In Boozo Veritas # 58 by Teege Braune
What We Talk About When We Talk About Bugs
Last night I dreamed my home was infested by large, yellow centipedes each about four inches long. They seemed to be hiding in every crevice and nook as if materializing from the very dirt and mold, betraying no discernible point of entry. Too repulsed to fight them off, I simply retreated closing off rooms that they had conquered, boxing myself into a smaller and smaller corner until I discovered them wriggling out of my own pockets and curled up inside my hat and shoes.
I awoke disgusted but relieved to find myself in a space free of centipedes. I find myself particularly nonplussed by the species since high school when a few of my friends and I ordered a pizza from a new joint called Mama Mia’s, which we favored because of their impossibly low prices. We had consumed the majority of the pizza when Josh removed the second to last slice only to find a small clay-colored centipede cowering beneath it. As he shouted profanities, the centipede, exposed and berated, scurried away faster than one would have thought possible, its legs undulating in waves like a breeze blown through delicate hair. Despite their affordability, the establishment in question failed to thrive in the competitive pizza industry and shortly thereafter went out of business.
My anxiety dreams often take the form of insect infestation. Once I dreamed that I found myself surrounded by an enormous nest of cockroaches who were coming to life around me as I looked on in horror. Hanging from the dead branches of trees that were growing out of the floorboards, the cockroaches squirmed out of white, inert pupal shells while I searched for an escape before they began dropping to the floor and racing toward me. In waking life I am aware that cockroaches are born in dark, moist pits and underground burrows.
The only thing I find more revolting than a living cockroach is a squashed one, but my cats do not share my aversion. In fact, they could be considered aficionados of the disgusting creatures, tracking them down and devouring them with a verve and enthusiasm they exhibit for little else in their otherwise languorous lives. Inspired by the antics of my feline wards, I decided to explore my dislike of these insects by writing a story in which the life of an anti-heroic, human protagonist mirrors that of the common cockroach. The incredibly dark “What Keeps Mankind Alive” has at this time been rejected from several horror magazines and anthologies.
Franz Kafka wrote a much more famous story about a man transformed into a cockroach, though in truth that designation has to do more with liberal translation and popular conception than Kafka’s own ideas about Gregor Samsa’s alteration. The German word Kafka uses is ungeziefer and literally translates into “an unclean animal unfit for sacrifice,” a phrase packed with meaning considering Gregor’s life before the metamorphosis was dedicated entirely to providing for his family, a task to which he’s no longer equal after becoming an insect. Despite Nabokov’s lengthy and supererogatory argument for Gregor as a beetle, Kafka went out of his way to prevent definitive categorization, going so far as to forbid his protagonist from being depicted visually on the cover of the novella. At one point, the Samsas’ maid refers to Gregor as mistkäfer, literally “dung beetle,” but it is likely that she uses the word pejoratively rather than as a taxonomical classification. Of the various translations that have been posited over the decades, “vermin,” with its unspecific yet vivid associations, is my preference, though despite the visceral impact, even it fails to do the original German the untranslatable justice it deserves.
Another wonderful story that explores the innate human unease with insects is Donald A. Wollheim’s “Mimic,” which was the basis for the unfortunate Guillermo del Toro vehicle of the same name. The film does no justice to the source material, which is a masterpiece and pillar of classic weird fiction. As “Mimic” is not nearly as well known as The Metamorphosis, I will avoid saying much more as I have no wish to betray the incredible conclusion, a reveal that, despite exhibiting no gore or even much peril, is one of the most terrifying in the history of science-fiction and horror literature.
In his song “Army Ants,” Tom Waits, with a particularly sinister growl, recites interesting and often unnerving facts about insects accompanied by an eerie, creeping string arrangement. He concludes this lecture with a reminder: “As we discussed last semester, the army ants will leave nothing but your bones.”
Despite my aversion towards centipedes and cockroaches, I am not an entomophobe. I am fascinated by insects, arachnids, and other invertebrates even when they make my skin crawl. For some, I retain a special place in my heart, am awed by praying mantises, tarantulas, and lunar moths, and find katydids, walking sticks, bumble bees, and potato beetles simply adorable. I even tasted a few of these critters: scorpions are crispy and not unpleasant, crickets taste like unsweetened bakers’ chocolate, and ants tend to be so minuscule, I hardly notice them going down. That is unless they crawl back up again.
My most recent experience dining on ants was unplanned. My good friend, the accomplished Orlando writer Jared Silvia, brought a delicious, homemade Portuguese soup to a outdoor party Jenn and I were hosting with our neighbor Leah for Labor Day. Knowing many of the guests were vegetarian, Jared was kind enough to replace the sausage the recipe called for with cannellini beans. Little did any of us know, animal protein was determined to find its way into the soup one way or another. After the party ended, Jenn and I placed the remaining soup in our refrigerator and dined on it for several days. It wasn’t until we reached the very bottom of the pot that we discovered the hundreds of ants who had been stewing within it the whole time. The ants had invaded Jared’s soup, only to drown in their own hubris, and yet their presumptuousness didn’t end there.
This morning after awaking from my disturbing dream, I stumbled groggily into the kitchen to make coffee only to find my counter top aswarm with the same species of sugar ant that had expired in Jared’s soup. They had entered through a tiny whole in the grout and scaled a broomstick in order to feast on the remnants of a peach pie that had sat overnight in the kitchen sink. Shouting vitriolic exclamations at their legions, I vanquished them but not without a pang of guilt having been brought up by a Buddhist father. At least they were neither centipedes nor cockroaches. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help remembering a disturbing bit of trivia: that there are one million ants on this planet for each human. We are told somewhere that the meek will inherit the earth, but it seems the smallest residents of my house have become emboldened, may someday soon take over leaving me nothing but my bones.
Teege Braune (episode 72, episode 75, episode 77, episode 90, episode 102) is a writer of literary fiction, horror, essays, and poetry. Recently he has discovered the joys of drinking responsibly. He may or may not be a werewolf.