Wolf Spiders and Vodka
By Virginia Carraway Stark
When I was very small I was terrified of spiders.
It was pretty classic little girl fear of the eight-legged monsters. I knew that they ate the bad bugs and all the rest of the things but I was still scared of them.
When I was about five years old I came down with the chicken pox. It wasn’t a regular run of chicken pox (yes, I had my vaccines), it was the sort of chicken pox that kills.
I was lying on my mother’s lap while she talked to some lady friends of hers. We had some pictures on the wall, blue mountains and lakes painted on thin slices of log. On the bottom of one of the logs there was a white spider. I don’t know if it was dead or just extremely stoic but I had seen that spider there for ages. I wasn’t very afraid of it because it didn’t move and it hadn’t moved since the first time I had seen it. I still watched it though, I didn’t trust it on general principles.
Then something strange happened, something that had never happened before, I noticed that the white spider had a couple of friends with it. These ones were moving and I told my mom about it. She shushed me and kept talking with her friends. I shushed and watched the spiders and then… There were more of them. At first there were only six or seven of them and then they were everywhere. I mean, everywhere. They were all over the walls, the ceiling, everywhere. I was terrified and started to cry and panic.
My mom realized that something was wrong and called my Dad home from work. He had been working at a grain elevator at the time and it was only a few blocks for him to come home. He picked me up and at this point he noticed that I was burning up with a fever. He asked me about the spiders, trying to figure out what I was seeing, even trying to kill the spiders that I was having a fever dream about. There were fewer in the kitchen than in the living room. In my fever I saw the stippled ceiling of the living room as each stipple being a spider. Every nail hole, every blemish was a dancing, moving, threatening spider.
I was crying and absolutely on fire at this point. They rushed me to the hospital which was nearly an hour away. When they took my temperature they found out it was 104 and I was slipping in and out of a coma. The last hallucination that I had was that they put my bed inside of what I saw to be a janitor’s closet and closing the door, leaving me in darkness.
This darkness was actually a coma. I was in a coma for a couple of weeks and they thought I would never wake up. Both of my parents were prepared to lose me and then I woke up. Everyone was crying and holding me and I remember that the first thing they brought me to eat was cabbage rolls which were not appetizing in my state but my Dad loved them and ate them and gave me the jello which was all I could handle. Then we went home.
I was sick with the chicken pox for awhile after, all spots and sore throat and a fever but not a dangerous one any more. The spiders were all gone and I recalled how each imperfection in the wall had been a spider. I could remember them all and now I could see the reality, just specks, nothing else. The only ill result of my chicken pox adventure was that I couldn’t stand creamsicles after that. They tasted horrible to me and still do to this day. Ditto for orange floats, they just taste rotten.
The one positive result was that my mom was so deeply impacted by my form my fever hallucinations took and my fear of them that she took on a campaign to desensitize me to them. There was, of course, readings of Charlotte’s Web, which I had heard before, but then my mom did something very special. She took some pages of paper, folded them in half and stapled them into a booklet.
After that she wrote a story in her book. It was the story of a little girl who was afraid of spiders and then, rather predictably, was rescued by a spider who became her friend. She drew pictures on every page (something that didn’t come easy to her but that she drew each with only the love a mother can give.)
She presented me with the book and we read it together. I knew what she was doing, of course. I knew that she was trying to make a miracle. She was trying to make me not afraid of spiders anymore. Her gesture had so much love in it, so much hope that I couldn’t stand to let her down. The story didn’t make me OK with spiders but I pretended for her sake that it had worked and over time, it did work. I was braver and braver about spiders and even playing with dandy long legs and letting them outside instead of squishing them. She had made the miracle real in the end and I was no longer afraid of spiders.
Fast forward about nine years round about.
I was living with my stepmother Judy and my Dad in Sicamous. My Dad was a long haul truck driver and he would leave me at home with Judy and Katy for weeks sometimes. Sometimes Judy wasn’t too bad. She even tried to help me with my homework a couple of times. She worked me hard but this was before they owned a restaurant and there was only so much work to be done. She mocked me for my weight frequently, and gave me a pair of jeans that were 24 inches at the waist. She said I could eat more food when I could easily fit into those jeans and I was sliding into anorexia and my cheekbones were more like jutting ledges than high cheekbones. I was gaunt and I ran everywhere to lose the weight she constantly assured me I had at ninety pounds.
One night things became very dark. None of the lights seemed to be working and Judy was sitting in my bed. She had collected quite a few very large wolf spiders and was letting them crawl on her arms. They were the size of my hand. I was horrified. This was NOT a hallucination and my fear of spiders came flooding back all at once.
“What are you doing?” I asked, terrified. She looked freakish, unnatural. She grinned at me like an evil clown.
“I’m playing with the little spiders,” She said. “Don’t you like the spiders?”
I shook my head and started to edge towards the door. She got off my bed and followed me, still holding two wolf spiders in each hand, “Come play with the spiders, you aren’t afraid are you? I’m not afraid,” She said.
I was afraid. In fact, I was terrified and bolted from the room she chased after me with the wolf spiders still in her hands. I had never imagined spiders so big, so hairy existing anywhere outside of the tropics and Judy was alternately petting them and trying to keep them from escaping her clutches as she chased me.
I ran down the hallway and she grabbed me by my nightgown and pulled me to the ground and tried to put the spiders on me. I was in a panic now. All my fear had returned. I kicked and writhed and screamed and got out from under her, brushing the wolf spiders off of me. I ran into the kitchen and turned around and she was gone.
I was terrified and alone and I didn’t know where she had gone but most of all I was hurt and sad that she hated me.
That was the only thing I could think of: that she hated me. She didn’t follow me into the living room and I went into the living room and held my legs and cried. I had done everything she had told me to do. I had happily worked to try to please her, I had bought her mother’s day presents, I had never imagined someone who could hate me like Judy did. The house was still dark, I later discovered that she had for some reason partially unscrewed all the light bulbs. I don’t know what her logic was except that she wanted to give me a scare.
It was at that moment that I heard the most wonderful sound in the world: The phone ringing. I brushed away my tears and answered it, “Daddy!” I cried, trying not to dissolve into tears.
“What’s wrong?” He asked, his voice was extremely concerned. I told him what happened and after a very long pause he sighed.
I know that the average child would have recognized that Judy was drunk but I had been raised by parent who never ever drank or stayed around people who drank. I had, to my knowledge, never seen someone drunk.
“Honey, I want you to go and see if Judy’s asleep now, just set the phone down. If she’s awake tell her I want to talk to her. If she’s asleep I want you to keep going down the hallway and go into our closet. Look under the shoes and tell me if you find anything there that shouldn’t be there.”
“You’ll stay on the phone?” I made him promise.
“Yes, honey, I’ll be right here,” He assured me but his voice sounded tinny and far away to me. It would be days before he would be back.
I crept down the hallway, she had ‘fallen asleep’ in my bed. I closed the door and went to the end of the hallway where the master bedroom was. I was terrified that she would wake up and fly into a rage at me. I was not allowed in her room and I had never been in there before without her inviting me in. I opened the door and went to the closet.
Down the hallway I heard her sigh and mutter and turn in her sleep. I froze in place, my heart beating in my ears. She went silent again and I opened the closet. There were a lot of clothes in there and even more shoes. She had a ton of shoes and boots. I rummaged around in the mess of vinyl and patched leather and found something strange. This must be what Dad had meant when he had said to look for something that didn’t belong. It was a pickling jar, just a plain old one pint glass jar with a screwed on brass lid.
It sloshed in my hands as I lifted it. In the other room I heard Judy moan again and froze in place. It looked like water, just plain old water. But why would she put it in a mason jar and why would she hide it under all her shoes in the very back of her closet?
I carried it out to the phone, running past my bedroom the way you run past a haunted house. There was no sign of the wolf spiders in the hallway. In retrospect they probably were worse off than I was.
I picked up the phone and right away Dad said, “Well?”
“I found a mason jar. I think it has water in it.” (Yes, I really was that naïve I am embarrassed to say.)
His breath caught and I could hear that his voice as a little choked, “Open it up.”
I unscrewed the lid. I was scared of the contents. I knew from his voice that it wasn’t water. Whatever was in that jar was liquid evil. As soon as I opened the lid a stench leapt out of the jar and bit my nostrils, “Uch, it smells gross, like paint thinner.”
It was he favorite at the time, Vodka. Easy to hide from little clueless girls who might tattle to Daddy.
He sighed loudly and I heard true sorrow in his voice. It was as though I had told him someone had died. Something had died, some of his trust and a lot of his pride. It was time for the truth.
“Daddy, are you coming home soon? I’m scare…” I started to choke up. It was an ironclad rule not to cry in our house because Dad said that women only ever cried to manipulate a man. He didn’t reprimand me though.
“I’ll be home as soon as I can,” He paused, calculating in his head. “Tomorrow night. Don’t tell her I’m coming though.”
“Daddy,” And I started to cry for real now, silent tears that streamed down my face. “Daddy, why does she hate me? Why can’t she love me? What did I do?”
I let go and sobbed, gasping for air and desperate for silence. I didn’t want to make my only ally turn against me and I didn’t want Judy to wake up and start chasing me again. There was yet another long pause, “Sweetheart, she doesn’t hate you. She’s just drunk.”
My head swam and then cleared. I knew about drunks. I knew about alcohol, I hadn’t recognized it but I knew about it. Dad had told me stories about his own parents and how they would beat him or humiliate him when they were drunk. That was why he never drank, that and because he learned at an early age that he was a mean drunk. He was a smart man and he never picked up the bottle.
I could breathe again a bit. This wasn’t about me. She didn’t hate me, she was just drunk and didn’t know any better.
“Pour the jar out into the sink and put it back where you found it,” He instructed. “Don’t say anything to her in the morning, act like everything is normal. When I get home, I’ll sort things out.”
Those last things that I thought and that he said to me were lies.
Judy did hate me. Unlike the rest of my family who she treated more or less decently when she was sober she treated me like crap all the time. She demeaned me and stole from me and even undercut my relationship with my own mother as best as she could.
The other lie was that he didn’t sort it out when he got home.
They got into a big fight. He yelled, things were thrown, she cried and begged him to forgive her. He yelled some more. In the morning there was a hole in the wall that Judy patched up primly. She avoided eye contact with me. It was the first time I had witnessed, albeit obliquely her being punished for her drunkenness. She was extra nice to me for a few days but I don’t bribe easily and a veil had been lifted for me. I could see the drunk nightmare clown chasing me with spiders in her nervous laughter and her shifting eyes. I knew now that she was dangerous. I knew that my Dad had made a huge mistake in bringing her into our lives and I knew that my road was about to become a steep one.I just had no idea how steep.