From the author: Cinderella had her mice and birds. Mila had spiders....
Mila’s hair had never been cut.
By the time she was ten, her wavy mahogany-coloured hair fell to the small of her back. At thirteen, she could fold an inch under her rear and sit on it. On the day she turned sixteen, if she braided it up in two long braids they would brush the back of her knees; unbraided, the ends fell to mid-calf.
She usually wore it plaited up out of the way and coiled around her head like a crown. But when she let it down, to wash the great mass of it and then combed the tangles out and let it dry as it hung loose around her like a cloak, there were always people who found business with her house, just so that they could come by and gaze on Mila’s hair.
“It’s witchery,” the women would murmur. “No good will come of it. It’s Fae hair and it will call to the place where it came from sooner or later.”
If anybody thought Mila’s hair would bring her luck, that didn’t happen. In fact, exactly the opposite. She lost her mother - in childbirth, with the woman’s seventh child - when she was only twelve years old; her father remarried a year later and brought an evil stepmother into the house with the seven motherless children. The second wife very soon bore her own son to her husband, and it became very clear that it was this boy who was the prince of the house now, and not the children of the first family. Mila was the eldest, and did what she could to help and protect her younger siblings, particularly her youngest brother, who had never known a mother’s love and was growing up mute, wrapping himself in silence like a shield. Mila was terrified that her stepmother would find a way to get rid of her somehow - to marry her off as fast as possible, to no matter whom, just so that she was out of the house - and that she would have to leave her brothers and sisters to the stepmother’s mercies. Mila knew that the fact that she would have little in the way of dowry was a stumbling block in that plan (the stepmother wanted to get rid of a potential rival, not dilute what she saw as her own son’s inheritance) - that, and the fact that she considered herself to be no beauty. Aside from the glory, justly famous in their village, of that hair.
She used to braid it up into one long braid and flip it over the top edge of her hard, lumpy pillow when she slept at night - letting it pool between the pillow, falling behind the thin mattress and hanging down into the space below her narrow bed like a fishing line. Sometimes she would dream about monsters under the bed, their eyes gleaming in the shadows, their sharp teeth nibbling at the ends of the braid. On the mornings after those nights, she might wake to the sight of a spider skittering from the side of her braid, up which it had scrambled, and across the side of the bed and away. She was so lonely that she began to name the spiders, giving them personalities, making them her friends. She’d have to get up early, with the dawn, to do the chores her stepmother demanded - but she always found time, if she woke and noticed one, to exchange a pleasant good morning with the spider of the day. They always seemed to pause and acknowledge her whispered words to them, as though they understood, and graciously returned the greeting before they disappeared off into some sheltered corner out of sight.
On a cold winter morning Mila woke sick and shivering, and her wrist felt hot to the touch when she brought it to her lips. She knew she was running a fever; even so, the spider that morning seemed to linger a little longer, watching her, as she turned her head and the creature scuttled from the folds of her braid.
“Sorry,” she murmured, “I don’t feel so well... good morning...”
She did not see the stemother sweep in imperiously, not until a slipper came down hard on the spider on the bed before it had a chance to scuttle away. Mila let out a small cry of distress, and then another of pain as the stepmother yanked the hair out from behind the pillow and sharply upwards until Mila’s head jerked with the motion.
“Lazy girl,” the stepmother said, “lying in like a queen - when there’s work to be done - lazy and filthy - you have spiders in your hair! How horrid! Your precious hair - it’s full of cobwebs and dust!” She dropped the braid like it disgusted her. “Up! And don’t let me ask you twice again!”
Mila coughed, a sharp, deep cough that scraped her chest. “I don’t...”
“Do you want me to get your sisters to scrub the kitchen floors for you?” the stepmother asked nastily.
Mila’s sisters were nine and seven years old. They were children, and they were Mila’s to protect. She dragged herself upright in the bed.
“No. I’ll... I’ll do it.”
“If I don’t see you with a scrubbing brush in ten minutes it’s going to be your sisters out there,” the stepmother threatened, and swept out of the room again.
Mila struggled upright, sobbing quietly, fighting for breath.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered into the cold air, to nobody in particular, to the spirit of the slain spider. “I’m sorry, I could not stop her...”
She felt a tickle on the side of her neck, and lifted a hand to brush at it - when it came back down, she realised she was holding a spider perched on her fingertips. They looked at each other, the spider and the girl, and then the spider whispered,
“We will help.”
And then it scrambled down the back of Mila’s hand, dropped into her lap and then sideways onto the bed and away.
“...how?” Mila asked her empty hand.
By the time she reached the kitchen, sloppily dressed in haste and without having brushed out her hair, she stopped astonished as she reached the kitchen. The entire floor was covered in a thin layer of cobweb, trapping every last piece of dirt on the kitchen floor; it was not a matter of scrubbing any more, it was merely a matter of sweeping up the cobweb mass and its gathered-in specks and morsels, and bundling the entire mess into a ball to be thrown out onto the midden.
The entire process took less than ten minutes. Coughing, Mila retired to the corner where her bed was, to finish getting dressed properly, to... but she stopped short of unbraiding and combing out her hair. She had been reaching for it before she dropped her hands, thoughtfully, and let it be. She simply wound the long braid into a crown on top of her head and pinned it up.
That seemed to be the covenant. Every morning, still sick, she dragged herself out of bed and found the cobwebbed kitchen waiting for her. She’s sweep it up, the kitchen would be left clean enough even for the stepmother’s inspection, and Mila retreated to nurse her cough.
The winter was long that year, and cold, ever colder. The stepmother’s son had a fine woollen blanket to cover him, and slept warm in a soft bed. The first wife’s children huddled under thin threadbare quilts, and shivered. Mila’s cough grew worse.
She woke one morning, warm, unexpectedly warm, and opened her eyes to see a blanket of shimmery spider silk laid across her coverlet. A spider slipped out of her hair, lingering briefly on the pillow beside her.
“We will help,” it said.
“”My brothers and sisters...” Mila began, and the spider shifted a little to the side.
“We have helped,” it said.
The stepmother did not find out about the spidersilk quilts until maybe a week later, when she stumbled into one before the spiders had a chance to vanish them away in the mornings as they usually did. The woman screeched in horror, backing away from Mila’s bed, covered in the spidersilk web.
“Filthy girl! FIlthy! Look at you, sleeping in the filth - under cobwebs! Who’ll marry you now? Look at you - spiders all over your hair - Spiderhair! Dirty, filthy girl! Get out of my house!”
“Not without my brothers and my sisters,” Mila said.
“All of you, then! Children of spiders and flies! Filthy children! Get out, before your wretchedness ruins my precious boy!”
There wasn’t much to pack. What there was, the spiders took care of. “We will help,” they said, the spiders that came out of Mila’s hair. They wove cloaks for the children and bags to carry their meager belongings in, they wove warmth for the children’s feet. The seven children, Mila at their head, trudged down a frozen country road until they were out of the village and into open fields and then into the woods - and the spiders whispers stopped them there. Mila told her brothers to set up branches, like the spiders instructed her, and then the spiders wove walls between them, and a roof above, and the children slept snugly in sleeping bags of spider silk, warm and safe.
They wove clothes for Mila, and they wove a silver diadem for her which was part of her glorius hair - the stepmother had called her Spiderhair, to insult her, but now it had become her name, her identity. In the warm springtime, her feet bare and her clothes made of spider silk and a silver crown in her hair, she walked the woods to gather the mushrooms and the berries for her brothers and sisters, and she walked barefoot in the dusty country roads, bearing blankets of the finest weave to sell - light and warm and strong, made of spidersilk. It was thus - barefoot, silver -crowned, carrying spiderspun - that the King’s son saw her on a spring morning, riding down the road back to the castle, and reined in his horse, bewitched. The mahogany hair that almost swept the dust of the road in a long sleepily tangled braid, the silver dress, the silver crown, and asked her name.
“Spiderhair,” she said, and he laughed, with wonder, with joy.
“You are beautiful,” the Prince said. “Come with me, and I will put a crown of real silver on your head.”
“I have promises to keep,” she said.
“And I will keep them with you,” the Prince said.
“Go,” said the spider who had slipped out of the braid and sat on Spiderhair’s shoulder, “we will help.”
“I have brothers and sisters,” Spiderhair said.
“Bring them,” said the Prince. “How came you to be out here by yourself like this?”
“My stepmother turned us out,” Spiderhair said.
“Turned out children into the wild to fend for themselves? She should be punished for that,” the Prince said.
The spider whispered something and Spiderhair smiled. “She has been,” she said.
“Show me,” said the Prince. “And then we will gather your family, and we will take you home.”
He gathered her up before him on his horse, and they turned back towards the village.
It was not hard to spot Spiderhair’s old home. It was the house that reeked; it was the house around which clouds of flies hung, from the foundations of which bugs and centipedes oozed, and angry armies of wasps buzzed from nests built under the eaves. It was a house from which the spiders had fled, leaving all the vermin behind to breed and flourish.
Spiderhair’s stepmother stood on the top step of her house, swatting away flies, her hair straggly, her arms fleabitten, her eyes wild. She saw Spiderhair before the Prince on the pale horse, and would have shouted but for the fact that she seemed to have lost her voice, her eyes round and full of malice and hatefulness.
“You have cursed us!” she screeched at last, finding the words somewhere. “Ever since you set foot outside this place it’s been nothing but... but... this...”
“Yes,” Spiderhair said. “We left. You drove us out.”
“Bring them back!” the woman said, and this time her voice actually broke. She scratched at her arms.
“You killed,” Spiderhair said. “It is not up to me to send them back to you.”
“We will help,” said a spider by Spiderhair’s ear. She had not asked. But she had felt a pang - for her father, trapped inside with the vermin.
The spider let itself down on a length of silk, and scuttled towards the house. Spiderhair saw it pause for a moment, as though calling for reinforcements, before it vanished from her sight.
The spidersilk melted from her hair, and the braid unwound, cloaking her slender body in mahogany glory.
“Mila,” she said to the Prince, smiling up at him. “My name is Mila.”
Without further word, the Prince turned the horse and left the village house behind, with the blessing of its spiders once again. They stopped to pick up Mila’s six sibilings, one on each horse before a member of the Prince’s entourage, and they all went up together to the castle.
No spider was ever killed in the castle again.