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The Termite and the Spider

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A termite strolled the jungle of a kingdom without birds. Exhausted from building cities, constantly surrounded by an army, the termite enjoyed his solitude. He reveled in the sunlight beaming through the canopy and the falling, dancing leaves. The moment his happiness reached its peak, the termite was startled by a loud thud. Something heavy tumbled down the muddy hill and screamed. The termite scurried between trees and rocks, stopping behind each to assess the scene: a spider flailing on his back.

       “You there,” said the spider. “Behind the tree.”

       The termite slipped in the mud and slid down close, too close, to the spider. “What happened to you?”

       “I fell from my web.”

       Suspended between the trees and almost invisible, shimmered an intricately patterned, marvelous web. “Did you build that?”

       “Of course.”

       The termite’s fear evaporated in sunlight. Any creature that builds such architecture must abide by the same principles he did. 

       “I’ve broken three of my legs.”

       “I will build you splints.”

       “I’m not built for the ground.” The spider sobbed. “I can’t climb the jagged trees.”

       “Then I will build you a pyramid.”

       The termite constructed clay blocks and hauled them on top of each other. He worked through the heat. He worked through the rain, through aching then burning limbs. The spider lay in the shade of a nearby tree, admiring the craftsmanship of his splints. Between naps, he spoke: “Move that block here. Move this one there. Move that one over there. I’m thirsty.”

       When the termite completed the pyramid, and the spider was healed enough, they climbed to the peak, but the spider’s demeanor changed when his legs grabbed the web. He moved faster, gracefully. “Thank you for helping me. Would you like something to drink?” The spider salivated. “Something to eat.”

       “I’m already missed.”

       “Stay a while. You’re exhausted. You said my web impressed you. Look around.”

       The termite, small enough to walk on a single sticky strand, sauntered farther and farther from the pyramid.

       “The view is best in the center. Go on.”

       He was mesmerized by the web’s grandeur. Horizontal, curved, diagonal, and vertical strands converged and diverged endlessly.

       “Which looks farther,” the spider asked. “The clouds? Or the rocks!” He shot the termite with a stream of hot silk.     

       The spider wrapped, rolled, and suspended the termite in an inescapable shroud.

 

***

       “Crawl out of that blanket,” Miriam’s mother said. “We’re going to the carnival.”

       “Yay!”

       Alex tugged Miriam through the late afternoon, across a carnival standing unlit, silent, empty. A seed of disappointment landed in Miriam’s sweating palm. She clenched her fist and nurtured the seed. She cultivated a tree of anger, but she was learning an essential skill: lying to herself. Anger wasn’t what she grew. She grew a deniable fear of impermanence. She was yanked through gravity and oxygen, among a rusted, frozen Ferris wheel, carousels, and giant teacups devoid of people. “It’s closed.”

       “The crowds will be here soon.”

       Inside a dim tent, an old fortune teller jumped from the darkness. “Welcome!” She pointed at a chair. “Sit.” She pulled Miriam's left hand across the scratched-up table.

       “No.” Alex crossed her arms. “I'm paying for her future.”

       The fortune teller frowned. “They’re connected.” Her lips sank into her face. “I'll give you a discount.”

       “I gave birth to her. I counted ten fingers and toes and tend to her. Just the future.”

       “Fine.”

       Miriam surrendered her right hand. The fortune teller inspected it. She sniffed it, licked it, and dropped it on the table. “She has no future. Me, me, Miriam? You’re no one.” She spread Miriam’s fingers. “No fingerprints.” She bent Miriam’s fingers backwards. “Only the blessed or cursed simian line. You gave birth to her. You knew this.”

       “You can’t charge what you can’t read.”

       The fortune teller sighed and tapped the table. “This requires more effort.” She jumped. “A deeper connection with the unseen but felt.” She swayed and waved her arms. “Let’s see what the royal road reveals.” She closed her eyes, mumbled a prayer, and slid a stack of tarot cards to the center of the table. “Can she handle this kind of truth?”

       “She’s nine.”

       “The age when Hannibal promised to destroy Rome. Listen carefully. Cut the cards. Shuffle them. Lay them out any way you like. You must choose three, but don’t flip them over. You’ll ruin the fireworks."

       Miriam slid the cards into neat rows and columns.

       The fortune teller grinned. “Disdain for imperfection and disorder."

       Miriam pointed at three cards in the middle row, and the fortune teller flipped the first:  “The Chariot.”

       “The Tower.” Her smile fell from a roof.

       “The Empress of Two Swords.”

       “This one’s free.” She winked and flipped a fourth card: “Death."

        Miriam chewed her cheeks.

       “Don't fear what’s set. Your fear might take the shape of an insect and restlessly crawl around in your head. Do you like stories, Miriam? Do you? Good. One morning, in a kingdom without birds, a termite stumbled upon an injured spider. The spider seemed friendly, at first..."

       Miriam leaned on the table.

       “You enjoy using your hands, building.”

       “All she does is play with Lego. She’s falling behind in math. Her future, please."

       The fortune teller’s face shuddered. Her eyes turned white. “Miriam, you’ll be pulled by competing forces. Deeply torn between them, you’ll spend your life in a tower. Alone, in darkness, above your peers, you'll hammer these forces into swords, iron, dead stars mined, melted, and sharpened. I see the swords you unsheathe, the weapons you wield. You will become the builder and destroyer.”

       “Meaning what,” asked Alex. “I want to prepare.”

       “I know, you taught her how to use a gun.” She slid a plate to the center of the table.

       “And to get ahead of a crowd.”

       “Miriam,” she pulled an egg from thin air and cracked it on the plate. Black blood oozed out of the cracks. “You will build great and terrible things.”

       “An engineer? An architect?” Alex clapped. “And the death card?”

      “Everyone’s card.” The fortune teller shrugged. “I see her among friends, an odd, spirited group. I see the last of us.” Her eyes twinkled. “I also see,” she gasped and grasped her heart. “I see you, pulling fifty dollars from your wallet and profusely thanking me.”

       “Fifty?”

       “A sacrifice, or be damned.”

       “Wait,” Miriam said. “What happened to the termite?”

       “Forty.”

       “The spirits said seventy-five.”

       “Fifty.” Alex grabbed Miriam. “Thank you very, very much.”

       “Wait, wait. The termite.”

       The fortune teller squinted. “Termites live in castes. Royal termites reign and make more termites. Soldiers defend the kingdom. Workers constantly collect food and build cities. Our little termite was not a builder. He was a general. He knew to assess, infiltrate, fight, and destroy. Soldiers carry acid in their antennae. The termite melted through the trap, killed the spider, and buried him in the pyramid.”

       “And then?”

       “He sent spies then armies out. They built a kingdom without spiders too."

       Alex kicked the tent flaps open and unleashed Miriam upon gravity.

       “I need you to promise me something, baby.”

       “Carnival’s opening.” She pointed at the lights. “Can I ride the Ferris wheel?”

       “Promise to work really hard on your math. You understand the weight of a promise? You risk your sovereignty. You succumb to judgement.”

       “There’s a line forming, Mom.” She grinned. “Hurry.”

       Miriam grew up and helped redesign prisons, schools, hospitals, and banks. Last week, in her one-bedroom apartment, she hovered over her desk and trembled at the blueprints of her first neighborhood design. She had meticulously drawn windows for walls, gardens for kitchens, amphitheaters for yards, and agoras for benches.

       Clients occasionally asked Miriam why she designed birdcages onto buildings. “To keep insects at bay,” she often replied. “Adds character and shadow.” She might have responded, “I can light the birds on fire and send them home.” But Miriam couldn’t think like that—not anymore. She had two kids of her own, a boy and a girl, running around outside. They climbed over everything, claiming worlds beyond here and now. Miriam had promised them rooms of their own.

 

 

JG Sarmiento holds an MA from the University of Guam, where he taught composition, literature, and rhetoric. He now pitches stories in parabolas from the Mile-High City, where he often wonders what comes after the postmodern, the MCU, and Nutella.