The Unseen - The Illustrated Insectopedia - Hugh Raffles

The Illustrated Insectopedia - Hugh Raffles (2010)

The Unseen


Sometimes late at night I hear rustling. I work here, upstairs in my room, writing this book at the top of the building, perched on the roof, thinking about insects and all the things they make and do, sitting at my desk in this squat box coated black with pitch to protect against the city rain.

There are grilles on the windows. But there’s also a sliding door, and if you step outside onto the squishy silver-coated tar and look to the left, the sweep of the Hudson will catch your breath, especially in winter, when the trees are bare and the lights of New Jersey glitter in the river’s laquered blackness.

In the daytime, white egrets and red-tailed hawks fly past on their way to Central Park. Cardinals, finches, blue jays, squeaky mourning doves, and raggedy pigeons perch on our railing. At dusk, the sparrows go crazy in the trees below. A little later, Sharon and I head downstairs into Riverside Park, down past the Amtrak tunnel where Brooklyn (six years in the Marines, twenty-four on the streets) sleeps with her cats and raccoons, and where we watch the urban wildlife forage garbage in the gloom of the streetlamps.

It’s peaceful upstairs in this blanket of quiet. Night falls, and one by one the lights go out in the surrounding apartment buildings. The rush of traffic on the Westside Highway subsides. The last planes pass overhead. The quiet deepens, and we all head into the darkness.

Up here, at the top of the building, I turn my desk light down. I lower the brightness on my laptop. My eyes struggle against the dimness, then relax. Everything slows.

Sometimes in summer, when it’s hot and humid, the night is interrupted by rustling. It’s not the mice in the drywall or the squirrels in the guttering. It’s not the hairy centipedes that scamper into the corners. It’s not the mosquitoes or bluebottles or those erratic crane flies. It’s not the ladybugs or winged ants that arrive each year en masse without warning and just as abruptly disappear. It’s not the building stretching in the breeze. It’s not the leaves blowing up against the windows. It’s not a mystery. I know what it is. It’s the big water bugs, the American cockroaches, come to scratch along the walls, doing what they do, going from place to place, up from the drains, not really wanting to be here, a bit lost, looking for something.

Kikuo Itaya, the twentieth-century Zen Buddhist short story writer, lived among cockroaches, refusing to harm them, allowing them to share his home. But he was unusual, even in Japan. I think of him when I kill them. I have to kill them because Sharon is phobic; she freaks out when she sees one: she hides, she shakes, her body goes into spasm. Once she’s seen one, I can’t just pretend to have killed it. If I do, it will only break cover again, and everything will be worse than before. And anyway, she knows when I lie.

When I hear the scratching, I turn the lights down even further. My skin crawls in anticipation. If she doesn’t see it, if I don’t see it, if it remains unseen … I don’t want to know it’s there.

But sometimes the scratches are too insistent. One night, distracted and without thinking, I swiveled around. A healthy-looking water bug was sitting on a pile of books behind my shoulder. We locked eyes. Its head extended like a turtle’s. Its face was angular and inquisitive. Really, as Karl von Frisch once remarked, it had “the lofty brow of the philosopher.”1 Our eyes met as in an animal movie. An understanding beyond words. But I must have moved too suddenly, and it took off and I took off after it, grabbing a broom—everything all of a sudden kinetic—trapping it in a cluttered corner, its legs a whir of mad scrambling, and caught up in the moment, I beat it and beat it, until I realized I was trembling and disgusted and confused and it was just a smush of fat and chitin on the wooden floor. “Just a grease spot,” as Erika Elizondo would say.

I keep the lights low and the shadows deep. I know it’s there, but I can’t see it. If I don’t see it, we’re safe. The night protects us both. When the rustling begins, I don’t turn around. If all goes well, eventually it stops, and not long after, the birds start singing, just a few at first, then more, and louder, until, as the dawn rises and the sun fills the room, they come louder still.


But then, this morning actually, something new happened. I was in the shower, daydreaming as usual under the soothing warm water, thoughts rambling around the chapter of this book I’m trying to finish—the one about queer insects and the queer things they like to do—when, out of nowhere, a three-inch water bug dropped from the bathroom ceiling and landed at my feet.

I admit it: I screamed. Wouldn’t you? I shut off the water. It took a moment to get over the surprise. And then there we were, the water bug and I, trapped and defenseless and covered in soapsuds. And we both stayed very still until that very big little animal, a female animal, I noticed, climbed swiftly up onto the towel rack and stopped there at eye level a few inches away, her handsome and intelligent face cocked at a philosophical angle, giving me a funny, quizzical look up and down as if amused by this unexpected situation and intrigued to see what would happen next. One of us was very calm. One of us—it was the bathroom, after all—began carefully to groom her antennae. I won’t go into the details of what happened next. I’m not sure even Erika Elizondo would have felt good this time.