Spider. Galatea. 1999, 1960
Alone in the empty house, full of the banging of old pipes and the creaking of old walls slightly opening and closing at the plaster seams, as the weather turns warmer, then colder again, she is afraid. This is Olive's home, she thinks, it is nowhere without her being here to fill it. At the hospital they tell her it's too soon after the stroke to know when she'll come home. Unable to sleep and cold to the bone from the wind that whistled through the drafty house, she stumbles to the kitchen. She is so tired from accumulated sleeplessness that she can barely open her eyes to see where she is going. In the pitch dark, she opens the refrigerator door with one hand while pulling over a chrome chair from the kitchen set with the other. She sits down on its cold vinyl seat and stares into the 25-watt light of the refrigerator, her whaleish body thrusts forward into its blue yellow glow to shelter itself from the room's darkness. The foods there stare back at her from the shadows like the outlines of a fantastic fortressed city at sundown. The white freezer-wrapped salami with its brown seal broken; the chocolate cake on its crystal pedestal, hacked up like the remains from a serial killer's spree, the uncovered bowl of butterscotch pudding poorly mixed and shoved into a corner, the vat of Cool Whip where her spoon has plunged; the jar of fudge that drips its thick magic off the sides; and the bag of Fritos that mistakenly got tossed in when Spider was trying to clean up the trail of her hunger on the occasion of the visiting nurse. Here the plastic bowls and trays, aluminum tins and Pyrex dishes seem to shadow themselves, doubling and quadrupling like endless skyscrapers. In this cold box, they aren't food at all she thinks, but building blocks for a futuristic city. What kind of city will it be, she wonders, dislodging a triangle of pepperoni pizza. What kind of city will it be?
Here in the open doorway of her carnal dreams where she hopes her desire will be soothed, she remembers another kitchen and another life before the one in Galatea, where the whole known world lived in a cramped Cape Cod house in Providence, Rhode Island and her mother was still alive and her own name was still Ruth. To her child's body, the kitchen was a royal kingdom and the refrigerator its grand castle. Her mother had tied the door of the refrigerator shut, afraid that the child would climb inside, get trapped, and die. But Ruth learned to untie that nylon cord before she learned to fasten her own shoelaces. She'd take out the bottom racks and the fruit and vegetable trays and crawl inside the Kelvinator to dream among the smells that wafted up from the plastic containers and crockery bowls. Her mother screamed in the bathroom around the corner, where she had locked herself in with the big brown bottle of Milltowns. The child in the refrigerator discovered that the harder she stared into its contents, the less she heard her mother's screams.
Spider now: bent over, peering inside Olive's refrigerator, her reverie stopped by the motor clunk and jiggle. A slow drip of ice cream down the side of the freezer alerts her she must shut the beautiful door. But her twitching finger has entered a Mason jar, dark sweet apple butter is upon it like a soothing balm; she opens her mouth to the sweet finger and sucks. For a moment she is content, then, like a roaring, the starvation is upon her again and she thrusts her finger in over and over until the jar is empty, until the contents of the second shelf are somehow gone, disappeared, inhaled into her stomach like air, until there is so much of this air inside her, she cannot breathe. She falls asleep in the chair, hunched over in the light of the refrigerator. Her mother is in the kitchen now, so is their piano. Her hands are big and wide, clumsy looking in their pudginess but, gentle and deft on the keys. She is playing something from South Pacific and the child is dancing in her shining tap shoes, dancing harder and louder. As she dances, Ruth Ann's long skinny legs seem to have a life apart from her fat soft body that reminds her of the caterpillars she likes to catch and imprison in jars. The music is going so fast that she can't keep up with it, though the legs, kicking and clicking, try and try.
I'd tap and tap until I fell.
Her mother's eyes squeeze shut as her fingers move even faster. She laughs shrilly in short snorting bursts that make the girl afraid to look at her.
But when I finally did, her face would be streaming with tears and seeing me looking at her, she would run to the bathroom, lock the door and weep hysterically until my father came home and she'd open the door and he'd gently lead her away, leaving me alone, locked safely in the house.
It would be days before she returned, another woman, slow moving and vacant-eyed, who seemed to absorb nothing that caught her gaze. Then her father would take her away almost daily, back and forth for the shock treatments, and she grew paler and paler and her beautiful big hands lay limp at her side. Each time she came back home, her dark soft hair was sticky with a substance Ruth Ann thought was chewing gum, which the girl devotedly washed out for her in the kitchen sink. Then she'd help her lie down in her old blue bathrobe in the living room on the old red velvet couch, and watch her sleep, sleep, sleep.
Mommy, Mommy, I call her name over and over, but she won't answer.
Then one morning the child would wake up and hear her mother bustling around the kitchen, orchestrating her pots and pans and screaming, "Wake up, Ruth Ann or you'll be late for school." She would dutifully come down the stairs to find her mother, hair coifed and neatly dressed in a spotless, pastel flowered housecoat. She sat the girl down to breakfast, while the toaster popped up, the eggs sizzled, and the frozen orange juice frothed in its rejuvenating plastic jug, as if nothing had ever happened.
Then the command performances of my tap routine would start again. The circle of her playing and my dancing and her bouts of screaming and weeping and disappearing and coming back home would repeat themselves, the lullabies of my little life, until one day she was gone, for good, just gone.
She watches TV through the night, as she can't sleep for the burglars, rapists, and murderers she imagines lurking outside the door. She eats potato chips and cheese twists, smacking her lips in concentration as she surfs the channels—talk shows, news shows, commercials, infomercials, reruns with laugh tracks. On CNN Live, a sub-Saharan president has been assassinated, a pill for baldness has been invented, floods in India over the weekend have taken 50,000 lives, and a poll of 100 people confirms that they like peanut butter better than jam.
She wonders why there is no quantitative difference on the news between the African president's assassination, baldness, today's baseball scores, and the Coca Cola commercials that divides them all. Each gets the same 15 seconds of airtime. Spider, in a world she suspects is rife with disintegration, spins frantically to weave a coherent web of this fragmented information. Sometimes, to allay her fears of a reigning chaos, she tells herself that her job of entering data on the Internet makes new spaces for people to live in when the rest—the land, the department stores, even human companionship—is gone, destroyed, decimated; and then we will live, she is convinced, each in our minds communicating community through our screens, because we know if we get any closer we will murder each other. She imagines herself weaving a garden of memories on her screen for the time to come when there will no longer be any tactile experiences. But the days when something being recorded guaranteed its immortality are gone. Now that every yawn is duly written down and every fart is on file for anyone to summon up, memory has become very cheap.
Sometimes I think I should destroy the record of your life, just to rescue you from the refuse dump that memory has become. But I am so lonely now; that I am afraid I would not know what to do if the life I have made of your memories was gone.
They left Providence in the summer of '61. Business had gone bad for butcher shops like Joe Linsky's when the big supermarkets started coming in. There was an interstate built after the war; Route 80 they called it, and it slit the country like a razor wound. It was ashine with aluminum diners, neon motel courts, Flying Horse gas stations, and woodsy rest stops; but there were no towns at all on the three thousand miles of pavement. This highway was single-mindedly for travel and everything on its black-topped surface was designed to drive forward those who rode its streamlined back.
The Midwest seemed exotic to Ruth Ann. Thunderous cicadas, acres of corn stalks taller than she, and a sky that seemed as big as the Atlantic Ocean. Suddenly off one of the exits they saw the signs of civilization that for two days and three nights they forgot existed—a town hall and commons, a cinderblock police station, a hardware store, beauty parlor and houses, four square white shingled ones with wide front porches. We're home, her father said to her. He had taken a job some hours south of Chicago in a new industrial slaughterhouse that specialized in processed meats. They had been given a place to live on the outskirts of town—an old farmhouse owned by the slaughterhouse. Her father opened the screen door and started weeping. Iris, he cried and trembled so much he scared the child so much she hid in the pantry. It's where your mama was a little girl just like you, he said, trying to coax her out. The Rosenstein's old house, now abandoned, had been bought up with the rest of the bankrupt farming cooperative for the new slaughtering and packinghouse complex. The first night they made TV dinners in the gas stove and watched the sun go down an angry red. They went to sleep right after eating, because the electricity hadn't been turned on yet, so they couldn't watch the television they brought to the lonely, wind-swept prairie.
Spider lover, spider lover they squealed, poking their fingers in my fat.
Ruth Ann Linsky's first day at her new school in her new hometown, Galatea, Illinois.
She went to school in a paisley shirtwaist, chosen because it didn't show the dirt. She carried an armload of books for which she made paper-bag covers—Modern Math, Our World Today, How Science Works, Phonics V. Her Barbie lunchbox held a salami sandwich and six Oreos, wrapped in the same wax paper. When she got there, she sat down at the laminated, fake wood topped desk with the turquoise painted metal legs from which she couldn't touch her feet to the floor. To every side of her were more scratched-up desks and more children. There were girls in pigtails and pleated skirts and freckled boys with marine crew cuts, a reminder of patriotic readiness for a country but fifteen years removed from world war. To Spider, nauseated to death with fear of strangers and the animal instinct against enforced enclosure, they all looked mean and dangerous.
Knowing none of the other children, she kept to herself at recess. She ignored the games of hopscotch and kickball and walked around and around the building, waiting for recess to mercifully end, when suddenly she saw something move on the school's gray cement foundation. It was a pattern of shining silk threads, intricate as Queen Anne's Lace, and encrusted with diamonds. She crouched down to examine it and was about to touch it when a black shadow in the center made the threads tremble. The shadow moved over the face of the web until it solidified into a large spider, its fat black body covered with bristling hairs. The creature took up residence at the web's center. In three of its eight arms it clutched a struggling white moth which it proceeded to eat daintily, chewing on a leg, then a piece of wing, the tip of a waving antenna. As the spider devoured its meal, its movements made the silk strands shake and all the diamonds fell off the skein and turned into ordinary drops of water. The beautiful web seemed to vanish and the spider and its half eaten prey were the only things left. The child's head reeled and she fell faint on the ground.
"Spider lover," screamed the kids who suddenly huddled around.
They didn't want to play with me after they saw what I was doing there, what I was looking at. No matter how disgusted I felt, I couldn't turn away from. Instead, they named me spider lover spider lover spider spider spider.
Over and over the name reverberated, up and down the schoolyard until everyone was calling her Spider instead of her real name, Ruth, Ruth Ann Linsky.
"Spider, that's a real cute nick name," exclaimed her teacher.
"Spider," chuckled her Dad when she cried about it at home, "lets keep it."
Why didn't I tell them I hated the spider and loved the web? Why didn't I tell them to give me my real name back?
In the menacing world that was school, only the teacher, larger and lighter than the others in the room, with her pink lipstick and her pink pancake foundation, seemed safe. She reminded Spider of the Blue Fairy which she had just seen in the movie Pinocchio and of which she had a two-inch Disney plastic miniature in a candy box at home. Like the Blue Fairy, the teacher wore pastels and had long black hair. Only instead of Gepetto's wood shop, she was framed by a tankish gray metal desk swept clean of everything but the flat, impersonal and heretofore ever-present seating chart. Silhouetted by the green chalkboard that reminded Spider of her tree-lined driveway, the teacher was an island of safety in room 104 of grade 5B.
Her name was Miss Flaming. She wrote it slowly and carefully on the straight horizontal lines.
"Miss Flaming" she pronounced, dividing her name sharply into two syllables. "And we are in the fifth grade at Keokuk Elementary School."
Her presence filled Spider with awe. She walked through the room as if she was floating on air; her movements and gestures were the sole connector for the children with the life outside the only partially openable windows.
"We go to Keokuk Elementary School."
It was the time of naming schools after massacred Indian tribes.
The children repeated after the teacher. A swell of cricket chirps came up from the weeds that straggled below the windows.
"What grade are we in, Class?"
"5th," they replied in respectful unison.
"5th what?" Her chalk was poised to write their decision.
Suddenly there was a loud wailing sound and Miss Flaming's chalk fell to the floor and smashed to pieces and the circular noise kept growing louder and higher. The teacher screamed over the siren, "Class, duck and cover." They dropped to their knees and knelt beneath their desks where they would be safe if the walls caved in. They made sure to cover their eyes so, if this were a real attack and not just a test, they wouldn't go blind from the bomb's incredible light. Everything was forgotten, even the calm assurance of their dear teacher who disappeared from view and cowered under her own desk. Then just as suddenly, the siren stopped, and they could hear the crickets again and a few children softly crying. Miss Flaming crawled out, straightened her skirt (which she didn't notice was covered with chalk dust), took out a new stick from the Milton/Bradley box and held it against the blackboard.
"5th what, Class?"
Taking her cue, they struggled up and faced her.
"Grade?" they answered timidly.
"That's right. Good work. Now Class. Say it."
"We are in the fifth grade."
We are in the fifth grade at Keokuk Elementary School.
Oh, thinks Spider, as she rechecks the locks on the front and back and side doors of 47 Market Street, time seemed endless then, as close to the eternal as I've ever known. The daily acts of repetition, the ritual of coming and sitting and reciting made it so. As the days crept on with the routine of learning, we watched the older kids on the playground with trepidation, as much for our fate as for their foreboding size. When we saw their distracted look and their open contempt for us little ones, we realized that growing up meant that our play time would end and another sense of time, more limited and cruelly withholding, would begin. At school, time was already being cut up for us as a mother cuts a child's meat and presses the pieces into a circle and pointing the fork demands: eat eat eat. A day became what time we got up for school and what time was recess and what time we lined up for the bus home. Time became the months to winter vacation and to spring vacation and the glorious long world of summer vacation. Time became the bars between periods of no-time, that marvelous, unfragmented expanse in which time and space are equally limitless.
In grade 5, Spider Linsky learned time's prison in the person of her teacher and her chalk machine. At precisely 8:25 each week day morning, four pieces of chalk were inserted into four metal bars, and Miss Flaming lined them up with the perimeters of the black board. She pressed down and the chalk sang and four perfectly straight white lines squeaked across the board. She stood waiting for the students behind their desks to recite so she could print what they have memorized: We are in the fifth grade at Keokuk Elementary School in Galatea, Illinois, in the United States of America, on the continent of North America, in the Northern Hemisphere on the planet Earth in the Solar System. This is where their categorization stopped, for as far as Miss Flaming was concerned, anything past our solar system (such as our galaxy or universe) were concepts so abstract that they should never be invoked because, she believed, children are too abstract and over-imaginative as it is. The banks of fluorescent lights bore down on the pupils' heads and cast a cold light on the blackboard that made the particles of chalk dust seem to rise up in the close air. Spider Linsky fell behind in the recitation, for she became lost in watching the motes of chalk dust dance across the air.
In bed she has the same dream she always does. The girl, the woman, the snake.
The girl is in red corduroys and a checked flannel shirt. She is back inside the garage of the Providence house, standing in a corner. A black garter snake wriggles away on the oil-soaked sawdust. She is shaking in the corner; the snake is writhing on the floor. Her mother is there, lying prostrate next to the driver's side of the Dodge. Her hands are clutched to her belly; her mouth is open, gasping in and out. The snake crawls over her. It puts its tongue in her mouth.
Help me she screams.
She stands there frozen, screaming, but no sound comes out. The snake crawls down her throat and then slowly back out of her mouth.
The ambulance has brought Olive home again. No one understands why the Linsky woman wants her here and everyone doubts that she can care for the old lady, now so severely impaired. But Spider hated to see her friend in the hospital. Everything about a hospital—its sterile plainness and its penurious use of space for the sole purpose of physical life support—was against the philosophy of a woman who had made the unnecessary and frivolous essential to generations of Galateans.
The ambulance people remove Olive from the stretcher to her new motorized, adjustable hospital bed, in the living room. They hook up her oxygen tanks and adjust the pressure. Through it all Olive sleeps. "You know how to change them, right?" one of them asks. He's out the door before Spider can answer.
What shall we do together today? Spider asks the listless body. Nails, perhaps, yes. Let's do nails. She remembered how beautifully manicured Olive always was, and now to see the thick yellow nails curling over her fingertips made Spider angry. She got out her file, scissors, and polish and set to work. "You know, Olive, sometimes I think all your memories are jumping, like an electric current, from your brain to mine, as if I have no choice in the matter. No choice at all. Here, Olive, is a gift for you. It's memory of us that's all my own. It came to me while you were gone.
It was the night that the cat you gave me—Lunatick's runt—had her first litter. One by one, the kittens struggled out of the mother cat, sliding down a trail of blood. Like five baby fingers, they fit in the palm of my hand. It was my first winter in Galatea. The first anniversary of my mother's death and my father had miraculously accepted the presence of a cat in our new home.
"There will be inventory tomorrow," you reminded. "I want you there. Bright and early. There is so much to count it seems impossible. Go to bed early, don't dawdle, and sleep. You promised to help me. And a promise is a promise."
Sleep, how could I sleep while slippery, blue-eyed kittens came to life? It was only after I was sure they were all delivered and breathing, that I slept. In the bitter midwestern dawn, the windows iced over in patterns of flames, I opened the closet door to watch them. The drowsing kittens, now licked clean, were curled in a luxurious heap around their mother. They were so beautiful, that I lost track of time watching them. When I realized I was late, I rushed out and forgot to close my bedroom door.
Why are you tardy, child. When will you learn the meaning of punctuality? The meaning of when a friend needs you?
When I got home, the cat and her kittens were gone.
"Animals belong outside," my father said, standing in the doorway of my room and then he added, "Spider—kittens were not part of the agreement." He never told me where they went, but I knew he'd killed them. Afterwards, I biked to your house and pounded on your shoulders and wept, "It was my fault it happened. I never should have gone to work for you today. If I had stayed home, I never would have let him take them away." You took me upstairs and made me peer through the telescope. You adjusted the eyepiece downward for me, your hand on my shoulder guiding my sight, and whispering:
"Spider, see the motion. The sky is never still. It leaps to create time and space.
From star to star is a measure of time
From dark to light is a measure of time
Leap from the palm of eternity into stars
Did I ever tell you, dear, the story of the angel who gave up eternity because he wanted to know time?"
You did not wait for me to answer.
"Well, once there was an angel in heaven who got bored of living in all that eternity. So one day, he stopped moving and let eternity keep going without him. A huge abyss formed between him and it. That abyss was time. You see, he created it when he stopped and fell behind eternal light. And the cavern of space (which we call time) made a cataract over the eye of eternity, creating shadow upon the light, and from this shadow came form, and from form came all the galaxies and their suns, and the earth and all its creatures.
Then the angel got homesick. He didn't really like the meaning of 'its over' or 'it is to come'. He thought if he only could leap frog over his own shadow he could get back to eternity. Spider, are you listening? So he said an incantation to get back there:
From star to star is a measure of time
From dark to light is a measure of time
From the palm of eternity
But it didn't work. The angel was very, very sad, and his nostalgia for eternal light and his repentance for falling away from it created our world of longing and desire. Which is why we all hunger for a time of pure light— a time without time, which we all come from, angels, man, and beasts. And there child, if they don't come back home, is where you shall find them again; your cat and her newborn kittens, in the palm of eternity. "
You know, Olive, I never understood if that angel couldn't get back to eternity, how you expected my cat to get there when she died? I never understood why you lied to me about this. I believed you never lied.
They told her to put the oxygen mask over Olive's face to make her breathing easier. When she's respiring adequately, the visiting nurse had said, you should hear a gentle flow. When there's raggedness or wheezing she needs the mask. It takes some practice to distinguish good breathing from bad unless it's very bad. It's an individual matter after all, thinks Spider. She tries not to put the mask on her at all, as she's sure the closeness of it over her face makes her feel like suffocating.
But when I hear you wake up wheezing, I take the transparent plastic thing and secure it to your mouth and nose. You shake your head back and forth so hard I think you will break it, then you return to sleep. Talk to me in your sleep, Olive. Talk to me from there, where anything you tell me I can dismiss as a dream.
"I admit it was a terrible thing to tell a child. I might as well have told the world was ending tomorrow, as I painstakingly arranged some crumbs of piecrust to demonstrate to you the principles of gravity and electro magnetism.
'You mean it could all just go flying apart if even one little thing changes? Everything?' you asked.
'That's right,' I said, gently blowing on the crumbs. Then I cut you a hunk of my homemade apple pie and covered it with a double scoop of vanilla ice cream. And you couldn't eat it—I watched the ice cream melt and the pie turn to muddy dough and a thin yellow puddle.
'Don't worry, Spider, the physicists say in their new theory you can put the little bits back together again.' But I knew you didn't believe me.
Back together again! But you and I know it's never the same; that once you put one piece in a particular place, it changes the whole and then the whole, that is the universe, changes it and the chain reaction of change goes on forever. So we are really never the same, not from one moment to the next. We are change— capricious and constantly unstable. Yet, sometimes, back then, when we walked down the street, you and I, it felt like we would never change, that we were like dance partners suspended in time, each one floating perfectly on the motions of the other in a glorious grace that would never end.
But Newton said that equilibrium was impossible to maintain when there were only two forces at work, that a third one was needed to make the balance hold steady. I never told you this, but we always did have that other force in our friendship. It was there, holding us fast while we sold together, ate together, baked and cleaned, laughed and cried together. That third leg—invisible, taut, and secure—was the ghost of your mother. If it weren't for her, I am sure, you and I would have blown apart.
Each day breath comes between us—I don't mean just between you and me, or me and this bed, but between ourselves, creating invisible gaps in the pattern of our lives that expand and contract like molecules of air moving us at times imperceptibly in directions we would never imagined our lives going. We are so full of space, Spider, more empty aimlessness than materiality. No matter what we think or how hard we try, we will never be solid. It's a law of nature."
"Don't laugh, Olive," Spider says to the dreaming figure, "but after you described this point of physics with those pieces of pie crust on the otherwise immaculate Formica table, I thought I had discovered a way to go against your pronouncement, and become really solid. I imagined all those crumbs, an infinity of crumbs packed into my body. If I could eat enough to displace the empty space of everything, I could be solid; I would not get blown apart and scatter in the wind one day. What is it like for you now, as you drift away from what makes you, yourself? It seems the most frightening thing, but you would smile and say: 'My dear, its perfectly natural.'"
She takes the transparent plastic mask off the now peaceful face and hangs it on the oxygen tank. She puts her ear to Olive's chest, where she can listen to the air move and the heart beat. But no matter how hard she tries or how close she gets, she can't hear her think.
A stroke is a place where the particles can no longer connect—the spark is missing—just a little blood lost to the brain and everything becomes indecipherable.
All those little normal acts of life, Olive wants to tell her friend, become impossible, seem insane. Emptiness, that is the law of physics, overrules everything and even death does not give us the dignity to exist. Only memory, as substance-less as the greater part of the universe, saves us from free fall. She wants to tell Spider this but she can't. So she tells her what she can.
"I would have known you, had you never stolen anything from my store. I didn't need to ask your name to know who you were. You had her eyes, cornflower blue and when the sun hit them slant-wise in the afternoon, they were always half bright, half in shadow.
And we began right there with that and the party frock stuffed into your underpants. Oh Spider, you were a strange one. Your eyes, while staring out, seemed to be peering back into themselves. You looked so lost to me—small and lost in my big old store."
Olive and Spider. Galatea. 1961
In the fields, she was not Spider at all but sea foam. In a world outside of house and school, before graham crackers, milk bottles and Weekly Readers. Here she was horse, fish, rabbit, butterfly, bee, rock, cloud, river all caught up like long flowing hair with the bright colored ribbon of sun that ran through her. Here in the fields behind the old house, she wasn't a girl at all; she was sea wind. Some people had names she told herself proudly but she had turbulence, tranquility, the lull-before-the storm. She lived wind-blown and tumble weed like the characters she watched on TV—the cowboy loners of Rawhide and Bat Masterson. In this way she drifted through the endless hours of childhood and grew like a tree standing alone on a hill, shaped by the direction of the wind and the sun until she could lean towards no one.
Spider lover, spider lover! Oooh it's the Big Fat Spider. The biggest ugliest spider in the world.
All the children giggled, all but Spider Linsky, who had given up on ever being called by her real name again. She ran off the playground in the middle of morning recess. She kept running until she reached Olive's house. She hadn't left for work yet and was kneeling in the rose bed, her gardening clippers held close to the neck of a rotting bud.
They always make fun of me. They say I'm a spider; a big fat hairy ugly disgusting spider and I don't belong in a school with children.
Olive took her firmly by the hand and half dragged her, hysterically sobbing, to the side of the house. "Look," she said sternly, "really look." And she forced the girl's head down between the tall green stalks until they found themselves staring at a spider weaving its web in the center of a sunflower. Around the creature were crawling innumerable baby spiders.
"Just look at this creation! 400 million years old, the web. Babies are born and raised on it. It is home and school and hunting ground and the slightest vibration upon it tells the spider who is visiting, how big they are and where. The Incas believed spiders made the stars and wove together earth and sky and were our intermediaries with the gods. I, for one, think its true.
I mark'd where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark'd how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launched forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them."
"Look Olive, I think she's caught something!"
"Yes, you are right...a little fly, I think.
And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the
spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere...
Anyone worth his salt would be proud to be called Spider," Olive said to the child matter-of-factly, and chucked her under the chin, and whispered mischievously, "did you know that rafts made from spider webs are the only way the dead can cross the river to the center of the earth?"
"No," Spider exclaimed for the game's sake, though she had heard this one before.
"Did you know that putting a spider in the wedding bed brings good luck and many children? Did you know that spiders in a bag around your neck cures fever? Did you know that a spider sitting in the center of its web means good weather? Did you know—"
Spider grabbed her hand and giggled. "I don't know anymore do you knows!"
"You don't know? You don't know?" teased Olive.
They sat on the moist soil and shrieked with laughter. When they finally looked up, the sky around them was thick with white gossamer clouds. Then they saw that these weren't clouds at all, but thousands upon thousands of tiny spider webs floating in the sky as thousands of baby spiders parachuted off to make homes of their own.
My life has been like the house of my namesake, thinks Spider, an associative weave of strands without a single linear line between them. But unlike your sweet spider, Olive, I never learned to be at home in the web I made. Instead, I have lived vulnerable and trembling in a roofless house, walking on see-through floors that I keep waiting to cave in. Most webs are translucent, so invisible that the captive doesn't even know it's there until it's too late. I've had better luck with artificial webs; they've never seemed as threatening. I've often thought that my immediate affinity for the electronic web was because of my name. After all, I was Spider before the Web was even a dream. I could support myself on its slippery space, hurling the thread of imagination out into the empty air until it caught matter and from there a universe of possible patterns. It seems to me that I was like your noiseless patient spider, just there, waiting for the Web to show up, weaving and waiting for its infinite possibilities—its multiple ways of walking sideways and more sideways until, from miles apart, the opposite sides meet. Oh the thrill of this meeting, this perfect union as it destroys the act of forward and back and the creature who began it is remade: a point instead of a line, a burst instead of a forward step, a star instead of a boring somebody leading a boring start-to-finish life. (I have always wanted to be a star, whose life is, almost, infinite). But I fool myself with my desires; I am the absolute opposite of star, I am the invisible stuff that makes a star shine; I am its dark side, the shadow that makes the light.
She continued to work for Olive; even after she'd finally paid off the dress she stole from her store. At Suttons Department Store, there was no confusion of beauty and ugliness that she found in the rest of the world. At Suttons, her father's blood and manure caked boots would never rest on the floor below a jar of exquisite wild flowers. At Suttons, beauty was isolated and protected from the rest of the world. Now on Sundays, Spider's father would drop her off at Olive's house. Sometimes they would bake or work in the garden; sometimes they would even go into the dark, hushed store and turn on a few working lights and perform a chore or two that would not wait until tomorrow. One Sunday, they went for a long walk to Galatea's first graveyard and climbed over the broken, weather-beaten headstones that stuck out like weeds all over the field where Olive's ancestors had been buried. "Since 1845," she told the girl proudly. It was closed up now, no more room for any more bodies since after the second World War, so the place looked neglected and forlorn. It was on a high rising bluff over the river and Olive said "that's so the dead can watch the world flow by. Otherwise it could get pretty boring in there," she exclaimed. It had been a great river once, full of the hustle and bustle of eager commerce, but by the time Spider got to Galatea, the only boats out there were the occasional sewage pumper or oil freighter. The view for the dead had become boring indeed. They had gone to the cemetery to visit Olive's parents and bring them some flowers fresh from the garden. "Ah," she smiled, "there they are," and laid the flowers gently across the headstone. She began to pull up the crop of dandelions that had crept over the date of her mother's passing when suddenly the girl started to cry. "What's wrong," Olive asked her, but she couldn't speak.
I was choking and the sky was spinning and I fell down on my face in the soft silty earth. It was as if I had X-ray vision and could see the flesh withered and worm crawling skeletons lying beneath me. I saw that I was walking on the bodies of the dead, squashing their bones, suffocating their breath, killing them all over again.
"What is the matter," Olive repeated in such a way that the girl knew she'd better speak.
Her words tumbled out hysterically. "I just stood there and watched her on the floor, screaming. She was screaming and I just watched her."
It's true, I did not call for help or cry out or run. I just stood there until he came to find me, a good half hour later, to see if I had turned off the garden hose. By then, she was gone. He'd sent me to the side of the garage to make sure the faucet was shut tight. He always watered the lawn on Saturdays. I did as I was told, until not a drop came out, then I detached the black rubber hose and gathered it up in my arms and put it in the garage, to coil over the nail set aside for it. That's when I saw her. Maybe I could have saved her. Instead I watched her die. Curled up like a snake on the garage floor, begging me to help her, please.
Olive said gently "It wasn't your fault, Spider. With what she had taken, nothing would have saved her." Olive spread her arms as if to embrace the whole graveyard and said, "Everybody dies, Spider. Sooner or later, we all do."
Everybody dies. Spider had never thought that thought before. It was the first time she realized that there was an end to life. Her mother's passing had been different—a sudden magical disappearance from which she half expected her to return someday and punish the girl for causing it. Now she knew she would never return. She was ashamed of herself then and of Olive, too, as they walked over the defenseless graves, their feet upon the heads of the dead.
"Where does all the energy in our bodies go when we die?" Spider asked Olive curiously, as they stood outside the iron gate.
"Why, it goes to heaven."
"I don't think so."
"How can you not think so?"
"I just don't."
"Well what do you think happens to it then?"
Spider paused and looked out on the river, a garbage barge was passing by so loaded down with junk to dispose of, it could barely move forward.
With great effort, she wiped her face with Olive's proffered handkerchief and ventured: "Well, I think our energy gets trapped inside our dead flesh, until thousands of years go by and molecule by molecule it finds its way out. But by then it is so dispersed that we are no longer ourselves anymore. We're just all these particles that fly."
"I do not want to fly," said Olive emphatically. "I plan to stay right here in Galatea, at my store working."
"Forever if I can."
Shelley Berc is a novelist and playwright. Her previously published novel was The
Shape of Wilderness and A Girl's Guide to the Divine Comedy.
Her fiction has been seen in Bomb, Exquisite Corpse, and
In Posse Review.
Several chapters from her novel-in-progress, Light and Its Shadow, from which
"Spider" is an excerpt, have been published on the Web this year, including
published in, and nominated for a Pushcart Prize by,
5_Trope, "Luna Park"
published in Linnaean Street
(which is publishing another excerpt, "Meeting Mr. Woolworth," in spring 2002), and "The
Stained Glass" published in the summer 2001 issue of
Her plays have been performed at Yale Rep, the ART, and the Classic Stage
Company in New York. She is currently a recipient of a Pew Fellowship/National