When she was eight, Sally was obsessed with earwigs. She spent hours on the back patio watching them wiggle around with their squirmy little bodies and sick, dark pincers. When she saw them, they made this feeling inside of her, this slick, greasy terror –something like what air raid sirens evoke before you realize it’s just the first Tuesday of the month.
It was strange, like something she never felt before or had never been aware of in her short life. It wasn’t the same as that middle of the night monsters under the bed feeling or the mom and dad are fighting again feeling. It was something real. It was something she did to herself, and she didn’t have a name for it.
She cultivated that feeling.
Sally knew earwigs liked to sleep in warm, moist nests of leaves and twigs during the day, and she would go out with sticks and stir them up and watch their brown bodies scuttle about like short centipedes across the concrete. Certain at least one or two had crawled onto her and under her clothes where she couldn’t see them, Sally would do a dance, trying to shake them off her body. Inside she felt gross, like bugs were just beneath the surface of her skin crawling upside down on her epidermis.
Sometimes she was so sure one of them had gotten out of her sight and compromised the barrier of her body, she would cry. She would run inside and beg her dad to let her take a bath in the middle of the day, so she could sit in the tub and scour ever inch of her skin and examine every possible entrance.
Convinced the insects had it out for her, and they were going to find a warm place inside her ear canal and tunnel through her brain when she was sleeping, then eat the most important parts of her and leave her empty of all thought or reason, she plugged her ears with wads of toilet paper, nightly, to keep the earwigs and any other curious creatures out. She checked under the bed and shook out the blankets for any sign of them.
When she closed her eyes, Sally would see earwigs spreading in all directions.
She knew if she left them alone for a while, she would probably forget, and she wouldn’t be tormented by them anymore, and she could go back to playing with her action figures and stuffed animals and not look back. But she could not stop. Every night she would barely sleep because of these creatures. She felt crazy and itchy with imagined infestations, but every afternoon that summer, she was out back poking around at their nests, trying to heighten the feeling she could not name.
One afternoon her older brother, Kieth, decided to join Sally on the patio. He arrived with the antler handled jack knife their grandpa had given him for his birthday. He corralled a sample population of earwigs and cut each one of them in half in front of her.
He told her it didn’t hurt them.
“The front end just goes on living, and the back end goes on living,” he explained with an air of authority that meant what he said was true beyond question. He leaned over and sliced through another brown body. Kieth was two years older, and Sally was pretty sure he had it all figured out. Her brother had in his personal possession, a magic kit, a chemistry kit, a rock tumbler, a projection microscope and a telescope. This probably qualified him to study, understand and explain the true nature of nature better than anyone she else she knew.
He looked like a blue-eyed angel of death with his blond hair lifting up in a warm wafts of summer air. His tanned and bony ten-year-old body was hunched over like a surgeon to a patient. Kieth had a scrunched up expression of steady concentration on his face. Sally didn’t think he ever felt the same kind of dread-terror-exhilaration that compelled her to go out and taunt bugs. “They were here before people, even before dinosaurs, and they’ll be here when we’re dead. Because this is how they multiply. They just go in half and grow their parts back again.”
Sally’s brother pointed to the halved creatures. “See how they just keep moving?” And, she looked at all of these thoraxes and abdomens wriggling there on the ground, and she was almost convinced by his righteousness. “It doesn’t hurt them,” he told her again with a shrug.
Her brother’s hypothesis made sense. He had demonstrated this same phenomenon for her on earthworms earlier in the spring by cutting them in half and pitting the still-living front and back ends in races against one another on the wet pavement. Sally knew it wasn’t supposed to hurt them, but every time he severed one end from the other, and the slimy segments stretched and contracted in a quickening way, she felt that separation deep within her body.
When Kieth decided to begin his immortality experiments on the earwigs, Sally tried to be neutral and rational and observational like a good junior scientist. She tried to think about all of the nature shows she had seen on television, or their weekly trips to the Exhibit Museum to wander the Hall of Evolution and stare through the smudged glass at colorful dioramas of prehistoric creatures. She thought about staring up at the calm dark spinning ceiling of the planetarium or the fullness she felt on visits to northern Michigan when her grandpa would lend her his binoculars and tell her the names of the birds they saw.
That afternoon, Sally mimicked her brother’s dispassionate expression. She watched him dissect each of the bugs with his knife, but she avoided the back patio for the rest of the summer. After that, she never felt that strange, wriggly, squirmy feeling she couldn’t name without feeling a great, deep sadness, too.