December 2013 – mainly windy – Carapace by Martin Bolton

Carapace

by Martin Bolton

The weatherman used the phrase “mainly windy”. That made me laugh, not just because it sounds like such a ludicrous phrase when considered out of context, but also because the weatherman was my husband, and that was exactly the sort of thing he came out with all the time. He made me laugh every day then.

I remember that laughter now like a distant dream, another life, a memory shrouded by the mists of time and the madness that comes with it – and time is madness when it is all you have. It seeps into you, it eats away all the tiny barriers in your mind until you are left with stark reality, and with that comes raw madness. I have learned that since I was trapped here, in the darkness, with nothing but the silence, the cold, and this… thing.

I was Professor of Arthropodology, specialising in arachnids, for The Department of Zoology, Oxford University. We were on an expedition to Laos to visit the caves in the Mekong Subregion and follow up on local reports of a species of spider thought to outgrow the biggest known – the giant huntsman.

Had I known what really existed, deep in the heart of these ancient caves, I would have stayed in England, safe in my laboratory, where my scientific mind could cling to its superficial pretensions that man’s innate fear of the dark is purely visceral.

Our intention was to explore beyond the mapped network of passages with the purpose of plotting more of the cave and discovering new species. We were about a mile into virgin tunnels when I came upon a vast crystal chamber about the size of a football pitch. As I shone my halogen lamp across the space, the light was refracted by huge, perfectly transparent crystals like cut diamonds. The effect was breath taking: the vivid display of colours, the dazzling kaleidoscope of alien shapes. The rest of my team were behind me, but I was transfixed, enthralled, as though in a dream, isolated from the real world. Then the floor of the cave opened like a trapdoor. The colours vanished, replaced by blackness.

I ran out of breath screaming long before I hit something. I must have struck a ledge or a protruding rock, because I felt my legs shatter, making a soggy crunching sound. The impact sent me spinning helplessly into empty, black space.

What I landed on was not rock, or I would certainly be dead. How I long for such a blissful end now. We go through life fearing death, all our instincts geared to towards avoiding it. I wonder if our primeval ancestors knew what I know now. Surely if they did, they would fear the end no more, because they would know as I do, there are things on Earth so much worse than dying.

After landing on this strange, springy surface, I lay for sometime. The pain in my legs was intense, and I passed in and out of consciousness. Either that or the dreams I had of daylight, laughter and fresh air were just hallucinations caused by agony and shock. I lifted my head to look down at my body. I could move my arms but my legs were a twisted wreckage. I moved my head from side to side, initially relieved there seemed to be no injuries to my back or neck. That relief turned to dismay, then terror, when I saw what I lay on.

On either side, stretching away into the seemingly infinite darkness, were taut, thin strands of some tough, flexible material. I tried to move my upper body and felt the surface give slightly beneath my elbows. I shook my head vigorously and felt myself, almost imperceptibly, swaying back and forth. There was only one thing I knew of that came close to the description forming in my mind.

A web.

No sooner than the dim light was finally extinguished by the inevitable death of the batteries in my headtorch, I felt vibrations. Something moved in the darkness. The web shook more violently, and soon I felt its touch. The way the web moved, either side of me, gave me the impression that whatever it was, it was behind me. It was on the underside. Then I felt a sharp pain in my neck, a bite, and just before I succumbed to paralysis I felt the web shake as the thing scampered away.

I wish I had been devoured then, but the grisly fate I had imagined for myself was nothing compared to the sickening reality. It is now apparent when that thing bit me, it set into motion a ghastly, insidious process; a metamorphosis more hideous than anything I have seen in my study of arthropods, or ever imagined possible. Nor did my paralysis bring with it the inability to feel sensations, so I have felt the realigning of my very molecules like a permanent, tormenting itch.

To my horror, the first parts of my body to develop their new form were my eyes. I can see again now, even in the total darkness, only this time I can see in all directions at once. I can see myself, or at least the thing that used to be me. My transformation is at an advanced stage: I have a complete cephalothorax, spiny carapace and abdomen, and the beginnings of eight huge legs.

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