With Spider

Kelly Magee and Carol Guess

Sometimes she wished she were the mother of a normal child. Cleaning sticky off the counters at night or walking into a web on her way to the bathroom, Ella wished for a cooing, burping ball of human hair and teeth. She eyed other mothers in the grocery store, wondering if they knew. Their fat babies lolled in slings and baskets; their toddlers kicked shopping carts and screamed; their tweens and teens pretended not to know them. The other parents in her support group said they felt the same way, but in the grocery store she felt truly alone.

First grade had been the most difficult year. Ella was terrified that Spidie would vanish. Her therapist explained that anxiety was the body’s warning sign, like a beeper going off; that she should pay attention to how she was feeling. Her therapist made her close her eyes and feel her heart beating: reckless, unread.

When Spidie came home from school, climbing delicately down the steps of the school bus, Ella smiled and asked her how her day went. But Spidie never confided secret crushes or what she’d eaten for lunch. Ella wondered if Spidie was popular, if the other kids bullied, if her teachers took care.

Sometimes (although she knew it was crazy) Ella still talked to Iris. She’d tell Iris silly things about her day, like which burrito she’d ordered for lunch or which songs she’d downloaded illegally at work. She imagined Iris laughing, making fun of her terrible taste in music. “Mom,” Iris would say, “those bands aren’t cool. Let me make you a playlist so you don’t sound like a dork.”

It had been two years, three months, and six days since the accident. Ella refused to talk about it or visit the corner where it had happened. Refused to talk to her ex-husband or the parents who visited from Iris’s school. She knew what had happened; she was just wishing. Talking to Iris was like controlling a dream. And she dreamed, too, but her dreams weren’t for Iris. In dreams she held tighter, so her dreams were for her.

Ella knew it was early to adopt another child, but Spidie reached out to her. At first she was afraid she was unfit. If she couldn’t keep a human child alive, how could she protect a spider? But Spidie was alone, and so was she. They stared at each other from across the room until finally Ella held out her sleeve. Spidie crawled onto it. They watched each other silently for a while, arachnid to person. They could be alone together, Ella thought. It was a perfect fit.

Their quiet, separate sounds — spinning, turning pages in a book — complimented each other.

How her day went: to be stuck in a desk was painful. She studied corners and branches. The threads build up inside her, made her spinnerets ache. Her legs shook. Her teeth were dry. At recess she climbed as high as the wall surrounding the playground and looked down at the normal children chucking their bodies across the monkey bars, sliding down slides on their backs. She didn’t like to be on her back. For a spider, that was death. She’d tried to slide once but had accidentally thrown out a drop line. The next kid got tangled in her sticky and ran around swiping at his face and calling her bad names. She didn’t go on the slide anymore, or the swings. She climbed as high as the wall but no higher because if she went higher she was afraid she wouldn’t come back. And she couldn’t do that to her mother. Her mother who loved her, in spite of it all.

Her secret crushes: in first through third grade, Spider Man because it was expected. In fifth, a boy who complimented her science project, a funnel-shaped web. In high school, the only other spider in her district, a badass older girl who refused to sit in desks or eat school lunches or capitulate, she said, to the primate majority. The school offered Spidie the same private lunchroom, where the older girl was already fang-deep in some anonymous bug. “Spidie,” she said, licking blood. “That’s cute. Your mommy name you that?”

What she ate for lunch: as she grew, so did her nutritional demands. She tried small mammals. Wrapped up rats. Drained birds. There was a door in the wall of the private lunchroom where she and the older girl set their refuse on a tray, wings and tails and eyeballs neatly packaged. She emerged from lunch feeling strong. And sometimes ashamed. The other kids didn’t know for sure what went on behind the door of the private lunchroom, but they guessed. They edged away from her in the halls. No one asked her to prom.

Ella told Iris, “Today I ordered the spicy salsa. I don’t know what came over me.”

She told her therapist, “Sometimes I still hear her footsteps.”

She told her support group, “Mine has been breaking curfew. I don’t know what to do with her anymore.”

When Spidie was home, Ella could think of nothing to say. How was your day? she asked over and over, as if repetition alone would change the outcome of the conversation.

Ella knew that adopting again was risky. Her support group warned her: jealousy, rage, acting out. Competition among species. But Ella was determined. A sibling would bring out Spidie’s soft side. She was glad Spidie had found a friend, finally, but this other spider was wild. Her mother came to Ella’s support group, sat in the back with her hands folded, nodded vigorously when people complained about their spider kids but never said much. Just the once, when she’d come in smelling of booze and blurted, “She gives me this look, and I’m like, what the hell, I’m not your prey. But they’re hunters, right? Blood-suckers. That’s what they are, and that’s what they’ll always be.”

Nobody said anything, and the woman had slumped back in her seat. In the support group, it was considered rude to talk about feeding. Everybody knew what spiders did. It wasn’t necessary to dwell on it.

How her day was: she ate them still alive. In the park, after dark. She found them in the bathroom. She found them in the bushes. She snuck home with the taste of them still in her mouth.

Ella would go overseas to pick up her new daughter. She would name her Rose.

The night before her flight, she waited up for Spidie, heard her come in through the window. Spidie froze when Ella switched on the bedroom light.

“Are we okay, me and you?” Ella said.

Spidie wiped something from her mouth.

“This baby is for both of us,” Ella said. “I want you to remember that. She’s not a replacement.”

Spidie nodded. It was as much acknowledgement as Ella had yet to receive from her. Spidie was too big for Ella’s sleeve now, so Ella blew her a kiss. “I’ll miss you,” she said. “No parties while I’m gone.”

In bed, trying to sleep, Ella dreamed of mixing formula and warming bottles. Of fat baby lips and tiny toes. All the things she’d missed, raising Spidie.

Spidie would be okay, she thought.

No, better. Spidie would be even better.

What she dreamed: fat baby lips and tiny toes. The things her mother wanted. “You going to eat it?” her friends said.

What she didn’t tell her mother: she wasn’t going to eat it. She was going to kiss its fat lips. And then she was going to leave her mother to her normal baby. She was going to be full and happy all the time.

KELLY MAGEE’s first book, Body Language, won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Short Fiction. Her writing has appeared in Crazyhorse, The Kenyon Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Passages North, Literary Mama, and others. She teaches Creative Writing at Western Washington University. You can find links to her writing at kellyelizabethmagee.com.

CAROL GUESS is the author of thirteen books of poetry and prose, including Tinderbox Lawn, Darling Endangered, and Doll Studies: Forensics. She teaches Creative Writing and Queer Studies at Western Washington University, where she is Professor of English.

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