This is the nightmare…,
It is nighttime.
You step out into the perfect darkness of a summer’s evening and almost immediately feel a strange tension spread out over the front of your person. For the briefest second there is resistance, as if the air itself were trying to hold you back.
You are slowed by this unexpected resistance, minutely, imperceptibly, but not enough.
The momentum of your stride carries you forward and suddenly there is a barely audible twang, several of them actually, like guitar strings being tightened to the point of snapping.
That feeling of subtle resistance, which you had just enough time to notice, is gone.
In its place, it leaves two sensations which will last far longer.
The first is a strange tickling which plays upon your face and hands and hair.
The second is that creeping horror that comes with the certainty that a spider of indeterminate size and temperament is crawling somewhere, everywhere, upon your suddenly uncontrollably flailing form.
Crawling on you, in the dark.
My feelings toward spiders are generally of the friendly sort.
I appreciate their efforts against insect pests in the outdoors, and on those occasions that I find one somewhere in the house, I make every effort to transport it safely back outside again.
I find them to be fascinating creatures, and aside from the really dangerous ones, I bear them no ill will.
That being said, should I blunder through a web in the middle of the night, I will still go through the exact same set of jerking convulsions which millions of years of instinct have firmly imprinted within my DNA.
I should know, I did it twice early last week.
On the first occasion I walked out into my backyard to leave a little something for my cat, before retiring for the evening. I didn’t bother with the porch light because I enjoy walking at night, in the dark, and I was only going a little way into the yard anyway.
I didn’t realize, until I stepped through it, that a web had been built that covered the entire four-foot opening of my back porch onto the yard.
After a strangled cry and several awkward spins, I spotted the culprit, crawling up and away through the tattered ruins of its web.
The next night was exactly the same. In every detail.
I’d forgotten the first incident, right up until the moment I’d felt innumerable strands of silk pressing against my face.
And again the horror, which I expressed for my nocturnal audience, through the art of interpretive dance.
By the third night I was using my head.
Going against form, I clicked on the porch light, and stepped carefully out onto the small porch.
And there, once again covering almost the entire opening out into the backyard, was a huge circular web, at the center of which clung my nemesis, a tan spider with triangular grey markings, its oblong abdomen roughly as big around as a quarter.
It really was a beautiful web, but I could see no way around it.
“I’m sorry,” I said. And yes, I really did speak aloud to a spider, “but you didn’t leave me space to get through here.”
And then I reached out a finger and snapped one of the large supporting threads.
The web collapsed in on itself, and once again the spider scurried up into the darkness.
On the next night, I remembered the light again, but the spider wasn’t there.
And again, the night after that, spider and web were both missing, and I made my passage from the house to the yard and back again, unmolested.
And then on the fifth night, I flipped the light switch and stepped onto the porch, where I then stood for several minutes, simply amazed.
The spider was back. The web was back.
But this time, the design of the web, instead of spiraling out from the center of the opening, was canted somewhat to the right, incorporating a perfect arch which opened up along the left side of it, exactly along the path I walk to enter the yard. It seemed very much, as if the spider had redesigned its web with a doorway to accommodate the bungling human that kept ruining its careful work. It was exactly the right size. I wouldn’t even have to duck my head.
I left the cat her bowl, and then I retreated back into the house, pausing for a moment, before turing off the light and closing the door, to take another long look at the spider, still hanging there undisturbed by my passage.
“Thank you,” I said finally, done for the night.
In the morning, as expected, spider and web were long gone.
But it was back again that night, and the night after that.
And that uncanny half-arch was there too.
We give little regard for the smaller creatures of the earth.
We’ll bang on about the intelligence of our dogs and cats, apes and whales, and even those birds which mimic our speech so well, but the scale by which we judge these creatures is based largely upon signs of intelligence which we recognize within ourselves.
To the spiders web, engineering marvel though we might admit, we ascribe neither artistry or intellect, but instead we tell ourselves it is a product of that cold clockwork we have named instinct.
But instinct, I come more and more to believe, is in many ways an invention of our own.
Oh, it exists, I am sure, but I suspect it drives our own motivations neither more nor less than of any other creature.
The mechanics of how to build a web must surely be a product of instinct. But if a spider can learn, if he or she can use experience to change the shape of its web, and in so doing accommodate the passage of another creature, what else can you call that, but intelligence?
Since those first few encounters, the spider has been an infrequent visitor to my back porch, gone one or two nights, and then back again for an evening.
When it returns, if it returns, I am sure it will make me smile yet again.
In a world where it seems we treat fellow members of our own species with increasing suspicion and hostility, to witness the capacity of compromise within a creature so utterly foreign to our understanding, gives me a certain species of hope for our own future.
We look too often, I think, for guidance from on high, and not often enough at the world around us.
There are lessons even a spider may teach, if we were only willing to stop and notice, instead of blundering through.