The web was tiny and delicately made, so small and thin she almost missed it. The finest of silver ropes stretched across a space the size of her thumbnail, modestly hung with three or four more. Poverty, or minimalism? It had caught a single elderflower, blown in on the spring breeze. The spider must be tiny, just starting out. Even the smallest mosquito captured by that web could make the difference between its survival and starvation. She hesitated. One swipe of the duster and it would all be gone. She lifted the duster. She put it down again. She was terrible at cleaning, and inconsistent with her compassion. Today was its lucky day.
She straightened up. Her house was small, and clean enough. There were flowers in a vase on the table. Her grandmother had given her that tip; if you don’t have time to clean, put out flowers, and nobody will notice the dust. She always remembered it, even though she never had visitors, even though her grandmother was long gone. The flowers cheered the place up and added their own delicate scent to the overwhelming smells of ginger and sugar and, from the kitchen, of children. Which reminded her, she still needed to clean out their cages.
She was not as lithe as she once was. Her knees creaked into place. Her back bent if left to its own devices. Although her hips were as sturdy and broad as a park bench, her legs were skinny now, and her belly soft. She felt her body curling in on itself, like a leaf. She missed her mother. For some weeks now she had been eking out the last of her sausages with watercress from the stream, nettle soup, wild sorrel. How she looked forward to her next roast dinner. The firewood was ready. The stove had been swept.
The children were murmuring when she entered but they soon fell silent, their big eyes turned towards her, black pupils huge in the dim light. Don’t use their names; more of her grandmother’s wisdom. They’ll be harder to kill when the time comes. The boy was still thin, despite the sweets, but the girl, though smaller, was becoming plump and soft. Her wrists had creases where they joined onto the swell of her arms, and her legs were solid and thick like the white stalks of mushrooms. She was hugging her knees, which were smeared with chocolate. Pink icing sat sticky in her hair. She would have to be cleaned well when the time came. Onions and rosemary would balance the sweetness. Her mouth watered. There would be enough for sausages to help her through the winter. Briskly, she started cleaning the cages and re-filling the food and water bowls. Early on, the children had cried and screamed and lashed out but they were compliant now and the jobs were quickly done. It was not until she had turned her back that the boy spoke.
‘I am Henry and this is my little sister, Grace. You invited us in. Please let us go. Our mother will be missing us.’
She ignored him. They were hers now, caught with as much effort and attention to detail as a spider catches its flies. Who knew when the next ones would happen by? She had worked assiduously to bake and build and decorate with the scented sugar that gave her a rash, and the flour that made her belly cramp to look at it. These may be the only edible food between her and starvation. So their mother would miss them. Well, life was hard and that was that.
She turned back for a moment. The boy, Henry, had a strained look, like an old man staring at death with pleading eyes. The girl, Grace, still waiting for her parents to find her, was too young to understand. Did she really need both of them? They had names.
The hunger was making her weak. Of course she needed them. Stuff and nonsense. Her grandmother would never have tolerated this kind of sentimentality. On her way out of the kitchen, she demolished the cobweb with one swipe. The tiny elderflower, unnoticed, floated to the floor.