A spider hung across from me, the barbed spikes of its legs dug deep into the walls of its prison. It was caged in a network of tunnels and tubules that wrapped around and through each other in an immense tangle. Trapped. Just like me.
I freed a leg and waved at it. They never waved back. Something drove me to keep trying, some visceral urge to communicate, to share more than just “Good fungus this way” or “Break in the tunnel ahead”. I did a little dance, to show I wasn’t just stretching. I lifted each leg in turn, sending a ripple of motion around my perimeter. It was a pointless risk, and yet it felt good, and I sent the ripple around again and again. This is forever, the ripple said. Though it starts and stops, though it is incomplete, this is a cycle capable of endless repetition.
The other fixed its eyestalks on me, but made no move. Perhaps metaphysics is too much to ask from a simple dance.
In the Out, white scudded across the blue. Soon, we would roll. I could feel it in the flexing of the tubes, in the shifts across the tangle. In its tubule, the other spider bobbed back and forth with the flex. Or I did. We came closer, tantalizingly close, the transparent walls of our tubules almost touching, our bodies almost belly to belly across the distance. Then the flex pulled us apart again, and we were rolling. As we parted, I saw the other raise one leg, then another, in a clumsy imitation of my dance. And then it lost its hold with the roll, and it wrapped its legs around it in a tough, chitinous ball that rattled away down the tubes toward the ever-shifting bottom.
I watched it go, until distance and tunnel walls obscured it from view. It had answered, or tried to. I was sure of it. Why else let go so close to a roll? Because the fungus was exhausted, common sense answered. Because it was frightened of your strangeness, said my own fear.
Because it understood, hope responded. Because it too wants more than this endless maze. Wants purpose, wants togetherness.
What togetherness consisted of, I wasn’t sure. Someone I could talk with about the hazy, half-formed dreams that came to me while I digested, the drive that had led me to learn to dance, to turn jerky, unnatural motion into a smooth, gliding celebration of freedom.
I wanted to fold my legs in, to pull my head in and curl into a ball and let gravity take me where it would through the tunnels, to proclaim my happiness by letting nature have its way with me. I could feel my tip segments flexing with the desire to let go. But if I did, how would the other ever find me?
Instead, I clung like a mite to a spore body, too young to know the world, too soft to survive it. I clung, and I waited.
Our roll was a short one. The tangle fetched up against a boulder in the Out, and though wind pushed us to and fro, we were fixed in place once more, until the wind should shift.
My loop of the tangle had fetched up near the top, the curves of the tube slanting down to both sides. Above me, the blue was achingly clear, only accentuated by wisps of white floating away to the unknown. They moved slowly, like a spiderling just learning to crab its way across the walls and past the dense mycelium of the spore body. Were the white things tangles, I wondered? Distant relatives of our own, but unbound from the soil of the surface, and with spiders of their own living amongst the white?
I would never know. No one would. We were trapped here, all of us, in the endless labyrinth of clear walls and soft surfaces.
Eating always made me feel better. I released my barbs and scuttled across to the mat of fungus that had brought me here in the first place. To my under-eyes, it was even juicier than it had first appeared, and I gathered it eagerly with my mandibles, ripping out hunks and passing them to my mouth for ingestion. Other spiders avoided these outer paths, but the warm light that made them feel strange invigorated me. It had made me larger than most, my outer shell tougher, more rigid. There were paths in the interior where I could no longer pass, like a spiderling barred forever from the spore bodies that had borne it, its hard body no longer welcome in the cushioning moss of the spore beds.
It didn’t matter to me. Out here, the fungus was richer, the light brighter. And there was the Out — the fascinating reach of plains and gullies, of boulders and trees, those strange creatures with their straight trunks, and wild, tangle-like tops that swayed in the wind, but never rolled away.
‘Watch for the Out!’ was the cry that came down the passageways at times. ‘Break ahead! Cling tight!’ And we let those tunnels fill with fungus until they healed or closed entirely. Because to approach the Out was to be lost forever, to never feel the roll of wind again, to be left behind, exposed and alone.
You can be alone in the tangle, said my contrary mind. You are alone, said my heart.
I wasn’t, though. Before a day had passed, that other spider was back. It was the same, I was sure. It had been a Seven, its strong, thick limbs a sharp contrast to my own more fragile nine. And the scarlet swirls across the upper carapace that had reminded me of a tree shedding its tangle were the same.
It settled itself on the wall of the tunnel opposite, clinging to the far side, so that its upper-eyes could stare across at me. I scuttled up to a similar position and waved.
It watched me. I imagined the climb it must have had, from wherever the roll had flung it. It would be tired. And uncertain whether what it had seen was a message, or just a spider in the throes of mold-sickness.
I did my circle dance again, once, twice, three times. Then I reversed course, and ran the circle the other way. Three times. No mold-sickness here.
I could see Red Tree cast an eye to the blue above. It was still, with thick sheets of white layered on each other like a fungus mat not touched for weeks. With a slow, tentative motion, Red Tree raised one leg, planted it deliberately. Lifted another leg, planted it. Then another. With each leg, it moved quicker, more surely, until at last its dance was a slow, stately, seductive ripple. Once, twice, thrice around.
I did a little dance of my own, a formless, bouncing swirl of jubilation. At last! After countless weeks of blank stares, I had a partner in my mania at last. I raised two legs to it in a salute. After a moment, it raised its own. The two of us, reaching out to each other across the gap, across the tubes. Pointless, unless we met.
And yet, how could we? The tangle was a maze of tubes that wove in and out, that crossed and knotted, and occasionally connected. But where? I had never given much thought to it, had never tried to map the tangle beyond In and Out, core and edge, up and down, and those latter changed with ever roll, every shift.
Here, we could see each other, could dance for each other and ourselves. It was more than I had ever really hoped for. And already it was not enough. Already, I longed to touch the other, to feel the hard gloss of Red Tree’s shell beneath my barbs, to talk, to ask my questions that had no answers.
I looked through my tubule, across the gap. I could see where Red Tree’s tube curved up to the left, to where it entered a dense knot of threads that promised narrow passages and tight spaces. Too tight for me, and perhaps even for Red Tree, with its smaller, stiffer Seven body.
To the right, Red Tree’s tube spun down into a coil that wrapped around several others before diving briefly toward the core and then lifting back out — toward me! And my own right hand tunnel sank down in a similar direction.
I lifted one leg, then, two, then a daring three, and pointed them, waved them all to the right. Go right, I urged with all the power in me. Meet me — there.
Red Tree raised a leg. Not one of those on the right, however. Instead, it waved it up and down, in a languid motion, like a spiderling testing its balance. Then it scuttled forward, up the near side of its tube, until its underside faced me, and its under-eyes emerged to to give what was no doubt a blurry picture at such distance.
It raised one leg again, poised it above the tunnel, and plunged it with startling violence into the wall. It pulled the leg loose again, and I could see that it had only partially retracted its barbs. The motion tore a chunk of wall material loose, and I winced. Too much of that, and there would be a break, and Red Tree would fall into the Out and never be seen again.
We marked walls from time to time, of course, scratches at the intersections, a few symbols that meant ‘Break’ or ‘Fungus’ or ‘Danger! Water!’. But those were superficial, and lasted only a day or two before the walls healed. I’d never seen such deliberate damage, damage that would take weeks to regrow, or even months. A careless jab might even let water in, and with it the strand-sickness that could turn a spider’s legs to useless, ductile sprigs of bristle.
Regardless of the danger, Red Tree raised another leg, plunged it in and ripped out another chunk of wall, over and over until a rough circle of divots surrounded it. I’d never seen anything like it.
When it was done at last, Red Tree gave a two-legged salute, then backed down to the floor of its tunnel, where it could see me with its upper-eyes.
It seemed to be waiting for something. Was this a dance of its own, I wondered? Its own celebration of life, of risk?
It seemed impatient. It raised its nearest leg, waved it in my direction, then raised it and slowly, pointedly, lowered it to the floor, barbs extended. I watched as it repeated the motion.
It had repeated my dance. It seemed only polite that I should do the same. I scuttled up to the tunnel wall closest to Red Tree. From my under-eyes, I could see no more than a vague shape, a blob of red and black across the way. I could see the wall of the tunnel much more clearly. It was bare here of fungus, which tended to grow on the inner, more protected surfaces. The wall was thick, its tough outer rind barely visible through a softer, more flexible inner surface the depth of my shortest legs. Mine was a tube in middle age, still growing, still well nourished from the core, with feeder hairs that picked up moisture when it was at the bottom, and blocked some of the harsher light when it was at the top like now.
It was a healthy tube, in other words, unlikely to crack open no matter what I did to it. I was safe from the Out, would be taking no chances. I raised a leg tentatively, and saw Red Tree bounce in satisfaction. I thrust the spike of my leg hard into the wall. It sank in smoothly to the first joint, and my barbs came out instinctively, anchoring me against unexpected turbulence. I withdrew the barbs and pulled the leg out.
I saw immediately that it wasn’t having the desired effect, that the spike simply withdrew as smoothly as it had gone in, just as it was designed to do; as it had always done before. Across the way, Red Tree hunkered down in disappointment, as I read it.
I stopped, and pushed the leg back in. I had never reused a spike hole this way. It felt strange, the gel of the wall giving way before my spike, almost welcoming it. I extended my barbs again, and pulled. I pulled tentatively at first, uncertain. But the barbs held as they were meant to, and the material of the wall refused to give way. I pulled harder, and harder, until I began to feel a pain in my joint. It grew and grew, until it felt as if the leg would part, the way they sometimes do in really terrible storm rolls. It had only happened to me a few times, but it hurt — a lot — and took weeks to regrow.
Across from me, I could see Red Tree with my under-eyes, a blurry figure doing something with a near leg. I ignored it and went back to my pulling.
The strain was worse, and I felt as if I’d done something to the joint. It hurt worse now, and the barbs were moving less, if possible.
The barbs! Red Tree had partially retracted its barbs, I remembered. Of course it had. I laughed and bobbed as I realized. My joint hurt, but I gleefully raised another leg and plunged it into the wall. With a smooth motion, I retracted the barbs almost all the way and jerked it loose. It felt unnatural, this half-in, half-out position, but the barbs cooperated, and the leg ripped loose from the wall along with a satisfying crumble of wall material.
It made an unsightly, distinctive mark, and suddenly I understood. The mark was the point of it all. Red Tree had marked its tube so that it would know where our meeting point was, and now I had done the same with mine. The tubes would shift a little, with time, but now we knew where our initial meeting place had been. At least in this one place, we were close enough to see each other, to communicate in the limited way we had. I gave Red Tree a two-legged salute, then went back to my marking, working all around my perimeter, in a violent version of my circle dance, until I was surrounded by my own ring of divots. They would take weeks to heal. Where once that would have filled me with an unnamed dread, now I felt only warm satisfaction. No longer the telltale sign of a risk of the Out, this ring was my mark. Mine and Red Tree’s.
I crabbed back down to the floor of the tunnel, where I could deploy my upper-eyes. Red Tree saluted with two precise legs, then pointed off to the right, to where our tubes might meet. I did the same, and with slow, excited purpose, we set off.
We lost sight of each other soon enough. My tunnel was unfrequented, and hazed with fungus across most of its breadth. Not thick, but enough to obscure my vision. When I paused to eat a space clear, I found the fungus tough and chewy, the result of infrequent harvesting that ate away the juicy upper layers and left the thick lower ones alone. When I’d cleared a fair portion, I crept away and looked through with my upper-eyes. I could see what I thought was Red Tree’s tube, angling away now toward the core, while mine traveled perpendicular, along the middle surface.
It wasn’t long before I reached an intersection, a place where tubules had grown close enough that their walls had merged, and the interior barriers atrophied to nothing. One of the ways led down toward the core, and I turned to follow it with joy.
I had gone only a few bodylengths when I turned back. Red Tree had taught me to mark my way, and I returned to the intersection. The new tube was younger, thinner, but more pliable. I settled for a shallower trio of marks, pointing back the way I’d come, like the spike of a thick leg pulling out of the wall.
Toward the wall, I told myself. You come from the wall, go back toward the wall. It should be enough. If I could remember to look. I crawled away down the new tunnel, mind tight with discipline, heart warm with adopted cleverness.
I wandered for a week before I came back to the surface. We had rolled this way and that, and I’d spent a whole day, once, clinging tight to a tunnel while a storm flung the tangle around, battering us against rocks and trees until tubules broke on every hand, and deadly water found its way into the tunnels. Spiders crawled frantically one way and another to avoid rivulets, rills, and even puddles until the walls could absorb it all. When the rain stopped at last, a gale rolled us on, and spider after spider fell through the gaps into the Out. I was tired and bruised by the time I found my way back to my ring of divots.
I had mapped extensively since I left, from the surface toward the core, from the loose, dangerous outer paths to the tight, constricting inner ones. Half my paths had broken open, it seemed, and it had taken me days to find alternate routes. In none of them had I seen any sign of Red Tree.
Yet here it was, waiting by its own ring of divots, in the tunnel across from me. The tubes were nearer each other now, and I could see it more clearly. The swirls of red looked less like a tree now, more random, and I thought Red Tree itself looked larger. Perhaps it had spent its time nearer the surface, while I had been forcing my way into the smaller inner tunnels.
I saluted it, and shrugged. What now?
It climbed over next to its mark, and made several more. They looked like a square with a point at the top, pointing toward the divots.
I understood it, this time. I climbed up and made my own triangle of marks, pointing toward my divots, then climbed back down. Our signatures. I had seen plenty of marks in my wandering, but none of Red Tree’s. A shrug from across the way said it had not seen mine.
Was this all there was? Had we found each other, spent so much effort, only to have it come to nothing, to nothing more than vague philosophy across the distance? This dance is forever, my mind mocked bitterly.
Red Tree was dancing anyway. It was a complex sequence, full of stops and starts and circles and shifts, with sometimes one leg in motion, sometimes two or three or four, and I marveled at Red Tree’s bravery. We were at rest, our tubes low on the side of the tangle, but a wind might roll us at any moment, and with only three legs holding, Red Tree would be forced to ball up and let fate have its way.
It took time, but eventually I thought I understood. Red Tree had found a distinctive intersection, where a total of five tubules crossed and merged in a complex pattern. It suggested we should try to meet there, or near there. With so many intersections, our odds of success should improve.
I had seen no such cluster, but the idea of a definite target gave me hope. And it was something I could ask about. I had tried, in my travels, to ask about Red Tree, but the other spiders seemed confused by the notion. ‘Some spiders are red and black,’ they had said. ‘Some are green and black, like you.’ We had gotten no further than that.
I bobbed up and down to signal assent, but Red Tree was not finished. I caught on quicker this time. With much awkward stretching and stroking of eyestalks, it indicated that it had only seen the intersection, but not yet reached it. Nonetheless, it seemed a good target.
Somewhere that way, it indicated, with a leg jabbed toward the interior and the upper left. Direction could be tricky in the tangle, I’d found. The tubules wrapped and twisted so much that no direction remained constant for long, but for coreward and surfaceward, and In and Out.
We spent the day resting and eating, and occasionally dancing. We communicated nothing but joy and partnership, and longing, but it was enough. I crept as close to the wall as I could, and watched Red Tree hungrily, forming the scarlet spirals on its shell into trees and clouds and fungus and desire. It watched me the same way, both of us reaching out for something more, something that would bring us beyond the pointless maze and give us meaning. When I changed my circle dance, so that instead of just lifting legs, my whole body swirled in a circle, it bobbed and saluted in a three-legged gesture of joy.
The next day, we set off again. I went to the left this time, down the path that seemed to lead away. But I had already learned that the tunnels seldom went where they seemed to. And off to the right, I’d seen no sign of the five tube crossing. This way was as good as any other.
I wandered for two weeks before I came cross a hint of it. I was down toward the core, wedged in as close as I could get, where the spiders were more plentiful, and even spiderlings hesitantly crawled the walls. They shied away from me, as small next to my bulk as our tangle was to a tree.
One spider, though, a mottled yellow Five, knew the intersection.
“Yes,” it said, after we’d given up on any explanation of why it was important. “This tunnel. That way.” It waved a leg. “Old tunnels, fragile.” Answer given, it scuttled off in search of fresh fungus.
I followed the tunnel it indicated, waiting at every intersection until a spider passed by who knew the way. I found three way intersections, and a four way intersection, but not five, and I began to despair, thinking that perhaps one guide or another had simply miscounted. But to a spider, four is an unnatural number. It’s hard to confuse with five. I still had hope.
Yet it was with surprise that one day I suddenly found myself in the intersection itself. I’d been wandering slowly, stopping to eat at every opportunity, for fungus was scarce here. The tunnel walls were old and brittle, in some places almost dead, with few of the xylem veins the fungus tapped into. The walls had opaqued with age, a sure sign of malnourishment, and in one perilous place, I had even found a leg-sized hole right through the wall to the Out. It had been a dry day, but I’d passed the place by as quickly as I could manage, ignoring the intriguing scents that flooded the tunnel nearby.
The memory of those scents had stayed with me — the tantalizing richness of the air, the fearful feel of moisture, the shuddery sense of Out coming In.
I had stopped at a three-way intersection to rest and mark my way. That done, I wandered into the new tunnel, searching for fungus, when I realized that the new tunnel intersected another, and that that one crossed yet another. Five tunnels! Five tubules intersecting! This was it, or at least its double, and I’d seen no other such intersection in all my wandering.
I had made it. It was a strange mix of excitement and disappointment. While I had searched, I had had a goal, a purpose. Now that I had reached that goal, I had nothing again. Red Tree was not here, and though I searched and searched, there was no sign that it had been here. The fungus was sparse and tough and hardly worth harvesting. The whole region was so rickety that it felt unsafe even to sit here with all nine legs dug into the wall. The walls themselves felt so thin they might be pierced by a careless spike, and they were so opaque that that I could barely see a body length outside them.
But I was here. Red Tree would come. It should be here already, in fact, for it had known of the intersection before. But only from a distance, I reminded myself. It had seen the intersection from outside. Which meant it had been in a newer, more transparent tubule.
I flung myself into the search again, looking now for fresh nearby tubules. Heedless of risk, I sought out the thin spots in old walls, where their scarred opacity was offset by attenuated frailty. There was barely enough to hold onto here, but I could see. Toward the end of the second day, I found it — a clear, thin window of tubule from which I could see a familiar red and black shape, legs waving welcome.
We searched for a day or more, never going too far that we couldn’t come back every hour or so, to stare hungrily across the space between us. There was a space so close that the walls of our tubes almost touched, so close I might have reached across, but for the walls. The wall of my tubule was cloudy and frangible, almost crumbling with age, but it was close, and we spent our rest periods there, sending desolate messages of hope and frustration across the gap, but never finding a way to touch.
I returned from another fruitless exploration to find Red Tree already waiting. Not only waiting, but marking, ripping out chunk after chunk of wall with a fervor that made me worry for its sanity. We were near the top of the tangle today, and I could see from the dark clouds above that a storm was on its way — a wild thing that could pick up our tangle and throw it bodily through the air. I would have to move away to find a safe spot to shelter, away from these friable walls and their risk of the Out. I had come by only for a few more moments close to Red Tree.
It continued its assault on the tunnel walls, well past a circle now. With every pull of barbed leg, a larger chunk of wall material ripped out, until it was clinging to a veritable pit, its body so deep in the wall that its head was flush with the surface. And still it kept digging.
Red Tree had already demonstrated that it was smarter than I was, or more intuitive. It wasn’t until it plunged a spike all the way through the outer wall that I finally understood. It was cutting through. If we could not find our way to each other through the tunnels, it would come to me across the Out.
I could feel my flesh creep away from my shell inside me. To go to the Out, deliberately! Knowing the risk. Knowing it might never come back. And all because I had danced.
The moment seemed to stretch for days, but perhaps it was only moments before I too was attacking my wall. The old material chipped away easily, but in tiny flakes. Across the way, I could see Red Tree’s scratched, battered spikes cutting through the wall of its tunnel, ripping away long shreds of glassy fiber.
Around us, the roar of the wind picked up as the storm reached us. Within moments, we were rolling, tumbling this way and that, and bouncing high into the air one moment, crashing down onto the plain the next. Through it all, we continued our assault — Red Tree tearing its hole wider and wider with its barbs, and I throwing myself bodily against the wall until I was covered with a dusting of powder and flakes.
The storm worsened, and I began to fear that the rain would come before we finished, before we made the crossing. I’d seen a spider with the thread-sickness once from stumbling into a storm leak, and it had been pitiful. Unable to grip the walls, unable to roll into a proper ball, it had been battered to pieces by the roll of the tangle. I didn’t want that to happen to Red Tree, or to me.
The rain held off, but the wind began to howl, and the pressure through the holes we’d carved made it even harder to hold on. But we did, and at last the holes were big enough for Red Tree’s smaller body. I forced my way as far into my hole as I could, stretching four legs across the gap, with four more inside, and one more braced on the outside of the tube. It was surprisingly rough and hard, not like the soft gel of the interior. But it gave a good grip, and that was all I cared about.
Across the way, Red Tree bobbed a few times, then gave a quick salute, and jumped. I think it jumped. I’d never seen a spider jump before, but Red Tree was a wild one; it had already proved that. Perhaps it was only the roll of the tangle, or the jolt of the wind, but I like to think it jumped.
In any case, before I knew it, it was on me, its shell hard next to mine, smooth and glossy as seven legs scrabbled for purchase. I threw my four outer legs around it, tangling awkwardly with its own, and extending my barbs in desperation as I felt it slip, slip away.
I felt Red Tree’s own barbs extending, felt one catch in a knee joint, then another, forced my own spike through one of its legs as well, until we were locked together as tightly as a mite swathed in a spore body.
And then the storm ripped us loose. A gust of wind threw the tangle high in the air, and slammed it down hard on a boulder. I felt a leg tear loose at the joint, felt Red Tree fall away.
I didn’t stop to think, to fear. I pushed with all my inside legs and felt a part of my shell crack as I forced it through the outer wall. The storm lifted the tangle, and we fell, away from it, into the Out.
We landed hard. I felt two more legs break, and the crack in my shell widened. When I put out an upper-eye, I could see all the way through my shell, into the soft flesh of my interior. It struck me how much I was like the tangle, in a way — supple on the inside, tough on the outside. And now my inside was out, and I was too.
“I liked your dance,” said Red Tree, and I whirled my eye stalks toward it. It lay next to me, its beautiful red-black shell still whole, the abstract swirls more beautiful than ever before, even less like a tree than ever, but more like something else, something better, more pure. More Red Tree. All its legs were broken, two of them ripped out completely, and I could see the ichor leaking out of them. Treacherous rills of it wended their way toward the pool that I could see under me with my under-eyes. I watched as they merged into one sickly white puddle.
“You’re beautiful,” I said.
The rain came down and washed us clean. Already I could feel the thread sickness, and I could see the tendrils creeping out of Red Tree’s broken joints. I stretched out three legs, and dragged my way over to it, ignoring the pain in my shell, and the odd, cool feel of the rain pouring into me. I stretched my long limbs over Red Tree’s dark shell, ignoring the long hairs that stretched blindly toward the water and the soil below. They dug their way in, and I could feel myself tied down, anchored to the Out, where I would never move again.
“It feels right,” Red Tree said, and I didn’t have to ask what it meant. It felt right to be here, to be with each other at last, no matter the cost. And it felt right to have the thread-sickness, to feel it tie me closer to the earth. I could feel the water now, feel myself drinking it up through the root tendrils, feel it giving rise to new growth inside me.
Under me, Red Tree’s shell began to soften, and I could feel the echo of my own pain inside it — the good pain of change and discovery. Already, a stem was rising from the soft muddle of Red Tree’s innards, and I felt one rising in me as well. With a last clumsy thrust of my eye stalk, I pushed my stem to the side, and watched it wind around Red Tree’s, in a tangle that might never come free.