Lore Segal

Death of the Water bug

Bug, be forewarned.

robertperron.com Readings from Friends: Death of the Water Bug by Lore Segal

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I called Eddy, my favorite handyman, and he came up, got rid of the water bug and closed the hole, by which the thing must have got into my kitchen.

One Week Later, as they put it in the movies. My friend Bessie was in town and came over and went to get herself a glass of water. That scream would, in an audition for a Miss Marple episode, have landed her the character who trips over the corpse. Another water bug! Bessie grabbed her handbag and was out the front door.

“Come back! Bessie,” I followed her into the hallway. “I’ll get rid of him. Come on in! Have a drink.”

“I hate that!” Bessie pale and visibly shuddering escaped down the elevator.

My promise to “get rid of him” turned out to have been over-confident. The water bug sat on the kitchen floor. I couldn’t keep calling Eddy, so I prepared for that crunching sound, raised my right leg and brought my shoe down where the insect was no longer sitting.

It put me in mind of the Robert Frost poem in which the poet’s pencil point fails to eliminate a spot on his paper because the spot has run away and continues running with such frantic intentionality, the poet comments that it’s not on every page one has the good fortune to meet with such an active intelligence. 

The water bug had chosen not to be stepped on. His abhorrence of being dead gave his six legs a surprising—a surely admirable burst of speed into the black region behind the sink where he knew—yes, the animal knew that I would not be able to get at him.

The next time Bess was in town, I made her watch Microcosmos, the exquisite French film about “the people of the grass.”

“Bugs, you mean,” said Bessie, but she sat down and we watched two ladybugs on a stalk that bends under their combined weight while they drink from opposite sides of the same dew drop.

“Ladybirds are okay,” said Bessie.

“My favorite is the dung beetle,” I told her.

Hate it,” said Bessie and reached for her handbag.

“Bessie, watch this!” The dung beetle is transporting its ball of dung from somewhere to somewhere else by walking on its front legs using the superior strength of the two back legs with the assistance of the middle pair to do the pushing. Because it is walking backwards or because of all that nervous urgency, it takes the animal a moment to understand that the dung ball has got hoisted onto the point of an up-standing twig. Now what? If it is not the operation of thinking, what tells the beetle that pushing the ball from the side is not working? The animal starts to push from the bottom upward and dislodges the ball of dung from what it was stuck on.

Here is where the camera backs away and up to a height from which we overview the terrain across which our beetle needs (oh, reason not the need!) to transport its dung ball it alone knows where.

“I HATE it!” said Bessie.

“Bessie, don’t go!” I begged her. “Look, I’ll turn it off. Sit. I want to argue.”

Bessie sat back down.

“Why is it,” I asked her, “that you, a five foot nine human, cannot—and I totally believe that you can really not be in the same room—would rather not be in the same apartment with an animal that is little more than one inch long, stands less than an inch off the floor and whose instinct is to run away and hide because he hasn’t the apparatus to do us harm? And what accounts for my instinct to call Eddy?”

Bessie thought that when god decreed enmity between the human and the snake he was also thinking of these creeping things with their six legs, sectioned body, and the plumbing on the outside, with no covering. Imagine the water bug walking over your bed or crawling up your pants legs because that is the true nightmare…

“I grant you that he’s not an attractive animal”—curious how I never think of a water bug as a she—“but I’ve seen him hold his head in his two antennae. And, Bessie, don’t you love the housefly when it does that thing as if it’s washing its hands?”

“Cute bugs doing people-things? No,” said Bessie. “Insects are the un-human, the non-us. Insects are our Other.”

“The ‘other,’” I said, “whom we need to learn—if not to like—to at least love, and who, oh Bessie! resemble you and me in not wanting to be stepped on, wanting not to be squashed underfoot—wanting so immensely not to be dead.”

“That’s right!” answered Bessie. “Insects are going to survive us because they multiply more efficiently than we know how.”

“Which is what the pharaoh meant when he said the Hebrews—“swarmed” that was the word—in Goshen. Shakespeare says that ‘We are mere usurpers, tyrants and what’s worse, to fright the animals and to kill them up in their assigned and native dwelling place.’”

“In the Forest of Arden!” cried Bessie. “You’re not going to argue that the house fly, the pantry moth, and the cockroach have rights in the New York apartment?”

“In my student days in London,” I remembered, “I shared my room with a little velvet mouse. In the quiet middle of the night, it made a surprising racket inside the waste paper basket and left little poops behind my illicit hotplate. One time I put on the light and it was sitting up in a gap between two broken parquet tiles. It pointed its little face this way, that way, this way.”

“And what will you do when you have your next infestation—an army of cockroaches?”

“Call Eddy,” I said, “and Eddy will call the exterminator.”

Bessie said that she HATED cockroaches. Bessie left.

The water bug was back. How many days had it been? He slouched out from behind the sink. There was no running now. He carried his head low to the ground and crept forward, slowly, with a sideways limp as if his feet hurt. In the end of Kafka’s story, the housemaid’s broom sweeps the dead bug out the kitchen door. Nothing easier than to bring my shoe down on a senescent water bug. I wiped up the remains with the corner of a paper towel and put him in the garbage, a minor sample of the world’s sadness.

Lore Segal is a novelist, short story writer, teacher, translator, and author of children’s books living in New York City. Lore escaped Nazi Austria in 1938 with other Jewish children on the first wave of the Kindertransport rescue mission. She lived in England and the Dominican Republic before entering the United States in 1951. Her novels include Other People’s Houses, Lucinella, Her First American, and Shakespeare’s Kitchen. Her stories have appeared numerous times in The New Yorker and been included in O. Henry Prize Stories. Lore continues to write, conduct workshops, and mentor aspiring writers.

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