Image description

Marcel Béalu

translated from the French by Edward Gauvin

 This is an excerpt from "The Water Spider," featured in Unstuck #2. For more on the story, and on Marcel Béalu's life and legacy, check out Edward Gauvin's two-part feature at Weird Fiction Review.

I was walking innocently, even aimlessly, down by the river when a distant voice, as though from the water’s depths, made me stop. Its thin, somewhat piercing song stood out clearly over nature’s vague hum. Surprised, I parted the reeds, leaned forward. The only thing on that shifting surface crisscrossed by a golden shimmer was a water spider of the sort summer draws from its mysterious berths. To and fro it passed on the limpid green. And suddenly, as that strange series of sounds took up anew, at once fragile and resonant and near, I realized that the spider was expressing, with its almost human song, its insect joy.


Surrounded as we were by solitude, speaking to it did not seem ridiculous.

"I’m not far from falling completely in love with your song, you know," I said, half serious, half teasing. "With a voice like that, you belong in the world."

"Take me away from here," it replied, "and you’ll see how I can please you."

At the risk of falling in, I scooped up the tiny creature whose damp, barbed touch gave me a faint shiver. But no sooner was it sitting in my palm than I seemed to see a tiny face peeping from between its mandibles. Deeply touched by this effort to draw closer to my species—to look like me, in a way—I made it a promise never to throw it back into the vile environs where chance had caused it to be born.

Showing such aptitude to escape its pitiful condition seemed to deserve reward indeed.

"Oh, yes! Keep me, keep me!" it said.

I felt no repulsion hearing it speak this way. Taking care not to crush it, I carried it off. From time to time, it took up its song, whose charms grew ever sweeter to me.


At the sight of the houses, it fell silent. I reknotted my tie, dusted off my jacket. The path led along some underbrush, and I was of a good mind to toss away the insect, which was beginning to tickle the hollow of my palm. But a secret tenderness (as sometimes comes over me before a pebble, a tree trunk, a leaf—a shameful feeling I take care to lock up in the most secret part of myself) made me slip the spider, mute once more, into my pocket.

A bit farther on, I ran into one of the rare villagers who still deigned to speak to me.

"Nice weather…" he said, seeming to want to expand on this interesting preamble.

I was about to give an evasive reply when he began to gibber: "There’s a spider on your shoulder!"

Blushing, I banished the bug with a flick. But when the unwelcome passerby was gone, I searched for the spider at length, bent close to the ground with despair in my heart. At last, I found it again. What joy! My brutal gesture seemed to have caused it no suffering.


* * *

I hid my fragile friend in a drawer with three blades of grass. Each time I found myself alone, I allowed myself to gaze upon her.

The tiny creature taken from the water grew in size with each passing day. Reddish-black in her river setting, she was now covered in a fine pink-tinted silver down. The eyes in her tiny head had grown bigger. There was nothing revolting about her appearance now. Had it not been for her nimbleness and the surprising song that swelled her abdomen, you could have taken her, standing firm on her eight legs, for an odd chiseled brooch on my table.

One morning, as I stood bewitched by this miracle, the door opened. I can’t be alone in my office for fifteen minutes without Catherine coming in, on the pretext of neatening something or other, looking for a pencil, asking me about the most arcane crossword clue. The spider sped across the table straightaway, and my wife, letting out a scream, ran to grab a broom. When she returned, the insect had already reached the curtains and disappeared into their thick folds.

"You should’ve smushed it," Catherine said reproachfully. "You know how much I loathe those things!"

And sure enough, she finished with a tear in her eye: "Spider in the morning, take warning…"

A few minutes later, on seeing my protégé reappear and climb all the way up my pants, I took her in my hand and was stunned to hear her say: "What a nasty woman!"

"Why no, no!" I wanted to reply. But all I said was "Shh!" and, in order to prevent further incident, went and left her in a corner of the attic.

I was a bit annoyed without knowing why, and had expected she would find a way to scamper off. But in the days that followed, I never stopped thinking of her, to the point where my wife’s attentive gaze each night became a veritable strain. For now there was a secret between us.

How to relate the facts in their simplicity? Most people believe that the last word of a mystery, the last word on a mystery, is that there is no mystery. And yet, one day or another, the supernatural shows itself to each of us. Some suspect nothing, believing the event not meant for them, since it fails to match exactly the one they’ve been awaiting. For many, death comes in just this way. 

Marcel Béalu (1908–1993) was best known for the delicacy with which he explored dreams and the unreal in poetry, prose, and painting. A retiring figure, he ran a Paris bookstore by the Jardin du Luxembourg named Le Pont Traversé after a novel by his friend, critic and editor Jean Paulhan. There he held readings for a small circle of surrealist and fantastical writers. His 1945 novel L’Expérience de la nuit was translated by Christine Donougher as The Experience of Night (Dedalus, 1997). "The Water Spider" was his most famous story. Unstuck is pleased to present it in this new translation.


Edward Gauvin was the winner of the 2010 John Dryden Translation Prize, and has received fellowships and residencies from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fulbright program, the Centre National du Livre, and the American Literary Translators’ Association. His volume of Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s selected stories, A Life on Paper (Small Beer, 2010) won the Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award and was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award.