Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive!
—Sir Walter Scott (Marmion, 1808)
The Spider’s Role Was Overstated
At age fourteen, Fern discovered something even more extraordinary about Charlotte and her web: they had simply been tools. Her tools. The medium through which she, Fern, had inadvertently projected her most ardent, pig-centric desires back at age eight.
And now? Now she could lie in bed with her eyes squinched shut, picturing a few select words in any spidery location. For example, if she chose the pantry, the very next morning “FERN IS AWESOME!!!” would appear above the dusty canning jars in the web of an anonymous spider.
The night before starting high school, Fern stocked her pencil case with spiders.
She used her newfound power crudely at first. A plain-looking farm girl, she willed “PROM QUEEN” with such ferocity that the web words over her locker were bold, underlined, and embellished with curlicues—an exact replica of the doodles in her math binder. Her classmates fell for it too, gawping like spring calves. Teachers, popular kids, smart kids, everyone was fooled by the words. Everyone, that is, except her brother Avery, who still called her Pig Girl and mocked her head-to-toe insecurities, from limp hair to size-eleven feet.
Fern’s confidence grew with every web. Soon she could laugh off Avery’s taunts. Her nightmares about exposure—about everyone at school pointing and jeering at gawky, grasping, little Fern—dissipated.
During her third prom coronation, Fern realized that, if she left the farm and her dyslexic older brother, she would be unstoppable. Because people really do believe anything they read.
Illiteracy: A Dog’s Most Endearing Quality
By age twenty-five, Fern had moved to New York City, broken ties to family, and adopted an adoring golden retriever named Beau.
She had also mastered the art of subtlety. She discovered that picturing words without first clearing her mind could produce subliminal messages, sensed rather than seen. And her skill was not limited to spider webs. She could weave words into a bowl of pasta, the wood grain of a table, or the leopard print of her favorite miniskirt.
She began wearing a complex matrix of carefully selected words the way Park Avenue ladies wore signature perfumes. Every night after settling onto the sofa-bed in her walk-up efficiency, she formulated tomorrow’s bright top notes like glamorous and musky base notes like sensual. Every day, admirers buzzed around her and hung, enrapt, on her every word.
Fern kept her admirers at a distance, both physically and emotionally. Being untouchable was the price she willingly paid to guarantee that no one would see the unremarkable farm girl beneath the remarkable words.
Besides, she had Beau. His adoration transcended words.
Fernbeau Entertainment Marketing LLC
By age thirty-five, Fern had discovered that her extraordinary ability could be extraordinarily lucrative. She became a sensation in the product placement industry, supplementing the beer bottle in an actor’s hand by inscribing its brand name into his constellations of boyish freckles. Her clients never noticed the words—only the surge in sales and the glamorous woman responsible for them.
“There’s something about her that says ‘successful,’” a pink-faced client mused to his older colleague over mid-morning martinis. “I knew it from the minute I met her. ‘Course it doesn’t hurt that she’s glamorous.”
His colleague, a bristly warthog of a man, grunted his assent. “That’s why I like how she insists on meeting face-to-face. I mean, damn right, I’ll share a conference room with that. Just me and her with the door locked. Heh, heh.”
Fern heard that very proposition later in the afternoon from a different client. She smiled demurely and stepped away with her usual noncommittal response. After work, she went straight home, as she did every evening, to lounge in the center of her silken bedsheets beside her beloved dog (now Beau the Second) and eat take-out while planning tomorrow’s conquests.
That night Fern dreamed of a crowded courtroom presided over by a ram with BOGUS written in the ridges of its horns. The creature pointed an accusing hoof at her and bugled with maniacal laughter.
She awoke, shaken. The bathroom mirror revealed a scrambling of the words in her skin tone: desirable had become see ribald; powerful turned into woeful pr.
Fern took her first sick day. She lay in bed with the shades pulled, fighting panicked visions of her new empire crumbling.
At six o’clock in the evening, her assistant called. No disasters, no angry clients, no exposure. A good day.
Fern took extra time over her bedtime routine that night. She chose her words carefully and began what became a lifelong sleeping pill habit.
She returned to work the next morning, as desirable and powerful as ever.
Fernfield Manors: A New Luxury Subdivision
At age fifty-eight, Fern, covered in accolades, made a concession to her break with family. Four weeks after her brother Avery died in a tractor accident—and two weeks after Beau the Fourth’s demise—she hired Avery’s daughter Jean and Jean’s husband Richard. They had written a long, effusive letter detailing how Fern’s success had made her a hometown hero and had inspired Jean’s career in public relations. The letter also hinted of their precarious financial state after inheriting the heavily-mortgaged family farm. Fern was happy to take it off their hands and put the property to good use.
Richard had courtly manners and soft brown eyes that melted with admiration every time Fern entered the room. He winked conspiratorially when Fern declined Jean’s barrage of dinner invitations and other attempts at familial intimacy.
Jean was the annoying one. She was an effusive hugger. Fern spent untold effort circumventing Jean’s relentless attempts to embrace her “dear Aunty.” She was also too liberal with exclamation points and smiley faces and too conservative with necklines and hemlines—irksome reminders of farm girl mannerisms.
Still, Jean did surprisingly well in the industry, compensating for her lack of flare and savoir-faire with a knack for forming close friendships with clients and colleagues. She performed all those cheek-pecking, arm-stroking, squeeze-hugging niceties that Fern spent her days evading. Fern learned to use Jean to her advantage, making untouchable celebrity-like appearances while Jean ran around pleasing everyone with puppyish zeal.
It’s As If They’re Begging to Be Exploited
At age seventy-two, Fern suffered a mild stroke. Jean sent Fern nearly a dozen heart-emoji-laden texts as she and Richard rushed to the hospital upon hearing of it the next morning.
“You see me as I am,” said Fern, with a regal sweep of her good arm to indicate the partial paralysis, catheter bag, and blue hospital gown.
“Charming and sophisticated, as always,” Richard insisted.
Fern relaxed and rewarded him with a smile. Charming and sophisticated were the very words she had discretely woven into the blue swirl pattern of her hospital gown the night before.
“Ooh, I’m sooo glad you’re okay, Aunty!” gushed Jean, reaching for Fern’s hand. “Come stay with us! Recover at our house!”
Fern pulled her hand away just in time on a pretense of touching up her hair. “I wouldn’t dream of imposing.”
Richard gave her a soft look. His liquid eyes once again reminded Fern of her long-gone Beaus. “We would be so very honored, dearest Aunt Fern.”
“That’s what families are for!” said Jean, smoothing the bed sheets near Fern’s leg.
Fern edged away (would the girl never stop trying to touch her?) but relented. After all, she could better manage the agency from an employee’s guest suite than from a rehabilitation facility.
The transition to Jean and Richard’s house went well, once Fern had dictated a furniture arrangement that kept Jean at arm’s length. However, Fern soon became aware that her physical recovery would be eclipsed by mental decline. Her short-term memory flickered. She was forced to let Jean and Richard handle more client accounts. She grew irritable at times, snapping at the hired nurses.
Jean’s gushing reassurances and attempts to stroke Fern’s hand never helped matters. It was Richard’s devoted ministrations that soothed her best. He would stand in her bedroom doorway crooning an old love song or offering gallant compliments. “You just rest and let us deal with life’s little frustrations, Gorgeous.”
Fern credited her new wig of long, curly hair that she filled with gorgeous each night before bed.
Only Jean’s gentle touch consoled the unfortunate nurse who tried to remove the wig during Fern’s nap.
When Words Fail
Two nights after her seventy-fourth birthday, Fern awoke after midnight with her heart pounding and her wig stringy with sweat. She knew with dread certainty that she had forgotten to do something before bed. But what? She had applied her face cream, used the toilet, taken her meds. For hours she hunted vainly through the ever-thickening cobwebs of her mind, rummaging through her girlhood bedroom, high school locker, first apartment, countryside estate. Every thread she clutched dissolved, forming a dense fog that left her dream-self blindly groping in bewilderment and desperation.
Fern awoke late the next morning, drained of energy and tightly wound in her bed sheets. Her room was filled with bright sunlight and hushed voices.
“I don’t care how or why it wrote ‘PRMO QUNEE’ over her bed,” Jean was saying in a shrill whisper. “Catch it and take it outside. It was so close to Aunty’s face! It could have bitten the poor dear.”
Richard shrugged. His eyes followed the attractive nurse attacking the web with a roll of paper towels. “Maybe spiders are attracted to old-people smell. I say it’s time to send her to Sunset Acres, where people get paid to deal with the constant demands and complaints.”
Fern shuddered as she lay wordless, helpless, and exposed. She squeezed her eyes tight against the intense sunlight and asked herself, How did I expect this to end?
“Richard, I can’t believe you said that!” said Jean with uncharacteristic outrage.
Fern felt Jean’s warm hand squeeze hers. For once, Fern didn’t—couldn’t—pull away. Only then did she discover the secret to her niece’s professional and personal success: not simply their shared power but Jean’s virtuoso wielding of this inheritance through touch. For, the moment Jean’s hand grasped hers, a girlish, looping script appeared before Fern’s closed eyes, written in the veins of her eyelids: “Safe, Aunty! Rest! XOXO!!! 😊😊”
About the author
Sharri Bockheim Steen‘s publications include short stories in Kelsey Review (“Tag Sale at Area 51” in Issue 37), The First Line, and several summer fiction issues of U.S. Route 1. She lives in Rocky Hill, New Jersey, and she teaches biology at a private high school in Princeton.