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The unlikely redemption of Safety Spider

11 min read

From the archives. Originally published on March 23, 2014.

In all the land of anthropomorphized animal mascots representing abstract positive ideas, no one was as depressed as Safety Spider. It was not because he was unskilled at his job, mind you—he was versed in at least 427 different sub-varieties of safety, from chemical to electrical to simple matters of common sense. Nonetheless, he had to admit to himself in the dark of the night after each day's rounds were completed, he was bad at it. He was bad at it in a manner he could never quite understand, and so therefore felt entirely powerless to do anything about.

A typical encounter would go like this: A woman would be driving along a quiet, winding road in her late model car, possibly a Prius or some other of the now-popular new sorts, but would be chatting away on a cellphone held to her ear. Safety Spider might pop out of one of the ventilation grills immediately under the windshield, landing neatly on the top of the steering wheel.

"You should not talk on a cellphone while driving," Safety Spider would say. "That can be very dangerous."

"Spider!" the woman would suddenly shout, losing control of the vehicle and crashing squarely into a guardrail.

Another effort might go like this: A young and strapping man would be riding his bicycle down a neighborhood street, perhaps feeling too full of himself, perhaps not, perhaps peddling recklessly forward or perhaps just coasting along, no particular thought in his head. Safety Spider might drop gracefully from an overhead tree, landing with perfect precision upon the young man's nose.

"You should not be riding a bicycle without a helmet," Safety Spider would gently say, wagging three of his frontmost legs at the young man sternly to emphasize the point. "You could be seriously hurt."

"Aaaah!" the man would shout, unhelpfully, before swerving and hitting the trunk of the very tree that Safety Spider had used as launching-point. The man was indeed badly injured, just as Safety Spider had warned, but Safety Spider felt no consolation from having his point proved so efficiently.

So Safety Spider was, in a word, depressed. In several other words he was sad, dejected, forlorn, sullen and despondent. He had dedicated his entire life to teaching proper safety, all of the dangerous things that men and women and children should do or should not do, but was convinced at this point that there was not a thing he could say that would get his message of Safety across. If anything, his interventions only tended to make the matter worse.

The other mascots were of very little help.

"There there," Persistence Penguin would tell him. "You must keep trying, I am sure everything will work out."

"Go for a good quick run," Exercise Echidna would say. "A good quick run strengthens the body and freshens the mind. You will feel much better afterwards."

"I am afraid I cannot be of much assistance," said Self-Reliance Rhinoceros, a bit gruffly.

And so Safety Spider would set off to try again, each time with slightly less spring in his many steps than the time before.

A kindly mother would be preparing to work in her garden. "Don't forget to put on a hat, you can get sunburned even on a cloudy day," Safety Spider would say, popping out from inside a gardening glove just as the woman was about to put her hand inside it. Sensible advice indeed, one would think, but instead the woman dropped the glove and darted from the room, apparently no longer wanting to garden at all.

"I cannot take this any longer," Safety Spider groaned that night in the dark warmth of his favorite bar, sipping drearily from a bowl of long-fermented insect juice.

"You mustn't be so down on yourself," said Positivity Platypus. "No matter what others might think of you, so long as you remain confident in yourself you can accomplish anything." This was not particularly helpful advice, but Positivity Platypus seemed convinced, at least, and glided off to dispense his wisdom to the next needy soul.

"Are you sure you are being clear?" spoke a deep, booming voice from behind him. Enunciation Elephant gestured to the bartender, who nodded and set about preparing the usual drink. "I find the problem in these situations is most often a lack of being clear." But Safety Spider had a clear, sonorous voice himself, so he doubted that could be the problem.

"Perhaps the problem is that you are trying to do this on your own," said Teamwork Trout. "What if you traveled with a few dozen other spiders to accompany you, and presented your safety advice as a large group? It would be much more difficult to ignore your advice if there were dozens of spiders all saying it, instead of just one." Safety Spider did not think that was a very good idea either, though the prospect of middle management did somewhat appeal to him. Besides, his job had been getting more and more dangerous-seeming of late, what with the car crashes and bicycle accidents, and he could not in good conscience ask others to share those risks.

He went out again: It got no better. "A welding mask is essential safety equipment," he said sternly to a burly construction worker. "But it does no good if it is there on the top of your head, instead of covering your face." He said it while hanging from the edge of the aforementioned mask on a short, thin thread, mere inches from the burly man's face so that there would be no question that the man could properly see him there.

The resulting fire caused several million dollars in property damage and was the lead story in the papers the next day.

Back at the bar, Safety Spider was inconsolable. Even Consolation Cormorant could not cheer him, which made Consolation Cormorant himself depressed. "I am a failure," said Safety Spider, as Consolation Cormorant flew off into the rafters to sulk. "There is no way around it. No matter what I do or what I say, unsafety follows me wherever I go. The world does not need me, and would be better off without my unlistened-to advice." He resolved then and there to send himself into exile. None of his friends could deter him.

"I do hope you are considering the implications of this action fully," said Implications Iguana.

"At least promise me you will stand up straight," pleaded Posture Porcupine.

"Goodbye," said Brevity Bison.

He set out the next morning for a new life of solitude. "At least if I am by myself, I can do no further harm to people," he whispered quietly. He traveled for as long and as far as he could, and by sundown he had come to an old and gigantic abandoned house. It was in tatters, with holes in the walls and in the floorboards. The windows had all been broken out long ago, and when the cold wind blew through them the frames would shudder and the doors inside would make ominous creaking sounds. "Here is where I shall stay from now on," said Safety Spider. "In the isolation that I deserve."

He moved inside and unpacked his few belongings from the four bindles he had carried with him. He perched himself on a stair bannister and was nearly asleep when, amidst the quiet rattling of the windows and the soft creaks of the woodwork, he was jolted awake by the sound of the front door opening with a mighty, abdomen-rattling creeeeeeeeeeak.

"I told you," a voice said. "You each have to go to the bedroom on the third floor, the one right above the entrance, where the old lady died. Go to the window and wave out so we know you did it—unless you are scared."

In the soft light of the full moon Safety Spider could see the outlines of three youthful-looking humans. There were two young men and one young women, each in dark blue school uniforms, and they looked (it helps to have eight eyes, when attempting to discern things by the soft light of the full moon) terribly frightened. They clutched each other by the arms and took little steps through the door and into the front entryway, making for the stairway that Safety Spider had made his bedroom.

Safety Spider was unaccountably angered by what he saw. A school dare, he thought, to enter such a terrible and dangerous place? He would give them a good piece of his mind.

"You should not be in a place like this!" he boomed sternly. "There are holes in the floor, there is glass underfoot, you could be seriously injured if you were to slip or fall!"

The three intruders caught sight of him, all eight of his eyes glistening and flickering with anger, on top of the stair railing. The sudden start was apparently too much for all three: They let out three loud shrieks, all of different pitches, none of them in tune with the others, and sprinted out the still-open front door as if all the undercooked cuts of meat and un-baby-proofed electrical outlets in the entire world were chasing them. He heard the thump, thump, thump of all three falling down on the thin brown weeds of the front once-lawn, followed by uproarious laughter from their several companions.

"I have done it again," cried Safety Spider. "Even in my solitude, I have caused injury to the unlucky few to cross my path."

He set out again by dawn's light, determined to find a new home even more distant and forlorn than the first. After a day and a half of travel without sleep, he happened upon an old-looking well house on an old-looking farm. He slipped under the worn wooden door, stumbled and crawled around a bit to make a just-sufficient but embarrassingly sloppy-looking web, and flopped himself down in the middle of it.

He slept for an entire day, perhaps even two. When he awoke it was not of his own doing, but from the very loud screech of the worn wooden door opening. Bright sun streamed inside, momentarily blinding him, but after covering four of his eyes with four of his legs he was finally able to see a small child, perhaps only five years old, grinning a happy grin and looking at the wondrous new playground she had just discovered.

"You should not be in here!" shouted Safety Spider, alarmed. "A child as small as you could fall down the well-hole, and be killed!"

It was at that point that the child's outstretched hand made contact with the large, sloppy web that Safety Spider had made his temporary bedchamber, and at that point that the child noticed Safety Spider himself, large and black and with four of his legs raised to block the sunlight from four of his eyes, perched right in the middle of it. Sure enough, she let out a shout and ran as quickly as her too-short legs would carry her down the narrow path that led to the well-house and out of sight.

"Good," said Safety Spider. "At least we will have no children falling down a well on this particular day."

He paused.

This was, despite the obvious insult of someone fleeing in terror from his kindly and well-meaning figure, the desired result. The child did not enter the well house. The child ran away.

He paused even longer.

Could there be hope, here? A lesson to be learned? Could his devotion to safety still bear fruit, even after all the indignities he had suffered?

He stood still for the better part of three days, as still as a pebble, deep in thought. Anyone who happened upon him in such a state would have thought that he was dead, but instead he was merely ... thinking.

Finally, he was ready for a new experiment. He left his well house perch and went to an old-looking shed nearby an old-looking farmhouse. It was dark and full of sharp-looking garden tools, forks and hoes and sharp saws on surprisingly long sticks. He set himself down silently, and waited.

After a long time but not too long, a tall child opened the shed and peeked in the door.

"You should not come in here," said Safety Spider, puffing himself up to be big and important-looking. "It is full of sharp saws and rusty garden tools, and if you were to get cut you would stand a very good chance of getting tetanus."

The child did not run, but did get a sour look over his youthful face, and turned away. "Dad, I'm not going in there! There's a huge spider right in the doorway!"

There was a deep, tired-sounding sigh from a bit farther away. "Fine, I'll get it myself," the voice called, and a man soon appeared at the door of the shed. He looked at Safety Spider but paid him no mind, reaching past him to retrieve a worn wood-handled shovel. Safety Spider said nothing, because the man looked responsible enough to handle a wood-handled shovel and he was wearing proper gloves, which would be the main point of contention Safety Spider might have with someone reaching for a wood-handled shovel in a dim garden shed.

A success, then.

He moved locations and tried again. This time he positioned himself in the farmhouse itself, in the cabinet directly under the kitchen sink. Soon enough he could hear the irregular crashing movements of a toddler, and soon enough the toddler's thumping paused at the cabinet door directly under the sink, as all toddlers before and since have paused, and tiny hands popped the door open, as all tiny hands before and since seem determined to do.

"You should not play in here," said Safety Spider. "There are several chemicals in the cleaning supplies here that would make you very, very sick indeed."

The young human gave no indication of understanding what Safety Spider had to say, but upon seeing his squat black form with eight protruding limbs gave an incomprehensible little squawk, which was enough to warn the nearby mother that the toddler had wandered to the cabinet directly under the sink, as all toddlers will sooner or later do.

"For crying out loud, we either need to get a lock on this thing or empty it out," a voice said. "You know what, forget it, this stuff can pretty much all go in the garage, every bit of it. Of course we'll need to remember to lock that, now."

There was no denying it. Safety Spider himself could have not said it any better, nor reasonably asked for any better result. It was, again, a success.

It was difficult going, at first, but soon Safety Spider had developed an entirely new system for educating humans about safety. He would go to the loft of the barn, perch himself right there on the ladder, and few would pass. He traveled back to the suburbs, where he would glare silently from the tops of half-used, poorly stored paint cans or from between dusty glass bottles that would probably break into many jagged pieces if knocked from their narrow shelves. He found that he need not even be present, in fact: Many humans could be deterred from entering a truly dangerous building or unlooked-after supply room merely by a well-placed web strung across the entrance. Not all, but most, and he began to use well-placed webs as silent signal that an area was unkempt or in disrepair and therefore should be avoided by people who were not experienced professionals in dealing with unkempt or unrepaired locations.

And, above all, he was happy again. It may not have worked out quite as Safety Spider had envisioned it, back in the heady days when he had just graduated from anthropomorphized animal mascots representing abstract positive ideas school, but he was putting his mark upon the world, and he was bringing his message of safety, especially to the young and timid humans who needed such lessons the most, and when he finally returned to his old friends he was greeted as a returning hero would be greeted, which according to Propriety Parrot was unquestionably the proper greeting indeed.

What is the moral of the story, you may ask? I am not Moral of the Story Moose, so I will not be able to do as good a job as he could in explaining it, but the general moral is one that most anthropomorphic animal mascots for abstract positive ideas would find familiar. Stay positive; be persistent; believe in yourself; stand up straight and do not slouch.

There is hope for anyone, in other words. Even if you are very bad at giving advice, if your advice is good and your heart is in the right place, you may eventually be heard. And if you are very bad at giving advice, so bad that you can make any situation around you substantially worse merely by piping up with your own thoughts about it, a walking disaster that brings injury and ruin to all you associate with, even then there may be a place for you in this world, you poor and sorrowful thing. You could fashion yourself as a sort of Un-Safety Spider, if there was simply nothing else to be done about it. You could serve at least as prominent warning to the rest of that world, your mere presence a sign to others of all the dusty places they should not go and all of the dark notions that they would do well to avoid simply by seeing that you have staked your own conspicuous claim to them.


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