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At the worn-in Vancouver apartment building I call home, humans and insects co-exist in an awkward dance whose rhythm changes with the seasons.
Silverfish are year-round residents, but they are most visible in winter, seeking warmth under bathmats and dirty laundry. They are quiet, unassuming beings who disappear in a flash of silvery antennae whenever they are exposed.
Early spring brings the fruit flies home, buzzing in joyful swarms around food, drains and dirty dishes. They hang around until I go on my annual murderous rampage, armed with fruit juice and cellophane.
Summer is when the ants begin marching in an endless filing line from a crack in the living-room baseboard to wherever the mood takes them. This year, five ant traps huddled like an Antarctic research base around the problem area did little to curb the insects’ enthusiasm or numbers, and every attempt at building a barrier – with Raid or dish soap or garlic and mirrors – has been quickly thwarted.
Recently, my mother discovered a miracle cure involving a mixture of Borax and sugar that she says eradicated her ant population within the day. Her e-mailed account of the event was lengthy and peppered with exclamation marks, so it must have been truly remarkable.
I have never been comfortable cohabiting with insects. In middle school, our English teacher thrilled us with stories of insect invasions in Shakespeare’s day. “They would put a sheet up over the bed,” she said with a glint in her eye, “to catch all the bugs that crawled in through the roof.” I knew then how lucky I was to live in modern times with conveniences such as drywall. But drywall isn’t always enough to keep the bugs at bay.
During a brief but educational stint in a basement apartment, I developed both a deeper awareness of my own limitations and a method of dealing with the horrifyingly girth-y spiders that I sometimes encountered. It involved placing a cup over the spider and a book over the cup until a roommate was available to perform the body removal.
Years later, I was teaching a small class of sixth graders when a spider made its appearance. In an epic failure of feminism, I and the other females in the class huddled together while the lone male – a minuscule 10-year-old boy – cupped the spider between his hands and calmly (and a little smugly, if you ask me) carried it outside.
It wasn’t until I spent five months in Melbourne, though, that I was really forced to confront my fear of living with insects.
I was sharing an apartment with three Australian students. I inhabited the dining room; it was supposed to be a temporary solution until I found my own place. But when I cleaned the bathroom as a thank you for their hospitality, they invited me to stay. It was about one month into this arrangement that the Dead Thing made its appearance.
Nobody actually saw the Dead Thing, but the consensus was that it was a possum that had made its way into the chimney, got stuck and died a horrible death of starvation and dehydration. Unfortunately, the possum had done a very good job of getting stuck, and when Pest Control came by, they couldn’t get it out. Thus began the epic, weeks-long saga of our coming to terms with Death and all his friends.
At first, we thought the smell, which claimed our kitchen, was the worst of it. Then the flies came. It started with a few houseflies, but soon most of the breathable air in the apartment was occupied by heavy-laden black blobs. As they buzzed in ever-thicker swarms, we made a game of seeing how many we could drop with a single spray from the Raid can. The record was about 20. We meticulously disposed of every fly we killed, and thought we’d weathered the storm.
Then, one day I picked some clothing off the floor and the ground underneath was shimmering. On closer inspection, I discovered it wasn’t a mirage but a host of small maggots squirming about busily. I shuddered, scrawled a hasty note to my housemates and, in the spirit of the spider under the cup and book, ran.
By the time I came home, someone else had vacuumed every inch of the apartment, and we once again felt we had the place to ourselves. Then, one day the quality of the walls began to change. Some maggots had miraculously escaped the terror of the vacuum and evolved into tiny, hairy brown caterpillars that were crawling up the walls and across the ceiling with no perceivable agenda.
As we battled the spawn of the Dead Thing, I noticed, while lying in bed one morning, a small but steady line of ants marching across my wall.
The orderly little procession offered a surprising reprieve from the chaos going on all around me. I would lie awake watching them move, in single file and with purpose, and allow their calm assurance to quiet my mind. Maybe everything would be okay.
Yes, when all else was failing, and Death was making a stink in the kitchen, I meditated on ants.
That’s how it goes sometimes – we make it work with what we’ve been given, and salvation shows up, uncomfortably, in the guise of the least of the pests.
If I squint now, it almost looks like my ants are wearing halos. Nevertheless, I might give that Borax and sugar a try.
Kristin Warkentin lives in Vancouver.