Dimensions of a Web
By Jeremy Stuart
The apartment was very quiet. This was the only way the old woman could have heard the roach, in a moment of nearly complete silence, when the refrigerator was between hums, as not a single car drove past.
This was a sound the old woman knew well. She had trained her ears to pick up on even its faintest hint. The scurrying of such little legs was a light noise, easily buried in the most minor of commotions, yet it carried an audible weight, and, if detected, could not be confused with anything else. This effect was most pronounced on the wood floors, but she could hear a roach on the kitchen counter, or on the bathroom tile; she was even able to make out the distinct shuffling on carpeted regions of the apartment.
These were all fairly rare occurrences, and the lack of an established roach presence was no accident. The old woman had gone to great lengths to fend off the intruders, hiring exterminators on a regular basis, knowing the first names of favored technicians, which companies she preferred and trusted, publicly besmirching those she felt to be incompetent. Unfortunately, no matter the quality of the contractor, she lived in a large building, with neighbors of questionable hygiene, where the walls invariably served as a den of roaches, a complaint she would voice constantly, to the point where no one listened anymore. Her apartment was meticulously kept, but even still, a wave would pass through now and then, and she looked upon this as an invasion, an almost personal attack.
She kept traps out, under the tub and the stove, behind the couch, replacing them on a set schedule. There was roach spray under the kitchen sink, as well as a can stashed in a hallway closet. However, if no such weapon was within reach, she wouldn’t hesitate to use a bare hand or foot. The squashed, pulpy matter stuck to her skin, often inspiring vomit-traced gags, but still worth the trouble, a small price to pay for the satisfaction, for winning a battle in this war without end.
The old woman had grown up without roaches. She had spent only the second half of her life among them. She had moved far from her original home, to a city where roaches were much more commonplace. There, she and her husband had taken an apartment in a building that was seemingly clean, but where roaches were a constant threat, and now her husband was dead, as he had been for many years, and she was alone, without the resources to go anywhere else, and even if this had not been the case, it was too late now, too late to start over. There was a son, but he had disappeared long before her husband, and now his whereabouts and actions were vague, untrackable, and she never knew when, or if, she would see him again. That this was her final home she accepted as fact, and she committed herself to its defense, the roaches her only real enemy.
She’d been on the couch, drinking a cup of tea, when her ears picked up on the sound of the roach. It was a hard, scraping sound, the opposite of a fly on glass, and her head perked up. No music was playing on the radio. The television had been given away not long after her husband’s passing. All was still, and she felt confident that if the rustling noise appeared again, she would not only hear it, but know where it was coming from.
The sound resurfaced, to her left, and she turned her head in its direction. Her eyes were a step behind her ears, but when they caught up, the roach came into focus, scaling the side of a shoulder-high bookshelf. Its movements seemed awkward and weak, as if it might fall backwards with every step. It would stop and turn, going in one direction and then in another. A kind of inebriated stagger, like it had forgotten which way was up.
Taking off a slipper, the old woman rose slowly, keenly aware of any extraneous motions. She moved towards the roach with measured steps, thankful for the small carpet in the middle of the room, for its softening of the creaky floor. The roach continued its winding route up the side of the bookshelf, apparently oblivious to her advancement, and the old woman noticed two things about this particular roach; first, that an egg sack, about half the size of its body, protruded from its rear, and second, that it seemed a lighter shade of brown than normal, as if the color had been sucked out of it. Neither of these factors increased the old woman’s animosity towards the roach, but that it carried countless potential offspring did add a certain sense of urgency to the mission, and she felt her grip tighten around the slipper.
The roach was dehydrated. This was due, in part, to the redirection of internal resources, but also because the roach had gone without water for an extended period of time, having been trapped in the bedroom, making poor decisions in its thick carpeting, wandering aimlessly in a merciless desert. She had finally escaped onto the hardwood floor of the hallway, essentially by chance, but with her senses irrevocably damaged, moving just because she couldn’t keep still. There had been no point in climbing the bookshelf, but she did it anyway, because this was what the roach had stumbled upon, the most recent obstacle placed in her path.
The surface suddenly leveled out, and the roach acknowledged this, not as having reached the top of the bookshelf, which she had, but as gravity releasing its grip, the ceased burden translating into empowerment, a sudden burst of strength, a speed and stamina that had nearly been forgotten.
The roach took several steps, and then sensed a presence. There wasn’t enough to act on, but it was there, and the roach registered this. She paused, waiting for more information, and then the world shook, the presence slamming itself down upon her, instantly crushing a portion of her body. Her side, and several of her legs were mashed, unusable, her organs and fluids spilling out of a gaping wound. The roach felt pain, but didn’t know it. Shock was the only expression she could assume, that internal sensibility of survival, of doing whatever it took to avoid the end.
The mangled limbs were still attached, their dead weight making the roach’s movements that much more difficult. The remaining legs lunged and heaved, dragging her almost in a clockwise motion, going wherever there was to go, every direction considered. She began climbing a lamp, and fell, but not before feeling the warmth of its bulb, a warmth that drew her in as if a sanctuary was implied. Instead, she landed on the hard shell of her back, and another blow to the world erupted, but not striking the roach directly this time, happening very near, just missing her. The odd luck of this was that the quake inadvertently flipped the roach back onto her belly, and with what could have been her final gasps, the roach pulled herself forward, over the back of the bookshelf, plummeting down the narrow space behind it.
While the actual descent took a split second, for the roach it seemed much longer. The action coincided with the roach’s last moment of consciousness, a moment frozen and extended, where the last experience took on a perpetual nature, a series of frames played over and over.
The fall, however, did not deliver the roach to the floor, rather dropping her directly into the soft netting of a spider web. While the roach wasn’t dead, she had become oblivious to her surroundings. Her twitches, therefore, were not an attempt to break free, but rather the flailing of a semi-functional body, lacking direction for its surplus of energy, no central command remaining to issue orders.
The web was spiderless. Its builder and former resident lay dead on the floor beneath. The spider’s death had been recent, and the fall from the web even more so, shaken loose by the first shudder of the bookshelf, the rigor-mortised frame dropping like a heavy leaf. The web left behind was dense, not a single plane, but layered, designed to snare even the minutest of insects. Desiccated carcasses remained woven into it like spent trash, along with a trio of egg sacks, arranged in a line just above the spasming roach, at nearly the highest point of the web. The eggs of one sack, the middle sack, were a vibrant white, almost sparkling in the shadows, while the other two were a faded, dull gray.
The spider should have been eaten by her young, but it had not worked out this way. The eggs were now late in their hatching, and the spider hadn’t been able to survive long enough to offer her body as an inaugural meal. The process of laying the eggs had taken so much out of her, that afterwards, when prey had become caught in the web, she had done nothing, as if immobilized, either bereft of appetite, or of the vitality to kill, the doomed insect abandoned, left to perish from general deprivation. After two days the web had begun to wither somewhat, its links frayed, swaying in the mild, intermittent breezes originating from the bathroom window.
This was the only home the spider had ever known. She had been drawn to the darkness of the thin passage upon her first wanderings. The location had provided stability, never bothered by the moving of furniture or the intrusion of exterior elements. A consistent stream of small bugs were always passing through, and she had grown at an optimal rate. The web had grown as well, expanding outwards across the small gap. Often, two or three insects would become trapped at once, and the spider would decipher the vibrations of the web, telling her which was the largest prize scored. She would then move as if possessed, sliding across the silken pathways in a type of ballet, spinning her cord around the subject, only pausing to inject doses of poison, gradually wearing it down, until there was no fight left, until the wrapping was complete. She would feed for hours, the fuel molting new skin after new skin, her size increasing exponentially.
The spider had known her mate by the way he moved, a ritualistic jig, and by the pressure his touch had made upon her web. Their coupling had been brief and technical, yet intimate, resulting in the conception of three bulging egg sacks. This was the next generation, and she would have protected it with her life, as well as given up her own body as sustenance, but two of the sacks had failed to mature, and the third would be left orphaned.
The roach was still barely alive. One leg continued an erratic kick, slower and slower, less and less often. A single antenna maintained an optimistic flop at random intervals. Had the roach had even half of her normal strength, she could have ripped through this diminished web with little difficulty, but instead she hung in a peculiar limbo, between life and death, awaiting a definitive proclamation. It was reasonable to think that this could have gone on for hours, if not indefinitely, as the isolated appendages kept up their activity. It was only when the egg sack broke off, when it disengaged from its benefactor, that the remaining tremors of consciousness within the roach came to a halt.
Being that the egg sack of roaches, like its mother, was tangled in the web, its separation was only identifiable by the most interior of measurements, still appearing to be attached, but not, unequivocally severed. Inside, the baby roaches continued their gestation, weak and malnourished, but still viable, preparing themselves for the inevitable confrontation with the outer world. They could not perceive themselves, however, at this stage, as singular creatures, so tightly compressed within the sack, a sack that held no light, mingling together in a stew of incubation, unable to distinguish the separation of siblings. They were a unified legion, their friction igniting warmth, gathering in swirls, patiently awaiting the explosion that would unleash their uniqueness.
For the infant spiders, those clustered in the center sack, the lone egg sack to survive and mature, their period of gestation had been an entirely different experience. Their eggs, like the baby roaches, were pressed together, but rather than being stored within an opaque sheath, cut off entirely, their protective layer was a transparent ball of webbing, woven tightly enough to produce a nearly solid wall. Even those eggs at the center of the sphere could sense slight changes in light or a shift in room temperature. Their closeness bred an understandable camaraderie, but they were already much more solitary agents than the unborn roaches, their proximity to each other being just distant enough to grant anonymity, the next phase something to be entered alone. Theirs would not be a sudden, mass exodus, but a sequential release, one by one, angling their tiny bodies through the thick webbing, its integrity remaining intact, gradually hollowing.
The first spider hatchling emerged from a fairly interior position, close to the center, squeezing and edging its way outwards through the white eggs. This was the only agenda, to exit the sack and present itself to whatever lay on the other side. It did so clumsily, but with that unique elegance that a spider cannot help but have, its many limbs not merely trudging along in unison like the oarsmen of some ancient slaveship, but acting independently, each concerned with a specific task, coordinating every stage of advancement.
The web this first baby spider encountered was not in the best shape, but its new, youthful occupant held no complaints. It was one of the favored, to have made it this far, and it navigated its way a short distance from the egg sack, working out the kinks in its legs, stretching them along the silky plane, testing their strength and sensitivity, reading the web’s lines of communication, instinctively knowing the central role such a home would fill.
It wasn’t long before other spiders hatched, and the exiting process became easier as the numbers within the sack diminished. They spread out slowly along the vast network, like so many stars and constellations, some going off by themselves to far corners, others remaining in small bunches near the egg sack. The last baby spider came forth, unaware of its place in line, with several of the eggs failing to hatch, succumbing to their vulnerable nature.
For those fortunate enough to have left the sack, a serious quandary had been presented. Their mother, whom they felt inclined to consume, was absent. In her place was the roach and the egg sack, seemingly joined, but not, split apart, suspended and motionless. This potential target of their hunger, however, was somehow not right, a bizarre and questionable substitute, and the baby spiders ignored it completely, holding their positions as if either confused or determined, unwilling to accept anything other than the proper order. They huddled at striking distance of the meaty roach, a banquet that could easily sustain their group a hundred times over, restraining themselves, seemingly willing to starve.
If the baby spiders had actually been watching, paying attention to the roach, or more specifically, to the roach’s egg sack, they might have noticed movement, the pulse of some foreign awakening. Inside the brown, oblong shell, little bursts were happening, undulating beneath the thin membrane. Baby roaches were popping from their eggs, the collective pressure gathering, squirming within the black, lubricating fluid. Only when enough of them had hatched, when the intensity of their friction peaked, did the egg sack burst, spilling forth its newborn contents into the web.
For the baby roaches, this was as disorienting a start as any creature could possibly endure. Their tiny weak legs were the only mechanism innately understood, and here they had found themselves introduced to a world in which such a faculty was of no use. In fact, as they would quickly and helplessly discover, the employing of their legs would actually be counterproductive, only exacerbating the predicament, their kicking and flailing merely spinning them further and further into the endless yarn, no different than quick sand.
Several of the baby roaches managed to get themselves a ways out on the web, nearing its edge, but lacking the endurance to unwittingly escape. The baby spiders avoided this odd and awkward display, keeping their distance, moving out of the way when necessary. The web swelled with bodies, bouncing with the frantic energy of the roaches, not understanding their potential demise any more than their brief arrival, but sensing it regardless, the feel of its touch, the sound of its call.
As the baby roaches tired, their struggling waned. The tone of their resistance was transforming, taking on a different role. The new message was transmitted out upon the silk wires, a message of defeat and weakness. It cannot be said which of the spiders figured this out first, perhaps the first born, the most senior of the bunch, but there was certainly a first to do so, as the act, like their hatching, transpired sequentially. The vibration of the worn out roaches, of their surrender, triggered a primordial memory in this first baby spider, a memory that belonged to no one individual of its kind, but that all of them shared. It was the memory of nourishment, and the physical necessities involved.
The first baby spider, like all of its kin, had not yet developed the ability to spin thread or dispense venom, techniques and skills that were soon to come, but not just yet. What it knew was how to feed. This they were born with. Approaching the nearest baby roach, its web-rolled frame still jerking slightly, the first baby spider reached out a cautious leg, touching the baby roach briefly, and then pulling away, holding the leg just above, testing the reaction. The baby roach continued its muted resistance, no more or less inspired by the baby spider’s prodding. It took two more of these guarded pokes before the baby spider gained a certain confidence, a reassurance that this opportunity was there for the taking. This was when the mandibles came out, as if the baby spider had been unaware of their presence until now, showing no hesitation, sinking them as deeply as possible into the baby roach’s flesh, sucking out that first taste of the sacred juice, certain then that this was how it went.
For this baby roach, upon which the first baby spider began feeding, a type of understanding took hold, a knowledge of immediacy, of its own blood being siphoned, and a panic erupted. Like a roped steer, it bucked and kicked, but was unable to shed its rider. These new movements sent the panic out across the web, and it was this, or merely the delayed following of their eldest’s example, that set loose the rest of the baby spiders upon the herd of bound baby roaches. A stealth army descending en masse, overwhelming the unsuspecting population.
There were no screams. No blood was shed, it was too precious for that. The carnage of this feast was all internal, with fangs plunging into defenseless bodies, drinking with conviction. Each new bite heightened the quivering panic, shaking some of the web’s foundational cords loose, a reverberation that only excited the baby spiders more, their violence a kind of celebration, switching indiscriminately from one victim to the next, sharing the bounty, gorging themselves in a drunken ecstasy.
At the bottom of the web, a single baby roach hung, immersed in an arrangement of webbing. It struggled, as they all did, and this struggle both loosened its binds, as well as summoned a nearby baby spider, quickly bridging the gap between them. Contact was made, and just before the baby spider pierced yet another skin, it hesitated, opting to pull the comparatively large load back onto a sturdier position on the web. This mistake was a product of youthful enthusiasm, perhaps too caught up in the exhilaration of the moment, for this attempt failed, and the baby roach actually fell from the web, leaving the baby spider at a loss, its legs probing the empty air as if blind.
It took hours, there on the floor behind the bookshelf, not far from the mother spider’s corpse, for the lone surviving baby roach to untangle itself. It had no idea how close it had come to being killed, nor did it care. Not so far above, its brothers and sisters were being massacred, the last drops of blood tapped, their bodies turned dry from the inside out. To this as well, the baby roach remained oblivious. Its chief concern was thirst, and a keen sense, coming from somewhere inside itself, told the baby roach that water was near. Trusting this sense, it raised its head, and the tiny antenna guiding it, and set off in search.
About Jeremy Stuart
Jeremy Stuart resides in the Bronx. During the last two decades he has written and staged several plays in New York. Over the last few years he has turned to short story writing, and has recently begun submitting them for consideration. This is his second published story. His first, The Procedure, can be found at thedisappointedhousewife.com. His cat Howard is pictured above.