All the spiders in my apartment are araneomorphs, the most common type of spider. The second most common suborder consists of mygalomorphs—hairy, often large species, such as tarantulas. Mesothelae, the oldest suborder of spiders still extant, are quite rare; of the estimated hundred thousand or so species of spiders, fewer than one hundred belong to this primitive family, and they’re found almost exclusively in Asia. I’ve only ever seen pictures. The natural history museum has some specimens on display, but I disapprove of taxidermy. I can’t stomach the thought of walking through room after room of victims sacrificed in the “holy” name of science.
The body of the female of the common house spider, Achaearanea tepidariorum, measures less than a centimeter, and males are even smaller. Female spiders are generally larger than their male counterparts. The common house spider enjoys humid and dark environments, such as my basement apartment.
There are two small windows in the apartment, one in the bedroom and one in the kitchen. The only other room is the tiny, moldy bathroom with cracked tiles and no ventilation. The two windows are just low enough that I can, if I stand on tiptoe, slide them open and closed. I like to keep them open, except when the landlord’s four-year-old twins are outside playing. They like to lie down on the ground and peer at me, giggling. They’re not mean, but I intrigue them. So they laugh.
The whole house is surrounded by flowerbeds, bushes, vines, and trees. The landlord and his wife love to garden. The compost and vegetation attract myriad insects, many of whom find their way inside. Their persistent invasions irritate me, but the spiders feed on them. Webs hang from the furniture, from the corners where walls meet ceilings. I do my best to keep these intact, to make my home comfortable for the spiders.
My father held my hand as we walked through the train station. At the age of six, I had never seen such a high ceiling. I couldn’t keep my eyes off it and its intricate web of exposed, carved rafters. Gently, Dad kept reminding me to look where I was walking.
He stopped at the newsstand to get a paper. He led me to the comics rack and asked me to choose something to read on the train. It would be hours to the coast, where we were going to join Mom. As I took my eyes off the ceiling, a bright red cover caught my eye. It was a giant comic book, the size of a tabloid newspaper, but with a spine and the cover the kind of thick stock used on paperbacks. There was a yellow band at the top with the words SHRUGGING ATLAS TREASURY SPECIAL in black letters. Below that, a blue logo in stylized, creepy letters announced the title: SPIDERKID ADVENTURES. In the middle of the cover a character who could only have been Spiderkid himself was crouched, ready to leap into action. A dark-blue skintight costume covered his whole body. The suit was veined with a yellow web design. He wore big goggles to cover his eyes. A black belt with pouches and an empty holster hung around his waist. A string of webbing shot from the gun he held in his hand.
“I want that one!” I said, and my dad bought it for me.
I take a break from my term paper. My head hurts, my back aches, and my eyes are sore from staring at the screen all day.
Until grade nine, I’d always believed that I’d become a biologist, to eventually specialize in arachnology. Images of spiders chaotically wallpapered the walls of my room. Books on spiders filled my bookshelf. Spiderkid Adventures dominated my comics collection.
But then one day I was expected to dissect a frog in class, and I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t even watch my lab partner do it. I ran out of class screaming in terror, and I never lived it down. The incident ensured that high school would be a particularly relentless hell for me – bullies forcing raw meat down my throat during lunch break, that kind of thing. After that, I stopped eating meat, despite the violent protests of my parents.
I learned that the “study of life” involved killing and torturing, and I had no stomach for that. I didn’t pursue biology. Now I major in history, a much safer subject.
I check my email before getting up.
It’s all spam, except for one message that came through my webofspiderkid.net domain. I run a Spiderkid tribute website. It includes a database indexing the appearances of all the supporting characters, a checklist of writers and illustrators, a comprehensive listing of every Spiderkid guest spot in other comics, cover scans, and other obsessive, geeky stuff. My passion for Spiderkid has always allowed me to tap into a secret well of enthusiasm. Managing the website helps me focus on that energy, helps me find the strength to deal with real life. My own personal religion and virtual temple.
The message is from a lawyer called Laurent Tavernier. It’s a legal warning that I must remove my website, cease-and-desist from posting, publishing, and/or distributing any of its contents, and cede ownership of the domain name to Shrugging Atlas Comics, the publishers of Spiderkid Adventures.
Spiderkid, of course, is Steve Rand’s most famous creation. By now there have been animated cartoons, live-action TV shows, feature films, novels, and more merchandising than any one person could ever amass, so everyone knows the character by sight. Even though he’d been around for twenty years when I came across the Shrugging Atlas Treasury Special, he wasn’t quite so ubiquitous back then.
Spiderkid is a daredevil punster who loves being a superhero. His life is a complicated soap opera, but nothing ever triumphs over his relentless good cheer. An instant runaway hit in comic books, it was inevitable that Spiderkid would eventually crawl into other media as well.
Shrugging Atlas Treasury Special: Spiderkid Adventures—the first comic book I ever read—is the most prized item in my collection. I’ve read it hundreds, maybe thousands, of times. One hundred pages long, it reprints “An Amazing Fantasy”—the first appearance and origin of Spiderkid—and six other stories introducing the most sinister members of his rogues’ gallery: “Duel with the Carrion Crow,” “The Strange Threat of Professor Squid,” “The Face of the Reptile,” “And Call Him the Electric Man,” “The Mystery of Mister Menace,” and “The Coming of the Hellscorpions.” Often, if I’m too tired to read when I go to bed, I’ll take out the treasury and just browse through it to admire Rand’s artwork and to recapture the feeling of excitement and discovery that filled me as I rode on the train, exposed for the first time to Rand’s imagination. Exposed for the first time to the mysteries of spiders.
I should be working on my history paper, but I’m too irritated and shaken by the email from the Shrugging Atlas lawyer to write anything. I guess I have no choice but to abandon the website. Damn. I put so much work into it. I can’t afford to go up against corporate lawyers; anyway, I don’t want to fight. The website was supposed to be for fun, and that one email is the needle that burst the bubble. I take a quick shower to clear my head. I decide to go out.
I blow-dry my shoulder-length black hair, and I smile at the blond streaks—the contrast of yellow against black a reminder of Spiderkid’s costume. I brush it back and keep it in place with gel. I carefully apply a thin line of black eyeliner to highlight my dark blue eyes. I learned from my cousin how to make it look natural. She used to tease me about how much she loved the color of my eyes…at least until her parents caught us making out when we were thirteen. Both sets of parents went absolutely crazy. Mine threatened me with boarding school, throwing out all my comics, and getting rid of all my spider stuff if they discovered that Marie and I ever did as much as exchange another email. And Marie’s parents were always stricter than mine; I can only imagine how bad it was for her. I haven’t even spoken to her since then. I hear she has a boyfriend now.
I dress entirely in black, and I clasp a gold chain around my neck. It’s a handmade necklace by an African artist; on it hangs a jeweled effigy of Nyiko, the heroic spider god of Cameroon whose mythic adventures inspired Steve Rand to create Spiderkid. Marie gave it to me for my twelfth birthday.
I weep a little, and the eyeliner runs.
Shit. I have to redo it.
I really need to go out and talk to some new people. I’m stuck in a sad, nostalgic rut tonight, and I hate it.
It’s retro trip-hop night at The Fly’s Joint. I get a beer and sit at the bar. I recognize a few faces from campus, but nobody I know. That’s good and bad. I’m dying to have a conversation, but I don’t initiate contact easily. I’m so tired of seeing the same reflection in familiar eyes, though, and I want to meet someone new.
By my second sip of beer, I’m already feeling depressed. The place is full of people, laughing, drinking, dancing, and I feel like a pile of toxic waste polluting everything that comes near me. The space between me and everyone else in the club expands, isolating me; even the music starts to sound muffled and distant…
…And I see them playing pool; immediately my sour mood evaporates, and I’m focused, interested, fascinated. The man is Asian, probably Chinese: he’s tall, with broad shoulders, a squarish face, and black hair tied back in a pony tail. The woman is white, with wavy hair coming down to her shoulder blades, streaked in multiple colours. They’re both dressed in black: he’s wearing shorts and a loose tank top; she’s wearing a short skirt with a bra top. Spiders cover their well-defined bodies: their legs, their backs, their arms, their faces…
My throat feels desperately dry, and I quickly down the rest of my beer. Then I walk toward them; I can’t take my eyes off their bodies, their tattoos.
When I reach the pool table, they’re both facing away from me, concentrating on the game. Boldly, I say hello – but they take no notice.
They might not have registered that I was speaking to them. It’s so noisy they might not have heard me at all. So I just stand there watching them play, nervously fiddling with my necklace, biting my lips, hoping for eye contact.
They’re both very good players, pulling off complicated and daring calls. Five shots later, the man notices me and nods his head in greeting, smiling warmly. His eyes widen when he notices the Nyiko pendant around my neck.
He touches the woman’s shoulder and whispers to her, pointing at me.
She turns around—I gasp, seeing her face clearly for the first time. “Marie.”
And I faint.
I’m lying on my back, and I feel the weight of a hand on my stomach, a warm breath brushing against my ear. I open my eyes, and I don’t recognize where I am. I jump out of bed, alarmed.
And then I hear my name. I recognize her voice, even though it’s deeper now, more confident. On the bed there’s Marie, her makeup smeared by tears. She says, “I visit your Spiderkid website all the time, you know.”
I start crying. I don’t know how I managed to spend these past six years without her.
I’m back on the bed, and we’re kissing, our tongues hungrily probing each other’s mouths, our hands impatiently tugging at each other’s clothes. Marie touches my neck, and her fingers fall on the pendant. She takes her mouth away from mine, and she looks at Nyiko, tenderly caressing the icon. She lifts it and slides her tongue on my collarbone, on the sensitive skin of my neck.
Soon we’re naked. Marie is naked. I stand back and admire her body. I recognize the spiders covering her skin: mesothelae, the most primitive suborder.
Suddenly, I remember the man who was with her. And I’m uncertain, confused. I say, “What about…”—I don’t know his name.
“Sam’s in the living room. Can he…”—Marie smiles coyly—”…can he join us?”
I remember his strong body, also tattooed with spiders. I grin. “Yes. He’s beautiful. I like his smile.”
Sam and Marie are asleep. I gently disentangle myself, get dressed, and walk through their apartment. I see spider motifs everywhere: statuettes, urns, paintings, photographs, even whimsical stuff like wallpaper and knobs. There are intact spider webs hanging in corners and from furniture. I find the bathroom; I pee, but I don’t flush for fear of waking Sam and Marie. The shower curtain has childlike printed drawings of crawling spiders.
I belong here. I need to belong here.
I find a pen and a pad of paper next to the phone on the kitchen counter, and I leave a note on the top sheet, with my phone number. I’m shocked when I realize that I’m about to write “I love you.” But I don’t. I flee, feeling exposed, vulnerable.
As soon as I close the door to my apartment, exhaustion catches up to me. It’s dawn now. I pull out the foldout couch, and I drop on the bed without even taking my clothes off, eager to sleep.
But I’m too restless; I can’t get comfortable. Then I’m hit by a headache from being so tired.
I get up again, take my clothes off. I get a face cloth from the bathroom, run cold water on it, and I go back to bed, pressing the wet compress over my forehead.
The headache subsides, and I feel my body relaxing, going through the transition from wakefulness to sleep. But then my skin crawls with goosebumps, my nose and ears get maddeningly itchy…I’m about to scratch when I feel something move across the palm of my hand. I fling the compress from my eyes. There are spiders all over my body. Common house spiders crawl into my nose, my ears, my mouth. And there are more of them on the bed, converging on me. Soon, I’ll be entirely covered in spiders.
I’ve loved spiders my entire life. Nevertheless, I scream. More spiders crawl down my throat. My arms lie still, refusing to obey my frantic commands to swat away the arthropods.
There’s a loud banging at the door. My landlord shouts: “What’s going on in there? If you don’t open up, I’m going to unlock the door and come in.” The spiders scurry away. I stop screaming, and I have just enough time to pull the sheets over me as the landlord bursts into my small apartment, wide-eyed and anxious.
My breath is labored, my throat parched. I try to talk, but the words won’t come out.
The landlord’s face flickers between embarrassment and irritation. He looks around, and says, “What’s with all the cobwebs? Don’t you ever clean this place? Fucking students.”
Finally I say, taking deep breaths between each syllable, “Just a nightmare. Sorry. I’m so sorry.”
When I start crying, he leaves without another word.
I take down my website and email the lawyer to inform him that I’ve complied with his request. Then I forage for spiders, and I gather them into a plastic container. I let them loose in the backyard. I fill up a bucket with soapy water, and I scrub the whole apartment carefully, getting rid of all the spider webs.
Marie doesn’t call.
She doesn’t call the next day, either. Nor the day after that. Nor…
I finish my history paper barely in time, although I had to miss a few classes. There are notes online, so I should be okay as long as I keep up with the readings. I immerse myself in schoolwork.
I try not to think of Marie.
It’s been almost two weeks since that night.
Someone’s knocking at my door, firmly but not too loudly. I glance at my alarm clock. It’s 2:00 a.m., but I wasn’t asleep. I barely sleep at all anymore.
I pull on some shorts and a T-shirt. I open the door. It’s Sam.
“Hey,” he says.
I don’t say anything. I shiver, and then I nod him in. I turn on a lamp, one that’s not too bright.
He slowly walks through the apartment, peering at everything, running his fingers on the spines of my spider books, smiling at my Spiderkid merchandise, frowning at the scrubbed walls.
I stand immobile, watching him. He’s wearing jeans, a white T-shirt, and a jean jacket. He walks with grace and strength.
Finally he sits down at the kitchen table.
I say, “Want some tea?”
“Sure. That would be good.”
We don’t speak while I make the tea.
I get a fresh lemon from the fridge and cut it up in wedges. I put the wedges in a small bowl, and I put it down on the table. I take out two mugs, two teaspoons, a jar of honey. Then I bring the steaming teapot over to where he sits, and I sit, too.
While the tea steeps, Sam says, “Marie was moved that you’re still wearing the necklace.” He reaches out toward my throat, and I make an effort not to flinch. He presses his fingers tenderly on the effigy of Nyiko. I realize now that I’ve haven’t taken it off since the night I met them, since I saw Marie again.
He says, “Nyiko. Spiderkid. Arachne. Anansi. They’re all degraded memories of God. Of the primordial Spider who wove the universe into being.”
Suddenly, I’m impatient and irritable. I ask, sharply, “Why are you here? What do you want?”
“Right. It’s Marie. She’s been a wreck. She can’t sleep. All she can think about is you, and you stay away. Don’t you love her?”
“But she hasn’t called me. I left my number. I wanted – ”
“The way you snuck away…and that cold, impersonal note. Marie’s afraid that you’re not sure if you want to be with her anymore. If you’re going to toy with her…fuck. I don’t know whether to drag you back or scare you away.” I look down at his hands, and I see his fists tighten in frustration. “She admires you. She’s always wanted to be together with you again. But she was afraid that you’d moved on after that mess with your families and wouldn’t want her anymore. Her whole life has been upended. She needs you to be clear about what you want.”
I meet his eyes, and I see how much he cares for her. Something breaks inside me; I know that I’m beginning to love him.
We’ve got a bottle of wine going. The three of us are packing up my stuff; the process is neither efficient nor rapid. There’s a lot of laughter, kidding around, kissing, and groping.
We began early Saturday morning. We finally get everything into boxes as the Sunday morning sun rises.
We go out for breakfast, and then Sam leaves to get the rental truck, so we can move me into their apartment. Our apartment, Marie corrects me.
Marie and Sam are sitting across from me on the floor of the living room. We’re all naked. I stare at the spiders tattooed all over their bodies. Between us, there’s a sealed clay urn decorated with a painting of a giant mesothele spider.
It’s not quite dawn yet, and there are candles burning. Marie’s eyes are closed; she is chanting softly, almost humming. Sam stares hard into my eyes while he talks solemnly. I don’t want to be nervous, but I can’t help it.
“God the Spider devoured the previous, dead universe, and then wove this universe into being. God has no name and no gender. Its memory lives on in degraded form in human folklore. Some peoples have not forgotten that Spider created the universe, and they gave God a name, made up stories based on their primordial memories but filtered through their cultures. Around the world Spider is worshipped as creator, in either male or female aspects: for the Akan of West Africa, Anansi Kokuroko is the spider god of creation; in the Congo, the name is Mebege; the Kiribati in the Pacific refer to the creator as Nareau the spider. In the Americas, the creator is remembered as Spider Woman: Koyangwuti to the Hopi, Sussistanako to the Pueblos, Teotihuacan to the Aztec. For comics fans, God has become a superhero called Spiderkid.”
He cracks a smile, and I relax.
I straighten my back, and I nod at Sam. I’m ready.
He nods back.
Marie is still humming.
Sam leans forward and takes the lid off the urn.
Marie’s mouth opens wide, and now she’s chanting a high note that conveys joy, anticipation, and awe.
Two mesothele spiders crawl out of the urn toward Sam and Marie. They climb onto my lovers’ toes and move upward. The spiders reach Sam and Marie’s open mouths. Sam and Marie extend their tongues, and the spiders crawl onto them, then disappear down their throats.
Sam is chanting too, now.
For a while nothing happens. Then Sam and Marie fall silent, their eyes bulge, and their bodies convulse.
Legions of mesothele spiders file out from Sam and Marie’s tattoos. The primitive spiders crawl toward me, subsume my body.
I feel their jaws dig into my flesh. The pain is delicious. I welcome the creator.