originally appeared in Three Crows Issue #5
Some years ago, when I was just a girl, my brother broke his arm during a gymnastics class. Though I wasn’t there to see it in person, he later showed me pictures of the bone sitting unnaturally inside its casing of flesh as a testament to the fragility of the human body. For years afterwards, I had nightmares of my own bones cracking under the skin, rearranging themselves, making joints that folded the wrong way.
When they received the call, my distraught parents spirited him away to the hospital, and despite my protests, they dropped me off at my grandmother’s house instead of leaving me alone for the afternoon.
My grandmother lived in a small brick bungalow scarcely updated since the fifties; I ascended a flight of concrete stairs, and my parents, still with the car running, waited just long enough to see the front door open before they motored off.
The screen door crosshatched her pale doughy face, with so much excess flesh that it folded over her dark beady eyes and thin mouth.
“Ewelina! My dear, come in!”
I opened the screen door with a creak and was immediately enveloped in a fleshy hug. “Daj mi buzi,” she said, and I obligingly pecked a small kiss on her dry cheek, trying not to inhale her musky odor. The folds in her skin felt limp and loose against my lips, like a deflated balloon, and I pulled away quickly.
The ruffled curtains were pulled shut, dimming the living room with its plastic-covered sofa, ancient tube television, and hideously ornate lamps. My grandmother shuffled past me and said, “Come. You are too skinny.”
“Not according to Kiki at school,” I muttered under my breath.
In a flash, she had my arm in a vicelike grip and was tugging on the flesh that dangled above my elbow. “Look! Not enough.”
Mortified by my grandmother pinching my arm flab, I tried to yank free, but she held me tight. “Your skin is beautiful. You need more of it, not less.” Then she patted me on the cheek and bustled off to the kitchen, where she served me pierogi, standing over me to ensure I consumed every bite.
“Come,” she said as soon as I had finished. “You’ll help me with my knitting.”
“I think maybe I’ll just read for a bit,” I said.
She fixed me with her calculating eyes. “You’ll help me with my knitting.”
“But I don’t know how to knit!”
“Nonsense. You just hold the yarn.” She settled into her favorite rocking chair and fished out a spool from a basket by her feet, forcing me to sit on the floor as she clacked her needles together.
“Can we turn on the TV?”
Without looking up she said, “No, too distracting.” The needles clicked and clacked like skeletons rattling their bones. “I know. I will tell you a story.”
Back in the old country, in my village, something strange would happen each October.
Just as September had cooled, a return of mild weather blossomed before winter. We called it Babie Lato: Old Woman’s Summer. The English call it All Hallow’s Summer. Here in America, it is called Indian Summer. It is said to be the second youth… Well, let me tell you, I would certainly appreciate a second youth now!
During this time, children frolicked out of doors. Farmers were glad of their good fortune. Gospodyni, – the housewives, took leisurely walks through the village. Although it was an unhurried time, it was also a productive time, for it is more pleasant to work when the weather is fine.
The strange thing that happened during Babie Lato was that, as you carried a bucket of water home from the well or worked in the fields, you might see a strange, ghostly substance floating on the air.
I remember the way these gossamer strands glimmered in the sun as the wind took them here and there. Sometimes they would land in the grass, and the children would run off to find as many as they could; other times, they floated out of reach, impervious to the pull of the earth.
These fleeting treasures meant the Blessed Virgin Mary was working at her spinning wheel, weaving clothes for the poor shivering souls in purgatory. Others believed them to be mora, the souls of the living able to leave the body at night and fly like wisps of straw or matted hair.
But I can see you want to know what they really were, so I will tell you. They were the wayward cobwebs of spiders who would spin more industriously during the period of mild weather.
And though it was a lovely time for all, it was not so for the spider, who dared to claim that he could spin finer thread than the Virgin Mary, so God decided that the spider should spend his life in dark corners and neglected places. And that is why you find spiders in the gloomiest crevices of your house.
Naturally, no one could ever claim to spin finer thread than the Virgin, but it so happened that my own mother was an exceptional seamstress. One Babie Lato, she decided to create a gossamer scarf out of the webbing that I collected from the air. But what started as a scarf soon turned into a full cloak composed entirely of those fragile filaments.
Her cobweb cloak became the talk of the village. All wanted to see and touch the numinous garment. It was so soft and light that it felt almost like nothing at all. We tried it on each in turn.
Of course, when winter arrived and carried its bitter cold into our village, no one cared any longer about the gossamer cloak, for it could warm none—not when the weather turned and the men bundled into their heavy coats and the gospodyni stoked the fires to get them through the lengthening nights.
No, we had no use for a pretty cloak, then. But sometimes I still took it out while my parents slept, and wore it like a second layer of skin. I was never as fine of a seamstress as my mother, but I have spent my life practicing. Now I am almost as good.
“I don’t believe you can sew clothing out of spiderwebs. They rip as easy as anything,” I said doubtfully.
“Believe or don’t,” she said with a shrug.
This irked me. Wasn’t she supposed to want me to believe? I sulked.
Imagining my great-grandmother’s preternatural ability to sew a cloak out of spiderwebs, I watched the smooth movements of my babcia’s hands as she knitted; watched the yarn unspool from my hands to weave into whatever she was creating, which I did not ask; watched the shifting of her shoulders as she repositioned her needles. The more I watched, the more I noticed certain peculiarities, perhaps because I had never observed my grandmother so carefully before. Yet it seemed to me there was an odd shape to her body—not just the hunched shape of age, or the gnarled hands of a hard laborer—no, it was as if her skin didn’t fit right.
And then it seemed she wasn’t my grandmother at all but some imposter, which I knew was absurd. But I’m sure I’m not the only one who has ever had such an unsettling sensation—who has looked at a loved one and had that creeping feeling that she was, in fact, looking at a stranger.
I’ve felt the same about my husband at irregular periods throughout my life. The worst of it is when I wake in the night, unable to get back to sleep, and turn over to see him snoring beside me; and when I look at his face I experience a moment of panic because I no longer recognize him, and I wonder what I am doing in this bed with this strange man, and the darkness seems to close in around me until familiarity returns, my breathing slows, and I realize how silly I’ve been.
“I wish you could have seen my village, Ewelina,” my babcia said, smiling wistfully. “Though it was austere and provincial, it was my home.” Her knitting needles clicked and clacked, and the bones inside her fingers seemed to shift and move like small strange creatures. “There was another woman in my village who had a special gift. I will tell you about her.”
All Souls Day was an important time for us. It was November, and with the cold weather came a quieter, reflective time, when families remembered their ancestors and all the dead who lived and died before us.
For this holiday, the gospodyni would bake a special bread—zaduszki, the bread of the dead. My mother, like the other housewives, baked her zaduszki into a simple log, but there was one woman, a widow for many years, whose zaduszki was famous throughout the village. It was shaped not into a log but a full human figure with impeccable details, from the face down to the hands and feet. The likeness was remarkable—so remarkable, in fact, that no one wanted to eat it. Some children even took to playing with these loaves of bread in place of dolls, as they were much more lifelike than their playthings of cloth and grass.
On All Souls Day, we baked zaduszki to share with the dziady—the beggars who came door to door. You see, unlike the way you see people today ignoring the homeless out on the streets, it was our sacred duty to feed the dziady.
One year, a beggar from another village arrived. You must understand, our dziady were from our own village, which was remote and insular. Everyone knew one other, so a stranger was as noticeable as an elephant.
He came to the door, looking as if he had walked for many miles to arrive there, and he wore a tattered cloak with a hood drawn over his face. All I could see were the hairs on his chin. His shoes had nearly worn right off his feet.
When I opened the door and saw this forlorn creature in the moonlight, I could not help but pity him. I rushed to bring him some of the Widow’s zaduszki, which he took eagerly at first, then hesitantly when he saw its uncanny likeness to the human form.
“It’s all right,” I said. “Eat.”
His grubby fingers twitched, and as he brought the zaduszki up to his mouth, I imagined a look of fear on the bread’s face.
I offered a prayer and asked the stranger his name. He told me, in a gruff disused voice, that he was called Kacper Pajak. He would not unbend his back or remove his hood, so I could not see his face.
It was cold that night; the winds crept in like death, and to see the poor man shivering when I had a warm crackling fire brought such feeling to my heart that I bade him come in and sit while he ate his bread.
Later, after asking the other villagers, I found that no one else had seen the stranger’s face. When visiting their homes, he kept his hood up all the while.
I was the only one who saw what he looked like.
It grew warm beside the fire as he gnawed on the zaduszki, too warm for his heavy cloak. Thinking this, I retrieved my mother’s cobweb cloak to show him.
“This is very fine,” he said, reaching out to touch the cloth. “You have great skill.”
Now, Ewelina, I am ashamed to say I did not correct him. I let him think I had sewn the cloak, for his compliment pleased me.
I asked where he was from.
He said, “Ciemne miejsce.” A dark place.
Then he lowered his hood.
Indeed, he was not so old as I had initially taken him for; he had a peculiar, misshapen face as if his skull had been broken and put back together again, and haunting black eyes.
Leaning forward, staring deep into my soul, he took my hand in his and said, “Thank you for the bread and the light. I am not used to such comforts.”
Drawing his hood back up, he left, and Ewelina, in that moment just before his face disappeared into shadow, I swear upon my parents’ graves, I saw not two, but eight gleaming eyes like black marbles staring out at me.
After that night, I thought I would never see the traveler again. By the next morning, he was gone, just a bit of gossip on the wind.
Then, late in the month, on the Eve of St. Andrew’s, I decided to partake of an old tradition to find my future husband. Have you ever done this? You wait until nightfall, then sit in a darkened room holding a candle between two mirrors. If you stare intently into the flame and concentrate on seeing your prospective husband, counting backward from twenty-four, he will appear to you in the shadows.
My friends were planning on doing the same, and the next morning we would discuss what we had seen. It was very exciting, in those days, trying to determine who we might marry.
That evening, when it grew dark, I sat in my bedroom, set up my two mirrors, and lit the candle. First, I gazed into the flame, counting backward, the brightness burning my eyes. Then, I looked into a dark corner to study the shadows and see my betrothed. At first all I saw was the dazzling ghost the flame left behind on my eyes. Then, after a time, that greenish afterimage shaped itself into a figure, like dough molding itself into the Widow’s zaduszki, details carving themselves out of the shadows, until, at last, I beheld the eight-eyed beggar, standing there in the corner of my bedroom.
The sun was setting against the windows, filling the room with strange orange light. Instinctively, I looked at the shrouded corners of the room, half-expecting to see someone standing there, but of course, we were alone.
“What did you do?” I whispered.
The shadows thrown over my babcia’s face gave her an uncanny look as she leaned over her knitting. “I couldn’t move, and in a moment the figure vanished like so much smoke. When my friends asked me who I had seen, I told them I had seen no one at all.”
“It’s not like you had to marry him, though.”
“You are correct,” she said lightly. “It is a silly old tradition.”
As her arms worked, her wrists turning and twisting, I saw veins bulge from her flesh, contorting it into ponderous shapes. From my position on the floor, I saw the loose flesh of her neck, wherein something like Adam’s apple bobbed and lurched as if trying to escape and she had to keep swallowing it down.
The beige yarn unspooled from my hands and her needles wove it into an indeterminate shape, but still, I did not ask what she was making. The fall of twilight subdued me.
“Who did you marry, then?” I asked. She had never told me anything about my grandfather, who had died, so I had been told, long before I was born.
She smiled, her crooked yellow teeth clacking together, and said, “I married Kacper Pajak, of course.”
Winter drew on, giving me just enough time to forget about him. But in the second week of December, word came to me that a traveler had arrived in the village, and my heart filled with dread.
I waited all day for the hooded beggar to appear on my doorstep. My behavior was so odd that my parents asked what was the matter. I couldn’t tell them, however, without also telling them about the man who came for the Widow’s zaduszki, and the ritual on the Eve of St. Andrew’s, so I set myself more deliberately to my task of knitting blankets for the cold season—I was always trying to live up to my mother’s talents, in those days—until, that evening, as we sat around to a supper of Kapuśniak—does your mother ever make it? It is a cabbage stew—there was a knock at the door.
“Who could be calling so late?” mused my mother as she broke off a piece of bread.
Seeing it my duty, I rose to answer, my heart climbing into my throat. When I opened the door, I expected to see the hunched, misshapen dziady with his eight lustrous eyes and his hungry mouth, but instead, I saw a man who stood with his back straight, wearing clean, pressed, elegant clothing, and I did not recognize him until the gleaming black eyes met mine.
What a shock! To see the beggar thus transformed into what appeared to be a man of modest wealth, and somewhat handsome, at that!
“I apologize for my intrusion,” he announced. “But I wonder if you could spare some supper for a lonely traveler?”
My parents invited the stranger to dine with us and offered him a place to sleep, in the way of village hospitality, and over the course of the evening, he charmed them greatly with his beautiful words. He said he was traveling to Warsaw, although he did not say why, and my parents, being too polite to wonder at a stranger’s business, did not ask.
In the end, of course, he did not leave for Warsaw, but remained in our village for some weeks, celebrating Christmas with my family and offering to work at whatever needed to be done. He was most industrious.
We ate meat more frequently in those days, at his insistence. He had a taste for flesh. And while he ate, he would spin these lovely tales of faraway places he had visited, tales which quite entranced my parents. Every so often he asked me to take out the cobweb cloak so he could see it, and he would compliment my skills, and I would take the compliments with guilt that they were not my skills at all.
No other man had lavished me with such praise before—I was drawn to him, such as it is with mysterious handsome men, and in January of the new year he asked my father for my hand. We were wed in a simple ceremony at the village church. Kacper requested the Widow make zaduszki for the occasion, and dress them like bride and groom. I wore my mother’s cobweb cloak and was the envy of all the village maidens that day. Soon after, I became pregnant.
And then he disappeared.
He told me, in the night, with one hand laid over my swelling abdomen, that he had to leave, but that he would return someday so I could give myself over to him as a wife must. In the meantime, he wanted me to sew something for him, although he didn’t tell me what. He only left a sketched pattern on the table.
All the rest of that night, I wept.
When my parents asked where he went, I feared to tell them I did not know, so I am ashamed again to say I lied. I told them he had gone to America where he had business connections and would make a great fortune, whereupon he would be able to send for me to join him, and that he’d had to leave urgently before he lost this opportunity.
As my belly grew larger, the entire village pitched in to help send me to America as soon as possible so I might join my husband in our new life. It was unfair, they thought, for me to have to wait.
I could not confess the truth, and so, the Lord help me, I watched on, dismayed, as my sweet village doomed me to starting a new life in a foreign land on my own. They gathered enough for my travels, and after I had given birth to your mother, I and my infant daughter went off on our long and arduous journey.
I never saw anyone from that village again—never touched my mother’s silky cobweb cloak or tasted the Widow’s zaduszki. All is forever lost to me, and irrecoverable. But I did keep the pattern he had sketched for me. And I practiced.
At this, she had to set down her needles, for the night had joined us in the room, grown now too dark to see.
“And what about Kacper Pajak?” I said. “Did he ever come back?”
My babcia merely smiled at me, her face half-masked in darkness; she might have gotten up to switch on the light, but instead, she reached into a drawer of the table beside her rocking chair and lit a candle, the flame bursting to pregnant life on the heels of a dying match. In that flickering candlelight, with its monstrous illusions, her smile was almost gruesome; the chair rocked her gently back and forth so that her face came in and out of the candlelight, now livid as the full moon, now a shadow; and as she rocked into the light, it caught her gleaming black eyes, and the shifting light moved strangely on her shifting skin.
And then, as she rocked into the light once more, I saw above her grinning mouth eight eyes like polished black stones.
Dropping the yarn, I flew to my feet, my heart racing. My babcia stopped rocking with her face in shadow and asked me what was the matter, which I answered with the only reply I could think of: “I’m hungry again!”
Setting her hands on the armrests, she slowly creaked to her feet, the muscles and tendons of her back straining to accommodate her unnatural skeleton. “It is good,” she mused. “I will make you something to fill this growing body of yours.”
Wanting only to get away from her, I watched her enter the kitchen, then grabbed the candle and fled down the hall—looking for what, I do not remember, and likely did not even know at the time—until I stumbled into my grandmother’s bedroom.
The candle caught the darkness and gently pushed it away.
Shrouding the room like a gossamer veil, in the corners and stretched over the dresser and coating the bed, were vast innumerable spiderwebs. My skin crawled with the imagined sensation of insects scuttling around in my muscles and fat. I listened to the clattering of pans and footfalls in the kitchen, and as I backed out of that dark place, I wondered with dawning horror what my grandmother had been knitting all this time.
All of that was many years ago.
To my great fortune, my parents returned to pick me up only moments later, while my grandmother was still in the kitchen, and I fled without even saying goodbye, glad to join them and my weary brother, and go home, where I slept that night with the light on.
I never saw my grandmother again.
Several weeks later, she died. My parents told me her body had run out of steam, but for reasons I did not know, she had a closed-casket funeral.
Typically, you understand, Catholic wakes are insufferable six-hour affairs, with the casket left open for friends and family to pay their respects—but no one looked upon my grandmother ever again.
It wasn’t until many years later when I felt strangely compelled to research my family history, that I decided to look into her death and stumbled across an obscure report in the database of a now-defunct police department detailing how she had been found. It seems her body was never fully recovered, and that was why we could not open the casket. All that was found in her home, after days or weeks in which she had been unreachable to us, was her skin.
About the Author
Joanna Parypinski’s short fiction has appeared in Black Static, Nightmare Magazine, Nightscript, Tales from the Lake, Vastarien, and Haunted Nights edited by Ellen Datlow and Lisa Morton. Her novel, Dark Carnival, was recently published by Independent Legions.