“The Web” by Cathy Sweeney

I was drinking schnapps in a bar on Pushkin Street with a woman who used iodine instead of lipstick to redden her mouth. When she spoke the skin between her breasts folded and unfolded like paper. I remember nothing else, except the story she told me:

When she was fourteen the woman fell in love with a clerk who worked in her father’s shop but she was forbidden to marry him because he was poor. So she married a man thirty years older than her, a man so dull no one could doubt her love for the clerk. The woman was not unhappy with the old man. At night she sat on his lap knitting shawls while he pretended not to be aroused. They had a child and the old man was grateful.

Years later until the clerk returned to the town and sent the woman a note. They met in a hotel. Taking off her clothes, the woman was conscious of how much she had aged and how cold the room was. The clerk left and the woman went home and warmed her feet between the old man’s thighs.

I too have a story on the theme of love. Maybe I told the red lipped woman my story in the bar that night, but I don’t think so, I was already drunk when she sat down beside me. I am unusual in that regard. Drink makes me taciturn. It is sobriety I have to watch out for. Sometimes I think I have told my story to every woman in every bar in the city and other times I think the story never happened at all.

My story concerns my late wife and took place in the summer of the great heat when weeds grew totalitarian and trees oozed sap in an endless dream. It was so humid I shaved my body hair and took off my clothes, and for a moment the universe was a magnet placed against a fridge; but nothing lasts; night is banked against day; night, then day, night, then day. I was nineteen years old, married and madly in love.

A web grew in our kitchen. At first spindles gathered in the orifice where the wood had cracked, but soon silk threads felt their way over dry brick, and by mid summer I was manoeuvring around the web. The web purported some great change but I did not know what.

Then my wife got stuck in the web. We were, as I have said, madly in love and I desired to see all sides of my wife; the cool side, the kitten side, the side driven wild by extremis. So I left my wife in the web. The only problem was her mouth; it kept moving. Words slammed around the kitchen like knives against plates. On the second day I could bear it no longer and placed fly paper over my wife’s mouth. Fly paper is sticky on both sides and her mouth was soon covered in hard little raisins.

At night I walked the streets to consider the import of having a wife stuck in a web. The idea, so bright and ebullient on conception, had developed grey tones, and the stillness of the river on these nights was soothing. In low light only barges stirred the stillness, the river indivisible in blackness from the blackness of land, the night silent as glass.

My wife became wilder and on the fifth day I untangled her and fed her chicken soup. She soon regained her physical strength and became more energetic in her affection towards me, bestowing the kind of pleasure one expects to pay for, and pain, for she developed a habit of hitting me hard on the mouth. Once, when the edge my tooth tore my lip, she kissed the tart blood warm between us. In the years left we had other trysts, but none as successful as the web.

My beloved wife died some years after the web incident. She was knocked down by a tram not far from the bar on Pushkin Street where I met the red lipped woman. In the depth of my despair I tried to encourage spiders to build another web in our kitchen so that I could relive the beauty of that time, but the spiders just ate the sugar I left out and expired without grace.

Biographical Note:
Cathy Sweeney has written a collection of short stories entitled Stories from the Entrance to Hell. The three stories reproduced here form part of that collection.

We are as forlorn as children lost in the wood. When you stand in front of me and look at me, what do you know of the griefs that are in me and what do I know of yours? And if I were to cast myself down before you and tell you, what more would you know about me that you know about Hell when someone tells you it is hot and dreadful? For that reason alone we human beings ought to stand before one another as reverently, as reflectively, as lovingly, as we would before the entrance to Hell. Franz Kafka

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