Sunday Snippet, The Ubiquity of Spiders by Bill Chance

“Spider venom comes in many forms. It can often take a long while to discover the full effects of the bite. Naturalists have pondered this for years: there are spiders whose bite can cause the place bitten to rot and to die, sometimes more than a year after it was bitten. As to why spiders do this, the answer is simple. It’s because spiders think this is funny, and they don’t want you ever to forget them.”

― Neil Gaiman, Anansi Boys

Louise Bourgeois, Spider, New Orleans

The Ubiquity of Spiders

Sam Monaghan’s father had moved his family – Sam and his baby sister Brenda – out to the tiny town of Gilmer right after his wife had been attacked. They had lived in a brownstone in the old meat-packing district – they felt like urban pioneers. Until the one afternoon when Sam’s mother, Paula, came home from work to find the two tweakers that Sam’s father had hired to paint Brenda’s nursery waiting.

In the city, Sam had been an elite baseball player – the offensive star of a select team, The Bombers. In Gilmer, however, he had to suddenly give up the sport, which left a frustrating gap in his life, like a missing tooth in his jaw. The attackers had used his bat on his mother and he couldn’t bear to hold one in his hands again.

“Sam, I wish you would make some friends in the school here,” his mother said to him as he pushed her chair out onto the porch so she could watch the sun set.

“I know mom, I’ll try. I just don’t have anything in common with these kids.”

“What about Duane, dear? He lives on the next farm over, you can walk there whenever you want. He’s only a grade below you.”

“I’ll see mom. I’ll see.”

She was talking about Duane Clankman, who was a year older than Sam, even though he was a grade below.

The walk to the Clankman farm wound down through the creek bottoms, on an old abandoned road, not much more than a couple worn wheel ruts and a rusting iron bridge missing most of its roadway. The riot of weedy creekbottom swamp forest grew in from the sides and over the top until the way was a winding green tunnel.

The thing was, Duane had a cool old barn on his family’s farm. Over the start of the school year, Sam began to get in the habit of walking over there. The loft of the barn was full of hay bales, and Duane had arranged everything while the loft was being filled so that there were tunnels in the hay. They would pull a bale out of the opening and then crawl down a series of narrow tunnels into a pair of secret rooms hollowed out. Duane had even thought of leaving small openings for light and air.

Sometimes other kids, usually Frank, whose father was missing somewhere overseas, and Maria, whose father roofed houses would meet up there and the four would crawl through the tunnels and sit in the rooms talking about their friends, their school, their hopes and their dreams.

As the fall fell away, the sun began to set earlier and earlier. The kids smuggled some old flashlights into the hay so they could see their way out, though they would turn them off and sit in the darkness whenever they could. One day Duane showed up with some old candle stubs and a pack of matches from a bar in Broadtown, but the others convinced him it was too dangerous to light candles in the hayloft.

He’d stay as long as he dared, then Sam would rush home along the overgrown path by the light of the set sun, smeared gray and orange across the wide country sky.

“It’s late, Sam,” his mother told him as the screen door slammed shut behind him. “I don’t want you walking back from the Clankman’s in the dark.”

“It’ll be all right, Mom, there’s nothing out there, nothing to worry about.” Same saw a flash of pain across her face and the falling from the uneven spot where her broken cheekbone hadn’t healed quite right. “Really, Mom, don’t worry about me. It’s safe.”

“Well, I guess…” she said. “Here, take this flashlight with you every time, though, it’ll make me feel better.” She reached into a paper bag with a receipt still stapled to the edge and handed Sam a big four-D cell metal light. “I had your father pick this up in town for you. The nights get really dark out here.”

Sam ran his hands over the bright metal ridges along the long, heavy handle. The switch on the side had a solid, firm feel as he clicked it on. Even in the bright kitchen the beam stared out clear and strong… Sam flicked the beam into the shadows behind the table and watched the darkness flee. He grinned and felt his heart jump – this was so much better than the cheap plastic lights they had been using.

That night Sam purposely stayed around the Clankman’s until it was dark as pitch. He wanted to use his new flashlight on the way home. He walked as far as he could until the night was so black he literally could not see his hand in front of his face. He raised the heavy torch and slid the metal slide switch. The light leaped out, poured from the glass lens and the path ahead jumped into view.

He could see the twin ruts running through the center of a tunnel of scrub. He could see the archway of plants, gray-green in the beam. He was not expecting the jeweled constellations of bright lights that surrounded his path.

All along the way, bright twinkling blazing spots shot back at him. Some were white, and some were bright green. They were everywhere and Sam jumped back from this beautiful mystery. Then he gathered himself, swung the beam, and walked through. All along the creek bottoms the fiery jewels, yellow-white and emerald-green, surrounded him, leaping into life whenever his light touched them, blinking out when it swung away.

He felts his soul lightened by the sight and walked through the jeweled gauntlet, crossed the rusted old bridge, and up through the forest on the other side. The lights persisted through the creek bottom scrub and ended when he reached the fields around his family’s own place.

Sam through himself into bed, excited about the lights, flicking his flashlight under the covers, until he finally fell asleep with the torch on, still clutched in his fist.

He was dismayed to find the batteries almost dead in the morning, the bulb only a faint orange glow. He gulped down his breakfast and rushed out early to meet the bus to school. He wanted a few minutes in the salmon dawn to look at the creek path and see if he could figure out what had made the bright jewels the night before.

As he walked down toward the creek he peered into the scrubby brush, covered with thick twists of thorny vines, he immediately saw the white tufts of webs thick through and between the leaves. He picked up a stick and poked one of the webs and jumped back as a huge brown spider came crawling quickly out, jumping up onto the stick almost to his hand.
At that moment, he heard the bus horn calling him and he had to abandon his quest and run for the stop.

At study hall he started pulling out the encyclopedia and then asked the librarian for help finding books on spiders. It didn’t take him long to find a picture that looked what had jumped out at him that morning.

It was a wolf spider. The book said they were very common. He felt the hair rise on the back of his neck when he read, “Their eyes reflect light well, allowing someone with a flashlight to easily locate them at night. Flashing a beam of light over the spider will produce eyeshine. The light from the flashlight has been reflected from the spider’s eyes directly back toward its source, producing a “glow” that is easily noticed. This is also especially helpful because the wolf spiders are nocturnal and will be out hunting for food, making it easier to find them.”

So that was it – the white lights were bits of water clinging to the webs and the green lights were the spider’s eyes. He sat and thought about that for a while. He thought about walking through the path, past and underneath thousands of wolf spiders. The thought didn’t bother him. He wasn’t sure why, but the spiders didn’t frighten him. Their green lights in the flashlight were too beautiful.

After school he told the other kids at the Clankman’s about the spiders. Frank didn’t seem to care, Maria was frightened, “You mean those spiders have always been there, we just didn’t know about it until you shined that light?”

“I suppose.”

“Uggh,” she cringed, “That really creeps me out. I’m never walking down there no more.”

Duane’s reaction surprised Sam. He was angry.

“I can’t believe it, all those nasty bugs down there, living along my road.”

“It’s not your road, Duane, Beside, there not hurting anything.”

“Still, who told them they could do that.”

Sam wasn’t sure what Duane was so pissed about, but he hardly talked any more that afternoon. When it was dark Sam put the fresh batteries he had brought from home into the flashlight and tried to convince the others to walk down to the creek with him and see the spider’s eyes. Nobody would go.

Disappointed, he walked home by himself, and barely stopped to look at the lights, though they were as thick as the night before.

The next morning was Saturday, and Sam walked back to look at the spider nests. He was curious about where the wolf spiders went during the day and if he could find any of them. When he looked across the bridge at the path on the other side, he saw Duane already there.

He had a big metal can with a hose running out of the top of it. There was a handle attached to the top and Duane was straining to pump the handle up and down as hard as he could.

“Duane, what are you doing?” Sam called out across the old bridge.

“I’m gonna kill all those damn spiders – that’s what I’m gon’ do, dammit,” said Duane.