I used to be sickly afraid of spiders. Boys at camp used to get them on sticks and chase me cause it was fun to watch me go crazy. Crazy is when they get in your clothes and you can’t tell if they’re gone, or when there’s one in the kayak and you can’t get out fast enough.
I have only ever had two nightmares and they were both recurring. One day, when I was about 18 or so, I told my mother about the spider one. It goes like this:
In the dream I am a small kid and we are at my grandfather’s house, my father’s father, who I have not seen since before my memory kicked in. We are at his house and he wants me to go down into the basement to get something or do something. I don’t want to because there are spiders and it is dark. He gets angry. I get scared. Defiant. My brother Charlie, who must have been quite small, says “I’ll go. I’m not afraid. I’ll do it.” But this is not good enough. Finally, in the dream, the grandfather boots me down the stairs and slams the door. It is dark. It is not like the falling-forever dreams; in this one I hit the cold packed-dirt floor of the cellar and it is crawling with spiders.
Then I wake up. Thankfully. It is the same dream over and over. When, after many years, I tell my mother about this dream, she says, “That’s more or less what happened.”
Maybe that’s why we never saw him again.
After that, I stopped having the dream and I tried to make peace with the spiders. It was a long and hard relationship to negotiate. Last year at the cottage, there was a constant parade of russet-coloured daddy long legs going forth and back on the railing of the porch. My favourite thing is to sit there in the bendy chair with my coffee, early in the morning before the others are up, my feet on the railing, being one with the stillness, watching the sky and the water come to life, just me and the grey Heron, pretending we’re in a magazine ad.
And then there’s this incessant flow of spiders. But last summer, one of them stopped when he got to a small screw that was sticking up, and his antics to get around it were so… funny. I laughed out loud. Then he got to where my feet were blocking his progress and he seemed so afraid. He stopped, and he seemed to say to me, “Why do you keep persecuting us? WE never did anything to you. We never hurt you, but you keep punishing us, over and over and over.”
I thought about how many spiders I have killed in my CRAZY fear. I moved my feet and he carried on in his funny little way. The next day as I came up to the dock it was covered with dock spiders. If you have never seen them, they are thick and black and hairy; the ugliest creatures ever. Are they related to tarantulas? Do they swallow small children whole? I had kids with me so it was all I could do to get out of the boat without touching any of the spiders and without setting a bad example, a CRAZY example, for the kids. While I had suspected there might be dock spiders there, I had never encountered them, certainly not so many. I couldn’t understand what was going on. Were they sun bathing? They didn’t flinch an inch as we clambered past.
We made our way to the other end of the dock and were going to get into the canoe but as I did my pre-boarding bug-sweep, I found the mother of all dock spiders, evidently trapped by the smooth sides of the canoe. She was the size of my hand and scariest of all. Would that a good scream could fix the situation.
I realized that these other spiders, perhaps her children, must have been looking for her. I used a paddle to flick her out of the canoe, and none of my paranoid fantasies of her climbing up the handle faster than I could get her off actually came to pass. The relief was incredible, and so was the surprisingly good-Samaritan feeling that came over me.
After that, the spider parade waned and this year they did not come at all.
I thought about that grandfather, and wondered if I was somehow a spider to him, if maybe we all were, and if he ever made peace with his spiders in the end? And it makes me wonder, if you are trying to build relationships, to engage people in a community, what do you do with people like that? Find someone else who will listen to them long enough to hear their story? Take your kids and leave? Punch their lights out?
I don’t know. Me and my spidey friends have better things to think about now.