The Spider

When she hears her mother calling from the hall below, Kathryn scurried behind the wing-back chair in the library. Her heartbeat quickened as footsteps mounted the stairs, the door creaked open.

“Kathryn?” Silence.

“She’s not here.” The door shut.

“That child.”

After a few moments, her fear overcome by curiosity, the child crept out to witness the ritual below. The cavernous house, usually orderly and subdued, reverberated with strange noises, doors banging,equipment being moved, voices shouting instructions. Caution prevented Kathryn from venturing downstairs to watch the proceedings. Once downstairs she could not escape the spider.

“Let’s do a shot in here.”

“Okay, if we can move some of this clutter, and open the curtains. It’s like a morgue.”

Today the high-ceilinged hallway, encased in a plush wine carpet and a mahogany table with the silver mail salver, was stacked with spindly metal poles, half-opened boxes. Wires snaking across the carpet. Kathryn shuddered. When Grandfather saw the disorder he would roar. In his domain even one forgotten toy caused a violent outburst.

“Get it out of here. Get her out of here. Can’t you control your own child?”

Her mother fussing after the old man, smoothing his blanket, hurrying in with his tea, with his medicines.

“No, not that poison. Take it away.”

Her mother scrambling on the floor to clean up the spill, hastening to pull the shade, adjust the pillow.

“Stop fussing, Nancy. I can’t stand it. The three weeks your aunt goes to England are bedlam.”

Fortunately, as outsiders were present today, Grandfather would be subdued.

Kathryn knew that Grandfather Buckley-Smith was a famous Canadian who had written many books. She had seen him being interviewed on television. Although her other grandfather had only one name, Armstrong, and did not write books, she liked him better. She once confessed to her father that she disliked Grandfather Buckley-Smith.

“That’s a terrible thing to say,” her father roared, shaking her until her jaw hurt. “If your mother heard that, it would break her heart.” She said nothing to her mother.

Every summer for three weeks she and her mother stayed with her grandfather while her aunt was in England. During the day the house was tense and ominous but when Grandfather was safely in bed, mother and daughter sat together at the long table, Brenda coming and going, bringing trays of food, like at a restaurant. At such moments laughing and chatting, Kathryn felt her mother’s love like sun on her cheeks. She vowed never to do anything to sadden that soft pink face.

Late at night, folded tightly in the corner of the vast chilly bed, Kathryn longed for her own cozy room. Terrified by the spider creeping towards her, her body stiffened, her toes and fingers hard as icicles, hearing the spider in the hall, waiting. She listened, breath held, for the door to creak open, fill with the huge wrinkled shape, and squeeze.

“Kathryn? Kathryn?” Her mother’s insistent voice.

“Fred, have a look upstairs.” Today the occasion is of such significance that her father has taken time off work to be present.

The child retreats down the hall, hesitates, and bravely pulls open the attic door. Breathless, eyes wide, she creeps up the narrow stairs to the loft, rustling slightly to scare the ghosts back into the trunk. Here, high in her fairy tale turret, she is safe from the spider’s touch. She peers through the clean spot in the dusty window, and studies the creature below–silver hair sticking out like spikes, knobby fingers clutching the wooden chair, head bobbing. Sometimes in the late afternoon the head twists back on the chair and bubbles ooze from the gaping red hole.

Every sunny afternoon, he waits there. Spiders are patient. Patient and deceptive. Seated in the middle of the soft, green lawn, the spider looks innocent, indolently dozing in the sun, but if you accept his invitation, venture near, step onto the web, pounce.

Usually she is safe if she remains hidden but today even the attic provides no sanctuary. Although Kathryn presses her hands over her ears, she can hear her mother calling, hear her parents gaining on her, like hunters bounding through the woods after the fox. The small desperate animal leaping this way and that, and so many of them, on horses, so many against the one little fox. She knew it was only a movie but her mother said that people really hunted like that for fun. There is a black and white photograph of Grandfather when he was young dressed for hunting; her mother explained the jacket was red.

“Kathryn.”

They are mounting the stairs, she can run no farther. When they catch her, they will sweep her up and take her downstairs to be sacrificed to the spider. And she mustn’t cry, for her mother’s sake, she must not cry.

Footsteps jostling up the stairs, the door handle turns, the door opens, her mother.

The woman offers her hand. “Grandfather is so much trouble. Can’t you help?” Depending on her.

The child marches bravely out the door. I am not a fly that was tricked, she thinks proudly. I am like Jesus, the lamb, who goes willingly. It is better to be a lamb.

When the cameras are set, the child’s hair braided, her face wiped clean, a brightly dressed woman with large red lips sits Kathryn firmly in a chair and instructs a man with earphones. “Let’s get a short bit with the kid and then we can do some shots with her on Mr. Buckley-Smith’s knee.”

The woman moves her chair closer and winks at the child. The bright lights burn her face, the camera glares. The man with earphones reaches over to adjust a button-sized microphone clipped to her dress.

“Kathryn, you and your mother come to spend the summer with your grandfather every year, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Did you know your grandfather is a special Canadian?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know what he’s famous for?”

“He writes books.”

“What’s it like having a famous grandfather?”

The child shifts in her chair, watching the spider dozing on the lawn.

“Do you have a special name for your grandfather?”

The child glances around nervously and whispers, “The spider.”

“The spider? Why’s that?”

“Because he waits in his web and if I go close, he grabs me and squeezes my stomach.”

The woman’s thick smile fragments. “Cut the camera.”

Kathryn’s mother yanks her roughly off the chair.

“That’s not funny, Kathryn.” The child shrinks back, frightened by the excitement. Everybody but the spider is moving; he still pretends to sleep.

“We’re short of time, let’s give up on this.”

The man throws off his earphones. “Kids.”

“Do I have to sit on Grandfather’s knee for the show?”

“You won’t be in this show at all,” her father barks, yanking her by the arm and pushing her towards the house. He smiles hopefully at the embarrassed cameraman. “They’ll say anything.”

From the hunched figure across the lawn a hoarse cry, “Nancy,” and again, peevishly, “Nancy.” The anxious woman hurries to her father.

“Get those damned people over here. I said I’d do this as a favour to the Minister but I’m not taking all day.”

The woman adjusts the man’s blanket, evading the sharp eyes that tear her troubled smile. Turning, she sees her banished daughter peering from the attic window.

The flat pale face watches the spider resplendent in the sun, perched on his metal throne, waiting to be filmed.

~ Melodie Corrigall

1987

Originally published in: Room of One’s Own

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