Indigenous Contemporary

This story contains sensitive content

Trgger warning: this story contains references to war and the trauma of war.

Made up of the thinnest of protein fiber threads, the spider’s web prompts a cautious reflection about how nature can trick light. The silk is an invisible cloak splayed out with mathematical accuracy on a branch, or across the corner of a doorway, or between two rails.

The subject is a particular web on your television. It’s not on the frame, but rather drawing you in from within - the many moving shades of a pixelated scene unfolding. A spider is weaving its silk deftly around a trapped moth shaking so vigorously that dew drops can be seen tinkling off the web. The spider seems to be talking to you. Do not forget: We know what we are but know not what we may be. We are multiple and we are singular. Predator and prey. Spider and moth. Choose your side, they’ll say.

You are restless and you change the channel multiple times. Starving cats, an abandoned tin of Nabataean coins, firestorms turning acres to ash. Then you see a closeup of a tent holding a family of ten, pitched in a field of grey rubble. That one hurts somewhere deep, like acid in the stomach. You rub your eyes with your fist, blink fiercely, and manage to transform the scene into an old oak tree in a field of evergreen rubble. Better, but not quite the entertainment you need to still your mind.

You need the bizarre, the unbelievable, to truly make sense of what is happening around you. You need to block out the surrounding noise. You need your mind to be paralyzed with a serpent’s sting.

Obediently, the television brings forth a cinematic experience. You tuck your knees under you in anticipation and place the remote control down carefully as if it were a sleeping doll.

You find yourself peeping into a high-ceilinged room of black marble, lined with glossy gold-plated cages, empty, their doors left open. A glass table is the room’s centrepiece, covered with a board game designed as a world map with plastic figures of different colours arranged as miniature armies around the frame, and a pair of dice cast precariously. At the corner of the table, you spot the broken threads of an abandoned spider web, no spider nor moth to be found.

Filling the room is an incredible, unique gathering of wild animals from the desert and jungle, dressed in suits. Not ordinary suits. Particularly Ermenegildo Zegna, Hart Schaffner Marx, Kiton and Brioni suits. You take a closer look at the attire of the assembly of animals: You spy a boa constrictor in a bow tie, a cockroach sporting cone heels, an alligator with ray bans and a giraffe, whose main feature, a length of patterned neck, remains bowed by the low ceiling.

In the background are more animals - apex predators and those who live in the shadows of apex predators. In the camouflage of murky waters; up the Euterpe Precatoria palm in the Amazon; under the red rocks of the Wadi Rum desert.

The animals wear dark ties either a single colour or striped, and cufflinks enamelled with concords, dice and leopards. A thought flutters faster than a moth’s wing: it is strange to see a leopard wear leopard cuff links.

The animals in suits make up a group of distinguished and honourable representatives, collectively deadly. As predators, it can be forgiven that their exchanges with deadly dangers are simply routine. As predators, chemical wax and smoke are comfortable odours, and fear a frequency as thin as a thread of silk in the wind. 

Your gaze settles more firmly on the leopard, who dominates the room and prowls around the gameboard. The leopard’s claws are blunted by restless pacing across slate and marble all his adult life. Earth carpets have become a distant memory. The leopard’s lipless jaw is set to hide his diamond daggers. You notice he painted over his black spots with amaranth red, zaffre blue and jade to resemble what he is not. Better to keep his inferior companions at ease.

He pauses briefly next to a redhead parrot, who swings from an industrial lamp. The parrot is distinctly associated with inciting dissent under the guise of lexical semantics. It is feasible that others had attempted before him to interrupt her stream of political lyrics, but while stealth and calculated patience stoke the leopard’s judgement, you would be mistaken to expect he holds any tolerance for… well, tolerance. And today and everyday the parrot preaches tolerance. Tolerance for victims of abuse, tolerance for minorities, tolerance for the indigenous, tolerance for… No, the leopard definitely has no fuel in his very full belly for propaganda threatening his right to existence. His principles of diplomacy are very much like the rhinoceros, who you, as the detached spectator, find your focus being steered towards.

You observe the rhinoceros is endowed with tremendous strength and inherited wealth. The jewels slung over his ivory are more mesmerising than the dews of recent rain. Unfortunately, if you were to trespass on his thoughts, you would find but clumps of dull clay, unfinished or misshapen. It remains apparent he has many allies in the room. He holds the key to ample natural resources to be traded or pillaged. His popularity is currency.

Animals surrounding a table of plastic figurines. Their world is a game of risk and all in the room its players. Although their motives may differ, their humanity is unquestionable, and it is always under this flag that the finer details of their collective mission are fixed. A more primal instinct, more deeply buried, has been instilled in each of them thousands of thousands of years earlier, at the moment the blackhole took its first breath - win the game of survival.

The game is a subject of fascination, strategy, logic. The rules are simple. Walls, weapons and wealth are the winning combination. They risk it all with a roll of a dice - they play to carve out the fate of two species.

Some play reluctantly in the hope that they’ll gain security and prosperity. Others play silently, waiting for the game to reveal if they are predator or prey. Spider or moth.

It is not important if the leopard or the rhinoceros win, nor if the spider returns to its web, nor if the moth manages to avoid the trap and fly through a window, of which there are none. Overwhelming any thought you may have of how the game will unfold, is the raw stench of power, the disease of deception and the mockery that is manipulation. A rumour whispers around the room. Do not forget: We know what we are but know not what we may be. We are multiple and we are singular. Predator and prey. Spider and moth. Choose your side, they’ll say.

The leopard and the rhinoceros and kings of kingdoms and the moves they make feel infinitely distant, but you’ve been promised they hold the key to your fate. Your future may be untold but as your previous life unfolds and falls apart between your hands and you see too many faces of your loved ones buried in sand and wrapped in white… you can not help but wonder if they rolled the dice the wrong way by mistake.

There is still time for them to pick up their miniature figurines and move them away from the land and sand you stand on, or dash the board against the wall or on the glass top table until it shatters into a thousand pieces. Break the rules. Change the pattern. Let the moth catch the spider.

But alas, the silence in the room is sliced. Like a dagger with the handle towards the hand. They choose their vice.

“Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war!”

It is not important who speaks the words, only that they are uttered with intention, and disseminated to the herd.

The weight of those words are heavier than the two thousand-pound bombs about to create thirty six foot craters in the ground, commissioned by leopard, rhinoceros or boa, flamingo or parrot, during these harmless games of risk. Because of course, what you watch is not their first fix.

But you do not yet understand the fragile, invisible web of alliances and diplomacy, the historical context of such famous words being spoken, nor the weight of those words. In fact you never learnt to speak their language; they ever tried to speak yours.

Nor do you know the significance of the game you watch. But something tastes more bitter in the mouth than the mould on the stale bread in your hand. Except, you no longer have the stale bread in your hand, because that was last week… this week there is no bread left.

Animals, suits and the board game fade until the television screen is black. Except, there is no screen. Because how can a cardboard box set atop a plastic bucket (whose holes are taped with cloth rags and stuffed with small stones), possibly power enough electricity to broadcast the lives of those of such high quality, esteem and political complexity?

Your craftsmanship is lowly and unconvincing in comparison. Your imagination is crumbling and the numbness from the serpent’s sting is fading. But you stare at your makeshift screen and you cling onto that tender memory of a map and cards and pictures of animals of the desert and the jungle and feckless laughter at the thrill of playing the newly unwrapped game brought by a boy who used to have two arms and whose parents are martyrs like yours… the memory tastes like yesterday. Shakespeare forewarned: let us not burden our remembrances with a heaviness that’s gone. Yet you can not but chew on the sacredness of yesterday. You took your space in a circle with the other children. You were seven years old. They were all older and already drank the black tea made bitter with mint and sweet with sugar. You all surrounded the game board. Proud to be a part of the group, you rolled the dice, sitting on the lap of your sister. You did not know the rules then, either.

Now you are eleven and your cardboard television on a bucket is getting wet and it is no longer distracting you from the sounds of neighbours and strangers yelling and running down the grey rubble once-was-a-street and you feel you should use your crumpled legs to get up and help them dig out any other neighbours or strangers they can find from under the grey rubble made by the thirty-six foot crater but your mind is foggier than the dust caused by the two thousand-pound bomb just twenty seconds ago dropped two streets away and your legs and your head and your heart feel heavier than the high-explosive contents of that bomb delivered by anyone and everyone who decided you are not on their side.

Fighting through the trauma stems an oak tree, trying to push its roots through the evergreen rubble of your mind.

You climb the oak’s lean trunk and begin to pin to its branches the faces of all the lost children sitting in a circle playing games, and then the faces of your classmates, your teachers, your neighbours, and then your family, your Aunts and Uncles, your cousins, your mother, your father, your older sister… Roots run deeper than any crater and branches extend and run into one another without the hindrance of walls or weapons bought by wealth. Every memory of every loved one you buried is given its special place, carefully connected, cocooned in silk, and diligently protected. The oak by its nature and humanity promises you that protection. 

Everything else is uncertain. But finally, your mind is still.

You stand. You run. You dig. You carry. You bury. You pray. You shout. You wait. You fight. You wait. You pray.

You press your forehead against the ground with your eyes shut. The earth welcomes you - where a leopard’s claw should rake, where roots should grow. Instead, your family sleeps under a concrete jungle and your tent is full of strangers.

Your strength befits the thinnest of threads of silk, bearing burdens of memories too heavy for one so young and too painful to be numbed by any serpent’s sting. You wear the invisible cloak of 17,000 other unaccompanied children whose fates are in the hands of those casting the dice. 

While the game of risk remains at play and spider webs continue to be spun, they speak silently to the world: Do not forget: We know what we are but know not what we may be. We are multiple and we are singular. Spider and moth. Predator and prey. Choose your side, they’ll say.

March 15, 2024 01:46

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Joseph Ellis
19:18 Mar 21, 2024

I was off the mark in interpreting the animal symbols, thinking of colonialism from centuries ago. But then I Googled "17,000 children" at the end and suddenly I'm looking at the whole thing differently. Eminently powerful story, excellent use of language, very poetic and great use of alliteration. You combine abstraction and clarity quite skillfully.


Jem Gray
22:44 Mar 23, 2024

Thank you for your encouragement Joseph. Rereading it, I see now the early indications of potential links to colonialism. I but you’re right, I’ve made a political statement relating to the situation in Gaza further down. I wanted the story to be open for interpretation but perhaps it needs more explicit signposting to prevent misdirection for the reader. Something for me to think about, so thank you again !


Joseph Ellis
04:58 Mar 25, 2024

It's an interesting trade-off: clarity vs. leaving up to interpretation. And I realized afterwards that you labelled the story "contemporary" so you certainly left clues.


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Mary Bendickson
01:57 Mar 19, 2024

And such is war. So well written.


Jem Gray
02:28 Mar 20, 2024

Thank you for taking the time to read and comment, Mary!


Mary Bendickson
05:54 Mar 20, 2024

Sure. Thought it was excellent writing on unfortunate topic.


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