The cockroach hovered like a lend-lease dirigible
I DON'T think I grew up with cockroaches. Maybe I've forgotten and we did coexist in the various apartments and houses of my childhood. But my mother's attitude toward bugs was not as malevolent as some mothers'. Although in college she concentrated on piano, art history, Latin, and French, and at 25 won a national playwriting award, at 35 in Guatemala she was collecting boxes of insects for Chicago's Field Museum. In my parents' sojourns in the Philippines, France, Japan, Cyprus, Lebanon, Portugal, Spain, Thailand, Nigeria, the Virgin Islands, less exotic Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Washington, and finally Coconut Grove, although they were not scientists, they had ample opportunity for entomological investigations. Yet I don't remember complaints about bugs.
Frankly, I find mosquitoes and flies merely annoying but wasps terrifying, though last spring, moving into a ramshackle farmhouse which wasps inhabited before we did, I learned a limited laissez faire. Still, I grew up regarding insects with curiosity. And I get lost in insect books with all the Latin monikers and homier common names - aquatic puyralid moth, pale-legged tree-fungus beetle, two-tooth longhorn, constricted flowerbug, brush-footed fritillary - the stuff of poetry, although a sharp editor would have bluepenciled the surfeit of adjectives.
Only at 28 did I meet cockroaches I remember. We had just moved to Washington. At a dinner party in historic Georgetown, our host with a grand gesture lighted the candles on the table, and lo, the walls danced an avant-garde ballet of jointed legs and graceful antennae.
``The best houses in Georgetown,'' said my mother, ``have roaches.''
Or, as poet Elizabeth Follin-Jones updated it, ``The best roaches have houses in Georgetown.''
Farther out in Cleveland Park, we entertained May beetles, June bugs, ants in July, yellow jackets in August, crickets in September. Sometimes too many. But no roaches.
Meanwhile, my own children were developing their interests in insects.... At 6, Alexander brought me a miniature tyrannosaurus which explored his fingers, probosis crooked, gray armor crenelated, arched, and spiked, its el-bows/knees right angles as it stepped up his arms and then onto my desk. The prehensile feet crept up my pencil tip, antennae waved at me, while cycles of unfinished work - larvae, pupae, wet-winged thoughts - buzzed, gestated on my desk. But I thanked him for his fine assassin bug, insect-sat it for an hour, only later read that they can sting. This didn't....
A fortnight in an unfinished and unscreened house on St. Thomas, where every evening the extensive collection of moths on the ceilings was different and always amazing, almost prepared me for Malaysia.
There are 200 species of dragonflies in the Malay Peninsula, my 1956 encyclopedia informed me, at least 900 species of lepidoptera, and insects ``diverse beyond computation, and many groups are imperfectly known.''
I computed and knew, however imperfectly, many in the course of 362 humid days and nights scented with jasmine, curry, and fish in the east coast village of Sungai Karang (meaning ``river of shells''). Little house lizards called chi-cheks were kept busy bug-catching, as were our ivory chickens, which sometimes slipped in the back door. (The rooster, auburn and bronze, stalked through the front door, followed by a black hen which frequently laid a speckled egg on my pillow.) The iridescent emerald beetles were surely too huge for chickens or lizards, as were the brown millipedes (disconcerting but harmless) and the red centipedes (deservedly infamous) which scuttled under the inch-high crack between doors and floors.
While interesting to observe, neither insects nor chickens fulfilled me emotionally. I loved Malaysia, yet it also marks a frequently lonely period in my life, especially until I learned to communicate in Malay, and until I met other writers. We had no phone, and though the village postman would steam up on his red motorcycle with letters from my favorite editor, otherwise mail seemed to cross the Pacific by sea turtle and the jungles by rhinocerous hornbill....
But exciting trips compensated for occasional loneliness. The jungle clearing where I went camping with Alex-ander, then 13, and Wan, his Malay pal, by night was ringed with glowworms, and large Cecropia-like moths came to our candles. At dawn we found prints of a tiger. Dawn also brought hordes of fat, furry wasps with orange cummerbunds. Each day more of them swarmed to our sunlit clearing and mistook the flowers on my sarong for real. Quickly switching to plain beige clothes, I fled to the shady trails wasps ignored.
But I don't remember one cockroach. Until Penang.
Alexander and I traveled all day by rickety intercity taxi from Sungai Karang west across the Malay Peninsula, north by overnight train, by ferry west to the island of Penang, and by pedicab in all directions until we found a $2-a-night hotel. The room was large and airy, with two clean beds and a welcome overhead fan. Washroom was across the wide central hall. The hall had a table and two chairs. After a day of exploring the island, inhabited mostly by Chinese Malaysians, and a supper of sea cucumbers, shark fins, and noodles, Alexander - a wonderful traveling companion who, like me, loved to explore every temple and lane and trail - soon fell asleep. The other hotel guests also turned in early. I sat at that bare hall table half the night writing.
But I was not alone for long.
The cockroach hovered like a lend-lease dirigible, five inches long plus extensive feelers, then slowly walked down the wall and onto the other chair. All evening it sat (or stood) beside me, six feet (or hands) poised to scurry elsewhere. Since its species predated vertebrates and would outlive man, I could not repudiate its right to a seven-inch span of space, shared time, and the fire of the kerosene lamp.
Furthermore, I admired its ability to decamp: When threatened, run, survive in the crack, be patient, hide from the searchlight of sun, later resume your station.
As it did the following nights as well, keeping me under observation, or merely keeping me company. And so, in addition to some scientific interest, in time I felt a sort of gratitude.