In the morning, I find my daughter gone. She is my hundred-and-second daughter, but my heart aches all the same. The fire has died out in my pit, the hut filled with the smoke of yesterday’s warmth, cloying and pungent. I pull back the ragged curtains and see her in the mud, a mess of wings and threads of silks that have not yet dissolved.
I know this feeling well, of despair and grief so vivid it makes my teeth hurt. I do not go to her, do not pick her up. I cannot leave my hut. The villager’s curse made sure of that, once they found me a witch.
Inside the hut, I begin to sing to the spiders, a song they know too well. They begin to work, legs dancing to the tune, silk spewing from them like blood from a wound. The caterpillars are awoken by the noise and begin to weave a cocoon for themselves, shifting their bodies in hypnotising waves. The bees arrive to join the rhythm, darting in and out of the honeycomb they have built into my walls, sacs full of pollen. I have not seen flowers for a long time. I wish I could look through their eyes, but the spell was written in one of the many books the villagers laid waste to when they banished me here.
I never stop singing while the insects work. I go to the threshold of my small prison and bend at the knee as if bowing to a Queen. The trees hear my call. They see my hopeless work; they know too well the pain of losing their own. They dance too: no wind in their leaves, but purpose to their sway.
Branches and twigs fall, littering the entrance to my house that is no home. I must stretch to collect their offerings, and I wrap the bundle in my skirts. I am thankful for the trees. Without them, I would have no daughters, and without them, I would have no warmth left. Sometimes, when my daughters die in quick succession, the trees share my agony so wholly that they weep until they die, and, stricken, they fall as logs and provide me with their bodies for fuel.
I take the twigs and arrange them on the dirt floor – the longest for limbs, the smallest for fingers. I snap a few in half, to use for toes. The rest is saved for the fire, which I will light anew when my next daughter is birthed. What good is it to keep only myself warm?
All the while, my song does not die. I am quickly becoming an old woman, and each song burns another day from my life. My eyelids droop a little more with each note. It is more energy than I can afford now, each song a sacrifice.
I must bury the hope that this daughter might live longer than the last. That kind of hope kills faster than any magic price. I must make myself remember that every moment with my daughter is a gift of magic, for though I tell my daughters not to leave our hut, for it shall kill them, leave they do. None have heeded my warnings for longer than a month. With the life I breathe into them, I also breathe life’s desire to be free. My love is not enough to keep them here. I would leave too, if I were they, rather than share a prison with an old hag.
The spiders are growing tired of their spinning as my song begins to wane. I collect the webs, gnarled fingers grabbing at the sticky silk. From the honeycomb, I scrape the nectar. My song is almost done.
The caterpillars break free of their cocoons, a rhythmic crack that pierces my melody. Enchanted by the words I speak, the young butterflies come to me, allow me to break the wings from their back. Always, a sense of guilt that I must harm them, but I thank each and every one as they fall.
I cannot stop my song as I work, quickly and practiced. Soon, my daughter begins to form. Delicate skin of cobweb, eyelids made of wings, skeleton of sticks. Honey to bind. Much more beautiful than any human ever was. More beautiful than I could hope to be.
With my last few words, I breathe life again into my hundred-and-third daughter.
“Good morning, Mother,” she says, honey leaking from her lips, her voice soft as the kiss of the morning light. I will do this a thousand times more, if it means I might hear these words.
Lulu Kadhim is a writer from London. Her fiction has previously appeared in Pantheon Magazine. She’s a graduate of Viable Paradise and Odyssey Writing Workshop. Very occasionally, she can be found at @lulukadhim.