In the muggy, late summer dark, she looks like a crab. Against the sidewalk of my apartment complex, she’s round, her legs like sturdy sticks.
I flip on my phone’s flashlight. I point the light toward the crab-thing, expecting to find something unfamiliar to me. Instead I find a spider—a wolf spider—heaving with hundreds of infant spiders on her back.
“Holy shit,” I mutter. She is a writhing tangle of legs and eyes and mouths about the size of the palm of my hand.
She crawls onto the grass, and once settled between tufts of green, she stands still. Her back—swollen with small, wriggling babies—shivers.
Instead of retreating as I should, I crouch beside this small mother, shine my light, and stare.
My mother was bit by a brown recluse on my 22nd birthday, more than five years ago. She didn’t know it was a venomous spider bite until the sore festered, swollen to the size of a child’s fist. The venom ate away at her skin. Mom, feverish and sick, was forced to go to the doctor, a place she never goes. Without the antibiotics and the draining of the wound, the doctor said, the infection could have seeped into her bloodstream.
I’m usually quick to kill spiders, prompted by the memory of Mom’s swollen wound—red and hot and etched in pale, dead skin. Once a month, I stalk the perimeter of my apartment, spraying Miss Muffet's Revenge on every inch of my baseboards, beneath my cabinets, and in the dark corners of my closet. I hope to extinguish any lurking arachnids, but I also hope to discourage the weaving of any future webs.
But this spider on the sidewalk is different. Yes, I still feel some urge to dispose of it—of her—to quell hundreds of little lives beneath the flimsy whack of my yellow Croc. But this urge quickly subsides. Instead, care replaces my murderous itch. I don’t want this spider to die.
When they become mothers, wolf spiders carry a bright white egg sac beneath their abdomen. When the sac bursts, her babies crawl to her back, clump and nestle close, and stay with her for several days.
That night, after I encounter the spider on the sidewalk, I can’t stop thinking about her. She crawls through my restless before-sleep, invades my almost-dreams. I imagine her picking through the trim grass of my apartment complex, maybe tumbling into the parking lot. I imagine her scuttering in my sheets, and my stomach flips. I am in awe of her. I am afraid of her. I am afraid for her, alone out there, in the middle of the night, with no one to tell her that a car could crush her in an instant.
Mother wolf spiders are solitary creatures, who, while carrying hundreds of young on their backs, hunt for their prey as if nothing has changed.
When I was twelve, my grandfather, my mother’s father, died of a brain tumor. Twenty-seven days after his passing, on New Year's Day, my father left our home forever, his getaway car a pickup truck loaded with suitcases. In a span of a month, Mom lost a father and a husband.
That summer, Mom bought my sister and me Gilmore Girls DVDs, and we’d spend entire days in our pajamas, binge-watching before binge-watching was a thing. We drank instant coffee and loved and hated it. Mom danced to the theme song—more like pranced, stepping in time and waving her arms to Carol King’s altered version of “Where You Lead”—and by the end of the summer we declared Dad’s leaving the best thing to happen to us. With Dad gone, Mom danced.
My sister and I slept in Mom’s room for months after Dad’s leaving, our legs tangled up with hers, our bodies hot. I still remember the soft symphony of Mom’s breathing and the canned laughter of sitcoms singing me to sleep.
Today, I come across a tiny spider in the middle of the sidewalk. I cannot tell if she is a baby wolf spider, but I choose to believe she is.
Do you miss your mother’s back, little spider? Do you miss the warmth of your sisters, body on top of body, limb knotted with limb? Sometimes, when the sun is too hot or the grass too high, do you wish to scuttle back to her, to settle into her like you’ve never left?
Kaila Lancaster is currently a PhD student at Oklahoma State University. A Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee, her work has appeared in LandLocked, Glassworks, Marathon Literary Review, and elsewhere.