Dr. A. A. Quraishy
She is a fantasy turned into a reality. Although living under water, devoid of gills, she never suffocates, there are no paddles, yet she swims. Carrying no cylinder of life-giving air, she can dive and remain submerged for quite some time, without gasping. All her relatives – distant as well as close – live on earth, yet she has chosen a medium which her kith and kin fear to touch.
Put her in saline water and she would revolt, thrashing about, jumping and struggling to get out of it. She abhors any salt. A cultured and highly developed being, she would tolerate nothing else but the soft, crystal clear, sky-blue, sweet water. She loves to ski and to gambol, to beat the surface with her little limbs, to splash and enjoy the little spray which clings to her body and softly trickles down, tingling and tickling in its gradual descent towards the center of gravity.
There is water all around her, perpetually. The hungry fish and dangerous crocodiles swim by but never touch her, because she is safe and secure, snoring in a strong silken, impregnable fortress in which not a drop of water can enter. She breathes pure air that she imports and stores carefully in an ingeniously built contraption which never rises or falls.
She rolls and wraps in nothing but the finest silk, manufactured by her to suit her refined taste – a very proud and industrious fellow. Borrowing is unknown to her; every inch of the elastic fabric used by her is her own creation. So adroit is she at the craft that she never runs short of the material – she can produce yards, after yards, weaving and knitting it in any design that suits her whim, or letting it float and wave, admiring it like an artist, as it soars up.
She is neither a fairy nor a mermaid. Equipped with eight legs and equal number of eyes, she lives like a queen: sleeping for as long as she wants and eating whenever she wishes. If the larder is empty, she fills it all by herself. A little brave lady.
But she has her drawbacks too: she is toothless; she therefore, lives on soup throughout her life. After placing the food in the plate, she injects a chemical to dissolve the hard menu into a sort of semi-solid pudding. Dinner takes her long because the process of mixing the drug and the saliva takes times. When it is ready to be slurped, only then it can be drawn up. Strictly a meat eater, she does not like vegetables, for they upset her tummy.
The worst, however, is yet to come. She is a very bad-tempered wife. The husband is constantly afraid of her. She can attack if he has not taken her prior permission to enter her chamber. Any intruding lover, who flouts the code of ethics, is mauled by her. If she is in terrible mood he may even be killed. At times when she feels outraged, she may go berserk and not hesitate in eating a part of the foolish Romeo.
My readers will pardon her barbaric temperament. After all she is a lowly being on the evolutionary scale. People can be strange, and no one is perfect. But she is an excellent babysitter that guards her brood lovingly. The youngsters romp and stray away as soon as they can do so, never to return to thank mummy for the hard work and the tiring, loving care bestowed freely on them: ungrateful, mean brats. Yet she does not blame or reprimand them for this unworthy trait. She did likewise to her parents as is the custom in the clan.
You must have noticed that I am referring this phenomenal being as a female although there are males too. Let me mention, therefore, an interesting Greek legend in this connection. Incidentally, the person involved is a maiden and unfortunately, a cursed one. Arachne, a damsel of lesser rank, as the myth goes, had the audacity to challenge a regal goddess – Athene, to compete with her in weaving. When the imperial goddess found Arachne’s handicraft faultless, she angrily tore it up, terrifying the poor girl, who under the stress of remorse and repentance, hanged herself. Athene, overcome by the sad incident, turned the super weaver into a creature we now know as the spider. The ropes and string became cobwebs. The entire community of spiders in this context is referred to in scientific nomenclature as one belonging to this amusing legend.
The heroine of ours is also a spider, but a very distinctive one, something exceptional and highly evolved to live a life that other spiders do not lead. When hundreds of types of spiders live on earth, why such a freak was created is enigmatic. You will presently see how awesomely difficult it should be for a born tight-rope walker to live under water, while enjoying the glory of a colorful world from a swinging, airy, delicate perch.
To be able to live a submarine life she has been equipped with several adaptations, two of which are outstanding. The first: her ability to create an air bubble on the water surface, to carry it down without breaking and to slip it under the canopy of her nest. The second wonder is to weave a thoroughly air-tight web capable of withstanding the pressure of the surrounding water. Her capability of overcoming the stumbling blocks is marvellous: the spider works under the surface of the water without breathing and she must come every now and then to breathe; besides her web must conform to a very rigid measurement, anchored surely to accommodate the air bubble and to be strong enough to withstand disintegration by the passage of time and resist the chemical erosion by the fluctuating timber of the water.
The readers would recall the amusing, artistic wizard who could create an air bubble and weave a leak-proof silken canopy in which the highly breakable globule could be stored. Since she is not a fish, she cannot breathe like one. And since she must breathe and sleep under water there must be an automatic and effortless method to keep her drowning by choking. The tiny, soft tent is her sweet home and the bubble her oxygen tank wherein she can safely snore without fear.
But it sounds incredible that a lowly being in the evolutionary context, should be able to do so.
Here are the details:
The act of creating a bubble without soap, a bowl and a straw is in itself a piece of marvelous aerobatics. So adroit and faultless is the maneuver that usually in the first attempt a bubble of right dimension and consistency is created. It is achieved by swimming up the surface of the water, projecting the hind legs and half of the abdomen and at an opportune moment jerk the exposed parts, generating thereby a mini splash as the drop of a pebble does. She is quick and in perfect time to encircle the frail bubble between her hind legs and the abdomen. The slightest error or mishandling will send the buoyant weightless dome of nothingness to smithereens with an inaudible “putt,” without leaving a trace or ripple.
You can well imagine how delicate the operation to carry a bubble can be, yet somehow, she does it and the precious load is slipped away under the flabby web which balloons up. The air is replenished as long as the desired space and volume is not achieved.
The spider, obviously, travels without a compass in a medium where getting lost is easy, particularly amongst reeds, weeds, without landmarks or sufficient light to work in. Under such adverse circumstances, she takes the help of the only possible guideline at her disposal – a fine thread of silk anchored at the site of her future home. On her returns she swims back literally feeling her way back by the gossamer, like a mountaineer descending a cliff. The floating threads, later, alert her of any bumping insect for the breakfast.
The pressure inside the puffed-up bell is so adjusted that it matches the pressure on the outside. It may sway with the current, dance with the wave, jolt by the splash of fish, be pushed aside by the marauding turtles but it would neither collapse nor sail away. If the building collapses it would bring indescribable misery to the ego of the humble architect and shatter her confidence. She therefore either builds the best or none at all. And why not, the details of the reinforcement and stress are permanently itched in her primitive, ingenious mind. The data are faultless and the specifications a model of perfect computation.
Having finished the construction she washes up, takes a few deep breaths in the bell and keeps her fore legs out of its border to feel a passing-by prey which when secured is retrieved into the mansion where she breathes while the prey suffocates, for the bell has pure air which the victim cannot breathe.
The night does not frighten the spinning mistress. Her eyes must be able to see in the dark for she prowls during night as well right in the grass and bulrushes perhaps holding her nose with one hand. If the moon is not spreading a silver carpet to make her task easier, the shimmering twinkle of the stars is enough.
Thus, she lives happily, swimming, chasing, missing, eating and going to bed by pulling her legs close to her body confident that the air will not get exhausted in mid sleep. Sounds paradoxical! But a time comes when she feels bored of the routine, she yearns for a mate for fun, for a happy company, to be a mother, to have the pleasure of loving and spanking her babies without which she feels incomplete, wasted. In a nearby bush-and-bell, a male had also experienced an amorous impulse in his heart. The temperature in the water had arisen; the salubrious spring had arrived at last. The male shall have to move out now. Had it been an affair on the good earth it would have been easier. In the water he can communicate only when he enters a bell – a private domain where trespass is a heinous offence. The lady can rush at him, while he is still holding his breathe. So, he makes it a point to keep several neighbouring bells in mind. If he gets snubbed at one, he rushes back to his bell, breathes, and tries a second bell which may be already occupied. Here he faces two adversaries instead of the one in the first bell. Harassed, magnetized, and terrified, he keeps on trying until the lady luck smiles at him!
After a brief courting she pushes out the husband into the cold water, for she has work to do. She wraps her 50 or so eggs in a silken hanky, ties into a neat knot and secures the bundle up in the chamber of the bell. After three to four weeks the eggs hatch. The spider lings emerge by biting through the silken pouch. They stay and shed their skin twice in the air bubble wherein, after this period of home confinement they can contain no more. The bell becomes too small for them and the compelling urge to take the plunge in the wide world brings them out, up and on to the sunlight.
Some stay in the same pond, in an air castle, while others climb to a grassy perch. Fresh and free, they look around for a while and release a thin, silken strand which vibrates in the air, dries up and gains strength. When it has gone a considerable distance, the apprentice paratrooper lets the anchorage float away into the wilderness. If he lands in a pool, he makes a new bell; if he does not it nourishes a bird or its nestling.
The original mother in the meanwhile had recouped, fattened, and lived through the summer. On the advent of winter, she builds a bigger bell, stocking it with plenty of air. As the chill inactivates her and her natural food, she snuggles up and goes to a long sleep lasting over a couple of months. Throughout hibernation she will be immobile, hardly breathing, economizing on the invaluable air to replenish which she would have neither energy nor opportunity.
The winter blizzard and breeze may disturb and sway the grass and the twigs as much as it would like, but the little bubble dweller shall sleep in a cosy silk and air castle which will neither burst nor break.