He has dimples in his cheeks when he laughs. She thought about him every second of the day. Anna wanted to erase Helmer from her dreams, but she was still looking for the delete button in order to do that. He gave her palpitations of the life-threatening kind. She had spoken to him only once and she had fallen hopelessly in love. She had not expected that anymore at the age of forty. It was safer to stick to something platonic. To prevent a broken heart. She was no match for him and he had enough admirers, both male and female. They swarmed around him like bees around a honey pot.
She skipped the staff party of the Brussels tax department this year in order to avoid meeting him. She was hiding in her familiar workplace on the fifth floor, between the old files that she had to scan manually. She loved the archive. It was quiet and, in general, she did not get disturbed by anyone. The many windows provided pleasant daylight. It was so spacious that the room could easily serve as a ballroom, if one imagined the racks not being there.
She had just shut down her computer when she heard the bang, followed by a dull thud. The sound came from somewhere in the back. She stood up and carefully went to have a look.
The heavy rack in the last row, including the cardboard boxes, was completely destroyed. It had just missed falling against the other racks. What happened here? Although she immediately realized that it was impossible even for a very powerful draught to blow over a stacking rack of that size, she still looked at the large windows to see if there were any ones that were open.
She heard a faint groan and turned her head. He stood with his back against the wall, behind the fallen rack. It is Helmer! The realization that it was him, shocked her ten times more than the havoc on the floor. He looked terrified. His face was as pale as a sheet and his big green eyes were wide open. His fingers trembled as he brought his index finger to his lips. ‘Help me, please. If someone asks for me, I am not there.’ He was shaking like a leaf.
She did not understand anything but nodded involuntarily.
Clicking heels resounded on the linoleum. The peening bickering swelled and became louder and louder. Anna was overcome by an oppressive feeling. She was not the only one with an irrational fear. Helmer’s face stiffened. He breathed heavily through his nose. Drops of sweat appeared on his forehead. It was as if she could smell his fear.
‘There you are! Finally. I have been looking all over for you.’
His lips were quivering.
Anna turned around and recognized Jolanda. The cleaning lady was dressed scantily, revealing more than what was normally considered as being decent. Naked nipple scandals are not scandalous enough anymore. She bit her lip and, in a substitute embarrassment, she lowered her eyes. Although she did not have a shoe fetishist, she was overcome by a fit of jealousy when she saw a beautiful pair of killer heels on the floor. Stylish stilettos with black straps around the ankles. Ankles in shiny pantyhose. Pantyhose that glistened in the sunlight. They enwrapped legs that went on and on and were connected to two well-formed hips, with a wasp waist on top that would blow you away.
‘You’re going out with me tonight.’ The cleaning lady poked him with her index finger on his chest.
‘No, I’ve already explained that,’ he said.
Jolanda pouted. The scantily clad bitch stared at her as if she were only a filthy and dirty insect. Apparently, she did not see her as any competition and she turned towards Helmer again. She sniffed and made a conceited movement with her nose. ‘You are not only afraid of me, you are just afraid of all women. Venustraphobia, that’s what they call it. If you ask me, you are a venus-trafo-boob.’
‘I am not,’ he said indignantly.
‘Why don’t you just admit that you’re gay? Then we do not have to make fools of ourselves any longer. It saves a lot of hassles. Do you realize what you are doing to us?’ She placed her hands on her hips and made a voluptuous movement with her long hair.
Helmer put an arm around Anna.
‘I have a date with, with...’ He looked beseechingly at Anna.
‘You have a date with me,’ she said softly. She conjured up a smile that was almost so wide that it ran from her left ear to her right ear. He smiled back at her. The dimples in his cheeks made her dizzy.
Jolanda closed her eyes. ‘I thought you had more taste.’ She sighed. ‘You are into ... chubby and wearing glasses ... in a track suit?’ It did not sound like a question, it sounded like a disappointing conclusion.
‘So, I’m spoken for,’ he said.
‘She has a bad Sunday hairdresser. It’s probably a common chicken plucker.’ She did not even give Anna a look when she spoke to Helmer. She walked away angrily. The sound of clicking shoes in the corridor echoed as she closed the door behind her.
Anna sighed. He still had his right arm around her shoulders. She started to sweat.
‘That woman is a living nightmare. Thank you, you saved me.’ His voice sounded like a summer breeze. She shivered as he spoke and the words hardly penetrated. ‘I really owe you a drink,’ he said.
It was a nice pub with brightly coloured walls and it was pretty quiet.
‘Tonight, from eight o’clock onwards, this joint will be chock-a-block,’ Helmer said.
Anna looked around, feeling ill at ease.
‘Have not you been here before?’
She shook her head. She never went out.
A waitress in a close-fitting black dress came to take their order. The girl had a thick head of curly hair in a beautiful strawberry blonde type of colour that framed a staggeringly perfect face. Life is not fair. Where do all these Disney princesses come from lately?
‘Ha Siobhan,’ said Helmer.
‘It’s about time. You finally have a date,’ said the woman when she welcomed Anna.
‘Don’t stick your nose in someone else’s business, sister,’ he remarked snidely.
Relieved, Anna looked from the one to the other. Just like the princess, Helmer also had copper curls. It was just that his were a few shades darker.
‘You come from fine breeding.’ The thoughts in her head just popped out.
‘I’m not so sure about that,’ he said. ‘Real beauty comes from within.’
‘I do not want to hear that. People have told me that way too often. They usually say that to comfort the less fortunate,’ she said.
Helmer burst out laughing.
Siobhan grinned in a silly way. ‘Can I offer you a mojito from the house?’
Anna answered Helmer’s questioning look with a nod. Everything was good as far as she was concerned. She had always been afraid that he would not like her. It suddenly became clear to her that her fear of being rejected was unfounded. She had the impression that he even appreciated her presence. It was as if she had won the big lotto. I have a date with the best-looking man on this continent!
They both loved mojito. The drink smelled good, tasted fresh and the green mint leaves reminded Anna of his eyes in which she just wanted to get lost in. He thought her funny and she found him attractive. It did not stay with one mojito and one date. They got along splendidly and a beautiful, mutual love flourished between them.
Valentine’s Day fell on an ordinary Friday. She had scanned a fourth file when Helmer called her and asked if she could come to his office.
Anna wriggled through his colleagues and made her way to his workplace. He fell to his knees and held up a tiny box. ‘Will you marry me?’ he asked. All eyes were focused on her.
She wanted to say yes immediately. She felt the looks piercing her and she became incredibly nervous. The right words did not want to come. ‘Do I have to think about it?’ she whispered hoarsely.
She took the tiny box from his hands and fled to her floor. She closed the door of the archive and she did not scan one single sentence after that. Dazed, distraught and as if unreal, she stared at the ring. She gently slid it on her finger and it fitted perfectly. That also shocked her deeply. She shook her head incredulously.
Something is not right. A prince on a white horse does not just pass by like that. Not by me. We just got to know each other. We have not even kissed yet. Why does he ask it in this manner? In front of everybody? It is as if he wants to let them know that he wants to be left alone. Jolanda is not the only one who is after him. Poor, harassed man. Being too good-looking is a burden that should not be underestimated.
During the lunch break, Helmer called on her. The harrowing expression of his mouth and the sad look in his eyes gave her an immediate severe and miserable heartache. The thought that he was in pain because of her was unbearable and made her say “yes” immediately.
‘Why didn’t you say that right away?’ he asked relieved.
‘Well, we ... have never even kissed before,’ she said softly.
And Helmer changed that immediately. His lips felt like velvet. Butterflies awoke and frolicked in her stomach. Her answer was extremely intense. His reciprocal reply was even more intense. They kissed each other as if their lives depended on it.
‘Wait,’ Helmer gasped. ‘It... is not... It’s too hot.’
‘I know what you mean,’ she said softly, almost embarrassed. The air creaked with the accumulated tension. She opened the window. The cool February wind blew in and she welcomed it as a welcome guest.
He was about to kiss her again.
Anna pulled away, though she was burning with desire. ‘Don’t,’ she groaned. ‘I’m almost bursting.’ Her bosom heaved, a few buttons flew off like fleas and her blouse snapped open. A hundred fluttering Peacock butterflies, Polygonia c-albums, Orange Meadow Browns and a lot of Cabbage Whites broke free from there.
He took a step back and let her go. He stared at her, startled.
She stared back and could not stop the butterflies. They kept on swarming out. Like two statues, they stood motionlessly, looking at the strange spectacle happening between the two of them. The little creatures crowded against one another and kept waiting in line for an escape to the open air, just in front of the insect screen of the opened window.
Helmer shot into action and opened the insect screen so that the winged beauties could fly outside more easily. ‘Lepidoptera,’ he whispered.
Together they looked for a while at the wonderful sight that brought so much colour between the flimsy apartment buildings of the Koning Albert II Avenue.
‘Now, you’ve lost your butterflies,’ he remarked dryly.
'I still get new jitters in my belly every time I think of you,' she said.
He stroked the curve of her right breast with his index finger. ‘It’s even worse with me: I go crazy when I think of you.’ His finger wriggled in the cleavage of her bosom. He should not have done that. Anna suddenly felt very shaky.
He looked at her with an expression full of lust. Lewdness. Lust. Hunger.
She stared back at him. She swooned, literally drowning in his eyes, and she did not want to stop it. The desire was too strong and the feeling was too powerful. Her head reeled, for a moment she saw double. It looked as if he had two, three, no, four pairs of green eyes. A few seconds later she came to in his arms.
‘If you kiss me again now, and if I do not faint again, I’ll rip the clothes from your body,’ she said.
He smiled mischievously and started to test whether or not she spoke the truth.
‘Don’t!’ She veered upright and jumped backwards. ‘This is not how it should be. Besides, I’m not into sex at work,’ she argued weakly.
‘Yes, you’re right. It’s not right,’ he said.
When she looked at him, she immediately regretted her prudish gibberish. She realized that she was blushing and stared quickly at the linoleum. There was an uncomfortable silence.
He slid his fingers over her cheeks and raised her chin so that she had to look at him. His piercing look was rather serious. ‘If we stop working half an hour earlier this evening, we can still go to the town hall.’
She groaned and sighed. The last button of her blouse flew off into the air. A Queen Alexandra’s birdwing butterfly squeaked out and fluttered away.
At the town hall, they were told that they could only get married on the third of the month of March, at the earliest. ‘Take the documents home with you first,’ the clerk suggested.
‘We will fill them out here. Waiting any longer is not an option,’ said Helmer.
She could kiss him, but she did not dare. Not there, not at that moment. Imagine a multitude of butterflies erupting from her again.
Helmer signed the documents and moved them over to Anna. ‘We could celebrate with a Caipirinha.’
She looked at her watch. ‘Good idea, then we can immediately inform your sister.’
Siobhan stood in the kitchen behind the bar. She was busy cutting limes when they told her. ‘What?’ Tears shot into her eyes. ‘Congratulations! I’m so happy for you two.’ She hugged them affectionately and then turned around. It was as if she did not know what to do with her emotions. She took him by the arm. ‘I did not expect this from you at all. This is news that really strikes a chord. If mom should hear this, then ... ‘She put her hand in front of her mouth. ‘Then she will start talking about grandchildren...’
‘Children?’ Anna laughed. ‘There are pills against that, aren’t there?’
Siobhan looked at Helmer with wide eyes. ‘Haven’t you... Doesn’t she know yet...’
‘Don’t know what yet?’ Anna stared at them in turn, slightly irritated.
There was an intense silence. The silence was interrupted by a soft hum. A thick bluebottle that had apparently defied the winter was flying around them. Siobhan swatted it with her lime knife and thoughtlessly put it in her mouth. Anna shook her head. Did she just see what she saw?
‘Siobhan,’ he retorted, quite shocked.
His sister chewed on it as if it were chewing gum. She swallowed. ‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘Do you already have any idea where you will spend your honeymoon?’ she asked them.
‘Well! No, we haven’t had time for that yet.’ He sounded relieved.
Siobhan bit her lower lip. ‘Wait here for a minute. No, wait! Go sit at the table, I’ll be back soon.’ She winked at her brother and disappeared.
They went to go sit at their usual spot.
‘Children, what on earth is she talking about?’ Anna said. “I’m not even sure if I want any. I’m forty years old, maybe I’m too old for that.’
Helmer stared nondescriptly at his hands.
Siobhan returned with a tray. She put two cocktails on the table and gave Helmer a key. ‘It has only just been polished and there is a large stock of wood. It’s only a suggestion.’ She winked mischievously and left for the counter where a couple of customers were waiting for their order.
Helmer played with the key in his hands.
‘What’s the meaning of all of this?’ Anna asked. She did not like to be left in the lurch for a long time.
‘Do you know the French Opal Coast?’
‘I’ve been there before.’
‘We have an outdoor residence, a small, but nice, house, it is very close to the sea and looks out onto a beautiful beach.’
Anna pulled a face. The north of France is very cold this time of year.’
‘There is an open fireplace in good working order.’
‘The tourist season hasn’t started yet. We will not find any restaurants open there. There is no living soul to be found there this time of year.’
He looked at her expressively. ‘That’s what we’re looking, isn’t it? Privacy. We will live on lust and love, my love.’
She blushed. The tone in his voice evoked some sensational, potential images of the future. She perspired and she sighed, her panty was completely wet and she groaned at the sensation of the jitters in her belly. She felt as if she was boiling and when she thought she could no longer hold it in, the safety pins that she had attached to her blouse just snapped.
‘Red small coppers,’ Helmer whispered in a strangled voice.
The day before the wedding, Siobhan took her in tow. ‘For your special day, you have to wear something other than a blouse and sweatpants,’ she had told Anna. They found new glasses and a stylish women’s suit in the Nieuwstraat and in the Marolles her soon-to-be sister-in-law managed to find a really good hairdresser. One who was actually master of his trade.
After the short wedding ceremony at the town hall, they immediately left for a trip.
Her mother gave them a big wicker basket filled with baguettes, wine and cheese. ‘You cannot live on love alone.’ Anna wisely held her tongue. Rationally seen, it was an indisputably useful gift.
Her mother-in-law pushed a cooler box into Helmer’s hands. ‘Vanilla ice-cream,’ she said softly.
Siobhan gave them a bouquet of roses and a beautifully crocheted bedspread.
With tears in her eyes Anna waved goodbye. Their wedding was not a big issue, but the people who sincerely cared about them were there and they had overwhelmed them with loving attention.
It was peaceful and deserted, as they had expected. The fisherman’s cottage, built out of rough rock, had blue painted shutters and was the only one situated near a pebble beach. The brown pebbles, polished by the work of the sea, glistened in the light of a faint North Sea sun. There was a rough wind and the sky was veiled with many shades of dull grey that called for tranquillity and calmness. The water swished and foam danced on the waves.
Anna and Helmer inhaled the iodine-rich air. ‘You will no longer be a virgin tomorrow,’ he said, and he carried her over the threshold of their love temple. He subsequently unloaded their baggage. Anna dawdled around in the cottage, it looked cosy and well maintained. She found a vase in the kitchen to put the roses in. Covered with Siobhan’s bedspread, she flopped onto the couch in the living room, which looked out on the waters of the Atlantic. ‘It is as if I have ended up in a fairy-tale where I am the princess of the whole story. This is almost too good to be true,’ she sighed.
Helmer put his hand on her shoulder and removed the bedspread. He fumbled to open the buttons of her blouse. ‘Indeed, you are too good to be true.’ His voice broke and his eyes looked eagerly at her body and spoke more than words could say.
They danced to the bedroom as they stripped off all fabrics that hindered them and they tumbled like two turtledoves on the bed that stood in the middle of the room. He suddenly stopped kissing her. “Wait... I... only do it in the dark,” he said.
He put his index finger on her lips. ‘Shhh. It’s no shame, my love, because it’s not necessary. It’s only that sex is much more intimate in the dark.’
As she waited for him, he hopped hastily from the bed and closed the hatches of their holiday home. He rummaged in his suitcase and conjured a blindfold out of it, which he lovingly buttoned at the back of her head.
‘What are you doing now?’ she asked.
‘A blindfold makes it even more exciting,’ he replied.
He was a beast in bed. Screaming with pleasure, they did both, very loudly and for a very long time. They made love for hours on end until they both fell asleep, exhausted.
Anna woke up. I am pretty. He finds me pretty. Blissfully she stretched her arms. The bed was warm and moist. She heard something snap. It was as if her hands were covered with something sticky. The whole room smelled like Helmer. She smiled.
She stretched her legs and heard something tear. Although her pelvis felt bruised, she wanted it again. She ran her hands over her body. Apparently, she had become entangled in the sheet. Almost enraged, she tried to untangle the annoying sheet in which she was apparently completely entangled. It did not work. She cursed the blindfold that was so firmly tied. Why did he tie it so tightly? She pried it loose and gave her eyes some freedom. The light of the morning sun - or was it the afternoon sun? - shone through the cracks of the window shutters. She smiled and felt that the twilight was romantic enough for taking new action.
She wanted to turn around to look at him, but the sticky fabric threads of the sheet prevented it. She did not understand. She was sure that it was a sheet that was on top of her. Or maybe it was a duvet? Had they torn the down?
She wove with her arms through the filaments. When she finally managed to free herself, she saw where she was lying.
She screamed. She screamed and she screamed. No one heard her. And she could not get away.
The bed was beneath her, on the floor. She was hanging close to the ceiling, in the air. She pushed against the oak beams of the ceiling with her hands. She was stuck in a kind of cotton candy, a pale, woolly deposit that caked together onto a web of tightly stretched white ropes.
She became aware of a huge monster to the left of her. She gasped and tried to suppress a new rising panic. There was a hairy paw on her shoulder.
She became panicky when she realized that she was trapped in a gigantic spider’s web, next to a frighteningly large spider, half lying on top of her.
She suppressed a sob. She heaved while breathing in and out. My life is over. Now that it was so perfect. Helmer. Where was he now that she so desperately needed him? Had the spider devoured him? Was she next? She screamed again.
She tried to pry herself loose, which did not work, because the beast jumped backwards and from different body orifices he spewed new webbing that wrapped itself around her wrists and ankles. In no time her naked body was covered with white, silky spider fabric. She looked like a wrapped mummy.
Although she could hardly move, she tried to pry herself loose. With all the strength that she had. She pulled with her hands and kicked with her feet. They were pathetic attempts, because even the ultra-fine, almost transparent threads around her wrists were remarkably strong. Every movement she made caused her to get entangled even more in the web. She eventually gave up. It was impossible to get away. The fact that she did not see Helmer anywhere made her lose hope entirely. If he was not alive anymore, she did not want to live either. She would let herself be eaten by the monster. If she died quickly enough, it might not be that bad.
The spider moved and made the web wobble.
Anna closed her eyes. ‘If you are going to eat me, do it quickly, please,’ she said softly.
‘I love you too much to do that,’ the beast said.
It is not hungry anymore. It has not digested Helmer yet. It’s going to play with me like well-fed cats taunt mice. Anna started hyperventilating.
‘I’m sorry I’m scaring you.’
His voice! It was the timbre of his voice. He was still alive! But, where was he? Helmer!’ She called out his name dozens of times, until the spider squirted a clot of sticky spider’s saliva into her mouth. It was as if she got sweet cotton candy dropped into her mouth.
‘Look carefully, darling,’ said the monster. ‘What do you see when you look at me?’
She saw something disgusting with a greasy, shiny rump with eight dirty tentacles. She almost did not dare look. The hairy spider legs gave her the shivers. The hair that stood up on the legs made her tremble even more. Eight green, dirty eyes shone in the darkness. The darkness that had previously seemed so romantic to her.
She closed her eyes when something started to dawn on her. Emerald green. She was sure that she had seen those eyes before. Slowly it dawned on her. She had fainted on Valentine’s Day when she deliberately wanted to drown in his eyes, just after she had released her butterflies...
It’s not possible. She did not want to accept it.
‘I am a Homo Araneidae’
She shook her head. A homosexual? No, no, no. You are a beast, a monstrous spider, yes. Did I make love to a spider? The thought caused her to gag and vomit, forcing the sticky wad of spider webbing out of her mouth.
‘Keep calm. Now listen to me for a minute. Homo Araneidae, that’s the scientific name for people like me, who have partly human and partly arachnid genetic material. I can tell you that I have always cursed the inheritance of my arthropod, distant cousins. I have brooded for hours how I would explain it. I couldn’t know that it would end up like this, Anna.’
His voice broke. ‘I was as much a virgin as you were, my love. I only transform when I cannot control my feelings and I am terribly sorry that it happened. I would have liked it to be different. I would never have believed that my hormones would take over my common sense. I’ve heard stories before. Tall stories that I often had to laugh about. I just thought that my friends were bragging about their performances in bed.’ He looked at her thoughtfully.
She hesitated. The beast was quiet. Too quiet to her liking.
‘Yes, your Helmer is a changer and I can understand that you had to vomit because of my appearance.’
The eloquent monster plucked at the ropes of the web with four pairs of legs. ‘I don’t want to hurt you, let alone deliberately cause you any harm. I cannot change anything about my nature. I have trapped you in my net of love and given all the threads of love that I possessed to you. If I release you now, you are free to leave me. But just know that you will break my heart. I love you, I long for you and I cannot imagine that I should never wake up next to you again.’
‘Untie me’, she shouted.
‘It doesn’t just happen like that. My fibres are extremely strong. I’m no ordinary spider, you know.’
‘Stop it! You are not my Helmer.’
‘Patience, darling. I cannot change to my human form just like that.’
Anna closed her eyes. It was hard to grasp. Her Helmer? The so-called first prize that she had won? ‘Untie me,’ she screamed again.
‘Patience, darling,’ he repeated. His legs moved creepily, the threads of the web wobbled violently. It made her seasick.
He came closer.
She held her breath.
He stopped right in front of her, about thirty centimetres away from her. The swell in the web decreased. His ugly head tilted a bit to the left. He sat down without saying a word, totally immobile and for quite a few minutes.
Anna froze. She knew the beast was observing her and she did not like it.
She closed her eyes. ‘I just want to see my Helmer,’ she said.
‘I am your Helmer, honey.’
‘My Helmer is not a beast,’ she said stiffly.
It remained awfully quiet. Suddenly, the web started to wobble again.
Anna opened her eyes and watched as the spider crawled away from her, how he spit a thread and the lowered itself to the bed below her, where he disappeared from her sight. She stared whimsically at the pile of white fabric lying at the foot end of the bed. It had certainly been a sheet. Fear made her heart beat faster again. She gasped for air.
‘Don’t leave me alone!’ Did she just call out to that ghoul? She felt that she was going to suffocate. She pretended that it was all a dream from which she would soon wake up, where she would soon be able to laugh about heartily. However, it all only seemed a bit too real to reassure her.
The silence was gruesome. The twilight ominous. When will I wake up from this nightmare? It took ages before she heard anything or anyone again. But, he came back. Not the spider that came back, he came back. ‘Helmer!’ her joy was short-lived. She was startled seeing his naked body that she had simply worshipped. He... He had a knife with him! Fear made her throat close up. Tears of stress streamed down her cheeks. He cut his way through the sturdy web threads that appeared to be everywhere.
Anna almost broke down. Her knees were shaking, she trembled, gasped for air and could not take any oxygen in. When she realized what he was doing, she calmed down somewhat. He cut her wrists and her ankles loose and yanked her out of the sticky web. He kept holding her with one hand as he made his way through an endless jungle of sticky threads that he cut occasionally with the knife that he handled like a machete.
Stunned by the emotional events, she allowed herself to be carried to the couch in the other room.
He opened the curtains so that the light could shine inside.
It is my Helmer. His human body seemed perfect, but she shuddered when she realized that he actually was a monster. The realization struck her like a flaming toothache.
He came closer again and she cringed. He silently laid the silk bedspread of Siobhan over her. She did not dare to move. The thing she had received from her sister-in-law gave her a dreary feeling. She stared blankly at the fine lacework. The fibres were white and strong and they reminded her of the web in which she had allowed herself to be packed in with lust. She turned her head and peered at the tunnel-like opening of the bedroom, which seemed almost completely bricked up with white webbing. The doorposts had become invisible under a layer of down.
She looked around in a panic. The wind was playing with the curtains of the window. He had apparently also opened the window. Were they actually curtains? Because, nothing was what is seemed at first anymore.
She shook her head, put her hands over her mouth and hyperventilated again. It had all been too good to be true. What first seemed like a fairy tale was now a nightmare.
It took a while before she managed to breathe a bit more at ease. The wind blew stronger from outside into the cottage. The salty smell of the sea irritated her nose.
She did not want to think any longer, exist anymore. That is why she focused her eyes on the undulating scenery in front of her. The clouds looked threatening and offered no consolation. The sepia-coloured pebbles radiated a coldness. Only the dark blue, oscillating water was somewhat reassuring. Silently and otherwise thinking-no-more, she kept staring at the waves of the water for a long time. Ebb and flood followed each other consecutively. Sometimes the tops had a lot of foam and sometimes they were hollow and bald.
She did not say anything for two days, she saw nothing, she heard nothing. She did not want to know anything anymore, because she already knew too much. She needed time to process it all.
At a certain moment, she got up from the couch. Stiffly she stood up and stumbled to the toilet. Once there, she realized she was wearing her familiar track suit. She could not remember that she had put it on.
When she returned, she stared in amazement at the crackling fire in the fireplace. Someone had kindled a fire. No matter how she racked her brain, she could not remember who had done it. Her back hurt and she turned around to warm it up. Her attention was then consumed by an apparition on the beach. An orange glow lit up a hairy silhouette that she had seen before.
The flaming toothache started again. The creepy shadow on the brown pebbles was her husband. The so-called big lotto that she had won. Sex before marriage should be promoted, instead of the other way around, she thought wryly.
Hesitantly she stepped towards the window to have a better look at her better half. She carefully opened the window slightly. The beast was sitting on its backside and constantly shoved his legs one over the other. Anna could hear it, the scraping sound of the hairy legs. It was as if he was singing a profound, sad song. She had to cry. Tears streamed down her cheeks, and they were even saltier than the seawater.
He suddenly stopped. She gasped. Four pairs of eyes looked in her direction. Her stomach protested. Her knees were shaking. My Helmer is a monster, she thought before she fainted.
‘Anna, you have to eat something.’ He opened her mouth and pushed a spoonful of vanilla ice-cream down her throat. ‘Please, eat. I want my buddy back.’
For the first time she really looked at him. ‘Me too, I want my Helmer back.’
She allowed herself to be fed like a little bird. That is what she felt like, like a lost, little bird.
‘Couldn’t you have warned me in advance?’
‘Would you have wanted me then?’
‘No,’ she said.
‘That’s an honest answer.’ He continued to feed her.
‘Are there any other such monsters in the world?’
‘Anna, you have to know something. Jolanda, the cleaning lady, is a black widow. She belongs to the kind that always eat their men.’
‘What about your mother? And Siobhan?’
‘You’re lucky that I am a man. Female changers have it a lot harder. Proteins, that’s very important to them.’
He sighed. Tears welled up in his eyes. ‘I know that mother didn’t do it on purpose. She... accidentally ate him,’ he admitted hesitantly. He bit his lip and his eyes became moist. Anna cried with him.
‘There is something else you need to know,’ Helmer said to her the following day. He looked worried. A thunderstorm was raging outside. She went to the sliding window and pushed it shut. It was as if a storm were also about to erupt on the inside. She looked at his face and she felt that no good news was going to come from his beautiful mouth.
She doubted that she wanted to hear it.
He put her strip of pills on the table. ‘They don’t help against it, Anna,’ he said softly.
Helmer looked at her so sadly that she managed to keep her growing anger under control. She attempted to hide her feelings. She started feeling sick. Were they going to have monster children soon?
‘I,’ she snapped.
‘You’re not going to have ordinary human babies, honey.’
She rolled her eyes. ‘Yeah, I got that. They are going to be big, dirty monsters, just like you,’ she said.
He turned around abruptly.
Anna knew that she was hurting him. But, that did not bother her at the moment. If only he would not have kept anything from her.
He stared at the ground.
She could no longer control her anger. ‘Just say it, that we’ll have to raise these monstrosities later on, that you can catch flies for the little ones.’ Her voice trembled and sounded unusually sharp.
He clenched his fists. Anna was startled when she noticed the pale colour of his knuckles on the back of his hand. She was even more shocked by the grim expression on his face.
‘I wanted to tell you earlier. Really. But, how could I?’
She swallowed. ‘So, pills don’t help. We are going to have monster children.’
His eyes became moist.
‘I mean, we will have special children,’ she continued.
He sighed and sat down at the kitchen table. ‘Because you are not a shift-shaper, we may get ordinary nymphs.’
‘Nymphs? Fairy-tale fairies? Don’t take me for a fool, you’ve already done that,’ she said.
He looked at her seriously. ‘Sit down,’ he said, and he motioned with his head to a chair.
She crossed her arms and turned so she could not see him anymore. If he thought she was his lap dog, then he was completely wrong. She saw the sea through the window. Turbulent and restless. Thunder cracked. Lightning flashed. It was raining cats and dogs.
He cleared his throat. ‘The eggs come first. And from them come the juvenile spiders, spiderlings... also called nymphs. After moulting about seven times, they grow into normal spiders.’
She shook her head. ‘How do you know?’ she asked in disbelief.
At that moment, all sorts of things ran through her head. Anger. Repulsion. Disbelief. She wanted it to be disbelief, that none of it was real at all. ‘How do you know all of this?’ she snapped at him. ‘As if you have already given birth to thousands of children.’ It slowly started to dawn on Anna. Yes, of course, his mother and sister are like that as well. This thought gave her a couple of painful stomach cramps.
‘There are others. Other changers. I’ve told you that already, haven’t I? Mother has urged me several times to introduce you to the association before our marriage. I didn’t dare.’
‘Which association?’ With a jerk she turned around again.
‘Nature Spot. It is a sort of support group of and for changers and their kin.’
He looked at her expectantly. ‘We’re going there. Together. You and me. After our honeymoon. It’ll be good for us. Talking helps.’
Anna did not respond.
‘Give us a chance, my love,’ he begged.
Although her heart said something else, she nodded. She could not even force a faint smile.
But her short answer was good enough for him. His face just beamed. ‘I still have to explain so much to you. According to the members of Nature Spot, it is perfectly possible to lead a relatively normal life,’ he said with a breath of enthusiasm. As if that was not enough, he took some undesirable books from his travel bag. Photo albums with cosy family snapshots and books with determination tables about all kinds of vermin.
She felt cheated anew. He had worked it all out in advance. The bastard. This remote place, the blindfold, the photo albums... his mother was also in on the conspiracy. That’s why Isabelle had given them ice-cream to take with them. It was the only thing that Anna could consume during her wonderful honeymoon.
It was on a warm day in the late summer of their wedding year that she had found a small spider on the living room floor. ‘Come here, you eight-legged little monster, let me put you outside.’ She picked the little creature up with her hands. ‘The sun is shining; the outside air will do you good and then you won’t accidentally end up in the vacuum cleaner.’ She tenderly put the little creature on the patio and it immediately disappeared between the grass blades of the lawn adjacent to it. ‘I’m sure that you come from my nest,’ she said softly. ‘Am I glad that I’m not like Carine of the discussion group who is married to an even more disgusting monster. Spiders are more useful and more beautiful animals than those dirty, rusty-coloured naked slug babies of hers. And they leave the lettuce well alone, at least.’
When she went back inside again, Helmer was staring at her. He looked so sad. Anna was startled by his gaze. Did he hear me? That I’m talking to spiders? Oh, no! I’ve called them monsters again. Have I? She wanted to say something and looked at him. The words just did not want to come out. He looked so sad that it actually hurt her. The sun was shining, on his hair. His wonderful, copper curls iridized in the light.
She realized that she had not seen those dimples in his cheeks for a long time. Her thoughts went back to their wedding night. They had not touched each other since then. He has probably already come to terms with the idea of leading a sexless existence. It should not be that way, actually. Helmer gave her his heart completely, he had proven that many times over when she regularly treated him like a disgusting monster. She realized that he had also gone through a difficult time. We are too young to live like brother and sister. We love each other. And he is too handsome to merely look at. He is definitely worth more than one single sin.
‘Helmer?’ She went to go stand in front of him.
She looked deep into his eyes, which she wanted to see sparkle again. ‘I want you to take me,’ she said.
He frowned. ‘You do know that pills won’t help,’ he said.
She laughed. ‘Isabelle loves grandchildren,’ she said.
Helmer smiled back at her. The dimples in his cheeks appeared again. ‘You are right, the more the better, she always says.’
‘We will just drop the brood back at your mother’s,’ Anna said.
‘Are you sure this is what you want?’
She nodded. ‘With the light on.’
‘Give me a kiss, my love,’ he said.
And she did just that. Several times. She caressed his stubbly cheeks and kissed his soft mouth.
He embraced her and pulled her close to him. A few minutes later, the windows of the living room were covered with a layer of cotton candy.
Thick, woolly and, at the same time, diaphanous, privacy-webbing.