A Justifiable Unjustified Fear of Spiders

first published in Thirteen Ways Magazine, Issue 1


“Covert incest refers to a form of emotional abuse in which the relationship between a parent and a child is inappropriately sexualized without actual sexual contact.” (Wikipedia)*

 * Wikipedia is not considered a reliable source for scholarly articles. 

For as long as I can remember, I have been afraid of spiders. Tricky things, they seem to be made not of legs, but hands.  My fear is not based on a possible bite — a spider has bitten me only once that I can remember. I was five, and there was an old wooden boat in our backyard.  My family and I lived in a rented house at the top of a hill, part of the payment my mother received for nannying the nine children that lived in the big house at the bottom of the hill while she was in grad school.  This was the house Mom and Pat moved into together, the year my father moved to Alaska, and it was yellow.  The boat belonged to the family in the big house, but was situated closer to ours, so we could play on it, too. 

It was shaped like a tugboat, made out of wood with a small cabin you could go in and out of, and had a steering wheel that turned.  There were knobs and dials that didn’t work, so it was the steering wheel my brother and I fought over.  He was older, so he won most of the time.  The wood of the boat was splintery, dull brown, with no paint on the deck, but perhaps blue and red remnants on the sides.   The sides of the boat rose bowl-like to my waist and on the top rail there once was a yellow-brown striped spider, the size of a quarter. I don’t know how it came to bite me, but I remember that it did, and I can clearly remember the red raised pinhead with white pus beneath. But that was the only time a spider actually bit me that I am aware of. 

I’m not  afraid of wasps, though I have been stung several times.  Once, I ate an apple, high above the ground in a maple tree.  A wasp found me, and all I could do was stay as still as I could, holding my breath, feeling my pulse so fast and hard it seemed I could hear it.   The wasp landed on the knuckle of my index finger, and still I didn’t move. It’s proboscis sipped apple juice off my skin.  Slowly I opened my fingers, and the apple dropped to the ground, the wasp following it.  

The fear of spiders had to do with their ability to jump, and the feel of their hand-like feet scurrying down my legs, back, or arms.  Small fluttering finger-legs running across my skin.  The possibility of a spider caught in my hair.  The idea that at night they could descend into my half-open slumbering mouth and I could swallow them and not even know it.  

A spider in a corner cannot be trusted. It can descend at any moment, leap through the air and land on my knee, scurry up my thigh and I just know if I try to shoo it off it will run around behind me where I can’t see it and the only way to get it off would be to strip down and jump in the shower.  But what if there isn’t a shower nearby? Once it was on me, its wiliness would make it impossible to catch, its finger-hand-feet running up and down my skin. It could end up anywhere, in any crevice. 

My family went nude camping in the woods, so this was a legitimate fear.  I often had no waistbands or elastic leg openings to protect me from a spider that chose to jump on me and run up my leg. I do not remember this ever happening, I had no justification for this feeling of creepiness, no history.  Of course Mom and Pat and even Dad in Alaska all told me that I was being foolish.  That did not make this skin-crawling feeling, this hot and cold flash of fear abate.   I knew the look of a spider. I knew what it wanted. Lack of evidence had no bearing on the certainty of predation. Finger-legs I could not stop from running up and down my young flesh and into my crevices, particularly the one in front, the one I thought of as my pussy willow.  Spiders were not relegated to the woods. They lived in our house on Cooper Road and my father’s house in Alaska.

When we visited our father, my brother and I stayed alone in a cabin without electricity, my father and his wife in another cabin twenty feet south.  My half-sister and stepsisters slept in yet another cabin equidistant to the north. I was six, my brother seven. The cabins and woods were filled with daddy long legs, not even true spiders, my father told me with his hard cold stare that said not to be ridiculous. My father would take off his shirt and pants on summer days and walk around camp in only bikini underwear and boots. On his back was a mole with long hairs that looked like a daddy long legs embedded in his flesh.  Words running over my skin like spider feet.  Eyes skimming my body like fingers. We slept alone, no lights, no lock on the door, who knows how many daddy long legs and regular spiders lurking under our old metal camp beds.  At least during the day I had a chance to see them coming and run.  During the day my older sister would guard me, but I knew my brother was as much prey as I was and was useless in the dark.

When I got married, my first husband was big and strong and tough.  He was a biker, a hockey player, a person who lifted heavy objects for fun.  He wasn’t afraid of spiders.  He would tear off their heads and shit down their throats on my behalf.  We lived in a 1950s tract home at the edge of the ghetto. Once I put on my jeans, fresh from the closet shelf, black jeans, size five, I was twenty years old, and something soft ran down my leg.  I thought it was dog hair, but no, it was a millipede —a million-pede— four inches long and a zillion legs and it had been on my flesh and I didn’t know if there were more and I didn’t even know that it wasn’t just spiders but other bugs that could startle me and crawl their tiny feet-hands all over my body.  I screamed and stripped and jumped in the shower even though it made me late for work.  And my husband laughed, of course, because he wasn’t scared of anything at all, and wasn’t I just ridiculous?  It was my tortoiseshell cat, Persephone, that hunted the big scary bugs in the house and ate them and kept me safe.  This small ten-pound creature of mottled yellow gray and brown with an odd colored nose was the only one on my side. 

My second husband was afraid of insects.  He would not kill bugs for me, neither would he call the pizza place when the order was wrong.   Neither of us ventured into the basement where the wolf spiders lived. 

When I got divorced again, my children and I moved into a house that was nearly one hundred years old, with hardwood floors and built-in cabinets, and about a million spiders.  I could not be afraid anymore. There was no one to protect me, and my ex-husband had kept the cat. So when my children and I moved into the old blue house that I loved so much, I knew it was up to me to make peace with the spiders.

I made a deal with them. Any spider smaller than a nickel would be allowed to stay, and I would agree not to be afraid.  A spider the size of a nickel but smaller than a quarter that lived inside the house would be relocated to the outside, and I would let them live. Anything the size of a quarter or larger would have to be killed in any way possible.  Only three times in five years did I have to eradicate a spider from my bedroom ceiling.  Each time, my heart slamming into my ribs, my skin burned hot and cold tingling as I raised a shoe and killed it, terrified it would leap at the last minute, land on my arm and scurry under my clothes.  But each time, I was my own heroine, a formidable foe, a victorious conqueror.  Each time, after my heart quieted, I remained standing.


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