I was nine years old when the house spider came to live with us. Back then, our doors were always open, and living near the woods, there was always the opportunity for uninvited guests.
No one noticed it at first. It found a comfortable niche underneath the stairway leading to the basement. Only when I was sent down to fetch a jar of pickles one day was it discovered, but by then, it had already “moved in.”
Its “nest”—which is what I called it, it seemed too involved to be called a web—inhabited the underside of the top tread of the stairway, not quite as thick as cotton candy, but unnavigable by any other insect standards. In fact, a few of those unfortunate insects were already embedded in the nest and wrapped up tight, like tiny corpses. Where the house spider was at the time, I could only guess. The dim light of the basement was of little help. And it was only when I got the idea that the house spider perhaps didn’t live in the nest at all, and in fact most likely lived outside of it, that the hairs on the back of my neck began to tingle, for it could have been directly overhead.
I nearly dropped the jar of pickles I was holding and quickly scrambled up the stairs to my mother, who wondered where I’d been.
I didn’t tell anyone of the house spider’s presence. It seemed a shame that all the work that went into building such a nest would have to be destroyed. That and the fact that the only harm the house spider seemed to be doing was capturing other uninvited guests, which didn’t seem to be that much harm at all. In fact, it seemed quite useful.
But as the summer months came and went, the house spider’s nest grew.
My two sisters seldom entered the basement, if at all. For them, it was too slippery and icky down there to begin with, let alone think of what might be living in all those damp, lightless corners. My father spent a lot of time away from the house, and when his footsteps were finally heard, it was usually in his study, away from us children. So that left only my mother and I.
She canned tomatoes in the fall, and made jellies and jams. Her canning jars and pans sat to one side beneath the one bulb that spread its light in progressively dimmer degrees to the farther reaches of the basement. The light that made it to the stairway was enough to see what the house spider had been up to.
The nest now included the top three stair treads. A series of near-invisible guy wires helped to keep the nest suspended. The densely spun bodies embedded in the mass were now the size of mice. At any other time, this would have begun to worry me, but there were other, more pressing concerns on my mind. Because it was also the summer my father had lost his job.
I remember low arguments at night that seeped through the walls as I tried to sleep; a day I happened to catch my father sitting at the kitchen table staring at the magnets on the refrigerator, his breakfast gone cold; and the two weeks he stayed upstairs in bed, not once getting out, except to go to the bathroom. First, “Your father’s taking a vacation,” our mother explained to us. Then, “Your father’s got a flu bug.” But after a while, she stopped trying to explain and told us just to hurry up and do our chores, or hurry up and eat our dinner, or just plain hurry up, as if there was something after us and if we weren’t careful, it would soon catch up to us.
As a result, by the start of the new school year, our home became both brooding and quiet.
Eventually, Dad moved out of the bedroom and came downstairs to live in the living room. He sat in his favorite chair and watched TV most of the day while Mom vacuumed under his feet. A doctor came to visit him once a week. My two sisters were seldom seen. They took to spending more and more time in their rooms and over at their friends’ houses. Mom didn’t bother with the canning that year and left the vegetables to rot in the garden.
I didn’t feel it was necessary to tell anyone about the house spider living underneath the basement stairs, and at times forgot it was even there.
The years passed. My sisters exchanged their girl friends for boy friends, and eventually, both got pregnant and married and moved out of the house. I tried to keep up with the chores and general maintenance Dad would have done, but after a while, the house began to take on a lazy, unkempt appearance. Door hinges began to squeak; windows became stuck in their casements. The interior paint began to fade, and the heads of nails began to show through the plaster until it looked as if the walls were fastened together with shirt buttons. Mom did the best she could, working several jobs to help support the house. Her hair began to grey and, like the nail heads, the wrinkles on her face, which had only been ghost lines before, began to show through.
There was hardly a reason for anyone to enter the basement anymore, what with Mom not canning, my sisters gone, and myself working odd jobs and not always available to do the fetching. But on certain days, with nothing else better to do, I would excuse myself from the dinner table and go down into the basement to check upon our uninvited guest who had decided to stay all these years.
The entire underside of the stairway was now home to the house spider. Its collective web had grown into a massively intricate structure stretching from floor to ceiling, with support strands extending upward and along the ceiling’s floor joists in all directions, like the branches of a tree.
I remember one particular day, as I stood marveling at the nest’s structure, I began to wonder to myself just what had kept it going all these years. Surely it had exhausted its habitat of flies and beetles and mice by now? But there came a scuttling behind me—a shifting in the degrees of light and dark in the deeper recesses of the basement—that prompted me to abandon this train of thought and return upstairs. Perhaps it didn’t want me to know. Or perhaps it was just something I shouldn’t have thought to ask.
It’s been twelve years now since I’ve been home. At seventeen, I enlisted in the Army and have since served three successful tours of duty. I have served in many parts of the world, large wealthy countries and small struggling ones with no food, no economy, and no form of stable rule, where apathy rules instead. It is in these countries that I’ve come across the nests—the house spiders. It is rare for a hut or hovel to be without one. They are as common as our domesticated dog or cat.
The people who live in these dwellings defend their spider’s right to be there, and in some cases even help to feed it. Much like I allowed ours at home to thrive under the protection of my silence.
Twelve years. Until today. I had to see my parents one last time. I had to see it. I had to know how far it had spread.
When I pulled up to the curb, I hardly recognized it as the same house I’d left. The clapboards were nearly colorless; some had bowed with weather damage and pulled free from their placements. The bushes in front had grown untrimmed for decades now. The walkway was thick with weeds, the lawn gone to seed. The front door was a patchwork of blistered paint and cracked wood grain. It took several knocks before the door opened and an old woman stood squinting in its place.
The recognition was slow, like a trickle of water from a rusty well pump, but it finally came, the rusty water becoming more fluent. The grey of her hair formed a mist around her face. Then I realized the mist was a thin veil of spun thread, like a cobweb, only much more coherent. A caul for the elderly.
“Paul…Paul, is that you?”
“Yes, Mom, it’s me.”
My mother gave me a fragile hug and led me inside. So this was the house I grew up in, listened to my sisters argue in, watched my father waste away in. The rooms were thick with webbing. Grey macramé patterns wove themselves over doorways and across furniture. The webbing seemed to emanate from the very walls themselves. The TV, with its rabbit-eared antenna, sat beneath a circus tent of spun thread; my father, sedentary in his favorite chair, himself entombed. From where I stood, I could see that he was still breathing.
“Will you be staying, Paul?” my mother asked, leading me into the kitchen. She put the kettle on for some tea. As I passed by the basement, I noticed the door was wide open, the dark stairway impassible. A thick stench of rot and decay wafted up from below. This was where it all began, I thought. And this is where it will end, if I don’t leave. Leave now. I saw what I had come to see.
“No, Mom, I can’t stay. I—” I ran out of words then. Everything failed me. Everything but my sense of urgency. “You understand, don’t you?” I asked her, hoping.
For a moment, her faded blue eyes seemed to register the web-infested rooms that surrounded us. Then her eyes floated back and met mine. “I’ll tell your father you stopped by.”
She hugged me then and I kissed her on the cheek—webbing stuck to my lips like chewing gum. “Hurry up, now,” she whispered into my ear.
And I hurried—I ran—those words echoing in my head from some long forgotten time when things first began to go bad…when the doors were left open and an uninvited guest crawled in. I ran before the exit was sealed shut, before my ankles became tied to the floor and my opportunity passed. I ran back to my car and drove away.
And now, as I drive along these suburban streets, I see the houses—one here, another there—the houses with the peeling paint and the neglected front yards; the houses whose children have probably moved away and will never return, and don’t know why; the houses whose dark hollow spaces are most likely home to the house spider…. I see these houses and I consider myself lucky. Lucky to be alive and moving. Lucky enough to have seen what I have seen. Lucky enough to still care.
So, a word of caution. Check your basement stairs or your attic eaves. It begins small, almost unnoticeably—the spun dust in the corners, the hairline cracks in the walls, the stains on the ceiling that weren’t there yesterday, but were always there. It takes over if you let it. So don’t let it.
Please, don’t let it.
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