The Monomaniac: A Russian Fairy Tale

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Once upon a time there lived a young man whose name and place of residence doesn’t matter too much.  But I will call this young man Sergei; and the place where he lived, Sacramento.  My protagonist’s name need not be Sergei, nor is it absolutely necessary that he live in the above-mentioned American city.  But, I suppose, one must imagine a setting of some sort; and, in this instance, it must be one that is warm and sizably populated and conducive to the proliferation of the eight-legged animal called spider (more about that soon).  In short, the weather where my Sergei lives has to be warmer than it is here in our beloved Soviet Union.  True, we have our share of spiders; but the coldness of our climate limits the time during which they are active.  Not so in Sacramento (or so I have heard from sources who shall remain nameless).

As for the designation Sergei—it has been chosen quite randomly, mostly in accord with the time-honored rule of giving names to characters in any piece of fiction.  One may argue the pros and cons of this convention, and I am ready to admit that there is nothing about my protagonist—or, if you like, hero—that intrinsically demands he be called Sergei.  But it’s a nice name, all the same, and I see no convincing reason to change it.

Sergei, then, was not unlike other young men, at least in most respects.  He was not especially handsome, nor was he especially ugly.  His intelligence was more than a tad above average, and his teachers had always liked him; so had his parents.  He was, by the way, an only child (I mention this even though it has no bearing whatsoever on anything that follows; in fact, if you wish to grant Sergei a few siblings, younger or older, male or female, that is allowable).  The values his mother and father had instilled could be summed up as follows: “Basic education, work, marriage, kids, death—that’s all this life is about.”  Religion was of marginal concern to them but the family did attend church.  It was a matter of just-in-case-there’s-an-afterlife.  But during the church services, Sergei actually listened to the readings.  He was not sure what to make of the venerable words and yet they reached his ears and trickled into some depth in his heart that he ordinarily paid no attention to.  And though he had to be punished from time to time, as all children must, overall his parents were pleased with Sergei and hopeful of his future.

He had been a decent student, as indicated above; he had friends, competed in sports and experienced the joys and pains of a romantic relationship or two.  It may or may not be a significant fact that he had always been sensitive to beauty and inclined to read and write poetry (which he hid from his parents in the same way that other boys hide pornography).  In my opinion, the poetry he composed was not half-bad, and might have been published in a local newspaper or a school magazine if he’d taken the trouble to submit anything.  For example:

Minnows in the water

Scatter from my harmless shadow

While blue damselflies,

Making love midair,

Heed me not.

Or:

Oh, these distances,

Abysses,

Of time and space,

That separate perpetually

Would-be lovers.

Or this strikingly mystical specimen:

You make of me,

You Who Are,

A heaven for you.

Let this,

This alone,

Be for me—

Eternity!

Alas, he did not want to be a poet or a mystic; nor a lover, an athlete or a worker/husband/father/corpse.  What Sergei really wanted was world-destruction.

It was something he had been dreaming about, asleep or awake, since childhood.  In his mind’s eye but looking on safely from afar, he could see whole metropolises reduced to rubble and ruins, flame and smoke.  He saw its citizens scurrying like displaced ants in terrified and maddened swarms, organized here and chaotic there, devouring and being devoured; and he could hear, as if from the blackened maw of hell’s entrance, a profound mingling of male and female howls.  And yet, hardly horrified or saddened, these apocalyptic spectacles infused in him a sense of satisfaction.

The origin of these visions had always been a mystery and he spoke of them to no one.  Then one morning while still in bed, he saw a small spider on the ceiling right above where he lay.  It froze him with fear as he realized that the spider might release its hold on the ceiling at any moment and descend toward him on an invisible strand of silk.  He’d seen this sort of thing before and it never failed to make his skin crawl.  When it happened now, he was too paralyzed to move out of the way; and the loathsome creature, forelegs outstretched, landed directly on his nose.

He was twenty-one years old at the time; in a word, a young adult.

No, the spider did not bite him; and even if it had, no harm would have resulted.  It is a fact that the vast majority of spiders are harmless to humans; and this individual—a Jumping Spider—was no exception.  Members of this family are regarded as the most feline, or cutest, spiders in existence.  True, some Jumping Spiders might deliver a slightly painful bite, but none are dangerous to Homo sapiens.  

Not that any of this mattered to Sergei.  He hated spiders as such; and now it dawned on him that they were the reason he wished to see the world destroyed.  Everything was good, everything was beautiful, life was paradise—but for spiders! 

More concretely, they were the reason he set fire to his bedroom on that particular morning.

Fortunately, before the entire house was able to burn down, the fire department arrived and extinguished the blaze.  Sergei told everyone that the fire had started accidentally, as a result of smoking while in bed.  “Sorry,” he mumbled.  “I won’t do it again.”  But his parents, unlike the fire officials, knew this couldn’t be true because they knew that their son didn’t smoke.  So after the “accident”, they drew attention to the fact that he was an adult now and should probably move out.

“There is here in town,” added his mother without a trace of irony, “a perfectly nice mental institution.  Maybe you can live there.”

Sergei acted on the first suggestion but not the second.

And so, with little more than the clothes he had on, he left forever the home of his parents.  He kept the job that he already had—bussing tables and washing dishes at an ice cream shop called Mummy’s Milkshakes ‘n’ More—and moved into a rooming house within easy walking distance of his place of employment.  The room that he now occupied was not merely as small as a closet; it was a closet—about eight feet long and five feet wide but a closet nonetheless.  Sergei did not mind.  All he required was an affordable place to sleep, and the closet inside the rooming house gave him just that.  

Plus, he discovered that he enjoyed being out on his own.  Not until he left home did he realize just how stifling his life with his parents had been.  But unlike many young people, he did not blame his mother and father for any problems he might have.  Sergei blamed only spiders.  In fact, he blamed spiders for every misery in existence, be it stubbed toes or world wars.

The majority of his free time was spent at the local library where he perused everything he could find about these loathsome creatures; from shameless propaganda that was geared toward children (Mary’s Mygalomorph, for example, or the famous tear-jerker, Never Cry Wolf Spider) to hardheaded scientific tomes.  The extensive notes he took were scribbled with a jittery, caffeinated hand and they filled, front and back, nearly two hundred sheets of paper.  His labors were tireless, obsessive and exhilarating.  Where all of this was leading he did not know; but it struck him that he was the first man in history to accurately identify the primal cause and source of evil.  Moreover, he knew that he was destined for greatness; and in this conviction, he experienced—à la Victor Frankenstein—the dangerous intoxication that stimulates efforts directed toward forbidden or exceptionally difficult goals.  At closing time, it often happened that he had to be driven forth from the building by the elderly but plucky librarian.  He would shove at her and she would shove back until finally, after a shouted expression of capitulation (“You’ve won the battle but not the war!”), he would go home to his closet and climb into bed.  Need it be said that he slept poorly?

As the days and months passed, his personal hygiene worsened; but that hardly mattered because a novel and exceedingly agreeable elation was saturating his being.  Sergei realized that this was the happiness of enlightenment; after all, he was getting closer and closer to a full knowledge of his specialized subject.  True, he avoided like the proverbial plague any direct observation of spiders; moreover, with the aid of ice, he kept his “room” chilly as a refrigerator—to discourage that arachnid tendency to intrude into places where people live.  Thus it is fair to say that he was a desk-bound expert.  But what he lacked insofar as direct observation was concerned, he made up for by way of moral understanding.  In this sense he already knew more about spiders than anyone else had, ever; and it was only a matter of time before a comprehension like unto the knowledge of God was attained.

One day when he arrived at work, his boss told him that he was fired.

“Why?” Sergei asked.

“Because you stink,” his boss answered, plugging his nose and turning away.

Afterward, Sergei walked to a popular park where he lay on a grassy slope while looking up at the blue sky.  Lovers strolled past and children frolicked in the playground nearby, but he did not move or notice anyone around him.  There he remained for the rest of the day and into the night, long after everyone else had left.  Looking at the stars, he yearned to be where they are, away from this spider-polluted earth.  But as the night passed, so did his depression.  He began to realize that the loss of his job was auspicious.  The time had come to share with others the knowledge he possessed; and, above all, to transform the world, to purge it of its implacable oppressor.

The next day, at the same park, when crowds had accumulated sufficiently enough for Sergei’s purposes, he stood atop a bench near the children’s playground and began to shout, “Spiders!  Spiders!  Spiders!  Dear people, how can you endure them?”

Regrettably, the message that followed did not matter to anyone present; all that registered was the sheer guttural force of Sergei’s voice and his dirty, disheveled appearance.  The children began to cry and the mothers seethed.  The latter gathered around the rabble rouser and began to tug at his clothes and shove at him from all sides.  When he attempted to go on with his speech in spite of all their jeering and pokes and prods, the gang of mothers took hold of him and forcibly removed him from the region of the playground.  A policeman noticed the disturbance while passing on his motorcycle, so he turned around and stopped to investigate.  The mothers told him that this stranger, whom they described as a dangerous fanatic, had frightened their children with his ranting.  The officer (one of those Irish cops with a big fat mustache) accepted their story at face value and, turning to Sergei, warned him to leave at once.

Glowering at them as if they were spiders, Sergei said, “I will annihilate you all,” and then turned to go.

Not at all discouraged, he boarded a city bus and left it to chance to transport him where he was meant to go.  The bus itself was crowded with passengers, so he stood up and began his sermon afresh, using the same words as before.  He was told to be quiet by the driver and several passengers but none of their rebukes or threats could silence him.  Midway between stops, the bus was brought to a halt and Sergei was ejected onto the pavement outside.

Still on all fours as the bus pulled away, he noticed that he was next to the University.  This struck him as propitious.  

“These people,” he said to himself, “will understand me.  They would not be in this place if they did not seek knowledge.” 

He rose to his feet and strode into the heart of the campus, gazing in wonder at the marvelous architecture, statuary and decorative foliage.  Students, both male and female, strolled hither and thither and were seated everywhere: on benches, stair-steps or the rims of planters within which flowers and trees grew.  The young people were reading or writing or conversing and paid no attention to Sergei until he stood on the unoccupied rim of a particularly high planter and roared with all his might:

“Spiders!  Spiders!  Spiders!  Dear people, how can you endure them?”

The students turned to look.

“You,” Sergei said, pointing an accusatory finger, “and you, and you—you recognize their hideousness, you shudder or shriek at the sight of them; and yet you tolerate or ignore their presence in the world.  You go about your lives as if all were well, refusing to face reality until you are forced to stare it in the face.  You say, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace!”

Faces reddened or smiled uncomfortably, eyes rolled and the inevitable hecklers spoke up:

“Ah, shut up!”

“Yeah, shut up, damn crackpot!”

“Go get your head examined, creep.”

Still, amid laughter and boos, Sergei continued his speech.

“Don’t you know that you have been disinherited?” he yelled in a voice hoarse with anguish, clenching his fists and lifting his eyes skyward.  Inspiration, divine or demonic, rendered him eloquent.  “The earth is not yours—it belongs to the spider!  Yes, to the spider!  His numbers are legion and his presence is ubiquitous.  No matter where you walk or stand or sit or sleep, a spider is lurking nearby.  He might be large or he might be small but he is there … and there … and there!”  The thrust of his finger directed their attention to various points in the area where spiders might be.  “Look toward heaven and number the stars, if you can; then look toward earth and number the spiders, if you can.  And verily I say unto thee,” he said in a voice charged with foreboding, “by them all the nations of the earth are cursed!”  He stomped a foot against the rim of the planter, shouting, “Cursed, cursed, cursed!”  

His tone of revulsion was so intense and earnest that some of the students began to listen.

“Do you realize there are arachnids that live on your very bodies?  They are called Demodex or, more simply, Eyelash Mites.  Contemplate, then, a Madonna in a Renaissance painting, or Leonardo’s Ginevra de’ Benci—upon those comely faces microscopic arachnids thrive!”  Pausing to take a deep breath, he squeezed shut his eyes and shouted, “Ladies and gentleman, the spider has inherited the earth!  This world is his, and unless we take it back, it will remain his forever!”

By then his impromptu congregation had been muted, not excluding the hecklers.  It may have been that Sergei had merely cowed them into silence; or maybe, just maybe, they had ears to hear after all.  At the very least, they were unsettled.  But the tirade stopped almost as suddenly as it had begun.  Gazing darkly at them all, he said, “My words fall on deaf ears.  Go on, slaves and blind fools, go live your lives in submission to your eight-legged lords and masters.  But remember this: you are not who you think you are; you are not what you think you are!”

Not even Sergei knew what these concluding words meant.  But their portentous air undoubtedly left an impression on everyone present.  He knew that in later years, the students would remember this day and this hour; the day and the hour when a wild prophet had thrust himself into their midst to shout a truth—no, the truth—which they could not quite hear nor altogether ignore.   

With that, he jumped to the pavement below the planter and started away.  He had meant to leave the campus, uncertain of where to go next, when he realized that he was being followed.  Stopping and turning, he saw a dozen young men; not around a dozen but exactly one dozen.  They too came to a stop.

“What do you want?” he demanded.

One of the young men stepped forward.  “Sir,” he said in a hat-in-hand tone, “may we go where you’re going?  Your speech back there … it … we have been floored.”

Not one to be flattered, Sergei recommended that they all to go to hell.

“But, sir!” said the spokesman.  “Your wisdom impresses us and we wish to learn more.”

Sergei stared him in the face, moving closer in the process.  His gaze was so intense that he may have been searching for microscopic mites among the short hairs that grew on the edge of the fellow’s eyelids.  Actually, he was trying to determine if the student was a mere prankster instead of a potential disciple.  At length, having discerned guileless earnestness, Sergei stepped back and smiled at the twelve young men.

“Come with me,” he said, “and we will renew the face of the earth.”

Afterward, they drove in three separate vehicles to Sergei’s rooming house.

With thirteen people inside it, the closet was uncomfortably cramped; then there was the icebox-air and Sergei’s body odor.  But the discussion that followed, which was almost entirely one-sided, overrode these trifles.  Listening to Sergei, the young men became increasingly convinced that they were in the presence of an extraordinary individual.  His eyes, bloodshot with insomnia, had a hypnotic effect on them all.  That he was mad, they did not doubt; but his was a special kind of madness—it was inspired.  Its defiance of logic and reason struck them as an expression of some higher truth; and had he told them that two plus two equals zero, or that the part is always greater than the whole, or that things which are equal to the same thing are never equal to one another, they would have believed him.  If he were to say that crimes must be committed, then they were prepared to commit crimes; in fact, they expected as much; they hoped for it.  “How else can you bring about meaningful change,” each one asked himself, “if heads do not roll?”  Messianic yearnings flooded their hearts with a sense of optimism, the likes of which they had never before experienced.  A new world or social order seemed at hand and they would be its founding fathers.  They looked ahead, far into the future, when gigantic copper statues or figures in wax museums would recall their greatness to the minds of coming generations.  Finally, a joyful chant erupted spontaneously from within the closet:

“Stand by for paradise!  Stand by for paradise!”

It continued until several tenants complained.

Subsequent meetings took place at the two-story home of one of the students—a wealthy fellow named Naftaly (or whatever you want to call him).  He had inherited the house from an uncle and lived there alone.  Sergei, who was a natural when it came to sponging, said it was extravagant and selfish not to share such a dwelling with a worthy person.  Naftaly agreed and invited Sergei to move in at once.

“Free of charge?”

“That goes without saying.”

“And you’ll feed me, too?”

“Certainly.”

“And the air has to be cold enough to keep the spiders out.”

“Okay.”

It was fortunate that Sergei’s former residence had been abandoned, for the discussions that followed became quite loud; and this would not have been tolerated for long at the rooming house.  In addition, there was much pacing up and down the living room of Naftaly’s house—the sort of movement which requires considerable space.  Tempers flared and, on at least two occasions, spit-fights broke out.  Fists slammed against table tops and bottles were smashed.

The conflicts were divided between three camps, each of which argued for a different program of action.  The First Camp wanted to eliminate only spiders that are dangerous to humans: Black Widows, the Brown Recluse and so on.  The Second Camp agreed that the dangerous spiders should be eliminated as quickly as possible; but they called for the destruction of other spiders as well, if only at a gradual rate.  The Third Camp, headed by Sergei, demanded the wholesale and immediate elimination of the class Arachnida.  The moderates, especially among the First Camp, thought this was unreasonable.  

“It’s not only unrealistic,” their spokesman, a bastard named Leon, said, “it’s immoral.”

“WHAT!” voices roared in unison.

“It is unrealistic,” Leon explained, “because it is simply impossible to kill every arachnid on the planet.  It is immoral because, well, despite their hatefulness, the beneficial effects of spiders are hard to deny.”

Outrage over these statements was so intense that one man began tearing out clumps of his own hair; another hammered his head against a wall while a third threatened to slit his own throat with a straight-edge razor.

“Think about it,” Leon pled.  “Spiders prey upon insects that destroy crops, and upon disease-spreading flies and mosquitoes.  This is not opinion but scientific fact!  If the entire arachnid population were to disappear from the earth, human life, in fact, all life, would be adversely affected; perhaps imperiled!”

Such arguments—which amounted to apostasy—offended most of Sergei’s followers, who directed against Leon’s line of reasoning a number of unflattering terms like “rubbish”, “platitudinous sophistry” or “empty prattle”.

But Leon refused to yield.  “And what about Eyelash Mites?” he demanded.  “How do you kill off those?  Do we exterminate the entire human population in order to rid the earth of these arachnids, too?”

This objection seemed to stump everyone in the Second and Third Camps.  Silence filled the room and all faces turned to their leader for guidance.  

Although tempted to lunge forward and drink every drop of Leon’s blood, Sergei restrained himself.  “Everyone go home for now,” he said with studied calm.  “Take some time to think about what we have discussed.  We shall meet again one week from tonight.”

Thus the present meeting was brought to a close and the Dozen went their separate ways.  But another meeting was secretly convened on the following night, and only members of the Second and Third Camps were invited.

“It’s obvious,” Sergei began the proceedings, “that we have a Judas in our midst.  If he were alone, that would be bad enough; but he has three followers, which is intolerable.  Can anyone doubt,” he asked, “that these duplicitous scoundrels will expose us to the authorities if we do not agree to their compromise?”

Because this was impossible to doubt, a plan of murder quickly took form.  It would take place six nights hence, at the next meeting.  Sergei’s idea was to trap the members of the First Camp inside Naftaly’s house and then set it on fire.  The house’s owner was not so much willing as eager to go along with this.  Leon tended to treat him as an intellectual inferior and Naftaly had often dreamed of shooting him.  Plus:

“There are a lot of Black Widows in the crawlspace, so the house should be burned down in any case,” Naftaly admitted with shame.  “I should have told you about this before,” he said, tears in his eyes and addressing Sergei in particular.  “Can you forgive me?  No, dare you forgive me?”

Sergei, a magnanimous soul, dared.

But even among these zealous members of the Second and Third Camps, another Judas lurked; and his name really was Judas.

You may ask, as I have:  Why did this young man’s parents choose such an infamous name for their child?  It’s like naming a baby Adolph!  Was it a form of child abuse?  Did they think they were being funny?  Or, more intriguing still, did they foresee what he would do and what he would be?  

In any case, Judas was a reserved fellow who enjoyed jogging great distances; less for the exercise than for the solitude.  This is a roundabout way of indicating that he was a lone wolf; and as such he had little sense of comradery or civic responsibility.  And even though he was ready and willing to murder untold numbers of spiders, he would not do the same to a human; not even to an obnoxious pest like Leon.  

So that same night, albeit with a heavy heart, Judas went to the police headquarters and exposed the plot to the authorities.  He told them everything; not only that which concerned the murder plot proper, but also Sergei’s plan to destroy the earth’s arachnid population.

For this information, the police were glad, and promised to give Judas both money and protection.

At this point I must prepare my listeners for an anticlimax.  No doubt you were anticipating a triumphant and richly deserved massacre at the house of Naftaly, but I regret to inform you that nothing of the sort occurred.  Instead, the murder plot was successfully thwarted; and the ringleader, Sergei, was arrested, he alone.  

I agree that this was unfair; I agree that there were other men who were equally culpable.  But when you take into account the imperfection of human justice, and when you consider the full context of history, such an outcome is not so surprising.

So Sergei was charged with attempted murder.  The case against him was not airtight but it didn’t help when the prosecution learned that he had set fire to the home of his parents only a year or two previous.  During the trial, however, Sergei’s lawyer argued that his client was obviously insane and should not be held responsible for his actions.  No serious attempt was made to refute the argument; one look at Sergei, or one whiff, sufficed to remove all doubt.  Consequently, a plea bargain was reached and he was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in an asylum for the insane.

You’ll be heartened to know that the facility to which he was conveyed was not such a terrible place.  It provided its inmates with three meals a day, plus recreation, arts and crafts, visitations and even an occasional musical performance from some of the local talents.  The grounds were beautified with pine trees and palm trees and green lawns, and the cells were more like comfortable rooms than restrictive and sterile compartments.

Sergei was assigned a cell to himself, which was one of the advantages of being homicidal.  Special restrictions applied; for example, he was not allowed to smoke or have matches for any reason at all.  Smoking was simply a non-issue where Sergei was concerned; and though he would have liked to get his hands on some matches at once, he knew that in time he would figure out a way to set aflame both the asylum and the planet upon which it stood.  

It should be noted that his war against spiders was not over; not yet at any rate.

He had been in the asylum for about a month when he was awakened one morning by a voice:

“‘And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.’”

It was a soft, agreeable voice, the gender of which was uncertain.  Before opening his eyes, Sergei pictured in his mind a beautiful young woman; or, perhaps, an adolescent Adonis.  In any case, it was a strikingly angelical voice.

He sat up in bed about half-way, propping himself up on both elbows and looking around through squinted eyes.  No one was in the room with him and the door was still closed; locked, in fact.  Greatly perplexed, he frowned, and then he yawned and then he frowned again.  Finally, lifting his eyes, he noticed something on the ceiling, the sight of which made him shudder.  

Directly overhead was a small spider—a Jumping Spider.

“Or have you considered,” continued the voice, “that during the Transfiguration of Jesus, ‘his face did shine as the sun’?  So it is written in Matthew 17, verse 2.”

That was when Sergei realized that the voice he was hearing belonged to the spider.

“Don’t be afraid,” it said.  “I promise to stay up here … until you are ready for me to come down.”  It spoke the last two words with a special, spiritually charged significance. 

Sergei was very troubled.  “What do you want?” he asked.

“For you to realize,” explained the spider, “that I am not excluded from those things which the Creator sees as ‘very good’.  Furthermore,” it added, creeping along the ceiling with short, jerky movements, now backward now forward and sometimes sideways, “if Jesus was human in all things except sin (and how can this be doubted?), then the microscopic mites that necessarily inhabited his face must have participated in his glorious transfiguration.  Again, I refer you to Matthew 17:2.  The implications of this,” it remarked while wheeling about suddenly on its axis, “are staggering!”

Sergei’s knowledge of the Bible was good but not thorough.  He remembered that God was as pleased as was Sergei himself by the various products of creation—the sun, moon, stars and so forth; but he (that is, Sergei) did not remember the particular passage from Genesis which the spider had quoted.  Nor did he remember Matthew 17:2.  Not that he immediately accepted the inferences which the spider had drawn from these verses; assuming they existed in the first place, or that they were not later additions incorporated into the text by pro-arachnid conspirators.  That same day, hoping to refute his tempter, Sergei asked for a Bible, and one was brought to him by the facility’s chaplain.  When this gentleman did not depart at once—perhaps he was hoping to fulfill a conversion quota —he was shoved without ceremony into the hall.

Shortly afterward, onlookers observed a strange event through the small opening on Sergei’s door.  They saw the inmate addressing a small spider on the ceiling of the cell as if engaged in some sort of debate.  The onlookers were the head doctor, an orderly and the chaplain; and it is probably no surprise to learn that this trio could hear only one side of the exchange.  Hoping that something therapeutic was underway, the doctor did not wish to interfere; the orderly was merely amused and the chaplain was jealous (of the spider). 

This peculiar “Platonic dialogue” lasted for hours and frequently grew heated, at least insofar as Sergei was concerned.  He would shout at the spider or flip frantically through the pages of his Bible, grumbling, “There’s no way it says that; or if it does, you can bet it’s a rotten gloss that has no business being there!”

But apparently the spider was a formidable opponent and not easily refuted.  After a long while, Sergei showed signs of yielding.  He was heard to say, “You make a good point,” and also, “I guess I never thought about it that way.”  Finally, in an attitude of contrition and surrender, he knelt next to his bed and cried out, “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

At this point the spider descended from the ceiling and landed with feathery lightness on Sergei’s clasped hands.  Far from being horrified or repulsed, he gazed rapturously at the small arachnid, fixated on its glossy black eyes and twitching mouth-parts, nodding as if he were absorbing the essence of mystic truth.

In any case it was clear to every lucid or half-lucid observer in the asylum that Sergei had undergone a profound change.  Perhaps he was still mad, but he was no longer prone to violence.  His kindness toward all creatures, human and otherwise, was phenomenal.  He would fearlessly embrace even the most dangerous inmates, and would rather die than swat a mosquito or kill a bedbug.  He attended the church services of several denominations and continued to read the Bible, sometimes to himself and sometimes to others.  At times he was seen reading the scriptures to birds or squirrels or to trails of small ants; and when he was laughed at for doing so, he seemed glad to admit that he was a clown, a buffoon and a fool.  If he was told to bathe, he bathed; if told to eat, he ate—but he had to be told.  If not for these directives, he might easily have starved.  When asked one day by another inmate (a murderer) if he wished to die, Sergei said, quoting something: “I am hard pressed between the two, between living and dying.  My desire is to depart and be with God, for that is far better.  But to remain in the flesh may be necessary on your account.”  By then the inmate had already lost interest and was walking away; and yet Sergei continued as if his questioner had not moved.  “Convinced of this,” he said, “I know that I shall remain and continue with you all, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus who, lifted up from the earth, draws everyone and everything to himself.”

At night, from the window of his darkened cell, he would gaze yearningly at the stars in the sky.  For Sergei, however, the stars were not stars per se—that is, mere amalgams of hydrogen and helium and other atomic elements.  No, what he saw was something much greater and more glorious and very much alive.  What Sergei saw were transfigured spiders.

Photo by Juan Martin Lopez on Unsplash