Floorboards rattle as something squeaks through the front door. If our house spider Agnessa were still around, she’d be scuttling towards it, fangs and chelicerae ready. It’s just me now, so I reach beside the bed for the broom that I’ve whittled to a point. All sorts of things have learned how to climb out of the flood and weasel their way in. Come on, Val. You’ve got this. But I’m already sweating. I wipe my face on the sleeve of my nightshirt and pad towards the door, broom thrust away from me.
My bones aren’t made for these newfangled dangers. It used to be you couldn’t spit without seeing a spider. They promised security. Safety. Luck. Flowers had died out and the carnage that piled in the streets beside drifts of sewage forced decorum to dig in its heels and evolve. One presented their date with a box of spiders in poisoned-jewel tones or candy-colored pastels or wicked-matte blacks as the trends dictated. I gave my husband a box of Neoscona domiciliorum, carnelian spotted orb weavers, to clip to his ties. We laughed at the way they’d run over his chest, especially the naughty one that liked to slip between the buttons of his shirt.
In return, Fitz gave me a box of Leucauge magnifica, goldenrod crab spiders, that camouflaged themselves in my hair. The tickle of their feet over my scalp were like tiny, secret kisses. I still have them pinned to the mantle. And Agnessa, our house spider? Pragmatically bred to be the size of a shoe box and fiercely loyal, she symbolized the web that is marriage: sticky and binding.
The broom is gummy, and I rub a hand on my threadbare gown. Floodwater isn’t good at keeping things clean, just hidden. The flood’s been here so long that I barely smell the swamp gas wafting between the floorboards. These I hammered in myself, so I know where to step as I inch closer towards the door.
If only Agnessa were here. When she hunted, she was full of patience and grace. Her thumb-sized fangs chased away the rats and roaches and even larger, more be-clawed creatures. She never once bit us and cooed and tittered when we stroked her cephalothorax. She loved to tap her legs in time to Fitz’s blues guitar. Since she was a wolf spider and didn’t actually spin silk, we made her a nest in the kitchen cupboard where she could come and go as she pleased. At times, we’d wake to her thrashing around some uninvited thing that Fitz or I would chop up for breakfast.
At least tonight’s scavenger doesn’t sound like it has a tail. Or mucus. If it was aiming for stealth, it’s failing. The thin walls don’t mute the scratching. Just outside the door, it sniffs.
I grip my broom-spear tighter. Can it smell the frog jerky I keep for a midnight snack?
My stomach gurgles — and the sniffing stops. I hold my breath, but then my stomach gurgles again! Gripping my belly as if that will silence it, I listen for breathing. Is it still there?
One of us is going to have to eat the other. I can’t afford to be picky. After the cities washed out and people heaved their homes up on stilts, house spiders dredged up our meals. Lizards. Crabs. Escargot. Agnessa had a knack for snagging bullhead catfish that I battered and fried. But house spiders weren’t considered pets. Most families didn’t even name theirs and made them skitter about for dinner scraps. Not us. Agnessa had her own bowl and we knew her favorites: dragonflies and deep-fried catfish whiskers.
Whatever is out there is no dragonfly and it’s been ages since I saw a catfish with feet. It presses the door, testing the hinges. The floorboards groan. It’s bigger than a dog and there haven’t been any of those since the Mermithidae mutated, jumped species, and sent an epidemic of worms burrowing into larger brains, propelling their hosts into the water to drown and carry on the parasite’s life cycle. Spiders vanished early on.
I pulled Agnessa from the flood and we wept for her, our hands interlocked in desperate honor of her legs. Afterwards, I put her on the coals to roast. But we couldn’t eat her — not at first. This was why house spiders weren’t supposed to be pets. Weren’t supposed to be named. These days, some folks don’t even name their children, but I’m not one to judge.
With Agnessa gone, everything at home changed. The sticky web of my marriage hit a snag and unraveled. And our house? Centipedes ribbon through its cracks. Snakes boil up from the pipes. Things lurk in the shadows like what’s there, behind the door, hungry and waiting. And a little nervous?
Perhaps it hasn’t done this before. Maybe it was warned to avoid gurgling stomachs. Maybe it was promised a name in exchange for bringing home food. As I said, I’m not one to judge. We’ve all had to fend for ourselves and get creative with protein — and how to trap it, as my late husband recently experienced for himself.
I grip my broom and turn the knob. This time? I’m making gravy.
Kathryn McMahon is an American speculative and literary fiction writer living abroad with her British wife and dog. Her stories have appeared in places such as Podcastle, Perihelion SF, Syntax and Salt, and in the food and horror anthology Sharp & Sugar Tooth: Women Up to No Good. Among other adventures, she’s been in quicksand twice, camped in a bat-filled cave, and steered a tall ship. But mostly she just likes to read. Find online or on Twitter @katoscope.