Spiders, specifically spider bites, are a constant in my life. In one of my earliest memories of my mother, she is dabbing cool wet white paste on my spider bites with her fingers. The remedy survived her. I still use the poultice made with Arm & Hammer Baking Soda and water. If I rub it into a spider puncture in time I won’t have to gobble Benadryl, which once was safe to relieve allergies and now is on the list of medications that may cause dementia in old people.
“Spiders don’t bite,” says the once reliable friend-who-knows-everything.
“See these welts? Spider bites,” I say.
“Nope. Spiders don’t bite.”
“Yes,” the Northwestern doctor examining the seven inflammations on my arm said with a shrug, “You have spider bites.” A specialist from Brazil, where he studied tropical skin diseases, he had a simple solution for the itch, “Try this cream.”
“How can I prevent them from biting me?”
“You can’t. They bite everybody. But your skin reacts. There’s an infestation in your walls. Tell your building manager to turn the heat up to ninety and leave it there for twenty-four hours. They’ll all die.”
I don’t have to tell the building manager. He fires up the boiler every October and it’s so hot the first few weeks that residents in all 138 units open their windows to cool off. The artificial heat works, but not forever. The next spring, surviving eggs hatch and gangs of teenage spiderlings come out to close their pincers on me.
Spider traps, natural spider repellent and poisonous “dead on contact” spray brought no results. Spiders bite me, I reasoned, that means I have a right to murder them, right? Too spooked to to get close, I couldn’t swat them with a rolled-up newspaper or magazine. Instead, I hurled shoes and books at the walls and ceilings where they hung. Still I woke on Spring and Autumn mornings with fist-size raised itchy blotches on all uncovered body parts–my face, neck and hands. Spiders weren’t in the sheets, they crawled on top of me.
How to salve spider heebie-jeebies? Get to know them.
Larinioides sclopetarius, the bridge spider, also known as the high-rise spider in Chicago, weaves orb webs outside my windows. The high-rise spider is strong enough to puncture my skin but it doesn’t mistake me for prey and doesn’t inject venom. The triangulate cobweb spider webs around my indoor plants, lamps, picture frames and corners. Neither of these spiders are aggressive and I’d never feel a sting if either of them accidentally bit me. I watch these magnificent creatures weave back and forth strengthening their silk-threaded webs to create magical grocery stores. Enemies—wasps, flies, gnats, mosquitoes and other spiders—snare themselves on the sticky strands and the spider rushes to consume them. I lose myself gazing at God’s simple genius of protecting us from a plague of stinging insects. These are the spiders I tried to kill. Not anymore. I love them. My protectors.
Clubionidae spiders or yellow sac spiders are a different story. Poisonous and hungry, they can’t wait to crawl out of the electric wall sockets and attack me in the night. It’s a mystery why they mistake me for their arthropod food. I’m allergic to the poison they inject. They are blonde, blend into any environment and wrap themselves in silk sacs rather than webs. I once turned over every piece of furniture and pulled all the books
out of my overstuffed bookshelves looking for silken spider sacs. I found one stuck to a yellowed copy of A People’s History of the United States, threw the book in the sink and doused the sac with boiling water gleefully destroying my torturers’ home and nursery. Sac spiders are unlikely to climb into the other spider webs to certain death. I suppose God is saving my deliverance from them for the afterlife. They are a constant threat.
Dr. Brazil’s cream has no affect on reducing the sting or days-long swelling of sac spider venom. When a sting wakes me in the night, I jump out of bed and pat baking soda poultice on the wound. It dries into flat white flakes. I dust them off in the shower and remember my mother. She wrapped my bites in gauze to hold the poultice in place. Her old fashioned remedy for the ancient curse lives on, as her mothering tends my agitated dreams.