by James Callan
I knew something was a little off when my four-year-old son, Tommy, walked inside from a warm, sunny afternoon without the bowl of soapy water and bubble wand I had furnished him with, but rather, a little black beetle turned over on its back, its tiny legs wiggling up as if to wave hello, but far more likely, its attempt to right itself and be free of its inconvenient, inhibiting position. Tommy bringing a bug in the house wasn’t all that surprising. It didn’t infer anything odd was afoot— what young child wasn’t expected to be curious of the world, bugs and all?— but it acted as a precursor to what came next, which was more than a little odd indeed.
Tommy began by calmly saying to me in a patient and polite tone of greeting, “Hello, Mother.” I laughed because he had never called me mother before. To my very best recollection, Tommy had never before deviated from calling me Mommy. Always Mommy. In fact, he prefaced every sentence spoken to me with that unvarying, uniform title. Every single sentence. It goes further than that. He said mommy so much, often interrupting his own sentences by beginning anew, always with a mommy, that I usually began to tweak at the word a little less than halfway through each day because it becomes so godawful irritating. I only go on about it at such length to emphasize how startling and unexpected it was to hear Tommy address me as Mother, and how such a simple thing could leave me not only surprised, but a little alarmed.
So anyways, my little boy comes in with a small black bug instead of the paraphernalia for blowing bubbles and says to me in an uncharacteristic tone and a very uncharacteristic word choice, “Hello, Mother,” then proceeded to offer me a detailed discourse on the intricate beauty of the vine weevil, which presumably was the name to the species of bug presented to me upon his palm. But how the hell would Tommy know that? “Isn’t she beautiful, Mother?” Again, Mother. And to conclude a sentence, no less! Now, I was certain something was not quite right.
“How do you know it’s a she?” Surely, you couldn’t. I mean, on a weevil? It’s not as if it has a pair of tits. A visible camel toe. A respectable cock to assure you otherwise.
Tommy pointed to the rear end of the overturned insect, using his pinky, which even being his smallest finger and him being only four-years-old was still far too large to indicate anything other than the weevil itself, as a whole. “It’s quite plain, Mother,” he told me, none of his usual rambling, words tumbling into other words way of speaking. “Observe the sternites, here and here.” I leaned in and squinted. From what I could tell I was looking at a bug’s ass. What in the fuck is a sternite anyhow? I asked Tommy, but not like that. I asked like this: “What is a sternite, Tommy?”
To which he replied, “Sternites are the plates that form the sternum of segments on insects.”
This explanation had left me as befuddled about sternites as the time before its explanation. Which wasn’t out of the ordinary when it came to explanations offered by Tommy. But usually my lack of understanding that followed one of Tommy’s explanations came from their absence of having any concrete point, or, for that matter, an explanation at all. Either that, or his explanations were interrupted too many damned times by his own interjection of the word mommy that whatever would-be coherent elucidation he had meant to deliver was irreparably butchered and bombarded to the point that it became an undecipherable and segmented toddler’s jabbering, which I suppose is exactly what one may expect from a four-year-old child.
What one does not expect, however, is some seemingly, actual, scientific explanation delivered in calm, smooth oration, no mommy interjections whatever, all of which going completely over my head because I lack that left hemisphere stuff. Or is it right? In any case, I was starting to wish Tommy had just come in with the wet bowl and bubbles and said to me “Mommy, look the, Mommy, come look at the, Mommy, bubbles!” How much simpler the day would have gone…
“The vine weevil is a small specimen, so it may be difficult for the untrained eye to note, but the sternites, here and here, you will observe when looking closely, have hardly any separation between them. Virtually none whatsoever. This contrasts with the male vine weevil, which would display a wider gap between the sternites. It’s really as simple as that, Mother.” He smiled up at me. “It’s as simple as blowing bubbles.”
I came close to telling Tommy that bubbles can actually be quite difficult to blow if, say, the solution is not soapy enough, or not soapy at all for that matter, or if the wind is severe or if… but I held my tongue, I kept quiet, deciding it would have been petty of me. So I nodded instead, smiled down at my four-year-old son, and wondered what in the hell was going on.
He went on and on about the weevil, telling me how he is marveled, bewitched even, by its compound eyes, how its metasternum and abdominal ventrites were sleek and elegantly put together, how their design held comparison to a newly waxed jet-black Porsche, how its tarsal claws could help it scale 180 degree plant stems, even remain upside down on the underside of a leaf, how, ultimately, he thought Weevil-Man would have made a more convincing superhero than Spider-Man, despite the wild success of the latter. “Did you know, Mother,” Tommy told me with the clarity and composure of a sage professor or some gentle naturalist, words spoken as if through the vapor of an upheld cup of calming, camomile tea, “that I find the vine weevil, its succinct form, its simple shape, its exterior sheen, to hold more beauty than the blush-hued rhododendrons that you grow, the very same ones which the vine weevil devours and destroys?”
“Wait, so, it’s weevils that are destroying my rhododendrons?” I couldn’t believe I was consulting my four-year-old son about gardening. My sincere tone startled me, my very real hope for good advice on pest control made me truly aware of how fucked up this was becoming. But then there were the rhododendrons to consider, so I went ahead with my quest for advise. “The weevils are the ones destroying my beautiful flowers?”
“Well, in point of fact, they are destroying the leaves. Eating them, anyhow. Destroying them, if you will, in the same way you, last evening, destroyed your steak.” The steak dinner we had last night was immaculate and juicy. I certainly did eat it with a particular gusto. Still, I would not say that I destroyed it. I became flustered by my own pointless inner dialogue and musings that I told Tommy I didn’t want to hear about weevils anymore. I made him put it outside.
To appease him, I put him on the couch and turned on Frozen. I told him I was going to step outside, attend to the rhododendrons. He sang out, rather than spoke, “Let it go, let it go,” and explained to me that the weevils are something I would not be able to eradicate. Tommy assured me they are highly successful creatures and capable of far more than I am. I must have looked insulted because he kindly added “relatively speaking, you a human being in a human world.” Then perhaps I looked satisfied, maybe even smug, because he revoked all kindness, going on to conclude “or any world, not relatively speaking, just speaking.” He then told me that Frozen was incredibly fucking stupid so I went through the DVD collection and in the end nothing would do but A Bug’s Life, which Tommy watched twice, back to back, without a pause for comment or break for urination.
This sort of thing went on for about five weeks. Well-constructed, elaborate, presumably correct, scientific sermons on insects, each one a streamlined oration of dizzying detail, all of which coming from the mind of four-year-old child. There was further talk of weevils, or other beetles, ladybugs and scarabs, fireflies or the elm borer beetle, or non-beetles, other insects, crickets, ants (which we discovered was the title of another children’s animated film, though spelled “Antz,” and purchased online to watch upon arrival, which we did, and even I enjoyed as Woody Allan is the voice-actor of the main character and I just love Woody Allan), butterflies in the day, moths in the night, and more than all of the rest, possibly combined, cicadas. Tommy was obsessed with bugs. Devout to the cicada.
Then suddenly, completely, without any warning, Tommy comes in through the door from a warm, sunny afternoon with a bowl gone completely dry and a pink plastic bubble wand and says to me, “Mommy, can you, Mommy, can, Mommy, can you please get me some soapy water, Mommy.” Then held up his bowl to me and played with Lego Duplo blocks while he waited, constructing a rudimentary truck instead of some impressive, to scale model of a cicada in flight.
I cried in joy. And watched the soapy bubbles catch the sun, listened to the delighted, simple giggle and exaltation of a four-year-old boy through the open window, then squashed the little vine weevil with my thumb that I suddenly noticed on the kitchen counter.
17 years have come and gone. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Antz, but it’s a number certainly more than I’ve seen most other movies, and certainly less than I’ve seen Annie Hall or Manhattan or just about any other Woody Allan film (and there are a lot!). But one thing I can tell you is that Tommy, who now goes by Tom and no longer calls me Mommy but Mom, in all of those 17 years since five weeks after he brought in that vine weevil and suddenly went bug mad, possessed by the ghost of an entomologist or maybe some freak isolated case of severe autism, has never again reverted to that same, or even similar, condition. Tommy, or Tom, has been, Mommy’s, or Mom’s, perfect little angel, or perfectly normal child and now young adult, ever since.
That is, until halfway through the semester of his junior year at the University of Wisconsin. Then, as sudden as his first infliction 17 years ago, he goes all rabid for six-legged critters again. The way I hear it from his business ethics professor, he raised his hand in lecture, was called upon, and then gave a 45 minute declamation on butterflies, the different types of evolutionary strategies they have developed, aposematism, mimicry, blah blah blah. He was asked several times how any of what he was saying was relevant to business ethics. The professor’s repeated question was fully ignored, answered only by an impassioned upheaval of more butterfly lore, a mishmash of facts, a torrent of detailed information on butterfly larvae, caterpillars, how they have five different developmental stages, how those are called instars, which some girl in the back row misheard as stars, then took it upon herself to talk about astrology, thinking the class had become an open dialogue to discuss anything at all. The class learned from the girl that her star sign was scorpio. The class then learned from Tom that scorpions are not insects, as many suppose them to be, but arachnids. I, myself, raised an eyebrow at that fact. The arachnid thing, not the star sign stuff.
Tommy, I mean Tom, had once again assumed the one-track mind of a bug junkie. A zealous, insectophiliac nuthouse. Which wouldn’t have been that bad, really, had he been pursuing a degree in entomology. That supreme, hyper focus would boost his test scores, his overall performance, his GPA. But no, it wasn’t worth a damn to anyone pursuing a business administration degree. His mad and creepy fixation on insects only served to hinder his collegiate pursuits. It lowered his test scores, his overall performance, his GPA. And then Tom stopped going to class at all.
He went to the fringes of the soccer field, or the baseball diamond on the campus grounds. He’d find a bare patch of earth and sit and watch and wait and marvel and maybe even worship the little fucking critters that populated the undergrowth.
What’s perhaps even worse is what was going on with his girlfriend, although now I can call her his ex-girlfriend, because that is how things turned out in the end. And it didn’t take long getting there, to the end. Theirs had been a long and lovely relationship, one that first budded during freshman orientation, then never stopped blooming, bright and beautiful, cultivated over two years into a rich and warm union that gave off strong future-daughter-in-law vibes. Tommy smiling each time I asked him about her, saying words like soulmate, she’s my entire world, and even though he was a kid and his world had to be small because I knew he’d never been beyond the borders of the states adjacent to Wisconsin, I still believed his love was as real as any big-world love.
But after all that, a few sermons on hive life, ants and bees, soldiers, pollinators, pheromones that could do just about anything, crazy things, no different from mind control, complete possession, like turning toddlers into mad scientists, frenzied entomologists, all at the drop of a hat, and that’s how fast it all happened, their breakup, like the drop of a hat.
And can you blame the girl? She had a phobia of bugs. A real bad one, from how I’ve heard it. And then Tommy goes all hyper autistic, one-track-mind, insect fanatic. I mean, for fuck’s sake, it’s a given that wasn’t going to work out. And it’s not like I could calmly explain it to her that it was no big thing, that she just had to wait it out, four, five, maybe six weeks, and then, just like a cicada, another 17-year sleep, a big, big break from those creepy-crawly antics, before another short-term bout.
I had worked it out, or at the time believed I had, still testing the waters of my theory, when Tommy, er, Tom, oh god does it fucking matter? When Tommy was going on and on about cicadas, how one species, his favorite species, spends on average 17 years under the earth, munching on roots in their nymph form before emerging, mating, depositing eggs and dying, a short five-week finale after a long, dark wait.
And sure enough. It took just over five weeks. 37 days. That’s all it took. The fixation died. No gentle fade out, no easing into it, but a sudden stop, a cold-turkey, hard-line, talking a mile a minute about stick insects and wood lice one moment to not talking at all, but crying, incoherent, Tommy missing his girlfriend who won’t talk to him, despairing about the irreparable damage his GPA has suffered in his 37-day hiatus from class, how it would very soon amount to him flunking out of school altogether.
17 years have come and gone. Again.
I can tell you exactly how many times I have watched Antz during that stretch of time, and will do so now: that number is zero. Or maybe even negative one, if that is possible. Because once I put in the DVD and it started playing from the end credits, right where I had left off from the last viewing, but instead of just going to the DVD menu, I pressed the rewind button and watched the film, muted, in about double speed, backwards. It took about thirty-five minutes.
Why’d I do it? No idea. Maybe it was pheromones. Or maybe it was my turn to go a little crazy. I mean, does Tommy have a monopoly on lunacy? No, he does not. And anyways, how I spend my time is my fucking business. But since I’m sharing my business, I’ll go on to tell you that when I finally did get to the DVD menu I decided not to watch the film. I mean, again. Properly. At normal speed, unmuted, and in forward progression. Just looking at those ugly animated ants, I knew I’d never watch that godawful drivel again, Woody Allan or no. I guess I was off bugs. Bug off! I wanted to scream at them, and did. Or did, in any case, if there were any in the room present yet unseen. If not, I still screamed bug off! But not to anyone or anything.
Yes, I was certainly off bugs. And I think we can agree, with good reason. So you can probably guess how many times I’d be watching The Fly, or what started it all, A Bug's Life.
Tommy is now 38, and prefers to be called Thomas. He is married and has two lovely little boys, Eddie and Ted. One day, Ted, who goes by Teddy, tells his older brother Eddie, who goes by Ed, that he has found something weird, something cool, something moving. Ed follows Teddy, who is leading his older brother by the hand and tugging with urgency, laughing in the pure delight and wonderment of being a child. Teddy lets go of his brother and points upward to the underside of the roof to an old woodshed that their father sometimes, but rarely uses.
Teddy is mystified, too young to work out what that bulging blob that hangs down and outward is, why it makes a buzzing sound, and most mysterious of all, how it moves as if covered in hundreds, perhaps thousands of bees. Ed is a good two and a half years older than Teddy, so he sees the bulging blob that makes a droning buzzing noise and moves as if covered by a thousand bees for what it is, a bee’s nest, occupied by hundreds if not thousands of bees. Teddy reaches for stick to prod it, explains to Ed, who clearly is not in the know, how Pooh Bear sticks his uncovered hand down to the elbow into bees’ nests and is gratified by the delights of his favorite, and perhaps sole food, honey, food for the soul. Ed, in all of his big-brother wisdom, explains to Teddy that he is not a teddy bear, furthermore, that he is not a cartoon teddy bear, furthermore, that he is not a bear at all even if his name is Teddy, that he is barely 4 years old, and that to prod the bee’s nest is actually a really fucking bad idea.
The next day, Tommy, father of two, sits down to breakfast and smiles at his wife as she brings him a steaming plate of blueberry pancakes, then smiles at his children who rearrange the blueberries to make smiling faces. Tommy takes all of the blueberries off of his own pancakes so the children have enough berries for their unsophisticated artwork, but withholds one single berry which he places in the center of his pancake and pretends that it is an ample, well-tanned breast. He then devours it, the pancake, and surveys a morning scene that just may be the very moment in his life that exemplifies contentedness and joy.
Unfortunately, that very moment does not turn out to be the epitome of contentedness and joy. It turns out to be something altogether different. Contentedness and joy, usurped, thrown out the window, replaced by a fervency to examine the complex and minute subtleties of each and every facet of insect life. Yes, it was that time of the cycle. That roughly five-week bout of religious fervency, unyielding reverence, for all things insect.
Suddenly, pancakes no longer inspired the imagery of a well-tanned breast. Instead, each brown, buckwheat disk became the glorious compound eye of a vine weevil, a Pharaoh cicada, a globular orb, unblinking in the first light that has reflected off of its ten-thousand facets in 17 years.
To the question from his wife asking if he would like another pancake, Tommy answered that the compound eye is made up of many ommatidia. The mostly blank, slightly puzzled faces of his family stared at him in silence. I doubt very much they knew what ommatidia are. Considering Ed was only six, and Teddy even younger, only four, it actually may be more of a concern if they did know what ommatidia are. If they nodded sagely and knowingly, going on to explain how each ommatidia acted as a lens, focusing light and detecting color, how some of the larger, more globular compound eyes of insects, like the dragonfly for instance, could basically see in 360 degree angles, using all 30,000 ommatidia to take in the circumference of its surroundings, well, that would have been fucking weird. And besides, that’s exactly what their father had said. Then went on to say a whole lot more. He would, continuously, for five weeks, give or take.
Now, this time I did explain Tommy’s bizarre condition to his beloved partner. This time, marriage on the line, fatherhood at peril, I thought I couldn’t just watch things unfold, even if it did paint me as a fucking lunatic, explaining that my son is possessed by some sadistic entomologist or perhaps the spirit of a Pharaoh cicada, or perhaps a Pharaoh, though Tommy had never been to Egypt let alone outside the Midwest. So when Melissa, Tommy’s wife, calls me up, breathing between sobs on the line, me well aware that it has been another 17 years since the last time Tommy went buggy, I wasted little time standing around. I cut Melissa off, told her it would be okay, that I would explain everything, and that I was coming over immediately.
Well, I got there and started explaining it all, meanwhile getting these looks from Melissa like I was the one that was batshit mad when clearly my son was, him jabbering a ceaseless fount of entomological facts in the background, Teddy laughing at his father, thinking it’s a game, Ed crying for him, knowing it’s something very fucked up and wrong, maybe even fearing that whatever it is may be genetic, might pass down from father to son.
I go on explaining what sounds like science fiction to Melissa, telling her the most important detail, the saving grace of it all, the silver lining that is hard to acknowledge, difficult to make out within that swarm of locusts, buried beneath that army of ants. I tell her it’s temporary, few and far between. But I’m not sure her sobs are leaving enough of a gap for her to take in a single thing I’m saying. So I hug her, hold her, pat her back, and am grateful that the room is now empty. That Tommy, Teddy, and Ed have gone outside.
Of course, had I known about the bee’s nest I would have left Melissa where she was standing and run outside. I would have stopped what I could not know to stop at the time it happened. And of course it happened. It had to happen. And that, in many ways, is the end to this story.
Teddy, enthused by his father’s sudden interest in bugs, takes him by the hand and tugs at his arm, leading him to backside of the old shed, explaining that he has found a giant bee’s nest. Teddy no longer needed to be tugging on his father’s arm. No, in point of fact, he had a hard time keeping up with his father, who was now running, started sprinting, the moment he heard from his son about the bee’s nest behind the shed.
Teddy was laughing, giddy and playful as four-year-old’s are who are playing with their fathers who’s interest and joy is as keen as their own. Look! He pointed up, as if any pointing up was necessary, as if the massive, sagging bulge of loud, buzzing, vibrating, kaleidoscopic swirling blur of gold, brown, and black was inconspicuous or subtle. As if it didn’t stand out like a sore thumb, a stung thumb, a thumb swollen with bee venom, a thumb ballooning with inflammatory toxins.
Tommy was going on about how bees can become very aggressive around their hives, how they are prone to agitation and that they attack in swarms. He was not warning his son, trying to prevent an accident. He was merely informing his son, educating him and indulging in his own obsessive fascinations. Teddy was thrilled to see his father so very much alive and at play. It encouraged him to offer to stick his bare arm into the heart of the bee’s nest, just like Pooh Bear, and his father oohed and aahed at the prospect, telling him it would induce a furious counterattack.
When his toddler boy smiled a small-toothed grin and reached out for the nest with his little, pudgy fingers, he felt no fear, only exhilaration. He was exempt from terror. Immune to danger. His father’s own eager smile ensured him the game was safe. It was okay to thrust his bare arm up and into the big, big, nest. Just like Pooh Bear.
We found out that day, that moment really, that Teddy was allergic to bees. When his heart stopped and he swelled up beyond recognition it was confirmed. When Ed came crying, tugging his mother by the arm to show her what had happened behind the old shed, there was Tommy, enthusiastic as ever, continually spewing out information on bees, how and what their venom is and does, ranting about amino acids, enzymes, and all manner of no-one-cares and are-you-mad as his youngest son lay dead at his feet.
Five weeks later, when Tommy came out of his stupor, his insect fit, he experienced the weight of what had happened behind the shed. It hit him like a punch in the stomach, as if he hadn’t known, even though he witnessed it. He learned, too, that Melissa had left him. That she had taken Ed with her and that lawyers were involved, that divorce was imminent, that child custody was out of reach.
One day, not long after losing his family, Tommy sat outside and felt the sun come out from behind a cloud and bath the summer day in a wash of warmth. Just then, the cicadas came alive, triggered by the heat, and called out by the thousands. They outsang the birds, the frogs, and even drowned out the wind and the ruffling leaves. It was deafening, all at once obnoxious and hypnotic. Tommy walked out into the field and under the tall poplars and lost himself in that bombardment of sound. He lost himself, all aspects and all literally, when he put the barrel of the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger, making the only sound that was louder than the cicadas themselves.
Years later, feeling cramped and claustrophobic lying in bed, I decided to have one of my walls knocked out, an act which would nearly double the size of my bedroom. The adjacent room, practically unused, had been Tommy’s when growing up. When the wall was taken down the contractors told me that they discovered something curious. Within the walls, between my current room and Tommy’s old one, there was a wide collection of pinned up butterflies, beetles, bees, and all sorts of other insects, encased in glass and meticulously labeled and catalogued. Many of the entomological curios had been damaged, but the surviving ones were supposedly worth a great deal, some dating back over a hundred years.
I can assure you, the money was not at all what peaked my interest. In fact, interest is not the right word, but rather, horror. Yes, that’s fitting. My horror was peaked by the mere presence of that macabre collection, more so knowing that it stood, as if on display but entombed, like Pharaohs, or like the Pharaoh cicada for 17 years, within the walls of my very home. Right beside where little Tommy had slept.
Then I saw it. The wide frame of cicadas. It spanned dozens of species, rows and columns of varying sizes and colors, but all of them cicadas, all of them beautiful in their own way but wasted on me, having no love for bugs, all of them ugly, all of them awful. It dated 1917, the name of a film I had recently watched and believed with absolute conviction was better suited to winning best picture than Parasite. And that is all these many bugs were to me now, whether that factually were or otherwise, each and every one, a fucking parasite.
I didn’t care about the money. I donated the collection to a science museum, and soon after wished that I hadn’t, that I had smashed them all, burned them all, broke each and every frame and glass casing and individually plucked each husk of an insect into a living spider’s web just to dishonor those ugly fucking critters that nested all these many years in my own home.
I deduced it was an entomologist, not the bugs themselves, that possessed my son, or haunted him. I believed it was the man, not the insect, whose spirit infiltrated Tommy once every 17 years. Through the use of the cicada husks beside where my child had slept? Who knows by what means. Witchcraft is as confusing to me as entomology. But I was convinced it was the man, the scientist who collected and catalogued the bugs, not the bugs themselves, that I should detest and loathe. And I did. Believe you me, I hate that man -- or perhaps woman, although 1917 is well entrenched in an era that would suggest a man -- yet I can’t help but hate those insects too. Every single one. Each fucking bug, the trillions of them.
One night, I left the expanse of my new and spacious bedroom and walked out into the warm summer evening to my beautiful rhododendron bushes. I often would cut the flowers, collect them, and lay them on Tommy’s grave. Teddy’s too. I took out my shears and selected the most beautiful of blooms. I felt a tickle at my wrists and turned my arm to reveal a little black vine weevil. I thought of those formidable tarsal claws, their ability to scale what to them would be many Everests, knowing that as they scaled my wrist and now my arm it was those very claws that made me feel that faint sensation, that tiny, little itch.
I pressed my finger into my arm and pinned the vine weevil. I turned him into muddy ink, a stamp upon my forearm. I dropped the rhododendron blooms and stepped upon them as I made my way to the garage. I came back to my beloved, flowering bush with a gas canister in hand. I doused each lovely flower, each dark green leaf, each sun-reaching stem, then I went back to the house, I found the pack of smokes that have been there since before Tommy was born, I took it with me and returned to the rhododendron bush which I prized almost as much as if it were family, I put an ancient cigarette between my lips, I lit a match, or tried to, failed, lit a second, successfully, and smoked a fag for the first time in four decades, then with full conviction that I was doing something that needed to be done, a removal of a late-stage cancer or an appendix about to burst, I flicked the glowing ember of my butt into the rhododendron bush and wept. Wept in sorrow, for my child, my grandchild, and maybe a little for my rhododendron bush. But wept also, in joy, in relief, knowing it was over.