This story is set in the world of the novel Semiosis between chapters 3 and 4. It was originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine, March 2008, and republished in Year’s Best SF 14. Photo: fiddlehead fern.
Just before we went into the forest, I found the sort of thing I wanted to show my son.
“Roland, look, there’s a leaf lizard nest that just hatched. They look just like little leaves of grass, don’t they?”
Springtime. Everything was coming to life again. And just beyond arm’s reach, I saw what looked like a dried-up fern but probably wasn’t. I kept an eye on it as my boy and I squatted and studied the ground. The lizards were hard to spot at first, but finally he giggled and pointed.
“They’re very little, Daddy.”
“They’ll grow. But now they’re so little that they can’t hurt you. You can let one walk on your hand.”
And so we did, green whips with legs, just half the length of a five-year-old’s finger. I told him how they hide in the grass, head down, waiting for even littler animals to come past, then they jump down and eat them. That was why if we let our hands hang down, the lizards would climb down to the tips of our fingers. Their natural place to be.
That supposed dead fern next to us had a crown of eyes. Sure enough, it was a mountain spider. Second one I’d seen already our little walk. Why so many this spring? Like a lot of things, they had an Earth name because they were sort of like the Earth creature. From what I gathered, spiders on Earth were never bigger than your hand, but ours were bigger than your head. Both had multiple legs and a poisonous bite. Were ours as aggressive as Earth spiders, which often bit people? Were Earth spiders as smart as ours?
“Let’s put the lizards down so they can get about their lives.” I set my hand on the ground and, with a little encouragement, the lizard climbed off. Roland copied me, and we watched them disappear into the grass.
Then he turned to me, eyes worried. “Do we step on them and we don’t know?”
Good question. Maybe he would grow up to feel like I do about the forest.
“I suppose sometimes. We’re big, so we can’t help making mistakes. I think we should never try to hurt things if we don’t have to. I hunt, you know, but I never kill anything except to eat or to protect us.” But I didn’t want to lecture. “Let’s go into the woods now, okay?”
I didn’t point out the spider. His mother would kill me – or make me wish she would, just kill me and stop yelling – if she knew how close we were to spiders. Not only the one next to the path, but all over. Lots at the riverbank, but everyone knew that because they stole fish. They were in the woods. In the farm fields and orchards. I’d even seen one in the city, and I shooed it out. Most people didn’t notice. If you don’t look hard, you don’t see things.
And if you don’t take advantage of your chances, you lose them. I get time with Roland most days, but never enough. Spring only comes once a year, and a boy is five only once in a lifetime. So off we went. I’d just have to be extra careful.
“Are we going hunting?”
“No. I mean, I thought I’d show you things. There’s a lot to see.”
“Oh, sure. And birds and insects and kats all sorts of things. Listen. Hear that?”
“Pii, pii,” he repeated.
“Exactly. That’s a turnstone lizard.”
“More lizards! I can’t remember so many lizards.”
I spotted it near a stump. “I know, it’s hard. There’s lots and lots of kinds. Shh. See it? It’s black and white and brown with big stripes.”
I knelt and helped him spot it.
“Wow. It’s a jewel lizard,” he said.
“Not quite. You wouldn’t want it in your garden. It digs things up. Do you see what’s next to it? That dead bush? It’s getting closer and closer. . .”
The bush, of course, was a stick-feather bird. It suddenly grabbed the lizard, bashed its head against the stump, and began to tear off legs to swallow. Roland jumped to his feet.
“Animals hide in the woods,” he said. “Eagles sometimes. Mommy says the woods are dangerous. That’s why I can’t go there alone.”
Mommy says – of course she does.
“We make sure the eagles stay away,” I said. “There are things to watch out for, but mostly the things that hide want to hide from us, not to get us.” Mostly. I didn’t want him scared, so I’d have to find something non-scary fast. “Let’s keep going.”
He seeming relieved to get away from the bird. We walked a little, then I had an idea. “Can you think of other things that hide?”
“Hide?” He looked around.
“How about kats?” I suggested. “Why is their fur green?”
“Um, they’re green so they can pretend they’re grass lizards. A whole lot of them.” He laughed. A joke, apparently. So I laughed too.
Then I saw a good example.
“How about that, there on the tree trunk? That’s lizard poop for sure, right?”
“No, Daddy. It’s not.” He had me figured out.
“Right.” I reached out and nudged it. It flew away.
He shrieked with delight. “A poop bug!”
“A blue firefly, actually.”
“That’s a firefly? They’re so pretty. Everybody likes to watch them.”
“Their light is pretty. But when they land, they look like poop so that birds and lizards don’t eat them. Most people don’t know that. They just look at the lights that fly around at night and don’t find out about what’s making the light. But now you know.” Our eyes met, sharing a secret.
Just above us on the tree, I realized, there was a spider close enough to reach out and touch my shoulder.
“Let’s keep going and see what else we can find.”
“What if kat poop is really little bugs? I mean, little bugs that looked like kat poop?”
“You really like kats, don’t you?” The city kept a colony of pet kats. “What do you like about them?”
He began to tell me about the dance he and the other children were learning with the kats, and demonstrated the steps. I tried to pay attention, but I kept thinking about the spiders.
Far too many of them. They usually lived in the mountains just below the tree line, rarely in our woods. Maybe they’d had a population explosion. Maybe the weather, cool and dry for springtime, made them feel comfortable lower down. Maybe our colony attracted them. Or maybe something was pushing them down, like predators or hunger.
I spotted something Roland needed to know about, and I hoped it wouldn’t scare him. I’d try to make it sound good.
“I’ll show you something else that’s not what it seems like. See those flowers? Those are irises. See how they sparkle? Very pretty. But don’t touch them. They have tiny pieces of glass on them, and they’ll cut you. Do you know why? Because they like blood. It’s good fertilizer. Now don’t be scared. Just know what they are and don’t touch.”
“They’re very sparkly.”
“Yes, they are.” Not far away, a spider sat in a tree over a patch of moss that was really a kat, flattened to the ground, hiding in plain sight. I took a step to lead Roland away before the spider figured it out, but the boy wouldn’t move.
“They’re like jewel lizards,” he said. “The flowers look like red lizards and yellow lizards.”
“You’re right. I never noticed that, but they do look just like lizards.”
“Maybe the flowers catch things that think they’re going to catch lizards.”
“I bet that’s it. Pretty smart to see that.” Why hadn’t I before? I complain that people don’t look, and I don’t look myself sometimes.
“They can’t catch me,” Roland said, “because I’m smarter than they are!”
“Exactly. Let’s go. You know, when we have our hunters’ meeting, you should come and tell us about that, about the flowers. We’re always trying to figure things out. Well, that’s something that you figured out about irises.”
“Me? I can talk at the hunters’ meeting? Really, Daddy?”
“Yes, you can. The discoverer gets the honors.” I’d watch him talk and feel proud of my boy.
We were desperate to know more about the spiders. Their venom could kill a kat or other fair-sized animal. No one knew what it could do to a human and no one volunteered to find out. They never attacked us, either, though if you got too close to a nest, they’d gibber and wave their legs and snap their jaws to drive you away. They’d steal, too. Fishing crews had to watch out. They moved too fast for us to catch them and dodged arrows like it was a game. In fact, they had figured out the range of our arrows and knew to stay just beyond it.
We often met and talked about spiders, everyone together: hunters, farmers, fishers, even the kitchen crew, because our kitchen garbage might attract them so it couldn’t be dumped just anywhere. We never could dump it anywhere, actually, but spiders had people scared. Tiffany, for example, Roland’s mother, who for one brief time made herself seem like the perfect woman for me – but that’s another story – was preaching extermination. I worried that if we started a fight, the spiders might keep it going. As the lead hunter, I needed to offer a plan of my own.
Honestly, I didn’t know enough about spiders to know what to do.
“What’s that?” Roland said, grabbing my leg and hiding behind it. Something was crashing through the underbrush toward us. I knew right away.
“Over there?” It was moving fast and barking loud.
“It’s big, Daddy.”
I picked him up. “No, it actually isn’t, and it won’t hurt us. It’s just birds, a lot of them. Bluebirds. See?” He hung on tight but leaned to get a better look. “Bluebirds. Hear them bark? There’s lots of barks, so you know it’s not one big animal, it’s a lot of little animals. They like to run around and make a lot of noise so they can scare up things to eat. All in a line, zig-zag. Look, they’re stopping. Maybe they found something. Let’s see what.”
I walked toward them slowly. “Usually they let you get close. When you get too close, they tell you.” I was almost five steps away when the alpha bird turned, barked at me and glared. I took a step back. It went back to eating.
“That’s as close as we can get. They don’t want trouble, so they warn you. They don’t attack if they don’t have to. What do you think they’re eating?”
He leaned out bravely. I leaned with him. The bird turned and barked, casually, just a reminder. I knew what they were eating from the way they were arranged around it, but I waited for Roland.
“It’s purple! Is it a slug?”
“Yes, they like to eat slugs. That’s why you should never hurt a bluebird reef. We want them to live around us, so we respect their homes.”
Slugs. Chunks of mobile slime that dissolve flesh. If there was something to exterminate, those would be it. But we could never get them all.
Where there’s one, there’s more. I heard a sudden hum too close to the left . . . something moved fast. I stepped back. It was a spider wrestling a slug, brown legs wrapped around a purple glob. A brief squirm, then the fight was over. The spider picked it up with four legs and hurried away on the other four, not as fast or graceful as usual but gibbering in a way that I swear sounded proud.
So they caught slugs, and were happy to do it. Efficient, too. News to me, and worth knowing. Just a few animals could do that. Maybe a chemical protected them, or extra-tough skin. It would be more than handy to have another slug-eating animal around. Especially if they turned out to be no more scary than bluebirds. But would Tiffany believe that?
Roland was still watching the birds. Good. The spider fighting the slug might have scared him, and his mother wanted him scared of the forest. I did not. Yet another difference between her and me. She liked safe things, and I liked living things.
Every night I dreamed of the forest, and every day I woke eager to go there. Not everyone did, of course. They liked making things with their hands or coaxing crops to grow. They were satisfied, and who could blame them? But the forest – you’re there, but you don’t make it and you can’t coax it. It’s not even an it. It’s a you, I mean, the forest is alive and does things, reacts, watches, even attacks. Full of tricks and beauty. I hoped I’d showed some of that to Roland. But he was getting fidgety in my arms.
“Time to go home?”
Something in his voice troubled me, and I tried to figure it out as I headed down a trail that led out of the woods. He seemed unhappy. With me? With the forest? Was he bored? Or worse, scared? Good thing I hadn’t pointed out the spiders. Who knows what Tiffany had told him?
We kept talking on our way out. He asked “What’s that?” “What’s that?” about trees, lizard hoots, but more like a game than curiosity. A couple of times I saw him looking in one direction while he asked about something the other way. Young children had short attention spans. We probably had been there too long.
I set him down when we reached the fields, and he pointed at a lentil tree, its purple leaves contrasting with the greening fields around it.
“Mommy says you have to grow them far apart so if one gets scorpions, they doesn’t get all the trees,” he said.
I knew that, but didn’t want to disappoint him. “Is that why? So there’s a tree here, and there, and way over there.”
“And you have to prune them. Every spring.”
“Carefully, I bet.”
“Very carefully. And you can’t plant snow vines next to each other. They fight.”
“Like this?” I raised my fists.
“No. With roots and, um, with just their roots. It’s very challenging to maintain an orchard.”
Those were Tiffany’s words exactly, right down to her intonation. Of course, she spent more time with the boy, so she had a bigger influence, and maybe he’d grow up to tend orchards or crops instead of hunt in the forest. Perfectly acceptable.
The city rose across the fields, surrounded by a brick wall. Two hundred people. After four generations, we finally had enough to eat, even a surplus. We had domesticated several plants and animals, and were still learning about others. Every year we discovered new surprises about the planet. And every kind of work was needed. Maybe Roland would become a carpenter, a medic, or a cook. All perfectly respectable.
“You know,” he said, “we don’t hide. I wonder what animals think? They see us and we don’t care if they do.” He sounded like a little adult. Who was he copying now? “They think we aren’t scared. If we’re not scared of them, should they be scared of us?”
“That’s a good question.”
“That’s a good question,” he repeated.
Well, maybe I had helped him see that the world could be bigger than you are, and that was okay. Even if you didn’t understand everything in it.
“We have to take care of our trees,” Roland said, sounding like himself again. “If they’re really happy, maybe they can dance.” He looked up. “Are trees happy in the forest?”
“I think so. That’s where they live. Did you like the forest?”
He spent a long moment thinking. “Yes. I saw lots of things.” He looked up with a sly smile. “Daddy, you didn’t see. There were spiders everywhere, and they were looking at us.”