The first was a woman who spun thread so beautifully that nymphs would abandon the moss-covered mountains, algae-flooded teal oceans, and emerald rivers of Greece to watch her. She swelled with pride, even claiming that she could best the gods—and she had the chance to prove it.
In a competition against Athena, this mortal wove tapestries so magnificent that the images seemed to come alive. It stung and frightened Athena, so she tore up the tapestry, broke the woman’s loom to splinters, and cursed her to a life of despair. The last thing the woman wove was the rope with which she hung herself.
Remorseful, Athena returned the seamstress’s soul to existence as the mother of an entirely new species. Thus, the arachnid was born.
This particular arachnid is no more than four millimeters in diameter, including its legs. It moves across my classroom desk at five times its own length every second, the equivalent of a human runner completing a three-minute mile. Despite that speed, the spider retains a fluid crawl, like how a river’s current might run if it had legs.
As the baby spider scales my thin pile of papers, I lift the stack. The spider keeps crawling toward the edges, and I slowly turn the paper, leading the creature to the other side. As it reaches the opposite border, I turn the pages again.
Spiders and I have played games of this nature with each other for a long time, like the incident when I was cleaning my room. I was fourteen years old and I’d wrecked my living space, filling the corner nearest the door with a jungle of rubbish. I sat down to clear it, searching for items of value that were mixed in with the real trash as the pile continued its conquest of my room. There was plenty I wanted to keep: a poem I’d scrawled, a yin-yang pendant that had accidentally fallen into the mix, a toy spider.
Funny how I didn’t remember buying the spider, especially considering the spectacular design. Its chestnut-brown coat burst into coffee-brown feeler hairs, its body as big as my palm, its legs stretching as far as my fingers can.
As I reached out for it, the toy spider skittered toward my hand. I leapt to standing and out of the room in a single movement, slamming the door, my breath and stomach still shut in the room behind me. When my dad came to protect me from the gargantuan creature, it was already gone. In all these years where spiders and I played, it’s honestly hard to say who’s done more toying with whom.
As the spider I met in class spirals around the lifted stack of papers, I shift my hand to turn the pages vertical. The spider crawls to the top and treads carefully between the papers’ blade-thin edges. I tilt them back to horizontal and the spider finds an edge again. This time I let it move on. It starts levitating down—threading a rope so thin it’s invisible. I pinch in the air above the spider and move my hand to the side. I’ve succeeded in ensnaring the unseen. Where my hand moves, the spider tumbles acrobatically underneath.
After the experience with the giant spider in my room, my friends tried to calm me down: “It was probably just a tarantula. They don’t even bite humans. It’s the small spiders, like the brown recluse, that are really deadly. They have this little violin on their back….”
I was so disturbed by the idea that I tossed and turned, waking up at 5:00 a.m. the next morning with little hope of getting back to sleep. I took a bath instead—but as I tried to relax in the hot water, I looked to the white tile floor and saw a small brown spider. In that moment, with factoids on the recluse echoing in my mind, I was positive the black blur on this spider’s back was in the shape of a violin.
I jumped up in the tub.
Another brown spider rushed out from the cracks in the floorboard. I panicked and threw a towel on top of both spiders. Then, from underneath that towel, one of the spiders emerged. Then another. And another. And another. And—
I nearly broke the bathroom’s lock in my attempt escape the ambush. I rushed to the hall, cold air breezing against my wet skin, and stood there naked, terrified by the seemingly endless onslaught.
In class, I dangle the baby spider from its self-made rope. It’s playing dead at the end of its own noose, but after a few seconds of complete stillness, it begins moving down toward the desk. I move my hand up, pulling it farther from its goal. My mind traces the symmetry, the synchronization of the climb, and marvels at its ability to make the very paths it treads on.
The spider reaches the desk and dances seductively toward me. I really consider setting down my hand to let it crawl over my fingers, but decide instead to blow lightly over the desk. It’s not enough to push my new friend off course. Just enough to encourage it to change directions, to move with the wind. I give a few more light breaths, blowing it to a new course each time.
It’s strange. I spent years as a full-fledged arachnophobic. I remember skipping through channels and stumbling across a Discovery special on the arachnid. I was so petrified by the images that I couldn’t get my fingers to click the “channel up” button. I sat in the chair, eyes cemented to the screen, and the heart-throttling, eight-legged demon that possessed it.
For years, every image or video of a spider impaled me. I couldn’t help but watch. The deadliness, the stealthiness, the movement. The brilliance, the wonder, the fear. Then, after I found my eyes locked on spidered screens for no other reason than the haunting beauty, it became clear that my obsession with Arachne’s progeny had been blown to a new course. Now the presence of this familiar being feels tranquil. I am entranced, watching its tiny, fragile legs propel it around my desk with immaculate grace and precision. It’s so beautiful and, here, entirely helpless.
The spider reaches the edge of the desk. It hovers out in a horizontal line, moving along an unseen path toward the empty desk next to mine. Halfway between the two, it begins a descent toward my legs, my backpack. I hold still and watch.
Then, somewhere between my blinks, it vanishes. I look down to see if maybe it’s fallen. I look around to see if it changed position. But, no. It’s just gone.
I hope it stays safe.
As the now-invisible spider returns to whatever secret kingdom it came from, my mind can’t help but linger—on the creature and everything it represents. The chilling waltz of its legs moving across any surface, as if it were gliding weightlessly over an ocean frozen as still as glass; the poison that waits in its impossibly small frame, hiding behind a complete lack of malice; its seamless complexity and surprising fragility; and—perhaps fittingly—its intricate webs: I am ensnared.
I feel the same sensation as when lips part after a first kiss, in the breathless moments at the end of a roller coaster, or in the rush of cold water against my skin as I dive from twelve feet above. I could never have seen this so clearly if my eyes hadn’t been petrified to gazing. I could never have loved this so much if it hadn’t terrified me first.
This piece was written in Fall of 2011. It was published in Touchstones in Spring of 2012.
A special thanks to Prof Julie Nichols, who gave me the prompt that inspired the piece, and Heather Duncan, who helped me make all the most crucial and productive edits on this piece.