There is something about creepy crawlies that sends shudders from my spine. If it has more than four legs – or fewer than two – it makes me queasy. An entomologist would know which bugs bite and which ones don’t, but being an ignorant who is jaded by the academic, I am deeply frightened of them all.
Africa is a gulag for those of us who are afraid of insects. I draw comfort from the fact that we make up quite a large community and that technology in pesticides has come a long way since we rubbed berries and roots on our skin. Still, as soon as I step foot outside my house at night here, I cannot help but see the bugs crawling everywhere and be uneasy. Praying mantises and crickets the size of small mice, millipedes that are over five inches long, moths that are the size of blackbirds and spiders from Tolkien’s nightmares, they all seem larger than any I’ve seen anywhere else. Insects truly live life king sized here. Bipeds roam in fear.
When I realized tonight that I had left my house keys in the Jeep out in the open air garage, I knew that I would have to brave the African night. Don’t get me wrong, I do it often. I spray copious amounts of insect repellent on my bare skin and step out of the door like a gladiator would into an arena.
I did the same just now, even though I was only going to be out there for less than a minute. The first thing expatriates are warned about when they reach Africa is the female anopheles mosquito. We are told that every single mosquito in Nigeria carries the Malaria parasite. Let’s not even talk about dengue, or the fact that this rumor implies that all the mosquitoes in Nigeria are female. There is still no point taking a risk, and it seems as though the bites of bugs here always leave giant welts that stay for weeks. The little bumps that the Asian mosquitoes subject us to do not compare. The odor of the repellent was noxious, but at least it helped me avoid bites and stings of any sort.
The first thing I saw was a gargantuan millipede making the crossing from the wall of my house to the garage. A mighty fifteen feet, and this critter was traversing it as though it were a crossing of the Sahara.
I suppressed a shudder and toed my way carefully to the 4×4, making sure I wasn’t stepping on any other giant bugs. It’s not that I care for their lives. It is impossible to think of the amount of goo they contain until you squish them and find out the gross way.
The Jeep isn’t that far away, but it seemed like a few minutes had passed before I reached it, swung the door open and began to look for the keys. I didn’t keep the door open. I got in, started the car, closed the door and twisted like a contortionist to look for the keys. I felt safer in that hermetically sealed container.
Looking for them on the dash, I couldn’t help but look into the night. There, I saw something that cut my search short. A tiny spider was dancing in the moonlight, building a giant web all by its lonesome. It twirled round and round in circles, its limbs frantic and busy with the still wet web. It was humbling to watch the program evolution had perfected over millions of years.
Normally, you can never see spider webs after dusk. You tend to walk through them, and then you soon discover that although you cannot see them, you can definitely feel them. They stick to skin like insects stick to them. God forbid if your head is what goes through the web, because it always ends up in your mouth. Worse than hair, it does not let go once its there. Only a long shower can get rid of that filthy feeling afterward. I can just imagine how deadly they are to other insects if they are this annoying to me.
This web was interesting. It was clearly visible. It glistened in the moonlight like an ethereal castle with the spider as Lord. I couldn’t help but get out of the car and creep closer to study it. It was still building the web. I was soon convinced that this is where humankind found inspiration for the ballroom waltz.
Soon, my fear was forgotten. I stood under the web and looked up at the sky as the spider finished its task and clambered into the middle. The moon was framed so perfectly that it drew an sigh from my lips, and that tiny gust buffeted the web slightly. There was thin cloud cover, but the moon glittered through it like it were made of Saran wrap. The effect was breathtaking. It looked like the entire sky was glowing as the light from the moon hit the top of the clouds and filtered through like so much magic.
Under that, this spider had built a glorious dwelling. As I stood there, I realized why the spider had chosen that location for its trap. A gargantuan moth buzzed by the nearby florescent lamp. It was as large as a baby chicken, and dwarfed the little spider by several orders of magnitude. Yet, it was plain to see that the moth was the intended prey of the eight legged hunter.
I was watching a modern day battle between David and Goliath. Goliath fluttered and made mad rushes toward the light. David waited, a glistening pearl with legs almost fully retracted, deathly still and patient, waiting for the moth to get just that much more excited so it would fly right into the web.
It didn’t have to wait long. The moth overextended and was caught. The spider was in motion before it even hit, spinning a web around its Goliath. It must not have felt afraid. Perhaps, it was way past fear. The web stretched and bounced as the spider worked. The moth struggled for a few moments and then was still as the ever tightening web bound it tight. It was almost like I had watched Shelob hunt Frodo in the pass high above Minas Morgul.
As the moon traced its heavenly path across the ghost sky, the web soon disappeared from sight. There was just a golf ball sized mass of white where the moth had been. It hung in mid air, levitated by unseen means. The spider was barely visible on top of it, the victor with eight feet on the neck of the vanquished. As I slowly came to from the trance, I realized where I was and rushed back in the house. As soon as I did, I realized that I still hadn’t found my keys. I had to go back out.
I didn’t care. I’m still glad I’d forgotten my fear. Had I not, I would never have witnessed those beautiful moments.
That will be a lesson to me. It is only past fear that one can find the numinous. Courage is fine inspiration even if it is the inadvertent, dumb courage one acquires when he forgets to be afraid. I’ve named the spider Boris, like the Who song, and have found a new-found respect for his kin. It’s too bad that the cleaning lady will brush his home down in the morning. I’ll mess my room up to the point of vagrant clutter tonight so that she won’t have the time to.