From the LabLlit short story series
7 January 2017
Most academics behaved, as far as she was concerned, like garden-variety orb weavers. They picked a spot and spun their webs and caught whatever poor creatures were stupid enough to blunder into the trap
All spiders are predators.
Lisa was sitting in her van, listening to its sputtering idle and the splattering rain. Watching, safe within her vehicle, while she prepared herself to deal with this forced addition to what was supposed to be a private expedition.
Spiders are not pack hunters.
Most academics behaved, as far as she was concerned, like garden-variety orb weavers. They picked a spot and spun their webs and caught whatever poor creatures were stupid enough to blunder into the trap. Their energy was spent building the best web in the most strategic position and reaping their hard-earned rewards. They weren’t necessarily friendly toward their fellow arachnids, but generally they had the decency to let them be.
Wilkins’ house, anyway, was pleasantly suburban and surprisingly unimposing. At least from what she could tell through the early morning darkness.
Orb weaver didn’t quite fit, though. If she had to guess on physical appearances alone, Wilkins would fall somewhere in family Salticidae, the jumping spiders, even if she didn’t know him well enough to take a stance on which exactly of the several thousand individual species.
Still, he had all of the right general features. Small, compact, frankly pretty hairy, with the incredible ability to jump many times the length of their bodies. He was probably far too old now to do much actual jumping, but if reputation was any indication, Wilkins was more than happy to go to great lengths if it meant a step up in the academic hierarchy. You couldn’t get to his level any other way.
After several long minutes, Lisa beeped, and flicked the headlights on. A man emerged from the front door a moment later.
“Jesus,” he said, slamming the passenger side door behind him. “Hell of a time to be out. Thanks for picking me up.”
He extended an arm toward her, hand open to disguise the unwelcome advance of his appendage as a gesture of greeting between colleagues. His forest green rain jacket dripped water into Lisa’s lap.
She watched for a moment, waiting as long as possible for him to retract. He insisted on clinging to social protocol, waiting until she reached out cautiously with her right hand and half shook, half pushed him away to complete the exchange.
Wilkins said nothing for a while as she shifted into first, then second, the slow yet reliable engine straining against the weight of field gear in the back, the trap jars and ground stakes rattling as they thudded over the curb a little too quickly. They left the circular driveway behind and proceeded out onto the dark, silent road, Lisa’s last remaining hope that the field recorder would actually work. Wilkins made no noise, but she could still hear him, silently assessing her ineptitude. She had to get him talking.
They were out of the city quickly, and after that it really wasn’t that far to the field station. Half the reason she’d taken the position at the University was that she could get to the wilderness in a few short hours. What she hadn’t considered was that she would lose her excuse. Gone were the days when it was enough to disappear into the woods for weeks or months and come back just long enough to sort through the jars of trapped insects before heading out again. They expected a new, untenured faculty member to at least make the effort to be personable. Which meant there had been nothing she could do when the decrepit department chair invited himself along.
She’d always thought of herself as a wolf spider. Family Lycosidae. Not tied down by a web or ground trap, not dependent on anyone or anything. She was an active hunter, running down her prey on long legs, her weapons sharp fangs and pure instinct. She wasn’t flamboyant like the larger tarantulas or flashy bird eaters, but she had still managed to eke out a comfortable living by not drawing too much attention to herself, at least so far.
After a while Wilkins got bored and started filling the small interior with blabber about his project plans. He had a student working on a model of sexual selection in spiders, and proposed joining her little expedition so he’d have a better sense of her field site. At least, that was the premise. It also meant giving up her data, potentially contaminating her study with the clumsiness of some unknown graduate student and, worst of all, pandering to an academic dinosaur.
There were exceptions of course, like Agelena consociata. A small social species that builds large funneled webs, far larger than any individual could manage alone, and takes down prey in teams. An anomaly in the spider world, but indisputable evidence that under very specific circumstances, teamwork has its benefits. But it does not do to forget the spiders of the Portia genus. The arachnophages, luring other spiders by mimicry of leaves and bugs, tapping on occupied webs, or when deceit fails, ambushing from behind before devouring their prey with the uninhibited mirth of any self-respecting predator.
“You’re not listening, Lisa,” he whispered.
She gripped the steering wheel, refusing to turn her gaze away from the road for even a second. They’d left the city, but were still far away from the forest and from safety. She felt the hair on her arms bristle and found herself wondering if she’d finally learned from her research subjects the trick of detecting danger from atmospheric perturbations. The failing air conditioning had yet to dispel the weight of stagnant city air trapped in the old van’s ventilation, the condensation collecting on the windows slowly but surely making it more and more difficult to see where they were going.
“You don’t have to like me,” he continued, “but you have to see what’s at stake here. You’re up for tenure next year, and between you and me,” he placed a hairy hand on her shoulder, “it’s not looking so good.”
She allowed herself the briefest of glances over to the passenger seat. He was staring intently at her. The man didn’t know the first thing about fieldwork. He’d built his career on evolutionary theory and getting others to do the dirty work for him. And then there was this sudden and unexplained interest in spiders, zeroing in on their notoriety for sexual cannibalism.
He had to know. The most iconic of all spiders was named the black widow for a reason, yet the man would never even begin to comprehend. It is always the female spider that eats the male.