There Once Was a Lady
by Ian Rose
There once was a lady who swallowed a fly. The tricky part is, it swallowed her first, so all in all, that may be a better place to
Ellie May Pritchard had been wandering, alone but never cold, in the thick pine forests of western Maine for who knows how long. She walked and watched and listened, but never in those weeks or months (could have been years) that she lived in the woods did she ever see another living person, nor did any living thing seem to notice her. Not until the fly. It was fat and black, and sliced its way through the wet autumn air making a sound like a distant chainsaw, before landing right at her foot and staring straight up at her. And Ellie May looked right back down at it.
She slid down to her knees to have a better look. It really was unusually plump, probably full of some of the terrible stuff that she
knew flies liked to eat. She brought her face down to the rotund little buzzer, until it was so close, she could have stuck her tongue
out and stabbed at it like a bullfrog.
And then it happened. All at once, she wasn't kneeling on the wet ground anymore, wasn't eyeballing a fat black fly, and - Thank God
Almighty - wasn't wearing that same old dirty dress she had had on the whole of her wood-haunting career. Ellie May looked up from the forest floor, not down upon it. Through brand new eyes, shiny black and many-faceted, she saw the humble second growth trees rise up like skyscrapers around her. Before she could even dare to think about it, instinct made her tiny wings flap at a speed that felt impossible, and she flew.
Over the grass, between the trees, she dove and rolled, testing the limits of this new existence. She felt a conspicuous absence of fear
and worry, her constant companions since that blood-soaked day weeks or months (could have been years) ago. This was freedom. This was life. Even when the spider web caught her like a clothesline by the neck, she couldn't help but feel a wave of inexplicable optimism. For all that time in the woods alone, she had never been able to touch a single thing. Her hand would pass right through the leaves and the pine needles, the water of the lake and the black dirt of the forest floor. Now she was trapped, but to be trapped is to be touched, and that street always runs two ways.
She became measurably less excited when the spider arrived.
Ellie May had seen probably a million spiders in her life. She had swept them out of doors, picked them from corners of the bathroom,
even hurriedly slapped a few out of her own hair. Such was life in the country. But she never really looked at one close up before. The beast looming over her was a beautiful machine of death, a perfectly sculpted hunter. She realized that maybe, if she put herself in the
body of a fly, and the fly was killed, she might die too. In those long few seconds, as the spider inched toward her, she never quite
managed to decide whether that concept held for her more terror or relief.
In the end, it didn't matter. She wanted to close her eyes and brace for the stab of those exquisite jaws into her hairy new flesh, but it
never came to that. And anyway, her fly eyes lacked the ability to close. The spider brought its face right down to hers, and in that
moment, she felt her perspective jump again, this time from the fat imprisoned fly to the significantly more elegant spider. As soon as
she found herself in the new body, she bit into the old, driving her fangs deep and ungratefully into the same flesh that had brought her back from the wandering world of the dead.
As she stretched her legs and glided up on her own slender silk to the highest possible vista, she thought too late about the loss of flight. She had traded power and survival for a freedom she had taken only moments to enjoy. Still, she grinned inside at this new form. She was the reigning power of her scale of the woods, the lion of the leaf litter.
As she inspected her impossibly long and spindly legs, she remembered a story that Clark had told her. When he was just a boy, no doubt with all of his handsomeness but none of the cruelty that his long hard life would precipitate, he had come across a widow spider while picking blackberries. He looked down and saw the black and red monster on his hand, its colors sharp and bright like it had been freshly painted. He tried to push it off, but it bit him hard, and his Pa had to stuff him in the truck and hurry him off to the doctor.
She found herself dreaming of that day and wondering what effect that long-ago spider might have had on her own life. If Clark would have died from that bite, the way she had heard some children could, she never would have met him a few years later in school. She never would have fawned with the other girls over the rising local baseball star, never would have felt that insane rush of nonsensical joy when, over the crowd of admirers, he had chosen her to take to the Moonlight Dance. She never would have married him without consideration, then made a son so quickly that some folks must have counted months and wondered. He never would have hit her, over and over. And he never would have gone that one step farther one day, that step that she and others knew he would eventually take, battering her so hard and so long that her body gave up under the terrible strain of it.
Saliva dripped down her borrowed fangs as the borrowed memory played out. She found herself jealously wishing that she could have taken the bite herself out of that innocent boy's hand. That other spider, decades ago, took a chunk out of her future husband, a bite of her eventual murderer, that should by all rights have been hers to taste.
But she knew that her new spider body only gave her predatory rule over the smallest things. Even if it sported that tell-tale red spot,
like blood spilled on tar, her bite would never kill him now. It would be a little sting to a grown man like Clark, an annoyance, and she
would never again be accused of being that.
Still, she found the sour and shaming thought of revenge impossible to shake, and resolved to find a vessel better suited to the task.
Ellie May climbed the thickest nearby tree, and leaped into the eyes of a sparrow as it dived down to take her, once again dining on her own former flesh. She took a few short flights from branch to branch, reveling again in being airborne and this time, in the additional joy of venturing above the trees and seeing all the way west to the cabin, where puffs of gray smoke flowed up from the chimney. Clark was home, no doubt warming himself by the fire, comfortable. Woken from happy distraction, she renewed her quest.
Their old brown cat was sleeping just outside the cabin's front door, and she landed as loudly as she could manage next to it. It all
happened in the same instant: the tomcat woke, the change took her again, and she pounced, making a meal of the meat and feathers that had carried her to her latest life.
The cat might manage to scratch her husband's face, but would never cut him as deeply as she wished for him to be cut. So Ellie May
stretched her furry back, rubbed her face against a beam of the house (mine again, she thought) and galloped back into the woods. As soon as she was out of earshot of the cabin, she began letting out injured squeals. She laid on her side and screamed, putting all her real pain into the fake baiting mews. Had she ever let herself cry so that anyone else could hear?
Ellie May wished for a wolf. She knew that there weren't any wolves around here, not for years and years, but she also knew that some amount of magic had helped her get this far. Maybe there was more, just one more miracle.
But even magic can't bring something back that is truly gone. She settled for the next best thing to a wolf, a coyote that stalked the
sound of her pain and loped toward her with cautious hunger.
This time, she decided, would be different. She waited until the beautiful dappled-brown beast was about to strike to make her
transition. She held onto one thought as she experienced the change, and even as her new jaws opened to bite into the cat's midsection, she froze them in place. The old tom woke up in a panic, hissing and jumping in what looked like a single motion up a nearby tree to safety. Ellie May congratulated herself on her mercy before opening up and letting her hatred return.
She walked, didn't run but walked, so that the sun set over the cabin before she found her way back to it. She raised herself up on her
strong hind legs to peer in the window and find Clark asleep on his chair, facing the embers of his dinner fire. In his face, she let
herself see all of him, the husband and the killer, the father both doting and too often absentee. And there at his feet lay his salvation
and hers, their little Tim.
Her son was older than she could have imagined, perhaps eight or nine, and that answered the question of how long she had been wandering the woods. She looked him over with coyote eyes and saw his father's shape starting to show in him. He would be big, like Clark, muscular and so handsome in his youth. She shuddered in her new skin at what else he might inherit.
Ellie May tapped her claws against the window, knowing from years of trying that no amount of noise would wake Clark. Tim had never slept soundly or without interruption in the three years she had known him, and that much at least had survived his years alone with his father. He woke and rubbed his eyes. They startled wide when he looked on the standing, panting coyote that was his long-dead mother.
She stared at him for some amount of minutes (felt like it could have been years) before settling to the floor of the porch and slowly
making her way to the front door. She made sure that every time her foot touched the wood, she scraped just enough claw across it that Tim could hear her progress, then waited by the door.
Tim was a sensible, practical boy, made more so she guessed by the years his father had raised him, and she was hardly surprised to see him answer the door with a shotgun in his hand. She lowered herself down and lay in the doorway in the least threatening pose she could muster. Neither of them moved, and for the first time in her present adventure, she stared into eyes she would never dare inhabit.
Her son kept his finger on the trigger, poised and nervous, until something behind her caught his eye. His old brown cat crawled up
behind the coyote and pressed its flank against the leg of its natural predator. It mewed happily, not in fear and hurt as Ellie May had made it do when she was inside it, nor in the panic that had taken it when she first jumped out of its soul. It laid at her feet, and she rested her head down on its soft back.
Tim just stared at the two of them, then lowered his father's weapon. Ellie May inched toward him, knowing that he could raise it twice as quickly, but the boy just watched and listened, as she had done in the forest for so long.
When Clark awoke, he shifted his feet and felt none of the boy's weight on them. He stretched the sleep out of his neck and turned to
find his son in the corner, the coyote curled on his lap, nuzzling his face as he slept. Clark's first response was to reach for his gun, but
it lay beside the boy, and when he started for it, the coyote growled and raised its hackles. Still, she knew that even if she could live a
pet's life at her son's side, watching over him and guarding him from his father and the world, there would always be other guns, and she too would need to sleep.
She apologized silently to her son, rubbed her head against him, and transitioned into Clark's bewildered eyes.
"You killed me," she whispered, with her murderer's own whiskey breath. It sickened her to be inside him, to feel the heat of him
surrounding her. The boy made a sound, but he stayed asleep. The coyote shook and whined as if lost in a terrible dream. "You beat me to death and no one knew. I know. I would prefer our son did not. I'll stay in this coyote for now, but I can find my way into a thousand other things. Every time you see a crow, a honeybee, a dog or a cat, you'll never be sure I'm not there, watching through its eyes. I wanted you dead, but I see now how selfish that was. That would leave our Timmy alone in the world, and I won't have that for him. Instead, you're going to raise him the way I would, with some firmness when he needs it, but never with your fists. If you touch this boy with anything other than pure and fatherly love, I will take your soul the same as I've taken the coyote's. I will empty you out and live in your body, and raise him myself while you just disappear, screaming in the back of your mind where no one but me can hear you. Do you understand me, Clark?"
She gave him back just enough control to nod their head.
Ellie May looked once more at their son through shared eyes, then slid back into the coyote, which woke upon her entrance and stood to stare at Clark. She walked around her sleeping son and laid down between him and his whimpering father, taking her place as his protector, his companion, his mother.