Alex raises insects. Well, not raises so much as breeds. Enables to live, feeds, encourages. Harvests.
It was not his habit, not to begin with. Not originally. His father raised insects. Alex just kind of fell into it. Whether it was Alex’s father (John) who started the family business, Alex isn’t sure. People are not too forthcoming, where his father is concerned. Not that there’s anyone, really, who he could ask, that he trusts well enough to answer those questions – there’s not really anyone who can answer any of his questions.
He has tried to ask his computer, laboriously punching down on each key – it lets him really think about each question as he asks it. But the answers it gives him are usually confusing, or contradictory, or both.
Alex doesn’t much like the computer.
He uses it, when he has to. To order food, both for his insects and for himself. He doesn’t like to leave the house. When the credit card declines, he can sell some of his beloved insects, and start again. He uses the computer to ask those questions that no-one seems to be able to answer, and to answer those questions that people ask him. He is never confusing or contradictory.
He is proud of that.
A susurration, an eternal droning. He puts it out of his mind, and goes back to the task at hand. It was the fluorescent lights. It was his charges. He knows it is neither of those things. He knows it is his nightmare, back to haunt him again, a recurring dream that now stalks the daylight. He ignores it, he ignores it, he ignores it (he cannot.) He sees it rise, in the corner of his eye. He looks away. Do not let it know you have seen it. Do not let it know. Do not let it know. It knows.
Alex raises (breeds, harvests) many different types of insect. They each present their own challenges, their own opportunities. His father taught him to look at challenges as opportunities. So he does. All of his insects are interesting, but some are more interesting than others. This is normal, he believes. Some things are naturally more interesting than others. He mostly sells them as pets (Macropanesthia rhinoceros, Podacanthus typhon, Eurychema goliath) for bored kids and interesting adults. Well, Alex thinks they would be interesting, with their tanks of bush cockroaches, pink-winged mantids and giant stick insects. Insects are interesting. Some of them knew John (Alex’s father). But they never say much about him. Alex didn’t know as much about John as he thought he did. But he knows enough to keep quiet, and to not ask too many questions.
Questions lead to more questions, usually.
Alex doesn’t like confrontation. He doesn’t really understand it.
The voice in his head whispers ancient truths alongside ancient lies. Words tumble and spill from the thing’s mouth (he does not know who it is, what it is, what it was, or if it were ever meant to be), hidden in its voice, the rustling of gossamer wings, the click of thorax and the crunch of chitin. When Alex wants to understand, he begs it to repeat itself (slowly, more slowly, ever-more slowly.) He does not want to understand, not very often. The nightmare phrases follow the emergence of legs (uncountable – he cannot tell what species these searching legs belong to, cannot tell what it wants to tell him) from the maw of the thing in his dreams, the voiceless whisper, the empty-bodied, empty-souled thing that waits when he sleeps. What are you? he wants to scream into its face, but his voice is hoarse and croaking, unlike the beautiful, peaceful sounds that emerge from it. What are you?
He raises other sorts of insects, too. Dryococelus australis, the Tree Lobster, which everyone thought was extinct until 2001. Until they discovered it on Ball’s Pyramid, too far from Lord Howe Island for the rats to get to them. He has a terrarium of Lissotes latidens, Weilangta Stag Beetle, which is one of the rarest animals in the world. There are more of them in Alex’s house than exist in the wild. He is proud of that, too. He isn’t proud of his Latrodectus hasseltii – well, he is, but he knows his father would have been disappointed. His Latrodectus hasseltii are not insects. They are arachnids, of the Redback Spider variety. Spiders are not insects. He thinks they are beautiful, with slender, jagged legs, with their stilted walk and the red slash that marks the females’ abdomens.
The sun sets outside, but the room stays warm – the humming of a hundred neon lights, the rustle of leaf-litter and the whirring computer. Alex huddles amidst his blankets, to let the peaceful fits and starts of his insects send him to sleep. He waits for morning. He hears the nightmare click-click-clack-click of geckos prowling outside, fighting for the prime territories beside the sensor light.
The doorbell rings. It wakes Alex up, coughing and snorting his way out of from his dreams. He hears men outside, talking. He knows they heard him cough. He shuffles through the detritus of his own environment – half-crushed pizza boxes and the syrupy remains of soft drink bottles unleash squadrons of Periplaneta australasiae, the Australian Cockroach, golden-brown, scampering. Gingerly he steps over the swarms; they’re not worth anything (who would pay for pests?) except as food for the mantises, but he hates the noise, the smell, the squashed yellow pus on the floors, so he avoids them wherever possible. He’s very careful with his feet. That’s something you learn quickly, when you’re breeding (raising, harvesting) insects. No matter how tight the seal on their leafy habitats he always seems to find that there’s been an escape, usually only after he hears that delicate crunch.
The voice in his dreams is no longer in his dreams. The nightmare-thing stretches out its arms, strokes his cheek, unresisting. Eyelids flutter, like black-blue-red butterfly’s wings, concealing, revealing; empty sockets stare out, inhabited by a cascade of iridescent, rustling foundlings, his heart beats out a staccato in his chest (I know I am dreaming, I know I am dreaming, I know I am dreaming.) He begins to name those fragments of anatomy that become visible, that become identifiable (thorax, ovipositor, pronotal comb, probiscus) in an attempt to make sense of what dwells within, in the hope of gaining peace, of understanding the creatures before him. This fails.
They’ve started banging on the door.
It takes Alex a moment to remember how to speak, it’s been that long. The kid who delivers the pizza doesn’t say much, and doesn’t expect anything in return, other than a signature on a scrap of paper. Alex has mastered answering to his father’s name, can scribble a reasonable imitation of his father’s signature. He wonders who is waiting at the door; he can’t remember what deliveries he’s waiting for, if any. He doesn’t think there’s anything.
“I’m coming…” he manages to speak, slowly wrapping his tongue around the words. He says it again, in case they couldn’t hear his reedy voice, in case he forgets how to talk again in the next thirty seconds. A Huntsman spider (Sparassidae) sits in the collapsing couch, guarding her egg sac. Another predator in his house – he doesn’t like huntsmen. He doesn’t like most spiders, the way the move, the way they seem to burst from nowhere, terrifyingly huge.
The door shakes rust-flakes onto the floor as he swings it open. Two men stand there, unimpressed by his dishevelled appearance and the rank smell wafting from inside.
They don’t look like delivery drivers.
“Hello there, son, you must be Alex. We’re looking for your father, John.”
Alex’s eyes flicker from one face to the other, darting like house flies (Musca domestica) disturbed from their perches. He shifts his body to block the doorway, but one of the men has his hand on Alex’s shoulder, pulling him aside. Alex’s eyes shift again, as he stares into the twilight inside the house.
“Is your father home, son?”
Alex cannot answer. Language has left him again.
They found Alex’s father in his favourite chair, his unseeing eye sockets once trained on the television, now staring emptily. Colonies of Silphidae (carrion beetles) spill from his mouth, silent pleas or black curses, his language indecipherable, the swarming of beetles, the Lord of the Flies.
They took his father away, in a silver chrysalis, no longer John, in a terrarium of his own, with an attendant plague of the things he had loved. They gassed the house.
Alex wept, for the ones he had loved, and for the father they had carried away.