“If animals are human Others, insects are the Others of animals, intimately involved in our lives but much maligned.”
– Jake Kosec, “Ecologies of Empire”
“The question is not, can they reason? nor can they talk? but can they suffer?”
– Jeremy Bentham
When I say bowl, you probably envision a concave object, shaped like lower half of the outer crust of a sphere. Perhaps your immediate reaction is to conjure up an image of a bowl filled with warm, creamy tomato soup on a cold November evening, resting atop a matching plate, with a decorative cloth napkin framing its left side, and a dark glass of red wine on its right. Perhaps there are multiple arrangements like this one on your table – three or four or five or six bowls, fulfilling their duty as a container that brings your family together for a meal every Sunday evening. Or maybe there are just two bowls on the table in your mind, left over from a memorable meal that you shared with a past or present lover. Goldilocks had three to choose from – perhaps you also have multiple sets. Plastic bowls for the children, ceramic bowls for weekday dinners, and Grandma’s porcelain bowls for special company. But regardless of their size, color, or style, the primary purpose of a bowl always remains the same: a bowl contains. It creates a barrier where there was none so that whatever is inside can’t merge with the outside, can’t escape.
But when you envision that bowl, containing your soup or guacamole or a sweet ice cream sundae, did you ever stop to consider the second half of that sphere? After all, every half has a whole. Next time you’re enjoying your warm soup from grandma’s fancy china, think for an instant of the other half of that sphere; the convex half, which instead of opening up like a spherical smile, covers and imprisons that which is doomed to be caught within its reach, creating an inescapable horizon, impenetrable even by air. Think also of those for whom this bowl – this inverted, convex, upside-down bowl – is the primary image to be conjured when they hear that round word that you so quickly associate with dinner.
It is this second type of bowl that worked like a strange magnifying glass that night, distorting his black body as I stared through its convex surface at my prisoner. He scrambled around its dome-like ceiling, as if screaming with his legs as he searched for a door on the homogenous surface of my makeshift trap.
I couldn’t tell if his body was shaped like a peanut – a larger half and a smaller half, joined at a waist like Betty Boop – or if the smaller ovular sphere was a head, connected to his body at a thick neck. I couldn’t even tell if it was a he or a she, although I arbitrarily assigned it maleness, because somehow that made me feel less cruel as I exerted my power over its hairy, black self. I wondered if he was staring back at me, and if the magnifying glass distorted my features the way it distorted his, enlarging certain parts of his body to make him appear even more menacing than he had before I had contained him.
How ironic that I – 62 inches and 140 pounds of flesh and blood – felt so threatened by a being who, including his eight legs, took up the same amount of space as a piece of popcorn. Had I any right to call him huge? My shower was rectangular, a square floor that covered roughly nine square feet, with a cloudy glass door reaching up towards the ceiling, forming the fourth wall around the showerhead. If the ceiling was eight feet above the ground, then my shower contained 72 cubic feet of space. Yet somehow 72 cubic feet was too small for me to share with a hairy, black, 8-legged piece of popcorn.
Perhaps he and I could have coexisted peacefully if circumstances had been different. Maybe if I, a teenage girl, hadn’t been taught that the world is full of enemies from whom I must protect myself, then his thick, black body might have seemed less threatening. Or maybe if I knew enough about him to know that he wasn’t poisonous, and that his menacing body was intended only to intimidate predators. Or if he had been hiding in the corner instead of on my floor, I might never have seen him and he could have watched me shower tranquilly. But I had been raised in a world where girls must be defensive, and I had seen him, and he looked like an incarnation of pure evil, with an exoskeleton and eight limbs. No, my shower was not big enough for both of us.
I have never served in an army. I have never been hunting. I have never even held a gun. Watching that spider agonize under that bowl was the first time that I have ever experienced the power to reduce someone else’s entire psychological perspective to the hyphen between two numbers and a set of parenthesis. That’s always the first thing you see after a person’s name, as if their entire life can be contained in that hyphen. Princess Diana (1961-1997). John Lennon (1940-1980). Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968). Ugly Black Spider In My Shower (-).
Squatting on the cold bathroom floor, I contemplated what would happen if I were to release my prisoner. Would he leap onto my face, attack in revenge of his cruel incarceration? Would he quickly scramble away, to that mysterious place where spiders go when they disappear from sight after being spotted on a bedroom wall, leaving me to forever wonder in which corner he lurked and if he’d ever return? Or would he scramble down the drain, hoping to flee via the pipes, only to drown as soon as I turned on the water (or worse – to emerge unharmed from the drain, crawling by my naked feet, as a water spider once had when I was younger)?
No, I couldn’t set him free. The risks were far too great. But I couldn’t bring myself to kill him, either. Perhaps on some level I felt a pang of guilt for ruthlessly exerting my might over such a small, helpless creature. Or perhaps it was only the fear of the crunching sound that his body would surely make under my shoe, and the disgust that I knew I would feel if I had to wipe his guts off of my shower floor with a tissue.
So I chose the only remaining option: inaction, as if leaving him to starve or suffocate under that glass bowl would somehow pardon me from the sin of his murder. Leaving him trapped inside the bowl, I grabbed my shampoo and headed to my sister’s bathroom, where I showered every day for the next week.
When I finally returned to my bathroom, his body had shriveled up into a tiny ball, his legs scrunched towards his torso, like a turtle seeking refuge inside its shell. Dead and dried, he had shrunk to the size of a popcorn kernel, almost as if he was kindly telling me, “Don’t worry, what you killed wasn’t really a creature, it was too small to matter, anyway.”
Careful not to break his parched, fragile body, I slowly moved the glass bowl along the surface of the floor until I reached the center of the shower. His body toppled down the drain – no crunch, no sound, no blood. I ran upstairs to place the bowl in the dishwasher, returning it to its rightful place as part of a delicious family dinner. Then I returned to my bathroom, and turned the water knob all the way to the left, hoping that the scalding water would do two things: ensure that the spider really was dead, and cleanse his blood from my hands.