Michael Ortiz Hill

Common, fragile, frightening to some -- yet I rarely stop thinking about the old woman. Singular but everywhere -- gauze of webs between dusty oak and low chaparral, hunting at night or sitting for weeks completely still around an egg sac in the center of her orb. The Navajo call her Na'acjei edza, Spider Woman.

They say she carries the sacred wind, the nilchi'i, that swirls clockwise but also counterclockwise, meaning she weaves but also unweaves. She blesses the hands of the women at the loom, the children who make figures with string; but I believe she also follows the line of this pen across the page: image, story, pattern, the making and unmaking of meaning. It is she who extends the thread in the darkening maze, and the thread itself is the beginning of a story.

My favorite story about Spider Woman is told by the Hopi.

Long, long ago, it seems, before the Winter Solstice, the world grew cold as it drifted from the sun. The elders, which is to say the animals, held council.

Bear, all hair and muscle, cast a rope to pull the sun back but couldn't. Wolf tried but collapsed in exhaustion. Finally, to great laughter, Grandmother Spider said, "I can do it!" And so she did: Casting out a thin thread, she drew the sun in, deft movement of eight thin legs, effortless.

When I was in Africa the first time, Augustine Kandemwa asked me the name of the spirit that sent me to seek initiation. "The spider," I answered. "She makes connections." I told him the Hopi story and sang a song to her I'd composed from my scant Navajo. Although Augustine hadn't heard of Spider Woman, he'd had visions of interconnectedness; so he helped me translate my song into simple Shona.

When I returned to Africa a few months later, I was surprised to find that the old woman had begun trance possessing him when he did healings: frail, bent over, his long fingers now her legs running over the bodies of patients.

A year later, my wife and I were performing the wedding ceremony for Augustine and the clan dreamer, Simakuhle Dube. At the beginning of the ceremony, I was pouring a bowl of traditional beer into the dirt for the ancestors and noted a lovely green spider on the back of my forearm. When I stood up and raised my arm to Augustine, he received her in his cupped hand and began trembling, eyes rheumy, teeth clattering. I was crossculturally out of my depth. I'd never performed a wedding ceremony before, much less one in which the groom suddenly became a spider. But when I tried to understand "her" point of view, looking out at this ragtag community of Shona and Ndebele tribespeople, a sweet Jewish woman from Brooklyn and her young Anglo-Mexican husband from Santa Fe, I could see there was weaving to be done. I circumambulated the group, clockwise, silently singing while Deena performed the rites.

This brief story is like a spider just hatched -- wisp caught by wind to land where? Trance possession isn't part of the Navajo or Hopi tradition, but in Zimbabwe it's at the core: The spirits come from elsewhere into the bodies of devoted souls to share wisdom and healing with the community. Where a story alights one can never know nor can one guess its consequences, but it's clear that Spider has woven meanings that are completely African.

Human culture began a few hundred thousand years ago in the African bush, the clan around a fire telling stories. And culture began ending a few decades ago in the blue glare of the TV, the story-telling machine that plugs us into the most trivial possible reflections of who we can be.

Few are truthful about the real dread of the times we live in. The bleaching out of the dimensions of a layered story -- laughter, pathos, ambiguity, sorrow, imagination -- leaves us without a sense of meaning that is convincing to the soul. Without story the ancestors have no place to be, no place to breathe. Without story they are vagrant, can't find the path to the home they might share with the living and thus can't impart what we need to know. And so it is for their sake and ours that we're alert to the telltale threads and where they might lead. The future may well depend on it.

Following the thread: Having written those last solemn words last night, it's become clear this essay demands a postscript if only because one story always leads to another.

I call my typist, Anne, to arrange to drop this essay off after my graveyard shift. She apologizes that she's late with FAXing my previous piece. "The room where the FAX machine is is full of spiders," she explains. "I counted four black widows."

"Black widows?" I said, smiling absently. "They're really very quiet. They won't leap at you. I used to collect them when I was a kid. Sweet creatures, actually." My mind was in two places -- feeling slightly embarrassed that once again I'd lapsed evangelical and sentimental about the lives of bugs and at the same time thinking about the occupation of the FAX machine, which I can only read as a political act. FAX machines, cell phones, e-mail, the World Wide Web, etc. -- technology has engulfed whole myths, cycles of interconnectedness, and sucked the poetry out of them. If I were a black widow, I might occupy a FAX or two myself.

"Now, Michael," says Anne, "I know you like spiders." (I didn't know it showed.) "I don't dislike them myself. My house is filled with little webs, and I don't bother them. It's just these ones that kill you -- the widows and the little brown fiddlers, and then there are the ones whose front legs curl sideways that are just mean. They've got to go. I'm getting rid of them all on Friday."

"Don't worry, Anne, I'll take care of them when I drop off my article."

Summer solstice and a full eclipse of the sun in Zimbabwe: connections. Why not a little ritual of gratitude?

And so it will be. Following the story where it leads, I'll have breakfast in the hospital cafeteria, then drive to Anne's house armed with a styrofoam cup and a plastic grocery bag and say good morning to the grandmothers. Where to take them? Well, there's the edge between the low chaparral and the dusty oaks downhill from my ancestors' altar. Spiders seem to like that place.