels are spinning over blacktop and birds dart out from the edges of the pavement, flit past my windshield, oblivious to my swerving and braking; they don’t care that I don’t want to see their feathers splattered on the glass. Grasshoppers hit the headlights, are crunched beneath the tires and tonight’s moon sits pale above the bluffs I’ve left behind. I put my hand on my stomach, feel the pressure there of those eight legs creeping through my gut. Ahead, a car has stopped, flashers on, and beside it stands a man who might have known me long before I ever wanted to be known.
I ask him, “Do you need help?” He says yes, he’s run out of gas, and I say okay, we’ll siphon some of mine. I pop the trunk while he looks at my long legs, bare under a simmering red skirt, and I’m buried up to my hips in spare tires, jacks and flashlights, all the litter of every trip I’ve ever taken. I reach for a hose I keep for just such a circumstance and in my grasping, my hand circles a jug of water lying on its side. I smile as that tiny secret twists around to watch. The man can’t see me kneeling beside my car as if to pull that foul liquid from its bowels. He can’t see me fill his gas can with water, clear and scentless, but he watches when I rise and pour it in his tank. His eyes disturb me, black and brown and piercing and I throw his can onto the ground and speed away, laughing at the trick.
The clouds are moving closer and the road is stretching thin, tar exchanged for gravel. I hear something hit the roof, I turn the dial on the radio and hear the warning that a storm is rolling in. I do not care; I’m laughing and driving and the music is thundering out the open window and ahead I see another car stopped by the side of the road. This time it’s a woman who might have said something to me long before I ever understood her words. I stop again and ask, “Do you need help?”
The woman says yes, I’ve lost my wallet on the other side of the road but my eyes are old and I cannot see to cross. I put my hand on her shoulder and gently guide her into the road. I feel the legs twitching, the secret crawling and hear it whisper in my ear. I lead her to the other side and round a bit and tell her here we are, and that I’ve put her wallet on the seat. I leave here there, on the far side of the road, and we laugh together, trickster and I, as I head out on my way.
I’m driving away when the storm hits and I’m pummelled by hail stones as big as my fist. I see the hard metal above my head denting with each stone that falls and laugh at nature’s fury and her bliss. Soon enough the rain’s so thick I can’t see a thing and so I stop the car and light a cigarette. I’ll wait, I tell myself, until it passes. I’m very close and I know the old woman will be there, no matter when I arrive.
Afterwards all the world is dented, all the grasses flattened and the gravel shot aside and even the clouds look as though they’ve been fractured by the hail. Raindrops glisten in the last light of a late sinking sun, covering the plains in a layer of diamonds. Where the soil shows through, it seems as though a wide gold setting is holding it all in place.
Another few miles and I’m there at the border of trees and it’s too dark now for me to tell what kind they are. I park at the side of the house and walk up to the door, stepping through mud and soggy flowers, puncture vine that’s lost its bite and ivy that covers her steps. I knock and feel a grumble in my belly. I go in.
She’s standing by the stove in the corner of the room, putting a pot on the fire. She turns and smiles at me and her hair is fanning out along her back. Her eyes are bright and she tells me to get her some turnips from out back so she can make us a soup. She tosses me an apron and I tie it on, though not too tightly for I don’t want to suffocate my secret. Out behind her house there is a garden where she has timpsila and sage and a bunch of other plants that I don’t recognize and the stars are just bright enough for me to see. There’s a stick for digging and I pull up two or three bulbs, remembering the taste of the timpsila soup my grandmother used to make. I feel a scratching at the back of my throat and glance at the rocks strewn here and there in the dirt.
Into my apron I pile ten rocks, no larger than golf balls, and over them I lay the timpsila. By the water pump I rinse them all and then I go back inside, where she is waiting. She watches as I drop the goods into the pot and pick up a spoon so that I can stir them. “Smells good,” she says and tells me to add more wood to the fire. I do and soon that soup is smoking and my little secret is laughing because the old woman’s dinner is made of rocks. I’m stirring and the water is boiling and the old woman is watching and steam is rolling out of the pot and over my head and sweat is gushing out of my pores because she’s added more wood and the fire is blazing in the stove’s belly.
I feel faint and she’s watching as I sway back and forth, but I can’t stop stirring because she has her eye fixed upon me. Soon I start coughing and choking and I’m gasping for breath and she’s doing nothing but watching me as I retch and finally fall to my knees, bent over in front of her so that all I can see through my watering eyes are her naked feet. I feel like a cat, rasping and choking out a massive hairball. But it’s not hair that comes out of me.
She strokes my back as I bend there, hanging onto the wood floor with my nails, scrabbling for breath. She holds my hair away from my face and smiles at the trails my tears have made on my dusty face. I feel him coming up; he can’t withstand the onslaught and my traitorous body will not hold him down. I’m crying now because I don’t want my secret revealed, not like this, not in a sweaty mess on the old woman’s floor. I think I can’t take any more, I feel my whole insides wanting to rush out of my mouth and then she hits me, squarely on the back, and out it comes. I will not look, I tell myself, though I can hear it hit the floor and I think that he is heavier on the outside than he ever seemed within.
She pulls me up, carefully, gently, stands me on my feet. The smoke has bled out her open window, the room is clear and cool. She holds out her hand, palm up, and on it I can see a pebble, no bigger than a thumbnail. It’s round and white and glistens with my spit and it takes a minute for me to understand. I look at her and she’s smiling, her lips curled in amusement, the scent of timpsila soup on her breath. She hands me the pebble and I don’t want to take it, but she’s got her eye on me again and there’s little else I can do.
I hold it and turn it round and round, searching for its legs and eyes and mouth but there are none of these things. There is only this stone. She looks at me with cobwebs in her eyes and says, “You’ve been tricked.”
I look at her and shrug, and put the stone into the hollow of my tongue and swallow. The spider drops from her eye into mine and she is gone. I turn and stir the soup and wait, our secret safe until the next one comes.
Previously published in Jabberwocky 2, 2006.
BIO: Erzebet Barthold is an author, artist, editor, bookbinder, and independent publisher. She is inspired by fairy tales, folklore, and the wild places in the world. Her work has been published by Clarkesworld Magazine, GrendelSong, and Not One of Us, and has appeared in anthologies published by Tor, Prime Books, and Lethe Press. Visit erzebetbarthold.com for more.
Of this story, Erzebet says: “This story was written while I was living in the US midwest and is based around the spider-trickster Iktomi, who like all trickster spirits has something valuable to teach us, though often the lessons come in inappropriate ways. The visual impact of the great plains, and the dustlands of Nebraska, also had their part to play, as it is in this setting Iktomi is at his full strength. ”