Science Fiction & Fantasy





Brenneker, the lyre spider, lived inside a lute, a medieval instrument resembling a pear-shaped guitar. The lute was an inexpensive copy of one made by an old master and had rose-wood walls and a spruce sounding board. Her home was sparsely furnished, a vast expanse of unfinished wood, a few sound pegs reaching from floor to ceiling like Greek columns, and in one corner, near the small F-shape sound holes, the fantasy of iron-silk thread that was Brenneker’s web. Brenneker’s home was an unusual one for a lyre spider. Most of them spin their webs in hollow tawba stalks, which echo the music of these tiny fairy harps seldom heard by ears of men. Lyre spiders play duets with each other, sometimes harmonizing, sometimes bouncing counterpoint melodies back and forth across the glades between the tall bamboo-like tawba. They play their webs to attract prey, to win a mate, or for the sheer joy of music. They live alone except for the few weeks in mother’s silken egg case and one day of spiderlings climbing up the tawba to cast their threads into the wind and fly away. When they mate, the embrace lasts but a few moments. Then the female eats the male, who gives himself gladly to this deepest union of two souls.

Originally, Brenneker had lived in the forest, surrounded by the music of her own kind. Although she lived alone, she was never lonely, for she could always hear the mandolin-like plucking of Twinklebright, her nearest neighbor, the deep, droning chords of old Birdslayer, and occasionally the harpsichord tones of Klavier, carried on the breeze.

One hot afternoon, as Brenneker experimented with augmented fifths, she noticed that some of her neighbors had stopped midsong. She suddenly realized she was the only one still playing and she stopped abruptly, leaving a leading tone hanging on the air like an unfinished sentence.

“These ones should do,” she heard a man’s voice say. An angry blow struck the base of her tawba stalk. She felt herself falling as the tawba that was her home broke at the base, tumbling her to the floor of the glade below. Bruised and frightened, she scampered quickly back inside her home and clung to her silent, broken web. She felt herself lifted up and then dropped with a jar as her tawba was tossed into a wagon.

Over many hours of jolting and rattling, she fell asleep, and when she awoke, all was quiet and dark. She climbed out of her stalk and began to explore her new surroundings, a workbench with many hollow wooden objects lying about. Although she had never seen a musical instrument such as men make, she recognized with the eye of a musician that their shape was intended to give sound. She chose a lute and squeezed her plump body through one of the sound holes, saying, “Certainly this will give greater tone than my old home.” She began to string her web.

At night there was no music in the instrument maker’s shop, and she was lonely without the songs of her friends to cheer her. Since she was also hungry, she played her hunger song, and a fat, stupid moth came, aching to be devoured. When she’d finished with him, she tossed his powdery wings out the sound hole.

In the morning, the old instrument maker, Sanger, came to open up his shop. He paused in the shop doorway, rattling his keys, and then turned on the overhead light. Brenneker watched him from the sound holes of her new home as he ran a wrinkled hand through his sparse, gray hair, stuffed his keys back into a deep pocket, and picked a viola from the wall. Carefully, he adjusted the tuning of the strings, and then, picking up the bow, he played a short, lilting tune and then replaced the instrument on its peg on the wall. He made his way along the wall, pausing at each instrument to check the tuning. When he came to Brenneker’s lute, he did the same, tightening the strings briefly and then playing a few bars of melody. Brenneker felt her whole surroundings vibrate with the tone and her web pulsed in sympathetic vibration. Timidly, she picked out a few notes of the song.

“Odd,” said Mr. Sanger, “I’d never noticed that it had such lovely overtones. Too bad I had to use such cheap materials in its construction.” He placed the lute back on the wall and was about to pick up a zither, when the shop bell rang to announce that someone had come in from the street.

A young girl and her father came through the door and paused to look at violins.

“But I don’t want to play violin,” said the girl, who was about ten years old. “Everyone plays violin. I want something different.”

“Well, what about a guitar,” said her father. “Your friend Marabeth plays one quite well. It seems like a proper instrument for a young lady.”

“But that’s just it,” said the girl, whose name Brenneker later found out was Laurel. “I don’t want to copycat someone else. I want an instrument that isn’t played by just anyone. I want something special.”

Sanger interrupted this conversation to say, “Have you considered the lute?” He removed Brenneker’s home from the wall and strummed a chord. The vibration in the web tickled Brenneker’s feet as she strummed the same chord an octave higher.

“What a lovely tone it has!” said Laurel, touching the strings and plucking them one by one.

“Be careful,” said her father. “That’s an antique.”

“Not so,” said Sanger, “it’s a copy. Made it myself. And I intended it to be played, not just looked at like a dusty old museum piece.”

“May I try?” asked the girl. Sanger gave the instrument to her and she sat down on a stool, placing the lute across her lap. She strummed a discord, which caused Brenneker to flinch and grip her strings tightly so they wouldn’t sound.

“Let me show you how,” said the instrument maker. “Put your first finger in that fret and your middle finger there, like so.” He indicated where the fingers should fret the strings to make a chord. Laurel plucked the strings one by one. The tone was tinny but true. The second time she plucked, Brenneker plucked inside, on her own instrument. Rich, golden tones emanated from the lute.

“Oh, Father, this is the instrument for me,” said Laurel.

“But who will teach you to play such an antiquated instrument?”

“I would be glad to,” said Sanger. “I have studied medieval and Renaissance music and I would like to share it with an interested pupil.”

“Please, Father?”

“Well, perhaps . . . there is the question of cost. I can’t afford a very expensive instrument,” said her father.

“This lute, although made with loving care and much skill,” said Sanger, “is unfortunately made of inexpensive wood, and for that reason it is very reasonably priced.”

Mr. Sanger and Laurel’s father were able to make agreeable terms for the lute and the cost of lessons. That morning Laurel took the lute, Brenneker and all, home with her.

The first few weeks of lessons were torture for Brenneker, who sat huddled, clenching her strings to her body to damp them. But as Laurel improved, Brenneker rewarded her by playing in unison. This was great incentive to Laurel, who did not realize that she was only partial author of the lovely music. Mr. Sanger was himself at a loss to explain how such beautiful tones came from such a cheaply built instrument. He did not credit his workmanship, although this was in some measure responsible, but told Laurel that the lute was haunted by a fairy harpist, and he advised her to leave a window open at night and put out a bowl of milk and honey before she went to bed. Perhaps he had been the beneficiary of such a fairy in the past, for Brenneker found that the milk and the open window provided her with a bountiful supply of flies and insects, which she tempted by song through the sound holes of the lute to make her supper.

Sanger valued highly the virtue of two playing in harmony. “For the ability to blend with another in duet is a mark of maturity in a true musician,” he would say. “Harmony between two players recaptures for us briefly that time when the universe was young, untainted by evil, and the morning stars sang together.”

Brenneker never played by herself unless she was sure that she was alone. She played when Laurel played or at night when everyone was sleeping. When spring came that year, she played the mating song and waited, but no lover came. The next night she tried again, this time varying the tune and adding trills, but still no one came. Brenneker tried for several nights before she finally admitted to herself that there was no fault in her song, but that none of her folk dwelt in this faraway land and so there was no one to answer. But this reasoning made her feel unhappy, and she preferred to think that it might be some imperfection in her song, which could be righted by practice.

As Laurel grew older, Brenneker noticed that the quality of their music changed. Whereas she had formerly been a lover of sprightly dance tunes, Laurel became more interested in old ballads and would sing as she accompanied herself on the lute. One of her favorites was “Barbara Allen,” another, “The Wife of Ushers Well.”

She was often asked to perform at weddings and parties. She met other lovers of medieval music and even other lute players. Laurel would sometimes allow others to play her instrument, which drew a mixed response. If Brenneker knew the tune of the strange artist, she would pick along. If not, she held her strings silent, leaving the others to wonder how Laurel got such rounded tones where they only strummed dull, tinny notes.

One summer evening Laurel took a blanket, the lute, and Brenneker to a woodsy place and sat down alone to play. She sang many of the old ballads, and then she would stop for a while and listen. Then she would play another song. Brenneker wondered at this until she heard answering notes from a recorder in a grove nearby. The two instruments played a duet, with occasional counterpoint melody, and then the recorder player drew near, and Brenneker saw that it was a young man.

“Aha,” she thought, “Laurel plays to attract a mate.”

The young man sat down beside Laurel on the grass.

“I knew you’d come,” he said to her.

She moved over toward him and he put an arm around her waist and kissed her.

This went on for quite some time. After a while the two said goodbye, and Laurel picked up her blanket and trudged homeward, while her love went in the other direction.

“Strange,” thought Brenneker. “She did not eat him.” This bothered the lyre spider until she stopped to reflect: “Birds do not eat their mates. Perhaps the humans are like birds, but I had always thought them more intelligent than that.”

A few nights later, Laurel took her blanket and went to the grove again. The young man, whose name was Thomas, was there waiting for her. They played a few songs and then they made love. As she walked home, Laurel sang “Barbara Allen.”

“And still she does not eat him,” thought Brenneker. “Their way of being together is different from ours. Yet I’m sure it must mean as much to them as ours does to us. Yet it seems so incomplete. Impermanent.”

The presence of the human lovers made Brenneker more aware of her own loneliness. “If I could mate,” she thought. “I would make the most beautiful egg-sack, all of silk, and my eggs would sway to the music of the lute until they hatched. Then they would fly to neighboring trees and build their own lyres and play to me and I wouldn’t be alone anymore.” But when she played her love songs, softly on the night air, no lover came. She was used to it by now, but she never gave up hope.

One evening the two lovers had a quarrel.

“You must marry me this fall,” Thomas insisted.

“But we have no money,” Laurel objected. “You are only an apprentice at your trade, and it will be a long time before you bring home a journeyman’s wage. I would not be able to go to the university to study music.”

“We would get by somehow,” said Thomas. “You could take in music students and teach the lute. We could pick up a little extra money playing for gatherings.”

“But I do so much want to go to the university,” said Laurel. “We could go to the city and both take jobs. That way we could be together and I could study for my degree.”

“I can’t get as good a job in the city as here,” said Thomas, “and besides, you could not earn enough to support yourself and pay tuition. So you might as well settle here with me.”

“There has to be a way for me to continue my study of music,” said Laurel, “and I intend to find it.”

When Thomas left, he did not kiss Laurel goodbye.

Laurel, thoughtful and concerned, put her lute aside and went to bed early. She did not forget to leave a window open, however, or set out milk to feed the fairy. Brenneker pondered their dilemma and could see no solution. While she was brooding over this, she heard the unmistakable sound of a lyre spider tuning up its instrument, and this caused her to listen intently. It was a curious song, having a haunting quality, a shadowing of minor key, but not quite. This was no spider song, Brenneker was sure, but it was definitely played by one of her own kind. She strummed an answering chord and the other player stopped in midphrase, as if startled. Brenneker played part of an old song she’d played many times at home. The other answered her with the refrain of the song, and so they played back and forth for a while, until the other stopped. Brenneker was somewhat disappointed that the song had ended, but a few moments later she discovered why. A gentle tapping on the sounding board roused her attention and she went to the F holes to peer out. The other spider, a male, had followed her music and had come to investigate. He clambered up the side of the instrument to her vantage point.

“How lovely,” he said, “to hear the songs of home in a strange land. Tell me, Lady, how did you come here?”

“By accident,” said Brenneker. “The humans picked my tawba stalk for a flute and brought me here. But I have never seen another of our kind here until now.”

“I came in similar fashion,” said the male. “My name is Wisterness, and, until now, I had thought I was the only one of our kind that had ranged so widely.”

“What was that strange tune you played? Is it in a minor key? I have heard none like it before,” said Brenneker.

“It’s neither major or minor,” said Wisterness. “It is based on a modal scale like some of the Renaissance music I’ve heard you play. I’ve noticed that you sometimes play in the Dorian mode, which is somewhat similar. Actually, I was playing a southern mountain tune called ‘June Apple.’ The tuning is called ‘mountain minor,’ or ‘A to G’ tuning, among them, but it is actually the older double-tonic scale, based on the highland bagpipe tuning, or, according to some sources, the Irish Harp.”

“My goodness,” said Brenneker, “you certainly know a lot about music. I haven’t heard half of those words. I do remember playing ‘Scarborough Fair’ in the Dorian mode, but that’s about the extent of my music theory.”

“I may know more theory, but you are the better musician, Lady. I am always barely learning one tune and then going on to something new. Consequently my playing lacks polish. I have listened to your songs for several nights before summoning the courage to answer.”

“I certainly have no complaint against your playing,” said Brenneker. “I thought it was quite beautiful. I am curious about one thing, though, and that is your age. I never knew male spiders lived much more than a few years, yet you seem quite mature and well read. Have you never mated?”

Wisterness shuffled his pedipalps and appeared slightly embarrassed.

“No, I never have,” he said. “There was one once in my youth that I cared for, but she chose to devour another. Then one day I followed a woodsman to listen to his song, and I was carried off in a load of wood and eventually came to this place. Since then I have devoted myself to the study of humans and their music, but it has been lonely at times.”

Since it was not the mating time, Wisterness left after awhile and went back to his lyre, which was strung in a hollow tree not far from the window, and he and Brenneker played duets most of the night. But sometimes she paused to listen to the piercing modal sweetness of Wisterness, as he experimented with different tunings from the lonely southern mountains.

• • • •

The next morning, Laurel did not sit down to her music at the usual time, but instead put on her coat and went out with a purposeful look in her eyes.

The next day, at the practice hour, a younger girl came to Laurel’s door carrying a lute under her arm, and Laurel taught her a lesson. It was “Green-sleeves,” a favorite of Brenneker’s, and she played along at first, but the student had troubles, and they kept stopping midverse and starting over until Brenneker decided it was more pain than pleasure and gave it up. Before the student left, she counted out a small sum of money, which Laurel put in a large jar on her dresser. This money, Brenneker learned, was to go toward Laurel’s university tuition.

As the weeks passed, more students came, until Laurel had five beginners to teach. One student came twice a week from a distant township. Sanger, the old instrument maker, still came by once in a while to teach Laurel a song, but she had long ago surpassed him in musical skill, and he never charged for his “lessons” anymore. His fingers had grown arthritic and he could not play as well as he had in the past. He no longer took students, which made Laurel one of the few teachers of the lute in her part of the country. The money piled up slowly in the jar, but it was nowhere near enough, and sometimes Brenneker would overhear Laurel arguing with her father at night about her plans to go to the university.

“Even if you get a degree in music,” he would say, “that doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be able to support yourself. Why not study something practical that you can find a good job in?”

Laurel agreed to take courses in handicrafts and midwifery to pacify her father, whom she still depended upon for support, but her heart belonged to music, and she refused to give up her plans for further study.

When she saw Thomas now, they both avoided talking about future plans, as this always provoked a fight, and he did not come to see her as often. Brenneker fretted about this, as she saw Laurel suffering in silence. When Laurel played, Brenneker sometimes wove her mating song into the web of sound hoping that Thomas would hear and return to renew his love. But he did not hear, or if he did, he didn’t come.

One warm spring night, Brenneker alone played her mating song hopefully to the open window, and after a short time Wisterness came, tapping shyly on her sound box to announce his presence.

“You must come out,” he said, “for the sound holes are too small for me to get in.”

Brenneker had failed to recognize her predicament. As a young spider, she had entered through the holes with ease, but now she was bigger, and therefore trapped within the lute. She forced her legs out the F holes, and she could feel the tantalizing closeness of his belly fur, but try as they might, they could not negotiate across the wooden barrier.

Finally he said, “Brenneker, I fear our love must go unconsummated, for you can’t get out and I can’t get in. But then perhaps it’s better that way, for even if we could somehow manage to mate, we could not partake of the deeper sharing, with you in there and me out here.”

And so he left sadly. She did not hear his song for several days, and then one day the wind carried the distant strains of “Billy in the Lowground” to her window. The sad Irish mode echoing in the lonely Appalachian melody, told her that he had moved his harp farther away to avoid the pain of their unsatisfied need. He was too far to answer any of her musical questions or play the counterpoint games.

One day, Laurel invited Thomas over to her home. She was very anxious to share a piece of news with him.

“The university is offering a music scholarship,” she said. “There will be a contest and I intend to participate. If I win, my tuition would be paid, and if we both found jobs, we could be together while I go to school in the city.”

Thomas thought about this before answering and then said, “It’s not the money that really bothers me, it’s your attitude. I get the feeling that I am not as important to you as your music. I want you to be happy, but I don’t wish to play second fiddle to a lute.”

“But my work is as important to me as yours is to you,” said Laurel. “The truth is that neither of us wish to make the sacrifice of our career goals to be with the other.”

“I had hoped our love meant more to you than your music,” said Thomas, “but I see I was wrong.”

“It means equally as much to me,” said Laurel, “I just don’t think I should be the one to have to make the sacrifice of my career. There is no reason you couldn’t get a job in the city. It would not be forever, only a few years. Then we could come back here and you could take up where you left off.”

“I don’t see it that way,” he said. “In a few years I would be behind everyone in my training and I’d be competing with younger men whom they don’t have to pay as much. If I stay, I have opportunity for advancement in a few years.”

“Well, I suppose we will part, then, when the summer’s over,” said Laurel. “I shall miss you terribly, but that’s the way things work out sometimes. There is one last request I want to make of you, and that is, will you accompany my playing when I go to the contest?”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that,” said Thomas. “It would be adding insult to injury if I participated in the very thing that takes you away from me.”

After Thomas left, Laurel cried. She went to bed early and even forgot about the milk for the fairy. This did not disturb Brenneker very much, for she had lost her appetite listening to their argument. She was pondering Laurel’s problem in her mind (it seemed strange that humans could have barriers to love more complex than her wooden cage) when she heard a strange grinding noise as of a small drill emanating from one corner of the lute. She scampered to the source of the sound and stood watching the smooth surface of the unfinished wood as the sound come nearer. Suddenly a little bump appeared in the surface, and then the bump dissolved in a small pile of sawdust, and an ugly, bulbish head poked out of the newly formed hole. Brenneker pounced at the woodworm but missed as it pulled back into its tunnel. Frustrated, she stood tapping at the hole with her forelegs, as the worm withdrew and burrowed in a different direction.

“You must leave,” said Brenneker to the worm. “You are destroying my home and Laurel’s lute.”

“There is plenty of wood here for both of us,” came the muffled reply of the woodworm. “You may have the rosewood, and I’ll eat only the spruce.”

“But I don’t eat wood,” said Brenneker, “and you shouldn’t eat this lute. There is plenty of other wood that you can eat. Leave my home alone. You are destroying a musical instrument. Have you no appreciation for music?”

“Hmm, yes, music,” said the worm, whose name was Turkawee. “I’ve never cared for that funny-sounding stuff. Leave it to the birds, I always say.”

“You ignorant barbarian!” exclaimed Brenneker.

“I think spiders are more barbaric than our kind,” said Turkawee, “for spiders eat their cousins the insects, and even their own mates. You should take care whom you go calling a barbarian.”

“Philistine, then!” snorted Brenneker. “You obviously have no concept of a higher culture than your own.”

“Culture, you say?” said Turkawee. “That’s a term my snooty Aunt Beetle used to use. She was always admiring the wings of butterflies. She knew an artist who made pictures of the wings. She ended up stuck with a pin to a corkboard because all her interest in culture led her to follow a butterfly too closely into a collector’s net. Culture is also for the birds, I say.”

Brenneker, having no answer for this, retreated to her web and played the angriest song she could think of, which was a military march. The worm ignored her and continued gnawing at the wood of the lute.

Two days later, Brenneker was surveying the damage done by Turkawee. She was dismayed to find one part of the sounding board completely riddled with holes. She set about to mend it, binding the remaining wood with the steely white thread that she extruded from her spinnerets. The patch was actually quite strong, perhaps more so than the surrounding wood, but the discrepancy in the surface weakened the instrument structurally. The tension of the lute strings could cause the instrument to break, if the patch didn’t hold.

Brenneker returned to her web by the sound posts and fell asleep. She wasn’t used to making so much new thread, and the effort had drained her strength. In the night when she awoke, she called many insects to her supper with song, for she was ravenously hungry due to her exertion. The next day when Laurel tuned up the lute to play for a wedding, Brenneker noted with satisfaction that the patch held. But the ravages of the woodworm continued.

Old Sanger, the instrument maker, when he heard that Laurel intended to enter the scholarship contest, came by the house to offer his advice. He had played in competition in the past, and he knew what sort of artistry was apt to attract the notice of the judges and what displays of skill might sway their opinion.

“It is always a good idea to include in your repertoire a few songs that are not well known and played by everyone. And in the songs that are better known, try to display some different interpretation or more rare harmony. A few classical pieces in your presentation are in order, and playing a duet, or having someone accompany you is essential; so be sure to play your arrangement of ‘The Ash Grove’ with that young man-friend of yours. Your counterpoint harmony mixes very well with his recorder, and such a presentation will be sure to impress the judges. They will be looking for that particular blending of tones that displays your sense of harmony not only with your partner but with yourself and the universe.”

“Poor Laurel,” thought Brenneker. “What will she do without Thomas’ accompaniment?”

Laurel said nothing to Sanger about her falling out with Thomas, and after he left she practiced “The Ash Grove” unaccompanied and tried to develop some new variations on the old theme. Brenneker was tempted to play the recorder part, but since to do so would reveal her presence, she contented herself with her usual practice of playing in unison or one octave higher than the melody.

That night Brenneker made a tour of the inside of her home and found that the woodworm had damaged the bond where the neck of the lute joined the body. She set about to repair the damage as best she could, plugging the holes with spidersilk and binding the weakened seam with long, tough strands. It was hard work and took much of her strength. She could barely stay awake long enough to eat the cricket that came chirping to hear her music.

Finally the greatly anticipated day came and Laurel took the coach to the big city where the contest was to be held. She refused to surrender her lute to the baggage rack and carried it in her lap, where it provoked much comment among the other passengers.

“What is that strange instrument?” they would ask. Or, “Please play us a tune.”

Laurel consented and filled the coach with dulcet tones as her clear voice transported all the listeners to “Scarborough Fair.”

When they arrived in the city, Laurel spent some of her hard-earned lesson money on a room at the inn. That night when Laurel was asleep, Brenneker found more holes to fill. Turkawee had almost destroyed one of the interior braces of the frame. And not only that, but also he had eaten away most of the surface below the bridge. If this were to give way, the strings would go slack and the instrument would be unplayable. Brenneker worked far into the night, binding the lute with her webbing. So far her spider silk, being stronger in tensile strength than steel wire of its same proportions, had held the lute together. But Brenneker was worried that the damage was too extensive. The inside of the lute was completely webbed and re-webbed in silk and she knew it would not hold forever. She ate sparsely that night of the few insects that inhabit an inn and then forced her body to make more thread to continue the repairs. By daybreak she was nearly exhausted. She tried to get some sleep, but Laurel woke early, concerned about the contest, and practiced her pieces, causing Brenneker to get no sleep at all.

Brenneker dozed on the carriage trip across town to the university, but awoke in time to restring and tune her musical web before the contest began.

Both Brenneker and Laurel fidgeted nervously as they awaited their turn to play. There were many contestants, including a few lutists. One young man held the very antique instrument of which Laurel’s was a copy. He allowed Laurel to stroke the strings once to demonstrate the superiority of its sound. But he was quite impressed when Laurel strummed a few bars on her own instrument with Brenneker’s lute in tandem. “I don’t understand it,” he said. “Your cheaply made modern instrument sounds almost as good as mine.”

“Better,” thought Brenneker, smugly, but then she remembered the damaged bridge and hoped it would stand the strain. She roused herself wearily and went to find a few more holes, which she hastily filled with silk.

When Laurel’s time came to play, she mounted a stool on the edge of the stage. Brenneker peered out through the sound holes and saw a sea of faces watching. As Laurel tuned up, Brenneker heard an unnerving creak as the wood near the bridge shifted slightly. To her horror she saw daylight between the bridge and the body of the lute. She jumped to the ceiling of her home, bound the gap quickly, and prayed that the mend would hold. Her spinnerets ached with the strain of making so much silk, and she was very tired, but forced herself to pick the strings nimbly as Laurel began with a lively dance tune. Apparently the lovely tone impressed the judges, for Laurel was selected from a large field of competition to enter the finals.

The young man with the antique instrument was also one of the finalists, and he stopped to wish Laurel good luck. Laurel asked him if he would accompany her on “The Ash Grove,” but he excused himself, saying that time would be too short for him to learn the intricate counterpart melody. He also assured her that without a duet piece, she didn’t have a chance in the competition.

This point was emphasized by the lovely duet played by the young man and a woman who accompanied him on the psaltry. They received a standing ovation from the audience and high marks from the judges.

“Mercy,” thought Brenneker. “Now Laurel won’t be able to win the scholarship,” and spider tears dampened the silk of her web.

“Hey! It’s raining on my picnic,” said a small voice near her.

She looked over and saw Turkawee calmly munching a chunk of spruce.

Without thinking, Brenneker pounced and bit with just enough venom to cause the woodworm to fall into a swoon.

“That should keep you from doing more damage!” she snapped. But the damage had already been done. One of the sounding pegs looked as if it were ready to crumble into dust. Brenneker could feel, through her feet, the ominous vibrations as the tension of the strings pulled against the ravaged wood.

Finally Laurel’s turn came again. She played a few classical pieces, a rondo, and sang “The Wife of Ushers Well,” accompanying herself beautifully with an intricate rhythm she had worked out. For her last song, she began “The Ash Grove.” Her first variation was neatly composed, but Brenneker thought it lacked the clever harmony of the previous duet. The second variations sounded very lonely without accompaniment, and this provoked Brenneker to try something she’d never done before. On the third verse she began to play her web in the counterpoint harmony as she had heard Thomas play so many times on the recorder. Laurel paused abruptly, but then, true performer that she was, began to play the melody in clear, bold tones, which complemented Brenneker’s descant. Laurel played every variation, and Brenneker knew them all and answered back. The people in the audience were amazed that someone could play two-part harmony on one instrument. This was the most lovely duet arrangement of “The Ash Grove” that the judges had ever heard.

“That’s the first time I ever heard anyone play a duet alone,” said the young man with the lute as she came down from the stage. “Your harmony was better than any duet I’ve ever heard. How did you ever do that?”

Flustered, Laurel answered, “I don’t know. I guess sometimes one must be alone to truly be in harmony with one’s self.”

A few more contestants got up to play, but they seemed half-hearted. The contest went of course to Laurel, who was almost as bewildered at her music as was everyone else. When she ascended the stage to accept the scholarship, the audience cheered and whistled for an encore.

Laurel sat down and prepared to play again, but just then there came a terrible wrenching sound and a loud snap. Brenneker saw the roof fly off her home, pulling a tangle of cobwebs after it. She cowered by the sound pegs, weak and frightened, and saw the face of Laurel staring down at her. Raising one timorous leg, she strummed a chord on her music web and thought she saw recognition in Laurel’s eyes.

One of the judges came onstage to help pick up the debris. When he saw the large spider, he said, “How ugly! Let me kill it for you.”

“No,” said Laurel. “It’s the fairy harpist that Sanger told me about. See how she plays her web like a harp. She’s been my secret friend all these years.”

Because Brenneker appeared to be in a very weakened state and near death, Laurel kept her in a bottle for a few days and fed her all the crickets she could catch. Then, when it appeared that the spider would live, she took her back to the small town and turned her loose in the woods.

It was not the woods of home, but Brenneker found a hollow tree in which to string her harp and was quite content to play her songs alone for a while, although she missed Laurel’s music. When spring came that next year, she played her love song to the open air, and it was Wisterness who came, tapping shyly on her web strings to attract her attention.

“I have always loved your songs,” she said. “I had hoped you would come.”

“Now you shall play my songs,” he said, and he sacrificed himself to their mutual need.

Weeks later, she watched her young spiderlings float away on their kiteless strings, and she knew she would not play alone anymore. Then, feeling the deep harmony of the universe in her soul, she returned her web to the Dorian mode and played the gentle, lilting sadness that was now Wisterness.

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Susan Petrey

Susan C. PetreySusan C. Petrey’s first fiction sale was “Spareen Among the Tartars” to The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1979, the first of her Varkela stories. All of Petrey’s short fiction is collected in Gifts of Blood. Her work has been featured in best-of-the-year annual Arthur W. Saha’s The Year’s Best Fantasy Stories, and in the anthologies Tomorrow Sucks and Virtuous Vampires. She died in 1980.