The tree of life is not a metaphor; it’s where Salticid the jumping spider lives! Her branch, populated by all the other spiders, is minding its own business when giant chains appear and try to force the tree to grow in different directions. The intrepid arachnid sets out to find the cause, and runs afoul of a bipedal king..
(reading time: 1 hour, 5 minutes)
The Tree’s Shadow
As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever-branching and beautiful ramifications.
– Charles Darwin
The shadow extends not from the dawn of time, but from the dawn of life. It covers the land in millions upon millions of tiny overlapping tributaries. The tips of its foggy fingers inch forward across the future, across rock baked and blinded by the sun, only flinching in the face of apocalyptic disasters. It is not the future we must see though; our story is wrapped snugly within the shadow’s boundaries. We must follow it backward. We must leave the grasping tendrils to make their mistakes and fly back to surer safer parts of the shadow. We’ll find that all the tendrils eventually join. The shadow becomes great and solid as we near its base. If you listen closely you can hear the past yawning from the shadow as we glide by, secure in its influence. When we reach the end we’ll find a new object.
This object appears to cast that great and wonderful shadow. It grows up towards the sun instead of out like its counterpart. It looks and acts very much like a tree… down to the tiny things that crawl about in its branches. Our story starts up there, living inside the life of one of those crawling things. Well, it’s more of a jumping thing really.
The branch was cluttered with gigantic juicy leaves. Acrididae could hardly resist. He munched on the leaves gluttonously, carving his signature in their edges with his mouthparts. One of his antennae twitched. He spun around to see if anyone watched him, but he seemed alone. He decided it was better to be safe than sorry, so he hopped into a cluster of leaves less in the open. Then he crawled under the branch and ate his next few leaves upside down. Though he was Acrididae on the tree, you would know him as grasshopper. He stretched his legs between courses. One always had to be prepared for the myriad predators of the tree.
Acrididae whirled around again. He dropped a leaf and it sailed silently down to be caught by a lower branch. Is it just the wind? Acrididae wondered. He stared in the direction the noise seemed to come from. Everything was still. Then, a leaf in front of him twitched. Acrididae took a step backward. His powerful legs tensed.
“Is that you Formicidae?” he asked. The leaf did not answer. It twitched again. The grasshopper’s antennae trembled with fear and his mouthparts chattered. His eyes were fixed on the twitching leaf. He did not see the shape sneak up behind him, a shape with eight hairy legs and eight big, round, black eyes like polished onyx. The beastly shape silently inched closer to its prey. It raised its forward most arms up over its head and revealed its fangs. They sparkled in the sunlight, eager to grip the plump but papery hide of the grasshopper. It needed to be faster than the blink of an eye since Acrididae couldn’t even blink.
The beast struck. It grabbed the grasshopper’s legs before it could spring away. The insect yelped in shock. The beast touched its fangs to its prey’s side… and then released it. The grasshopper leapt up to another branch to catch its breath. It looked over the edge at the hunter.
“Oh, it’s you Salticid!” Acrididae huffed. “If that was you… Who moved the leaf?” The jumping spider’s eyes glistened and its pedipalps shook: a gesture like a human smile. Salticid pulled a silken line from behind her back and tugged on it. Across the branch it shook the leaf it was attached to. “Oh so you’re resorting to trickery now,” Acrididae said.
“I have to if I want to catch someone as wary as you,” she said gleefully. The spider stood on her hind legs. (This is not something you’ll ever see a spider do, but Salticid is soon to be a hero; what good is a hero who can’t stand up for herself?) She hopped up to Acrididae’s branch and the grasshopper admired her in all her glory. Her body was compact with limbs that, though short, matched the power in the grasshopper’s. Her silvery shell was coated in bright blue hairs, making the grasshopper wonder how something so colorful managed to sneak up on him so often. She had two tufts of hair like eyebrows over her primary eyes, which were much larger than the other six. She sat down next to Acrididae and they discussed their lives.
“I’ve been stalking you all morning,” Salticid said. “I’ve hardly had time for anything else. Thomis has been begging me to play pebbles and nuts with him for days now. Oxy’s none too pleased with my absence either.”
“Perhaps I should write them a leaf testifying to how difficult I made it for you,” the grasshopper joked. “Surely they must go on their own hunts.”
“Oh Thomis just lies in wait for things foolish enough to come to him. Then he leaps out and pretends he’s spider of the season. Oxy’s always been better at it than me so she’s done hunting before I even get up!
“I won’t keep you then,” Acrididae said. “Go on back to them. Besides, I could use a head start for next time.” Salticid touched her pedipalp to the grasshopper’s antennae as acquaintances of the food web often do. Then she stood so she could begin the climb back to her branch. It was about a day’s journey from the insect part of the tree up to Araneae where all the spiders lived.
The two bid each other farewell and jumped to separate branches. Salticid took a moment to look back at her prey. He seemed a tad clumsier than usual. Though it wasn’t polite to mention it, the fact that she had caught him had significant consequences for both of them. Every animal of the tree needed to hunt or flee in order to survive. If Salticid didn’t play her game every so often, if she didn’t catch Acrididae or another insect, her mind and body would wither. Her branch on the tree would die and its leaves would yellow and fall away. Every time Acrididae was captured he suffered a small amount of that decay. He needed time to recover and if he didn’t have it… then his branch would be the one to die.
Sometimes this game seems so cruel, Salticid thought. Perhaps it’s better to play pebbles and nuts instead.
The spider continued her ascent. Each bound sent her flying further than you’d think such a small creature could manage. At the peak of every jump there was a wonderful moment like flight, a moment where she envied the birds who could see the tree from outside its branches. It was fine to envy them as long as she kept her distance. Many birds needed to hunt as well and Salticid was not without her predators.
Over the course of the next day she worked her way up through the base of Chelicerata and back to the spiders. Her home section of the tree was easy enough to spot as it was lavishly decorated with silk.
They had rows and rows of silk hammocks dotted with tiny flower decorations. Many of the spiders had curled leaves into tubes, sealed them with silk, and stacked them to create green tunnels that connected the smaller branches of Araneae. Salticid crawled into one of them and made her way towards her branch. Is it normally this dark in here? She thought. When she reached the end of the tunnel she found it completely blocked by a strange cold substance. It had a shine to it like frost on rock. Salticid touched it and recoiled at the strange sensation. She pushed on it, but it did not budge. Well you’re certainly as stubborn as rock.
The spider turned herself around in the cramped tunnel and went back to the entrance. Then she hopped on top of the curled leaf and jumped to the end of it to see the obstruction.
The structure she saw took her breath away. It was not a positive feeling like when one of the other spiders announced an egg; it was like having a twig snap under your feet. A massive oblong ring shape blocked the tunnel. It was locked into another ring, which was locked into another, which was locked into another… Salticid had nothing to compare it to, but you would know it as a chain. The steely chain stretched as far as her rows of eyes could see, all the way to the faraway branches most spiders never visited. Bigger things lived there. Things that could step on you and not even notice.
She noticed too the odd silence of it. Branches creaked and moaned in the wind, but the chain did not waver. Its inflexibility was so foreign to her that she wondered if it was a seam in reality, a small mistake by whatever makers may or may not be there. She wondered if there was a way to pull the sky over it the way one would pinch a seam out of some putty.
Salticid took a delicate step onto the link of the chain that blocked the tunnel. She jumped up and down, but the chain did not budge. She jumped ten times her height and came down with all the force she could muster, but it did no good. She might have kept at it if her brother Thomis didn’t call out to her.
“It’s no use,” he yelled. “That thing showed up last night and it won’t go away.”
“Thomis!” Salticid called back. She leapt off the chain, happy to feel the warmth of leaves under her feet instead. She approached him and they touched pedipalps. Her brother Thomisidae, the crab spider, was a short pudgy spider with a small head and long arms near his mouthparts. He was a pale whitish-pink, perfect for disguising himself among the flower petals and waiting for prey. Even though he spent all day among the blossoms, his mopey attitude never benefitted.
“What is that strange thing?” Salticid asked.
“Nobody knows. Latrodectus said she saw it shoot over here in the middle of the night and wrap around that branch.” Thomis pointed with his longest arm to the spot where the chain had coiled itself around the tree. The branch was bent awkwardly towards the chain, pulled away from its natural path of light-seeking.
“That doesn’t look good,” Salticid worried out loud. “What are we going to do about it?”
“What do you mean ‘do’?” Thomis asked with a little snort of bitter laughter. “Look at the size of it. We can’t do anything. We just hope it goes away.”
“Typical,” a third voice said from behind them. Salticid turned to see her other closest living relative, Oxyopidae the lynx spider. She had a body more like Salticid’s, but with long slender legs. Her amber-colored shell bristled with sparse but thick black hairs. “Did you just get back Salty?” she asked mockingly. “Was it difficult to keep up with Helicidae?”
“Very funny,” Salticid retorted. “I wasn’t hunting snails and you know it. I caught Acrididae just fine.”
“You did miss the arrival of… that,” Oxy said and gestured to the ominous chain.
“She thinks we should try and move it,” Thomis told Oxy.
“Well even if we could where would you put a thing like that?” Oxy asked.
“Wherever it came from,” Salticid suggested.
“There’s never been a thing like that,” Thomis insisted. “Somebody must’ve pulled it out of thin air. Once you do that there’s no putting it back in.”
“That’s an interesting… Oh, Thomis you smell lovely,” Oxy commented.
“It’s those darn flowers,” he lamented. “They’re bigger this year and they smell stronger. That stink’s been rubbing up against me for days. I need it to rain so I can wash myself.”
“Hey!” Salticid shouted, destroying her siblings’ tangent. “The thing? We can’t just leave it!”
“Sure we can,” Oxy said. “Look, it’s not moving. There are plenty of moving things to worry about… birds for instance.”
“And bigger spiders,” Thomis said as he shuddered.
Try as she might, Salticid couldn’t convince them the chain was an immediate threat. She wasn’t sure herself why she felt that way. Something about the way it didn’t move… Everything was supposed to move, even if it was just with the wind.
When the dusk came the three spiders settled into a trio of hammocks that all hung from a single rope of silk. Oxy used her long limbs to push off from the nearest branch and rock them all to sleep. Salticid pulled a silk sheet over herself and nestled in for the night. As sleep overtook her she wondered if it was possible to cross the chain and see the other side of the tree. That thought melted into a dream and the jumping spider’s dream body leapt endlessly trying to find the end of the chain. She found nothing but link after link. Both ends of the tree seemed to stretch further and further apart. The more she tried to close the gap, the longer the chain grew.
Something powerful crashed into their branch. Salticid was tossed from her hammock. She fell for one terrified second before the safety line around her waist caught her. Thomis and Oxy were caught by their lines as well, but Thomis continued to scream as he dangled. He refused to accept that he was not dead until his momentum threw him into Oxy. Oxy grabbed her brother and they both swung, only half-able to control the shaking strings, towards Salticid. When they all had a hold of each other they pulled themselves back up to the hammocks and then, one by one, up to the branch.
At first they couldn’t find the source of trouble. Detached leaves floated down from higher branches and bounced off their homes and tunnels. There was a brief rain of nuts from above them. The impact must’ve caused a bowl of them in some higher place to tip over. Spiders shouted to each other and scurried about, laying down lines of silk for others to follow.
The impact had rearranged the main branch of Araneae. It was now bent down instead of up. Never had they seen a section of the tree curl back like that. It looked like it was in agony; the bark was split in several places and sap dripped out like blood. Leaves continued to snap and fall. If that kept up all their cover would vanish and the birds would win hunt after hunt after hunt. In a few short seasons they would turn to each other in their nests on lazy nights and say things like Hey do you remember spiders? If only hunting was still that easy…
Salticid jumped to the injured section of the branch. She had to scrape some sap off the tips of her feet as she tried to work around the cracks. Her siblings called to her but she just continued down the path that used to be up. At the end she found a shackle wrapped around the branch with a second chain attached to it. Sap oozed from the top of the shackle. A few other brave spiders were trying to wedge sticks under the object but they all snapped without fail. Salticid joined in the futile attempts. She banged on the flat expanse of metal with a large nut as hard as she could.
Cwong. The nut protested its treatment.
If I could just make a crack, she thought.
Even a dent…
I’ll take a scuff!
The nut broke apart in her hands and the pieces rolled away from her. That’s it, she decided. Salticid hopped to the first link in the chain and started walking. All the other spiders stared with their thousand eyes. She tried to ignore their looks. Nobody gets to prune my home without a fight. I don’t care if they’ve got a whole web made of these things.
“Salty! Where are you going?” Oxy called. She stopped just short of the shackle. Thomis came crawling up behind her, already winded from all the excitement.
“I’m going to go figure out where these nasty things are coming from. When I find out who made them I’m going to hunt them down! I’ll hunt them until they don’t have the energy to fight me!” Salticid raged.
“Well if you’re going on a hunt you’ll need my help,” Oxy said. She took her first step onto the shackle. “Oh gross,” she whispered as she slid her feet along the metal. The lynx spider quickly caught up to her sister.
“You guys do that,” Thomis yelled after them. “I’ll make sure everything stays safe here. Don’t you worry.” The other spiders turned to look at the cowardly crab spider. “What? I’m too sessile for an adventure!” He turned away from the crowd and scuttled back to his flowers.
Salticid and Oxy pressed on across the chain. After a while the other spiders became scurrying dots, and then nothing. When they looked back they could see the entirety of their branch in its contortion. It looked even worse from the outside. Below them they could see the thicker branches of the tree they’d never visited. They’d heard tales of a few of them: Cnidaria, Porifera, and Echinodermata. The rumors had it a lot of rain got caught in the matted leaves down there and created huge lakes. All sorts of things were supposed to live in that water. Salticid had always wondered how something was supposed to hunt and swim at the same time.
“So what is our plan,” Oxy asked. The sun was starting to really beat down on them, so she shielded her eyes with a few of her arms. They’d never been this far from cover before.
“We’re going to find the other end of this and hunt whatever made these until it stops making them.”
“And if it’s six times bigger than us? Ten?”
“We’ll figure something out.”
“How do we even know this thing ends? What if we just keep walking forever?”
“It’ll end,” Salticid said stubbornly. “It doesn’t matter how long something is, it has to end. Silk. Sticks. Snakes. They all end.”
“Time doesn’t. The sun doesn’t. The tree keeps growing.”
“This thing isn’t like the tree or the sun. I can’t explain it, but I just know it isn’t. It’s not natural. It’s some kind of mistake.” For one tiny moment, they weren’t bothered by the sun. Salticid looked up. Clear skies. She turned back to the chain only to have the shadow cross over again. Eyes back to the sky. Nothing. “Hey Oxy, do you see anything…”
“Bird! Oxy yelled and pointed straight ahead. Specifically, it was Meropidae the bee eater. The bird swooped along the length of the chain towards them, beak open. Oxy and Salticid dropped into the center of the link they stood on and stretched out all their legs to brace themselves. Meropidae passed by them and rose into the sky. His short plumage was a collage of bright colors: indigo, yellow, and orange. The bird spotted them and entered a dive.
“We should probably do something,” Salticid uttered. “Quick, attach lines!” They both stretched their abdomens to the edge of the link and placed a silken moor. The sharp black beak of Meropidae drew closer. Getting caught by a bird was very unpleasant as they always insisted on putting you in their mouth and running their tongue over you, far less civilized than the fang-touch of the spiders.
“I haven’t been caught by a bird in six seasons Salty! If this one gets me I’m never forgiving you.” They both released their grips and swung below the chain to different links. Oxy caught the underside of the link closer to Araneae and Salticid caught the one closer to their mysterious destination. Meropidae caught nothing but air. His beak became lodged in the link where their bodies had been moments ago. The bird thrashed wildly, shaking the chain.
“Nnnnf furr!” the bird cried, trying to say ‘not fair’. The bee eater did not know what kind of spider trickery the chain was but it definitely did not seem to follow the rules of the hunt.
Oxy climbed to the top of her link and looked for a way to rejoin her sister. The thrashing bird blocked any possible path and he refused to settle down. The chain shook so much that the spiders could barely keep their feet.
“I can’t get over there!” Oxy called across the bird’s ruffled neck. “I’m not getting caught by a bird over this!”
“It’s okay,” Salticid called back. She looked to their destination. There was still a long way to go. She looked back at her sister. “You go back. Don’t give Meropidae the satisfaction of easy prey.”
“Aahhhm naf shewun in fee uppen!” the bird protested.
“Are you sure you’ll be alright?” Oxy asked.
“I’ll get there… and maybe I’ll get back.”
“Good luck sister. Don’t let your branch wither.” Oxy turned around and started back to Araneae, where she would be safe from the feathery roadblock. Salticid took the opposite path. She was relieved when she was far enough away that she couldn’t feel the bird’s struggle to free itself, but then that reminded her of the chain’s unflagging stiffness. She wondered again what could make such a thing, and to what end.
Whatever that end was, she was determined to find out. The chain proved arduous and she had to spend two nights in silken nests she built into the links. At that point it was simple chance whether or not a bat caught her. Getting captured out there, with no prey around to hunt herself, could’ve doomed her. Salticid’s big eyes stayed focused on her goal. Even as she slept they reflected the moonlight intensely.
Eventually the other end of the tree started to come into focus. The chain was moored to a branch much thicker than her homeland. When she finally stepped back onto bark she caressed its rugged surface. The sound of wind through leaves was as refreshing as rainy air and she was all too happy to leave behind the metallic silence.
She found her way under the canopy and searched for signs of life. The area seemed abandoned, save for networks of smaller chains crossing each other as they reached down to other parts of the tree. None of them compared to the ones bending her branch down. Salticid wandered for half an hour in search of life. She was about to call out and risk predation just for a sign of anybody when she heard voices in the distance. She crouched and entered the stealthy position she used to hunt insects.
“I told you I could reach the other side,” a male voice boasted.
“So how long until the tree’s shape is fixed?” another voice asked.
“I’ve still got more chain to lay, but once they’re all in place the tree should conform completely in less than a season.”
“With you on top,” a third voice stated.
“And I’ll be second-to-top.”
“I am third.”
“No, I am third!”
Salticid stuck her head out from under a leaf, but stayed in the shadows. The twig she hid in was positioned just inches from the massive hairy head of one of the speakers. She saw four figures perched atop soaring pillars of metal that were all attached at the base to a branch shackle. The pillars seemed to have the same composition as the chains. Salticid did not recognize the creatures, but she guessed they were all mammals. One of them had a suspicious appearance though; he lacked fur and wore strange gray leaves across its body. The leaves seemed as foreign as the chains. While the other three pillars were topped with metal bowls that the mammals lounged in, the strangest one sat upright with legs dangling off the edge of a small square platform. The platform rose up behind him and gave him a place to rest his arms. Salticid had never seen a throne before, but she immediately questioned its practicality.
The creature on the shortest pillar had red fur, long arms, and a drooping mushy face: Pongo the orangutan. The owner of the third highest pillar was far more muscular and had black fur: Gorilla. The next pillar’s occupant was the smallest of those three, had drab brown fur, and shook its comically large ears back and forth when it spoke: Pan the chimpanzee.
“No Pongo, you are not third. You are the lowest here, so you are fourth. Fourth on the entire tree of life is not bad though, you’re very lucky,” the half-naked creature declared. Salticid saw two more odd things about him. There was a green bird with an orange curved beak perched on his shoulder. The creature also wore something around his head: three small chains and a circle of metal spikes pointing up into the sky. It was the crown that went with the throne.
“Let me remind you three of the new order,” he said. “So you don’t forget.” He eyed Pongo until the orangutan looked down at his own feet submissively. “I am the reason the tree exists. It grew and created all you supporting creatures to help sustain my ultimate development. These chains are merely correcting a small aberration in the process. My great chains of being will re-order the tree with the wisest and greatest organism on top and the lowliest vermin on the bottom.”
Great chains of being, Salticid thought. I don’t see what’s so great about them.
“I am on top,” the peach-colored crown-wearer declared. “So I am the only one with the right to name himself. You will all now call me by my proper title: Hominid Rex.” Hominid looked to his underlings for their approval. Pan nodded stupidly and Gorilla clapped his massive hands together. The sound was like thunder to Salticid. Her legs shook. These creatures were so huge that she was afraid of being crushed by the sounds they made. An errant sigh could’ve flattened her at any moment.
“And we know you’re not lying because you have a witness,” Pan said, clearly paraphrasing an earlier conversation to sound intelligent.
“Yes,” Hominid Rex reaffirmed. “Go on Eclectus. Testify to my greatness.” The green parrot on his shoulder took flight and circled over the four primates.
“I have seen the tree from above,” he said in his high raspy voice. “From above. Tangles. Chaos! Chaos! Someone must lead. Must lead! Hominid Rex has the straightest branch! The strongest! He must lead! It is the way! It is the way!” The bird returned to his perch on Hominid’s shoulder and he fed it a shelled nut.
That’s one way to avoid foraging, Salticid thought. Just find another animal to do all the work for you. And what is all this nonsense about a strongest branch? If a branch wasn’t strong it wouldn’t be here.
Her fear started to give way to irritation with the posturing giants. She wondered if most of their size just came from ego. If she wanted to stop the chains she would need to find some different animals that didn’t seem to enjoy them so much. She retracted quietly and descended away from the metal pillars. There had to be someone else around.
She searched for nearly an hour, dodging as many chains as she could. She made her way down Hominidae and found the branch it joined to: Primates. There she found a largely destroyed community. Nests were crushed against bark by tight chains. Some branches seemed to be snapped clean from their base. She wondered what had happened to the creatures that lived there. The word ‘extinction’ flashed through her mind; Extinction was the final darkness. It did not relent to the sun each morning. It ended that path of growth. Did these great chains of being have the power to end life so quickly? To be cut clean with no warning…
Though most of the homes were ruined by the metal bindings, a few animals still went about their business as if nothing was wrong. She caught up with one of the smaller furry creatures that had a long tail and used that tail as a bridge to reach her shoulder.
“Excuse me?” Salticid asked into her ear. The monkey stopped and looked around.
“Where are you?” she asked.
“I’m so small,” the spider said in a false pathetic tone. “It doesn’t even matter where I am. I’m scared and lost. Who are you? What is this place? Why have these horrible bindings destroyed your home?”
“I am Cebidae. You are on the primate branch tiny voice. These bindings are the chains of Hominid Rex. He says he is the king of the tree. He says the chains are straightening the tree. They’re making the order of command clear.”
“But they’re ruining everything!” the spider cried.
“I thought so too,” Cebidae said. The monkey stopped moving and sat down. She searched around her feet for the voice. Salticid hopped to her other ear so she couldn’t pinpoint the direction. She didn’t know if an arachnid like herself would be prey for such a creature. “Then Hominid came down here and told us how lucky we were,” the monkey continued. “He said we were the primates and that meant we were of the first rank. We were the most important and powerful creatures on the tree aside from him and those pompous great apes with their silly stretchy faces. All we have to do is put up with the chains and we get to stay in the first rank.”
“The chains are breaking your branches!” Salticid shouted. Even though the monkey’s head was big enough for her to live inside, perhaps Cebidae’s brain was smaller than hers. It was certainly acting that way.
“Not all the branches. My branch is okay.” Salticid grumbled furiously and hopped off the creature. Something so dimwitted was no use to her. She looked around. None of the other primates looked much wiser. They were a pathetic collection of fur balls, some with ridiculous bare faces and rear ends. A couple of them were sitting on the chains or hanging from them, testing them out as branch replacements. One of them was trying to chew on a chain; it chipped one of its teeth and the chunk fell close enough to Salticid that she had to jump out of the way of the falling canine.
She retreated a little further down and realized that the branch she was on had previously bent out but was now forced downward by chains. The branch was pressed up against the tree, covering a hollow. Salticid was hopping by the hollow when a black furry hand reached out of it towards her. She leapt out of the way. The hand did not close in an attempt to grab her; it stayed outstretched. Little yellow nails scratched weakly across the bark. When Salticid’s eyes adjusted to the dark of the hollow, she saw a pair of huge round yellow eyes staring right at her.
“Please help me,” the hidden mouth beneath the eyes said. Salticid moved closer, but not close enough to get grabbed.
“Who are you?” she asked. Details emerged around the eyes. Short ears. A small snout.
“I am Lemuridae,” he said. “I am trapped. I cannot forage. I will die if you do not help me.” The creature whimpered. It reached out one finger gently. Salticid touched the nail.
“Why do the other primates not help you?” she asked softly.
“They do not care. All they care about now is who is highest on the chain, who can prove their worth to Hominid Rex: self-proclaimed king of the tree.”
“I do not know how to help you,” Salticid admitted. “I’m just a tiny arachnid. Hominid’s chains are destroying my branch as well. That’s why I came.”
“Then if you cannot help me, there is no hope for you either,” Lemuridae moaned. Moisture welled up in his giant eyes; they each looked like a full moon had sprung a leak.
“I guess I can try. There’s no harm in it.”
Lemuridae pulled his hand back inside the hollow and watched the spider. She didn’t dare look back at him. Those eyes were so large she was afraid that seeing them full of hope would be like burning up under a desert sun. She found the chain that held Lemuridae’s branch over the hollow. It was not the thickest one around, but each link was still as wide as four spiders. She attached a moor of silk and scuttled around the link several times, trying to strengthen the tie. Then she made four lines of silk and weaved them all together into a rope. She leapt to a lower branch and pulled the rope taut.
“I’m sorry this is all I have to offer,” she called back to Lemuridae. She saw the primate’s hand emerge from the hollow and wave to her slowly. Hominid’s wrong, she thought. No animal is above any other. We need each other. Right now, Lemuridae needs little old me. She grunted and yanked on the rope. The chain budged. She panicked and dropped the rope. None of the spiders back at Araneae had been able to do that. She picked up the rope again, leaned back, and heaved. The chain groaned. The branch lifted off the hollow for a moment before easing back into place.
“It’s working!” Lemuridae yelped. Salticid pulled again. The chain strained. She pulled harder and took a step backward. Another one. Another. Lemuridae emerged from the hollow and hopped to a safer vantage point. Her work was not done yet. She fought the chain with every bit of chitin in her exoskeleton. The tiny spider turned her body and held the taut rope behind her. She leapt away from the chain with all her might. The metal links snapped! Chunks of chain rained down on them and the creatures below. The sound rang outward, drawing the attention of a third of the entire tree.
Far above them, the sound of snapping metal interrupted the laughter of Hominid Rex and his great apes. He stood up in his throne and stared into the foliage beneath him. The human slid down the side of the throne and ordered the apes to follow him. It seemed someone was not happy with his improvements.
Primates of all sorts swarmed around the tree hollow. They investigated it with their big meaty fingers. They picked up bits of chain and tossed them back and forth. The one Salticid had seen chewing on the chains swallowed a piece. They howled and whooped, interrogating each other.
“Who did that?”
“How many chains broke?
“Did it break on its own?”
“I’m sure I did it with my mind!”
“This doesn’t change that I’m higher than you Atelidae!”
Their confusion threatened to crush Salticid. She weaved between their floppy feet and tails as best she could. One of them had a giant swollen nose that bumped into her. She wobbled on a twig for a moment and barely managed to regain her balance.
Hominid Rex dropped into the middle of it all. The impact of his feet on the thickest branch around quieted every silly colorful monkey face. Pan, Pongo, and Gorilla dropped in as well. They eyed the crowd suspiciously.
“Who dares break a great chain of being?” Hominid demanded.
“Yeah, who!?” Pan repeated, flashing his long yellow canines and pawing at the coverings on Hominid’s legs. Hominid pushed the ape away and strolled along the branch. All the primates did their best to line up on either side of their king. They held their hands together, ready to grovel or pray to him depending on what he ordered. Salticid stood on the shoulder of something with a blue and red face.
“I broke your chain! To protect the tree!” she shouted and leapt silently to a different primate. They all looked to the one with the red and blue face. It held up its hands innocently.
“Where did you get the crazy idea that you should be on top of the tree?” she asked and hopped away again. All their heads turned to a different monkey.
“I am upright,” Hominid Rex roared. “I am the smartest of all living things. I can create things with mere thought. Even if that wasn’t justification enough, I have a witness to the tree’s troubles without me.” Eclectus squawked and repositioned himself on his king’s shoulder.
“Why is smartest best?” Salticid asked from the shoulder of another primate. “Why not fastest? Strongest? Best egg maker?”
“Egg maker? Bahahaha!” Hominid laughed. “Eggs are the products of the lowest creatures. They do not even belong on my tree!”
“This tree belongs to all of us!” the spider boomed, which was barely a squeak to most of the assembled mammals. A few of them nodded slightly along with the idea.
“It is my tree! I wear the crown. I sit on the throne. I can tell by your voice that you are small and weak. You are not part of my tree. That’s partly why we need my chains. It will sort out all these parasitic vines and we’ll see that I am separate from the rest. That I am better.”
Salticid hopped from her current hairy shoulder and landed on the tip of Hominid’s nose. Everyone held their breath. Their king squinted and crossed his eyes to focus on his assailant.
“We’re all connected,” Salticid told him.
“I have no relation to crawling monstrosities like you!” he spat. “How many legs is that? Eight? Atrocious! And that shell! Do you even have a backbone?”
“I don’t know why I’d need one of those,” Salticid countered.
“You claim we’re part of the same tree yet you don’t even have a spine. There are two kinds of animal: vertebrates and invertebrates. Perhaps your tree is clinging pathetically to mine, but I assure you we are not kin.” Hominid slowly raised his hands and prepared to crush Salticid. Thanks to her ‘atrocious’ number of eyes, she was able to pick up the action in her peripheral vision and leap down to a branch just in time to watch him smash the tip of his own nose. The collection of apes and monkeys burst into laughter at their king. Some of them had throats that swelled up and made the guffawing all the louder and more embarrassing for the king.
“Enough!” He shouted. He turned to one of the loudest monkeys and glared at it. A new chain shot out of the crest on his crown. It collided with the monkey’s face and locked its mouth behind a wall of metal. They all quieted. “You don’t belong on any tree!” He found Salticid and fired another chain at her. She dodged it and watched the metal hook around the branch and squeeze it. Hominid fired another chain and missed again. “Don’t just stand there,” he accosted his underlings, “Smash that lowly thing!” Pan, Pongo, and Gorilla all lunged towards the diminutive spider. Even with her small size there was no way she could squeeze out from a pile of three flabby apes. Luckily, she’d made a friend.
Lemuridae appeared from behind a bunch of leaves and landed on Gorilla’s face. He scratched the big ape’s cheeks and clambered all over his body. The ape’s resultant flailing smashed him into Pongo and then Pan. The ball of bodies fell off the branch and out of sight, but they could hear the yelling and banging as they hit every part of the tree on the way down. Only Lemuridae reappeared from under the leaves. The protective creature positioned himself in front of Salticid and waved his ringed tail back and forth like a battle flag.
“Go down the tree!” he ordered the spider.
“Why down?” she asked.
“Show our king the tree! Show him we’re all a part of it. If he chases you he’ll have to admit he was wrong. He’ll have to take down these chains.”
“Thank you,” she said to the lemur before launching herself into the leaves. She slid down their waxy surfaces and used the springiness of their stems to catapult herself further from the fight. She was careful to avoid the broken path of twigs that marked the fall of the three apes. If she could just reach the great connection… the fabled Animalia… the great fork that split Arthropoda and Vertebrata, the spineless from the thin-skinned.
Hominid Rex moved to follow her but Lemuridae blocked his path. The small primate pounced on the human’s leg and bit into it. The king was forced to take a knee and pry the stubborn creature loose. He tossed Lemuridae into the air and struck him with a chain. It shackled the feisty creature, allowing Hominid to hang it out on a far branch where it could stare at the long fall that awaited it.
“Whoever brings me that spider, alive or squished, gets to move into the fifth highest spot on the tree,” Hominid offered. Some of the monkeys slinked away to what was left of their branches but the majority hooted with joy and hopped down into the canopy to chase after Salticid. In less than a minute poor Lemuridae was left hanging in solitude. He stared down at the tree’s shadow as it stretched off into the distance. It had a strange calming effect on him and he wondered if Salticid would have to take Hominid all the way to the trunk to get him to admit his mistakes.
The monkeys and apes chased after Salticid for several days. She struggled to make her way down but she often had to break and cling to the underside of a leaf while a troop of arguing primates wandered by. Several times they stopped to munch on leaves and fruit. Salticid had no choice but to be still, wait, and hope that the next leaf grabbed wasn’t the one she was under.
The monkeys couldn’t muster the same determination she had. They preferred to sleep late into the mornings and each time they did she put more distance between them. After three days only Hominid and the other great apes hadn’t given up. She could still hear Hominid occasionally drop onto a branch and shake everything around with his stiff feet.
As she followed the thickest branch the chains became less frequent. Hominid had not yet remodeled that far down. Strange animals began to appear. Reptiles and amphibians became as common as the mammals. The air grew damp and the leaves grew slippery. She started to hear the constant dripping of water and it grew until it was the roar of waterfalls off leaves.
From the stories she heard she guessed she was near Actinopterygii where the ray-finned fish lived. There were some spots in the tree where accumulated water never seemed to go anywhere. The leaves formed into bowls and just as many creatures lived happily inside them as lived in the open air of the outer twigs and branches. The pools Salticid had seen had been much smaller though. They were connected to Chelicerata and were home to horseshoe crabs and a few other things.
Salticid was careful to check the pond she approached for any shadows under the surface. It wouldn’t help her situation any to have a fish snap her up, drag her below the surface, and keep her inside until it got bored. Am I still where the fish are? She wondered. The foliage of the tree was dense in every direction and very few sun rays broke through. The pool felt… old. Its surface seemed still because a ripple would’ve been too much effort for such an ancient body of water. She approached the edge in order to take a drink. The spider had had no time to hunt, but water provided some energy. She was about to drink when she sensed something about the water. Salt, she thought with dismay. Salt water was of no use to her. It did seem to provide an adequate habitat for the creature that stared at her from just under the surface.
Well, it can’t technically be staring, she thought when she noticed he had no eyes. It was a very simple creature indeed. His body was a little shorter than Salticid’s and didn’t look like much more than a slimy but rigid blue rod with a small tail fin. He hung in the water lazily. It doesn’t even know I’m here. Easy prey is easy prey. I’ll need something other than salt water if I’m going to make it to Animalia.
She plunged one of her arms into the water and grabbed the creature. She held him up in the air triumphantly and then tapped him with her fangs. He wriggled some, but didn’t seem too frustrated.
“Have I been captured?” he asked matter-of-factly.
“I’m afraid so,” Salticid answered. What polite prey this was. “I don’t mean to be rude since I’ve just hunted you down and all, but I’m a tad lost. I’m trying to get to Animalia. I know it’s down but I’m not even sure I’m on the right ‘down’ anymore.”
“I won’t be any help,” the creature said. He had stopped wriggling. “I’m not much of a traveler.” The spider couldn’t tell if the creature she was speaking to was male or female, so she kept her terms neutral.
“I hope I haven’t hurt your chances too much,” Salticid said, suddenly feeling guilty. The creature seemed rather naïve in addition to being a terrible swimmer.
“Oh I don’t mind,” he said. “There aren’t many other animals that live around here. In fact this was quite fun. I think… yes, I think I’m still having fun right now.”
“What’s your name creature?”
“Branchiostoma. It’s an awfully long name and sometimes I forget the end of it, so you can just call me Lancelet.”
“At last!” a voice echoed around them before Salticid could reply. She instinctively held Lancelet like a spear to defend herself.
“Are you wielding me?” Lancelet asked. “This is good fun as well.”
Hominid Rex emerged from the roof of leaves above them, fell, and landed on the other side of the pond. The impact disturbed the surface of the water and filled it with the ripples it hadn’t seen in ages; there was even some foam sprucing up the edges. The parrot Eclectus steadied itself on Hominid’s shoulder. Pan, Pongo, and Gorilla emerged from all directions and surrounded the spider.
“It’s time to put an end to you pest,” Hominid declared. He leaned forward and a chain fired out of the crown towards the spider. Acting on instinct, Salticid tried to deflect the chain with Lancelet. To everyone’s surprise, it worked. The chain careened off at an angle and collided with the side of a branch where it coiled like a dead snake and then fell. Hominid fired another chain and Salticid jumped and struck it down with the tip of Lancelet.
“Are you alright?” she asked her weapon.
“Merely a tickle,” Lancelet said proudly.
“How is it you can overpower the great chains of being?” Hominid demanded.
“I… I’m not sure,” the spider admitted. “Maybe they’re just not that great.”
“Lowly liar!” Pan accused. The chimp moved down to the spider and swung at her with his hand. Salticid climbed the ape’s arm and poked him in the eye with Lancelet. The mammal recoiled and howled with pain. “That worm,” he babbled, “that worm is like a stick! What is it my king? What is that thing?” Hominid did seem curious about the blue dash of a creature the spider held.
“Strange worm,” the king addressed. “Are you invertebrate or vertebrate?”
“Is he talking to me?” Lancelet whispered to Salticid.
“Yes,” she whispered back.
“Could you hold me up so he can hear me?”
“Uh… sure.” Salticid lifted the creature into the air head end up and held him like a flagpole.
“I don’t know,” Lancelet shouted.
“How could you not know?” Hominid shot back, his lips curled in disgust. “What’s in that line you call a body? Is there a backbone?”
“Well no,” Lancelet said, “but I have a notochord. It’s like a backbone.”
“There is nothing like a backbone,” Hominid insisted. “It is a singular important feature of the higher animals. Either you’ve got one or you don’t.”
“You don’t like my answer?” Lancelet asked. The creature suddenly felt self-conscious. Salticid jumped in to defend it.
“This means you were wrong!” she yelled at Hominid. She turned to the apes. “Your king was wrong!”
“Hominid Rex is always right!” Eclectus squawked.
“He said there were only two kinds of animal,” Salticid said, “Lancelet here is a third. He lives here in his own pond separate from Vertebrata. He’s not on the Arthropoda branch, but he is connected to yours Hominid!”
“Just an aberration!” the king dismissed. The chains on his crown began to hum and vibrate. He gripped his head and tried to shut out the sudden pain. “A failed experiment on the way to my perfection,” he mumbled. The apes eyed their king warily. Hunched over in pain he was starting to look an awful lot like the rest of the primates.
“No, Lancelet is no failure. He’s just different. Everything on the tree is different from you, but it doesn’t mean we’re worse. The tree connects us all!”
“It can’t,” Hominid groaned. “I have dominion over the tree!”
“Tell that to his notochord,” she shouted.
“My notochord heard everything,” Lancelet commented.
The vibration of the crown became a rapid clanking. Hominid clawed at the skin on his temples, but didn’t try to remove his headwear. His breathing became erratic. It was nothing but a series of hot shallow puffs when the top chain on the crown exploded. Most of the links sailed into Lancelet’s pond. They were soon joined by a rain of metal pieces from above. Most of the smaller chains above them had broken along with part of the crown. Hominid dropped to his knees and felt to make sure the crown was still there. It was, but only two chains remained. The apes tried to protect themselves from the metal hail with their arms, but soon had to retreat into the underbrush.
Similarly, Salticid needed some particularly fancy footwork from all eight feet to avoid the debris. Several pieces landed close to the edge of Lancelet’s pond and created waves that threatened to overwhelm her.
“You can stand on me if you’d like,” Lancelet offered as he sensed the approaching water. Having tried far crazier things in the past few days, Salticid placed the creature underneath her and stood on him. When the water struck them she surfed her way down a large leaf and into the branches below the pond. When the water had gone she grabbed Lancelet and carried him as she continued retreating.
“It looks like you’ll have to stick with me for a while,” she said. “I’m sorry to interrupt your peaceful life.”
“Where are we going?” he asked.
“We broke one of his chains by showing him he was wrong. He needs some more corrections. If we can make it to Animalia he’ll have to accept that he and I are part of the same tree. That ought to crack him up some more.”
“What’s a chain?”
“It’s… uhhh… there are a bunch of circles made of weird rocks and… it’s the thing I hit away from us.”
“You mean the thing that hit my face?”
“It shouldn’t be too hard to get rid of those then. I barely felt it.”
“I guess you’re a resilient little creature after all.”
“How do you think I’ve been around this long,” Lancelet boasted.
The branches near Animalia were so numerous that their downward path flattened some to make room for them all. To Salticid it was less like a descent now and more like a footrace. Vertebrata turned into Chordata. Across the gaps she began to notice foreign branches. Other animals watched her back and wondered what a swift little spider was doing so far from home and why it had a blue walking stick. They passed by the worms of Annelida who wiggled their ends in greetings. The sponges of the pool-coated branch Porifera did not have anything to wiggle but they seemed friendly all the same. The residents of Mollusca peeked out of their shells to see what all the commotion was about.
As they passed each branch, Salticid’s respect for the other creatures of the world grew. They came in forms that she had never even imagined. Some had far more legs than her and others had none at all. The branch Cnidaria was full of strange rounded blobs of jelly and when night fell they erupted into a magnificent display of bioluminescence. Flashes of green and blue guided her along as she forewent sleep. Occasionally the branch beneath her would shake and she knew the apes couldn’t be too far behind.
Eventually all the new branches and Chordata converged. At the center the columns of wood overlapped and fused, forming a spiraling circular platform. When Salticid finally reached the plateau she resisted the urge to plant Lancelet in the bark and mark it as her territory.
“Are we here?” Lancelet asked.
“We’re here,” Salticid confirmed. She ran the end of her friend gently along the ground so he could feel the grooves where all the branches combined.
“This is where all the animals are joined,” he said. “Can you feel the history?”
“I think I can,” Salticid said. There was something in the air that filled her limbs with fresh energy. Everyone she knew came from that spot. Everyone she ever hunted and everyone who hunted her. It was like standing on the first cell of life as it divided and then looking across the gap and seeing yourself mirrored. Seeing the slightest changes, the specks of dust in your identity that form a new one.
Salticid placed one limb on the bark and examined it. The history there wasn’t entirely ethereal; there were footprints pressed deep into the wood. Salticid moved forward and tried to follow them only to run into a bit of a bump. She climbed over and looked back to where she’d been. The small footprints were inside a giant one that must’ve been left by a creature three times the size of Hominid Rex. As she moved away from the central plateau everything became footprints: the scratching of birds, the heavy pads of camelids, the waves of serpents… Ages ago a line of animals had marched across Animalia. That line was so long that the tree had no choice but to absorb the trail and let the footprints grow into the wood. Salticid couldn’t yet fathom that the march had been all the animals. It was that journey that put her on the false Araneae.
After a while the trail turned into a sheer drop as Animalia connected to the tree’s trunk. Salticid stared out over the edge and saw the tree’s shadow. She’d never seen it without leaves obscuring part of it. Without the foliage filter she saw a complexity she’d never known was there. It wasn’t just a patch of darkness; it had contours and swirls. It rustled with the wind as the tree did, but not in the exact same way.
“Have you ever seen a shadow like that?” she asked Lancelet.
“I’ve never seen anything,” Lancelet reminded. “Not that I mind. Having to look about all the time sounds tiring.”
“It can be,” Salticid said as she stared at the vertical drop beneath her and the dark valley of shadow attached to it. “We need Hominid Rex to be willing to see this. I mean really see it.”
Salticid and Lancelet returned to the center of Animalia and waited patiently for the arrival of the apes. They played a little game where the spider tried to balance Lancelet vertically and then stand on top of him. When they finally succeeded they were met with applause from the nearby mollusks who clapped their shells together. They engaged the creatures in conversation and learned that their culture revolved around storytelling. Few of them had good mobility, so they transferred information via tales of epic bravery that constantly grew more exaggerated. One of them told Salticid they couldn’t wait to hear what her story would be like the second or third time it came around. She was more than happy to hop over to them, dip Lancelet in some ink provided by Octopodidae, and autograph their shells. She penned Lancelet’s name in as well. When she was finished she took her still-inked friend and used him to write Animalia in great letters across the plateau just so Hominid couldn’t miss it. He didn’t.
When the king and his apes arrived he slid his foot across the word and smeared it. All of the mollusks jeered and hissed at the bad sportsmanship. Gorilla silenced them with a roar. They snapped their shells shut and Animalia became silent.
“Now do you see?” Salticid asked. “All the branches converge. You’re no better than anyone else. Every animal leads back here!”
“I don’t see any other spiders,” Hominid argued.
“Look there,” Salticid said. She pointed Lancelet to a far branch. It was populated by several sorts of rigid creature all quite comfortable to be walking about in their exoskeletons. “That is Arthropoda. I live on the descendant branch Araneae just as you’re at the tip of Hominidae. Hominidae connects to Mammalia which connects to Vertebrata which connects down here.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Hominid Rex tried to argue. His crown started vibrating again. The metal screeched. “I’m still the highest!”
The tree quaked. Salticid stabilized herself by sticking Lancelet into a small groove. The apes doubled over and tried to grip the flat wood with their fingers. Hominid fell onto his back and rolled around as if on fire. It was the pain of a king realizing that the only real thing that separated him from his subjects was his adornments. The crown’s second chain snapped and revealed the pale skin beneath. Only one chain remained. The crown held onto its reputation tenuously and the remaining chain seemed to loosen. Hominid had to hold the back of it so it wouldn’t fall off.
Huge shapes blocked out the sun. Hominid’s greatest accomplishments, the chains Salticid had journeyed across to reach the primates, fell. The massive objects shattered the bark of Animalia when they landed and shook the world. With no strength left, the expanses of metal slid weakly off the rounded branches towards the shadow below. With them came a hail of debris, each piece big enough to smear Salticid alongside her scrawl. Raw determination kept her alive. Now that Araneae was safe she needed to make sure this ended properly. The entire tree had to be protected from Hominid’s delusions.
The apes shook off all the leaves and twigs that landed on them as the noise died down. Pan pulled a particularly dense ball of dull green leaves off his back and tossed it onto the plateau. The ball squawked loudly in protest. All eyes turned to the object as it lifted itself up on a pair of spindly bird legs. A fat head with a curved beak and tiny black eyes emerged. The bird waddled around in confusion for a few moments.
“Where am I?” he asked in a deep voice. As his feathers flattened the other animals managed to classify him as some kind of very fat parrot.
“You’re on Animalia. Who are you?” Salticid asked. The parrot waddled up to her and squinted at her tiny form.
“I’m Strigopidae,” the parrot said. “What happened? I was minding my own business and then the sky seemed to fall! How far did I fall?”
“You’re such a fool,” Hominid mocked, “Even for a bird. Why did you not fly?”
“Not all birds can fly,” the parrot retorted. He stretched his short neck out indignantly and fluffed himself up once again. “Wait a minute…” Strigopidae waddled closer to Hominid Rex and examined him. The human took a step back in disgust. “Is that? Is that you Eclectus? What are you doing down here?”
“I have seen the tree from above,” Eclectus said, “From above. Someone must lead.”
“Who taught you to say that nonsense?” Strigopidae chuckled.
“You should not insult the highest of the birds,” Hominid warned. “He speaks more intelligently than any of the other featherbrains.”
“Why do you think someone taught him?” Salticid asked the flightless bird. Strigopidae turned back to her, seeming to have forgotten the little spider was there.
“He never says anything on his own,” he said, clicking his ashen gray beak disapprovingly. “All he ever does is repeat what other animals say.”
“Silence!” Hominid boomed.
“Silence!” Eclectus copied. The bird turned to his master and bobbed his head a few times in hopes of receiving a nut.
“Another lie!” Salticid shouted. “Eclectus never witnessed a need for a leader. You’re just using him to bolster your own ideas! You lied to them!” She pointed Lancelet at the apes.
“It can’t be true,” Pongo whimpered.
“Of course it’s not,” Gorilla snarled. “If Hominid lied that means we’re not near the top.”
“And we are near the top,” said Pan. “I’m the nearest.”
“But… Hominid’s the only one that says the top is important,” Pongo argued. The other apes glared at their reddish relative. The mollusks, which were enjoying this bit of theater intensely, made stunned little noises.
“You’re losing faith because you’re the lowest,” Pan jabbed. “All that stupid red fur. You barely look like him.”
Pongo moved away from the other apes and stood on his hind legs in front of Salticid, Lancelet, and Strigopidae. The spider hopped up to the ape’s shoulder and spoke softly into his ear.
“You see the truth now?” she asked.
“Yes,” Pongo said back. “I cannot deny the connections that sit before my eyes. I don’t know how Hominid can.”
“You traitor! I make the connections!” Hominid screamed. “I will my own truths into being!” With one hand still holding the crown in place, Hominid fired a chain at Pongo. It shackled one of the red ape’s wrists. He tried to pull it free but could not break it. His former king tossed the end of the chain to Gorilla and Pan who pulled Pongo towards them. The red ape fell onto his stomach and tried to pull himself back. Salticid leapt from his shoulder and hoisted Lancelet high into the air. All the mollusks held their breath in anticipation.
“You can’t change history,” Lancelet said as the spider brought him down onto the chain. He split the metal perfectly. Gorilla and Pan toppled over each other while Pongo retreated.
“What do we do now?” the red ape asked Salticid.
“There’s only one chain left. He’ll be powerless without it. We have to show him one more truth.”
“What truth is left?”
“I’m not really sure,” the spider admitted. “The tree hasn’t let us down yet though. I think if we go to the base we’ll find what we’re looking for.”
“Hang on tight then. If there’s one thing I can do, it’s climb.”
Salticid hunkered down into a pile of red fur and wrapped her limbs around several curls of it. She tied one around Lancelet. Pongo made a run for the edge of the plateau while Hominid was distracted by the booing of the mollusks who were ready for the villain to get his comeuppance. The once noble king picked up a chunk of broken chain and tossed it at the shelled creatures. Strigopidae further distracted their foes by trying to call Eclectus down from the human’s shoulder. When they reach the edge Pongo swung down and hung from the side.
The wood was still thick with absorbed footprints that made ideal handholds for the ape’s dexterous hands. The extent of the trail only became more impressive as they descended. Salticid thought she recognized a few arthropod prints in the trail as well. Did every animal come through here? Was it all at once? Was it before my time or have I just forgotten?
“Is that more history that I feel? Or is it just the wind?” Lancelet asked.
“Both I suppose,” Pongo grunted as they dropped to the ledge of the largest footprint yet. “I’ve never seen an animal with a foot like that.”
“Maybe its branch is gone,” Salticid wondered out loud. “We’re nearing the ground. We’re going to see what happened to every branch that withered and fell.”
“Will the dead resent our intrusion?” Pongo asked.
“I think they’ll be like me,” Lancelet said. “They’re just waiting for something to happen. When it does they won’t mind what kind of happening it is.”
“Are you still having fun Lancelet?” Salticid asked affectionately.
“How could I not be!? So many things I never knew… I can’t imagine why Hominid doesn’t want to know them.”
As if on cue, small chunks of bark rolled off Pongo’s arms. They all looked up and saw their enemies. Pan descended the quickest. Gorilla was slowed by the king riding on his back. Hominid had one arm holding his crown steady and the other wrapped around Gorilla’s neck. Gorilla wondered why the perfect being at the top of the tree would have such difficulty traversing it.
Before they reached the land of fallen branches there was more life they had to pass through. None of them had known anything about what was below Animalia. They climbed down through Eukaryota. Shortly after they descended into the foliage of the bacteria.
The miniscule things lived such quick and fleeting lives that their branches grew, bloomed, fruited, and wilted before the visitors’ eyes. Branches grew around them and poked at their heads and bodies before retreating. Small curious blobs moved over them with incredible speed. Salticid tried to pick one up but it squirmed away from her and back into the chaos. Lancelet laughed as the animate globs rolled across his body and tickled him.
Hominid’s underlings had a few reservations about entering the squirming soup of slime and tree tendrils. Gorilla lowered his toe into it and pulled it back quickly.
“What are you doing?” Hominid shouted. “We need to catch them. Don’t be afraid of slime. Just think of it as a warm little pond. Now go!”
Pan reached an apprehensive finger into the mass of vegetation. An eager blob wasted no time in sliding up his dirty fingernail. It zigzagged through the chimp’s arm hair and climbed into one of its wide nostrils.
“AUOOGH!” the great ape blurted, not feeling so great. He climbed away from the muck and tried to breathe. “Afhcha!” he sneezed. “Affffhchaa!” He rubbed his free hand across his nose to dislodge the thing. “Ahhhfcha! “I’m not going in there!” he protested. “That stuff makes you sick!”
“You’ll go in because I ordered you too,” Hominid growled.
“You said we were the best because we were at the top!” Pan screamed. He bared his canines aggressively. “We’re pretty far from the top now! Come on Gorilla. We’ll go back to a branch where things don’t crawl up your nose. Afhhhhcha!” The chimpanzee started climbing back up the trail of footprints. Gorilla reached onto his back and tried to pull Hominid Rex off. The king clung to him like a frightened child.
“You can’t leave me here! I can’t grab these ledges!” Gorilla’s strength was too much for the king to handle. Even as the ape held him out over the abyss of tangled bacteria, he did not relinquish his grip on the crown.
“It’s either a ledge or your crown,” Gorilla offered. Hominid protested the terms vehemently. Gorilla dropped him nonchalantly. The human fell screaming into the colorful writhing tangle of bacterial branches. The great apes started their long climb back up to the rest of the primates. Along the way they started to wonder why they cared so much about ups and downs.
“What was that?” Lancelet asked as they heard the scream pass by them. “It sounded like that Hominid fellow.”
“I can’t see past all these little guys,” Salticid said. Pongo was busy trying to hold in a sneeze. The climb proved treacherous for them as time stretched on. The tiny snaking branches often tried to sneak under Pongo’s fingers and cause his grip to fail. The ape powered through that, the sneezes, and the itchy eyes. He thought it was the least he could do for the spider he’d so inconvenienced.
When they broke through the bottom of the bacterial canopy they found that the base of the tree was in sight. Shortly after that Pongo released his hold on the tree and stepped foot on the ground. His feet crunched into a carpet of brittle yellow leaves. Salticid untied Lancelet and took him down to the ground. She pressed the end of him into the soil so he could feel it.
“What a strange sensation,” he commented. “I feel so… grounded. I’m missing something though. This place feels the strangest of all.”
“These are the lands of extinction,” Salticid said. “The branches that no longer grow fell here.” She looked around and took in a billion years of loss. The only graves for the lost creatures were their bleached bones and shells. A thousand skulls wrapped delicately in brown leaves stared back at them. Each pebble on the ground turned out to be a chunk of bone or arthropod husk. Pongo did his best to tread carefully. They came to the biggest leaf they’d ever seen, weighted down by the skeleton of a dinosaur. The knobs on its spine rose high into the air like a line of stone idols on a beach. Its neck and tail stretched further than they could see. Pongo lifted the edge of the leaf enough for the three of them to sneak under. The papery roof over them cooled the air and gave them a chance to wonder what was on the other side of the dead leaves. What great truth could be there? The only thing they had seen from above was the shadow stretching off into the distance.
A strange sensation came over the trio. Pongo’s pace quickened. Salticid’s jumps became close to effortless. Lancelet’s skin sparkled with moisture. Something was reinvigorating them. I feel like I never left, Salticid thought. This is exactly how I feel when I wake up next to Oxy and Thomis. What is this?
Pongo hoisted the last part of the leaf out of the way and they stepped into a clearing. The last of the dead leaves were off to each side. The expanse of shadow was ahead of them, but it was nothing like they’d expected. Their instincts had told them the land of the tree’s shadow would be barren. There was little light to fuel growth and few places to hide. As their eyes adjusted the true details of the shadows revealed themselves. The dark ground was lush with black shrubs and vines. Huge plush bushes were overloaded with plump blackberries. What really took them was the feeling. As soon as they stepped foot on the shadow they felt like they could jump to the end of it in a single bound. Lancelet felt like he could see, smell, touch, fly, change color, and anything else he wanted to do. The shadow pulsed with vitality in a way even the tree couldn’t match.
They didn’t have long to revel in the euphoria, as a figure burst out of one of the thickest bushes. It was a disheveled Hominid Rex. He had small cuts across his face and arms. Black leaves fell out of his sleeves. Eclectus still clung to his shoulder, but the bird looked very dazed.
“You!” he huffed and stomped closer. “I’ve got you now. Look how far I’ve fallen because of you. It’ll take me ages to get back up there and organize everything. It’ll be worth it when I look up from my throne and see you hanging by a chain!” Hominid howled and let loose a great chain of being. It wrapped around Pongo’s wrist and fastened him to the ground with a metal stake. Hominid fired chains until Pongo was hopelessly trapped, then he turned his attention to Salticid. He fired another chain, this one tipped by the sharp metal stake.
Salticid did not fear it. The shadow gave her certainty. The truth already lived in her mind and it was going to live in Hominid’s even if she had to stuff it in there. She leapt into the air and struck the chain with Lancelet. Instead of being sent off course it simply shattered into dust. Hominid rex refused to give in. He fired chain after chain at his miniscule ruination. Each one disintegrated with a loud sharp sound. The spider continued her approach. She knew why she had the power to destroy the chains and why they grew weaker along with the crown. She was willing to really use her big round eyes. She didn’t just passively see. She observed. She saw the evidence and knew when it was time to accept the truth. Hominid was too caught up in his baubles to see.
The king dropped to his knees as the spider knocked the last great chain of being into oblivion. His grip on the crown loosened and his arm shook.
“How are you doing this?” he asked.
“I can see the truth,” she said, “That’s why it seems the world is on my side. Lancelet is real. Your chains are just condensed delusion. The only power they have is over you.”
“I have to be at the top,” Hominid muttered. He no longer had the energy to defend the assertion. He wondered why he wasn’t full of energy like his foes. They’d traveled the same branches. “If I’m not at the top then I’m not better than you. I’m nothing.”
“You’re not nothing,” Lancelet said reassuringly. “You’re as good as me. And I am pretty great.”
“What is… what is the truth?” the king asked.
“The truth is,” Salticid started. She reached down and picked up a bit of shadowy soil and let it fall away. “The shadow is the truth. Where we live up there… It’s fine, but it’s not the tree of life. This is.” She gestured to everything surrounding them. “Can’t you feel the energy? This is where we’re supposed to be. At some point all the animals moved up there. They left their prints in the wood. I don’t know when or why. Maybe you had them do it but you just can’t remember because of that shackle on your mind.” She pointed Lancelet at the crown. “Maybe you just wanted to be on top of something. After a while even that wasn’t good enough so you started trying to rearrange it. Regardless, this shadow is the true tree of life. There is no hierarchy. No up or down. Higher or lower. We’re all beside each other as equals. We’re all alive. That’s the only goal the tree of life has.”
Hominid Rex lowered his hands. The crown of chains rose off his head by itself and writhed in the air as if struck by lightning. The metal shrieked and bawled and knotted itself.
“I think the final blow would be quite fun,” Lancelet suggested.
“With pleasure my friend. Hold onto your notochord.” Salticid reared back and tossed Lancelet with all her strength. He sailed through the air rapturously and pierced the ball of wailing iron. It exploded out of existence in a shower of gray sparks. The chains holding Pongo down disappeared. The hatred and fatigue in Hominid’s eyes rolled back like a spent storm cloud. A tree of light burst from his forehead and threatened to crush him under its massive curl. The shape of the truth retreated into his skull to settle in. He rose to his feet as the tree’s shadow filled him with the energy the crown had denied.
“I’m… I don’t know what to say. I know I can’t change things now… I just wanted to mean something.”
“Then start acting like it,” Salticid suggested. She hopped up to his shoulder. “Send Eclectus up the tree. Tell them the truth.”
“You heard her,” Hominid said to the parrot. “Go up there. Tell all the branches to join us in this paradise. Tell them Hominid was wrong. Tell them that the shadow is the real tree. Tell them the shadow is not a judge; it is a home.”
Eclectus took to his wings.
Salticid turned to look at the shadow. It stretched further than she could see or understand. What Beautiful ramifications, she thought, her amazement nearly bursting from the seams of her exoskeleton. Beautiful ramifications.