Isabel and the Spider

          Isabel was sitting on the toilet when she first noticed the spider. The spider sat delicately in the corner of its web, which was near the floor between the door frame and the edge of the adjacent wall. It was small, like a pinhead, and it was dull black. It didn’t have extraordinarily long legs, like some spiders did. This spider was round, almost plump, and its legs seemed appropriate for its body. Isabel wondered if it was a male or a female. It’s a female, she supposed. A girl. No, a woman. Isn’t it usually women who make the webs and males who do the prowling? Isabel blew gently to see if the spider would stir. It didn’t. Disappointed, she stood up and flushed the toilet. She glanced at the spider while she washed her hands. Her finger stung where she had pulled a hangnail. She examined her cuticles and pulled another, causing a thick drop of blood to slowly pool and fall into the sink. Isabel didn’t turn on the tap to wash it away.

          The next day, as she swept her apartment, Isabel saw signs of other spiders: a web between the fridge and the kitchen wall, another living in a crack in the baseboards in the living room, and a third (actually, it would be a fourth) beside the washing machine hose above a floor drain. The last one seemed especially clever to Isabel. She was careful not to disturb their webs with her broom. It was better to have a spider problem than a gnat problem, she decided.

          When Isabel met her boyfriend for lunch, she brought up the spiders.

          “How many are there?” He seemed surprised and disgusted. There were six. Isabel had found two more that morning when she laid down on her exercise mat in her bedroom to work out.

          “Just the four,” she lied. She did not like how his eyebrows raised in disbelief and judgement. Her was judging her for cohabitating with the spiders, judging them to be creepy and disgusting. Judging her to be creepy and disgusting.

          “I think you have an infestation,” he said.

          She didn’t want to argue with him. What number constituted an infestation, anyways? More than one? Two? Two in the same room? Isabel didn’t invite him home. She didn’t want him poking around and ruining the webs of those hard-working spiders. He would probably keep imagining that spiders were crawling all over things that they were not, and he would probably complain. Then, if he saw one, he would probably smash it.

          Isabel drew a bath that night. Her period had started that day, and the bath water was a rosy pink. She rested her head to the side so that she could watch the spider. The spider was very busy repairing and strengthening her web. Lacewings crawled around the lightbulbs above the mirror, occasionally staying too long on the burning globes and falling into the sink. Isabel wondered how the spider could catch the lacewings if they liked light and her web was in a dark corner. Isabel’s bathwater had gone tepid, so she stood up and reached for her towel that hung on the hook beside the tub. She wrapped herself in it, and stood in front of the mirror watching the lacewings. She pinned one by its wings, holding it carefully between her thumb and index finger. It was easy to catch, stupefied by a triple shot of light, heat, and the possibility of insect sex. Isabel squatted down in front of the spider and released the lacewing into her web. It didn’t struggle. As Isabel stood, a trail of watery blood ran down her leg and into a growing puddle on the floor.

          The next morning, when Isabel rinsed her face and brushed her teeth, she checked to see if the spider had eaten the lacewing. She recalled having read once that lacewings are bitter and pungent, and many creatures avoid eating them. One wing was in the web, and the other had fallen to the floor. Isabel couldn’t see the spider.

          “Did you take care of those spiders?” Isabel’s boyfriend asked that night at dinner.

          “In a manner of speaking.”

          “I can take care of them for you, if you want.”

          “I’m taking care of them just fine.”

          Her boyfriend looked at her, a slight shake to his head. This was how they argued. “What happens if they make babies? What will you do then?” he asked.

          Once, when Isabel was young, her mother found a big spider in the kitchen. Its back was covered in hundreds of babies. Stepping on it was not an option, because its babies would run all over the house and make more giant spiders that carried even more babies on their backs. Her mother got an empty pickle jar and quickly turned it mouth-side down on top of the spider. Then she slid a piece of paper under the jar and carried it to the sink. She filled the jar to the very top with water and twisted on the lid. The babies had jumped off the mother’s back as soon as water began to fill the jar. It looked like a snowglobe, the translucent babies floating with their legs outstretched, slowly sinking.

          “I don’t think,” Isabel said, “they are that kind of spider.”

          “What kind of spider? A reproducing kind?” 

          “I just don’t think they will cause problems like that.”

          Alone in her apartment, Isabel squatted and peered closely at the spider. Her abdomen had definitely grown. She moved slowly, as if it took a great deal of effort to heave herself up her web. Every movement was tentative, her legs reaching and searching for the safest hold. The spider looked weak, low on energy after growing all those eggs inside of her. Isabel stood up and walked around the apartment, checking the corners for bugs. She looked in the windows for flies and went to the fruit bowl to see if she could lure some gnats to the spider’s web. There was nothing. The apartment was clean and the bananas were fresh. She went back to the bathroom and squatted again. The spider had retreated to the shadow formed by the lip of the door frame. Isabel thought she might be napping, since pregnant mothers do that. Then the spider readjusted her footing.

          Isabel went to the medicine cabinet and picked up a pin that she used for popping blisters. She rolled the pin between her fingers and fingered the bright red plastic head. The palm of her hand would be the best place to prick herself, she decided. She knelt next to the web, and holding her right hand palm up, pricked the pin into the ridge of her palm. A fat drop of blood blossomed. Before it could run streams into the creases of her hand, Isabel gently touched the drop with a finger and transferred it to a strand of the spider’s web. The spider moved quickly at the tingling of its web. It ran along the filagree until it reached the blood. Isabel watched as the spider reached the drop. Isabel was satisfied.

          When Isabel’s phone rang the next day she didn’t answer. It rang six times. There was a pause, then it rang five more times. Silence. It was likely her boyfriend calling to see if she wanted to go to the cinema. Voices on the street floated up in a muffled jumble. Isabel wondered if the spider needed to eat again. How often do pregnant spiders eat? Pregnant humans need to eat every couple of hours, but she supposed that spiders weren’t so demanding. Isabel knelt to inspect the spider. It seemed to have gotten even larger, its egg-filled abdomen even heavier. It was hard to be certain, though. How could it have grown so much overnight? Isabel stood to retrieve the pin and looked at herself in the mirror on the door of the medicine cabinet. Her face was flushed and looked healthy; her cheeks full and her skin clear.

          Just as she pulled open the door to reach for the pin, she heard three sharp knocks on the door of her apartment. She startled and looked over her shoulder, then walked to the front door. Her feet were thin and elegant and did not betray her presence. She bent a little, to look through the peephole. Her boyfriend stood erect in the hall, and he knocked again. She opened the door.

          “I didn’t expect you,” she said.

          “Yes, well, I called and you didn’t answer so I thought someone should check to make sure that you weren’t eaten by spiders.” He smiled like he expected her to smile, too. “Can I come in?” he asked. 

          She didn't move to open the door fully.

          He stood awkwardly, with that stupid expectant smile still fixed on his face. It was as if he had decided to play the role of a concerned friend without being quite sure how to do it.

          “Actually, there are some things I need to take care of around here,” she said.

          “I can help you, if you want,” he said, still smiling.

          Isabel looked at the ground. “I would just prefer” her voice trailed off.

          “Look, Isa, I’m just worried about you.” His smile was rearranged into a concerned father’s pout. “I don’t think you’re in a good place right now, and even if you don’t want to see me, I think you need to get out of the house a bit more,” he said. She didn’t answer. “Come on, let’s go catch a matinée,” he said. “You don’t have to talk to anyone in a movie.” He smiled again, eyebrows raised.

          Isabel relented and opened the door to let him enter. “All right. Let me just get ready.”

          She walked quickly to the bathroom, arms straight at her sides. She opened the medicine cabinet to get her toothpaste and a hair pin. She turned to look at the spider while she brushed her teeth. The spider was dormant. Should she feed her again? Better to wait, perhaps. She spit and rinsed her mouth and went to meet her boyfriend.

          That evening when Isabel returned to her apartment, she entered hurriedly and turned the lock. She set down her purse on the shelf near the door and walked in the dark to the bathroom. She turned on the hall light instead of the bathroom light, not wanting to shock the spider. She crept into the bathroom and balanced herself with a hand on the toilet as she knelt to look for the spider. The spider was fidgeting in her web, repairing and rearranging strands of thread. She looked so feeble and slow. Her body was shriveled, like an old fruit. Isabel peered closer and saw that she was caressing a small orb.

          “When did you make this?” Isabel was startled.

          The spider continued using her delicate feet to move the egg sack around the web. Isabel stood and thought about what to do. Did she still need food now that she had laid her eggs? She decided the best thing was to go to bed, then go to work, then check on it the following evening. Rest, she thought.

          Isabel went to work with a focused air. She stacked and rearranged; she shrugged off customer inquiries with a rush of busyness and brisk walking. In order to make the time pass faster, she tried not to think about the spider. When her shift ended, she rushed to catch a bus. She didn’t pause to check her phone. Once home she went straight to the spider. The fading light from outside did little to illuminate the apartment, whose curtains Isabel had not bothered to draw that morning. Isabel peered down in the dusky light that seeped in through the bathroom window. The spider was completely covered in translucent, wriggling hairs. The hairs seemed to have individual minds, as they moved in different directions. They never stopped moving, the hundreds of them. As Isabel’s eyes adjusted to the darkness, she realized that the little hairs were writhing spiderlings, emerged into the world in a jumble. She could see small black dots on their heads, which must have been their eyes. And their legs waved about, grasping and slipping and climbing on top of each other.

          With a start, Isabel understood why they stayed in a ball on top of each other. They were eating their mother. They were starving. Soon they would begin eating each other. They would not all survive.

          Isabel took out the pin from the medicine cabinet. She pricked her finger and held out the burgeoning drop of blood for the baby spiders to eat. They came quickly, desperately. Her finger was covered with their weightless bodies and her blood lapped up. Her hand tingled. She cupped it gently against her chest, careful to not smash any spiders in the process. She took smooth steps to the kitchen, balancing the weight of her body as if she were carrying an overfilled glass of water. With her free hand, she pulled open a drawer. Inside it lay her silverware: forks, spoons, knives, a paring knife and two large cutting knives. She selected a utensil and shut the drawer. The spiders were in her palm now, on the back of her hand, reaching out to other fingers. Their desperation for life was driving them to search for more, already, so soon. Isabel sat down on the kitchen tiles with her back supported by the cabinet. She tightened her grip on the paring knife and took a sharp, deep breath.

A.R. WILHELM grew up in Arizona and now lives in São Paulo. She holds a BFA from the University of Arizona. Find her on Twitter @alisa.