Diminished – Heather McQuillan
Inter-sect-ed – Keith Nunes
The Sea has lost its memory – Deborah Jowitt
Life lessons from an endemic arthropod – Alex Reece Abbott
Arachnoincidence – Kerry Lander
Urban Sprawl – Hayden Pyke
Animal General Meeting – Susan Luus
The flies – Kate Mahony
Eyelashes – Caoimhe McKeogh
Moby Dick: The Flash Fiction Version – Nicholas Fairclough
Guest Editor Erik Kennedy, on selecting his top picks
What an eye-opener to see writers use the small form of flash to focus on some of our smallest, most overlooked neighbours. There are several million species in the class Insecta, so we’d expect variety. And there is. In these stories, insects appear as friends, victims of human carelessness, agents of historical change, and as three-dimensional characters with motives and feelings of their own.
The creatures fly, yes, as many insects famously do, but they also scuttle, creep, slink and burrow. Most vitally, we get to see that the dramas that play out on tiny stages are no less intense than the ones that play out on bigger ones, which is a neat analogy for the subtle operations of flash itself.
Uncle John’s Wooden Leg
Uncle John sat down, adjusted the straps of his wooden leg, gazed silently at the floor for a moment, then turned and spoke.
“My grandparents warned me not to sign up for the war you know! ‘Don’t you listen to those trouble-making cousins of yours, moko! Just coz you’re big and strong, you’re still under age, Hone!’ Did I listen? Nah, I lied about my age and ended up enlisting like Hemi and Kahurangi from across the harbour had. They’d been daring me to for ages, teasing and calling me a sissy!
“When they found out I’d signed up they rowed over the harbour in a dinghy they’d ‘borrowed’, slapped me on the back acting all tough and macho. They told me I was brave like them. That made my chest puff out! Kahurangi shouted to Nan and Pop, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll look out for him!’ Nan looked him up and down in utter disgust, then turned and went inside.”
His cousins didn’t look out for Uncle John very well at all. They stumbled over an unexploded landmine. It blew Hemi, Kahurangi, and Uncle John’s left leg to pieces!
Uncle John’s wooden leg stands inside the hall of my whare filled with walking sticks my mokos like to play with. An insect lives inside it too – a centipede, almost as old as Uncle John. My mokos don’t notice when it crawls out and makes its way slowly into the safety of the hallway’s carpeted trenches.
The dripping noise wakes him first. Then cold wraps around his body. A primal smell, the odour of rain on earth, infiltrates his nostrils. He opens his eyes.
Thick feathers of dark green, curtains of macrocarpa, skim his head. The old tarpaulin he’d erected between their branches sags. A crater of wetness. He stretches, frees his feet from the protecting layer of warm newspaper, last night’s somnolence lingering.
Good kai yesterday. Pretty girl at the Free Food Pantry. Tarn. She’d given him an extra apple. But not much use when your teeth are buggered. George had tried not to smile at her. Her teeth had sparkled as white as a movie star’s.
Something hard presses against his leg. He sits upright, picks up the can of baked beans, steely coldness plucking at his skin. Where is the opener? He reaches for his backpack, glances at the chocolate self-saucing pudding inside. Tarn again. He smiles. Maybe breakfast?
First, there is Harry. A nocturnal chap. Is he around? Shifting a nearby stone, George scratches at the small burrow underneath. A giant pair of dark brown antennae appear. They waver, flicking up, down, around, insect Morse code. The wētā emerges, black head, large body, golden striped abdomen, spiny legs, curved tusks.
“Mōrena, mate.” George shoves a piece of old apple at his flatmate. The fruit is Harry’s favourite.
Friends of Fortune
“Auē, you’re ugly, aren’t you?”
“I’m ugly, have you seen yourself in the river lately?”
Just moments earlier, an accident of fate brought the two insects together. The unpredictable September wind picked up at the precise moment Wētā lost his grip on the ponga log and Huhu blinked against the moonlight. They both tumbled through the air to slap against and slide down a tall harakeke blade to the damp earth below.
With the tail end of Tāwhirimateā’s bellow drifting away, they stood facing each other in shock and disgust. The pair of them a picture of muddy brown stick legs and crabby fangs, dead leaves for wings, and googly black eyes – who could consider them beautiful?
Huhu opened his mouth and grumbled, “I said, auē, you’re ugly, aren’t you?”
To which Wētā replied, “and I said, have you seen yourself in the river lately?”
“Well, you better not stay like that, or the wind might change.”
Just as the midnight rain began to fall, and louder than the sharp splat of te ua on the leaves, the duo erupted in laughter.
K a t a k a t a – k a r a k a r a k a – p a h a h a r a h a.
And as fortune would have it, Huhu and Wētā huddled against the rain together, sharing the night like cousins sharing secrets in the mattress room.
The swan plant in our garden is the bride stripped bare by her hungry genderless bachelors. Only naked stalks remain, and bulbous hairy seed pods from which some imaginative botanist drew a resemblance to a swan.
“The plant’s poisonous,” said Ana. “Even a little bit of the milky sap can be harmful to a human, but monarchs have evolved to tolerate the toxin.” She turned a lonely leaf to reveal two small caterpillars busily consuming. “They store the toxin in their bodies, and it allows them to repel predators.“
This season’s candy-striped colony of caterpillars has been ripening and moulting through the weeks, and now their blindfolded, black-striped faces are wavering around searching for more. Some pupae have formed green, gold-dotted chrysalises that hang like rich pendants. Some of the early ones have emerged, spread their fine cloaks, and fluttered by.
Ana said she’d squashed a few caterpillars because they couldn’t find enough foliage to sustain their runted bodies.
“They would die anyway,” she said.
I wish she’d kept that to herself.
Ana is an earthy person tuned into nature’s routine; she understands its savage beauty. I turn away from dark truths. I’m in awe of the glamour and transformative magic. I’m waiting for the imago big reveal.
In the morning we found a deformed butterfly on the ground, struggling to untangle its weak, mangled wings. There was nothing we could do. It dried out in the light summer air and never took flight.
Painted ladies arrive in spring, blue moons in autumn. Tumbling, careening on the westerly wind from a hotter shore, they lay no eggs here.
Waves hurl and men shout as the painted wooden hull scrapes hard at Lyttelton dock. The woman walks down the ramp to her new home in a fierce easterly.
Native solitary bees swarm amongst thousands of pale manuka blossoms in this singular land. The bees’ short tongues lick nectar, female abdomens brush delicate plant parts. They spread seed yet make no honey.
The sailor dances a hornpipe at their wedding, and she wears a dress embroidered on the long sea journey. Pavers hold onto the sun’s heat beneath satin slippers and English rose petals whirl and settle on the white muslin.
Male cicadas roar at summer’s end. Their rhythm is deep and strident, wings tapping, belly drumming. Sucking hot sap, females watch in silence from three eyes.
The woman gives birth repeatedly in sweat and blood. Three cold babies lie in the ground. Canterbury’s roads, port, and city grow as she labours, while by lantern light, men chisel through the mountain that keeps her washing damp.
If you are quiet, you can hear tunneling. Huhu grubs chew and chew through the fallen beech tree, excavating a larval city until only a thin shell remains.
The woman grows pliant and tough, like raupō by the shore. She lifts spiraling shells to her children’s ears. If you are quiet, you can hear the waves.
You serve reheated soup for late lunch, drippings of which form perfect fairy-tale hearts on dirty dishes best ignored while baking tricky stuff.
Popping candy adds flair. Spectacular, your hero says. Nostalgic, he says. Why is it not popping too much too soon for him though, on TV, like back-crack beetles you trample in socked feet in the bathroom late at night on a rustic beach holiday?
Kitchen dampness is a likely factor here. Mushrooms grow in the wall cubby.
Fizzy sherbet lollies, you then decide, a month past December’s failings when you and the kids finally open the gingerbread house kit complete with gluey icing of the not-nearly-enough variety. Plus, today, for your own birthday cake you’re determined to use the rice flour dregs before they weevil.
Yes, you tell your son who is nailing preschool, ‘weevil’ is a verb.
A breeze – nameless – although occasionally what must be a busty southerly will throw open the back door, which in turn hits and spins the metal trolley your lodger reckons a cute aesthetic, and sends the cat’s water bowl flying.
Your daughter stares into the gingerbread house, painting fingernails a gimlet green, observing intermittently: ‘The snowman is winking’, ‘Santa’s beard is a lollipop’.
“What’s for dinner?”
“Oven,” you say, still stirring. You look down at the bowl of edible spackle and unicorn guts.
The roses picked to celebrate the gingerbread house are frothing over the top of it. A giant aphid crawls out, begins chewing on a cinnamon gable.
The world is grey as a saucepan lid, the sky heavy and pouting. She is waiting for something. The hours wriggle forward with too much TV, too much sugar, the kids picking fights and fossicking in cupboards. She goes to the garden with a knife.
The broccoli is as big as her head – planted at the brighter end of summer. She commits a brief violence. Back indoors she dumps the pieces in a large pot, drowns them in tap water, turns up the element. But it’s too quiet in the living room. She pokes her head around the corner, but they’ve only hauled out their garish-coloured sleeping bags and cocooned themselves. They loll around in the middle of the floor, giggling in their separate darknesses.
An urgent hissing. She hurries back to the kitchen. Gusts of steam clear as she pulls the roiling pot forward off the coil. It is then that she sees them – five, six, seven, bobbing up among the little green stubs. Fat yellow caterpillars, as thick as her thumb. Boiled dead. She steps back with her stomach churning.
Out the door into a desaturating day, and she dumps the whole lot out behind the shed. At dinner, they eat supermarket carrots. She moves her own food to her mouth gingerly, thoughts squirming beneath the gingham tablecloth, and sometimes, fluttering at the finger-marked windowpane. The dishes are carried to the sink. Then finally, it starts to rain. The New Year has begun.
Rata Ingram, Beetle in Watercolour
We sure noticed them way back when. We slapped, spat, stomped, sprayed the swarms. Splattered them on windscreens.
Then we didn’t notice them. Not until they’d gone AWOL. God’s most beloved creatures. Must have been. He made so freakin’ many, a stupefying array. We were never His favourite. Get over it.
I tell the kids about the weevils in the walls of my childhood house and the midges in our summer mouths. They only know roaches and flies and mosquitos buzz-bombing on a summer night. Of course, the bloodsuckers and scavengers survive.
“No, there were more,” I yell. My head aches with remembering. Aphids and fleas and cicadas and caddis flies. Grasshoppers. Dragonflies humming over the pond. Butterflies in the buddleia. I can’t pull up all their names – maybe I never knew them. Bees and beetles, and bugs and…. They blame me.
Talk about frogs in boiling water. We never noticed them diminishing. Not until the birds fell and the fruit failed. Not until there were no flowers for the graves. Then the panic set in.
The kids stew up some concoction of mushrooms and fern roots, paint their faces with mud, and lay out roadkill guts as an offering. They chant, waving fern fronds in a smoky frenzy. Yo, Mantis God, show the bugs the way back home.
I can’t mock. I lick dusty lips and remember honey on toast as I keep watch for a butterfly to guide me to the Underworld.
The Griselinia hedge starts shuffling toward the front gate like a gigantic silverfish.
A brawny mass, it bulldozes through the rose bed, pushes open the front gate and filters down Hexapod Lane.
I follow, discreetly.
I get on my mobile, call my wife in the city.
“Did you mix-up your meds again, honey?” she says, concerned.
I ring the emergency services.
“We can send an ambulance if the hedge injured you, sir; otherwise, you might be best to ring the local council, it’s not really a criminal matter at this stage,” the operator says politely.
The hedge halts.
Its front end curls around and looks at me, a humungous wētā testing the air.
I’ve been spotted, trailing too close.
This ‘head-piece’ eyes me for a moment.
I start to back up, tentatively.
It faces front and turns into Evolution Road.
The silverfish-hedge-wētā pulls up again, a reined-in mantis, turns and scuttles toward me.
Now it sounds like a scampering beetle. I turn and run for home. I go through the open gate, through the garage where I grab hedge clippers and fly spray, and into the house.
I enter the kitchen and look out at the backyard.
There’s the Griselinia hedge, where it was this morning. It seems ruffled, even breathless.
As I swallow emergency meds, there’s rasping at the front door, an abrasive scraping, and then something mimicking a cicada with a bullhorn.
I look out back.
Monstrous Carpenter ants are laying siege to the house.
The Sea has lost its memory
We gather at the water’s edge, standing in the scum left by a storm, clouds of midges drawn to our salty skin. Her body lies on a bed of bracken in a craft cobbled together from driftwood, flowering puawhānanga arranged around her head.
We walk chest-deep through the chill water, holding her to us till the current carries her away.
Some days later, another craft appears, coracle-like, a ragged flag at its bow. In it is a baby, well-wrapped and shaded from the sun. We take her for a sign that the sea, so often capricious and cruel, still has healing powers.
I should tell you this country has strange tides; the moon no longer holds sway. Birds lose their bearings, fish founder, insects swarm. The only constants are the sun and rain. We live in the liminal spaces between light and dark, expect little, and accept what comes.
But we expect too much from this child, see her as a saviour. We learn slowly she is a simple creature, to let her be. Our children, who know only fickle seasons, understand this. We are the ones who hold fast to the past, seeking familiar patterns amid constant disruption.
Now we are in our final days.
We ask our children to make a waka, to let us go with the waves, but they point to the dying shellfish on the sandbars, and the seaweed floating in a foul conglomerate of the world’s waste.
They do not trust a forgetful ocean.
Life lessons from an endemic arthropod
Alex Reece Abbott
1. Wrong place. Wrong time. Summer under a pungent wattle tree, eating lunch on the grass.
2. Bad tactics. When The Thing perches on your finger, don’t shake your hand. It only digs those big leg spines into your skin.
3. Don’t panic. The Thing will sense your fear, grip tighter and bite.
4. Don’t threaten. The Thing might hear the idiot schoolchild who plans to trap it in a jam jar. Knowing that Show-and-Tell specimens have a very high mortality rate, it will bite you even harder.
5. Don’t expect help. No one else knows what to do – they are bricking it too. They are children and care only about their own safety.
6. Age doesn’t count. Francie Adams is five years older than you, and her idea of a solution is to make herself look good by trapping an innocent creature and parading it at Show-and-Tell.
7. Accept help, be grateful. Let your friend Ginny rest an acacia stick on your finger so the large wētā can crawl aboard. When, with an All Black side-step, Ginny reaches the fence untackled, and releases the wētā-on-a-stick into the orchard, be glad. For yourself. For the wētā.
8. Respect the endemic. Wētā are ancient. And before they were protected, they were a delicacy, eaten on special occasions.
9. Soap does not wash away memories. Clean your hands as often as you like. Years later, you’ll still feel the tree wētā on your finger.
10. Mind your macrons. Or your wētā turns to shit.
Keith Nunes, Fly on the line
It was weird.
You’d learnt about it at school that day. The two-spined spider: Poecilopachys australasia. In the teacher’s book, its gigantic greenish body had two pointy bits like yellow eyes, shaped like cat’s ears, you thought. Mrs Graham explained it looked like a scary head to frighten birds off. Pretty cool.
After school, you pestered Mum for a biscuit. She said no, it’s close to teatime, pick some Sugar Snaps if you’re hungry.
You were eating Sugar Snaps off the vine, scraping peas out with your thumb, crunching the juicy pods, when you saw it standing on a leaf. Exactly like the pictures. The face that wasn’t really a face.
You ran to fetch your insect collecting jar, tipped out the dead moths. The two-spined spider hadn’t moved. It was waiting for you.
Mrs Graham kept the jar on her desk all day so everyone could see it. After PE, you went to take your jar home, but someone had nicked it. You bet it was Paul Wetere coz he kept picking up that jar all day. Probably he wanted it for a pet. YOU wanted it for a pet!
You searched through the Sugar Snaps carefully, but you couldn’t find any more of those spiders. It wasn’t fair. You cried a wee bit.
Never seen before. Never seen since. Ever, ever.
31 years later, you visited Siam Insect Kingdom in Chiang Mai to inspect the Mexican Orange Kneed and Brazilian Bird Eater.
Always liked spiders, eh?
Estimates are just lies waiting to happen. His boss had said they’d finish before the rain came and now it was July.
The client was onsite muttering that they were behind as if complaining was the key ingredient in time travel.
He started the bobcat and dug clay with the teething steel of the bucket. He imagined the tiny homes he was wrecking, pictured the dark gleam of beetles as they fled his incisions.
His job had pushed him further and further from home. First, from rural China, now, from his Auckland city apartment into the distant suburbs. He wondered what was wrong with a city that drove people increasingly outwards. No one knew why bees abandoned their queen during colony collapse, but he assumed the reasons were the same.
The client signaled him to turn off the bobcat. “Do you speak English?” he yelled as if the machine was still running.
Water was filling the hole he’d just dug. The client exclaiming he’d hit a pipe.
Bees’ interdependence is so devoted, that workers collect nectar for the hive that wouldn’t be turned into honey until after they’re dead. It was not his job to find pipes. It was his job to dig in the specified areas.
His boss didn’t answer the phone when he called. He was so far from anyone he knew. The client screaming at him didn’t mean he could suddenly fix pipes. As the sky darkened, he got in his truck and went home.
Animal General Meeting
“Tsit, tsit,” Wētā rasps, twitching his antennae at those beneath the kauri tree. Those present quieten.
“I declare this Animal General Meeting of United Natives open. We have assembled to discuss matters of great consternation arising from human intervention in our habitats. Mankind postures about equity and diversity. These are mere fables. Humans have branded some creatures aliens. Decreed that they are vermin, pests to be exterminated. I ask does this serve us well?”
“It’s for our own good,” spits Mokomoko, slithering closer.
Wētā waves his front leg. “And now a system of privilege is foisted upon us. One in which avians occupy elevated positions.”
“Don’t we always?” sniggers Tūī.
“Our land, held to ransom by birds, which are privileged above all native creatures. A conspiracy of kea has assumed supreme authority and is moving to change laws that will silence our voices.
Tūī whistles, “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Members of this assembly, how long do we stand for this? How soon before another of our species becomes irrelevant? Who is next?”
Kāhu trembles. His diet is already restricted to roadkill and there’s a price on his head.
“Not my business,” Kiwi shrills scuttling into the darkness.
“Back to the water,” Pepeketua croak.
Ruru remains unruffled, for she understands that human and animal lives are ends of the same strand of the great story. She listens to the roots creak deep in the earth, groaning as they reach towards each other, and watches the moon knit herself into the branches.
Rosalie Kempthorne, Insect1
The flies were everywhere that season.
Our friend Andrew was home from hospital. We didn’t talk about his health that day.
“How do you get rid of them?” Martin asked instead, gesturing to a well-fed fly winging its way towards us.
Andrew was a Buddhist. I knew his religion had special regard for all creatures. “Easy,” he said. “First, I warn them. I tell them they must leave. I open the window and offer them their freedom.” He laughed gently.
“Second, I try to shoo them away through the open window.”
I thought about the can of spray I normally use on the persistent little devils.
Another fly swooped by.
“And then if they don’t take my warning –“ Andrew leaned down to reach something under the table. He became a little out of breath. I watched as he pulled out a fly swat. “I use this,” he said. “But I do it with loving kindness.”
Andrew died a few weeks later. We went to the temple for his funeral on a sunny day at the beginning of autumn. Afterwards, we walked in the temple’s woodlands. The air was cool and refreshing. A flying insect – the kind of creature that might live in trees – landed on Martin’s shoulder. It clung there. I watched it for a time, holding my breath, uncertain what to do.
Finally, I reached for the insect and lifted it off Martin’s shoulder. It flew straight away into the trees. I felt myself breathe freely again.
One family dinner, the youngest sister was wearing falsies, fluttering them around, and the middle sister started wondering whether she should do the same. She looked at her mother, to get an idea of how lashes looked naturally in their family, and then looked at her big sister’s eyes and saw that the lids were nothing but skin. The edges looked so thick when they weren’t decorated by a fringe of hair; they were like lizard’s eyes.
“Why do you have no eyelashes?” the middle sister asked, and their mother looked over and burst into tears.
The older sister shrugged. “Plucked them all out.”
Their dad took out his phone to google the biological function of eyelashes.
“You were born with eyelashes, you know,” their mother said, “all three of you were.” Then she told the little sister, “Yours were see-through, though.”
“Eyelashes are supposed to fall out and regrow,” their dad read from his screen, “but plucking disrupts the cycle and they come back slower.”
“Like shark’s teeth,” the little sister said.
“No, not at all,” their dad said.
They took months to come back completely. Their mother really wanted to touch the stubby regrowth, but the older sister wouldn’t let her. “You didn’t stroke the stubble when I used to shave my legs,” she said.
“Don’t do that again,” their dad said. “You need them, to keep sandflies and dust out of your eyes.”
“You were born with eyelashes,” their mother whispered.
Liana Ashenden, Huhu Beetle
Moby Dick: The Flash Fiction Version
Go to the ant, O sluggard,
Observe her ways and be wise
The small typeset on the crisp yellowing paper are a thousand ants hard at work. I’m up to page 83, barely one-tenth through, I don’t know how, even if, I will finish.
One word after the other, ant by ant. I reassure myself.
I don’t have it in me. I lack the energy and commitment and resilience. But when I do gather the strength and willpower to read a passage, these words, no matter how trivial and quotidian, when strung together, and combined in the right manner, reach a level of sublimity that is close to incomprehensible. It astounds me what the human animal can create just by placing these little ants in sequence. It’s some mystical form of mathematics. Give a monkey a typewriter and enough time, it’ll reproduce King Lear. Ant by ant.
I place the burdensome paperback on the empty space on the couch and notice an ant crawling on my hairy arm. A word walked off the page and into the wilderness. I inspect the critter. It doesn’t know where to go. Alone it is lost, somewhat redundant.
I decided to name this ant Moby Dick. I let the ant onto the ground and wish it luck, hoping that it can find the perfect place to slot in. The polished macrocarpa floorboards are as vast and shoreless as an open ocean.
They appear after the floods that follow in the wake of the cyclone. Slip out like unbidden thoughts with the pong from burst sewage pipes, rotting fruit, cabbage and crabs.
“Chop them!” Mum hands you the cleaver. Your sister’s eyes grow wide and black like the nights after a cyclone when streetlights and home comforts have ceased to exist.
It’s impossible to sleep with a cleaver under the damp pillow. Just think if you accidentally sliced off your ear or woke up with half a lip. But leaving it on the floor is unthinkable. What if your hand reaches for the blade the moment the predator rattles past, fangs bared? And your little sister is a notorious sleepwalker.
There’s a scream from the bedroom. “It’s coming in!”
Mum flies past with a steak knife in her hand.
“Holy moly!” Steel clatters against wet tiles. Mum comes running back. Returns with a machete.
Now you’re both running towards the bedroom.
The myriapod has managed to squeeze itself under the locked sliding door. Mum lashes out. It bends up and squeals, or is it merely in your imagination? Mum hacks and hacks until the tiles crack and the elongated body is chopped in two. Longer than your sister’s shinbone.
Later, when you’re in the shower, there’s a rattle in the drain. Glossy orange-brown it squeezes out, wide-legged, segment by segment.
You turn the showerhead towards it, back away. It rears up. Uncountable legs propel it towards you, poison fangs waving.
Summer. The local swimming pool. You are there with your best friend every day, stretched out on towels on the grassy embankment smoking Alpine cigarettes, skin slathered in a greasy layer of coconut oil. The sweet, exotic scent of it surrounds you like an aura. Your friend’s long, slender legs and arms are a deep, rich honey colour. Your shorter, rounder ones are a delicate shade of lobster pink.
Blue water glitters in the sunlight. It looks inviting. You imagine plunging in, revelling in the shock of cold water on hot skin. But you don’t swim. Not anymore. At fourteen, you are far too sophisticated for that. Instead, you close your eyes and surrender to the sun. Lulled by the relentless chorus of the cicadas, you drift to the dizzy brink of sleep.
You think of that summer now, as you lie in this cold, bright room, the surgeon slicing into your face. An ‘L’ shaped incision, above your left eyebrow. He removes the basal cell carcinoma. It’s a big one, he tells you. The size of a twenty-cent piece. He almost sounds impressed. You can’t feel anything except a strange pulling sensation as he patches you up.
When you ask how many stitches there are, the surgeon hesitates. You open your eyes and catch the glance he exchanges with the nurse.
“A lot,” he says.
I’d been in town drinking at a bar all evening and I’d caught the last bus home. I lit a cigarette under the streetlights as a light rain began to fall, the bubbles of water floating along my hairlines. I noticed the security light was on at my front door.
I took a final drag of my smoke before crushing the butt under my ankle.
I walked up the drive. The rain fell a little harder.
I noticed the wētā straight away, but I’m sure it spotted me first, or sensed me. Its feelers reached out menacingly, scratching at the concrete porch. It sat in the middle as if it had measured the exact spot to sit and wait. Its hind legs arched up like a postmodern bridge over a grey ocean. From the little I knew about wētā, it seemed an ordinary tree variety. But it was slightly bigger, but not as big as a giant wētā (those were really big!).
I thought about Gregor Samsa. How he awoke transformed into a giant insect. This wētā seemed to recognise me, to know me. I swayed a little. It didn’t move. It eyed me, I swear. One of its feelers swung around and pointed at me. Its elegantly hideous legs twitched; its exoskeleton quivered. It challenged me. It was like a Spaghetti Western stand-off, a kung-fu pose.
It’s just you and me now, wētā. Just us.
The rain continued to fall.
The security light shut off.
J Iner Souster, The Vanity of Parasites
I squashed an ant today. I crushed the little critter as it crawled down my arm. Swiping away the micro black limbs, all that remained was the peculiar smell. The panicked pheromones that the poor thing was in danger. My nose crinkled, trying to determine the scent that lingered up my nostrils. It’s like anise. An unsweetened piece of licorice. Not as earthy as fennel. There’s a soapiness, almost manufactured. Chemically altered as if it was straight out of a classic sixties film. Almost appetising, but ultimately repulsing.
My mother can’t stand the smell of ants. She hates bugs entirely, aroma and all. She describes them as ‘rotten, little bastards’. Every trip to the sun-kissed shores of the Marlborough Sounds includes a bag dedicated to bottles of insect repellent. She thinks of mouldy lemons when confronted by a dead ant. A whiff of citronella gone bad. Their own resistance towards her, warning off danger and calling for help. Unfortunately for the paramedical backup, my mother does not relent with the bug spray.
My sister doesn’t know how to describe the smell of ants. It’s a question that has never been posed to her. She quietly assumed everyone could smell the remains of the colonial insect. To define the scent of it is akin to defining the scent of rain. It’s something people just know. There’s no right answer. There’s no comparison accurate enough. Words fall short of giving conclusivity.
My father? Well, he can’t smell a thing.
Archy was my great-grandfather. He left me a box of printed papers in which I found a tattered thesaurus and a fragile spool of something that might once have been a black ribbon. I made some enquiries downtown and the German from the bookshop beside the bus depot told me it was for a typewriter. None the wiser, I shuffled through the sheets nibbling on the occasional corner and discovered a manuscript of sorts. Possibly prose poetry. Or free verse. Sometimes it rhymes. What is this transmigration and why are there no capital letters?
Yesterday, I made a decent leap onto a desk where a laptop had been left open and discovered that I could get it going by jumping from the desk lamp onto the space bar. As I cleaned up biscuit crumbs lodged between the keys, it occurred to me that Archy might have been the poet. The story was that he had once been a vers libre bard. Inspired, I climbed back up the desk lamp and launched myself again onto the keyboard to open a new window. I found that if I pressed two keys with my middle legs and two more with the hind, reserving my forelegs for punctuation, I could make good progress on a work of my own. A sequel of sorts, but more grammatical and with less mobster patois. Any keyboard will do as I have saved it into the Cloud for ease of access.