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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

85) Window Spider


Badumna insignis

I first notice the spider some time early in the New Year. Or perhaps I’m mistaken: perhaps I notice it first before Christmas, in the rush to finish the old year’s fading business. In any case the spider is unremarkable and so its presence and the exact moment of its arrival in my bathroom window goes unremarked upon. It is large and classically spider-like. Its legs curve to a sharp point like cutlasses. Its abdomen is half the size of the fingernail on my little finger. We fear spiders and this spider appears fearsome.

I’ve seen its type before, this species. One lives, or lived, in the cavity in my front door left by the long-removed letter slot. One lives, or lived, at the top of the window in my bedroom; another in the equivalent position in the sitting-room window. Their webs are messy and fulsome, simultaneously dilapidated and fussily maintained. Much like the old weatherboard terrace house they live in. The spider in the sitting-room window lives in the gap between the flyscreen and the pane, and for fear of crushing it I haven’t fully shut that window in years, even in the middle of winter.

The spiders in the windows are on the outside of the house. The one in the front door rarely shows itself. They may all be dead by now for all I know. The spider in the bathroom, the newcomer, is directly above the toilet, in the gap left by the sliding mechanism for the bathroom window – and on the inside of the window. It is inside the house. It is inside the bathroom. It is above my head when I am in the bathroom.

It’s not alone. There are two Daddy Long-legs (Pholcus phalangioides) living under the bathroom sink. There are regular intrusions of tiny Jumping Spiders (Salticidae), strays from the garden. There are Houseflies (Musca domestica) everywhere, the descendants of the flies that appeared from nowhere in their scores during last summer’s heatwave. It is summer again now and the world is full of life; the house is full of tiny life; the bathroom is full of predators.

I am loathe to kill any of them. The flies, those that aren’t caught by the spiders, die off after three or four weeks, having reached the natural limit of their lives. In another three or four weeks their children hatch; mate; die again. In the time between generations the Daddy Long-legs under the bathroom sink die: perhaps they, too, have reached the end of their natural lifespan. Perhaps in the sudden absence of prey they have starved to death.

The spider in the window is more hardy. I watch it every time I enter the bathroom – first cautiously, then curiously. It rarely strays from the dark hole above the sliding window in which it lives. It stays within the perimeter of its messy web, though not on the web: it lurks beneath the surface of the web like a shark beneath waves. I wonder at its species. From the flotsam and jetsam of my mind, from the tide of information, a name surfaces: Window Spider. I type it into Google: Badumna insignis. Native to Australia. Common in urban areas. More commonly known as the Black House Spider.

Harmless, as these things go: “Black House Spiders are timid animals and bites from them are infrequent. The bite may be quite painful and cause local swelling. Symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, sweating and giddiness are occasionally recorded. In a few cases skin lesions have developed after multiple bites.” So says the Australian Museum’s website, and that’s good enough for me. I stop being cautious around the spider. I look forward to seeing her whenever I go into a bathroom.

The spider is a her. It is a she. Like many spiders Badumna insignis demonstrates marked sexual dimorphism and the individual in my bathroom is unquestionably a female. So why shouldn’t I call her “she”? Am I becoming sentimental? Yes, undoubtedly. I am becoming fond of her.

It is summer. I am currently living by myself and so I’ve advertised my spare room on AirBnB. It is summer in Australia so I have more booking requests than I can keep up with: emails go unanswered, the turnover is high, people come from all over the world to visit Melbourne, in summer, and stay in my house. I worry about the flies and I worry about the spiders: what will my houseguests think? Australia has a reputation abroad and we play up to it but the truth is that it is easy to live here if you’re sensible with the wildlife. If you know what can hurt you and what can’t. If you don’t go around provoking things. I tell my guests when they arrive that it is summer, in Australia, and so there are many spiders, but that they are all harmless – even the big black one in the bathroom, the scariest-looking of the lot. The spiders go unremarked upon. Everyone is fine. Even the woman who sees a Mouse (Mus musculus) in the kitchen and becomes so scared of it that she cannot bare to stay another day in the house makes no mention of the spider in the bathroom.

Perhaps she doesn’t see it. The spider is cautious, and stays mostly hidden during the day; though if you look carefully you can see the tips of her legs, those things that look like they should be weapons but which aren’t, protruding beyond the lip of the hole she hides in.

But she – the spider – is quick to move when she senses prey. In the bathroom one morning before leaving for work I see her rush out of her hole as an injudicious fly approaches her web. The fly is underneath the silk canopy when it sees the spider advancing towards it. It stops. The spider stops. The fly cannot take flight: if it does so it will become entangled in the web above it. It cannot retreat by foot: the spider is faster by far than it is. I don’t know what will happen. I have to go to work. When I return ten hours later neither fly nor spider are in sight. I do not know how the standoff resolved and I cannot imagine it.

At night she is bolder. The house is quieter at night; hours go by in which the bathroom is undisturbed. The flies are more listless at night, too. The spider emerges more readily from her hole at night, and often when I go into the bathroom before going to bed I see her, whole, framed against the moonlight coming in through the window: eight long legs, fleshy abdomen, stubby head, classically spider. I stand on the lip of the bathtub to take a photo of her; I have to get in close and even then the camera on my phone refuses to focus on her, preferring the light in the window behind her. The first time I lean in she takes fright and flees back to her hole; on subsequent occasions she remains still, implacable. If a spider can think I do not know what she is thinking; I do not want to ascribe sentiment to her. I would like to imagine that she feels safe, as I feel safe with her. I like to imagine that by sheer volume of exposure we have each overcome our fear of the other.

I want to be sentimental. I am sentimental. I name her: I give the spider that lives in my bathroom a name. I cast about for suitable options, I ask people for suggestions, I have in mind something like Boadicea because it amuses me to name this predator after a famous warrior. It is probably disrespectful. I know it is absurd. I can’t shake the thought. Suggestions come in and none of them fit. I do some research and find that the Window Spider’s genus is Badumna. It feels right. It feels appropriate. I name her Badumna.

It is ridiculous to name a spider but this species, I read, can live for up to two years. It can experience a summer, and another summer; it can witness the changing of seasons, the shortening and lengthening of days. In light of that it seems not quite so ridiculous to name this individual. Why shouldn’t I? She’s only been living with me for a few months but I have become fond of her.

Summer rolls on. It’s a cool summer, and grey, but people come to Melbourne as if it was a summer like any other. They are drawn by the name of the season, it has a magic. Houseguests leave and another arrives: French out, Chilean in.

His flight landed at 9:30pm last Saturday night. He came straight from the airport and arrived at 10:15: he had cousins in the city and they gave him a lift. They all arrived together and then left again straight away, his cousins eager to show him the city, he eager to see it; all of them eager to spend time with each-other. I have cousins overseas, I know what it’s like to see each-other only once every few years.

I had a busy few days. I was out most nights. In my houseguest’s first few nights with me I saw him for only five minute, and we laughed, and shook hands, and agreed that we’d spend time together soon. He’d be staying with me for a week and a half, there was no rush. I wrote the WiFi password down for him, showed him the kitchen, gave him the spare key. We didn’t have time to talk so I didn’t get a chance to tell him about the spiders in the house, or perhaps I forgot to. I didn’t have time to reassure him that despite what he’d heard about Australia the spiders in the house were harmless, even the big black one in the bathroom.

He’d just flown from Chile, all that distance across the world. He was jetlagged. He got up at strange times, used the bathroom late at night when he was awake and I was asleep. Sometimes I heard him walking down the hallway. I didn’t mind. Live and let live.

On Monday morning I woke up to go to work, and I went into the bathroom, and there was a hole in Badumna’s web. It looked as if the heart had been torn out of it. There was no sign of Badumna herself, not beneath what was left of her web, not in the darkness of her hole. I left for work and hoped that she’d just got a fright from the newcomer to the house, and would re-emerge.

When I returned home there was still no sign of her. There was an emptiness against the window-pane where I had become used to seeing her, black, sharp-legged, classically spiderish. I slid the window open, hoping it might stir her from hiding. Something fell out of the window and into the garden, something dark and bundled in silk. Was that her? Had she lost her balance as I’d slid the window unexpectedly and fallen out? No, unlikely. The remains of some old meal, probably. I slid the window shut again. By opening and shutting the window I destroyed what was left of the web; the loose strands fell and clung to the edge of the pane, the white sprawl that had covered a whole corner of the pane was gone. I looked for the tips of her legs, poking out of her hole. Nothing.

When I’d asked for names for her one of the suggestions had been Charlotte. I’d know it would be. We all learn when we’re kids about the noble spider, we grieve at her death. We learn that lesson young and I don’t know when we unlearn it. The night before she disappeared Badumna had been unusually bold: stalking a fly, she’d been further out of her web than I’d ever seen her. I stood on the lip of the bathtub, I got a photo, the camera wouldn’t focus on her. Spiders are the most patient of predators: they can stay in place for hours, waiting for their prey to make the wrong move, present the right opportunity. When I went to bed she was still out in the middle of the glass, unmissable.

The next day when she was gone I checked the dustpan-and-brush for spider silk. Nothing, but still: I imagined my houseguest entering the bathroom late that night, seeing the big black spider. I imagined him standing on the lip of the bathtub, swatting at the spider with the dustpan-and-brush. I imagined him dropping the spider into the toilet, flushing it. I don’t understand this need to kill. I don’t understand what possesses us when we see a spider, or a fly, and we feel that it is our obligation to kill it though it poses no threat to us at all. I saw my houseguest briefly last night, we said hello to each-other. I didn’t mention the spider to him, I didn’t ask him about her – how do you ask somebody if they killed a spider, and why? He didn’t mention anything, either. Killing spiders requires no remarks. It does not need to be commented upon. It’s a household chore, like putting the bins out, or washing the dishes. It is unsentimental.

Louis MacNeice wrote a long elegy upon the death of his cat. You’ll only find it in his Collected Poems. Too much sentiment to ever be Selected. Nobody wants to see a master Modernist grieve for an animal. So this is an epitaph, goes the poem’s final stanza:


            … not for calamitous
            Loss but for loss; this was a person
            In a small way who had touched our lives…


Tonight I got home from work just after eight. I went into the bathroom. I looked up to the window, hoping against hope. You’d barely even know now that there was anything living there just a couple of days ago. I put a load of laundry on. The broom was in front of the washing-machine door so I moved it, and as I did so I flipped it on end the better to lean it in the small gap between the washing-machine and the wall.

Covering the bristles of the broom was the web. That hole punched in the white above the window. Silk sticks like blood. Is that too much? Much too much, yes. Too sentimental by half. But there it is, nonetheless. So now I knew. Now I understood how. Not flushed, not bundled out the window. Stomped, smashed. Disposed of in a matter of moments with the tools at hand. No need for thanks. Just another household chore, just being a good houseguest. I won’t raise it with him: what would be the point? How do you explain to someone that you have formed a bond with a spider, that there exists a place between pets and wildlife in which animals may sometimes find themselves, safe, cherished? How do you tell someone that you wish, more than anything, more than you can ever say, that they hadn’t killed a spider? I know it is eccentric to become so attached.

I looked closer at the broom. I don’t know why. I think I was hoping that somehow, in the gap between the bristles, she might be cowering. I think I was hoping that I might find there some evidence, somehow, that she had dropped off the broom and rushed off behind the washing-machine to start another web, another life, out of sight, out of the way. I don’t know why I looked. I wish I hadn’t. Oh no, I said to myself. Oh no. Beneath the bristles, suspended in the silk: two legs, long, curved, pointed like cutlasses. Just the legs. That was all that was left.


Image by the author.

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  1. I never thought I would weep for the death of a spider. Only you Harry, and your writing, could do that.

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