North Dakota: My patient mother does her best to teach me to love ladybugs, caterpillars and soft-flapping monarch butterflies, not to fear the fleshly prodding of worms through the dirt or the puppeteering of daddy-long-legs in corners. I’m not convinced. My fear is older than I am; it has millennia on me. Though I learn not to scream and never to faint, I never stop wanting to.
Boxelder bugs swirl in terrifying black and red hieroglyphs on the siding of neighbors’ houses. Bees menace. Dragonflies charge. Webworms drop from gauzy tree limbs onto shoulders. Grasshoppers cling to shoelaces. Ants exude from the white ruffles of peonies. The windshield of the family car is a slime of carnage. My little brother emerges from the lake leaving bloody footprints on a stone; leeches glom between his toes; Mom carries him wailing to the bathroom, rips them off, throws them in the toilet; the world spins. Before Dad shakes the popcorn into the popper, I rescue us all: in the jar at my eyeline on the counter, I see worms curled tight amidst the kernels. The screened-in sunporch, long neglected, is opened to reveal sheafs of dead moths like white rose blossoms. At night, in bed, when the magic of the calamine lotion wanes, I scratch myself until I bleed. My childhood is one marked by mosquitoes; bites I can’t leave alone rise painfully in every summer picture of me: I should go everywhere netted. The mosquito zapper in the front yard: the most comforting jolts in the world: someone is in charge; something is protecting us all.
The world, away from home, has twitching mandibles. Hundreds of eyes. I hide, sniffling my way through college in dust mite-ridden libraries. I return from my travels to a nearly-bugless Europe with parasites in my gut and pills to kill them. Locust-elbowed men try to climb all over me, bite and suck flesh, leave marks on my neck; nothing sticks, although, after a date takes me by plane to a forest in New Jersey, I find a tick growing behind my knee, and, lying on my back in the bathroom floor, motherless and dizzy with revulsion, tweeze out the succulent burr myself and toss it into the toilet. New York is sidewalks moving with cockroaches, faucet-colored silverfish waiting in bathtubs, then bedbugs coming out to prey in the night. Even when I wear turtlenecks tucked into pants tucked into socks, even after three exterminations, I wake up each morning with rows of new bites, and that’s it: New York, you and me is quits.
Los Angeles: I know I have found a good man because he rescues the spiders in the apartment in jars and takes them outside. My horror becomes an occasion for his tenderness. The kitten we get at the shelter has fleas laddering around its eyes. We wash him together.
Lightning bugs beacon across Maryland, silent and joyful. Cicadas engulf the world like plague of violinists. Our outdoor wedding is an effluvium of mosquito spray, a fizz of gnats. My thighs are soon sore with lumpy spider bites from spiders I never see, but they’re here: my new husband’s mother has a storeroom no one will enter because the jumping spiders fling themselves at intruders. Moths fly out of closets, bellies full of wool.
New Mexico: A black widow by the front door welcomes us to our new house: a good sign for still-newlyweds? After the mistake of the last house, where fruit flies burst forth from the composting toilet with such vigor that we hung flypaper in streamers from the ceiling, a single poisonous spider seems better. My husband grabs a jar, which worries me, but the hourglass-stamped spider is gone before he can get it. A new and unseen threat: no-see-ums, quick to pox the tenderest skin. We get dogs; the dogs get fleas. One dog bites a bee and suffers. The other tries to eat flies; summer days are punctuated with the chomp of his always-unsuccessful jaws. Sometimes, a lost black bug appears in the lettuce leaves of the salad I serve my husband, who looks at me like I’m a would-be murderess. I like how the crickets bleat; just don’t make me look at them: faces for radio. Some moths are iridescent and as fast-winged as hummingbirds. Bees still exist. Maggots coil in the startling corpses of mountain goats. Huge black beetles wobble like slow robots; they could be the camera-eyed instruments of spies. Tarantulas cross the highway together in clutters of black gloves and press themselves against the walls of outhouses like handprints. Red ants build a mountain under the clothesline and appear later in shirtsleeves and pants legs. They crusade into the kitchen in indefatigable columns and drown themselves in honey. Pillowed in a bag of old flour, weevils sleep soundly.
I can’t bring myself to have a baby, not just because I shudder at the thought of my body metamorphosing into something like a silken sac, dread the prehistoric push and crack, the fierce clamp of the teething mouth, but because I can’t imagine teaching a little one not to be afraid when I’ve always been afraid. Even of creatures so small they’re almost invisible. Even of creatures that couldn’t hurt me, or anyone. Occasionally, in the tub, I find an embryo-headed child of the earth, thumb-sized and fatty, with an exoskeleton that looks like skin, and I feel like I’m a child again, a child still, about to tumble off the edge of the earth.
Why? I’ve asked myself. This, I think: their message is mortality. I see my end in their endlessness. You are a pest, they say to me. You are pests, they all say to all of us. Putting a tub where the earth should be, putting cities and towns where our colonies and swarms should be, our flutters and squirms. But still, we outnumber you and are smart enough to make your trash our treasure. Watch, you will go, but we will live forever.
Amber Burke is a graduate of Yale and the Writing Seminars MFA program at Johns Hopkins University. She teaches writing and yoga at the University of New Mexico in Taos. Her creative work, some of it Pushcart-nominated, has been published in magazines and literary journals including The Sun, Michigan Quarterly Review, Mslexia, Superstition Review, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and Quarterly West. She is also a regular contributor to Yoga International, which has published over 100 of her articles and the ebook she co-authored, Yoga for Common Conditions.