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YOU ARE MINE!

Edel Wignell
Australian Society of Authors Ltd ©
Commended, Midlands Vacation Literary Awards, Australia, 2005.

Cass scraped the brush around the paste jar, gathering the last smears. 'We're out of paste, Mr Garden.'

The teacher pointed. 'Third shelf, left, Cass - near the paints.'

Cass reached into the cupboard and took a jar. Instantly a spider bounded up her arm and stopped on her shoulder.

Now I have you! Nn-ow! Nnnnnnn-owwwww!

It seemed like an eternity to Cass, standing there, eye to multiple-eyes with the spider, everything gathering for a terrible cry.

'Aaaarrrrrrggggghhhhhhh!'

Everyone stopped, eyes wide, mouths open, eardrums paining. Mr Garden picked up an exercise book and swept the spider to the floor. She paused a moment, then scuttled towards the cupboard, contracted her legs and squeezed through a crack. Two legs remained in view, and Cass leaned forward, waiting, waiting... until they eased away.

She felt each phantom footprint on her bare arm and the hairy weight poised. She heard again the purring voice, 'Now I have you.' The class still stood, spellbound. Then Cass ran on the spot, shook her hands violently in the air and screamed again.

'Aaaarrrrrrggggghhhhhhh!'

At last voices were freed with comments of horror and nervous laughter. Mr Garden gripped Cass's shoulders and held her firmly.

'Cass! Calm down! It's all right!'

Cass slipped heavily out of his grasp and collapsed in a convulsive heap on the floor.

'Alison and Natalie. Take Cass to the sick room, please. Tell Miss Thomas.'

Alison and Natalie put Cass on the bed.

'I'll wait,' said Alison to Natalie. 'You tell Miss Thomas.'

She sat near, without talking, and Cass was grateful. Soon Miss Thomas came and covered her with a rug, and tried to talk, but Cass wouldn't reply.

'Have a little sleep, and you'll feel better,' she said, and left her.

Thoughts churned. That spider is preying on me everywhere - even in school. I can't get away. What will I do?

Cass remembered every spider encounter during the week - at home, in the street and now in her classroom. At last tears came, and gradually Cass's body warmed and she fell into a fretful sleep where the old nightmare returned. She recognised it, but was powerless to wake and break the spell.

Once more she walked along a silk-lined incline, glancing over her shoulder. Around the corner came the giant, ceiling height, walking slowly - eight legs moving in a spidery rhythm. Cass broke into a run and looked left and right for exits, but there weren't any. At the end of the tunnel, she shrank back against the wall.

The spider advanced and stopped, crouching above her. A purring in its throat sent vibrations through its body. Cass held her breath and stared, brain numb as the purring voice began.

I am Arachne. Throughout the centuries, I have been searching worldwide, and now I have found you - a maiden with a proud and competitive spirit. Through you, I, Arachne, shall return.

Spellbound, Cass waited for her to pounce. She looked with loathing into the hideous, bearded face and the eyes glittering with malevolence. The strong, up-raised front legs and bloated, palpitating body pressed nearer, ready.

Now I have you! You are mi-i-ine!

Cass opened her mouth to scream but no sound came. An owl hooted nearby. Looking past the spider, Cass saw her in a niche, eyes like moons - steady, gleaming.

As Arachne paused and eased back, Cass took a deep breath and burst forth into sunlight and space. She sat up, gulping deep breaths of air and pressing her hands to her pounding chest. Shafts of sunlight slanted in, warming her face.

Oh no! That nightmare again! No, no, no!

Cass fell back, clenched her fists and moaned, twisting her head from side to side, then lay still.

Arachne returns! she thought, remembering the spider's words. Arachne - now I know her name. I've heard it before, but I can't think when. Over and over she heard the words in her head. Arachne returns!

What does she mean?

Gradually, as Cass sank back into sleep, Arachne crouched over her once more, purring. Arachne returns! Arachne returns!

The hoots which followed were close - soft and authoritative. Remember, remember, remember!

Cass saw the oval shape in the niche, the patterning of feathers, and two shining eyes piercing the gloom. Arachne's purring stopped, she sagged to her four rear legs and turned a little towards the voice.

Remember! called the owl again, a little more loudly. Remember the ancient days. Have you not learned?

She is mine! purred Arachne. Mi-i-ine! Again she stood upright, tensing herself to spring.

But the owl's eyes shone with terrible authority. Wait! I am Athena's messenger, and I come with a command. You will not return. You are doomed forever to walk the earth on your belly and spin in your present shape as Athena commanded in the ancient days. Remember!

But Arachne ignored the messenger. Now I have you! You are mine. M-i-n-e! She moved her body nearer to Cass.

Athena's messenger looked down, and hooted calmly. Go my child. Your fate is in your own hands. Go! The time has come.

Arachne waited.

Cass took a deep breath and edged past. Without a backward glance, she returned along the tunnel, walking swiftly. Light beckoned, and she emerged into the day. Opening her eyes, she saw sunshine streaming in, and heard the Year Threes chanting the four times table next door.

Who is Arachne? she thought, breathing deeply. Who is Athena?

Before she had time to wonder further, she sank into a deep, dreamless sleep. When she woke, she lay staring at the patterns made by shafts of sunlight on motes of dust.

Mr Garden appeared in the doorway. 'Better now?'

'Yes, Mr Garden.'

'We'll have discussion and stories before lunch,' he said. 'I think it's time to tell the Greek myth about Arachne.'

'Do you know Arachne?' Cass felt a rush of relief and gratitude. At last... 'Do you know Athena, too?'

'Yes. Do you?'

'Perhaps...'

They had reached the classroom door.

What will the kids say?

Cass remembered the first session that morning when several had mocked her. Mr Garden conducted a spelling test on Friday mornings - the only time when he was strict. 'Spelling has to be learnt,' he said. 'You're old enough now - it's up to each one of you.' Cass wasn't worried, for her spelling was always correct.

The test was half-finished. Everyone looked straight ahead, and Mr Garden's eyes swept the classroom. 'Eleventh word,' he said. 'Enthusiastic. John is enthusiastic about his tennis lessons.'

There was a knock on the door. Mr Garden went and spoke to Miss Thomas, the next-door teacher.

Cass felt a nudge and heard Jason's voice. 'Hey, Know-all! How do you spell enthusiastic?'

Cass tilted her nose.

Jason insisted. 'Cass?'

'Not telling!' whispered Cass, hiding her work. 'Cheat!'

She heard sniggers, and then Natalie's whisper behind her hand, 'E-n-t-h-u-s-i-a-s-t-i-c.'

Cass flashed a scornful look. Natalie was clever, and didn't mind telling the answers. 'Why did you tell him?'

Natalie shrugged. 'It doesn't matter.'

But it did matter! At Cass's last school, Murrumble Rural School, Mr Trent had called it cheating, and didn't allow it.

Soon the test was finished, books were exchanged and corrections made under supervision.

'Who had twenty correct?' No hands went up.

'Nineteen?' Cass and four others raised their hands.

Ha ha, Know-all!' said Jason softly. 'One wrong!'

He and Natalie and Sarah clapped silently, movements Cass saw from the corner of her eye. Tears stung, but she hid them, remembering her mother, Diana's, advice.

'Don't encourage cheating, but help kids as you did at Murrumble as a monitor. Don't be so superior.'

Cass wished they hadn't moved into town; everything had been perfect at Murrumble. Also, she wished her second name wasn't Noelle, for teasing Jason found it perfect as a nickname.

Mr Garden opened the door, and everyone looked up. Cass saw interested faces and sensed a new friendliness.

'Hey, Cass!' said Jason. 'You were great!'

'I nearly died,' said Natalie. 'That was stupendous!'

'I didn't think you'd be scared of anything!' said Sarah.

The faces and the voices were welcoming, accepting. Cass smiled shyly and sat down beside Alison.

'I didn't know you were arachnophobic,' said Alison. 'My Mum used to be, but she got treated for it.'

Several children said, 'I'm scared of spiders, too.'

'My Dad gets claustrophobia,' said Jason. 'He won't go into lifts. In the city, he'd rather walk up twenty flights than...'

'My grandma's scared of mice.'

'The man next-door says cats give him the creeps.'

'My auntie won't travel in aeroplanes.'

They've been talking about me, thought Cass. About different kinds of fears. Being the centre of attention was embarrassing, but she felt glad and warm - comforted by the children's willingness to share.

She wanted to say, 'I'm not scared of spiders,' or, 'I usen't to be - not on the farm. It's just happened in the last week, and it's not really arachnophobia.'

They discussed phobias and their treatments, but Cass was only half-listening, waiting for the promised story, yearning to understand. The explanation she needed for a week of nightmares could not come from this discussion.

'Now it's story time,' said Mr Garden. 'I'd like to tell you a Greek myth. After lunch, Mehmet will tell "Mohammed and the Spider", and Alison - "Robert the Bruce and the Spider". Then you may write your own stories and verses. Next week I'll start reading Charlotte's Web, a chapter a day as a serial.'

Cass took a deep breath and fastened her eyes on Mr Garden's face. Athena's messenger had said, 'Your fate is in your own hands,' and she sensed the importance of the moment. At last...

Long, long ago, in the days of the Greek gods and goddesses, there lived a maiden called Arachne who was very skilful in the arts of weaving and embroidery. Even the nymphs would leave their groves and fountains to come and gaze upon her work.

Not only was the finished work beautiful, but it was wonderful just to watch Arachne's hands as she took the rough wool, formed it into rolls, or separated it with her fingers and carded it till it was as light and soft as a cloud, or twirled the spindle gracefully, or wove the web, or embroidered with her needle.

Arachne's skill was so great, it seemed to all that she must have been a pupil of the great goddess, Athena. But she was proud, and denied this.

'Let Athena compete with me,' she said. 'If I am beaten, I shall pay the penalty.'

Athena heard this, and was greatly displeased, so she disguised herself as an old woman, and gave Arachne some friendly advice.

'Respect my experience and listen to me,' she said. 'Challenge your fellow-mortals at any time, but never compete with the goddess. If you ask for forgiveness she may show mercy, and pardon you for your disrespect.'

Arachne stopped spinning, looked at the old woman and replied angrily, 'Keep your advice for your daughters and your maids. I stand by what I say. I am not afraid of the goddess. Let her contest her skill with me if she dares!'

'She comes,' said Athena, removing her disguise.

The nymphs and bystanders bowed low, paying homage. Only Arachne was not terrified. She blushed, however, and grew pale, but stood firmly by her challenge.

Athena and Arachne proceeded immediately to the contest. Each began by attaching the web to the beam. Both worked fast, sending the shuttle back and forth rapidly, and blending colours to achieve the harmony seen in the rainbow.

Athena placed the great god Zeus in the centre of her work, and fashioned the scene of her victorious contest with Poseidon. In the four corners she wove scenes showing the gods' displeasure with disrespectful mortals who dared to challenge them.

Arachne filled her web with scenes chosen to embarrass the gods: scandalous stories and themes highlighting their failings and mistakes. Each scene was superbly executed: the figures were lifelike and the finish was perfect.

Athena came to see Arachne's work and, although she admired the maiden's skill, she was greatly insulted. She struck the web with her shuttle and tore it to shreds.

Then she touched Arachne's forehead and made her feel both guilt and shame. But Arachne could not endure it; she went away and hanged herself.

Seeing Arachne dangling on the rope, Athena pitied her.

'Live!' she said. 'Live, guilty young woman! But preserve forever the memory of this lesson. Both you and your descendants shall hang and weave forever.'

She sprinkled Arachne with the juices of aconite (a deadly poison), and immediately her hair came off, then her nose and ears. She shrank, and her head became small. Her thumbs joined her sides, and her fingers became legs. The rest of her changed into the body from which she spins her thread.

Today she is often seen suspended on it, in the position Athena found her on the day she transformed her into a spider.

There was silence, then comments until lunch time.

Cass needed time to think. She said to Mr Garden, 'Is that story printed in a book?'

'Yes - here you are.'

She found the story and read it, then took a deep breath and closed her eyes, assimilating.

There's more... somewhere...

She looked in the Table of Contents and found a chapter on the gods and goddesses of Greece. Scanning, she found Athena.

The goddess of wisdom and purity, she presided over the arts of peace and war. She invented the plough, and showed men how to yoke oxen and tame horses. She is the patron of the arts of weaving and handiwork. The oak, the olive tree and the owl are sacred to her...

Cass closed the book and shut her eyes, waiting for the new information to be absorbed. She remembered the hooting voice.

Your fate is in your own hands!

Ahhh... now I understand. Arachne wants to return - to be a girl again. She chose me - the same kind of girl, and tried to take me - to take my place - but Athena sent her messenger, the owl, to warn her.

Remember...

Arachne's punishment - being changed from a maiden to a spider - was meant to be forever. But Arachne knew I was getting more and more like her, resenting Mum because she wanted to move from the farm, refusing to discuss the renovations to the old house (our new home) and being superior at school. So Arachne has been getting bolder and terrorising me in my dreams.

At last the owl said to me, 'Your fate is in your own hands.'

Now I understand. I have the power to escape from Arachne - to make her return to her weaving forever...

Later, one part of Cass's mind hurried her home eagerly, for she felt a strange new anticipation; another remembered the angry scene with her mother yesterday and the chill of last night and this morning, so that she faced her mother with dread.

The house came into view, and Cass looked at it as though seeing it for the first time - broad and welcoming with its high roof and wide verandas. She glimpsed the scarlet blooms of the climbing roses along the inviting side veranda outside her bedroom. It didn't look menacing now, though it had seemed that way for a week...

At the gate, she opened the letter-box and reached in. Something moved against her fingers, and she withdrew her hand quickly.

'Oh!' The shock was momentary - surprise, rather than fear - just as she had felt on the farm.

She found a thick stick and inserted one end into the letter-box, close to the spider.

'Come on, come on... Don't be afraid.' It sat perfectly still, legs contracted, cowering. 'Come on!' crooned Cass.

She tapped the letter box, and the spider ran forward on to the stick. Cass lifted her out carefully.

'Arachne - you were a beautiful maiden once - remember?'

Cass carried her to a grevillia tree, and held the stick close to the trunk, releasing her. The pattern of her body and legs merged with the creases in the bark. Cass stood for a moment admiring the beauty and symmetry of the fragile, yet tenacious creature, and the camouflage of her pose.

'This is your realm,' she murmured. 'I'll never enter it again.' She felt chastened, but glad and free.

Then she grabbed her bag and three letters, and half-skipped, half-ran down the drive and bounded inside.

'Three letters, Mum! One for you!'

'Hello, Cass. Who from?'

'Sally!'

Cass poured a glass of milk, selected an apple and took a huge bite. Diana opened the envelope and drew out a letter, a smile beginning and broadening as she read. To Cass, watching closely, the effect was like sunrise.

'Listen to this, Cass. "Dear Diana. A brief note. Four privately-owned historic houses in Hawthorn will be open to the public this weekend with entry fees to charity. Drop everything and come. Bring Cass. Will phone Fri. eve. to confirm. In haste. Love, Sally." She looked up. 'What do you think, Cass?'

Suddenly Cass knew she was interested in the renovations to her room and to the house. It was going to be marvellous - just like the renovations last year on the farm. But this time, they had a wonderful old house to fix.

'Great, Mum!'

Diana opened a tube of antiseptic cream and smeared Cass's cheek. 'Some for your nose, too... You got too much sun yesterday.'

Cass's smile matched her mother's. 'Ta.'

'Just the inspiration we need,' said Diana. 'Let's leave early, arrive for breakfast. Dad can look after himself for the weekend.'

Cass grabbed her mother, stood on tiptoe and rubbed noses, then let go and dashed into her room. Through the window, scarlet blooms caught the afternoon sun.

'It'll be red again,' she said to herself, walking around, feeling the spaciousness of the high ceiling. 'But it won't be geometrics. I'll have old-fashioned wallpaper with a striped floral pattern in red, pale grey blinds, a red-fringed lampshade...'