While writing–what is known as “creative writing” doesn’t exactly fall into the definition of the craft of “making things by hand,” I’m going to expand my horizons a bit and include some of my writing because: a.) it is a CRAFT that requires practice, thought, and serious introspection, b.) “creative writing” is as much self-expression as any abstract expressionist painting, and c.) I hand-drew some tiny illustrations for this piece. So, here goes…
The Object of My Affection
Like most affairs of the heart, it began with a look, a look that stopped me in my tracks. You know those looks; the ones that make you wonder if you’d been sleepwalking before that moment. It was only me, looking; she didn’t pay me a moment’s notice. Although I didn’t realize at first that she was female, I don’t think that fact would have changed the outcome of my tale. She was big, a brazen creature whose demeanor invited a closer look and at the same time, warned of danger if you got too close. She wore loud colors, yellow and black stripes with a few proud polka dots thrown in to show how she flaunted all rules about pattern matching. Her shapely legs were clad in red and black stockings that looked like they were cast-offs from Les Miserables. Certainly no one would ever have called her subtle; another one of her marvelous qualities.
At first I watched her from behind a window, stealing moments to observe her without her knowing. I was envious of her beauty, power, and control, a being so unlike me: an aging, slow, heavy person. I couldn’t help but admire her alertness, her obvious efficiency at organizing and running her life. She was enormously industrious, very talented at what she did, busy whenever I stole a few minutes from my own work to watch her.
OK, I admit it; even early on, I was beguiled, completely intrigued by her. I began to do research, wanting to learn everything about her: What was her name? Where was she from? What line of work was she in? Was she just passing through, or was she here for the long haul? I speculated about her motives for stopping here, about her feelings and thoughts. I talked about her with my husband, my friends, my far-flung family.
And because I couldn’t pronounce the name that Google insisted was hers, I made up a name for her. That was my first mistake. By giving her a name, I allowed her to take on an inordinate amount of importance in my heart. She became part of my internal monologues, my thoughts, my conversations, my mythology and dreams. I see now that naming her was the beginning down the road towards a tragic ending.
I named her Charlotte, like my French ex-mother in law, and when pronounced with a French accent, her name sounded like: “Shar-lutt,” a lovely utterance that rhymes with King Tut and Hot Slut. And, you know, the funny thing was that she began to look French the more I said her name to myself.
It was around the time I named her that I must have crossed the line between “casual observer” to “obsessive stalker.” I started finding new locations from which I could watch Charlotte. I considered the logistics of trying to kidnap her so I could see her up close whenever I wanted to. I set up my daily routines around her and delivered something like 24-hour news coverage on everything Charlotte was doing, and what she might be thinking: “Hey, listen to this: I saw Charlotte taking a siesta, when—BAM—suddenly she roused herself from total sleep and grabbed a passing guy, grabbing this fly and wrapping herself all over him! God, she’s fast!” And: “Quick, come look at what she’s doing now! I stink she’s settling down here! She’s rearranged her house!”
I wanted to get a special lens for my camera so I could photograph her in the early morning when dawn first revealed her vigilant silhouette, her colors muted in the quiet just before dawn. I worried about her when the remnants of a nasty hurricane pounded us with rain and wind for two days. Charlotte was alone, apparently without a husband to protect her in case of a flood. I worried about her prodigious labors, her lack of sleep, and her weight, which seemed to be increasing and decreasing far too fast. Maybe she was sick. Could she be bulimic? I had never seen her puking, but there was something wrong with her, I could tell. I just didn’t know what.
My own mate, concerned about my obsession, but probably also a bit captivated by Charlotte himself, was the one to discover what was wrong with her, “Come look at this,” he said one day, “I think I know what’s been happening to Charlotte…” We walked outside and looked up under the eaves of the house at a package resembling a brown manila bag, fat at the bottom, then pulled up tight at the top. It was as big as Charlotte’s body and lashed to the corner of the siding so nothing could get to it, “I think she did this,” he said.
“No… It’s too big,” I said slowly, thinking back through the many hours of my surveillance and verifying that I’d never seen her lugging around a big manila bag. I would have noticed something that big.
No matter of she’d stowed the mysterious bag or not, I had to do something for Charlotte who was not the thinnest I’d seen her. She seemed so groggy and slow, barely stirring even when I got so close that I was sure she saw me. Google offered no clues as to what to do for her so I resorted to what every woman seems to do when in doubt: offer care in the form of food. I wasn’t sure what she’d eat, but I would start with whatever I could get my hands on.
I began to look around for things I thought would entice Charlotte’s taste buds. I was sitting in a café, eating breakfast with my mate when I became aware that I’d begun to think like a different species. A fat green fly was crawling up and down the windowpane, dipping its hairy feet into a streak of some child’s leftover pastry smeared on the glass. I had the sense that the fly would be really tasty and a spark of predator malevolence stole over me. I imagined my hand like an uncoiling spring, snatching that fly and throwing it still conscious but confused to Charlotte. She would leap into action stabbing her teeth into its bottle-green abdomen, injecting it with venom while wrapping it quickly in her webbing. She would feast on it all day, sucking in nourishment and a desire to get well again, I almost felt hungry for the fly myself… And then I was as nauseated as any other normal human being at the thought of eating a fly.
But Charlotte was sick and I didn’t want her to die, so I began hunting flies in the privacy of my home, sometimes finding ones that had expired naturally in the screened windows, but more often than not, sneaking up on them with a damp dishtowel and thumping them unconscious, then carrying them in a Kleenex to Charlotte. I would toss the flies into her web, talking in a low, soothing voice, blowing gently on the entrapped flies so Charlotte would rouse herself to eat. “You’ve got to eat,” I’d say. “Please don’t die!’
I hunted bugs—dead or alive bugs—for about an hour a day, making trips back and forth to Charlotte, coaxing her to eat and growing encouraged by the fact that she started to put on weight again. At night, I trained the warm glow of a floor lamp through the back of her web, enticing flying insects towards Charlotte with the light like a blinking neon “EAT” sign outside a diner. Over a week or so, with constant food deliveries, she gained back about half-of her original body weight and looked again like the voluptuous Amazon I’d first beheld. My Charlotte.
After her illness, Charlotte was more responsive to the food I brought her. She returned to her lightning-fast response time and did some intensive web rebuilding as thought she realized things had slipped while she was laid up. She rewove the thick, vertical zigzag webbing at the center of her nest, spinning out triple-thick webbing from her belly and laying it rapidly in place with her hind legs. Every night, she rewove most of the orb-shaped main web, eating the spent threads to ingest their protein before spinning anew with a more sticky thread. Her colors heightened again and her belly looked swollen with pride. She was radiant with health, and I was basking in our perfect symbiotic relationship like a mother breast-feeding her fat, healthy baby.
One morning, a week or so since Charlotte had been restored to health, I woke to find her out of the zigzag webbing. I slide open the door and rush out onto the deck, desperately peering around the edges of her web. There, up under and overhanging eave, Charlotte was dangling, wan and half her former size, near a new and bigger brown manila bag strung between disorganized web threads. This time, there could be no doubt that it was Charlotte who had made the bag.
Where—and how—had she found a mate? And where was he now that she needed help? She’d nearly died after building the first cocoon; why would she have knowingly sacrificed half of herself—and all of her health—for yet another bag of babies? I wasn’t sure she’d recover this time.
My hunt for flies became urgent. I ran up to the meadow where the cows were grazing, their tails flicking off clouds of flies that rose up and then resettled with each flick. My wild dishtowel lashing disturbed the cattle and they moved off, taking Charlotte’s food with them. I caught a small cricket, the kind that eats clothes, and tossed it next to Charlotte in the eaves, but she didn’t stir. On the screened porch, I caught a small moth and took it to her, tossing it next to her, where it fluttered about, caught in the sticky threads. But, it, too, was ignored. Charlotte looked frozen.
Throughout the day, I brought her flies and at night, set up the floor lamp to shine on the tempting morsels I’d delivered during the day. Charlotte made no movement. Insects I had tossed her way lay suspended and ignored around her. I blew on her gently and wondered if she might be cold. She seemed dead. I needed help.
Where, I ranted, was the mate who had done this to her, leaving her to this fate after his “fun” was over? I wanted to find him, beat the crap out of him and the make him come back to help her. Maybe he would know some way to entice her back to life. At he very least, he would be about to forage for food that she would like…
I found a photo of the males of Charlotte’s species and realized why I’d never seen one of the bastards: they were minuscule. Male garden spiders are so small that they can hardly be seem by humans. Besides being small—never a good attribute in the male of any species, I don’t care what they say—the males are stupid, forgetting to eat until they have located a female garden spider too seduce. Once they find the woman of their dreams, they hang around on the edge of her web, fearful of being mistaken for food, and probably puffing themselves up to look desirable. When at last the male thinks his woman is “in the mood,” the coward plucks they threads of the web as though he were playing a love song on a harp. The female spider, equipped with an extra claw on her feet to feel the subtle differences of vibrations in the webbing, supposedly responds to the male’s “song” and lets the twerp approach.
That’s what they say about most garden spiders. I seriously doubted my Charlotte would have been so easily won by a practiced, ordinary routine from such an obvious, bumbling suitor as described in the books. But because of the cocoons, I was forced to admit that somehow, one of the dunderhead males had done the nasty to her. Twice. I consoled myself with the thought that the unfaithful bastard might have died instantly, the moment he inserted his sperm-y appendage into her, fertilizing her eggs. Or, even better, maybe she had realized he wasn’t worth her indulgence and trust and she had killed him when he climbed off her. Whatever his fate, there was nobody to help me revive my fading Charlotte.
The next day, my mate and I had a family obligation that took us out of town for one night. While I didn’t want to leave Charlotte, we were obliged to make this family visit. I showed the house sitter where Charlotte was hanging and talked to her about hunting flies –without really asking her to do the actual hunting and feeding, but strongly implying that Charlotte was very important to me. My husband seemed dejected as the three of us stood looking up at the chaotic web filled with dead insects, two large brown bags, and the inert, shrunken spider. “Live!” I commanded, staring at Charlotte. “Please don’t die on me!”
As soon as I could, I called the house sitter from my uncle’s house. “Charlotte’s gone,” she said at once. “She was packing up her web last night and thing morning—she’s all gone.”
“NO!” I cried. It was my worst fear; that Charlotte would think I had abandoned her and she would have left in a depression, thinking me yet another faithless lover. The house sitter had to be mistaken. “Did you look outside in the bushes? Maybe she’s just resting under the eaves… or maybe she just stepped off the deck to go eat some ants or something?”
“I looked everywhere. I think she’s really gone. Why would she have taken down all of the web if she weren’t leaving?”
I drove the several hundred miles back home without letting up on the accelerator. Hurrying onto the deck where Charlotte had lived, I saw that indeed, her beautiful orb web was completely gone. All that was left of her was the unaccomplished webbing under the eaves that still held the two brown bags of her babies. Why did she leave me? Did she think I had forgotten her when we left for that trip? Where would she have gone? Who else would feed her and take care of her? Surely she hadn’t tossed her fate in with that of her invisible mate who was nowhere to be found after her difficult pregnancies… I looked around all the windows on the deck, under all the eaves, in the grass and bushes near the house…
When she wasn’t to be found, I went inside and fired up my computer, searching for a ghost-like clue as to where I might find Charlotte. What I learned was that once the female spider has laid her eggs in the brown sac, she tries to stay and guard them, but she usually goes off alone and dies. The brown paper sacs are insulated with the mother’s careful spinning and will safely house thousands of tiny spiderlings through the winter. In the spring, the bags will open to release Charlotte’s babies onto the deck.
Well, that’s very sweet and all, but I don’t know her children and once they hatch, I won’t care to make friends with them either. They are not Charlotte. They will just be nameless eight-legged crawling things with lots of beady little eyes. They can’t take her place; nobody can.
I just want Charlotte to come back. I’ll keep looking for her and I’ll keep turning on the lamp each night, hoping its light beckons like the Statue of Liberty’s torch, luring my weary Charlotte back home where she belongs.