Spider Silk

Submitted into Contest #137 in response to: Write a story about a scientist.... view prompt

67 comments

Contemporary Creative Nonfiction

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” 

My sister Lizz holds up the book she is reading to her 3rd grade science class. The eight-year-old students go wide-eyed at seeing a picture of little Fern attempting to wrestle away an ax from her father. He has planned to kill a newborn pig, the runt of the litter. 

Holy shit, I think. Charlotte's Web is brutal. I remember loving the book from my childhood, but now, as an adult? I had forgotten how unsparing E.B. White is with his charming tale about a pig and a spider. 

I look around to see how the children are reacting. 

The class is silent, hanging on to their teacher’s every word. 

Quite an introduction to her unit on arachnids! Displays of mites, scorpions, and ticks decorate the classroom. Colorful plastic spiders hang down from the ceiling. Worksheets outlining the parts of a spider are partially colored on every desk.

My sister Lizz is the kind of teacher that parents beg the principal to place their children with. As for me? I’m just visiting her classroom, like I usually do when my soulless—but well paying—job becomes insufferable. A couple of times a year, I ask Lizz what unit they are studying. I take the day off and bring in treats. Today I have personalized Spiderman cupcakes from a bakery near my apartment, a luxury my sister cannot afford on her teacher’s salary.

She continues to read about Fern and her father. “If I had been very small at birth, would you have killed me?” 

Lizz solemnly puts down the book, looking at every child in her overcrowded classroom.

“Do you agree with Fern? What should Mr. Arable do?”

The students think before responding. Don’t just say whatever comes across your mind. Think first. 

A hand is raised. She nods at the student.

“Mr. Arable needs to raise the other pigs so he can make bacon.”

“That’s a good point,” Lizz replies. The young boy beams, continuing to speak when another student cuts him off to make a counterpoint.

“Janelle,” Lizz says gently. “Let’s keep our classroom rules.”

Sheepishly, the girl raises her hand.

“I’m sorry, Marquis. I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

“Thank you for listening to each other,” she commends them. 

🜋 🜋 🜋

Lizz chooses to teach at a Title I school. Underdressed for the cold Virginian winters, her students dig into a clothing box she keeps in the classroom, filled with tiny jackets and sweaters she’s scavenged from Goodwill. When her students scratch their heads, Lizz pulls them aside after the lunchline departs. If need be, she washes their hair while the other children are in gym class, using the lice killing shampoo she keeps in her closet. She has been to some of their homes, paid an electric bill or two, purchased a gently used bike for a walker who lives farther out than most. She hands out peanut butter crackers and oranges to keep her students’ stomachs from rumbling in the early morning hours.

“Now let’s talk about Charlotte. How did she spin her web?”

Hands fly up. She nods to another student.

“Charlotte used her silk glands to make it.”

“Look at your worksheet, please.” Lizz prods. “Always consult your sources. Don’t guess. Science is a place for facts, not fiction. What is the scientific term for silk gland?” 

“Spinneret.”

“Well done.”

Lizz stands up from her chair and brings out a plastic terrarium. Inside, a brown spider busies itself in mending its web.

“I want you to see how smart this arachnid is. Look where he’s chosen to make his web.” The students gather around, alert and attentive. I even crane my neck to look. “Spider silk is stronger than steel, but it can stretch up to five times its length and not break. Being stretchy is called being ductile. Say ductile.”

Ductile. I say it in unison with the 3rd graders. Ductile.

“If you are ductile in life, you will be strong and tough like spider silk.”

She lets that sink in.

“Spiders can produce seven types of silk,” she continues.

“Why so many?” I ask. 

The students turn around. I’ve broken the classroom rules. 

I raise my hand. My sister nods at me.

“Why so many?” I ask again, genuinely curious. 

“Because they need that many different silks to survive. There are silks for making their homes, silks for defending their homes, silks for hunting, and silks for protecting their eggs. Some silks are sticky. Some are not.” 

Clever bastards, I muse. Spiders and their webs. Who knew something simple was so complicated? 

🜋 🜋 🜋

I drive her home since her car is in the shop. 

“The cupcakes were a hit,” I say, trying to pat myself on the back.

“Thanks for doing that. It means a lot to the kids,” she plays along, always the big sister. 

Police lights. 

“Ugh,” I say, pulling over. 

“Were you speeding?” Lizz asks.

“Of course.”

A very young police officer makes his way to the driver’s side.

“License and registration,” he says when I roll down the window. 

“Why did you pull me over?” I feign innocence. 

He bends down to repeat his request, then notices my sister. “Miss Crabtree?”

“Hi Ray,” Lizz replies. 

“Are you two related?” the trooper asks, pointing at me.

“Unfortunately,” Lizz laughs. I punch her on the shoulder. 

“Y’all just go ahead. Watch the lead foot.”

We wait until he drives off.

“Former student or parent?” I inquire, grateful my sister is a minor celebrity. 

“I think he was a parent. I can’t keep track of them all.”

🜋 🜋 🜋

Leukemia of all things. 

“It’s quite ingenious how T-cells mutate,” Lizz says.

“Can you not be a scientist for five minutes?” I yell at her. 

We sit restlessly in plastic chairs. The hospital’s admissions is running behind.

“So what is it again?”

“T-cell prolymphocytic leukemia,” she explains. 

“Is that the good kind of leukemia?” 

“I’m not sure there is a good kind of blood cancer.”

“Gees. Not when you put it that way.”

“You’re going to have to be tough during this,” my sister says, as if I were the one who has a rare form of leukemia. I am just her stem cell donor. She is the one preparing for a transplant, assuming the chemotherapy puts her into remission. The odds are long.

“I got you, Lizz. I’m tough.”

“Nonscientists often confuse being strong with being tough. I’m going to need you to be both.”

“Like spider silk,” I whisper. 

“Just like spider silk,” she replies, putting her arm around my shoulder.



March 16, 2022 18:46

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67 comments

Deidra Lovegren
19:00 Mar 16, 2022

I miss you, Lizz.

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Sharon Hancock
23:04 Mar 20, 2022

Oh I’m so sorry for your loss. I just realized this was creative nonfiction. My heart hurts for you.

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Deidra Lovegren
23:06 Mar 20, 2022

She passed away 16 years ago. I really just wanted to make sure people knew someone this amazing lived and impacted so many elementary school students' lives in such a positive way. She is the reason why I became a teacher later in life. Best job in the world. :)

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Sharon Hancock
23:31 Mar 20, 2022

You have the ability and opportunity to immortalize her through your writing…and continue to spread her positive influence to the world. The bond shared between sisters is so unique and strong (spider silk), the reader can feel that through your words.

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Tommy Goround
13:19 Apr 24, 2022

Clapping.

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Deidra Lovegren
13:49 Apr 24, 2022

Large theatrical bow from the stage.

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Ed Hinojos
22:03 Apr 13, 2022

I love this. Good older siblings are always watching out for our younger siblings. We are like the second rank behind our parents. Unfortunately, we sometimes have to even play the role of first rank when parents can't or won't. As siblings, however, we still need to watch out for each other. Your writing flowed well and brought back many memories for me. Thank you.

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Deidra Lovegren
15:26 Apr 14, 2022

Birth order fascinates me. After teaching for decades, I can spot an oldest child, only child, middle child, and baby-of-the-family from a mile away. Nature vs. nurture, indeed, -- a perennial debate. (And I'm the fifth of six children. It explains sooo much.)

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Phil Manders
11:24 Apr 05, 2022

A beautiful idea to write a tribute to your sister. Not easy. Well done D. Now where’s that tissue I appear to have something on my eye(s)

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Deidra Lovegren
12:45 Apr 05, 2022

You're a sweetheart. How's your side of the pond? We are planning a move in a couple of months, so you know how that goes. In better news, I'm done with "The Medicine Girl." It's been through an editor and a proofreader! Russell is going to finish up the tin type illustrations and maps for the chapters and then we are off to the bottomless pit of self-publishing. I'm hoping we sell three copies :)

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Phil Manders
19:30 Apr 05, 2022

Life on this side is hectic and I’m DES-PER-ATE! to write another story. I can’t wait to read “The Medicine Girl” I’ll buy the fourth copy. Will you still teach after your move? Or is it time to have a go at this writing thing full time?

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Deidra Lovegren
21:07 Apr 05, 2022

I'll move into administration at a private school. Always time to write! But the full time will have to wait a decade or so. I'm still trying to get kids through college :)

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22:49 Apr 04, 2022

Beautiful story, Deidra. I am close with my sister (despite an eight year age difference), and I still can't imagine life without her. My heart goes out to you, sixteen years later. Many people in my family are teachers, and they really do change lives. Thank you for this tribute to sisters and teachers! ❤️ ~Katie

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Deidra Lovegren
00:27 Apr 05, 2022

Sisters & Teachers are the best people. And ironically, Lizz and I were eight years apart. I thought she was a superhero :)

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00:37 Apr 05, 2022

Absolutely! :) Also, I meant to tell you this a while ago, but my class really enjoyed your story. Thank you for letting me use it!!

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Leslie Medberry
18:14 Mar 23, 2022

I like how this is written like a handful of snap shots

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Deidra Lovegren
18:16 Mar 23, 2022

Thanks :) I was afraid it was too disjointed.

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Flashing Flame
14:36 Mar 23, 2022

Dang, that was a great story!! when I saw your comment I almost cried. I'm so sorry for you, I can't imagine what it's like to lose a sister. (I'm really close to one of mine) The way you wrote that was incredible btw. Thanks for sharing!

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Deidra Lovegren
18:17 Mar 23, 2022

I'm glad she was in my life for as long as she was. Truly a great person :) I'm so glad you have a sibling that you are close to. Family is precious.

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S.M. Brown
03:52 Mar 23, 2022

Thank you for sharing such a lovely, personal story. She seems like she was truly a wonder, and well-loved. The story itself is so engaging, I can't believe it was over so quickly but so effective ❤

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Deidra Lovegren
18:19 Mar 23, 2022

Thanks! I usually just get over the 1000 word line. *whew* Very cathartic to write.

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Sharon Hancock
23:01 Mar 20, 2022

I love this story so much! So touching and you’ve given it layers of depth, and characterization… somehow in less than 3000 words. Brilliant writing as usual. Also, you’re right about kids books being brutal. I’m still emotionally scarred from Old Yeller.😜😂😻

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Deidra Lovegren
23:05 Mar 20, 2022

And "Sounder" And "Where the Red Fern Grows"

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Deidra Lovegren
23:05 Mar 20, 2022

And don't get me started on Judy Blume's books. "Blubber" just about ended me.

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Jon Casper
19:24 Mar 20, 2022

Just phenomenal writing. Always so impressed by the way your mind works. My heart sank when I saw your comment, and that this was creative non-fiction. It's a lovely tribute. I'm sure the lives she touched would feel the same.

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Deidra Lovegren
23:01 Mar 20, 2022

Jon Casper! As I live and breathe. Always fun to see you appear on the page. Thanks for reading about a terrific sister. I'm grateful to have had such a good role model. She is the reason I became a teacher later in life :)

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Deidra Lovegren
23:02 Mar 20, 2022

That said, any chance you want to read one of your stories and post for posterity? Maybe check out: https://bluemarblestorytellers.com/podcast-2/

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Jon Casper
14:30 Mar 21, 2022

Intriguing .... Do I get to pick the story? I'm thinking The Rains of Titan: https://blog.reedsy.com/short-story/yx1285/

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Deidra Lovegren
15:50 Mar 21, 2022

Totally up to you. Russell and I just wanted a place for writers to read their own stories, without music and special effects. Just the simple spoken word. (And I'm still waiting for you to come on the podcast...https://www.readlotswritelots.com/previous/)

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Jon Casper
22:53 Mar 23, 2022

I'm going to try to get my hands on a mic so I can do the blue marble thing. Oh, the podcast ... you already talked me into starting my novel. So ... maybe? I'm really not that interesting of a person. And you wouldn't think so from my writing, but I get pretty tongue tied in conversation. It's so much easier to hide behind my computer. Let's just say I'm building up to it!

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Felice Noelle
16:45 Mar 20, 2022

Deidra: Wow, look at how we both began this week's story. Believe me, I didn't copy, but I did just buy "The Velveteen Rabbit" and "Charlotte's Web" for shower gifts for my first great grandchild. As a twenty-year survivor of that specific leukemia, your story rang some old bells. I didn't get a bone marrow transplant but suffered through six months of an experimental chemo regimen out of MD Anderson...and it worked, at least the monster has been held at bay for twenty years. I was just one of the lucky ones. I even became friendly with...

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Deidra Lovegren
23:10 Mar 20, 2022

Great minds think alike. WHAT A COINCIDENCE hahahah Maureen, have you thought about coming on our podcast? I would love to talk about books and writing and life. Maybe check out: https://www.readlotswritelots.com/previous/ My Australian writing partner and I also have a space where writers can read their own stories and post them for posterity. All are welcome :) https://bluemarblestorytellers.com/podcast-2/ Would love to have you aboard :)

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Deidra Lovegren
23:12 Mar 20, 2022

And you had T-PLL? That's an even crazier coincidence. What are the odds?? Congrats on the great grandchild. That must be a wonderful to hold babies again...

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Felice Noelle
23:36 Mar 20, 2022

Deidra: Yes, I think maybe we agreed on sometime in April, maybe the 23rd? I have been listening to the other podcasts. Love them. Didn't get much writing done this week because I have been sewing and quilting and getting things ready for the first great granddaughter. She's up in Conn. so unless I have very long arms.... I read the first chapter of "The Medicine Girl". Loved it, will buy the t-shirt, Ha! I was diagnosed twenty years ago with CLL after I nearly died from meningitis. I lost most of my balance, muscle control, and mem...

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Deidra Lovegren
12:28 Mar 21, 2022

What a life story! I hope you write an autobiography...lots of life events. Gees, Maureen. I am so sorry about the podcast confusion. It's been zany over here. Unfortunately, April 23 is not going to work on my end. Can we reschedule for Saturday, May 14?

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Felice Noelle
13:19 Mar 21, 2022

Deidra: Saturday, May 14 it is, then. It would be my pleasure. Just gives me more time to figure out how to contribute to a podcast. I have no cellphone because I gave mine up some years ago. Just use my husband as my social secretary. We do have four laptops and two ipads in the house, though. Grandson left me one of his extra microphones. I'm embarrassed to be this ignorant of tech now, because I was the tech liaison for years at my school on Sanibel. Time marches on. Once I had to shelter in place because of the pandemic, I began...

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Riel Rosehill
09:22 Mar 19, 2022

This was such a nice read. And the ending... So up in the air and so dark yet hopeful. Nice work.

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Deidra Lovegren
23:14 Mar 20, 2022

I think there's always hope. Before Lizz died, I told her to come and get me when it's my time. So I have my personal celestial Uber driver on call -- pretty cool.

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00:38 Mar 19, 2022

This is as beautiful as it is heartbreaking. I don’t usually see the categories before I read a story but I happen to notice it was creative non fiction and that coupled with the quality of the story left me in tears. Writers always put a little of their soul in to their work but this one felt like it had an even larger portion. God bless you. God bless Lizz and thank you for sharing your heart.

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Deidra Lovegren
23:12 Mar 20, 2022

I appreciate the wonderful comment and tenderness of heart. Thanks for the read.

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Sue Hunter
19:02 Mar 18, 2022

This was really well written. I would say that you are very tough. ❤️

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Deidra Lovegren
23:15 Mar 20, 2022

Tough? I'm a squishy marshmallow. :)

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Alex Sultan
12:03 Mar 17, 2022

Very well written, Deidra. I don't have too much to say on the piece other than I enjoyed it, and I'm sorry life played out that way.

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Deidra Lovegren
14:21 Mar 17, 2022

Thanks, Alex. I appreciate the read. I just wanted to get some of these memories down before they fade entirely. :)

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Leo Fall
10:46 Mar 17, 2022

Now that you mention it.. That book is a bit dark. Once more, Deidra, wonderful story. You write things wonderfully. I hope you're doing well and Lizz is watching over you and your family happily.

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Deidra Lovegren
14:22 Mar 17, 2022

I know, right? Pitch dark. Dead pigs. Dead spiders. 🎵 The Circle of Death 🎵 (one of Disney's less catchy tunes.)

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Leo Fall
14:32 Mar 17, 2022

It's so weird how morbid and terrifying children stories can be.

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Deidra Lovegren
14:47 Mar 17, 2022

Where The Wild Things Are

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Leo Fall
15:08 Mar 17, 2022

That was intense.

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Shea West
20:25 Mar 16, 2022

Lizz sounds like a wonderful human/sister. How long ago did you lose Lizz? I loved how you used something as simple as Charlotte's Web and spider silk to describe strength and toughness in loss and grief. You were ductile.

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Deidra Lovegren
21:21 Mar 16, 2022

March 27, 2006

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Shea West
21:29 Mar 16, 2022

❤️❤️❤️

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I am so sorry for your loss, Deidra. Wow. A beautiful, simple story, very well put together. ------------------- Do you read the prologue of a book? A Yes, every time B No, never C Sometimes/It depends Note: I am copy-and-pasting this to multiple people. -------------------

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Deidra Lovegren
19:28 Apr 16, 2022

C (Is that the right answer? Do I win candy or something? haha)

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Sorry, no candy, but thank you for answering! I've heard the advice "No one reads the prologue, so don't put one in if you write a book." I decided to start asking people if they read it. So far most people have said C.

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Cindy Strube
16:59 Mar 26, 2022

Deidra, this is such a poignant… I hesitate to say “story”. It’s a piece of your heart, sculpted into a touching memorial. Beautiful. I love the way you mixed a bit of dark humor with sentiment.

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Katie Logan
00:39 Mar 24, 2022

This is a beautifully written story. I can't imagine what it would be like to lose a sister, but through your writing I can feel the huge loss it has been to you, and everyone who knew your sister. She was clearly a wonderful person. From a more technical writing side, I also love the way you use spider silk as a metaphor, and tie in the end of your piece with your sisters class. It's a very well thought out response to the prompt.

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