The Spider Trap
Fear is what living is all about, thinks Billy as he sets out on a special mission. What will be the outcome of his adventure?
The spider's black hairy legs looked like a man covered in bearskin. Dr. Pretorius pushed his eye into the microscope, then pulled back to find the spider again as though revelation slipped from being too close or too far from the lens. Whatever lay inside this insect kept a prayer for Billy, waiting in anguish, subdued by pain, then drugs.
Trina, Billy's mother, tried to warn Billy a few weeks prior. "It would be prudent to take a local or hire a guide. Please, Billy, you’re all I have left."
But Trina's tears and shrill voice weren't enough.
"You're missing the point, Mother. The adventure is in the unknown. Fear is what living is all about."
Billy wanted to follow the river like a man unamused by progress. But Trina said if he had any love in his heart, he'd take a map.
The vines were the worst of it. They crisscrossed like snakes, thick-skinned terrors, suffocating any hint of a trail. He thanked Trina under his breath as he found his maiden outpost under a moon that kept a little less than a match stick’s offering of light. If the overgrowth and the darkness had been his only foe, he might have found his nerve, but the rodents, insects, and bats screamed a white noise that kept him up like the replay of a horror movie.
Billy had been a city mouse for years now. At first, those bright lights were electrifying. Bursts of energy crammed into a void, a quarter filled by small-town silent nights in the palm of the ocean. The deep pang in Billy's stomach brought him to the big city in search of recognition, to make a name for himself. If he'd stayed home, he would've always been known as Tom's boy, walked on a salt line, and dressed in clothing too big. But soon enough, the thrill of the concrete sky became a dull drum beating. Billy found black garbage bags worked best to block out the world spinning outside. The noise was harder to escape. So, he bought a sound machine, plugged it into a giant set of speakers, and turned it on from sunset to sunrise. A neighbor knocked on Billy's door one evening and asked him if there was a different noise setting as the sound of waves brought back flashes of a loved one's death in a tsunami.
When Billy's father, Tom, died, Billy found it necessary and easy to reverse. He buried Tom behind the dunes and took the clothing that now fit him perfectly.
"To find life is to find what is missing."
The mantra held Tom until it couldn't anymore. Tom’s ability to muster the courage to venture out on what felt a little less than a whim of hope was missing. Now that silent note was Billy's. And of all things, death had become the hand to push him forward.
They'd spoken about the journey since Billy was a boy, that they'd take it together one day. If the science was true, it hardly mattered. Tom didn't think it was. Otherwise, he might not have died.
"I bet those spiders are in a dark hole or under rocks or made their home in the highest tree."
"I hardly think so, Son. But it’s worth a shot, I guess.”
Now all the jungle sounds in the background made Billy wish for honking cars, drunkards on pavements, and airplanes carrying businessmen. The following day, first light kept Billy occupied with a girl he'd fancied at a Christmas party in the city. He was everything he wished he'd been, offering her a drink, spraying compliments like a garden hose. Then, moments before a tender hand, a cruel pain set his feet on razor blades. He jumped as though she was his mother, ten stories out of the window to an abrupt ending in blood-sucking leeches swallowing the life from his veins. The ground was a wet marsh teaming with a string of heads on bodies that looked rather pleased with his company. He thought the river might suit him best to find his way from there as though the map was compliant with the feeding thieves. Billy had followed the water countless times before, noting every bend and shallow crossing from behind his computer screen on Google Maps. He wondered if the panic he felt could bring it on, could send him the way his father went and his father's father before that. But then he considered his courage. Genetics may have been their shared detriment, but the bravery to rewrite his hereditary course existed far outside his veins.
The first bit of ankle-deep water reassured Billy. He'd guessed three more sharp turns after that, and then the trees would give way to an area where he'd hoped to find the spiders spinning their webs. He'd learned little about them, only that their habitat was difficult to spot. Now it seemed strange to Billy that he came with such bare knowledge. When Trina caught him unprepared, he barked back at her, "Its legs are red. How difficult could one be to find?"
Now everything looked red, like a glaze of unconscious torment. Perhaps it's why the spiders chose to hide in this area, Billy thought, embarrassed in front of a silent audience. The sun began to lose its strength, and the red became redder. Finally, he'd arrived at the end of the trail and, for good measure, took the map out of his back pocket to confirm his conclusion. The light was fair enough to find a dry bed on banana leaves, but any hunt would shortly end in darkness, and even if he were to bag one, he wondered how long it would survive in a box before it gave up breathing.
Billy's eyes closed to thoughts of his father and regrets about not leaving the city sooner. Perhaps Tom would still be around if they'd taken this trip. It certainly wasn't a guarantee, more like an old wives’ tale recently helped by science. And Tom's death was a shooting star, hardly apparent on a night spent searching for one. Once Billy heard that his father’s eyes had gone skew, tongue trapped to the top of his mouth, an MRI wasn't necessary to fill in the blanks. Billy booked a one-way ticket out of the city and guessed Tom would take his final breath when the fasten seat-belt sign went off. With Tom gone and no siblings or uncles and aunts, the rare disease would look to attach to Billy before the hair on top of his head began receding.
It wasn't as though Billy's life was a charged engine of fire that he hoped would burn until infinity. Even death was a kind stranger he felt fine meeting one day. But he cringed at images of his eyes going crooked. Or his body tightening like a ball of string spun for a final garment. He fell asleep with these images, unaware of those former tones that only yesterday held him in a panic room.
The red was softer in the morning light, but still a trial to find tiny legs in all of it. He tried to recall all the spider webs he'd seen, like memories of his grandfather's head on which he used to bounce balls. He figured they needed water like any other living creature, and this particular kind liked lizards, that much he'd read. He pulled a small wooden box out of his backpack. It had a type of wood that was frail, and if any bit of rain touched it, it would bend and eventually break. A sliding piece moved up and down on hinges, up by using his fingertips, down by the slightest weight in the center. He'd picked it up at a local market in the capital city on his first night.
"Give me your best spider trap I can carry in a backpack."
Billy half-expected something remote-controlled or battery-powered, but the vendor was sure as the sweat under his pits:
"This is the most sophisticated spider trap in our country. Only the best hunters use this."
There was something about the smell of the wood that drew the creatures in.
"So do I put some kind of bait inside and then just wait for one to walk in?"
"No, no. Just leave the door open, and they'll walk in on their own. The lure is the smell of the wood."
Billy set the trap up against the back of a large palm tree, facing the river. At first, he hid from it as though he were trying to catch a cheetah, but then he realized spiders don't mind the presence of humans too much. So, he set a large leaf next to it, made a cozy sitting spot, and watched and waited like a boy on Christmas morning. When he could make out the sun directly overhead through the peeping holes of the fauna's protection, everything was red again. Not a moment went by without his eyes wide on the edge of uncovering something so remarkable. He wondered with all this red if he ought to wait for two, two that looked a little different.
The dark afternoon clouds sent Billy searching for cover. He'd seen a small cave and thought it suitable for keeping dry for a short while. As thunder rolled across the sky, then a quick flash to brighten all the red, Billy caught a glimpse of what he thought was an eight-legged hairy prize entering the trap. He left the cave, streams cracking over his head. He assumed his former hiding place. Then as the spider walked into the center, the trapdoor came crashing down behind it.
Billy's stomach rose like a helium balloon, pulling the rest of him from the mud. He held his eyes as well as he could over a small keyhole opening, and the red legs made him giddy. The pools at his feet made a floating device out of his food supply and raingear, afterthoughts compared to the showpiece now in hand. The former shallow crossings left him wading water up to his chest as he backtracked with no reason for resting. Everything was attached to his shoulders. Except for the little trap-box he held in the sky like an offering to a rain god. When the night fell upon him, he hurried, listening for the river, keeping its course, watching yellow blinking eyes reflect off its mirror surface. His feet looked like a boxer moving in and out of trouble, carried by pumping legs full of blood, unwilling to settle at their former pace. Billy found it strange after a five-round fight with the darkness that the morning light revealed the same familiar red. He hadn't seen it that way before, now minutes away from his starting point.
Unbeknownst to Billy, three days before, Trina inhaled a surge of fear and hired a guide to bring her to Billy's beginning.
"Best, we wait here for him. If he's not out in two days, we'll go in looking for him. The jungle is a dangerous place."
The guide's words didn't find a peaceful place in her, but her feet were shaky and unsure of almost everything, so she nodded. They made a camp at the first crossing and sat on their heels, watching the trees for any movement bigger than a bird or snake.
"What's that?" She shot up to her feet, powering through her arthritis.
"It looks too clumsy to be a jaguar."
Trina's voice shrilled across the river like an alarm before light.
The leaves stilled. Billy’s ponderous stamping fell quiet. He put his box on the ground, safely next to his feet.
"Momma. Momma. Is that you?"
Billy half-thought the red had colored his mind convincing him of sounds that weren't apparent. But Trina kept on.
"It looks like it's coming our way. Wait here, Miss Trina."
The guide put his arm up to stop her progress.
Billy came shooting out of a far opening, his face covered in mud.
"I found it, Mom. I found it!"
Trina broke the fleshly guard, ran towards the water, and extended her hands to pull him up.
He handed her the box and used the sludge as a grip to put his soles flat again.
The camp felt like a palace to Billy as his shoulders dropped and his blood refrained from its bubbling over.
"Can you believe it, Mother? I found it. I only wish it had been sooner."
It had always been just a family myth, told by fathers to sons across generations. But now, the sight of it, or perhaps Billy, brought surfaced buried hope in Trina. “Can I take a look?"
"Yes, just don't lift the entry door. There's a small opening on the top."
She pressed her eye against a tiny hole in the strange-smelling wood.
"Aren't those red legs beautiful?"
She quickly pulled away from it, then forward again using her other eye.
"Billy, what color is this overcoat I'm wearing?"
His giddy face went blank.
“Well, I guess it's red."
"And what about your shirt?"
He looked at his familiar blue cotton piece, the only one he'd packed. He yanked the box from her hands.
"It's begun, Billy. There's still time."
Billy stared into the small opening. Red everywhere. He released the door. The spider flung to his face. Its fangs drove into his cheeks. Billy screamed as the spider ran down his face and into his hands.
Trina's guide loaded his palm-leafed hand and came down on the spider fly-swatter like, "That's the most dangerous creature in our jungle!” He shouted.
Billy sidestepped and slung the spider back into the box.
His face went gaunt, holding forward rolling eyes. The trap hit the ground, Billy tumbling with arrested nerves.
"We must get him to the hospital immediately, Miss Trina."
Trina squeezed the guide's hand. “Is he going to die? Is my baby boy going to die?”
South African born, Luke Beling, left home at 19. In 2007, he graduated from Campbellsville University with a BA in English. Luke has had several short stories published in journals and magazines, including: Quiet Shorts (2012), Eyelands Flash Fiction (2019), Academy of the Heart and Mind (2021), New Reader Magazine (2021), The Salt Weekly Magazine (2022), Impspired Magazine (2022), and Shallow Tales Review (2023). Luke is the director of tennis for a private club on the Big Island of Hawaii and an indie-folk singer-songwriter.