The Gibbon Rose, by Anthony Watkins
Please forgive me if I have already posted this story. It is an old story and I thought I had posted it, but I cannot find it, so here it is again, or for the first time.
A chapter for a forthcoming novelogue,
Argon, or a walking tour of the Ironlands
Gibbon Island, a Land of Spiders: A People and Their Intergalactic Spider
By Anthony Watkins
As the Argon flows south, it broadens into a relatively shallow delta. Here the dredgers fight a constant battle with heavy, ore laden waters. Here, too, is the strange and beautiful island of Gibbon. Gibbon is inhabited by the Gibbon Rose, the Gibbon Spider and the Manalak.
In the small village on the riverbank, across from the island of Gibbon, I met an old gentleman, named Papitukan. Papitukan runs a small shop that is a cross between a 7-11 and a general store. He also has a tiny storage room with an old Swiss Army cot. He agreed to rent me the room and the cot, but he refused to take me over to Gibbon. He did, however, tell me everything he knew about the island.
Some of what I learned, I was able to verify with my own eyes. He did lend me a row boat which allowed me to drift out to within a few hundred yards of the island. I was forced to turn and row for the mainland as fast as I could when a band of the natives greeted my approach with a rain of what I was to learn were surely poison arrows. The Manalak are short in stature, averaging a little over four feet in height, they are pale skinned with blue or green eyes and red or blonde hair. They tend towards plump, in a cute sort of way, but not to the typical American obesity. They never cut their hair and they do not wear clothing of any kind, making them look like troll figurines who have come to life. But whatever their appearance, they are not cute and cuddly little people.
Almost everything known about Manalaks has been observed from a distance. They fiercely defend their island from intruders with poison arrows and blow darts. The current Argon government, like its predecessors, does not keep a census of the Manalaks, does not offer any government services or try to enforce any law on the island.
Custom has been for as long as anyone can remember, to leave them alone. There was one somewhat successful expedition by a team of British explorers in the mid 1850s. In fact, nearly all the first hand information that we know came from the effort. Its leader, an Oxford anthropologist, Gerald Worthington, had the good fortune to be a very short man with wild red hair and green eyes. The Manalaks gave him the benefit of the doubt when his party braved the river and beached their dugout on the island’s north side.
I found a volume of his notes at the Montgomery Public Library in Alabama. It was titled simply, A Trip to Gibbon, or My Time Among the Manalaks. The copy that I found was printed in 1866 by a London publisher. How or why it ended up in the basement of the reference department of a county library system in Alabama, I’ll never know.
I will say this for the public library in my childhood home of Montgomery, it stands well against most others I have visited. I have been in a little less than a hundred library branches in my lifetime, from New Orleans to Cincinnati, from West Palm Beach and Fort Pierce, Florida to Brewton, Alabama to McRae, Georgia, from Earle, Arkansas to Barboursville, West Virginia, and most failed to live up to my early experiences in that funny modern 1960s brick and glass repository of all things interesting.
There were four main rooms, a lobby with a winding staircase to the Museum of Fine Arts that was located above the world of books. The stair case was made of slabs suspended from the ceiling by iron rods. When I heard the story of Martin Luther climbing on his knees and kissing each step, this is the staircase I imagined him receiving his enlightenment which led the Reformation. This is the staircase where my brother and I would sneak up and wait on our parents when we went to the library in the evening. The museum closed at five pm. When it was closed, the curator would draw a folding iron gate, like one might see in an old manned elevator.
The gate was at the top, so we could play on the spiral as long as we were quiet and generally stealthy. Below, the library had one room each for children, fiction, non-fiction and periodicals. The reference desk was in the non-fiction room. As a child, I knew this to be the “serious” room.
I loved to wander into the periodicals room and watch the old men reading out of town papers which were mounted on split rods and racked on a large wooden stand. But my favorite place was the archives. It was located between the Childrens and Non-Fiction Rooms and was three stories high. It had very low ceilings as it had to fit in the same space as the tall single story of the main library. Actually the top two floors were in the library space. The third level was a low, dimly lit basement.
This third level was filled with old and odd bits and pieces. The daily papers of Montgomery were stored there, going back to before the US Civil War, also known as the War of Northern Aggression. It was here, in this dark, musty magical place I found and read A Trip to Gibbon.
Sadly, the good people of Montgomery decided to relocate the library to a new facility in the 1990s, the museum expanded to cover both floors of the old library, the dark basement is gone. I am sure most of the stuff there is either on film or destroyed after the circulation manager determined if any of it had enough worth to justify moving it. Worthington’s book was the spark that sent me on the trip to Argon, so you can imagine my disappointment to find that one hundred and fifty years later, I still could not wander the island of Gibbon, or even set foot on it.
Among other tidbits, the Oxford anthropologist, believed he uncovered origin of the Manalak’s distrust of outsiders. According to island legend, soldiers of Philip II, the last Hapsburg king of Germany’s Holy Roman Empire, landed on the northern shore of Gibbon around 1600. The Manalaks were gracious enough until the Germans decided to see if the islanders would taste as good as the plump little sausages they seemed to resemble in the soldiers’ minds. After seeing more than a few of their brethren roasted over a fire, the Manalaks called on their sacred spiders.
The Gibbon spider is a large hairy spider. Its body color is bright red, while the hairs are glossy black. It measures over a foot across, from toe tip to toe tip when mature. Its bite is full of neurotoxin. Death is swift and certain. The spider is not easily provoked and the Manalaks allow them to thrive all over the island. The relationship between the pygmies and the arachnid appears to be symbiotic.
Of course, the possibility exists that the Germans made the mistake of killing one or more spiders, as well as the plump little humans. In any case, the spiders attacked the Germans and killed several. The remaining soldiers retreated and never returned, but the Manalaks still mistrust tall white people.
The other truly remarkable discoveries that Worthington reported, according to my host, involved the rose, poison arrows, the spider and the religious beliefs of the Manalaks. Apparently the Gibbon spider has no natural toxin, but the Gibbon rose is so poisonous that to touch it or to sniff its beautiful bloom can give its admirer a paralyzing or fatal dose of chemical very similar to the toxin found in coral reefs that gives the puffer fish its deadly defense. The spiders eat the petals of the rose and in the process pollinate the plants.
This is a good thing, because the local bees of Argon cannot tolerate the toxic flower. The toxin does not harm the spider, but the spider incorporates it into its saliva, giving its bite a powerful punch. The rose petals also give the spider its color. When the Gibbon spider leaves the egg case, it is about the size of a pin head and translucent. If it survives the attacks of its elders and from dozens of other creatures that prey on immature spiders, it will ingest the rose petals and become too poisonous to be eaten. As the spider reddens and grows, it adds a host of insects to its diet.
Nature has timed the hatching of the spiders with the maturing of the rose blooms. The spiders do not eat the blooms until they are beginning to drop their petals.
Papitukan says that the local mainlanders used to believe the Manalaks used spider toxin to dip their poison arrows, but now it is understood that the arrows are rubbed across the blooms of the Gibbon rose. The pollen is sticky and attaches firmly to the tips.
Manalaks are not immune to the poison of the spider, but they have learned to eat the stem of the rose. The woody parts of the plant seems to have an agent that neutralizes the rose toxin. By eating the stems, they can handle the flowers without ill effect, and can withstand an occasional bite of the spider. Of course, the Gibbon spider is known for its swarming attack when threatened. No amount of neutralizing agent has been found to prevent death when one is bitten several hundred times.
Papitukan claims to have watched an errant fisherman fall victim to just such an attack. He shivers even today twenty years later in the retelling of giant shiny red spiders swarming over the body, face and hands of the screaming fisherman. Only the quickness with which death came to the fisherman spared Papitukan from going out of his mind.
He was in another fishing boat when a friend drifted too close to the island and when an overhanging limb from a great Gibbon rose bush brushed his hat, he knocked a spider into the boat. In fright, he used his oar to bash the hairy monster. Within seconds, the spiders that were feeding all over the bush, landed in his boat and attacked him. Papitukan was only a few yards away, but could do nothing but watch.
The Manalaks avoid killing the spider at all cost. According to old Papitukan, they believe in something I can only call the Inter-Galactic Spider. They think this spider, a creature so big that it walks from one planet to another, from one star to another in just one step, lives to avenge the unnatural death of any spider.
Of course, the Manalaks only know of one kind of spider, the Gibbon. Papitukan says they believe if one harms a spider, the Slakanath, or great spider will send its foot crashing down on the killer in a blow so swift that no one can see it coming. The only proof is the killer is dead. In fact, one who is found dead of unknown causes on the island is assumed to have been a spider killer. Their death is sufficient proof. Their bodies are dumped in the Argon River.
When I protested that this was the silliest basis for a religion I had ever heard, my host challenged me. “Are you Christian?” I answered that by tradition and birth I was indeed Christian, though I practiced no religion in any organized fashion.
“You mean you think Slakanath, the great spider is unbelievable, but you follow a religion centered on a homeless brown man who was born to an unwed mother and spent most of his adult life wondering with a dozen other men, in the company of only one woman, and she was a prostitute?”
I said I thought that was a crude way to describe the life of Jesus. He replied, “But that is not the unbelievable part!”
When I asked him his point, he explained. “The followers of this homeless brown bastard who hung out with a dozen men and one prostitute, hate few things more than unwed mothers, homeless people, prostitutes, people of color, and homosexuals.”
As I have stated, I am what might call a nominal Christian, one who is classified as such by birth and culture, but I do carry a Rosary in my left pants pocket. Instinctively, I reached into my pocket and rubbed the comforting beads. The old man noticed the motion in my pocket and gave me a funny look. I sheepishly pulled out the Crucifix and string of beads.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Just hoping to improve my odds of not getting struck by lightning from standing so close to you while you say such outrageous things,” I replied.
“And how is your God’s bolt of lightning different from their great spider’s avenging foot fall?” Papitukan queried.
I thought for a moment. “Well, everyone has seen lightning, no one has ever seen the foot of an inter-galactic spider,” I replied, pretty pleased with my unassailable logic.
“How do you know lightning is not the flash and thunder of the great spider?” he answered. I walked off perplexed. I thought my reasoning was correct. Some people refuse to see logic, even when it is clearly presented to them. But who was refusing to see the truth, me or Papitukan?