The World Spider
Mother just called. Impossible to sleep. The bad news about Lowell. The heat. The full moon.
A shimmer of light at the edge of the window frame arrested my eye. A black spider was wrapping a big moth in filaments. When the moth lay still inside its shroud, the spider pounced on it and began to suck it dry.
I could scarcely breathe. Watching the spider extrude its web and truss its victim, I may have experienced an epiphany, the answer to the question I had not quite framed.
The World Spider was everywhere, spinning invisible webs, coiled words of deceit: legend, honor, ancestry, valor, nobility, and gallantry. Nothing about ambition, greed, and power. Nothing about lies, obsessions, and betrayal.
Lowell was a gentle child. Growing up, he read Kipling and wanted to be Kim, searching the world for truth and illumination. He acted wholeheartedly in amateur theatrics. He delivered books to shut-ins. He rescued strays and healed maimed animals. He easily fell prey to the World Spider, who trapped him in a powerful web of coiled words, the words that seemed so plain and straightforward, but actually lay at the back of the mind like a snake ready to strike, or like an ugly little man on a spring that would jump in your face when you opened his box. "You should be grateful for all weíve done for you." "Loyalty to family and country comes first in our home." "Trust in God and do your duty."
Misty-eyed, I remembered my trusting young brother, with his open countenance, confiding his secret ambition to me. "Sis, Iíve been planning my future, the way you said. When I grow up, I think Iíll be a veterinarian."
I was only three years his senior, but I felt much, much older. I grabbed his shoulders and blazed away at him. "Donít tell Mother and Father, do you hear?"
But guileless Lowell had to share his enthusiasm with our parents, and they reacted as I had predicted.
Mother: " Veterinarian! What a strange idea, Lowell. Whoever put such a silly notion in your head?"
Father: "Heís not serious, are you, Lowell? Remember your history, boy. Our family gave four generations of naval officers to this country. You canít back off from a proud profession like ours just to end up as a horse doctor. No way! The navyís in our blood. Always will be. End of discussion."
"Fiat, I have spoken," I muttered to Lowell, but he didnít understand. To be fair, my brother was reading Kipling when I was reading Milton, and, unlike Lowell, I had antennae sensitive to most forms of hypocrisy. The very first time I heard Mother embroidering her family background to impress an acquaintance, I didnít raise an eyebrow. If it gives her pleasure to turn Grandpa, with his Christmas tree farm, into an environmentalist timber baron, so be it. Just another family legend in the making.
Before I left for college, Lowell told me he had finally come up with a plan that would make everybody happy. "Iíll enlist in the navy for two years and then go on to a veterinary college."
But it was already too late. I returned home for Thanksgiving with my masterís degree in literature, radiated good cheer when Father did his demolition bit--"I guess itís okay for girls, but I canít see much use in it." I ignored without comment Motherís observation that I should stop slouching. "If your posture gets any worse, youíll grow a dowagerís hump."
They were their usual carping selves, no surprise there. The only surprise was my brother, who had become someone else. I saw a young man with slightly greenish rings around his eyes, tight-bellied, stiff, looking like a cavalryman without his horse. I noticed that he had an odd way of licking his lips when he was listening intently.
Our old intimacy had vanished. We both asked insincere questions and pretended nothing had changed. "Remember how you wanted to be Kim? I suppose youíve outgrown him," I said. "What are you reading now?"
At the Naval Academy, he was studying history. He had no time to read for pleasure. When our parents were not present, though, he admitted that he read and re-read T. E. Lawrence and learned what it was to be oneís own man. But not how to be oneís own self, I reflected. T. E. Lawrence and the ultimate lesson of empire--sadomasochism. Did you learn Lawrenceís lesson, my brother, that in death is your perfection, that you need feel no more?
A year had passed when Mother telephoned with the news that the helicopter Lowell piloted had been blown out of the sky by a shoulder-fired missile. Without a trace of self-consciousness, she used words like pride, tradition, and patriotism, words that had had all the juices sucked out of them by the World Spider. She concluded, "Theyíll bring the body home for burial" and hung up.
No, Mother. In that forgotten world ruled by men who still had a minuscule spark of decency left, dead soldiers came home in "body bags." An intimate term, that. But today they say "transfer tubes." No mention of what is being transferred, or what the tubes contain, Mother.
When Roman legions marched across mountains, driven by power-crazed emperors and incited by truckling poets with slogans like "Sweet and seemly it is to die for oneís country," no one spoke truth to power. The World Spider was at work, draining the essences from concepts, words, and feelings, converting them into abstractions and sentiments, even when everyone knew that the legionnaires were not dying for their country, for their loved ones, for their vines and olives. But no one spoke these true words, "It is bitter and unseemly to die for an empire."
If you close your eyes, you can stand near ruined Roman walls all over Europe and almost swear that you hear the tread of Roman legions on the cobblestones. One day, Lowell, I may walk through the streets of Basra, stop for a moment, and close my eyes to better sense your sweet presence.
Hail and farewell, brother. We failed you. We spoke no word of truth to power. We did not sweep away the webs of the World Spider.