The azure star spider injects ink when it bites, an umber venom that paints the veins if the skin has paled enough, that steeps the brain in a fire of extrasensory comprehension. We collect its poison in the wild, on cautious days-long crawls through the caverns formed by the roots of the blood-scented basalt trees, whose crowns cannot be seen beneath the ever-present cloud cover.
Though the spider-mothers are quick and fearsome, their phosphorescent legs longer than our fingers, they present the least of the threats that wait. The beacon mantis opens the lamps of its many eyes to blind us, and sometimes the visors we wear fail to darken their tints in time, leave us paralyzed and blinking, primed to be dragged off in its long jaws.
On truly unfortunate journeys, the incisor gods that scavenge between the great fissures of bark fail to harvest enough mewling grubs to sate their hunger, and descend on all nine paws into the root tunnels, investigating the noises we make as we crawl. Our maps guide us along paths excavated deep and narrow to keep the holy teeth from finding purchase in our backs, but the gods are clever and ruled by their appetites, so our engineering is not always enough. It is rare for a harvest season to pass without a crawler giving up her life in an agonizing sacrifice that lets the rest of an expedition escape.
Charming the spider-mothers with plucks on the disordered lyres of their webs, delicately milking their fangs with soft metal thimbles, these things hardly seem frightening in comparison.
The crawlers who return to our hive are greeted with unblinking eyes and limbs lifted in silent, reverential dance. The leader of the foray will pass her first primed vial to the dancers, who will unstop it and paint their tongues umber. Their breath becomes heady ambrosia on the instant, and the exhausted crawlers will open their own mouths to receive kisses and then collapse. The terrors and wonders they experienced during their expedition will transfer to the dancers during the touch of tongues, and the dancers will retract their eyes as the visions fill their ganglia, guide their spines. They will dance blind, yet never stumble. Their feet will beat a history in the soft earth. They will weep, their voices rising to score the names of the deceased into the salt spikes that stab slow from the vaults of our roofs.
They will dance until the chamber of return can no longer contain them, emerge into the tunnels reciting new verse in every contortion of muscle, bone, and chitin, accompany themselves with notes made from the scraping together of serrated legs.
We will understand their song without having heard a word. Their melodies and percussions will thrum through the stones and fissures of our homes, wash across our skins and shells. They will stay in motion until the poison coma takes them, and they collapse in crescents of paralysis, dreaming themselves as spider-mothers patiently mending webs, patiently awaiting prey.
It is not for us to taste the venom unfiltered as the dancers do. We cannot survive its visionary fire, though we all long for the strength to contain it in our veins. The vials brought back from the crawl will be taken to hollows in our city’s iciest deeps and nestled in walls of yielding mud to ferment. That loam will release acrid scents of centipede treacle as it parts to receive our treasures.
High above the nests where we dwell, oven-warm chambers mirror the icy spaces underneath our halls and streets. Through the roofs of these rooms pierce wooden stalactites: the heavy branches of the eidolon shrubs, bent to the ground by their own weight, burrowing through toxic slag surface, past tangles of roots, through softened bedrock and further still, breaching into our space. Miraculously, the buried tips of their branches bear fruit, soft berries tinted blue (so claims the lore) as the sky our kind once knew.
Ten children will ascend there, chosen by their high marks at learning and their skills at weaving fibre and shaping clay. Hefting pails made from the shells of the most soft-spoken of their elders, these children are the only ones permitted to gather the berries, not for hygiene’s sake or from any mystical notion of purity, but because they have proven themselves of the right mindframe. Their touch will colour the juice with earnest curiosity and devotion to the furthering of the soul. Thus not one tender fruit need be discarded, even if it bursts.
Other ingredients we collect are more mundane: lichens peeled from our home gardens; meaty grubs from our terrariums; lush roots and sharp-flavoured spores from the mosses that cluster around our lamps. These offerings are brought to the natural obelisk that rises from the shallow pool in the centre of our northernmost plaza, a place where wares are sold, histories are read, laws debated and revised.
As we clean and cook, the protégés of the dancers prepare to stomp the berries. They pull on stockings spun from the webs of previous feasts, stitched in iridescent patterns that trick the eyes. The pails are arranged in interlocking triangles, and the stompers execute a puzzle dance, hopping from one pail to another without colliding or even letting their feet touch the ground between. At the end, they peel the stockings and leave them soaking in the juice. A smell of sweet nectar teases as the gossamer dissolves to fuel our next harvest of dreams.
Fetched from storage, the venom is dripped into each pail and thus transmuted, its mind-expanding effects strengthened through chemical bonding while its toxicity dilutes. The resulting jelly seasons the loaves of our celebratory meal.
Once we are fed, we settle in our slings to receive the gift of the spider-mothers, the warp and weft of a great new imagining, a blessing that lets us continue our lives of confinement without souring into rancour. Though we will dream but a few hours, we will spend a precious eternity inside the vistas of our minds acting as weavers of atoms and fate. We become like the spider-mothers, but we do not lie in wait to eat the weak and blind. We create tapestry in communion.
Emerging in our dreams from the shells where we have incubated, we project threads of our own gentle nets to trap protean hallucinations, bind them into crystal-bright continents. Our perpendicular strands form latitude and longitude lines, link private myths into a map of our collective mirage, grant it weight, depth, texture. A new land so forged, we shall set off to explore.
Centuries will pass, so it will seem, before the dream fades. In that time we will toil and play under our long-lost suns. We will tend vast manses, not cut from the forests, but grown and shaped, generations raised in nature’s embrace. In time, visitors cast in unfamiliar and beautiful shapes will arrive from outside our sky, and we will share our harvests with them, and eagerly learn everything they bring to teach us.
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Story copyright © 2015 by Mike Allen
Artwork copyright © 2015 by Luna Lynch
Mike Allen is editor of Mythic Delirium and the Clockwork Phoenix anthologies; author of the novel The Black Fire Concerto and short story collections Unseaming and The Spider Tapestries; a Nebula Award and Shirley Jackson Award finalist; and winner of three Rhysling Awards for poetry. He posts about his editor exploits at mythicdelirium.com and combines the two at @mythicdelirium.
Luna Lynch is an illustrator, cartoonist, and artist from California. She currently attends art school in NYC where she studies illustration. She’s interested in exploring the bizarre and the unusual, and the beauty that sometimes arises therein. You can follow her on Twitter at @lunalynchart.