Short story: Spineless, by Charlotte Simmonds

“He always took care not to suck up the spiders”: living with invertebrates 

He had curious ways of dealing with the invertebrates in his life. He did not like to touch them.

When faced with a sheetweb, vagrant or tunnelweb spider, he would turn the dehumidifier on, allowing it to desiccate somewhere on its way from the living room to the bathroom in search of water. Sometimes, not faced with a tunnelweb spider, he would turn on the dehumidifier anyway, and they would emerge, distraught. Once he found one expired next to the shower drain. He had not showered for two days and the shower floor was dry. The spider had been so close to salvation.

When a wasp found its way inside, he was always unsure of what to do. Trap them between the window and a jar or glass, yes, certainly, slide a sheet of paper between the glass and the glass, of course. But then what? The wasp had no natural predators in New Zealand. One could hardly release a pest to the nation back into the environment. New Zealand had the highest concentration of wasps in the world.

He was fearful of being stung. He was fearful of being stung and the wasp then making a quick getaway, him being unable to exact revenge. And he was fearful of successfully killing the wasp and then still being stung by the dead wasp later, the wasp exacting revenge far better than himself. Each time he ignored a wasp, he felt tremendously guilty about his failure to assist in the great New Zealand War on Wasps. He felt like a poor citizen, like he was harming society.

On only one occasion had he found the courage to do his duty and act against a wasp that had found its way inside. First he turned on the electric jug. Then he set a small saucepan on the stove and turned on the element. Then he upended the jar inside the saucepan and removed the paper. Then he poured the heated water into the saucepan, flooding the jar. The wasp was stunned. With an unusual show of deftness requiring great concentration, he removed the jar and replaced it with the saucepan lid. He left the wasp to boil for 15 minutes on the stove. Then he removed the saucepan from the stove and left it next to the sink for three days, unsure of what to do. Eventually he grew brave enough to check that the wasp was dead. It was.

“Now you could just tip it down the sink,” he told himself. “Or you could take the pan outside and throw the water and the wasp into the bushes.”

A dilemma. He did not want the wasp coming back up through the pipes one day in a fit of flooding and plumbing failure.

Only the week before he had washed his coffee grinds down the sink only to have them gurgle back up again along with a parsley leaf from two weeks ago.

Washing anything down the sink had since taken on an element of impermanence. Going down the gurgler was merely a temporary, transient state. No one ever really died, they all just moved overseas for a while. You could never be quite certain that you would never see something again. You could never be absolutely sure that you had ever fully thrown anything away, seen anyone for the last time. Surprise!

He opted for the bushes. If the wasp in this case was not truly dead, would rise again in three days, at least it would do so outside his house.

Vacuuming live invertebrates was crazy. Who knew what they were all doing down there at the bottom of the bag? Having a family reunion, feasting on each other, breeding, living it up large, no doubt. Presumably, the vacuum cleaner bag was invertebrate heaven. He used the vacuum cleaner only to dispose of the invertebrate waste created by the daddy-long-legs spiders in the corners of his rooms, the empty, collapsed exoskeletons of other invertebrates. He always took care not to suck up the spiders themselves, but every time, without fail, he imagined sucking them up by accident.

“Hi Aunt Patty,” he imagined them saying after imagining sucking them up. “How’s it going?”

The spiders from corners near and far assembling.

“Haven’t seen you since I left home. Oh, look, there’s Pete! How are things over in your corner of the world? Tracey! What’s been happening?”

They were putting on party hats, the spiders he hadn’t sucked up but could imagine having sucked up. They were getting out the party hooters, they were hanging up streamers in the vacuum cleaner bag. They were setting up a trestle table. What the hell. They were laying out a spread of cockroach purses and nymphs. What was going on in there? It freaked him out. He never sucked up live insects, spiders or eggs. Cockroaches, good God! They would live down there till the world ended. There was probably nothing in the vacuum cleaner bag they couldn’t eat.

Possibly the worst invertebrates to deal with were the flies. A quiet insect bothered him less, but the flies that buzzed and hummed and whirred more terribly than refrigerators, more frightfully than faulty fluorescent lights, these were the worst. And they just seemed to be dying off so much less these days, lingering long through winter. Was it global warming? Would there be flies in his life all year round in five years’ time? What a thought. If the flies would not die, it would be far better to be dead himself. Either him or the flies. We can’t both survive the winter, he thought. One of us has got to go.

He had once trapped a large fly in a container and left it on the bench until it perished. It had seemed contented enough, sat quietly on the floor of the transparent plastic container with no frantic buzzing, but perhaps it had been depressed. Perhaps buzzing was actually a noise of joy and exuberance rather than confusion at being stuck inside a house. Or perhaps the fly had gone into a coma from oxygen deprivation. On the other hand, how much oxygen does a fly really use in a container that large? And the container was not truly airtight. Perhaps the fly had died when it reached the end of its life. Perhaps it died of senescence.

Catching flies and leaving them on the bench always seemed so complicated, as did ushering them out the window.

He could remember being asked to evict a fly from the room in Intermediate and having had honestly no idea how to do it. At last, the teacher had relieved him of his task.

“You have to shepherd it,” he said. “Shepherd the fly, shepherd it out the window.”

This made very little sense to him then, and he still could not follow the teacher’s instructions now as an adult or mimic the teacher’s actions. Conceptually, he could appreciate the idea of a miniature shepherd with a staff and a sheepdog, maybe even a farm bike, herding flies, but practically, it was so inapplicable to the actual action of encouraging a fly to leave a room. He preferred to think of it as ushering, because ushers have torches to show you to your seats and flies also follow the light.

Ushering was exactly what he would do when feeling both energetic and irritated. He would turn various lights around the house on and off, leading the fly from one room to another, until at last it would be trapped in the hall by the front door. In that last stage, the flies became truly stubborn, preferring the warmth of his house. If he trapped and left a fly in the last room, as soon as the light was on in his bedroom again, it sneak back in under the door. They were so determined, those flies, so persistent. Ushering was difficult and seldom worked.

With all the lights off, the flies would just go to sleep, and so this was his most frequent solution for a fly in the room, turning off all the lights and huddling under his blankets with his computer or phone, heating up, sweltering, or just lying there in the dark with nothing to do, thinking until ‘bedtime’.

He could see there was something ridiculous about it, being in bed in the dark for fear of the buzzing of a fly, too scared to turn on a light in case flies woke up, but shepherding a fly was beyond him. Turning off the lights was the easiest solution, and it gave him plenty of time to meditate on more effective solutions. Sadly, none had yet come to mind.

He found a new method on Boxing Day at his sister’s barbecue.

His sisters had been talking about children’s diseases, rising interest rates and other things that middle-class people, which he was not, were passionate about. He wished he could be concerned about rising interest rates, but property ownership was always as close, as visible, as near and yet out of reach as the water the tunnelweb had been looking for.

Helena was saying, “But I thought we weren’t supposed to trap rats because I thought trapping rats actually causes a rat plague,” and Laura was saying, “Yes, you would think so, wouldn’t you, but it’s actually the opposite. What we’ve been discovering, which we weren’t expecting at all, is hedgehogs. Once you’ve gotten rid of the ship rats, the Norways come back, but then after you’ve cleared out the Norways, you get a few more of the ship rats and then the hedgehogs turn up. They’re just throwing themselves in the traps at the moment, it’s really astonishing. We never thought it was would cause a hedgehog plague.”

 “And how’s your freezer handling that?” asked Helena.

“We’ve had to get another one,” said Laura. “It was too much, especially now that Kererū’s started on solids. With all his allergies, we’ve had to start freezing all the meal ingredients for the au pair.”

I have a nephew called Kerurū? he thought in astonishment.

 “Yes,” Laura went on, “we got him his own freezer off TradeMe and it’s out in the garage now, a full-length standing one. He keeps all his rats and hedgehogs in there.”

He felt like he was missing something. He wasn’t sure, but that didn’t sound like the sort of thing babies were supposed to be doing.

“But what’s the end goal of this, really?” Helena was asking.

“Oh, hopefully it’ll make a good Master’s or PhD project for someone. With the cost of genome sequencing dropping all the time, I think he’s hoping someone will sequence all the rat genomes and then… well, I don’t know exactly. Tim? Honey, could you come over here for a sec? Can you just tell Helena about this rat genome thing?”

Tim! That man moving towards his sisters now, he must be Tim. He must be married to one of them, to Laura, he assumed. But he didn’t recognise this man at all. Felt like he was seeing him for the first time. Surely he must have met his sister’s husband. Surely. How curious. And so Tim has a freezer full of rat and hedgehog bodies, does he? How interesting. Is he perhaps worth knowing?

“It’s always good to have some taxidermied pests on hand when I go to give a school talk, but what I’ve really been getting into at the moment,” Tim was saying, “is stoat glands. I’ve been playing around a bit with those, seeing if I can come up with a better bait. There’s a few of us like this at work. We filled up the break room freezer there too, but they’ve given us our own one now. I’ve been soaking these terracotta pellets in stoat musk. The smell’s terrible, eh, hon?” Here Laura began doing something funny with her eyes and Tim patted her on the shoulder. “You’re so long-suffering,” he said.

Laura leaned in to Helena, “My friends are always asking me how I put up with this, but after living with Dad for 18 years, this is a breeze.”

Freezing, this was a great idea. He wished he had thought of this earlier. This could be applied to any insect, flies, wasps, cockroaches. It didn’t eliminate the need for trapping or containers but surely this was more humane? Fast, painless? The insect goes to sleep and never wakes up?

“You know, Tim,” Laura was saying, “What always worries me isn’t the rats in the freezer or the smell of stoat, it’s wondering whether we’re actually just breeding smarter and smarter rats here, ones who can outwit the traps and steal bait? Are we actually forcing a higher phase of evolution on them at a faster than natural rate?”

“Oh, you know it doesn’t work like that,” said Helena.

“Do I?” said Laura. “Is trapping rats really so different to using antibiotics and pesticides? We’re killing pests, a trap is really just another pesticide.”

“Well, literally, of course, but now you’re being a bit Dad.”

“We have a spare freezer full of rats!” said Laura. “What do you expect!”

A bit Dad? What did that even mean?

Laura was right. Many of these fears had been seen in studies to be well-founded. The cockroaches with an aversion to baits did proliferate. Their aversion did not damage their chances of survival.

He wondered if, in another timeline, his own defects might not have damaged his chance of survival in the sense of success, of being the fittest, of having the success his sisters experienced. If, in fact, his defects might have been assets, might have been anomalies that caused him, people like him, like Dad, to soar above all the others, to reproduce when the others were dying off, their fondness for sugar their downfall. If the idiosyncrasies and slowness people like him were known for would have led them to swarm the earth with their spawn.

Next week’s short story is by the one and only Chad Taylor.

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