Fiction — July 21, 2016 0:34 — 0 Comments

Widow Country – Anna Rowser

The spring of their retirement, the husband and wife packed all the possessions they wanted to keep in a shipping container. They planned to resettle in the southern California suburbs once they found a house, somewhere closer to where they’d grown up and where their siblings still lived. Better weather than the east coast, even if it was widow country. Black widows in every woodpile, potentially lurking in any outdoor cranny or nook. And now brown widows too, a non-native variety that moved in closer to human dwellings. The wife led the operation of unpacking the container with the caution of a carefully aimed flashlight while her husband (“stupidly” if he’d been bit; “bravely” since he wasn’t) thrust his hands into dark corners to grab another box or chair leg. After months in storage, who knows what could have slipped inside?

Because once an egg sac hatched, the wind lifted each of the hundreds of wisps of gossamer to which these pinpoint-tiny spiders held. They flew far and wide, small enough to fit through the spaces between window screens. Nymphs had even been found, floating, 500 miles out at sea. And so they spread, drifted into the spaces under and between, where they’d hide, spinning the egg sacs that would stretch their populations farther, and farther still on these waves of reproduction undulating from their eight segmented legs.

There are rattlesnakes here too, her husband reminded her. But a rattlesnake announces its presence, she reminded him. A widow lies in wait.

High blood pressure, the doctor said. And cholesterol. Watch those saturated fats. How, when studies were always changing? His stance, not hers. The wife had ideas about things. Opinions, like the doctor’s, that the husband didn’t want to hear.

And when she’d back out of the room, heart pounding so hard in her chest even the spider could feel it—its front pedipalps stirring the air, hairy and built for hunting—she’d freeze, unable to call out for fear it might sense the vibration of her voice, leap at her and bite. Or drop fast, lost behind the sink to breed its colonies.

It’s an old house, her husband shrugged. They’re going to find a way in. Likewise, it was his body; his health. Did she want him micromanaging her diet? When cooking had always been the wife’s job. Yard work, the husband’s.

And so the wife staked out their respective territories. She marked with orange caution cones the places in the large, undeveloped back yard where the widows likely clustered: a mound of rocks and paving stones the contractors piled beneath a tree with fruit good only enough for the ravens; a hole leading through the cemented support for some long gone structure. The house was hers, and so the awkwardly long porch, this railed corridor leading from the driveway to the front door. Even though she knew they’d continue creeping along the branches of the Chinese Elm out front to hang from the eves, where they’d migrate to the attic. They’d find the chinks in the siding, enter the house through a gap between a baseboard and the wall or floor. It was beyond her power to stop them.

The wife often read to fill the time (she had left, she tried not to think) or watched the birds at the bath. When the frogs go? When the birds follow. Imagine then, she sometimes told her husband.

Don’t think about it, he said. Worrying is praying for the thing you don’t want to happen.

The husband spent most days tinkering in the garage, rebuilding a rusted out model of a convertible from his childhood. He talked about painting it red, how he’d take the wife out to feel the wind in her hair again. Although this day was still a long ways off. In the evenings they might have a cocktail or a glass of wine before dinner. One drink was good for you, the wife had read. Her husband was strictly limited to two to avoid arrhythmia. When she’d massage his back and shoulders, she noticed the deepening melanin and freckling of skin.

She’d seen them other places, too, but ignored them, thought (if she allowed herself to think anything) that the irregular crosshatches and fibers only looked widow-sticky, strong enough to be used as crosshairs for rifle sights, as they were in the first and second world wars. Surely, there were other spiders that spun webs with irregular patterns.

Once a week, she took the car they shared to the book club she’d joined. She looked for, while hoping not to see, empty beer cans in the garage. In the car, cheeseburger wrappers balled up in the console, an empty trough of fries.

Come Halloween, the wife stretched cotton fibers taunt on nails, enclosing the porch in simulated webbing. They purchased a terrier-sized spider that hung and descended. Another that lunged. She nestled plastic arachnids into the cotton, making the most of this holiday about presenting fear. The goal, to make visible what was not, all of our ghosts and ghouls and demons.

The husband handed out extra candy to the children who’d gotten the worst of it, to the little girl with wings caught in a corner as the spider, stuck in a loop of motion, had leapt at her again and again and again until the wife coordinated her rescue.

The husband had never wanted children. Neither had the wife, to be fair. Her working years were spent schooling other people’s kids, his as an administrator. But she thought now that she might have liked a collection of grandchildren to spoil, emerging lives to follow as she neared this final stretch of hers.

On the Day of the Dead, the wife found a live spider hanging from her fabricated web, the orange hourglass on its abdomen pointed skyward. The wife dismantled the web from its outer edges, turning it in on itself, careful to crush the spider at its heart as she crammed the whole thing deep into the garbage.

Only then did she see the egg sac with its points like atomic particles, like an underwater mine waiting for the slightest contact to explode. It only took one good stomp and grind for the husband’s boot to dismantle it.

As hard as the wife looked at their neighbors’ houses, she saw no spiders hanging from their eaves or patio tables and chairs. They kept theirs better hidden. Or they sprayed. But when the frogs go. When the birds. Poison in the food web wasn’t going to help anybody.

The husband and wife planned to host Thanksgiving that year. They invited down his sister and her brother, their nieces and nephews. But they’d waited too long with their invitation, or perhaps they were a little too far removed still. But they learned that his mother’s youngest sister lived near them, widowed the past five years.

While cleaning in preparation for the aunt’s visit, the wife found a brown widow in one corner of the living room, just under a bookshelf.

Had two egg sacs, the husband reported, grim. He’d taken care of it.

The wife lay awake in bed. She imagined hundreds of tiny spiders streaming over and under the sofa and across the hardwood floors to take up residency in and under anything she might ever sit at or in, or lie on top of. They were already under the mailbox housing, inside in, curled up in the rack with the hose, crouched under each crotch in the porch railing, under the lip of its foundation, under the house. They hung off the lawn furniture, off the wheel wells and bumpers of parked cars. The porch lights were inhabited with their long-legged silhouettes. They were everywhere, she thought, rubbing her arms.

They live in the walls, the husband said, then rapped the drywall with his knuckles. Only thing separating us from them.

The wife went to work sealing every hole she could find, every sizable crack around the fireplace and windows, around light switches and the dryer vent. As she eased the putty in and scraped it even across the wall, she told herself that the egg sacs would never have hatched inside anyway, hidden as they were, without the sun to warm them. Only then did she defrost the small turkey and bake the pumpkin pie for the next day’s feast.

The husband picked up the aunt from her retirement community around noon. They discussed family since that was what they had in common. The widow had two children. Her daughter, who was with her husband’s family in Idaho this year, and her son, a vegan, busy protesting against the annual mass slaughter of turkeys. It’s one thing if you don’t want to celebrate, the widow sighed. To each his own. But she saw no reason he should ruin it for everybody.

It wasn’t until the table was cleared and the wife set down the pie that she saw the giant hunting spider on the wall behind her chair.

We didn’t want to alarm you, Dear, the widow said. Anyway, it’s good to keep a spider around the house. Especially a big one. To prey on the others. Did the wife know, for instance, that cellar spiders spun webs below other spiders’ eggs sacs, waiting for them to hatch? Daddy longlegs, people called them. Such a comforting name. There was so much one could learn these days on the Internet.

The wife watched Internet videos then, saw a cellar spider trip up a widow with its longer legs, then spin a web around it, immobilizing the widow before it fed.

When the husband had his first heart attack, he was in the hospital for three days.

In the shower, the wife watched a cellar spider’s webbing lose its stickiness under the steam. She watched the spider lose its footing. When another took up the position above the front door, she did not sweep or vacuum it away. The widow was right, the wife thought, as the dried shells of other spiders collected in the web.

The wife brought the husband home. They caught glimpses of the Thanksgiving spider as it made it rounds, growing larger by increments. The wife told him to let it stay. She imagined all the spiders facing off until there was only one giant spider left. She and this spider would have an understanding. She would give him the name Hunter. She would make of him a pet.

One day, the spider at the threshold disappeared.

Hunter, of course. Who else could be responsible? He’d grown, and quickly, as spiders do. The size of her palm now, with eight long hairy fingers. Hunter! She’d reprimand this creature defensively rearing up from the windowsill as she entered the bathroom. As if he might understand that he was only alive because she allowed it.

It was only pain that the husband needed to worry about. Some abnormal sensation was normal, to be expected, as were the whole grains and fruits and veggies in place of red and processed meats. No more fast food runs or sneaking beer. After the first attack, a second was much more likely.

That’s Hunter, the wife reminded the husband one night as the spider slunk into the bedroom after them, the size now of the mechanized spider they’d scared the kids with on Halloween. The husband was still acclimating to the new rules, to the ways in which they would now coexist with the enemy.

He’s larger now, the husband remarked.

He is, the wife agreed.

But she knew there was an even bigger spider somewhere out there, waiting.


Anna Rowser earned her MFA from the University of Maryland. She now lives in California, where she has made strides with her own arachnophobia aided by two spider-catching cats and her fearless, widow-crushing husband. Her first published story appears in The Adroit Journal.

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney