It was late. But we lay there anyway watching the stand-off between a black house spider and a super-sized daddy long-legs up in the corner of our bedroom ceiling. It was only for a few minutes really.
'I just want to know who wins.'
'The daddy long-legs of course,' said Ash. 'They have those dextrous legs. Just look at it, throwing out long strands of web and wrapping up the fat one. Then she'll poison him.'
A posse of other daddy long-legs surrounded the battle, posted at regular intervals. Then the big daddy retreated to the edges. The prey wriggled and seemed to break free.
'That's why they're the only ones here,' he said. 'They've made themselves into a monoculture.'
'She's coming back — watch.' And there she was, racing and elegant, fangs poised.
We switched off the light.
The next morning, there they were, all composed in their corners and at measured spaces along the cornice. No sign of the prey.
I was never afraid of spiders. I made a point of picking them up with my bare hands from the bathtub so the kids would not be scared of them, and so they would have enough compassion not to drown them in the bathwater. I wasn't scared by much really, but the girls still hated spiders. Maybe we were deluded in that dream life we had, that we never thanked anyone for.
I always heard that cockroaches would survive us all, so my attitude to spiders has changed the past few weeks. Who could foresee it would be the daddy long-legs? And for what significance?
On a Monday in normal-life time, there was soccer training after school and I came home early from work to stay with Molly so she and I could make a nice dinner, fuss over the chickens or go for a bike ride. It was rare for the two of us to be alone, and something special.
That day, though, it was too warm, even though it had rained incessantly for weeks before. We cut some broccoli for dinner and went to feed the chooks. They had put themselves to bed early, something that only happens when there is a cyclone on the way or a thunderstorm in full bloom. I stroked Cadbury, the Wyandotte, all cosy in her nesting box. No eggs. Heat had drunk their water through the day so I filled it again and closed the door of their house.
Molly sat at the edge of her cubby house looking up at the trees then took her doll from its tattered pram, placed it carefully inside and closed the door.
'Feels like a storm is coming Mum.' She carried a bucket of gumnuts, shells and sticks.
'It's a bit hot for a storm, sweetheart. What are you doing with that stuff?'
'It's a potion. Fern said she'd bring the secret ingredient from the purple-berry tree at soccer training.'
I rang Ash to see if they were coming home from training early. But he didn't answer. A little acidic pip rose in my throat.
There was a funny metallic smell in the air, it was very windy and the long green weeds wilted. Molly and I went inside holding hands and drew the blinds to keep out the heat. We waited for them to come home, sitting at the front door looking out through the Venetian blind.
'Sounds like Dad's ute Mum.' Rattling on the driveway. My heart beat faster but as it drew closer I saw that it was the wind blowing a piece of twisted gutter across the yard. It squealed out their absence. Molly put her bucket in the laundry and snuggled up beside me on the floor. I never bothered cooking dinner.
The power went out.
Just as night began to fall, a bright light came like exposure from the west with a great roaring wind and heat that crackled. It seared across everything from west to east; we could feel the surge, the speed and fury of it and moved back from the glass and heat. The flare of light hurt our eyes and I covered Molly's with my hand. Partly so she would not have this moment to remember.
Outside was white and yellow, a storm of fire without flames. The metallic smell reminded me of welding.
Three big old gum trees in our yard seemed to evaporate into charred columns. So fierce, so quick.
I watched until it was silent and night came.
Molly slept in my arms on the couch. I kept waiting but they didn't come home.
In the night I found the radio Ash bought for my survival pack after the last big storm and put in a fresh battery. Turning the dial slowly I tuned in our local AM stations—something by the Bee Gees, The Cranberries, Bob Marley. Nobody spoke and the music made me cry. Our hard wired telephone had a dial tone but nobody answered—not Ash or my parents, the soccer coach, neighbours or even the police. Sometime in the night I filled things with water and opened the back door, just for a moment.
It got very warm in the house that first day. I put a thick layer of aluminium foil over the glass on the doors and windows. I packed blankets into the window recesses, padded us in. I read Molly stories but so many brought me to tears. Sisters and fathers. I could hear Fern and the comments she made, laughing at Revolting Rhymes. I hoped and hoped and walked around the house unable to pick up their shed clothes or make the rumpled bed, where the cup of Fern's head waited in the pillow. Molly made things from wool, paper and glitter glue and added to her bucket, which she left by the back door.
We ate the broccoli and the frozen food so it wouldn't spoil and all the time I thought about what to do, and where they were. I left messages for Ash and my parents.
The little weather station he bought so he could monitor the insulatory success of our straw-bale house read 57 degrees outside and 44 inside during the day. At night it shifted very little.
A lot of days went past and I never marked them off the calendar. We used up the fridge food, the bread and biscuits. I closed their bedroom doors and willed myself not to open them. The smell of their presence began to fade.
I rationed out our pasta, rice, tins of soup and beans. We ate the long lost cans of pineapple and the jar of bitter marmalade. Last to go were cryptic packets from our shopping spree a couple of years ago in the Asian supermarket in the city. I could never quite figure out the instructions or quantities before and I wondered why Ash had casually tossed so many strange packages into our trolley. They were not wasted. The food in the cupboards ran out before the gas bottle.
Sometime before the pineapple, I went outside at night, when I heard rain on the roof and it seemed to have cooled down slightly. Molly was asleep. I wrapped myself up like Bedouin and made a dash for the shed. I emptied the spare fridge, throwing Christmas cake and warm beer into the wheelbarrow, found some seeds, garlic and the store of pumpkins we saved from Easter harvest. I was frightened of the distance from Molly if she woke. I had to be thorough but I rushed. A crumpled, oily rag Ash left on his bench made me stop for a moment. I touched it lightly, feeling for a trace of his hands. Spider web rustled inside it as it moved and I shook it out on the floor. They crept silently away to find new places. These spiders, fragile as a line drawing, could live and all else seemed to have been cursed. I pushed the loaded wheelbarrow in a great hurry. The tyres of my car were melted on the driveway but I found lollies in the boot, a little misshapen. The dry earth had cracked into crumbling fissures. Rain fell in large drops, thumped and steamed from its surface. I grabbed some pots of soil, trailing remnants of our garden. Loaded all I could find onto the barrow.
I could not face the chook pen.
That welding smell mixed with rot had become our new oxygen.
The skin peeled off my face the next day, so I ran Molly and I a deep bath with candlelight and lavender oil and we sat together naked and wrinkling, breathing deeply in its scent.
I washed her feet with the last of our patchouli soap, pink and creamy.
'They aren't dirty Mum, I haven't been outside.' She had painted her little toenails, normally ringed with grime. 'I'm getting good at painting. I take lots of time and I don't get it on my skin anymore.'
'That's good,' but I wasn't sure why. 'I am going to make a vegie garden for us in the bathroom with the pots I brought in from outside so we might have to have a wash in the laundry sink for a while. Is that alright with you?'
'I s'pose so. I will help you Mum. I will water it every day.'
'Good. We can make it all green in here and have lots of fresh things to eat.'
Her dark eyes were wide and silent tears dropped into the bath. I held her close to me in the water and kissed the top of her head.
'You are a brave, strong girl.'
'You are too Mum. You went outside.'
We emptied all the pots into the bathtub. The soil was coarse and there were no worms or insects so any composting would just smell. Molly gladly enriched the soil with her own fertiliser over a few days and we soaked it and planted some beans, which germinated in a few days. Zucchini were quick too but the carrots and spinach took a few tries. Lettuce was quick and gave me hope of a crop we could use soon.
We made soup and baked the pumpkin on a tray outside the back door with a clove of garlic and a sachet of some spice mixture. It took an hour or so. A feast. There were a lot of pumpkins and I rationed them out, and the cake and beer.
Molly kept watering the seedlings.
'They look good Mum. We're going to have a big feed of beans soon.' And when the carrots came up, she danced around in her knickers and laughed as if everything was going to be okay.
Light in the house was sparse, and when I dared to take the padding off the windows it got very hot. I closed off the bathroom as a greenhouse, letting light in a little and taking care the heat was not too much, but the beans were straggly and pale. The flowers formed around the time we finished off the last of the pumpkins.
It was always quiet out here, out of town, but not as silent. The chirrup of insects and distant call of birds had gone and the world was left naked and harsh. Even the wind had lost its softness. Without leaves to shift, it whistled through buildings and overturned what was left standing. An occasional branch cracked and fell.
We needed to pollinate the beans so I told Molly we were playing bees and we had paintbrushes to dust each flower but the lightness of the moment dropped. We just did the job and went back to our silent selves.
'Mum, if you go outside again could you please get Cheryl Ratcliff out of my cubby?'
'Yes, I'll try and get her for you.'
'And when you do that can you please check and see if it was really Daddy's ute we heard at the top of the driveway? Maybe they stopped up there just around the corner behind the trees?'
One night when she was asleep I tried to call again, just to hear his voice on the recorded message. One night I dashed out to get her doll. Its plastic had contracted a little and the little face looked more intense. Molly didn't mind. She held it close to her all day and night and kept saying how she had missed Cheryl Ratcliff. I didn't walk out of the driveway as she had asked. The heat was still too fierce.
Some nights I slept on the floor beside Fern's bed. Her top bunk was too close to the spiders and she didn't like it, so she slept in the bottom and borrowed a can of surface spray offered by her grandmother to douse the poor things. The residue stayed, I yelled at her but it kept her room clear of spiders. If only I could hold her close all day and all night.
This was a time of waiting for revelation of a better truth, for life to rise from the ashes, growth.
It rained a little and our water kept flowing but the solar panels only ran enough power for the ceiling fan to turn slowly—enough to dry the sweat on our faces. It shifted the spider webs a little. Lifting in a slow rhythm. Molly did her reading homework again and I watched the daddy long-legs, surrounded by tiny offspring, which gathered together at first then, as they grew, slowly scattered along the cornices and down shadowed corners of the walls. Their territory measured and regular. They didn't seem to be going hungry.
'They aren't there anymore are they Mum?'
'School. The kids and the teachers.'
I shook my head, chest tense. 'Someone's there though, and when it cools down a bit we can go and find them.'
'Find Daddy and Fern? And Nanna?'
'Is it cooling down Mum? Have you checked the temperature?'
'Yes, a little bit.'
'Did you hear some rain on the roof Mum?'
'Just a little'
'Rain cools things down and it might make the grass come up.'
How ironic that our straw house harboured us in its thick walls when all the world was made silent. Most people thought we were mad hippies stitching together our house of grass and couldn't believe our perseverance and that we didn't split up like people do when they build their own house. Years after we moved in, I still ran my hands over the curved walls sometimes and thought back to our days of labour. I'd never thanked Ash for his efforts; or even kept it clean very well. Sometimes I used to brush out those mathematical spiders and vacuum up their scrambling limbs, but mostly just when the grandparents came.
'I'm so hungry. Have you thought about dinner Mum?' So normal, like I'd heard a thousand times from both girls.
I drew breath sharply, 'Not yet.'
I hadn't decided.
My harvest was hanging on the wall. I'd done it in my mind, swept them down a handful at a time, covered their frail limbs with water and boiled out their proteins into a thin broth. I'd remove the bodies and stir in the tiny new leaves of spinach.
But the next day there will be no spinach and Molly will realise that it has come to this and then our silent pact will break. She will know it is the last chance for us and her giving up will smoke out all my tepid hopes. The spiders will prove it, beyond doubt.
In the bathroom the white flowers of the beans turned brown, tiny beans never formed. The leaves yellowed a little. The pale child watered them anyway with a plastic jug and I will harvest what I must.