NO FEAR, ISH
by Robert Mangeot
In fall here, the yellow garden spiders come out. If you live anywhere in North America, you may know the beasties I mean: monster ladies in monster webs, their bodies over an inch long and their leg span a couple inches more. When summer breaks, for a few weeks they make a hunting ground of my eaves and shrubs. Despite her size, this queen lady is harmless other than to the imagination.
Most of my life I’ve been afraid of spiders. Those darting legs. Creepy egg sacs. Venom, maybe. You never know in your fear place, do you? Yep, I steered clear of little spiders, big spiders, spiders on floors, spiders in webs, leggy spiders that aren’t technically even spiders but really harvestmen but try telling that to my racing pulse. Whatever is next-level down from the full-on willies, that was me and spiders. Less so recently, and for an unexpected reason: I wrote about one.
A few years ago, I was doing passive idea-gathering on the internet (less charitably, goofing off), and I came across an article on giant tropical spiders who ate birds. A legit article from a legit source with legit pictures of the feasting in-progress. Genus Nephila, the article went. Forget my local ladies. A nephilid can boast a two-inch plus tubular body and a leg span wide around as your dinner plate, and the rain forest-y parts of Queensland and Southeast Asia are lousy with them. Birds, bats, snakes, all on her menu. Banana spiders are the common name, though more poetic minds dubbed them the Golden Orb Weaver. Their webs are super-strong and perfect for industrial uses from military to clothing to surgical supplies, which was the story hook: spider silk the stuff biotech dreams are made of.
Did I mention a leg span wide as your dinner plate? Go ahead. See for yourself. These ladies stalk plenty of YouTube clips. Inspired if freaked out, I put a giant nephilid at the heart of what became “Queen and Country,” published in the March 2018 Mystery Weekly. In the story’s early drafts, the spider queen was this malevolent force the principals searched in vain—and at some risk—to bag for Big Science. I gave the spider extra size and, with creative license, that serious venom to boot. No, my subconscious and I didn’t spare her any shock factor.
Something else happens when honing an idea: research. You know, facts and stuff. I studied nephilid diet, reproduction, hunting and feeding, day vs. nocturnal behavior, how she might walk, how she would behave in various weather conditions. And I studied her webs, the elaborate architecture spun in sun-glinting patterns, the parchment-y decorations she weaves in— stabilimenta, I would learn—that still baffle arachnologists as to exact purpose. Here was where the surprises started. The more real-world behavior I worked into my devil spider, the more rounded she became on the page. The more vulnerable. I came to root for her.
Research gives me more than just a better story. What I learn stays with me long after I’ve typed The End. I came to tolerate a spider encounter, to trap-and-release or live-and-let-live. After all, if there are spiders around, that means there’s lots of stuff spiders eat around, and those critters would be the root problem, wouldn’t they?
Look, I won’t claim to be cuddly with the things. If a house spider crawled on me now, I would leap none-too profile in courage from my chair. But I’ve come to enjoy our sharing space, with my local giant ladies especially. Every fall, my non-bird-eating queens break cover and spend their regal nights under my porch eaves. Last year, I described our resident queen’s stabilamenta pattern and web structure to my wife, how the spider would have to take her capture silk down soon, what with rain on the way. My wife asked how the hell I knew all that. And why, she didn’t add aloud.
The longer I’m at this whole writing thing, the more I realize what’s behind the ideas that I keep after. A desire to understand and, maybe in some cases, overcome. Thanks to a short story, these days I greet my fall spider friends with no fear. Ish.
Robert Mangeot lives in Franklin, Tennessee with his wife and cats. His short fiction appears here and there, including
ALFRED HITCHCOCK MYSTERY MAGAZINE, LOWESTOFT CHRONICLE, Mystery Writers of America’s ICE COLD, and the
Anthony-winning MURDER UNDER THE OAKS. His story “The Cumberland Package” was a finalist in the 2017 Derringer
Awards. He proudly serves as current chapter president for Sisters in Crime Middle Tennessee. When not writing, he
can be found wandering the snack food aisles of America or France.
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