Spiders are much maligned creatures. Their furry carapaces inspire everything from cold chills to shrill screams – I should know, because to tell you true Bob made me feel the same way. Even though I stood barely higher than a kindergarten stool, Bob’s sluggish crawl dosed me with a jolt of primeval fear when he alighted upon the pet shop employee’s hand.
He was big and bulbous, his body covered with shocks of brown needles, his eyes opaque and black as buttons. If I told you he was cute you wouldn’t believe me, nor should you. He was actually pretty damn terrifying and not really as pretty as a name like ‘Chilean Rose Tarantula’ might imply. Still, he moved in a very considered, even elderly fashion the day on which we bought him, and the young pet shop attendant seemed to get a kick from handling him, and seeing my horrified look as the spider slowly gripped his hand. His languid movements suggested something of an even temper, which was encouraging. It’s the sprinting sort of creepy crawlies which really make me hug my knees.
What’s more we were told that Bob was actually a very fragile creature; that if you took him out and dropped him from standing height he wouldn’t do acrobatics like Spiderman but rather splat on the floor like an old tomato. The thought was pretty vile; more horrible than a tarantula is a zombified husk of tarantula. It brings to mind a story of my father who once, out in some bushveld backwater, felt a soft tickling on his face as he slept one evening. As the tickles grew more disturbing he swatted his face with much gusto – only to squish the fat shape of a baboon spider into his cheek. I’m beginning to think that this essay is turning into something quite disgusting. Best to get it out the system before I compliment the old arachnid I suppose.
It is important to prove, I think, that Bob was not pretty by any conventional standard: that the first stories that come to mind are horror-shows, grotesque. I would sometimes dream that he would get out of his cage and that we would never find him, that we should always live with a constant pall of fear over our heads, with the knowledge that a tarantula was loose somewhere in the house, crawling over us in our sleep. Yet despite all this he was handsome in his own way. If you looked at him closely you could see little scratches and pock-marks on the dome of his head – scars from his days in the illegal tarantula fighting rings of Chile, I like to think. It certainly gave him character, and one could suspect that his hairy mandibles were not unlike grandfatherly whiskers, that perhaps he could sing songs of the Atacama or of treks through the Andes, if he could. Perhaps he would whistle in antique tones about how the grubs were greener down in old Chile.
Did he do anything to earn his scary reputation? Of course it was chilling to watch him hunt. As my morals have evolved I now feel a pang of guilt regarding the legions of black and brown crickets we tossed into his cage at dinnertime. They were clueless, with their small liquorice bodies, their twitchy antennae. Often they simply sat rooted where they landed, on the pop-corn gravel floor next to the mouth of Bob’s den. Bob would come creeping out of the dark mouth of his log and a shadow would fall over the cricket. His luxurious and measured movements would halt and the cricket would remain still, petrified or oblivious, before the spider struck with a blur of speed and ferocity. In an instant all that remained was a bit of ruffled gravel, and two twitching legs hanging from Bob’s mouth.
Yet we were the ones who responsible for the fate of those crickets, and the vast majority of the time Bob was content to lay about quite peacefully. With or without an audience he would sit under his log, comforted by the warm glow of the heating pad beneath him, thinking of old Huaso ballads, the way the stars used to look like silver campfires in the deep forests of the night, and those glory days, millennia ago, when handsome people with stones and jewels carved pictures of spiders in the holy sands of the desert. I am sorry if you were sad Bob, stuck in your little glass prison. I know you probably didn’t mind, that you did not envy the stroke of hands, that spiders are not sentimental. Still, perhaps you deserved a more dignified life than that of a prop for school show-and-tells.
I went skiing with my family and left Bob at home, his heating pad on and a cricket or two in his cage. When we returned we found that his heating pad had broken and he sat in the middle of the bedding, quiet and still, like a brown tennis ball or muddy hazelnut case. He was dead, frozen up by winter’s jaws. Perhaps in spider heaven it is he who is now skiing, with four legs in boots with skis and the other four juggling cognacs as he slashes across the pistes. Or perhaps he has found peace in solitude, far from the prying eyes of little boys and their morbid imaginings, on a rocky slope of Chilean volcano beside a steady, purring sea.
By Matthew Chalmers