The Black Widow

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Black Widow Spider – photo by @SXC

A recurring theme of my youth has to do with spiders – black widows in particular. I had grown up on Charlotte’s Web, but real spiders were less friendly and not so sesquipedalian by nature. Living in the western mountains as we sometimes did, we ran into our fair share of tarantulas. My dad and sister would happily pick those up and show them off, and though they were kind of creepy, they were more animal than spider and therefore not terrifying. We always had daddy-long-legs scaling the walls of the bus, inside and out, and those small bodied, long legged guys that were similar to daddy-long-legs but somehow less friendly, and who would repel themselves down from the ceiling, usually right in the middle of a room and often right in front of my face. Wolf spiders were also fairly common when we lived in wooded areas, and those I did not care for; they’re fast and they hide inside things and they bite. But no other arachnid came close in my mind to the predatory and villainous black widow.

We lived in a campground in the mountains above Ojai, California, the year my little sister was born. My dad negotiated a long-term camping spot in exchange for nighttime caretaker duties, such as checking in late arrivals and shushing overly loud camps. It was a family friendly place and for a while, we were the resident family. My siblings and I spent our days playing with our Star Wars figures outside or riding our bikes around the campground. When it was warm enough we would swim in the large swimming hole in the river or go exploring. And at dusk or just after, we would accompany my father on his evening rounds of the campground. We would walk the circle road with my dad and it seemed to take forever. So he would tell us stories. Sometimes he would frame these stories as real things that actually happened (they didn’t), but just as often, he would frame them as advice.

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View from the swimming hole, Wheeler Gorge campground, circa 1981. Photo by J and M George

One autumn night, Dad was explaining to my older sister and me about various dangers in the wild. “Always be wary of the black widow spider,” he said. “Do you know why?”

“Because they can kill a grown man,” my sister said. I held onto my dad’s right hand and Jessie held onto his left.

“That’s right,” my dad said. “But do you know how?” We were silent, perhaps even pensive. Jessie and I were both pretty sure we knew how, but my dad seemed to be asking about something pretty specific and neither of us wanted to announce our ignorance on the subject, so we said nothing. It was important, especially at age 7, to appear knowledgeable. And something about the tone of my dad’s voice made me nervous and a little bit afraid.

“Well,” my father continued, “they’re very strong and very sneaky. So, they trick people into thinking they need help, and when someone reaches down to help her, she grabs them by the hand and swings them around her head like this!”

“Oh, Daddy,” Jessie said between giggles, as we watched him pretend to swing a great big man around his head.

Dad was goofing like dads do, but I still had the willies. I remembered the first and only time I had seen a black widow in the wild. It was when we first got the bus and it was parked in an empty lot down the block from our house in Brea. The weeds had grown tall all around the bus and some of us wouldn’t have been blamed for wondering if they might swallow it whole by the time my dad got around to fixing it up. Jessie and I went to “check on dad” one day as he worked on the engine. Jessie was five. I was four. We found him sitting in the driver’s seat, holding a mason jar in his hand.

“Hey,” he said. “Look at this, but be careful not to drop it.”

Jessie and I pulled in close to see what dad had. It was a spider with a web and some small white balls of tuft.

“It’s a black widow,” he said. “Do you know why they call them that? They sometimes eat their mates. Here, look at the red mark on her underside, kind of like an hourglass, right? That’s how you can tell it’s a black widow. Be careful around them. They’re really poisonous.”

He put the jar under the driver’s seat and walked us home, answering our questions as we went.

The next day when we went back the white balls of tuft were gone and in their place were hundreds of tiny, reddish-beige specks of movement. Babies. The jar was teeming with them. If you’d asked me before that day what “the willies” were, I might have shrugged and said it’s kind of a creepy feeling or something along those lines. In other words, I wouldn’t have really known because I was four and kind of sheltered in a happy hippie sort of way. But after that day? After the day of the black widow and her hundreds of babies swarming a jar inside what was meant to be my home? I’d trace my ability to articulate “the willies” to approximately that hour.

We went back again the next day and they were gone. Mind you, the jar was still there, but the spiders were no longer housed within it. Baby spiders disperse after they’re born. I remembered that from Charlotte’s Web. But what of the mother? What of the mysterious and deadly black widow herself? I remembered what happened to Charlotte, but I couldn’t envision the same fate befalling the slick spider I’d seen the day before.

That’s what I was thinking about, two and a half years later as we walked the circle road of the campground, listening to my dad joke about the black widow and her mighty strength. I worried that the spider from the mason jar was living within the walls of my beloved bus, that we all lay vulnerable to her treachery as we slept at night. It wasn’t a constant fear, but it was strong enough. And as we walked through the gloaming light toward home, my dad’s chores done, I still felt unsettled. I was silly, I recognized that, but it couldn’t be helped. Black widows were the stuff of myth to me and that they were also real was a sobering thought.

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