My Predicament: A Fable

Jean Ray, From Beneath An Oil Derrick, 2005, Color Digital Photograph, 10 1/2 × 8". Courtesy of the Artist.

I don’t like being a spider. Except for rash moments when my web’s been struck and I scramble automatically after my prey, hissing and excited, my venom up and my jaws parted wide—perhaps I’m even smiling—I don’t like being a spider at all, generally I experience the same contempt for spiders as do the other creatures of this terrible world. Of course there is pleasure, too, in rearing up on all four of your legs and sinking your jaws into the victim you have just seized with two or four of your hands (sometimes only two hands are necessary and the other two can shake or pump in triumph), there is pleasure or self-forgetful joy likewise to be had in bundling a white moth or black fly in winding-sheets spun from yourself, and what animal does not like a feast, a feast, in the case of us spiders, enjoyed in the air? And then I am simply too glutted with blood to think what I am and regret what I do, days of torpid fullness follow, I doze in my web and ride the breeze, there is sunshine in flood all around me, I close my eyes and listen to the gurgling process of digestion. But when my consciousness revives and begins to raise itself above these facts, the old guilt returns—ancient guilt in spite of my youth—and I know myself for the thing I am, and resolve to let myself starve.

Often—I say often although I have only eaten on three or four occasions: a spider of my species is not a large creature, especially not during the first and likely the only year of his life, he doesn’t require too many victims—often after I have eaten and digested a victim, and after my consciousness has sluggishly revived and my mental and bodily quickness resumed, I become frantic with self-loathing and race back and forth across my web wondering what I might do by way of expiation or suicide. It was like that after I ate the white moth in the spring, and it was like that all over again just last week, when I finished digesting the butterfly. Whatever my guilt may have lost in intensity since the white moth, due to habit, it regained when I thought of how beautiful and delicate the wings of my butterfly had been, and how delicious, light, and crisp as I ate them, and how poignant the look of supplication in the dying butterfly’s eyes—the look in the eyes of a creature you are devouring is like nothing else, they look at you as if you were a god. I’m sure a cruel spider would enjoy this sight, a hungry spider like myself merely wipes his mouth with one or two hands and ignores it while he can. Until, that is, he is sated and revived, and somehow the pleading look remains before him, although the pleading eyes have been devoured.

After my first meal on my own (whether I had eaten before in the company of my mother and siblings is something I’m not quite sure about), I immediately vowed never to eat again. I couldn’t tell whether I was surprised or unsurprised by my ravenous behavior, but it didn’t matter, I was appalled, and with quick repentant hands I undid my web where it was secured at one corner to a branch across this narrow ravine, then undid the other far corner where it was fastened to another such branch, and I rode the collapsing structure as it sank to the ground. I will wander through the woods, I thought, until I starve, or else I’ll scurry beneath the falling foot of some large animal, positioning myself just so in order to be smashed. I was very distraught as I wandered over the red dirt and fallen branches, underneath green or skeletal fallen leaves, drifting and straying first in this direction, then in that one, with no destination or even direction in mind, except of course my death. And it wasn’t too many days before I began to weaken and stumble, I would pause and several limbs would buckle, I would grow dizzy and lose track of the sun. I am dying, I thought, I will be dead, then dry, and then dissolve in the rain. And I believe I was glad as the day dimmed, or my eyesight did, and I lost hope of finding—what I did not want—anything more to eat.

But one evening I saw a small ignorant green beetle shining and crawling, like an ambulatory jewel, in the dimness before me, not two inches away—and I charged after him, knowing he was food. With his hard shell and quick legs, the beetle escaped me, and I was left behind gasping in exhaustion and remorse. You have no self-control! I said to myself, and I experienced the despair of the creature who evidently cannot will himself to die. A spider’s mother tells him and his siblings so little as they set out scrambling away on top of one another—there is very little I remember my own mother saying anyway—and I didn’t and don’t recall her warning us of any plants poisonous to spiders or of any generally fatal locations in which to install a web, fatal to the spider that is. (She spoke of the seasons, nothing else, and seemed mostly to be raving to herself.) So I didn’t know what to do, it occurred to me that had there been a stream nearby I might have drowned myself. But there was none.

I reasoned that possibly the world would be safer from me if I were restored to my web. So with what was left of my strength I leaped to a low branch, and then another, and before long I had draped the rudiments of a web between the branches of some low scrub trees. The web was so weak, and composed of so few strands, that I didn’t see how any small creature, unless very unlucky, could bumble into it, or how any large creature could be even temporarily restrained. And so I dangled weakly from my weak web, fainting in and out of consciousness, and in a trance of hunger and guilt awaited my starvation. And in those bygone days of the advancing spring, I was still so new in this world that it took me truly by surprise to notice, one day, how my guilt and remorse, if not in the least my hunger, were draining away—to be replaced by anger and desire. Yes, anger, desire, and hunger were all chanting, I noticed (while the chant grew louder), in endless concentric rings in my brain, and I discovered that instead of wanting to die, I wanted to kill and eat and live. All at once I repented of my penitence: I wanted to eat and eat, I wanted one, two, many creatures to gorge on, and I wanted this as if my prey had somehow offended me and I required vengeance, or as if my desire were lust and to eat therefore would be sex, public, an orgy.

Spiders do not chuckle—we are confined, for sound, to hissing—but it was with a sensation of smug and almost chuckling good humor, in spite of my weakness, that I set about expanding and reinforcing my web to the point of ideal fatality. Then, at the center of my web, I hung and waited. I hung and waited there and hoped I could command the necessary strength if some living creature—no mere breeze-detached leaf, as sometimes happens—blundered into my web. And I did have the strength, when it came to that. For she did blunder, the poor plump little fly, several long days later. My entire web hummed and shook, I scrambled in the direction of the blow, and my jaws were wide as I reared above the struggling creature.

Another week and I was dangling from my tattered web and praying—leaning out from the web and actually praying with my four hands—that nothing would come my way. Please let me starve, I prayed, to no one of course. I am so sorry, I apologized, equally to no one, nature as a rule is a solitary condition, and we spiders are even more solitary than the rest. But at length my vivid guilt began to turn vague again, hunger enfeebled my mind and conscience, and that angry desire of mine that now I know so well returned, fusing itself with hunger, and for a second time I substituted for my resolution to starve a fresh resolution to glut myself on whatever blood I could. Just imagine, I said to myself, how you could feast from season to season on the body of one large creature, a dog, a man, a horse . . . Just imagine how fat and large you yourself, a pale little spider, might grow! The next victim, however, my most recent, was in reality the butterfly: its wings were stained glass in appearance, in texture and lightness more like a meringue. And its eyes . . .

I hate myself.

I do.

Not that there aren’t times of respite, times of peace. There are times when I am so faint with hunger, and my mind so nearly blank, the sac of my belly so light and empty, that in a strong breeze I simply ride and sway on the air, nearly torn down—nearly but not yet thrown down to the ground—and at such times, with the web at its limit, billowing as far it can, I hardly even know that I remain myself, only that I am alive, and the world is. My own life fades out, but life itself remains: blue sky, red dirt, green world, streaming in a blur. And yet these spells are short. Now it’s morning again and the air is still. The air hangs still, the birds query and trill in the trees, light flays the dew from my web, and I know very well that I don’t have much time before anger, desire, and hunger combine again. I could resolve at this moment never to attack what hits my web again, but that would be lying.

What can I do, now that I know my nature? Of course I may yet starve accidentally, you do see here and there dry spiders hanging askew from torn webs. And then there is the coming season of fall that I have heard of, when the temperature somehow drops lower in the day than even now at night and, unimaginably, the trees shake off their leaves. A cold event called a frost would seem to promise my death—except perhaps for another warning I recall.

I have few enough memories of my mother, my siblings, our birth. And whether the image I have of falling on and eating one of these siblings is a memory or comes instead from bad dreams is something I just don’t know. I do, however, remember the general hissing of tiny fleeing spiders, and the louder articulate hissing of our mother. She was clearly surprised to be a mother to so many young, and she raved in particular about her surprise at being a mother again. Did one of us ask her what she meant by this, or did she go on raving of her own accord? I don’t remember, my childhood is so dim. But from what she kept saying, to us or to herself, I gathered that she’d expected the previous year, her first, also to be her last, since it seems we live in a region where something called a killing frost has always been the rule. But our mother burrowed underground, last fall, in what she thought would prove her grave, and then to her great surprise emerged heavily pregnant, several months later, in the springtime air. To this accident it would seem we owe our lives. So she said, lying on her back and raving: she’d climbed from her hole, lay on her back, and given birth to us all, and was surprised to be alive again. And now of course I wonder whether I too will survive my first year. I hope not—and know that soon I may be hoping that I will.

I could not discern my mother’s attitude toward being a mother again, except to see she was surprised. (So was I surprised, to be born.) And I remember almost nothing else about her, except her raving surprise—that and the pale color of her body, and her very blue blue eyes. After all, so little in nature is blue: those eyes of my mother, the wings of certain butterflies, and then of course
the sky.

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