I am standing at the large kitchen window overlooking our yard. It is almost 10 at night. While we look forward to The Daily Show and some evening rest, a substantial Alabama thunderstorm brews. The light from the repurposed gaslamp hanging from the ceiling gradually mutes until it reaches the wide outside sill where three junebugs struggle on their backs.
Junebugs are not the smartest insects. They fire their pale brown bodies like buckshot into evening wear from here to the nation’s capitol, careening off with a feint to race back into the night. If you’re out in a nice dress with a cool cocktail in hand, a junebug is a horror to be squeaked at. Here in the safety of my kitchen, outside of buzzing range, they are irreducibly sad. Their legs wave from pale undersides with feeble purpose. Is it a signal or the mute instinct of immanence?
I drink the remains of a cocktail. Thunder threatens, but nobody takes June seriously around here. The three junebugs fluster. I don’t claim to be a Buddhist, but at this moment, I think that I am just terrible. Why do I let these creatures suffer? Why do I pay someone to spray this window sill, and others like it, so that these tiny and miraculous bugs will shiver slowly into their deaths?
Maybe you are not someone who thinks on these matters too much. Perhaps you exterminate ants or spiders with abandon. As someone who bears an irrational fear of cockroaches, I can relate.
But they mean no harm. They strive only to feed, mate, and fly blindly about. Who of us doesn’t know a more evolved person who fits that description? An hour later, I return to the kitchen to refill my water before bed. A lone survivor twitches once, twice. It is trying to generate momentum for a reversal before the poison kicks in. I know this creature will be dead before I see it again. If it were in the house, I’d freak out for someone to evacuate it. Here on the sill, outside my reach, I find myself wishing someone would save it. Its robust junebug body has much to offer. Surely it could find a mate to carry on its genes.
On the second day I wake up remembering that bugs brought me to Alabama the first time. My New Mexico high school had qualified for the National Science Olympiad at Auburn. I was, improbably, the entomology specialist. Someone who is content to leave dead cockroaches under glass jars for days rather than pick them up herself (and this before reading Infinite Jest) seems like an unlikely fit. Two factors worked in my favor.
First: the insects were dead. There was no wiggling or flapping, which was important not just because I am skittish, but because insects are really incredible to look at when there is no risk that they will blindly land in your hair or crawl on your arm. You notice their colors, their interlocking parts, their alien eyes. Second: the task was merely organizational. You couldn’t bring a guidebook, but you could make one. I did not plan to memorize elaborate taxonomies, but I was happy to design an illustrated decision tree for bug identification in a spiral-bound notebook. I picked up and examined a lot of bugs. The last time I was this interested in insects, I’d run a short-lived childhood “roly poly” farm after discovering the armadillo-style creatures were attracted to geranium leaves. This turned out to be toxic, perhaps poisoning me forever for a love of insects. In any case, we didn’t win the Science Olympiad.
Through the next day the last junebug (Phyllophaga) lies there. It bakes in the sun. I think about how slight it seems. How should I read its final pose? Is it supplication or resistance? Where are its colleagues? Why hasn’t an enterprising bird – maybe one of our yard’s flock of cardinals – picked it up by now? Dusk arrives. Dinner is cooked and eaten. I do the dishes in the quiet of the laundry’s hum. And then it moves. The segmented legs pedaling up and down in the front, side to side weakly in the back. How can it be alive after all this time? What ancient instinct woke it at dusk to struggle once again?
I decide that I want it to live. More precisely, I decide that I can’t watch it die. I walk outside into the sweltering heat. I convey it to a shady part under our climbing roses. I watch, hoping it will right itself. I nudge a bit with the corner of the folder that once contained “AT&T BILL.” I notice that its head is actually a splendid, rich red sienna, a contrast to its duller body. I notice the delicacy of its legs, the way each surprisingly hairy part precisely moves in time with its partners. Its eyes are shielded, while its antennae slowly feel out the new landscape.
By the time we return from a baking hot dog walk, it’s gone. Did it walk off? Did one of the cardinals snap it up? Do I care because I am secretly obsessed with my own mortality?
Three days later there are three more junebugs on the sill, struggling against the coming storm.