Arnold Zable, Judge: Short Story
Cancer Council Arts Awards 2012
Spider vs Twig - Winner: joint
2012 theme: Strength
Judge's Statement -
Spider vs Twig
This piece is distinguished by the writing as well as by its insights. The story is beautifully written and cleverly crafted. The writer traces their encounter with cancer through the metaphor of spiders' webs. The metaphor is sustained, and the story goes through subtle shifts and changes. The spider web is at first a grim reminder of the confronting nature of the experience. In time the web acts as a reminder of life's preciousness and fragility. This entry becomes a wise reflection upon friendship, values, the power of nature, and upon life itself. This paragraph is one of many worth quoting:
For a while I saw the world as if through a web, its greyness and ugliness. And curiously, in those early days, it was a web - a real web - that I came to associate with cancer; why, because on the warm November night of my cancer diagnosis I walked into one. That evening, in the inky velvet dusk, I'd stepped outside, surprised at the ethereal beauty of the night, astonished that the stars had still come out, silvery like sequins, and that a brave butter moon had risen so high above the rooves and television aerials - after a day of such gravitas. In that moment I'd been buoyed by nature's brassy glamour, its ability to carry on with the show. Its chutzpah. >>
Spider vs Twig
by Kerrin O'Sullivan
Where there is no struggle, there is no strength.
For a while I couldn't see what was ahead, wasn't sure where I was going. Forgot how to listen. Could only hear the click of a door as the attendant vacated the room to x-ray my cancer. Could only hear the whir and thump of that great German machine as it delivered life-saving doses of toxic radiation. Could only hear the call of my name in waiting rooms, at hospital admissions, at pathology clinics. And the drumming of the pulse in my ears as I waited for the oncologist to decipher the latest results.
For a while I saw the world as if through a web, its greyness and ugliness. And curiously, in those early days, it was a web - a real web - that I came to associate with cancer; why, because on the warm November night of my cancer diagnosis I walked into one. That evening, in the inky velvet dusk, I'd stepped outside, surprised at the ethereal beauty of the night, astonished that the stars had still come out, silvery like sequins, and that a brave butter moon had risen so high above the rooves and television aerials - after a day of such gravitas. In that moment I'd been buoyed by nature's brassy glamour, its ability to carry on with the show. Its chutzpah.
Then, in that gauzy dusk, a spider's web had clothed my face and masked my mouth with its strands, had made me gasp and gag. Made me fear I would breathe the mass of fibres into my lungs; repulsed me. A web, a simple cobweb. Garden variety nothing special; yet it somehow assumed a size larger than itself, a sort of metaphorical menace. It felt like a sort of omen, a portent of trouble ahead, a prophecy of doom. Mine. The glittery allure of the embroidered night sky evaporated in a flash. In the grainy gloom I clawed at my face, wiping at the sticky thread.
The mind works in strange ways. Somehow the cancer and the web became linked that evening; inexplicably and irrationally entwined. Both part of nature's grand design yet each inviting anxiety and alarm. The claustrophobia of the fibrous mesh, the insularity of illness, the ragged erosion of hope.
In those early days of tests and bills and medical claim forms, of waiting rooms with thumbed magazines and the recipes ripped out, of hospital blend coffee, starched white gowns and ultrasounds, of dull-green corridors and over-bright operating theatres, I stumbled my way through the labyrinth of illness, searching for the map to health. Puzzling, along the way, how to jigsaw together a new future.
Four years have passed. I hear no longer the noise of illness, instead - the music of life. The songs of birds, the buzz of insects. The spider holds no fear for me now. The web that obscured the vision ahead has gone.
Yes, four years have passed. Others have been diagnosed with cancer, and live on. Or not. One dear friend, now gone, inspired all with her catchcry, even when ill, 'How lucky are we?' And those who went to her farmhouse funeral in the shadow of the Strezleckis, were stirred by the stories of her life, to live their own to the full. Amidst the massive gums and warbling magpies, her favourite song - Van Morrison's 'Brown-eyed girl' - rang out in the Australian bush, in memory of a brown-eyed girl who loved life, and was loved.
And I see between us, the well and the ill, a thread binding all in our struggle, fate's metal needle weaving a link between the frail and the robust, the ones both afflicted by cancer first-hand, and by association. A thread you could call a web, linking community. A web without menace, that offers shelter not ambush. Support, rather than the strangling of hope.
Now, oddly, four summers and four winters on since my diagnosis, there is a spider plague in my home-town. Webs are everywhere. Miniature ones stretching from geranium pot to barbecue. Massive ones distended from trellis to climbing rose. I test the delicate filament with my fingertip. Deceptively strong, the strands resist my tentative prod. I increase my armoury; I brush at them with a broom, I break them with a twig.
Each morning curiosity draws me. Overnight a web has been created where the previous evening I'd cleared a void. I study the pattern, the neat concentric circle, the supporting dragline stretched taut, point to point. Attached ever so lightly, yet anchored nonetheless.
I see the dew drops that bulge and sparkle as they cling to the fine silken strand like a bejewelled hire-wire walker; the fairy shimmer of the whole wheeling outwards in radiating circles. This feat of natural engineering, this architectural design gem. A wisp of gossamer as strong as fishing line. How could I have seen it as ugly, or let it obscure the way ahead?
I search each morning for the spider that spins this airy silken citadel in the black of night. I draw courage from this spider, whose work is destroyed each day by wind or rain or broom. But who, the next night, begins again to rebuild the web it needs to survive - resilient, enduring.
And I find the strength to do the same, to put the past behind, and face today anew. To build a future, webbed, supported. The night holds no threat, only the privilege of more lucky hours to weave a web of strength. Come morning, I turn my face to the sun and cancer's shadows fall behind me. Hope is mischievous, it unsettles fear, and anything is possible.
My spider spins its web strand by strand, building strength and support, bit by bit. Even a twig can only deter it temporarily. Oprah's words, Where there is no struggle, there is no strength.
I seek out the web, see its silken beauty, its strength and elasticity.
Cancer. The story of struggle is the story of strength.
© 2012 Kerrin O’Sullivan