Like any writer who moves to the country, I found myself at the beginning, doing things other than writing. Because why write when you can clean out a garage for example. And garages, I might add, can be very interesting to clean out. To me, they’re like cemeteries of modern living, filled with unused toys or broken down appliances sitting there like dead hikers atop Mt. Everest, perfectly preserved in their original state, just abandoned now and not really working. And for me, having a cemetery right next to the bedroom felt very un-Feng Shui.
It was then that I met Biggins.
Biggins, I take it had been eyeing me for quite a while that morning, watching me drag out the plywood and wrestle with a heavy broken down refrigerator. Judging from the state of the garage, an eternity had passed between my arrival and the owner before me, but for Biggins, it probably seemed like a long weekend. Spiders have a patience we don’t have. Long winters I bet he could do standing on his head. Hell, the last big meal Biggins had eaten was probably during the Mitterrand era. I could tell because his web seemed dated, almost 80’s-ish in design.
I can’t say I was very polite when Biggins came out of his tunnel to pay his regards. I turned away from him actually, like a young reporter interviewing a naked athlete. I’d never seen anything that size, and in the moment, it made sense to turn, just to make sure I wasn’t in some science fiction movie, where the BIGGER spider is then tapping me on the shoulder.
The appliances and the garage cleaning could wait. Seeing Biggins felt newsworthy almost as if I’d stumbled across a lost dolphin in the Seine. And to know that he lived in the same house as me, made me feel I was, well, somehow famous.
Biggins’s discovery changed everything.
My plan before meeting Biggins was to clean out the garage thoroughly and turn it into a second living room, a den maybe, or even a playroom. But now as I moved towards Biggins’s web to take it out, I realized I couldn’t. This was his place just as much as it was mine.
I sensed that because he didn’t run. He just looked at me as if I was a housewife pointing a gun at a hardened gangster. It was obvious he’d been in stare down situations like this before, and he wasn’t impressed. He was daring me almost. “Go ahead. You think that’s the first broom I’ve ever had pointed at me?” And he was right. I didn’t have the guts.
Biggins could stay. He wasn’t on the lease, but he could have been. And it was then that the period of cohabitation started.
The next day I continued my clean up, but around Biggins, like a mother would do a lazy teenager, vacuuming under and above his web. I think I even tidied up some loose strands like a good neighbour would do an overhanging tree. In my excitement, though, I’d forgotten to tell anybody else about Biggins. That is until I heard a shriek from my son, the shriek you hear at fun parks, where it’s fear mixed with thrill mixed with piss in pants.
“Don’t kill him!” I yelled as I ran to the garage, surprised a bit by my newfound devotion. And by the tone of my voice, my son knew whatever he’d seen was off limits, ranking up there with the grandfather clock in the living room and my new MacBook Pro.
Not used to such yelling, Biggins had retired to the quiet of his hole, and we stood there waiting for him to come back out, there in the dark like any normal father and five-year-old son would for 30 minutes at 8 pm in a garage. This wasn’t new to Biggins. I’m sure he’d been the subject of interest before, so he wasn’t going to prance around the web for our entertainment for nothing. My son instinctively got this too and came up with an idea.
“Maybe if we give him something, he’ll come back out.”
“Give him what?” I asked, considering perhaps a piece of steak considering Biggins’s size.
“I don’t know – a fly or something,”
“We can’t just…” I stopped at “just.” My son was right. We could. We could cheat, the same way wine producers cheat or greenhouses cheat or guys that grow pot in their basement cheat. You could simulate the fly/insect confrontation, just like you could speed up the wine fermentation process by adding sulphates. Of course, you can cheat.
With the enthusiasm of a Dr. Frankenstein and Igor, Otto and I started with a cricket, which had mistakenly hopped up from an old boot sitting next to us. We cupped him in our hands (I did actually) and tossed him at the web like pixie dust. The cricket sat there lying on his back looking like a customer in Ikea testing a mattress. He tried to right himself, but couldn’t, then tried again, eventually making a racket, enough so Biggins awoke from his slumber. He rumbled out of his hole, hesitatingly at the beginning like an old person looking into the sun off their front porch. Then with alacrity, followed by brute force, Biggins seized upon the cricket like a professional wrestler. Breathless, my son and I watched in horror and amazement. It was like watching a bull shark in a seal tank – something that goes down in nature humans aren’t supposed to see. Before we could even say “Did you see that!” Biggins had returned to his den, leaving a sort of mummified cricket wrapped in a web made sleeping bag, and my son, and rightfully so, pleaded for more as if he’d just seen a new Star Wars.
“Can we do another Dad? Please? Please!”
I stared at my son scared. I’d unwittingly introduced him to sadism masked as entertainment, and he was hooked. So was I. Never once did the cricket’s fate weigh on either of us. This was blood sport, and we, the crowd, wanted more.
“Biggins, Biggins” my son chanted as if he were in a roman coliseum.
“Not tonight son,” I told him. “Biggins is tired.”
Biggins wasn’t tired I’m sure, but I was, plus I thought if I said yes, my son would grow blasé about all of what we just saw, just like he had the Tonka trunk. But if I framed it as a treat, I thought, it would give the event a specialness and establish it as a ritual – a Rendez-vous have you, which we’d make every early evening like a summer cocktail.
But like every ritual, it too eventually becomes boring, and it was only after a tenacious ant gave Biggins some trouble did we realize (simultaneously) how we could make the event more interesting. Instead of feeding Biggins like a cow or dog, we’d make him fight for his meal, and in doing so; we’d create a gladiator type contest in the corner of our own garage.
Soon the cricket gave way to the mosquito who gave way to the ant – Biggins winning every time. It got to the point where we found ourselves moving up the food chain inadvertently trying to find an opponent more worthy, yet every time, Biggins won. And each time he drew the blood of his mummified adversary, Biggins grew bigger. Soon he was a freak of nature, and inevitably, my son upped the ante and proposed a wasp.
Good idea I encouraged him, but capturing a wasp takes time. Killing a wasp no, but catching one yes. Eventually, we found a cut-in-two Evian bottle, which we used to trap a wasp flying near a window. We got it into the garage, but just before we launched, my son brought up a good point.
“What if Biggins loses?”
I smirked as if he were an idiot.Biggins didn’t lose.
That was my summer. When people tell me about their vacation in Corsica or Umbria then ask what I did, I told them excitedly, “Well my son and I created the IUFC (Insect Ultimate Fighting Championships) in our garage this summer!” mentioning of course the marquee fights: Biggins v. Fly, Biggins v. Bumble Bee, Biggins v. Locust. “And soon,” I’d tell them, “We’re scheduling a match between Biggins and another spider!”
Each evening before dinner we’d hold the fight, eventually adding pomp and circumstance. We’d follow each combatant to the web with a flashlight in the dark to make it look like a fighter entering the auditorium, accompanied by the music of Fifty Cent or Metallica. Before the toss, I’d introduce the two fighters like a trained MC. “Ladies and Gentlemen, in the glass jar weighing the mass of one gram, with no losses, Fire Ant!” And my son would boo.
“And in the spider web, the reigning garage insect champion with zero losses. Biggins!”
Otto would then toss the insect into the web, and I would yell, “Let’s get it on!!”
By the end of summer, Biggins was a monster, and as I lay in bed at night looking at the ceiling, I became acutely afraid we were artificially growing something we shouldn’t, and that maybe Biggins would come into the house eventually once his food supply was cut off in the garage.
Summer then ended, and we packed up the cottage and left for Paris, where school and work were waiting for us. We didn’t return until Halloween weekend, and it was then that I saw Biggins. He was an emaciated shell of himself, almost like those football players now off steroids, looking up at me like an addict. Without thinking, we’d made Biggins dependent on us. He’d grown accustomed to eating every day, something spiders probably never do. And then all of a sudden, he was left high and dry without his dealer.
His web looked pretty run down – literally moth-eaten. The neatly arranged cadavers from this summer, which had lain on his web like flowerbeds on a manicured lawn, were replaced by giant craters. His ergo dynamic tunnel looked loose and unprofessional. His web, which had spread further into the rafters this summer was now falling apart. Apparently, Biggins had mistakenly assumed his nightly meals were the new normal and he’d carelessly expanded like Greece or some sub-prime lender only to be met with catastrophic consequences. Not only bankrupt, Biggins seemed obviously depressed. And there’s nothing you can do for depressed spiders I’m told. By the time we returned for Thanksgiving, Biggins had moved. Another spider, a grey one, now occupied his web, looking like someone who’d just bought a foreclosed house at auction.
“Why did he leave?” my son asked.
Although I told my son it was because of the winter and Biggins had to look after his sick aunt, I knew the real reason. Once you taste glory of that magnitude, it’s hard to go back to the humdrum quotidian, and a lot of it, I felt, was my fault. I’d taken a spider who’d lived a normal life for many seasons and gassed up his head with fame and adrenaline and rich food. I felt jealous too, secretly thinking Biggins had moved on to another garage and maybe another benefactor.
But mostly I was sad.
Biggins had made a relatively rain filled, dreary summer exciting, and I couldn’t imagine him not being there next summer. We tried with a new spider, but it didn’t work. He somehow knew the offered crickets and flies were like dangerous drugs you shouldn’t touch and avoided them, to the point where he’d even kick them off his web.
Eventually, we ended up buying the cottage and made plans to turn the garage into a living room/open kitchen – something bobos feel necessary to construct anywhere they live, even in the countryside. Biggins probably knew that in advance and chose to leave on his own accord rather than be dry-walled in.
The stone walls and wooden beamed rafters we kept though, and much to my children’s delight, smaller spider webs sprung up eventually high above us.
At night I’d tell my kids that the younger spiders who live in those webs, gather on the large wooden beam traversing the room and recount stories of past spider lore, describing a time when an insect champion lived amongst them and in this very house; a champion who brought pride to spiders of all colors and sizes and whose fighting ability and character were unmatched.
And if you’re very quiet, you can hear them up there at times, re-enacting the famous fights and chanting the legendary name of the fighter who made them famous. “Biggins, Biggins, Biggins, Biggins….”