“Here’s what we’re going to do,” Mr. Splain said to his wife, Agnes, who was sitting with her purse in her lap near the front door. “Time away together, you and me, that’s what you need. We’ll go visit your sister in Pocatello. Henry can cover the office. I’ll bring my computer, not that I’ll be working all the time. Wait, better idea: Brazil. Out of the box, that’s the way. How about Vienna, a boat down the Rhine? Who cares about the Euro? I say ten days tops, that’s travel time included, we’ll do Strasbourg, much better idea, two countries for the price of one. I’ve got miles. That’s the plan.”
“I’m leaving you,” Agnes said.
No one had told her about the centipedes.
Maui, their neighbors said in a tone of voice that indicated a place fantastical and dreamlike even after you had visited it, actual experience swallowed whole by expectation and spit back out as confused nostalgia. One of their postcards showed Haleakala in misty sunrise. The other showed a picture of a lighthouse, backed by endless green ocean and white-topped waves, with the greeting, Hana Means Magic!
After her mother’s funeral Agnes cancelled her cell phone and email, emptied her bank account and dropped the cat off at no-kill shelter. She mailed the document to her sister in Pocatello granting her power of attorney. She paid in cash for her one way ticket to Kahului, paid in cash for the stomach churning bus ride to Hana, rented the vacation house in cash, and gave the local realtor, a sweet-faced expatriate from San Diego, a false name.
“Dolores Malorosa, what a beautiful name,” the woman said. “I was Sandra on the mainland, but now I go by my Hawaiian name, Melekahanahelemaikaukauhekahikolaula. If you need anything, you call me right up.”
“I need a boat,” Agnes said.
“A sailboat? A rowboat? These waters can be dangerous.”
Hana in August was torrid, not a breath of air stirring the massive foliage. Smoke blurred the horizon, the residue of ash from Kilauea volcano billowing away on the Big Island just south of Maui. “Kona weather,” Sandra apologized. The make-up Agnes had applied for the plane trip already felt emulsified to her skin like a death mask.
The vacation house was bounded by a cluster of banana trees facing the interior of the island, and on the ocean side by plumeria trees replete with pink and white blossoms, thick yellow hibiscus bushes, and a small lime tree so neglected that the branches slumped on the ground from the weight of over ripened, withering fruit. It reminded Agnes of the elderly woman in some East Indian fable, the Untouchable whose fruit for sale had gone to rot, a woman literally dying by the side of a dusty traveled road because she could neither sell her bounty nor betray her duty by eating it to save her own life.
Agnes had to kick open the front door of the rental house because it was too swollen with moisture to simply swing in on its hinges. Inside, she found ants crawling in the kitchen sink, termite bodies burned to husks on the light bulbs, an earwig coiled in the bathtub drain, giant flying cockroaches that battened themselves against the screen door like drunken crop-dusters, fruit flies clustered on the mango and papaya that had been left by the previous renters in a bowl on the dining table, and a cane spider the size of her hand hunched in the corner of a kitchen cabinet.
This wasn’t the immaculate launch pad she had envisioned. Agnes set down her purse in the wicker decorated bedroom, plucked a water-stained copy of Michener’s “Hawaii” from one of the bookshelves and smashed every insect she could find. After sweeping them into a leggy pile, she tossed them into the garbage can outside, where a gecko froze on the handle in forlorn hope that she would not see him.
When she finished brushing her teeth that night, she looked into the mirror and hung a towel over it so she could not see herself anymore. Even these minor activities sheened her skin with perspiration. Hana means sauna. She took off her clothes and climbed into the mildewed sheets. Crickets buzzed outside her screen window and bufos croaked. Everywhere, from all points, lurid forms of life kept calling her attention away from perfect blackness. She got up and closed the glass window, cutting off the noise and the light breeze that carried in the scent of jasmine, ripening banana and ocean spray. Almost not-there, was the thought that carried her into exhausted sleep.
She jolted awake. Something skittered across the ceiling. She turned on the bedside lamp. A scarlet caterpillar with about eight hundred legs clung to the yellow plaster directly over her head. In the lamplight, its shadow stretched behind it, doubling its length. It didn’t move. Agnes didn’t move. The name came to her, as though terror had popped a synapse gone into remission since her college biology classes. Centipede. Poisonous. A baby had been bitten in Florida and died of anaphylactic shock.
Agnes made her hand lift from the covers to the nightstand and clutch the first thing her fingers touched, her reading glasses. She threw them at the centipede and missed. He dropped from the ceiling onto her bare foot and bit her big toe. Her reflexive kick sent him flying across the room, where he landed on her purse and skittled toward the bed. She lunged for the bathroom and slammed the door. The pain in her toe was unbelievable. She found two punctures, encircled by swelling, red flesh. Baking soda, Neosporin, a trip to the emergency room? This wasn’t in the plan. She sat on the edge of the bathtub, actually shaking. She didn’t turn red or start to itch or feel her throat close up. But she also couldn’t get up and open the door and go back into the bedroom. Finally, she pulled a couple of towels from the rack, made a bed in the tub, and fell asleep. When dawn inched through the bathroom window, her toe was the size of a cranberry muffin. A wolf spider gazed down at her from the chandelier of the overhead light.
Agnes put ice on her toe and phoned Sandra. She could hear the ocean, now that the crickets had shut up, a distant, rhythmic rushing that made her impatient to get on with it. When Sandra answered, Agnes demanded that the rental company send exterminators to the house, immediately. After a long silence, Sandra promised to send over a fumigation crew. Two hours later, men in shorts and flip flops arrived with a poison pump to spray the cabinets and the corners, keeping their eyes averted as though to avoid catching the mainlander’s disease of right now. After they left, Agnes hobbled to the bathroom and found black beetles collected on her toothbrush.
Out of habit she started to make the bed, and as she dragged the quilt from the floor and flapped it over the bed, the centipede flew free, struck the window and scooted under the bed as Agnes stampeded into the living room. Her chest heaved. It was the same centipede. She was sure of it.
This was war.
Agnes limped to the Hana elementary school library and used the computer to search the internet for centipedes, choosing “images.” Photographs of insects checkered the screen. She had never given a single thought to the fact that the sturdy concrete beneath her feet on sidewalks and streets was just a lid human beings had slammed over an underworld of crawling, biting, mating bugs that outnumbered homo sapiens by about a zillion to one. Somewhere in Africa termites had built homes the size of haystacks from mounds of earth, an insect Stonehenge. She watched a video of a male millipede forcing himself onto a female by using suction pads to uncoil her resistant body and inject her with sperm from his legs. And then there were the tree-dwelling bugs — Agnes couldn’t even bring herself to look at what they were named — that spewed ropes of mucous and descended them to meet and exchange reproductive fluids.
Taking a shuddering breath, Agnes made herself focus on centipedes. Scolopendro morpha, arthropod, maybe the first inhabitant of earth. After crawling out of the soup onto dry land, the holes in their aquatic bodies used for sucking oxygen out of seawater sprouted legs, twenty-one in all. Their front legs doubled as poisonous fangs. They could run at over 40 miles per hour, their opposing feet moving in sync like a harness racer. They thrived in warm, damp environments — as though she hadn’t already figured that one out — and ran toward predators as well as prey because they responded viscerally to motion. They couldn’t see. They felt.
Agnes clicked on with tremulous fingers and found over a dozen internet chat rooms devoted to discussions of how to kill centipedes. One blogger suggested immersing them in a bucket of bleach, “although dish soap works better” the writer added, without explaining why. Another suggested cutting off their food source, which was pretty much what Agnes thought she had done between the smeared paperback and the exterminators. One wit suggested, “Move out.”
A child in pigtails stood at Agnes’ elbow with a pile of geography textbooks in her arms. “Can I use the computer now?”
“Beat it,” Agnes said.
She scrolled through photographs of various species of centipede — one variation was as big as a man’s forearm, had the muscular strength of a python, and fed on fruit bats – and then limped back to the house, full of information and enraged at the delay these vicious worms had caused her. She stepped cautiously into the garage – damp, dark environments. Two surfboards were suspended by hooks on one wall, along with a yellow boogie board encrusted with salt. There was also an inflated gray rubber raft. That would be fine. And in the darkest corner, next to a rusted lawnmower, she found a stack of mud-encrusted gardening tools.
That night she waited up, leaving the lamp on until the centipede crept from the closet, waving its antennae like a frat boy in anticipation of a party. Agnes raised the hoe and let it drop onto the centipede’s midsection. The beast split in half, spilling clear goo. Agnes stood up to retrieve the dustpan and the broom, and the front half of the centipede flailed itself to a standing position and chased her to the bedroom door and onto the front lawn, where she lost sight of it in the dark grass. She found herself on the unlighted sidewalk, hoe in hand, her heart knocking in her throat. Two tourists out for a moonlight walk waved at her. “Hi! We’re the Huffingtons!”
“Nadia Comaneci,” Agnes said, and forced herself walk back into the house.
Back in the bedroom, the abandoned half of the centipede was being industriously dragged across the floor by rust colored carpenter ants. Centipedes traveled in twos, Agnes remembered from the internet, and groaned aloud as she arranged the towels in the tub for her second night in the bathroom.
There was no sleep that night. Agnes thought about her sister in Pocatello, and wondered if there was any justice in the fact that this woman who had cut herself off completely from Agnes and her mother shortly after receiving her law degree now stood to inherit the accumulations of Agnes’ existence, including the cemetery plot and its moldering contents. Within Agnes’ hearing, Mr. Splain had argued on the phone with the funeral director over the cost of the coffin, using the phrase “in this economy” as though he were an NPR commentator. What would her sister think, what had she ever thought, miles away at the tower end of her wall of silence, constructed out of childhood resentments or disinterest or god knows what – what? — Agnes had agonized daily, yearly, had never asked, and now would never know.
The worst thing wasn’t the stroke that had reduced her energetic mother to the state of a gaping newborn. The worst thing wasn’t that during what turned out to be her final week on earth, she unexpectedly brightened in recognition of Agnes and said, “Oh, you’re the nice one!” and Agnes had been too dumbfounded by her mother’s sudden cognizance to say something, anything that would have prevented her from hearing her mother’s next words: “Where’s the smart one?”
Agnes was a good citizen, a college graduate, kept a tidy house, gave money every year to the Sierra Club, and this is what it came down to, her mother, owl-eyed with confusion, being rolled off by a squat nurse to the bathroom for a sponge bath.
The worst thing was that when they finally lowered the casket into the ground, Agnes felt understanding explode inside her, like a faulty clay pot in a kiln, that the phone which had infrequently rung, the hugs meted out once a year on Christmas morning by unwritten rules that went all the way back to the Mayflower, the mother-daughter adult friendship that had never gotten past recipe tips, birthday cards and “I have to go, the other line’s ringing,” the not–there that had constituted her distant relationship with the distant woman who had created her distant self now amounted to even less than that, a not-there that was not even not there anymore to not be not there. It was like one of those hideous, late night college discussions she’d overheard in the college dining hall about the “vanishing signifier.” Except what those earnest undergraduate wits couldn’t know, until adulthood lowered the boom on their healthy minds and bodies, was that in lay terms, what they were yammering about meant heartbreak, heartbreak, heartbreak.
The dough-faced minister in his nice robe began his eulogy with “my friends.” Mrs. Splain (“the nice one”) obligingly tried to think: look how good your life is, there are people with so much less, people who are starving, people with no arms, people who are still buried under rubble in Haiti. Seize the day.
Agnes thought, Fuck that.
Now curled like a human earwig in the bathtub, she knew she should feel sorry for the Untouchable by the side of the road, but sorry and should were bridges back to the Sierra Club, Mr. Splain’s dandruff on the pillowcase and his not-so-secret girlfriend in Cleveland, back to thank you cards for the plastic-wrapped lasagnas on the kitchen table which she supposed were still there, since the refrigerator was full when she left the house for good. There had been not one square inch left in her opulent quiet refrigerator for the kindness of strangers.
In the morning, she forced her cramped body outside to take in a breath of fresh air. Mynahs cawed from the trees and something that looked like a weasel scuttled across the road with feathers dangling from its lips. Hana means food chain. Her next-door neighbor, an elderly man of mixed race in a tattered straw hat stood watering the banana trees. He nodded at her and grinned. She made herself say hello, and then just kept standing there on the lawn, thinking that the powerful sun actually felt good on her tile-chilled skin. The air was already heavy with plumeria-scented moisture, even her airplane-flattened hair smelled like flowers.
“You get bugs?” he said, his pidgin inflection turning the question into a singsong statement.
He must have seen the exterminators coming and going with their swan-necked poison guns.
“Centipedes,” she said.
He laughed, showing tobacco-stained teeth. He put his thumb on the spigot and sprayed the banana leaves so that they glistened with droplets.
“Need one chicken.”
The word came out “cheeken.”
Agnes was about to ask what was the use of a cheeken when she recalled the video on the internet of a rooster pecking a centipede to death. But she couldn’t keep engaging in this conversation, it was already turning into some horrible parody of the colonialist tableau, the outsider appealing to the local whose paradise had been overrun with haoles, white-skinned pests that could not be driven off by hoes, roosters, politics or even the heat. Instead she retrieved her purse and went into town, where she purchased a fat hen from the local farmer’s market and lugged it in its cage back to the cabana.
After placing the cage onto the floor of the kitchen, she opened the hatch. The hen stepped out and shook its feathers, spraying white powder across the floor. It had been dusted with talcum to look clean for buyers. Its actual color was a muddy yellow and its rear end was smeared with white and blue feces. It stepped around the kitchen, clucking. Agnes filled up its cage with shredded toilet paper and put a bowl of water in one corner. For the rest of the day she watched the chicken peck around the corners of the house, swallowing bits of smashed insects Agnes had overlooked. It didn’t seem afraid of her. It was busy being a chicken. It smelled like feathers, hay and manure.
It was almost like having a pet.
The swelling in her toe had subsided and the ache reduced to an occasional throb. At dusk Agnes walked to the Hasegawa General Store and bought a flare gun. She was afraid to buy a real gun because of the background check, which, like ownership of the industrious hen, friendly words with the neighbor, and nightly battles with centipedes already compromised her efforts to get gone, not there. The gun was made of bright red plastic, an Orion 12-gauge breech load that came with six rounds, although she planned on only needing one.
When she came home, the hen was nowhere to be found. She smelled barbecue from Mr. Takemoto’s front yard and saw smoke rising from a charcoal grill.
She called Sandra to complain. Sandra, obviously in possession of caller ID, refused to pick up until Agnes put her phone on redial and hit the button every time the answering machine picked up.
On the twenty fifth ring, Sandra answered with a strangled, “Aloha.”
Agnes explained that her property, one cheeken, had been bird-napped and cooked by her neighbor.
“The banana guy?”
“Mr. Takemoto owns the trees in front of your house. Centipedes are very good for banana groves. They eat the insects that would ruin the fruit.”
Agnes could feel Sandra wanting to shriek with laughter. She hung up.
So instead of just one round she would use two, the first launched at the banana trees after she had doused them in gasoline from the can next to the lawnmower. It was the first time she had fired a gun of any kind and the recoil jerked her hand into the air like an Olympic track official. The round struck the trees and the leaves curdled into blue flame. The fire department took about an hour to arrive, and by then the grove was blackened and smoking. The air reeked of cooked fruit. Agnes watched from her bedroom window but Mr. Takemoto did not appear.
When she drew back the sheets of the bed, the centipede dodged from underneath the pillow and dropped onto the floor. Agnes stomped her good foot and the centipede ran toward the bedroom door. Agnes chased it into the kitchen, where it launched itself into the abandoned hen cage and burrowed under the poop sodden tissue. The wire mesh of the cage was big enough to permit roaches, maybe, but not the escape of anything larger, and Agnes slammed the hatch and threw the bolt.
That night she slept in her bed and in the morning felt rested for the first time. Her body stank of unwashed clothes, greasy hair, bus exhaust, and even, immutably, flowers. But the centipede was still in the cage. She thrust her face as close as she dared to the mesh and studied it. Its partitioned exoskeleton gleamed as though it had spent the night polishing itself, like a self-cleaning weapon. A half-devoured baby lizard was splayed in bloody ruin in the corner of the cage.
But he was still in the cage.
Movement from underneath the tissue made her jerk back. Another centipede, shorter and flatter, with a yellowish shell, scrabbled forth and nosed at the lizard corpse. Had he come with the cage? Had the centipede she’d trapped divided itself like an amoeba? Were they going to mate and produce a hundred baby centipedes that would wiggle through the mesh like tiny convicts and scatter throughout the house?
She was on the verge of pouring dish soap over the top of the cage when the first centipede pounced on the second, wrapped its tail around the victim’s body, and sank its fangs into its head. The second one kicked its legs and lay still.
Agnes put back the dish soap and took a shower, carefully shaking out her bath towel before rubbing down her body. When she came back out the centipede was crouched over the corpse of its luckless roommate, using its front legs to shield its meal like a starving child huddled over a plate of food handed over by an insouciant international aid worker. The bowl of water had been knocked over, and the killer’s body gleamed with liquid.
Enough. Eventually the water would evaporate, and the centipede would die of dehydration. Victory was hers. Time to go. A roach skittered across the floor and Agnes stomped it into brown flakes with her bare foot.
The telephone rang and Agnes picked it up, positive it would be the local police investigating the torched banana grove. Through the screen door she could see Mr. Takemoto diligently hoeing the detritus of his trees back into the hose-moistened ground.
“I’ve got another renter lined up for tomorrow,” Sandra said. “I’m so sorry, it was a scheduling mix up, I’m terrible with calendars, but you’re going to have to leave, absolutely I’ll refund your deposit, it’s really out of my hands, people I have to answer to, you have to understand, you have to,” Sandra said, “leave, okay?”
“Mahalo nui loa, and I hope you have a wonderful day.”
“I’m Sandra. I thought you were Dolores.”
“I am Dolores.”
While darkness fell, Agnes sat on the toilet and wondered what it felt like to pray.
Through the window, she could hear guitar music from Mr. Takemoto’s house. The chords were open and sweet, and the music swung like a carefree child on monkey bars. The sound of the guitar could have been beams of light springing up a ladder that evaporated into stardust behind it. Laughter punctuated the strumming, and an ukulele picked up a rollicking harmonic line. Agnes had no doubt that she could walk next door and join the party — stolen chicken, burned bananas and all — be offered a beer and sit among the easeful circle of musicians. Someone coughed and the musty smell of marijuana intertwined with the sensations beating at Agnes’ stiff body.
No. She stuffed the flare gun into her pants waist and checked on the centipede. He was lying motionless like a broken twig. Already dead? Two of his feet rustled slightly. Did centipedes dream? What did it matter? It didn’t, but she opened the door of the cage and left it ajar. Then she went into the garage, and dragged the gray raft into the backyard. On second thought she returned to the house and retrieved her purse, which contained her wallet and driver’s license. If she washed up somewhere, it would give whomever cared closure – a word the psychiatrist at the hospital had used. They were standing right next to the bed where Agnes’ mother lay under a jungle of respirator tubes and heart monitors, speech, consciousness, maybe even dreams sucked into the draining whirlpool of dying.
“If you could say one thing to your mother,” the woman had asked, “what would it be?”
The psychiatrist was standing a little too close to her and a jelly stain marred the lapel of her white coat. But Agnes was still the nice one, and tried to think of an answer just to be polite.
There wasn’t anything that wasn’t abhorrently inadequate. Goodbye was the only right answer, and Agnes couldn’t speak. The psychiatrist patted her shoulder and then her beeper went off.
It was a two-block walk to the beach. Clouds intercepted the moonlight and turned trees into inkblots. The raft snagged once on a discarded hubcap and Agnes kicked it free, the hubcap rattling in her wake like yet another living thing. Did the relentless sun and ocean air inject even inanimate objects with primal consciousness? She half-expected the hubcap to sprout legs and jingle behind her like a metallic spider. Hana means evolution gone nuts.
The beach was empty. Languorous waves came and went, washing over tiny holes in the sand, from which small white crabs emerged until the next tide poured them back into their dugouts. The sea looked calm and black. What was all this about dangerous waters? Agnes placed her purse on the rippled bottom of the raft and pushed the raft into the water. She climbed in, careful not to wet the gun in her pants lining, and immediately a powerful current pulled her away from shore. The raft bobbed and within seconds Agnes was soaked. As the waves grew larger the raft began to roll from side to side. The lights of Hana retreated. Behind the town the mountains joined shoulders in solid ridges of unpopulated blackness. At least, because of their height, they would never have to endure bulldozers cutting squares in their bodies for real estate offices, tourist rentals, cemetery plots. They would stand alone for centuries, unless that giant asteroid people always talked about finally arrowed into earth, exploding the planet into wet tatters like a water balloon. Agnes envied those black ridges, or tried to, as the waves grew rougher and her fear grew.
She pulled the flare gun free and loaded the breech. One shot into the bottom of the raft ought to do it. She had never learned how to swim. Her mother, who had lived through the polio epidemic of the 50’s, had a deathly fear of public swimming pools. Despite what had seemed grotesque unfairness to eight-year-old Agnes at the time, her mother had tried to protect her. “I said no,” she told Agnes, and Agnes, cowed by the sharpness of her tone, had not asked again.
The moon emerged from the clouds. A wave tipped the raft up then smackingly down. Water sloshed into the boat. It wanted her, at least; the ocean would take her whole. In the bright light of the moon, Agnes pointed the gun at the floor of the raft. Her purse, tipped over, trembled, and the centipede crawled out of its side pocket. Free of the confining leather, he clutched at the damp bottom of the boat.
He could swim to shore, she was sure. Or could he? Would her body wash up with a centipede clinging to her hair? Was she his raft back to the island? Or had his kind adapted so completely to land that he would drown, too, his sprinting tendrils useless now, flailing as he sank to the bottom of the sea? She gripped the trigger, aimed at the centipede.
One, two, three.
Her trigger finger didn’t move. The centipede didn’t move. The raft heaved.
Well well, she thought, a phrase her mother had used when referring to something out of her hands, a casserole knocked off the dining table by an unruly dog, a newspaper article about twins reunited after being told they were orphans, the letters to the sister in Pocatello never answered, the end of Christmas day. Well, well, and she would go on to the next thing, whatever that was, always something, cooking, cleaning, shopping, sleeping, dying.
Agnes raised the flare gun and fired into the starlit sky, where the round exploded in a yellow and red shower. She tossed the gun into the raft, and the centipede pounced, whipping his tail around the muzzle. She thought about stretching out her hand, inviting the bite. She could then dip her savaged hand into the roiling sea. The salt might clean the wound before rescue arrived, if it arrived, and Agnes had no idea if it would, but something very strange was happening to her face. She was smiling.
K.K. Roeder grew up in Hawaii, went to college on the East Coast, where she saw snow and squirrels for the first time, and majored in English and Creative Writing. A little while after that, she went back to grad school in English Literature, thinking that she wanted to become a college English professor, but then changed her mind and moved to New York to work in the film business. A little while after that, she moved to Crested Butte, Colorado, took an EMT-B course and got exalted about becoming a medical provider. Currently, she works as a PA-C in HIV/hepatitis C specialty services in Santa Fe.
Five Questions with K.K. Roeder
TD: Tell us a little about this story? Where did the idea come from?
KR: I grew up in Hawaii, where centipedes command robust respect and fear. My mother was once chased through a department store by a centipede, which fell out of a blouse she was trying on in the dressing room. I have a friend who sold her property on the Big Island because she couldn’t deal with the centipedes. Somehow the idea of a confrontation between a repressed woman who thinks she wants to die with a being that savagely protects its own life more or less emerged through the process of writing.
TD: Who is your greatest writing influence?
KR: Probably J.D. Salinger.
TD: What is your favorite place to write and why?
KR: Anywhere I can force myself to sit down and write works for me.
TD: Favorite word?
KR: Too many to name.
TD: Do you have a favorite reading ritual?
KR: I’m the freak who shows up for a short airplane flight and brings two books, a magazine, and a Kindle, and then buys another book at the airport. It’s a disease.