Sunday, October 13, 2013

A silly anecdote about spiders

It was Friday night. We'd been talking in the kitchen for the past two hours, our topics ranging between travel and video games. My landfolk/housemates, J and M, were enjoying shared custody of a bottle of spiced rum. Both of them were a little silly.

The three house cats patrolled the floor, reminding us without much subtlety that it was about time for their dinner. Turning to look for Yggi, I saw a large spider in front of the patio door.

Now, this house does not welcome spiders. In fact, anything with an exoskeleton is distinctly non grata. J had recently expressed his particular horror of spiders, and I decided to tease him.

"Look, J. A spider."

J set down his drink. "Where?" His voice was a bit too casual.

I pointed to where the spider huddled, its spiky legs gathered up like a quarter-sized palisade. "There," I said sweetly. "Wow, it's really big."

I don't actually mind spiders. If they're out of arm's reach, I usually leave them alone. However, something about this one--how it sat perfectly centered in front of the door, how it hadn't so much as twitched since I'd noticed it--made me a little uneasy.

J was walking towards the stairs, his steps quick and purposeful. "Is it still there?"

"Yeah,"  I said.

 M leaned in for a wary look. "It's not a brown recluse." She sounded relieved--there was only a small tremor in her voice. "It's a... wolf spider. The cats can kill it."

"Is it still there?" J yelled from the top of the stairs.

"Yes," we answered.

It really was time to feed the cats. We set about preparing the dishes.

"Is the spider still there?" J yelled once again.

"No," I lied, just to be mean. "It wandered off somewhere."

Apparently it heard me. "It's moving," M said. "I think it's going to the shoe rack."

I didn't quite cackle. I could imagine J's reaction if we told him the spider was hiding in the shoes. At least they weren't all his. Half, at least, were M's. He'd have a fighting chance.

I left to feed Yggi, and stayed upstairs for several minutes. When I came back, the spider was crouched at the base of the stairway--at least twenty feet from where it had been before.

I hadn't expected it to move quite that fast.

Killing the thing was sounding like a better and better idea. After my show of bravery, though, I couldn't be the one to to it. I went upstairs to check my mail, hoping one of my housemates would soon gather the nerve (and a shoe). As I typed in my password, I heard J say worriedly, "Um... the spider's on the landing now..."

Neither of them had yet suggested killing it. I wasn't sure if they were putting on brave faces, or whether each just hoped the other would go into battle. Again, I thought of killing it myself. There was really no point, though--it wasn't actually causing me any trouble.

I had work to do, and stayed online for two or three hours. J and M went to bed. The house was quiet.

My mind strayed back to the spider on the stairs. M had said it was a wolf spider, right? But I'd seen wolf spiders. They were usually fuzzy, chunky, visibly spider-eyed. This one had been smooth-bodied and svelte, uniformly brown. I looked up North Carolina spiders, trying to see what else it could be.

I looked up brown recluses.


There was a definite similarity. The legs, in particular, were shaped just right. Had I been teasing poor J about a legitimately dangerous spider?

I'd walked past it at least four times. Spiders are no problem if you can see them--most of them are careful to avoid human contact. But what if it moved out of sight and we stepped too close? It had been hours--the spider could be anywhere now. I should have killed it when it was in the open.

Maybe it was still there. I picked up a leather shoe--and my phone, for evidence--and tiptoed from my room.

The hall was dark. I instantly regretted coming out barefoot. I flipped on every light I came to, and descended the stairs with great caution, placing each foot precisely in the center of the next tread. One false move could bring the beast upon me.

I found it perched on one of the bottom corners of the staircase, only a few feet from where I'd last seen it. The spider didn't move as I edged past it to the floor. I leaned in to study it. It studied me back.

It was solid brown, and not a bit fuzzy. I'd read that recluses were sometimes called "fiddlebacks," and if you tilted your head right you could say this spider's body was vaguely fiddle-shaped. Peanut-shaped, really, but there's a lot of artistic license in descriptive names. The legs still looked about right. I couldn't look too closely, because every time I got near it the spider moved.

I took a picture, and then another one. The spider would not cooperate. It held still just long enough for me to focus, then started wandering--roaming from the baseboard to the stair, up a riser and over onto the tread. Each photo was grainy, indistinct, like a long-range picture of Bigfoot. Or Bigfoot's pet spider. They were useless for identification, and would look terrible on Instagram.

Up until now, the spider had moved slowly--almost as if it were favoring one of its many legs. Was it injured? Maybe something had taken a swipe at it. If it wasn't long for this world...

As I leaned closer, the spider suddenly rippled across the stairway, dodging around frenetically as if it had just noticed it was in danger. That settled it: it had to go, before it zipped off into the shadows and waited for an unsuspecting foot to find it. For the safety of the house--and the prevention of ugly, necrotic spider bites--I had to kill the thing.

I took one more picture, then stepped back. In a moment, the spider calmed, and started wandering down the stairs. It hesitated on the lowest riser, as if trying to remember some important reason why it shouldn't venture to the floor. At last it stepped onto the hardwood, and hid for a moment behind a tuft of cat hair.

 I waited.

The spider edged out onto the floor.

I slammed my shoe down--once, twice, and it was crippled. One more blow, and the spider was a limp black ball. I found a tissue, threw the guts out, and went up to tell Facebook about my success.

After I told the world that M should "go back to spider-identification school," I started second-guessing myself. What if I'd been wrong? I brought up the Wikipedia entry on recluses, and was reminded of fiddle-shaped markings. I really hadn't seen any markings on the spider I'd killed. And the range map looked like this:

Range map by Bob the Wikipedian
When you grow up in North Carolina, you hear regularly about the kinds of animals you need to avoid. We have poisonous snakes--copperheads, cottonmouths, coral snakes, and two kinds of rattler--and two poisonous spiders: the black widow, and the brown recluse. I hadn't realized recluses were only in the far western tip of the state. I was starting to feel embarrassed.

I looked up wolf spiders once more. A few, I saw now, were slender and brown--exactly like the creature I'd just killed so thoroughly.

I deleted the Facebook post, glad that M was still sleeping.

Well... according to the internet, wolf spiders did bite sometimes. Maybe I'd protected the household from some lesser danger--not necrosis, but minor irritation. I didn't feel too terrible, but definitely felt silly.

Now that the stairs were clear, I was free to venture down for a snack. I turned the light back on, just to be safe--and froze.

Halfway up the staircase, just a few feet from the site of my unjustified arachnicide, was a large brown spider. It was identical, in every way, to the one I'd just killed. It seemed to be watching me.

I tiptoed by, ready to bolt if it moved--it shouldn't, being a spider, but clearly something uncanny was at work here. I went into the kitchen.

As I turned on the light, an enormous black spider dashed under the stove. Fortunately, my housemates are pretty deep sleepers, so my shriek didn't wake them.

Rosie, the house's senior cat, gave me a dry look from her position on the sofa. You brought this on yourself, she seemed to say. I couldn't help agreeing with her.

Snack in hand, I crept past the reincarnated wolf spider on the stairway. I wouldn't go downstairs again that night--I wouldn't tempt fate. Someone else could kill the creature, but I would leave it alone: I knew a warning when I saw one.