There were many squirming bodies packed in the darkness. She was the one on the bottom. Couldn't move, couldn't breathe. She spent her whole life making herself as small as possible, trying to bear the growing pressure from moment to eternal moment.
Many times things got to be too much. Bone-tired of it all, heart-weary, she'd find herself teetering at the breaking point. There was always one last insult, then: a sharp knee in her side, maybe, or a big hairy butt pressed right up against her face. She just couldn't stand it anymore, so she'd say in a tiny voice:
“Hey, if you don't mind, could you maybe get your butt out of my face?”
...because even when she couldn't feel any worse, she was still polite.
The reply was always the same. “Shaddup, Yarunt.”
Welcome to Yarunt's life. Not much to it. But it was all she knew, from day one, so she never expected it to get any better. To the contrary, it was getting worse—the pressure greater, the weight heavier, the tempers around her shorter.
She wasn't sure how many shared her prison. It was too dark to see, and too stinky to smell. All she had to go by were voices. She could identify dozens of different ones. They all said pretty much the same thing, no matter who was speaking.
“Move it or lose it, Yarunt.”
“Beat it, Yarunt.”
That's how Yarunt learned her name. The others remained anonymous. No one ever used their names. Yarunt wondered about this, in the many hours she spent mashed against the floor. She didn't have anything else to do.
There was another voice. The Outside Voice, Yarunt called it, for it came from outside the walls of their prison. It was muffled, but Yarunt could feel it vibrate the floor as she pressed against it. The Outside Voice was loudly female, tough and outspoken. Still, Yarunt detected—or maybe imagined—a core of simple, honest decency behind it.
“What does everyone expect?” The Outside Voice launched into one of her many tirades. “I mean, it's all brand new. You have to expect there'll be some bugs to work out. It's a minor glitch. They act like it's the end of everything.”
A pause, then the Outside Voice boomed again.
“So we have a council about it. Fine. Do we have to invite everyone? I mean, all of us know what needs doing. We've always known what to do. Shouldn't that be enough? Why do they have to invite all the stupid people, too?”
Another pause, then a sudden leap of both topic and volume. “Tarnation! Are they out already? Get back in there, you little monsters! I said get back in there! No! No! You're five days early!”
The Outside Voice faded as she coped with this latest catastrophe. Yarunt smiled to herself. The Outside Voice always lived in ricochet, careening from one imagined crisis to the next. Still, Yarunt was fond of her. Though rough and loud, it was the closest thing to a kind voice Yarunt had ever heard.
Yarunt lay in the darkness, keeping herself as small as possible. She tried not to think of the hairy, sweaty butt pressed against her right cheek. A dirty foot struck the dirty floor just a fraction in front of her dirty face. Against her own butt an elbow dug for more room. Or was it a knee? Elbow or knee—this was Yarunt's sole guessing game: she could occupy herself for hours. She immediately began analyzing the variables—joint sharpness, weight of the owner, strength of the limb—all clues in her game. This particular pain had the sharp-angled quickness of an elbow, but the broader footprint of a knee. Hmmm...
The pressure lessened so gradually Yarunt was not aware of it. She was more aware of the voices. An excited jabbering seemed to spill out of the prison and around it. Then came an almost imperceptible lightening—a blessed, blessed lightening, both of the intense pressure on her back and the stuffy atmosphere around her. She could see shapes: limbs, hair, fat bellies in silhouette. The prison walls glowed a dull brown, with faint shadows flitting over the surface.
Yarunt's neighbors climbed, scrambled, stomped on her and moved away, giving her room to breathe. Ohhhh, heaven! She flopped and groaned. Pressed into the filth for so long, she was totally encased in a crust of dried goo, like a suit of armor. Now that she could move, she felt the muck crack and peel as she pulled out of it. She left an almost perfect impression of her body half-buried in the floor.
Her exposed skin felt soft, moist, and supple in the cooler air, like new skin under a scab. Yarunt felt oddly reborn. She lay on her back, took a deep breath and reached as far as she could in every direction, a long, glorious s-t-r-e-t-c-h for the first time in her life. Then she balled back up into her usual fetal position, and exploded out of it again, into another luxurious stretch.
Only then did she really notice her surroundings. She was alone. Entirely alone. She could see where they had been held: a small, round, dingy brownish-tan room, made of what looked like a tightly woven fabric. There was a huge rip in the roof. Dim light came through this crack, a thin, long crescent of silvery-orange particles that sprayed and bounced against the walls.
The crack beckoned. Yarunt took a step toward it. Another, and another. Then she stopped, not wanting to go further. She could hear her former prisonmates outside. She caught glimpses of thin legs beyond the crack, waving and gleaming as the silver-orange light bounced off them. Their shadows played against the papery brown walls.
The Outside Voice made her jump. Yarunt was not prepared for it, so unmuffled by distance or prison walls or what-will-the-neighbors-think propriety. The Voice was just outside the crack in the ceiling. And she was not happy, not one little bit, as she dealt with this latest crisis in her life.
“Get down off of that! No, you, young man! Get down off there this instant! I mean it! You are going to get such a spanking!”
The Outside Voice spent all her time threatening, complaining, or both. Everyone was used to it. She was ignored, which made her madder.
“You! Don't eat that! Get that out of your mouth! You don't know where that's been!” An explosive sigh of resignation. “You are just like your father!”
Yarunt could hear familiar voices, chattering and fading in and out as her former neighbors explored. She wished to join them, but she felt unready to leave the gloom they had all known. She crouched in the dim light, torn with indecision, while the Outside Voice continued.
“Do you want a spanking? Well, do you? Just keep it up, Mister! Go ahead, try me! I've eaten bigger breakfasts than you!”
When that didn't work she tried changing tactics: an obnoxious singsong. “I hope everyone's out of there,” she wheedled, “because I'm getting rid of this thing—” ...and then, losing patience, back to a bellow... “—right now!”
The prison walls shook. Everything moved, a frightening wrench to one side. Yarunt was always aware of a sort of gentle floating, but this was a prisonquake. The entire structure heaved, tilted, and spun back and forth on an invisible pivot, slowly coming to rest.
“Hey!” Yarunt squeaked. “I'm still in here! Wait a minute!”
The Outside Voice did not hear. The quake continued. Scrapes and thumps, a loud chewing sound. Threads ripped, walls groaned. The upper pivot point finally gave way. The floor dropped out from under Yarunt as the crack in the ceiling spun violently downward. Yarunt fell with it, scraping helplessly against the walls. She managed to grab onto the ragged lips of the crack just before she fell through. Debris, goo and nameless filth rained down on her. Her legs dangled in an unimaginable void. The entire prison spun, dangling as if from a single thread.
“I'm still in here!” Yarunt shrieked. “Wait! Wait!”
The spinning slowed and stopped. Yarunt caught a toehold and hauled herself back inside. She lay there trembling from exertion, gulping for air.
A huge, hairy face with four shiny black eyes appeared at the crack. All four monster eyes trained on Yarunt.
“Why, hello, there,” the Outside Voice boomed. She was even louder in person. “Sorry, little gal. Didn't see you. Why didn't you come out with the rest?”
Yarunt stared in response. The monster spoke again, lower this time.
“Preemie, huh? I told those little beasts they were early. Five days early, but of course they won't listen to me. Poor little thing. You might as well come out, now. It's okay. You can stick around 'til you get on your feet. OUCH!” She whirled and addressed an unseen assailant. “You try that again, young man, and heaven help me I will fling you into next week!” She looked around aggressively, daring the rest. “How many times do I have to tell you people? The next one to bite me will learn what it's like to get bit!”
Her four eyes were only half the number allotted to her. Eight eyes, evenly spaced in a squashed circle around her forehead. She now faced Yarunt with the foremost two, glistening black pearls set in soft brown and white fur. Her pedipalps—two tiny legs by her mouth—reached out. One palp touched Yarunt. The stiff hairs twitched and sniffed.
“You taste-smell like a spider,” she said, reassuring herself as well as Yarunt. “You vibrate like one, too, but a little too fast. Take a deep breath and relax, dear. You're humming like an insect. Heavens to betsy, you'll be mistaken for prey if you keep vibrating like that.”
The palp curled back under her mouth, and she flexed her chelicerae, smacking her lips. These horrifying appendages usually stayed tucked in on themselves, like two crooked fingers. At the thought of prey they unfolded, and her fangs swung out, facing each other like pincers, shiny black. Yarunt caught a glimpse of the elongated nostril at each tip where the poison came out. Particles of light glinted and bounced off a serrated back edge. But nothing was meant by it. She was merely rearranging things. The fangs folded back, clicking softly against their toothed sheaths.
Yarunt obeyed. She took a deep breath and sat very still. She felt her tiny body relax, the hum in her brain lowering. The monster's palps curled up slightly, encouraging.
“That's better,” she said. “Now you feel more like a spider. Why don't you come out, dear? I'll help you. Easy does it. It will be all right. There's nothing to be afraid of.”
Huge hairy legs grasped the sides of the crack and heaved it wider. Yarunt lost her balance and nearly fell again, but as she scrambled another leg scooped her up and carried her through the air.
“Grab on, dear. Watch where you step.”
Yarunt felt a thin cable and clutched it for dear life. The leg disappeared from beneath her, and it was just the thin line in her grasp. She clung there for a minute or two, and realized she could not let go if she tried. Her feet were hooked onto the cable. She calmed down and looked around for the first time.
The Outside Voice was a huge spider, dozens of times the size of Yarunt. She could have pounced on her and gobbled her up in a second, but she didn't. Her palps curled up in what appeared to be a gentle smile. She seemed amused, quite in contrast with her monstrous size and strength.
The line Yarunt clung to was a single vertical strand on the edge of a huge web, stretching off like a finely woven sheet, fading into what seemed to be an infinity of browns and shadows. The large spider stood on tiptoe, indenting the web slightly with her weight. Insect feet would poke right through and entangle, but great flat tufts of hair on her soles spread out like snowshoes. She skimmed effortlessly over the delicate surface.
The web held a thin cloud of debris—remains of the spider's ghastly meals, perhaps? Closer inspection showed life: translucent legs waving, see-though bodies with brown fluids coursing just beneath the surface. The cloud was a hatching of baby spiders, hanging from the many—nearly invisible—vertical threads that suspended the web in the darkness.
“Hey, look!” one of the spiderlings pointed and laughed. “Yarunt's out! Hey, Yarunt, wanna be my first meal?” The other babies laughed, a high-pitched giggling soon lost in the open air.
Yarunt looked down at her own translucent legs and counted. Yep, eight. The dim light particles bounced off them and brown fluids pumped up and down inside. She wondered why she did not feel or act like the others. They were full of life, after their long confinement in the egg sac, whooping, crawling and dangling all over the place. Yarunt felt none of their confidence. She felt confused, alone and unsure of herself.
“What am I doing here?” she finally croaked, in a small voice. “Are you my mother?”
“Am I—! Pah! Wha—! What kind of talk is that?” The giant sputtered, but when Yarunt continued to look blank she swallowed her annoyance, sighed and turned soothing. “Yes, dear,” —and her palps turned up in what was meant to be a motherly smile. “I suppose I should consider myself lucky that we're the sort of spiders who are still alive when the eggs hatch. There are some days when I envy the dead ones, though. Baby spiders are such a handful.” She turned and bellowed again at the group. “Don't you go anywhere! You stay on this web, you hear? I swear to high heavens, I'll tie you all down one by one if I have to!”
She turned back to Yarunt, who realized that, while she paid polite attention with her eyes, several legs stretched in the direction of the babies behind her. Her whole body was one big sensing organ. She didn't require the tiny circle of eyes. Each leg in each direction could smell, taste, feel and hear much better than her eight eyes could see.
Yarunt became conscious then that she too was hyper-aware of her surroundings, as an entire sphere surrounding her instead of just in front. The curved dark dome above (for the web was in a large hollow log), the moldy, crumbly floor below, the living buzz of the spider as she loomed large in front of her, the pulse of her own tiny heart. The air danced with particles of light, bouncing and swirling like fireworks. She could now recognize their movements as specific, repeating patterns, as constant and unique as a stone or a stick or any other material landmark.
“I—I—” It was all so new and confusing. “I don't know what I'm doing here.”
Mother spider nodded. “You're premature. And you're little—the runt of the litter, no doubt. You probably had a bad time in the egg sac. Those little hooligans should have stayed in another five days, by my count. It will probably take a while for your instincts to fully kick in. But it'll come. You're a spider, after all. We spiders know all there is to know, from the moment we're born.”
Yarunt scanned her mind for some hidden kernel of knowledge but came up blank. “I don't,” she said.
“Nothing?” You sure?” Her mother looked puzzled. “Well, that can't be. You probably just don't know that you know. People do that sometimes, you know.”
“No, I don't know,” Yarunt insisted. “I honestly don't feel a thing.”
“Well, try spinning, then,” The Mother spider indicated a nearby spiderling, hanging from a delicate thread.
“He....what? Hey!” Yarunt stared. “He's got stuff shooting out of his butt!”
“Of course he does,” Mother spider laughed. “All spiders can spin. You always keep a dragline going, in case of an emergency. I mean, what would you do if I did this?”
She whacked Yarunt off the line so hard the poor thing saw stars. She flew for a second, bounced hard against a couple of web strands, and hit the orange, cork-like punk below with a sickening thud. While she gasped for breath and shook her head her mother and a handful of babies leaned over the edge of the web, looking down at her.
“Hey, look!” one of the spiderlings squeaked. “Yarunt's defective!”
That set off another flurry of high-pitched giggles. Mother spider turned on them with a hiss, bristling, unfolding her fangs and raising her forelegs as if to strike. The spiderlings shut up.
“Rule number one, little one, is Always Tie Off Your Dragline,” Mother spider called down to Yarunt. “That way, if you get knocked off the web, you don't crack your carapace. Dangling is much nicer than falling.”
She launched herself into the air, brought up from behind by a thread. She swung over Yarunt for a second, then reeled down and collected her in her palps. She climbed back up the line leg-over-leg and scurried over the sheet to a funnel-like refuge she had woven into a rotted knothole. Yarunt tried to look behind at her own rear end, but she could not bend that way.
“No, no, you can't see it,” Mother spider said. “You use your back legs. Like this—” She spooled off a length of silk. Yarunt could only stare.
“I can't do that,” she said.
“Of course you can.” Mother spider threw the silk into the air. Yarunt watched it float away until it caught on a vertical. “It's what spiders do. And if you want to coat the silk with stickum—I don't, usually, but some spiders do—you use this pair of spinnerets—”
The thread she now produced glistened with tiny droplets of goo. Mother spider delicately removed it and held it up for inspection. Yarunt touched it, tangled a foot in the sticky substance, and panicked.
“No, no, no!” Mother spider exploded. “You don't touch stickum! Every spider knows that! For heaven's sake—”
She began eating the silk off Yarunt, shaving it from the youngster's short fur with the serrated back edges of her fangs. It was a delicate operation, made more difficult by Yarunt's squirming, but at last it was done.
Mother spider pondered her choices. Spiders are born with all of their instincts intact. They have no need to go to school or learn through experience. They march out of the egg sac like miniature adults, certain of their role in life and how to live it. Yarunt would not survive long without this knowledge.
Mother spider was mother in name only. She had no particular feeling to care for the tiny spiderlings now infesting her nest. What a human might mistake for caring was little more than an instinct not to eat them. Even then she often had to touch them with a foreleg or palp to make sure. She knew her little ones in the whole-bodied way spiders experience their world: by sight, smell, touch, taste, vibration.
The same held true with her web. She knew her own thread by the taste-smell it gave off, and the thin song it made in the air. She knew when prey hit, not only by the changed hum and their panicked thrashing but also by the higher-frequency buzz insects put out, quite distinct from a spider's torpid calm. No one taught her this. She just knew, as all spiders know. Trying to explain it was like—well, like trying to explain how to breathe. You don't explain it, you just do it. Any idiot knows that!
“Look, do you at least know about the council meeting tonight?”
“Why would I know about that?” Yarunt felt irritated. “I don't even know what a council is.”
“Don't know—?” Mother spider regarded Yarunt intently for a long time. Yarunt twitched self-consciously and waited, trying not to stare back.
“You're like a stone,” she finally said, her voice hushed in a confused wonder. “I can see you, I can smell you, I can taste you, I can feel your vibrations—but it's like you can't feel mine. Like you have this big blank spot where your heart should be.” Then her self-confidence returned. “We must leave early. We can consult Grandmother spider before the council starts, if she'll have us. No doubt she'll know what to do.” Mother spider rolled her many eyes and flexed her palps in dismay. “Heaven knows you've got me stumped. At least you're a girl spider.”
“Well, that means you've got some size coming to you. If you were a boy spider, it'd be sayonara, baby. You wouldn't stand a chance. As it is, I'm not sure what you'll do. I mean, you gotta build a web, you've gotta catch prey. How else are you going to live?”
“I don't know.” Yarunt snapped. Why is she asking me? she thought irritably.
“Can you crawl okay? Obviously ballooning is out of the question, but—”
`”Yeah, I can crawl,” Yarunt said, wondering what ballooning was but too afraid to ask. “How about my, er, brothers and sisters?”
“They'll stay here on the web, where it's safe,” Mother spider shrugged. “If they know what's good for 'em, anyway. You can't feel any sort of pull toward council? How odd. Don't worry—I'm sure Grandmother will be able to figure you out.”
Yarunt could tell that Mother spider clearly thought she was a goner, but she didn't have the heart to say so to her face. Scooping Yarunt into the crook of her front leg, she dropped to the ground.
Somewhere in the distance, a lone peeper trilled a few short notes, warming up for the evening's performance. “Brekekekex, ko-ax, ko-ax!” As Yarunt listened the little frog paused, then repeated the sound, hoping for a response, or at least an echo from the thick jungle of trees. There was nothing but the shiver of leaves, the shift of dappled light particles sifting through them like a fine mist. Far-off, the screams of a scolding jay. In the opposite direction came a single clear, gliding whistle of a cardinal.
This world was a huge place, Yarunt realized, as her senses took in the confusion of new sights and sounds and smells and tastes around her. She felt as lonely as the frog sounded, creaking in the growing dark.