by Kassandra Flamouri
My sister always said she would be famous. She said she would be the best in the world, and I said she would anger the gods with her arrogance. Remember the stories, I told her. Remember Bellerophon, remember Icarus. She would only shrug irritably and return to her loom.
Arachne thought I didn’t believe in her, but I did. Even as a child, I had never doubted her. But her talent made me afraid. Every time a new admirer came to bring her presents and praise her skill, it made my neck prickle.
The townspeople begged Arachne to work her spindle and loom in the open, where they could watch. I pleaded with her not to make a spectacle of herself. She told me I was a frightened, foolish child.
People came from nearby towns and faraway lands I had never heard of, all drawn by tales of the girl who made magic with her hands. Even the nymphs of the forest and fountain paid her homage. Everywhere I went, Arachne’s name was whispered in awe or shouted to the rooftops in celebration.
One day, a nymph asked me if my sister’s talent was a gift from Athena. Arachne overheard and tossed her hair angrily.
“My talent is my own,” she said coldly. “It was no gift.”
Arachne’s lip curled disdainfully, and she turned away, dismissing the nymph with a flick of the hand. The nymph scuttled away, her eyes wide and tearful. I followed after her and gave her a gift of candied figs to apologize for my sister’s rudeness. She smiled warmly and invited me to share the treat with her.
“You have your own magic,” the nymph observed, licking the sticky glaze from her fingers. “You are as skilled as your sister, in your way.”
“I just like sweet things,” I replied, though her words made me flush with pleasure.
Even though I used more care and better ingredients than anyone else and even though everyone in town came to me first to buy pastries and jams, no one ever gave me more than a passing glance—they only had eyes for Arachne. The nymph’s praise was more welcome than I could safely admit.
I hastily suppressed my pride and added, “Whatever skill I claim comes from the gods’ good favor.”
“Wisely spoken,” the nymph said. “Your sister would do well to follow your example.”
But my sister did not follow my example. She basked in the attention, preening outrageously and blowing kisses to the young men who came to watch her spin. Every day, I prayed that Arachne would somehow escape the gods’ notice. But I knew it was only a matter of time.
“An old woman screeched in my ear today,” Arachne informed me one evening. “She sounded like you. ‘Beware your pride, Arachne. Respect the gods, Arachne. Oh, repent, repent!’”
Arachne laughed, shaking her head. I bit my tongue and returned to my work, stirring honey into a pot of milk simmering on the hearth fire. Her words stung, but—as always—I was afraid for her. I muttered a prayer for forgiveness on my sister’s behalf and reached again for the honeypot. Such a blessing, this sweet pool of gold. Honey wasn’t only good for cooking but for creams and salves. If only the salve worked as well for the sting of a sister’s cruel tongue as it did for scratches and burns, its utility would be all-encompassing.
Early the next morning, a woman appeared at our door, leaning heavily on a staff as gnarled as she was. I didn’t recognize her, and it worried me. I knew all the elders of our village, and I couldn’t imagine such a frail old thing traveling over the mountains to reach our village. Who was she?
“Your health, Aunt,” I greeted her. Arachne didn’t stir from her bed, though I could tell she was awake. “Please, come in—”
“Arachne,” the woman rasped, ignoring me. “The gods are merciful. Temper your pride, honor them as you should, and you will be forgiven.”
Arachne sat up and crossed her arms, glaring at the old woman.
“Forgiven!” Arachne sneered. “My hands are more skilled than any other’s, mortal or god, and I won’t apologize for it. Athena herself couldn’t best me.”
The old woman sighed sadly—and unraveled like a skein of wool until there was nothing left. My gasp of horror was lost in the howling wind that suddenly raged through the house, blowing out the hearth fire and stripping bundles of drying herbs from the rafters. While I cowered on the ground, Arachne stood tall with her fists clenched and her chin raised.
“I’m not afraid,” she shouted. “I only speak the truth.”
“Come and prove it,” the wind hissed. “Come out and face me, Arachne.”
Arachne stalked out of the house without hesitation. I ran after her in the vain hope that I could convince her to show some humility before the goddess. I had no doubt that it was Athena who summoned my sister.
I watched, helpless, as Arachne challenged Athena to a contest. Please lose, I thought desperately. Perhaps then Athena would show mercy. But I was afraid, because I knew Arachne would win.
I tried not to watch, but I couldn’t look away. Athena was magnificent: taller than any man and radiant, as if she stood under a sun that shone only for her. Athena spun her thread from storm clouds and mist and went to work, showing us how the gods punished foolish mortals.
Apollo and Artemis, their faces beautiful but stern, shot gold and silver arrows into the hearts of Niobe’s fourteen children. Cassiopeia wept as Poseidon’s sea monster came for her daughter Andromeda. Actaeon fled in the form of a stag, only to be devoured by his own hounds. Each picture, I knew, was a warning to my sister.
Arachne didn’t heed the warning, or perhaps she was provoked by it. As her tapestry took shape, I saw scene after scene of the gods tricking and abusing mortals. I watched as the poor women preyed upon by Zeus came to life under her hands. Europa, Io, Leda, Alcmene—their heartbreak and shame blazed from the cloth for all to see.
When Arachne finally stepped away from her loom, the crowd let out a collective sigh of wonder. This was Arachne’s best work, the most beautiful thing any of us had ever seen. It was simply miraculous. Athena held Arachne’s tapestry in her hands, her head bowed. I held my breath. I’m going to lose her, I thought. Finally, Athena spoke.
“This for your insolence,” she said softly, and tore my sister’s tapestry to pieces. She flicked a few drops of liquid at Arachne. “And this for your insult.”
Arachne screamed, doubling over in pain. I ran to her and stood helplessly by her side. Tears of despair ran down my cheeks as her face turned black and monstrous limbs sprouted from her body. She screamed and screamed until, all at once, her voice disappeared. I reached down and gently took into my hands the spider who was once my sister. I turned and looked into Athena’s eyes, though I could barely see through my tears.
“You’re a monster,” I sobbed. “I hate you, I hate you.”
I spat at the goddess’s feet, my lifelong caution and piety swept away by grief. I braced myself and closed my eyes, preparing for death. Dimly I heard a voice pleading with Athena. It was the nymph with whom I had shared my candied figs. She begged Athena to spare me, to make allowance for my anguish. Athena brusquely ordered her to move aside. I bowed my head, waiting for Athena’s spear to pierce my heart.
The pain came softly, more like a chill than a spear. I moaned and cried and clutched my arms to my body, curling in on myself until I was resting in the nymph’s palm, just as my sister had rested in mine.
“Athena was merciful,” the nymph whispered, setting me on a flower. “Instead of taking your life for herself, she has given it to me. She has pledged you to my service.”
I buzzed my wings and went to work, bobbing clumsily from flower to flower in search of nectar. It brought me a strange sort of comfort to know that I would share my sister’s fate. But where Arachne’s name would be preserved in legend, mine would be lost. Such was the reward for my humility. I resolved to take a new name, after the nymph who saved me.
I named myself Mélissa.