Charlotte’s Children


Copyright © 2016 Maeryn Lamonte – All Rights Reserved.

Avery Arable set his knife and fork together on his empty plate. There was no better way to start a day than with a good meal of bacon and eggs, and since Fern had left the farm to get married, he’d been able to enjoy good breakfast without having to endure her reproachful gaze.

Things had been quiet on the farm since all the furore over his sister’s little pig had died down. His parents had retired some years ago, leaving the farm in his and Fern’s capable hands, and now that Fern had left, things were just as he liked them.

Life had a pleasant rhythm to it. Every Friday evening he’d wander down to the local watering hole and spend the evening grumbling about the weather with Henry Fussy, who now looked after one of the neighbouring farms and could well appreciate that there was a lot to grumble about. The evenings tended to drift into maudlin reminiscences from Henry’s point of view, and most times he’d end up crying into his beer and asking why Fern had spurned his advances and gone and married someone in a nearby town. Avery never could quite bring himself to explain that Fern Fussy was not a name his sister would have considered living with for the remainder of her life.

The days were gloriously predictable – except for the weather, of course, and even that was predictably unpredictable. He’d wake with the dawn and feed the animals before tending to his own needs, then set to, working through the never ending list of jobs that was farming.

In short, life was good.

He drained his mug of tea, and dropped his dirties in the sink to tend to later in the day. Stomping his feet into his boots, he opened his back door and stepped out into the mud.

“Hello Wilbur,” he greeted the pig waiting on the path. “A bit miserable, eh? Not raining for once, but it looks like it’s going to later. There’s really been too much rain recently, don’t you think?”

The pig snorted in agreement, or so it seemed. Avery hadn’t been particularly involved in the events that saw Wilbur turn from potential pork chops to a member of the family, but he had learned to respect him over the years. As far as he was concerned, there were other pigs for bacon. Wilbur was special.

The pig followed him out to one of the waterlogged fields. Today he had to check the sheep’s feet to make sure they weren’t suffering from foot rot. For most farmers it was a long and miserable job spent chasing sheep all over a soggy field, but not so with Wilbur around.

Avery opened the gate to a sheep pen and arched his eyebrows at the aging animal. Wilbur didn’t move, but turned towards the field and seemed to clear his throat.

“Baramyu! Baramyu!” he seemed to say, then set about making a selection of noises that did not belong in a pig’s throat. The sheep paused and listened, then meekly and immediately made their way into the pen.

Wilbur closed the gate on them, and turned to his partner. “You know, Wilbur, that will do very well. You really are some pig.”

It took half the morning to check all the sheep. Most needed to have their nails clipped, and the ones that showed signs of rot spent a minute each standing in a bucket of copper sulphate solution Avery had brought with him. Each was released as it was checked, to continue its daily task of turning grass into wool.

With the job completed, Avery led Wilbur back to the barn and filled his trough. While the pig filled his ample belly, Avery looked around at his surroundings. The barn was its usual dark, dingy self, but the edges of the doors and windows were decorated with a lace-like pattern of spider’s web, and between the bars of Wilbur’s pen, an additional web spelled out his name.

“You know Wilbur; this is one terrific place you have here. I wish I could figure how spiders learned to decorate it like they have. I mean how does a spider learn to spell a pig’s name for goodness sake?”

Faced with the choice between listening to a human and tucking into a mess of food, the pig knew where its priorities lay. Avery knew he was being ignored, and left Wilbur to his food. It was rare that he had an opportunity to take a mid-morning break, and he quite fancied a cup of tea, anyhow.

The kettle was just on the verge of singing, when he heard a long, drawn out knocking from the front door. Not the rat-a-tat-tat of someone knocking to get your attention, but the slow, laboured banging of a bluebottle against the window, only ten thousand times bigger.

He turned the stove off and made his way to the front door. Not many people came to the front, mainly because anyone who knew him knew he was a back door kind of guy. In some small part it was also because the front garden had become so overgrown, that any intrepid explorer daring enough to attempt to reach the front door would need to come equipped with a machete, and they were in short supply, even in a rural community like this one.

He opened the door to find a familiar face looking back it him. A little green around the gills and sporting a fair few fresh grazes from the brambles, but it was most definitely…

“Hey Lurvy! It’s good to see you. I heard you went to sea. When did you get back?”

“Brains?” came the somewhat startled response.

Lurvy had been a farmhand under his father’s management of the farm. He’d always been a little ham-fisted though, and didn’t seem to have any more liking for the work than he had aptitude. The day Fern and Avery’s parents had retired, Lurvy had come to them, cap in hand and apologetic, and explained, with a great deal of stammering, that he wanted to leave the farm.

It turned out that he’d always harboured a dream of becoming a seaman, and saw this as his only opportunity to realise it. The young Arables had sent him on his way with their blessing, and as much as they could afford as a parting gift. The last they’d heard he’d been taken on board a merchantman heading for the Caribbean.

He’d been the talk of the village for a while. Folks took to calling him Scurvy Lurvy, and made jokes at his expense, imagining the magnitude of the catastrophe’s he was likely to cause on board a ship. The joking lasted a month, perhaps, then faded to nothing as months and then years passed without news. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, it’s said, but in Lurvy’s case, it simply made the heart grow forgetful.

“I was just about to have a cup of tea,” Avery said, passing off the older man’s comment as some seaman’s fad, or foreign way of speaking he’d not heard of. “Would you care to join me? I have some biscuits somewhere.”

“Brains,” Lurvy replied and took a step through the door.

Avery led his guest into the kitchen, the only room in the house fit for receiving guests, in his family’s opinion. He poured some water into the pot to warm it, and set the kettle back on the stove to boil again.

“So, how have you been,” Avery said, laying out mugs and searching out the sugar – which he knew Lurvy was fond of – and the biscuits he’d promised. He turned a blind eye to Lurvy’s shambling gait and unsteadiness. The man had always been clumsy, and he knew that seamen often took some time to reacquaint themselves with the steadiness of solid ground after months at sea. He also seemed oblivious to Lurvy attempting to follow him around the room, continually stumbling against the table and chairs.

“Brains,” Lurvy said insistently.

“Yes,” Avery continued in a chatty manner, “you already said that. I have to confess I’m uncertain as to what you mean by it though. You used to take three lumps of sugar as I recall. Is that still the case?”

“Brains!” Lurvy said emphatically, and lunged at Avery just as he turned towards the stove to rescue the whistling kettle.

Avery turned his back on the seaman and poured hot water into the teapot. So engrossed was he in the task, that he failed to notice Lurvy stumbling against the stove, and the sleeve of his coat catching fire.

“Brains!” Lurvy yelled with more than a little panic to his voice, and staggered towards the back door, falling through it and landing in the mud, where the dampness extinguished the flames.

“I do wish you’d stop saying that,” Avery said. “Anyone would think something was wrong with you. Look, I’d love to hear your adventures, so sit yourself down and… oh!”

Avery looked around the kitchen, confused by the absence of his friend. Teapot in hand, he opened the back door, and gazed out on the retreating form of Lurvy, the left sleeve of his frock coat still smoking gently, as he lurched down the street towards the village.

“Well, I wonder what that was about?” Avery muttered to himself. Still, he was an easy-going man, and ‘each unto his own’ was a maxim he had long since decided to live by. Perhaps Lurvy had remembered another friend he wished to visit. He couldn’t imagine it had been because of something he’d said.

He settled down at the table, unwilling to waste a good pot of tea, and allowed himself a biscuit, since he’d gone to the trouble of hunting them out.

The rest of the day had passed without incident. Avery fixed a few damaged fences he’d not noticed the previous day, and set about completing more of his chores. With the day done, and it being a Friday, he dined on reheated stew and set off to enjoy a few pints with Henry Fussy.

If he’d been hoping for a good gripe about the weather, he was sadly disappointed. Nearly the whole village was in, and just as well that Henry had beaten him there and had already bought the first round. Uncharacteristically, he was already halfway down his first pint when Avery walked through the door. His glass was in transit for another long pull when he noticed his neighbour and waved him over.

“What’s this about,” Avery asked, taking a long draw on his own pint. He didn’t know what the commotion was, but he understood pub etiquette well enough to know that he was expected to catch up.

“Haven’t you heard?” Henry put his glass down without drinking further from it. “There’s a ship in port, and not a merchantman neither.”

“What makes you say so?”

“No company colours,” Henry said, “and there was a young lad in just now, run up all the way from the Bosun’s Tackle, you know the tavern by the waterfront?”

“I know of it,” Avery admitted, not wishing to imply that he’d even been in. “What of it?”

“Turns out the captain sent his crew inland as soon as they was made fast to the quayside, then he and his first mate goes into the tavern and starts downing grog like it was mother’s milk.

“Anyways, with a bottle and a half gone between them, they starts talking free. ‘Out of Tortuga,’ says the skipper, ‘for them as knows what that means,” and taps the side of his nose.

“’Aye,’ says the mate, ‘and not long hence, we was running ahead of a storm and ran afoul the reef off Haiti. We lost near all the crew.’ He says this as though it was no great matter. ‘When we awoke,’ says he, ‘we found the storm blown out, and more ‘n half the crew on the beach, wandering about in a daze.”

“So what of it?” Avery wanted to know. “There are honest mariners sail out of Tortuga, and who knows if the crewmen who were washed overboard didn’t make it safe to shore. They wouldn’t have been far from it.”

“Aye, all that may be true,” Henry said, settling into his story, “but then he talked of a new strangeness in the crew; how they needed neither food, nor water, nor rest. How they would obey orders without question, and continue to work until they dropped or were commanded not to. He talked of how they could take a blow from a musket shot or a cutlass and scarce feel it. What business would they have facing musket and cutlass if they weren’t pirates?”

“I take what you’re saying, but I hesitate to believe it. I saw Lurvy today, and I can’t imagine he would be seen dead on a pirate ship.”

Henry downed the rest of his ale. “I rather suspect he has been,” he said. “Did he act strange in any way?”

“Well…” Avery reflected on Lurvy’s visit. It had certainly been unusual, but he didn’t want to get his old friend in any deeper trouble than he may have already been in.

“Hum and haw all you like. I wish I’d never come out tonight. If I’d heard the first mate’s tale before I’d come out, I most likely wouldn’t have. And right now, I plan to head home as quickly as I can.”

“And do what, exactly?”

“Board up the doors and windows, fetch my father’s old sword from the cellar, then douse all the lights, and wait quietly in the darkness, hoping they pass me by.”

“And if they don’t?”

“I imagine I would spend the night doing much the same, except perhaps I would lose awareness of our circumstances, and so perhaps become less afraid as the night wore on.”

“I didn’t think zombies felt fear, or anything for that matter.”

“They don’t, which is why I’d really rather not take the risk of becoming one,”

Avery drained his glass and sat staring at it for a moment. Henry also sat quietly staring at his own empty glass.

“I don’t suppose you’d like another?” Avery asked.


“Then I suppose we should go. We can keep each other company much of the way.”

“I was thinking the same.”

They bid the barman goodnight, who returned them a glance and a nod, pulling yet another pint. The two local lads wouldn’t be so very missed on such a busy night.

It was dark under a thick blanket of cloud, and the threatened rain had just begun to fall in a light drizzle. An ideal prompt for the inevitable discussion on the quality and quantity of weather they were having, except neither of them much felt like talking. They walked on in silence, bumping shoulders occasionally, apparently by accident, but each deriving some small comfort from the other’s physical presence.

After half an hour, they reached a fork in the road. The Fussy farm lay a further fifteen minutes on down the right hand fork, whereas the Arable land lay just five minutes down the left.

“You could spend the night with me,” Avery suggested. “The spare bed is made up and clean.”

“I don’t have my toothbrush,” Henry responded, and over such trivial matters are fateful decisions made.

Avery pressed on alone, hearing nothing more than the gentle shush of the rain on the leaves, and seeing little more than the light he’d left burning in the kitchen window. As soon as he caught sight of it, he doubled his pace, taking longer and swifter strides and almost breaking into a run over the last few yards. He was too good a farmer to run directly into the house though, and it was that sealed his fate.

He eased the barn door open a crack and slipped in out of the rain. He could hear the gentle breathing of animals all around him, and could feel the warmth of their presence. He kept a lantern just inside the door, with a box of dry matches next to it, so in a matter of seconds, he had the lamp lit, and looked around at the barn and its contents, revealed in heightened detail to his dark adapted eyes.

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The animals stood or lay in their stalls, turning lazy, disinterested eyes in his direction. He didn’t notice that some of the shadows were a little darker than the rest. He hung the lantern back in its place, and was reaching to lift the glass in order to extinguish the flame, when his legs were taken out from under him, and he found himself on his back with a weight on his chest and powerful thighs gripping him with vice-like strength.

A head loomed above him, cast into silhouette by the lantern. It was swathed in black cloth, leaving only the narrowest of slits for the eyes, but somehow he still recognised them. Steel grey, as hard and sharp as the blade at his throat, but somehow soft and caring too.

“Aunt Edith?” he asked in shock and awe.

Carefully, she climbed off him, resheathing her two long daggers and pulling the dark cloth away from her face. A second shape emerge silently from the darkness behind her.

“Uncle Homer?”

Again the face mask was removed to confirm his guess.

“What are you doing here? How can you be…?”

“Ninjas?” Homer asked? “We did a correspondence course last year.”

“You never know when it might come in handy,” Edith smiled, “and retirement can get so boring. As to what we’re doing here, we’re hunting pirates. Sweetie, you should really get out of those wet clothes. You’ll catch your death of cold.”

“There really are pirates then?”

“Yes,” Homer replied tersely, “and keep your voice down. A group of them are surrounding your house right now, and I don’t want them alerted to our presence. Now do as your aunt says and get out of those wet clothes.”

“What do you suggest I wear?” Avery wasn’t trying to be stubborn. His teeth were beginning to chatter, because the barn really wasn’t all that warm, despite the animals, and since he’d stopped moving, he’d begun to feel a chill.

“Wilbur, dear,” Edith leaned into the pig’s pen, “Do you think your little friends might be able to help? It really would be most kind if they would.”

The pig snuffled and snorted, then seemed to nod its head.

“Come and stand over here near to the lamp,” Homer Zuckerman instructed his nephew, “and take those sodden clothes off. Your aunt won’t look until you’re decent, you know that.”

“Decent? How will I be…”

“Look, just stop arguing and trust us, will you? Edith, keep an eye on the house till we’re done here. Avery, just stand still. I imagine this will tickle a little, but keep still. It’ll be for the best.”

Avery gave in. Left to himself, he’d have long since gone into the house, stripped off and stepped into a steaming hot shower, but if his aunt and uncle were correct, all that would have earned him was a second smile, in the hoodlum’s vernacular, and an early grave. He stripped off his wet clothes down to his underpants, then in response to his uncle’s glowering expression, even removed those.

A few moments later, he felt a gentle tickle on his back and raised a hand to scratch himself.

Homer’s hand darted out and grasped his wrist. “Hold perfectly still,” he said. “Hands out to the side a little.” He released Avery’s hand as the young man complied. “That’s better.”

Avery glanced down at himself and blanched. He was covered, head to toe, in tiny spiders, and they were moving back and forth across his body, spinning gossamer thin threads which intertwined to form the finest of fabrics. As he watched, his arms and upper body were covered in layers of sheer material, which lengthened from his waist, surrounding both his legs and billowing gently outwards.

“What the…”

“Just keep still. They’ll be done in a minute or ten.”

“But it’s a…”

“Dress. Yes it is. A wedding dress to be more precise. Didn’t you ever wonder where your sister managed to get hold of such an amazing gown for her wedding?”

“But why…?”

“They worked so very hard to learn how to make Fern’s dress just as she wanted,” Edith said from the doorway, her head still averted. “She was quite insistent that it be perfect. Every woman want’s her dress to be perfect on her wedding day.”

“But why…?”

“She showed them pictures from magazines, and explained how she wanted the skirt like this one, and the sleeves like that one. The bodice this way with a neckline like that. They’re very clever, you know, a lot like their, oh I don’t know how many times great grandmother, but they’re limited as well. It takes them a while to learn something new, but once they have it, they have it for life.”

“But why are they putting me in my sister’s wedding dress?”

“Because it’s the only clothing they know how to make dear, and you need clothing right now. For warmth and for protection.”

“Protection?” Avery looked down at the layers upon layers of diaphanous material that hung from his shoulders, the pretty lace patterns that were being woven into the fabric, clinging tight to his chest and arms, the billowing skirts, wafting about like so much cloud, and yet somehow trapping the heat of his body. He felt so much better. Warmth he could accept from even such an ephemeral garment as this, but protection?

The spiders were done, all of them firing webs off into the darkness and climbing back up into the rafters, back to their proper webs. The last finishing touch they’d added had been a near transparent veil that blurred Avery’s features without affecting his own ability to see.

“They like to keep their hand in,” Edith said, turning to look at her nephew, and ignoring his question. “Surely you’ve noticed the lacework around the doors and windows in here?”

“Yes, but…”

“Wilbur developed a strong bond with a spider many years ago. Her name was Charlotte, I believe, but then spiders don’t live very long. Wilbur cared for her egg sac and made sure it hatched safely. Most of the hatchlings moved away. I don’t’ know if you’ve ever seen it, but it’s a special sight, all these tiny, tiny spiders, spinning tiny parachutes and launching themselves into the wind. Three of them remained behind though. Joy, Nellie and Aranea, they were named, and they kept Wilbur company through another year, then their children, and their children’s children, up to the present. Wilbur asked them to make Fern the finest dress in all the world, and they did splendidly, and since then, they’ve continued to practice, especially working on the fiddly lace patterns. I don’t think they ever expected to make another dress, but once they’ve learned something, they like to keep it going.”

“Like writing Wilbur’s name in his pen?”

“Yes, just like that. Come here, Avery, step into the light a moment.”

A little self-consciously, Avery did as he was asked. The dress moved about him, caressing his body like a lover, or at least like he imagined a lover’s caress to feel. He’d never been so lucky in love, and in a small village like this one, it was hard to meet girls.

“My, but don’t you look radiant?” Edith said, taking his hand and pulling him into a gentle twirl. “So very much like your sister, it’s uncanny.”

Avery felt radiant too. He’d never given much thought to the clothes he wore. A button down shirt and a pair of dungarees worked well for the farm. They didn’t make him feel anything much, but they did protect him, and when he went out of a Friday night, he’d choose a clean shirt and a pair of plain trousers, and that would work well enough for him too. This was different though. There was something exquisite about the dress. The way it looked, the way it moved, the way it felt. He felt like a fairy princess, and while something in him seemed to say that wasn’t right, he found it difficult to think of a convincing argument why that should be so. He couldn’t help the smile growing on his face.

Uncle Homer seemed a little put off by it too, but then maybe he was just jealous.

The door to the barn flew open, and Avery’s ninja uncle and aunt dived in one fluid motion into the deep shadows. Even Avery hadn’t seen them disappear, and he’d known they were there. He hoped that whoever this was hadn’t seen them depart.

“Well, what have we here?” a course voice said with a lascivious chuckle. “Aren’t you a pretty thing?”

Avery had never been much of a fighter. Farmers, for all their strength and rough ways, rarely are. He could feel the threat emanating from the man as he approached. Every movement was arrogance, every subtle inflection of his voice was an imposition of his will onto the world. He was used to getting what he wanted, and what he wanted right now was Avery.

The young farmer felt a weakness flow through him. He couldn’t speak, could hardly move, and he was afraid to try in case he fell to the ground. It was such a lovely dress, it would be a shame to get it dirty, and his legs felt so weak.

“So, my dear,” the captain smiled, a broken fence of tobacco stained teeth peered unappetisingly in the bearded and weathered face. “What say you to a roll in the hay?”

“I’d say I’d rather not,” Avery responded, his voice constricted and high pitched with the terror coursing through him.

“Oh, don’t be like that. Or do, I don’t much mind, Demure is fine, but feisty is fun. I’m partial to a bit of both myself. And I will have you, my dear. You will be mine.”

The pirate advanced to within Avery’s reach. He wasn’t about to give up without a fight. He brought his open hand around with all the strength he’d built over the years working the land, but the pirate was faster. Combat reflexes swung into play, and he brought a hand up to grasp Avery’s wrist.

“Feisty it is then.”

It felt like a betrayal of his own masculinity, but Avery knew enough of how to fight dirty. He brought up his knee, aiming between the pirate captain’s legs. Again the captain anticipated the move and brought a leg across in time to protect his delicate area.

“Hoo, hoo, hoo. Now that’s just not playing fair. Time I taught you a lesson, I think.”

The pirate’s other hand darted out and grasped Avery’s free wrist. The strength of the man was formidable, and so was his stench. Avery couldn’t tell which it was forced him back the most, but either way, he found himself backed against one of the barn’s support beams. The man’s face was only inches from his own. Only one thing to do.

Avery lunged forward with his head, catching the pirate a crack on the bridge of the nose with his forehead. The man staggered back, both his hands reaching for his face. Avery tried to make a dash for the door, but the injured pirate seemed not to be disabled at all. A bloody hand leapt out and grabbed the farmer’s wrist once more, then with herculean strength, he threw Avery onto a bale of hay. His skirts went flying and revealed a little more than he might have wanted to to the advancing pirate.

“What!” the man roared. “You’re no wench. What business have you dressing like that?” The man pulled a pistol from his belt and aimed at Avery’s chest. There was a blinding flare, a blinding pain, and darkness.

“I think he’s waking up.” Avery heard his uncle’s voice and moved his head slightly. His chest hurt like it was on fire.

“Am I dead?” he asked, and coughed, instantly regretting it.

“Of course not silly,” his aunt said. He felt and heard the springs of his bed settle under a person’s weight. A cool hand touched his face and he tried opening his eyes.

It took a moment for his vision to clear, but when it did, his room came into focus, as did his aunt and uncle’s features, no longer wearing their ninja costumes. He might have wondered if he’d imagined it all, if it weren’t for the fact he was still wearing the white, lacy wedding dress.

“I thought I got shot in the chest,” He said. Another cough threatened and he swallowed in an effort to spare himself the pain.

“You were,” Uncle Homer said. “But that’s the thing about spider silk. It’s very strong. Do you know, they’re even looking into using it to make body armour?”

“It’s not that great if you feel like this after being shot,” Avery complained.

“Well, Dr Dorian thinks you’ll be okay,” Aunt Edith said. “The important thing is that it stopped the bullet from going through you. It didn’t stop it from cracking a couple of ribs, but what do you expect from a thin piece of material spun in a couple of minutes?”

“Dr Dorian saw me like this?” Avery was mortified.

“Yes, and he thought you looked very sweet.”

“Why didn’t you undress me?”

“We would have, but there’s no fastening on the dress. No buttons, no zippers, no laces, nothing. Fern forgot to tell the spiders about that.”

“Couldn’t you just pull it over my head?”

In answer, Aunt Edith lifted the skirts of the dress. Avery might have protested, but his chest hurt badly enough without his moving. With the skirts out of the way, he saw what he realised he had felt, but not wanted to admit. A thin layer of sheer material clung to each of his legs, encasing them tightly, and up around his crotch, multiple layers formed a pretty frilliness to the material that wrapped around his buttocks and… other bits. It was all woven into the overall fabric of the dress, trapping him securely.

He remembered his sister coming back to the farm after the wedding. She’d popped in to say goodbye to him once she’d changed out of the dress, but her first stop had been into the barn. Avery had always thought her real purpose in coming back had been to say goodbye to Wilbur, and the time she’d given to him had been an afterthought. Now he realised it had been all about getting the spiders to cut her out of the dress.

“What happened last night?” he asked.

“Yes.” Homer had the grace to look a little embarrassed. “We, er, we thought you’d be able to look after Captain Corbin yourself,” he said. “We were wrong, but in our defence, we were rather busy, ourselves.”

Avery looked to his aunt, since his uncle wasn’t doing a great job of explaining.

“We had to deal with the crew,” she explained. “Most of them were nearby, protecting their captain and ready to wreak havoc at his slightest command, so we had to take them out quickly and decisively. Unfortunately, zombies are rather hard to kill.”

“They were zombies then?”

“Oh yes. Haiti is the home of Voodoo. It turns out that a group of JuJu women on the island saw the shipwreck and decided it was too good an opportunity to miss to make themselves a few new slaves. Corbin knew a thing or two himself though, and took the opportunity to steal the talismans of most of the women, which he then traded back in return for his undead crew.

“They really are an asset to a pirate, especially when considering how difficult they are to kill. The only certain way is to remove their heads from their shoulders, and with blades like mine, that’s rather a tough call. Your uncle fared better, and we managed to dispatch all but one when we heard the gunshot.

“I ran into the barn to find the captain standing over you with a smoking pistol. Usually I don’t much care for killing the living, but in the captain’s case, I made an exception. He was a little too free and easy with his weapons, so it seemed like an appropriate sort of preventative measure in his case. Saving all his future victims by getting rid of him now sort of thing.”

“What about the rest of the villag. Didn’t his crew go everywhere?”

“Yes,” Uncle Homer picked up the story. “We think they were sent out to spy out likely targets, but only one came back with a definite destination in mind. He brought them all here, so at least we were able to take them out all at once.”

“You said you, er, dispatched all but one.”

“Yes. There’s something about him that’s a little different. We thought he deserved a chance at life, or whatever it is he has.”

“Brains?” a voice sounded from outside the room.

Aunt Edith opened the door and Lurvy lurched unsteadily in, carrying a tray with a couple of plates on it. One contained a plate of bacon and eggs, along with a steaming cup of tea. The other…

“In general,” Edith explained, as Avery tucked into his breakfast, “zombies have a craving for brains, so they tend to chase after anyone they see and try to smash their skulls in. They’re generally not as successful as people think, because they are so poorly coordinated, but they’re still kind of scary in large numbers. When Lurvy came to visit you yesterday, he had to fight off the urge to consume your brain, and it was only when he inadvertently set himself on fire, that he regained enough of his old self to run away from you – for your own protection you understand.

“He came to us, and we hatched this little plan. He would convince the captain to come here with all his crew, and Uncle Homer and I would be waiting to take them out. I think he’s had enough of the sea, and I’m pretty sure he’d like to come back and work on the farm again, if you’ll have him. He’s not a great conversationalist, but then I don’t think he ever was. He’ll work his butt off for you, day and night if needs be, and he won’t eat you out of house and home.”

“No, just the occasional human brain,” Avery said sarcastically.

“Actually no,” Aunt Edith said picking something black and vaguely sausage-like from the second plate.

“Brains, brains, brains, brains, brains,” said Lurvy, evidently excited.

“An old Japanese solution,” Edith threw the blackened lump directly into the zombie’s mouth, and he began chewing with some gusto. “Black pudding,” Edith continued. “Apparently they can’t distinguish between it and real human brains. Or perhaps they can, but oddly they prefer this.

“We should let you rest, dear. We can set Lurvy here to doing some of the more essential jobs around the farm, then you can decide how you want to divide the workload after that.”

“I have another question,” Avery said. “Wasn’t there a first mate as well? What happened to him?”

“That’s two questions.” Uncle Homer could be pedantic when he wanted to be. “The first mate, it seems, was acquainted with Henry Fussy. He ran away to sea as a young lad, we believe to avoid a scandal, and this is the first time he’s returned home in all that time. While the captain and his zombie hoard were falling into our ambush, the first mate and Henry were falling back into each other’s embrace.

“This morning, news of the captain’s demise and the destruction of his unholy crew has been the talk of the village. The former first mate – he’s captain and owner now by maritime law – was afraid he’d be condemned for his captain’s actions, and he’s run off to sea again. Henry’s gone with him. As we speak they’re assembling a new crew and busily seeking a cargo to take on-board.

“It turns out he was never happy as a pirate. When he signed on, the captain had been an honest enough merchant, but after running aground on Haiti, and getting his hands on an undead crew, his greed got the better of him, and he turned to piracy.”

“So all’s well that ends well,” Avery said.

“Yes,” Homer said. “Henry really was soft on your sister, as well as a good friend to you, Avery. He’s made the deeds for Fussy Farm over to you and her together. As I understand it, she’s been looking for a way to move back into the area, and this will enable her to do so.”

“That’ll please Wilbur.”

“I imagine so,” Edith said. “She won’t want to work the land though. That’ll be down to you, and you really won’t be able to manage it without Lurvy here.”

“Well I’d be delighted to have Lurvy back on the farm, as long as that’s what he wants as well. What do you say Lurvy?”

“Brains!” Lurvy said emphatically, tucking into a second black pudding.

“I think we can take that as a yes,” Aunt Edith said. “The only question that remains is how much you’ve learned from all this.”

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“And I’m sure that you do. You need to stop being something you’re not. Your uncle and I both saw the way you reacted when the spiders clothed you last night.

“Anyway sweetie, we’ve done what we came to do, so we’ll be off. Lurvy will look after you well enough while you’re recovering. You have a regular order with the village butcher for black pudding, and Lurvy will be quite happy to cook his own food while he’s making your breakfast. When you feel up to it, he can help you down to the barn where I’m sure the spiders will be happy to cut you out of your cocoon.”

Aunt Edith and Uncle Homer stood and made their goodbyes, leaving Avery to his own thoughts. He wondered at her choice of words. Of course spiders did make cocoons. They tended to wrap up their prey in them for future consumption. Then again, cocoons were used by other animals for very different purposes, and his mind’s eye filled with images of butterflies.

Avery rolled onto his side and reached under his mattress. It hurt a lot to move, but with a little effort he was able to retrieve the magazines he kept hidden there. It was an old habit, extending back to when he’d shared the house with his parents and his sister, but he still felt guilty about reading women’s magazines, and so kept them hidden, even when there was no-one to hide them from. He flipped through the pages of one until he found the centrefold spread. The dress in the photograph was beautiful. Shorter in length than the wedding dress he was currently wrapped in, but made from layers of the same sort of sheer, floaty fabric the spiders were so good at spinning.

He’d fallen in love with the dress the day he’d first seen it in the magazine, but the price tag had been exorbitant, especially since he knew he’d never have had the courage to wear it off the farm. At least not before now. Now that Dr Dorian had seen him lying in bed, effectively wearing his sister’s wedding dress, all the village would know of it. It was true he hadn’t asked the spiders to encase him in something so beautiful and decidedly girly, but knowing his neighbours, not one of them was likely to believe his side of the story. For better or for worse, this was who he was now, and if he was going to being hung for his crimes (figuratively speaking) he might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb.

He wondered how quick Charlottes children would be at learning new skills, how long it would take them to learn to make the new dress, whether they could cut him out of this one and leave it still useable, if they could learn to make their creations so that he could climb in and out of them as and when he wished. It might be a challenge, but he found himself looking forward to it.

He lay back and stared at the ceiling. Pirates, zombies, ninjas and spiders. Not the sort of things you’d wish on a person individually or as a whole, but who knew they could make such a positive difference to someone’s life. He felt quite humble that they had done so to his.