Saturday, August 24, 2013
Curds and Web
Little Miss Muffet
Sat on a tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey;
Along came a spider,
Who sat down beside her,
And frightened Miss Muffet away.
Not quite. The age-old nursery rhyme only tells part of the story, and that part is still wrong. The story of little Miss Muffet and her spider starts not with Miss Muffet herself— or even with the spider, really— but with a spaceship. Or, more accurately, a fleet of spaceships. Two dozen of them were prepared for launch. These were colony ships, taking citizens of a planet out in search of new worlds to populate. For quite some time, the inhabitants of the home planet, Voras, had scouted some other planets they had discovered in the reaches of space, and Earth had quickly been eliminated from the list of worlds to colonize. While living conditions there appeared ideal, the planet was already home to numerous species, and there was an established ecosystem they didn’t want to disrupt. Researchers were surprised to find beings on Earth that were closely related to them, younger cousins that were significantly smaller in size. Settling on Earth might inhibit the development of their less-advanced relatives. From what they could gather, their earthly cousins could not even talk.
Each of the two dozen ships was crewed by a single colonist. If the vessels had been built for more than one, they would have been unwieldy, too large to escape the atmosphere of home. The inhabitants of Voras preferred simplicity to complication, and it was just easier to build many smaller ships than a few larger ones. Besides, the Vorasi tended towards solitude anyway, so ships built for one were ideal.
Vail was just one of the many making the journey away from Voras to one of the four carefully selected planets they were colonizing. She was one of the first sent out, since she was a strong, large female with a great clutch of eggs ready to hatch. Her legs were particularly long and hairy, and her abdomen quivered with strength. She was one of only four females going to their chosen planet, and she approved of the two males that would be arriving a the same planet in the future. Each colony would be settled by four females, two males, and four clutches of eggs fertilized by other males who were remaining home. The Vorasi researchers had decided that would be the formula to give their colonies the best possible start. The offspring would be genetically diverse, enough so that the colonies would not have to deal with dangerous amounts of inbreeding to survive. Vail was the first one to go out and establish a colony.
The Vorasi scientists in charge of the ships themselves hadn’t accounted for the heat and intensity of Earth’s sun. Vail was just passing by that particular star system, when most of her ship’s systems fried. Propulsion skewed, navigation failed, and she found herself plummeting to Earth.
The impact shook Vail to the core, but she managed to avoid any fatal injuries. When she regained her bearings, her first thought was to check the clutch of eggs in the ship’s hold. They hadn’t fared as well as she had. None of them were salvageable. Not only was her ship in terrible shape— a single glance told her it was irreparable— but now she was completely alone. None of her children would survive to hatch. And she had no way to communicate with Voras to let them know what had happened. She was stranded and isolated. Ever the optimist, she realized that at least she could live out her life on this planet in comfort. Earth had been deemed ideal, after all. At least she wouldn’t suffocate or starve. There would be plenty to eat here, and there was plenty of land in which to find a place to build a den or a web network.
Her surroundings were pleasant. Great hills and valleys spread before her, full of rocks, trees, grasses, and all sorts of places to hide. Wild animals scurried and roamed, giving her live prey if she wanted it. But Vail had long ago given up on hunting meat. She could live as easily on wild fruits. Unfortunately, like her smaller cousins that inhabited this planet, the fruits here were smaller, too, and they were simply not abundant enough to sustain her. Perhaps this utopia wasn’t quite what the researchers had thought. She considered reverting to being carnivorous, but for most of her life, she had abstained, and now the prospect of hunting meat again made her ill. There must be an adequate food source somewhere. So the enormous spider left behind the ruins of her ship and set out in search of enough food.
Instead, she found a settlement of the most advanced life form of the planet. They called themselves humans. It was located in a valley between tall grassy hills. A large blue body of water stretched to the horizon nearby. Some sort of primitive wooden vessels floated on the water. Humans sat in the vessels, throwing nets and holding wooden poles over the water. Their habitats were far different from the webs the Vorasi made. The humans built shelter out of strips of trees and clumps of soil and grass. They walked strangely on two legs— they didn’t even have eight— had only two eyes, and were generally smaller and more delicate than Vail and her people. The humans communicated by making a range of sounds with their tiny, round mouths. But they had food. Droves of it. Vail had never eaten vegetables— she wasn’t sure she could eat them— but if she had to, she would make it work somehow. But could she make herself understood by these creatures? She desperately needed a meal. She would try anything.
From the moment the first human spotted her at the edge of their settlement, the entire population began to panic. They scattered in all directions, keening in a strange high way, filling the air with sounds Vail didn’t have a word to describe. A few of the larger humans rushed toward her instead of away, brandishing objects that could only be weapons. Her survival instincts kicking in, Vail backed away from the settlement, but the creatures kept after her. She would have to defend herself or be killed. She gathered her strength in her six backmost legs, reared up, and prepared to strike.
A screeching whine filled the air, and Vail and the humans hunting her all turned their eys upward. The object soaring through the sky was strange to the humans, and the sight sent them running away back to their wood and mud homes. Vail recognized the object as another Vorasi ship. She skittered quickly after it as it crashed toward the surface of the planet.
To her horror, the ship did not look like it was going to crash to the ground. Its trajectory would place it well within the body of water near the valley. Voras had no large bodies of water; there was no need for the Vorasi to learn to swim. Vail could only watch in terror as the ship broke the surface of the water and disappeared into the blue.
Depressed, Vail remained on the shore of the water for days. She didn’t move, didn’t eat, and hardly breathed as she mourned her fellow colonist. Had it been Noach in that ship? Sheve? Lolli? Or had it been one of the males: Parduk or Gonig? It mattered little; one of her fellows had just fallen to death. If it had been another of the females, then another whole clutch of eggs had been lost, too. It was too much to bear.
Eventually the time came for Vail to move on. She still needed food, permanent shelter, and… she was surprised to discover that she longed for companionship. That alone was strange for a Vorasi. They were, by nature, solitary unless it was time to mate, but there were always others around. Or did she simply miss the knowledge that there were more of her people nearby? Surely, the other four ships with her remaining companions had left Voras on time. Though she hoped they would not run afoul of whatever had brought her to this planet, she at least had hope that if they did end up on Earth, they would survive the collision as she had. But that would be for another time. Their departures had been delayed by several solar cycles to prevent crowding or the chance of collisions with each other when they landed. It would be a long time before another ship passed by. Food was most important at the moment. Dare she try to approach the human colony again? It wasn’t far. Perhaps trying again would be a good idea.
She headed slowly toward the settlement and was in a pass between two hills that led down to it when she heard a soft sound that could only be made by a human. Cautiously, Vail looked around for the source of the sound and was lucky enough to find it easily. Under a rather pathetic, gnarled tree, a small female human sat perched on a wooden seat. A reddish-brown bowl made of hardened earth was in the odd appendages at the ends of her upper legs. The creature lifted the bowl to its mouth and drank, then picked up a much tinier bowl with a handle and scooped some of the contents into her mouth. Vail watched, envious of the human’s food but wary of approaching. She remembered all too clearly the reaction when she tried to enter the colony.
But the prospect of food was too strong, even if it was just a small taste of what the female had. Vail didn’t know what it was, but it had to be more filling than the tiny nibbles of fruit she’d managed to get herself. She’d stripped whole trees of their sweet bulbs and barely gotten a mouthful. She crept closer, coming up slightly behind the little one. She crouched in the space next to the tree, working to make herself as small as possible. It was no easy feat, considering Vail was larger than the tree the girl sat by. Her underside touched the ground, her long legs bent. She kept her many eyes still. She had no desire to frighten the young human, so she remained perfectly still, waiting to be seen.
The little female finally noticed her and jumped up from her seat. To Vail’s glee, the tiny creature didn’t run or produce some sort of weapon to use against her. The thing stood and stared at Vail for a long time, still holding the bowl of food. It took all the willpower Vail had not to seize the bowl and devour its contents, whatever they were. It wouldn’t be much, but perhaps it would be more filling than the fruit. She flicked her eyes up to the small human. It was hard to maintain eye contact when the smaller beast only had two eyes. Vail flicked her pincers at the little beast and flicked her eyes down to the bowl.
The female followed Vail’s eyes, and ever so slowly, the creature lowered the bowl and placed it on the little wooden stool she’d been sitting on. Then she backed away several steps. Careful to keep her own movements slow, Vail stretched her legs, leaned over the stool and lowered her mouth to the bowl. The contents weren’t meat or fruit. She hadn’t a clue what it all actually was, but she didn’t care. She was getting food. It was a runny liquid and had some sort of strange chunks in it. It hardly mattered that it was an unknown substance and might make her sick later. Vail was simply pleased to have something in her stomach that she didn’t have to work for. Wresting the fruit from the trees took more effort than it was worth for such meager meals. Once the bowl was emptied, she backed away a few steps. The human showed no fear as she gathered the bowl and her little stool and tucked them both under one arm. In fact, its mouth turned upward at the corners and opened, showing tiny, rounded white teeth. In truth, the little beast would have made a rather nice few mouthfuls for Vail. The thought barely crossed her mind. It had been ages since she’d hunted meat. It no longer tempted her.
Tentatively, the human reached out its free hand toward Vail’s face. Confused, Vail remained still. The hairless fingers came closer to her, reaching…
There was an air-splitting sound, and another Vorasian ship arced through the sky. Vail craned her eyes upward, quickly figuring the craft’s path. Despair filled her as she realized this ship too would end up in the great body of water. She mourned her friend immediately, but other concerns were more pressing than lingering at the site of death. Alone or not, she could find a way to survive on this planet.
It turned out that the day/night cycle of Earth was very similar to that on Voras. The small female returned to the tree every day, bringing food to Vail. The creature could not carry much, but Vail knew she was doing her best. She gratefully took what was offered and found it was enough to sustain her, since she didn’t need to expend the energy to find it herself. To her dismay, another of her people’s ships crashed into the water on her sixteenth day on Earth.
That made half of her colony that was now gone, not including her. How soon would she see the last two ships come and crash? Would she be fortunate enough to see another Vorasi survive the plummet? She wished she could pinpoint the cause of their ships' failures, or better, find a way to communicate to her people what was happening. Even if another of them did manage to stay alive, chances were bad that it would be one of the males. She could still hope. But until the next ship came, she had nothing to do but focus on her little pet human.
From what she could gather, the young thing considered her a pet. Vail wished she'd studied linguistics in her younger days; maybe then she would have an easier time translating the noises the human made at her. She did pick out some words that were said regularly, but "spider", "big", "hope", and "monster" meant nothing to her. Perhaps one of those strange words was the creature's name? Vail decided it must be Spider. That was the one the human said most often. It had to be trying to communicate what it was called. Wait, did humans give one another names?
The scraggly tree in the pass between hills became a sort of lair for Vail, though it was more open than she would have liked. When Spider wasn't around— she decided that's what she would call the human thing— she explored the area. A large cove served as shelter, and Vail began building her webs from there. Even though she wasn't one to eat what she captured, there was still pleasure in trapping prey that willingly wandered into her grasp. She considered actually reverting to being carnivorous, but unfortunately, the insects on Earth proved to be smaller than the fruit here, and the cables of her webbing was too thick to hold such tiny things. She built patterns of cord from her cove to the tree and even stretched a glorious web horizontally from one hilltop to another. It stretched for miles, creating a great glistening net high above the ground.
When Spider first came to the tree and saw Vail's web, the creature shrieked and clapped its front paws together in what Vail assumed was glee. To her horror, the little thing scaled the tree and reached out to touch the web. The little five-digited paw touched a thick strand of webbing and stuck, but when Spider pulled back, the web flexed, and then it gave way, springing back into place and releasing its sticky hold on the youngling's hand. Spider made the delighted shriek again, and then to Vail's complete surprise, her pet human flung herself out of the tree and onto the web. Did the human have a death wish?
Spider remained suspended on the web for a few minutes, and Vail finally began to move forward to free the dim-witted thing from her web. Before she could reach Spider, though, the little female twisted her body and rolled around midair so she was no longer face-first in the web, but stuck by her back. She continued to roll, still vertical, still sticking to Vail's handiwork. Spider giggled, and Vail found she enjoyed the sound. Slowly, she crept up into her web and pressed on it with her two frontmost legs, shaking the web so the human bounced and jangled in place. The strands held her well, and she did not fall. In fact, Spider laughed harder.
Play became regular over the next few days, and Vail worked hard to create more webs in patterns and at angles that Spider could enjoy. She even helped the human child reach places she normally would not have been able to. The wandered high, overlooking the rolling hills and the valleys. They stayed out of sight of the human settlement; Vail feared venturing too close to again. The thought of being attacked was not one she relished. But there were plenty of other places to go. Webs stretched everywhere in the pass and the hills, so that Spider and Vail could soon traipse all over the valleys without ever setting foot on the ground. Their favorite place quickly became a spot over one dipping valley, where wildflowers grew and created a colorful mosaic far below them. The air was perfumed there, and Vail and little Spider would relax in the web and take in the sun and the songs of birds.
A day came when the sun began to set and they were still very far from the village. Vail realized Spider was tiring and would not be able to return to the village on her own; she would definitely not be able to reach it by dark on those two short legs and tiny feet. Vail knew what she had to do to make sure the other humans didn’t fear the girl’s absence. Vail crouched down on the web and stared at the human child, the hairs on her back quivering. Was she really going to allow this to happen? No, she was not allowing it? She was encouraging this!
Spider got the hint and climbed up onto Vail's back. She clung to a few of the stiff hairs and bounced along as Vail slowly made her way to the humans' settlement. It wouldn't take long; Vail could cover distances quickly. Even so, Spider fell asleep fairly quickly. Vail slowed down even more to make sure the little creature wouldn't fall from her back.
The last bits of sunlight were almost completely faded by the time Vail reached the valley. The humans had torches lit, but only a few of the fully-grown humans were outside in the flickering light. Spider woke when Vail twisted and reached up a leg to prod her, and the creature slid down to the ground, immediately drawing the attention of the adult humans. Again, they grabbed their weapons and rushed toward Vail and her human pet.
As before, a stringent sound rent the air, and lights streamed across the sky. Not one, but two Vorasi ships sailed downward, heading for the body of water. All the humans shouted in fear, even little Spider, and they stared as the ships hit the water, sending up huge splashes.
"The water's rising!" someone shouted, though Vail didn't understand what the words meant. She did, however, notice that the big lake was pouring over its banks, its surface raised because of the five Vorasi ships that had sunk to the bottom, displacing the water. Only then did she realize she was already soaking wet. The climbing waters were not yet near her, but droplets of the stuff were raining down on her from above. Water fell from the sky here on Earth? Had it been falling the entire time she was here? Maybe. She hadn't noticed. She skittered away from the human colony, not wanting to be drowned.
Spider called out, and Vail really looked at the humans. They were in a panic as the waters began to fill their valley. It would not take long for everything to be underwater. Spider's two tiny eyes grew large and pleading as she stared up at Vail. She couldn't let her pet drown, either! And what about the colony? Ignoring the water and mud around her feet, Vail stepped slowly toward the flooding village, crouched down, and waited for Spider to climb back on. To her surprise, the rest of the humans hurried after her. The entire population— Flock? Mass? Herd? Cluster? What was such a group called? Vail decided "herd" must be accurate. Every last human from the settlement was up on her back in moments, clinging to one another and pulling on the hairs on her back, wrapping themselves around her legs, and generally weighing her down. But she found she did want to save them all. Carefully stepping through the water that was licking at her belly, she began to walk away from the rising waters and headed for the hills.
Hope Muffet spent the rest of her life hailed as the heroine of the village. She was the fortunate one that brought the misunderstood monster to save them all from the rising waters, and Hope was clearly the favorite of the big spider that roamed the hills— a spider she liked to call Comet because it had saved them from the great shooting stars that had caused the flood. The waters took so long to recede that the villagers didn't rebuild their village in the valley. Instead, they built new houses and huts right on the webs that stretched between hilltops.
Into her elderly years, Hope still liked to take a little stool and a bowl of food down to the scraggly tree where she'd first met Comet. Sometimes, she wouldn't even eat, but would wait for the greying eight-legged beast to appear from its cove, settle in next to her, and eat from the bowl.
"Curds and Web" has been podcast through Every Photo Tells (www.everyphototells.com)