Finding my feathers


I was lucky enough to be born among the dunes. Salty air drifted through our burrow as we were lulled to sleep by the sound of crashing waves. Unfortunately, my luck ran out pretty quickly after that. Only two weeks after we were hatched our loving mother left us to fend for ourselves. My oldest, and kindest, brother Earl pleaded with the elders for help, but to no avail. Apparently abandoning one’s offspring at only two weeks old is standard parenting. It’s outrageous if you ask me. Why, our sister Edith was devoured by a seagull in less than a day. My youngest brother Eddie was taken by the tide a few days later. He never was the fastest fly on the web. Those of us that survived those first few weeks, spent the remainder of autumn honing our hunting skills. We sprang from place to place, seeing who could bring home the biggest bounty. Earl always won of course. His reign came to an end only when he began to moult. It was a big day for any young spiderling. Soon he would have that colourful coat we peacock spiders were known for. We celebrated together over a particularly juicy cricket. With Earl in hiding until his new exoskeleton hardened, the competition between the rest of us ramped up. That was, until Elle’s terrible demise. I was behind her by maybe three blades of grass. I saw the whole thing as though in slow motion. Elle sprang from the blade, sending fresh drops of dew hurtling towards the sand. She was mid-air, middle legs outstretched when a huge orange wasp swooped out of nowhere. Its wings beat the air with such force I was almost blown off my perch. Elle fought; I could hear her cries as it tore at her with its pincers. We had taken down wasps in the past, they made for a good meal. This one, however, was different, larger for a start and much more aggressive. My breath quickened. I should do something to help but not one of my eight legs would work. I was frozen in horror as I watched my sister lose the battle. The wasp bent its body this way and that, eventually finding her abdomen with its stinger. I remained motionless as I watched the beast carry her away.

Earl was furious.

“This is why we hunt in pairs. Where were you?” He paced the width of the burrow, “You know what those wasps do to spiders?”

I had heard the stories. We all had. They were tales, passed from burrow to burrow in hushed whispers. Stories of spiders bigger than any of us, being paralysed and dragged back to a nest and gradually eaten alive. I shuddered at the thought.

“Well yea, I’ve heard the stories, but they’re just legends, right? They’re not true?”

I was pleading for him to tell me I was right. That I hadn’t just watched helplessly as my sister was carried off to a gruesome end. Earl rolled all eight of his eyes and disappeared deeper into the burrow, leaving me alone with my guilt.

We were all more careful after that. Earl volunteered to partner with me for hunts since the rest of the colony had heard about Elle’s defeat and my cowardice. I was shunned, not only for what happened to Elle but also for my bland coat. For my brothers, and all the other male spiderlings, spring had brought with it shiny new coats. They all sported brilliant blue abdomens, their impressive plates flecked with dashes of red and yellow. All of them, that is, except me. My coat was still a bland, mottled brown. The taunting was relentless, but that wasn’t my biggest issue. How was I ever going to attract a female? Nobody would know me from a patch of dirt at the moment. Things got really miserable when Earl found himself a mate. She didn’t even eat him. No, they scurry around like two flies stuck in ointment, it’s grotesque. This left me with yet another issue, no hunting partner. Nightmares of giant, orange wasps tortured me. I was so anxious I thought my legs would fall off from shaking. The burrow was no safe haven either, with Earl gone, Eli and Ethan’s jokes about making me dinner were becoming a little too serious. After a particularly disturbing incident in which Eli sunk his fangs into my back leg while I was sleeping, I decided I couldn’t stay there any longer. I left the burrow for good and scuttled my way across the sand in search of a new home. For once I was grateful for my dull complexion, as it camouflaged me against the sand. By the time the sun was peeking over the horizon, I had found a place to rest. A small wattle bush, its beautiful yellow flowers mocked me with a vibrancy I may never possess but were good coverage from predators. I curled up near the safety of its roots and prepared to stay there until I inevitably died alone.

I awoke to a violent screeching as my entire shelter shook. Tiny yellow petals floated to the ground as they were shaken from their homes. Their sweet pollen fills the air. I backed against the trunk of the shrub, making myself as small as possible. I was expecting to die alone but not like this. Through the tangled branches flew a spider. A female spider. She was panting heavily, her eyes darting around, no doubt seeking shelter when she spotted me. Her coat was creamy brown and shone with beautiful streaks of white as she crept her way toward me. She moved her legs with more purpose and grace than I’d ever seen. Now there’s a spider I wouldn’t mind being eaten by.

“Hi.”

I opened one eye and saw she was extending her leg to me in greeting. I held out my own, fully expecting I might lose it. A large crash drew my attention from one danger to another. A seagull had broken through the jumble of branches. It squawked and kicked up sand, struggling to reach its prey. I receded against the trunk and shrank back into a protective ball.

“What are you doing? We’ve got to get out of here.”

She nudged me, rolling me away from an increasingly close snapping beak.

“Come on.”

She nudged me again, but the gradient was uphill now, and I quickly rolled all the way back to nestle at the trunk.

“Oh, screw this. You want to be eaten, go right ahead.”

She scuttled out of sight. A flash of orange landed heavily next to me, narrowly missing my leg and sending grains of sand flying into my one open eye. One good push and it would be through. It was now or never. I unwrapped myself and quickly located the female’s silk strand with my remaining good eyes. Finding her moments later, taking shelter under a much thicker shrub.

“What are you doing? You’re going to lead it right to us.” She shoved me back with her front legs. “Get out, or I swear I’ll eat you before that bird does.”

I was pushed backwards out of the bush, coming to a stop right in between the seagull’s fanned feet. As I looked up at the feathery belly that would be my final resting place, I hoped it would be a swift end. Two beady eyes appeared, above them, a hungry beak. The head tilted, struggling to make sense of the world upside down. A squawk of recognition and I immediately resumed my go-to, cowards defence of rolling into a ball. I spun under a fluffy tail, gaining speed as I rolled down the bank, coming to an abrupt and painful stop when I collided with a sharp outcrop of rocks. I waited and waited, hidden in a small crack in the rock face, expecting the bird to appear, but it never did. It was mid-day, and I was still alive. Cautiously I dipped a leg into the warm sunlight before allowing my full body to be bathed in comforting light. I was starving.

I managed to find myself a succulent beetle and a comfortable little hideout to eat it in. It was only as I finished and was slipping into food-induced sleep, that I noticed the waxy appearance of my legs. Could it be? Was I actually moulting, finally? Rubbing my legs together loosened the layer, a hollow shell following the contours of my body. I didn’t have time to process just how bizarre it felt. I was exposed, especially now. I needed a burrow. I only hoped that Eli and Ethan had found mates by now, or with any luck, failed to impress and been consumed by an angry female for wasting her time. I approached my old home with shaking legs, it seemed like years since I’d been here, not days. Thankfully, there were no signs of life within. I found a comfy corner and settled in.

Several weeks later I emerged, no longer a spiderling. No, now I was fully grown and with a flamboyant coat of my own. I relished a stretch as I enjoyed the space not afforded to me in the burrow. My abdominal plate was awash with colour, blues and greens reflected the ocean waves, deep reds and oranges, soft like velvet in the sun. I was glorious, even if I did say so myself. And now, finally, it was time to fulfil my destiny. It all came down to this single act. I’d either find a mate or die trying.

I found myself a decent branch. Open enough that I could be found by nearby females but not so open that I risked becoming lunch. I stretched, gave myself a shake, took a deep breath, and began. I started by creating vibrations, keeping them as even and soothing as possible to attract and, most importantly, not annoy any nearby females. A silky brown body lands on the branch nearby, sizing me up. She judges every move. I lift my lengthy middle legs above my head and open my dazzling abdominal plate but just as I’m about to begin my charming dance another male appears between us. He wastes no time getting started, and is soon in full seduction mode, skipping this way and that. It appeared he was succeeding. He had swooped in and taken her from me, and in doing so drained my confidence. She crept towards him, carefully surveying his superior routine. But then, just as I thought she was wooed, she pounced and sunk her fangs deep into him before dragging him away. I was stunned. Frozen in place, my legs high, colourful plate still raised. If a male like that wasn’t good enough, what chance did I have? I didn’t have time to fully contemplate my chances as another female approached. This one is a soft brown with streaks of white all over her body. I had to dance, doing nothing would certainly disappoint. I started up my vibrations again, all eight eyes focused on me. Legs raised, I open my impressive plate and began to dance, side to side, gradually increasing my pace. I moved my plate this way and that, hoping to hypnotise her with the colourful display, and do you know, it was working. She crept closer, bit by bit until she was almost face to face…

“Nice moves bird food.” She narrowed her eyes and gave me a cocky grin, “you know you led that bird right to me.”

I stopped dancing and lowered my legs. “Oh, er, sorry.”

She tilted her head sideways, considering me.

“You aren’t going to eat me, are you?”

She sauntered past me, “Hmm, maybe later. You coming?”

Once my brain registered what she’d just said I almost tripped over my own legs chasing after her. Maybe this runt had a chance after all.


Story by Stacey Potter


4 responses to “Finding my feathers”

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