A single dim ray, like the thread of a spider, shot through the small diaphragm formed by the crust on my lashes. Here is the monochrome scene played out on my retina: a gray wall, a gray cotton sheet, a gray metal bed frame, the gray back of a gray nurse’s cap constraining a frizzled gray bun. A dismal prospect; not worth scraping off the glue, even if I could raise my damned hands.
No matter. I never was before confined to actual percepts when describing prospects. I suppose I know a bit about how to embellish. I should hope so. Not to do so would be like serving beef without sauce. Gravy, jus, horseradish, no matter, but certainly a relish of some sort is essential.
For me this grayness hid a reality far more vivid: a dark black hole—a tiny death—fringed with gold.
But first things first. It was a treasure in itself, my gold bug. Not a tool, not a literary device, not some harbinger, no mere clue. It was the real thing. Her abdomen a bulbous orb of life, or at least she seemed on the verge of delivering something. I know, I know. A spider lays eggs, I know. But she had the whiff of fertility, my nugget. And danger, by her nature. And creativity: the outline of a precious Stradivarius on her thorax. What more could one want?
She perched not at the center of any web, not like some common garden spider, but awaited me amongst the logs of Sarah’s woodpile.
Some will point out that the spider is not gold at all but brown, but have those individuals ever seen one? They are common but not commonly encountered, hence the truer part of their name: recluse. I submit that value like beauty resides in the eye of the beholder, and I tell you this spider was not mud brown, it was pure gold.
I could not have Sarah menaced by such a beastie. An inch is a formidable diameter when it comes to an arachnid. And that’s not counting the legs, which are stouter and more tapered and thus somehow sharper than the standard eight-legger’s.
A heat that had long been in me suddenly flared up when I saw her. A heat that brought a feeling of madness and a clarity of vision. I felt beads of sweat fairly fling themselves from my pores. Egged on by this fire, I dared handle the recluse as if she were a pet, a trinket, not the predator she was. I never meant to crush her—far from it! For if to kill a simple house spider brings ill luck (and it does; it surely does), I would never court the great bad fortune that must ensue from snuffing such a creature as this.
No, I meant only to relocate her at some distance from the woodshed. I meant to spare Sarah the fright of an encounter. I well knew that she found different thrills than I did in the world. This treasure I had stumbled upon would not bring her pleasure. And so I deployed my hat and a spade I had found against the wall.
Life as it occurs is either dull and happy or dramatic and disappointing. Ecstatic joy and meaningful torment? These are found in art alone. Any argument against a Creator is that this world is too coarsely made. An Evil Demon, a Benevolent Father—both are reasonable conjectures, I suppose, but equally wishful figments. I know I am not the first to posit a botchery authored by a Mediocrity. But let me be the first to raise a toast to that forgotten curmudgeon who hit the coffin nail on the head.
Yes, surely, there is some small bit of wonder on this our Orb. There is charity, there are beautiful girls, there are poems, and there are days each year when sweet pollen wafts on the winds from the trees and scatters on the lawns. But there is not wonder enough, not design enough. There are too many untimely hemorrhages and hangovers, apprehensive uncles and reluctant fathers, snippy editors and doltish reviews, running eyes and wheezing lungs. If there be a Cosmic Complaint Department, I would like the room number and the name of the receiving clerk. But having deemed God absent or inept, I cannot reasonably aspire to interview his undersecretary, now can I?
So what then? Well, the usual: either remake it oneself or dress it up. Life as it should be? Life as it could be? Idealism? Utopia? I never had the disposition or birthright for that type of fantasy. But always I have edited for clarity and style, for symmetry and meter and narrative outrage and the color of the new, for sense, for shape, and for meaning, and for a certain dark beauty. In the gray glimmer, through the greening mucous, yes, I see the shades of a possible tale unfold.
It was a simple trip to the woodpile to make sure that Sarah had plenty of split logs on hand. Sarah, luck would have it, was old and ugly, like me. A widow now, like I am. When she was young, before any man knew how she might weather the decades, her father pried himself between us. And I am glad, or life would not have brought me my Virginia. Now alone again, I chose to seize this second chance with Sarah. As soon as I returned from a brief trip on important literary business, we would marry.
No matter, her looks. They were a sight better than mine, what with the wildness around my eyes. I have always felt it there, like the heat now licking up under my skin. But it’s been more so since my dear Sissy, my sweet Virginia, has been gone. A droop and a squint and a glower—these are my hallmarks. People have crossed the street to avoid my eyes. Wisely so, considering how a look can haunt. I have haunted a few people, I confess. Why not? This is the great chain of haunting, and who am I to break it? Anyway, I think these hollow looks I sport of late should be a boon on the lecture circuit, or could be, if I don’t let them run away with me. Another gamble; another chance.
As for the hat, the spade, the business at hand. The spider was territorial, like any good mother. Golden, like treasure. Tenacious, like Ginny was not. Relocation? She would have none of it. She scuttled away when I had at her, but just out of reach. In the larger sense she held her ground. She was nimble, and I thought of Sissy. Then I thought again of Sarah and her need for a log or two when I should be gone, and I pictured her loading them into the slack loop of her shawl and then feeling the crisp feet of my gold bug tickle her flesh. I imagined her as seen through the many-paned eyes of this golden nugget.
A man is meant to protect his woman, is he not? Is that not what convention dictates? Well, in fiction and in fact I have failed on this front. My women have all died out from under me, uncontrollably. I am in some essential way inept. I have perhaps even been a hazard to the women I have known, from my mother on. I never see the bogeys coming. They evade or outwit me every time. If only the one that got Ginny had been this generous in size, a very inch. Then I should have flattened it. And that is what I suddenly chose to do with the radiant queen before me. Luck be damned. I have never believed in it, good or bad. Without gods or demiurges, in which I disbelieve, what force could possibly be left to punish the assassins of spiders?
Have I mentioned her beauty? Her glimmer? Her radiant golden hairs? I went at her with my tools and succeeded in thoroughly squashing my hat with the spade. I was not sure the spider’s fate, and moved the brim gingerly aside.
There it was. I had broken the monster, and all that was left was a carapace and a cluster of crooked legs. The gold dimmed to brown and I wondered if the namers of this species had not spent too much time with pins and preservatives and corkboards—in short, with specimens of erstwhile spiders. The thought of naturalists and their collections made me also think to keep my spider in a jar, to look at, to remind me of the strange shapes that beauty can take.
I poked once, twice, three times with the spade and then dragged it toward me. The once formidable legs were twisted under the belly. The spider had lost its ghost. I found a piece of paper in my pocket and folded it into a small pouch to receive the carcass. I crouched down to the floor. Upon my taking hold of it, it gave me a sharp bite, which caused me to let it drop. It fell straight down, into its pale paper sarcophagus where, despite my alarm, or because of it, I folded it away from the world.
I looked at my palm, which did not hurt. I looked at the spider, which did not move. I looked into my mind and wondered, Did I imagine it? Or did she take her revenge?
Later that day I left Sarah with a kiss on the brow and a promise to return as soon as I had raised a little money and enthusiasm for my new venture. I did not want to use her money to make The Stylus go. I am the author of “The Raven,” after all. I might be good for little as a man, but I could at least earn my keep as a bard. That has been my purpose: to be the bard of the dead and dreary, worthless world. And if it be good enough for Sarah, there might be some pleasant days left for me. I boarded the train and roared off in high modern fashion, whistles keening and rails shrieking in the night.
Soon the fever flared up from the coals that had been glowing inside me all that week. The heat was there, I am sure, before I ever met the bug. And so who can say if it made the black spot on my palm, or if the spider had bitten me after all? Only the spider, and she is dead.
For you see, on my hand I had discovered a black speck, which rapidly increased in size. It opened, and the hole widened and widened, and I regret to say that it soon smelled. I bought a jar of cheap perfumed pomade and rubbed it in, not so much after a cure but to cover the reek. By the time I reached Baltimore I had resorted to packing the hole with the stuff and wearing deerskin gloves I acquired at a haberdasher’s near the station. I also acquired a palm leaf hat, which suited both the heat of the city that unseasonable fall and the thinness of my wallet. My own crushed hat had remained in the woodshed with the brethren of my bug. I did not want to explain its state to Sarah, for fear of putting her into a fit about the spider infestation. One dictum holds with all insects: Where one is seen lurk many more. But most recluses would be truer to their name, I reasoned. They had surely lived there for years before I met mine. Sarah might live there the remainder of her days and never see one.
So I hope, but I will never know. The diaphragm tightens and even the glittering bug at the center of the black void grows wan, making the blackness more black. Around me, people move and talk, and occasionally a cold compress or a spoonful of hot tea is pressed upon me. Nurses, doctors. This is a dead house, as sure as any coffin.
Of what do I die? They do not know, nor could they cure it if they did. Not the spider’s bite, if she even bit me, my gem, my pet, my beauty, my dearest Sissy. It was just a nip—and my fever came on before that, I tell you. It was never the bite of a haunted arachnid that felled me. I have caught this ague in some prosaic way, from the wind or bad milk or a rotten courtesan years ago. I wish it had been my gold bug. I would rather by far be buried live than fall prey to a death without poetry of any sort. But no, there is no art in this end. I say it again: What God there may be is a bungler.
I burn and rave. I see this truth and I fall into a great rage. “This thing,” I exclaim through the roaring fever, “is a contemptible falsehood—a poor hoax—the lees of the invention of some pitiable penny-a-liner.”
But they do not seem to hear me, the nurses, the doctors in their gray world that dims to white. They are not the clerks to the God I address. And I am not myself. My voice is not my own.
“Gone is he? And what time is it?”
“I’ll mark it down. Did he call something out, just at the end?”
“Yes, a name, I think. Pennell?”
“I’ve not heard that name.”
“Reynolds, then, perhaps?”
“Perhaps. But really I think it was just raving. There’s no way to make sense of it.”
The white was very white. The air grew close, as if a sheet had been pulled across my nose. I could not have agreed with them more, about one thing: the damnable absence of sense. Yet not for a moment did I suppose myself actually dead.