The Unlikely Friend

She revealed herself on the first night. Suspended in the corner above the kitchen sink of my vacation rental, between two closed casement windows, hung a magnificently large and shiny black widow. My first response was to hope that there was a vacuum cleaner with a long-enough hose to suck her away with no risk of touching her, or of having to lean too close.

I remember the story of my friend, Dave, during the time he cared for a paraplegic. So tired after a long day of cooking and lifting, dressing and bathing the heavy-bodied, heavy-handed, heavy-hearted man he worked for, Dave had taken momentary refuge in the bathroom, on the pretense of tidying up. He had just closed a narrow drawer when he heard something fall softly inside it and immediately knew what it was. Carefully, he slid the drawer open, took a small glass flask from the counter top and scooped up the biggest, shiniest, blackest black widow he had ever seen. He put the stopper in the bottle, the bottle in his baggy trousers. “For the rest of that day,” he said, “I carried Death in my pocket.” That afternoon, he went to a memorial service at a local park overlooking the ocean and set the widow free.

I looked at the spider above the sink. “What is there for you to eat here?” I asked her out loud and decided to leave the light on for a few extra minutes in case an insect would be drawn to it, but none came. I studied the spider above the sink. She held very still. I felt her sensing me and knew I would not, could not vacuum her away, though I checked the hall closet anyway, just in case, and saw the vacuum cleaner there. But it was an upright, and the hose didn’t detach, which confirmed my decision to leave her be. It wasn’t really about the hose, of course. I had just checked the closet out of habit. I already knew I couldn’t do it. The vacuum cleaner had become a relic from another life; opening and closing the closet was a ritual leave-taking of that former time.

The following day, an article appeared in the New York Times, entitled The Insect Apocalypse Is Here: What does it mean for the rest of life on earth? All over the world, insect populations are in freefall – in the last decade or two, some have declined ninety percent and more. Pollinators, carrion-eaters, bird and reptile dietary mainstays have become scarce, and with them, bird and reptile populations are plummeting. The imperative of the climate crisis demands that we change all our relationships, including and perhaps especially with insects, including the poisonous ones. Danger is everywhere, but we are the most dangerous species of all, and the peril to Life begins in our hearts.

I returned to the sink – she was still there – and inadvertently knocked the cabinet door with my knee. The widow instantly vanished, disappearing into the hole where the casement rope looped into the window frame. I could see the pointy tips of her front legs barely showing. I heard myself apologize for frightening her and was startled to find that I missed her. Not that I felt lonely, only that as the abhorrence drained out of me, something else took its place – a longing to connect that surprised us both.

The following night, a second, smaller widow appeared in the window next to the first one. And another in the screened-in back porch. I told them all, I promise not to hurt you, but the other humans who come will likely kill you. It’s getting cold outside, and I know that even in this chilly corner you are warmer than you would be outside. But please, move outdoors anyway. And if you choose to stay, be careful, and hide yourselves well.