by Priya Sridhar
The dress shop had the best location in the forest colony web; it hung at a sharp east angle beside a mosquito-smoothie shop and a shoe store, where a thick branch had the best sunset view. During the afternoon foot traffic, many patrons with smoothies would loiter by the windows, to eye the freshly spun silk and styles on display. A few tried to rush in and get a sleeve mended or fabric altered for sudden weight gain or loss, but often they would leave after seeing the sign that read ‘ONE DAY MINIMAL WAIT.’
Miss Raglan, the proprietress, added beads to a sleek silken dress that hung on a wobbly mannequin. The wooden spider had lasted through many a dress, though Miss Raglan only took her out for special occasions. The customer who had demanded this particular gown, Chemise Fractal, had drawn out a specific pattern onto delicate green leaves. Chemise’s friends had also asked for dresses, so that Miss Raglan had a dozen dresses to finish before the Annual Orb Ball. Even though she had eight legs and lenses for her tawny eyes, she was still working day and night.
The bell attached to the door rattled. Soft footsteps padded into the shop.
“We’re closed,” Miss Raglan said without looking up.
“Miss Raglan?” a small voice said. “It’s me, Camisole.”
Miss Raglan looked away from the delicate beading. A spider dressed in navy green fidgeted behind the counter.
“Bless my silk!” she said. “Camisole Topstitch! Fancy seeing you here!”
Camisole gave a shy smile that revealed her curved fangs. She had grown three times her weight, unfit for the light pink funnel dresses she had worn as a spiderling. The green she wore now matched her eyes.
If Miss Raglan hadn’t been holding a pincushion, a bag of beads, needle and thread, the bead pattern, and extra fabric, she would have swept up the smaller spider into an embrace. As it were, she embroidered another bead into place.
“Now isn’t a good time. It’s going to be a late night.”
“That’s all right,” Camisole said in her soft tone. “I can wait until you’re done. I don’t have any other appointments.”
She settled herself on a stool meant for customers. Miss Raglan saw the puffy, beaded tote slung over Camisole’s shoulders. A bolt of brilliant yellow and pink striped material came out, as well as a smaller needle and thread. Camisole threaded the needle without pricking her leg and began to sew quietly.
The spiders did their work in silence. Miss Raglan finished the beading on the dress. She compared the pattern on the cloth to the pattern on leaves in her hand. Then she set the beads down into another bag, which had an intricate knot on it. She made a show of putting the other materials in organized places.
“Thank you for waiting, Camisole,” she said. “What are you working on?”
“Oh, this is a negligee for sleeping in the web.” Camisole held up the yellow and pink stripes. “It’s based on what the Minister of Abdomens wore during that holiday concert. It’s not for anything special. Just to keep my legs calm.”
Miss Raglan eyed the dress. It had a ruffled lace collar and hem, and a thick cut for a spider. Still, it wasn’t for business and Camisole’s breathing had slowed while she had worked on it.
“How can I help you?”
“I need a favor,” Camisole whispered. “I need a place to work on a dress.”
“On that one?” Miss Raglan asked with surprise.
“No.” Blushing, Camisole reached into her bag and pulled out a letter. “My college roommate, Araniella, she paid me to work on a dress for her. But I can’t work on a dress for her if she’s watching, and she likes to watch me sew usually. She studies and keeps one or three eyes on me.”
Miss Raglan understood immediately. The feeling of having a customer watch you do work, and sometimes open their toothy mouths, was enough to make the hairs on her back crinkle. Still, she curled her fangs.
“I’m not sure,” she said. “I have to do a rush job for a customer, several of them. It’s not a good time to have more seamstresses in the shop.”
The silence that followed weighed on Miss Raglan. Camisole’s face crinkled with disappointment. Her legs slumped.
“Please. I’ll do anything,” she begged. “If I sew in front of her I’ll mess it up, and I can’t do it at home. I’ll clean up the shop. I’ll get your stamen tea.”
Miss Raglan perked up. She hadn’t made a proper cup of stamen tea in ages, not since this commission, and dust had been gathering in the shop counters.
“I do need to focus on these orders,” she admitted. “If I teach you how to run the shop, you can sew here. But I will have to lay some ground rules-”
She couldn’t finish because Camisole leaned over the counter and drew her into a hug. The spider had a tight grip, and her bag banged against Miss Raglan’s left legs.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” she said. “I won’t let you down!”
* * *
On the beginning of the first day, Miss Raglan had her doubts. She held out a broom to Camisole, who took it with wariness. The broom was long and brown with knobby bits, the bristles and stick held together by heavy-duty silk. Miss Raglan had fashioned the broom herself after a huge storm of wooden bits had hit the neighborhood.
“It’s pretty simple,” Miss Raglan assured her. “You get all the dust and stray threads into this dust pan.”
Camisole held the broom at an angle. She experimented with different ways of angling the brush end, and tried to sweep slowly. Impatience bubbled inside Miss Raglan. The harsh swishing sound made her cringe. Still, Camisole had trouble moving the dust into a neat pile.
“It doesn’t have to be perfect,” Miss Raglan said as kindly as she could.
“But I want it to be,” Camisole said.
“So do I,” Miss Raglan muttered to herself.
The broom swept for most of the morning. Miss Raglan turned away from the harsh sound and buried herself in more embroidery.
Camisole was better at tea. She was familiar with the automatic kettle that Miss Raglan used, though she consulted a book on how many cups of ground stamen to add to the kettle after it steamed. The smell of the dried herbs lightened Miss Raglan’s mood. A yellow-green liquid came out, bubbling in the small cup.
Miss Raglan tasted the cup. Camisole stood back, nervously. The tea was too weak.
“Try not to be cautious with the stamen grounds, dear,” Miss Raglan said. “I like my tea nice and strong, so that it’s dark green. But not bad for a first attempt.”
“I understand,” Camisole said softly. Her head drooped. She drank all of the weak tea and prepared another pot. They watched the steam rise. This time the tea was more to Miss Raglan’s liking.
“No one ever gets things right the first time,” she said as she sipped. “The ones that do, well, we want to string them up for the wasps. You’ll get the hang of it.”
Camisole didn’t look reassured, though she seemed relieved at having made a better pot. She scurried over to where the broom was leaning against the shop wall, picked it up, and studied it. Then she set it on the ground and tried to sweep again.
“That is better,” Miss Raglan said honestly. “One day you may even run your own shop.”
Camisole managed a small smile. She succeeded at sweeping the dust into a neat pile.
* * *
Sewing was a relief. Miss Raglan lent Camisole a storage room she wasn’t using, where bolts of fabric were arranged on the shelves. Camisole took out the dress from her purse, a tint of maroon, and set it on a dress form. The skirt had a stiff, curved skeleton made out of tree bark and rolled up silk embroidering the edge.
“A funnel dress,” Miss Raglan said with surprise. “I haven’t seen those in a while.”
“Araniella asked for it,” Camisole replied. “She said she couldn’t find any dresses like it in Funnel Town, so she asked me to make it instead of having to order it from somewhere else.”
Miss Raglan pressed her lips. She eyed the neat stitches along the hem, the hints of ironing, and the layers of petticoats.
“Is something wrong?” Camisole asked.
“No, not at all,” Miss Raglan said quickly. “You can borrow any material here as long as you keep everything neat. I need to start on my rush jobs.”
She scurried outside, and looked at the latest dress. It was a slim number, with minimal fabric. Miss Raglan shook her head. Compared to Camisole’s dress, it resembled a lampshade. Still, lampshades were in fashion. She was not one to argue with changing minds.
Camisole started to sing. Miss Raglan could hear her through the closed door. It was an old sewing song, from the days when the seamstresses weaved their own silk, and thus could take weeks to make one dress.
“They say home’s where the heart is,
Wherever that may be,
But hearts are always changing,
Desires tend to flee.
But I know I am settled,
When I cut and baste.
Such projects can’t be fussy,
For hearts do not like haste.”
Miss Raglan shook her head. It brought back memories of a younger Camisole, who used to be in spiderling choir and dream about being a singer. Back then the spiderling had shown more energy and courage.
“Bolts of solid silk,
Are maps of new lands,
Each stitch a new mark,
A claim to stop and stand,
To say this is paradise,
And I will never leave,
No matter the storms,
No matter how I grieve.”
Miss Raglan couldn’t help but join in on the last verse. She knew the words by heart, since the words often carried her through a slump or when a demanding customer wanted her to mend a rip in fifteen minutes.
“To say this is paradise,
And in paradise I will stay,
No wind or raging flood,
Will ever blow me away.”
* * *
By the third day, Camisole had settled into her position. She swept the floor in the morning, polished the glowing crystals, and prepared several pots of stamen tea. Miss Raglan had come to relish her singing because it told her that Camisole was happy. She had forgotten what it was like to have company among the silks and threads, to have more than wind leafing through her patterns.
They started sewing together, Miss Raglan in the main room of the shop and Camisole in the back room. Camisole sang softly as she worked on her dress:
“To say this is paradise,
And I will never leave-“
The shop doorbell tinkled. Feet clicked against the clean floor. Camisole stopped singing abruptly.
“Good morning, Miss Chemise!” Miss Raglan said with fake cheer. “It is always lovely to see you.”
Chemise gave her an icy look. She had dressed in silver today from head to legs, a fitted suit in alternating shades that showed off her oval frame. Each of her eyes was a chip of gold, framed behind stylish glasses.
“I’ve come to do fittings,” she announced. “My daily abdomen cleanse got cancelled due to my specialist having an inconvenient accident.”
“Really,” Miss Raglan said, gnashing her fangs. “Anything for you. But you will have to give me a minute to clear out space since you weren’t on today’s schedule-”
Chemise climbed over the counter that separated the main part of the shop from the customer area, and made it look like an elegant gesture. She studied the mannequin, which had a slim hot pink dress.
“So this is my dress,” she said. “It seems you made some changes to the design I drafted.”
“No, Miss Chemise. This dress is for Miss Bishop Vogue. Your dress is finished, and right here.” Miss Raglan hurried to the racks, where she pulled out a gown wrapped in protective silk. “I made it exactly as you demanded-”
“Yes, yes.” Chemise waved a leg at her. “Of course Miss Bishop would choose something so whimsical; she always reminded me of those cheap flea circuses.”
She took the wrapped dress in her legs and studied it. Miss Raglan held her breath.
“You show reasonable competence,” she finally said. “It seems you followed my instructions to the letter. I do have some suggestions for making it more in style. These beads need to be ripped out. They clash with the material, especially with the trend for lampshade figures.”
Miss Raglan restrained the urge to take Chemise’s head between her fangs. She instead kept gnashing as quietly as she could.
“Would you like to wait until I take out the embroidery?” she asked with rigid politeness.
“That’s not necessary,” Chemise said, striding towards the back. “The beads have nothing to do with the fit, and I wish to make sure that you have accounted for my measurements.”
Miss Raglan tried to move forward. Chemise blocked her with her body and ripped the door open. A distasteful expression crossed her eyes.
Camisole froze behind her dress. She had been adding a few lace hems.
“And what have we here?” Chemise asked.
“I, I-um,” Camisole started.
“I, I um,” Chemise repeated in a mocking high-pitched tone. “Stand up straight and face me like a proper spider!”
Camisole jumped from behind the mannequin and stood. Her legs wobbled as Chemise circled her and the wooden spider.
“Miss Chemise, if I may-” Miss Raglan started.
“What a gown,” Chemise said with sarcasm. “And in the funnel style. I’ve only seen portraits of my grandmother wearing it.”
Camisole looked like a wasp had stung her and had laid eggs on top of her body. She didn’t move a muscle as Chemise stroked the fabric.
“What is a spiderling like you doing in the ancient era?” Chemise snarked. “Some spider who can hand stitch like this needs to get with the times! No one uses bustles these days!”
“I-it’s for a friend,” Camisole offered. “She-she likes bustles.”
“A friend who likes bustles.” Chemise gave an unkind laugh. “Bustles don’t do a thing for spider figures these days.”
The spiders turned. Miss Raglan seethed at them, at Chemise for being so rude and at Camisole for being so meek.
“Camisole’s client asked for a vintage funnel gown,” Miss Raglan explained coldly. “She had to make it according to those specifications. Ultimately the client will decide if the dress needs a bustle. Miss Chemise, would you like to start your fitting?”
“Yes, I will,” Chemise said. “Your specialized apprentice is excused.”
Camisole trod out without another word. She left her dress on the mannequin. Chemise met Miss Raglan’s steely look.
“Speak to me like that again and I will make sure you only hem bedsheets for the rest of your life.”
“Apologies,” said Miss Raglan without feeling sorry. “Let us get started.”
It was the tensest fitting that Miss Raglan had ever done. She had marked the areas by which to remove the beads. Chemise demanded water to clean her face and crickets to feast on, not caring if she got the gown dirty. Still the dress went on, and came off. Chemise left with clicking steps.
Camisole didn’t return to the shop. Her pouch dress remained on the mannequin and hung like an umbrella. Miss Raglan studied the structure and poked at it. The maroon kept hanging. It did look like something you’d see in a grandmother’s portrait.
When the dimming light made the web outside gleam, Miss Raglan wrapped herself in a thick blue shawl with reflective pieces of crystal sewn into it and set out. She scurried along.
“Camisole!” she called out. “Camisole, where are you?”
Spiders scurried past, heading to the evening life and to the glowworm clubs. Miss Raglan walked back and forth across the web, calling and fretting. Then when she doubled back, she stopped by the smoothie place.
A pile of empty mosquito smoothie cups marked Camisole’s spot. She huddled inside a tiny table made of a ladybug’s red shell. Miss Raglan squeezed between the many tables, some of which were carved from pill bugs and katydid bodies, and sat beside her.
“I’m sorry,” Camisole said, slurping noisily at another smoothie. “I shouldn’t have wasted your time.”
“Don’t apologize,” Miss Raglan said. “Chemise Fractal can’t run me out of business. I’ve been around for longer than she was alive.”
“Not that,” Camisole said. “The material, the space, not being good enough. I’ll pay you for the fabric I used, and for the tea. I should have realized my style was too old-fashioned.”
She downed the rest of her smoothie and wiped her mouth. Red and black liquid dripped from her fangs. She licked at it.
“Araniella will understand. I’ll find her another dress that is more suitable, with someone she can afford-”
“Camisole Topstitch,” Miss Raglan said in a stern voice. “Chemise Fractal doesn’t decide what is and isn’t fashionable. She isn’t your boss any more than I am, You obviously love what you’re doing, or you wouldn’t have spent so much time and effort on that dress. This isn’t your main profession yet, and there is time for you to learn.”
“But I can’t learn.”
“I’ve tried,” Camisole said miserably. “I’ve read every fashion magazine. I’ve attempted to make different designs in the Tanglewood style. But it’s no good. I’m best with funnel dresses, which people only want if they like the older styles. I’ve known for ages, but I was hoping that at least I could make Araniella happy.”
They sat in silence. Camisole used a leaf napkin to dab at her mouth. Miss Raglan twisted her legs around her shawl.
“Why don’t we have Araniella come in and look at the dress after it’s finished?” she said. “You’re almost done with it, so you may as well see it through to the end.”
“But what if she calls it old-fashioned?” Camisole asked.
“Then it’s old-fashioned, and you learn from it,” Miss Raglan said. “It doesn’t mean making it was a waste, or that you are a bad artist. No dress made is a waste.”
She took one of Camisole’s legs and stroked it. Slowly the younger spider calmed down.
* * *
The end of the week had come. Camisole had swept the shop so well that the dust had no time to settle anew each day. Her stamen tea came out perfectly the first time she made it. Still her fangs quivered. So did her legs.
“If she doesn’t like it, you can move forward,” Miss Raglan said, nursing a cup of tea herself.
The shop’s bell rang. A curvy spider dressed in red and black spots came in. She was even larger than Camisole, though Miss Raglan could have guessed that from the measurements. She wore a hat made from moth wings.
“Hi, Ara,” Camisole said softly.
“Cami!” The spider dropped her purse and ran to her roommate, giving her a big hug. “So this is where you’ve been hiding? I missed you.”
Camisole returned the hug with four legs and gave a nervous smile.
“I wanted to finish the dress properly,” she said in a small voice. “I thought it wouldn’t be perfect unless I focused on it.”
“Forget perfection; how would I pay you if you just disappeared during a holiday week?” Araniella asked. “What, I would leave your money under the pillow like the Incisor Fairy?”
Camisole’s smile became more genuine. She led Araniella to the back. Miss Raglan followed, clutching her mug of stamen tea.
Finished, the dress looked like a maroon circus tent. Camisole had done panels of alternating white and black, and had embroidered different scenes on each panel. One panel showed a spider lazing in the sun under a curved leaf, while another showed spiderlings blowing in the wind on silk parachutes. The ruffle collar was bright white lace that dipped into a curve. Her legs had bled from pricking herself with the needle several times.
“Oh, Cami,” Araniella said in a breathy voice. “It’s exactly what I wanted!”
She stroked the silk, and giggled at how it rippled beneath her legs. Miss Raglan couldn’t help but smile. She had seen that look, on many customers that had left with a purchase.
“You- you don’t think it’s old-fashioned?” Camisole ventured.
“Well, of course it’s old-fashioned, and I love it,” Araniella exclaimed. “Why did you think I asked you for it? No one can get a proper funnel gown these days! This embroidery is beautiful!”
Miss Raglan released a breath she didn’t even know she was holding. Camisole also sighed in relief. Araniella grabbed her in another hug.
“I know you want to be better, but your best is already good,” she said. “You have to believe that. I’m always going to want a Camisole Topstitch gown, and others will as well. Can I try it on? Can I, please, can I?”
“Oh – of course,” Camisole said. “Let me get it off the mannequin for you.”
She worked carefully, so as not to mess up the bony skirt underneath or to tear at the delicate embroidery. Araniella clutched it in her legs.
“Wow. I had no idea,” Camisole said as Araniella went into the dressing room.
“I figured, when you said she was watching you stitch,” Miss Raglan said. “She must have known what you sew best already. You mustn’t doubt yourself when an expert claims to know better.”
“But then what?” Camisole asked. “I go back to college, keep sewing, and . . .”
“You find more spiders like Araniella,” Miss Raglan said. “You find out who will want your best. But even if that fails, sewing is your paradise. That’s why we sew, for that happy feeling. Don’t let anyone ever take that away from you.”
She wrapped Camisole into a hug that she should have given her the first time. Araniella squealed from inside the dressing room. Camisole relaxed and returned the hug.
* * *
Originally published in ROAR 8
About the Author
A 2016 MBA graduate and published author, Priya Sridhar has been writing fantasy and science fiction for fifteen years, and counting. Capstone published the Powered series, and Alban Lake published her works Carousel and Neo-Mecha Mayhem. Priya lives in Miami, Florida with her family.