Arachien by Gray Winsler

Bug Catcher by TJ Barnwell

By Gray Winsler

Art by TJ Barnwell

Published Issue 112, April 2023

I was numb when the doctor first told me I was pregnant. They were perhaps as shocked as I was. Contraceptives had become so effective, and exo-wombs so popular, that it’d been decades since they’d encountered an “organic” pregnancy. Those were typically reserved for the kinds of people who believed their messiah would soon be bringing about the end of times, Estrians and their ilk.

“How is that possible?” I remember asking.

“I was hoping you might be able to tell me,” the doctor said. “You haven’t taken any fertilizers, have you? Anything that might’ve undone your birth control?”

I shook my head no.

“Well … I suppose nothing is ever 100 percent effective,” they said, with a hint of suspicion. “The good news is that termination at this stage is straightforward.”

Termination. I remember finding that word so clinical, so final. 

“How does next Tuesday afternoon work for you?” they asked.

Your grandmother was the first I told. She did her best to be supportive. She assured me that this wasn’t my fault, that I shouldn’t feel any shame or guilt. “They’re rare, but these things happen,” she said. “In my mother’s time, it might’ve been hard to get an abortion, but for you it’ll be like going to the car wash or getting your teeth cleaned.” 

She went on like that for a time, doing her best to make me feel safe. I love her for that, even if I was hardly listening. All the while I was working up the courage to say:

“I’m thinking … about keeping it.”

I remember she looked confused at first, and eventually said, “Abby, If you think there’s anything wrong with — ”

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with getting an abortion, Mom. I’m just not sure it’s right for me.”

“But Abigail, be reasonable. Do you have any idea of the dangers involved in giving a live birth? What would people think?”

There it was. Hidden beneath her concern for my well-being was a deeper fear — the fear that our social status would be impinged by my pregnancy. 

“I don’t care what people think, Mom. I have to do what’s right for me.”

Your aunt Nikki was similarly concerned, if not for different reasons.

“Why do you want to keep it?” she asked me. “I mean, I know you always planned on having kids, but isn’t it risky this way? How can you control what genes get passed on?”

“You can’t. And before I was pregnant that idea terrified me. But now that I’m here … I don’t know, I just don’t feel as certain as I once did.”

“Well, you’re braver than I am. That’s not the sort of thing I’m comfortable leaving up to chance.”

“What if I didn’t?”

She paused and looked at me.

“I’m thinking of going to Arachien,” I said.

“Arachien? Abs, are you out of your mind?”

“Lots of people go to Arachien.”

“Yeah, and lots of people don’t come back.”

“7 percent.”

“And you’re okay with those odds?”

“If it gives me the chance to see my future …”

“How are you even going to get there? It costs a fortune in travel, let alone finding one of those creatures,” she said with a shiver of disgust.

“Estrians will pay for it. If it means I might keep the baby.”

“Great, so not only might you get killed by a prophetic spider, but you might do it with the funding of a delusional cult?”

“The spider’s not prophetic — that’s just the effect the venom has on humans. And yeah, I might not believe what they believe, but what’s the harm in taking their money?”

It was foolish to go, I admit. It was dangerous for us both. But at the time, it seemed like the only way I could get the answers I needed, the only way I could be sure that whatever decision I made would be the right one. 

It was a month’s journey from Earth. I remember feeling so alone then. The typical Arachien commuters were of the business or political classes — people whose livelihoods depended on the powers of prognostication the spider’s venom offered. I made no friends then. Most of the time I spent journaling, listing out all of the pros and cons of whether or not to keep you. But by the time we arrived, I was no closer to an answer. 

I expected Arachien to feel like the resorts my family retreated to in the bitter northland winters. Warm fireplaces, hot chocolate, more food than you could consume in a lifetime. But the place offered no comfort, no coziness. It was a machine made only to get you from point A to point B. The second I arrived I was whisked away to a mag rail that slithered through the jungle. There were signs that read: “1) Stand beneath the nest. 2) Keep still with your arms at your sides. 3) Wait calmly.” I was told when to get off, and then escorted urgently to the nest that had been reserved for me. “You’ll have 10 minutes in Nest Epsilon,” my escort said before departing. “Good luck.”

And suddenly I found myself beneath a hulking mass that trembled ever so slightly in the wind. I couldn’t say what it was made of — no material I’d ever seen on Earth. But it resembled a pinecone, floating in the sky, tethered by invisible webs. It was only a moment later that the spider appeared, descending on a silken thread. I was lucky everything happened so fast, I hardly had the time to be scared. In an instant its delicate legs were upon me, its hairs bristling against my skin. Fear caught up with me then — I shivered just before its fangs bit down into my shoulder. 

It hurt at first, the way a needle stings when it first pricks your skin. But the pain vanishes quickly, replaced by a rush of adrenaline as the venom courses through your blood. I can hardly bring to words what happened next. I found myself above everything, above the universe. Vast stretches of time sprawled out before me, arcing branches of all the paths the universe might take. I could see it all, the tangled webs of our many lives. I saw many paths with you, and many paths without. Each path imbued with a density of emotions that were unbearable then and still unbearable to think of now. It’s as if you’re living all of your possible lives at once, in one instant overcome with inexplicable sorrow, then next taken by an immensity of joy. I wouldn’t even say “I” was there to experience it. It was like I’d become a vessel, a way for those emotions, those moments to be expressed.

And then it was over, a centuries worth of feelings packed into precious few minutes. I was being escorted back to the very same mag rail I was on just moments before, in a distant haze as my ego fought to piece itself back into the individual it once was. 

I won’t pretend that my journey gave me any kind of certainty as to which path was the right one. Quite the opposite. It made me certain that there is no right path. Only different paths. And perhaps in another life we may walk them all simultaneously, but in this life we must choose. We must give up the infinite so that we may experience the fullness of the finite.

And so you ask me how I chose to keep you? It’s hard to say exactly. But I remember on that long journey home I found myself lost in vanishing glimpses of those different lives, days disappearing in memories that had not come to pass. And though you were no more than a pecan-sized fetus at the time, when I rubbed my hands over my belly it was as if I could feel you tumble inside me, a tiny patter of kicks upon my palm. And for the first time in weeks, I couldn’t help but smile. 

Gray Winsler is the first ginger to be published in Birdy Magazine, Issue 091. He loved living in Denver despite his allergy to the sun and is now based in Ithaca, NY. He spends his mornings with his dog Indy by his side, writing as much as possible before his 9-to-5. If you’re curious about Normal, IL or why TacoBell is bomb, you can find more on his site.

Check out Gray’s March short story, Descendants, or head to our Explore section to see more of his work.

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