"The King of Trees"

She reached into the crevice where the lowermost branch met the trunk of the tree and, sure enough, her index finger caught a tangle of sticky thread. Stretching up onto her toes she looked into the dark spot and smiled grimly. Achaearanea tepidariorum, just like he had told her, an American House Spider. The A. tepidariorum was a perfect specimen, the swirls of dark brown and white on her abdomen forming a distinct and pretty spiral.

Three egg sacs were resting in her web with her, probably about twelve-hundred spiderlings or so, the sacs brown and papery. She pulled at one drag line of the cob web, urging the spider into defensive mode. The spider latched onto a thread nearby and shook with all her might, eight nimble legs propelling her gracefully through the web and towards the sunlight, away from her egg sacs, a perfect example of protective spider motherhood. The sunlight shown silver off of the strands of webbing outside of the dark crevice, and the spider raised her front pair of legs in warning, dancing back and forth in an elaborate balancing act. She paused her pursuit of the spider to watch with wonder at its natural behaviour, but only for a moment. Carefully she snagged the main dragline of the web and pulled the spider into a glass jar she had waiting.

He had been right when he told her, by the old oak tree, it was a spider she wanted. Selfishly. That evening she'd take it back to her apartment and preserve it in alcohol--for desk study.

He didn't talk to her much these days, but she had run into him at the hospital when she was picking up a Latrodectus antivenin kit and he had smiled, cocked his head, and told her to visit the oak tree where they used to meet on weekends. He, just like anybody she associated with, always knew exactly how to catch her attention, and this instance was no different. There had been an accident at home, a rare occurrence, and her only perfect Achaearanea tepidariorum female specimen had been lost, putting her on the lookout for a replacement.

Inside the jar the spider panicked for a moment, trying to climb the slick glass wall and falling each time. Finally it settled down in an indent in the bottom of the glass and rested, its back web legs dragging uselessly on the hard surface. They always put up a struggle like this at first, she mused, but they give in pretty quickly. It is inevitable, after all.

The walk home was peaceful enough. She stowed the specimen jar inside of her messenger bag, gently sandwiched between a book and her jacket. The sun was located mid-sky and it shone straight down, eliminating almost all of the shadows around her. It was hot, and ahead of the way she could see a mirage of water shimmering on the asphalt road.

There was an interesting article in the most recent volume of the Journal of Arachnology, he wrote it, probably to catch her attention. It was a recent study of Homalonychus theologus and specifically, their mating and defensive behaviours. The male will approach the female and instead of a mating dance of sorts, as is found in most other spider species, the male dives on the female and draws her legs above her cephalothorax, tying them there with silk. He then proceeds with his business and leaves quickly, before the female can break free. The male doesn't do this out of disregard for the female--it's not rape, he just knows that if he doesn't find a way to hold her back she'll overpower him completely.

The essay troubled her. It went on to describe how, in captivity, females of the species practice self-burying in the substrate in their tanks. He devised a number of theories to explain this; could it be some sort of defensive mechanism for the female to hide herself away, or is she really just hiding something? There hasn't been a lot of research done on the biology of H. theologus, and so not a lot is known about them. No zoologist has ever really bothered to try learning about them.

She had used the same tactic once before, when they were first dating. Hers was a very Darwinistic paper describing the potential subspecies differences between spiders that were not necessarily separated by islands or mountains, but perhaps by a single tree. The paper shared theories about two spiders from separate subspecies areas being crossbred, and what the outlook of the potential inter-spider relations would be. He called her the afternoon after that issue of the Journal of Arachnology had gone out and invited her for a drink. Let's meet by your old oak tree out off of the freeway. It was the tree where she had conducted her initial research.

On her jaunt back to her apartment she stopped at a corner café for a glass of water. The sun was particularly hot that day, and she could feel its dehydrating impact in the back of her throat. The water itself was too cold--it stung the fillings in her teeth--so she set the glass back on the table to warm. Reaching into her book bag she extracted the specimen jar and set it on the table next to her water glass. The A. tepidariorum was completely still. She tilted the jar, and the spider slid a ways down the glass before it stuck out its front leg to regain balance.

It's important that the spider not give up entirely on the trip home; if it does its abdomen will shrivel and its legs will become too brittle for a proper display. The best way to kill a spider is simply to suspend it, live, into a vial with either 80 grain alcohol, or 70-80 isopropyl alcohol. Spiders, despite their arthropodic exoskeletons, have soft bodies and cannot be pinned or dried for permanent preservation. Also important is a label, typically on the inside of the vial (so as to prevent loss of information) with the date the spider was collected, locality, collector, and habitat. She had come in the habit of also adding the level of danger that the spider posed to a human, including its type of toxin. A. tepidariorum uses a neurotoxin, as with most spiders from the combfooted or theriidae family; however the toxin is not harmful to humans at all.

The A. tepidariorum was beginning to curl its hind leg. It had given up, and probably would not accept captivity even temporarily. She picked up the glass of water and polished it off, leaving a handful of change on the table, and marched out the door. The café was not far from her home, and she was fairly certain she could get the spider there in time.


Walking into the apartment complex she felt a sudden biting chill work its way into her thin cotton clothes, the air conditioner appeared to be finally working. She looked into the jar in her hand once more as she made her way across the lobby towards the elevator. She gave the jar a sharp shake and the spider stuck out its legs to hold on balance. It wasn't so far gone at all, it was just having her on. You little bastard, She whispered to the spider as she stepped into the elevator, you conniving little bitch.

Her apartment itself was a three room deal. There was a bedroom, a bathroom, and a larger center room that functioned as her kitchen, living room, and laboratory. There were two walls in the main room completely covered with bookshelves that represented her display cases, and near the sink in her kitchenette she kept a couple of large bottles of isopropyl alcohol with a collection of small vials of varying size. At the sink she selected a vial about three times the size of the small spider and carefully coaxed the spider from its current domicile to the new one. It couldn't quite move properly in the new, smaller vial and it rubbed the tips of its front four legs uselessly against the glass. Using an eye dropper she carefully dripped alcohol into the vial until the liquid reached within about a millimetre below the top and she quickly capped it.

The A. tepidariorum was suspended perfectly in the fluid, its eight legs moving slowly and uselessly for the time being. In about two hours or so her book lungs will have become sufficiently saturated with alcohol and she'll suffocate cleanly.

She walked over to the first bookshelf on her wall and carefully slid the specimen in between her A. lunata male and her A. tepidariorum male. Perfect, she smiled; once again her collection of Achaearanea spiders of the area was complete.


It was only one month later that she ran into him again, this time walking out of a café downtown just before dusk. She had been on her way to City Hall to renew her import license when he stepped out the door and practically straight into her. He smiled, apologized, and cocked his head to the side like he always did when he had something to say. They're building an overpass, as an addition to the freeway. He said nonchalantly, Your tree is going down tomorrow.

She clenched her fists, smiled, and said simply is that so? as she walked past him and down across seventh street. All of her research was based off of that field, with that damn oak tree at the center. If the oak tree is demolished then everything she's been working for will be put on a permanent hiatus. Goddammit. She hissed as she unlocked her bicycle and climbed onto the seat, completely forgetting about her expiring import license. The only choice she had, if her research was going to come to fruition, was to go to the tree tomorrow and gather as many specimens as possible before it's destroyed.

She really hated the trouble of keeping live specimens. There would either be biweekly trips to the pet store to pick up crickets, or she would have to raise crickets and fruit flies herself. The smell of crickets was awful; it always reminded her of the smell that lingers in a room after a woman has given birth, which was in and of itself not a pleasant thing to consider. Plus there was always the risk that the spiders in question would put up a fight when she tried to encourage them to accept captivity. The only chance that she had left, though, was to try to study the spiders live, because that's what the rest of the Arachnological community would want to hear about.


The first spider came to her easy enough the next morning. A species from the loxoscelidae family, but she'd have to wait until she had a field guide handy to determine which one for sure. It had run across the tree right beside her left eye and she was able to encourage it into a jam jar she had in a bag at her side. Her second was an enormous and healthy female Argiope aurantia, closely followed by a male from her web that had been courting her. Then Pholcus phalangioides, male. Helphora insignis, female. Araneus diadematus, female. Araneus diadematus, male. Tetragnatha extensa, male. Araneus nordmanni, male. Agelenopsis oregonensis, female. Tegenaria gigantea, male. You shouldn't be out here, she said to the giant house spider, I wonder what made you think you'd survive outdoors?

By the time an hour had passed there were stacks of jars around her ankles adding up to about twenty different spiders. Her final acquisition was a perfect female specimen of Latrodectus hespera. It had been building its web underneath an outgrown root and was easy to catch because it hadn't finished building its web. The spider shone black in the sunlight, a broken brick red hourglass almost glowing from the underside of its abdomen. She smiled, turning the jar around and around in her hands to keep staring at the spider, its tiny chelicerae, its pedipalps pawing gently at the glass, all eight legs moving independently of each other. Perfect, it was a perfect spider that had to be admired for its surreal beauty. She capped the jar, and pulled a sticker from her pocket to stick on the outside of it. Dangerously venomous.

She rested, leaning her hand against the smooth bark of the tree and breathed slowly, in and out. Looking up she could see the dark leaves swaying in the slight breeze above her head, bright green darkened through shade from the rising sun. She'd miss this tree; they had been through a lot together. It was hard to think it wouldn't be here anymore after today, the old oak tree was something she had always taken for granted, like the supermarket, or that she'd have clean water to drink every morning. A chill wind ruffled her jacket and blew a couple of leaves off of the tree. It was then that she heard a voice singing slightly off-key. It was almost ethereal and more than suited for the occasion: He was the King of Trees, keeper of the leaves. A great green guard of young love-stained memories; we used to meet by him far from the hustling town. I loved you, but now they've come to cut you down.

She looked around the clearing for the singer, and then with a shiver she looked up into the tree itself, wondering if it had found a voice of its own, though it seemed to be voicing her thoughts actually: And if my mind breaks up in oh so many ways I know the meaning of the words I love you. And if my body falls inside an early grave the forest and the evergreens are coming to take me back, so slowly, as I roll down the track.

It wasn't until she heard a familiar inflection during the word roll that she recognized the voice and looked beyond the tree at a road sign about twenty yards away to see him leaned up against it, singing the words in a high tenor. I always hated that song, you know. She said just loud enough for him to hear and he began walking towards her. So did I, he laughed, they always played it on the radio when I was a kid and all of the hippies at school would sing along. He sat down next to her, and she lowered herself to join him. She leaned back against the tree and closed her eyes, savoring the chill breeze across her face. He began singing again, He was the King of Trees, keeper of the glades, the way he lightened my life makes me so amazed. We used to meet by him many years ago, I loved you, but now they've come to lay the road. He finished the song there and leaned back, reaching his arm out to wrap it around her waist and she laid her head on his shoulder. And so it ends, he said, laughing at an inside joke he had with himself.

You know what? She shrugged off his arm and reached out to grab the jar containing the Latrodectus hespera specimen and unscrewed it, dumping the spider back into a crevice beneath the outgrown root. What are you doing!? He asked incredulously. I never really liked spiders, she said as she continued uncapping all of the jars and unceremoniously dumping the spiders around them on the floor. When she had emptied the last jar she stood up and looked him in the eyes. I think I'm going to try pinning butterflies.

And she picked up her empty messenger bag and trudged off towards the roadside.