“The Spider” by Benjamin Hanna

Issue 8 / Winter 2017

 

A n elderly lady remained secluded on her part of the island and never strayed far from her home that was built into the side of a large sand dune where sea oats met scrub oak at a limestone deposit. Her shelter was canopied with collapsed pine trees and sprouting palmetto and was decorated simply with Spanish moss. She often recalled women from her childhood adorned in the tiny gray ringlets, the moss draped over their breasts and hips while they swayed and danced beneath the full moon. The old lady’s home was next to a freshwater lake fed by a natural spring. The lake held stripped bass, carp, herring, and eel, as well as a handful of other creatures she didn’t know the names of. Her first husband had taught her how to fish so that she could feed their baby girl, but the infant was stillborn. Her husband disappeared weeks later and she never saw him again. She lived alone for a score of years until she married her second husband. He helped reinforce the shelter she had lived in alone. They had seemed happy for a few years before he left her, too. “Heading over to the village,” he had said, the place where she knew there would be many people selling their goods. The woman no longer cared if she remained in her hut for the rest of her life. So much time had passed. She didn’t care whether she left, because she knew that she was about to die and because she also doubted her husband would return. In the village there would be many people to see and he would be seeing them, choosing instead not to remember the time he lived with an old lady in the dunes.

Rainwater normally formed a beaded curtain at the entrance to her home, and when it did, it spilled off the hanging moss and the palmetto. She was used to wrapping her arms around her knees to make herself small and avoid getting wet. Every night before sunset, the old lady watched as the vast expanse of sand outside was lit pink and armadillos and wild horses wandered down the windswept dunes.

A few people each day walked along the path a hundred feet away, on their way to the nearby lake. They would sometimes stumble next to where she lived until they realized that the lake was not there. The old lady always refrained from speaking to them. She would stop what she was doing and watch while they approached. And when they eventually saw her, she would stare until they finally moved on and continued to look for the lake.

The woman enjoyed many aspects of her daily life. Her husband was no longer there to argue with about how she should collect firewood for the evening, or how she should lay out his clothes in the sun. Foraging throughout the day, coming and going, and never straying past the lake—the woman lived well and fed herself plenty. She was self-sufficient and since she had no one else to thank for her happiness, she stored her gratitude.

Although the last Timucua was thought to have died when the old woman was just a girl, every day the old Indian appeared on his way to the lake and sat on a small dune just close enough for her to recognize him. She was certain he knew she was in there, and it upset her that he never acknowledged her. She felt somehow out-maneuvered by the Timucua, as if he held the advantage—and by showing up every day, he had taken liberties even her two husbands had not, and to which he had no right. He would often stop at a small dune and rest on the piece of driftwood directly in front of her cave. After resting an hour or so, he would rise and slowly continue on his way.

During the rainy season, spiders lived in the old lady’s home and the ferns would drip inside on a heap of old cloth scraps she found washed ashore long ago. She had rinsed, dried, and folded them many times, and now the old lady used the rags to swipe away the endless spider webs inside her home. Afterwards, she tossed the rags on the floor and smashed them with her cane just in case. Once in a while, an armadillo or a sea bird would wonder inside, but she was not swift enough to kill them and eventually stopped trying to.

One pale afternoon when she felt especially weak, the woman noticed a large figure standing in her entryway. She thought it was her husband, but did not know if it was the first one—the one who wooed her when she was still young, the one who had lost two fingers in a knife fight. She looked down at his hands. This husband had all of his fingers.

He said: “It’s still you!”

“Yes, it’s still me.”

“You don’t look well.”

“Yet here I am.”

The husband smiled. He was an old man. The lines around his eyes made him look more sensitive than he really was.

They did not speak for some time. The elderly lady glanced around her hut, and was not happy when she realized that the husband blocked out most of the light from the entrance. He had grown much larger than she remembered. She focused instead on trying to locate her simple possessions: her cane, her coconut husk, her tin cup, and her piece of twine. She dug her nails into the palms of her hands from all the energy it took.

The husband was saying something else.

“Shall I enter?”

She did not speak.

He stepped back from the entryway, shaking the beads of water off his linen shirt. The woman thought he would become angry and say something cruel to hurt her.

The husband edged through the veil of falling water and again asked, “Shall I enter?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“What’s wrong?” he quipped.

“There’s no room for you in here.”

He walked outside again and dabbed his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt.

The elderly woman decided that he would most likely leave now, but did not know whether she wanted him to. She listened as he chose a spot and reclined outside her hut. Before long she smelled his pipe. It was quiet, only the drops of water rhythmically hitting the limestone and the distant breaking of the waves along the shore were audible. Minutes later the woman listened to her husband stir outside and then he appeared in the entryway again.

“Here I come,” he said.

She did nothing.

The husband crouched and wedged himself inside since the ceiling was low. He gazed around the four walls and rubbed his pipe tobacco out on the floor with the toe of his boot.

“Let’s go,” he said.

“Go?” The old lady sat patiently for as long as she could. “There’s nowhere left to go,” she said.

The husband gestured with his thumb over his shoulder. “We’ll both go where it’s warmer,” he said.

“To the village?”

“Past the village. There’s a ferry there that will take us south where the temperature is always perfect and where the work is always steady.”

“I’m staying.”

“No—I want you to come with me. I need you to.”
The husband balanced his wife’s cane in his two large hands and gently offered it to her.

“Perhaps in the morning,” she said.

“Why don’t you come now?”

“Now, I must rest,” said the old woman, who shifted herself onto the pile of rags she slept on.

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll be waiting outside. We’ll leave when you’re ready.”

The old lady was quickly asleep. In her dream, the village was immense. It seemed to never end, and wealthy people in new silks and cottons lined its boulevards. Ancient hymns tolled from a large bell tower in the cathedral. She walked down the center of a large promenade and all the townspeople were there. Were they all her husbands? She asked those nearest: “Are you my husbands?” The people in the street could not respond, but the old lady thought that if they could, they would have said yes, they were. Next, it was dark, and she came upon a simple house with an open front door. Inside, there was a small fireplace and a few oil lamps in the corners that brightened the faces on women of various ages who all sat together. They stood when she entered and explained that there was enough space for her to come live with them. The elderly lady hesitated, but was promptly ushered inside to her room. The door closed. She was seven and was crying. The ringing bells from the tower echoed off the clay walls and there was an opening high above her where constellations peeked through and the moonlight entered. A spider dangled from the thatched straw ceiling. His rear legs pumped rhythmically as they released new line and he lowered himself directly in front of her face. Her eyes darted around for something she could use to get him down with. She eventually used her fingers. Because she moved slowly, the spider latched onto her fingertip with his legs. She tried to shake him off. When she knew he was not going to bite, an immense joy rang through her. She drew the spider to her mouth to kiss him and noticed there was no longer music chiming from the bell tower. It was still. In the deepening silence, the spider crawled inside her parted lips. His tiny legs tickled while they touched her gums. She giggled. The spider made its way across her tongue and crawled down inside her belly until he belonged to her.

The elderly woman awoke with a start. Her husband’s head appeared through the curtain of water and asked: “Did you say something?”

“Let’s go.”

“Already?”

She emerged, glistening, holding her walking cane.

“We’re going to get wet,” he said, pacing, and then pointed toward some large rain clouds rolling south over the ocean.

“How long will it take?”

“Two weeks if we’re lucky,” the husband said. He looked at her cane, and then back at her. The woman stood as straight as she could, ready to go, but suddenly she saw the old Timucua resting on his small dune. He looked bewildered, like he had just witnessed something supernatural. Then his face went slack as she passed his dune. The elderly woman acted as if he wasn’t there. While they slowly made their journey down the trail inlaid with broken shells, she heard the old Timucua’s hollow voice rise up and float on the breeze.

“Travel safely,” he said.

“Who’s your suitor?” said her husband.

“I don’t know that man.”

 

Benjamin Hanna teaches composition in Decatur, GA and is completing his MFA in Fiction Writing at Georgia State in Atlanta. “The Spider” is his first publication. You can find him on Facebook here.

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