I have always liked spiders. I love their webs, their colors, and their incredible variety. When my family moved to our farm I got to know spiders even better.
The barn is so quiet. One automatically lowers one’s voice upon entering. It is as if the barn is sleeping and one is ashamed to wake it. What if the barn were to wake and realize that it has been empty for years?
My bare feet make a soft padding sound on the cool cement floors. I am probably hunting for kittens. I did little else the summer of my seventh year. It was our first year on the farm.
I go into an old horse pen at the end of the barn. It has a door that leads to the outside. The floor of the stall is covered with several inches of hay. But my feet disturb it and I realize the hay is actually dust. The dust acts as a skeleton for the hay.
I mean to duck out through the door. I nearly put my face into the web of the biggest spider I have seen outside of a zoo. The spider is as big around as a man’s thumb. It is brown with grey and yellow markings. Its outline against the sun has a hint of fuzziness that is suggestive of fur. Its legs are large, but disproportionate to its bulbous abdomen. The abdomen is so large I wonder if this spider swallows its flies whole instead of drinking their blood. Its eyes are huge and black. They glitter at me fiercely. I can even see the spider’s mouth clearly.
I back up quickly and the spider drops from its web like a big fat marble. It scuttles into the woodwork of the door frame. It moves so fast for such a large spider that I scream.
The barn is still sleeping. Sunlight drifts through the horse stall door. The sun reflects on the dust floating in the air and makes it sparkle like gold.
Once we began milking cows the barn spiders became scarce. It is rare for me to stumble across one now. I do not know why they left. Maybe the barn became too busy for them and they disliked all the people. Perhaps the flies that came along with the cows encouraged too many other types of spiders to move in.
Other than cobweb spiders, the most common spiders that took up residence in our barn are the funnel spiders. These thin but large, agile spiders create a triangle shaped web in a corner that is solid like a sheet. Then they make a little tunnel to hide in at the tip of the corner. Any insect silly enough to try to walk around on the web is pounced upon and dragged into the little tunnel.
Because there were so many of these spiders and not enough foolish flies to go around, they were always hungry. My sisters and I would tease them, touching their webs with our fingers or a piece of hay so that they would jump out and try to get us. Sometimes they would attack each other or even attempt to wrestle and kill hornets and wasps.
While our dad tried to keep his barn clean and urged us to sweep the spiders away we spent many engaging hours catching flies and feeding them. Some of us picked out favorite spiders and named them. Occasionally, if a fly managed to get away not once, but twice, we praised it and allowed it to live. We recognized valor in both species.
It was a beautiful relationship. The spiders got to eat. We got to eliminate pesky flies and liven up the humdrum routine of daily milking chores. They were fierce and bloodthirsty, it is true, but we learned to like them.