Centipede

He was a big one and had fallen into my
bathroom sink in the hours after dark.
He had been resting there quietly, I
supposed, until the light I snapped on
drove him suddenly frantic. His was
not the only frenzy; nothing like a
stranger in the bedroom facility to
bring a sleepy midnight peer wide awake.
He made several panicked charges up
the porcelain sides of the bowl almost,
but not quite, making it ... almost hooking
a toe, a claw, a hook or whatever he had
over the edge and gaining his escape.
But each time he slid back to the drain
plug, and after several mad attempts
rested, and, as I imagined, eyed me
with menace in his tiny heart. I managed
to catch my breath, but each move I made
forward or back only prompted another
Gadarene plunge up the slippery slope.
He was, in fact, a marvelous little horror,
his hundred legs a harmony of rippling
coordination commanded, I guessed, from
superb synapses up and down the twisting
brown spine. His dictionary definition ... had I
had it handy... would have been cold comfort:
a predatory myriapod invertebrate.
“Predatory” on lesser household mites, I’m
told. I am not comforted. Time stopped
as we watched each other anxiously.
I thought of him exploring at leisure the
objects on my bathroom countertop, razor,
comb, and, of course, my toothbrush...
before toppling blindly down the sink.
I see three or four of these each year, no more.
The last, one morning on our stove top,
but he slipped down a counter crevice
and disappeared behind the oven. Yes,
they are there along baseboards and
behind the joists and sheetrock we call
home. At last I wadded the long piece
of toilet paper I would crush him with.
I couldn’t very well leave him there to
greet me at sunrise. Or worse, not be
there at all. No silent ritual this; I knew the awful
crunch this maneuver produced. The crackling
snapping pop, the frightened push and pinch, and
mandatory peek to see you never quite grab
them square. Always the still-twitching remnants
before the hurried flush. Worse yet, the poet
in you goes to work and ends your night of sleep.
All things symbolize something else, of course.
It’s how we make meanings of things, how we
understand the world... as if the world actually
could be understood. Nothing has meaning in and
of itself, of course. Remember that for starters...
and for endings. And so we make a synecdoche,
a metonymy of the world, the parts for the whole.
The Earth is a ball, and God just a bigger man,
part of the thing He made, His spirit like the breath
a dead man lacks, He then blows into a handful
of dust to make it breathe again... and on and on,
whole universes imagined from their parts. So now
we struggle with a world pandemic. How are we to
understand this thing called virus. Well it’s a germ,
isn’t it? A “bug” some call it. A tiny, evil centipede,
let us say, out to kill us all. So is the centipede a
metonymy for death? Sure, if we all agree to let it
be, or merely indulge momentarily the foolish story
teller who suggests it. But wait. In my little sink
drama, I was the killer. I killed him. Shakespeare
says, “The beetle that we tread upon feels a pang
as great as when a giant dies.” But that is just the
pang, the sudden crunch. The centipede felt the pang,
no doubt, but that is the merest moment. A bug,
lacking the foreknowledge of death... or anything
else... feels not the lifelong pang that death’s
foreknowledge is. And does he even die, lacking
any real self knowledge. His only individuality is
his species, which has a life span far superior
to mine. He is a much better metonymy for Life...
and I for death. They say that in the brief weeks
civilization has sequestered at home in this
pandemic, the highways have emptied, fossil fuels
have stopped burning, skies have cleared, and wild
animals have ventured forth to see what’s going on.
It’s almost as if our planet were taking control and
saying, “Clearly you have no intention of saving me,
so I will now save myself by crunching the deadly
bi-pod insect that plagues me.” Imagine forward then
when mother Earth sends the next, or next, or next
virus that finishes the job this one began... when
all the cars will then rust back to earthy oxides, when
no more fossil fuels burn, the skies clear themselves
of greenhouse gasses, the Earth cools, the tundras
refreeze, glaciers are reborn, and the polar bear reclaims
Hudson Bay. Then will our gated mansions collapse
into their own basements, trees will reoccupy those
spaces where the centipedes once roamed our rafters,
and the centipedes will live on happily in those
trees which were their Mesozoic homes in times
before times began. The centipede then is surely Life,
and I... to quote Robert Oppenheimer who knew it first...
“... am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”