We had a bug problem when we moved into our house that our landlord never told us about when we signed the lease.
First it was just the cockroaches. They scuttled around in our kitchen, our bathrooms, our hallways. And when we sprayed them with poison, they just scuttled around a little more slowly, waiting for the deathly intoxication to take effect, until they finally laid still on their backs. In our kitchen, in our bathrooms, in our hallways.
Then we noticed we had ants on our porch. As a sick experiment, we started leaving the dead cockroaches for them. A peace offering, or an infected blanket. Maybe the poison in the roaches would kill the ants? Maybe they’d just eat them and keep to the porch instead of invading the house. But after the first experiment proved the ants wouldn’t die from the infected offerings, we just kept doing it. It was fascinating. Watching their hordes slowly consume the fallen enemies of our domestic tranquility. They usually left pieces of the shell which they couldn’t bite through. Sometimes little pieces of the legs. But their efficiency was incredible.
Tired of killing the roaches with shoes and toilet paper, we coerced our landlord into sending an exterminator. He halfheartedly sprayed some areas, gave some advice about how to seal up the walls so they couldn’t get out, and generally did what exterminators do. We didn’t tell him about the ants on the porch, so he didn’t spray them. I didn’t want him to spray them. I felt protective; those ants were our own personal cockroach disposal service. Sure we could just throw them in the trash, but where’s the fun in that?
What we did tell him was that we’d seen mice, or at least one mouse.
He gave us some mouse traps. Jack said he’d seen one running around in his closet, so we set a trap down baited with peanut butter. And we waited. Within two hours, there was an exclamation from upstairs, Jack claiming victory over the rodent fiend. The mouse didn’t even get any of the peanut butter as a last supper. The trap crushed its snout in with such force that the exploding blood vessels forced its eyes out of its sockets to relieve the pressure. Jack wrapped his hand in a paper towel before holding the trap up gingerly, the proud apex predator flaunting his victory over the usurper who dared to question his dominion.
We fed the mouse to the ants as well.
We left it on the porch for two days. The ants, they couldn’t get through the fur. But they got the eyes. And the mouth. And as much of the insides as they could sequester away before Matthew, the voice of humane reason, said enough was enough and it needed to be thrown in the trash. But even after the mouse carcass was disposed of, I couldn’t help but imagining the ants forming a cult of worship to the mysterious beings who kept dropping them gifts from above. Yet we were doing the offering, not they. So were they worshiping us, or we them?
Of course, neither was worshiping the other. They were just the ants on our porch, and we were just the students with a pest problem. There was no worship, just symbiosis. Commensualism, technically, since the ants were providing us a service we could have easily done without. But if entertainment and the satiation of scientific curiosity count, it could be easily bumped up to mutualism.
I went to the beach for two and a half days to see my extended family. When I got back, there were flies in the kitchen. Everywhere, these huge flies. Jack and Matt didn’t know where they came from. I killed a few but they were like the fucking hydra: with every fly killed, two more came swarming out from behind the oven, their bloated corpses so laden with whatever the hell they were eating that they couldn’t dodge my newspaper bludgeon. They didn’t try to avoid my swatting, they just flew to the window and died in droves, one after the other. And they were all so monstrous, each one at least twice the size of the average housefly. Disgust and annoyance wrapped up in one buzzing package.
For two days this continued, my annoyance increasing with every fruitless extermination. I swept an entire batch of bodies into the dustpan and dumped them on the porch for the ants. But after so many killing sprees and so many tattered newspapers, the apathy was crippling. Why should I keep killing them? Every two hours their numbers were replenished, no end or solution in sight. The ants on the porch, of course, loved this new turn of events. There’s nothing like the sight of twenty crumpled fly bodies under a moving carpet of ants, being devoured even as the half-dead squirm helplessly against the circle of life. A little morbid, I concede. But hey, they were in our house uninvited and so we killed them. Justice served out at the most Hammurabian level.
I did some research. They weren’t regular house flies, they were flesh flies. That’s why they were so freakishly large. The website said they laid eggs and fed on dead animals, so if you had them in your house there was a good chance there was a dead rodent or bird somewhere in the walls. They’ll clear out when they run out of food, it said. They can’t breed without a new carcass. This made me happy. If I just waited it out and kept killing the fuckers for a week or so, they’d run out of food and habitat and leave us alone forever. A systemic genocide, depriving them of resources and a home until they went extinct. A perfect plan. Of course the ants on the porch would be in favor — a dustpan full of flies every day for a week. Heaven on earth.
After swatting a particularly brutish fly on the window sill, I moved in closer to examine its mangled body. You really have to clobber them to make sure they’re dead. If you just swat, they might be stunned but then crawl away later to live another day. This particular one was fucked. Its big red eyes, trademark of the species, had been shoved out of normal anatomical positioning. The abdomen was bruised and left a smear of red and yellow, the wings damaged beyond repair. The thorax unevenly crushed, with legs sticking out at crooked angles.
I thought about the ants and the flesh flies. I fed the ants, showering them with undeserved blessings. The manna from the heavens falling to earth for the chosen people. And the flies, I killed them without remorse. The Canaanites too dumb to understand their imminent extinction. Maybe the flies wondered what they did to deserve such malice at every turn. If they could think in cogent English sentences, it might be something like this.
“Maybe if we stop buzzing in the windows, this terrible newspaper god will show mercy.”
“Maybe if we move from the kitchen to the laundry room, he’ll spare us.”
“Maybe, just maybe, if we make ourselves as small and unobtrusive as possible, we can coexist.”
Wrong, you saracen flies. We can never coexist, never. The ants are our chosen people; they’ve been claimed as our protectorates and you, you are just another scourge to be cleansed from our home, like the roaches and the mice before you. Your blood will feed the ants, and there will be peace only when you and your kind have been wiped away from our window sills and laundry rooms. Nothing you can do, save all instantaneously dying, can make us happy. Your gods are angry ones, too pissed off at your presence and existence to accept worship or dole out mercy.
And thus, the most intelligent species on the planet deals with its issues in the most juvenile way.
We have a few days left of flesh flies, if the website was right. The ant colony must be flourishing. They don’t even have to forage for their food anymore; they have doorstep delivery, courtesy of their watchful gods. But despite this disparity of non-sentient justice, I’ll continue to kill the flies with as much vengeance and vigor, because at the end of the day, the flies aren’t thinking about this any more than the ants are thanking me for their dinner. They are insects, following their evolutionary duties to feed and reproduce and populate the earth as best as they can. It’s only we humans who get caught up in things like anger and vengeance, and benevolence and empathy. The insects don’t give a shit whether they live or die because they don’t know to be scared of death. That’s a unique terror for us, the towering human gods they don’t worship. So maybe the flesh flies are better off? Or the feasting ants? Or the cockroaches, which I assume will lay low in our walls until we move out in a year’s time and they can venture out freely once more. And when humans have all gone extinct, I reckon those cockroaches will still be around. And the flesh flies will lay their eggs in our rotting bodies, a fresh source of meat for breeding. And the ants on the porch? They’ll have more food than they could ever need in a thousand lifetimes.