—From Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
During Texas Halloweens we had no need for decorations.
The entrance to our house in San Marcos was laced with webs that regenerated as quickly as connective tissue. My daughter and I had the nerve to hang fake webs—later we’d find very, very real spiders outnumbering the plastic ones.
I’m not an arachnophobe.
Growing up in New York meant seeing spiders mostly anthropomorphized in narratives like Anansi trickster tales, Spiderman comic books, and E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (whose title character gives birth to a spiderling whose name I shared).
Two Octobers ago I met my very own Charlotte. Let’s call her Nancy, and this her belated obituary. In life, she was nowhere the size of a gumdrop, weighing in at over an inch long. Less Charlotte and more the arachnidized beldam-mom in Henry Selick’s Coraline, packing an infinitesimal waist, four pairs of needles, and a sunburst of black and yellow tattooed on her bodacious abdomen. Probably kept a whip and patent-leather thigh-high boots somewhere in the bushes.
We must advertise Wilbur’s noble qualities, not his tastiness.
Nancy was a webgineer with the steely work ethic of my parents, made dumplings out of prey her dorsal markings attracted. Daily she wove and unwove masterpieces. Her stabilimenta, the series of X’s and Z’s in certain spider webs, have arachnologists moonlighting as lit critics confounded by text. Theories abound. Some credit Nancy as the original writer of “web ads”: stabilimenta as simply aesthetic or made to attract prey and mates by reflecting UV light. No, others argue, stabilimenta serve as stop signs to keep birds from flying into a hard day’s work. The word itself points to the long-dismissed theory that the stabilimentum is meant to stabilize the web.
All I knew then was that Nancy’s web would fan out in a diameter of over two feet, from the outer windowsill of my daughter’s room to a corner of the house and the bushes below.
In her runic configurations I read: “Girl, I do a heck of a lot more hunting, cooking, and writing in a day than you do in a semester of grading, teaching, not writing.”
Well, my daughter wasn’t having it. “Ma, tear it down already.”
“Nope, not messing with that.”
“Ah ha, you’re scared.”
“She just gets my respects.”
“Yup, you’re scared.”
“It’s not fear. A broom or good hosing—”
“Then do it.”
“You have been my friend,” replied Charlotte. “That in itself is a tremendous thing.”
Then Nancy turned frenemy. Her dominion expanded to the entrance of the house, a fact bitchily pointed out by a neighbor who came over for coffee one night. To her, every spider is a flesh-eating brown recluse. No way, no how was drinking Ethiopian-grown coffee worth losing life and limb. How utterly irresponsible of me to indulge such fascination with a spider, she said, rather than protect my daughter from gangrene.
Most people believe almost anything they see in print.
The tyranny of motherhood kicked in. My broom made dust bunnies out of that web, sending Nancy wriggling to a corner of the ceiling, then to the floor. (Yes, she thudded.) Encouraged by my neighbor’s ululations, I aimed the broomstick at the yellow star and cleaved Nancy in two.
Once the coffee mugs were washed, the neighborhood gossip traded, the buenas noches and gracias exchanged, I locked my door, feeling some-pig awful. Judas-awful.
A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies.
Google unveiled Nancy as non-venomous and among the most easily recognizable spider species in North America: Argiope aurantia.
The Writing Spider.
While sweeping away Nancy’s fragments the following morning I saw “radiant, terrific, humble” writer me in the dustpan.
If it had taken Charlotte a lifetime to weave those three simple words, how long would it take me to rewrite them in the blank pages of a writing life overtaken by years of teaching? Where, really, is the safest place to weave the stabilimentum of one’s dream? And once a haven’s found, how then to atone for a crime against the creature whose role in West African and Caribbean myth is that of trickster and bringer of stories to earth?
“Ever try to spin one?” asked Dr. Dorian.