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By River Stillwood
It’s been a good week in the country. More rain fell. Hillsides that were browning are greening up again and showing the first autumn colors. Goldenrod is blooming bright yellow. Dogwoods and sassafras are turning russet and orange. Sumac, a deep scarlet. Oak tops are taking on a reddish cast. The ground around them is thick with acorns. Black walnut trees are mostly bare of leaves but still covered with nuts dangling like Christmas ornaments. It looks like harvesters will have a bumper crop this year.
Temperatures have cooled considerably since that heat wave in mid-August scorched the Ozarks. When I went outside Monday morning, it was 38-degrees. Later, on the news, a weather reporter said folks in some areas had awakened to frost. Tuesday, a friend wanted to bet a dollar that we would have snow by Halloween, but I declined the bet. I think she’s right.
While I love this mild weather, relish the clear skies and cool evening and am in no hurry for snow, I do hope the cold weather arrives soon. It’s the spiders, you see. Most spiders disappear as soon as cold weather arrives, and I’ve had my fill of spiders for one year. Truly!
I used to be terrified of spiders. If I saw one, I’d freeze so completely that I’d stop breathing and almost faint. I’d have to force myself to get close enough to kill them. Every spider, to me then, was a dead spider. It was just a matter of time.
When I was sixteen, a friend tried to help me get over my arachnophobia. She bought me a book about them. Understanding, we both believed, was the key to safety. And safety was the key to curing fear.
I owned that book for at least ten years but was never able to open it. It had a giant photograph of a tarantula on the cover.
When I moved to the homestead where spiders were plentiful, I knew I would either have to live in terror eight months of the year or get over my fear. So, I tried to get over my fear. Whenever I saw a spider, I’d calm myself and watch it. See what it did.
There was a wonderful, enormous garden spider who lived on a magnificent web in the chicken coop. He or she was bright yellow and created this amazing Z pattern with its silk. I watched it for several weeks until a falling twig destroyed the web and the spider disappeared.
There was a family of bulbous spiders who lived in one of the rabbit hutches. They gave me the creeps! Everyday their webs had little sacks attached to the outer edges. I thought they were egg sacks. Then one day, I saw one of the spiders wrapping a fly that had been snagged by the web. The sacks were filled with paralyzed creatures. I had nightmares about that for weeks.
Eventually, though, I grew so comfortable with spiders that my heart no longer fluttered when I saw one. Adrenalin no longer flooded my nervous system. My hands stopped shaking. I could breathe.
I grew so comfortable with them that when I moved into this house, I stopped killing them and began trapping them with glass jars and then releasing them outside. There was nothing to it. Spiders, it turned out, were not the gigantic monsters I had once feared. Instead, they were just little knobby eight-legged creatures that wanted to grow up, have young, and provide for them before they perished. Just like every other critter on the planet.
Then last Thursday happened.
Last Thursday started like any other day. I awoke, let the dogs out, made coffee and sat down in front of the computer to check email and read the news. The email inbox was empty. Not much was happening in the news. I sipped my coffee, glanced up. That’s when I saw the spider. The very big spider. Right above me. On the ceiling.
“It’s just a wolf spider,” I said to myself, remembering that wolf spiders are non-venomous, passive creatures. “He’s just going about his business…”
I looked back at the computer, tried to focus on the latest political harangue, the direction of the financial markets, the latest goings on in Hollywood. Before I could take in a sentence, though, my eyes shot back to the ceiling. Adrenalin began seeping into my veins. My heart fluttered. The spider was still there, stretching out his long foreleg and tapping it like a stick to test the surface. He took one step. Then another.
“He’s moving away,” I thought. I looked back at the computer. Then back at the spider. Then back at the computer. Then back at the spider. Finally, I just stopped and watched him.
He was a good looking spider, as spiders go. He had the characteristic brown and black striping, a healthy body weight. He was definitely an adult. Big. Very long legs. But, he was tentative. His movements were achingly slow. He took one step. Then he extended the feeler. One step. Then extended the feeler. He was making progress, though. After a few minutes, he was no longer directly above me, but off to the right a bit.
I looked at my coffee cup. It was empty. Without even realizing it, I’d drank the entire cup. I picked it up and glanced at the spider. He was extending his feeler again, this time, off to his right. I got up, skirted the space directly beneath him, and went to the kitchen for more coffee.
The entire time, I coached myself. “It’s just a harmless spider… It’s just doing what it needs to do… It’s not interested in you… It won’t hurt you… It’s just a harmless spider…” Over and over until my heart rate returned to normal. Then, hoping it had disappeared, I went back into the living room.
The spider was still there, on the ceiling, only he had turned around and was almost directly above the chair again. I looked at him. Looked at the chair.
“Come on, River,” I said. “It’s not going to hurt you.” Using about as much force on myself as I used to have to muster before killing a spider, I sat down in the chair. I glanced at the computer, then at the spider. Then at the computer. Then at the spider. I thought, “This is crazy! The spider is not going to hurt me!” I made a deal with myself. I’d look one more time at the spider, then I would focus on the computer for at least one minute before I looked again. “That way,” I thought, “I’ll get engaged with something online and forget about the spider”
I looked at the clock, then at the spider. It was now directly overhead. “Okay, Mr. Spider,” I said aloud, “you’re on your ow–!”
At that very instant, the spider launched off the ceiling!
With the full force of unfathomable terror and exploding adrenalin, I screamed, threw the coffee cup, shoved the chair backwards, hit the window sill, almost went through the window, flung myself forward, saw the spider hit my leg, swatted it to Kingdom Come, lost my seat on the chair, fell on the floor, and was still screaming as all four dogs plus the one visiting dove off the bed and sofa, and in a riot of yips and barks, leapt on top of me!
I was hysterical.
For five minutes.
I wish I could say that there is a good lesson in all of this. That it happened for a reason. But frankly, I don’t know why it happened or what I’ve learned from it. Except that one should never try to calmly sit directly beneath a tentative spider. And that cold weather cannot arrive fast enough for me.