Arachne on the Bedroom Ceiling

LAST fall, prior to the arrival of winter, we secured the storm windows, hoping to be "snug as a bug in a rug," as the saying goes. Mosquitoes were gone, and flies and hornets dispatched to happy buzzing grounds. Even the ubiquitous earwigs had disappeared. Except ... there was one tiny spider, with legs all curled under - no bigger than a pencil-top eraser - that decided to wait the season out on our bedroom ceiling.

Nobody wants a spider, however small, in proximity to one's sleeping area. So dutifully I tried to sweep it down. Not that I meant to squash it. For spiders, I rationalize, are handy to have around the house. They are evidence that the domain is dry and, incidentally, keep other annoying insects at a distance.

Some people believe that it's never wise to step on a spider, even accidentally. This thought may have its basis in Greek mythology.

It goes back to an arrogant peasant girl named Arachne who boasted that her weaving was as excellent as - no, superior to! - that of the goddess Minerva. Minerva, champion par excellence in that department, understandingly took umbrage at so flippant a declaration, and decided it was time to set the simple Earth-maid straight. She called on Arachne in her lowly hut and challenged her to a contest. The girl proudly accepted, and they set up their looms. (All conscientious housewives and prospective brides

once knew how to weave.) The rivals stretched the warp and went to work.

Using the gold, silver, and rainbow-hued threads, they exercised their skill to the utmost, and finished absolutely even. Minerva, in jealous fury, beat Arachne with her shuttle and slashed her web top to bottom. The girl, chagrined and mortified beyond endurance, hanged herself. (So Edith Hamilton reconstructs the tale.)

Only then was Minerva somewhat repentant. She lifted Arachne from the noose and sprinkled her with a magic liquid. The maiden was transformed into a spider - but her weaving still remained intact, the story concludes.

Anyone who has admired the geometric patterns linking the heads of summer flowers must marvel at the art employed in their fashioning. Often in autumn, I've paused to wonder at multiple, silvery wisps of web atop dry grasses, under which an alert spider waits to challenge some careless trespasser....

Naturally, therefore, my ceiling resident is named Arachne, giving her (it must be a her) an individuality that I cannot but respect. I've tried to banish her to the garage on occasion, carefully dusting her down from the corner niche, or gently pinching her between tissue-wrapped fingers and showing her the backdoor. But she's always managed to elude me, either by sliding down on a silken lifeline spun from her own matter and escaping into the pile of the carpet, or otherwise managing to slip from my gr asp.

Always the next morning, she's back in her parlor, apparently enjoying the warmth of the wall-lamp beneath her perch. She doesn't move. She seems to be harmless - a modest (discounting her ancestor's pride!) wee voyeur who, like the sky and earth in a Browning poem, "makes no disclosure/ And ... keeps up her terrible composure."

All winter we remained at a sort of Mexican standoff, tolerating, but mostly ignoring each other. Then, when the screens came down again in spring, Arachne shook her dusty loom and quietly stole away. (As may be inferred, I'm no great shakes at housekeeping, either.)

I can't imagine what my undemanding guest ate, though most spiders can endure periods of starvation and some do require water, I'm advised. (The croton nearby might prove providential in this case.)

All spiders are interesting, even though they aren't exactly my cup of tea, and many are quite beautiful. My Arachne is rather nondescript, however, bunched up as she usually is, except maybe to another spider. But who am I to judge? She doesn't judge me.

Right now, though, outside the bedroom window facing south peacefully abides my modest eight-legged friend. I trust that she may be guarding a clutch of eggs, smugly satisfied with her simple lifestyle in her own microscopic world. Minerva - and I - are ultimately compassionate.

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