A Little Bug With a Mighty Bite

My New Mexican casita, a winter resort for Black Widows.

Rio Arriba County, NM – I suffer from a creeping paranoia that they’re out to get me. And I fear that if they’re not out to get me, per se, that they’ll get me anyhow. It’s not the bears, the mountain lions or even the rattlesnakes that provoke this bubbling paranoia, but rather these tiny little spiders known as Black Widows.

As a human being I’ve never worried much about predators or lethal non-predators. Chalk it up to being raised in Wisconsin, where the worst one fears is tornadoes or striking a deer a 55 mph. But the rules of the wilderness in northern New Mexico are different. It’s easier to die here than in most places and from causes that aren’t always easy to anticipate. It’s completely irrational, I know.

Irrationality is fundamental to the nature of most fears. No matter how often I tell myself at 33,000 feet that flying is the surest way of arriving in one piece, I can never shake the sense no matter how many Xanax I take that it’ll end with me crashing back to Earth.

My fear of Black Widows is no different. Although the odds of one plunging its fangs into my flesh are low, I find myself nonetheless bracing for the possibility each time I reach for an item or put on clothing. It doesn’t help that they’re all around me, in the trees, in the window casings, in the cupboards beneath the sinks. Worse yet is that I’m convinced the more I try and avoid the bite, the more likely it is occur.

I suspect most people harbor deep-seeded, logic-defying fears. I once knew a guy who became nauseous with terror each time he approached a bridge. He traced this fear to an incident he heard about as a child when the northbound lane of the Mianus River Bridge in Connecticut fell into the river below after its pin and hanger assemblies failed. Three motorists failed to see the abyss before it was too late and plunged to their deaths in the dark waters of the Mianus. From that point on, the bridge’s failure, and its horrifying aftermath, was grafted onto the substance of his mind. Attesting to the irrationality of this fear, he was perfectly unafraid to pass under bridges.

The realities of spiders, however, are far different than those of falling planes and collapsing bridges. Spiders are a low-lying enemy ready to ambush a finger or toe. Routine maintenance won’t change that.

I hate them with all my heart, spiders. The mere sight of one taps into a primal well of anxiety that reason can’t easily temper. A few weeks back my girlfriend spotted an eight-legged bête noire crawling across the floor. It’s abdomen was the size of a quarter and its legs were hairy and V-shaped, as if it were poised to vault at me. But before it figured out its next move it was squished beneath a book. I later learned it was a wind scorpion. Though its bite isn’t lethal, its bladed pincers can easily tear through skin. Now when I go to bed I worry about rolling on top of one while I sleep. And if it’s true I’ll swallow in my sleep X-amount of spiders in my lifetime, heaven forbid it’s one of these nasty guys.

But if it’s not venomous spiders, it’s venomous snakes – camouflaged, coiled and ready to strike – that one has to watch out for in these parts. They say that 20 percent of all rattlesnake bites are dry, meaning they don’t pump their deadly juice into its victim, odds that are hardly reassuring. A few weeks ago a local man’s wife felt the pain of snake fangs sinking into her flesh. There was no warning, no rattling of the tail, no chance given to step back. She lived after being given a cocktail of anti-venom and antibiotics, but the recovery is slow and painful. The otherwise healthy lady now gets around with the assistance of a walker and has lasting muscle and nerve damage. One little misstep near an ordinary mousy-looking hole and her entire life becomes something less than it was before.

Fortunately the danger ends there. Scorpions don’t like the high altitude and therefore stick to the lower half of the state. And until snakes make my home their home, I won’t pay them much mind.

Spiders, on the other hand, are easy to miss. It’s amazing such minor creatures can inflict major damage. Years ago in Oregon I met a man whose hand between the thumb and index finger was black with necrosis from a Brown Recluse that had taken refuge in a glove. The sight of that black ring surrounding a pink-oozing wound grafted onto the substance of my mind. As such, I shake out my clothing and shoes before slipping into them.

The first time I saw a Black Widow here I gazed admiringly at it. I’d never seen one before, face-to-face, but I stood there and watched it watching me, sunlight glistening off its leathery black skin. It really is a beautiful creation, with that distinctive red-hour glass on its abdomen and long segmented legs that move in lyrical strides. I wondered how aware it was of the damage it could inflict on me.

That little thing could end my life, I thought, knowing that even if it were to bite me the odds of survival were still on my side. Truth is, all spiders are deadly, but through some fluke of evolution their fangs are neither big nor strong enough to cause much havoc. It just so happens the Black Widow’s venom is so potent that it’s deadly in the tiniest amounts. Armed with that knowledge I armed myself with a shoe and smashed it into the wall.

Unfortunately, that killing is far from the final say. As the air cools with the onset of autumn, the Black Widows will begin moving indoors for the winter. My vigilance will undoubtedly kick up a notch or two, as every movement, no matter how everyday and ordinary, is fraught with the potential for contact. Last weekend a buddy of ours recalled the time he was bitten by one. He’d bent down to pick up a cinder block when a piercing pain shot up his arm. He said it felt like someone sticking pins in his fingertip and instantly regretted not looking for the spider first. He’s a Native and should’ve known better.

It’s a mistake you only make once, he said.

I hope to never make it all.

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