Martha the Huntsperson

by Vikki Petraitis Copyright 1994

"Ahhhhhhhhh!" my mum screamed from the laundry. I raced in to see what was wrong. It was probably a spider or something.

"It's a spider or something!" she screamed pointing to the laundry wall next to the washing machine. I looked closely at the huge huntsman that had nearly scared my mother's socks off. I really liked huntsmen. Sometimes, if I saw one outside, I would sit for ages and watch it. I was hardly scared at all.

"It's alright," I said calmly to my mother.

"G-g-get it out of here," she said in a very shaky voice.

I had a great idea. I would put it in my Creeper Keeper and take it to school for Ms Sposato. I'm sure that she would love it and if she didn't love it, she might be scared of it and that would be good too.

I decided to call my huntsman Martha. She looked like a Martha and when I called her that for the first time, she moved up to the funnel of the Creeper Keeper and wriggled her palps. She walked around, rested and then washed her legs, one by one - all seven of them. One of her legs was missing but that didn't seem to bother her. I suppose if you had eight legs, you could afford to lose a couple before you'd really start to worry. She was grey and brown with a fat abdomen and I could see her fangs opening and closing as she brushed her hairy legs. Ms Sposato would love her.

The next morning, before the bell, I walked up to Ms Sposato sitting at her desk reading a magazine article with the heading "50 Ways to Slim Down for Summer". She quickly moved her work program on top of it and said good morning. I said good morning back.

"I have a surprise for you," I told her.

"Oh good, I love surprises," she said smiling.

I slowly pulled the Creeper Keeper from behind my back and gave her a look at my spider.

"It's a huntsperson!" she cried in delight, grabbing the Creeper Keeper from my hand and having a close look at my spider. "What a beauty!. Have you named her?"

"I called her Martha," I said.

"Martha the Huntsperson," repeated Ms Sposato thoughtfully.

I asked her why she said "huntsperson" instead of "huntsman" and she explained to me that she couldn't tell whether a spider was a male or a female and so it was politically correct to say huntsperson instead of huntsman. I listened and agreed with her. One thing that could be said about Ms Sposato and that was that she was always politically correct. She always said things like "chairperson" and even when we were saying our prayers, I think I once heard her refer to God as "she" - but then perhaps I was mistaken. Anyway, Martha the Huntsperson was now my spider's official name.

Everyone in grade 5 loved her - except Bronwyn Bunting who squealed every time Martha moved around the clear sides of the Creeper Keeper. Jason McWhirter brought Martha lunch every day - a new spider curled up in a leaf from his dad's cabbage patch. And Emma Vigilante made a sign with Martha's name on it for her home.

Martha had been in grade 5 for a week when a terrible thing happened.

I was innocently running down the corridor to my classroom when I ran smack into Troy McKenzie.

"Where ya goin' in such a hurry?" he asked in his gravel voice.

"To feed Martha," I replied shakily.

"I wanna feed Martha," he said, still in a mean voice. He was reaching into his bag pulling out a large jar. I wondered what he had brought for her to eat.

"Yeah," he continued, "I wanna feed Martha... to Schwarzenegger!"

I took one look at the huge huntsperson he had in his jar and nearly fainted. Not only did Troy McKenzie's Schwartzenegger have all his legs but he was much bigger than Martha. Martha was a nice spider. How could she survive an encounter with such a big huntsperson? Anyone who knew anything about huntspeople knew that - as nice as they were - they were cannibals and if you put Martha and Schwartzenegger together in the same jar, pretty soon there would be only one spider left - that is one live spider and a big black spitball stuck to the bottom of the jar.

I tried to reason with Troy McKenzie. "You can't feed Martha to your spider. She's the class pet and I'm sure Ms Sposato would never allow it."

"Are you chicken?" he asked, looking me straight in the eye.

"Not at all," I explained, "but then again, I'm not the one who has to go up against your spider." I also explained that I suspected that Martha was a pacifist by nature but he said that he didn't care what religion she was, and that he was still expecting the spider challenge.

Surprisingly, Ms Sposato was enthusiastic about the idea. She said that it would be interesting to see the two spiders in what would amount to a fight to the death. I was devastated. Ms Sposato was usually so fair. How could she expect me to stand by and let Martha fight in mortal combat with Troy McKenzie's brute? I had to do something.

Every day, Martha had grown fatter and fatter on Jason McWhirter's lunchtime insect treats. She certainly looked in no condition for a fight - which was why I had to stop it. I knew that Troy McKenzie was taking bets and he was billing the contest as the greatest since the Mighty Bombers beat Carlton in last year's Grand Final.

Every night, I took Martha home with me and I stared at my seven legged friend. Occasionally a tear would roll down my cheek at the thought of losing such a special and noble- minded companion. I knew that if anything happened to Martha, I would never forgive Ms Sposato for encouraging such a blatant act of violence.

Ms Sposato tried to pretend as if nothing had happened. She suggested that the spider competition take place on Friday just after lunch. I gave her one of my saddest looks which she completely didn't notice and she just kept telling the class how interesting it would be to see two huntspeople fighting each other.

That afternoon, we had to write a journal entry and I wrote about losing you best friend.

"Once upon a time, there was a child who had a very, very, very special friend. The friend didn't talk much but the child could talk to the friend. Every day, the child would talk to the friend about all kinds of things - even things that the child couldn't tell anybody else. The friend would just sit quietly and listen. The friend was completely trustworthy. If the child told the friend a secret, it would never be repeated. The friend didn't expect anything in return - except the occasional blowfly. Please don't let my friend die."

I handed up my journal and Ms Sposato put my book with the pile of uncorrected books by her desk that never seemed to grow bigger or smaller. She spent most of her spare time correcting, but as soon as we got some books handed back, we replaced them on the pile with some new work for her to look at and put her big red ticks onto.

I thought of all my available options. I could let Martha go free and then she wouldn't have to fight Schwarzenegger. But I would miss her so much and what if she had forgotten how to hunt since she had been in captivity? What if I let her go and she just lay on the ground like a big, fat, juicy morsel for some bigger spider? No, I just couldn't let her go.

Everyday, I looked sad and finally on Friday morning, Ms Sposato looked up from her correcting and straight at me. I think she must have just read my journal and realised what a barbarian she had been. She stared at me with a sad and apologetic expression - as well she may - for putting me through so much misery. I think I know how Ned Kelly's mum must have felt in the week before Ned swung. It's an awful feeling.

When the journals were given out, I opened mine and read Ms Sposato's two word reply. Just under where I had written, `Please don't let my friend die', she had written, `I won't.' How wonderful! My faith in human nature was restored. The only problem was that thirty other class members were waiting for the great spider challenge. How could we get around it?

At lunchtime, Ms Sposato was on yard duty and she called me over. She put her hand on my shoulder and looked really deeply into my eyes. Her own eyes were full of sorrow.

"I'm so sorry to put you and Martha in this situation. How do you think we can solve the problem?"

I thought to myself that this modern psychology was all very well, but she got us into this mess, she should think of a solution - not me.

"I think that you should think of a solution - not me," I said staring right into her brown, sorrowful eyes. I saw her breathe a deep sigh. She was in a pickle. If she called off the spider fight, the whole class would be disappointed and if she let poor Martha fight Schwarzenegger, then Martha would die and my life would be shattered.

"Leave it with me," she said finally. "I'm sure I'll think of something."

Mr Box came out to take over yard duty and Ms Sposato went inside, looking back at me before she disappeared through the doorway. She knew that I was counting on her. I wandered around the yard by myself even though Snotty McFee came up and offered to keep me company and Bronwyn Bunting offered me a chip but I just needed to be by myself. When the bell finally rang, I joined the crooked line outside my classroom. My whole body sort of slumped. Could I trust Ms Sposato? She was really nice and very pretty, but you could never tell. In fact, I wondered if you could trust any teachers at all. At parent teacher interviews when I was in grade prep, Ms Howard told my mum that I picked my nose in class and mum got really cross with me. And last year in grade 4, my teacher Ms Snoogle told mum about someone pinning a "Kiss Me" sticker on my back and I had walked around with it all day. By the time I got into class, I had decided that you couldn't trust teachers at all and I glared at Ms Sposato who was sitting on her low chair near the heater with Martha in her Creeper Keeper and Schwarzenegger in his jar.

Everybody walked in silently and sat on the floor in a circle. Ms Sposato looked at me with a very strange expression as she took the lid slowly off the jar and put it on the carpet. She then peeled the lid off my Creeper Keeper and picked up both containers and put them together - the Creeper Keeper's funnel against the top of the jar. Everybody sucked in their breath. I watched mesmerised. She had betrayed me. My Martha was going to die.

Tears of anger, disappointment and sadness ran down my cheeks. Ms Sposato saw me crying and looked strange but she didn't move the jars. Martha, poor, innocent Martha the Huntsperson, walked slowly and gracefully up the funnel of her home toward the dreaded brute Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger moved two of his legs and twitched his left palp. He was obviously preparing for a feast - a feast of my friend!

Martha kept walking towards her huge opponent and by now, my tears were flowing like the Yarra.

"Martha, don't do it!" I begged silently, willing her to turn around and go back, but she didn't. She kept on walking, moving all seven legs with the grace that I had come to expect. Finally, she faced her opponent.

Schwarzenegger moved slightly as Martha's hairy leg brushed his. My little, fat Martha seemed no match for the spider that Troy McKenzie called his "lean, mean, fighting machine". Ms Sposato smiled in an odd way and I immediately cancelled my idea for her Christmas present. Maybe, instead of the chocolates I had planned, I would make her a "World's Worst Teacher" badge, or better still, I would give her the chocolates and ruin her summer diet. I planned my revenge while I watched what I was sure to be Martha's final moments.

Troy McKenzie started barracking for Schwarzenegger. "Go Schwarzenegger, go!" he cried as his monster moved in a shuddering sort of way.

Martha raised her front leg and touched Schwarzenegger's front leg. He shuddered again and tried to move away from her. Martha moved closer and to my complete surprise, Schwarzenegger rolled right over - dead!

Martha had won the fight without even trying. I laughed through my tears and clapped my hands and everybody joined in. It was as if everybody had been secretly hoping that Martha would beat Schwarzenegger. Ms Sposato smiled at me and gave me a quick wink. I didn't understand.

After school when everybody else had gone, I went up to Ms Sposato sitting at her desk.

"How did you know what would happen?" I asked.

Ms Sposato smiled a funny smile and said, "Teacher magic."

I didn't know what she meant but as I picked up Martha in the Creeper Keeper and walked out of the classroom, I looked back to smile at her and I was just in time to see her tuck a can of Mortein into her bag.