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Solitary spider gave companionship, taught lesson on mortality

There are 37,000 species of spiders, and about half of them lived in the house where I grew up. They used to terrify me by loitering in my bathrobe, my jeans, my closet. The World Book Encyclopedia claimed they preferred eating insects to eating people, but that little ruse didn't fool me for a minute. How many flies and moths do you think they expected to find in the left leg of my trousers night after night?

At bedtime I would check meticulously under the covers before venturing into that best of spider feeding grounds. Once I found a huge one under my pillow when I awoke, and for about a month, I used a broom handle to beat the hell out of the pillow every evening before flipping it over.

My greatest fear was sliding my feet into slippers in the dark, either because I might squash a spider or, worse, might not squash one. Once it actually happened, and I had to throw away the slippers. Strangely, in Ireland they say that finding a spider on your person brings good luck. I suppose they mean live ones.

Doctors, by the way, refer to "arthropod assaults," never to the demotic "spider bites." They're in cahoots with the World Book, of course, but the phrase has a pleasantly classical ring. "For we are here as on a darkling plain, swept with confused alarms of struggle and of flight, where arthropod assaults occur by night."

Of course when I assaulted the arachnids back with a rolled up copy of My Weekly Reader, they had the odds on their side, since I tended to tap at them apologetically from a discreet distance. Generally they'd run toward my hand and I would abandon the field, along with my little newspaper. Just as well.

Only in recent years have I come to appreciate the finer qualities of spiders-to admire the way they balloon across your whole yard on a single strand, for instance, as if they were attached to a cloud; or to acknowledge the wisdom of their equanimity. Whatever their faults, spiders know how to meditate, and it would be a shame to waste their mentoring. This fall, however, is the first time I can honestly say I have felt a twinge of friendship for a spider.

She was one gorgeous predator, all right: maybe 1.5 inches long, with yellow and black patterns on her abdomen, a fuzzy white head and delicate hairs on her orange legs which she used to place spiral threads lovingly against the radials. She took up residence outside our bedroom window, where she lived alone, every morning unreeling the flawless silk gently from the spinnerets in her tail.

For months she kept us company, asking only that we not clean the window, with which request we cheerfully obliged. In exchange, we got daily lessons in beauty, danger and patience.

She endeared herself to us by hanging head-down for hours at the center of her web, watching quietly, alert to every passing gnat, every change in weather or wind, her chelicerae relaxed. The world flowed through her. She wove milky zigzag bands, called stabilimenta, down the center of her web, then ate them days later in the ultimate commitment to recycling. Her final public act was to catch and enwrap a grasshopper last week, to hang him among her cloudy trophies, the biggest yet.

Then one morning she was gone. I don't know whether the frost killed her, or a bat or bird, or whether she just tired of the neighborhood. Maybe she had simply learned what she needed to learn, and moved on. I searched around and beneath the window but could find no trace. It hardly matters. I tried to find her picture at the library but couldn't. That didn't matter either, though it drove us empiricists into a brief frenzy of Internet searching.

One wants, of course, to know the ending. Do I miss my spider because I would prefer to believe we are both immortal? I know, I know: The bell tolls for me. And yet her life was a flash of lightning on my horizon, one I will not soon forget.

Yes, only behind glass could she have been called a friend. But one could have worse friends. Pacem.

Paul Baerman, Fuqua '90, is a Durham resident.

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