I think I got ’em. Cleared everything out of every cabinet and drawer…it took all day. Vacuumed and scrubbed and did laundry. Now the kitchen reeks of pennyroyal, and bay leaves are scattered in every cabinet. Well, the kitchen needed a good cleaning, so the moths must just have been delivering that message from the universe.
They’re not entirely gone, but the flutters are fewer, and I haven’t seen any maggots for awhile. Be warned: this could happen to YOU.
Here’s a bug story by my brother Gail, part of his memoirs, written about a time when he lived in Aden…if my bug tale didn’t gross you out, this one surely will:
At the east end of Ma’alla, where the roads to Sheikh Othman and Crater diverged, a two-storey block – with flats above and garages below – had been jerry-built against the cliffs. Our offices were in three of these flats, each accessible to the others only via an external balcony. They were cheap, they were convenient both to town and airport, and we could live in them until renovations to our staff-house in Khormaksar were finished. Across the road was the dhow harbour, where sailing vessels, bum-boats and lighters rode at anchor.
Starting just in front of our office, a rock-filled mole was being built. We had watched its construction from our first day. Truckload after painful truckload of rocks – only six or eight each day – reversed ever-increasing distances out along the mole to dump their loads of stone. A few lethargic labourers, leaning on their shovels between loads, would then shift just enough rocks to allow the next lorry access. Each day we would measure progress and wonder how long (in days) it would take and how long (in yards) it was meant to be. It took about six months to complete, and ended up about four hundred yards long. Finally, a few loads of soil were dumped along the top. They were leveled and tamped down to make a single-lane surface of beaten earth, and the thing was done.
We had, by now, got so involved watching the mole creep out into the harbour, we had a sort of proprietorial pride in it. “Our” mole was actually a pretty crappy piece of construction, and it began to disintegrate almost immediately. Slips gnawed away at the sides and lots of potholes appeared where the surface dirt sifted down between the rocks below. Curiously, we never saw any one use it. Although flocks of fat-tailed sheep came and went on the mole from time to time, and piles of boxes and crates appeared and disappeared, we never saw them arrive and we never saw what became of them. They were just there one day and gone the next. It occurred to us that loading and unloading might take place only at night, and fanciful visions of smuggling and piracy danced in our heads. But we knew skullduggery to be an unlikely explanation – after all, who would ever bother to smuggle fat-tailed sheep through a duty-free port like Aden?
One evening Ivo and I, dressed only in shorts, tee-shirts and jandals, strolled out to the end of the mole in the relative cool of a winter’s evening to watch what promised to be a spectacular sunset – Aden had a lot of brilliant copper-coloured sunsets, some of which were almost worth visiting Aden to see. It was low tide, and mud flats glistened and stank at the foot of the mole. By the time we reached the end of the mole, the sun had already set behind a flotilla of dhows riding at anchor, their steeply-raked masts and high poops reflected with giddy inaccuracy in the gentle swells. The harbour, glassy calm, was swimming with light.
The cloudless sky glowed like a rainbow. In prismatic order colours poured down the bowl of sky to the horizon, then – in incandescent ripples – rolled back toward us across the surface of the sea. First molten gold, then bronze darkening to copper, then umber – they cast the anchored dhows in shimmering silhouette. As the sky darkened, the deep end of the spectrum – green, peacock blue, then indigo – flared, each colour in turn, then shrank to a single brilliant band of cyclamen along the horizon. Then the silhouettes dissolved into blackness, and lots of enormous stars came out. It was breathlessly silent. The little swells hissed and gulped softly amongst the rocks beneath us, dissolving into foam.
There was, I realised, another sound, too – a sort of furtive rustling. Something lightly brushed my ankle. I twitched it away. Again that light touch, then something skittered up to the top of my foot. I got out my pencil-torch, turned it on and looked down. Atop my bare foot was a giant cockroach, three or four inches long. Beside it, a huge centipede was investigating my toes with its feelers. Almost by reflex, I stamped my foot on the centipede – which burst in a shower of yellow goo – simultaneously dislodging the cockroach. But something else was tickling its way up my other leg. In the torchlight it looked like an enormous pale flea. Flicking it off, I shone my torch around my feet. Within the circle of torchlight the whole surface seemed alive and moving – a heaving mass of jointed carapaces and grotesquely articulated legs – enormous cockroaches, huge pale sea-lice, centipedes as long as my hand, and things I didn’t even have names for. I stamped frantically with both feet, crushing as many armoured things as possible. A cockroach raced up my leg. I managed to beat it off just as it reached the bottom of my shorts.
“Jesus God!” Ivo hissed. “What the hell’s on my legs? Quick!!” I flashed my torch over him. Half-a-dozen of the huge cockroaches were heading for his crutch. Flailing his arms wildly, he brushed the things off himself, stamping his feet to prevent others starting up. Legs and carapaces crackled and popped beneath his feet as huge insects shattered and burst. “What in God’s name,” I wondered, “Was happening?”
Then suddenly, I knew what was happening. The tide – fully out when we had arrived – was coming in. This meant that the rising water was filling the interstices between the boulders and bits of rubble from which the mole was built, thus forcing the inhabitants of those interstices to seek shelter atop the mole. Insects in uncountable numbers and of breath-taking size were fleeing the incoming tide. They were heading up, and we were the tallest things around!
Something else started up the back of one of my legs and I crushed it against my calf with the instep of my other foot. It burst, slime running down my leg. “Jesus Christ! Let’s get the Hell out of here!” It was Ivo. A huge flying cockroach had just landed on his cheek, “before we’re buried in the God damned things!” Some flying thing, large and angular, ricocheted off my nose. When I swatted at it, it disintegrated, spraying my face with slime. “Run!” He shouted.
I looked back toward the shore. The surface of the mole – dimly lit by the streetlights along the waterfront – heaved and shivered. The whole thing had come alive! Antennae waggling, claws scrabbling, and wings whirring, about ten zillion carapaced things – all with too many legs – jostled for purchase on the surface of the mole. Swarming up from the fringe of tidal froth below us, they scrambled one over another, sometimes several layers deep. In the silence of the night, the sound of their hard shells rasping against each other was as loud as the rustling ebb and flow of the sea amongst the rocks. Blindly scrabbling against us, these were the kinds of things that lived under the rocks of our nightmares – scaly and venomous, hugely drawn, and in numbers unimaginably large. And all of them were between me and home!
We ran. It was like running across a pavement of eggs. Every step crushed chitinous things underfoot – crackling and crunching, spurting slime – their innards squished between our toes. Something crunched between my foot and my jandal – instant slime! My foot began to slip and slide against the rubber of the jandal. I had to crimp my toes to keep the jandal from slipping off. Both jandals quickly grew snotty and slippery with bug entrails. Just keeping them on required more intense concentration than I really wanted to give. My toes cramped with the effort, and I had to run with a sort of mincing, poncy-looking gait that slowed me down a lot – but that didn’t matter. There was no way I was going to do this barefooted.
Once I stumbled and put down a hand to steady myself. Hard shells moved beneath my fingers, then something snapped and burst, spurting insect goo up my arm. Hardly pausing, I lurched back upright and kept going, flapping my hand violently to shake off the slime. The thought of actually falling down into this loathsome living carpet didn’t bear contemplation. Armoured legs scrabbled up our bare flesh, and winged things assaulted our faces and arms.
As we neared the shore, we began to outrun the tide – beyond a frill of foam, mudflats flanked the mole. Insect numbers gradually diminished, until mostly we were able to run among the bugs rather than on them. It was a wonderful relief! And then it was done – there weren’t any more insects. We could finally stop.
The whole thing probably lasted only about thirty seconds, but it seemed to have taken a lifetime. It was the longest quarter-mile I have ever had to run. Well, to be perfectly honest, it was the only quarter-mile I have ever had to run. But that’s beside the point.
Gasping for air, we leaned against a street-lamp. My chest was on fire, my legs were rubbery and heavy as lead. And I had cramp in my toes. Our legs were enameled in bug slime. Ivo had big bits of some sort of carapace stuck in his hair, and something gooey oozed down my cheek. Bits of legs and things stuck out between my foot and my jandal. Shuddering, I kicked my jandals off and rubbed the soles of my feet against the pavement. I did it so hard I took some skin off.
Sticky and squelching, we hurried across the road and up the stairs. We shucked our clothes at the door and dashed naked through the flat – ignoring the amazed looks of our flatmates. I won the race for the shower because I had longer legs. I scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed. It took a long time to get clean. Well, actually, it didn’t. It just took a long time to feel clean – a longer time than I had. But I had to get out because Ivo was getting awfully impatient. Who could blame him? By then, Ivo had told our mates what had happened and they were roaring with laughter.
I, too, can laugh at it now, but it took a long time for me to see the humour of that dreadful few seconds. I still have a photograph of that damned mole. In the picture there are a few sheep and some wooden boxes on it, and it looks entirely innocent. But I know that eighty-four gazillion slimy, articulated creepy-crawlies with lots and lots of legs still live there, and they still come out at high-tide. And every time I look at the photo, the skin on my legs tingles and the hair at the nape of my neck stirs.