Sally Toner

The trickster spider has appeared inside my flesh. She didn’t exist just five months ago in the grey white ocean matter of the mammogram, with all its tributaries. But now her silk spirals out, a clump of mutant cells. She hid those months while I squeezed my nipple between my thumb and index finger, as I pressed and circled outward to check. Then, when she grew large enough, my husband found her, in an act of love that became a harbinger of death. Then they pressed her fresh fleshy home between two pieces of glass. The doctor showed her to me, a two centimeter spot of black. Twang, twang, that’s the fly, the cells caught on the other side. She’ll wrap them up and feed on them later, and then there may be another Anansi, then another, then another.

I didn’t weep like I thought I would when they called with the diagnosis. If you really watch their faces, each health care professional looking increasingly concerned has a funny way of giving the news in stages. The oncologist doesn’t give any numbers. “Staging cancer is so 1990’s,” she says. Numbers are for internet surfing before I take my pills that double as soldiers against nausea and anxiety. The oncologist and surgeon pass the baton and discuss my treatment options. We might outsmart her, Anansi, with chemicals—a pesticide to cut her web. Then a surgery and radiation to finish the job—broom sweeps to destroy the remnants. I don’t need to surf the web to know it hurts.

My youngest daughter is 15. She is fearless, skipping along paths over cliffs during hikes in Maine and dodging lacrosse sticks at lightening speed. But the one thing she is terrified of is spiders, and I must introduce her to Anansi. Once, we had to wait an hour before we drove to school because she saw such an arachnid monster on the back of the passenger seat headrest. It was the size of a pencil eraser, ashen grey, black triangle on its back. I swiped it off like crumbs, and she screamed to wake the dead—pulled her knees to her chest, sucked her hands inside the frayed cuffs of her fuzzy sweater, and shook her head from side to side. Screaming, screaming, until I lied and said I’d found it, set it free. Back then, I believed harming Anansi would anger the gods. Now I know they’re angry anyway. Or maybe they just don’t care.

For now, I’ll flutterpump my wings with all my might—race the salty girl before she scampers down my veins and lays her children. No, they won’t be born. I shall raise my head and fist against the murderous mother, put the key in the ignition, and we’ll all drive on.

Author Portrait

Sally Toner is a high school English teacher who has lived, taught, and written in the Washington D.C. area for over 20 years. Her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in Gargoyle Magazine, The Delmarva Review, Postcard Poems and Prose, and The Great Gatsby Anthology (Silver Birch Press). She lives in the green space of Reston, Virginia, with her husband and two teenage daughters.