The bugs are all dead.
In a past so distant to me now it might as well have been someone else’s life, I hated insects. A housefly could ruin my entire day. If I encountered a millipede or roly-poly no mere tissue would do – I was the sort who needed to retrieve an anvil to drop on their heads.
I used to operate on an implicit “smushability” scale – the smaller the bug, the more smushable they were, the less panicked I became. A fruit fly was maximally smushable, while a large, New York City roach was essentially unsmushable. Crushing a roach under shoe felt as impossible to me as casually squishing a raccoon to death between two fingers.
The surprise appearance of a roach would upend an entire evening. A roach was an emergency, and best-laid plans were shunted aside in the wake of my hysteria.
When I encountered a roach, a well-practiced if frenetic procedure was automatically initiated. First, my wife would be tasked with scouting the enemy, making sure never to lose sight, and chasing it around the house if need be.
Meanwhile, I would race to the linen closet to retrieve my weapon of choice in this battle of man versus monster – the vacuum cleaner and its extendable hose.
After a frantic race to unspool and plugin, I would approach the contaminated area with trepidation and my wife, eagle-eyed and unflappable, would paint the target with an extended finger. Thus would begin a dance of death more often reserved for the clearing of landmines or the navigation of quicksand then the dispatch of a teensie bug.
As the vacuum whirred with menace, I would approach as closely as I dared – which was not very close – and, slowly, with great care – always prepared for the beast to charge unexpectedly or reveal functional wings and fly into the air as in my nightmares – I would extend the hose, inch by frightful inch.
A hush would fall over the room in these final, awful moments, broken only and completely by the cacophonous blare of the vacuum’s hungry belly. Often, the roach would sit perfectly still, its antennae twitching in a futile effort to discern a threat beyond its comprehension. Only at the final inch would the roach, at last, realize its doom had arrived, but by then it was too late. Crouching down, from squarely six feet away, I would close the final gap in a flash and, with an audible “thwuck”, the roach would disappear into the vacuum’s gullet.
In the aftermath of these ordeals, amidst the coursing waves of adrenal bloodlust and palpable relief, I was sometimes struck by visions of the whole fiasco from the perspective of the hapless roach. I imagined what it must be like to all at once be sucked up and out of the world by an invisible force – catapulted into scathing darkness. What was it to feel one’s whole body rise off the ground and be propelled at terrible speeds, by powers unimaginable, into an oblivion of whirling desiccation?
The vacuum I owned was bagless and had a transparent container for the detritus. When you turned it on you could see the chamber’s contents spin up into a ruthless gyre of dust. It was hard to keep track of any single object in that chaos, but, occasionally, I would catch a glimpse of my victim.
Round and round it flew, caught in the tornado I willed into existence with the push of a button, being torn to literal shreds by the weaponized particulate of my own discarded skin cells.
Sometimes, as I watched, I could not help but imagine that it was me in there. I imagined the dust clawing at my eyeballs, or stuffing my nose to the brainstem. I felt it rake my screaming tongue on its way down into my muddy lungs.
Sometimes the illusion was so complete that my mouth would parch as I watched and I would need a glass of water to wash away the taste of desolation.
A mass extinction of bugs is not an intuitive idea. We think of extinction as something that occurs to more impressive creatures. Rhinos go extinct. Obscure island birds, notable for their impressive hugeness and stupidity go extinct. Extinction feels like the natural purview of dinosaurs, big cats, and elephants.
But bugs? Using the word “extinction” in relation to bugs feels like a category mistake. Insects are synonymous with indestructibility and numerosity. Throughout all of modern human history we have been trying to eradicate bugs. Until very recently, even the notion of wiping out a single colony of ants seemed impossible to most people. The idea of wiping out every ant on the face of the Earth sounds absurd.
Yet here we are.
I haven’t seen a roach in years. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I saw a bug of any kind.
Or a bird for that matter.
I can remember the last time I saw the clear blue sky.
It was two weeks ago, on a Tuesday. Hot, as ever – blazing hot. I sat on my balcony, a mess of sweat and tears, and watched as the frothing topsoil of every state west of the Mississippi enveloped the Manhattan skyline. Within a few minutes, I would need to hasten inside and use precious water rations to wet every towel in the house in order to line my closed doors and windows against the storm. However, right then, I sat there, buffeted by the hot wind, and watched the spectacle play itself out.
A vast curtain of darkness hung in the air. Countless millions of tons of dirt, from dozens of states I’d never stepped foot in, filled the visible horizon as far as the eye could see. It cut a straight line across the clear blue sky, taller than the tallest skyscraper – a tidal wave of earth. As it neared, traveling deceptively quickly, the wall of filth seemed to rise to meet the setting sun.
Soon, the sun was only a dull, reddish glow behind the upper strata of the dust storm. Only then did I turn to go inside. By the time I had wetted the towels, the sun was altogether gone and in its place was only howling dirt.
That was two weeks ago. The electricity is out and the water’s stopped flowing. I’m running low on food.
You’d think the storm would at least be cooler, but it isn’t. It’s stifling hot. Oven hot.
When I look out the window at the scraping dark, it’s incredible to me that there’s any air on Earth left for me to breath. It is almost as incredible that I ever called this two room prison – my slowly, meticulously buried apartment – my soon to be tomb – a “home.”
Alone, I find myself wishing my wife was still here.
If not her, then a friend.
If not a friend, then an enemy.
I’d give anything to be with someone else, something – anything – alive, just now.
Sometimes I put a little nubbin of food at the edge of the bathtub drain and sit there, waiting, for hours.
But eventually, I remember…
…the bugs are all dead.
Lead Photo Source:
Emilian Robert Vicol from Com. Balanesti, Romania, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons