Heartbreak is a spider resting in your chest. I read an unhealthy amount of romance novels, and I know what heartbreak is supposed to feel like – a crack in your ribcage, a sharp, stabbing pain that splits your soul in two. I expect it should feel as though something inside you is broken, but I can’t feel any breakage. I feel around – my hand wanders down my sternum, probing at the place where I can feel the strongest heartbeat. It all seems to be intact. Heartbreak, it turns out, is something else entirely. It’s a spider resting inside of you – its body settled over your heart, and its long legs stretching out to poke at your ribs, your lungs, your solar plexus. The hard, dull pressure of its black body builds up knots in your cardiac tissue, so that you can feel it tugging at every breath you try to take. It’s an ache similar to anxiety, or stress – the little metal ball that makes your pulse speed before you give a speech – only this one reaches out with its eight spindly legs, and tickles you with that blunt, fuzzy feeling.
I am sitting at the kitchen table. My coffee is getting cold in front of me. I should drink it before I have to microwave it or take it cold. The spider in my chest twitches. I want to coil into a spiral like a centipede and pretend the world doesn’t spin around me. I want to drink my coffee, or check my phone. The door is open; I hear forest song from behind the house, crickets and birds and crackling branches, and I want to go outside. I don’t do any of those things. I don’t seem to be able to move.
“Oh,” I say, finally, breaking the shell of silence. My little dog, Odo, perks up his ears. I massage my breastbone, as though it’ll dislodge the spider whose legs sprawl over it.
There is a knock on the door; it’s Leslie, the mailman. Have to get up. It’s probably instinct that takes over my motor controls and propels me to my feet, drags me to the door, hooks a smile onto my face. “Hi, Leslie. Yep, that’s for me. Yes, doing well. How about you? Good to hear. Thanks so much. I’ll definitely think about it. Have a nice day.”
The mail gives me something to focus on, and it reminds my fingers how to move, how to curl and press as I slit open the envelopes. The spider shifts a little bit, gets more comfortable. We can live like this, it promises. Its words thrum their way up my nerves, as though the spider is plucking them like guitar strings. Haven’t you heard of symbiosis? This is manageable.
I have to force myself to keep moving, or else I’ll be trapped in stillness again. I’ll have to shake this off, I tell myself. This should not be a big deal for me, anyway.
Writing is out of the question. The spider’s body quivers when I think of it. It’s going to be another unproductive day, and if my editor, Jack, calls tonight, I won’t have the energy to lie to him. There will be a touch of hardened concrete in his voice when he asks me to remember my deadlines. I can already hear the acidity eating away at his consonants when he wonders why he put so much effort into securing this grant for me – the money which paid for me to live in the woods, by myself, and write. Then, he will finish with a salve, a little bit of gentleness coating his words as he tells me, again, that he believes in me. I’ve never liked when people say that. Why believe in me when I don’t believe in myself? It seems like a waste of belief. Instead of writing, I wash the dishes. I microwave my coffee. I vacuum the living room. Keep moving, I think, and the spider agrees. The phone I left on the kitchen table vibrates; the spider throbs within me when I hear it. The last message I received spawned it, after all – but it’s just my mother, asking after my garden.
It’s all right, soothes the spider when I start feeling lonely. I’ll keep you company.
Odo brushes up to my leg and rubs his ears against my pants. I imagine he can sense the spider; I’m amazed he’s not repelled. I suppose he, at least, trusts me still.
We go for a walk, Odo, the black spider, and I. Outside, a grey-misted sky settles down around us as we follow the vague paths in the forest. For all his unconditional love, Odo is delighted to bound away from me; he plots an adventurous course as he struggles over tree trunks, and nuzzles the dirt with his nose. His tiny body is quickly lost in the bushes, but wherever he goes, he makes rustling noises, and I can follow the waves of green that ripple through the undergrowth. I focus on smelling the moist, earthy odour of an atmosphere heavy with expected rain.
Eventually, Odo returns to me. By now, he has marked the most promising tree trunks as his own, and ordinarily, I would circle back home and get back to business. But I know that there will be no writing today, and the spider in my chest eggs me on, so I carry us further into the forest, where the slant of muted sunlight is less familiar to me, and the mossy bumps on birches and eldritch whorls on stones are not ones I have seen before.
I perch myself on a rock, inspect the mud that has caked the soles of my sneakers, and pet Odo’s little head as he whines at my knee. I believe he feels sorry for me, given that I have a spider in my chest cavity. I coo at Odo to make him feel a little less bad. One of the spider’s legs taps at my rib; the vibration scuttles up my skeleton and makes me shiver.
“Do you want to go home?” I ask Odo.
No, complains the spider. Let’s stay here. It’s old, and there’s no one to bother us.
A flash of fury buzzes through me. You’re a guest in my body, I scold it angrily. You don’t get to decide what I do. You’re not part of who I am.
We head back to the house, and the spider sits in sullen silence.
Jack doesn’t call. I fill my afternoon with odd jobs I have neglected, and I eat dinner in front of the TV, ignoring the twinges that the spider sends from inside of me. I only think of it when I debate whether I should tell my mother about what has happened. I wouldn’t mention the spider, of course – I would just share my bad news.
I dismiss the idea quickly. It arose from a childlike instinct to seek comfort in motherly love, but I know my mother. She would never understand how news like this could induce a spider to move in. In fact, she wouldn’t understand why I was unhappy. Weddings are happy occasions, she would insist. You are too sensitive.
When it’s almost ten o’clock at night, and Jack has still not called, I pronounce myself safe. It’s a smidge of goodness that I savour, melting on my tongue as I shuffle my way to bed. I’ve never slept with a spider in my chest before, and Odo seems skeptical as he adopts his usual croissant-shaped position at my side. Behave yourself, I warn the spider. It still seems unwilling to talk after my harsh words in the woods.
When I wake up the next morning, I discover two problems. The first I detect immediately, as it woke me up: Jack is calling. I pick up my phone.
“Hi, Manon. I hope I didn’t wake you. Listen, your deadline’s coming up.” He launches into his usual monologue, taking me up and down the ridges and dips of his appraisal of my work and my situation. Eventually, I can feel us trudging up to a climax, a peak where he expects me to speak; my words will be the bridge to the next hill, the next idea. As we approach, and I prepare to give a response, I find my second problem.
“Mm,” I try. “Mmmm.”
“Sorry? What’s that? This is you, Manon, right?”
I feel more annoyed than appalled. I seem to be unable to make much of a sound; vibrations travel up from my voice box, but it’s difficult to open my mouth. It’s as though it’s been glued shut. The more I think about it, the more my entire throat feels stuffed – clogged with something that feels like tufts of Kleenex, or cotton candy.
Somehow, I survive the phone call with Jack without being able to donate many sounds apart from muffled tones. He gathers that he just woke me up and promises to call later. Before he hangs up, he hauls me along for another monologue, just as familiar as the last one.
When I am freed, I experiment with my mouth. I feel something snap as I strain to open it as wide as possible – not a brittle snap, but the squishy, squelchy feel of strings of chewing gum being pulled apart. Whatever is blocking my throat is soft and sticky. I have a pretty good guess as to what it is. I shove my finger between my teeth and manage to snag some of it in the crook of my finger. I pull it out for a closer inspection; it’s wet from my saliva, but I rub it across my fingers and peer at it.
As I thought, I conclude. Spiderweb. I direct a reproachful thought to the spider in my chest.
I can’t help it, the spider says defensively. I didn’t think you’d mind.
I make it to the bathroom around eleven o’clock that morning. I should probably have gotten up earlier, but somehow I convinced myself to lie back down, close my eyes, and lose myself in the twisting tunnels of my duvet, surrounded by softness, warmth, and the smell of clean linen sheets. I turn on the lights in the bathroom despite the sunlight streaming in through the window; I stretch my mouth open and angle it toward the mirror, trying to see down into the depths of my throat. The back of my mouth resembles a clump of cloud; the strands of spiderweb crisscross in front of each other so that it all looks like a white fuzz.
I scoop out as much of the webs as I can with my toothbrush, but my gag reflex proves troublesome. I try to flush it out with water, too, but the spider’s web is resilient, and while I feel the tapestry in my throat loosen, there’s no hope of getting it all out. The spider in my chest squirms through my ministrations.
After giving up, I figure I’ll have to go through the day with a cobwebbed throat. A small, golden wind has picked up in the meantime, and I accompany Odo on a walk. I skip breakfast; having spiderwebs in my throat has gnawed away at my appetite. This time, I don’t steer us into the forest. Instead, we follow the dirt track that spears its way through the woodland to the village. For half a second, I consider trekking all the way in and stopping by the clinic. But I don’t feel a doctor will be much help. As soon as I get over the heartbreak, the spider will leave of its own accord.
Go into the trees, the spider sings as I walk. Let’s go into the forest.
I am adamant. I am still irritated about the cobwebs, and am loath to give the spider in my chest anything to be happy about. I focus on the ruts in the road formed by tire-tracks, and I listen to looping threads of cricket-song and bird-chirp. The spider sulks in my chest; I can feel its legs digging deeper into my muscles and my bones. Something flutters in the crevices of my mind, and some part of me longs to step off the road, to feel leaf-carpet underfoot and find all the oldest shadows between the trees. It’s the spider’s doing, and it makes me uneasy. With sweaty palms, I spin around and we return to the house.
There’s not much good waiting for me there. As I pull my phone from my pocket, the screen lights up with a missed call: it’s from Claire. The spider in my chest shivers and I feel its legs twitch. It’s not unexpected that she would check in on me. When she told me yesterday that she was engaged, I said nothing to her; the phone screen faded to black, message read but unanswered. I sat like a slug, squatting on my own silent slime. I let my coffee get cold and then I washed the dishes.
I don’t know how to explain my silence. I count it a blessing that I can’t talk. I will write to her, I decide, and tell her I’m sick, with a headache, a fever, and a sore throat. I will promise to talk to her more later. And I will tack on a congratulations at the end to prove that I read her message.
I tell myself I’ll do it as soon as I wash my hands. Instead, I bustle through my garden, and take special care to water my pathetic tomatoes. When I make it back inside, the phone is ringing. I pick up out of anxiety; it’s Claire. I curse myself. The spider’s legs are trembling, sending tremors up my blood vessels. My head is pounding already and she hasn’t spoken a word.
“Manon? Is it you? I didn’t hear anything from you yesterday. Are you okay?”
I attempt to make a sound, delivering a bout of incoherent mumbling.
“Sorry? I can’t hear what you’re saying.”
I manage to croak out a syllable – “sore” comes out, mangled by the silk nets in my throat.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Are you sick? I’m so sorry.”
“Mmm,” I say, relieved. In a few moments I will hang up and pretend the connection cut out. The spider is entrenched deep over my heart, and the pressure builds the longer I stay on the line. Claire’s voice is cool and temperate as always, and it sends me back to my best memories, the ones that glow the brightest. She is saying something, but I lose track of the words; I let myself catch on the sounds, the way they glide together, the glissando of her speech. Behind it, I can hear a meshwork of other noises: someone else’s laughter, the screech of wind, and the slow crash of waves. This is her life, I think to myself as I close my eyes. This is where she belongs.
“Manon, are you hearing me?”
Where do I belong?
“Mmm.” I’m suddenly sure that the spider in my chest is growing. Its weight is almost unbearable now, crushing my heart beneath its fat body; and its legs lengthen, too, becoming dark, knobbly swords curving around my side. I am afraid that my ribcage will explode; or that a leg will pop one of my lungs, or that my heart will be pulped to a sludgy mess of blood and tissue. Hang up, I tell myself. Hang up.
“I really hope you can come to the wedding,” Claire is telling me. “I know we’re far away, ‘lost on the Scottish moor’ as you once wrote, and that you hate leaving your little town. But I would love for you to meet Oliver. And after all – you’re my best friend. You have to be there to pledge me away!”
“Look, Oliver wants to meet you, too – he’s dying to know who you really are, he says. He even offered to pay for your ticket – I told him no way, she’s a published author, she earns enough – ”
“I keep forgetting you’re sick. Listen, I’ll go now, please take care of yourself. And write back to me soon about the wedding. Love you, Manon!”
The line goes dead. My throat is thick with spiderwebs and the want to cry.
Let’s go into the forest, whispers the spider in my chest.
No, I hiss back. No, there’s nothing for me in the forest.
Let’s go into the forest, begs the spider in my chest.
And soon I am running. I have no shoes, I have no coat; copper sunlight bathes my bare arms and crowns me in amber. Odo yelps and scurries after me. I tear through my garden, and I see that the trees are reaching out with their bony fingers. The forest invaginates me; it swallows me whole, and folds around me. Odo barks at my heels. The spider in my chest is elated. Its legs tickle my ribs with excitement.
I run until the patches of sky visible through the canopy are pomegranate-red. Somewhere along the way, Odo and I became separated. It hurts me to lose him but I have to hope he will find me again. There’s a rational part of my mind that shushes the storm in my head: it tells me I’m not in my right mind, but I keep going.
I crumple over a snowy-white boulder carpeted in lichen. My eyes drift over the things around me; I see symbols, pictures written into white birch-bark, secrets left behind by moss lettering and fairy-feet. Patterns are etched into the soil beneath me; worn roots curl into spirals, and mushrooms, bearded with mold, make ancient villages in the shadow of the trees. It is darkening and my thoughts are clear of Claire’s voice. I think the spider has stopped growing, for now. It is unmoving, serene with pleasure. I fall asleep with the rock as my pillow.
My dreams are harvested from my memories. They make me antsy and show me things that are no longer real. Claire and I are best friends, they claim; we trust each other more than anything, they say. Swear it, I challenge them, but they make no reply. They show me the faces of my other friends, the girls who I entrusted with gossamer dreams, who drifted away one by one. I feel Claire’s shoulder blades jutting against my hands as I hug her goodbye at the airport. She is going to Scotland to study. She is going to come back, she vows. Everything will be as it always was.
I awake under the eye of the stars. Get moving, counsels the spider. They are coming to find
My throat feels stuffed again. I send a tentative finger into my mouth – while I slept, the spider wove more webs. My breath comes out hot and droopy against my teeth. My esophagus swelters from the weight of the spiderwebs. I am sure they have doubled in number since I fell asleep. When I lurch to my feet, my stomach is unsettled. I wonder if it’s because I didn’t eat anything.
They are coming for you, the spider chants. We have to get moving.
That’s when I hear the barking. It’s Odo; and when I look behind me, I see the white sway of a flashlight. Odo has brought Leslie, the mailman, to search for me. “Manon! Where are you?”
The spider is right. I can’t let them find me. I entertained the thought of going to the doctor earlier today, but now I see that it is unthinkable. I imagine how my X-ray would look. They would see my body, all blue and wispy, and then right over my heart, a hulking bulb with eight legs and countless eyes. Nobody would ever trust me again; I would be the crazy writer who let a spider live in her chest. I have to overcome my heartbreak on my own, and then the spider will leave me.
I lance into the trees. My feet are bloody and cracked from sprinting over fallen twigs, and my socks are soaked. At the moment, though, my greatest discomfort comes from my stomach. It gurgles and wrings itself about; white-hot flares travel up to my brain, and my shoulders tremble with chills.
I check over my shoulder; the flashlight has vanished, for now. I lean against a tree, feel the rough bite of the bark scratch against my neck. I drop my hand to my middle. I feel something – a lump stretching at the walls of my stomach. My fingers probe it gently. It’s spongy, and it’s not smooth, but ribbed with bumps. I can hear it sloshing in my digestive fluids.
It’s an egg sac, I realize. Those are your eggs.
The spider gives me no reply. Its body is filled with an electrical thrill. It is listening to some song in the forest that I cannot hear.
I should be horrified that the spider laid its eggs inside of me. The egg sac protrudes against my hand, and I wonder what it would look like in the X-ray. I also wonder what I will do when they hatch. I sit down and heave my hand against my chest, where the spider pushes against my heart.
When I was first published, all of my friends wrote to me, even the ones that had already gone – moved, gotten married, fallen out of contact. They told me they were proud and that they had always believed in me. Claire was the most ecstatic: she saw the success of my first novel as proof that I could accomplish anything. She almost made me buy into the idea that the world was mine for the taking. She winked at me and told me she looked forward to reading my next book. There was no way for either of us to know, then, that there would not be another book. That I wouldn’t be able to move on. That I couldn’t live beyond the past.
The night wind cuts into me. Run, the spider urges. I think it’s worried for its eggs. The pangs of pain in my stomach are intolerable; I cannot run. But I do haul myself to my feet, and I limp on, my hand brushing against branches. The sharpest twigs lacerate my palm, slicing it open, but it feels good when warm blood pours over the welts.
Run! The spider is shrieking at me. Its legs patter restlessly; I know that it is jittery. But I feel oddly calm. There is the music of the forest at night to wrap around me as I walk, to settle over my shoulders like a mantle, and the crickets hop alongside my steps.
What will you do, the spider screams from inside my chest, if they find you? You will never be normal again. They will cast you out! You will lose all that you are.
If my throat was not plugged with spiderweb, I would use my voice and speak aloud so that the forest could know this, too. All I am is the past.
Claire is never coming back to me. She will get married in Scotland and she will never be mine again. And if she isn’t mine, then I cannot be hers. If I am not hers, if I am not theirs, what is there left for me to be?
The forest closes in around me, embracing me in a blanket of silver and black. I can almost fool myself into thinking I belong here. I can no longer write. I have no one left to trust. What better place for me than floating in this ocean of grass and sky, of tree and mud?
We have to go! The spider writhes inside me and leaves tangles of agony in my chest.
My life has changed, but I haven’t, I tell the spider. I have already lost all that I was.
The forest draws me in closer; I feel its ancient shadows snake over my arms, curve around my ankles like magic bracelets.
Deeper, deeper, pleads the spider. Let’s go faster.
The forest is changing me; and why not, I reflect, let it choose who I should be? The spider is fearful, but it presses me to go on. With each step, Odo and Leslie tumble further behind, and I shed a follicle of my skin, becoming something else, something other than whatever I thought I could be.
I wasn’t ready for metamorphosis when things changed for me, I confess to the spider. I couldn’t evolve the way Claire did. But like this, I don’t need to think about changing. I can just let it happen.
Keep going, the spider whines. Its legs constrict my chest with their girth. Keep going.
I am about to, but something makes me stop. The spider practically deflates in disappointment. It twitters furious sounds of concern, and demands what’s wrong. I see someone in front of me, although that little rational part of my brain is perfectly aware that there is no one really there. My mind has conjured a figure, a human figure with two arms, two legs, and a face.
At first, I think I know who it will be: this is Claire, come back to claim my identity. She comes closer, though, and I waver. It is not Claire. There is a different feel around her, a texture that I know well but struggle to place.
Who is it? The spider swells with anger in my chest.
It’s Manon, I say. It’s me.
A Manon I had never become. A Manon rooted in the past – but beyond it.
She evaporates, dissolving like sand in the wind when I reach out and touch her. That’s all right, I reason; I created her anyhow. She is me but changed. Not changed by the forest, but by my own self. Changed by the river of thought that flows within my very soul, changed as I ride the waves of time into my future. Odo’s howls reach my ear, and I cannot think of a reason to take another step. The forest crunches together; it huddles into itself, recoils from me not in distaste, but in understanding. I am not its creature.
I bend down and lie on my back. Stars wheel overhead like silver carousels. The wind sings to me – will it sing me to sleep?
Before it has a chance, there is a searing, tearing wail. It is the spider in my chest; it has become engorged, and for the first time I can see the mound of its body straining against my breast, a bulge beneath my white tee-shirt. There is no room for fear left in me. The spider is fiery with rage; its legs spasm, drumming erratically against my bones, so that I can feel the vibrations thudding all along my spine. That rational part of me knows what is about to happen, and I know there is nothing I can do to stop it.
The spider bursts out of my chest in a fountain of blood and cartilage. It has ripped itself from my body – flaps of my skin dangle uselessly from the gaping hole, and a spray of blood showers my face. Even the rational part of my brain cannot rationalize the pain – having your chest turned into a volcano, your own blood scalding like lava is unfathomable, so I almost don’t feel it.
The spider’s enormous black body spurts from the hole, its beady eyes glossed over with my blood, clawing its way out with its long, nimble legs. It doesn’t spare a moment to say goodbye; it lunges off of me, and skitters away into the darkness. After all, I have rejected it. I chose my own change.
The next thing I feel is a second eruption, a smaller one, deep in the rugae of my stomach. The egg sac has popped; the eggs have hatched. I can feel them now, a legion of tiny, eight-legged dots, scrambling in my stomach. Some of the spiders are dissolved by my stomach acids and digestive enzymes; I feel sorry for them when I hear their high-pitched, dying squeals.
But others succeed in fighting their way through my cardiac sphincter, and they clamber their way out of the stomach and up my esophagus. They ravage their way up to my throat and I turn onto my front so that they can cascade out of my mouth, a whole army of glistening baby spiders, taking with them all the shreds of their mother’s spidersilk. When the last of them has finally dropped from my lips, I fall onto my back, and feel my blood leak into my shirt.
“Finally,” I say, now that my throat has cleared, “it’s just me again.”
Odo trots up and buries his head in my hair, and there is Leslie, his flashlight falling on the gaping hole in my chest where the spider once nestled. Either Odo or Leslie tells me not to worry, that someone is on their way to help. Privately, both Odo and Leslie doubt I will live, but they’re wrong. I’ll make it. Moonlight pours into my chest, spilling rivers of pearly white over my heart. It’s lucky, I think, that my heart isn’t broken.
Vera Hadzic is a writer from Ottawa, Ontario, studying English literature at the University of Ottawa. In the past, her poetry has been published in online publications and in youth anthologies. Currently, she is expanding her academic and artistic interests, and exploring short fiction, speculative fiction, and poetry.
photo by Peter Oslanec (via unsplash)