The Birch Spider

The Birch Spider

By Ethan Duman

Honorable Mention, 2016-2017 Young Writer’s Short Story Contest

Download a PDF of The Birch Spider.

Jim absolutely despised the cold chill of winter, and Uncle William wasn’t changing his opinion by a long shot. It was the first day of Christmas break and as was customary for most families in the northeastern region, hunting for deer was common. It was a dying tradition, and the way Jim saw it the sooner the better! Jim would much rather spend his vacation sleeping in till his parents woke him, or until his throat was so dry it hurt. Instead he found himself being driven down a horribly bumpy road that led to his aunt(whose name was Susan) and uncle’s isolated house. Jim would then stay with them for several nights and hunt with William. His dad would hunt in the same vicinity as Jim and Will, which brought up the question of why Jim stayed at his uncle’s house in the first place. Jim might have asked his dad, but he couldn’t remember the answer he received. He might not have even asked…

 

So Jim would be shaken awake by his Uncle William at four in the morning and they would eat their breakfast which consisted of eggs, burnt toast, and burnt hash-browns. Afterwards the two of them would put on two pairs of pants, a pair of gloves,  Then they would drive down an even more isolated and bumpy road deep within the forest.

 

One of the main reasons Jim despised hunting was the fact that they rarely ever saw deer. Out of the three years Jim spent with William, they probably shot two deer, and one of them was a fawn. On the day of which this story is taking place, Jim and Will were out there for ten hours, and didn’t see one thing. Needless to say, this put both of them in a particularly rotten mood, with William being very angry.  Susan gave them lukewarm pot pies(she thought they would be home earlier!), and Jim laid on the couch for two hour.

 

As Jim lay on the couch he found it more and more difficult to drift off to sleep. First of all he wasn’t interested in checking his phone because of a throbbing headache. Secondly, his Aunt Susan was watching one of those annoying soap operas. It was odd, because soap operas were rather easy to drift to sleep to, but in this moment every line of dialogue felt like it was sliding its way down his ear canal and tickling the back of his brain. Jim’s ear also was also ringing, the kind of sound you get from firing a gun, but he hadn’t fired a gun.

 

It was nine forty-five PM when Jim went down to the basement with William. William and Susan Hoover had a wood burning stove installed in their basement several years ago, and it kept their house nice and warm, especially in the kitchen which was directly above the stove. Jim resolved that he would sleep in the basement that night using a sleeping bag he brought, but Will shot the idea down immediately. Maybe for the better because even warmth had its downsides, like finding it harder to adjust to the sudden cold of hunting.

 

Of course, a wood burning stove requires wood and coal to stay warm, as well as dumping ash out of the tray located on the bottom. Dumping out ash was easy enough, and William kept half a ton of coal in the basement, but wood needed supplying every few days. Therefore Jim would get his heavy coat, put on wool gloves, find his boots and go clomping his way up the stairs of the basement. All the wood could be found on the side of the garage covered with a blue tarp. Despite the icy weather that wouldn’t let up, the tarp seemed to work like magic, because every piece of wood was protected from freezing together.

 

Jim trundled a wheelbarrow with one hand, wielded a flashlight with the other(though the flashlight was not necessary on account of the porch light), and waved the large spotlight that boomed from the flashlight back and forth across the dark nothingness that was the forest. He also had a gun slung over his shoulder because his uncle believed, despite not seeing any deer today, that somehow Jim would suddenly catch a deer’s eyes glaring at him with that confused look all deer give humans.

 

Jim stopped where the wood pile was and balanced his rifle on the side of the garage and then started grabbing at pieces of wood and chucking them at the wheelbarrow. The first one hit the wheelbarrow  and knocked it over. DANG IT! Jim yelled into the dark woods. Any deer that were possibly out there are scared off now, he supposed.

 

Jim crunched over the snow to where the wheelbarrow lay capsized. He bent over and lifted it upright. Jim stared at the woods and thought he could hear that old song ‘the Sound of Silence” playing in his head. ‘Hello darkness my old friend’ Jim began humming the tune loudly to himself.

 

Jim began humming the tune to himself as he threw pieces of wood into the wheelbarrow. Then his mind began to drift off to other things. Jim felt an emptiness in his consciousness that went beyond missing his friends. Not only was there the isolation of living in a corner of the woods that no cars drove past, but he also constantly had a migraine headache that pulsed through his brain and deprived him of sleep. He chalked that up to being homesick, but there was also a sense of claustrophobia in that small house…

 

A loud popping noise made Jim nearly jump out of his skin. His ears started to ring and for a second confusion came and was followed by realization. The gun Jim had leaned on the side of the garage had  slid onto the ground and fired itself. Jim quickly ran towards the gun and picked it up. Jim thought William probably heard that. He was wrong.

 

Jim had entered the garage and carefully set his rifle on the floor. The ringing in his ears was still there, but it was dampened by the throbbing headache (which was now worse than ever). Jim looked at the wood in the wheelbarrow and decided he couldn’t possibly balance anymore pieces on the very top, so he picked up both handles and was ready to pick up his rifle when he heard a snapping noise. He jerked his head towards the forest. His flashlight was turned off. Jim sputtered a curse and turned the light on, and aimed it between two giant oak trees.

 

He saw nothing, but there certainly was a snapping sound. Jim waved the beam of light slowly back and forth, and decided to give up looking. He turned the light out just when a giant stick, the kind you could hold in one hand but not break over your knee, thumped on the ground. He turned the flashlight back on to see three small twigs slide down the spotlight and disappear into the lower darkness. Now he had no choice but to slowly raise the light upwards to the source of the falling branches.

 

What he saw was a pile of sticks and branches of varying shapes and sizes spread across the top area between the two oak trees. These sort of sights are common in treetops, when dead branches are held up by live ones, but this jumble of branches felt like a paradox. Pine needle branches meshed with maple tree branches, both trees that couldn’t be found in this forest area. He thought he could see bits of birch bark sticking out in different parts of the pile. But the strangest thing to Jim was that the branches were oddly spread out over the length of the trees, almost like someone carefully laid them out.

 

The branches continued to rain down from the tree in an unnatural way. Jim soon directed his attention to a birch tree branch that was hanging out of the side of the pile, like a limp arm. However, instead of sliding to the ground, the branch extended itself outward as if the limp arm was stretching. The branch grew limp again and then, without explanation, the pile of branches came crashing to the ground like snow that tumbles off a roof. The explanation revealed itself to be a giant birch tree that was laying concealed from sight, the branches being its camouflage. This…birch tree had a spider-like body, with six thick log shaped branches. Two of the left sided arms stuck to the one tree, and two right-hand arms stuck to the other, and two arms dangled downward from the center.

 

The branches that were once stuck to the top of the tree lay in a pile on the rough clayey ground. What took their place was a spider with the appearance of a birch tree. The entire scene, the branches, the two evenly spaced trees, the spider, it all felt perfectly set in place, like a painting. After fifteen seconds crawled by the monster jerked to life, indicated by the frontal left leg detaching from the oak tree. When the creature made this sudden movement Jim realized he was uncomfortably close to the action. He began to step backwards, refusing to take the light off the monster.

 

The spider made its descent in a very awkward manner that was unlike any normal spider. It detached its front left leg and moved it one foot downward. This made the monster’s flat body slant upward. He would then move his right-hand leg down so it matched the left one. Now its abdomen leaned towards Jim, so its rear legs would work it back to its original position, only now it one foot closer to the ground. Jim noticed thick hairs that would extend out of the birch tree’s legs so that it would stick to either tree. The creature continued this action until it was about one yard away from the forest floor.
When the spider reached the bottom it stood still again. It still lay horizontally as if it were staring into the night sky. Jim stopped and watched it for what felt like hours before backing away from it again. It woke up, crawled down, and seemed to go to sleep again. Jim’s headache seemed to feel slightly better as he backed away, almost like the spider’s presence hypnotized him and cleared his head. In fact, everything started to get filed away in his mind, all the stress, tomorrow’s hunting trip, Aunt Susan’s soap operas. Sure, there was a huge spider that just crawled down two oak trees for no discernible reason, but he could get Uncle William to deal with that later.

 

Then Jim felt something bump him from behind and then a loud scraping noise. At that moment all the happiness vanished and for a moment was replaced by a dark and soulless emptiness. He turned around and saw he had knocked the wheelbarrow full of wood on its side, the scraping noise coming from a rock it struck on the ground. Then Jim heard the two trees shake behind him, which was probably a bad thing. Jim turned around once again and saw that the spider was now perfectly upright, its six legs stretching out on the trees in perfect symmetry, like a Hindu god.

 

At this point the birch tree was nearly impossible to turn away from, not just because of its symmetrical art-house look, but also because it filled Jim with an immense curiosity. He wondered if the creature was rough with bark like a normal birch tree, or if it had a soft hairy, bristly, and itchy exterior. A small urge grew so large he wanted to run straight up to the creature to see what it felt like.

 

Then his head began to throb and a thought suddenly flashed on and off in his mind; kill it! Kill it! But with what… The gun! The gun that was in the garage. Jim didn’t even bother to look at the spider again as he rushed into the garage and picked up his rifle. And then in the blink of an eye he was standing in front the spider, his rifle raised in its direction. He lifted up his gun and looked through the scope with his left eye. Even though he couldn’t see into the forest, the spider had a white silhouette that seemed to have a sort bright glow that contrasted the dark that surrounded the creature.

 

Jim realized he was shaking so much his rife couldn’t steady. The silhouette seemed to dim now. Then his headache came for another visit, and felt like it would pulse right out of his head. I need to normalize my breathing, Jim thought. A quote his dad told him once began to go through his head, beating along with the headache. Aim small, miss small it said in his dad’s voice, Aim small, miss small. The phrase seemed to calm him and steady his breathing. He raised his rifle once again and, looking into the scope, made out the spider again. He felt a lot more confident about shooting the birch tree now, and the silhouette of the creature looked as if it beamed with light. Aim small, miss small Jim muttered to himself, and found himself aiming perfectly into the creature’s center.

 

Unfortunately for Jim, this spider didn’t react to the laws of motion like a normal creature. When he pulled the trigger, rather than flying several yards away, the birch-tree and all of its weight flew towards him, arms extended like Jim was a black hole. Jim was sent flying to the ground by its legs and he could feel his bones crush from the impact. Jim felt a sharp pain in his thigh, and then another one on his shoulder. The monster made a hissing sound that became so loud it was deafening. That was the death of Jim Hoover.

 

William was standing in the basement half asleep when his watch beeped, signaling ten PM. He jerked awake and opened up the wood burning stove in time to see the last few embers dying away. He stuck his hand on the coals that were barely warm and frowned. He had forgotten about that dumb kid who should’ve brought wood down there ten minutes ago. Will grabbed his flashlight and ran up the stairs to the outside.

 

Despite the lack of any fire, the outdoor cold still struck William particularly hard. In fact, the snow was whizzing by so fast and there so much white Will couldn’t see one foot in front of himself. “Jim!” Will tried to yell, but he swallowed so much wind for a moment he couldn’t breath. He ran blindly through the blizzard and tripped over something. He shined his light down and saw the wheelbarrow laying lopsided with the mountain of wood lightly covered with snow. It felt like he had discovered something left alone for several weeks, not ten minutes. “Jim” he tried again, but to no avail.

 

There was something in the air that felt wrong. Will didn’t know what to think at the moment. Anger, fear, sadness? They all shuffled together in his head creating this weird gray feeling, because nothing was adding up. Where was Jim? Had he run away? Will just wanted to stand in the midst of this winter storm forever to think about it. Even though the wind that was blowing was deafening to Will’s ears, he thought he had heard the sharp sound of a door slamming shut that came from the direction of his house. Will turned around and began to walk towards the basement door, strangely uncertain of what would happen next.

 

He reached out to open the basement door when a twig fell on his arm. He looked at his roof, shining the flashlight upwards. He saw very clearly an oak tree, with a freakish number of branches stuck to its body. Every branch seemed pointed and sharp, like a spear. “How did a tree get up there” William Hoover murmured in frightful astonishment.

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