by Mateusz Tobola
She was a creature of instinct, a being of distilled focus and unbridled appetite. She was determination personified, and she was a seething storm of desire. She was many conflicting things, but above all, she was whole.
Perched atop a low-hanging spruce twig – her favourite spot, she waited, seemingly idly. Hours went by, and with them came an unrelenting downpour, before she finally took notice of something worthy of her attention. Or perhaps it was just the hunger and weather that finally got to her. In the grand scheme of this particular late-autumn day, the trigger didn’t really matter.
Her body twitched, ever so slightly, as her focus eagerly shifted from the dead surroundings of her realm to the lone, chaotic movement in the air. The traveler was clearly weary, and looking for shelter, but in her mind – the prey was marked, and blissfully unaware of her presence. She enjoyed that part. The moth circled around the branches of an adjacent pine, frantically dodging the last of the subsiding rain, before it finally settled down against the mossy side of the trunk in exhaustion, a faint glow of fluorescent mushroom below. There, it would safely rest before further journey.
Plenty of that would be granted, soon.
It was a short trek, and one she was anxious to take. She retracted along the shaky sprig, and swiftly disappeared into the thick of needles, faint rustle of leaves the only proof of her existence as she made her way down her outpost. The wet mulch between the trees did little to hinder her silent approach, and before long she was scaling the opposite side of the pine. The climb up was a test of patience. She could easily discern the moth’s seductive movements coming from the other side.
Amateurish. Careless. Sweet.
She quickly reached well above her mark and coiled along a thick, curvy branch. There was little tactical advantage to be gained, she was well aware, but she was still a slave to her whim – and watch she must. The moth had spread itself flat against the tree and continued to remain stubbornly oblivious. Its dusty, scale wings were in full display, naked, and she could not help but admire them, if only for a bit. It was a tapestry of shape and dim colours, a flowing image she could not hope to imitate, only enhanced by the ever-present moisture in the air. Before she would take the moth’s life – the spider tilted its head rapaciously to the side – yes, she would take it all in, too.
She followed further up, around the trunk, and directly above her inattentive guest, before she even started closing in. Each step she took from this point on was graceful and calculated. She was soon barely inches away, blending into the moist bark just above her meal with astounding ease, when she suddenly broke her advance. The moth was well within reach, yet she remained motionless, each limb perfectly still – a fleshy extension of the unswerving focus she bestowed upon her target. In that moment alone, the moth was special. And from that moment on, it was all part of a dance. What she really yearned for, however, was a participating partner.
She tapped her heel just once against the damp of the bark, and bared her fangs raw in budding anticipation – a smile, really. It didn’t take long for her unwitting partner to take the cue, and the grisly festivities to commence. The moth finally realized the peril it was in, but it was a realization hatched far too late. Within half a flick of its wings as it desperately tried to break free, the moth was no more, cuddled oh-so lovingly in the spider’s embrace.
A sweet, sickly scent brought her out of a long, cold slumber. An unfamiliar element had taken root in her domain during her absence and now shamelessly teased her senses. She was well sated and comfortable, curled up deep in the safety of her nest, but a familiar blend of anger and curiosity washed over her. She started for the surface.
She cleared the entrance to her mound of the remnants of season past, and confidently peered out, as she did countless times before. In an instant, a barrage of threatening sounds assaulted her. And what followed shortly was a shattering earthquake, one her fragile frame could barely handle. Somewhere in the distance, a tree fell under heavy onslaught of steel and muscle.
Her poise broken, she took a step back. But her curious nature would not be easily swayed. She emerged again, with unprecedented caution this time, and took a quick survey of her surroundings. No immediate threat was spotted, and she quickly realized she needed to get higher. The neighbouring pine served the purpose well, and high up the tree, she understood – her realm had changed. The sea of foliage she remembered so vividly was unmistakably thinner, and the towering, almighty trees, far fewer in number. There was a growing commotion coming in from a glade not far up ahead, filled with growls of hungry steel and animated by a stir of rising voices.
Her mind was racing.
She dropped to the ground and darted across the slowly waking plains, quickly closing in to the edge of the clearing. A small rock formation provided a temporary shelter, but for the first time in her adult life she found herself hesitant to advance. She pushed through the uncomfortable sensation with mounting disregard, and forced herself atop a flat slab of stone overlooking the site. What she saw gave her a pause.
The camp was bustling with life. Gargantuan figures going on about their business, yelling and pointing at each other as they carved the glade a bit wider with each command. Their loud tools did not know rest, it seemed, and the recognizable sickly-sweet scent of labour filled the air. There was a purpose to all of that, she quickly picked up, and the seeming disarray of movement and noise hid something far more sinister under the surface – a working structure. Chunks of the forest were ripped from their rightful places, dismantled on the spot with startling efficiency, and their carcasses hastily dragged in pieces back into the heart of the camp, only to be thrown next to a similar pile. Then, the process would repeat until another area was cleared. The more she observed, the more evident it became – her kingdom had a new master. And she watched for hours.
As the sun started setting down, a sharp, piercing sound cut the air – a herald of a day coming to a close. One by one, the woodsmen abandoned their posts for a promise of rest. And as she watched the titans retire for the night, and their tools grow silent, her calm renewed, as did her desire to return home.
The earth trembled a bit more today. Like greedy fingers, the vibrations reached deep into the ground, and shook the foundations of her lair. But she was already awake. Ever since she had scouted the glade, rest eluded her, and thoughts of relocation intensified. The past few days saw the felling advance in all directions from the clearing. The tremors became more frequent, and the hours at which they occured bolder, stretching well into late night now. She had her extremities pressed tightly against the soft soil of one of the tunnels leading to the surface, and dared to miss nothing from above. Least of all the slowly growing, unnerving hum at ground level she just picked up.
Perhaps she should as the next thundering wave came in with a force unmatched. The tunnel contorted and the earth above her gave way to an avalanche of soil and gravel. Panic struck her as the weight of the world came crashing down upon her. Half-buried, she gasped for air.
Nature gave up another inch today. The spruce tree she liked to frequent – the one she was so strangely fond of, has just been unceremoniously ripped from where it belonged, its deeply seated foundations tearing deep at the ground in a hollow scream of protest. She knew, there was no going back.
She worked hard to get herself loose, her free limbs clawing with abandon at the ground, and finally, after what seemed like hours of debilitating labour, she managed to build enough leverage to pull herself out from under the rubble. Still dazed, she dashed deeper into the labyrinth, bouncing off the walls until she regained full composure. She went straight for the pantry. It was an expansive chamber, advisedly hidden deep, and by far the largest in her nest, built that way only to match the host’s appetite. High up the uneven ceiling, strung tightly side by side, wisely preserved, hung the sweets. Her mind was made up, and she would need all the energy for the journey ahead.
She spent the waking hours of the next day relentlessly digging an exit. And when she finally emerged among moss and flowers, the surface greeted her with eerie silence. She picked up a wing flutter not far up, a bluebird spring-nesting, no doubt, but nothing else of substance made its way into the crosshairs of her acute senses. Confusion quickly settled in, and with it – as it happens, curiosity forced its ugly head into the conscious, taking over the steering wheel almost immediately. The camp was not that far away, after all, she started to muse, and she did not plan on coming back.
The journey to the glade was a brisk one, almost automatic, marked only by a passing realization of just how much thinner the usually lush, surrounding area had become in the recent days. On the spot, she found herself met with stillness. A carcass of the once thriving centre of giants’ activity stretched far wider now than she had anticipated. The stone slab she had visited previously was no longer at the edge of the clearing. Now, it was sitting uncomfortably close to two sets of brown-stained tents, serving quietly and with humility as a base for someone’s neglected fireplace. Mountains of logs, piled up as high as she could see in the glow of the rising sun, were spread strategically in between the lodgings – a lingering proof of atrocities past. But other than that, the place felt dead. Or just on the verge of dying, because right about that moment she spotted him.
A giant silhouette, appearing and disappearing between the shabby dwellings – a single man was walking around the corpse of the camp, whistling, undisturbed, as if he owned the place. He made his own pace, a twig playfully dancing in his right hand, and was soon reaching dangerously close to her position. This would not do, the thought crossed her mind with a lightning speed – barely split-second before she scurried between the safety of the tall grass around her. And from within the safety of the only allies she had left in this strange place, she continued to observe.
The giant sat down near the fireplace, and with the stick still firmly in his hand, he started poking at the fading embers. He let out a loud yawn as he did that, arching his back against the side of the tent behind him, and stretched his legs along the revived hearth. He seemed restless. His eyes wandered all around, undoubtedly looking for a cure for his boredom, before finally setting down, in defeat, on the freshly resuscitated flame once again, and then a bit higher up – upon a steaming, metal container atop the makeshift stove. He was clearly waiting for something. And as the sluggish passage of time could not be defied, he apathetically began to run the tip of his stick in the ground where he was sitting. The dirt under the titan’s feet must have proven a suitable canvas for someone of his talent, because before long he managed a satisfied nod, and a grin appeared on his round face as he inspected his handiwork. And what a marvel of art it must have been that it had distracted him enough not to notice the edge of his pants catch a stray spark from the hearth.
The fire took eagerly to the linen, like an overzealous lover, consuming as much as it was allowed to before it would be inevitably put out. With time, the spreading heat became too much to ignore, and the man finally became aware that a part of him was in fact on fire. She never heard a pitch that high. He jumped up in the air and started beating furiously at one of his legs, desperately trying to keep the hungry element at bay. And as he did that, the sizzling stove had the audacity to get in the way. A blur of motion and noise followed his fall.
First, a hollow thud of the massive body hitting the ground, joined shortly after by a clang of the stove falling over, and then another shrill scream as the boiling contents of the metal container emptied itself all over the man’s already panic-struck face. During all of this, to his credit, he never stopped wrestling with the burning piece of clothing. He finally rolled to the side and got the last of it off himself. He threw it away, with all his might, over his head. Right atop the tent behind him. She never imagined flames could shoot up this high.
Fascinated, she followed him all day.
Watching the man had become a habit by now. He was a kind, if not a bit daft, creature. The empty camp already bore several scars from his shenanigans, the most recent one – a crushed storage shed, the result of an ambitious attempt to single handedly re-organize one of the largest log piles on the site. He almost died that day. To her surprize, she was even beginning to grow fond of the sketches he left all around the place. He draw in ground and carved in wood whenever tedium and inspiration happened to struck simultaneously. She understood none of the etchings, of course, but some of them did begin to feel familiar somehow. Mostly, though, she was attracted to the process behind it. If she learnt anything from her time spent shadowing the man, it was that his sort and too much free time didn’t mix well.
When the trips back and forth between her lair and the abandoned glade had become too much of a hassle, she dug up a temporary nest much closer to the vicinity of the camp. The past few days quickly blended all her actions into a singular focus – observation, and little else. She barely hunted, and she did not take to repairing the damage done to her nest at all. The man provided a degree of entertainment, true, but there were increasingly frequent moments when she found herself wishing she could approach him in a more direct way. For whatever reason, she knew not.
On that particular day, she hardly realized it was close to midnight before she decided to head back. The deep of the night caught her out in the open again, perched atop a tent and watching her subject under a full moon for the first time. She could not help it. He was fast asleep, and his resting, emotionless face finally started making sense to her in the glow of the withering flame he was cuddled by. His body turned, unexpectedly, and she saw burns running the length of his arm, a distant memory of a fire. And then, a sliver of something shiny on his wrist caught her attention before she could even begin to resist, instantly mesmerizing all eight of her usually vigilant eyes. It called out to her, with an undescribed intensity – begging her to draw just a step closer. Just. One. More. Step.
The fall was short and far from fatal, but still embarrassing. She rolled down the texture of the tent, much like a clueless child down a slide, and the momentum threw her between two soft layers of fabric, right atop the chest of the resting man. She froze immediately, but he did not wake up.
She was equally terrified and excited. They were never this close. From where she was sitting, she could feel an enormous power pumping life into the body under her. Up and down his chest went, not skipping a single beat. Suddenly, she felt like a sailor, in a scrappy, little boat, lost in uncharted waters, just barely hanging on against the raging storm under her. She clung tightly to a button on his shirt, with a desperate hope of getting used to the unyielding rhythm. Soon enough, she managed to find her balance. Encouraged, she crept in closer towards his face, a shy length of a button at first, and after a brief, hesitant pause, up the length of another one, nearer still. And she was getting ready to close the distance even more, until she sensed it.
There was an unseen presence lurking just outside the edge of the light’s reach. A low, hungry growl soon confirmed what she already knew – a different breed of predator was nearby. Not long after, a pair of mercury-liquid, silver discs came slowly into existence against the pitch-black background of the camp. Her body tensed immediately, and she promptly began backing up. She was ready to run, too, but in that decisive instant, she felt the warmth of the man’s breath brushing off against her body. Without thinking, she addressed her initial instincts with an aggressive jump instead, landing flat on the man’s face. The giant woke up instantly, and just before she was surprisingly gently slapped aside, she did find a peculiar comfort in the fact that she probably bought him a precious few seconds to react.
She was right. The man noticed the encroaching danger just in time. He jumped in front of the fireplace and kicked hard at the pool of embers. Neglected for far too long, the flames replied with indifference, sizzling out in the air way too fast to serve as an efficient deterrent against the feral cat. The cougar responded in kind with a vicious snarl and lashed out, barely missing its mark as it gracefully landed on the other side of the fire. The man ducked to the right and almost lost his balance in the process, the bottom part of him still half-asleep. A brief pause followed, with the two adversaries circling slowly around the flicking hearth, their eyes locked in an uninterruptible exchange.
During all of that, she managed to put a healthy distance between herself and the two combatants. She found a shelter under a thick layer of canvas, right at the entrance to one of the tents. She could not take part in this struggle, that much was obvious, but if there was a way to tip the scales even a bit, she thought. Backing up deeper into the safety, she stumbled upon the answer. Inside the tent, half-covered under a stained pillow, lay a tool she saw the man use repeatedly before with brutal efficiency. If only he could have access to it now. She mustered all her strength and pushed against the heavy object. It budged.
Outside, the encounter was beginning to reach a boiling point. Somehow, the man managed to get a hold of a thick branch and put the tip of it on fire, but the hungry animal was having none of it. If anything, its attacks grew more vicious by the minute, and it quickly became clear that its patience, as well as its fear of fire, were growing thin. At this point, even armed, the man was barely capable of holding his own. He was clutching at his burned arm all this time, a thick streak of red running fast down his elbow and onto the ground. There was precious little time left before the curtain call of this grisly play, and both participants seemed well aware of that. The stage was thirsty, and demanding more.
Soon, the loss of blood started to overwhelm his conscious, and dizziness began washing over the edge of his mind with ruthless ferocity. His vision blurred, and his perception became a slideshow of the events taking place before him. He registered a fall, then, a slowly rising growl started ringing in his ears as he struggled to command his senses back into order. He also felt an immense weight bearing down on his chest with tremendous force, but, surprisingly, it was the sharp, piercing sensation at the tip of his index finger that dared to demand the most of his attention. The supporting actor in this drama had finally entered the stage.
When the man collapsed, she knew it was the moment to act. And she did make sure she was noticed. She made a dash towards him and bit hard into the flesh of his hand, plunging her seasoned fangs deep into the soft tissue of one of his fingers, almost reaching bone. When he turned to her, she run, just slow enough to make sure his wobbly vision could follow the path she took, right towards the tool she had worked so laboriously to recover. He spotted it – a gentle flicker in the grass just outside the tent, and a faint spark crossed his eyes. Using what little remained of his strength, he desperately reached out, his hand shaking as he did, and greedily grabbed at the blade of the hunting knife. He let out a powerful howl, and even though the strength behind the scream quickly died, turning it into a pitiful yelp mid-breath, he still managed to execute the swing, driving the razor sharp head of the tool deep into the beast’s eye socket. The cougar howled and winced, his paws dancing on the man’s chest as if he were a plush toy, and soon enough its massive, muscled frame dropped to the ground, lifeless.
The man was breathing hard, weaving in a heavy wheeze every now and then. He was safe, finally, and all he needed was a little bit of rest.
She did not sleep at all that night. She found a spot up a tree, near the edge of the camp, from where she could watch over the man as he rested through the night and well into the next morning. As the dawn was setting in, she decided to make her presence known. She dropped from the branch she was sitting on, slowly spinning down her thread with growing anticipation of their second encounter – lower and lower, until she finally reached the cool of the ground. She approached the man openly this time, wading through a pool of sticky, scarlet liquid before she gracefully climbed atop of him. He didn’t even notice. Why should he, she was little more than a breeze, and all his senses were occupied fighting off his condition. His breath came in labouring gasps, each next one audibly more shallow than the one preceding it, until all that was left of it was an unsteady rhythm of a drying up puddle. Perched atop his chest, she felt it all, and how wildly different it seemed to her from the ferocious ocean she fought against once before.
He was still drawing breath, but barely. His eyes were bulging out, unfocused, lips parched, smacking at some illusionary salve, and his hands, no longer at his sides, spread wide, hungrily grabbing at the blades of grass around him. She knew he was ready, and she was there to witness it. A life was coming to its fragile conclusion, but to her surprise, this time, she was not involved, merely an intimate observer.
She gently tapped at his cheek once. Then, she did it again. And when no response followed, the spider tilted its head curiously to the side and paused. A movement in the air has caught its attention.
Mateusz found out very early on that there’s a boundless amount of ideas floating just above his head at any given moment. The tricky part was always to pluck one at the right time and gift it with a form it truly deserved. Mateusz works in creative fields as a designer out of Central Europe, and revisits the writing outlet whenever he gets restless.