~4600 words, approx 30 min reading time
My earliest memory of the spiders is from preschool. I’m toiling over a pot of plastic spaghetti, and I look over my shoulder to ask the boy whose mom is friends with my mom if he wants meatballs with his serving. He’s building a wobbly tower out of wooden blocks, and our teacher kneels across from him making cutesy faces. She pats his head, and her fingers linger in his hair, squeezing and pulling at the dense curls.
A spider the size of a pea crawls from her mouth and drops to the floor like a black tear.
I’m transfixed, only distantly aware of the spatula digging into my palm. The boy doesn’t seem to notice the spider, too busy with his blocks, and it’s right in front of the teacher, but she doesn’t seem to care. The longer I watch it jittering toward the boy, the harder it is to see. There are just three spindly legs on his jeans before it vanishes completely.
The next time I see one of the spiders—the kind that comes out of people—is in a cooking class with my mom at the rec center.
There are eight of us, plus the instructor, standing around a folding table in a cramped lunchroom. In a few places, the faux-wood tabletop peels away from the brown rubber rim like oversized, misshapen fingernails. The table is too low, even for a fifth-grader, so all of us are stooped over our cutting boards, trying to chop tomatoes as cleanly as the instructor and failing. Each cooking pair has their own set of ingredients and utensils, but we only have two electric burners between us. The male half of the couple my mom and I are sharing our burner with gestures at me, smiling. He says something to my mom about my absent father and two spiders crawl out, twin stitches at the corners of his mouth.
I jerk back. The spoon I’m holding hits a silver bowl. Yellow tomato seeds nestled in their reddish ooze slop onto the table.
The spiders lower themselves onto the couple’s cutting board, threads hitched to the man’s stubble. I start to point, but Mom snatches my arm out of the air and murmurs apologies as she drags me out of the room. I can feel everyone staring, and I want to shout back at them, Why are you looking at me? Didn’t you see what came out of his mouth?
I resist Mom’s pull, but she doesn’t let go until we’re halfway down the hallway. She looks around before speaking, her braids shifting with a sound like reeds in the wind.
“I know, it’s–”
Mom explains how some people can see the spiders, but most people can’t unless they were made for them. How the people who make the spiders can’t feel them. How they aren’t our doing, but they’re our problem now.
“Can we go home?” I ask. I’m hot with embarrassment at what the man said and at what everyone must think of how I reacted.
But we have to collect our things, including the spiders because, according to Mom, they’ll just find their way to the house anyway, and it’s better to know where they are.
It’s not until we’re in the car, gusts of summer heat coming through the window, that it occurs to me Mom overlooked an easy solution. I can’t stop staring at the opaque pill bottle in the cup holder, and before she can get on me for littering, I snatch it up and toss it out the window.
“There,” I say, smug.
Mom sighs. “They’ll be back.”
One of the spiders—her spider—is on her door handle after we park. She uses a tube of chapstick to herd it into her purse. As we’re stepping into the air-conditioned house, something tickles my neck. I yelp and flail and the spider—my spider—falls to the floor.
I stomp on it. Twice. Hard. I grind my foot into the laminate.
When I lift my sneaker, I look for the black smear, but I already have a sick gray feeling in my stomach.
Rigid, black filaments pick at the mesh sides of my shoe, then the round body of the spider phases from transparent to visible. I kick off my shoe and scream, more angry than frightened.
Mom pulls me away from the spider and into a hug. She apologizes and doesn’t let go until my breathing is normal. I don’t know why she’s apologizing—it’s not like she made the spider—but I let her say she’s sorry, that I should go get myself a snack, and she’ll take care of it for now.
Later, Mom gives me a matchbox and tells me my spider is in it. When I ask what I’m supposed to do with it, she says she puts hers in a drawer and goes about her day.
In the middle of my freshman year, I join the debate club because I have a crush on the senior who runs it.
I flirt with him. Clumsily. I compliment him on his talking points, his Jordans, and his clean edges. He smiles indulgently, and I see the way the older girls roll their eyes at me. It’s not like I expect anything. It’s just, he’s smart and he holds the door open for me like a gentleman. I write his name in my black-and-white notebook and draw hearts all over the page.
One afternoon, debate club is cut short because of snow and he offers me a ride home. I text my mom to let her know and run to the bathroom to check my breath and reapply my pineapple body mist. I lean into the mirror and wish my new hair growth wasn’t so obvious, but I practice smiling and tucking my hair casually behind my ear and am satisfied with the effect.
He has a black ice air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror, and the sandalwood scent fills the car as he blasts the heat.
The snow is just starting to fall. It melts when it hits the front windshield.
I complain about algebra, and he commiserates about the teacher, who was the same when he was a freshman. He talks about her pop quizzes and excess homework, but I’m thinking about how she calls on you just to make you feel small, the spiders you earn by not knowing the answers. He’s telling me about the colleges he’s applied to when he parks on a quiet side street a few minutes from my house.
His coat crinkles as he turns to look at me. I can taste my heartbeat.
“So, Aniyah… I noticed you lookin’ at me.” He licks his lips. “You’re pretty cute for a freshman.”
He asks if he can kiss me, and we move awkwardly to his backseat.
His lips are dry and he smells like fruit snacks. I pretend our tongues are dueling lightsabers. If I’m doing it wrong, he doesn’t correct me. He turned the car off when we relocated, so his hand is cold under my shirt. I flinch. He chuckles.
I gently push him away. “Could we wait, maybe? I don’t have a lot of experience.” I don’t admit this is my first real kiss if I’m not counting the handful of pecks I shared with a girl at swim camp when I was twelve.
He looks at me like I switched languages mid-sentence, then he smiles. His tone is playful. “What are we waiting for?”
“Uh, I don’t know. I thought maybe we could go on a date?”
His expression makes me feel silly and young. He squeezes himself through the front of his jeans. “But I’m hard now. You’re so pretty; I can’t wait.” He uses his free hand to cup my cheek.
I bite my lip, making my teeth sticky with gloss.
“What if you just touch it?” He starts to unzip his pants.
But I tell him my mom is expecting me. I say please take me home.
He’s a gentleman, so he does. He doesn’t turn the heat back on, though, so I distract myself by making clouds with my breath.
He says he thought I was mature for my age. His jaw is clenched so tight I don’t know how the spider with the thick, yellow-spotted thorax makes it out.
It crawls across the center console, phasing in and out of visibility. By the time we pull up to my house, it’s in my lap. I know I shouldn’t bother, but I brush it off my pants and onto the snow-dusted grass as I get out of his car. I give him a tiny wave. He fiddles with his radio, not looking up.
I want to ask if we’re still friends, but all I can muster is, “See ya.” I shut the car door harder than I mean to.
He doesn’t say anything before he drives away.
Mom isn’t home yet, so I go up to my room to do homework. As I get situated at my desk, the yellow-spotted spider appears on my laptop, then darts forward. Its bite is like a hot curling iron pressed to the back of my hand.
I hiss and jerk to my feet. I’ve never been bitten by one before.
I grab the mason jar from my bedside table and use a piece of paper to brush the spider into the jar with the handful of others.
I think it’s adrenaline when sweat bubbles on the back of my neck and my heart sprints, but then the phantom bite mark balloons to the size of a marble. I’m hot and cold and trembling and if there’s any oxygen in the room, I can’t tell.
When Mom gets home, she finds me kneeling over the toilet, palms flat on the tile. She brings me water. When I show her the cause of my sickness, she doesn’t ask where this new kind of spider came from. I get the feeling she sort of knows.
I skip dinner and go to bed early, but can’t fall asleep. The ghostly red swell on my hand throbs in time with my heart, and the backseat of his car is burned on the inside of my eyelids.
I meet a girl at one of the pubs near campus. She has rosy skin, glossy black curls, and a smattering of freckles under her eyes. She’s the first person I’ve ever met who discusses her spiders so brazenly.
While she explains that they’re a major issue within her doctorate program, a spider dangles from her hair, another paces up and down her arm. She pauses to go to the bar and comes back with a drink for me. She shoves into the booth next to me and continues talking like she never stopped.
“And anyone who tries to raise hell with the department about them is eventually pushed out.” She drains her cocktail in three gulps. “But I don’t care.”
As we drink, we move on to casual topics like my reality TV guilty pleasures and her ball python back at her parents’ house in Ohio. She introduces me to picklebacks and our first kiss is salty.
I take her to my apartment and introduce her to my roommates, who are playing a video game in the living room. All of us have spiders—except Liz, who can’t even see ours unless we hold them up to the light and she tilts her head just so—but we don’t usually talk about them or show them off around strangers. In the hours we spent at the pub, I got used to the girl’s spiders being on display—I actually kind of like it—but Dee texts me and tells me she’s making everyone uncomfortable, so I shuttle her to the kitchen.
I scrounge up just enough sugar from ill-gotten diner packets to make dough for butter cookies. The girl sits on the island and asks about my summer internship at the “fancy restaurant.” I tell her it was mostly washing dishes, though I did have some fun with the fry chef.
“Ooh,” she says, “tell me about that.”
But when I describe the way his beard tickled, she stiffens.
“I thought you were gay.”
I grin. “At least half the time.”
She tells me she has to go, actually. And before I can ask for her number, she’s out the door, leaving behind a spider of her own making.
I put the sheet of cookies in the oven and eye the spider blinking in and out of view, steadily coming toward me across the counter. I put my hand out because I can tell it’s not the biting kind, and it crawls onto my palm. I consider putting it in my hair…
But Dee comes into the kitchen, and I close my hand around it. I ask her to keep an eye on my cookies for a minute and jog up the stairs to my room. I drop it into the shoebox under my bed. The new addition is quickly lost amid scrabbling limbs.
I meet the man with the tawny eyes online. He has a blazing sense of humor, and he loves that my style of cooking is “so unpretentious.” We fuck like dying things, like crash survivors stranded in a sticky, dizzying jungle.
Which is probably why he gives me the wildest, most vicious spiders.
They escape no matter where I put them. They bite. They burrow, making phantom tunnels in my flesh and bulges under my skin. One night, I dream that I’m eating plump, pink salmon. No matter how fastidious I am, I keep choking on bones. I wake with my throat twitching and run to the bathroom. I don’t let myself see what comes up.
After a while, I can’t help recoiling when he reaches for me. I’m disgusted by how much of an imprint he’s already left. He tells me if I won’t give it up, I can’t blame him when he finds it somewhere else.
We break up during our six-month anniversary dinner. He leaves before dessert and takes the car with him. I stay and eat the cheesecake we were going to split. It is unctuous, the raspberry coulis vibrant. I take my time sipping the accompanying espresso, then call my mom for a ride.
Kessa is the geekiest, weirdest, loudest person I’ve ever dated. She makes nachos with kettle chips, runs a D&D group for women of color, and collects pig figurines and mini-bottles of liquor no one is allowed to drink.
When Kess complains about spiders, which is often but with very little heat—she does so at full volume. In the middle of crowded restaurants, parks, in the theater before the movie begins. People stare. At her. Not at the spiders, of course, though she has plenty and they follow her everywhere. She tells me she’s never tried to keep them contained, but she doesn’t mind that I do.
It’s only two months in, after a Sunday morning spent in bed has wrapped me in the sweet citrus scent of her, when I throw an arm over Kessa’s sweat-slick waist, pull her against my chest, and think, I love you.
Mom invites her to Thanksgiving with the whole family, all forty-two of them. I warn Kess they can be A LOT, but she insists on coming. And, even though I’m the cook and plan on bringing no less than three side dishes, Kess has to bring her “award-winning” carrot pie. She won’t tell me which award it won and won’t budge when I try to get her to make one with pumpkin or sweet potatoes like a normal person.
At Thanksgiving, Kessa plays with my baby cousins, talks football with my uncles, and promises to tutor two of my cousins in math. After dinner, she drinks wine with my mom and my aunts and talks about her spiders, even showing off one that’s hitched a ride on her jacket. I pat her leg and try to change the subject.
My aunts surprise me by talking about their spiders in kind. My favorite aunt’s voice even gets scratchy with withheld tears. I’m ashamed of myself, but I leave the room. Because it makes me uncomfortable to hear their stories. Because I’ve always thought of them as giants with skin like elephant hide. Because nothing much has changed since they were our age.
When I come back, they’ve started in on dessert, little helpings of everything on each of their plates. The carrot pie is even represented in tiny, tiny slivers. Everyone dutifully tries the pie and makes “mmm” sounds.
When Kessa is out of earshot, my favorite aunt smiles at me. “I like this one, ‘Niyah.”
Another aunt says, “Mmhm. But please tell that child, ain’t nobody ask for carrots in pie.”
After all of our possessions are crammed into a moving truck, Kessa and I stare out at the city from our high-rise one last time. I was going to wait until we’d settled into our new home, but she leans into the window, bracing a palm against the glass for a better view of the street below. The setting sun frames her in honey-gold. Without thinking, I get down on one knee behind her, pull the ring box from my jacket’s inner pocket, and hold it up. She takes so long to notice my arm starts shaking. I clear my throat.
Kess turns around and gasps. Then she throws herself at me before I can even ask the question.
Mom always said it might take me a while to find my people, being Black and queer and in possession of “a finely tuned bullshit meter.”
But I do. And I’m surprised to find them in the suburbs.
We make friends with people who are passionate about art and food and saving the world. I secure a location for my catering business and assemble a team that reflects the diversity of our new neighborhood. I fall for a guy named Julian who is witty and mellow, a photographer by day—usually for events, sometimes for his own projects—and a drag king by night. When his ex-wife sells the house they once shared, Kessa, though she never wanted a roommate, begs him to move in with us.
Of course, there are spiders.
Kessa brings home a new one from work at least once a week. And the last time Julian went to the ER, he left without treatment because the doctor spat one onto the thin, paper sheets. Julian called him on it, but the doctor refused to acknowledge it even though Julian knows he saw.
I do my best to keep mine contained, but when I’m stressed, they have a habit of getting loose. I’ll sit in my favorite chair, only to jump to my feet when one appears on my armrest; or slam down my glass of whiskey right before I swallow a biter floating in the amber liquid; or try to read a book and find it hard to ignore the shifting of the tunneling ones under my skin.
And sometimes… we give each other spiders. Never big ones, seldom biting ones, but it doesn’t matter because they’re always a burden. We learn from each other, though. We work to catch the spiders before they can crawl from our mouths, and we grind them to a bitter paste.
We’re at the studio in the city that Julian’s renting for his latest project. I’d planned to busy myself with menu-planning at a nearby cafe, but Kess has talked me into coming up.
The setup is minimal. A bare wooden floor, a bare white wall, a few lights, and a tripod. The only people in the room besides me, Kess, and Julian are Julian’s assistant and a makeup artist, whom Kess waves away because she spent two hours doing her own makeup.
Sooner than I’d like, Julian is done with test shots and like a sick magic trick, Kessa’s spiders materialize. Some are just bulbous, furry thoraxes, some just wiry limbs, others fully visible, still others are probably visible only to her. They crawl over her shirt, her collarbone, the hollow of her neck—my favorite place to kiss—her hands, her jeans, and—
I try not to look as horrified as I feel because Kessa is smiling and posing like superwoman, proud of what she’s survived, and I would never take that away from her.
Afterwards, while she’s in the bathroom, Julian hands his camera off to his assistant and walks over to the corner I’ve been lurking in. He squats down and asks me what I thought.
I tell him the truth. That I don’t understand how he can do this project or how Kessa lets those things sit on her skin every day or how she smiles through it all. Julian nods while I talk, then fetches a tablet to show me the other photos he’s taken for this series. They’re incomplete, he tells me. The spiders still need to be added back in.
Each photo is different. Melancholy, defiant, euphoric, one is so raw and jagged it’s hard to look at but even harder to look away from. The one thing they all have in common is how open they are; even the brooding self-portrait Julian took has a vulnerability in the eyes. I fall a little in love with each of his subjects. And when Julian asks me if I’d like to try a shoot, no obligation to finish or let him display the results, I say yes before I think of all the reasons to say no.
Back at home, while I catch up on menu-planning, Julian hands Kessa a tablet and a stylus. I peek over at the screen. She’s smirking, hands on hips, with none of the horror I saw rendered by the camera, at least not to my eyes. Following Julian’s instructions, Kess traces the outlines of spiders only she can see in bold colors and thick lines.
Julian encourages me to bare some skin—the result will be more evocative, he says. So, I put on a black sleeveless top and a pair of black jeans.
The setup is the same. I try to wave off the makeup person like Kessa did, but she says I should at least let them put some powder on me to reduce shine. Once I’m standing in front of Julian, my focus has narrowed to keeping down my breakfast. He takes a few test shots, then he tells me it’s time.
So, I close my eyes and think of my spiders, willing them to come to me.
Julian tilts his head. “I don’t see anything. Normally, I can see a few of them.” When I don’t respond, he asks, “Are they there?”
I open my eyes and glare at him. “No.” I soften my tone. “Sorry, no. I don’t know how.”
Kess made it look effortless, and maybe, for her, it was… she keeps her spiders close, just waiting to show them to others. I’ve spent my whole life containing mine—I don’t know how to do the opposite.
For the next forty minutes, I try everyone’s suggestions: I close my eyes and visualize the spiders, I do breathing exercises, I sketch the one that stands out most vividly in my mind, I yell at the top of my lungs even though it feels like goofy improv shit. Nothing.
I apologize and tell him to forget it, but Julian shushes me and rubs his chin. Finally, he asks his assistant and the makeup artist to leave the room—in fact, he says, if they could go get everyone some lunch and take their time, that would be great. The assistant splutters and insists they’re needed, but Kess volunteers to do their job, saying, how hard can it be to get stuff out of a bag?
Julian has to smooth things over, but they leave.
He gives me a gentle smile. “Now, Aniyah, it’s just me and Kessa. We’ve seen some of them before, could you start with those?”
I try visualization again, but still, nothing happens.
“What if you open your eyes,” says Julian, “and just talk. Tell us about one of your spiders and how you got it. Be as detailed as you’re comfortable with.”
For long minutes, I stare at a scuff on the wood floor, memorizing its feathered edges, then I tell them about the boy from high school… the snow drifting past the car window… the moment magical until… his hand cold on my stomach…
A spider materializes on the back of my hand, and I instinctively try to shake it off. Julian tells me to leave it, keep talking.
The spider starts as a translucent thing, hard body like a raindrop, limbs like spun sugar. As I talk, as I acknowledge it, its opacity shifts. The lighter end of gray then gunmetal then black with those marigold spots. Somehow, I know it won’t bite me again.
As I tell the stories, the spiders are summoned from the box I store high in a closet at home. Some come quicker than others, some more assembled, some less, others as ghostly as my memories of receiving them. Only a few bite, as if most have lost their fangs. But the bristling mass makes a parade of my flesh. My breaths come short and shallow, and there is one on my face, picking at the delicate skin of my lips. When Julian asks if I want to stop, I don’t know how, but I manage to shake my head. Frantically. I want to do this for each stage of myself, every Aniyah that survived so I could have a life full of food and love and drag shows and pig figurines and even bad reality television.
When I get to those six months with the man who used words like scalpels and the spiders writhe between muscle and skin like butterfly needles trawling for veins, I realize I’d been braced for them to tear their way back out, thinking of my body as their container. But this is as seen as they will ever be. Something about this irreversible invasion, that it can’t be completely shared, even with the two people I care most about, that I will always bear these spiders so intimately…
Kessa starts towards me, but Julian puts out an arm to halt her and continues snapping photos. I hate crying. And because I hate crying, my jaw is clenched against the act. The sound that escapes is like a rusted hand crank.
Julian lets me into the gallery hours early because I can’t be here when the exhibition opens. I can’t look at people looking at my picture. I can’t listen to their judgments of the lighting or my shaky sketches when it’s my pain that’s on display.
I walk around the circular exhibit, starting with the other seven photos in the series. I’m especially interested in what each of them chose for Julian’s title prompt, I Wear My Spiders-dot-dot-dot. Kessa’s makes me smile: I Wear My Spiders, They Don’t Wear Me. Julian’s makes me laugh: I Wear My Spiders Because FUCK YOU.
I finally come to my photograph.
Cross-legged, tear-streaked, my hands squeezing my knees, my eyes gazing directly into the camera like an accusation, or an appeal. Brown skin, black outfit, and all over, crude spiders drawn in white—chalk outlines of trauma. Underneath the tracings, visible only to me, are my actual spiders. I give in to the urge to touch the dark wood frame, tracing one corner with the tip of my finger.
I thought I’d feel pride like Kessa or bitter satisfaction like Julian, but since I’m the only one here, I just feel… seen.
Kel Coleman is an author, editor, and stay-at-home mom. Their fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in FIYAH, Anathema: Spec from the Margins, and Unfettered Hexes: Queer Tales of Insatiable Darkness. They are also an Assistant Editor at Diabolical Plots. Kel is a Marylander at heart, but their new home is in the Philadelphia suburbs with their husband, tiny human, and stuffed dragon named Pen. You can find them online at kelcoleman.com and on Twitter at @kcolemanwrites
Photo by Arun Pattanayak on Unsplash
Author of “I Wear My Spiders in Remembrance of Myself”
What inspired you to write this story?
This story has a surprisingly silly origin. I looked up the lyrics to an old camp song, which goes:
The cutest boy
I ever saw
Was sippin’ ci-
der through a straw
But I always remembered it as “sippin’ spiders through a straw”. This never struck me as odd because camp songs are weird, but this image lodged in my brain, a child eating spiders. I also imagined the spiders came to the child, unbidden, and the only way to stop them from biting was to eat them. I started wondering what kind of person would be forced to endure this arbitrary trauma from such a young age. It morphed and spiraled from there.
To give other writers hope, would you mind sharing with us how many edits and/or submissions this story has been through?
This story had an uncharacteristically fast turnaround. I wrote it in a month and it sold to the first place I submitted it. That never happens! Usually, I write half of a first draft, abandon it because it doesn’t feel like it’s working, come back several months later, find I actually like what I wrote, and send a finished draft around my critique circles for a couple of months. By the time I start submitting most of my stories, they’ve been through four drafts over the course of half a year or more. And I will say, the ending of this particular story changed three times in as many days because no one liked it, including me. It was a stressful process, trying to finish it on time, but I’m really happy with where it ended up.
Recommend something to us! This could be a book, a short story, a video game, a project you’ve heard about, something you’re working on, etc. Anything that has you excited and that you want people to know about.
I’m about halfway through Micaiah Johnson’s The Space Between Worlds, and loving it so far! Also, I’ll have a story in Neon Hemlock’s anthology, Unfettered Hexes: Queer Tales of Insatiable Darkness later this year, and the folks I’m sharing a TOC (table of contents) with are incredibly talented—definitely recommend preordering a copy if you haven’t already.