From the Far Margins 


When I was a child, I made a deal with the spiders that would crawl from the wooden rafters down the huge white stucco wall in my bedroom: If I didn’t kill them, they wouldn’t bother me. It was a sketchy deal. Both parties violated the rules on occasion. Out of respect, I did spend a few decades not killing spiders and, to this day, in the back of my mind I tell myself, "If I kill the spiders, they will bite me."

I’ve spent a couple of years building a house—a very tiny house. It started out as one of those barn-style sheds one can buy from a lot off State Street in Boise. A man delivered it on a truck and set it down in the goat pasture where I was living at the time. I worked on it, put nice windows in, insulated, paid a carpenter to add a door. But my shed sat in the pasture for a year collecting spiders of all kinds. They crawled in every nook and cranny, laid eggs, had tiny eight-legged babies.

When the truck came again and picked up my shell of a house to move it down State Street to the city lot I’d bought, I had no idea what sort of ecosystem I’d sheltered and then carried with me in the move.

There’s a lot to know about spiders. When their bodies are pressed enough that they bite, some inject neurotoxins that, in large enough doses, can affect the brain and nerves in human organs. Others pump out tiny doses of flesh-liquefying necrotics, which make a wound very sensitive to infection. Some, like the black widow, have babies in late August and September; the tiny specs roam the world nearly invisible. People become vectors for them, bringing them inside on their clothes or belongings. We carry them across state lines or continents, we mail them and ship them and pack them in suitcases and boxes of produce, thrusting them into foreign environments where they may or may not survive.

As I built my house, turning earth and pulling up weeds, I was taming a last patch of wild ground in a sea of houses and lawns. For a hundred years—maybe forever—my lot had been the place the spiders, mice, gophers, raccoons and owls had quietly come to hide. The spiders I brought mixed with the spiders that were there: slow-moving red ones and fast ones that I watched struggle to survive attacks from parasitic wasps. Different species took up residence in different parts of my house. In the rafters were dull transparent sheet weavers. The round-bodied patterned ones from the widow family hung from threads in the corners near the floor. The large striped ones cruised the basement at high speed, curling under the corners of drop cloths, rugs and bits of plywood at dawn. Yellow ones wove themselves into white silk sacs, waiting until night to roam invisibly, stringing thin shining threads between my walls.

Many I came recognize by their webs: anchor and climbing threads, tunnels, funnels and random strands of steel. Each kind of baby spider had a different shape; emerged from a different egg sac. Some rode nearly invisibly on their mothers’ abdomens. Some threw fine webs up so they would be carried away on the wind.

I framed and finished my house with spiders in mind. I’m enamored with spiders but am one of those people who has a visceral reaction to fast crawling ones. It’s not rational. It’s like people who fear snakes. We struggle with reactions that make no sense to us. So I caulked every tiny crack, layered the siding and drywall so that the spiders would have no way to get inside. I didn’t want to have to keep making deals with them.

January came and I spent my every free moment in construction. The world was reeling from racial violence, the presidential primaries were stirring class warfare, and I was deep in concrete and sawdust, building a place to live and work; a place fully equipped with amazing amenities like hot running water, a flushing toilet and a shower where warm water now falls in a pattern from a faucet onto my head.

I lived for a bit of time without running water. I found that it’s possible to get used to things others would find unbearable. It’s also easy to take for granted what others long for. In any case, the spring day came when the city inspector said I could move in. I did, believing that, in a house as small as mine, finding, removing or killing all the spiders should not be that hard. I laughed at the people who laughed at me when I said I’d sealed all the cracks and crevices and that there was no way spiders could get into my house.

But they hid behind and under things—inside the walls. Their babies crawled in through and around the screens. They rode my body and clothes in from the yard and the lumber pile. I sat at my computer writing and spiders built webs in every corner of my house all day long, every day, like a truth that wouldn't go away.

I now can no longer count the number of bites I’ve had. Some last as long as two weeks. I’ve never had much reaction to mosquitoes, but what I assume is a widow bite on the ribs will last 10 days, itching in a way that has made me want to scrape my skin to the bone with my fingernails. Instead, I wear my bites like penance. In the world of my childhood belief in spider karma, the bites are the price I pay for the spider deaths I cause—for every giant black widow I squashed with a bit of wood; every female wolf spider whose abdomen I popped with the impact of a broom or cloth, her babies scattering across my concrete floor for the walls more quickly than I could even find them.

Yes, those bites are penance for the giant basement spider I found alone in a web near my water heater, ghost white and needle legged, the size of my palm. She must have arrived in a box of plates or a lamp from my dad’s house in California, then in months of darkness fed on box elder beetles and grew large. I sucked her up in a vacuum cleaner unceremoniously.

My agreement with spiders is not worth the air I once spoke it into. I cannot make pacts with them to stay in their place, to never intrude on my house or my life. I can’t ask them to make me comfortable. Even the most gentle of us bite in self defense.

Pointless as it is, I wish there were no consequence to disrupting the the lives that have long owned the land I live on. I try to check myself in my reactions to their presence, realize that the sense of dread I feel is not rational, that they have their places in my house, that they live in every house and that they always will.

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