South African writer Henrietta Rose-Innes writes on lockdown in Cape Town, and spider bites.

PEN Transmissions is English PEN’s magazine for international and translated voices. PEN’s members are the backbone of our work, helping us to support international literature, campaign for writers at risk, and advocate for the freedom to write and read. If you are able, please consider becoming an English PEN member and joining our community of over 1,000 readers and writers. Join now.

So here we sit, us and the house. This is in Cape Town, where lockdown is lockdown: no outside exercise, no alcohol for sale, soldiers on the streets. Three weeks. This requires new levels of intimacy with the home, which we’ve had for a year and which still remembers its previous owner, an emigrant Scot who built it and died in it: curiously rejigged light fittings, DIY of mysterious function, odd room dividers that do not suit our undivided lives.

There are others living here, of course. It’s a beachy village detached from the city, with baboons, tortoises in the garden, snakes, generous helpings of birds. Inside the house we have geckos, and the huntsman spiders that stalk them – large, amiable, almost mammalian presences. Except for the infernal mosquitoes, the creatures are benign. This suits me well. I’ve written a lot about unloved organisms, vermin and predators and noxious plants; about cohabiting on this messy, mutually enmeshed earth. It’s my chosen subject.

In the first week of lockdown, I wake with unusual itchiness along my arm and up my neck. Over the course of the day I develop large welts, hard and swollen. Each has two neat pincer-marks at its centre, which blossom into blisters. I scratch them raw. The swelling lasts a few days, the ulceration a couple days more. I don’t pay much attention. It doesn’t occur to me to see a doctor. I’m mindful that clinics must be kept free to deal with coronavirus cases, and besides, I come from a medical family, where you don’t call a doctor unless you’re three-quarters dead.

I read about bats and snakes and rats and pangolins, and then bats again. The kinds of animals my protagonists would embrace.

I start to have some small problems with time and space. Days of the week blur; my sleep cycle becomes eccentric. I’m ambushed by profound naps at all hours. I sleep and sleep, then wake at 4am. I spend nights on the couch so as not to disturb my partner with my stirrings. I still have my day-job, with deadlines, but they seem implausible. The clients on the other end, in various time zones under different lockdown conditions, seem also to find the idea of work increasingly absurd.

I am slow and clumsy, tripping, breaking things. I stick my hand in one of the Scotsman’s unsecured light sockets and give myself a nasty shock. None of this seems weird. I know – from the many, many hours I’m spending on the internet – that these are common quarantine malaises.

I am not writing. I am not reading, even, except about the virus. I study maps and graphs. I come to understand the logarithmic scale, and can fully visualise exponential growth. I read about bats and snakes and rats and pangolins, and then bats again. The kinds of animals my protagonists would embrace.

At the start of week two, I wake to a painful thumb. The little bastard has got me again, right on the joint, and the whole thing is hellishly itchy, swollen up so stiff it’s hard to bend. I decide I need some air. The local cafe is five minutes’ walk away; I will cunningly carry a plastic bag, and if a cop car comes past, I’ll say I’m going to buy bread and milk. I may even do so, I think we need food, although I’m hazy on this.

In the course of the walk, my thumb swells to bursting. I stop in the middle of the empty road, staring at the sight of my giant hand, pulsating red and white like a subdued ambulance light. I hurry back indoors.

Foolishly, I image-search spider bites, but I’m in such a dozy state that the pictures barely make me flinch. The creature persecuting me is doubtless a sac spider: a small, sandy-coloured, nondescript arachnid – house-dwelling and aggressive. They get their name from the silken pods they build to live in, often on interior walls; tiny homes within homes. I read that their bites can also be subtly mind-altering, though in no very exciting ways: fatigue and disorientation, sleep.

Online, I watch as people in other parts of the city raid liquor stores, smashing in the windows. There are reports of police in Johannesburg whipping people with sjamboks for breaking the social distancing rules; of rubber bullets. I hear the phrase ‘the invisible enemy’. Our infection and death rates are still low.

Seemingly adhering to a government timetable, my own invisible enemy emerges at the start of week three to give me another good one, right on the angle of the jaw, impossible to see properly in the mirror. Fortunately, I’m locked down with another human who recoils at the sight on my behalf.

It feels correct that, if any person should own as many bricks as I do, they be forced to count them by hand, to measure the span of every one.

There is only one option: full spring clean – a radical measure. We take up the rugs, and I run the nib of the vacuum cleaner along the grooves between the courses of unplastered facebrick. There are a lot of grooves. I try to calculate how many individual bricks I must attend to. At about 9000, my mind starts to wobble, despite my new familiarity with the mathematics of rapidly mounting numbers. An awful lot of bricks. More than a great many people can claim.

On my way to the supermarket, I must drive past either Red Hill or Masiphumelele, both places where poor people are confined to tiny homes made of corrugated iron and scrap. It feels correct that, if any person should own as many bricks as I do, they be forced to count them by hand, to measure the span of every one.

As we progress from nook to cranny with our dustpans, our housemates emerge. Violin spiders (cytotoxic, shy) scramble for cover. A button spider with a plump raindrop body the colour of milky cocoa (neurotoxic) clings to my dust-brush; I drop her gently over the balcony. This mercy aside, the clean-up is destructive, a great razing. I destroy many webs. I see no tiny sacs in the walls, but they must exist, jumbled now in the sack of my hoover. 

The government adds another two weeks to the lockdown. I know nobody who is sick yet, or at least not from the coronavirus. We hear of cops beating people with batons in Masi. There is still plenty of meat for sale in the supermarkets.

Things here are fine. The walls are clean. Maybe we will plaster over them. My skin is smooth and uninflamed. Outside, the world is extremely silent. The virus, presumably, is moving among us, the sounds of its progress – scuttling? lapping? – beyond the range of any ear.

I no longer wish to sleep fifteen hours a day. I feel a light, unmotivated panic (which, I recall, can be a symptom of the adorable button spider’s toxin). The house feels a bit less friendly, as if it’s become meaner under stress; like the creatures no longer tolerate me, or I no longer tolerate them. As I write this – at 3am, or 9pm, or 2pm with the curtains drawn, or whatever time it is – the silhouette of a mosquito dances across my screen. There are no spiders left to catch it. I think I still have some poison left inside me.

Things will be different, must surely be different, when we come out of hiding again. The biters and the bitten. I want to know how we’re all going to manage it. I want to find a way to write about this.


Henrietta Rose-Innes is a South African author of four novels and two short-story collections, with a fifth novel (Stone Plant) due next year. Her novels Nineveh and Green Lion were shortlisted for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize, and have been published internationally. In French translation, Nineveh won the François Sommer Literary Prize in 2015. Her collection of short stories, Animalia Paradoxa, was published in the UK in 2019. In 2012, ‘Sanctuary’ took second place in the BBC International Short Story Competition, and ‘Poison’ was awarded the 2008 Caine Prize for African Writing as well as the 2007 South African PEN Literary Award. She holds a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing from the University of East Anglia. 

Photo credit: Martin Figura

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s