I work as a caretaker at a private conservatory. Actually, secret might be a better word to describe it, since you'll never find any public information on it. It doesn’t even have an official name, though my boss likes to call it the Silken Solarium, or the Widow Maker when he wants to make a pun.
Visits are by invitation only, and I haven’t the slightest idea if these guests are actually being charged some exorbitant fee to help maintain the place, or if my employer simply enjoys showing off his collection of exotic specimens now and then.
The conservatory itself is a gothic masterpiece of tinted glass, wrought iron, and dark purple bricks, with an equally ornate ivy-covered brick wall around the perimeter. We’re a good way off the closest highway and surrounded by woods, so not many people come here by accident. Some do, of course, but… I’m getting ahead of myself.
As unsettling as the place is to look at from the outside, it’s even more disturbing inside. There are some tropical plants placed around the place for landscaping, rare and expensive but ordinary enough, but the centerpiece of the conservatory are the spiders.
Thousands and thousands and thousands of small, black spiders with jewel-encrusted abdomens. Literally, they have actual crystals that grow in fractal patterns on their back segments, of every possible colour and hue that you can imagine.
When my boss makes a speech to his guests about the spiders, he calls them Latrodectus kallisti, or Fairest Widows. He brags that our conservatory is their last refuge and that they aren't to be found anywhere else in the world. Exactly where they're from originally and how he acquired them varies from telling to telling, but he is at the very least telling the truth about their rarity. As far as I’ve been able to determine, they’re not even an officially recognized species.
The Widows aren't just notable for their beauty, however. They’re an extremely social species, nearly as eusocial as an anthill or beehive. Stretching across the conservatory, suspended about twelve feet in the air, is a massive silk colony.
There’s a large central nest dangling from the ceiling, about a dozen smaller nests scattered across the room, and an intricate network of masterfully spun spider webs linking them all together. There are always spiders running along it, performing maintenance or transporting food.
There are also guard spiders, who just hang down on a single silk thread to keep watch and send vibrations back along it to communicate to the rest of the colony. Those are my boss’s favourite, since they’re the easiest to get a good look at. Or rather, perhaps I should say they’re his favourite living spiders. The dead ones, however, he prizes above any conventional jewels. They’re tens of thousands of times scarcer than diamonds, and he controls their only hatchery.
The dead spiders always get thrown from the nest, which I used to find unusual since I had thought species of the Black Widow genus were cannibals. In fact, the more I thought of it, the more it bugged me, since the spiders obviously don’t have the cognitive capacity to have any sort of taboo against cannibalism, which means they have to be acting on instinct. What evolutionary reason could they have for not eating their own dead?
Regardless of why they do it, whenever I see a body, I’m to gently sweep it up and turn it in to our entomologist. Depending on their quality, he’ll either incinerate them, use them for research, put them on display, sell them for no less than $25 000 a carat, or – in the case of the most perfect specimens – give to our boss.
Most crucially though; I am never, ever, to step on one. That was made abundantly clear to me from my first day. Less clear though were the consequences for doing so, since I’ve never actually done it. The spiders have a habit of tossing the dead where they’re clearly visible, a visibility which is aided by their brightly coloured, shiny rear-ends.
This made the whole not eating their dead thing even weirder to me since it seems like they would attract predators. When I first asked my boss what would happen if I did step on a spider, my only answer was that I’d be finished. I used to think that meant I’d be fired.
One of the more dangerous parts of my job is when I have to harvest their webs, since our conservatory also doubles as a silk farm. It’s nowhere near as valuable as the spiders themselves, but my boss takes great pride in our facility being the only source of naturally farmed spider silk in the world.
On one occasion – when I think he was partially drunk – he went on an odd tirade about how those goats that have been genetically modified to produce spider silk proteins in their milk were abominations.
Collecting the silk is pretty much like collecting honey. I even wear a modified beekeeper suit and use a smoke spray to incapacitate them. The only difference is I’m standing on a ten-foot ladder, and I have to be very selective about how much web I take and from where. The spiders don't mind too much if I take a small amount from a non-crucial section of the colony, but if they decide I'm threatening the integrity of the colony itself, they'll swarm, and with enough bites their venom will cause fatal paralysis.
My suit offers a little protection, but it’s not airtight. The only real way to keep myself safe is to be mindful of what I’m doing and how the spiders are reacting to it. That's why I usually like to feed them first, so that they're distracted.
A couple of times a week I release a gallon of live ladybugs into the enclosure. They’re fairly accessible since organic farmers use them for pest control, and my boss likes them since he doesn’t consider them ‘icky’ enough to throw off the conservatory’s aesthetic.
My job isn’t without its risks, but those can be mitigated easily enough with some planning and vigilance, and I’m well compensated for my trouble. The only part of my job that I truly hate, that makes me think about resigning every time it happens, is what happens when we get an uninvited guest.
It was winter, January I think, the first time. It was already dark out, but no later than six P.M. The weather outside was nasty, and I was contemplating whether or not to risk driving home or stay overnight, when I heard an urgent, desperate banging at the front door. I immediately raced to the front foyer, and there on the other side of the glass was a blonde woman in a red coat and dark grey scarf, already half-buried in the snow. Tapping my security card to the reader I pushed open the door just enough to let her in before letting it close and automatically lock.
“Come in, come in, come in,” I ushered quickly. “What in God’s name are you doing out on foot on a night like this?”
“Oh, thank you. Thank you,” she gasped as she shook the snow off herself. “My car skidded off the fucking road and crashed into a ditch. I can’t get it out.”
“That’s still no excuse to be wandering around in this weather. You should have stayed with your vehicle,” I chastised. “At least then you would have been warm.”
“Well, I couldn’t call anyone because I must have forgotten my phone since it’s not in my purse, and my tank was nearly empty so I didn’t think my vehicle would be able to keep me warm all night,” she explained. “That old road is deserted at the best of times, and I figured the odds of someone else coming along before I froze to death were worse than me reaching a farmhouse or something.”
She took off her gloves and began blowing air into her hands, then rapidly rubbing them together to warm them up. I diligently noted the wedding ring on her left hand, as I had been instructed to.
“I’m terribly sorry to have intruded like this, but may I use your phone please?” she asked me.
“I can make a call for you, but I can’t let you use our phones directly,” I said apologetically.
“What?” she asked, unable to contain the tinge of annoyance with me despite being at my mercy.
"We're a conservatory for a critically endangered species of spider, so we have rather stringent security procedures," I explained. "Only staff are allowed to use the phone lines. I can call a tow truck, and any friends or family if you have a number for me."
The woman sighed in resignation, and took out a pen and scrap of paper from her pocket and jotted down a number.
“That’s my husband’s cell, Alex Gifford. Tell him my car’s stuck somewhere on Mordred Drive and I’m safe here for now,” she said as she handed me the note. “I’m Carrie, by the way.”
“Halden,” I nodded. “You can hang your coat up and get yourself warm. I’ll make the phone calls and get you some coffee.”
“Cream and sugar please. Thank you,” she smiled gratefully, which made my stomach roil since I knew damn well I wasn’t going to call her husband. I left her there and headed for the administrative office, making sure to leave the door to the main exhibit open for her.
After a couple of calls, albeit different calls than the ones I said I was going to make, I did head to the break room to make coffee and then went to rejoin Mrs. Gifford with a steaming cup in each hand.
As expected, she had wandered into the exhibit hall.
She was staring up in wonder at the intricate webwork, the delicate silken threads glistening like iridescent glass and gently swaying from the movement of its bedazzled architects scurrying to and fro along its narrow filaments.
“What are they?” she asked bewildered, keeping her head pointed up towards the colony as she walked along the cobblestone path, paying no attention to where her feet struck the ground.
“They’re a rare species of Black Widows,” I said, my eyes fixated on her feet, waiting for the inevitable. She approached one of the guard spiders, dangling just above her like a Christmas tree ornament, slowing spinning around to give her a complete view of itself.
“And these crystals, they’re a part of their bodies?” she asked, studying it intently, likely unaware that it was studying her as well.
“They are. They make them with the minerals from their diet, sort of like how oysters make pearls,” I humoured her. “Spider-borne organic gemstones are highly sought after, as you can imagine, which is why they’re endangered. As far as I know, they’re actually extinct in the wild.”
“I’ve never even heard of such a thing,” Carrie remarked. “And I never thought that spiders could be beautiful.”
The spider let out some more thread to get a little closer to her, and she began reaching out her hand to touch it.
“I wouldn’t do that Ma’am,” I advised, despite knowing it wouldn’t ultimately make a difference. “These are still Widows, and they are venomous. Come join me over here and we can admire them from a safe distance while we wait for your husband.”
“He’s coming to get me? In this storm?” she asked, her incredulity distracting her from the novelty of the Fairest Widows. She turned around and began marching towards me. “You have to let me use the phone, I can’t -” crunch “- let him risk his life when I’m perfectly safe now.”
She didn’t even hear it; that horrid, sickening, crunching noise when she stepped on the dead spider. I immediately glanced back at the guard spider that had been watching her and saw it thrumming its thread with its rear legs, the vibrations travelling all the way up it and throughout the colony.
“What’s with the face? Surely you won’t get in that much trouble just for letting me use the phone?” she argued, oblivious to the danger we were both in now.
“I’m so sorry,” I said softly, feeling a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. I dropped the coffees and ran back to the exit, slamming it shut and sealing her in the exhibit hall.
Within seconds she had caught up, and was banging on the glass doors.
“What the hell are you doing?” she demanded. I just pointed behind her, shaking my head helplessly. She turned around, and saw that the thousands of spiders were now emerging from their nests en masse, and converging in on her location.
I presume you've seen a ball of spider babies at some point. Picture that, only the size of a basketball court.
"Oh my God! Let me in! Let me in! Let me in!"
I wish I could have. I really do, but they had seen her trample a dead Widow, and that is a crime which they cannot forgive.
I heard her muffled screams through the glass doors as dozens, then hundreds of the spiders dropped down upon her. She swatted desperately as they buried themselves into her hair and beneath her clothes, covering every possible segment of her body. Her screams of terror were suddenly interjected with torturous cries of pain as hundreds of pairs of venomous fangs dug into her flesh nearly simultaneously.
Those sharp cries turned to anguish wails and convulsed grimaces as the venom coursed through her veins, destroying muscle tissue and burning her up from the inside. She tried to run, but the surprisingly devious spiders had already strung a trip line behind her, felling her to the ground. She tried to force herself back up, but her muscles were already too badly damaged for that. Instead, all she could manage was to turn her head towards me, letting me see her final expression of shocked horror and betrayal before the spiders completely swarmed over her limp body.
I watched as the entire colony worked together to cocoon her in silk, and then, with over a thousand tiny draglines, reeled her up into the main nest. I was too petrified to move for at least a solid minute, but when I was able to move again the first thing I did was drop to my knees and vomit.
“Bloody hell. The little blighters didn’t waste any time on this one, did they?” my boss callously asked as he stood atop the ladder and examined the cocooned carcass that was now safely inside the central nest.
So, my boss. I’ve mentioned him a few times, and by now you may be wondering what sort of man keeps a menagerie of man-eating arachnids as his personal terrarium.
I don’t have all the answers, but this is what I do know. First, his name’s Seneca Chamberlin. He’s earned a reputation as our local eccentric millionaire, but if you’ve never lived in Harrowick County then you likely haven’t heard of him. He’s exceptionally - though indeterminately - wealthy, as you can imagine.
He also has a very Victorian fashion sense. He likes to dress in frock coats and cravats and top hats, velvets and silks, and always in deep reds and golds. A plutocrat with a pretentious and fashionably old-fashioned taste in clothing wouldn’t normally be anything to get too worked up about, except for that my boss looks far younger than I know him to be, than anyone knows him to be.
That, too, isn’t all that unusual - plenty of rich people look good for their age – but no amount of Botox or stem cells or plastic surgery can explain this. I’m sure of it. He looks no more than forty, and I know he’s looked like that for decades, at least.
The most unsettling thing is that the name Seneca Chamberlin goes back to the earliest surviving county records from nearly two hundred years ago. My boss of course claims he's merely a descendant of the original Chamberlin and that it was only poor record-keeping that failed to make that clear. But there are photos and portraits of his 'father' and 'grandfather' and… look, if it wasn’t for the fact I’ve seen him walking around in broad daylight, I’d swear he was a vampire.
“No. No they didn’t,” I answered him softly as I sat slumped up against an information placard, my head tilted back towards the ceiling as I tried to process everything that had happened. “She stepped on a spider almost as soon as I called you.”
“Well, that would do it alright,” he smirked, his eyes darting back and forth as he followed the countless Widows going about their business. “And you said she was married, correct?”
“She was,” I croaked, the stinging of tears starting to fill my eyes once again.
“To a man?” he asked nonchalantly as he started climbing down the ladder.
“Yes. What does that matter?” I asked irritably.
“It’s just that it really tickles my fancy when this place becomes an actual widow maker,” he answered blithely, hopping to the ground. “Still, widowers are a subtype of widow, now aren’t they? Small victories then, Halden. Small victories. Come on now, stop moping. You did beautifully! And don’t worry about any future problems with the law. That’s all been taken care of.”
I turned my head to him then, wearing a poorly restrained glower of disgust and loathing.
“Sir, with all due respect, is this just a game to you? We leave the front gates open, let curious or desperate passersby wander on in, and then just let them do as they please until the Widows snatch them up, just so that you can get your kicks and make a stupid pun?” I demanded.
Chamberlin just tossed his head back and chuckled dryly.
“No, no. Heavens, no. I have far too much invested in this enterprise to risk bringing it to the authorities’ attention over mere frivolities,” he assured me. “No, Halden. I’m afraid that the occasional ‘incident’ is quite essential to our operations. Why don’t you climb up yourself and take a better look? That should make things a bit clearer.”
My stomach churned at the prospect’s at looking at Carrie’s silk encrusted, spider covered corpse, but I had let her die. If there was actually a good reason for that, I wanted to know.
I forced myself to my feet and trudged up the ladder to see what Chamberlin was going on about. I peered down into the nest and saw exactly what I had expected to see; a silk-encrusted, spider covered corpse. But then, I noticed that the spiders were behaving somewhat unusually. Instead of their usual meticulous, coordinated activity, they were climbing all over each other seemingly at random, their limbs intertwined, unfamiliar globules of material being ejected from their abdomens in a mass orgy of –
“Fuck. It is an orgy. They’re breeding,” I realized.
“That’s right. They only breed when they come across a windfall of food, such as this. Very responsible of them,” Chamberlin commended. “Sacrifices such as these are necessary to ensure the survival of the colony.”
“But… why human sacrifices? Why not a pig or a cow or stray dogs? Why do we have to feed them people?” I demanded. He scrunched his face as he considered his response.
“Well Halden, the Widows are a result of co-evolution with and selective breeding by people,” he explained. “They evolved the gemstones to attract us, just as flowers evolved their blossoms to attract bees, and they offer us their dead in exchange for food and security. If someone or something steps on a dead spider, that’s a threat to that arrangement. They kill them to ensure they don't destroy any more of their offerings and use their body to fuel the next generation of Fairest Widows to offset the damage.”
“That still doesn’t -”
“I’m getting to that,” he assured me. “In addition to the gems and the silk, they produce a byproduct that’s even more valuable. It’s a sort of honeydew substance they use to nurse their young. It also happens to have unique biomedical properties that vary depending on the source of their meal. Feeding them cows and pigs and dogs would be all well and good if I was veterinarian, but as it stands my clientele are of an exclusively human variety, and thus I need dew made from exclusively human stock.”
I climbed down from the ladder, my outrage subsiding somewhat as what he said to me began to sink in.
“Unique biomedical properties?” I asked curiously, examining his ageless face as closely as I dared.
“Precisely,” he smirked knowingly, turning to take his leave. “Once they finish the poor woman off, they’ll package the dew in silk satchels and hang some of them out as an offering. I can trust you with their collection, yes?”
I hesitated briefly, trying to work up the courage to storm out on moral grounds and report him to the police. But I was already a willing accessory, and it wasn’t like I didn’t know this was going to happen when I took the job. And if I did try anything, there was no conceivable way that wouldn’t end with me dead and Chamberlin getting off scot-free.
Accepting the futility of resistance, I sighed heavily and nodded.
“Good man! Speak with the entomologist first, he’ll walk you through the procedure,” Chamberlin said as he headed for the exit. “And I realize this goes without saying, but drop or steal even a single satchel of dew and being devoured by the Widows will be the least of your worries.”
The glass door snapped shut as he left me alone with my thoughts, the corpse of the woman I had helped murder, and the thousands of spiders turning it into eggs and immortal honeydew.
I suppose my earlier suppositions about my boss hadn't been completely off. He was a vampire; just in a roundabout sort of way.
Written by The Vesper's Bell