By Hayley Chewins
Madd is ten when he hears the world stop turning, standing in his red gumboots in the center of Wednesday’s busiest slum. No one else seems to notice the chickens walking in neat circles, the trees bent in still air, the rain pouring down from a bright, cloudless sky.
But he does.
His mother comes home most evenings. Makes dinner and strokes his head. Afterwards, he is allowed to sit for a while on the roof of the shack, watching stars circling.
He has been hearing stories about the Spinner since before he could talk. When he was three he started asking questions.
“Where’d she come from?”
“Doesn’t she ever get tired?”
Gumboots in puddles on the loose roads of the slums. Cages of frogs, rats, and snails. Smoke out of a thousand chimneys. A forest isn’t something he’s ever seen. Only heard about in stories. “A forest is a place of dreams,” his mother likes to say. A forest is the center of all of it.
Hock stops him at the place where the slum meets the road. He is slouched against an overturned dustbin, drooling into a Styrofoam cup. “Where’re you going, boy?”
Madd knows he can tell Hock the truth because he never remembers anything. “I’m going to find the Spinner.” He is kicking at the mud: a hard face with round eyes. Stretching his legs in the broad world of Wednesday.
He won’t survive without stealing. Luckily his hands are small and he is quick. He grabs a snail from a trader fending off a growling dog and breaks the shell open with his hands. An old man in a tattered suit tells him how to get to the forest. “Beyond the outskirts,” he says. “You’ll find it.”
He has given up on school. He can’t stand the chalk and the dust. The thought of only moving when a bell rings frightens him. He tells his mother in the evenings what he’s learned: the planets; why water evaporates; silent letters. Makes it all up. She doesn’t know the difference.
Really what he does with his days is listen. Listens to the movement of feet on the ground. The barking of stray dogs, the whine of tires, the squelch of mud. He was sitting in the wet when he heard it.
The music of the world, stopped.
The road empties as he walks. It’s getting dark. He tries not to imagine his mother returning home to find his empty bed. Her hands carrying dishes towards the sink. He wrote a note before he left, but after thinking about it he tore it up. He fed the pieces to a pig in the street.
This is the image he holds close to his chest when he sleeps: he’ll walk through the door with something green in his hand. Mother will know he’d gone for a true thing.
The following afternoon, he reaches the forest. The swaying green draws him in. The silk of leaves, trees thicker than men and towering, their trunks streaked black and white. Small furred creatures spread their limbs and leap from branch to branch. He sees them crunching on dark beetles. A buck lopes past, barely heard, with horns that look as though they’ve been sculpted out of bronze.
Madd feels his feet sink into mossy earth. The air is warm and filled with the ticking of beetles’ wings. He can hear a pair of birds singing to one another. One of them sings, “Who are you?” and the other answers, “I don’t know.”
Who Birds. His mother used to tell him stories about them when he was little. Interrupt a pair of Who Birds, and they will tell you who you are. He is frightened of knowing. Scared they’ll say the same thing Ma Fortune did after she spread out the mottled toad skins to read his fate.
“Nothing,” she said. “Can’t see a thing.”
Crouched in the doorway of the fat lady’s house, he saw his mother sitting across from her, a tea cup in her hand. “A future as dark as that.”
He leaves the birds to sing.
The sky is beginning to darken when he sees the Spinner’s house in the center of the forest. It is perched in the branches of an enormous tree, covered in vines. Glowing insects swarm around it, feeding on ripe berries and open blooms. The little wooden shed is so much a part of the tree that it appears to have grown into it like a scar. Madd wouldn’t have seen it if not for the light in the window. A rope dangles from a thick branch, and he drags the weight of his body up, his hands burning. He opens the door, moving fallen branches and vines out of his way — he doesn’t think to knock. A girl, no taller than he is, stands in the middle of the room.
“Who are you?”
“What’s a Madd?”
“It’s a name, stupid.”
He is annoyed by her. He wants to see the Spinner. The center.
“Can I come in?”
Inside, everything is covered in dust and spiders’ webs. The piano stands against the wall, beneath the only window. The keys look like yellowed teeth. The girl wants to know how old he is.
“Oh,” she says. “Me too.”
She is wearing a moth-eaten coat. Her eyes shine like two frozen disks of river water; her skin looks as though it’s been spun from spiders’ silk.
“Can I sit down?”
She motions to the piano stool, the only chair in the place. It creaks when he sits on it.
“Where’s the Spinner?”
“You know — the woman at the center. Who plays the piano? Keeps the world together?”
He doesn’t like girls. He wants her to leave so he can get on with his adventure. She moves closer to him. He inhales the dust of her and chokes. He forces himself to be still, to stare into her eyes.
“You want to see the center?”
He watches as the girl begins to unravel the silver thread of her skin. She wraps it, glistening, around the stool and his legs. It looks delicate, but it’s as strong as wire.
“What are you doing?”
He tries to stand up but he can’t. He feels his knees wasting. His stomach churns like the day Hock let him drink from his Styrofoam cup. He is nauseous and his skin feels hot.
“Play,” she says.
He wants to tell her that he can’t play the piano. He’s not one of those rich kids who has lessons. He’s never even touched a piano before today. She takes his hands and places them on the keys and he feels his fingers move over them.
Music appears in the room like a flower in a barren place.
“It will feel awkward at first,” she says. “Before the muscles are trained.”
The window is open. The forest stretches into darkness before him. Green, alive, growing. He sees now that at the center of it — at the center of all this life — is a death. A sacrifice. After hours, days, the muscles will bruise. Blood will pool under the skin. The spinner-girl stands behind him.
“It was a bird,” she says. “It flew right through the window and brushed against my neck. It flapped about on the floor. Broken wing, I think. The sound, the feather against my neck. For a moment the piano lost its hold.”
A muscle spasm shoots through his left thumb.
“I was ten,” she says. “When it happened. I heard the gap. I was sitting in the playground, watching clouds.”
She shouts over the music.
“A boy opened the door when I knocked; he looked younger than I was. He gave me tea and I drank it — I was so thirsty. I remember listing the strange things that had happened: the television wouldn’t work, rainbows were black. I fell asleep. When I woke up, I was playing the piano. I still remember my name, but I don’t say it anymore. Not out loud.”
He needs to ask her how long she played for. She hears the question ring out even though he hasn’t spoken.
“A few hundred years — I lost count.”
The words burrow into Madd’s heart.
“How did you…”
“It’s the music,” she says. “Whatever you’re playing, it’s from the inside. You can’t hide in here.”
She opens the door and walks out into the dark: into the sounds of the growing green.
After a few days, Madd’s hands are purple. He catches himself drooling, slumped over like a cowering dog. He stretches his neck to look out into the forest. Then he hears something: the Spinner-girl, singing. He is comforted by it. She hasn’t left him — not entirely; not yet. Hours later, he can hear whimpering. By midday, she is back.
“I need your help,” she says.
Her mouth is straight and stiff. After she has spoken, the music quickens. The girl looks at him as if to say, “Hope is a dead wish.”
“I’ll only help you if you untie me.”
“It won’t matter, even if I do. The piano won’t let you go.”
“All it took was a bird, for you.”
“I think it has to be something from the outside. From the forest.”
“Could you catch something?”
She shakes her head.
“Your skin. It’s made of spiders’ webs, right?”
“Tie it around my waist. Then pull. It’s worth a try.”
She winds the silver thread a few times around his waist. She holds onto the loose end and walks to the other side of the room, pulling. He turns his head to look at her. She is straining and he hasn’t budged.
“You can’t make it happen this way,” she says. “It has to come from the forest.”
Who are you? I don’t know.
“Have you ever seen a Who Bird?” he asks the girl.
“I think Mamma told me about them.”
“If you interrupt them, they have to tell you who you are.”
“How does that help?”
“If I interrupt them, they’ll seek me out. They’ll have to tell me.”
The girl crosses her arms.
“But how will you interrupt them from here?”
“I’ll have to shout. You can lure them here. Outside the window.”
“What should I use?”
“Something shiny. They like to steal.”
“I don’t have anything shiny.”
The Spinner-girl is quiet for a little while. Then she pushes her thin fingers into the socket and pulls out one of her eyes. She holds it in her hand. It shines like the scales of a silver fish. Madd tries not to grimace.
“That should work.”
She takes the eye outside and places it in the branches of a tree. They wait for the Who Birds to fly over. The girl stretches out in the sun. When she sees them winging overhead, she whistles. They swoop down, one after the other. The girl whistles again: the signal for Madd to shout. As he speaks the words, he can feel every part of him in them: his heart, his gut. Every painful thing.
“Who am I?”
He lets his head fall onto the lid of the piano. The Spinner-girl has climbed up to the door, framed in light. They hear the chatter of birds.
“They’re gone. They’ve gone in the wrong direction.”
“You should go, Spinner.”
“I’m too frightened to leave. I need your help.”
Madd tries to picture a green thing in his hand, but he can’t imagine it anymore. In his mind, the thing he carries is dead. He feels himself giving up. Hope is wasteful. Dreaming is a heavy stone. He pictures a giant scraping out his insides with a spoon like he’s a hardboiled egg.
When the Who Birds glide through the window, his head is resting on the lid of the piano, his mouth open, eyes vacant. One of them perches on his head, the other hovers in the air.
“They’re here,” Madd says. But the girl is gone. The birds are sitting on top of the piano now; each one looks at him with a single black eye. Their feathers are iridescent: lilac, indigo, magenta. He waits for them to sing.
Spinner-boy with gumboots red
Curiosity is death
Stay here for good
And keep things growing as they should
His body has learned to sleep while his fingers keep playing. His eyes glaze over; drool runs down his chin. His hands are black and a few of his nails have started to fall off. He knows that eventually his skin will be as dead and as grey as the girl’s. He will become the Spinner-boy; the boy of spiders’ webs spun. He senses her standing behind him.
“Why won’t you leave?”
“I wanted to, before. But I couldn’t. The Who Birds needed to speak — to tell you. Otherwise you’d never have accepted it. I’m sorry I lied to you. But if you hadn’t accepted … things wouldn’t have been complete, and I’d never have been able to leave.”
“Leave? You have nowhere to go. Your family’s long dead.”
She closes the door behind her and walks out into the forest, standing where Madd can see her, framed by the little window. She removes her coat and drops it to the ground.
“Stupid girl,” he says. “Where’re you going to go?”
She is motionless in the light. Then he sees her legs grow into thick roots that plant themselves in the soil. Her arms stretch into branches. Her hands splinter out into leaf-sprays. With her small mouth hanging open, her body widens, becomes a thick trunk.
After a few moments, a tree, wide and quiet, stands in her place.
Madd will not try to count the Spinner-trees. There are too many to number, and he must play. Play so that rain falls heavy out of the sky. Play so that rainbows regain their color, so that the wind moves branches instead of keeping them still.
Madd’s mother makes dinner in the quiet of her kitchen and eats it sitting on the roof of the shack. As she gets into bed, she says two prayers in the dark. In the first, she thanks the Spinner for playing again. The second prayer is for her boy, who has been missing for four days, and who would have loved to have seen how the stars had realigned. Out of the dark and with such decisive, sudden light, everything was laid out. Everything was restored.
Hayley Chewins has published poetry in Amphibi.us, New Contrast and Botsotso. Her short story, “Johannesburg,” about a futuristic society in which people no longer use their ears, appeared in If You Could Only See Yourself and Other Stories. She lives in Johannesburg, South Africa with her fiancé and a very small poodle.