This past week Darius* invited me to an overnight in the mountains. The particular area we were headed to is known for its walnuts, its natural beauty, as well as its proximity to a dangerous border. Turns out the valley of the property where we were staying was in fact alarmingly close to this border, situated in a little knob or bulge of our host country’s frontier territory. On three sides we could look up the slopes and see border fences and guard towers of the infamous regime next door. Thankfully, we never saw any movement and it’s likely that any border guards that were stationed up there were already quite used to the valley and cabins being full of picnickers and their chai-fueled shenanigans.
Our group was a mix of believers and unbelievers, all pretty young, eager to escape the summer heat of the city and to spend the night in a wooded mountain valley. My wife and kids decided not to come this time, so I was flying solo. We anticipated an evening filled with good picnic food, games, and conversation late into the night. We did not, however, anticipate the local wildlife to be such a large part of the excitement.
Shortly after our arrival we were all put on guard by the discovery of a very large snakeskin poking out from under our cabin. This was a stark reminder that we were indeed up in the mountains where snakes and scorpions just might make an uninvited appearance. The early Islamic historians wrote of the nasty scorpions of these valleys and how many invading Arab soldiers had been killed by them in their jihad invasion of these lands. I have yet to see one of these “two-claws” as locals call them, but one of our group’s fathers had been stung by a scorpion who mistook his shoe for a nice little cave, so we decided to move our shoes inside.
Our dinner of boiled chicken and rice had just been set out on the floor dinner mat. Even on a casual picnic overnight like this the spread was laid out like a feast. Our crew of hungry picnickers all came inside, remarking favorably on the delicious chicken and onion aroma, when suddenly someone spotted a rather large furry spider, just chilling on the wall above the couch.
I recognized it immediately. It was only the second of its kind I have seen here, and about the size of half my palm. Full-grown, these monsters can grow to the size of a small cat. And they are venomous, hairy, Shelob-like stuff of nightmares. Thankfully, they are rare up in the mountains, preferring to hunt in the flat lowland deserts. The locals didn’t recognize it, but I did, and I urgently called them to arms. Several grabbed rubber toilet shoes (the traditional weapon of choice for squashing bugs or swatting disrespectful children) and we went after the arachnid intruder. He successfully darted behind the couch, which meant we had to tip it over, arms tense, ready to swat the big gangly thing in hopes of squishing it. The couch pulled up, the spider made a break for the door. However, he never made it. A quick lunge from one of the local guys with a pink sandal landed with a squishy thwack, and the spider was no more.
He was, however, still composed enough for some postmortem pictures, which I was sure to take, texting them to my wife. To which she responded, “Please don’t die. I can’t raise these hooligans by myself.”
The spider excitement all over, we sat down around the dinner mat. I thanked God for the food and we excitedly began to dish out the chicken and rice. The locals asked me if I was sure that the spider had indeed been dangerous, so I proceeded to google pictures of its giant full-grown relatives. My corner of the food mat leaned in in fascinated horror. Suddenly Darius jumped,
Now, Darius is a bit of a joker. So at first I thought he was pranking us. Then out of the corner of my eye I saw something brownish-gray, about the size of a small cat, skittering across the top of the sofa to our left. The whole group saw it at once and everyone screamed, jumping up from the dinner mat in terror as the beast darted down the couch and across the floor.
“It’s another one! A big one!!! Mud of the world be upon my head!!!” It seemed as if the mother of the spider we killed had come seeking vengeance.
My heart was in my throat as I tried to react to the fast-moving furry blob, which was about the size of a kitten. Suddenly I realized it wasn’t a spider the size of a small cat at all. It was a cat.
“It’s a cat!!!” Someone started screaming. At this point, the collective screaming just kept on coming.
The poor feline was now just as terrified as we were. Having darted toward the staircase it now doubled back, racing down the middle of the dinner mat. Drinks and soup went flying as it stepped in the rice, zig-zagged through the dishes, through our feet, and up and out the window.
Everyone stared at one another in shock – and then doubled over in laughing fits that lasted a long time. The spider cat had made quite the impression. For the next several hours, every time the blinds blew in, every time another mountain bug made its way into the lit cabin, we all jumped and sometimes screamed, expecting to see another dangerous mountain critter making its creepy appearance.
There were plenty of visitors the rest of the night, but nothing worse than a hornet, some grasshoppers, and a praying mantis – or as locals call it, the pilgrim locust.
The rest of the evening consisted of listening to music (Interestingly, young locals are developing a taste for Johnny Cash and sea shanties), playing card games, drinking chai, munching on sunflower seeds, and a 1 am game of football/soccer. Not as young as I used to be, I went to bed at 3 am, one of the earliest of the group. The window just above my head didn’t quite close, leaving a gap just big enough for a desert spider to crawl through, I noticed with some concern. Still, I drifted off pretty quickly, thankfully not dreaming of giant spiders.
If you ever find yourself in a mountainous valley of Central Asia, do keep an eye out for the critters. They are, I have learned, quite bold. And be sure to keep your toilet shoes handy.
*names changed for security