Blue Spiders

Collecting venom samples from spiders in an abandoned home, a zoologist begins to suspect the mysterious arachnids could be responsible for the homeowners’ disappearance.

Spider on a leaf

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It looked more like a lost toy than a reason for a scientist to be there. The royal blue color matched the nearby Pacific precisely, but provided the spider no camouflage in the colorless meadow. Tall grass suspended it away from the ground, immobile as 34-year-old Constance crouched carefully in her parka and held out a small plastic box. Twelve other transparent containers, stacked in a larger carrying container, had specimens caught no less easily. Even in the cold, their unresponsiveness surprised her.

The field extended to a cliff that tumbled steeply to the ocean. In the opposite direction, farther away, stood rustic buildings barely recognizable as expensive modernist homes. The hillside on the other side of the California highway, and the comparatively level space lining the rough-edged shore, was strewn with angular wooden structures stained to seem fashionably old. No shopping center was present for the wealthy residents, and no school, hospital, or other good place where she could set up her temporary lab.

At the university, 150 miles to the south in San Jose, Dr. Franklin had given her the contact number of the leader of the Homeowner’s Association. Cold, salt-scented wind moved her long blond hair as she tried phoning him again. Answering this time, Greg Lawrence told her, “I can let you into one of the houses. It’s just recently vacant, so the electricity works.”

The short, bald man met her outside it, a construction of grayish lumber across a street from other homes seeming out of place in the unfenced field. Indoors, the hardwood floor and paneled walls were polished and dark, the living room furnished with stylish leather couches and earth-tone paintings, and the high-ceilinged dining room with a glossy round table.

“You can spend the night, if you want,” Mr. Lawrence said. “I’m sure it’s safe.”

“Actually, I can only do just so much here,” she told him, “but I would like to observe them in the habitat, and collect more of them to take back to the campus.”

She discovered the first spider before going back outside, bright blue in front of the stainless-steel kitchen stove. It startled her, and stood oddly motionless while she held a pocket tape-measure above it. The half-oval cephalothorax and fat abdomen were together two-point-four inches long, a large spider with a rubbery surface almost devoid of bristles. Two others were within close walking distance of the house, each instantly visible against the pale grass. To learn more, she drove to find them farther from people, at the meadow and, afterward, in dense shrubbery and pines up the loose-dirt hill. Along an inconsistently marked trail, they stood on needle-blanketed ground and on tree trunks, sufficient to count as an infestation. The spiders seemed, to her, to not be in a setting natural to them. She snapped pictures with her phone.

Dr. Franklin first described them to her only one day earlier. He ran the biology department, and visited her, an associate professor of zoology, in her closet-sized office. “If we’re able to classify a species,” he said, “that heretofore, you know, hasn’t been, that would be something.”

“Oh, absolutely.”

The subdued frown on his wrinkled face made her uncertain, though. “We’ll try. They’re probably the type of blue spiders that appeared once in the 1970s. Farther inland, very few people around. We weren’t able to preserve samples for research, and I haven’t heard of them being anywhere else.”

“This could be an incredible opportunity, then.”

He shrugged. “Just do your best.”

 

Having trapped 20 of the sluggish arachnids, Constance drove her Explorer on the two-lane highway, passing only two other vehicles, and a man wearing a blue wind-fluttered robe beside the meadow, before turning directly onto the street to the house. Standing patiently in front of it was a girl in a long skirt and white blouse, her brown hair pulled into a ponytail. She identified herself as Brianna, and said, “You’re the scientist studying the spiders.”

The 34-year-old guessed that the guest was 13 or 14. Eager to speak to a resident, she invited the girl to observe the research, and showed her inside to the arrangement of equipment covering part of the tabletop. On stools from the kitchen, she unpacked the stacked boxes from the larger container, and mildly scrutinized Brianna’s reaction — an uncomfortable grimace, but also curiosity, her blue eyes focused. Constance, without the parka over her light sweater and faded jeans, put her rubber gloves back on, and attached a black hose from a silvery, cylindrical tank to an opening at the side of a plastic round bowl.

“It’s kind of like a Tupperware party,” she said.

“Are you in this house because of the Wallaces?” Briana asked. Constance stared at her uncertainly. “It was their house. They both died two weeks ago.”

“Oh.” She glanced at the box she was about to open. “They died how?”

“By hanging themselves,” the girl said. The scientist smiled at her own relief. “Could that have been because of the spiders?”

“Oh, probably not.” Her covered fingers transferred the barely reactive spider to the bowl, covered it with a lid, and twisted the knob on the metal tank. “This is carbon dioxide. It’ll put the spider to sleep. Not that it’s necessary. Are they always so inactive?” Brianna said she didn’t know. “It might be because of the cold weather.”

“Didn’t a type of tarantula make the people in some medieval town all go crazy and die?”

“The tarantella story? That’s a myth, really.” After a moment, she took the immobile specimen from the gas and held it up instructively. “This is the cephalothorax,” she said, indicating the flatter front half. “The head and torso, or chest, are a single part, and by the shape you can assume this one is in a category called Salticidae. Jumping spiders. Have you seen any of them leap through the air?”

The brown-haired girl shook her head. “Twenty-five people have hanged themselves.”

Jolted, Constance had to steady herself. Thinking of the views of the off-white fields, the blue ocean foaming against the cliffs, she asked in bewilderment, “How many people usually kill themselves, here?”

“I don’t know if anyone ever did, before the spiders.” The professor realized that Dr. Franklin hadn’t mentioned the deaths to her. “Is it possible that the people were bitten? Could spider bites do that to them?”

Constance took a deep breath, and secured the eight-legged body in forceps, mounted on a metal pole behind a large round magnifying glass. Complicated questions, even from students, made her more tense than they once did. In her years of study, she’d learned that the more she learned, the more she advanced, the more hostile and derisive people would be. Constance hadn’t spoken to her family since beginning her doctoral work.

She said, “It’s extremely unlikely,” and felt worse at Brianna’s persistence. “If it’s what it seems to be, a species of Salticidae, it isn’t likely. But spider venom does usually involve molecular structures, neurotoxins, which interfere with nervous system function, and while most varieties aren’t harmful to humans, this species is distinct and it technically could be possible.”

“Will you be able to know how dangerous it is by studying it?”

“I can’t really do that here. The university has machines called spectrometers to sort out the chemistry of substances like venom.” She picked up a vial, and a cord connected to a small electronic device. “What I can do, here, is collect a lot of venom to put into the machines, and a lot of spiders to take back to the campus.”

The girl came to stand closer, and Constance adjusted the forceps-bound specimen, held the vial to the two curved chelicerae and touched the electrified metal tip of the cord to each of them, causing the fangs to protrude and produce bubbles of clear fluid. The scientist asked her how frequently she’d seen the spiders, in what particular spots, and about their webs and behavior. Brianna confirmed for her what she’d already seen, that they were numerous, visible any and everywhere, and were not very active. She’d not noticed any webbing.

“They couldn’t have come from the ocean, could they?” she asked. “They’re the same color.”

“No.”

“Some people think the suicides are because of magic,” Brianna said. “Instead of many tourists here, lately, there’ve been these scary men that everyone says are magicians.”

Constance smiled. “I’m sure none of it’s because of that.”

 

When the young guest left, the older woman did also, leaving the spiders in their boxes on the table and driving to Greg Lawrence’s address. The tightly cut shrubs barricading his rustic porch didn’t block the afternoon wind from moving her hair. Ocean waves rushing and crashing were a constant sound. The bald man, emaciated in his plain shirt and khakis, answered the doorbell with reluctant slowness.

“You didn’t tell me,” she said to him, “that 25 of your residents had died.”

He grimaced. “People who live here have invested a lot. You know how nonsense, claims about” — he paused — “how that pushes down prices, property values.”

“That’s fair,” she said. “If an appearance of spiders happens at the same time as an increase in suicides, it’s almost certainly a coincidence. I don’t want to give anyone the wrong idea either. It’s just, I’m sure that other scientists at the university would like to analyze, if it’s possible, blood samples from the victims, medical reports.”

“That’s a waste of time.” He added, “You’ll probably know what it is before you leave.”

She shook her head, confused. “It’s research. The bodies must have been autopsied. We’d only be providing additional tests, to rule out possible contributing —”

Stepping back into the brown-stained house, he said, “It won’t come to that.”

He shut the door too firmly, and Constance said, quietly, “Right.”

In the narrow strip of meadow between the houses and cliff, a man with graying hair and beard stood wearing a blue robe, like the person she’d seen while driving earlier. The wind blew the fabric in billows around him, corresponding to the motion of the grass. Constance, startled at the sight of him, got into her SUV quickly.

The drive back to her impromptu laboratory took three minutes. Inside the house, she lingered in her parka in the living room for a moment before discovering, at the dining table, that the spiders were gone. Her hands trembled shifting through transparent, empty boxes. The plastic vial she’d partly filled with electronically-provoked venom was now dry. Though the lids were fastened, the scientist searched the floor, under the furniture and in the kitchen. She considered calling the sheriff, despite her equipment still being there. The thought of someone stealing what was easily available on the ground disturbed her.

To replace the samples, she went back outdoors, carrying the larger container into the meadow. Carefully, she pushed high grass aside with her hiking shoe, and soon disclosed a blue spider. A lid tapped it sideways into a box, confining it, and as Constance glanced up from where she crouched, she shrieked. Somehow, close enough for her to see the lines on his aged face, a man stood wearing a blue robe and staring at her emotionlessly. Looking away in panic, she saw that the spider she’d caught had vanished, and she leaned forward and grasped and couldn’t find it again. When she raised her eyes, the man was also gone. In the distances to her left and right, and in front of her to the edge of the cliff and the vividly blue horizon, no one was visible at all.

Inside the house, she locked the door and dialed Dr. Franklin while rushing to the back door. The older professor answered resignedly, addressing her by her first name. Constance said, “How much information did you have about this?”

“Obviously, I hoped something different would happen, you’d be able to examine the spiders. We’d have a normal research project. Last time was some explicable aberration.”

“Last time.”

“1976. Two hundred ninety-seven people in the town at the outset, about 250 miles northwest of San Jose. Far up in the mountains. A few grad students and I collected almost a hundred of the blue spiders. We’d catch more and catch more and they’d just disappear. Even the pictures we took of them, our Polaroids, all turned blank.”

Standing in the kitchen, Constance dizzily clutched the countertop for support.

“I’d have loved it if it wasn’t what it seemed,” he said. “I sent you on the chance it might be possible. As it is, let’s keep this between us.”

Following the call, she checked her phone for the pictures she’d taken, and found none.

Upstairs, a less-furnished room had a business desk, but nothing in the drawers and no computer. The largest and most extravagant of the bedrooms, decorated in earth tones, had an assortment of jewelry, vases and crystal, formal and casual clothes, yet nothing written down to hint why such prosperous people would hang themselves.

Beyond the windows, daylight became at once intensified and softer, the sun near the outer line of the ocean, and rather than try to find more spiders, Constance nervously collected her lab equipment and took it to her Explorer to leave.

 

In her city apartment with inexpensive furnishings, and familiar types of spider in aquariums, Constance thought of Dr. Franklin selecting her out of everyone, sending her on a task he’d discard as soon as it confirmed his older fears. And yet it was serious, before and after he shrugged it away. She worried about the people in the coastal town, especially Brianna.

Dr. Franklin was in his Biology Department office on Monday morning, wearing a suit and tie behind a wide desk. “Look,” he said brusquely, “the media will probably pick up on the number of suicides being abnormal. We don’t have to call and prompt them to do the two or three articles they’ll do. It won’t help anyone.”

“What happened to the people in the little town in 1976? How many people died, there?” He didn’t respond. “At least tell me the town’s name, something I can look up.”

He told her, and said, “Honestly, it’s just a waste of time.”

At midday, she drove directly from the campus to Interstate 680, dissatisfied with what she could find in the undergraduate library and online. Four hours later, she was on another two-lane highway, winding and remote. Stone slopes loomed close, almost vertical, and the cliffs plummeted immediately from the other side of low guardrails. Clouds blurred the mountain ridges filling the horizon.

A thinner path of cracked asphalt eventually bent upward through thick conifers, a long distance, to a similar road which became a downtown street overgrown with weeds. Flanking it were buildings shaped like stores, plywood-boarded at the doors and windows and covered in dirt. Past an abandoned gas station with old-fashioned pumps, the pavement buckled more under her vehicle, and at an intersection she maneuvered around into a one-time neighborhood. Tall grass and untrimmed shrubs obscured modest wood-frame houses. Constance stopped and got out to walk through the cold air, stunned that the community was gone. Approaching one of the structures through the former yard, now part of a shadowed field, she felt the dry plants engulf her legs to the knees.

The porch was partly whitened by scraps of paint, and seemed fragile with crevices between planks. And from beneath the deteriorated surface, at the first creak beneath her shoe, a blue spider emerged. Another and another came, their legs pulling their rounded abdomens through the tight spaces. As she stumbled backward down the steps, spiders continued climbing into view.

Farther up the street, four gray-haired men in blue robes were coming toward her. Each of them stared expressionlessly. Shrieking, Constance ran back through the grasping grass to her Explorer, and bounced the tires accelerating in reverse.

On the highway again, at high speed beneath the gray sky, she steered the sharp curves with one shivering hand while clutching her phone with the other, to call Dr. Franklin. The effort went to voicemail unacknowledged. There was no internet in 1976, no major newspaper within a hundred miles of what happened, and the younger scientist wanted for the older to report his findings from the time. With his present-day access to graduate students, professors, his ability to put together a team for important research, he’d sent no one with her. Because he trusted, she was certain, that no one would listen to her.

Arriving at a populated area, she pulled into a parking lot. Calling Greg Lawrence, to warn him, also obtained no response. Undaunted, she used her phone to check the map for the fastest route to the Pacific, where at least Brianna would listen. Constance would tell her that she’d studied, and knew how dangerous it was.

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