original nonfiction by Paul M. Berger • “For a period of eight months, I held off an invasion of giant spiders with a vacuum cleaner. This story is true.”
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THE YEAR OF NINJA SPIDERS
by Paul M. Berger
copyright © 2007 / May not be reproduced without permission
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For a period of eight months, I held off an invasion of giant spiders with a vacuum cleaner.
This story is true. At the time, I was working as a bureaucrat in a small, out-of-the-way city in Japan, in the heart of an area known mainly for its earthy, volatile people, mercilessly humid summers, and proximity to an assortment of live volcanoes. It all began the day I arrived.
My new co-workers greeted me at the airport at the end of a 50-hour journey from New York, and drove me to the apartment they had prepared for me. It was a nice enough place for a bachelor, mixing traditional Japanese and western rooms, and overlooking a small wood. Poking around, I slid open a closet door to see what sort of linens they had provided. Abruptly, out shot a brown blur roughly the size and shape of one of those hand-things in Alien that stuff themselves down your throat and then burst out of your thorax. Faster than my eye could follow, it flashed up past my face, across the wall, and out the window, which I knew was locked closed.
In retrospect, I marvel that this did not make more of an impression on me at the time. But I was jetlagged beyond rational thought, and my new co-workers did not appear to have noticed it at all. When they said, “Let’s go introduce you to the neighbors,” my brain decided that whatever I had just seen was not worth worrying about, and dropped the whole issue.
The incident snapped back to me with perfect clarity about a week later, when I noticed some sort of mutant tarantula picking its way across my ceiling. Its brown body was nearly the size of my thumb, and its legs could almost have been slender and delicate fingers. “Aha,” I thought. “That must be the nightmare that lives in my closet.”
It moved as if it wanted something from the kitchen and was hoping I wouldn’t notice it, but it wasn’t the type of thing you could ever not notice walking across your ceiling. I followed it, and it picked up the pace. I pursued, God help me, waving the newspaper I had been reading. It fled, and became a gravity-defying tumbleweed that shot across the room faster than I could run. It moved so fast that it couldn’t keep track of all its legs, and it collided with the wall. It made a little “bonk” noise.
I was living with a spider possessing sufficient mass to go “bonk” when it ran into things.
It backed away from the wall, shook itself off, did a lap around the perimeter of the room, and disappeared.
It came back a day or two later. I made a show of being large and aggressive, and it retreated into the corner behind the TV. When I finally worked up the nerve to go look, it was gone.
Now, I’ve shared living space with wild creatures before. I once brought home a praying mantis as a kid, and I was entirely too sympathetic to the mouse that moved into my fifth-floor walk-up. Squirrels think I’m a gas, and in grad school one handed me a mouthful of leaves in exchange for a granola bar. This spider, however, had bristly hair and visible fangs, and a chronic surreptitious attitude that telegraphed with every step it took that it was up to no good.
On top of that, it was disturbingly, fluidly mobile, which meant I would never know where it would turn up next. It had to go.
It was clearly too big to squash — that would be like squashing a chipmunk. I decided to exploit the benefits of our industrialized society, and the next time the spider appeared on my wall, I blasted it with half a can of spray pesticide. It ran to its space behind the TV and used the tips of its front legs to fastidiously wipe the chemicals from its body.
Then it glared at me for the rest of the day.
The spider showed up again on a weekend, while I was cleaning the apartment. Here’s where the vacuum cleaner came in. It was a canister-type vacuum, and I swung the tube at the spider until it fled into a corner and brandished its front legs and mandibles at me. Then, just to see what would happen, I pointed the nozzle at it. The spider was sucked right off the wall, and I heard it rattling down the length of the hose into the canister.
My first thought was: I’ve done it.
My second thought was: I can never turn this vacuum cleaner off ever again, or that spider is going to climb back out and come after me.
I ran into the kitchen and stuck the nozzle into the garbage and sucked up everything heavy and sharp I could find. After about ten minutes I tried shutting the vacuum cleaner off, though I sat and watched it for much longer. Nothing emerged. I had won.
The next day when I got home from work, there was a giant spider waiting for me, and it occurred to me for the first time there was more than one of them.
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The incursions happened every day, more and more often. As typhoon season set in, they left the nearby forest and came inside, where it was dry and calm (until I saw them and started screaming). They never built webs — they didn’t have to. They hunted insects by speed and stealth, pouncing on their victims with a long-legged running start. Sometimes I would hear a crunching from the next room, and find a spider in the middle of the floor, eating a cockroach like a sandwich. I suppose I should have been grateful for the pest control, but all I could think was: They’re faster than cockroaches, and they don’t like me. I started leaving the vacuum cleaner in the middle of my apartment for easy access, and found myself reflexively scanning the walls whenever I entered a room.
Then the dreams began.
I would wake up in the middle of the night, startled by a dream of a spider crouching on the wall, watching me as I slept. When I shined a flashlight on that part of the wall, the spider would in fact be there, always in exactly the same place as in the dream, watching me — its eyes so big that they glittered in the flashlight beam like a cat’s. This, I concluded in terror, could only mean that my spiders had psychic powers. The alternative — that they were actually on all the walls — was too horrible to even consider until years later.
Once I awoke from a dream that a spider was on the window, and when I shined the light, there it was, though safely on the outside. I left the beam on it to scare it away, but the spider decided it liked the light. The window was two sliding panes with a watertight rubber seal between them, and as I watched, that little demon inserted one leg at a time through the rubber seal, phased through it, and came out on my side of the glass, centered in the circle of light.
* * *Spiders were not always objects of the same level of revulsion that they are today. In the myths of many cultures around the world, they aid humans with gifts of skills and crafts, particularly weaving. It may be that our perspective changed as civilization distanced itself from nature and began building homes that were supposed to keep wildlife safely on the outside — obviously something no one consulted my spiders about.One of the most unsettling things about finding a spider in the home is that they are impossible to relate to — more so than most creatures. It takes some level of intelligence to stalk prey the way these did, but when I watched one of them watching me, I couldn’t begin to fathom what was going on in its mind. What is the world like to an animal with clusters of eyes of different sizes and the ability to run straight up? It was more alien to me than a bird or lizard or even a fish would be.When I read China Miéville’s novel Perdido Street Station, I got the sense he knew exactly what I’m talking about. His character the Weaver is a gargantuan spider that steps in and out of time, speaks in streams of barely comprehensible images, and interacts with the world as if it were an immense work of art that only it can perceive. It is powerful, terrifying, and a complete enigma to everyone else — which is exactly how I imagine a spider would want it to be.
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As a Westerner living in rural Japan I often felt isolated, but I had to speak to someone about my problem. At work, I approached the head of my department and asked, “So, what do the people around here do about all the giant spiders?”
“What giant spiders?” he asked.
I described them.”Oh, no,” he told me. “We don’t have spiders like that in Japan.” In other words, I was clearly mistaken, and that was the end of that. I suspect he thought I would be relieved.
In Japan, it’s not uncommon to deny or disregard certain uncomfortable facts in the interest of maintaining harmony or a group’s self-image. For instance: Doctors don’t always tell patients they’ve got cancer. There’s a whole oppressed underclass caste you’ve probably heard nothing about. And good luck finding a history textbook with a recognizable account of that whole messy World War II business. My spiders, it seemed, fell into that category. No matter who I described them to, I met a wall of denial. These creatures were simply too wrong, too far from the world we were supposed to be living in, to be acknowledged.
Let’s put this into perspective: We’re talking about the country where kids keep large beetles as pets, where Godzilla fought Mothra, and where people pay a premium to eat a slice of octopus tentacle so fresh that the rest of the octopus is still sulking in the tank. And what I had strolling across my ceiling was considered too creepy to talk about. Either everyone knew and refused to admit it, or the few that did know understood they could never burden others with their terrible knowledge.
I became relentless in my quest for validation. Any time I met someone new, I immediately described my giant spider situation and demanded they tell me what they knew about them. (In retrospect, this period coincides with a particularly dry stretch in my romantic life.) I learned nothing, but developed a far-flung reputation. Years later, I happened upon a travel memoir called Hokkaido Highway Blues, written by a Canadian who hitchhiked the length of Japan. On page 63, the author is picked up by two young women, who, upon discovering that he’s North American, ask if he knows me, by name. “He did talk a lot about spiders,” one of them explains. “He was very afraid.”
I’m just surprised that the writer could cross the entire country and only run into two people who knew that.
Finally, I brought home a video camera, and recorded a particularly confident spider emerging from behind the TV and perambulating the room. The next morning I went into work and popped the tape straight into the VCR without a word. I worked in a bustling, crowded bureaucratic office where people were constantly calling out, lighting cigarettes, and answering phones. The moment the tape came on and the spider stretched its bristly legs, there was silence. Phones rang but went unanswered, and stacks of papers toppled over onto neighboring desks. “What do you say to that?” I asked the room in general, a note of triumph sneaking into my voice.
There was a pause, until finally the department head mumbled, “… I thought you meant something else.”
It was a short-lived victory, however. You can’t just go around disproving things that everyone has agreed to believe in, and my boss resented me for as long as I was there.
Meanwhile, my home was still under siege, and the invaders were willing to accept staggering losses and keep coming.
* * *When the next wave began the following spring, I finally admitted defeat. I moved across town to a place where the top of the food chain was occupied by mere cockroaches, who at least had the decency to scatter when I turned on a light.
Shortly after that, I ran into a fellow American, a strapping cowboy type originally from Montana, with a bandage wrapped around his forearm. I asked what happened to his arm.“No one believes me,” he said, “but I’ve got these giant spiders in my house…” Finally, I thought. Finally.
It turned out a spider had climbed into bed with him, and when he swatted it, it bit him, and the wound became infected. “But I got him, though,” he said. “I chased him down and killed him. And then I boiled it and mailed it home to my brother for proof.”
My videotape has since disappeared under suspicious circumstances, but if you ever need evidence that this story is true, I imagine that somewhere in a ranch in Montana there is a trophy room filled with elk and moose and bear — and, in a place of honor, the head of a giant spider mounted on a plaque.
Paul M. Berger is an associate editor at Sybil’s Garage. Those brave souls who may actually be nutty enough to want to SEE the kind of beast he writes about above can try Googling “Japanese huntsman spider,” or just wander over and look here.