“The Mosquito Lessons” by Robert Isenberg

 

The moment you hear that hum, your heart tightens. That high-
pitched whine, clear and unmistakable, vibrating in your ear. The
sound is faint at first – the mosquito hovers a few inches from
your ear – but your body stiffens, your fingers crunch into a ball.
You don’t move your head. You don’t move a muscle. You just
wait until the hum gets louder, the pitch starts to waver as the
mosquito dances closer to your cheek, exploring the rubbery rim
of your ear. It’s searching for a place to rest. Nearly blind, the
mosquito is smelling you, the sweet and sugary scent of blood
beneath your skin. But you are also searching for it. You can
measure its distance by the whining flap of its tiny wings.

With your left arm, you reach back, bending at the elbow. Your
hands snakes upward, your fingers stretch into a tiger’s claw. You
don’t pause to think or aim. Your eyes have deadened; the lids are
open, but you see nothing. Then your hand lurches upward, your
fingers snap against your palm. You can feel the tiny volume of the
mosquito’s body caught in the space between two fingers – a bag
of skin that yields just enough room for the mosquito to stay
alive. For a second, the mosquito is confused, suffocating between
the walls of fingers and palm – a space smaller than a grain of rice.
For that second, the mosquito is still alive, wondering how it can
escape.

Then you press your thumb upward, under your finger, closing off
the space. You can feel the tiny pop of the mosquito as its body
bursts, and as your thumb pulls away, it also draws the dusty
black pieces of the mosquito’s body, spreading it across the skin
of your palm; fragments of wing and torso settle into the trenches
of your hand, sticking in the “life-line.” The mosquito is not only
dead; it’s mutilated, smeared into a flat corpse. You don’t give it a
second thought. You simply wipe your hand across your cargo
pants, just between the hip and thigh pockets. The mosquito is
gone. Your rage subsides. But your heart is still racing; the
adrenaline still surges. You want to find another mosquito. You
want to hear its maddening hum. You want to see mosquitos
dancing on the rim of a door, or circling around a light-bulb.
This is the first mosquito lesson: You must delight in killing them.
You must enjoy squashing them and surveying the wreckage of
their bodies. In the woods, this is the only way to stay sane.

People think I’m a sadist. But nature is like that: Kill or be
killed. I’ve never shot a deer, or cut down a living tree. I’ve
only caught one fish in my life. Humans are the most talented
killers in the world, but I decide not to kill, most of the time.
But mosquitos change your mind.

Through the years, they start to crawl into your most primitive
cortex; they train you to hate them. Live with mosquitos long
enough, and that high-pitched whine will make your blood run
cold, until all you can think about is killing. You will wait
patiently. You will search the air for that tiny fleck of life,
floating on the currents of a box-fan. Whatever it takes, you
will kill this animal. You will not rest until that hum is silenced.

Because this tiny thing – lighter than a paper-clip, with legs
the width of a human hair – can cause a lifetime of anguish.
More anguish still, because it’s so hard to describe.
Mosquitos? people will jeer. They’re just bugs! Yes, just bugs
– bugs that stick their serrated proboscises into the skin of
the living, piercing through the pored tissue of your body and
injecting a dose of anesthetic. The mosquito numbs you.

You’re not supposed to know that it’s there, clinging to your
shoulder with its sticky, filthy legs. You aren’t supposed to
realize that the mosquito is sucking the blood from your body
– just a drop, just a tiny gulp. But as the mosquito drains
you, its thorax lights up; its body literally turns red.

To day-hikers, this is a mild inconvenience – a tiny drop of
blood, a little, into August, and the steamy afternoons seem
never to end, the black flies circle around your head, whirling
and whirling, landing only long enough to entangle themselves
in your hair. At first this horrifies you – as a child, you scream
and run to Mom and beg her to get it out, get it out!

But you get used to the black flies, the horse-flies, the bees,
the wasps. The flies are bigger and slower than the
mosquitoes; they lumber through the air, circling predictably
around your cranium, until you just reach out with a hand and
grab them, one by one. This becomes a kind of game. Your
hand springs into the air, you grab a fly, you crush its
abdomen with your thumb, and you hurl it to the grass – a
scythe-like swing, so swift and relaxed that friends don’t
realize you’re killing them. You become as silent as the insects
themselves: Snatch, crush, toss.

The walls are throbbing with ants. Big ants, small ants – they
may belong to the same species, one may grow into the other,
you simply don’t care. If they live in the woods, you leave
them alone. You can overturn a rock and watch a small
civilization of ants scattering, leaving their colonies of white
eggs behind, but you refuse to kill them. They’re not
bothering you. They are only animals trying to live.

But if they’re inside your parents’ house, you punish them.
You indulge every cruel impulse: You grow your fingernails
long as you can press on their backs. They squirm and writhe,
trying to identify the great pressure holding them down.

As their legs scrape along the tabletop, trying to propel them
forward, you drive your fingernail into their tiny, wire-like neck.
This only takes a second: The head severs instantly, and when
you release the body, it rolls around on the tabletop, curling
over and over, the legs kicking at the air. The head lies alone,
and the mandibles of the ant opens and shut, as if screaming
for help. They open and shut quickly for awhile, but then they
slow and finally stop. For a full minute, the mandibles will jut
open every few seconds, as if jolted with electricity. For the
full-grown ant, death takes its time.

When I felt more humane, I’d kill them a different way: Still
pressing on their backs, I’d use my fingernail, with surgical
precision, to crush their heads, right in the middle. A bubble of
liquid would burst around my nail, and the ant would instantly
die. Then I’d sweep it away with my hand – whoosh! – and the
ant was gone, flung into some corner of the living room.

Why punish the ants? Why ants and not ladybugs, or praying
mantises, or crickets? Because the ants were overwhelming –
their legions of crawling minions, like insectoid tapestries, filling
every wall and couch and chair, burrowing into my bedframe,
marching along the bathroom tile, slipping and falling into the
bathtub as I took a shower. Once, while showering, I
shampooed and rinsed, only to see a queen ant fall from my
scalp, struggling in the lather. The Queen is over an inch long
and boasts two wings and a tail-stinger; the sting of a Queen
bee can hurt as much as a wasp’s. I shut off the water, put
the stopper in the drain, and watched the Queen writhe in the
soapy bilge. I knew that ants can’t swim, and this had become
another joy: watching them drown.

Yes, why punish the ants, insects that don’t bite unless
provoked? Insects that serve as food for so many frogs and
birds and spiders?

Because on those sweaty afternoons, when my skin boiled
with perspiration, every salty bead felt like an ant crawling on
my body. Thousands upon thousands of times, I’d look down
to see an ant exploring the hairs of my arms; I’d feel them
crawling inside my boxers, and I’d shake my shorts until the
ant came tumbling down a pant-leg. So many times, my vision
would blur in one eye, and I’d realize that a tiny ant, no larger
than an exclamation point, was standing on the edge of my
eye-lashes.

The mosquitos and ants and black flies were ubiquitous, a part
of life. On a summer day, with nothing to do but drink water and
sweat, I’d spend entire afternoons killing them – swatting
hundreds and hundreds of mosquitoes, until my hands were
stained brown, until my arms were crisscrossed with lines of dry
blood. I never regretted these massacres, because it was a
never-ending series of battles in an eternal war against the
nastiest agent of nature.

I would never deplete their numbers, but I could hope, if I killed
enough, that somehow the mosquitoes wouldn’t attack me while
I slept. I knew there was no relationship between backyard
murder and the humming in the dark, but I imagined that there
was. My desperate superstition. At night, that hum could keep
me awake for hours, sometimes until dawn. I would weep into
my pillow, praying that the mosquitoes would go away. When
that wasn’t enough – because it was never enough, to merely
hope – I taught myself to crush them in the dark. I’d gauge their
distance. Blindly, I would hunt them.

The mosquito seemed so unfair, and from this, I learned what
unfairness means. In every other way, life in the woods was
good: Beautiful parents, an energetic brother, plenty to eat, a
good elementary school, field trips to Montreal and Nantucket,
some distant friends that I could visit, books, movies, everything
a child could want. But the mosquitoes kept things in
perspective: They would never go away, except in the bitter,
bone-chilling winters. The winters would melt into muddy, murky
springs. The relief of leaves and grass – which sprout so
reluctantly in the Vermont countryside – was matched by the
onslaught of vile insects. My nightmares were filled with their
egg-hatching.

All around, in the still waters of the swamp, blankets of eggs
were growing, breaking open, yielding billions upon billions of
new mosquitoes. Only at noon, standing in the beating sun,
could I feel safe. And every evening, as the sun threatened to
set, I’d run home from the woods or the yard, slam the sliding-
door closed. Even the slightest crack in the door or the smallest
hole in the screen could admit battalions of mosquitoes. One
false move could mean lying awake all night, bathed in a sheen of
gritty sweat, slapping every pinch or ache, though most of them
were phantoms, hallucinated by my feverish mind.

But the most fearsome were the spiders: Some crawled across
my pillow at night, others clung to the rim of the toilet-bowl.
Spiders nested in our house-plants or wove webs in the corners
of the ceiling. Spiders are good, my parents would tell me. They
eat insects. But their contribution seemed so minute, so
pointless. I could kill hundreds of mosquitoes, but a spider could
eat only a few in its brief and ugly lifetime.

Some spiders moved so quickly you couldn’t even see them
dart; they’d disappear and reappear a few inches away, as if they’
d slipped through the fabric of space. I despised the
mosquitoes, but the spiders terrified me to the point of hysteria;
their eight fuzzy legs, their clusters of black eyes, the jagged
sickles of their mouths – nothing could be more demonic.

Spider-bites didn’t itch as much as mosquito bites, but they
were bigger, nastier: They looked like burial grounds scattered
on my calves and wrists. Spiders had no reason to bite – only
because they were spiteful or afraid. Spiders bite when they feel
threatened. Well let them feel threatened, I thought. I would kill
them, too – every one of them. I would kill them in their homes,
smash them against walls and dusty windows. I dropped books
on them from above. I became an expert at killing them, too.
The same joy, but surpassing relief.

Throughout the world, insects rule the lives of rural people. In
the tropics, thousands of people contract malaria from the
mosquito’s bite. As they sicken, these people feel burning in
their joints, their bodies shiver, and as their livers struggle to
expel the parasitic microbes, they vomit themselves to death. If
malarial children grow up at all, they can suffer brain-damage,
hemorrhaging, bouts of great energy followed by exhaustion,
anemia, and death. Malaria kills over a million people every year.
In Africa, the bite of the Tsetse fly can sap the strength of the
strongest man; the “sleeping sickness” is exactly that – victims
end up bed-ridden, sometimes forever.

But the mosquito carries more than viruses: It carries lessons in
nature’s cruelty. I used to hear stories of a Canadian convict
who escaped from prison. When he was found, somewhere in
the Canadian forest, he was encased in a sleeping-bag, barely
able to breathe, suffocating in his  ad hoc cocoon. After only a
few hours among the mosquitoes, he had tried to find his way
back to jail, because the hum was so maddening. Before that,
early pelt-traders used to cover their bodies in bear-fat. And
during the French and Indian War, battles were won or lost
according to the thickness of the mosquito clouds.

The mosquito survives every weapon we have. We can
exterminate wolves and coyotes. We can overcome
smallpox and polio and the Black Death. We no longer
fear lions or catamounts, except in the wildest
circumstances. Only the hungriest bear would maul and
eat a human, and most of them run away at the sound
of rattling cans. But the mosquito is the deadliest
animal, and it’s ubiquitous, fearless, remorseless,
unkillable. For every insecticide we drop on fields and
forests, layering the land with poison gases and liquids,
the mosquito only grows stronger; within days, the
creature has adapted, while other animals – even human
fetuses – twist in agony and die. Worse, we are asked
to accept the mosquito as a part of the natural chain.
Without mosquitoes, birds and reptiles would starve.
The natural world requires the pollination of its insects,
or the entire system implodes, the forests and fields are
confused, seeds die in the pistols of their flowers. We
need our legions of maddening vampiric rapists, because
without them, the circle of life flies apart.

For a young child, living in the forests of Vermont, the
lesson of the mosquito is of life and death. You can’t
see the spawning pools, laden with millions of globular
eggs, but you know have faith that they exist. You learn
that every creature is born differently – from liquid
eggs, from hard eggs, from vulvas, from sacs; and
every creature is more or less fragile, but at some point
– smack! – that life abruptly ends. In an instant, life has
expired, and wherever it goes, if it goes anywhere, the
body becomes smudge of black wings and broken legs.

But no matter how we are birthed or how we die, in-
between we are all alive. And when a child learns that a
mosquito lives for only a few weeks, and that it travels
no farther than five miles, and that every mosquito is
female, and that all she desires to do is use mammalian
blood for the alchemy of egg-laying, the world is put in
precarious perspective. Suddenly human life seems
stunted. The thousands of miles we travel in a lifetime
still feel so confined. Our desires feel no different than
seeking proverbial blood, absorbing it wherever we can,
nesting in our stagnant waters, and birthing a new
generation, beginning everything again.

The mosquito takes more than blood: It sucks away all
the innocence, the high-mindedness, the good-will. You
can see it, on the faces of people who grow up in the
woods – the exhaustion, the stubbornness. Every idea
is a bad idea, destined to fail. Life is a matter of a trillion
pinpricks; covered up, protected by a can of OFF!, you’
re still not safe, because something will always get
through, piercing the toughest canvas, slipping through
the weave of a mosquito-net. One way or another, you
will be drained. But there is it. You’ll live. Just keep
moving.

The lesson of the mosquito is learned for life: You won’
t win every battle. You will lose friends. You will argue
with your spouse. You will, at some point, resent your
children, and they will resent you back. Your dream-job
will feel torturous at times. Your impeccable health will
start to fail. Somewhere, entire villages are being burned
and their people shot apart by teenaged militants.

One million people will die of malaria, and even if you
quit everything, move to the Sudan and toil for the
Peace Corps, making friends and building pipe-lines and
saving a community from starvation and disease, down
the road another community is wiped out by the
Janjaweed. Friends will die, one by one, probably from
cancer or car accidents, and there is nothing you can do
to stop it. In the end, the mosquitoes will win, because
they will be alive and spawning, in their limitless
multitudes, and your singular life will end. They will have
drained you. There will be nothing left.

For a teenager, this lesson will be comforting. The
lesson of the mosquito is that discomfort – even sadism
– are natural and normal. Every time an adult is shocked
by the behavior of your friends and enemies, you will
shrug your shoulders. The people in your shire town,
who grew up in suburban houses and didn’t wake up to
the squeal of the mosquito, still seem shocked by
terrible things. When Scott is tied to a urinal with
electrical tape and a pack of football players piss all over
him, laughing as he wails, you aren’t surprised.

The older you get – 19, 21, now 27 – you object to
inhumanity, you are disgusted by it, but you are never
taken off-guard. You don’t need to read Stephen King,
looking for horror, because horror lies all around you.
The backstabbing, literal and figurative. You puzzle over
the outrage over Enron. You knew from the beginning
that Iraq would be plagued by roadside bombs and
guerilla warfare. With so many millions of land-mines, of
course children are maimed by them. You feel indignant,
furious, helpless, but you are never caught unawares.
Because the mosquito hums forever, sometimes louder,
sometimes softer, humming and humming through
every radio, from every headline, humming behind the
word of every person you don’t know or trust. Because
the mosquito has to hum, it will always hum. The only
alternative is silence.

 

Robert Isenberg writes about travel and television for MSN.com, as well as for the theatre
and commercial publications.  His literary work has appeared in
McSweeney’s, Yankee Pot Roast, The New Yinzer, Deek Magazine, and Salt Journal.  He is the winner of the Three Rivers Review Poetry Prize.   His stage-plays have been produced by ten different companies.  He is the co-author of the Pittsburgh Monologue Project, published last year.

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