The palm-sized cockroach feeds on the poison. Its thread-thin feelers quiver against the cold linoleum. I am awake before dawn, waiting for the tea water to boil, wondering if I should step on the cockroach—save it from the pain of a slow death. The small print on the back of the poison package claims that it’s quick and relatively painless: The roach carries the bait back to its nest, shares it with its family, and dies within twenty-four hours. “Relatively painless to die” sounds so sterile, as if the roach just stops existing.
But nothing stops existing. Death is a transfer of energy—from ashes to ashes and the circle of life.
I had a kitten once when I was twelve, but a truck squashed him. I was the first one to find him—a mangle of blood and fur on the pavement. My dad buried him under a tree, and told me that his energy would live on in the soil, in the trees and the grass and the weeds.
But what becomes of a roach rotting in the walls? Or a baby born too soon? Where does their energy go?
My husband bought a stockpile of roach poison—enough to kill thousands. All I could think about was a roach holocaust happening behind our walls.
“Better to be safe than sorry,” he said after we saw the first one. “They’ll take over if you let them.” They were here, breeding and nesting, raising their little families in damp, dark corners well before we moved in.
“What right do we have to kill them?” I was unpacking the relics of what could have been—a breast pump still in the package, an empty diaper bag, bottles and bibs from the baby shower. I tried sorting them into giveaway piles. But no matter how much I arranged and rearranged the whole process felt like a shot game of Tetris—nothing seemed to fit.
“It’s either them or us.” He smiled when he said this. He took the tiny unworn socks from my hands and placed them delicately in the pile for his sister.
“Better the blood’s on your hands than mine.”
“Roaches don’t bleed,” he said. “And they don’t feel pain. At least not in the way we do.”
He’s always been so resilient, so unfazed by the necessary. Things that make me unravel he weaves into logic.
The roach is still eating the poison when the kettle starts to scream. After he bought the poison I read that it kills slowly. The roaches carry the poison inside them like a cancer. It crawls through their insides slow like molasses, dissolving their organs to mush. They retreat to their nest only to defecate and die.
“That’s why the poison is so effective. Roaches are cannibalistic. One roach eats the poison and spreads it to the rest.” The family members eat the remains, and then they too die—brothers, sisters, husbands, and mothers. Babies.
Humans aren’t so different I wanted to say.
The roach is still eating when I grab my boot. I hover it over its body and wonder if it can see the shadow. Does it know what’s coming?
The roach dies with a crunch and a squish. When I peel back the boot there is no blood, just a mess of goo and shell.
I gather the remains into a napkin and throw it outside into the grass before he wakes up. The soil will swallow what’s left.
I’ll finish putting the remnants of a life never lived into piles of what can be. He’ll wake up and do it more efficiently. The roaches will keep skittering in the walls, laying eggs and raising families. He’ll squirt more poison into the damp corners, and we’ll try again one day.
Alyssa Durst is currently in the MFA program at the University of New Orleans. She also teaches creative writing to high school students through the program Teach for America. When she and her husband aren’t teaching, they enjoy camping their way through the United States with her eight-year-old son.