Copyright Brian Kiteley
The following section of Still Life With Insects (1989) was originally published in Fiction magazine and The Best American Stories of 1988. Still Life With Insects will be republished as an e-book by Dzanc Books some time before April 2012.
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Collected in a small stagnant pool. Active swimmers. One swimmer fed on leaf hoppers. Drumheller, Alberta. September 29, 1945.
They recently regraveled and tarred the road to Drumheller so the dust raised by passing trucks was not bad. The long straightaway that leads up to the gorge connects evenly with the highway on the other side and gives the illusion of continuity. But there sits Drumheller in a fold of earth, a surprise each time I drive this road. The war's been over three weeks. An assistant to make some of these trips for me is no longer an unreasonable request. The doctor asked if I had any hobbies. Something easy plus cutting down to a ten-hour work day might do the trick. I don't know why I told him about my unfinished PhD in entomology; it might get back to the company. The man they fired when the boss discovered his M.A. still pops up in my wife’s late night chatter; I should never have told her. To come upon Drumheller the way I did reminded me of the feeling just before my breakdown: I knew what was coming, but still I was surprised. At the grain auction the boys from soil research wore party hats to celebrate my 43rd birthday and return to work. The candle I was supposed to blow out would not stand upright in the fist-sized flour dough effigy of the big boss. I said you can’t hold a candle to him and everyone repeated this all day long. A little secretively I stopped at the dry riverbed outside of town and used my wife’s empty dramamine container as a holding bottle. Kirby’s Backswimmer—or rather Notonecta kirbyi—never seems to touch the water. Underwater, it can stop still for hours at any depth, patiently awaiting gnats and flies that land on the surface. I imitated its above-water stance: knees in the mud, bottom in the air, hands hugging earth, my eyes almost level with the filmy pool. But four teenagers in a farmer’s truck hooted, "Going for a swim, old man?" The hollow ground echoed the approach of a freight train, like a thundering herd of the dinosaurs paleontologists keep discovering to the north. I nearly left the bottle behind but remembered we’d need the prescription sticker for a refill. A small sandstorm blew up on my way to the car. Until I returned to the plateau and Drumheller was safely tucked away in earth again, I could not shake my wife's abiding fear that another dust bowl is just around the corner.
Dug from the rotting floor boards of an outhouse on the skirt of a sapling forest just off the shore of the lake. Two specimens mating well out of season, even in the killing bottle. Peculiar, three-toned chirp sounded “human.” Lake of the Woods, Minnesota. October 2, 1949.
My wife brought the woods with her into the cabin. The smell of spruce mingling with gasoline, from the petrol generator, transported me to our first honeymoon in Banff. That night, the bold girl had not wanted to take off her glasses. She felt undressed without them. Tonight, my wife of twenty years casually scooped them off when they fogged, and the same beautiful girl stood before me, tiny blue welts on the bridge of her nose, dark half moons under her eyes. But she whispered, "Someone's out there, underneath the outhouse, talking to me." She's not a frivolous woman, so I took the battery flashlight from her and we returned to the outhouse, thumping across the hollow ground. All the cabins squatted uphill on the granite outface, the first ripple of the continental shield that extends a thousand miles into Canada. "What did this voice say?" I asked. "Don't laugh," she said. "'Bury me.' I think it was a ghost—very soft, maybe dead a long time." I had to chuckle, "In the pit of an outhouse? What a fate." "Listen," she commanded. The trees of the taller inland forest groaned. The lake sucked the sandy shore near us and slapped granite farther up. "I can't hear anything," I said. "Go inside." "Is this a trick?" I asked. "A surprise party maybe?" She hissed my name, as if blowing out candles. I entered and sat on the wooden seat and shined the light around the corners of the small room I had not yet seen in daylight. One corner had rotted through, I could tell by the change in the wood surface, to a dried mud look. I heard a sharp clicking and my light caught the flash of silver. "Is that your ghost?" I asked. She leaned in the doorway. I shined the light off one of the pink walls so her face was gently illuminated. "Yes." "It's only a beetle," I whispered. "Land sakes," she laughed. "What else was I expecting?" I asked her to hold the flashlight. The clicking sounded like a Metallic Wood Borer. "No, come away from there. You'll catch a chill." But it was a warm night and she trained the light expertly on the rotted wood corner of the floor anyway. I had a small pair of tweezers in my pocket to dig with. My wife talked while I hunted. "I wish you'd speak with Henry about that girl he's seeing. You know she's twenty-five? That's six years older than him. He's so impressed with himself now, driving that cab. He thinks he can support her and go to college at the same time. I don't want him to make the same mistake you made." I looked up into the flashlight beam, curious. "What, marrying you?" I asked. "Go away," she said. "Henry's too independent. All that vagabonding on the railroads when he was younger. I know she's a nurse and in many respects a lovely young lady, but I can't see what she sees in him. He's still a baby. If you talked to him he'd listen, but you and he have barely said a word since your last episode." Two years ago my son had said he never wanted to talk to me again, when I was found wandering the stockyards in my pajamas. "Look," I said to my wife, displaying the two beetles who were mating. "If you could see these lovers under a microscope you’d notice the male's terrifically barbed genital organ. I can't imagine how they separate after copulation." "Oh Elwyn," she shrieked. "Put them down." She thrust the flashlight at me, but I let it fall. My hands were full, opening the killing bottle with one hand and holding the beetles in the other. The flashlight rolled on the ground and cast a long snaking shadow off my wife, as she retreated. Then she stood in the doorway of the cabin and waved, a strangely seductive combination of fear and authority. "You come back here this moment," she shouted. I remembered the honeymoon. A bat had flown into our room from the fireplace and I, naked as I'd ever been, stood on the bed trying to sweep it out an open window with a broom. My wife had been terrified a moment earlier, but from underneath me she commanded, "Put down that weapon. He'll find his own way out."
Sifted out of wheat taken from corners and behind liners of empty box cars. New Prague, Minnesota. July 22, 1950.
For a moment Robin Hood Flour sacks stacked high on a flat car caught the setting sun. The notch created by the sack I ordered taken down to be checked for seed beetle infestation was a perfect fit for the flattened sun. I had the railroad yard employees move the whole load to a box car because of the threat of rain. This was not my job, but I saved them some trouble. They were grateful I pointed out the precaution, despite working so late, despite the cloudless skies. The old foreman believed my forecast without a wink. I stayed in the yard in the dark after they left, checking under rocks and around the cars. A pale aurora borealis swirled over the telephone wires and grain elevators to the north. My FDA agent startled me where I’d made a find. “I heard you were still out here ordering the boys around,” he said, as we sat down on the lip of the box car door. He was the reason I came down to New Prague—a spot inspection of a shipment of our wheat. “I don’t mind you doing my job,” he said. “But I thought I’d make sure you weren’t poaching on my territory. And look what I find.” He held up my killing bottle, laughing. We shared the same peculiar hobby. We were planning a collecting trip to the Mississippi marshes near Winona the next day, if the weather held dry. “What you got? Don’t tell me. Even in this light I can tell—Cicindela lepida. The Dainty Tiger Beetle. I see a few up on Superior and Huron, but you know they’re rare for these parts—chiefly eastern shore beetles. What’s this devil doing so far from home?” I asked him how he could tell what it was in the dark. “Elementary—the sparkling green prothorax, the hoary white underbelly, the fantail feelers, those distinctive checkered markings. You got to have good eyes to collect these buggers—buggers!” He rumbled like a small tractor. “Good ears, too. I overheard you talking to yourself about your catch. You ought to be a bit more secretive, man. You never know who’s lurking about these yards.” We sat in silence for a while as I packed my gear. The air was still and noisy. The tracks parallel to us reflected a far-off light, from a street lamp maybe, but not an approaching locomotive; the light did not waver. I mentioned the new FDA regulations and my agent sighed. “If you ask me, we were getting more nutritious flour when all those beetle parts were ground into it. You and I know how much protein there is in a harmless hundred thousand small-eyed flour beetles.” I said I had those regulations to thank for my new position in the company—chief of extermination research. Finally my half education was no longer a hindrance. “But think of your poor wife up there in Canader,” my FDA agent said. “Selling a house. Packing up two kids. Moving to a new country. You’re a cruel man.” The new job also meant a transfer from Calgary to Minneapolis. “It’s a cruel company,” I said. “They told me to butter you up, but in good conscience I couldn’t.” “Good conscience,” he roared, slapping me on the back. “When shall we meet tomorrow?” I asked.
Sifted from Ontario Soft Winter Wheat—under box car. Tuscaloosa, Alabama. April 2, 1951.
A luxury after thirteen towns in a week: two nights in the same place. Another buyer here tomorrow, Monday. Today: church, rest, the relatively easy Naval supply base chief petty officer. “Shore am glad you all could come here on the sabbath. Which religious leaning you have, sirs?” The traveling salesman from Robin Hood I hooked up with in New Orleans said, “Poker.” “I’ve never played cards myself,” the chief petty officer said, and from that point on he never spoke a word directly to the salesman. I lay down on the track and the supply officer towered overhead. The earth smelled of rust, the salesman of tobacco juice, which he spit dangerously near to me. The chief petty officer tended to shift from one foot to another, rustling the heavy fabric of his trousers that must have been devilish in this Alabama heat. My salesman stood completely still. He claimed the best way to keep his clients’ attention was by gesture, constant movement of the hands and shoulders and head. But apparently his natural state was stillness. His preferred posture was this calm, oblique slouch. He was not on duty now. The Naval supply base was an easy customer, fat money, and besides had already filled a year’s order. I was the one on duty. I stared under the boxcar. The chief petty officer was worried some grain had escaped through holes in the floors, which made no difference to me. I was looking for a stray bag of flour with green mold, marked O-19A. In Minneapolis it had been decided I would not tell anyone what I was really looking for (the tainted flour had been discovered by accident and the company didn’t want to alarm any customers). I would simply say I was there to recommend proper hygiene procedures for storage and transport of flour. The tedious search for the O-18 and O-19 series, throughout Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia, had to be relieved along the way by my own private search. Here, for the Striped Blister Beetle. But the salesman and the supply officer had no idea what I was doing. “Shore is hot for April,” the salesman said. Voice tight from being mimicked, the chief petty officer asked me, “Do you suspect the loading dock mayn’t be another spot?” “Who the hell knows what this old coot’s up to.” My salesman winked at me when he said this. Standing, I handed him the blister beetle, so I could rummage through my bag. “What the hell are you—” he said, but made a fist around the beetle anyway. He asked about the killing bottle, which I was opening. I explained its use, then told the salesman he might want to wash his hands. These beetles secrete a chemical, cantharidin, which blisters most human skin. “I am sorry,” the supply officer said. “Water main repair this morning. The whole base been turned off. But the bay’s only half a mile over yonder.” I asked to see bag O-19A, if it hadn’t been opened. The chief petty officer, escorting me toward a building the size of an airplane hangar, asked if this blister beetle was one of the causes of “our poor hygiene.” For a moment I felt a surge of guilt, deceiving this open-faced man about a possibly dangerous contamination of his supplies. But my salesman shouted, “Hey wait a minute,” staring into his palm. “What about your hands? Why don’t you get blisters?” Over my shoulder, I said, “I seem to be immune.”
Reared from white grub-like larvae in burrows in soft rotting logs. Larvae collected in November and held in poly bag in unheated garage over winter. Larvae pupated in early April following year and adult Trichiotinus emerged on dates shown on locality label. Roxboro, Quebec. May 5, 1967.
Now that I’m retired I view time in larger blocks, but the days seem shorter. After a church deacons’ meeting today—on a Monday morning!—I drove to my supply store in Mount Royal for the two chemicals which as ingredients in a new recipe for poison prevent the gumming of wings. Then I stopped by the Expo site to watch construction and check for any recently upturned earth—many finds. Then I crossed the river to Lac St. Louis swamp and before I knew it the sun was setting. When my wife saw the mud caked up to the hips of my pants she burst into tears. The transition, from my working to not working, is more difficult for her; she expects me to be home all day, or when I am I’m always in her way. The Trichiotinus in the garage amazed me—must write old Beetle Brow in Toronto to tell him of my small discovery. He used to think the stages were of stop and go growth, then sudden transformation. I can prove my point. Most of the cellular reorganization occurs in the first week of pupation. I am able with this new freedom to spend hours in utter concentration. In the swamp today I stumbled over a paper wasps’ nest, but by standing still for several minutes I avoided a bad case of stings. I am practically immune, anyway. One landed upon my raised hand on the flesh between thumb and forefinger. The husky abdomen twitched back and forth. He was a handsome creature: black fringed by yellow that banded the solid brown body. Unlike cricket hunters or mud daubers, he appeared solid enough to withstand a strong wind. He stood as still as I was the instant before inserting his stinger. The filament of fiber, in certain of these insects strong and flexible enough to penetrate oak, seemed to corkscrew into my skin, then slipped out. I don’t know why. He left no poison and when he flew off all the rest did, too, and I resumed my business.
From a field along the St. Lawrence. Humid early morning, low dew point. Soaked all three nets before “beaters” pointed out a net-saving strategy. Pte. Claire, Quebec. August 6, 1975.
He stood off in the distance for over an hour as I swept slowly through the marsh. His friends, who were throwing rocks in the river and frogs on boulders, ran up to him occasionally and kneeled in front of him like supplicants or tried to whip him with weeping willow branches, but he ignored them and faced me with his hands cupped over his eyes for the sun. I waved, but he always shifted slightly in his spot, pretending to examine the willow trailers that hung around him. Later, I noticed his friends creeping along the river bank at my back, apparently about to surprise me. Seeing this made him bold. He struck out across the marsh toward me. The first few steps he sank up to his ankles in the muck, but he quickly learned the gentle tread necessary for walking on such soft earth. When he arrived, he said nothing. He thrust his hands in his pockets and followed one yard behind me, stooping whenever I did, but stepping back whenever I showed him the insides of the net. But when he saw my growing frustration with the dew, he put a finger on the extra nets that I carried under one arm. He took the longer one, unscrewed the neck, and began to beat the grass in front of me with the wooden pole. He pointed to a spot just above the grass level that he meant me to sweep. I was looking for a dew-drinking beetle that was happiest in this weather—after a day of thunder-showers. I applauded the boy’s ingenuity, but I played it close to the chest, as he did. Because of his short pants I decided he was French. He was no more than ten years old. Soon his friends arrived and were instructed with amazingly few words (by means of ear-kissing whispers) to find long sticks and imitate him. I followed behind a fan of half a dozen silent children beating a field for me. I never found the beetle, but when a pregnant ichneumon fly emerged from my net, singing her tiny song, I gathered the boys around me. They huddled like football players. I asked them if they spoke English. The first one nodded, but he had not yet spoken a word to me. I explained how these insects plant their eggs in other insects’ young. The larvae that emerge eat whatever living tissue they encounter. I said this particular mother, if she can’t find a suitable host, will have to eject her eggs before they begin devouring her. The boy translated. His friends did not understand. He illustrated the idea with one hand spread flat and made a brat-brat-brat sound, like a machine gun. His friends laughed, slapping each other on the backs, and mimicked his divebombing plane. When an ocean-going ship passed near the shore, they dispersed. But the one boy remained, staring at his muddy shoes. The red and white hull of the big boat, as a backdrop through the trees, dwarfed him for a moment. Finally he just looked up at the sky and walked away.
Sifting dense mats of short grass along a ditch in woodland dried pond. Squares of grass mats cut out with small saw and torn apart as sifted. Material damp. Pond and ditch had water within last two months. Destin, Florida. February, 1980.
Drought in this balmy climate sears the earth, as if a swarm of hover jets from the Air Force base across the bay had hung over every square inch of ground. Because the soil is saturated with water so much of the year, it dries out quickly. Normally resistant to the worst natural and man-made disasters, insect life is devastated. I find termite nests in chaos, ants eating each other. But my beetles happened to live in a rare patch of wet earth. Cutting into their thriving community made me think of Canada before the dustbowl of the thirties. Now the sun will bake them into hysteria, like all the rest of us. Two feet below them is the spongy water table. We are less than a mile from the Gulf of Mexico. My fourteen-year-old granddaughter, Greg’s girl, seated on a hillock above me, asked why they don’t just dig down to the water, if it’s there. “They don’t know it’s there,” I said, thinking about my own grandparents who settled on a flood-plain by the Green River in Ontario because of its fertile soil. After five years of flooding, they abandoned the land and the only two-story house in the district. “But what about those beetles that tell time?” my granddaughter asked. “That’s instinct,” I said. “Not knowledge. An ant out on the prowl for food seems to recognize another ant from its colony, but closer inspection shows the ant only reacts to a familiar odor. Wash off the ant and place him in his own colony, and he’ll be attacked. Humans think, insects act on tropic responses.” But I remembered my father, who at forty insisted the only way to cure his bursitis was to sleep on the soft clay banks of the Bow River. One night he was swept downriver by a flash flood. He claimed he awoke the next morning seven miles from where he’d started, dry, beached on an almost identical bank. “But how does that beetle know what time it is?” my granddaughter asked. I tried to concentrate on the question. “It doesn’t know,” I said. “We don’t know. It may be a mystery.” “But when you told me the story before, you knew,” she said. “Well, I forgot. You tell me.” Her face wrinkled. She stood up and smoothed out her dress and came down to my side. She took my hand and started to lead me home. “You said it had nothing to do with the darkness,” she said. “Your friend thought it was the darkness, but another friend said it was the way ferns folded up at night. Now do you remember?” I remembered my mother on the side porch, hitting the Indian on the head with the bristle end of a broom, saying, “Get away. No fire water, get away.” “Grampa,” the little girl said. “Pay attention!”
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