About twenty years ago, when we were living in an old house in upstate New York, something unusual happened to us. It was late fall, somewhere in late October. And I almost immediately wrote a story about it, one most suitable for Halloween. I hope you like it. I hope you're not arachnophobic.
"Oh, oh, oh! Ohhh!” my wife moaned, the oh’s rising in pitch and volume. She came bursting out of the bathroom to stand in front of me in our bedroom, her hands making little fluttering motions in front of her face, terror in her eyes. She’d been about to brush her teeth before coming to bed, and she still had the brush clutched in her right hand.
“What? What?” I asked, thinking maybe she’d stepped on the scale and been horrified by the numbers.
“There’s a HUGE spider in there! Oooo!” she said with a shudder that started at her hunched shoulders and ended in a flutter of cheeks. “I just hate spiders!”
My wife’s no coward. She’s lived long enough to know that practically nothing we fear as children ever really comes to pass or is nearly as life-threatening as we’d imagined in that child’s world when we had to look up at everyone and everything. But spiders were horrors of a different color. Logic and reason didn’t stand a chance.
Here we go again, I thought. The old “Get the Tissue and Squish the Big Bad Spider” routine. Probably a daddy-longlegs and Miss Muffet’s spazzing out. Big deal.
I went in the bathroom and followed her quavery directions from where she stood just outside the door. “He’s right up in the corner by the medicine chest,” she said. I looked up in the corner by the medicine chest. There he was all right. Just sitting up there in the corner by the medicine chest. Just staring back at me, all six or eight or however many eyes spiders have just staring back at me. No daddy-longlegs, not this fella.
Okay, I thought. Guess I’ll go get a paper towel or two. Go out to the kitchen and get some paper towels. Tissue won’t do. No Siree, this was going to take something a little tougher. So I went to the kitchen, my legs feeling strangely like rubber, my wife right on my heels. I pulled one, two, . . . three paper towels off the roll and then went slowly back to the bathroom, my wife hanging back a bit. Odd how fast my heart was thumping. I peeked around the door casing and looked up in the corner. No spider. Where’d he go? I couldn’t have just imagined him, could I? No, not if both of us saw him. Besides, he was too big to imagine.
You have to understand, he wasn’t easy to overlook. When my wife said a huge spider, she wasn’t kidding. This sucker was big. I mean BIG, reaaaly BIG. When I first saw him up in the corner by the cabinet, me staring at him, him staring back at me, I felt that lump in my throat, the one writers are always writing about but which I’d never experienced firsthand and never really believed. The writers were quite accurate. It did feel like a lump as my throat constricted.
He was brown. His body was a figure-eight about as long as half my little finger. He must have had some kind of markings along the body, but I was too numb to notice. His legs were long, but not the little threadlike stilts of a daddy-longlegs. Oh no, these were the legs of a spider iron-pumper or NFL linebacker--heavy, thick legs like thorns. And my mind sort of glazed over as we stared at each other.
“WelI, I don’t see him now,” I said somewhat uneasily. “We’ll just have to keep our eyes open.”
I coaxed my wife toward the bathroom pushing her gently in the back.
“I don’t really need to brush my teeth,” she whined.
“Oh come on now. Brush your teeth. He’s gone.”
I returned to the bedroom and she went slowly in the bathroom, her eyes, I’m quite sure, wide open.
About ten seconds later, “Oooooooh!” she moaned in a rising quaver. “He’s here!”
I went around her as she was backing out of the bathroom pointing at the medicine chest. “He’s . . . he’s in . . . in between the . . . the . . . the . . .” (She couldn’t seem to get enough air) “the wall and the cabinet,” she finished in a rush.
I leaned forward from the waist and looked along the wall and into the crack between the wall and the medicine chest. Brown legs hooked around the edge of the cabinet near the middle hinge. Big brown legs. Hmmm, I thought. Tissues were always out of the question. And paper towels no longer seem up to the task. Maybe a gunnysack . . . or a whip and a chair.
“Don’t we have some insecticide under the kitchen sink?” my wife asked from outside the door.
“Yes, I think so. That sounds good. Uh huh.” I went quickly to the kitchen, my wife a tight shadow behind me. I rummaged around among the furniture polish and half-empty bottles of ammonia cleaner until I found the can. It felt uncomfortably light, but I shook it and it sounded like there was enough for the task. We returned to the bathroom armed for battle. My wife didn’t come in with me.
Uh huh, good, I thought. Legs still there. I directed the nozzle at them and pressed the button. No spray, just a thin line of insecticide that splashed weakly along the wall and cabinet near the legs.
Legs vanish. Almost immediately the spider is above the cabinet and pressed in the corner where walls join ceiling. Some part of my mind uneasily registers the fact that he appeared above the cabinet in Olympic time--the Carl Lewis of spiderdom. I direct the thread of insecticide at him and immediately he’s over the mirror above the counter. I shoot again. He drops to the counter.
Ah hah! I gloat to myself. He’s groggy! Oops! Wrong! Both thoughts almost simultaneous. With no perceptible pause (and certainly no grogginess), he zips to the counter edge, plummets to the floor near my feet, and before my foot can even begin to react with a stamp he zooms to the heat vent in the corner and disappears therein. I bend and direct the stream of insecticide generously into the vent and hear the scrabbling of his legs on the metal duct as he speeds away. Then nothing.
I crouched there, breathing like a sprinter, the skin tight across my cheeks, my mind casting back over what I’d just seen. I was stunned, amazed at the speed he’d demonstrated, appalled by what gave every appearance of animal cunning, a malevolence that seemed almost human. He knew exactly where he was going from the moment he dropped to the counter and then to the floor, and he got there in a flash.
I flipped the lever on the vent, and the metal louvers snapped satisfyingly shut.
“Did you get him?” my wife asked from somewhere outside the door.
“Well . . . not exactly.”
“What does that mean, ‘not exactly?’ You either got him or you didn’t. Which is it? Which?” I could hear a rising panic in that last which, a kind of unreasoning anger at my spider incompetence.
“Uh,” I began, trying to be casual. “Uh . . . he went down the vent in the floor.”
Silence from the hall. A five second pause. “You didn’t get him,” she said flatly. Another pause. “Well, did he act like he was dying, or sick, or, or slow . . . when he went down the vent?”
“Noooo, I’d say he was going pretty fast when I last saw him, heard him.”
Silence again. I could imagine her out there thinking about what I’d just told her. And I, along with her, explored the possibilities. I followed in my mind the vent pipe as it went down from the bathroom floor and then bent to run along the basement ceiling toward the furnace, two other pipes right-angling off, one to the kitchen, one to the dining room, the furnace itself having a number of other main arteries running to other rooms. Our early fall weather hadn’t yet required the furnace, so heat wouldn’t impede him.
“Don’t you think you should--”
“Oh boy, yes!” I said, cutting her off. I left the bathroom and made a hurried trip through the house shutting all the vents, my wife right on my heels.
But the burning question: Had I shut them all before he’d exited somewhere? He was fast, oh my, was he ever fast. Nahh, I thought without much conviction. He has to be either dead, dying, or one very sick spider. Doesn’t he? Yeah, certainly, I said to myself, not at all certain.
The next day I went to the library to try to discover what sort of beast we had lurking in our heating system. I mean, one of the most important elements of warfare is to know the enemy. And this was, as far as I was concerned, war.
I learned: that most spiders are web spinners, or at least use their silk mainly to capture prey; that all spiders are venomous, but in the temperate zones not to a degree dangerous to man with the exception of the small brown violin spider and the black widow, and even these two cause death in less than 5% of the people bitten (Why did I find 5% not a very reassuring statistic?); that spiders are not insects at all but of the order Arachnida, another member of which is the scorpion (Why was I not reassured by the fact that I sprayed insecticide on a non-insect?); that there is a small group of spiders, the genus Lycosa (Greek for “wolf”), called hunters, which rely on speed to capture prey, the best known member of which is the tarantula (Why was I not reassured by the fact that a possible cousin of my foe was a tarantula?); that the picture of one such hunter, looking remarkably like our tenant, was called a Brazilian wolf spider.
At that point my mind froze with all the implications: Brazilian? Not a creature of temperate zones then, and therefore potentially hazardous to my and my wife’s health. How did he get here? On a banana boat? And nowhere in the literature did it ever say that hunters and wolf spiders live anywhere but outside in nature. So why did this one choose to live in a house, especially my house? And what if he’s not dead? And in only a short while the weather could change and the temperature drop, and we’ll have to turn on our furnace and open the vents . . . or freeze to death . . . or move.
And what if the insecticide not only didn’t kill him or make him sick, but only made him angry? And what if, as I was staring at him, he was staring at me and etching my features in his lupine mind? And what if a Brazilian wolf spider has the memory of an elephant?
And what if he’s not a he, but a she, and she’s going to have babies? Hundreds of babies. And she raises them all with a vengeance?
I have to learn more, find a bigger book, one that’s all about wolf spiders. Because every night now, all night long, I hear her howling in my dreams, howling in my heart, howling in my heat vents . . . and it’s nearing the end of October.