Shortly after moving into our house two years ago, my partner and I noticed thick webbing on the kitchen floor in the narrow crevice between the refrigerator and cupboard. There was a robust population of black widow spiders in the yard, so we assumed that one had gotten into the house, which made us anxious about our cats and toes. So I got out the flashlight and broom and endeavored to locate, identify and possibly dispatch the arachno-beastie.
Belly to the tiles, I pointed the light into the threaded tunnel, which brought me eye-to-eyeshine with a massive black spider. I've been morbidly fascinated and unreasonably frightened by spiders ever since I was traumatized by the 1950s horror film Earth vs. the Spider as a 9-year-old, so imagine my state of mind when I pointed the light in again after poking around with the broom handle and saw the big black killer charging right at me! I yelped and recoiled, but it stopped at its doorstep and did not emerge. Out of respect for its chutzpah, I aborted the mission.
Over the next few days, the web grew, along with our anxiety. But upon closer examination, something didn't seem right. The spider wasn't shiny and smooth like a black widow—it was duller, with a velvety texture. Also, the web was cottony-soft and flexible, not brittle and crackly like a widow's. I used the binoculars for a safe close-up, but no matter which angle I took, I could not see a telltale red hourglass. Relief! This spider would not harm us—and, more important, there was no reason for me to harm it.
After this revelation, I quickly developed an attachment to the minimonster. I spied on it when it emerged late at night and peered into its tunnel during the day. It seemed content where it was, so we let it be, trusting that it would not come wandering through the house in the middle of the night. I anthropomorphized it and declared it female—not a stretch, biologically, considering its impressive size and sedentary behavior. I named her Shelob, after J.R.R. Tolkien's fearsome arachnid she-devil. We vacuumed around the web and warned our visitors to mind their toes.
When insects seemed scarce, I'd occasionally drop a cricket into her web, just to make sure she had enough to eat. As a kid, I'd feed the garden spiders and orb weavers back in Ohio so I could watch them conduct their intricate spider business. Shelob was no-nonsense—she'd pounce, apply the death bite and drag the juicy morsel back into her dark tunnel, all within a couple of minutes.
For two years, Shelob lived next to our fridge as part of the family—two black cats and a big black spider. Alas, one morning in late July we found her lying on her back in the web. With a sinking feeling, I blew on her, and she slowly convulsed. I wishfully convinced myself that she might still be alive. It seemed wrong that she would die in our kitchen just as the monsoon was cranking up a biological riot everywhere else. I fretted that I'd forgotten to feed her for too long, so I caught a cricket and carefully placed it in her grasp. In firm denial, I left her lying there for two weeks, hoping she would snap out of her coma, but she moved no more.
Finally, with guilt and grief, I collected her body and took it to show my friend the spider lady, who confirmed it as female and identified the species as Kukulcania arizonica—the Arizona black hole spider—named for the fierce Mayan feathered-serpent god Kukulcan, "bringer of writing and technology," according to bugguide.net. Of all the metaphors and meanings I'd attached to this mysterious being over the past two years, this was the best.
The spider lady said that Shelob looked quite plump and most likely died of old age. I felt relieved, and a little foolish. I'd imagined this spider to be under my care, an important part of my life, when it was really just living its own. In the biological scheme of things, its death meant nothing more than business as usual and food for other critters. It was only my silly human perspective that amplified her into an iconic and emotionally powerful presence.
After debating what to do with her body, I returned it to the web, where it belonged, where nature's course could continue unimpeded. This will close the circle, I thought, as I reached into the tunnel with tweezers and gently, sadly let her go. But, wait—is that an egg sac I see?