I was seated in a Boeing 777 on the tarmac at Narita International Airport, waiting for the airplane to pull away from the terminal and begin our flight to Honolulu. My wife and I had just wrapped up the first half of our honeymoon, a week in Tokyo. We were presently on our way to the second half, a weeklong stay at a condo on Kauai’s south shore.
I cracked open my bright blue-jacketed copy of Ultimate Kauai Tour Guide and flipped it open to a random page. At that moment, I wasn’t picky about the subject matter. While the plane taxied down the runway, I made myself comfortable and leaned into the book, ready to absorb myself in learning about the island and whatever things there were for us to do.
As the engines went from a whine to a dull roar, I found myself reading about the various pests on the island. This included the cane spider.
I closed the book and felt alternating tsunamis of revulsion and impending doom wash over me, leaving in their wake a wash of goosebumps. My hands grasping the book grew very cold, and I was suddenly aware of how perfectly dry they were. The plane started rolling, the dull roar grew louder, and with a gentle lurch we were skyward, departing the greater Tokyo area for the right side of the International Date Line.
At least that’s what I assume happened. I had discarded all sense of time and space, fixated by a single, monstrous thought that arrested my faculties. I was on my way to a place that had cane spiders.
Book in my lap, I anxiously rubbed my cadaverous hands together.
My god, what had I done?
I knew of cane spiders. Cane spiders were large, hairy arachnids the size of a tarantula. They took their name from their habit of residing in cane fields. That was all I actually knew about cane spiders.
The truth was, I was too afraid to find out more. Every time I had ever been motivated to find out more about them, I had been dissuaded. I knew that every article I might look up online would probably have a “will you look at the size of this thing?” photograph of a cane spider next to it. I have been known to throw, in a panic, books and magazines across rooms because I have flipped a page and unexpectedly come across the photograph of a spider. Any online photographs might be quite large and shocking. Some people, they don’t crop and resize.
In my ignorance and total surrender to mortal fear I had never actually seen a photograph of a cane spider. I decided that was an unnecessary detail and not something worth traumatizing myself with. It’s not like I wouldn’t recognize one for what it was. Any giant spider in Hawaii as large as my fist, it was safe to say, was a cane spider.
I didn’t think I needed to know anything else about cane spiders. I knew cane spiders make terror like bees make honey. Obviously, they were not fatally poisonous. If they were, everyone on Hawaii would have been dead a long time ago. They might eat horses--I really had no idea.
I was on my way to the giant spider capital of the United States, where they were as common as rats--and probably ate them, first incapacitating them with a poisonous bite and then drinking their liquefied remains, while the rat’s friends could only watch in horror, shrieking their little rodent lungs off.
I didn’t get it. When we invited Hawaii into the Union, the rest of America got what, exactly, for the pure privilege of making more giant spiders arachni-americans? A few miles of beach, a phlegmatic volcano, leis and macadamia nut candy? When I write Bullshit Deals of American History, it will go fast. I already have this chapter written in my head.
There was no going someplace else for the rest of the honeymoon--not this late in the trip, anyway. The plane tickets, the car rental, and the condo were already paid for. Backing out now would waste thousands of dollars, and setting up an alternate itinerary would cost us thousands more. And we were, before cane spiders had entered the picture, actually looking forward to Kauai. Tokyo had been chilly, blustery, and occasionally rainy. Not yet in the hot season, Kauai would be sunny, mild, and just a little bit breezy.
And perhaps my grave, too.
Touching down in Honolulu to make our connecting flight, I was struck by how calm it was, despite the documented presence of cane spiders. There were no cane spiders swarming across the tarmac at Honolulu International. There were no airline employees being chased by cane spiders. There were no pancaked arachnids on the roads, or standing on the side of the road, front legs reared up menacingly and hissing at passing cars.
Our airline had declared bankruptcy while we were in Japan, so we got to spend a little more time at the airport than we had planned. I used this time to study Honolulu and gain knowledge about the cane spider situation. There were no Hawaiians warily carrying brooms and wielding torches as they went about their daily business. No buildings on fire, cars wrecked, enormous spider webs ensnaring small airplanes, or general evidence of carnage one might naturally associate with cane spiders.
All of these were positive developments. Many self-perpetrated misconceptions had already been dispelled. But there were no signs of horses, so maybe the cane spiders had eaten them into extinction after all.
Upon our arrival at the resort complex at Poipu, my wife and I checked in at the front office. I asked the office clerk, a middle-aged woman with a kind face wearing a blue and white muumuu, if she had ever seen any cane spiders. “Oh no,” she said, making a sour face and shaking her head, “I haven’t seen any in a long time. Not with all the construction going on around here lately.” I immediately wondered why building tourist residences would drive away or kill off all the cane spiders, but it sounded good to me, and in case her logical reasoning were faulty, which I suspected it was, I didn’t want to know so I didn’t press her about it.
I thanked the clerk for putting my mind at ease, which she did, until she added a little factual tidbit which not only made my skin crawl, but almost made it secede from my body and take the next flight to the mainland. “I hate them. They jump, you know,” she said, making a face that seemed to recall a particularly horrible memory, like watching someone sucked into a wood chipper.
“No, I didn’t know that,” I said, in a monotone, trying not to betray the horror I felt within.
We found our condominium, dragged our luggage inside, and had a good look. It was fairly new, decked out in an Asian/Polynesian style, almost swanky, but definitely fun. It was near the swimming pool, which would form an obvious barrier to cane spiders. It was also near the tennis courts, but how that would affect the cane spiders I couldn’t yet know.
I immediately began searching our new living quarters for giant spiders. I looked under the bed, behind the bed, behind the TV, inside the TV stand frame, under the kitchen sink, all three closets, every conceivable place in the bathroom, under the night stand, in the light fixtures, inside the coffee table, inside the coffee maker...inside the bag of coffee...everywhere. Cane spiders existed in probabilities, and until I had looked everywhere, that probability was not zero. Finally, after twenty minutes of thorough inspection, I had indeed looked everywhere. Satisfied I would live to wake up, I settled down and took my first meaningful sleep in thirty six hours.
But not before I made absolutely sure that cane spiders couldn’t get into my luggage while I was sleeping.
I was at a complete loss as to what to do if I actually discovered a cane spider.
There was one more detail the book provided about cane spiders that had completely upended my ideas on how to deal with them. They were aggressive. The author related one particularly horrifying story, that of trying to shoo a cane spider out of a room (they come indoors!) with a broom, only to have the spider charge him.
This was horror beyond comprehension. At a certain point, I feared my mind would explode.
My plan for dealing with cane spiders was incomplete, simply because it amounted to thinking about the unthinkable. I could not rationally and logically set aside my fears. (I was checking the Mr. Coffee for cane spiders.) If I did find one, I was afraid that I would be paralyzed with fear.
Paralysis in the face of a jumping, attacking spider was sure to be a fatal mistake. It was obvious what these cane spiders were getting at. The only reason why cane spiders would evolve the ability to jump high was to attack people in the face.
I still could not get past my fear of the spiders. I decided the first thing to do would be to shrink myself down as far as possible to make myself as small a target as possible. That way, if the spider jumped at my face, he might miss.
Beyond that, I had no plan.
The next day, my wife and I went for our first extended drive in which it occurred to me that there might be a cane spider inside the car.
There was nowhere where I felt more vulnerable than in our rental car. I had not bothered to inspect the car the way I had inspected the apartment. If cane spiders could slip into the car with ease, as I suspected they could, I would have to completely check the car every time I entered it. Cane spiders were like Schroedinger’s Cat--they were in and not in your car until you looked for them, or they decided to appear, whichever came first.
Throwing myself out of a moving vehicle at 40 miles an hour, onto the side of the road, was a terrible idea. But I never thought of a better one. At times, I did attempt to grapple with the concept of self-defense, and actually try to kill an attacking cane spider in a moving car. Yet how was that possible? The spider would always have the upper hand. It could move behind me, grapple the top of my head, and then inject deadly venom behind my ear, instantly liquefying my brains. It could attack my legs from under the seat, causing my legs to balloon and burst one after the other as flesh turned into cane spider milkshake. They could swarm my arms, consuming them in seconds, turning me into a human totem pole. Or they could do all three of these. Compared to all these distinct possibilities, throwing myself out of a moving car on a freeway sounded pretty good.
Being in an environment so thick with cane spiders, I was hesitant to go outdoors. It was awfully hard to enjoy what put “Garden” in the Garden Island. Cane spiders could be practically anywhere. I tried to predict where cane spiders might be encountered, but given my limited knowledge of them, threw up my hands and gave up. I knew that spiders in general preferred warm, dry places. Kauai was warm, but it was damp. And yet the spiders were still here.
Many couples, when visiting Kauai for their honeymoon, get into the outdoors as much as possible. But we were wise to the cane spiders here, and so we had to be different. I suggested hardly anything for us to do that involved going outdoors, virtually no activities that could put my wife and I anywhere near possible cane spider habitat. Many things that I enjoyed doing on the mainland were ruled too risky to bother. Hiking in the jungle was out. So was exploring old buildings and monuments. In was playing Scrabble, relaxing at the condo, swimming, and playing tennis. I felt guilty, but my will to survive was strong.
Cane spiders even managed to make the placid, friendly-looking sugar cane fields an insidious lair of horror. If cane spiders could were anywhere, they were in the, you know, cane. The sugar cane, waving to and fro in the breeze like the slow wave of a perfidious hand, would beckon you inward. Once you entered the cane field, you would be surrounded in all directions by cane spiders and liquefaction would be rapid. Death would not.
Everywhere I went in Kauai, I was tempted to ask the locals about their experiences with cane spiders. I thought about asking groundskeepers, maids, grocery clerks, or even the random Hawaiian I met on the street. But I had done that once already, and what had it gotten me?
As the days wound on my inspections grew more routine, but no less thorough. These were pleasant days when I would sit on the deck with my wife, feeding the mynah birds, playing Scrabble, and drinking can upon can of passion fruit juice. We went to the beach, we drove around the island, we played tennis and swam in the pool. At night we ate in nice restaurants, I fed the local cats, and hunted frogs and toads on the resort lawn.
I had still not seen a cane spider. What the clerk had said about the construction appeared to be true. Cane spiders were still always in the back of my mind, poised and ready to attack my face, but I no longer suspected them of lurking in every corner--especially if I had already checked that corner six times in four days. I relaxed my strict regulations about where I could put discarded clothes, especially if I planned on wearing them again. I no longer locked up my suitcase. I took to no longer standing on my shoes before putting them on, crushing them and whatever cane spider thought he was clever enough to hide in them.
I avoided thinking about cane spiders as much as possible. It might be possible to conjure them, like Candyman, into existence simply by thinking about them too much.
On the last day of our trip to Hawaii I was tempted to ask the check-out clerk at our condo if she knew anything about cane spiders. “Excuse me, I was wondering if any of your other guests have been slaughtered by cane spiders.” As I finished checking out and the clerk thanked me for my stay, I paused for a moment before turning to say goodbye, realizing this was probably my last chance to ask someone if I had actually been staying at a hotbed of cane spiders.
Yet, with one foot out the door of the entire state, I still could not bring myself to break the taboo. I said nothing. Two more hours of ignorant bliss couldn’t possibly hurt. I thanked the clerk for our stay, turned around, went home to my impregnable mainland.
From a longer essay by the same name.