New Fiction by Jessy Randall
FERN AT FIFTY-SEVEN
by Jessy Randall
“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” I said to my mother as we were setting the table for breakfast. I really did say that, just like in my brother’s book. And when I found out they were going to kill Winnie, I started to cry. I hadn’t understood at all about bacon. I was only eight.
I don’t regret what I did, not one bit. Why should I? It was no more a lie than my brother’s whole story was. The idea of a spider making words in a web made a lot of people happy, though it really shouldn’t have – if animals had thoughts and feelings and language, then we are all committing a lot of sins, really bad sins, every day and all the time.
People want to believe in magic. They still ask me if it was real, but they don’t really want the answer. I learned early on not to defend what I’d claimed back then, not to argue about it. “See for yourself,” I say, and show the spider web photographs. “What do you think?” It doesn’t seem to occur to them that someone my age – fifty-seven this year – might know how to manipulate a photograph. I didn’t, though. I never did a thing to the photographs. They were completely real.
If it’s just one person asking about it, I talk to her (it’s usually a her) for a while before I get out the album. Lead up to it, like. So it’s a reward for her patience and interest when the photographs come out. If there’s a whole group of people, especially schoolchildren, I can bring the photos out right away, because there’s a ripple effect. One kid will always see the words in the first web and then the others will say they see the same thing, even if they’re way in the back of the room and can’t possibly see the photo at all. Maybe one or two diehard skeptics will say they don’t see anything, but that almost proves it’s real to the others – if Bobby says it’s not there, then it must be there. Bobby doesn’t believe in ghosts, either, and everybody knows ghosts are real.
I don’t regret telling the truth now, either, though I seem to be having trouble actually setting it down. It’s unlikely anyone will pay attention to what I say, anyway. That faked-up story of a talking pig will survive for longer than I will, but it wouldn’t exist without my small lie. I guess a big lie is better than a small one, in terms of staying power.
You can convince people of completely crazy things if you get some momentum going. Jesus in a puddle, Mary in a piece of toast, why not words in a cobweb? To be totally honest, I’m not even sure now what I did, what I saw in that web and what I changed. I know that if you touch a spider web very gently with your fingertip you can let loose just one segment and leave the rest intact. I know some bits of the web are stronger than others. How would I know these things if I hadn’t experimented with a web or two? But I can’t remember the exact order of how things happened. It was so long ago.
Clearer to me is the tactile memory of Winnie’s skin just behind her head, the scruff of her neck, like. And how it felt being in the barn, the manure-and-skunk smell of it in my hair until bath night. The Author – my own brother – made up his own life and made me up in lots of ways, but I am real. I feel real to myself, at least. I’m pretty sure I’m real. I went to college. I went to Vassar! I have grandchildren now, two of them vegetarians, though who knows how long that will last. Those are all real things.
My brother was always more interested in animals than in people. He spent a whole year researching spiders so he could make Charlotte authentic – an authentic spider who can read and write!
If you want to talk about authenticity, I should say that my name isn’t actually Fern and never was. I like Fern better than my real name, though – my real name is full of Ls and sounds like the name of a queen of fairyland. I don’t mind when the schoolchildren call me Fern, or sometimes Mrs. Fern. Their teachers correct them for using an adult’s first name, but I know I’m Fern to them.
Even at age eight I knew how to convince my parents of things. Talk about “injustice” or “social responsibility” or “humankind” and you could get them to go along with anything. I remember talking them out of my curfew when I was fifteen, on the grounds that boys didn’t have them so girls shouldn’t either. I remember their mouths dropped open and they looked at each other and didn’t know what to do. I was also able to up my allowance by talking about fiscal responsibility.
People ask about Henry and the Ferris wheel. I remember it clear as yesterday. It was a marvelous fair, and Henry was funny and nice. He held my hand and I felt like I was going to explode with happiness. A boy liked me! Eventually we got to second base, but that was later, of course. At eight I had no second base to get to. There were other boys in between and afterward, quite a few of them before I got married. Oh, I know, it’s horrible to imagine an old lady like me going to dances and necking! Let’s change the subject!
I know you want to hear more about the spider webs. Well, let me tell you, I have always loved the alphabet. It’s so random, and yet so perfect. You can’t imagine it any other way. The letters have the perfect shapes and they’re in the perfect order. You can make them in dirt with a stick and then write your name in flower seeds. Wait two or three months and you’ll see your name spelled out in flowers. That’s just how nature works.
If you spend hours making a word in a spider web, you get to know each letter in the word very well, the curves in the R, the spaces in the H. It’s painstaking work, even if there’s a bit of a word there to begin with and all you have to do is make a few tiny changes.
The little oddities of the alphabet only add to its perfection. Why do we have the letter C at all? Yet it’s a wonderful letter. Q is quite extraneous – but everyone loves Q! Q and Z and J – all the best Scrabble letters. We played a lot of Scrabble when I was growing up, and then I played with my own children. I still play now, with my grandkids, keeping the words nice and simple.
At first, with the kids, I thought everything was way too hard – babies are a lot harder than Winnie was. Winnie didn’t cry for no reason! If Winnie cried, you could tell what was wrong immediately. Eventually, of course, the kids got old enough to talk and make jokes and I understood what motherhood was and how it was different than playing with a runty pig, even the sweetest one in the world.
I was an afterthought in the book, you know. The first draft didn’t include me. I was meant to be a way into the animal’s lives for the reader, that’s what my brother said. It worked, too, and those lies built the house I live in and the swimming pool out back. That’s a kind of magic.
Ugh, magic. What is magic, anyway? What could magic ever do for anyone? Could it bring an infant girl back to life a hundred years ago, and if it could, what would be lost? My brother, almost certainly, and therefore a beloved children’s book, and all these visitors to a lonely old widow. If that other sister had lived, he probably would never have been born.
Which makes me wonder, what sort of magic should be done, in the world? How can anyone know that? We have to content ourselves with the magic that is done, secretly and all the time.
For example: it was lucky, which is to say magic, that there was a big spider web in the barnyard that day, and that I could reach it, and that I was able to manipulate some of the webbing without destroying the whole thing. And it was certainly lucky and magic that the spider, whoever she was, didn’t abandon Winnie’s pen and set up somewhere else. And that I never got caught.
I always wondered if my parents knew. My aunt and uncle ran around shouting “miracle” and talked everybody into believing, but my parents were fairly silent on the subject. I’m guessing now that they didn’t want to come out against the family and say it was all made up, because next they’d have to say a lot of other things were made up, too, like every single thing in all our Sunday School classes.
My brother used to say that reality and fantasy make good bedfellows. That’s true, that’s exactly it. They’re on equal footing in the book and maybe with me, too. Winnie died when I was at college. She lived a good long life for a pig. I never asked what happened to her body.
There was one reviewer who wanted the book to have less magic. She said Fern was the center of the book and yet was “never developed.” Never developed! I developed as much as any person does – which isn’t much. Like Wilbur and Charlotte, I have true friends, and I still care deeply about injustice and fight it wherever I can. But that story about the pig and the spider wasn’t about me, anyway. I have my own story, and it’s up to me when to tell it, if ever.
Please Note: The author consulted several sources on Lillian White Illian, the redheaded sister of E.B. White, for this story. The best and most thorough was Michael Sims’s The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E.B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of American Classic (New York: Walker and Company, 2011).
Photo of spider web is by Chan-Pan Liao
Photo at end of story is of E.B. White and his dachshund Minnie
Jessy Randall‘s writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Nature, and Scientific American.Her most recent book is Mathematics for Ladies: Poems on Women in Science (MIT, 2022). She is a librarian at Colorado College and her website is here.