Milyi couldn’t bring herself to look down. She watched Rani’s tiny heels kick up a smoking of dust and felt a gloom settle over her. Her chest tightened, as if an invisible force pressed against her lungs, made breathing an effort. She stiffened, stood taller, and made her way around to the front of her home.
Grandmother and Maiga stood in the entryway. They fell silent at Milyi's appearance.
“Was that Rani I heard?” Grandmother asked.
“Is class done already?”
“Yes." Milyi stifled the urge to scuff her feet, to fidget under the examination of the two elders. "May I go to Rani’s house?”
“I suppose. But get back in time to help me with supper. No lingering.”
Milyi feigned enthusiasm. She skipped after Rani until out of site of the tent, and then she veered. A thin trail led off the path and she drifted down it, into the thicker trees and away from the village. Silly to be so upset. She kicked a stone out of the trail and ducked into the dense vines. To fuss over a spider.
She had killed more spiders in her short life than she cared to count.
Still, her legs carried her deeper into the jungle. They moved her, automatically, to a place where she'd picked blossoms as a child, a place where only the very young still gathered. Milyi hadn't come here once since she began taking classes. Bursts of colored studded the vines, and the tall trees ringed her in. She walked to the center of their circle and sat down.
She didn’t want a husband. That Grandmother had arranged for one without consulting her should not have been surprising. She chewed her lip and tried to think of a way out of it. Perhaps if she kept failing at her classes, this Nagu might change his mind. But quitting dance class seemed as dismal as the idea of marriage. Milyi loved dancing…even to Teacher’s stupid steps.
A breeze blew though the flat, fan-shaped leaves It made a rustling chant around her. She closed her eyes and listened. Beneath the trees' song, a hum of insects droned. The two choruses formed a sweet melody. Farther off, a bird pecked at an old tree, the noise a staccato baseline to the tune, lending it a deep thrumming rhythm.
Milyi rose without thought, allowing the sounds to guide her. The clearing reverberated with the natural music, and her lithe body responded. Her frustration oozed out, and she leapt and twisted. She danced.
Here was freedom from Teacher’s routines and Milyi reveled in it. Her hips rolled sideways and spun in circles. Her arms flung up and outward in a sweeping arc. She spun, and spun, and spun until exhaustion slowed her. Even when her breath failed her, she balked at completely stopping, swayed from side to side instead.
“Nicely done.” A male voice spoke from the trees.
Milyi froze and searched her surroundings. She could see no one. “Who said that?”
“You dance beautifully.” He spoke again, a calm voice with traces of an echo in it and no visible source.
“Where are you?” Milyi turned a small circle, watching the vines.
“To your right," he said. "The large trunk, and just above your head, I believe.”
She turned again, all the way around, and still saw no one. One of the trees was distinctly larger than the others, however, and Milyi stalked toward it on tiptoe. The bark had thick, deep ruts in it, torn loose in places and covered in sparse moss. The fan branches swooped overhead, casting shadows across the trunk. She circled it, and found no one hiding.
"Where are you?"
"I'm afraid to show you."
"I have many reasons, most of them older than us both."
"That's a riddle." Milyi stood on tiptoe and curled her neck back. Someone could be hiding in the branches, though how they'd have made it that high without help, she couldn't begin to guess. "Who are you?"
"I am Horatch," he said. "And you are Milyi, and now that we're acquainted it would be very rude to act rashly."
"I'm coming down now."
"Oh." Coming down. Her original guess had been correct, and yet, she saw no branches low enough to climb. Unless he'd crossed from tree to tree overhead like one of the swinging howlers. Or maybe he flew up. She nearly giggled, put her hand to her lips even, just in case.
"Are you quite ready?" The voice held mirth now, but she could still hear the hesitation too, the caution, as if she might be the dangerous one. That thought calmed her more than anything. If he was afraid of her, then what danger could he pose?
"Yes." She nodded, felt the rush of bravery. "Come down."
"Back up just a little."
Milyi scuttled three steps backwards, gave the tree's girth enough room for a man to climb down. Nothing happened. She squinted up at the fan fronds. No one was there.
"Hello." His voice was close. It came from the tree and, for a moment, she thought he might be inside it.
She leaned forward and squinted at the bark. The shadows danced. Patterns moved across the crevasses. Milyi followed the lines and tried to see a man beneath them. Instead, a paler section drew her eye, a ghost white strip where the bark should have been gray. Even as she caught it, it moved, slipping down through a rut in the bark. Pure white, and plush as a caterpillar. Black markings broke the snowy pelt, dots and dashes like spilled ink.
Spider. Her mind whispered it, but this thing was too large to match the thought. A round, soup-bowl sized abdomen followed the long legs, the starburst body. In total, the creature was easily as long as her forearm. Milyi counted the legs as it descended. She watched eight toes test the way, clutch and release the bark one after the other. Giant spider.
Her body seized. To allow a spider to live was forbidden, but then, how may spiders could talk? How many knew polite manners, made a point of getting acquainted before showing themselves? Unless she'd imagined that part. Unless she'd dreamed the gentle words.
I should run.
But her fear held her. Her curiosity took her breath and Milyi only stared as the thing on the tree crept closer. It paused at eye level. It rotated to the left and then the right and then it lowered itself to hug the tree more tightly. As if it might spring at me.
The front legs, two of them on the right side, lifted together. A salute, that gesture, an arachnid waving. The voice echoed again, not imaginary at all.
Generations of instinct responded for her. Milyi's mouth fell open. She heard herself scream and cringed away from the reaction it would bring. Her voice continued like a siren, ripping through the trees, squealing all the way back to the village even as her body crumpled into a faint.