Exercise in Description, part III

– First the Sky, Then a Spider, Then My Conscience: Everything is Burning –

For several weeks the weather was fine and every evening after dinner I sat on my back stoop to smoke and finish my beer. Before me stretching westward was a space of wetlands — full of palmettos, leatherferns and other low scrubbrush — which finally ended in a thicket of loblolly pines. Here and there the bleached skeletons of dead trees rose high above the brush, upon which perched the herons and crows.

Relaxing, I liked to watch the horizon shift through the spectrum in reverse: indigo, then violet, azure, the green of a dying leaf, the flesh of a peach. On cloudy eveings all was fire. Then when darkness finally put an end to it I would return inside. Except once, just before the sun dipped, I watched a web darken in a little tree with lacquered leaves and purple flowers adjacent to my stoop. A minute later when the sun had gone so had the web, and the spider appeared to be suspended in the air.

I went closer to examine it. She was a spindly, colorless, freakish kind, with a thorax almost as long and narrow as her legs. The legs were paired, two front and two back on either side. Spread out as she was in the center of her web she resembled a five pointed star. Her myriad eyes were two globular glass beads. Poised on her strands she billowed slightly with a breeze, and I knew that every movement and flutter of the pulsating, permutating world was registering unerringly through her web as through every hair upon her body.

Every evening thereafter I watched the spider instead of the sky. I watched her meditating, motionless in her web. I often wondered if she ever ate. Not once did I see a catch mar her threads’ numinous symmetry, through which the sky (flickering dead in shy pastels) was like seeing the stained glass clerestory at Chartres. And yet she seemed to persist upon her airy diet, silent and detached, her heart evidently beating away within, her few pale blood cells stirring.

Soon she started to mean something to me. Some cultures think the universe is a loom — but it was nothing like that. If anything it was the opposite. In the same way I know the sun and earth are huge spherical extensions of myself, I knew that this spider in its web was like a blackhole, a loose speck in space, which hangs and hangs tirelessly in the atmosphere, apart. The hem of her silk was her event horizon. Anything which fell within it ceased to be a part of our world and became a part of hers, like a final declaration against the unity of life, for the triumph of the holy, that this is in no way that — nor ever will be.

One night my friends and I sat on the stoop smoking and drinking, a pall of smoke and laughter hanging in the air. The concrete pad was strewn with ash and the grass was strewn with bottles. As was gossiped and carried on I could not shake the weight of the spider’s stillness and silence, like a judgment staying the scales against our joy and vulgarity. I went to her with an unlit cigarette in my mouth. I struck a match with a pop; the blue bud paused an instant before yawning into a yellow flame. First I lit the lowest corners of her web. The filaments vanished instantly, a few writhing life-like before curling into sticky beads. Slowly I consumed her whole web, drawing the match closer to her as the flame drew closer to my fingertips. Yet she kept so still, like an impeccable painting, that I fully expected her to remain so when the flame finally reached her, like a martyr yielding to self-immolation, like an ember happy in its own glow. Thus the violence of her reaction shocked me. Her elegent legs scrambled madly all about to find a purchase in her disappearing web, and in an instant she was fleeing into the leaves. But it was too late, the fire had taken hold and she curled into a ball of ash. Then I quick lit my cigarette and shook out the match.

I did not laugh as I thought I would. Instead I quietly bore a sudden, infinite remorse: here I thought, in her magisterial stillness, she would be beyond pain.

~ by Peter on April 8, 2008.

4 Responses to “Exercise in Description, part III”

  1. Beautiful. Reverse spiderweb, reverse thought, original, perfectly measured and weighted. But here you have definitely gone beyond the limits of a technical exercise in description which I would take to mean just the thing itself, here the writing definitely extends meaning to the thing and extracts emotion from it, perfectly executed but way beyond a technical exercise, more a fully fledged work of art,

  2. Haha, you’re right, this doesn’t really match my intentions. I think it’s because spiders frighten me and so I couldn’t get myself to describe it in detail, instead defering to a sort of description of conscience and, ultimately, a specious excuse for why I killed it.

    It is bad luck to kill spiders.

  3. I love how you describe the moment without apology (as in unapologeticaly). So very insightful.

  4. I got to say poor spider, though I understand the impulse thanks to the perfect weaving of threads, your story is a wondrous metaphor for so many things; the impulse to destroy is in us all, though in this case the irony is that it is so creative.

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