The red-phase eft, in its land-based incarnation, dangled by its forelegs in a small, messy cobweb off a low porch step in the Adirondack woods. The spider, diminutive compared to its recent catch, moved purposefully over the body of the red eft apparently trying to inject it with enough toxin to stun. An anthropomorphic fantasy so common to humans takes hold. We assume how the spider felt—slavering, gloating. To think that the red-phase eft in such a position would, like me, be terrified.
I have a phobia regarding spiders exponential to their size and utterly disregarding my own in comparison. A flaw exists in critical thinking here.
It is in my nature to interfere.
The colorful charm of the red eft is as beguiling as the creepy, death-dealing horror of the arachnid is not. Red efts are a sign of spring renewal. They appear around the house in April or May with the first warm rains. They stand out against the forest duff and madder with their salmon skin and darker spots of dotted red-orange. From a non-biologist’s point of view, the eft has a delightful face—serene, benevolent, even sweet. Its three-toed mitts are a tiny marvel of efficiency and clever design. I have picked up many from a rain-washed road or driveway and moved them out of the path of motorized danger and into the high weeds or ferns, always in the direction they were apparently headed.
This is no longer a world where anyone is safe. We all know that. We humans take it that we have a divine directive to preserve those less fortunate than we, those less wise and thoughtful, less mindful. It is important in this world to interfere on the behalf of the weak and needy.
And here was a red eft in distress, like the poor transmogrified human in the old horror film, “The Fly” – it all but cried “Help me! Help me!” in the spider’s web.
I regularly interfere in the affairs of Nature.
I have a history of such behavior related particularly to spiders. An old fan of Disney movies since childhood, I experience empathy with some animals; they inspire a clear delineation between good and evil forces. This certainly started with childhood solitude abetted by a complicated emotional strain in my home and my heightened imagination. Spiders were emblematic of what I felt was evil. E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web was as intelligent and reasonable a spider as one could choose to meet. Shelob, of Tolkien’s Ring trilogy, became the nickname for every fat-bodied barn spider spotted around the house. Clearly Shelob of the vast caverns of Mordor was the queen of the cave dwelling araneus cavaticus, with a fine taste for orcs and hobbits, not moths and flies.
The garden spiders—argiope—colorful in their monogrammed web in the asparagus patch were a primary example in fascination and horror. My father showed me how they can wrap a cricket or a grasshopper in silk and stun it with a bite, later draining it, still alive, of all its bodily fluids. I am now middle-aged and I still have trouble looking at spiders as a natural and benign addition to life in the woods. They are presently an object more of curiosity than fear, as long as I see them first and they are holding still somewhere off the premises of my physical person. But the power they hold on my imagination is still binding and horrifying. Messy cobweb weaver, elegant orb web weaver—it makes little difference. Or does it?
Recently, two encounters with large orb weavers affected me deeply. In this case the spiders interfered somewhat benevolently.
On the night of July seventeenth around ten o’clock p.m. the phone rang. I was asleep. My husband heard the phone ring once, then stop, then again, then stop. That late at night, he presumed, could mean trouble. He woke me up with the phone in his hand and said there were two messages: one from my sister, Sarah, in Portland, Maine and one from my niece in Wilmington, North Carolina. I called my sister first. There was indeed trouble. My brother, Adam, had shot himself.
“Is he dead?” I asked.
“Yes,” she answered.
The news stunned me into a bizarre reverie. I had just talked to him a few days earlier on his birthday. He seemed subdued, but fine. He and I ended our conversation with the usual, “Love you.” That was it, but it was, of course, not it. Images of our past: childhood teasing, teen cajoling and helpful support in a house troubled by alcoholism and unspoken secrets, weddings (his two and my one), long phone calls in the midst of his divorce and move to the south from Ohio. All of this and more would come flooding back in time. He was a great story-teller; and the spiders of his life as a gas well tender in West Virginia were black widows. There were lots of black widows in the well heads, he said. There was always danger in the gas fields of West Virginia. He loved to tell me about it. When conversation drifted towards our childhood, our family, our parents, the territory became more and more treacherous. I learned to navigate that web carefully. His childhood, it seemed, was even more troubled than mine.
After hanging up the phone with my sister, I returned the call to my brother’s daughter. She was sitting outside of her parents’ house in North Carolina, where they had moved not a year before. There were police cars and flashing lights all around, she said. The house and grounds were strung with neon police tape. My niece, married with a family and home of her own, was not there when it happened. My twenty-five-year old nephew and his mother found him lying in the Jacuzzi, fully dressed with his glasses still on, and the predictable charnel house effects from the gunshot. The gun, a .38, had belonged to my father. My mother had given it to my brother when she moved the last time. Sometimes the facts, strung together, are messier and more binding than a cobweb.
As the particulars began to sink in and the frightening reality took over from my sleepiness and confusion, I finished my conversation with my sobbing niece and got up out of bed. I walked out through the kitchen and onto the back deck where there is a clothesline. I wanted to see a spider spin its web.
That particular day or the day before, I had hung out the laundry to dry on the line and saw that, in order to do so, I would have to disturb a particularly large orb web which was strung between the pulley ropes of the clothesline and the ground below. I knew the spider, an araneus, like Charlotte, like Shelob, would have to come out at night to repair the damage. During the day she would hide in her homemade cave somewhere, probably above me and the clothesline, under the eaves of the house. When I walked outside that night with my flashlight, I was searching for her, hoping to see her rebuilding the web.
It took a while for me to spot her. The gleam of the flashlight caught the shimmer of her strands. I shone the light along the various guy wires she had strung between siding, clothesline and ground. When I finally caught sight of her, she was on her way back up from the grass. She was an average sized barn spider, about an inch of body diameter, pale as a cave-bound hermit who avoids the daylight. She had yet to finish the outer framework and start on the spirals within. I watched for quite a while, likely in shock, but finding the process of her web weaving soothing in an odd way.
Leaving the spider to her life, I went back into the house, anxious and pacing, not knowing what to do with the information I had received on the phone. My husband was nervously hovering nearby. That night I visited the spider one more time, comforted to some extent by the orderliness and naturalness of her progress in a world gone suddenly mad for me and those I love.
Some time later, family and friends gathered at the house in North Carolina. We sat on the porch of the Charleston-style house where my sister-in-law and nephew lived and where my brother had died. We had, as he had wanted, a party, not a funeral—champagne, low country shrimp and grits, biscuits and ham and fruit salad. Music was soft on the radio; the air was all I remember about the South—warm, moist, enveloping. We were sitting in the ubiquitous rocking chairs, wrapped in the communal sadness of loss and joy of being together talking to each other, to the dark, damp night and long-leaf pines.
Someone said, “Did you see the big spider?”
“Where?” I asked, both alarmed and curious.
There around the corner of the wraparound porch, way up in the edges near the high roof, was the largest argiope I had ever seen—the garden spider of our Ohio youth—hanging placidly in the center of its large handsome orb web, the creature aglow in the flashlight beam with its yellow streaks and the dense zig-zag of white webbing through the center of the orb. Here again was a model of order by an appallingly deadly creature to those smaller than itself—the errant moth, the fly, the skeeter.
I could stretch a long metaphor as easily and deftly as a spider spins a web. I refuse to. There is no connection between a spider web and my brother’s brain—addled by age, pain, alcohol, depression and a long unspoken, unspecified rage. The connection I weave is between my own brain and the mandatory order of the natural world which has saved many a writer, confused others and annihilated some.
The red eft seemed inert in the web off the side of the house. I wondered if in fact the spider had been successful in injecting that soft salmon-y skin with its venom. But on closer viewing the eft was alive. Its forelegs were pinned behind its back in a manner suggesting a victim of Savanarola’s fourteenth century Florentine dungeons and the dreaded torture called “strapado.” The victim, wrist bound, hands behind, would be hoisted up by his bindings to the ceiling and repeatedly dropped until shoulders were broken, dislocated and useless. Savanarola considered his victims vermin, those who cluttered his dream of a tidy, moral Florence, a New Jerusalem. The Pope did not approve of his methods. Savonarola and his primary followers were discredited and publicly burned at the stake.
I destroyed the cobweb weaver and its disreputable nest with my boot and a swift flick of the broom. The rescued red-phase eft, forelimbs gently prized apart and picked clean from its hideous bondage, moved its arms with a sort of a stretch and bend, as if testing them upon release from its precarious dangle, regrouping the tiny musculature, reordering the nerves and tissues. My destruction of the cobweb weaver was as senseless as my brother’s death and yet, in the end, perhaps his own death, sparing his wife and son, bespoke a sort of wretched beneficence. Released in the garden to whatever fate, the newt crawled off.
Mary Sanders Shartle is one of three poets, with Elaine Handley and Marilyn McCabe, who have three times won the Adirondack Center for Writing Best Book of Poetry Award. Their full length collection, Tear of the Clouds, was released in 2011 from Ra Press. Her novel, The Hermit: The Truth and Legend of Lily Martindale, will be out in spring 2014 from SUNY Press.