No. 33 La Araña (The Spider)

The ciudad was hopping. Los Indios had won their third consecutive match and the joyful throngs were slow to disperse into the night. The distance between feet expanded and diminished, then completely reorganized a few feet away. And the borrachos swayed to a different pattern altogether, stepping quickly, quickly, quickly, shuffling, before halting altogether to gather their bearings. Shuffle, shuffle, halt, past the mission. Shuffle, shuffle, halt, almost the entire distance to El Diario, straying only to cluck at disinterested senoritas.

Zapotec navigated the street with confidence, directed by the pulse and vibrations transmitted through the gravel. For years he had sent his own young out into the streets, bearing sheet webs and spiral orbs, the most delicately wrought egg sacs that could be found in all Chihuahua. But the violence of the streets, drug cartels and rapists run amok, had trickled down even into the unlikeliest of places.

A belligerent anarchy held the ciudad in its fist, and when it squeezed the city’s pulp strained into the domiciles of even the most above-reproach of citizens. So, Zapotec, one of the city’s finest craftsmen, and certainly one of its least reproachable citizens, ventured into the city and, for his trouble, accrued a thick coating of dust about his hair. He would return to the warmth of his abode—a bullthorn acacia along the lonely road to the maquiladoras on the outskirts of the city—sandy brown. It would be days before he was once again the color of his tribe, bagheera kiplingi. Days before he could pass for one of the ants that stood sentinel along the branches of his home.

The path that passed the maquiladoras wrapped through and around the city, messily, like the bow of a present wrapped by a child. Zapotec rarely traversed the road at midday.  Foot traffic, and the heat, made it a dangerous journey. If he was spotted, all hell would invariably break loose.

Araña! Araña!” A senorita would scream, and stamp like a crazed clog dancer. The other women in the street would scramble to keep their distance and angrily slap at the men who laughed.

Often, he passed in the hours that fell between night and morning, when the sky was at its darkest and even the borracho had found a safe place to sleep. During these hours, Zapotec sometimes sensed a humming. He imagined it to be the exact pitch, a kind of low thrum, that his distant kin felt when prey fell into one of their trap lines. The first time he had felt this pitch, his body responded with an instinctive and deep-seated revulsion. To his shame, he abandoned his parcel in his haste to return to the acacia tree. A satin weave egg sac, made with silk from all four spinnerets. Perhaps it wasn’t his finest work, but it came close. The next day the pages of El Diario had been splashed with the death of Silvia Elena Morales, found on the road Zapotec had traveled that very night.

In his studio he buried his confusion in wefts and warp, over and under, over and under. Plain weave gave way to twill. There was a female whom he courted and mated, delicately, delicately so as not to offend. She was gentler than many of her sex. But that didn’t guarantee that she wouldn’t impale him. Or worse, permanently disable a spinneret. The finest of his egg sacs went to her, and he hoped that his gifts reminded her of the utility of his appendages.

Zapotec’s silk was at its most luminous only after a full meal. If a cloud of anxiety hung over his work, the strands oozed out a duller gray. All colors served their purpose, but for an artist who took great pride in his work, a lapse of focus was disappointing. He could only spin so long before he had completely depleted his body’s supply of protein and, because he never had the heart to eat his own work to regain nourishment, he was forced to temporarily cease all labor. Portilla never thanked him for his offering, but she never ate him either, and he had been taught to give higher regard to actions over words.

Their spiderlings sometimes came to his branch, where he patiently taught them to spin. He almost always started with the spiral orb web, because it was the most beautiful. In their first lesson he taught that they must know their own body’s length, stretching out before them, to pick a point in the distance and say with confidence, “that point is five body lengths away.” None had advanced to the patterns that Zapotac considered his trademark style—Two Gray Hills, Teec Nos Pas, Ganado, Wide Ruins, styles that exhibited the fourfold symmetry that hearkened back to Navajo weavers of centuries past. And it was all but impossible to describe how to weave a spiral web that shot off a rainbow prism under certain light conditions.

The students almost always bore gifts for their master, soups stewed from their tree’s shoots, cacalas made from drying, toasting, and salting the seeds. Portilla might have been caring for him through the progeny that scurried across his branch on a weekly basis, though none of them so much as hinted that such was the case. If Portilla said, “no hables,” Zapotec had no doubt that none of his spawn would violate her decree.

The first night that the air regained its chill after a prolonged summer of heat, Zapotec was forced to again travel the road past the maquiladoras. Any old web might stave off the puny cool of a summer eve, but only Zapotec’s weaves would do to ward off the bone-chill of winter. He scuttled the route at an accelerated clip, springing through the roadside waste. His usual calm, the trait that so confounded his fellow bagheera who snatched leaves from the ants that shared their tree, and sometimes larvae from irresponsible nursemaids, seemed to have deserted him. The air had been humming since he had first set foot along the path, but Zapotec only realized this when he encountered a parcel by the side of the road, 22 body lengths in the distance.

Mangled flesh in a worker’s uniform. The stench of fresh blood, foul and metallic. A being the human world had judged to be disposable. Zapotec had never thirsted for blood. His appetites were prouder, leaves, only, from his beloved tree.

But the quiet figure was not without its treasure; strands of hair formed a crown about her face. It wasn’t as lustrous as his own silk, or as elastic. In fact, the hair was coarse. But it looked important. It gave the form a living quality that Zapotec knew to be false. He tried to find a name in nature that described its color, to the lighter wisps about her forehead, and failed. Mahogany was simply mahogany, and umber was umber, even when burnt. Chestnut, also, failed to convey the important fact that these strands had belonged solely to one being. The color had been her own, whatever she had thought of it, and however she had arranged it. With no plan, except to return in the direction of home, Zapotec unsheathed a pair of shears he carried to unknot particularly difficult parcels. Gently, all eight legs trembling, he clipped a full sheath of hair and hurried home.

The apprentice spiderlings never fully understood why they were not allowed to weave with the new material, but it never held the same sway over them as it had over Zapotec, and they didn’t care to press the question. When he wound the weft strands onto spools, Zapotec experienced an electric charge that he believed to be the antithesis of the foul humming pitch he encountered on the road.

For a time the muted brown locks posed a problem. No bagheera would carry an egg sac that had not been fashioned from bagheera silk. Traditions and ingrained instinct counted for much in the acacia tree, even if distant cousins had completely abandoned web weaving altogether and ran about chasing birds, helter skelter. Zapotec could never ask it of them. Instead, his legs danced out a different pattern altogether. A weaver’s egg sacs were judged primarily by a mate, if he was fortunate, and brave enough to successfully court one. But posterity determined his worth as a weaver by the quality of his funeral shroud. Zapotec had long put off beginning his own. His silk was good, but it never looked as if the sky itself had spun it. And his spinnerets were deft, but one might still slip. His abdomen might twitch or spasm, breaking a precious line. He had only his death to express the passion and skill he had wielded over his life. Even respectability paled beside the luxuriant blaze of genius. The tribe bagheera would have been aghast to learn that Zapotec had no shroud. Death disguised itself in so many clever forms—an unwitting heel, Portilla’s probing fangs—and, cleverest still, the accumulation of years without accident or distress.

The idea was a fine one, and Zapotec executed it hastily. But he was accustomed to working with an unlimited supply of raw materials and his prized sheaf lasted only a few days at his loom. Reluctant, but with no other possible course, he returned to the road that had delivered its spoils to him, with shears he had sharpened on the flintiest of rocks. And, for the first time in his life, hunted, drawn by his repulsion to the scene of acts that defied nature. Each was different, and the same. One wore blanco, another verde. Their bodies would disappear the following day, though to what purpose Zapotec never knew. He assumed it was their names being published in El Diaro, beneath the headlines of the most recent Indios score. But the facts were always few, and sometimes there wasn’t any name at all. And before enough time had passed for him to grasp a solution to the puzzle he had a spread of human hair that encompassed nearly every tint of brown and black that he had ever seen. Some, he discovered were finer than others. Certain skeins wound in all directions, driven by an unknowable energy force. He didn’t much understand people, but wondered if their hair wasn’t to some extent an ambassador of personality. And he found himself warming to them.

Zapotec measured many body lengths to fit his shroud. He adapted his work patterns to his material, which was never adhesive and could only with extreme difficulty be managed into a knot. The ant sentinels stopped harassing him, confused by the human scent he now exuded. A scent that wasn’t quite right even for a two-legged beast. When his home could no longer maintain the large quantities of hair, Zapotec retreated to the most neglected end of an unpopular branch and continued his labor.

The shroud had never been meant for his own small frame. And as it grew, Zapotec began to notice that his new material possessed unexpected qualities. In full light, the sheaths gleamed, drawing the eye across Zapotec’s work. When he discovered this he re-arranged the layout of his hefts and warps, to maximize the sun-sheen. He would positively glow, Zapotec thrilled, under the weight of the shroud. If he could be seen at all amidst the folds and arcs of his work.

Zapotec no longer spun his own silk. He was consumed by his masterpiece. The joke he would share with death when it came for him and found him cloaked by women he had already claimed. Death had a sense of humor, Zapotec knew. The humor of the araña might not translate, might not to be to death’s taste but the calaca could smirk.

Months into Zapotec’s labor, the unexpected occurred. A procession took possession of the dusty road to the maquiladoras—a film crew, a handful of human rights activists, politicians, several members of the local law enforcement, rounded out by a gaggle of tense looking public relations experts representing the various companies that owned the maquiladoras.

“We are here to expose the truth, once and for all, behind the hundreds of maquiladora murders that have occurred since 1993,” the newsman announced to the camera, grimacing on the word murder but striking a stalwart stance at the end of his pronouncement.

“Could we not refer to them as the maquiladora murders,” one of the Americans objected, the instant the camera ceased rolling. Her expression was held in place by what must have been several inches of makeup. But had she been able, she would have smiled in tight-lipped disapproval.

“This is the very road where the barbaric murders took place,” the newsman was truly animated now and would only really hit his stride as he began to describe what had happened to the factory workers before their deaths. His hair, like the American’s face, was immoveable, however he gestured or bobbed. The activists looked uncomfortable, but gave no impression that they intended to abandon the group. They carried folders and Zapotec knew that these folders contained the names of the women that had been killed, and all that had been know about them. Uneasily, he retreated. Several policemen, clearly bored by the film crew and sullen because they suspected that they would in some way be implicated in the deaths, had begun to take in the scenery and all there was of it was Zapotec’s acacia tree, populated by thousands of ants and hundreds of bagheera kiplingi, discounting eggs.

“Chopped her fingers off and—“

“What the hell is that?” The officer, who had strayed closest to the tree approached Zapotec’s shroud, now spanning a handful of branches and spreading more than three feet in width and four in height.

The newsman was searching for a cutting remark for the person who had interrupted his monologue, but the entire crew was already shadowing the cops.

“Hair. It’s human hair,” the pr woman’s simple statement eclipsed the newsman’s monologue for macabre. Two politicians had already turned down the road in a fearful dash back to the city. Half a dozen film crewmembers were on their cell phones.

When DNA tests confirmed that hair recovered from the acacia tree matched that of more than a dozen women who had been found raped and murdered in the last year, the Ciudad Juarez law enforcement officially declared more than 300 unsolved cases closed. The news anchor ghostwrote a book detailing how he unmasked the eight-legged killers, and was sued by the police officer responsible for the discovery.

“Spiders previously thought to be vegetarian behind the nefarious maquiladora murders,” read the front page of El Diario above even the scores for Los Indios.

And Zapotec’s acacia tree was burned by angry victim’s relatives. Zapotec, Portilla, nearly all of their spiderlings, and the ants that had jealously chased them from the tree’s nectar, were consumed. Zapotec’s shroud was displayed at National University Museum for Art and Science before being loaned out to the American Museum of Natural History.

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