Issue 25, Winter-Spring 1961
Victor had just opened the door and taken his young wife in his arms to carry her over the threshhold, when the agent, Judgeworth, stepped out of the bushes and asked him if he did not think this the right moment to buy a good, solid insurance policy. Marietta laughed and Victor said, “Certainly not!”
“It is very important,” claimed the agent, Judgeworth. “I’ll give you my card.”
But Victor’s hands were not free so the agent had to slip the card into his coat pocket. After that, the agent Judgeworth watched Victor carry his bride inside, into the cool silence of the country house, and kiss her before he kicked the door shut behind him.
They listened to the agent's footsteps disappear down the gravelled walk. There was no other sound, except that of some birds outside. Victor felt embarrassed for a moment. As long as he carried her in his arms, he could be nothing but clumsy, and the worst of it was that suddenly there was nothing more to talk about. I wish my dog were here, he thought. A dog always provides diversion. In his embarrassment he hugged her somewhat closer and felt how slender and warm she was; then, finally, he carried her to the bedroom.
Luckily, the family had seen to it that there were several surprises. Looking at the flowers and the embroidered tablecloths, at the home-made cushions and the vases they could talk and laugh again. Marietta was moved by the bowl of fruit her mother had put beside the bed and he pointed out to her the little silver fruit knife his practical father had placed next to it. It looked so inviting that she sat down on the edge of the bed to peel an apple. When she put a second little slice in his mouth he took her in his arms and cased her down into the cushions. Marietta was beautiful and glowing. The soft light of the afternoon became dusk and the dusk became night and soon afterwards another day went by. They loved each other and they had been married before the law.
Victor was awakened by a sound. There was a half-darkness in the room; he did not know if it was morning or evening. Her head rested on his shoulder and the small face with smiling mouth, ever-so-slightly opened, looked so childlike that he felt a deep tenderness for her as he softly stroked the smooth skin of her breast and hip.
But the sound that woke him was repeated—a shrill, silly sound like a child’s trumpet, coming, probably, from an instrument with which a street vendor was trying to attract attention. The piping drew nearer until it sounded beneath the window; at first he smiled, but when it kept up he became afraid that it would wake Marietta and so he slipped softly out of the bed and went to the door.
“Who’s there?” he asked, through the door slot.
Outside a full voice answered, sounding jubilant, as though belonging to someone who knows himself to be a long expected guest, “The fish-monger!”
“Oh—go on!” shouted Victor. The piping became softer and softer and then vanished down the street.
Nevertheless, Marietta had been awakened. “When he entered the room she was sitting upright and asked, “What was that?”
“The fish-monger,” he said.
She laughed. “Did you buy anything?”
“I don’t like fish.”
He thought her irresistibly attractive as she lay there between the back-flung sheets, but the coming of the fish-monger had called them back to reality. He wound his watch.They looked outside and took in their surroundings and after that the days and nights were paid out to them regularly, as to all other people.
After a few days he felt that his work needed him again.
“But there is no real necessity,” said Marietta.
“Let’s not talk about that again,” he answered curtly. Marietta had an income on which they could live, but he liked his work and it required his presence, and he had arranged before their wedding to carry on with it.
“I’m jealous of your work,” she said. Because he had been short with her, he embraced her that night with a still greater tenderness. When he left the house the next morning, she waved to him, laughing.
Victor was happy and since happiness is still more blinding than love, it took him quite a long time to notice that she had become pale and laughed less easily, and that there was some-thing forced in her caresses.
“Is there something bothering you?” he asked at last.
“No,” she said. “Or ... yes.” She looked at him as though he were a stranger she wanted to know, and then she looked away again. “No, of course there’s nothing.”
He paid more attention to her now and a few days later he asked, “Shall I have the dog brought here after all? You’d be less lonely then.”
“Please no,” she said. She did not like the dog; she was afraid of him.
“I feel there is something. Perhaps it is being alone,” he pressed her. “You’d get used to the dog quickly enough.”
She said hurriedly, “That isn’t it. It’s just a very small thing.”
“Promise you won’t laugh at me?’
“There is a spider in the house.”
Because he remembered his promise in time he did not laugh, but said, “There will be more than one. That’s country ;life for you.”
“Yes—but this is no ordinary spider. It races through the room now and then and it’s this big.” She indicated the size of a large marble.
In that moment he did not love her. The fear of a spider seemed unnatural to him and apart from that, she had no right really to deny him the dog. It was a kind, true dog, so attached to him that it always carried his newspaper and his pipe and other little things after him.
At night he wanted to make up for this moment of estrangement, but he felt too tired.
Then for a time nothing much happened. They had a small quarrel once when she gave him fish for dinner though she knew he did not like it, but then she told him how the fish-monger had insisted upon her buying something, and after that they both considered the subject too unimportant. But again he regretted his shortness and that only made him look at her with more curiosity until at last he asked, “And is it really only the spider that’s bothering you?”—for he missed her former gaiety.
“Yes—it’s this big,” she said, and this time indicated something the size of a dove’s egg. “It has long, hairy legs. It comes suddenly and races through the room. I never see where it comes from or where it goes.”
Always, when she spoke of the spider he felt a chill disgust for her. Of course, he let no outward sign of this escape. Nevertheless he covered the house from top to bottom with a powerful insecticide. A few days later he found her crying on the doorstep of the house without the courage to enter it again.
“I’ve seen him again,” she whispered, “and he’s growing; he’s getting bigger all the time.”
“Nonsense,” he said.
“Don’t go inside. Come with me—away!” She clung to him desperately. “Please let’s go somewhere, together. Please, I beg you. That thing is bad luck.”
“Will you finish with that nonsense?” he demanded. He entered the house; he inspected it from cellar to attic but could find no opening where an insect of that size could hide. Of course he had never seen the animal himself.
When at last she overcame her fear and followed him, shivering, he said, “This has been enough. I’ll send for the dog. You’ll get to like him after a while and you won’t be so alone. He’s a fast dog and if there is a spider here, he’ll catch it soon enough.”
He would have preferred to fetch the dog himself but since his work obliged him to take a trip for several days, he ordered the kennel to bring the animal to his house.
Returning from the trip he found Marietta more silent and pale than ever. A fish dinner was awaiting him; the whole house smelled of cooked fish. It nauseated him.
“Where’s the dog?” he asked.
She divided the fish and answered without looking up,“It was terrible.”
“Where is he?”
“He hated me. I was frightened. I thought I’d go crazy.”
“What did you do?” Victor asked, menacingly.
“Then the fish-monger came. He has taken him with him& for the time being.”
“He’ll bring him back,” she said, hurriedly. “Now that you’re home he’ll bring him back; he promised—but I couldn’t bear being alone with that dog any longer.”
“I suppose you would rather be alone with your spider,“Victor said angrily.
She shook her head. “The spider has gone,” she said.
In the next few days Victor tried to find the fish-monger. He asked after him everywhere. He searched the entire neighbourhood but in vain. Marietta, too, said that she knew nothing about him and never saw him any more.
It was a time of silence between the two. Victor longed for what had once made him happy but knew that it was over. She grew thin and pale—but he was incapable of worrying about her anymore and she did not complain. The tenderness between them had gone, but neither were there reproaches— until one morning getting up, he said rather sharply, “You could do a better job of cleaning the place. There are fleas.”
“Impossible,” she said.
“I’ve been bitten tonight. I felt it.”
He bared his chest. In his sleep he had distinctly felt the sharp bite, but there was nothing to be seen. She shrugged her shoulders. “You are just nagging,” she said.
But in the nights following, he felt again that he was being bitten. So there were vermin in the house and it was her fault. It was the only thing he could rightly hold against her; but he never mentioned it because the mark of the bites could not be found. After a week he resolved to stay awake one night; if he could catch something he would then have proof.
For a few hours he lay staring. It was a moonlit night and enough light filtered in to outline the furniture and also the face of the sleeping woman beside him. There had been a time when he had been moved because she slept with her mouth so slightly opened; now it merely irritated him and he avoided looking at her. At last his tiredness overcame him and he sank into sleep—so lightly however, that he was immediately wide awake upon feeling the bite. He bolted up and was just in time to see something dark scurrying away; but he could do nothing more and sat there paralyzed from the shock. The dark thine had been as big as an egg. It was too big to hide unnoticed in the bed, bigger than any insect could be.
When he calmed down he was forced to blame it upon his imagination. Such things do not exist. He was overstrung; perhaps he had had too much to drink—and he had reproached Marietta unjustly.
Despite his reasoning, he spent the next day chilled with shock and be understood that at any cost he had to conquer this twisted fantasy. The only way to succeed, he knew, was to force himself to stay awake through the night and thus convince himself that nothing had actually happened.
Had he wanted it, he would have found sleep impossible that following night—the frightful fantasy had struck so deep that merely lying in the same bed filled him with horror. So he was grateful for the moonlight gliding in. Darkness could have been unbearable and he did not want to light a lamp for fear of awakening Marietta.
The hours passed. It was a still night and nothing could be heard but the occasional distant howling of a dog. Nothing moved; only the moonlight, creeping with time along the ceiling and the furniture, and over die bed. There was so little to distract him that Victor was forced to become ever more conscious of the sleeping woman beside him, of her breathing, of her face on the pillow.
At first it appeared as a dark spot. This is reality, he thought,this is no imagination, this cannot be escaped. Then the moon-light came creeping slowly, slowly over her loose, fanned hair and finally to her face.
That face had become thin and pale and she slept with her mouth open; it was no mere dark spot now, but everything loved and lost and fiendish that Victor knew. He tried to divert his eyes but could not, for there was, after all, nothing to be seen but this.
She looked a corpse, he thought. He wished that something in that face would stir—he did not want to wake her but he longed for some movement, some small sign of life.
And at last he saw something. Something moved along the edge of her teeth—the lips pursed forward as though she in-tended to stick out her tongue, but it was not her tongue that emerged.
It was a thick black thread, moving hesitantly, feeling about her underlip. A moment later a second thread appeared, then a third; then something moved inside her mouth and a dark mass crawled forward.