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“Don’t touch her.” Silvestro’s voice hits the starlight like a hiss of steam. “Not until after the dance. She’ll spread it to you if she hasn’t performed the Tarantella.”
“But it’s taking too long for Carmine to bring the instrument,” my father says back to the priest. The glow from his lantern sways sporadically, like a trapped lightning bug, as he falls to his knees in front of me. “Concetta needs to be held down, her little body can’t take much more.”
“Let the girl move the venom out,” Silvestro says. “The creature won’t lose its hold on her otherwise.”
In the white flames of moonlight, my fingers feel like charcoal when the seeds from the populus trees brush against them. The sweat on my skin easily captures the wind-tossed fluff, as if the sticky residue were barbed and sharp, and I think back to the wolf spider’s own splintery hairs. I think I can see her eight eyes peek out of the fanged cypress trees that tower around me as another contortion overcomes my body.
The two oil lanterns a few feet away shudder with their holders, as the men fight to calm their spooked horses. They stand around me at the edge of an olive tree field. My father’s lantern comes closer, and when it does, I can better make out the glow in his wide eyes. I hadn’t meant for him to be part of this moment, but I won’t let his presence stop what I intend to do.
I am still on the ground, but my eyes have adjusted to the lanterns, and I can see the two figures more clearly. My father, in his dusty coat and breeches, is riddled by tears. Silvestro fumbles to document my every symptom on a parchment of ink-stained paper. He gazes around the cypress trees annoyed, hopeful a sharp rock or low branch isn’t close enough for me to puncture myself on. It’s the same look he’s always given me, or rather it’s the look he doesn’t give me. A look I can get from every other man, single or married, in town but him. The priest’s morals won’t let him. But I had everyone else captured. An ideal wife in just a few more years. An innocent, silk doll.
Even when I had set foot upon the cobble streets of Certaldo earlier today, the giant, black welt of the spider bite very visible on my wrist, and hysteria broke out—it was the giant mass of people tearing their clothes off with caterwauls of dance and fright screaming, “if pure little Concetta can be possessed we all will be” that caught the young priest’s eyes first. Silvestro had calmed the mass madness of the town’s folk by explaining they had to be touched by me to actually be possessed by the wicked wolf spider. But now he had to deal with the little nuisance herself.
In his eyes I was a squish-able pest who had retreated into the secluded olive fields from the chaos I had wrought. He couldn’t foresee that I had intended for him to follow me there alone.
“Finally.” My father’s shout pulls me out of my head. “There. Do you see him?”
In between another convulsion I see Silvestro nod towards a distant lantern light that blinks between another olive field a little ways beyond us. The shadow of a man holding a guitar spins his way through the coiled trees behind the lantern’s glow, and I think again to the eyes of the wolf spider when they had similarly crept out of the branches of one of my father’s olive trees.
I had heard the warnings. Knew she would make me dance if I wanted to be released from her bile. That my body would shiver and moan in the release of the Tarantella if I were ever to be whole again. Sweet Concetta forced to quiver in unholy ways she shouldn’t know how to in front of the town’s typically preoccupied priest. I didn’t hesitate to hold my wrist out to her. The venom discolors my skin and widens my eyes, but I am fine.
The guitar man finally arrives among the light of the other two lanterns, and I can hear my father complain that it’s not a more noble instrument like a violin or a harp being used to cure his beloved little daughter, yet I keep going back to the beautiful wolf spider on the olive tree branch this red Tuscan afternoon. Envy coats me.
She had been swollen, bursting with tiny brown squirming life. Her children were wrapped around her round abdomen. More baby spiders than she knew what to do with. All wriggling like tiny chocolate diamonds caught in the light.
The guitar strums. I blink.
Carmine is beside my father with his instrument.
“Concetta, get up.”
Silvestro’s voice is still indifferent, but his eyes are on mine at last. After all, he is the town’s priest. He has to watch and make sure that the wolf spider’s evil is released.
“You have to dance now, the venom won’t leave until you do.”
I nod back at Silvestro, rise to do the Tarantella, but I know the venom will never leave. It’s always been there.
I clutch at my sides and weave under the starlight that illuminates the olive trees around me. My spine twists and pops, until my muscles disconnect, shriveling out into black heat. The vibrating roar of my insides is like six extra pairs of legs tapping the night air. Pedipalps strumming web. I scream, and I can’t tell if it’s blood or venom that sprays from my mouth. My heart may burst from the excitement. Father and Carmine could be miles away now for all I care, all I can see are the trapped eyes of Silvestro. He is mine.
Interview with Jessica Ann York, Author of “Tarantism”
What inspired your story?
My undergraduate degree was in Psychology, and I still keep my Abnormal Psych textbook next to me in my office. It has a brief section in the first chapter that mentions tarantism, a shared mass hallucination from the 15th to 17th century in Italy that caused people to believe they had to dance the tarantella to release the evil from wolf spider bites. That image was so evocative to me, and it made me want to create a female character who willingly took advantage of that hysteria for her own desires.
How long have you been writing?
I didn’t publicly share my dream to be a writer, until a college Creative Writing professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga pulled me to the side and told me that I needed to have faith in my hidden skill. From there, more and more English professors started urging me to switch majors. I was offered a fully-funded M.A. in Creative Writing by that English department the year I graduated with my degree in Psychology, and I haven’t looked back since. I’m proud to say I can live independently off my writing and editing skills as both a commercial blogger and fiction writer, after previously being so convinced that I had no talent. Those teachers’ words were everything to me.
Do you have a theme you return to time and again?
I always, always go back to writing women with uncanny, familiar-like connections to animals that are stereotypically portrayed as horrifying or dangerous. There’s something to be said about how most of these female animals, like snakes and tarantulas, grow much larger and live significantly longer than their male counterparts. I love using my writing as a way to twist the stereotype that nature favors the masculine, because clearly that’s not the case. As a female horror writer, I think there’s a reason we’re naturally drawn to the macabre and that our bones feel bigger than our bodies.
What are you working on now?
I’m halfway through my (fingers crossed) debut novel, and I hope to have it edited and submitted to a handful of agents by the end of 2021. It’s a YA dark fantasy that follows a young fish-man who has lost connection to his past lives and is trying to make friends he can trust inside a cursed forest where humans are skinned for their bones.
What else would you like people to know? Where can people find you online?