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A Spell at Home

Laetitia Erskine

I know those remains are not mine, because I ate mine myself, when I left. Sloughing off my outer layer made me almost too thirsty to eat. My limbs were tired and gangly, awkward at stuffing all the stray bits in, but my jaw proved efficient. I can still summon the ghost of that energy now, the satisfaction I had in mastering this changeable body. Short work of it I made, given my exhaustion, reborn yet finishing the job, champing my old skin to smithereens. A substance like straw and salted yolk mixed up. It gave me the kind of grim ambivalent pleasure one reserves for our most urgent secretions. Not wanting to waste fine protein, and a thing I had made myself! And let it not be said I can't clean up! as the old couple used to accuse me. The feeling absorbed me utterly for a time.

So it is a shock, returning now, looking up at my old corner, that fancy bit of cornice, my palace on the plain ceiling, the one bit of evidence there was once a grander past in this drear, a shock to see the tatters of my exoskeleton and my abandoned web still hanging there, a decaying simulacra of myself staring back at me. Except for more peeling paint, the house is the same too, the ceiling still embedded with its sad metal hanging for two bulbs pointed away from each other. The feeling of repetition drums at me, the going, the coming back, the why, the why, the same.

Oh, those bits could belong to another of my kind – but I can spot my own work a mile off. I scrutinise the area by the door under which I squeezed to get here. I stretched free from the dark, bristly, pubic layer that held me together as an arachnid, expanding from a size that can be crushed underfoot until I stand as I do now on my original two legs. But I left no trace of detritus this time. Human again, I am more vulnerable, more prone to attack, less capable of dodging it, no longer an eight-limbed miniature freak show, but fair target for some. As I look, my old self on the ceiling seems to wink at me. But if I have changed my form once, twice, three, four times, I suppose it is possible I am not the most reliable observer.

It can’t be worse here than out there, with strangers. A balm sweeps over my slender abdomen and my two stumpy legs, obstinately, mysteriously shod in the trainers I left in. Even the most assiduous householders neglect to sweep their cornices of swiperwebs. Noble forgiveness floats through my oversized brain. In this neglect is perhaps the truth that the old folks missed me. Or perhaps they secretly enjoyed living alongside evidence of a life cycle beside their own, or perhaps they went about in a cloud of forgetting. We can hang there for years without the touch of a broom or the sweep of a pair of eyes catching, or remembering they had done so days, years or weeks earlier, the gossamer deposits of our maligned but fundamentally harmless specie.

The feeling of stasis in this house is sometimes a little overwhelming.

Anyway, I don’t always grumble. Often my general state is a deep and satisfied peace. Other times, a delicious passion courses through me. Rarely do I surprise myself with the sudden force of my teeth, clamping down on my prey. That’s when I feel most disgusted with myself, and jolted by the spectre of my human origins. But above all, patience is my methodology. Sitting, watching, hanging, gliding. Only after a great deal of productive spinning do I finally express my baser senses. But look how high falutin I’ve come over. It wasn’t like that when I kept residence in this house.

Into my ramblings comes the sound of a tread upstairs. So, they are in. The sound is unmistakable. It is the old man, my father. He rises from his bed, walks over to the window, and stops and stares. I can hear it through the floorboards as if I can see it, or as if in some other walk of life I had possessed it, or it possessed me. Even barely speaking to each other, even after a long absence, living in parrallel in a creaky house like this can lend a porousness to being, which I now feel curiously expert in. I listen. He pushes the lock on the sash and lets the window slide up. Four deep breaths, as if the house itself breathed, a big old bellows, resilient but long past making any fire. Then the window slides down again and he begins to pace. My mother must be out. Or the old man would not be at liberty to pace like this, not allowed to fall into such an obvious demonstration of the useless. He stops. He performs the routine with the window again, this time taking more breaths. Vibrations sail down so that I catch them from outside through the thin panes of window, his above mine, as well as through the ceiling. I find myself synchronising to his breathing, to the breathing of this tight old house, then shake myself out of it.

Now it is only a matter of time before he will discover me here. If I can alert him with a sudden noise, I won’t go so far as to say it would break the ice. I am all too aware of the conditions that have settled here, a deep and insidious frost, but malleable enough to changes in the atmosphere, as if it were really terribly giving and adaptable to the needs of others. ‘Don’t mind me,’ they say, shutting doors gently. ‘You going for a lie down, then?’ and ‘I’ll be in the shed,’ and all kinds of soothing denials. I glance at the pebbled glass of the front door, considering giving it a slam. Traffic thrums a little behind it, shaking the frame, sending shadows flitting behind the panels and a splash of red from a bus in the street. My mother might appear through it at any moment, calling, ‘It’s only me.’

These reveries ebb and take shape again as I wait for him to appear. After a moment, I am unsure if I really have heard any sounds upstairs, or if I really have seen a moulted version of myself, or whether it is some other creature, or only a shred of dust, once living matter, or whether there is nothing there at all. Maybe these unstable effects are the result of coming back here, a place that always functioned as a nightmare of something, or a chimera of nothing. Over the years, I came to realise the latter is perhaps even worse than the former. But I can’t be certain. Violence is not supposed to come out of nothing and nowhere.

In the old days I floated down the stairs on my tiny two bare feet, displaying the face of the little girl I was born with, open as a bun on a plate. Every morning I pattered down here with renewed hope for the day. The old couple might come up with an idea or a plan, for me or themselves or each other, or to a voice on the end of the phone, or a passing Jehovah’s Witness. Those they handled by opening the door, pronouncing ‘No’, and shutting it straight away, to indicate their contempt. One night, I woke up to them raising their voices, after days of seething tension of the kind I came to chase the signs of. Until then, I hadn’t realised the force held latent in their ways, the fury dammed up behind their show of calm. I tiptoed on to the top landing and peered over the bannister. Light quivered from the crack in the door of the lounge. Such a sense of vertigo at my strenuous pose leaning down the stair, mixed with anxiety at the sound of his growl and her tears, my stomach lurched to my bare ankles, cold under my hem, and I hurried back to bed. I buried my dread in sleep, while my turn began to feel inevitable.

I look around for something I can make a sound with, retrace my steps, open and shut the door, and wait.

No call down the stairs. No sound. Then the creak of the stair. It would be the third one down. The swish and squeak of a hand now more reliant on the bannister to get about. Grey trousers, grey cable knit, grey face streaked with veins. Uncanny, the feeling of family resemblance that lace of veins gives me, a web pushing lightly between skull and skin. It speaks equally of life changing, persisting, and running out. That was the feeling I always got when I moulted and transformed, like I was on the brink of something, that it could either squeeze the life out of me for good, or be my rebirth and empower me again. It was as I imagine giving birth to a baby would be, if I ever got to do that, a stretching of the thin skin between life and death. A rupture that could heal over and disappear, or unleash the unspeakable.

‘Hello, love,’ he says. ‘You’re back.’

​‘Hello dad.’

​‘Cup of tea?’ he says.

​‘Mum here?’ I ask.

He waits, as I stand before him. Stuck, until I cede my position on the rug. Then, without touching, we trade places in the narrow hall, enabling him to head to the back of the house with me following.

‘Where’s mum?’ I say. Mum is his weakness, as all other people are. That’s why he has so few others to turn to, and I suppose that is why I am back here gazing at the moultings of my younger self. The skidmarks that link me to the self I tried to become when I left, but that brought me full circle back.

He opens the kitchen cupboards turn by turn, unable to locate the necessary bits for tea making. It would be wrong of me to cross those invisible lines his movements draw across this domain. I know where the tea is, mum knows, why doesn’t he? But let him find it. Give him his show of command.

‘I’ve been travelling?’ I start.

​‘So I see.’

​‘There was an accident. Where I was. A fire. So I came back.’

Set alight by the person I didn’t love, but was trying to, and who said he was taking care of me. I took care of him, and his pets and his barbecue and his shed and the flat, until he flared up one night, tipped the flaming coals over and ran at me with a hot poker. I had had no cause to be in anything other than my original skin for some time, until that night.

‘You’re not hurt then,’ he says. He gives me a glance, nods his own agreement, goes back to inspecting mugs.

Not on my face, I think.

‘That a new radio you got?’ I ask.

On the counter is one of those retro digital ones, in a baby blue casement, its belly a handsome brass perforated speaker, large dials inviting a twirl.

‘Yes, yes, it is actually.’

​‘Did mum buy it for you?’

‘It came through the door,’ he says, as if that explains it.

​‘Oh yes, just like that?’

He might find it funny, and not sarcastic, but he doesn’t seem to pick up the tone either way. Maybe I have no tone. Toneless. Through lack of reaction from him and Mum, I’ve speculated, but maybe that is only me being hysterical. I have no idea if I have a voice while a spider. I have a totality of expression then – difficult to explain, but consoling – although perhaps this comes at the sacrifice of a voice audible outside myself. Perhaps this moonlighting in another order of being has leached something from my human voice. Or perhaps it is just him, the tone deaf one.

‘It was in one of those glossy booklets that come through the door. I found it on the table, had a flick through. Chose the blue one and ordered it myself.’ He almost whistles at the revelations of this speech.

‘They’ve got a phone line ordering service, as well as an internet one.’ His pride seems to crank him up a notch as he locates a mug for each of us. ‘I went for the telephone.’ He fills the kettle with a vigorous hand at the tap. ‘I was pleasantly surprised to get a human voice,’ he concludes.

It hits me after a beat that this is a joke, or not exactly a joke, a pleasantry.

‘What station do you listen to then?’

​‘All sorts.’

He hesitates. This is a show of jocularity we aren’t set up for. Adjusting his glasses, he goes in for the switch and a turn of the dial. A flare of white noise, alarming, but it quickly drops into the right place. Mad strings rush at us from The Blue Danube, romantic nights under stars, tragic beauty queens, a parade of senseless excess. The sound travels straight to my organs and out through the hairs on my head, making my heart swell with a blood-filled beat.

He has his back to me now, looking for tea spoons while the noise balloons around us. But he responds in an instant to the click of the kettle. Pours water on the mugs, gives them a stir, leaving the spoon in. He looks up from stoop of his task, frowns at the radio, the ads coming on, switches it off.

I’ve been rooted to the tiled floor, hemmed in by this unexpected wall of sound. Moments like that lull me into believing he would never lash out. But I know the price of his self-containment. On the eve of the first time he turned on me, I dreamed I had long legs, dancing, many of them, weaving a pattern in the air, long, arcing into the sky, marionette strings pulling me up, up, connecting to a web of starlings chattering way above. The music now made the dream almost materialise again, before floating away. After the violence, metamorphosis was my refuge, but that dream, I suddenly remembered gave me notions that this was not a defeat, not a retreat, but a transcendence.

He cuts the radio off, banishing other worlds. He is frozen too for a moment, seeming to lose his grip of events as he stares at the cheerful music box, good for a kitchen, the heart of a home. Then he remembers the tea, stirs the mugs again, taps the spoon on the rim in a way that makes my teeth grate.

‘Where’s mum?’ I ask, grasping the thread from before.

We have been in the kitchen longer than we are used to. What I am terrified of, returning now, is what has happened to her. I am terrified to find her outside in the shed, or in the cupboard under the stairs, hanging by her pale silken tights. A remarkable item of luxury in one otherwise so plainly dressed. I always was prone to dramatic conclusions, leaps into the dark. I once imagined she’d wear the red dress that hung in her cupboard, go out with strangers who came to the door, sing in the bath, shake him by the collars, with the kind of passionate humour it takes affection to invest. But none of these things happened.

‘I suppose you’d like to sit down after your journey,’ he says, transferring the need to get off his two feet on to me. I would enjoy my two feet for longer if I could.

​‘Has she gone out?’

​‘You’re better off asking her.’

​‘Well, where is she?’

​‘Finished your tea?’

A feeling of exposure and dread seeps through me. When I mutated from my present corporeality after the shock of his losing control, flashing another self he had kept hidden, when I first shrank down to small and colourless, then, dancing on my cornice, swaying on my slender limbs by sound waves above and the distant rumble of the bus and the underground, then I felt only a shade of the vertiginous unease I feel now. The creeping range of human contact prickles my flesh with its possibilities, questioning at my gut, whirring at my too large brain.

The tights, the shed, the cupboard under stairs, it’s not something she would do. That dream of suspension, the web of starlings and the fine strings of a marionette, setting long legs to dance, to run, to vault upside down, the tension and the levity, I felt she had those notions too, or she could if she wanted to.

‘She’s got a new project,’ he says. But he seems to change his mind about making any particular disclosure.

He opens kitchen door with its kiss of sticky metal, and I follow him down the path. His gait is lumbering, with the force of a beast resigned to slowness by a harness only he can see. By the roots of a shrub lies a pile of tools, spread on a cloth ready to be used or rolled up again. He picks up the largest of them, a trowel with the teeth of a fork down one side, a nasty-looking implement. He holds it in his fist, flexing and tightening it once round its handle for a better grasp. He takes the stepping stones he laid himself through weeds to the shed.

‘Go on,’ he says. ‘You go in and have a look.’

It takes effort to stare him in the eyes. I don’t want to, and I don’t want to obey him, nor defy him. He opens the door for me. In the dark still space, cold sun filtering through one grubby window, I look. There, draped in the corner by the damp ceiling is the biggest, most beautiful web I’ve ever seen, a great big lady spider spinning in silence at its heart.

Laetitia Erskine is an occasional writer and collector of literature degrees. She works in the books business and lives in London with her husband, two children, a cat and a pond full of frogs.

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