For a time I was lucky enough to live in a house alive with animals. It was very small, and the front half of it was screened. I thought of it as a porch, and felt it as a porch. Doesn’t a body always relax on a porch? Or maybe that is just mine, which is nervous about being sealed in. In any case, this porch had perfect light and every spot my eye fell on was friendly, worn smooth with time and light. Think of the way a piece of beach glass feels in the hand—so comfortable it might be part of the hand. This is what being in that porch felt like to me. I couldn’t always tell where I stopped and it started.
At first light a donkey from down the hill brayed in fits of honks, more like choking than talking. Then the birds: the shrill notes of their songs like pelted BBs. The whizzing of their wings past the screen, their small feet scratching on the tin roof. In the grey dawn the deer crept by like stalkers—but bad stalkers, in that their footsteps broke branches. When the heat of the day settled the bugs stilled and mostly disappeared from the porch—they had all-day whizzing parties down at the river, it seemed. Except some spiders who worked diligently all day on webs near my writing desk, setting the example. They kept a steady pace, spinning out and sliding down the silk like they could see clearly what it would become. I wanted my hands to dance across the keyboard like that, with an inner knowledge that left thought or doubt out of it. A lone praying mantis used to also visit the ledge beside my desk, waving and crossing its spindly arms in cryptic signals. I imagined if I could decode these signals I would know exactly what to write next, and what to cut out entirely.
At night an armadillo would sometimes go scuffling through the brush towards the porch, and I would follow at a distance with my flashlight. What weird blind, albino animals they were. As though they came from outer space, and I was stepping gingerly after them on the pitted ground of some dark planet. One middle-of-the-night I heard what was the soundtrack to a horror movie: a deep grunting roar, followed by blood-curdling squeals. The ground shook. I didn’t dare sit up in bed but I did open my eyes, as a horror movie with no picture seemed more frightening. A giant wild boar, heavier than me, was barrelling for the porch, her babies in tow. She would crash right through the screen, trampling me as her lowered tusks simultaneously sliced me to strips. Have I ever laid so still? She ran by. I was so relieved that their horrific sounds, as they faded off into the brush, seemed almost musical to me: the low bass bellows of the leader, the choir-boy sopranos, squealing their replies.
But the nights belonged, mostly, to the bugs. Even before the sky crept from pink to navy blue the crickets started up, like little jingle bells shaken in a closed fist. The cicadas would join in long raspy trills and I would have to wonder, as the crickets and cicadas ramped up in unison, whether they were competing for volume. I would wonder if they understood each other. If they were speaking different accents of the same language, or if they were speaking two entirely different languages. I got so used to their overlapping cries that even now, on cicada-less summer nights, the loudest of cricket chirps seem diminished to me, only half-there.
I would read to sleep by the light of a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. The moths and flies and beetles who found their way in would beat around it in droves. And many outside would perch on the screens, displaying the intricate undersides of their wings and thoraxes and abdomens. Sometimes a large luna moth—greenish-white like it should glow in the dark, its tail narrowing to a lacy taper—would grace the screen and take my breath away. My eyes felt a constant battle was being waged for them, between the words on the page and the bugs. It didn’t seem to matter how good the book was, which made me doubt my devotion to literature. At that time I wrote half the day, and would often read the other half–preferably in an inner tube down at the river, where dragonflies used me as a landing pad. But my focus at night so often shifted to the screens, and circled back to the light bulb. Maybe I was more interested in bugs than words.
One night I was lying in bed pretending to read when a click beetle landed on my cheek. It crawled quickly, seemingly with purpose, towards my ear. It didn’t even hesitate at the hole but crawled right in, and kept crawling. I stood up. the beetle’s clicks came at the volume of gunshots. And the sensation of it, crawling down my eardrum—I can only describe it as falling. If you didn’t know how far you would fall, or what was under you. If you were falling in the pitch dark, off a cliff you hadn’t known was there. That is close to what it felt like. The click beetle, as I found out afterwards, has a very flexible connection between the sections of its thorax, so it can move its top legs and head separately from the rest. This makes the clicking sound, and also allows it to flip as it likes, even to upright from its back if necessary. And so the beetle traveled down my ear drum, clicking as it flipped around.
I began bouncing on one foot with my head tilted sideways, hitting above the ear with my hand. This was what I did to get the river water out of my ear. I grabbed the flashlight too, and pointed its beam into my ear, thinking the beetle might crawl towards the light. But it kept on going the way it was. I heard myself making a sound that was between a scream and a whimper. Perhaps I also called for help using that very word, Help!—but my cries died immediately in the howling cricket-cicada chorus. My eardrum was longer than I thought possible. When the click beetle reached the end of it, it began to dig. I could feel all of its legs scraping frantically at once to get in, to get out. And I thought, This is my punishment for being so alone. A bug is going to scrape all the way into my brain, and kill me. Or at least make me brain-dead. I must have cried then, because I really did love my brain. The beetle kept digging at my ear. Maybe it was crying too. At last it did a full turn—and I felt this as the worst pain, since the beetle’s body was too long for my narrow eardrum. It must have been a feat for it to get around, and I felt each tug of its difficult pivot as a sharp agony. Then the falling sensation again, but this time less scary, like I could see the ground beneath–it was crawling up the way it had come.
When the beetle emerged from my ear I grabbed it, and hurled it to the ground. It didn’t crawl right away. I imagined I could see it panting. After a few seconds it started waddling, and I picked it up again, and cupped it in my hands. I stepped along the trail to the outhouse, where I knew there was a little jar on the shelf. My ear was both pounding and stinging, and I was still whimpering. But after I put the beetle in the jar I crawled into bed and turned off the light–that bug magnet–quickly, covering the other half of my head with a second pillow. I thought about whether I would read more if it turned out I was half deaf. I thought about if it was healthy to live all alone, at a young age like mine, or at any age. What if you choked or had a stroke? What if an animal accidentally or on purpose tried to kill you? But even with the pain and fear fresh I wondered: how could I be so quietly and attentively with the bugs and the nature and the words and the things and myself, if I had to be with people?
The clicks in the jar reached me faintly, what with the glass around the beetle and the pillow over my exposed ear. After awhile I heard them, soft as fingernail clicks, and turned on the light again and got out of bed. I carried the little jar along the rocky trail, past the outhouse, to the little yellow stand-alone kitchen. I found an ice pick there, and covered the jar with a cloth while I poked some air holes into the lid. In the morning I went to see a doctor, and as I sat in the waiting room I noticed how the people around me were careful not to stare at the little jar I held in my lap. This bug, I said, when it was my turn. It crawled into my ear last night, and started digging. I watched as the doctor lifted the jar and tilted it, making the beetle slide and collide into the glass. It scrabbled its legs and issued a protesting click. Then the doctor shined his light into my ear and pulled back, wincing. He did a little test and determined I could hear fine. I just couldn’t swim in the river for a week or so, while the scrapes healed. I didn’t ask him how far the end of my ear canal was from my brain. But the doctor did ask me, as I got up to leave, why I had made air holes in the lid of the jar. I sighed and thought how to say it, then whether to say it, before finally answering, Because I don’t believe in the death penalty.
But it wasn’t just that, of course. I made air holes in the lid because the sounds the animals made felt more soothing than conversation, or sealed-house silence. I made air holes in the lid because I wanted to live alone. I made air holes because the words air hole and ear hole were nearly the same. I made air holes because when I stepped out of the porch at night to pee the stars were so bright and sharp, and they seemed to be guarding over me. I could swear each one winked and glimmered like it was moving. And on the ground too, if I shined my flashlight there, the bugs were moving and glimmering and winking. Sometimes towards me, sometimes farther away. And really, that was all there was to it. I made air holes because bugs were the stars of the ground.