I think I was ten when I found the spider living in our garage. I remember staring at it for hours. The beautiful web it had woven glistened in the sun that shone through the small glass window. The large hairy body waited in the centre, silent and majestic. Curious I touched one of the silk strands, the spider then pouncing, expecting to find a meal. I withdrew my hand quickly as the spider searched for the intruder in his little world. My heart thumped with excitement. Within a minute, he’d returned to the middle. Back on guard duty, his fine legs holding onto the gossamer threads patiently, on stand by for the next vibration to signal his chance.
Sometime later, I found a dead fly on a shelf, it’s body curled in an agonising pose post-death, now sitting there for all eternity. Gently, between thumb and forefinger, I pinched one of its legs and it began to struggle – it wasn’t quite dead after all. Thrilled, I took it over to the spider, whose web was not as perfect as it had been, husks of previous dinners now decorated his home. His body was larger and more pronounced, still ready in his domain. Lightly I touched the wriggling fly to the fibre and let go. The fly struggled, but the more it did, the more it intertwined it became. The spider didn’t need nudging. In an incredible display of instinct and art, it wove a cocoon around the insect until it realised the contest was over and accepted its fate.
I waited with bated breath, but the spider returned to the centre, as if it said *I’ll keep him for later.*
I was amazed and awed.
Several weeks later I was playing in the yard with a friend of mine, I can’t remember his name now.
“Having fun?” my mother said sliding past us and into the garage.
“You have to see my spider,” I said to my playmate.
“I don’t believe it’s as big as you said it is,” he said, continuing to dig into the dirt to make a battle field for our army men.
“It’s got so much bigger since I’ve been feeding it!” I shouted.
Mum opened the garage door and swore to herself. I dropped my figures and looked. I heard the hiss of an aerosol can and leaped to my feet. I ran into the garage to see my mother put the insecticide away, then take the laundry out of the dryer.
“What happened?” I asked nervously.
“Bloody spiders,” she said dusting her hands off and leaving.
My breathing quickened, I ran over to my pet, to see his body convulse and writhe as the chemicals began to overwhelm him. I started to cry, seeing it die a slow and horrible death.
I stormed out of the garage and shouted to my mum, “Why did you kill my spider?”
“Sorry,” she said confused, “spiders are pests.”
And that’s all she said, re-entering the house without a second thought.
It’s silly, isn’t it. To get so attached to something so small, so insignificant. But there was a bond between us, if only one way. I took what I learnt from that into my early teens, feeding stray animals and finally when we got a dog, I lavished it with the love I’d given to my arachnid friend. It wasn’t the same though. There was something about that spider, the way I offered it a meal and it said to me *I’ll have it on my own terms*, like I was giving an offering to some sort of God. I never forgot.
I left school and my love of spiders never did leave me. I adored Spiderman, I always wished for a spider to bite me and give me super powers. I tried many times, but as you can imagine, they saw me as a giant. They always ran, instead of clamping their jaws onto my arm and injecting something that would allow me to sling webs.
I went to university and studied Arachnology, it was fascinating. My parents thought I was stupid, and my mother never remembered the time she killed my pet. I also studied Anthropology, how humans evolved from apes. It was the extra protein from cooking meals that made the biggest difference. It allowed our brains to grow so much quicker, and to the ultimate species we are now. Unfortunately, for spiders, they are not that intelligent. They are good at what they do, really good, but their evolution has been of specialisation instead of revolution.
For my PhD thesis I proposed the fast evolution of the house spider, via feeding of a high protein diet. My end goal was to see these animals adapt to eating richer and richer diets, to see them flourish, to see their breeding cycles increase in frequency and get larger.
I was able to get forth generation *Giant house spiders* to increase in size by 1cm, which was quite fascinating. I was able to get them to eat locusts, which the first generation ones couldn’t get through the hard shells of the locusts. However, that was it. My lecturers feigned an interest, but it wasn’t something that excited them. I passed my degree though, they were happy with my hypothesis and my methodology, though they didn’t think I’d done anything special.
My parents were proud though, especially when I was able to land a job at another University teaching Arachnology. They were happy I was doing something I wanted to. My research didn’t stop though, I just had to do it on my own time.
I ran into Dr Marcus, my professor from University, earlier this week at a pub, just down the road from the campus.
“Is that you?” he said, looking under my beard.
I scrunched my face, trying to recognise the man I’d not seen for fifteen years, “Dr Marcus?”
The smile grew on his face when he saw the recognition on mine.
“Long time no see,” he said, embracing me in a hug that left me feeling uncomfortable.
“I loved your article on micro-evolution of the house spider,” he said, releasing his embrace. He appeared genuinely happy.
“When you came to us with your thesis proposal, the alumni and I thought you were crazy. But what you’ve shown in your paper, I have to say, I’m impressed. Have you got it peer reviewed yet?”
“Not yet,” I said, taking a couple of steps back, “Dr Carter from Oxford has offered to. I mean, if you want as well, I can talk to him?”
His smile fell away, I think he was let down I didn’t ask him first.
“No, that’s okay, Gerald is very good, much better than me.”
I sighed, feeling a little guilty, “I’ve not seen you in years. If we stayed in touch, you’d be the first person I’d have spoken to, but I didn’t think you liked my thesis.”
“Honestly,” he said, putting his arm on my shoulder, “we all thought you were a bit out there. When you handed in your work, it was really impressive. I think it made a couple of the older professors uncomfortable. No-one had thought to do what you did, and the results were clear.”
“So, after all this time, you thought I did a good job? I only barely passed.”
“I’m sorry, it wasn’t my fault,” he said, before his shoulders hung.
“I mean, it was partially my fault. But I had only been at the University for a year, I didn’t want to speak out.”
Anger grew in my stomach, I took a deep breath and relaxed.
“I’m doing good, I don’t hold anything against you. I may have done the same in your situation.”
“Oh, thank you,” he said relieved.
“Say, do you have a free hour? I can show you what I’ve been working on, it will blow your mind!”
He checked his watch, “Yeah, I’m free. I have to say, I’m quite intrigued. From what you wrote, it does seem a little unbelievable.”
“Well, if you want to peer review my paper, what better way than to see what I have in the lab.”
We left and made the short walk to the University campus. We talked about old times. About how Dr Marcus, or Jeff as he wanted me to call him now, hated the people he used to work with. He said if he was in charge, I’d have got a distinction. I refused to let this new information bother me.
“The basement?” he said inquisitively.
“Yes, the damp and dark is the best place for house spiders, you know that.”
“Yeah, but I’d have thought they’d give you something a little more impressive, especially if the work you are doing is as good as your paper suggests.”
I opened the door to the University basement, the cool air escaped and I could see the excitement in Dr Marcus and we began to descend.
“This is what it’s all about really, isn’t it,” he said rhetorically as we took the wooden steps downwards, “you can only learn so much in books.”
“Indeed,” I replied, turning on the small incandescent bulb.
Ropey cobwebs lit up with the dim light. The faint sounds of skittering could be heard.
“Wow, that silk is amazing. That must be four or five times the diameter of your common house spider. What a rush!”
I have to admit, seeing my old professor thrilled at what I’d done made me feel good.
He reached out and touched the white threads.
“It almost feels like rope, that’s incredible.”
“You haven’t seen anything yet,” I beamed, leading him down the rest of the stairs.
“This is my lab,” I said, holding my hands out wide, “this is where the magic happens.”
I closed my eyes and could feel hundreds of eyes stare back at me, and I loved it.
The walls were decorated with small terrariums with different species of house spider.
“Holy shit,” Dr Marcus said before covering his mouth, “I’m sorry, but these are huge!”
Jeff was gazing into a small tank that housed a fortieth generation giant house spider guarding his web with all the majesty I saw in the little one in my garage all those years ago. I took a locust out of a small box above and opened the door.
“Do you want to feed him?” I asked.
Sweat was gathering on his forehead. His breathing hastened.
“Can I?” he said, mesmerised by the arachnid that waited.
“Sure,” I replied, handing over the locust by a leg.
He hesitated at first, his hand shaking, entering the home of a spider he didn’t think could exist.
“Oh my God.”
The locust touched the fibres of the silk and struggled, but the more it did, the more it intertwined with the sticky silk until its fate was sealed. The spider dashed over and weaved a cocoon around the insect until it realised the contest was over and accepted its fate. The spider returned to the centre, as if it said I’ll keep him for later.
“You are a genius!” Dr Marcus exclaimed.
“No, I mean it, how…” he was speechless, “how?”
“That’s not what I’ve brought you here to see.”
“That’s not the biggest?”
“Look over there,” I suggested and pointed to a chair that was illuminated by a infrared bulb, “sit.”
Dr Marcus sat on the chair and looked at the empty terrarium in front of him.
“I don’t know what I’m looking for, what’s in there?”
“There’s nothing in there now. They outgrew it.”
“Amazing, what do they eat?”
“A couple of generations ago, they’d eat 16 ounce rump steak. But when I fed them sirloin, they ignored the rump.”
“Yes, you could say that. It happened so quick too. Within a few more generations they ignored the meat entirely, so I had to bring them guinea pigs, then rabbits, then monkeys.”
“Monkeys?” he said confused.
“I know it’s not technically right, but I stole a couple from the labs upstairs. They were just testing chemicals on them. Not even drugs.”
“Oh, I can see one of them is interested.”
“Fuck,” Dr Marcus uttered.
I placed my hands on his shoulders.
“Yup, that’s generation eighty-six,” I said pointing to the three foot spider on the terrarium in front of us, “once I was able to give them high protein meals, the micro-evolution went off the chart.”
“How, how many… are there?” he said anxiously.
“I dunno, I’ve lost count, around thirty.”
Dr Marcus squirmed in his chair.
“What are you doing? I thought you wanted to see these?”
“This is more than I expected, I should go.”
“Nonsense,” I said, now seeing a second, third and forth spider join in formation on the glass.
“I ran out of monkeys. If I took anymore, I think they’d get suspicious.”
“Let go of me,” he said, but I tightened my grip.
“Do you see the way they are looking at you?”
I let go.
“Why can’t I get up?” he shouted looking down, “what is this?”
“That’s the same silk you touched on the way in. It looks like they like you. They don’t want you to leave.”
A fifth, six, seventh, eighth and ninth spider now gathered at the professor’s feet.
“I’m sorry, I have to go now,” I said, turning and making my way to the stairs.
“Where are you going?” he pleaded.
“If the sounds the monkeys made is anything to go by, this is going to be horrible.
“Thanks for coming around professor, I’m glad you like my pets. They are going to love you.”
I took the stairs one at a time and shut the door behind me, locking it twice.
I think the peer review is going to go very well.