Eating my curds and whey

BY COLIN GILBERT | JULY 29, 2009 7:07 AM

I have a terrible phobia of spiders, crippling, a sort of instinctual dread deep enough to outplumb rationalization. In the winter, they go back to the attics and basements, or underground, or back to that special corner of hell that spawned them, but currently, they are in prime hunting season. It seems as if they’re everywhere, webs in every eave and funnels in every chink of brick — the funnel spiders are among my most hated, lurking in their shadowed whorls with perhaps only a few spindly legs latticing out, lying in wait for a hapless gnat to alight.

I’ve tried for years to pinpoint what triggers my girlish yelps and skitters (and look, it’s only a bit of lint anyway, blown across the floor by the air vents). I think what it comes down to is two things: one, the way they move, from the tarantula measuredly clawing its way along the desert sands to the fatal grasp of the smaller beasties — you’ve seen them, enormous pale bodies with a sinister grove of eyes aglitter above their mandibles, a fly clutched almost lovingly in their arms. Spiders’ movements are also deceptively swift and exact — that tarantula can work up some speed if it needs or just decides. This is probably what allows me to be near a daddy longlegs without flipping out — they move nothing like other arachnids.

Two, their arrogance. I used to live in Denver with my parents, and my bedroom was in the basement. It was great, in summer it was cooler than the rest of the house, in winter warmer, and it was made of ancient, powdery brick. Funnel spiders lived in the corners of the small window near my ceiling, which opened onto the side-yard walkway; I was not OK with this, but decided, in the end, that spiders shouldn’t be feared. After all I lived in a basement, it was time to get over it. Funnel spiders stay relatively stationary, and while they’re creepy as hell, I was resolved to live and let creep. I even named them, Emperor and Empress of the Funnel Spiders (“he” was named Frank, “she” Francesca), in an effort to lighten our relationship. Then more of them moved in. The empire grew. Finally, I woke up one night and on the pillow next to me, watching me sleep and perhaps gauging lines of attack, one of their foot soldiers crouched. This was a breach of the tender treaty I’d been trying to build and so declared war on the Funnel Spider Empire.

I approached Frank and Francesca’s palace in my window frame with a poised can of Raid. I squeezed the trigger, they panicked and took twin flying leaps from the hearts of their webs, and I smiled to myself; however, Emperor Frank must have had time before his death-twitch to yell out, “Charge!” to his grounded minions, for a moment later, the full strength of his army emerged seething from the walls. I’m talking a hundred or more, from every corner and crack, from the ceiling fixture, the light-switch plate, my bed. I opened up my firepower, turning in crazed circles and positively drenching my room and everything in it with the sweet toxic stuff. Soon I was standing shell-shocked in the center of my room, wildly scanning the slain for survivors, breath catching, skin crawling. The War of the Funnel Spiders proved to me definitively that the wicked things cannot be permitted settlement of human space.

Then there’s simple psychology coming into play. When I was young, my family moved to one of the Indonesian islands for my father’s work; among the many, many odd and amazing things about Irian Jaya’s highlands are the demonic creatures known to the locals as “colony spiders.” Imagine a rain forest dense with flora, vines, giant ferns. Imagine 20 cubic feet of jungle entirely draped with inelegant silk clouds spun by about a thousand spiders, all living and killing together in one horrible family. I had to pass them every day going to school; once, I saw a dozen of them feasting on a lizard like a pack of hyenas on carrion, clustered and manic.

Post Arachnid Stress has carried with me, unfortunately. Maybe one day I’ll move past it. (… right). But until that magical day when a spider doesn’t induce its own death by making the mistake of being in my line of sight, we are sworn enemies. What I think justifies my crusade — what makes it noble, even — is that the spiders have certainly made the same oath of me.

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