Non-Profit Internet Source for News, Events, History, & Culture of Northern Frederick & Carroll County Md./Southern Adams County Pa.


Up the Winding Stair

Bill Meredith

"Will you walk into my parlor?" said the Spider to the Fly,
"’Tis the prettiest little parlor that ever you did spy;
The way into my parlor is up a winding stair,
And I have many curious things to show you when you are there."

"Oh no, no," said the Fly, "to ask me is in vain;
For who goes up your winding stair can ne'er come down again."
                          …Mary Howitt, 1829

(June, 2013) Being married has been a confusing experience for me. Actually, the confusion started some four years before the marriage occurred, because the first time I asked my future wife out on a date I didn’t expect her to go… but she did. I was conspicuously lacking in looks, personality, social skills, athletic ability, and money… all of the things I assumed were attractive to girls… so although she continued to behave in a congenial matter, three years later when I proposed to her, I was surprised when she said "Yes." It was like rolling down a hill inside a snowball; I was not in control, and things kept happening faster and faster. Things that looked like obstacles as we approached either moved out of the way at the last second or got run over and obliterated. And getting married didn’t stop the snowball.

Finding no other explanation for my good fortune, I hypothesized that maybe she had married me because she liked biology. We had raised a garden the summer before the wedding, and she seemed to enjoy seeing plants grow. When the wedding was past and I enrolled at WVU, someone gave us a hamster that had grown too old to participate in experiments any more, and she enjoyed helping it stuff chocolate chip cookies into its cheek pouches. But although the biology hypothesis looked promising for a while, it did not stand the test of time. When the hamster eventually died, old and gray and full of years and cookies, I found that her interest in animals did not extend to snakes, fruit flies or salamanders. Likewise, her interest in gardening turned out to be economic rather than analytic; she was not excited by symbiosis among lichens or the intricate biochemistry of photosynthesis.

Nevertheless, although I could not explain it, we seemed to be compatible, and the snowball rolled on. We came to Emmitsburg, had children, graduate school was completed, the kids grew up and got married, grandchildren appeared… and one morning we woke up and realized that we had retired. The snowball did not stop at that point, but it began to slow down. She developed a cataract in one eye, and began spending more time sitting in her rocking chair near the kitchen window; and one morning she noticed the morning sun had produced a miniature rainbow on a spider web under the china closet. She became fascinated by it. I was elated: I reasoned that after 50 years her latent interest in biology had reappeared, and I even wrote an article about it. But reality intruded; the rainbow proved to be an artifact of the light being refracted by her cataract, and when the cataract was removed the rainbow went with it. The spider resumed its place with the snakes and mice in her system of values, the web disappeared into the inner workings of the vacuum cleaner, and my understanding of what makes a marriage last was back to square one.

More years have passed, a cataract has developed in her other eye, and now a great-grand daughter of the original spider, 10 generations removed, has produced a new cobweb under the china closet. These events coincided with the arrival of a large black ant that wandered in from the garage and was prospecting for crumbs on the kitchen counter. I scooped it up in my hand, being careful not to squeeze it, and tossed it into the cobweb. The ant began struggling to free itself, and the spider darted down to it and immediately retreated. My wife concluded that the spider either did not like ants, or was afraid of them; but in a minute or so the struggles stopped. The spider walked daintily down the web again, wrapped the ant in strands of silk, and carried it back up out of sight. Later that day the carcass of the ant appeared on the floor under the web.

To my wife, all of this was a mystery worthy of a TV soap opera, and she began by asking, "Why did he do that?" Rather than trying to determine who "he" was, I explained that, except for myself, all of the participants in the drama were females… in most species of spiders, the females are the ones that build the webs, and the ants that go about foraging for food are worker females, like bees. It took a while for her to absorb this; she is a product of the culture of her youth, and finding that much power invested in her gender is still a novel idea, even when it is within the lower levels of the animal kingdom. Having established that fact, I went on to explain that the spider was not afraid of the ant; in their initial encounter, she had bitten it and injected a combination of poison and enzymes in a movement too fast for our eyes to see. She had then moved out of reach until the ant was immobilized. The body of the ant is encased in a shell of chitin, like the shells of the cicadas that soon will cover the trees in our yard; this shell makes a nice container in which the enzymes from the spider will digest all of the internal organs and muscles. The spider will sit in its parlor and wait until this process is completed, and then she will suck out the resulting fluid. All that is left of the ant will be the empty shell, and the spider, a good housekeeper, will toss it out of the parlor and onto the floor below.

All this seemed to give my wife a new appreciation of biology. There was a moment of doubt the next day, when another ant invaded the kitchen; my wife tried to pick it up between her thumb and fingers instead of brushing it into her hand, and it gave her a painful injection of formic acid. However, she solved that problem by swatting it with a newspaper and tossing it into the web, and the spider kept her entertained for the next hour as it went through its routine. This has now become a daily ritual; in fact, one day I found her out on the porch hunting for ants because none had volunteered to come into the kitchen. On the whole, she has grasped the situation very well, although occasionally she still refers to the spider as "he."

So, after 58 years of mystery, it seems that biology has finally explained our marriage. There is just one cautionary note: I catch my wife staring at me now and then with a strange expression on her face, and last night, out of the blue, she suggested that we go upstairs to sleep. I remembered that in the last verse of Mary Howitt’s poem, the spider did trick the fly into going up the winding staircase, so I found an excuse. In many cases, the spider’s husband suffers the same fate as the fly.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith