The spirit watched idly as the spider repaired its web, and now it had only one rotation left to mend. The spider had found the perfect spot outside the building, nestled between the oil lamp and the beam. Hordes of flying insects were attracted by the glow of the flame, enclosed in its glass chimney. It was perfect. The lamp, lighting the courtyard, was lit as soon as the sun began to set and was not extinguished until dawn. Last night the spider had caught a vast amount of food. The spirit surmised that that was why the spider’s web had been so badly damaged. There were more insects now than ever before, but that was good, for the weather would soon change and the spider would be less lucky.
It had just begun repairing the last circuit of its web when the delicate strands started to tremble. The spirit instantly became alert and saw the spider tense; its eight legs poised, ready to pounce. However, the vibration was not caused by prey, but from the ground. The spider turned back to its task while the spirit watched the building eagerly.
A man with a cart piled high with bundles wrapped in linen banged on the doors of the building and shouted to be let in. As he dragged the cart inside, other men came to help him unload it, throwing the bundles alongside the wall. They grumbled about the stench.
“People are complaining. The baker next door is moaning. He says the smell keeps his customers away.”
“Well, what do you want me to do about it?” the carter snapped. “I just do my job. I’m not responsible for the plague. Soon there won’t be any customers left and then he won’t have to worry about the smell.”
The men all laughed with the carter.
“I’ve never seen so many rats about. We’ve always had them, but never in these numbers.”
“It’s the bodies. The smell attracts them. Still, it’s only for another week. Then we move to the other end of town. Right next door to the cemetery. That’ll suit us.”
The carter left with his cart, the doors were closed and the building became quiet again. The spirit drifted away, with the intention of checking up on this spider at a later date.
It was late one evening when the spirit returned. The lamp had been lit by one of the men and flying insects were already gathering around it. The spider had extended its store to include an area along one of the roof trusses inside the building. It had made a connection between the store and the web, so that it would be alerted should another spider try to steal its cache.
The spirit watched the spider wind a silk thread around its latest prey. It paused, its antenna twitching. Then it rushed across the web and into the eaves. It was almost blown off its feet by a wind that swept through the top of the room. It was obvious to the spirit that the spider was not afraid of the wind. It had braced its legs and dug its tiny claws into the wood of the truss. The spirit knew about the wind. He had seen it the first time it had come to the building. He had seen how it had destroyed the spider’s web and blown away the larder. At that time the spider had built its web inside the building and the larder was attached to a roof beam. It had taken three more nights and three more winds for the spider to learn that it must move the web somewhere more secure. The spirit had been most impressed that the spider had not only persisted, but had actually learnt something from the experience.
Now he watched the wind swirl in tight circles, growing in intensity, travelling from the roof and into the room. Within seconds it developed into a miniature tornado, concentrating on the floor, but not sucking any dust or debris up into its centre. The strange vortex emitted a high-pitched, keening noise and spat lightning bolts at the ground. The noise was mesmeric, and high up in the eaves, the spider swayed to the rhythm.
The spirit’s attention was yanked away from the spider when things emerged from the vortex. Deviant, dark shadows. They moved along the wall of the room, and to the astonishment of the spirit, disappeared through cracks in the wooden panels and out into the night. All the other times that he had seen the vortex appear; the shadows had looked at the bundles along the wall and taken something from them, carrying what they took, back through the vortex. None of them had left the building. This was something new. The spirit was not sure why their behaviour had changed and he waited for a while to see if they would return. The vortex slammed shut with a sinister roar, leaving the building in eerie silence. The spider turned and went back to his cache.
The spirit was troubled by these strange occurrences. They were not natural. He knew that the shadows were evil and that they were stealing; but he was not sure how significant this new development was. His dilemma was whether to report these happenings or keep them to himself.
Later he returned to the building just as one corner of the room began to shimmer and distort. He knew what this meant. He glanced up to the roof truss and caught sight of the spider. It stood on one of the beams looking down into the room. The spirit could see its legs tapping erratically on the wooden beam.
Was that a sign of anxiety? he thought. Then again, was a spider capable of feelings? If it was, it changed many things. He looked back to the corner of the room just as many small lights appeared from the distortion. Like him, they were spirits. They darted around the room looking at the bundles, joining together and splitting apart. They made a musical sound as they whirled in ever more agitated circles. The spirits stopped and a shaft of fire burst from them, igniting everything it touched.
The straw on the floor caught fire first. Burning fiercely, it set alight the wooden building. More spirits emerged from the corner of the room and disappeared into the city.
The spirit could hear people screaming as the fire spread from house to house, consuming all in its path. Soon the whole city was ablaze. The spider stood on the beam transfixed. Just before the building was engulfed in flames, it turned and stared at the spirit, its antenna quivering and the hairs on its back illuminated by the flames. For one instant the spirit felt the spider’s fear and he knew, in that moment, a soul was born.
All at Sea
The forest was always beautiful at this time of year. It was nearing the end of spring and the sun was not yet strong enough to have burnt the leaves and dried out the soil. The undergrowth was still lush and the heavy scent of the woodland flowers was strong beneath the tree's canopy. Animals scurried among the roots, foraging for food. They had lived in this forest all their lives and knew no other place. This was their world. They hunted for food just as their parents had done and theirs before them. They knew which herbs and grasses were good to eat and where the safest places were to sleep. They were happy and carefree, enjoying a life of simplicity and innocence.
They heard the destruction before they saw it; a dreadful grinding, ripping noise, followed by a crash as the trees fell, crushing everything below. Flustered, they ran around in circles. The ground shook as the noise came closer. The creatures huddled together, petrified by fear. A leader emerged from the group, bigger than the others, and started down a trail leading away from the noise and disaster. He turned, and the animals cautiously followed.
The noise grew louder. The ground trembled. Dust and debris filled the air. The creatures scampered as one, fleeing the devastation. First they followed familiar trails, and then they ventured onto new ground. The trees began to thin out and the dirt track became a sandy trail. Then there were no more trees and the trail became an expanse of white earth. Ahead, a flood of water raced towards them with a roar. Just as they started to back away from this new monster, it receded, hissing and spitting, leaving white foam in its wake.
The leader stopped on the sand and sat on his haunches. Fear and his race through the forest had left him breathless. He looked around as he rested. Everything seemed as it always had been... but something was wrong; something other than the catastrophe that had caused the animals to flee.
He looked around again.
Where was he? What was he doing on this beach? And how did he know it was a beach?
He looked down at his body.
“Oh no, what’s happened to me?” he shouted, but the only sound that came from his mouth was a shriek.
In that moment he remembered everything. He was a bus driver in central Bristol. A man had blown up his bus. He remembered the explosion. He remembered the pain. He remembered being right in front of the bomber, whose face was like a zombie’s with eyes huge and staring.
He wailed. I must be dreaming, he thought, as waves of panic surged through him. But he could feel the hot sun on his back and the grains of sand between his toes. He looked down at his feet and stood transfixed. They were nothing like a person’s feet. They were small and grey, and at the end of each toe was a tiny, sharp claw. He walked unsteadily over to a rock pool and gazed at his reflection in the water. Looking back at him was a big brown rat. His eyes opened wide and he screamed, clawing at his head, trying to find his real self beneath the fur.
As lumps of fur and flesh were ripped from his face the other rats ran to him, licking the wounds and trying to soothe him. He struggled free of their administrations and ran up and down the beach screaming, “What’s happened? Somebody help me.”
He fell exhausted on the sand, weeping hysterically.
He didn’t notice the grinding, ripping noise at first. The earth trembled, and that caught his attention. The big brown rat understood the noise now. It was a de-foresting machine, tearing down the trees to make way for some hideous concrete leisure centre or holiday resort. He didn’t care. He would rather be dead than have to live the life of a rat.
He looked up at the circle of brown rodents staring down at him, with their big ears, pointed faces and twitching whiskers. Just a moment ago he had known these animals intimately. They were his family, his friends, but now they were just rats. They watched him, grinding their teeth and squeaking pitifully. He took a deep breath and stood up.
Poor things, he thought, it’s not their fault this has
Could he abandon them to the machine, just because of his dilemma? He might not want to live, but what about them? He needed time to work out what had happened, but time was in short supply. He would have to shelve his deliberations and work out a solution to their immediate problem.
Somehow we must get off this island, he thought. He climbed the nearest tree, cursing his diminutive size. Far out, beyond the shallows, he saw a cargo ship. A small rowing boat was bobbing steadily towards the shore.
Our escape route, he thought. He returned to the others and led them to a large piece of driftwood, digging a low trench behind it in which to hide. The other rats copied him and soon they were all hidden. The big brown rat turned and watched them, fascinated, as they began to indulge in their normal behaviour. Some were washing themselves; others were digging in the trench for grubs and beetles.
Just a short while ago I was doing the same things, and happy to be doing it. The thought appalled him.
He was alerted by the noise of the rowing boat scraping its hull on the sandy shore about twenty yards to his right. The crew, a band of men with swarthy complexions and rough voices, clambered out and made their way into the interior of the island, arguing and shouting. The rats shrank down in their hiding place. The men disappeared into the trees and the big brown rat jumped out of the trench. He scurried towards the little boat. He ran along the rope that tethered the boat to a tree and hoped that the other rats would follow. Soon they were all safely ensconced among the various bags and sacks in the bottom of the boat. All they had to do was stay hidden until the men returned and rowed back to the ship, unaware that they would be carrying a few more passengers.