The Year Before Sleep
Losing yourself in your work is fine, so long as you remember to come back.
Cecil spun his web lazily, hooking it between branches and thorns, leaves and flakes of bark. It was early in the morning, and he was still too cold to shake off the waking sluggishness in his mind and limbs. He watched sun-slivered color glint through dewdrops, watched green translucence creep down shadow-dipped grass stems next to the bramble bush.
Eventually, the sun touched his head, then his back. His body warmed, the plump abdomen contracting and expanding as energy pumped through it. Gradually, the world around him grew and the thirty-two aches in his thirty-two joints melted away. He was alert now.
The web needed tidying. He tidied it, scuttling across it to a ragged corner, a sulking gap near the top, a clumsy anchor on a bramble bud.
That should do. Now, wait.
The dewdrops had gone by midday. Cecil sheltered under a leaf: it was a clear day and there was rather too much sun. One leg lightly touched a strand of the web; through it he could hear his prey distantly moving through the air. Always too distant, he thought. He wasn't hungry exactly, but he would be in a couple of days and he didn't want to have to move. Still time to wait.
The afternoon passed. One small blue fast-flying blur snapped into the web, but snapped away again almost before Cecil was out from under the leaf. He scrambled out to inspect the damage; there was a ragged hole that couldn't be fixed neatly. He did the best he could, and slunk back again.
Then, just as the sun touched the top of the scrubby trees at the far end of the clearing, he got a hit. He heard it coming: a deep, slow buzz that made him remember with pleasure a particularly succulent catch from weeks ago. With delight, he noted that the buzz was getting steadily louder. It must be heading straight for him, he thought, and then it was in the net. The twig he was on bent slightly with the impact; he was out in no time, cautiously circling the victim. This one wasn't going to get away.
It was trying, though. The web bounced and strained, vibrating with the prey's frantic bursts of motion. Cecil watched it warily: it didn't seem to be the sort with a sting, and he couldn't see anything too much like dangerous jaws. He checked the tension on the web: it was good. He could wait until it tired itself out a little more.
That took quite a long time, and the air was cooling before he tried a quick rush over the body. It was still buzzing, but quietly now, intermittently. One track of web over it, then another, then another. Then in for the kill: he bit, feeling his fangs make contact with the body, then through and into it. A pump of venom. A final twitch. He quickly mummified it with a single layer of web, then cut it clear of the holding strands before tumbling it over and over with his hind legs, weaving a thick, glistening cover. It was bigger than he was even before he finished.
Satisfied with his work, he dragged it back to his haunt under the leaf, sticking it carefully to the junction with the twig. Night was no time to do anything. He'd wait until morning, then consume his meal and think--yes, definitely--about moving to a new site.
When daylight touched the world about him, everything seemed as it should be. Things to do formed in his night-slowed mind. Repair the web, or move. Eat. Yes, eat. He shuddered with slow waking, and made to move toward the waiting package.
He didn't move. He tried again; his complaining legs made the right aches, his body bumped away from the twig, but slumped back down again. His legs strained harder. Something was holding them fast. There came a colder thought, paralysing him just by the shapes it made in his head--wasps! He knew of them; the memory of them had always been there. Small things, predatory, always hungry, who flew at night and laid their eggs in living flesh, leaving it aware and immobile. Was that it?
"No, we're not wasps."
Cecil had enjoyed a long and successful life. He had survived many of the dangers that could wipe out the toothsome; had hidden and run, had outwitted most of the rapaciously hungry animals that would otherwise have added him to their list of meals consumed. He had seen three seasons, been flooded, baked, blown away by the wind and nearly frozen. Never, in all this, had he ever had a thought that was not his own. The shock of it held him tight as any bright-eyed mouse.
"Come on, Cecil. You're no spider. We're no fly. Look up, look at yesterday's catch."
He still couldn't separate out these alien voices from his own; but if a thought said "look up," you should look up. He looked at the bundle of sticky thread on the twig. It was as he remembered it.
Except there was a neat hole halfway up, perfectly round. There was something dark sticking out of it, and a bright red thread ran from the hole to the twig. It ended up in a neat loop, encircling the twig and two of his legs, holding them fast together. Then it ran under his body. He couldn't see where it ended.
"That's it. Talk to us, Cecil."
The shock subsided. He thought back at the voices. "What are you? How are you in me? You are wasps. You will kill me."
"Not wasps. Friends. Cecil, we've been looking for you. We were worried."
"Friends. Worried. No, no, no. Wasps." Cecil hadn't ever thought much about what it would be like to be a living host to wasps. Not something to dwell on. But now he thought about it; it must be like this. Once the eggs were in your body, their thoughts must be in your mind. Made sense. Horrid sense. He wished he'd eaten the fly last night now. A last meal to keep him going a bit longer.
"Forget the wasps, Cecil!" The voice was louder. Sounded quite upset.
"...wasps..." he mumbled, trying to see if he could feel where the eggs were. Everything felt normal. The sun would be on him soon. Perhaps he'd have the strength to get to the fly then.
"It's not a fly! Oh, for heaven's sake..." There was an indistinct conversation. He caught the odd phrase: "How much more damage can we do? He thinks he's an orb spider, for..." "Well, why not?" Then it went quiet. Cecil waited, for sunlight or for death.
"Cecil. Cecil Sharpley."
The last word hit him as the sun touched his head. A burst of light, inside and out.
"Frederic." he said. "Cecil Frederic Sharpley. That's me."
"Well done! Cecil, this is Greerly. We're here to get you..." But his mind was filled with babble; he was quite unable to tell what was his, what was the voice. The noises merged, collided, fell apart. He felt his body vibrate, his legs pumping him up and down, escape the bird that way, escape the bird that way, escape...
Inside his mind, a burning. A man came awake. A thirty-seven year old man, warm, with a wife, with a fascination for arachnids. A man who made models, a man who wanted to make, who made, the ultimate field trip. A man who got lost, who forgot the way out of the field. A man who went to sleep, and woke up one day not as a man, who slept again.
Now he was awake. Just for a second. Just long enough to feel the spider body around him and, in the distance, a body that had been home. He felt the thorax with the legs sprouting from it bursting through his chest, the distended abdomen where his stomach was, the mess of fangs and eyes and hair merging with his warm, smooth, man's face. An excruciating ugliness that the sunlight could never warm.
Later that afternoon, an ichneumon wasp found the spider. It settled on the leaf above it, and carefully made its way down, antennae scanning. But the body was cold and had already started to decay. Unsuited for the purpose.
There would be others.
The wasp flew away.
Rupert Goodwins (RupertGo@aol.com) Ex-chief planner of the Tongan manned mission to Mars, international jewel thief and mild-mannered reporter, Rupert Goodwins writes about computers by day and behaves oddly at night. He lives in London, a large post-imperial city set in an alluvial clay bowl, but doesn't worry about it.
InterText stories written by Rupert Goodwins: "Little Acorn" (v6n4), "Fade Out, Mrs. Bewley" (v6n5), "Neon Sea Dreams" (v7n4), "The Year Before Sleep" (v8n1), "Amo, Mensa!" (v8n5).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 8, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1998 Rupert Goodwins.