The mother calculated she had one to two days, at most, before her spiderlings would devour her. Crazy little guys, around seventy or eighty, if she were to guess. They’d only hatched a week ago and look at them now, devouring the tiny yellow trophic eggs she’d laid for them. Within minutes they doubled in size. She couldn’t tear her eyes away.
She remembered the day, two years ago, when she had climbed atop her mother, injected her with venom, and sucked out her fluids. How tentatively she had taken those first steps up her mother’s leg, how hesitantly she had pierced her mother’s exoskeleton, and then, what relief once she began to suck. Soon, the roles would be reversed. She would become the martyr, drained of all life by her babies’ insatiable hunger.
The circle of life, she supposed. What did she need to live for, anyway? Her mate had spun a special thread to attract her, and she’d fallen for it; after copulation, he’d disappeared. She’d stayed, hatched a clutch of offspring, played her role.
Glancing toward the crack of moonlit darkness, she felt an urge to dart away. From the hedgerow where she’d been born, to the mossed-over wall where she now watched and waited, her life could be measured in square meters. She’d never ventured beyond this small garden. What lay on the other side of the wall? She’d never wondered, until now.
If she wanted to try a different life, she’d have to act quickly. But how to escape the web, out of sight of the little ones?
The spiderlings gnawed at the eggs, but hundreds of eyes watched her. She could back away slowly and hope their poor eyesight didn’t register the change. She could make a dash for it and pray none of the spiderlings could yet surpass her speed. Or she could be honest and announce her intentions to them. Perhaps they’d understand; perhaps filial loyalty would override their carnal instinct.
But even during this meditation, her babies had changed. Their fat abdomens had stretched, causing their exoskeletons to pulse and throb. The spiderlings were ready to molt; there went one now, emerging like a grown spider, leaving the old body behind. Soon, they’d be hungry to fill their larger bellies, and there would be no food in the web, apart from her.
Why should she, a devoted mother, be forced into this self-sacrifice? Why not that wretched spider who’d mated with her? Well, he was dead already; there was that. But still. Couldn’t someone help her out? But there were no relatives to call on: her brothers and uncles were dead, her sisters were facing down their own cannibalistic spiderlings.
The truth: it was her or them. If she escaped, she could live, but her babies would starve.
The last of her spiderlings molted. Empty exoskeletons littered the web. The first glimmer of the sun’s rays penetrated the gap between stones. The mother felt tired. Her genetic clock was ticking, and she didn’t know how to stop it. Her legs wouldn’t move; whether frozen in indecision, or hardwired for stillness, she couldn’t say.
Jill Witty is a writer from Richmond, Virginia. Her work is published or forthcoming in Catapult, New Flash Fiction Review, Necessary Fiction, The Normal School, Atlas & Alice, and elsewhere. She is working on her second novel. Read more at jillwitty.com or say hi on Twitter @jwitty.