The first spider died on Tuesday. At the time, Terika didn’t think anything of it. Who notices a dead spider? She swept it off the little concrete stoop and carried on.
On Wednesday, there were two spiders lying on their backs, like little brown buttons.
“They’re hydraulic,” said Javon, her youngest, munching on a Hot Pocket.
Terika looked at him and didn’t say anything. Javon would explain more. He couldn’t help it.
“Spiders are,” Javon said. “That’s why their legs curl up. They move with water pressure inside of them, and when they die, the pumps stop.”
“Man, you crazy,” said Hector. They hadn’t needed anyone at the temp agency today, so he was home too, sitting on his porch next door with a tallboy. “Spiders ain’t machines.”
“They can act like them,” Javon said hotly.
Terika didn’t say anything and swept the spiders off the porch.
The next morning, there were four.
“Why you think they keep coming?” asked Hector. “It’s probably radon. Or carbon monoxide.” Hector had worked in construction before his back went.
“We should try to stop it,” said Javon.
Hector pulled an exaggerated face. “Why? Who cares about some dead spiders, boy? I’d be worried ‘bout whatever you all’s breathing in.”
“You think it’s dangerous?” Terika asked softly. Her throat was scratchy. She realized she hadn’t spoken all day.
“Mebbe.” Hector sipped his instant coffee. Terika could smell the alcohol fumes. “Call the city, get ‘em to send an inspector.” He slapped his knees and cackled until he choked.
“Don’t worry, Mom,” said Javon. “I bet it’s an instinct. I bet it’s, like, their spawning grounds, and they’re coming back to mate and die.”
Terika felt uneasy, looking at the four tangled bodies. “Well, maybe you should get out of the house a little while I’m at work, just in case. Can’t you still get to the library on your pass? I can give you some tokens.”
Javon frowned and glanced away, his pudgy face closed and shuttered. “I just went. I still got a lot of books.”
Another feather-light strand landed on Terika’s back to weigh her down. Javon never turned down a trip to the library, especially in the long slow days of August, when the wind started to come back and school loomed on the horizon. “Well, open the windows, at least.” She straightened her uniform and tried not to feel the ache in her knees and shoulders before she’d even started scrubbing floors.
“A’ight.” Javon retreated inside and kicked the door shut behind him.
“Heard Baron’s coming back,” Hector volunteered in the sudden silence. He eyed her owlishly, a smile somewhere between glee and wary concern on his lips.
“Boy, stop lyin’.” Terika didn’t hide her contempt with Javon gone, and Hector’s eyes hardened.
“He always said he would, d’in’t he?”
Terika didn’t answer. She kicked the spiders onto the sidewalk before she left.
Livia called on the weekend and took up almost an hour of Terika’s Saturday morning, which she usually spent drinking flower tea and sitting quietly with her Bible readings for the week. Not that she did a lot of reading; it was a short moment of peace, an indrawing of breath before the next plunge in the endless ocean swim of her life. Livia’s new baby was fussy, and so far none of Terika’s tricks and advice had worked. She was halfway to suggesting a rag dipped in whiskey just to quiet the child—her grandmother claimed to have used that on all the grandkids—when she glanced through the broken patch in the front blinds and stopped Livia cold.
“I’ll call you back, sugar,” she said. “Look, sometimes you just gotta deal. I’ll call you back.”
She tossed the phone onto the pile of mail by the front door and tugged the door open, sharply to get it out of the frame in one try.
“What in the hey?” she muttered.
There was a mound of spiders six inches high, right on the same spot as the others, just off-center on the left side of the stoop. All dead, dry and spindly like awful seed-pods. As she watched, another fat-bodied orb weaver came trundling along, moving in feeble bursts. It clambered up the side of the horrid pyramid and seemed to sigh and settle. Slowly, slowly, its legs started to curl.
“Radon?” Terika wondered, remembering Hector’s claims. “Does radon kill spiders?”
Inside, the phone started to ring again. The sun was barely up, somewhere on the other side of the looming buildings. Terika could see the pallid mushroom-light of dawn seeping through the sky overhead. It was time to go to work. She felt as though more spiders were coming to die on her front porch by crawling over her skin and under her clothes. She did not look down and did not acknowledge the tiny movements she thought she could see all along the ground.
The phone kept ringing.
“It’s like the elephant’s graveyard,” Javon announced from the arch into the front room. He was wearing the purple shirt again, the one with the stain and the cigarette burn at the waist. He knew Terika hated that shirt, but at least he was downstairs again and not hiding in his room, the room he’d once shared with his brothers until, one by one, they’d left and never came back. Javon used to say that it was too huge and empty without them there.
“Hmm?” Terika had been sitting at the spindly chair in the kitchen, the one with the loose seat that you had to sit on sideways if you didn’t want to take a tumble, trying to work up the energy to even put something frozen and plastic into the microwave.
The mound was always there now, even though Terika swept the stoop four times a day, filling garbage bags with springy brown bodies.
“What’s that got to do with elephants, sugar?”
“Explorers once found a whole bunch of elephant skeletons all in one place. It was the one spot where elephants went to die,” Javon said authoritatively. “When they got old, they just knew, and that’s where they went. It was sacred to them.”
“Baby, elephants are animals. They don’t go to church.” Terika gripped her temples and tried to squeeze the pain out, like popping a pimple.
“How do you know? Nobody ever asked the elephants.”
“So, what you sayin’, all the spiders in the city worship that one spot on the concrete now?”
Javon nodded solemnly. “Maybe in the whole world. Do you think we’ll see a tarantula? I read they can eat birds.”
That would explain why there weren’t any around to eat the awful things. Terika would have thought the whole street would be a mob of pigeons and gulls by now, but the birds and rats and lizards of the city had made no move on what should have been a never-ending buffet of the easiest protein they’d ever catch. And the flies and mosquitoes seemed to have picked up on the fact that the spiders around Terika’s house had other things on their predatory little minds, because they, in contrast, were nearly swarming it.
Terika roused herself, ignoring the twinges in her back. “What you want for dinner, sugar?”
Javon’s face, shining with academic delight a moment before, went dark. “Nothin’.”
“You’re a growing boy. You need to eat something.”
“I’m not hungry.” He turned to leave. “I shouldn’t eat so much anyway.”
“At least have a banana!” Terika called, but the mealy, half-brown things in the bowl on the counter didn’t really appeal to her either. She ate one anyway.
Her phone vibrated against the table. Baron. She didn’t pick it up. She’d made it clear where they stood.
The tiny kitchen and its peeling linoleum suddenly felt like it was full of smog. Terika touched the patch of skin on her left thigh, the burn marks. Their building had caught fire when she was a little girl, and she still woke up sometimes, choking on the taste of burning plastic, black toxic smoke and searing goo like napalm. She gasped and fled outside, tugging the door almost in a panic when it squeaked and jammed in the frame. Outside, the air tasted like car exhaust, urine, and the musty sweet-rot of the dead spiders. Terika leaned on the flimsy wrought iron railing and heaved, wondering if she was going to throw up.
Something moved by her hand and she stepped backwards with a cry. A brown spider, the size of a silver dollar from leg-tip to leg-tip, crawled along the top of the railing. It moved slowly, arthritically. Terika somehow felt that it was aching and sore, as much as spiders could be.
“‘Nother one come to die,” she muttered.
But the spider stopped at the edge of the railing. Its eyes turned toward the heaped bodies of its fallen kin. It lifted its front legs in the air, like yearning, like a supplication. Then it turned away. It hunkered down, and Terika wondered if it would die right there. Instead, it dropped. But not the sudden fall and curl she expected. No, it was a measured descent at the end of a line of spidersilk, so fine it was nearly invisible. Terika could see the rear legs working, pulling silk from the spinnerets. It stopped halfway and swung until it caught a vertical bar with its legs. It paused as if catching its breath, then attached the end of its line with a little wiggle of its abdomen. Every movement was almost glacial, tinged with pain like a red corona, but purposeful.
The spider was making a web. Here on the Front Stoop of the Spider’s Graveyard, making a web. Terika realized for the first time that despite the huge numbers of spiders she’d swept up daily, she hadn’t seen any webs at all.
Terika watched the spider until the last dregs of sunlight drained away and the half of the streetlights that still worked flickered resentfully on.
The next day, when Terika got home from her shift at the coffee bar to change into her cleaning service uniform, for once the spiders weren’t the first thing she noticed on her porch.
Baron was there.
Baron was talking to Javon. Baron was there on Terika’s porch talking with her very last baby boy, white teeth gleaming in that same crooked smile. He looked up and saw her coming down the sidewalk, and even though she was far away, Terika knew exactly how his eyes would twinkle, and also how hard and cold they would be behind it. She knew Baron from way back.
As she approached, Terika felt an urge to check on the elderly spider. Its web was still there, lopsided and uneven, but intact, strung between three of the railings. That made her feel better somehow. She turned back to Baron and Javon, who stared at her mutely; Javon frightened, Baron calculating.
“How you been?” Baron said at last.
“Get out with your ‘how you been,’” said Terika. “Why you here?”
“I just thought—”
Terika interrupted. “No, you didn’t think, because if you did think, you’d remember what I told you the last time you left!”
Baron held up his hands and changed tactics. “I just wanted to see my son, that’s all. Been five years at least. A man can visit his son if he wants.”
“You wanna test that in a court?” Terika shot back. “That ain’t your favorite place, from what I hear.”
Baron’s face fell, his mouth tightening. “I’m trying to be nice about this, woman. I ain’t going to lie, I had some troubles, but I’m puttin’ them in the past. It’s about making things right, that’s what I’ve heard. Anyway, a boy needs a father. I’m just looking to help, that’s all, and you come at me all breathing fire and shit right out the gate. You’re pre-judging me, that’s what you’re doing. Why won’t you give me a chance?” He held out his arms, everything in his face open and pleading, except for the little lines around his eyes.
Terika shook her head, feeling almost sad. “You burned all your chances a long time ago and danced around the fire they made. You just get on out of here. We’re doing fine without you.”
“Oh, yeah?” Baron darted a sly glance at Javon. “You such a good mother, why you ain’t done something about them boys beating on him, huh? Child’s got bruises like a plum all over.”
Terika’s first instinct was to dismiss this as more of Baron’s lies, but Javon’s wide-eyed look of shock and betrayal told her this was no falsehood. “Javon, what—? No, this ain’t the time or the place.” She fixed her gaze on Baron, saw the glee lurking in their depths behind the sugary coating of paternal concern. “Baron, if you don’t step off this porch and down that road, I swear by all that is holy and sacred, I will end you where you stand.”
“Don’t test me,” Baron snapped. “I’ve met men that could.” But he stepped backwards and away, keeping his hands up, palms forward. “You’ll see. You’ll come around.”
“Javon…” Terika turned back, but the boy had already run inside, the front door swinging. Terika heard his bedroom door slam shut. A half-dozen more spiders climbed onto the porch and made for the pile to die.
“And your house is dirty as fuck,” Baron shouted from a half-block away. “All covered in bugs.”
Hector didn’t come out on his porch so much anymore, saying the spiders “creeped him right out.” Terika felt so alone that she was almost ready to pound on his door just to have someone to talk to. Javon barely came out of his room. He wouldn’t answer questions, and he barely ate, muttering about how he was going to lose weight. He didn’t mention the spiders anymore, didn’t even seem to care when she brought home a stack of books on arachnids and mythology, all the “history stuff” she didn’t understand but that he loved so much. She’d spent an hour puzzling over the library computers and picking out the books, but in the end, she had to leave them in a stack outside Javon’s room. When she came to give him a plate for supper, she had to leave that on top of them, too.
Her other children were no help. Livia had always been too nervous by half and was too blinded by her own problems to see any solutions for her mother and half-brother. She thought Jerome was cheating on her. Darnell was working some oil rig job in North Dakota, but he made some time to give Terika a call when she messaged him. He wasn’t any help, though.
“Kid’s gotta learn some time,” he said over a line that wailed and crackled like they were talking in a hurricane. “Ain’t nothing come free in this world.” There was a pause, long enough that Terika wondered if Darnell had dropped the call. Then he said, “Maybe you ought to let Baron, you know, teach him something. From what I remember, he ain’t a man loses a fight too often.”
No, Terika thought, he ain’t.
Baron was a hard man in a hard world. Terika had liked that about him, once. He hadn’t come back—not openly, not yet. Terika knew that meant he was planning something; he could be subtle when he wanted, and he was far from a stupid man. He had knowledge and skills, even wisdom in his own way. But the thought of him getting close to Javon—sweet butter-soft Javon with his lilting voice and deft, pudgy fingers—of Baron taking Javon and turning him into someone like himself… Terika shuddered.
“He was going to go to college,” Terika told the old spider as she sat on her porch drinking an iced tea. “I know he could have made it. A scholarship, maybe, to a community college for the first couple of years. He was such a smart boy.”
The spider’s last web extended along the entire railing now. It was thin and wispy, a muddle compared to the clean geometric patterns of the big orb weavers. The spider trembled like an aspen with every step it took, but it kept working. Meanwhile, Terika had stopped sweeping the dead spiders away; the pile was almost knee-high and growing, a spiky, bristly mound like a black and rotten cactus. People came to stare at it sometimes from a distance, or else crossed the street to avoid it. The dying spiders seemed to know exactly where they were going and why. They came to the graveyard, the ultimate goal of their lives, and then they rolled over and curled up their legs, the pumps gone dead and the pressure inside them turned off at last.
Terika felt a change in the air behind her and turned to see Javon. He had his jacket on and his cap pulled down over his forehead, and he didn’t look up to meet her gaze.
“You goin’ out?” Terika asked.
“You gonna tell me where?”
“Did you eat?”
“Tell Baron I said hi,” Terika spat, suddenly losing patience. She tossed her iced tea into the street and clutched the plastic glass, a single droplet trailing an amber line down the outside. She felt a sort of vicious satisfaction when Javon flinched. She’d never hit him. She wondered where he’d learned it. Terika felt a hole open up in her chest when she realized she didn’t know. There was a lot about her son that she’d missed, apparently.
Javon scurried away, for all the world like a rabbit despite his newfound sullenness and hard-boy act.
“He’s going to fight,” Terika whispered to the spider.” And once he’s fighting, he’ll need some friends. Baron knows how to find friends.” And his friends had guns. That was the main reason why he’d spent the past five years in prison. She felt tears coming and swallowed them down like cyanide tablets. “I don’t know what to do.”
The spider crawled from the railing to the brick wall, slipping a bit. At the top of the doorway, it stopped and shuffled around to face Terika, or maybe the graveyard. Its eyes shone green in the twilight. Terika wondered how to read a spider’s expression.
Then it fiddled its rear legs and began weaving over the open doorframe.
“Build a strong one,” Terika told it. “Keep things out.”
She ducked under the web when she went inside and shut the door as gently as she could.
It was later. Probably a lot later. Terika sat at the kitchen table, reading about arachnids. The bare bulb overhead was the only light in the house. She was on the second-to-last book, this one about spider gods. Iktomi, a Native American deity, seemed to be kind of a loser.
She’d missed at least one of her shifts. She was probably going to lose the cleaning job. Javon hadn’t come home yet. It was a chilly night, full of the first reaching tendrils of autumn, but Terika hadn’t turned the heat on; she never did, until it was a choice between that or having the pipes freeze.
Outside the front door, the old spider’s web was taking fragile, awkward shape. Terika had gone to look at it once, but when she opened the door, a couple of strands came loose and drifted in the wind, and she could have sworn she’d seen the spider heave a weary, resigned sigh and pick up its aching feet to go repair the damage. She’d whispered a dozen apologies and shut the door again.
Terika hadn’t gone back out.
And now it was night.
Her phone buzzed, but it wasn’t Javon, and she ignored it. She turned a page. Anansi reminded her of Baron, full of songs and stories and tricks. He looked fascinating from the outside, looked like a lot of fun, but she wondered how many people thought about what would happen if they actually met him. Most of the people Anansi met came off a whole lot worse afterward.
Someone knocked on the door. She hadn’t locked it.
“Terika!” Baron’s voice.
She stood, slowly, like she’d forgotten how to work just two legs. She blinked and was surprised by the feel of eyelids.
“Terika, you open this door!” He sounded mad, which meant he was scared. He kept pounding.
She felt bloated and spindly, full of venom. She flexed her hands and wondered why her skin bent instead of cracking.
“The fuck is this?” Baron muttered.
The door pushed open and then wedged, stuck like usual. Terika cocked her head and walked toward it, feeling numb and mildly curious. Why would he want to come in here? She thought of silk-woven trap doors, of chelicerae.
“Is Javon with you?” she asked, too softly for Baron to hear.
Baron thumped a shoulder against the door. “Dammit, you open this up right now—”
The door fell open abruptly, and Baron rushed in, blasting through the spiderweb like it wasn’t there, like it meant nothing. Terika felt overcome with sorrow.
He cried out and clawed the silken threads from his face, then he choked and coughed. He spat, and a crumpled brown body fell from his mouth, legs waving. The ancient spider—the cussed old thing that had walked up to the graveyard and said no thanks, that had worked to build something, dancing on a thread over the void—writhed on the floor.
Baron lifted his foot and slammed it down with a curse.
He held a purple shirt in his left hand. It looked more stained than the last time Terika had seen it.
She reached out a hand and pushed on Baron’s chest, lightly, dreamily. She was not startled when he blasted backwards as though shot from a cannon. She saw his funny flat teeth, one golden crown winking in the night, as he tumbled away and out the door again, falling as if into a vast chasm, caught in an inescapable gravity well, as unavoidable as the infinite, something you could walk for a lifetime to find and worship, his limbs already curling as he fell, curling up and up and around himself until he looked like a little brown button.