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That’s The Way: Careful with the Worm

Illustration by Yii-Jen Deng

After the rain, have you ever tried to ‘save’ a worm? I could never quite bring myself to touch one: those curling pink tendrils, slivers of life against dark tarmac or grey pavestone. When I was eleven or so, I tried to pluck them up using a pair of twigs, chopstick-like, flipping the poor things back into the grass and thinking, irrepressibly, of The Twits. The Twits — and another story about a spider.

A disclaimer: though I shall cast up Buddhist tales and Zen parables and Taoist allusions, these are hardly erudite and often hearsay. Snippets, gathered as a child in the back of the prayer room while grownups discoursed obsessively over ‘The Way’. Though agnostic, there’s a comfort to the way they made words ‘full of echoes’ (as Virginia Woolf says), and today I shall find you some echoes from worms and spiders, to spin out as we consider. Here, then, is less an academic interest than a personal bringing together of threads overheard and reflected upon in time. 

So let us take The Spider’s Thread, a tale in which a criminal called Kandata stops himself from squishing a spider — an act of mercy seen by the Buddha through his Lotus Pond in Paradise. Despite Kandata’s dubious history, the Buddha sends a spider thread down to hell after the robber’s death. Ecstatic, Kandata climbs the thread towards Paradise, only to be trailed by millions of sinners; fearing it would snap, Kandata screams that the thread was his and his alone… At that instant, it breaks: the sinners, including Kandata, drop back into the miserable Pond of Blood.

Though the fable sounds both ancient and timeless, as the best fables do, it was written by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa and published in April 1918 as a short story for the children’s magazine Akai Tori (‘Red Bird’). 

This focus on children perhaps explains, in part, the substitution of a spider instead of the onion in Akutagawa’s source material, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1879). A chapter memorably entitled ‘The Onion’ features a Christian parable in which an angel holds out an onion to a sinful peasant woman, who had earlier given one to a beggar. Like the spider’s thread, the onion breaks after she refuses to share her chance of redemption with other sinners. 

While Dostoevsky’s parable encourages sympathy for the sinner Grushenka (who relates the tale), it does not, I think, hold the same degree of interest as The Spider’s Thread; at least, spiders raise more questions than onions. They play a larger role in myths after all. One wonders whether the spider who cast a thread from the Lotus Pond into hell was the same spider that Kandata spared in the forest. I suppose as a children’s story it can be practical as well, telling children not to torment creatures weaker than themselves. The world of a child can be more vivid; little things take on unexpected resonances. I remember holding a funeral for a caterpillar.

Still, the spider did not originate with Akutagawa but can also be found in Paul Carus’s Karma: A Story of Early Buddhism (1894), illustrated and printed by Takejirō Hasegawa, who was known for publishing a series of Japanese fairy tales in translation. In this version, the spider thread is a response to Kandata’s call for help, and the writer foregrounds the role of selfishness in his downfall. 

Good old Leo Tolstoy, who translated Karma into Russian, considered the story as proving that individual happiness is only true ‘when it is bound up with the happiness of all our fellows’. But Akutagawa’s retelling, with its emphasis on the decision not to kill a spider, has an appealing simplicity: the idea that, by saving a single small creature, one can change everything.

This cannot always hold — so my mother said, when moths invaded our old house and she whipped about, slapping them down with cheap slippers, so that broken wings littered the carpet like tiny leaves. But be careful where you can — so my father carries spiders on scraps of tissue, safely out of doors. A zoologist friend once attempted to explain why snails do not experience emotions, but the soft, sharp crack of a snail shell beneath one’s foot is always sickening.

One could write a whole other article on the imaginative possibilities of snails: Japanese folk tales, about snail children, or the giant snails in Mandeville’s Travels, so enormous that many people ‘may lodge them in their shells, as men would do in a little house.’

Then why the worms? I confess feeling kindlier to worms. It is easier to pity a worm; they are a ‘y’ away from becoming dragons (‘wyrms’).They foreground, too, the chaos of weather — sudden storms and intermittent skies. Sometimes I think how confused they must be, blindly reaching out of flooded earth, only trying to breathe.

Breathe. These days, when I look askance at sudden storms in March or a too-bright sun in April, I wonder whether we’ve influenced the weather by a light kept on too long, or some tap left running (and this leads to other threads: the word meanly spoken, or left unheard). Last summer, there was a day when the blue sky was abruptly washed out in grey ice. Cold hailstones in August, two people and a dog drenched on the edge of the woods, and I stared out in disbelief as the water blurred the land. 

But — ‘Look, a worm!’ cried my friend.

Take care with the worms then, after the rain, not to crush them into plaster-pink lines, till they disappear. Tread carefully; it may be, as Akutagawa says, the small things that hurt.