“Hairy, airy, Sophie- four eyes, four eyes!”
Every word is punctuated by a sharp slap, a swift kick, and a trickle of warm spit.
Then Mrs Maleigh appears on the porch, ringing the brass bell.
The flushed tormentors scurry into the schoolroom, leaving Sophie Turner to sit up.
Snow powders her tattered coat. She’s lost one of her precious winter gloves, but there’s no time to look for it. She hurries after her classmates, knowing full-well why she is singled out.
The other children can smell it on her, the oddness. She isn’t a townie. She wears patchy old clothes and too-big boots. Her frizzy black hair won’t sit in a sleek, fat plait like the other little girls’, and she has a pair of thick glasses like two telescopic lenses.
As Miss Maleigh begins her lessons, mean fingers pinch one of Sophie’s old bruises. She bites her lower lip. Another pinch… and another, punctuated by giggles. Then the fingers start on her hair. One, two- three frizzy threads are yanked out by the roots.
The bullies’ ringleader, Bucktooth Denis, is on his feet. He’s forgotten about Sophie for the moment, as he points to a monstrous black spider perched over Miss Maleigh’s shoulder.
Its furry abdomen is larger than a pepper grinder, its jointed legs are almost as long as a cat’s tail, and it moves down the wall like a pianist’s hand.
The boys and girls shriek. Bucktooth Denis pelts it with bits of chalk, and Miss Maleigh calls for everyone to wait in the hallway while she runs next door for Mr Jackson.
The classroom empties, until only Sophie remained.
Taking the sandwich tin from her bag, she coaxes the spider inside.
The spider remains in the sandwich tin for the rest of the day. Lunch comes and goes- thankfully it’s snowing, so the children are kept inside. Sophie is safe under Miss Maleigh’s eye, even if her classmates won’t let her come near the burly heater.
Afternoon lessons. Time for spelling, and another torturous hour of hair pulling and ‘Hairy, airy, Sophie- four eyes, four eyes,’.
But Sophie just rubs the lid of her sandwich tin. She is braver than all her classmates, and Miss Maleigh, put together. She is imagining setting her spider on Bucktooth Denis, and watching him scream; a taste of his own medicine.
“Next word; arachnid,” Miss Maleigh calls from the front of the room.
“Aaron Arachnid,” Sophie murmurs to the sandwich tin. Her spider.
When school finishes for the day, most of the children sled into the township.
Normally, Sophie goes in the opposite direction; up and up, to the eagle’s nest house perched on the hillcrest. She shares the place with her only living relative, Great Aunt Maggie.
But today she pads downhill, towards the pointy, pine tree valley. The pines are part of the first frontier of woodlands that stretch for miles and miles through the mountains.
Sophie finds a tree hollow to hide her sandwich tin. Inside, Aaron Arachnid is a knot of fury legs.
“You’re safe now.” Sophie strokes his swollen abdomen, “Here- ow!”
She recoils, as a fine spider’s hair embeds itself into the palm of her hand.
“Hairy, airy, Sophie- four eyes, four eyes!”
Bucktooth Denis’ gang is approaching.
Leaving her tin, Sophie takes to her heels, leading the boys away from her spider.
Sophie hasn’t time to dwell on Aaron Arachnid living out in the wilds. Great Aunt Maggie’s health is growing worse as winter wears on. When the winds blow south she mumbles nonstop curses, and hitches up her knee rug.
She also knits a little bit less every day. Sophie can always tell how Aunt Maggie is feeling by the speed of her clicking knitting needles.
This afternoon, the needles are a slow steam engine, trying to pull a ton of coal…
…As the days sift by, the needles grow slower still. And Sophie has become distracted by the spider fur in her hand.
A soft white lump is pushing out the skin like a whitecap mushroom. Is she allergic?
But there’s no one to ask, and nothing to be done besides stuffing the aching hand into her glove, and setting off for school as usual.
She takes a roundabout route over the hillside, hoping to give Bucktooth Denis’ gang the slip. Her detour takes her close by the pine tree valley. She hears a loud cawing, and freezes in her tracks.
Is the gang waiting around the next corner?
Then, an overhead rustle draws her eyes skyward. She sees it: stretched across the mottled grey sky are thirty feathery crow-splats. Each bird is suspended in place as if it’s hit a sheet flypaper.
Sophie edges closer. She thinks she sees a silvery sheen of thread-
A snowball strikes her in the back of the head. A storm of snowballs follows.
Sophie’s glasses are knocked off, and she falls to her hands and knees. As her right palm slaps the snow, blistering pain rips down her arm.
She is screaming, a tortured ball of writhing limbs, as the bullies surround her. She looks so deranged that they don’t dare molest her any further.
Instead, Bucktooth Denis grabs her thick glasses, and speeds away.
When Sophie totters through the school gates she is greeted by a chorus of: “Hairy, airy Sophie– no eyes, no eyes!”
She says nothing, just stands there, blindly burning.
Miss Maleigh finally rings the brass bell. She takes Sophie’s glasses from Bucktooth Denis, and returns them.
By now Sophie’s hand is aching so badly that she can barely stutter her thanks.
The throbbing pain beats away the minutes until Sophie is released from school. Then she flies past the other boys and girls, and up to the eagle’s nest house.
When she bursts through the front door, Great Aunt Maggie’s knitting needles are silent, but she’s too worn out to notice.
Staggering upstairs to her creaky attic bedroom, Sophie wriggles beneath the woollen bedcovers, and loses consciousness the instant her hot cheek touches the pillow.
When Sophie opens her eyes the wan moonlight is washing her face.
The pain in her hand has burned out. Now, only a small crimson split in her skin marks the spot where the white lump had been.
She blinks her heavy eyelids. Her skin is shivering like a static television screen. Is it a shadow, a trick of the light-?
A wave of miniscule black spiders is washing out of the crimson slit. Down her wrist, over her shoulders, and into her frizzy hair.
It’s a dream! Just a dream–
When Sophie awakens the next morning she realises she can see perfectly. She touches the bridge of her nose. Funny, her glasses are already sitting in place.
She rolls out of bed, pads over to the vanity, and peers into the yellow glass.
Her cracked glasses frames are bound with a spool of silver thread. The same thread has been strung behind her head, strapping the glasses in place like a pair of aviation goggles.
Something of her dream returns to her, and Sophie leans closer to the mirror, parting her frizzy hair.
Dozens of beady eyes glimmer back at her.
Sophie is feeling strangely bolstered by the time she arrives at school. She takes her place at her desk and, as usual, Bucktooth Denis reaches out to tug her hair.
“Ouch!” he yells instead, and topples off his chair.
The class laughs, Miss Maleigh scolds and, inside, Sophie is smiling.
The morning after, Bucktooth Denis’ gang don’t waylay. When Sophie reaches the schoolyard, she finds Miss Maleigh standing by the gate with a worried frown.
“Go home, Sophie. There’s no class today. Denis Farley never made it home last night. The parents are out looking for him, all the way over to the next town!”
Sophie turns about, and starts back up the hill. She pretends not to notice her classmate sitting by their front windows, waiting for their mammas and papas to come home from searching.
This time, when she steps inside the eagle’s nest, the silence of the knitting needles hits her hard.
Tiptoeing into the parlour, Sophie finds Great Aunt Maggie lolling back in her rocking chair. The crocheted rug has slipped off her bony knees, and her gash of a mouth hangs open.
Lifeless. Gone. Over.
Sophie had been dreading this day since she’d overheard the lady who brings the groceries discussing it with the man who shovels the path:
“It’ll be a mercy, that’s what. The poor child will have a proper upbringing at the local orphanage, where she’ll be taught her payers.
“Aye! And she’ll be kept from wandering wherever her feet take her!”
Sophie takes Great Aunt Maggie’s old fur coat off the nail by the door. She threads her arms through the heavy sleeves, and runs down the hill.
The townie parents are still combing the darkening countryside for Bucktooth Denis, so Sophie veers into the pine trees to avoid their torchlight. Soon, the yellow beams are muscled from sight by the cloying branches.
She starts to feel her way forward, wincing as twigs tear at her icy skin. She trips, falls, shakes herself off, and peers down her legs at the thing that’s felled her.
It’s Bucktooth Denis, sheathed in a sticky silk cocoon! Only his face is visible. His complexion is marble white, and his eyes are foggy pools.
Tentatively, Sophie reaches down to press his powdery cheeks. The skin creases and folds like an emptying balloon. He’s just a husk of a boy.
Sophie staggers to her feet, and takes off running. But the night is folding in around her, and the cold is burning inside her chest.
Finally, she sinks down onto the snowy blanket, and pillows her head on her numb hands.
Blink. Wince. Soft groan.
Sophie suspects she has died and gone to the Place That Is Next. Pinpricks of light glance off her skin; she is lying atop a cloud.
Sit up. Very stiff. Looks around.
Sophie realises she’s been scooped up and hung amidst the treetops, in the largest fur coat she has ever seen.
The fur coat starts to move, to unfold a hooked leg, and raise a heavy head. Twin pincers open and shut. Black eyes- eight in all- are fastened on her.
“Four eyes, and four eyes.” Sophie’s heart is thundering. “Aaron Arachnid?”
The spider clicks his pincers and rustles his long legs.
Sophie remembers Bucktooth Denis lying, drained, in the snow below.
“Did you catch him, before he could catch me?” she asks softly.
Aaron Arachnid makes a keening noise, and Sophie’s head starts to itch. Then a stream of spiders scuttles down her body, and onto their big brother’s back.
“Hallooo! Denis Farley! Hallooo!”
Sophie peers through the swathes of spider web. Below, the mamas and papas are out again in full force, this time with dogs to sniff the way.
Aaron Arachnid chatters, and coils-
“Wait!” Sophie throws herself in front of him. “Please!”
Arachnid Aaron’s muscular legs flex and lower. He holds the position while she climbs onto his back, and winds her hands into his fur.
Then, as the sun burst over the mountaintops, Aaron Arachnid throws himself out of the pine trees.
Sophie’s frizzy hair is buffeted by the cool winds and she realises she grinning.
She doesn’t fear for herself while she is with her spider. It’s children who are cruellest of all, and Aaron Arachnid is taking her far from them.