“Your tapestries are so fine,” the merchant says in wonder, “that you must be blessed by the goddess Athena.”
Arachne tosses her head, braided hair falling over her shoulder like an obsidian waterfall, “What’s Athena got to do with it? My hands wove these, not hers.”
The merchant blanches and looks to the sky, as if expecting Zeus himself to smite them for blasphemy. Personally, she thinks the king of the gods has better thing to do with his time. “Ah,” he says weakly, “I suppose.”
He pays her for her wares and she leaves, almost immediately bumping into a hunched old woman with grey eyes. “Do you not owe Athena thanks for your talent?” she croaks, gnarled hands curled over a cane.
Arachne is not stupid, but she is foolish. They will tell tales of it. She looks into those grey eyes and declares, “Athena should thank me, since my talents earn her so much praise.”
She pushes past her and keeps walking, ignoring the goddess in humans skin as she disappears into the crowd.
They will tell tales of her hubris. They will all be true.
The next day she bumps into the same old woman at the market. Everything goes downhill from there.
“Know your place, mortal,” Athena says, grey eyes narrowed. There is a crowd around them, and Arachne could save herself, could walk away unscathed, and all she has to do is say her weaving is inferior to that of a goddess.
She will not lie.
“I do,” she says coolly, “and in this matter, it is above you.”
She is not honest as a virtue, but as a vice.
Athena challengers her to a weaving contest. She accepts.
Gods are not so hard to find, if you know where to look.
“It’s a volcano,” the baker repeats, looking down at her coins, as if he feels guilty for taking money from someone who’s clearly not all there.
She grabs her bag of sweet breads and adds it to her pack before swinging it over her shoulders, “Yes, I know. Half a day’s walk, you said?”
“A volcano,” he insists, as if she did not hear him perfectly well the first dozen times.
“Thank you for your help,” she says. He’s shaking his head at her, but she knows what she’s doing.
She walks. She grows hungry, but does not touch the bread she paid for, and walks some more. The sun’s begun to set by the time she makes it to the base of the volcano. It’s tall, impossibly large, and for a moment the promise of defeat threatens to overwhelm her.
But Arachne does not believe in defeat, in loss. They will tell tales of her hubris. Those tales will be true.
She ties a scarf around her braids then hikes her skirt up and ties the material so it falls only to her thighs. She fits work roughened hands into the divots of cooled magma and begins her slow ascent.
The muscles in her legs and arms shake, and her hunger pains are almost as distracting. Her once white dress is dirt smeared and torn and sweat makes her itch as it covers her body and drips down her back.
“What are you doing?”
Arachne turns her head and bites back a scream, looking into one giant eye. The cyclops holds easily to the volcano’s edges, even though her hands are torn and bleeding. She swallows and says, “I heard you like honeyed bread. Is it true?”
The creature tilts his head to the side, baring his long fanged teeth at her. She thinks he might be smiling. “You’ve been climbing for hours. What do you want?”
“Is it true?” she repeats, refusing to flinch.
“Yes,” he says, looking at her the same way the baker had, “it’s true.”
“There’s some sweet bread in my pack, baked this morning,” she says, “it should still be soft.”
His hands are big enough and strong enough that it could probably squeeze her head like a grape. Instead he gently undoes her pack and reaches inside. The honey buns look comically small in his large hands, and he swallows half of them in one bite. He licks his fingers clean when he’s done, and his smile is just as terrifying the second time around. “I am Brontes. Why are you climbing my master’s volcano?”
“I’m the weaver Arachne,” she takes a deep breath, “I need your master’s help.”
They tell tales of Hephaestus’s ugliness.
They are not true.
He’s got a broad, angular face and short brown hair. His eyes are like amber set into his face, and his arms are huge, and he’s rippling muscle from the waist up. He has legs only to his knees. From there down his legs are bronze gears and golden wire, replacements for the legs destroyed when Hera threw him from Mount Olympus.
“Had your look, girl?” he asks, voice rough like he’s always a moment away from breaking into a coughing fit.
“Yes,” she says, and doesn’t turn away, keeps looking.
His lips quirk up at the corners, so it was the right move. The heat is even more oppressive inside the volcano, and all around him cyclopses work, forging oddly shaped metal that she can’t hope to understand. “You’ve gone to awful lot of trouble to find me, girl. What do you want?”
She slides her pack off her shoulders and holds it out to the god, “I have a gift for your wife. I have woven her a cloak.”
He raises an eyebrow and doesn’t reach for the bag, “You believe something made with mortal hands could be worthy of the goddess of beauty?”
They will tell tales of her hubris.
They will all be true.
With a gust of wind the oppressive heat of the volcano is swept away, leaving her chilled. In its place stands a woman – more than a woman. Aphrodite has skin like the copper of her husband’s machines and hair dark and thick and long. Her eyes are deepest, richest brown, piercing in their intelligence. People don’t tell tales of Aphrodite’s cleverness. That is because people are stupid.
“Let’s see it then,” she says, reaching inside the pack and pulling the cloak from its depths.
It unrolls beautifully. It’s made from the finest silks, and it shimmers in the light from the forges. The hem of the cloak is sea foam, speaking of Aphrodite’s beginning, and up along the clock is intricate patterns it tells of her life, of her marriage and her worshippers and escapades, all with the detail of the most experienced artist and the reverence of her most devoted followers.
Her lips part in surprise and she slides it on, twirling like a child. “Gorgeous,” Hephaestus says, though Arachne knows he does not speak of the cloak. She doesn’t take offense.
The goddess smiles and Arachne’s heart pounds in her chest. She does her best to ignore it – Aphrodite is the goddess of love, after all. It is only expected. “Very well,” the goddess says, “you have my attention.”
Arachne swallows. Aphrodite’s attention is a heavy thing. “I have offended Athena,” she says, “She has challenged me to a weaving contest.”
Their faces somber. Hephaestus rubs the edge of a sleeve between his fingers and says, “Athena will lose such a contest, if judged fairly. She does not take loss well.”
“I know,” she says, “you are friendly with Hades, are you not?”
There are no tales of their friendship. But she’s staking her life on its existence, because why wouldn’t it exist – both of them even tempered, both shunned by Olympus, both happily married.
Gods hate being made to feel lesser. It is why they say Persephone was kidnapped, why they say Aphrodite cheats with Ares. It is why Athena will crush her when Arachne wins the weaving contest.
“Clever girl,” Hephaestus says, smiling.
Aphrodite stares at her reflection in a convenient piece of polished silver. Arachne assumes Hephaestus left if lying there for that express purpose. “Very well!” the goddess says, not looking at her, “when Athena sends you to the underworld, we will entrench upon our uncle for your release.” She turns on her heel and points a finger at her. Arachne blushes for no reason she can think of. “In return, you will weave me a gown, one equal to my own beauty.”
A gown as exquisite as the goddess of beauty. An impossible task.
They will tell tales of her hubris.
They will all be true.
The contest goes as expected. Athena’s tapestry is lovely, but Arachne’s is lovelier.
The goddess’s face goes red in rage, and her grey eyes narrow. Arachne stands tall, ready to accept the death blow coming for her.
The blow comes.
Death does not.
She is an insect. Even if she can make it back to Hephaestus’s volcano, even if they can help her, they will not know it is her. She has no hope left, no course of action, she should just give up. But –
She doesn’t believe in defeat, in loss.
It was a terribly long journey on foot, that first time. It is even longer this time, although now she has eight legs instead of two. She makes it to the volcano, and creeps in between crevices, until she finds out a hollowed room, one with a sliver of sunlight and plenty of bugs to keep her fed.
Athena’s cruel joke of allowing her to weave will be her downfall. Her silk comes out a golden yellow color – it will look exquisite against Aphrodite’s copper skin.
It takes seven years for her to complete it. She hasn’t left this room in the volcano in all that time, and as soon as it’s done she scurries out back toward the village. She’s a large insect, but not that large.
She arrives just as the sun begins to rise, and leaves before the first rays have even touched the earth, her prize tied to her back with her own silk.
Arachne doesn’t return to her room. Instead she goes to the more popular parts of the volcano, hurries and runs around terrifying stomping feet until she finds who she’s looking for and scurries up his leg and onto his shoulder.
“Huh,” Brontes looks onto his shoulder and blinks. “What on earth are you?”
She cautiously skitters down his arm, waiting. He bends closer and lightly touches her back. “Is – is that a piece of a honey bun?”
She looks up at him, waiting. It’s her only chance, if he doesn’t remember, if he doesn’t understand –
His face slowly fills with a cautious kind of wonder. “Arachne?” She jumps in place, being unable to nod, and Brontes cautiously cradles her in his massive hands, “We must find the Mater immediately!”
She jumps down, landing in front of him and running forward. “Wait!” he calls, and she makes sure he’s running after her before skittering back to her corner of the cave. It’s almost too small for him to enter but he squeezes inside and breathes, “Oh.” He stares for several moments, and Arachne climbs her web and waits. Brontes shakes himself out of his reverie and uses his powerful wings to bellow, “MISTRESS APHRODITE!”
There’s that same breeze and she’s in the crevice with them, “What was so important, Brontes, that you had to yell?”
Arachne sees the exact moment that the goddess sees the gown, golden yellow and glimmering, made entirely of spider silk. “Beautiful,” she says, reaching out a hand to brush down the bodice. Her head then snaps up, “Brontes, where’s Arachne?”
She warms at that, that Aphrodite knew it was her weaving even though she hasn’t been seen in seven years.
They’ve told tales of her hubris.
They are all true.
Brontes points at the web, and Aphrodite steps over and holds out her hands. Arachne crawls onto the goddess’s palms. “Athena is more powerful than I am, I cannot undo her work,” she says, “but I know someone who can.”
Then they are in front of a river. A handsome young man stands there waiting with a boat. “Goddess Aphrodite,” he says, “we weren’t expecting you.”
“Thanatos,” she returns, “I need to see Persephone.”
The man’s face stays cool, and for a moment Arachne fears they will be refused and she will be stuck in this form forever. Then he smiles and says, “My lady is of course available for her favored niece.” He holds out a hand to help her onto the boat, “Please come with me.”
Arachne weaves a dress for Hades’s wife as a thank you, and returns to her volcano.
“I can take you somewhere else,” Aphrodite says, “you don’t have to hide here.”
Arachne pauses at her loom. She has lived in this volcano for seven years. It’s her home. “Would you like me to leave?” she asks instead.
Aphrodite scoffs, “Of course not! How could I dress myself without you here?” She’s wearing the spider silk dress Arachne spun for her, and she’s working on another for the goddess now. Aphrodite runs a gentle finger down Arachne’s cheek and for a moment she forgets to breathe. “You are the finest weaver to ever exist.”
She looks up at the goddess, “Then as the god of crafts and goddess of beautiful things, where else would I belong besides with you and Hephaestus?”
To declare your company equal to that of gods is the height of arrogance and blasphemy.
They tell tales of her hubris.
“An excellent point,” Aphrodite murmurs, and tucks a stray braid behind Arachne’s ear.
They are all true.
gods and monsters series part iii