Since moving to New Orleans I feel like everything is trying to kill me. There's the heat and hurricanes but even worst are the ants. Over the summer, my girlfriend Karen and I were attacked by fire ants while drinking wine in the park. I received more than 200 bites, mostly around my groin, they formed welts the size of beer coasters and my ears and throat swelled up. Then one day I opened the mailbox to a new horror, the brown recluse. The spider is about the size of a quarter, but its bite can be horrendous. In the worst cases, a gaping hole appears around the wound and the skin rots away, leaving a gooey mess that resembles pizza. Ears have been known to rot off, heads can swell up like balloons, the venom can even affect internal organs.
We googled "brown recluse bite" and became mesmerized by photos of festering wounds. This pic is a textbook example of what Karen and I now refer to as pizzafication. The caption reads: "The patient endured eight days with an open wound to drain the spider's toxins and needed intravenous antibiotics and pain medication almost 24 hours a day." We learned other details, the spiders love dry, dark places like woodsheds but will also hide under bedding or clothes piles -- we sleep on the floor and it's littered with clothes piles.
With the recluse in our mailbox I actually felt safe. We knew where it was, it knew where we were; there was a truce. As long as we remembered to carefully jiggle envelopes while pulling them out we'd be fine. Then one morning our drunken neighbor Steven, a cook at a local restaurant who got bit by a brown recluse on the head while in prison, stuck a newspaper in our mailbox and flung the spider into the yard. The truce had been broken. We searched fruitlessly for the thing. Meanwhile, Steven was across the street drinking Busch Light and laughing at us. From the scar the recluse left you'd guess he got cracked in the skull with a baseball bat, Karen and I suspect the venom may have retarded him. He serves as a potent reminder of what lies ahead.
Insanely poisonous spiders are new to us. Karen is a clothing designer and I'm a writer. We moved to New Orleans from New York, where the most frightening bugs are bed bugs. I had bed bugs. They're terrible, but child's play compared to the recluse. Can bed bugs rot your face off? No. For me, however, they left giant welts that itched for weeks, a worst reaction than most endure. And herein lies my dilemma. I'm extremely sensitive to bug bites, even a mosquito will light me up with welts. Simple bug arithmetic tells me, if mosquitos do nothing much to the average person but give me welts, then the recluse, which leaves saucer-sized holes in the average person would dissolve my entire upper body.
The spider has become my mania. I tried to convince Karen we should sleep in a hammock or pod. I put directions to the hospital on the refrigerator. I considered torching the yard. I purchased a pouch of activated charcoal, for soaking up poison. Before getting dressed I violently shake my clothes to dislodge possible recluses. There have been minor incidences, like when quarters flew out of my jeans and slammed me in the nose. Socks are particularly annoying, I must turn them inside out to make sure there are no spiders inside the tube. Occasionally, a spindly brown shape falls to the ground and my heart races. Closer inspection usually reveals a sticky bur or clump of cat hair. Karen laughs at me. She doesn't shake out her clothes. She secretly wants to get bitten so she can get the morphine drip.
To curb my paranoia I decided to speak with someone who knew more about the spider. Stephen was too drunk and I couldn't find the phone number for Captain Ron, our Cajun swamp tour guide. He had been bitten by everything in the swamp, including snakes and alligators, but said a recluse bite that nearly lost him his left foot was the most painful. I finally found an expert in an evolutionary biology Ph.D student at the University of Kansas named Erin Elizabeth Saupe.
I learned some chilling facts. Brown recluses usually live for about two years but can go almost a full year without eating or drinking. The technical term for the flesh-eating rot their bite induces is necrosis, which is caused by a cell-killing protein known as Sphingomyelinase D. The protein is found in just a handful of spider species and one particular bacterium. But here's the curious thing. Necrosis typically takes hours if not days to fully set in, and a spider's prey is killed in minutes. Thus, the brown recluse catches its food without necrosis. At least in my eyes, there seems to be no evolutionary reason for the recluse's ability to turn your arm into pizza.
A few weeks back I spotted a brown recluse in my car, but I try not to let this unnerve me. I've begun to look at the recluse as a sort of magical arachnid poltergeist. Worrying is useless, I realized, the spider must be embraced. Feel special that it has chosen you. I only hope that when it bites me, it is not on my face.
Oh, and there is one more thing. In 2011, Saupe co-authored a study in the journal PLoS ONE that modeled how climate change could affect distribution of the brown recluse, which is currently found from Kansas to Louisiana and east to Georgia. In a warming world, the recluse's domain could expand north to include cities like Philadelphia, Boston and New York. Embrace it my friends.
Justin Nobel pens a blog about death and is the author of a book on observing New York City's minutiae called Standing Still in a Concrete Jungle. He's presently at work on the second book in his Places trilogy, a shamanistic travel guide to the American South.