I hadn’t thought they would be so small. In my imagination they were huge, and why not since my only previous encounter had come in a Nancy Drew book? I no longer remember which one, only that when the crook—a counterfeiter or a jewel thief, some sort of greedy schemer—locked the girl detective in a room full of black widow spiders and turned out the light, a shudder slipped down my spine. I could feel them crawling closer, deadly with venom and villainous intent. Never mind that I knew she’d survive, knew even then that there was no real mystery at the heart of the mysteries she solved. Evil in her world was all menace and no force, the evil-doers stupid, and the evil itself easily parsed. But if the villains were petty, the spiders were mythic, black-hearted, potent, larger than life, on a par with tarantulas, piranhas, cobras, boa constrictors, exotic creatures of unspeakable horror. I was the more terrified for having nothing to fear, living as I did in a brand new ranch house on a treeless street in Hammond, Indiana. Where would a jewel thief or black widow hide? I had never even seen a cockroach.
My mother had. In a Chicago apartment she had fought an army of roaches with J-O Paste spread on slices of raw potato. She laid her weapons out after she deposited me in my crib for the night and took them up before I woke so that I wouldn’t eat them. I was young enough to do that, which is to say too young to remember. Except for fragments, my memory begins in the clean new rooms of our first house in Hammond, in the bright cinderblock classrooms of the new elementary school, a suburban Eden so banal no snakes were allowed. Outside an occasional daddy-long-legs might run across your arm, but we all know they can’t hurt you. When I cut through the weedy vacant lot at the corner on my way to school, grasshoppers leapt into my crinolines, pinging against my bare legs and spitting their brown tobacco juice on the stiff white layers, but by year’s end the field was gone, and a tidy row of shops stood in its place. In Wisconsin I stepped in a yellow jackets’ nest, and the wasps chased me down the beach near our cottage, but that was the wilderness; we lived in a world that we could master. When a plague of thirteen-year “locusts” invaded Hammond with their repulsive big black bodies and googly red eyes, I simply refused to go outside. I wasted years dreading their next cyclical return, which proved anticlimactic, for by then I was grown and living downstate in a lush landscape that hid them from view.
Or perhaps by then I was able to take cicadas in stride. My first husband and I had spent the initial year of our marriage in a house skittering with roaches fed on the rich black Midwestern loam. There were rats inside the walls; at night we heard them squealing, and when I called the landlady to complain, it took her several moments to respond. “Well,” she said finally, “do you suppose your man could set a trap?” I looked at the man I had just married, a Ph.D. student in literature who had grown up on a country club golf course. “I don’t think so,” I said, and we called an exterminator, who took up the floorboards beneath our bed, put out his poison, and nailed the boards back. We went away for Thanksgiving, and when we got back there was a bloated dead mouse in the bathtub.
But I never saw a black widow. The spider seemed so sinister it was more apocryphal than real, not so much fictional as there not here, like the boa, the pirana, the cobra. Even its name is the stuff of legend, its common name, that is, for its scientific name Latrodectus mactans means “biting in secret,” an accurate description. It is the praying mantis that would more aptly be called “widow,” since the female routinely bites off the male’s head and begins to consume him even before they’re done mating; of the widow spiders only the southern black eats the male, and that is an exception rather than the rule. She may even feed him if he hangs around after mating, though more often he simply crawls away. He’s of no use to her now; she will continue to reproduce without him. Like most male spiders he has little to do, he can’t protect their kids, he can’t even protect himself, he doesn’t bite, he carries no venom. Her bite is vicious, and she is especially likely to strike after mating, which leaves her hungry and cross. Her venom is the most deadly of all spiders, a neurotoxin fifteen times more potent than that of the rattlesnake, though she injects such a small amount most human victims recover. Nevertheless she is responsible for nearly all spider bite fatalities in the United States.
Before I went to Arkansas for grad school, the tarantula too seemed a creature of legendary danger. European folklore once attributed an hysteria called tarantism to its bite, the chief symptom of which was a mania to dance, hence the Italian dance called the tarantella, which was supposed to cure tarantism, no doubt on the same theory that gave us the hair of the dog. In fact the culprit was almost certainly the European widow spider, cousin of our southern black, and the dance a kind of seizure, but the tarantula, actually a large, sedentary wolf spider got the blame and the name, Lycosa tarentula, from the Italian town of Taranto. Unlike the widow, which uses its web to trap food, immobilizing the victim by wrapping it in silk before killing, the tarantula is a hunter, chasing down reptiles and amphibians, even small birds, rearing back to strike with its fangs, grasping the paralyzed victim with appendages located between its mouth and legs, grinding it into a ball, then vomiting the digestive juices that will liquefy it before the spider sucks it down. Fortunately its venom is not nearly so toxic to humans, although the barbed hairs it kicks off its back in defense can be highly irritating to the eyes and nose. Still, it’s not surprising the Italians would vilify the tarantula rather than the small, unobtrusive widow. Tarantulas look dangerous.
For one thing they’re huge. In 1954 Hollywood crossbred our fear of the bomb with our fear of insects to create the sci-fi film Them!, in which radiation from atomic testing produced a strain of murderous thirty-foot ants that terrorized the Southwest and begat a whole genre of giant critter horror flicks, including, of course, one called Tarantula. To most fans these B movies seem more like high camp than horror, but for serious arachno- and entomophobes they’re not funny, and among Caucasians arachnophobia is one of the most common phobic disorders, for in the Middle Ages Europeans believed spiders caused the plagues that swept the continent and their fear became so culturally ingrained that it is nearly as hereditary as celiac disease or cystic fibrosis. (According to Piotr Naskrecki, Director of the Invertebrate Diversity Initiative, the seemingly irrational fear of spiders and insects is a form of “prepared learning” with a scientific basis, since for millions of years human evolution has favored individuals who avoided small creatures.) A scene in which crew members were eaten by giant spiders proved so terrifying in test screenings of the original King Kong it had to be cut. Better to be pursued by a giant ape than a big spider.
Certainly Miss Muffet would have thought so, for the little lady of the nursery rhyme was a real girl named Patience Muffet whose notorious fear of spiders was nurtured by her step-father, sixteenth-century English naturalist Thomas Muffet (or Moufet). Dr. Muffet, who believed spiders prevented gout among other diseases, was such an enthusiast he kept them as pets, giving them the run of his house. Poor Patience—to cure her fevers he rolled spiders in breadcrumbs and fed them to her live; for colds he applied a poultice of their urine and dung to her eyes. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Evangeline” offers a variation of Muffet’s treatment when his heroine is told that a spider shut up in a nutshell will cure a fever, though she fails to save her love from the “pestilence” that befalls him. It can’t be that she didn’t have a spider handy, for “Wherever you are there is a spider within a meter of you,” according to Adrienne Mason in The World of the Spider. Like Miss Muffet, Evangeline undoubtedly considered the treatment worse than the disease.
Arkansas is full of spiders, a fact that goes unadvertised in tour guides and university bulletins. I had no idea tarantulas inhabited the state until I sat on the edge of a bluff in Devil’s Den State Park one October afternoon and glimpsed a dark, hairy leg scurrying past my outstretched hand. The appendage was so big that for a moment I thought my boyfriend had played a joke and snuck my kitten into the park. A friend found a tarantula curled like a cat in the corner of her sofa; the next time I saw one it was inside my car. They can’t hurt you, Arkansans insisted. Not if you manage to keep from driving off the cliff when one hitches a joyride.
One evening as I sat reading in my little house in Fayetteville, a black spider half as big as my hand dropped into my lap. I jumped up and screamed, but there was small comfort in its disappearance since I had to go to bed knowing it was loose in the house. Several people I knew, including the man who would become my second husband, had been bitten by the brown recluse. I went around the house on a rampage, wielding a can of Raid, and killed thirty-seven spiders behind a single bookcase. Legs drawn up, brown fiddles on their backs. Were they all the dangerous Loxosceles reclusa? Rick Vetter of the University of California Riverside Department of Entomology says check the map; if you do not live in an area that is supposed to have recluse spiders it is highly unlikely your spider is one. It’s clear that he feels people misidentify everything from a daddy-long-legs to a Volkswagen as the brown recluse. Because so many people have mistaken markings on spiders as violins, the fiddle shape is not a reliable indicator for a non-arachnologist, he warns; you need to look at the eye pattern. I confess I did not look my spiders in the eyes. I can’t say whether they had six pairs (the recluse) or eight in two rows of four. Mind you, the spider is about three-eighths of an inch long; if you want to count eyes you’re going to have to come close. Doctors say that if you’re bitten you should bring the spider in for positive identification. They also say you’re unlikely to know you’ve been bitten, for more often than not the wound is painless until it begins to fester. When you come down with fever and chills, you might think you have the flu, but the recluse’s venom is a necrotoxin; you’ll know you’ve been bitten when the gangrene sets in.
There were mice in the house in Fayetteville too. A previous tenant had put out an off-brand poison, which dropped them in their tracks but failed to dry them up. We’d smell that tell-tale something sweetish, a pink smell I call it, and start hunting. Nancy Drew may have had to contend with a roomful of black widows, but I’m willing to bet she never had to pick up a dead mouse. I’m certain she was never startled by big black water beetles huddling in the sinks of her beach cottage at night. There were no weevils breeding in her pantry, no silverfish caught in the slick at the bottom of her soap dish, no caterpillars tenting in her trees, or moths devouring the frocks in her closet. When she felt her way around an old attic or dank cellar, all she found were clues.
I could claim a rational aversion. Twice since I moved to North Carolina I have been bitten by brown recluse spiders. I have survived Rocky Mountain spotted tick fever; my husband has been treated for Lyme disease. Our basement is open to a crawl space infested with huge camel-back crickets, hideous, unpredictable leapers that bear no resemblance to Jiminy. One summer we were overtaken by earwigs, slithering out of flowerpots, dropping from the shrubbery, scattering every time I opened the grill; indoors I had to pick them from my hair, their dark pincers wagging as they secreted their rank, oily smell. Another year carpenter ants, ants as big as boxcars, crawled out of our dishwasher to bite us. Bees nested in the ceiling of our bay window; we could hear them buzzing as we sat down to breakfast. Rats got into the garage, and when Terminix failed to finish them off, my husband bought a pellet gun, and he and our son sat on the deck and shot them. That took care of that, I thought, until a brick fell out of our foundation and a new generation snuck in to file their teeth inside my kitchen cupboards.
But I never saw a black widow. We dealt with the mice, we dealt with the rats, we dealt with the bees and the ants and learned to tolerate the crickets and the earwigs, but the spider remained the stuff of girls’ detective novels, far too mythic for an actual appearance. And so imagine my shock when I reached for a shovel inside the garage shortly after we moved to the big old house where we still live and tickled something sticky—there she was in the corner, hanging upside down from her web, unmistakable, the secret biter, a shiny black bulb with a sharp clench of legs and the telltale bright red hourglass on her abdomen. Here not there. Real and so much smaller than my imagination, the deadly venom cupped inside a body no more than a quarter inch long. A cob web spider, she uses a comb on her fourth leg to spin a web so small and tangled you might not notice it until you touch it, might not realize there’s a spider inside, out of sorts and ravenous from mating. You hold the deed, but it’s her territory, and the survival of the species depends upon her. When she strikes, you may feel a pinprick or nothing at all. You’ll know it was a widow when the abdominal pain hits, so severe you might think it appendicitis, when your muscles and the soles of your feet start aching, when you begin to drool and then your mouth goes dry, when your eyelids swell and you soak your clothes with sweat, when your chest locks and you can’t breathe and then you understand without being told that the way her victims die is to suffocate. If you’re over sixty or under ten, you might worry.
My son was not yet two when I found a nest of black widows beneath the seat of his sandbox. Their egg sacs, I’ve learned, can hold as many as a thousand eggs, and there must have been hundreds of tiny spiderlings ballooning into the sand. I rushed my baby inside, and we demolished the box. Later I read that before indoor plumbing was standard widows liked to spin their silk beneath the outhouse seat; bites on the genitalia of the male were particularly common. No wonder they seem not merely dangerous but evil. They are so secretive one rarely sees them, but only last week my son called to report that he had found two beneath his windowsills. Though Michael read him nearly all of Charlotte’s Web the day we brought him home from the hospital as an infant, it did no good: spiders creep him out. His last house was infested with large gray spiders, so big and so numerous he and his housemates stashed pellet guns beside every chair. “They made a mess when you shot them,” he reports. “Wolf spiders,” I guess; some, he agrees, but others were not; they had smooth yellowish-gray banana-shaped bodies. “Show me,” I ask, handing him my field guide—I want to call by name these spiders large enough to draw a bead on from across the room—but he can’t find them, though they were as real as the black widow that dropped from her web to the floor when I cleaned beneath the china cabinet this morning.
“Will you walk into my parlor?” said the spider to the fly. Even kings have spiders in their palaces according to the Bible.
How could I have imagined that the world I lived in was safe? Only a year ago a local woman died of a black widow bite, or so a friend reports—she heard about it at a party. Is the story true? According to the internet no one in the United States has died from a black widow bite in more than ten years. There was a woman who died of Rocky Mountain spotted tick fever the same month; I read the cause of death in her obituary. Could the stories have been conflated? I can’t find a report; the hospital doesn’t release information. I can believe whatever I choose.
But it’s wearisome to spend your days recoiling from the creatures that surround you. E.B. White didn’t. He was so fascinated by the pregnant Aranea cavatica who served as the model for Charlotte, he was unwilling to part with her though he had to leave his farm in Maine to return to New York, and so he took her with him, cutting the sac from the underside of his shed roof, and putting spider and sac in a candy box. A few weeks later, he was “pleased to find that Charlotte’s daughters were emerging from the air holes in the cover of the box,” stringing tiny lines from his comb to his brush to his mirror to his nail scissors. They were very busy and almost invisible, he reported, and they all lived together happily for a couple of weeks until somebody whose duty it was to dust his dresser balked and he “broke up the show.” Better to emulate White than his housekeeper. And so one summer I bought an expensive micro lens and ring flash for my Nikon and went out to the garden to make friends. On the gaillardia I watched a little hover fly with its smooth bee-colored stripes, cellophane wings, and huge, sober fly eyes. Pennsylvania leatherwings were mating on my autumn sedum, which was trembling with checkered beetles and rowdy-colored ailanthus webworm moths. My garden was a circus, leafhoppers in one ring, in the others a purple and orange grape leaf skeletonizer and harlequin cabbage bug, so brightly colored they might have been wearing motley. Even the carapace of the stinkbug was a handsome bright green rimmed with the most delicate band of yellow.
In insects color matters. We loathe the homely brown cockroach while the sight of a green treehopper, a katydid, or even the big emerald-colored June bug delights. Though their blood is poisonous to birds, nearly everyone loves ladybugs, which were associated with the Virgin Mary in the Middle Ages, though you hardly need a holy connection to sense that killing one is bad karma. Garden stores sell them to control aphids, and for centuries children have recited the rhyme inspired by the European practice of burning hop vines after harvest—Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home/Your house is on fire, your children alone—for the flightless ladybird young would have been consumed by the flames along with the aphids. The blackish-brown earwigs eat aphids too, but you won’t find them for sale at the nursery or embroidered on clothing.
Nor will you find the black widow embellishing pockets and pocketbooks, though she is a beautiful spider, the glossy red and black of the ladybug in reverse. Supposedly black spiders bring bad luck and white spiders good, though when a small white spider ran across my hand on the porch yesterday, I did not feel kissed by fortune. The bright green and red stripes of the leafhopper or lovely blue eyes and wings of a bombardier beetle may charm us enough to forgive their six legs, but nothing entices us to exonerate eight. Consider the argiope, one of our most colorful spiders, the big garden orb weaver children call the writing spider for the bold white zigzags of stabilimenta the nearly inconsequential male spins through the middle of her web; the sight of her handsome striped legs and bold black, white, and gold markings causes an arachnophobic shudder.
My son was twelve the summer I spent photographing the invertebrates in my garden, and when I projected my slides for him and his friends, my subjects, big as the horror film creatures, filled the kids with glee. They cheered what they termed “raw, predatory evil” on the face of the green lynx spider and applauded the huge, notched black eyes of the wasp. Supposedly we fear insects not because our ancestors believed they caused plagues, but because they look like robots, because their exoskeletons make them resemble machines, and nearly all of our depictions of Martians resemble insects; they are so alien, so other. But when I made myself look through the lens at the faces of the creatures from my yard, they didn’t appear machine-like at all. Instead they seemed oddly recognizable, in a strange way almost human in their solemn concentration on the task that is their lives. Yellow jackets, I’ve read, are so smart they habituate parking lots in the deep south, waiting for incoming cars because the bugs killed on those windshields and grills will be fresher. How smart, I wonder, is the spider?
Who knows? Not even a sharp micro lens could reveal all the secrets of my house and my yard. A miniscule leafhopper sings in my black-eyed susans, though I can’t hear him, for the sound doesn’t travel through the air, only through the leaves and stems from one leafhopper to another. While I sleep earwigs climb the woody stalks of my roses to eat the giant willow aphids; unseen by me the bat that lives in the box on the side of my garage glides after the tobacco fly flitting through the dark. The larvae of the leatherwings devour tiny grasshopper eggs inside the earth while wolf spiders dance in courtship and line their burrows. And hidden in the corners of my basement and garage the black widow crouches inside her web, combing her strong silk.
As a child I read mysteries because I believed I lived in a world without them. My suburban street seemed so ordinary, so predictable, so sanitized and stripped, I thought nothing lay hidden. Or perhaps that is what I was told. That was the 1950s; my parents and their neighbors, children of the Depression, were still celebrating the end of the world war. Civilization had been saved, good had triumphed over evil, which seemed also to mean that cleanliness had triumphed over filth. The world pictured in my mother’s old photograph album, with its funny clothes and old-fashioned cars, was history. We were modern, living in the age of antibiotics and shampoo. And though the bright safety of our new order was boring, through it I learned to fear the dark shadows we’d escaped, everything I felt so securely protected from by time or space. Some claim the idea of the world before we were born evokes terror because it is so indifferent to our existence it is unaware of our absence. So is the natural world we inhabit indifferent to our desires, but I was young enough then to believe that all the creatures I feared bore me malice. And though it is surely not malice but their indifference that we fear, even as adults the very words we use deny it. The spider carries venom; she is not indifferent, she is venomous.
What I discovered when I took a close look at the hidden world all around me is that each of its creatures is as serious about its life as I am about mine. We do not question that mammals have feelings. The giant ape was in love, so Hollywood tells us. We own dogs and cats and see for ourselves what makes them sad or happy. We witness their elation and, on occasion, their grief; they don’t need words to express them. And yet we give them words. Every one of my dogs has had a voice, which was my voice, made cute, as I spoke for them. Once, after a student scoffed when my husband confided to a class that his dog had a voice, one by one the other students admitted that they too gave their dogs voices. To say that we anthropomorphize our pets and dehumanize our enemies is to state the obvious. Only the narrated life speaks to us.
Does an ant feel joy at the sight of a breadcrumb; can a spider mourn? That is the question Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCathy ask in When Elephants Weep, their anecdotal argument for the emotional lives of animals: Does a spider love its babies? There are female spiders who sacrifice their lives for their young, breaking down their own organs to nourish their eggs. A wolf spider who loses her egg sac will pick up and carry an empty snail shell, a bit of fluff, or even a rabbit dropping, as if to hold onto what it once promised. Instinct or love? I can’t say. I don’t speak for the spider, though surely outside of the articulated world of our human concerns the distinction makes no difference at all.