One day she woke up to find the magic eating at her bones. She’d been a practitioner for forty years— touching a lump on the neck of a cow to make it disappear here, calling a bit of blue flame to her fingertips there—but more and more lately, even with the trips down to her grandmother’s grave out back of the house, nothing quite eased the pain in her wrists from having to work harder and harder just to drag up a bit of light to her hands in the morning. The “settling of the bones,” it was called, the toll of carrying such a gift around for years. One day, she knew, she’d wake up to find even to try to touch the magic was pure pain—couldn’t move it, couldn’t get rid of it, just something eating away at her she herself couldn’t heal. Same as her hands hurt from years of mashing the seeds into flour paste every day, or digging out back in the garden in the aching blue stillness of mornings.
So that morning she took it slow, creaked off the bed to light a small flame—with just a bit of a tinder and flint, not the magic in her veins—beneath the tea-kettle and look at the silver trees the winter storms had brought last night. She said the few words you were supposed to say over tea, for a few good spirits to come spend some time in the village today—maybe some wandering souls from nearby wars who’d left their bodies behind, and could lend some luck they no longer had use for to the village— and had just settled down to drink, when the boys came knocking at her door to tell her Thousand Eyes needed killing.
* * *
She took only her skinning knife and a bit of snare for rabbits, drew the old skin satchel across her chest to hold enough water for a few days’ time. The boys who came to her door kept her eyes on the floor as they told her how Thousand Eyes, after all these years, had come again in the night, torn open a dozen cattle, left the butcher’s boy blind in one eye just from staring into Thousand Eyes’ own. He trailed the stench of poison that always followed his kind, dragging his big heavy body quick across the ground back to his lair of webs in the woods.
The town had never said a thing, but everyone knew she could work the magic in her hands; and for forty years they’d come to her quiet on the side to ask for a little extra help in growing the crop this year, a little charm said over a child whose fever wasn’t breaking, anything she helped as much with her herbs and her own sweat as with her magic. They never thanked her or paid her for her services, beyond what was paid to a neighbor doing a duty, but after Thousand Eyes came back, she was the first person they turned to. She didn’t even think to say no. She simply grabbed her things, knowing that, just like last time, no village elder or blacksmith with a sword would go striding into the trees to meet Thousand Eyes, and left unchecked, he wouldn’t stop at swallowing cattle. Some part of her had hoped he’d really been dead all these years—since last they met, when she was eighteen—but she’d secretly been waiting for his webs to reappear.
She left her chickens in the care of the boys before setting off alone for the trail in the woods. She’d only walked up it once—when she was eighteen—but now she knew she wouldn’t be coming back down. The chickens would tide them over for a few days in winter, at least.
* * *
Thousand Eyes—the king of his kind, they called him, the King of the Spiders, the Spider King, but one look at him when she was eighteen had told her he was no king. What was a king without subjects, a king with no kingdom? He was not a king because he needed no kingdom, he ruled over none but himself.
When Thousand Eyes first came—when she was eighteen— to the trees near the town and slaughtered eight cows and maimed three people, the villagers, in their secret tavern meetings, decided trying to slay him would be a fool’s errand. Instead, they came up with a different solution. Her grandmother, who’d worked the strongest healing spells, was dead, and lately the tide was turning against her kind; people said it was blaspheming to work spells and talk to the trees. They thought that if they sacrificed her to Thousand Eyes, perhaps their town would be cleansed, or Thousand Eyes himself would die of her magic.
Either way, they came with the frost one morning to blindfold her with sackcloth and drag her down the path through the woods to Thousand Eyes’ lair, all draped and covered in webs. They shoved her to the ground and ran away, never looking back behind them.
As she’d lain on the ground clawing at the sackcloth round her head, she’d heard the soft quiet clack of Thousand Eyes’ long, black feet coming, and the stench of his body moving through the trees. She managed to wrench the blindfold free enough to find a large sharp stick on the ground at her feet; she stood up and whirled around ready to go down stabbing at least one of those thousand eyes with her stick. And yes, as she realized in that one glimpse of him, he did have a thousand eyes—not because she counted them, but because they were all there, filling her head. She faced Thousand Eyes, the giant spider, the Spider King, bearing down on her to devour her as he’d devoured every chicken and cow he’d come across in the land. Thousand Eyes, who’d never get another chance to kill a man.
* * *
She knew she was close to his home, the morning she went looking for him again, when she found his webs winding through the woods. Thick, fat, heavy webs like a king’s finest candle wax drawn into cords, looped and roped through the trees here where no rabbits ran anymore and where her snares did no good. A few leagues on and she found the broken bowl of trees that was his lair, all the branches bent backward in the pearl of morning. She kept her skinning knife by her side and waited with a patience she had not had when she was eighteen, waited with the patience of rising every morning and waiting for her bones to catch up.
When she heard him approach through the trees, she turned without fear to see or be seen. She approached the one thousand eyes again, skinning knife in her hands.
* * *
On the day when the villagers had sacrificed her and Thousand Eyes had come for her— when she was young enough to barely hold onto her name while staring into the face of him, when he was filling her brain with the great big shining black carapace of his body— his voice had come into her head to ask her a question. He asked what she would give—what would she give— just to live? Not to beg, not to promise or to plea, but merely to understand what her life meant to her, what it was worth, how much he was taking away. As he asked of every life he took, wanting to know what it weighed.
She had lived with her grandmother the first fifteen years of her life, alone these past three, had just barely figured how to make bread and had only chosen to speak since the age of ten; she had no family name, no scrap of cloth beyond the dress she wore in the woods, no work she could do with her hands except for the spells her grandmother had taught her for the gift she had been born with. But when Thousand Eyes asked her what she would give, she thought of what her grandmother had said—that all her things in life, her magic, her own two hands, what she stitched and sewed and cooked together, were not hers to keep, but had been given to her to share with others. Thousand Eyes did not mean to receive anything. But that did not stop her from stretching out her hands and giving him what she had, as she had been taught to by her grandmother—because he had asked, and because nobody had ever given him anything before, and because she figured she was about to die anyway.
She reached out and gave him magic from her hands, gave him cool blue mornings spent milking the cows, gave him the favorite song her grandmother used to sing. She gave what tiny bit of herself she had as freely as she had been taught to, and would not have called it love, only doing as she would for any who asked.
She would not have called it love. She would not have called it anything. Certainly she would not have called it the downfall of Thousand Eyes, but that was what it was, for he squealed and fell backwards at the shining that leapt from her hands. He had not been prepared for it, for someone to give so freely of themselves to him. He dragged himself away through the woods trailing a death-scream, leaving her to stare at her own two hands and wonder if she’d killed him.
Afterward she’d found her way back to her village, where the others looked at her in stricken silence. They said nothing to her or of her till she helped them make pies in the fall, thinking she had killed him with a magic stronger even than his own. But as she still made good pies, and helped a few children break fevers in the winter, they agreed never to speak of Thousand Eyes or the march through the trees ever again. Until the morning after he came back, when they asked her to kill him.
* * *
Killing him was what she intended to do now, to finish the job she’d started when she was eighteen. She faced him in his clearing in the woods, knowing already it would take all the rest that she had. She’d brought the skinning knife and the snares and the traps to give them as gifts as well, to set at his feet and then have nothing left but her own bone-house body walking around, to kill him—and herself— with love, as she would call it now.
But Thousand Eyes had a few surprises, whether because he was old and lived long and alone in the woods, or because of the gift she had given him herself. She thought he had come back because he assumed she was dead; when she moved toward him, she intended to kill him by pouring forth the rest of her mornings making tea with the sun, trees silhouetted at sunset, the last memories of her grandmother, her own songs she hummed to herself sewing by the firelight. Instead, he gave her gift back to her.
He gave back to her all that she’d given him, and all that he was—all his nights creeping through fields and through the trees, seeing off his thousand one children (yes, he’d had children) spinning their tiny nets of webs to carry them on the breeze, stalking deer and rabbits through his lair and learning to live with the memories she’d poured into his mind of day and sun and blue skies and working with the villagers. He gave it all back to her, and he gave of himself—all he’d seen with his one thousand eyes— because he couldn’t take it anymore, and because her gift had been killing him the same as her magic was killing her. In exchange for giving it all back, he took all of her magic away. He lifted the magic from her bones and set it within himself, and was eaten up at last, released from nights he’d spent wandering, no longer able to be quite himself.
There was no body in the clearing when she came to herself, yet again, and knew this time Thousand Eyes was dead for sure—not because she’d killed him, but because they’d set each other free. In what weak light of day was left, she found her skinning knife and satchel once again. She started back through the trees to collect her chickens from the boys, thinking she might even— with her hands no longer aching— chop one of the hens up for supper and grind up some herbs over the meal.
Kelly Weber’s poetry has appeared in The Neihardt Journal and Caper, and her poetry and fiction has appeared in The Judas Goat, for which she was selected as the 2012-2013 Aletha Acers Steel Burgess Poetry Prize Scholarship recipient. She has served as an editorial intern on The Platte Valley Review, and will teach Composition this fall at Wayne State College.