Image by Maciej Soltynski – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5819050
Some years ago, a plumeria I had bought on vacation in Hawaii started attracting ants. The active tip of the plumeria where new leaves grow seeps a honey-like ichor they crave. Since the plumeria kept me company at my computer desk, soon ants were crawling on my keyboard, walking between the buttons, investigating my tea, and even walking out onto my hands. It was a general nuisance. Even after I wiped down the desk with cinnamon oil and ceased drinking tea or eating cookies while in the study (a sacrifice), the ants returned, drawn by the plumeria. So I put it outside for a while, on the back deck. Some ants stayed on the plumeria and I couldn’t persuade them to leave.
There was a classic orb spider web on the upper crossbeam on the deck roof. In the middle presided a fat-bodied araneid with distinct yellow markings on her back.
“You could make yourself useful and move over closer to this plumeria and evict these ants for me. I don’t know if you eat ants, but I bet they don’t know that either,” then I thought I ought to be more polite since I was asking for a favor, and said “I mean, I’d really appreciate it if you could come over here and help me out.”
In the evening, when I went to take the compost out, the spider hadn’t moved and the ants were running amok. I made coffee for the morning in the automatic coffee machine, and went to bed with my husband. I mentioned the ant problem so he wouldn’t bring any cookies into the study.
In the morning I poured the coffee and opened the back door to smell the air. I could see it was sunny and I could smell it would stay that way. There was a new spider web stretched between the deck railing and the stem of my plumeria. In the middle of the rather stretched out orb web sat the araneid from the day before.
“Oh, well done! Thank you!” I beamed at her. The ants were somewhat reduced but still present in some numbers. “Well, bon apetit,” I said and went back inside to bring my husband his coffee.
I had talked to spiders for years, just as people talk to dogs, or computers, or babies, even though they don’t understand. This was the first time one had reacted by carrying out my wishes, however.
“Don’t go to the backyard today,” I said, “there’s a spider web blocking the way.” He said he wasn’t planning on it, anyway. After two days, the araneid ate her web and packed up camp. I saw her later in the garden near the bird bath.
Some weeks later, I spotted a big spindly Pholcus suspended in the corner against the ceiling above the shower spout. I saw her only after I finished showering because I have poor eyesight and it’s not my custom to wear eyeglasses in the shower, although I admit it happens occasionally by accident. There was no way I could reach the Pholcus to move her to a better location. Besides, even if I could, they’re called cellar spiders for good reason: she wouldn’t do well outside.
I stuck my head in the shower and said, “Listen, this isn’t a great spot. We shower almost every morning and there’s bound to be an incident one day. Why don’t you try behind the toilet? I hardly ever clean there. There’s a little condensation on the fixtures you can sip, and while you’re at it, maybe take care of some silverfish?”
I turned off the light and left. The next morning I forgot all about the Pholcus and showered on autopilot, as one does. While brushing my teeth I remembered and slid on my glasses and checked the corner: no spider. Feeling a bit silly, I nonetheless looked behind the toilet. And there she was, hanging in her nearly invisible web. Pholcus webs, unlike orb weavers’, are messy and hard to see. They like to hang with their body dangling down and legs in the air, very still. Often it’s hard to tell if one is alive or dead.
“I’m glad you found the spot I was talking about,” I said. The spider didn’t move or do anything to indicate it understood, or indeed, was even alive.
“Who are you talking to?” asked my husband. I explained the situation with the Pholcus. He said “hm,” and suggested I might ask some spiders to eliminate the moths in his closet. We had just discovered they had eaten holes in the trousers of his second best suit, and it would be a shame if they also consumed his best suit, which he had worn at our wedding and which still fit him quite well.
It took a few days before I saw a spider that didn’t seem otherwise occupied. It was a huntsman, quick-moving and furry, walking across the wall above the headboard of the bed. It froze in place when I approached. Understandable, since normally I put huntsmen outside. They have a disconcerting tendency to get in the way, even coming into bed, and someone is bound to get hurt when that happens.
“I’m not going to take you outside. I have a proposition. Go in the closet, the one on the left. It’s got moths. It’s a bit of a big job, so bring friends if you have them.”
Then I walked out of the room to give the huntsman privacy. I turned around in the doorway, feeling foolish, and I saw her walking across the wall, towards my husband’s closet. I stood transfixed, for a long time, minutes, I guess, which is how I saw the second huntsman, and the third, fourth, and fifth and sixth. I lost track of them. How many spiders were there in my house anyway?
We haven’t had a problem with moths since. I don’t even need to bag my knitting yarn. And the plumeria bloomed for the first time yesterday. The study smells sweet, and reminds me of Hawaii. We’re going again next month. I can’t wait. I’ve already told the spiders to keep an eye on the place while we’re away.
This short story was created following a prompt to introduce a fantastic element into an ordinary situation in the style of magical realism, from at a class I’m taking at The Grotto called Pushing The Boundaries: Experiments in Fiction and Poetry (with Jenny Bitner).