Spiders with hooked fangs, giant cockroaches with wings — Ronlyn Domingue comes to understand the value in small lives.
My eighth year was a murderous one.
Strung across a pin oak’s low branches, a web held the threshold between life and death. The giant banana spider was splayed in the middle of her spiral—fuzzy, black, articulated legs motionless but awake. Her body was armored in gold. If the sunlight and I moved under the right shadows, I could see her hooked fangs ever ready with venom. She was an orb-bound Kali, fierce, horrifying, and beautiful, surrounded by a necklace of silk-wrapped dead.
Sometimes, I dared to summon her by plucking a note on an outer thread, the tensile strength against my finger a shock. She ran toward the vibration’s source, found nothing, then returned to her center. I loved to watch her dance. When prey did get tangled, I gasped at how quickly she captured it. She was here, then there, a leap, a plunge. Her body streamed out a shroud, and her legs twisted it, tiptoed, in a coil around the insect. She sucked out its life, then cut it free.
I gave her offerings that summer.
In the deep shade along the house where only moss could grow and leaves rot, doodlebugs—pill bugs—crawled around in groups. I liked to play with the gentle, little semicircles. Knocked to their backs, they flailed many tiny legs in attempts to grab something and set themselves right again. If startled, they curled into balls, soft insides neatly hidden under hard gray or black shells. They were soundless, until they were collected in a jar. Then I’d put my ear to the glass and hear an ocean rush, the sound of hundreds of scrambling feet.
On several occasions, five, maybe six, I selected the largest doodlebugs for sacrifice. First, I tried tossing them whole into the web. The doodlebugs instinctively curled up, passed through the gaps or bounced off the threads, and landed in the grass. Then I tried placing them. I picked up a doodlebug in mid-crawl with my thumb and forefinger on either side of its body and set it feet first into the web. Despite my steady dexterity, I was afraid I’d tangle my fingers and I managed to place only one or two this way. My bloodlust (on some level, I knew what I was doing) reached its height when I ripped a few doodlebugs in half and tossed their wriggling carcasses into space. Success. Several pieces held long enough in the sticky silk. The spider dashed from one to the next, wrapping them in fate.
I have other confessions, other deaths under my hand for which I must atone. The occasional worm I flung in the midst of ants, which attacked en masse. That was a brutal, writhing end. The one daddy longlegs—so gentle and spindly—I subjected to amputation, until all that was left was the disk of its body.
I can’t claim that my actions were because of childhood curiosity, a what would happen if…? I had watched spiders and ants enough to know what they did to the hapless creatures that chanced across their paths. I knew the daddy longlegs could not survive if it couldn’t walk. Although I didn’t think about it, I knew terrible pain was involved.
I embodied a primal lack of compassion in those moments, a wicked disregard for the better choice. Children are cruel, adults have said—but why? Is there an instinct to destroy without reason, seemingly without consequence? Is there a desire for power by whatever means possible, because being a child is a vulnerable, fateful condition over which the young one has no control? Is it a dark mystery within nature itself?
When I was twelve, I awoke one night to an incessant noise. I lay still long enough to realize there was a cricket in the house. I tried to go back to sleep, but it whirred and chirped with exceptional persistence.
The hunt was on.
I stepped around my bedroom and paused to listen. I searched the hall, then the living room. The noise was softer there. I went back into the hall and entered the bathroom. Silence, brief wholesome quiet, and then the chirp. It seemed to come from the area behind the bathroom door. Nothing moved. The whir continued. I opened the bottom cabinet and tossed aside dirty laundry. Up bounced the little black troublemaker.
“Come here, you,” I said.
I coaxed it into the light. Crickets garnered my special affection. They were hopelessly dapper with their sleek, black coats and shiny, smooth eyes. Their back legs sported powerful upper parts and snazzy, tined lower parts that tickled my hands when I held them. He didn’t fight capture for long. I held him between my cupped hands. He jumped and scuffled his feet against my palm. He didn’t make a sound. The love song was over for the moment.
The front door had a mail chute that led directly outside. Other innocent beasties—beetles, June bugs—had gone back to the wild through that portal. I took care not to crush the cricket as I flipped the brass hinge open and poised him for release. One nudge, and he was gone.
Later in a high school history class, I sat in a back corner near a window. Through cracks around the sill, tiny black ants marched along the wall, over desks, and across the floor. They found bits of contraband soft drinks and food. Every day, they skittered along the same fine line on the far edge of my desktop. The teacher bored me, but the ants did not, even though they always did the same thing, minute to minute. I flattened my hands on the desk, propped my chin up, and watched them share their chemical language among antennae. Sometimes, I’d open my lunch sack and leave a crumb for them to divide and carry.
A friend who sat next to me had no trail of ants but did get stragglers. She’d press her finger into their bodies, blot blot blot, and wipe them away.
I couldn’t pass judgment, really. I had my own personal hit list, one I considered justified. Mine was a thoughtful act performed for the benefit of humanity or, at least, my own family. In the interest of health and sanitation, I swatted flies and stomped roaches. Each one I killed left one fewer adult to dance its germy jigs on our food, counters, and floors. None would be missed. There were plenty more where they came from.
I still feel remorse for one murder.
My partner Todd and I rented a house when we were in college that had a respectable little backyard. Our landlord allowed me to build a garden. I was then a glimmer of what I’d come to be more fully—someone who wanted balance and harmony with the natural world. I learned marigolds thwarted insect pests and planted seeds along the vegetable garden’s perimeter, ones that grew into golden flowers with crimson-tipped petals.
I’d read about the benefits of compost and decided we should have a pile of our own. Todd hammered three two-by-fours into the ground and stapled chicken wire on the outside, leaving one edge loose so that I could open it.
Alone, one day, I decided the compost heap could use some attention. With shovel and rake, I dug into the center, up and over, again and again. It was difficult, hot work for someone with so little upper-body strength. As I scooped into the black gold at the bottom, something moved of its own volition. I glanced down at a snake—and before I could think a rational thought, I smashed it to death with the shovel.
Then I almost cried.
Its mangled body lay in the grass. One closer look revealed to me that it was no more than a few inches long. Even if it had been a copperhead and managed to bite me, I might have become sick but almost certainly wouldn’t have died. In fact, I’d been in no real danger. The snake’s appearance startled me—a primal reaction flooded my mind and muscles—and I killed it. I didn’t bother to think.
I vowed I would never do something so unnecessarily cruel again. I would think first, then act. Eventually, I’d learn that was a form of mindfulness.
Ten years later, we moved into our first house, a 1940s cottage. On a spring morning that insisted on every living thing’s presence outside, I raked fall leaves from a flowerbed to make room for new plants. Bricks marked a spot where a white-blooming gaura might have survived the winter. I moved the bricks with my bare hands. As I reached for the last one, I saw a coiled snake in the corner near the concrete steps. I jumped back, then crouched for a better look. Had it not been so chilly—or had I been intrusive in its space—it might have bitten me. I felt a familiar adrenaline throb in my body. I remembered the snake I’d killed and the promise I’d made.
With the rake, I poked into the snake’s hideaway. It struck twice, exposing a white mouth and glints of fang. Slowly, it uncurled. I angled the rake near its body, and the snake twisted among the tines. I assumed it might want a similar environment, so I walked to our backyard and over to our neighbor’s, where he had a pile of broken concrete draped with dead weeds. I shook the snake loose. It disappeared into a crevice, safe from humans, cats, and hawks.
That 1940s cottage was where I began to spare the underground innocent. When I prepared the beds for new plants, inevitably I disturbed the earthworms’ holey work in the soil and the grubs’ dark wait for maturity. I kept a bucket with a layer of dirt nearby as I tilled. When I found a little creature, I placed it in the pail and released it on the loosened soil after I was finished.
Although I gave thought to their lives, I didn’t contemplate my motives. It simply felt like the right thing to do.
Some years later, an old friend orbited back into my life. He hadn’t changed a bit, yet he had. He had become a practicing Buddhist, a path that made perfect sense to me based on what I remembered about him. A cerebral, gentle man with a strange, koanlike sense of humor.
He mentioned in conversation a practice of nonviolence to other living beings. He said there were monks who went so far as to brush the areas where they were about to sit to avoid crushing insects or creatures that might be present. “They don’t even slap mosquitoes,” he said.
I held that conversation in my head for weeks. Not even mosquitoes, I thought. It was summer in Louisiana. The little buggers were everywhere, hungry.
What I learned burrowed into me. I didn’t ponder it as much as I attempted it. That is to say, I was on the path already, what was one more step?
By then, almost every creepy-crawly thing was spared. Outside, no snake, frog, toad, salamander, or gecko needed to fear my reaction when I saw it. Unearthed worms and grubs returned to their disturbed ground. If found in the house, beetles, earwigs, crane flies, and moths—even flies—endured temporary capture and subsequent release. Most itsy-bitsy spiders were allowed to stay in dark corners, capturing their prey. (Who knew so many gnats buzzed around so low to the floor?) The large spiders found themselves scooped up on sheets of paper or trapped in glasses, then left outdoors.
My transformation was obvious. All of these creatures were going about their lives around me, doing what they do. That I disliked some of them, that they were a nuisance to me, gave me no cause to harm them. I had no justifiable reason to kill. So I wore long sleeves and pants if I worked outside when mosquitoes swarmed. If one attempted to land on me, I brushed it away. In my effort not to hurt them, much to my surprise, I began to appreciate their tenacity. No matter that they’re responding to their instincts and to my heat and scent, there is still some form of awareness in the creature. It finds what it’s looking for. It eats. It survives.
Inside, I confronted my lifelong prejudice against cockroaches, especially the giant brown ones that crawled out of decaying leaves, slipped through cracks in a doorway, and crept or flew (the winged horror!) around the house. They ran from us, rightly so, and couldn’t be captured by usual means. My solution, although rough, was to whisk them through an open door with a broom. Roach hockey. It works, and the method is kinder than the slap of a shoe.
I’m not perfect. I still have a hit list. When a friend’s adopted daughter arrived in the U.S. with a case of lice, I helped her kill them and washed every sheet and towel to destroy the eggs. Fleas receive grudging tolerance. I’ve changed my cats’ diet in hopes they’ll repel the little parasites without the use of chemicals. Fire ant nests in high traffic areas do get flooded out to encourage their relocation.
My actions, however, are no longer reactive. I am sad about the murderous year and thoughtless moments, the needless suffering I caused. Yet through that, I’ve grown in my compassion for the small things. My intent to let them be has deepened my sense of relationship to them. They are teachers in balance, cooperation, fortitude, perseverance, beauty, and play. They are charming mysteries in our collective web of life.
Today, as I stirred from sleep, I remembered that I wanted to finish this piece but wasn’t sure how. Before Todd went to work, he left a note on the kitchen counter with a doodle. “Good morning. Say hello to me. I’m building a web outside of the window…” Below the words was the image of a smiling spider. I stepped outside into the heat to find her. Centered in the spiral, striped legs relaxed yet ready, was a tiny banana spider. My Kali had returned, only she no longer inspired sacrifice.
My offering to her, to all small beings, is extremely simple now. Peace.