Brown Recluse

by Lynn Horton

The desert dropped in first through the skylight, sifting lost feathers and radiation dust. It lit the bathroom silica pink and ignited Ana’s toes, still tender from the calefont’s moody bursts of hot water. She pulled her towel closer. She’d been asleep a little earlier, dreaming in a rainy, dim place. Even after a dozen years, the starkness of the Atacama caught her by surprise. Gabriel told her, “You wake up with the moon, these days.” He was uneasy that she now did her vanities in the third floor bathroom; that, in some indefinable way, she was less dependable.

Condor shadows fell through air currents. She imagined full-breathed clouds.

This distraction and then Ana’s stumble, (the too tall tub edge, too much water), saved the spider’s life. A few inches forward and Ana would have crushed him against the ball of her foot into a dark smear.

Instead the spider lived and became all comic surprise. He froze before her, a beloved performer who needed a moment to recover his dignity. Ana had a desert rat’s sense for sneaky dangers—low-slung scorpions, the treacheries of cholla, particulates blown out from the mines—but this chocolate gumdrop was just brazen. His legs curled delicately. If the sunbeam shifted a little, he could have posed for a portrait.

In the quiet of the dry showerhead, Gabriel called out directions—turn the fire down, dale la vuelta—to Marta, their housekeeper. Already the promise and resentment of nutmeg and burnt sugar drifted up the stairs. They pretended Gabriel had always taken charge of breakfast. They grilled French toast for their guests every Wednesday and Saturday.


Treasures that Gabriel had once brought her from the desert: handfuls of rose quartz, beautifully smashed geodes, fluorite spirals, ocean-dredged malachite, perfect fossils alive not so long ago.


Had the spider dropped from the skylight? Had he been here all along? He was no bigger than a dime, but sturdy. Ana waved her hand. She snapped her fingers. She grabbed her clog and raised it into a thundercloud. The spider didn’t move. If she slapped him, he wouldn’t scurry or squish like a roach. He’d scrunch up like the spirit moths that hid in the garbage chute. Or maybe he’d collapse, legs thrown out. He’d stare up at her with six eyes, ridiculous as a Sunday comic.

“Atrevido,” she said almost smiling, “this is my bathroom.”


Ana waited a week to tell Gabriel, “He makes himself right at home.” She meant the tender commitment of it, the spider’s sly humor.

Gabriel only nodded, intent on his sacred chalkings of the UV index and highs/lows that he tracked as diligently as assay reports. They’d just waved off the German guests, a determined group in their 60s with slim backpacks, who loaded into a rental van with the contented synchronicity of the well-fed in search of altiplano glacier lakes and ice-capped volcanoes.

“I detest spiders.” Marta dabbed at the syrupy plates she was stacking and stuck her thumb in her mouth.

“Don’t worry. He won’t come down,” Ana said over the top of Gabriel’s hair, still thick and curling like the cherub he’d been named after. She loved Gabriel the most in the morning when courtyard was still damp from tides and condors dove.

“There’s never just one.” Marta pulled off her apron. After breakfast service she was always anxious to attack the sand that piled up overnight. Like Gabriel’s mama who’d hired her, Marta was so proud of this old house, propped over the neighbors on a chalky slope with its corroded cañería and bent floors, but when the winds blew, the house sighed like a sieve.

“Dios mío, there must be hundreds of them.” Marta shivered.

Gabriel finally looked up, “Don’t exaggerate.”

“Dirty little devils.” Marta waved her broom like they were already flying at her on web trapezes.

He’s not sneaky or dirty, Ana almost said. Her spider (she hadn’t named him, but she thought my spider) waited for her gently, rested his small, arachnid torso in plain sight while Ana showered and dressed. She decided he was drawn to the pipe vibrations, to the gritty water drops that tasted like the day ahead. In the desert, didn’t they all understood drought?

Ana leaned forward and slipped her hand toward Gabriel’s chest. With a slight nod, he allowed this. She picked up his fork for him. “Eat,” she whispered to remind him how much he loved French toast.

Gabriel rarely left home now. His days were counted out in the courtyard, the common room, the kitchen, and his office where he napped on a cot. Ana had a hard time rousing him to climb the stairs to their bedroom at night. Yet even as he leaned into her, she could feel under her ribs, a tiny, secret glee that Gabriel had finally returned. He’d wandered out in the desert for so many years, working 21-day turnos in the mines. His grandfather made the family money buying up two abandoned salares and Gabriel carried the salt digs back with him. It left rings on his cuffs, blinding white and porous sticky like he’d waded through marble. When Ana watered her thirsty clay pots in the courtyard, she’d find the bleached stamp of his footprints. Marta fussed, but in truth, it was a hopscotch of happiness. Gabriel’s heart was failing, but to Ana, those first months he returned home were a blossoming.

Now the slow, distracted beat at her fingertips made Ana resolute. “Spiders are like angels.”

“Angels?” Gabriel’s laugh was indulgent as he switched chalk for the fork.

“Not that. I mean, spiders have an ecology.” This last word was deliberate. Gabriel thought that Marta was like his home city, too susceptible to stories and unwilling to advance through science. Ana wanted Gabriel to tell Marta that spiders weren’t devils, that spiders kept it all in balance and then left behind shells, like children of themselves.

“You remember the cucarachas,” was all he said.


The extreme aridity of the Atacama Desert, together with broad daily temperature fluctuations and intense ultraviolet radiation, contribute to make the core of this desert an extreme habitat approaching the dry limit of life on Earth.


At 22, Ana married Gabriel and left one desert, the Sonora, to move to a place where the winter rains could be caught and tippled back from a thimble. These sprinkles of sugar that hardly sweetened the tongue made her new neighbors nervous rather than grateful. They survived on the overflow of unseen storms that knocked up against the Andes, arriving in the muddy stories of Bolivian merchants. Each time she took off in a plane, Ana watched the waves of sand push her small adopted city up against the Pacific. She’d seen a neighbor’s pup get taken, heard his shrill, confused yaps as the hawk carried him away. The Atacama was a place to get lost in, but it also pushed everyone together. People latched on and look after each other without fuss or false hugs. Their home was an outpost. Like all pioneers, their presence was a statement.


When Marta went to sweep, Ana said, “I’m not going to pay attention to her. No one uses that bathroom but me.”

“We waited too long to deal with them.”

“What a nightmare.” Ana laughed. They’d been enormous, flying roaches and even their eggs were obnoxious. She’d had to close down for two days and pay for a full fumigation.

As she stood, Ana thought again that Gabriel had beautifully proportioned bones. She’d never told him this, but if he were a skull hung out in the high desert it would be a monument. Ana pulled open the refrigerator to the smell of spilt wine. She gathered ingredients for the late dinner she’d prepare for the Germans. Steaks on the grill and a vegetable soup. “He’s one lonely spider, solito.”

“Cockroaches, spiders they’re all oportunistas. They hide in the cracks. All of your clutter is free housing to them.”

He meant that Ana collected petrified wood, stones, and dried flowers from the rare blooms. She tried once, he liked to remind her when they bickered like this, to bring home a whale’s rib. But he could never deny that Ana always did what needed to be done.

She looked out over the lumps of scarlet peppers and milky-tea squash. Half a piece of toast still on his plate, Gabriel drooping a little. She wanted to say everyone is welcome here. “You need to finish.”

After a moment, Ana walked over and picked up his plate and glass and fork. She knew he’d stay hungry until lunch. She laid the plate and utensils in the sink. Gabriel stood and turned away like Ana was someone he couldn’t recognize. She understood he’d go to his cot, that he lived in his body like a cage. Gabriel would say she’d stranded them both here on the edge of the desert. He’d tell her, “You could be happy anywhere.”

Gabriel’s timing was off. After his mama passed, he sold the two salares for next to nothing, blowing away most of the inheritance just a few years before the mining companies flocked back like migratory birds. Ana, who understood the booms and busts of guano, copper, salitre, uranium began to take in guests. Only later, her business and kitchen thriving, did Ana realize how cruel she and mama had been in their expectations that Gabriel would lead them out, that maybe this had tormented him like a mirage taunts a traveler. But his heart was growing bigger and a big heart could climb over the accretions between them.

“I know,” Ana called out.

“What?” He stopped and turned toward her. He closed his eyes for a moment and she tried to imagine what he was seeing, if it was blinding like the sand at midday.

“I just don’t want those chemical poisons in the house again.”


Ana managed the Lucky Seven gas station (next services 21 miles), when she and Gabriel met. She brewed up hot coffee at dawn and shared smokes with her lottery dreamers and cigarette fiends, and forgave the occasional pump and runner. Mr. Singh, the owner, rarely gave her grief, and she dreamed of one day buying the diner where she picked up evening shifts.

Every weekend Gabriel pulled up in his olivine Dodge and she’d run out and he’d pull out his finds. He told her his mother had named all her sons after angels. He was enrolled in mining engineering and came from South America, and sometimes dug for words in English in pauses that let Ana close her eyes and fill in the blanks. Gabriel studied geologic time, always trying to pick at the entrance point, to start the sequence. He loved places where the earth was broken open. He climbed over slickrock and pulled at sandstone. He collected stones in his palms, in his pockets, in the pouches of his backpack. He was as a sculptor of mini-cairns, a sculptor of her.

When his father abandoned the family and the money was cut off, Gabriel was two semesters short of graduating. His mama pleaded with him to come home to sort out the mess. They’d only been dating a few months and married in a hurried, feted, drunken event that ended with shots fired out at the range and her nana’s tears on her cheek. But Ana knew it would be okay. She knew what you did when you missed your people fiercely, how to get every bit of water out.


Araña de rincón, a corner spider, 10 to 22 centimeters across, brown-grey in color, a shy spider who hides away like a bride at an arranged wedding, the bearer of a hemotoxic venom. Death is most likely to occur in children under 7 and in those with compromised immune systems.


Their first years in the Atacama they camped each September in a small cove down the coast. At dawn they’d heat coffee over the gas burner, fill their water bottles, and wander out. Gabriel once brought her to fossilized whale bones where previous visitors had left ashen circles. They lay down inside of the smooth ribs, mesmerized by the whiteness, the bones a boat riding the breakers of sand. Ana held Gabriel’s hand and imagined how quickly the desert must have come in to strand the whales here. She wondered if the whale bellowed, if he remembered his pod, if a whale could even understand the drying of bones?

Those were cloudless days in the desert.


After she found his mugshot on the internet, Ana climbed up to the bathroom determined to eliminate him. The desert was supposed to be a test of character, a destination of enlightenment, but here the dry winds knocked the color out, stripped the paint right off buildings. The rumors always ran of the mines they survived on—arsenic in the water, heavy metals in the soil, the radioactive particles kicked up by the wind. Ana had seen a more than a few strange things. Was this a brown recluse mutated into indifference? Did he glow when he rested in his dark nest?

They had their defenders who wanted to believe that they were just misunderstood arachnids. Really it was a creature that survived off those who were weak or just unlucky. No longer the sugary, gumdrop innocent of the first morning, he faced her, flush and defiant against the pink tile, his tiny venom sacs just out of view. Could one of these spiders kill Gabriel? Would the poison drops collect in his foot where his circulation was only a faint pulse? Would they choke up his heart once and for all?

She lifted her clog, felt the twitch of how easy it would be to cover, to obliterate. She knew he must be aware of this shadow, that stillness was still cognizance. “Run,” she willed. He could die in a chase, in a tribute to the mean fight for survival. One tough spider, would be his elegy.

But then it struck her that even with the unforgiving sole of her clog inches above, he would not budge or defend himself. He’d arrived at her house too beaten down to do damage and just looking for coolness and water. Presente. He’d taken a decision and it was up to her to break a truce line.


Gabriel’s heart attack four years earlier wasn’t any of those gentle symptoms Ana had heard about; aches, a little perspiring and that talk, should we go to the hospital, maybe it’s indigestion, you’re only 36, can it wait until morning? When the clot jerked into Gabriel’s artery, his cry woke her and she saw the stabbed animal brutality of it on his face. He leaned all his weight on her. “Just one more step down,” she whispered, never imagining how many years they’d be on those stairs.


Three weeks after the corner spider began to visit, Gabriel cancelled their plane tickets to the capital. Ana rebuked and confronted him. He piled excuses down on her, each one small and logical, as they lay in the porous bedroom that made Gabriel cough. “The plane pressure makes me dizzy,” he said, “I don’t need to see more cardiologists. We have Dr. Escorcha here.” What he didn’t say was “end-stage.”

But Ana had her facts too. She’d fought the doctors to take home copies of his x-rays and ecos. At first, it felt like an abomination to see Gabriel’s heart laid in front of her, like a something they’d put on the barbeque. A decade earlier, Ana would have said it was untamed. When she dozed off in the courtyard next to the potted roses. Gabriel would kneel and whisper, “Ana, Ana,” until she woke up. She could feel it then, through her palm, hidden like an animal in a thicket in its cage of ribs, pumping like breath, slow and sure, until she thought of digging her hand in, her touch spilling it out like pungent wine. Back then, if she stepped on his heart, it would have squelched; it would have bled out and yielded to her. Now Gabriel’s heart was such a muscular mass that it would just roll away. They’d open him up and find feldspar and quartz.

Ana said, “There’s time. We can still sell the house, the business and go home to Arizona.” She had people there who could take them in. “They could give you a new one.”

Gabriel’s tone was mocking, “You believe the gringos hand out hearts as prizes?”

She told Gabriel she’d leave, that he couldn’t count on her. She wanted that to be his last thought before he slept.

Later in the dark, Ana wondered if the spider above was listening, pressed into wakefulness. She thought her mistake was in not taking him seriously. The strangeness of it deceived her. Or maybe she’d just been frozen, a wide-eared hare peeking out from the morning scrub.


The nights were cooling down and they only had a few guests. A pony-tailed French woman named Michelle who arrived alone on a bicycle showed Ana a spicy peanut chicken recipe from Niger. They improvised with rococo peppers and supper at the big pine table was declared a success. Afterwards, the Spanish couple who busked on the pedestrian mall pulled out their guitars and even Gabriel stayed up to sing. The music made Ana remember a night out on the beach with mama and whole clan on blankets. One of the cousins’ frisbees flew over them and just by luck, Gabriel reached out and caught it. He was so proud of that quick movement in the dark.

On their way up bed, Ana stopped at the closet to show Gabriel the canisters she’d collected. They studied their sinister, bright bombas like Romeo and Juliet. Ana had planned it all. She filled a big wicker basket with Gabriel’s favorite molasses bread, hard boiled eggs, sliced ham. She wrapped a piece of quince jelly in foil and folded up a wool blanket. They’d leave early, put the closed sign on the door, and Gabriel would them drive down the coast to the wetlands. It would be like before, when Gabriel led her across slickrock, surefooted, taking them somewhere. They’d lay out the blanket and all the food. Gabriel would hold her hand. They’d sip tea, sitting straight and looking at water like people who didn’t live in the desert.

“I don’t think they know,” Ana said.

Gabriel looked toward her, paying attention. He was thinking of it too.

Ana knew the chemicals were merciful. Spiders didn’t have awareness like people. Their tiny brains could only fit in survival.

“No more spiders in the house,” Ana squeezed his hand. “We have to be out for at least 6 hours.” Ana tried to breathe back the excitement from her voice. She couldn’t remember the last time they’d gone out together.

After Gabriel to fall asleep Ana climbed to the third floor bathroom. She stood in the doorway, but didn’t turn on the light. She sensed her spider in wait, his steady gaze, his gentle exhale. “Soon you’ll die,” she whispered.


When Ana came out to the driveway alone carrying the big picnic basket, Michelle gave her a quick hug. Michelle said she’d ride her bike out to the highway, but Ana said no, she’d give her a lift and she needed to see the humedal before she left town. “You’re going to spend the next 3 weeks in the desert.”

Ana helped Michelle load her bicycle into the back of the station wagon. As Ana drove she saw the first blurs of the condors rising in the corner of her windshield. Monique peered intently out her window too, as if memorizing the streets,

At the park, Ana laid out the blanket. Michelle sat in a lotus position and Ana shared the bread and quince. Michelle said she drove a bus in Montpellier and planned to bike another two months and she didn’t seem afraid at all. Her hair fells in ringlets that she wrapped into a bandana to keep off her face. Ana had brought only her light shawl and she shivered a bit in the early chill. The water was gray texture and the birds rustled in the reeds, still hiding, waiting to come out.

“So tranquil,” Michelle said.

Earlier that morning Gabriel wouldn’t turn to look at her, not even a half-eyed glance. Ana told him “Michelle needs to go now. We have to leave.” And then “I’m not leaving you here with the chemicals.”

Gabriel had a glass of water next to his right elbow, half-full like he’d woken up to sip from it. He’d turned up the volume on the TV.

They’d done this together. They’d chosen their canisters, one to be placed in each second and third floor room. “This what you wanted,” Ana said. She saw Gabriel’s chest rising and falling, beating with hard resistance.

The news anchor in the open polo shirt narrated a traffic accident.

“No one can be here,” she said.

“I won’t be going upstairs.”

“It’s poison.” Ana wanted to tell him she’d been kind to the spider, let it be, left it alone for so long. It was Gabriel who’d misunderstood the spider as reproach.

“I won’t go,” Ana said. She laid her hand on Gabriel’s shoulder, as always willing the blood to charge through her fingers.

Gabriel’s skull snapped toward her. “Always Ana, always on top of me.”

She took a step back, and then another.

“Why can’t you just leave me be?” Gabriel closed his eyes again. “I don’t want to be like this,” Gabriel said in a voice like those days, (to Ana it was the blink of an eye), when they lay down between the ribs of the ancient whales.


The first sunrays escaped past the hills of sand behind them and bounced off the tips of reeds. The condors were more visible now and the air was wet without steam. Michelle stood in a quick sturdy motion. They walked to the wagon and Ana helped her pull out her bike. Michelle showed Ana how she strapped on her panniers and how much she could fit in there.

“You have a lovely guesthouse,” Michelle said. She was trying to be kind, but Ana could tell her thoughts were already pumping at the pedals, heading south into the rains and wild glaciers and hard headwinds.

When Michelle was gone, Ana pulled out a final piece of bread cushioned in butter and speckled with sweet quince. With the sun coming up, the humedal was a small treasure. She knew she should pack up and go back to the house, but it already felt like a crime scene.

Ana had let loose the bombas on the second and third floors. The pipes gurgling and his trust would have drawn her spider out from his corner into the wave of neurotoxins. She’d assumed he was insolent and fueled up on arrogance, but really he’d needed to stop and it happened to be her house. Even then, he could have stayed out of sight, but his curiosity, his awareness, asphyxiated him.

She wondered if Gabriel had finally gone upstairs. Or if the chemical fumes had seeped down through that porous old house. Ana knew she should call, but there wasn’t any cell phone signal past the city limits. And Marta would be arriving, even though she had the day off. She’d come to check on the house and cook something for Gabriel and open up all the windows to wind and sand.

Ana sat with that thought for a moment. Already it seemed hard to reach, fogged up. Already she missed the certainty of the spider each morning.

A sociologist by training, Lynn Horton has published works on global issues of war and poverty. She turns to fiction as a way to imaginatively explore more subtle truths and complexities.