Is the spider a creepy bug or a complex marvel of nature? Learn more about spiders (you might learn to like them) at Kenneth Schonmeier’s cool spider website. (Photo of Steotodas, above, by Kenneth Schonmeier)
Last night I killed a spider with my shoe. It was on the wall in the kitchen, right at eye level, a black spider with a body about the size of a worn-down pencil eraser. I saw it when I turned on the light and immediately went to get a shoe. When I came back, the spider was in the same spot, tapping a leg—I almost wrote tapping his toe—tentatively, experimentally, against the wall, testing out the features of the suddenly new environment awash in light, and then: darkness. The quick shadow of my shoe approaching, followed by oblivion.
Remorse struck me immediately. How could I smash all that evolutionary progress and complexity with my shoe?
If I had looked at that spider a moment longer, I wouldn’t have been able to smash it. If, for a moment longer, I had watched the way the jointed legs found their purchase on the vertical semi-gloss of the kitchen wall, the tentative wave of delicate antennae, the experimental movement of just one of the eight legs; if I had thought for another instant about the silk that black bead of a belly could produce, the intricacy of the web that would not be woven now, the eons—if that’s the right word—of natural selection and adaptation that resulted in this member of the order Araneae in the class Arachnida from the phylum Arthropoda appearing on a kitchen wall in the latter years of my own species’ sojourn on the planet; if I had considered its perfection of design, its ancient genetic code, the ATP exchanged so busily in each of its cells; if I had allowed myself another moment to recognize the astonishing evolutionary accomplishment tapping its spidery toe at eye level on my kitchen wall, I would not have been able to reduce it to a bit of juicy protoplasm on the soul—that’s what I typed! a Freudian slip?—of my shoe.
In retrospect, it seems so wrong: the way the body was working perfectly one minute—a miracle of complex organization functioning without a hitch—and suddenly it’s shut down, defunct, destroyed. This is why I find it harder and harder to kill anything, even a spider or an ant. It’s not a matter of warm, fuzzy feelings for my fellow critters, not a case of ethical principles or religious convictions that give me pause. It just seems wrong to smash a marvelous mechanism that’s in perfect working order.
Not that I don’t have warm, fuzzy feelings for my fellow critters. When my cat Ralph died—after 15 years of serving me as friend and “Mews” (get it? I’m a writer? he was my “Mews”?)—I mourned him deeply. I miss him still. I’ve been known to grieve over dead squirrels in the road. I go out of my way to feed birds and deer and raccoons in our backyard (everybody loves birdseed), and the neighborhood cats know where they can stop for a snack or a drink of water year round.
Those who know me best might say that I have for my fellow creatures an overabundance of compassion—“that Ache of Imagination,” as my favorite Lithuanian poet Czeslaw Milosz defines it in a poem with the prosaic title, “Six Lectures in Verse.” I spend many hours a day feeling that ache of imagination. It’s my job, as well as my natural inclination, to imagine my way into other consciousnesses. I don’t even need an animate object, much less a fellow creature, to make up a heart-wrenching scenario. Give me half a minute and I can turn, say, a French fry forgotten in the bottom of the bag into a lonely protagonist, longing for the company of his salty fellows, little knowing the gruesome fate that has befallen them.
Speaking of that gruesome fate, eating one of those marvelous mechanisms is a different story for me. When a bird eats a spider, the spider molecules are reorganized into bird molecules, rather than disorganized into a useless smear on the bottom of my shoe.
It’s different, too, when the bodily mechanism is breaking down gradually, naturally. As the priest cheerfully reminded us at my mother’s funeral: “Guess what, people? We’re all going to die.” Even then, the moment when the machinery stops is striking, in and of itself. In a story called “Leaving Maverly,” when a woman dies after years in a coma, Alice Munro describes the moment this way: “The emptiness in place of her was astounding. . . . She had existed and now she did not.”
Of course, the “emptiness” refers to the absence of the person animating the machinery of the body, but change “she” to “it,” and the second sentence applies to the spider on my wall: It had existed—a marvelous mechanism, in perfect working order—and now it did not. I don’t have to think about Charlotte’s Web, or any other kind of personification, to be filled with remorse. It’s the loss of the body, as a brilliantly organized piece of work, that should have stopped me.
And usually, it does. I keep a clear plastic cup and an index card on the table next to the back door. When a moth or a lightning bug or even a fat blue fly follows one of us inside, I wait until it lights on the window, trying to get out, and then I put my catch-and-release insect removal kit into action. That’s how reluctant I am to be a disorganizing principle.
There are exceptions to my reluctance. I’ll slap a mosquito, of course, and centipedes—even the little ones—give me the willies. My husband says that any 150-year-old house is likely to have its share. I squash them with no hesitation, knowing how fast they move and how large and prehistoric-monster-like they quickly become, and that they sting when they’re cornered. (Ask my cat.) When I’m working at the table in our dining room and I happen to look up in time to see and hear something fall from the ceiling in the corner (not overhead, thank God) with a soft but distinct “thunk,” you can bet I’m not going to let it take off running on its 100 legs (if that’s how few they really have) across the hardwood floor.
Oh yes, I know that centipedes are a marvel of genetic and mechanical complexity, too. I know their species have been around longer than mine and that they’ll probably outlast us, provided we don’t ruin the planet so thoroughly that nobody does. Still, when it comes to centipedes on the ceiling, I confess my willingness to add to the immortal words of Alfred, Lord Tennyson:
“Nature, red in tooth and claw”
and a size 9 woman’s shoe.
Mary Helen Stefaniak is author of the award-winning novel The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia. She lives in Iowa City and teaches at Creighton University in Omaha.