Working title: “The Starving Artist”

Bedtime has been even more of a struggle recently, particularly with getting Arlo, five and one-third years old, to prepare for reading and then settle down enough to fall asleep. Getting him to take off his clothing, go to the bathroom, and put on clean clothes (by choice, he sleeps in the outfit he’ll wear the next day, and I’m completely fine with this because it saves time in the morning AND laundry *win-win*). I’ve been trying different methods to help him through this process, and one night I said I’d tell him a story while he got ready if he worked steadily until he was ready to brush teeth. The idea came to me spontaneously, so I had neither plot line nor characters in mind, but I started with “Once upon a time, there was a spider” as a hook because my child truly loves bugs and spiders, especially spiders. (He wants a tarantula pet for Christmas. Send help.)

“Once upon a time, there was a spider. She was a young spider and had just discovered her ability to make webs, which she found to be a delightful pastime. She scouted for a while and found a perfect spot between two branches of a sturdy tree for her to practice weaving. She worked all day to perfect her web–tightening here, strengthening there, adjusting left and right, until she’d spun the most intricate, elaborate, magnificent web she could imagine. Very happy with her work, she settled herself in the middle of it, tucked all eight of her tired legs up under her, and took a nap. A few minutes later, she awoke to find her web being jostled roughly back and forth. She felt like she was on a trampoline!” (Every other sentence or so I had to pause to give Arlo reminders, so this story was by no means uninterrupted.) “Well, she looked around to see what had caused this motion in her web and was surprised to see a praying mantis lodged in the lacework. She hurried over to him, and he greeted her with a smile. ‘Well, hello, there!’ he said. ‘Isn’t this a mighty fine canopy we’re sitting on? I mean, it’s just a beautiful piece of art! I wonder who wove this incredible creation!’ The spider cocked her head at him and said, ‘Oh, well, thank you! I wove this web myself.’ The praying mantis clapped his hands over his mandibles. ‘You don’t say! YOU are the artist behind this creation?! My, I am impressed. I can tell you put a lot of energy into making this! Might I also compliment you on those strong, nimble legs of yours? And you have so MANY of them! Why, you just look so different from me, different from anything I’ve ever seen, and I think that’s just exquisite! What are you, do you mind my asking?’

“Well, the spider had never encountered such a genteel fellow, and she was touched by his friendly kindness. She replied, ‘Aren’t you generous! I’m a spider. Have you never seen a spider before?’ The praying mantis clasped his front legs, wiggled his antennae, and said, ‘I most certainly have not, but you are remarkable indeed! I am very glad to have met you and seen this amazing thing you call a web. What do you do with this web? Or is it simply a decoration?’ The spider shifted uneasily. ‘This web is for catching insects,’ she responded. ‘Oh,’ said the praying mantis, ‘isn’t that wonderful! A work of art that attracts attention in a most unique way! And it really works, because I am an insect! Why is your target audience the insect world, might I ask?’ The spider wrung at least half of her hands. ‘Well, it’s because…it’s because spiders eat insects. We catch our meals in our webs,’ she said sadly. ‘Oh my goodness,’ was the mantis’s reply. ‘It’s even more magical an invention than I thought! It’s not just a bit of art that attracts an audience; it also puts food on the artist’s table! Well, I never. I can’t believe I was able to meet something as miraculous as a spider during my lifetime. What a special day this is!’

“The spider was thoroughly dumbfounded. After about a minute, she went over to the praying mantis, who was still admiring the web and remarking on its many virtues, and began unmaking the threads in which he was entangled, extricating his legs. ‘You know,’ she said, as she was finishing up, ‘I’m not really very hungry today. I don’t need a snack as big as you are, anyway. Why don’t you come back and visit sometime?’ The praying mantis tipped an imaginary hat and said, ‘Why, thank you! I’ve had such a nice visit, and I’d like that very much. I’ll be back on Sunday!’ and he flew off. The spider went back to finish her nap.”

To be clear, this story took three nights to finish, and when it was finally over, Arlo said, “And then what?” I said, “Then an aphid came to visit. I’ll tell you the next part tomorrow.” But Arlo kept on. “Yeah! And the aphid was really nice too, so she didn’t eat him either! And all the bugs are nice, so she lets them all go!” At this point, I felt pretty accomplished. He’d gotten ready for bed more quickly, and I’d told him a story about the benefits of kindness, appreciating diversity, praising hard work, and the value of art. And then it happened. He looked at me, concerned, and asked, “But then what will the spider eat?”

Oh. Right. It didn’t take a deep-dive Google search to verify that your garden-variety spider’s sole source of sustenance is, indeed, a single ingredient: insect. What on earth had I just done? Had I told a story celebrating martyrdom the same way The Giving Tree, a book I despise, does so egregiously? Or did I just invent an arachnid with an eating disorder? Maybe she will only eat mosquitos. But mosquitos aren’t THAT bad; I mean, they’re trying to live the only way they know how, and just because humans don’t like them doesn’t mean I should sanction mosquito genocide or countenance entomological racism of any kind. Maybe just the baddest baddies would be her victims. But how dastardly would an insect have to be for her to quench her hunger? I mean, it would take some pretty epic evildoings to enforce a death sentence on a bug, and even then why should the poor, beneficent spider be fed only on unsavory characters? I don’t think I want to tell a story to my kids about an insect mafioso’s life of crime and subsequent execution anyway.

Oh, dear. If this is what happens when I improvise a new bedtime strategy, I’ll never go off-script again.

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