Be careful you do not get an appetite for words or you may end up like Mr. Webster, a hopeless word addict, helplessly becoming every word he ate.
There was once a spider with a round gray body covered with yellow stripes on the upper part of it, fuzzed all around with tiny feathers, even on its thin wiry legs. He wore eyeglasses that were so tight they stuck to his head even when he climbed up a steep wall or walked upside down on a leaf.
Mr. Webster was his name. He was always collecting words. He would scuttle onto a book shelf when nobody was looking, go into the loose pages of a book and read and read and read. When he came upon a word he liked, such as “refurbishment” or “incantatory” or “felonious” or “derelict,” he would stop to think, rocking on his long legs while he thought about the word, what the word could mean, and try to use it in a sentence over and over in his mind. He was quite a genius, this Mr. Webster.
And sometimes where there was a word he particularly liked, he would cut the word out of the book or magazine with his little sharp jaw cutters and eat the word letter by letter until he digested it. Then he would climb up to the rafters or ceiling of the big library where he lived and there weave a web house where he could sleep until it was time for the next meal.
After a while, he got to be master of the printed word, so that when he wanted to fall asleep, he would go into a book and look for the word sleep, eat it and instantly fall asleep. Or if he wanted to taste something sweet, he would go into a loose-leaf recipe book, look for the word honey and eat the word.
He could also change color by getting into books with colored pictures. He would nibble at the part of a green picture and he would turn green; he would taste a red picture and he would turn red. All he would do in order to get back his normal color was go down to the grass and sip a few drops of dew in the early morning and he would become gray again, with his thin yellow stripes as clear as ever.
Once he tried the word “levitation” and he started to rise as if by magic until he bumped against the top of the book shelf where the book on occult experiences stood. Luckily, he was a spider; all he did was to spin out of the web on which he climbed down until he was on the floor of the book shelf again.
He did not like adverbs very much. They did not do a thing to him except perhaps turn his stomach with a little grumbly sound, making him all the more hungry. He would eat the word “quickly” or “honestly” or “specially” and he would have a tummy ache or a headache, so after a while he stopped eating adverbs.
Adjectives were an improvement over adverbs, especially after he had just eaten a noun. Adjectives and nouns put together made him see physical images that were as good as color television pictures, or colored cartoons, like those he had seen in a movie house where he lived once. He would eat the word “elephant” and was it down with the adjective “pink” and he would see a pink elephant that would stay on and on until the two words were totally digested in his tummy or until he decided to spin the elephant out of his system by building another house where he could sleep the image out.
The library where Mr. Webster ate the words was owned by a university professor who taught archeology and history in a school during the nighttime and practiced medicine during the daytime. So it was that he hardly ever touched the books in his private library; he had so many other books in his office at school and at his downtown clinic, so many journals and quarterlies and magazines.
Anyway, one day the doctor fell ill and had to stay home for the week. He kept sniffling into big cloth handkerchiefs and pounding his temples with the palms of his hands and he kept getting in and out of bed in spite of high fever. After a few days, he was able to leave his bed and putter around in his big soft felt slippers. He was a comfortable sight to see, with his silvering hair, a mustache, and big hands that were half covered by the ends of his deep-red robe. He walked slowly about the room and looked out of the window at the flowers outside, or opened a magazine here and there.
When the week was almost up, the old doctor decided to clean out his library. Dressed in a pair of old pants, in his shirt-sleeves, he pushed a wooden stepladder into the room. He stood the stepladder against the that book shelf that reached almost to the ceiling, then began to take out the books one by one, riffling through the pages to break out the dust, whipping the covers slowly. The first three books were dusted and put back into place. He took up the fourth book and as he looked through the pages he saw several holes made by something sharp, obviously, for the missing parts were whole words separated neatly from the page as if with a razor blade.
The doctor went into a rage; he yelled at a servant who came running in with his mop and broom to ask what it was the master wanted.
“I did not touch your books, sir,” the servant mumbled shaking with fright. “You told me not to touch your books or even attempt to clean, them, sir, no sir, I did not, sir.”
The doctor roared, threw the defaced book down to the floor.
He picked up the next book and there were again some words missing. He studied the page; it was a book on Indian philosophy and the word “yoga” had been snipped out. That was the word Mr. Webster had eaten which had made him stand so still, his legs were interlaced like several ends of shoestring knotted together in one place, and he had stayed that way for a long time, unable to move. He never touched the book again.
After a while the doctor drew more calm and dusted the books one by one, this time looking through the pages to see which had a word taken out, and he would try to guess the missing word.
Finally, he bought up the ladder, with him a paste pot and a fine brush, some strips of paper and a pair of scissors. He spent hours poring over the pages of the books, printing the missing letters with a fine pen on the strips of paper and pasting them in one by one. The only trouble was that sometimes he would not be able to guess the word that was at the back of the whole missing word, and he would get down from his ladder, in order to consult the dictionary or to try to read some other books bearing on the same subject as the missing word. In so doing, he was able to remember a lot of things that he had forgotten, and added a lot more information to that which he already knew.
Sometimes the doctor would discover he had put in the wrong word and he would laugh out loud when he saw a mistake and he would bring down the book and sit on his shiny, polished overstuffed leather chair, light a pipe, and read the sentence with the wrong word over and over and laugh and laugh. It went on so that he would not put in the right word at all, as in the sentence: “Diseases that prove incurable by medical art have nothing in common with procession” in which the word procession would have been the proper word to use.
The doctor prolonged his vacation period indefinitely, spending hours with his books and paste pot. In the meantime, Mr. Webster lay hidden behind a wood carving of a thespian mask atop a smaller book shelf opposite the big book shelf, afraid of being found out, and terrible hungry.
He devised a schedule so that he could eat up words while the doctor was asleep at night, or he would steal bits of snacks at little articles such as “a” and “an” and were unnecessary anyway. But he did long for juicier words that made all sorts of images such as blue champagne or the word “martini” (found in a small pamphlet on bartending that was inserted in the pages of a big encyclopedia) which had given him the feeling of flying in the air. There was only one of that word and he had decided he would like to look it up again when he moved to another book shelf.
One morning, the doctor woke up earlier than he was wont to do. Mr. Webster had to crawl up from the floor (where he had been eating the words from some comic strip character named Flash Gordon out of some newspaper that the doctor used to catch paste drip so as not to spoil the floor). He had to hide behind a calendar with saints’ names printed below the calendar days. Mr. Webster ate some of the names and gave up after four or five. They all tasted alike, rather flat like old bread with no butter on it and with a moldy smell. And they all looked alike dressed in long robes, with the women wearing thick veils on their heads.
Anyway, when the doctor went back to his regular routine at the university and the hospital, this old bookworm of a spider returned to his free preoccupation with words thereby undergoing a lot of untold experiences that other not-so-enterprising spiders had never quite experienced.
As for the doctor, he found time to come home earlier in the evening to pore over his books, sometimes intentionally putting in the wrong word or a pun in the blanks just for the humor of the thing.
So that Mr. Webster never did have to fear about his diet: he lived on and on in the doctor’s house and they became great friends, the doctor and Mr. Webster, although the doctor never did get to discover the identity of his anonymous friend.
When the doctor died, Mr. Webster made it an occasion, out of great respect for the doctor and out of his own natural curiosity, to jump into the coffin before the lid was set down, so that he got buried and had a difficult time digging his way out of the grave.
This proved to be his undoing however. For most of the words in the cemetery were engraved and he got stomach pains when he tried to eat some names. This overcame his constitution, he being very old by that time. And as he crawled back over the tombs to where the remains of the doctor lay buried, he regretted having ever gone out of the doctor’s coffin and wished he had just stayed underground and eaten up the doctor instead.
Tita Lacambra-Ayala is one of the most celebrated Filipino poets and short story writers in English. Her works have received numerous awards, including the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature and Gawad Pambansang Alagad ni Balagtas. This story was first published in The Philippines Free Press in August 24, 1963 and in her book Rocking Chair Stories, in 2005, a collection of short stories for the young.