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The Webspinner

The cobblestone dissolved into mud half a mile from the city limits, and the carriage horse was soon pastern-deep in fast-flowing water. It yanked at the reins, cantering blindly into the splattering wind. At last it staggered to a halt, snorting at the rain running ceaselessly down its face. The carriage door flew open, smacking back against the vehicle in the clawing grip of the wind. A man sprung out into the rain and shouted thanks back at the coachman, who didn’t respond, and the storm-shy horse lost no time in turning back toward the city.

A ways off the road and up the hill stood a three-story Gothic Revival house, peering through the cloudy branches of rustling silver willows. Too tempest-tossed to search for a path to the door, the visitor cut across the sodden lawn, zigzagging around standing water, and tripping over live branches that the storm had ripped from the willows. He jumped over the steps, plastered himself against the door to escape the torrents, and started raking his fingers through his thick dark hair, trying to correct some of the storm’s damage before entering.

The door opened before he knocked, and someone dragged him through it. “Falke! I didn’t expect you in this storm.” The other man closed the door behind him.
“Then why were you waiting at the door?”

“I saw the carriage, who else could it be?” said the owner of the house, a man whose superior intelligence was perhaps too clear in his face. “I really wouldn’t have recognized you if I hadn’t known you were coming. It’s funny to think a person like you would ever grow into a man.”

“It seems we’ve all declined, Dr. Metzdorff. I notice you answer your own door now.” The Frenchman glanced around the vacant parlor. There was a pause and the rain tried to penetrate the window panes. Falke’s dark eyes flitted to Metzdorff’s.

“The valet left,” said the German. “So did the housekeeper, though she claims it’s just a little family holiday in Portugal. She’ll be back in June.” Metzdorff sighed, and stroked his mustache, gazing around the parlor in his turn. “I’ll admit, he is unnerving. I’ve never harbored such a stranger in my house in my whole life. As you might imagine, we know nothing about him—how old he is, where he was born, who his parents are, if he has any living relatives…they call him Camille, but we really don’t know his name.”

“Have you tried to speak to him?” asked Falke.

“At every opportunity…the first few days he was here. All the time he spent in that Parisian asylum being treated like a mindless imbecile couldn’t have helped, I daresay.” He paused. “Truly fascinating…it seems that he hasn’t a notion that he even could speak—or is expected to. Not only doesn’t he speak, but he clearly has no use for written language or even the most common ability to understand postures or facial expression, let alone utilize them himself. And yet…he appears to have otherwise, a perfectly developed mind.” Metzdorff’s green eyes lifted away from the younger man’s gaze. “There’s the ghost now.” Falke turned around.

Standing on the stairs was something that was more believably a figure in a painting than a living human. He was tall, but of a fragile build, with a cold alabaster complexion and empty, harrowing, blue eyes. Yet, he looked nothing like a madman. He was dressed rather extravagantly, and stood like an aristocrat’s portrait. His shoulder-length red hair was impeccably groomed and combed of to one side. His hand, like a white spider, half-veiled in lace, rested on the ebony rail, inanimate.

“He doesn’t look any more deranged than the usual Parisian coxcomb,” said Falke in a low tone. Metzdorff shook his head. He stepped toward the stairs.

“Camille, I’d like to introduce you to Dr. Eugene Falke, from Paris. We were colleges back in ‘fourteen, when I was completing my doctorate, and he was beginning his. He’ll be staying with us for a few days.” Camille came to the bottom of the steps and passed the doctors without pausing or even looking at them. They turned and watched him as he passed through the parlor like a wisp of smoke in a draft. He disappeared through a side door and that was all that Falke saw of him until that night.

When dusk fell, the two psychiatrists discussed the case in full. Meztdorff closed the door of his study and walked to his desk. “They found Camille in the summer of eighteen-ten. Someone had dropped him off at an orphanage without giving any information on his identity or background. He should certainly have been old enough to talk by then, but he wouldn’t say a word. When this continued they had a doctor examine him, thinking perhaps he was deaf and mute. But the doctor found there to be nothing wrong with his hearing or his vocal apparatus. A year later, it became clear that his behavior was decidedly abnormal, and they took him to an asylum in Paris, where he lived until a month ago, when I took him out of it.”

“Did they try to get him to speak in the asylum?” asked Falke, sitting down and eyeing a stuffed jackdaw on the windowsill across the room.

“They worked as best they could with him for the first year, but after that, no one tried. In spite of his seemingly complete inability to communicate, Camille exhibited no other unusual behavior or disability. He was capable of living just as independently as a healthy person, if not more so.” Metzdorff opened a cigar box and handed one to Falke. “When I came to Paris, I was the first in over twelve years to speak to him. I told them that I was intent on correcting his problem, but they wouldn’t take it seriously. The French are so determined to outright mock everything–not you, of course.” Falke nodded. “I had no choice but to take him back to Germany if I wanted to continue my work in peace. But now that we’re here…” the German sighed and scowled at the floor. “It’s so hard to keep working when there’s no change from one day to the next. He doesn’t even look at me when I try to get his attention, unless I startle him. I can’t imagine spending a whole year talking to him like they did. It’s like talking to a man a world away.”

There was a long pause. “You know, Dr. Metzdorff, the Parisians could be right. He may never speak,” said Falke. His dark eyes sparked brightly. “But you did the right thing to take him out of the asylum. I’m already convinced that he’s not insane.”

At that moment, the bolt in the door jingled and Camille entered the study. He closed the door behind him and stood for a moment with his back against it, staring around at the towering shelves of leather-bound nonsense that fortified the room. “What are you doing here?” asked Metzdorff to no effect. Camille wandered over to the window and sat down beside the jackdaw. “He rarely comes in here. He doesn’t like to be around me, it seems.”

“Maybe he likes me,” said Falke. “Camille,” he called. The patient stared out the window at the deepening dusk. “Camille,” he snapped his fingers. “Camille! Psstt!” He scowled and set his cigar down on an ash-tray. He picked up a heavy book and held it over the floor, then let it drop, flatly. Camille started and looked to see what had happened. As Falke attempted to catch his eyes, he turned back to the window.

“I’ve gotten no further,” said Metzdorff. He took a book off his desk and set to reading it in silence.
After a while, Camille rose from his place at the window and began wandering around the room. Falke watched him as he came across a box on one of the book shelves. He flicked the latch and opened it. The silent blue eyes studied the contents for a while. Though Falke couldn’t see, from his vantage-point, it seemed that the box had several compartments and interior drawers. The mute paused for a moment, gazing into a compartment he had just opened. Then he lifted something out into the lamplight. Falke leaned forward and squinted to see what it was. It was a spool of black thread.

Camille glanced back at the doctors, and Falke tried to catch his eyes, smiling. “Seems the housekeeper didn’t bring her sewing-box to Portugal.” Camille closed the box and sat down in an armchair near the window. He opened his hand and looked down at the spool of thread he had for some reason taken from the box. For a while he stared at it, meditatively unwinding and re-winding several inches if string. After a long time, he rose and returned the spool to the box.

The next morning Metzdorff and his young college breakfasted on coffee and cigars. There wasn’t word between them until Falke slumped back into his armchair and said, “You know, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with him at all.” Metzdorff looked over at him as he gazed out the window into the still morning. “He simply lives in a different realm and doesn’t care to mingle with anyone else. I believe he’s silent by choice.”

“Dr. Falke,” said Metzdorf, “there are silent men in this world, but surely you know that living one’s entire life refusing to communicate with other people is a symptom of a disease.”

“But there’s nothing wrong with him,” he burst out.

The German sighed. “He doesn’t speak.”

The discussion ended. For a while there was nothing but the whispering sound of the willow branches against the window. Falke’s clear, dark eyes roved for a minute, and then settled on the jackdaw on the windowsill. He rose from his chair, scowling, and approached it as if it might fly away. “What is it, Falke?” he heard Metzdorf ask behind him. Shifting his cigar to his left hand, he reached down and ran his index finger along the thread that was wound around the bird’s bill. From there the string trailed downward through the air and over to where it connected by another loop to the mahogany stand of a globe several feet away. The thread doubled back from there and returned to the jackdaw, then back to the globe, and later on in the process it interwove with itself, looking every bit like an enormous triangle section of an orb web.

The two psychiatrists scowled at the thread. “It must be Camille’s work,” said Falke. “I watched him discovering the thread last night.” There was a long silence and Falke walked around the web, viewing it from different perspectives. “Did the doctors at the asylum mention anything like this?”

“No,” said Metzdorff. “Very strange.”

Falke rose from his crouched position and his scowl lightened. “Yes. Very curious.”

The web may have only been of passing interest if it had been an isolated event. Yet, as the time progressed, more and more such creations appeared in various corners of the house. One morning, Falke emerged from his room to find Camille in the hall, running thread to and fro between a table and the splintering window frame. Falke stood leaning on the doorframe, watching him. Camille didn’t glance at him once. He kept weaving. “This hallway is going to be impassible, little spider,” said Falke. “You’ll have to start taking these down, or we’ll be trapped in this house.”

Camille’s eyes flitted back to him for a second, but he didn’t stop. After about five more minutes, he cut the thread between his teeth, and went downstairs. Falke stood silently gazing at the web. He was able to duck under it and go the the other side. This was the largest yet. Metzdoff appeared beside him. He shook his head in dismay. The two went downstairs without comment.

Day after day, Falke watched the patient spinning his webs. He spoke to him all the while, asking him questions, teasing him about his unusual hobby. The webs began to fill the house: on the stairway rails and banisters, in the corners of the study, all across windows, and the tops of doorways. They strung between walls, furniture, and woodwork. Falke studied each one as they appeared. What he found to be the strangest part was that the only room that still didn’t contain one was Camille’s room. In fact, the more Metzdorff and Falke trafficed an area, the more Camille spun webs of thread there. As doorways became ever more the sites of knew weavings, moving about in the house, as Falke had been warning the spinner, became quite difficult.

“I’m going to be as mad as anyone in the Paris asylum if this doesn’t subside,” said Metzdorff, tapping his fingers on his coffee cup. “I didn’t think he would keep doing it for so long.”

“Perhaps we’re already mad,” said Falke, laughing. “All along, we’ve mistaken a spider for a man.”

“You don’t suppose it would upset him if we were to take a few of them down?” suggested Metzdorff.

“You might try it. It might be interesting to see if it does. But really, I think things are progressing quite favorably at the time. It might not be good to disrupt the situation.”

“How do you mean? What’s gotten better?”

“At least now we have positive symptoms. The webs—they’re easier to study than the words he doesn’t say.”

Metzdorf sighed. “Maybe you’re right, but the webs only confuse me. What do you think about them?”

Falke smiled, staring at the spiraling funnel-web between two bookcases across the room. “I’m only speculating just now. But I think they mean something.”

“Mean something?”

“Just wait. We’ll see what else he does.”

Time passed, and one day Falke observed that there had been no new webs lately. “I hid the thread from him,” said Metzdorf. Falke raised his eyebrows. “I can’t stand it anymore, Eugene. I had to do it. They do something to me, psychologically.”

“What will he do?”

“I don’t know. I almost hope he’ll forget about the whole ridiculous obsession entirely. Listen, I want you to help me clear away these awful things.”

Falke looked around the cobwebby parlor. “But, Metzdorf–”

“They’re driving me mad.”

For a while, the circumstances at the Metzdorf house seemed to ameliorate, but time progressed, and Falke sensed something else was afoot. There was a problem with Camille. He wandered through the house, pacing, and sighing and knocking things down with obvious intention. His condition worsened every day and it was easy to see that he was going into a black humor. Falke didn’t tell Metzdorf, but both silently knew it was because he couldn’t find the thread.

In five days, the last remnants of Camille’s webs were cleared from the house. By this time, the patient didn’t eat or sleep. Neither did Metzdorf. Camille had upset an entire table at three in the morning like an angry poltergeist, rousting the German doctor from his room after his first hour of rest all night. At dawn Metzdorf set out on a weekend trip to a neighboring city. He left Falke alone to manage Camille’s ever-intensifying fits of melancholy.

The front door closed, and Falke stood alone in the parlor. Rain tapped at the blurred window panes, and the light glowed dim and gray from outside. Falke sighed. He turned and looked up at the balcony at the top of the stairs. “Camille?” he called. “Camille?”

There wasn’t a sound.

Falke didn’t see Camille until late that night. He must have either gone outside or retreated into some far corner of the house and hidden. After an entire day quite alone in the house, Falke retired to Metzdorf’s study to pursue some of the non-academic reading he had discovered in there the other evening. He dragged an armchair up so he could cross his feet on the desk and slouched down into it, opening a novel he wondered if Metzdorf had actually read. As he got started, he heard the sound of someone shifting in the room. When he looked up, Camille was there.

The mute stood leaning on the wall between the mahogany doorframe and the soaring bookcases. His hands hung limply at his sides and his still eyes gazed through the ornate Turkish ceiling panels. Falke stared at him for a while and then smiled, shaking his head and going back to his reading. He read through three pages before bothering to look up again. Camille hadn’t moved. He clapped the book shut. Camille jerked. “Posing for your portrait? I’ve never been good with paint.” He put the book down and took his feet off the desk. “Posing for your death-mask, are you?”

Falke got up and stood next to him. Camille looked at him the same way one might look at a drifting cloud or a passing train. Falke patted his shoulder. “Are you feeling alright? You look very tired. Maybe you ought to go to sleep.” Camille looked away and leaned his head against the bookcase. Dr. Falke pressed his lips together and scowled. He ran his hand down Camille’s sleeve and sighed, looking down at the floor. Then he walked over to the desk and opened a drawer, taking something out. He returned to Camille and snapped his fingers in front of his face.

Camille glanced at him, seemingly somewhat invaded, but his eyes focused on Falke’s other hand as he lifted it up. “Or maybe this would help?” It was a spool of thread.

Camille took the string and walked away. Dr. Falke leaned out the door and watched him going off down the hallway until he turned a corner and was out of sight. He smiled.

The next morning dawned dark and Eugene Falke awakened late without the restrictions of Metzdorf’s schedule. He phlegmatically went about dressing and boiling water for coffee, not expecting to see Camille, but keeping an eye out for any webs that might have appeared overnight, nonetheless. He sat down to coffee and mentally remarked on the heavy rain flattening the lawn outside. Then suddenly, he saw someone out there running to-and-fro among the willows. He set down his cup and leaned toward the window, staring in earnest. It was Camille. He got up and rushed out onto the doorstep.

“Camille!” he called. “Camille? What are you doing out here?” Whatever it was, he wasn’t going to let the doctor distract him from it. He kept dodging to and fro between the trees. Falke ran out through the rain. “What are you doing?” he demanded. Camille’s bright eyes darted back at him from behind his drenched, disheveled locks, and their gazes met directly for an instant. “Spinning?” Falke asked. He had the spool in his hand, and was stringing thread back and forth between the trees. He ran back and started weaving another line back through the framework he had started. He had established what looked exactly like the support threads of an orb web. For a quarter of an hour, Falke stood and watched the weaver’s progress under the pouring rain. He had become so incredibly dexterous in his craft, that it took him no longer to complete the web.

Camille watched the end of the thread dangle from somewhere near the center of his web. Falke stood on the other side of the great circle, staring. He looked up from the rain-beaded strings and started. Camille was trying to find his gaze. “Camille, what is this?” Falke asked. The patient didn’t answer but he came to him eyeing his creation with an artist’s discrimination. He stopped a pace away from Falke, and looked at him again. Then he looked down at the empty spool in his hand. He met the young doctor’s eyes for the third time in the past minute, and gave him the spool. For a moment they were still. Finally, Camille turned and walked toward the house. Falke watched him go in, playing with the spool between his fingers. A smile broke over his face.

“I didn’t leave you with instructions because I didn’t think it was necessary, Eugene. I thought you would know that I wouldn’t tolerate any more of this–”

“But it’s fantastic, Doctor, what’s happened!” Falke leapt up from his seat. “Camille is perhaps for the first time in his life trying to contact our world. He’s reaching for it, with the help of a lot of string and an admittedly strange talent. And you absolutely must watch him. If only you would take an interest in what he does. Can’t you at least pretend?”

Metzdorff rubbed his creased forehead in dismay. “This isn’t what we want. You can’t feed the man’s obsessive mania. Can’t you see he has to speak?”

“Why?”
“Falke, don’t be a fool. You know you can’t survive in the world at large weaving strings in every door and window. You can’t disturb the world with nonsense and expect them to appreciate it somehow. Either we teach him to speak of he dies in an asylum, in Paris or elsewhere.”

“I’ll take him in. He can’t be isolated from the world he’s trying so hard–in his own mysterious way–to speak to. Send him back to the asylum and he’ll never resurface. We can’t do that. Don’t you see?”

“I see abnormal absurd behavioral handicaps that might someday be eliminated if I had the cooperation of my fellow doctors. You’re as bad as the rest of them, Falke. You have your own way of mocking my attempts. Now come. We have to take down all this string and destroy it. We can’t allow Camille to touch another spool until his madness has subsided.” He got up and went to the doorway into the wing which was shrouded by a beautiful web of silver thread, rendering it impassible. He took a handful of the thread and tore it down. “Unless you’d rather go back to Paris today. In which case, I’ll gladly pay your way.”

Falke sighed, and went upstairs to get a pair of scissors. For the rest of the afternoon, the two doctors went about their work without further discussion. Each had sunken deeply into his own mind. Falke was still mutely arguing with Metzdorff’s authoritative decision, still wishing, with every tangled wad of string he threw into the fire, that the older doctor would stop for a moment to observe the earnest care invested into each supposedly meaningless turn and loop in the thread.

He gritted his teeth and snipped the last line of thread hanging from a high window-frame. Gathering the ratted mass off the floor, he turned and looked up to see Camille standing there, staring down at the remains of his creation. His eyes were heavy and motionless. Falke shrugged, guilt-stricken. “I’m sorry, Camille. Doctor’s orders.”

He went downstairs and into the kitchen where he tossed the string, like last year’s bird’s nest, into the old woodstove. When he turned around, Metzdorff was coming in with a final handful. “I think that’s all. He’s used every last spool in the house. I’ll have to be sure to get Gertrude some more before she comes back.” As he shut the stove there was a creak from the floorboards in the doorway. They looked up and saw Camille gazing at the flames through the grillwork on the door of the stove. He didn’t look at either of the men before he turned and wandered off.

For the next few days, the house was very quiet.

They rarely saw the mute during that time. Occasionally, Falke would glance out the window and see him for a moment in the back garden. But the moment he looked away, he would vanish like a ghost. One night, vary late, he found him in the kitchen, staring into the glowing flames of the stove, perfectly still and unresponsive to anything in the present moment.

Neither did he have tantrums anymore. He didn’t kick a single doorframe or knock so much as a paperweight off Metzdorff’s desk. Falke became almost panic-stricken several times when he couldn’t find the patient anywhere he looked. The house was large and easy to hide in for one who knew it well, but Falke was so concerned about the state of Camille’s silent mind that his dramatic imagination carried him away quickly. In spite of this, he fought with Metzdorff only once over the decision to deny Camille his thread. From then on, he was silent as Camille on the matter. Metzdorff insisted that the patient was no longer distressed, and had probably forgotten the whole episode.

Then, two weeks later, something very strange happened. Metzdorff and Falke had spent the evening reading in the study. It grew dark outside, and a gusty wind wuthered around the Gothic peaks of the Metzdorff estate. As Falke sat, half reading, half listening to the unnerving rattling and whistling at the windows, the door opened and Camille was there. Both doctors looked up at him. He hadn’t willingly been in the same room with them since they burned the last of the thread. He entered and quietly went to sit by the window–the window with the jackdaw in it—and then, he was still.

The doctors slowly went back to their reading. A heavy sigh of wind trailed off into quiet for a minute and there was another sound from outside. In a tree near the window there was a nightingale. It huddled against the dripping branch in the cold, dark wind, and sung its clear chirping call into the inky night. It sung again and again, the soft voice echoing out into the stifling wind. Falke looked up from his book, scowling pensively. “Do they often sing on nights this stormy?” he asked.

“Who?”

“Nightingales.”

Metzdorf turned a page. “They’ll sing whenever another nightingale’s near enough to hear them, I suppose.” Falke sat listening to the bird out in the darkness, having forgotten the book on his lap. After several minutes, the nightingale stopped singing, or perhaps flew into the woods nearby for better shelter, and more company. Leastwise, the wind was the only sound again. Falke looked toward the window and his eyes settled on Camille.

Camille was gazing up into the blackness of the sky. His eyes were wide and searching. A tension had come into his face that Falke had never seen before. The young doctor rose. “Camille, are you alright?” As he spoke, a tear plummeted down the mute’s cheek, and he hid his face. Quickly, Falke came to him and gripped his shoulder. “What’s the matter?” Suddenly, the tragedy of it all seized him.

Perhaps…Camille really couldn’t tell them. They would never know. Whatever made him suffer assailed him in his own world, in isolation and silence, somewhere too far away for the rest of humanity to hear him scream.

Metzdorff now rose from his seat and stood scowling across the room, holding his book by the cover, forgotten. Then, very quietly, Camille started to cry vocally. That voice had been unheard for at least two decades. The two doctors stood for some time, paralyzed and thunderstruck. At last, Camille lifted his head again, staring once more out at the thrashing night. He sighed…and half a minute passed.

Then, Falke said, “What’s wrong, Camille? What is it?”

The wind died. Camille breathed heavily or a few minutes, staring out the window. He swallowed once, blinking liquidly. “The string,” he breathed.

Falke almost choked on his breath. “You want more thread? Is that it?”

Camille swallowed, nodding slightly.

Falke’s eyes, enormously earnest, went to Metzdorf. “By all means!” the German burst out. “Give the man his string!” He seized Falke’s shoulder. “Falke–”

“I’ll go tonight. I don’t mind walking in the rain.”

“No, don’t go all the way to town, go to the neighbors. If they’re asleep wake them up. Tell them I sent you—and we’ve got to have thread.”

When morning came, the sky was still, and overcast. The light came softly, and expectantly, through the windows. The doctors came down the stairway together, cordial for the first time since they had cleared away the webs. Falke reached out his hand and stopped Metzdorf halfway down and they stood gazing at the room below. It was shrouded in Camille’s webs. The newborn sunlight filtered through weavings of gold and red and royal blue that decorated the windows, and a half-rosette of black and silver radiated from the banister. The doctors wandered through the gallery in silence, staring.

Then there was a foot step behind them. They turned back. There stood Camille, a new spool of fawn-colored thread in his hand. He led them to the door and opened it to the misty morning. They followed him outside. For a moment, he stared at the grove of whispering willows, reviewing the distances between them. Then he leapt off the porch and ran out to them, anchoring his thread. He started to spin.

They watched him for nearly an hour. At last he finished, thrilled and exulting in his work. He drifted back to the porch where they stood, still frozen where they had been when he started. As he went into the house he turned back to face them. He looked from one to the other, and then his eyes settled on Metzdorf. He smiled and closed the door behind him.

“Do you suppose he’ll ever speak again?” asked Falke, at length.

“Who knows?”

Falke laughed to himself and started down the porch steps, going out to the willows. Metzdorf glanced back at the door, and then stared after him. Then his eyes re-focused to a ghostly orb of spider-silk, rippling gently, and shimmering with tiny globes of dew. He sighed. “Very strange.”