Alone on my first trip to India, I was only a short distance --as the crow flies across the jungle, from where my old friend lived with his young Indian wife and their new baby. I stayed with them briefly when I first arrived, then struck out on my own on a bicycle to find a tourist accommodation in the quiet remote fishing village.
The house I rented was newly constructed, and located directly across the road from the beach. It came with a only few pieces of furniture: a double bed, a rickety night table and a carved wooden chair in the bedroom, and a small metal table and folding chair in the big kitchen. The other three spacious rooms were completely bare. I kept the narrow windows open to get a cross breeze because the drone of the ceiling fan disturbed me when I was trying to sleep. The late spring nights were now almost unbearable as we waited for the first monsoon rain.
Next door to me, an old lady was living with her young grandchildren. The children's parents were in Mumbai for work, having left their new house to be rented out to support the little family they had left behind. Both the brother and sister often visited me in the daytime, plying me with questions and requests in their stilted school English. A few weeks past uneventfully and I began to feel at ease, living by my self but comfortably embraced by the sounds of others: the occasional motorbike that came down our dusty road; the crows squabbling in the giant mango tree in my front yard; and the old lady calling out instructions to her grandson from the porch as he burned the daily trash in our shared back garden.
One night I woke up abruptly from a dreamless sleep alerted by instinctive fear. I groped in the dark for the light switch near my bed. As soon as the fluorescent light washed the room, I sensed motion directly above my head.
I looked up and saw a monstrous spider the size of a salad plate.
Jumping out of bed and through the open doorway, I stumbled into the still dark living room. The spider ran along the molding between the ceiling and the walls. It clearly was disturbed by the sudden light and was seeking cover. As it scrambled around the perimeter of the room, I could only glimpses it on the wall when it passed by, directly opposite the threshold from where I cowered. The long pauses, when it was out of view as it frantically moved around its track, were almost as terrifying as when I could actually see it. Something about the speed with which it managed to move was sickeningly unreal. I felt as if I were hallucinating.
This was many years ago, before mobile phones were commonplace in India. I had no clock or wristwatch. How many hours would I have to wait until the light of dawn when I could reasonably go next door to ask my neighbors for help? What if it was only midnight and I had six more hours to wait? I could either spend it lying on the concrete floor of one of the empty rooms, dreading that the creature might find its way in my direction, or I could move the metal folding chair in the kitchen outside to the front porch, and sit there through the black moonless night. I chose the latter option and happily found that I had left my cigarettes and lighter in the kitchen.
I carried the chair outside and closed the heavy front door behind me. I sat down and lit up, heart pounding and hand trembling.
Normally, I don't mind spiders, not like other people do. I don't kill them when I find them in my house. But I had never even imagined a spider could get this large; this horror was five times that of tarantulas I’d seen before. I found myself wondering what this species preyed upon to have evolved to such a massive size.
What I would find out later was that my overnight guest was Poecilotheria regalis, or as it is commonly called the Indian Ornamental Tree spider, a nocturnal hunter, known to sometimes prey on small mammals as well as insects. Their bite is reported to be extremely painful and may or may not be fatal for humans. Maybe because of the parched dry conditions he had wandered far afield from his arboreal habitat and through my open window, looking for something tasty. Threatened by the sudden artificial light he could not find his retreat.
I calmed down and tried not to chain smoke. I entertained myself by recalling and reciting poems I had memorized as a child.
Under the spreading chestnut tree the village smithy stands
A mighty man is he with large and sinewy hands...
Eventually, I discerned a figure moving toward me from the road. He came through the small gate into my yard, and I greeted him in awe like a messenger sent from the gods. He spoke much better English than my neighbors. He explained to me that he had been sleepless and had run out of matches, had gone for a walk hoping to find a fellow smoker, and at a distance had spotted the tiny orange glow of my own cigarette. He was about twenty years old, friendly but respectful, and curious as to why I was so happy to see him. I explained my dilemma.
We went together back into the house to look for a broom. He took the folding chair into the bedroom, momentarily recoiled at the sight of the spider and then assured me it was deadly and must be killed. He added knowledgeably that even contact with the urine of this spider would burn one’s skin like acid and that they were known to be aggressive. No question of kindly urging him out the window and back to his own world, as I had timidly suggested.
He batted and swatted several times and emerged with the creature, its long striped legs tangled in the old broom straws. It was, on closer inspection, indeed hideous, though a bit smaller than it had appeared with its legs extended in movement. I grabbed my camera and photographed him before my hero disposed of it unceremoniously on the front porch. I thanked him profusely, and gave him my lighter as a parting gift.
After shutting all the windows in the house, I lay exhausted on the bed, unwilling to shut off the sad fluorescent light again, yearning for a whiskey, or a boyfriend, or anything in between. I slept fitfully until sunrise, waking to the familiar sounds of fishermen passing my house on their way down to the shore.
I made my tea in the kitchen, reliving the night's events in my head. Then I carried my cup out to the front porch, half wondering whether I had dreamed it all.
If I had risen twenty minutes later, I would have missed the denouement. Looking like a big black snake, an army of ants was bearing the vanquished hunter, slowly but inexorably down my stone steps to their nest, hidden somewhere in the jungle forest.