by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Abyss & Apex, October 2019
Moira felt a tickle in her throat. She pulled the handkerchief from her pocket and covered her mouth before coughing. It was a hacking cough that wracked her body, deep into her lungs. She felt the slime of silk on her tongue and spit the silky strands surreptitiously into her handkerchief before tucking it back in her pocket.
“Your cough seems worse today.” The only customer in Moira’s shop was a bride-to-be, a rich socialite marrying a famous poet. Their wedding would be broadcast across the entire solar system. She was running her hands reverently over the shimmering, gleaming wedding dress that Moira had almost finished for her. It wasn’t simply white — it was pearlescent like a cumulonimbus cloud that had accidentally wandered into a sunny day and glowed with hidden sunlight.
All that was left to make was the veil.
“I hope working on my dress hasn’t been wearing you out.” The bride hugged the silky bodice to her own bosom. “It’s perfect. I don’t know where you get this silk. No one else can get Numi Silk at any price — not for three solar systems in any direction. I checked. The spiders are too hard to keep alive.”
Moira smiled primly, holding back the tickle that had already returned to her throat. “This dress is my masterpiece,” she said. “And how I get the silk is my secret. I’ll have the veil for you tomorrow.”
The bride paid Moira enough credits to fund another trip to Numinous VI — a journey involving three space cruisers and a hyper sleep. A journey that Moira no longer had the energy for. She couldn’t sleep that long. If she didn’t cough out the silk in her lungs often enough, the Numi Spider would fill them.
As soon as the bride was gone, Moira closed her shop for the day and doubled over coughing. She spread the handkerchief over her face and caught every silvery strand of silk that she hacked out of her lungs. The silk glistened in the handkerchief. Moira would add it to the veil.
In the back room of the shop, behind the counter with the cash register, Moira did her sewing. She took the wet silk, freshly coughed from her lungs, and spread it out over a screen to dry it into sheets of usable fabric. For the wedding dress, she’d spread the silk thickly, drying several layers to make a fabric strong and opaque enough. For the veil, she only needed a single thin layer to create a fabric as light and diaphanous as mist. It would be beautiful.
For other projects over the years, Moira had dyed the silk bright colors, but for a traditional white wedding gown, its natural shimmery shade was perfect.
Moira hemmed the sheets of silk, carefully sewing pearls along the edges. As she worked on stitching one layer of the veil, the spider in her lungs spun the silk for the next. She coughed and stitched late into the night.
“You’re spinning awfully fast tonight,” Moira said to the spider in her lungs. She’d never seen it — except on an x-ray, long ago. The newly hatched spider had been nothing more than an eight-legged splotch of light on that x-ray, but Moira liked to imagine that her spider glittered like gemstones, ruby red, a living piece of jewelry hidden inside her chest.
The doctors had said she would die. She had inhaled a minuscule egg, and by the time her cough developed, her body was already addicted to the spider’s toxins. It couldn’t be removed without killing her, and its webs would eventually suffocate her. One wrong breath, months earlier and star systems away, had sealed her fate. But Moira and the spider had shown the doctors. They’d found a way to work together, and she’d lived with her death inside of her for years, assisting her daily to become one of the most successful seamstresses in the whole system.
Moira simply could never sleep for too long; she had to wake up and cough, clearing away the cobwebs.
Lately, it felt like the spider was growing stronger and spinning webs faster. Or maybe, Moira’s body was simply breaking down on her after years of fighting. Either way, Moira drifted off several times during the night.
As dawn glowed dimly through the window, Moira held up the finished veil. The dawn sunlight twinkled in the layers of fabric, catching tiny rainbows in the folds. It was so beautiful, Moira caught her breath at her own work. Then she coughed again.
“It only needs a few more pearls,” she said to herself, laying the veil down. She knew that she could call it done, and the bride would never know the difference. But Moira was a master of her craft, and for herself, she knew a dozen more pearls would make it perfect. “But maybe… I’ll lie down a while first.” She tapped her hand on her chest and said, “Hear that in there? We’re taking a break. No more spinning.” The words were punctuated, short of breath as she said them.
Moira drifted in and out sleep, feeling her breath grow more and more shallow, but she was too tired, too tired to get up.
Finally, Moira awoke to the full brightness of afternoon sunlight. Her lungs creaked when she tried to breathe, and she saw something on the tip of her nose.
The spider was small and green, not at all how she’d imagined it. Moira tried to speak, but her lungs were too full. “You’ve laid your eggs,” she wanted to say. “Our eggs.” Instead, she stared at the spider as it drew forth its strands of silk and began to wrap her in a cocoon — a layer of fresh silk that was at once a wedding dress of her own, binding her to the spider dancing over her body, and her burial shroud.
Moira closed her eyes and thought about the baby spiders growing inside her now. They’d eat her when they hatched. But she drifted off into a dream-filled sleep long before that.
In her final dreams, Moira sewed the last pearls on the veil.