A Tangled Web We Weave
Written by Bron James
It was late that Halloween night.
The young Trick-or-Treaters had long since gone to bed, pretending to sleep as they hid from their parents beneath the bed sheets, indulging in their evening’s sweet haul. The groups of roaming revellers marauded the streets in their costumes, trawling from bars to house parties. And Sam Hain was returning home after a seasonally-spooky session of Dungeons and Dragons.
The merry band of tabletop adventurers had barely escaped with their lives after Sam’s character—a high elf wizard by the name of Bell Tane—had cast Speak with Animals in a desperate bid to negotiate peace with a ravenous Owlbear. While his proficiency in spellcasting had given him the opportunity to open a dialogue with the beast, Sam had grievously overestimated his character’s Charisma skill. The roll of the dice fell short, the negotiations were brief, and Bell Tane was cursed to understand the Owlbear as it proceeded to viscerally detail the ways in which it intended to maul each and every one of them.
Overall, it had been a fun night. Even if Alice’s Druid now had her work cut out for her, brewing healing potions after Sam’s less than successful efforts at diplomacy. (It was Alice’s first experience playing D&D; it was too soon to say whether or not she enjoyed it enough to become a regular thing, but she wasn’t not having fun).
As he returned home, Sam plodded down the stairs to his basement flat, rummaging for his keys as he went. It was as he was reaching the foot of the stairs that he heard something. A faint, quiet noise, barely audible. He paused on the last step, training his ears towards the sound. It seemed to be coming from his doorway; a small, hushed voice, just on the periphery of his hearing. It almost sounded like the words: “He’s coming.”
A spectral visitor?, he thought. A guest communing from the spiritual planes, easily heard on this night when the veil between worlds is at its thinnest.
Sam’s ears strained as he listened intently for the voice, hoping to tune into its range and hear what it was saying. He held his breath, trying to eliminate all other noise to better hear the voice, but it didn’t help. He was met with nothing but silence.
“Is anyone there?” he asked the empty space outside of his doorway. There came no answer. Only the light rustling sound of tiny, stifled snickering, shortly followed by a series of hushed ‘shh’s from visitors unseen. Present though they were, it seemed apparent that they didn’t want him to know they were there.
Imps, he now thought, with a sense of sinking dread. Must be the Fae, come to play their puckish pranks… Readying himself to find his flat in a mess (more than the usual mess he was accustomed to living in), the TV remote stolen away into the ether, the jar of coffee replaced with dirt, or to be generally besieged by all manner of bothersome pranks, Sam put his key into the lock.
Another ripple of stifled giggles.
He turned the key, pushed open the door, and stepped through.
No sooner had he crossed the threshold did Sam walk straight into the trap which had been laid for him.
Something light, cottony and gossamer thin coated his face. It spread across his skin, sticking to his eyelids and tickling his nose. Strands clung to his stubble and dangled over his mouth, the substance feeling oddly dry and somewhat dusty against his lips.
Taken aback by the sudden sensation, Sam’s hand instantly reached up to claw the substance from his face. It stuck to his fingers as he began to peel it away, disentangling it from his eyelids and freeing it from his hair. It may have been dry and soft, but it clung to him in a way which felt like it should’ve been stickier than it actually was. He pulled his hand back and there, wrapped around and threaded between his fingers in loose strands and matted tangles, were the remnants of a spider’s web.
“Ugh,” he groaned with mild displeasure as he wiped the cobweb from his fingers against his trouser leg. It was then, as he looked down, that he noticed that it wasn’t just his face that had walked straight into the web. Thin threads and clumps of cobweb criss-crossed all over him, from head to toe, coating the entire front of his body in a maze, glistening in the dim light of the stairway.
The sight of something moving gave Sam a start, as two spiders scurried down his coat on the edge of his vision. Reactively, Sam reached down to remove his miniature hitchhikers, but they hurried away from his attempt to pick them up, secreting themselves away in the folds of his coat.
There came a collective, albeit faint, “n’aww” sound from somewhere behind—and above—him. A small, high pitched and frustrated voice added, “Rats!”
Sam turned around, casting his eyes back towards the doorway. It took him a moment to notice it, so thin and almost imperceivable as it was, but all the way around the frame, and hanging down from just above the outside of the door, were innumerable strands of broken webs. They covered every inch of the doorframe, floor to ceiling, and presumably had stretched across the entire entrance before he had unceremoniously walked into it.
As he examined the curiously cobwebbed door, something else caught his eye. Traces of movement, creeping in from around the frame, as hundreds of spindly legs came crawling into view. No less than twenty spiders, maybe more, he counted, appearing around the lip of the entryway. One of them, in the middle of the frame’s head, lifted its two front legs and appeared to be shaking them at him.
“Hey! We spent all day making that!” a small voice cried out to him, inexplicably coming from the horde of spiders.
Sam blinked, bemusedly. Hearing the voices of disembodied spirits and ghosts, and confronting creatures beyond people’s wildest nightmares, was all par for the course for him. But talking spiders? This was a new one.
“Are you—?” he started, casting an uncertain eye towards his arachnid acquaintances. “Are you talking to me?”
The spider which had been gesticulating its legs at him now held them up in the pantomime of a shrug. “Well, there’s no one else here. Who else do you think we’re talking to?” its small squeaky voice replied with annoyance.
“I don’t know,” he replied, almost apologetically, “I guess I just wasn’t expecting…” He gestured towards the spiders and their broken tangles of webbing. “This.”
“That’s the whole point!” another one chimed in. He could tell the spider was exasperatedly shouting, but it was still only just audible. Barely perceptible to his ears. “You’re not meant to expect it, until it’s too late.”
“Well then, congratulations, I suppose. I didn’t see it,” Sam said. He still couldn’t fathom what was going on, what to make of any of it, or even what he’s supposed to do when a score of spiders are chastising him. There was no established decorum for such things. It seemed impolite to simply turn his back on them and go about his evening as if they hadn’t just started accosting him. “So…” he hesitated. “Are you coming in? I’m going to need to close the door, and I don’t want to squish any of you.”
The spiders murmured amongst each other for a moment, before crawling their way inside, safe from the door. They perched themselves above the frame, gazing down at him with their many compound eyes.
“Thank you,” he said, bowing his head slightly, and trepidatiously pushed the door shut. He kept his head back and as far from the door as possible as he did so; he didn’t particularly fancy any of them deciding to seize the opportunity to abseil down onto him.
“I told you, Gordon: it’s not about the size. It’s all in the design,” one spider seemed to lecture another.
"Nah, mate, you're usin' too much web. I'm tellin' ya, less webbin', more density."
"No, no, no," another voice piped up, "it's the thread count that matters. Tighter weave, tighter web, s'what me dad always used to say."
"Excuse me," Sam interjected, waving his hands to the audience of arachnids, "what's all this about?"
"We was tryna catch ya, wasn't we?" replied the spider who favoured the thicker threads. "Then ya went 'n' ruin'd it all by walkin' through it and stuff!"
"Yeah! You were meant to be all tangled up and caught in our web," spoke another.
Several of the other spiders appeared to put on a mock-performance, flailing their legs around as they wailed: “Oh no, help me! I’m hapless and stuck in a masterfully crafted web! I was no match for these cunning spiders!”
Sam cleared his throat uncomfortably. “You were trying to ‘catch’ me?” he asked, raising an eyebrow. “I very much doubt the answer is going to make this any less weird, but… Why?”
There came a chittering from the spider congregation, before the first spider he’d spoken to answered for them. “Forbidden prey,” it said.
“I’m sorry?” Sam said. He had heard the spider perfectly well; it was more the meaning that he didn’t quite catch.
"Forbidden prey," they all chorused in reply.
“Righty,” he sighed, “that’s what I thought you’d said.” He was no less bewildered by their response. If anything, the collective chorus had only made the words ‘forbidden prey’ sound all the more sinister. Even if it had been spoken by comically tiny, high-pitched voices. “So… Your plan was to, what, catch me and—I dread to ask—eat me?”
Affirmative murmurs rippled from the spiders.
“Listen, guys,” Sam said, sliding his hands nonchalantly into his coat pockets, to appear as if he was taking this all in his stride, “admirable effort, really.” His mind fumbled for words, thoroughly uncertain as to what one is supposed to say in circumstances like these. He suspected too few people had even been in a situation like this for there to be any kind of established etiquette. “But you must realise, I am magnitudes bigger than any of you. And that web? It’d need to be at least a thousand times thicker, and stronger, to even be able to catch and hold a human being.”
"Gordon, you takin' notes on this?"
"Bigger… Thicker…" said the spider named Gordon. "And that was a thousand times, yeah?"
“At least,” Sam nodded. Rationally, he thought, there was no harm in saying this. But there was a part of him which couldn’t help but worry that he might’ve just given the spiders the key to becoming the apex predators, and spelled doom for all humankind. That seemed like a bit of a stretch, though. “But even then, I— Ach!” he exclaimed, as a sharp sensation not unlike a pin pricking the back of his hand stung him.
He whipped his hand from his pocket, holding it up to see what had caused the sudden pinch of pain. There, perched upon one of his knuckles, was a spider. It seemed to shrink back a little, dipping its body low as it crouched its legs. Something about its posture seemed to convey a sense of contrition. Gently, Sam coaxed the spider onto his finger, and delicately placed it on the wall so it could rejoin the others.
“Another thing,” he said, “you’re UK house spiders. I don’t think even all of you combined could produce enough venom to properly poison me. Maybe give me a nasty bite, yes, or even make it blister, but certainly not enough to actually… Eat me.”
“Alright, mate, no need to rub it in.”
"We've been trying for ages. Really thought we'd get you this time, too."
"All that webbing, just gone to waste…"
Sam recalled all the numerous times he’d walked into a spider’s web unawares. The amount of times he’d pulled loose cobwebs from his face and shoulders, had to stoop low to avoid a web hanging from a tree or doorway, or he’d found a spider crawling in his hair… He started to wonder if every spider was conspiring to try and catch a human themselves, or if he just so happened to have an unsettlingly ambitious cluster in his home. Which was made all the more unsettling by the fact he’d thought he’d always treated spiders quite well.
"I'm sorry, this is a lot to take in, and I'm still kind of stuck on the 'why' of it all," he said, taking a precautionary step back from the doorway. He suspected there was little more they could do to him, but nonetheless he wanted to step out of their potential jumping range. Just in case they saw fit to take a leap at him. They may have been mostly harmless, but nonetheless the idea of being covered in twenty or more spiders wasn’t exactly high on his agenda. “Did I do something to upset you?”
"You can stop brushing away our webs, for a start! They're our homes, you insensitive git."
"Yeah, 'n' you can stop puttin' us outside, too," another interjected. "It's fuckin' cold out this time of year."
"Not to mention the birds and rats that would see us as dinner."
The spiders rumbled with effusive agreement.
Sam hadn’t expected his question to become an open forum for complaints, nor had he anticipated the spiders to have their answers so readily available. He had to admit, he did often feel kind of guilty about putting spiders outside in the winter, but he figured their exoskeletons probably helped protect them from the elements. He hadn’t thought about them being preyed upon, either. He’d always thought that putting them outside was probably safer than the bottom of the shower. The cobwebs, on the other hand, were just a matter of housekeeping.
“Well, I hadn’t really given it much thought, and for that I truly apologise,” he said.
"Bloody 'umans. All the same. Don't give a rat's arse about who they displace or whose home they destroy."
"Look, I'm sorry," Sam said, holding his hands up in a mime of culpability. "I guess I just wasn't thinking about it that way—"
"Course ya weren't, mammal."
"—but, and I can't believe I'm about to say this, but… How about we sit down and talk this out? No one needs to try and web up anyone."
There was a dejected murmur among the spiders. A moment of deliberation conveyed through the clicking of mandibles and wavering of legs. Sam waited, patiently and hopefully, for their answer. He wasn't too concerned about them trying to snare him again—although he'd much rather they didn't—as much as he was hoping to treat the spiders with the respect they deserved. He saw no reason to antagonise them further, especially not if they were going to take that thousand-fold thickness thing into consideration.
Eventually, the first spider waved a leg in agreement. "You know, we’re not used to being listened to by you humies. It’s nice to be heard. We may parlay."
Taking a few slow and respectful steps backwards, Sam moved away from the door and started to head towards the kitchen. “Make yourselves comfortable,” he said, gesturing the spiders towards the living area, “I’ll be back in a minute.”
He put the kettle on and brewed himself a cup of tea, scooped the dead flies from the windowsill and placed them on a saucer, and returned to the living room.
The spiders had left the door frame and were already making their way over, scuttling across the floor and ceiling, climbing up or dropping down onto the sofa. Sam dutifully placed the saucer of dead flies next to where the spiders were congregating on the couch cushion. With inquisitive legs reaching out and feeling around the dish, they began to crawl onto the saucer and over the flies.
"Okay," Sam said, taking a sip of his tea as he sat in the armchair across from them, "first of all, I would like to apologise. I'm sorry I hadn't considered what I might be doing when I swept away your webs—"
"I had my egg cluster in one of them," a sorrowful voice spoke.
"—and that it might've been too cold whenever I put any of you outside. I thought I was doing what was best for you, rather than being stuck inside."
"It's not so bad. There's a little crack in your bedroom window we can crawl back in through."
"Is there anything else that bothers you?" Sam asked. "I mean, about living with a big clumsy mammal like me, that is?"
"Sometimes you almost step on us, and we've got to move fast," a small and shy voice spoke up. "It's really scary, thinking you're about to be squished."
"Poor Michelle," another spider said, and they all seemed to bow their heads in mournful respect to their squashed kin.
"It's not really your fault, though…" added a different spider. "You're up there, we're down here, and it's not like you're going to see us. You've only got the two eyes."
Sam nodded sympathetically to the spiders' concerns, hoping he appeared to be taking it in his stride far more than he felt he was. It was outlandish enough even talking with spiders, let alone being held to account by them. All the while, he couldn't help but ponder what peculiar magick must've been at work, to allow him to speak with… Oh, he thought, as the realisation dawned on him. Speak with Animals. Speak with Spiders…
It still didn't make a tremendous amount of sense to him, but Halloween could be a weird time of year for all manner of strange sorcery. And, with the myriad magicks he'd experienced, it certainly wasn't out of the question that his D&D roll and roleplaying the spell had in fact been part of a ritual to actually cast Speak with Animals on himself. It wouldn't have been the first time he'd accidentally stumbled into reciting an incantation unawares. The last time had been when he was assembling a particularly stubborn piece of flat-pack furniture, and the instructions had proven to be so arcane and inscrutable that—
"'scuse me, mate," a spider interrupted his tangential thoughts. "These flies are pretty stale. I prefer 'em fresh, juicy and plump."
"Sorry, they were the best I could do in a pinch," Sam replied. "But how would it sound if I was to say I'd make sure I didn't get rid of any nuisance bugs, and left them for you?" For a moment, he worried what species disparity and imbalance in anthropoidal politics he might be causing.
A chitter of approval waved through the congregation of spiders. "What about bees?" one of them added. "They're lovely and sweet."
"No, bees are off-limits," he said. He had to draw the line somewhere, and bees were a firm line indeed. They were having a hard enough time with dwindling species numbers as it was, without Sam endorsing bee-trapping. He wasn't about to be complicit in environmental collapse, no matter how comparatively small his impact might appear to be. "But mosquitoes, gnats, flies that won't leave me alone or can't resist landing on and ruining a good dinner… Things like that are fair game."
Again the murmurs rippled through the assembled spiders. They sounded content with the offering. As content as Sam could determine the spiders to be, at least.
"And, on top of that, I promise not to sweep away your homes, unless they have been fully vacated for some time. Nor will I put you outside against your will."
The murmurs grew into something almost resembling a chittering cheer. The spiders bobbed happily up and down, their legs seeming to dance. A few appeared to even be waving their forelegs in the air.
"But, in exchange for this," Sam added, "I must demand that you stop trying to catch me in your webs. The catching of humans is strictly forbidden forthwith. Firstly, because it's not very pleasant, and secondly because it's not proven to be particularly effective anyway. Other than that, I'd like to request that you help keep my—our—home pest-free."
"What if humans are pests?" asked a spider.
"Well, that's just trying to find yourself a loophole, isn't it?" he replied, and paused as he thought for a moment. He started to consider the unwelcome cold-callers who'd occasionally go door-to-door; the pestering salesmen peddling their wares he had no need for, but were nonetheless resolute in trying to convince him that he did. "Perhaps we can figure that one out on a case-by-case basis."
There was a moment of consideration among the spiders as they chittered among themselves, deliberating the deal put before them. Peace treaties are rarely easily come by, and often require considerable compensation on either side to reach a truce, but the spiders were not so difficult to negotiate with. If anything, they were happy that their voices were being heard and considered for a change. This was as rare an opportunity for them as it was for Sam.
The first spider stepped up to the rim of the saucer, extending one of his front legs forward and out to Sam. "You have yourself a deal, two-eyes."
Sam leaned down towards the saucer, conscious of just how imposing he must've been to his small housemates as he loomed over them. He reached out with his finger, slowly and gently placing it near the spider. He felt the light, almost imperceptible, touch of the spider's leg against the tip of his finger as they simulated the approximate of a handshake.
"I'm glad we could come to some accord," Sam said with a bow of his head. "Now, if any of you are still hungry, there's a particularly pernicious fly in my room that I haven't been able to catch. And I suspect your web-weaving might have better luck than I…"