excerpt from Anazia: A Story by Jacob Jack
I know an Old Lady
Who swallowed a fly;
Perhaps she’ll die
Being wise is safe, being clever is dangerous. Which is why people in stories are never wise but always clever. Wise people avoid danger before it begins. Clever people make danger for themselves.
That’s my soapbox. I’ll get off it. In light of everything that’s happened, I think I’m just trying to excuse my actions. But I probably don’t deserve that. I’ll tell the story from the beginning. If I ever stop, give me a minute. I’ll keep going. There are just a lot of emotions here. I only have one condition: You have to believe me. Or at least make it seem like you do. If you accuse me of lying, even once, I’ll stop. I’ve had enough of that.
I grew up in a place where the dry plains shift to green and give way to forests with the largest trees in the country. Where using the word “hella” is acceptable and where everyone thinks you’re from San Francisco even when you insist that you’re not. In fact, I’d never been to the city, I lived in a town small enough to choke me. I knew everyone there, and it made it all the more painful when I had to go.
My mother didn’t know who my father was. She’d made the best of things, given the circumstances. “Do what I say; not what I do,” was a mantra around the house. Especially when she got frustrated at me and used a few choice words, and of course in regards to getting pregnant when you’re sixteen. She told me I’d destroyed her body, and then would hastily add, in that unique frantic, motherly way, that it had been worth it. Personally, I thought she was beautiful. I don’t think she agreed and that was sad.
Because I had a single mother, I got away with things. There were three hours between when school ended and when she got off from work. In theory I was supposed to sit down and watch TV until she was home. In practice, the forest was much more alluring. I was a wild child, and being surrounded by trees I couldn’t wrap my body around was too great a pleasure to ignore. I would go on long hikes, off trail, deep into the redwoods. And yes, I’d get lost. Horribly.
I think it started the first time that happened, or the second. What matters is that it was early on enough that the very concept of not knowing where I was going surprised me. I remember standing still, blinking, and suddenly thinking: I have no idea where I am. I don’t think that’s a good thing.
The panic took a while to come because I was six. The world was still a giant pretend game and that bubble had yet to be popped. I looked up at some point and saw the sky turning orange. My mother came home when the sky was orange. I missed my mother.
It got darker. The trees which had been fascinating at first became dark towers that were infinite and dreadful. Still, I wasn’t scared. If anything, I was just tired. I wandered into a particularly thick grove and sat down on a log.
It’s funny, when I think back to that first encounter. How many times do we walk by the small things that could change our lives? After all, you can’t measure the impact of something by its size, but you can measure how likely you are to notice it.
I mean, I did notice her, of course. But it’s very possible that I could have missed her. It’s something I think about a lot.
The first evidence of her was stretched from a piece of wood to under a rock. I caught the glint of it in the moonlight. A small, but long tube of silk, a tiny tunnel built of thin wires. It was her home. It was beautiful.
I stared down at the tubular web for a while before I heard a buzzing sound, moving toward my face. It was a fly, and it landed just under my ear. I swatted to kill. But after I hit my face, the buzzing just grew louder. My hand had cupped around my ear. The fly was trapped inside of it, but hadn’t been crushed. I felt something gently landing on my fingers, crawling around on them, trying to get through to escape.
I looked at the nest the way I’d look at a toy, and decided, quite innocuously, to experiment with nature. My other hand came up, and made a cocoon around the poor bug. Its buzzing got more frantic, as if it knew what I was going to do with it. I think it was luck that my tiny hands managed to open at the right moment. The fly doomed itself by leaving them too readily. It collided into the sticky web. I watched for a few seconds as it squirmed.
Then, she emerged. Her legs pulling her forward, her teal chelicerae rising to administer the venom. Her body was black, but her abdomen was red and furry with a dark stripe. At that point, she must have been only a centimeter in length.
I saw her mandibles enter the fly. It froze, then started twitching, rather than struggling. She wrapped it up elegantly. She turned to me.
Two of her eyes were larger than the others, and seemed to glow in the darkness. She looked straight at me for one second, two seconds.
Then, she turned away again, and crawled back into her tunnel.
I must have sat there a few minutes longer, maybe a while after that, just thinking about her. But I know I did leave. I remember walking around, pushing brush out of my face before, finally, I saw something else interesting. White light glowed in the distance. When I ran toward it, though, I found a group of men with flashlights who were looking for me. I remember being disappointed that it wasn’t magic. When I got home, my mother wasn’t angry. Her face was red and tears ran down her cheeks. Her arms stretched out and grabbed me before I had time to react.
“Oh god, Tabby,” she whispered into my ear. “Oh thank god…I don’t know what I would have…” She pulled away and looked me in the eyes. They were easier to understand than the spider’s. Blue-green, wet, and shiny. “We’re all we have. The two of us. I need you, Tabby. I need you like you need me. Please understand that.”
I nodded, but I didn’t understand.
I’d reflect on it later, when I laid awake in my bed. It was too much of a responsibility for me to comprehend at that age, but I was trying. I thought of what the spider would have been like if I hadn’t given her the fly. She would have been hungry, I reasoned. She even might have starved. I had done a good thing, and I felt proud.
Even back then, she was a “she.” She was never an “it.” Never.
My mother made me promise not to go into the forest alone. My aunt volunteered to watch me after school. In hindsight, her primary motivation seemed to be that we had alcohol. She liked alcohol, far too much. As a result, sneaking out was never difficult.
I searched for the spider for a few days before I ran into her again. I knew the area when I saw it, with its distinctive rotting trunk, its thick trees, and the tube of web that ran between a log and a rock.
It was later in the afternoon at this point, and mosquitoes were gnawing at me. I swatted a few, away. Then, for the sake of consistency, I decided to place one on the web.
She crawled out again, and before she bit and bound it, stood still. She was looking right at me. Yes, when you’re six, a spider recognizing you and expressing gratitude seems perfectly reasonable. But even now I swear there was something in those eyes. They aren’t as empty as you think they are, just because there happen to be four times as many. She crawled closer, and I went down to my knees. It was contact between alien worlds, a bridge between myself and the one animal I never thought I’d empathize with.
She suddenly turned away, and tended to her meal.
I decided, quite spontaneously then, that I’d gotten myself a pet spider. It was the highlight of my hike that afternoon, and the highlight of it every afternoon once I memorized the route and started returning on a daily basis. Every time, I would find some kind of bug, and put it in the web. It became a kind of scavenger hunt. What will she eat today? Then, I realized that it was an actual hunt, and I started viewing myself as an Indian huntress. I learned that war-whooping had negative results pretty early. Insects can grasp that a giant thing running at them screaming at the top of its lungs is probably dangerous. Who would have known.
She ended up tasting butterflies, moths, bees, ants (I learned to be careful with the red ones), and countless others. If it had six legs, and it lived in that forest, I can assure you she tried it. She was the connoisseur of fine insect dining.
One day, I asked my first grade teacher…Mrs. Simmons, the poor woman needed a hairbrush, bless her heart…what a good name for a spider was. It was the nineties and introducing white children to black culture was all the rage. She answered, “Anansi!”
I stood still, wondering what to ask next, as kids pushed past me to get outside for recess.
Finally, I said, “Is that a boy name or a girl name?”
“It’s a boy name. I should teach you about Anansi, there are a lot of great stories about him.”
“Okay,” I said, but I didn’t have an interest in the stories. I just wanted the name. I ran off to recess.
I understood enough about gender at that age to know that adding an uh sound to the end of anything made it feminine. That afternoon, I entered the grove with a butterfly in tow and loudly announced, “Your name is Anazia now!”
She was already standing on the edge of her web, waiting for me. Again, I was six, and I saw nothing particularly wrong with this. It also made sense that her size had doubled. Of course it had. I had been feeding her, hadn’t I? It wasn’t to the extent that someone would notice. She had been one centimeter long, before. She was two centimeters now.
I started to talk to Anazia, regularly. I did it as I brought her her food, as she wrapped it up, and as she stared at me afterward.
“What’s it like to be a spider?” I asked her one day.
She blinked at me eight times. At once.
“A lot of people hate spiders. They think they’re scary. I don’t think spiders are scary,” I said. “I think that a lot of those people just need to get to know you.” It was a phrase I’d heard in a movie about some character who was misunderstood. I thought it was genius. She wouldn’t know I’d stolen it.
Anazia watched me.
“After all, you’re friendly,” I said. “You stay on your web and talk to me, and we get along great,” I convinced myself often that she spoke back. “You’re a spider, and I’m a girl, but that doesn’t stop us from being best friends.”
Anazia didn’t move. She didn’t do anything. This was the first time I wondered what she was thinking. Was she thinking? Did spiders think? Do they?
“You’re getting bigger,” I finally said to her. “When you do, I want you to build a giant web that we can play in. Or maybe a web house. We can make all sorts of things out of web. It’ll be how you pay me back for feeding you. We’ll be even, after that.”
But even when I expressed my dreams, she only stared. And suddenly, I did understand that I was talking to a spider. That no matter how much I wanted it to be there, some aspect to our connection was missing.
“Someday, Anazia,” I said. “You’ll be a girl. Just like me. And you’ll be beautiful, and you’ll make dresses for both of us out of your web. And we’ll live in the forest and never go to school and never talk to other people. Because I don’t like other people. All the girls wear pink and have tea parties, and all the boys are gross. The only person I like is my mommy, but she’s never home. But I like you, Anazia. I don’t like other people, but I like you.”
She turned and walked away.
I got used to these conversations. I’d talk, she’d listen, and eventually she’d walk back into her tunnel web. It always seemed to be after any random phrase…but in hindsight, she never left when I was in the middle of saying anything. She’d wait for me to finish. She knew. I think she knew. She had to have understood conversations, and lulls in them. It was the only thing that made sense. I mean, there were some people who couldn’t grasp that.
I’m saying that Anazia knew more than some humans. I think. It’s hard to be sure.
Some days, I would stay even after the conversations, and I would watch her the way she watched me. Occasionally, she seemed oblivious to me, but every once in a while her tiny, inhuman face would turn toward mine again.
What fascinated me was her artistry. Just like I’d said, I fantasized about a giant web being built for me or dresses that both of us would wear. Anazia’s tunnel was made of a complex weave that zagged and crossed in the perfect way to create something solid. The idea that it was all made of those fibers from her abdomen was magical to me. I also remember seeing her jump for the first time. The way she would attach a line of web like a bungee cord, just in case she fell, and then launch herself up to the tree branches above. Sometimes, she would fall, and when she did she would hang for a moment before swinging herself around and climbing back up to try again. Her persistence amazed me. She would attempt the same jump repeatedly, and would always eventually reach it. As she got bigger, she could also jump further. Soon, she could bound entirely over me.
By my seventh birthday, she had hit three centimeters. Again, conjecture, I didn’t measure her back then. But once she did get that long, I realized that she was going to keep growing, so I started. Three centimeters plus a little extra was where the measurements began, I marked it off. I noticed that it took about a month for each mark to stretch past the previous one. But it would, it always would. Anazia was growing.
And that’s why I was clever, but wasn’t wise. I figured out how to feed, perhaps even tame, this thing. But I never considered the consequences. Even in the years that followed, when I developed that capacity that allowed me to do so. I never did.
Because it seemed natural to me. Anazia was there. She was a part of my life.
I never meant for anyone to get hurt.