She was beautiful and only her creator could tell her otherwise. A few months ago, late spring I suppose, is when I noticed her. She securely planted herself in front of my living room window, which regrettably faced an alleyway. I was alarmed at her sudden presence because the window was always gray and nothing ever really happens in the alleyway. Perhaps no other being found it a suitable spot, this wide window with no beautifying elements – no curtains, just cream-colored vertical blinds. The sight of her chunky, golden body, perfectly still in my window absorbing the morning’s warmth was perhaps a delight to me, she was different. I nicknamed her Sunshine because of the way she lit up my otherwise bland window when she passed by.
Sunshine was very particular and evenings were for cleaning. I would peek through my blinds daily to see her robust frame swaying and rotating as she slowly danced across the suspended web that created her home, snipping out the parts of her web that contained old food and leaf litter. She seemed to clean her body in the evenings, meticulously grooming every hair on her elongated limbs. I found it best to take pictures of her in the morning, when the sun was just rising. The golden tint from the sun lit up her body against the window. To see the intricate white markings on her abdomen as if God himself took a white, fine-tipped sharpie and drew them on her backside, you must be utterly close. I found myself taking pictures of her almost daily. I was curious to see her grow although I had missed her first molting. In fact, I was so close at times when with my camera lens that I could see the opaque fluids oozing from the necks of moths and flies, prey she had captured as her fangs penetrated their bodies. Sunshine took her time with her feedings and there was no escape for creatures that were caught in her web.
The Orb Weaver. European Garden Spider. Cross Orb Weaver. Araneus diadematus. Araneus is a Latin word meaning “spider.” Diadematus in Latin means “crown” or “decorated with an ornamental headband.” The elegance of both words does not align with the sheer terror that some people may feel when approaching a female, air-breathing arthropod, as female spiders are significantly larger than the males across the genus. What intrigues me is the matriarchy of the spider kingdom. It usually plays out in my mind, like the Alice in Wonderland Queen of Hearts characters’ constant “off with his head” chant, at least when it comes to the male servants that displeased her. Female Orb Weavers are the choosy sex. They know exactly what they want and are not easily entertained.
When Dr. Robb Bennett began studying spiders in the mid-1970s at the University of Guelph in Ontario, it came as no surprise, he had always been interested in natural history. He spoke about his early days of falling in love with nature as he recalled catching snakes and turtles since he was between four and five years old. Now a retired professional entomologist, his research enlightened me to the matriarchal superiority in the anthropoid world as he found female spiders to be the most female-dominated, predatory species on the planet.
Robb describes the female Orb Weaver as “one of the first species to be given a latin binomial name when it was scientifically described in the 1700s, entrenching her species in literature for over 200 years,” he said. The female lives out her adult life in gardens around the world, alone in her web, doing the work of taking down and creating a new web every day as she likes a clean space. Robb marveled at the levels of choice the female Orb Weaver displayed in her species as it is all controlled by the female on her own terms. “The female Orb Weaver will decide to mate with several males if she chooses and she also chooses which sperm she prefers to use.”
Sunshine, the Orb Weaver, was a rarity in my eyes as I had never witnessed this kind of behavior from an insect. Sunshine claimed her space every day. Coming out with the sunlight which was something spiders as nocturnal creatures, were not supposed to do. She did this with no break in routine for weeks. Then, one day, I noticed that Sunshine had company. A tiny, brown male sat in the uppermost corner of her web, waiting for an invitation to come closer. His abdomen was five times smaller compared to hers, with no noticeable, intricate markings. Perhaps I could not see his markings because he was so small compared to Sunshine. I assumed she wouldn’t give him the time of day as she didn’t appear to acknowledge his presence.
A few moments later, two more males showed up on the lower left end of her web. This was an ambush, I thought, and contemplated swatting them away, but I knew this was none of my business. Yet, I felt a sense of protectiveness for Sunshine. I considered her my sole companion during the day and I was delighted that she was having the social life I could only dream of. She did not have to worry about college or family. Sunshine could live her life on her own terms, no matter how short it may be.
At 40, Vanessa Clarke is extraordinary from a cultural perspective. Extraordinary because she is an unmarried, childless, educated Bahamian female, and at her age in The Bahamas, this is both unacceptable and unfortunate. She’s had a long career as a communications specialist and numerous degrees after her name. She said she was also thrust into flight or fight mode after losing her job at a Bahamian publishing company during the 2008 recession.
She told me she had just moved into a new apartment six months prior to losing her job. After being called into the main office building, Vanessa found out she was being fired and soon after, she was escorted to her office to collect her things, then security escorted her to her car. “I sat in my car for ten minutes, but I did not cry,” she said. Through her windshield, she could see everyone looking at her in disbelief. She said it was at that moment she had to get innovative and take control of her life. “I am the last of the generation who is programmed or conditioned to be employees and the first of the generation who want to strike out to be entrepreneurs. I was scared shitless.”
Vanessa had been making three times the salary of her boyfriend the day she lost her job. She came home and the first thing she saw was the dining room table in front of her that was stacked with paperwork, paperwork she no longer needed. “I went straight to my bed and fell asleep,” she said, only to be woken up by her boyfriend asking her why she was home.
“He hugged me and told me it was going to be okay.” The moment he hugged her, Vanessa recalled all her pent-up emotion came raging to the surface. “I freaked the hell out.” She paused and let out a shallow breath. “I was accustomed to being self-sufficient and now I’d have to rely on someone. Not only someone but someone that did not make as much as me.” Vanessa didn’t know how they were going to survive. “I was afraid because I didn’t know if the next month was going to make sense, and I went into survival mode. A week later I prayed about it,” she said, “and then I said fuck it.” Vanessa insisted that she had run a full gamut of emotions that day, all except happiness.
For Vansessa, self-pity lasted five days. Her partner lost his job two months after she secured a short gig in May of 2009, however, “he was depressed for two months,” she said, “He couldn’t leave the bed. I was like nigga you gotta snap out of this shit, you gotta snap out of it now.” She’d tell me about how she no longer saw him as a source of security. She sighs. “I expected him to wallow for 2-3 days and then I expected him to get his shit together.” When Vanessa had met her boyfriend, he’d described himself as a hustler, and until he’d lost his job, she had no reason to doubt him. “I went from being understanding, to feeling frustrated to being pissed off. I don’t expect you to break down. I don’t expect you to fall apart,” she said. “When your partner is freaking out and you take upon yourself to be the stable breadwinner, it becomes its own problem. Men are hunter gatherers and women are supposed to be the nurtures, multiplying whatever the men bring in. He brought home frustration and I gave him hell.”
My father divorced my mother a few months shy of graduating with her Bachelor’s degree. It had been relatively cool in our house that day, we did not have what some would call a ceiling, but exposed cedar beams, that were around 18 feet high. I was standing on the elevated Italian tiles in our living room, stepping on them to let out air pockets caused by the wrong mixture of cement, sand, and water. My father came in through the kitchen door. He was still in uniform, his light blue shirt and navy trousers soiled with motor oil from fixing the generators at the local electric company. I leaped off the elevated tiles onto sturdy ground so he would not catch me doing something I shouldn’t be doing. I was not in the mood to be yelled at.
He placed the papers on my mother’s side of the dining room table and called me and my little brother over to him. My father bent over low enough that his pecan brown eyes met mine. The sclera of his eyes were never white, always a drab beige as if he had been crying his whole life. There was never any brightness to them, but on this day, they were on fire. He touched my shoulder as the scent of motor oil crept up my nostrils. The smell of hot plastic and gas was potent as he tapped the papers with his blackened fingernails. “Do not touch these papers on this table. They are your mother’s and my divorce papers. I will leave them there until she comes home,” he said.
I remember feeling stunned and shocked. I did not move from that spot for a long time out of sheer terror and confusion. Divorce was a big word back then and I blamed the table. I never ate there again. I remained hopeful as any Disney indoctrinated pre-teen girl growing up in
the 90s would be. I expected this tantrum he was throwing to last only a few days. I assumed he was just angry at mom for something, maybe burning a pot again.
My parents ended their marriage because my mother did not come home to be a wife to him and a mother to her children. If my mom had been an Orb Weaver spider, she would be the exception to the patriarchal norms of Bahamain class and society. Her actions would be normal, as the Orb Weaver is already wired by nature to operate as a self-sustaining being that gives birth to her young with little to no assistance from a male.
My mother’s name is Carmen, and she is the exception. Her name has Spanish origins meaning “song” and through her heavy-set, 5’7” frame, my mother sang her own tune. She marched to the beat of a goat skinned drum heated to stretch to its limits with fire and freedom. She insisted that I, her only daughter, be an alpha at all times and that the opposite sex is for amusement and procreation only. After my parents divorced, it was imperative that my education and the continuation of hers was of the utmost importance. She went on to get her MBA, leaving me and my brother behind again. I was used to it and understood the kind of sacrifice this was for her. Eventually, she sent me off to the city to get my associates and then onto the U.S.A for my bachelor’s. She never entertained the idea of me having a steady boyfriend, and got angry anytime she found out I was even remotely interested in a guy during my studies. “They are nothing but a distraction,” she would say. We never discussed marriage before, but the one time that a man did propose to me, it seemed she was absolutely opposed to the idea.
I remember walking out of an engagement suite onto a concrete deck of the newly renovated Holiday Inn on Saunders Beach in Nassau, The Bahamas. It was pitch black outside, but the moon lit up the ocean view I had just west of the pool. I did not say yes to the young man, on his bended knee as the proposal only came after his mistress alerted me of her presence in his life. He thought proposing was a way to get me to stay in the relationship, to give me what he thought I wanted. I called my mother to tell her the news.
“Where are you going to live? He is NOT ready,” she said. “He said he can move in with me,” I told her, my throat choking on my tongue as my tonsils try to hold back the words coming out of my mouth. My mother chuckled over the phone. She calmly reminded me that I, at 20 years old, had just finished my associates degree and started a new job. I had my own apartment, a car and two cats: Monet the Perisan and Orlando, the Domestic Shorthair. What room was there for a man? I suppose this is what she was trying to tell me as she said “Get what you want out of life first. He needs to want what you want, not what he wants. Sex and men will always be there.”
Like the Orb weaver, my mother is profoundly self-confident and self-aware when it comes to the dealings of the opposite sex. Perhaps it was my father’s insistence on her domestication after marriage that she made it a point that her children, but more importantly her daughter, would be more educated than her and not fall prey to the cultural trap marriage has set for so many women in The Bahamas.
Like most Bahamian families, girls are expected to get an education, but once that is achieved, the questions from family members about starting her own family become abundant and overwhelming. Vanessa came from a family who pushed her to stay the course in college. Yet two days after graduation, her grandmother was asking her when she was getting married. “I stayed in a relationship trying to fulfill a duty that was not going to be fulfilled to my family,” she said. She explained how her family expected her to settle down, but most importantly, her mother wanted her married. “If I told my mom I would marry a spider, she would have been ecstatic,” she told me. “She wanted me to go through that process. That is the one right of passage that I have alluded and my parents are not happy about it.” With frustration in her eyes, “I stayed, even through all the bullshit,” she said, “to fulfill a duty to my family but not to myself, so that relationship crumbled in the most spectacular way,” she told me.
Fortunately for the Orb Weaver, relationships don’t matter because the female has confirmed her role as the choosy sex. Robb says there are several points where the female orb weaver will make choices courting a male. The female knows what the males’ intentions are by the way he plucks her web with his legs and drums his body, sending vibrations to attract the female.
The male plucks at the silk on the edge of the web in a particular pattern, kind of like a morse code system that the female must decipher. “She interprets the plucking to see if he is a suitable mate or if he is a bum,” Robb said. The female spider has to make a number of decisions as there would be more than one male at her doorstep trying to get her attention.
Once the male spider has the female’s attention, she then decides if she will allow him onto the web. Then, she will decide if he can approach her. If the male is found to be suitable, the female will allow him to mate. She will then decide if she wants to store any of this sperm in her seminal vesicles. “Beyond that”, Rob says “she could decide if she wants to use that male’s sperm.”
Back at the apartment, the male suitors just kept coming. One still morning, Sunshine was in her hide, not sitting in the sun as she usually liked to do. I came closer to see if she was okay. I looked up to the top right of her web and noticed two brown male spiders suspended in her web. The larger male plucked her web in the most aggressive manner, using his front legs to strum and crawl his way closer. Sunshine moved. She came down from her hide slowly, and the male stopped plucking. She stretched out her front legs, tapping her web to return whatever bullshit story I imagined he was trying to entice her with. He started drumming again, inching slightly closer.
Then, I noticed something strange. This male was cutting away portions of Sunshines’ web, destroying her home and placing his own strand of silk to anchor himself in place. Sunshine came down slightly. He stretched out his front leg. The tips of their legs touched. Then, without warning, he cut his silk anchor and swung away from her. Sunshine didn’t move but it seemed all eight of her eyes met mine. She went back up towards her hide.
Meanwhile, the smaller male did not move out of his position, probably in fear of being murdered as a result of what just happened. Less than an hour later, the same male returned, drumming the same song and dance as he had earlier, touching her leg and leaving again. I can’t be sure, but to me, it looked like rejection, something I have experienced myself. Sunshine quickly spun around and marched back up to the left corner of her hide and stayed there for the rest of the evening, curled up in a ball.
I decided to do what I always did whenever a guy ghosted me and that was to open a window and turn on Toni Braxtons’ “Love should have brought you home” and blare it out of the window. Sunshine came down and sat where she always sat as the music played. Her stillness reminded me of when I would sit at home, reflecting on the wrong a lover did to me. It took me back to a gentleman I once shared a home with, my first love if you will. I would wait for him to call and let me know he was returning from hanging with his friends. But as it turned out, he had been spending that time making a baby with a young lady two blocks from my house. He was five years my senior and I was a sophomore in college, 18 at the time, and I was not ready to give him a child. Just like the others, my mother made her disapproval of him known, so I supposed he never really committed to the idea of being in a relationship with me permanently. He continued this behavior for two years to prove I was the puppet he perfected. So, in remembrance of this tragedy, I sang along and I wanted to believe that Sunshine did, too. At that moment, we shared a connection. Even if it was over the shared experience of absentmindedly entertaining an inferior male.
Vanessa told me that in 2019, a switch flipped in her head when her pitbull dog, Sheba, had died. “I realised I didn’t control shit,” she said, “I had to pull myself out of survivor mode and into surrender.” She could not make sense of the pressure women feel to conform to social constructs of family life and she lamented that she can never get that time back. She told me how some nights she could not sleep and how she had never been this alone. Although she no longer has a physical companion, she is trying to not look at it as a negative. “I don’t count it as loneliness anymore, I can count it as independance.”
Vanessa said she is open to new possibilities as she had started dating a Grecian man five years her junior with a history of living in The Bahamas. Vanessa has never met George in person, only online, and he was the first non-black person she has ever dated. “George is new. New in a whole lot of ways,” she said. While the country remains a hodgepodge of lockdowns and curfews due to the pandemic, Vanessa says dating has now turned into a conversation, as George has no issues with her being an Alpha female. For Vanessa, this new adventure with George felt strange as she was accustomed to men being the ones to dominate everything. She said the pandemic has made her look at things differently and George is comfortable with her being in control. If all the borders in countries around the world open up and the pandemic ends, Vanessa said she is hopeful for George to come to her home. “If we are ever in the same space, it would be different to see how it flows, after this pandemic. I still don’t know how to classify this,” she said. Vanessa got lower in her bed, securing her spot on the mattress, signalling it was time to part ways. “All women,” she told me, “even the strong ones, the powerful ones, the independent, we are all still vulnerable.”
It was mid October when I noticed Sunshine suspended by the thinnest thread of silk. I had never seen her this low before. The temperatures were dropping every day – sometimes down to the 30s. I was worried as the bugs seemed to no longer waltz their way onto her dinner table. Her two front legs and two back legs were stretched wide as if on a medieval torture device. Her four center legs kept her steady on her line of silk as she rotated in the wind. The larger male that once stalked her web was gone just as quickly as he arrived. She swung through the air as if in an eternal bliss. She stretched open her back legs again until they were taught, reminding me of what an orgasm looked like as I can no longer relate.
She stopped swinging as I got closer. Too close. She gathered up a piece of extra silk as if she were picking up her panties off of the floor and crawled back to her hide. I looked down and a small male spider in my window sill. He no longer had a heart beat as his body morphed into a death curl, reminding me that mother was right: Men are for amusement and only procreation is a necessity.