The sticky web clung to my face and hair. The dim, dusty light was just enough to make out an enormous black widow spider the size of a glistening goat’s eyeball that hung only inches from my face, her body pulsing rhythmically as she preened her needle-sharp mandibles, seemingly preparing to feed. I would have retreated, but there was nowhere to go. The door through which I’d entered was shut and had locked unexpectedly, and now the rough planks of ancient wood formed the walls and floor of a coffin-like hallway.

I backed up, pressing my body tight against the locked door as threads of web tugged at my skin.

“Hello, it’s me. I’m trapped,” I called into the gloom. The only light was that of the occasional shimmering flicker from the spider’s bulbous body blocking my path.

There was no reply.

Slowly, I turned and reached behind me to check and recheck the door handle. No mistake, it was locked.

The air within the old barn was heavy and smelled of dry earth and rotting wood. Each sound was muffled and deadened by the years of dust and debris that covered every surface.

I’d come in search of Mrs. Higgle. Her property lay at the western end of Madrona Avenue. To reach the barn I’d crossed a rotting bridge, wandered through an untended grove of gnarled and twisted olive trees, and passed Mrs. Higgle’s dilapidated home with its peeling paint and patchwork roof of plastic tarps, tarpaper and fading sheets of plywood.

I’d spent a lot of time on the property but had never yet been in the barn. It was strictly off-limits.

“It’s my workshop, and I don’t want you kids getting bitten by the many rattlesnakes who make that beautiful old barn their home,” Mrs. Higgle had said with a smile years earlier.

But that day I’d come seeking urgent advice from Mrs. Higgle, who seemed to have an encyclopedic knowledge of nearly all topics – from the anatomical names of organs in a dissected frog to the names of constellations and the myths behind them. However, she had not been in her house or puttering about in her small garden, and when I called out I’d received no reply. Consequently I needed to break protocol and search for her in the barn. But first I’d need to get past the spider.

If I crawled on the floor I might pass under the spider’s web. But what if the arachnid was waiting, plotting, ready to drop onto my back as I passed underneath? I pictured its glassine body slipping under my shirt, sharp fangs penetrating the flesh on my lower back, the venom curdling my organs. I also imagined thousands of rattlesnakes just under the floorboards and my bare fingers exposed to their bites through the many cracks and crevices.

Just then I heard a faint shuffle of feet approaching.

“Who’s there?” Mrs. Higgle called.

“It’s me, Tim.”

She hissed something inaudible.

“Watch out for the black widow,” I said as she came closer.

Pausing, she turned and headed back down the hallway.

“Wait,” I yelled. “Don’t leave me here in the dark.”

Minutes later Mrs. Higgle returned and stood on the other side of the spider.

Raising a small flashlight to her mouth she clutched it between her crooked ivory-colored teeth. Then, using a thin piece of cardboard from below and a glass cup from above, she gently captured the spider and gestured with the light for me to pass alongside them.

I was free.

Once in her workshop she placed the spider in its tiny new terrarium on a large center table. The room was dimly lit and full of half-painted canvases, and along one side a metal bench held flasks, bowls, small stoves and twisting copper tubing, reminding me of a scientific laboratory.

“You know you are not supposed to be here, don’t you,” she said.

I nodded.

“But I need to ask you an important question,” I said.

I wasn’t looking at her when I spoke; instead I was watching the spider as she slowly prodded her glass cage for possible exit points.

“Look at me when we are talking,” Mrs. Higgle said, her voice earnest but not angry.

I hesitated. Her eyes were unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Bright and sparkly, the left was spotted brown and black and surrounded with pure white, reminding me of our calico cat’s coat, whereas the right eye was more akin to one of my many colored marbles with twisting shades of blues, greens and yellows that slipped inward toward the black hole of her iris.

I slowly raised my head and stared into her eyes.

“Are eyes mirrors or doorways?” I asked.

She smiled and that seemed to make her eyes even brighter, as if they were full of glitter.

“Some are both, some are neither,” she said. “Was that your question?”

I stammered: “But how do you know which is which, who is who?” I asked.

She knelt down and placed her hand gently on my shoulder.

“You’re young and it can be hard when you first begin seeing it,” she said. “Sometimes it’s within others and sometimes it’s within you – it’s fluid. The challenge is to learn how to recognize the signs, and that starts with knowing where to look.”

I turned my gaze to the spider’s glass cage, but the spider was gone. Just then, from under the floorboards, a cacophony of rattling erupted, sounding like an army of angry cicadas had infested the space below.

Mrs. Higgle rose quickly and grabbed my hand.

“It’s mad — We have to get out of here, now,” she yelled.

What happened next is another story.

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Tim Carl lives in Calistoga and grew up in St. Helena (class of ‘84). Left to join the Navy, came back, married his sweetheart and went to school. He ended up getting his Ph.D in biology at CU and became a Fellow at Harvard. Later, in 2006, he co-founded Knights Bridge Winery. tfcarl@gmail.com