He is sitting on our doorstep, waiting.
We have been tucking up the kids and Menna slips outside first. She immediately bounces back into the room, all twitchy and wide-eyed, jerking her head like a marionette. She’s got some kind of palsy, I think.
As I step out I immediately see him on our doorstep, waiting. There’s something primal that grips me then. A pattern recognition that fires up some ancestral protocol deep in the medulla and my leg muscles spasm before I even know what it is I’ve seen. I leap high. Then I land and the prefrontal cortex takes over: I laugh nervously; act nonchalant.
It’s the biggest fucking tarantula I’ve ever seen, there on our doorstep, waiting.
It is not one of those short-legged stripy tarantulas with the hairy abdomen that they call pica-caballo here. No, this is a much larger, better-proportioned arachnid with long muscular-looking legs. He is entirely black and sits motionless, coiled like some clockwork contraption that has been wound-up tight and is now ready to explode. Lit up by a single overhead light, each of his legs casts a stark shadow so it seems that there are sixteen of them.
Menna and I regroup a few meters away for a whispered conference. Through one of the two doors in front of us, our children are drifting off to sleep. Matilda is a committed arachnophobe, and to even suspect the existence of such a spider as this would catapult her to hitherto unseen levels of hysteria. She must never know of this nighttime visitor who sits on our doorstep, waiting.
What to do? I have a lifelong rule never to kill animals unnecessarily, except for flies and mosquitos (and occasionally fish which I intend to eat later). Furthermore this tarantula is – despite that visceral first reaction – a truly majestic specimen. He has mesmerised us and now we can’t take our eyes off him. He crouches there with a malevolent calm, an ancient predator from an older time: ageless, impassive, alert. We are in his thrall. His legs are long and elegant, his low centre of gravity speaks of power and agility. He holds some legs flexed on the floor while others rest on the perpendicular stone in front to provide torque as he leaps. My vertical frame feels ungainly as I sway in front of him. I am too slow and clumsy on my single pair of legs.
To kill such a creature would be petty and mean-spirited. I could shoo him away of course, but I have heard that tarantulas are territorial. He would come back again later, and next time we might not see him there on the doorstep, waiting. Matilda might step on him with her little bare foot as she comes wandering through to our room to talk about some vivid dream at three a.m.
In the end I go down to reception to ask for help. There is no one there but I manage to find Silvio, the old cook, who we have befriended. He is a solid chap, sparing with words, face lined with unknown worries. A dependable choice for this task, I think. He doesn’t quite roll his eyes when I tell him that there I have a spider problem, and he manages not to snort derisively when I tell him that my preference is not to have this spider killed, merely removed to a good safe distance.
Silvio has clearly had a long day but nonetheless he will come and help. He wearily picks up a tub and a broom. We head back over to our cabin and find Menna still transfixed, eyes locked on the tarantula who stares back at her from our doorstep, waiting.
“Pero sí ¡Es grande!” Says Silvio and I feel vindicated.
Then we get to see how a local Nicaraguan deals with an oversize spider. Silvio bends down and in one gesture he sweeps the tarantula smoothly up into the ice cream tub that he is holding. Job done! He stands up and smiles at me. Young soft European lad, his eyes say, you still have much to learn.
I cannot help feeling that Silvio has committed a fairly basic oversight here, but I am not sure how to articulate it. Before I can say anything though, the tarantula simply runs out of the open ice cream tub and up his arm.
Silvio does a kind of reflex jump that is not so different from the one that I myself performed ten minutes earlier. When he returns to land the tarantula is no longer on his arm but is on his leg instead, all eight limbs locked tightly into the fuzz of his well-muscled calf. Silvio slaps at his leg and knocks the tarantula to the floor. Menna and I both leap back in perfect synchronicity. The tarantula runs. Silvio sweeps wildly with his broom. On his second or third attempt he catches the skittering creature and sends it scudding across our porch and into a bush.
We all take a couple of breaths and wait for our hearts to slow down. Silvio rubs a hand over his bald head and makes a kind of shrugging gesture. We thank him profusely and he potters off into the night. It feels to me that both he and the tarantula have been somehow robbed of their dignity in the exchange. Silvio’s native competence has been called into question. A lord of the ancient world has been humiliated.
I worry too that we haven’t really dealt with the problem. Somewhere in that dark bush an angry tarantula sits, biding its time, right by our doorstep, waiting.