by Jessica Morey-Collins
“Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.”
My two companions and I get off the high-speed rail in Kaoshuing—Taiwan’s southernmost industrial hub, sprawled across the Tropic of Cancer. We transfer to the grimy metro, take a cab to a scooter rental shop. We stuff our camping gear under the seat, stuff our heads into helmets, and start a three-hour scoot to Jialeshui, surf capital of Taiwan.
I hang off my date, Tyler, a thin, curly-haired Bay Area software developer who I met in a meditation class in Taipei. Road grit flings into our faces. The sun simmers my left shoulder red. We stop twice—once to pee and to wipe the grime from our faces, once to stare out at the staggering blue ocean.
We arrive just before sunset. A narrow road threads between the ocean and the mountains that crowd up to it. We stop next to a grassy park and a small strip-mall huddled against the mountains. We eat a greasy dinner at the American-style diner in the strip-mall. Over dinner, my date’s roommate lists the breast sizes of his Taiwanese girlfriends. He’s upset that the girl with the biggest tits has the worst personality. Tyler emphatically reassures me that he’s more of an ass man.
After we eat, we cross back over the highway. The coast in Jialeshui faces south; the sun crumbles apart at the seam of ocean and mountain. We hang out for a few minutes while the beach darkens, then decide to set up camp. The roommate announces that he’ll make a fire, Tyler can set up the tents, and I can do whatever I want—maybe collect some firewood? Just stay out of the way.
I strap on my headlamp and head into the thick forest. It has rained recently, and most of the wood is sodden, rotted. As I pick up a log to examine it, the beam of my headlamp glints purple off of something a few feet in front of me. I step closer, crouch. As the beam steadies and my eyes focus I see the eight shadowy limbs of a large, furry spider splay out beneath the glitter of four little eyes. I gasp, stumble backward out of the woods and onto the path. I stare back into the jungle through a column of murky lamplight, then slowly turn my head, sweeping the trees. Everywhere, everywhere the teal and purple glitter of eyes.
I am six years old. On weekends I stay at my grandma’s house with my dad. Sometimes my cousins come over and we run down the hill out back into the ravine. We crash through strands of bamboo that choke out older trees, swing down and down on tree limbs and howl about every squirming thing.
Alone with my grandmother, I thunk on the upright piano while she bustles. Mother of seven, she is never not busy. I am six years old. I am afraid of spiders. That’s called arachnaphobia, my father tells me.
I have a play set made of plastic pipes and joints and sheets and clips and I can make fake houses with it, in which to sit and play. But the play set is in the basement and without someone to play with I am afraid of ghosts. The only ghosts in this house are Roger, who lives in the chimney and causes mischief, my grandfather tells me, and my mother who died upstairs in your dad’s room. Still, with Grandma perched at the hallway table making calls, I’d rather hang out upstairs.
They recently installed white carpeting, and shoes are forbidden. I roll around on the floor near the phone table, until I notice movement—a translucent white spider hauls its body across the carpet, toward the wall. I scream.
My grandmother drops the phone and rushes over. Without a word, she hurries into the bathroom, returns, and crushes the spider with a wad of toilet paper. I start to sob. The spider had a life and now its life is gone I wail.
David starts calling me baby before we ever meet in person. He finds me on a dating website, likes my profile, and we send long messages back and forth about our creative outlets and spirituality. He asks me a lot of questions. I see from your survey answers that you like long, slow kisses. Do you have a favorite movie kiss? I am in Taipei, soon to be moving to New Orleans, where he lives.
The first time we talk on Skype he offers to read me fairytales while I pack. He has a clefted chin and dark brown eyes. He reads me “The Juniper Tree.” He doesn’t like the evil stepmother archetype. It’s a beautiful story regardless, he says. He was happy to read it to me.
His profile says he’s Wiccan, that his religion scares most women away. I have been practicing Vajrayana Buddhism for about a year. I root around our words for parallels. I tell him that I have a special connection with spiders. They come to me in my dreams, dripping from dusty webs. He likes this archetype. To Druids, spiders represent the Bard, he says. I should cast a spell, he says. Bless an item, leave it somewhere meaningful in Taipei.
I scratch ruins into the wooden prayer beads that snapped off of a bracelet during a drunken sexcapade two years prior, in Shanghai. I pray over the beads, cleanse them with sage and palosanto. In the middle of the night I cycle to Ren Ai Circle—the largest traffic circle in Taipei, a perfectly round island of greenery at the center of the city. I wait until there is a lull in traffic, then dart across the road. I force my way through dense landscaping, my face veiled over and over with spider web. I leave four beads in each cardinal direction, and four in the exact center of the circle. I tuck the remaining four in my pocket.
In Chinese, the number four represents death. The words for four and death are phonetically similar, distinguishable only by tone. I feel snails crunch under foot as I move through bushes and run back to my bicycle.
I cross the Pacific in July. My mother’s house nestles up to incendiary foothills in a droughted Southern California suburb. While I assemble a set of canvas drawers, David watches on Skype and talks about politics. He says he likes this dynamic: I build, he distracts. I finish assembling the drawers and take my laptop onto the back patio. As we talk, a greasy black widow descends on a thread behind my laptop. Most people have a slightly antagonistic relationship with their spirit animals, he says. You should have seen your face, he says.
I cross the continent in August. I listen to David talk about mythology while I drive. I camp in Flagstaff, Sedona, Albuquerque. Sometimes the vistas give me headaches—they’re too brilliant, too big. I set up my tent directly off of the highway in Carlsbad. I watch bats pour out of the caverns. I stop in Austin to visit a friend I met in Shanghai. He convinces me to stay an extra night to go to his friend Tim’s birthday party. Tim’s a great guy, my friend says, Hilarious. Smart. I’m told that Tim’s long-term girlfriend recently left him for another man while she was traveling in Kumasi, Ghana. I’m cautioned not to mention the time I spent there, myself.
At the party, Tim tells me how universal income could salvage the American artistic spirit. He makes me laugh. He has bright blue eyes and a nose that swoops upward optimistically. At the end of the night, he chases down the car to get my phone number. He kisses me through the rolled-down window while his friends wolf whistle.
I arrive in New Orleans in mid-August. Thunderstorms buffer me into a week of naps.
David asks me to meet him at The Roosevelt. I show up in jeans; he is wearing a tie. Before I sit down he gives me a pearl bracelet. I hold out my left wrist; he insists in putting it on my right. We walk through the French Quarter to Frenchman Street, stopping here and there to listen to music. The bracelet dangles off my wrist. As we step under a balcony, a slick brown spider descends in front of me on a single strand of web. Am I catching all these synchronicities? David wants to know.
I meet up with him a few days later and return the bracelet. He puts it on a tree in his front yard. It will be there, he tells me, whenever I am ready to take it. If anyone besides this woman takes this bracelet, he incants, May they be rendered infertile.
I thought I’d deposited my arachnophobia in Alaska, where I worked for a summer as a camp counselor.
I would let soft-limbed creatures tap across my palm, a tent full of ten year olds huddled at the precipice of
panic, watching, apt to scream
or smash the squirming thing
who’s home, really, we were visiting.
With kids poised to respond to my own fear or repose I cupped hand over hand over spider after spider
and carried them, calm, out of the tent. I focused on my breath.
Then, I went to Ghana. It wetter, more dense—its light red and heavy-hung, trees broad-leafed and waxy.
Grey, crustaceous spiders were driven indoors by sudden storms that flooded the hovels of frogs
and set them singing to the new rinsed night.
The grey spiders were maybe two-inches across, bodies fleshed against the wall.
They mostly stayed in the same low-corners. They arrived at night or during wet weather.
They did not seem to keep webs. I didn’t mind them, and we cohabited uneventfully in Accra and Kumasi.
But outside of the city,
a 300-person village with no running water and unreliable electricity,
where goats were tied to posts in half crumbled clay-brick houses, waiting for slaughter,
where thick, black millipedes clicked through a two-foot blanket of cacao leaves,
alleys were rivened red by storm-floods, and I was ushered by a gracious host to one cement room of many
on a long, low row. A bald, blue light bulb hung
from the ceiling, and a mangled bed frame crouched in the corner.
on the bald concrete. I laid down to read by the light of my headlamp,
and as I rolled onto my side the beam of my lamp caught a sparkle
low on the wall and I thought ok, it’s the spider, ok, cool.
But then the dense little pocket of glitter moved fast
and I sat up and glimpsed something bigger than my hand
and I leapt up and toppled my mosquito net
and I ran immediately to the Chief’s quarters,
where two other students and the program staff slept off of a tiled courtyard.
I asked Sefa how big the spiders got out here and he said Big.
I asked if he would come back with me to my room because I wasn’t really sure what I saw.
Sefa came back with me. We lit the bald, blue light bulb. We doused shadows with our flashlights, but found
nothing. Sefa shrugged, left.
As he pulled the door closed, I saw—clinging to its other side—
an eight-limbed dinner-plate, eyes glittering.
A massive orb weaver has slung her web between two trees at the top of a hill on Haad Tian bay, on the island of Koh Phagnan in Thailand, where I am studying yoga. I stop and watch her every morning before meditation.
We practice on a raised platform surrounded by mosquito netting. The platform juts over the jungle, and the bay flashes in the distance. We practice, or we listen to lectures on the eight limbs of yoga. Some mornings, the orb weaver’s web has been cut through or totally obliterated by rain. I watch her grip strand after strand, touching her spinnerets to one thread after another as she makes repairs. Her muscles control the aperture of a valve, braiding and releasing liquid silk. She flings out from inside herself and weaves herself into her surroundings. The result is a structure easily destroyed by wind, rain, and prey capture. Her web is mangled by the fulfillment of its purpose. Because of this delicacy, she must frequently repair and re-create her web. In preparation to create a new web, she will eat the old.
I sit on the platform and learn how the right side of the body is yang, sun, man; the left side of the body is yin, moon, woman. My impulse is to embrace fire, but my teacher offers earth, water. I am pitta, I say, but after I fill out the questionnaire in class it seems I am more muddied. I straddle the Ayurvedic doshas, pitta for fire, vata for air, and kapha for earth.
One night, the orb weaver catches a locust. When I arrive in the morning, she has gathered it to the hub of her web. She has half-swathed it in strands of her silk. I stand nearby and watch as she spins it around and around among her legs. Other students arrive and go. Some glance, some stop and talk with me about the spider.
Twice during the month, I panic during practice and weep at my inadequacy. I excuse myself and watch the orb weaver. The thick gauze around the captured insect gradually withers. She repairs her web, again and again. I step away from the group to watch.
Once, during practice, the teacher asks us to imagine that our fingers are so long that they reach into the center of the galaxy, grazing the stars.
I am four years old. On weekdays, I live with my grandma. While my mother attends nursing school and NA meetings, my grandmother sits me down at the old poker table, now used most often as a craft or dinner table. We have two dogs, six cats and one bird. I eat cinnamon toast for breakfast every morning.
My grandmother has a deck of medicine cards in front of her. She sits me down, facing her, at the poker table. On one side of each card is a plain design, on the other side is a detailed illustration of an animal. She shows me the cards. The face of each animal rings up at me like cathedral glass.
She has me shuffle and cut the cards, then consults a book while she arranges them face-down on the table. She is going to find my totem animal.
I am four years old, verbose. You came out of the womb talking and never stopped, my mother says.
My grandmother arranges the cards, then asks me to pick which half of them. I choose. She takes away the other half, then rearranges the deck again. I am four years old and I like horses and tigers and dolphins.
Sometimes my grandmother lets me hold a smooth agate stone when I can’t fall asleep.
She arranges the cards, then asks me to pick four. I pick. She takes the rest away, rearranges them. I am four years old. At my grandma’s house we have two dogs, six cats, and a cockatiel named Louie. My grandmother rearranges the cards while my mother wakes up from a nap, makes microwave nachos and watches All My Children. When I can’t sleep, I feel the cool stone warm against my palm. There are four cards on the table, my grandmother asks me to pick one.
She turns the card over and smiles. You’re a spider, she says. I’m not surprised.
I am four years old. I do NOT want to be a spider.
The oldest definition of the word Tantra indicates a loom,
a weaving device.
The spider extends beyond her body. She weaves pieces of herself into her habitat.
After I arrive in New Orleans, Tim and I keep in touch. After six months of long online conversations, he drives out to New Orleans to visit.
I learn something new from every conversation we have, he says.
There is a great orb weaver who’s slung her web between two trees. She waits at the center.
We used to play find the wolf-spider at summer camp, Tim tells me. We’d hold our flashlights by our temples,
drag the beam across the grass.
Between the infinite and the formless there is a dynamic tension—there is no nothing without everything,
and vis versa. Tantra weaves spirit and matter,
action and consciousness. I leave, I come back.
Outside, a great orb weaver waits in her web.
You’re nice. You’re sweet. You’re pretty. He says, he says, he says. He drives eight hours to see me.
His birthday is eight eight eighty-eight. The spider extends beyond her body,
but there are spaces.
Wind slips through any web.
We take turns listing words we know. What is the energy center at the base of the spine called, again?
The root chakra? The lower dantian?
Two paths wind forward. The right hand path is pure, steady.
The right hand path is kept safe by abstention.
The left hand path is dark and dirty, rugged reckless.
The left hand path is all risks stitched together.
Luck favors the bold, he says, I had to see you, I had to know.
The spider extends beyond her body, affixes herself to her surroundings with filament, filament.
The right hand path would have us sober. I feel like I’ve been on drugs these last few days, Tim says. The left hand path would have us this love drunk. You bring out the best
in me, he says.
We wait at a stoplight on the way home from the French Quarter.
Left or Right? Tim asks.
Before building a new web the spider must eat the old
one. Tantra weaves the right and left hand paths.
Louie or Roger? he asks, I turn.
Foelix, Rainer F. Biology of Spiders. New York: Oxford UP, 1996. Print.
Wise, David H. Spiders in Ecological Webs. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993. Print.
About Jessica Morey-Collins
Jessica Morey-Collins is an MFA student at the University of New Orleans, where she works as associate poetry editor for Bayou Magazine. She received a scholarship to study at the New York Summer Writer’s Institute, and blogs on craft for the North American Review. Her poems can be found or are forthcoming in Vinyl Poetry, ILK Journal, Cleaver Magazine, The North American Review, Pleiades, Black Tongue Review, and elsewhere on the web and in print.