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BUGS by Zac Smith

Every day I went outside to find new bugs. I found bugs on the ground. I found bugs on the street. I found bugs in the garbage. I found bugs on a dead skunk on the road. I found bugs writhing around the inside of a tree that had split in half during a windstorm, in the middle of the night there was this incredible cracking sound, like thunder, but there was no rain, it was just the tree snapping in half and then it crashed onto the ground. The inside of it was a network of narrow passages and wavy, warped wood, all the way through, like a tall, dense sponge. I imagined that it had been filled with bugs for weeks, maybe months, maybe over a year, the bugs slowly burrowing through it, setting up colonies—a colony of ants, a colony of beetles, a colony of wasps, a colony of aphids, a colony of termites—and moving around, digging into the wood, boring holes in the bark, scooping out the wood and replacing it with mush and larvae and piles of their own dead. And finally the windstorm came and it was enough to bend the tree so much that it buckled under the weight of itself, the bugs only having colonized so far high so that the bulk of the rot and hollowed-out wood was near the bottom, right at head height, so the rest of the top of the tree with all of its branches just got too heavy, the wind pushed it and that was it. The bugs were still writhing around inside. I could see the chambers they had eaten out of it in profile. I could see the bugs that had been split in half when the tree buckled, their sticky, mangled bodies lay smeared onto the tops of the serrated striations of the inside of the tree. It was like they were crawling around inside the mouth of some terrible monster that had rows and rows and blunt, wooden teeth and finally it snapped shut to eat them. Most of the ants that had been split in half were still twitching, and all the other ants ignored them. The ants that were split in half were still mostly alive, just like the tree—split in half but still alive. They must have been like that, split in half and twitching, for hours, since the tree had snapped. And I saw the chamber with the queen in it and all the larvae she had produced, piles of terrible little half-bodies in the hollowed-out nooks of the tree, and a beetle was also in the chamber, picking up the larvae and snapping them in half and eating them, and there were ants trying to tug at its legs and the legs of the other beetle that was crawling into the chamber, now that it was all exposed and open. I could just reach in and grab all of them, the queen ant, the larvae, the beetles, the ants tugging at their legs, scoop it all out in one hand. I thought about the time I was a little kid in my grandparent’s backyard in California and I was sent out to clean up the overripe avocados all over the ground under the trees while my grandparents cooked dinner for everyone. My parents were coming to pick me up after the three weeks I had stayed there, and we were going to have a big dinner in the backyard and my grandparents didn’t want anyone stepping on a mushy avocado. I picked up maybe twenty or thirty and threw them one by one over the fence and into the easement that butted up against the concrete drainage area, and sometimes I threw them hard enough so that they cleared the easement and I could hear them puck wetly onto the concrete. I picked up a small, leathery one from near the compost bin that was squishier than all the others and when I squeezed it, the skin split and bloomed open and a wad of maybe thirty red wrigglers poured out, I felt them pinch and squeeze between my fingers and gush out a hoary, stinking juice into my hand and down my wrist and arm. I threw the mass toward the fence, brown gunk and dripping, writhing worms exploding in the air like a plume, or spray, before smacking against the wood, the pit thumping dully, worms clinging wetly to the pine boards and then flopping down onto the grass. My hand smelled like the worm juice the entire dinner, night, and subsequent two-day car trip home, I would wash my hands, scrape bars of soap with my fingernails and let the soap stay there, then later soak my hand in hot, soapy water, but nothing helped, nothing got rid of the smell, every time I scratched my face or picked my nose or rubbed my eyes, I would smell it, the same sick, fetid smell of bile and rot. That was what I thought of when I saw the beetles and the larvae in the tree, I tried to conjure up the smell of it, but I couldn’t remember exactly how it smelled anymore, all I could smell was pine sap, tacky and raw—some of the ants were stuck in the hardening sap, wiggling their antennae and mandibles in little tiny death throes. So I did, I put my hand in, scooped out as much as I could, the ants, the larvae, the beetles, the sap, the splinters. I felt it all as a mass, squeezed it, felt it gush and congeal, felt the beetles crawl out onto my hand through the mangled everything else. There are bugs everywhere. Everywhere there are bugs. It’s better if you go looking for them. It’s better if you go looking for them and find them first and know what will come when you squeeze.

Then you can squeeze.

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