A close encounter with our dark and dirty friends
I know that summer has officially arrived in Hong Kong because the sidewalks are littered with them. Fossilised carcasses of coffee-coloured critters squashed to death by rush hour stampedes, or the wheels of cargo trolleys trundling the streets in the early hours of the morning. On the bitumen roads, juveniles flattened by cars or lorries, then dehydrated in the robust midday sun, are as thin and flaky as wafer. The dead ones are just the beginning. In the early weeks of summer, there are still more of us than them. As we move into the hotter, muggier days of the season, when the city reeks, they begin to breed with gusto, their eggs hatch, their larvae grow, and the streets teem with live ones.
Once I saw a fruit vendor pouring boiled water from an old metal kettle down the openings of the grate of a curbside sewer, near where the tarmac meets the sidewalk, just a few feet away from his wooden racks stacked with papayas and watermelons. It was early evening; I had bought some fruit and was waiting for my change. A smell like rotten clams, kimchi and soiled damp rags rose from the pit in the ground, along with the steam from the water that the vendor had poured into it. Out they came, disgorged by the bowels of the city, dozens of shiny black beasties with yellow-rimmed heads and reedy antennas. Scuttering out of the sewers and onto the road, disappearing into the night, or perhaps into the fruit stall to make a warm bed amidst a pile of mushy, decaying mangoes.
As the days get hotter and longer, I wait for them. I know it is only a matter of time before they show up on the balcony of my thirty first floor apartment. I once thought that they arrived at my sanctuary by crawling up the façade of the building, or perhaps they climbed up the rainwater drainage pipes and exited at the corner of my balcony through the outlet grate. Then one afternoon, I caught sight of one flying pass my closed bedroom window and surmised that the ones that showed up on my balcony were probably making pit stops in mid flight. I had always thought they existed only in the gutters, in garbage heaps, dark alleyways or underneath broken tiles in grotty toilets on street level, but it seems they are lofty creatures that soar to great heights.
The first of them arrived yesterday. I was about to hang my laundry out on the balcony to dry when I saw her. Basking in the sun, looking as sleek and raven-glossed as licorice. I went into the kitchen and grabbed the bug spray. I love the smell of that synthetic killer. It makes me feel safe, powerful, in control. Big. I slid the glass balcony door open just a few inches, enough space for me to thrust my forearm out and aim the nozzle at her, but not so wide that she might get any ideas and fly into my living room.
I spritzed but missed her by a whisker. But some of the poison must have landed on her, either that or the fumes got to her, because she whizzed about like a drunkard, then spun like a top. When she regained her balance and made a move towards me, I pulled my arm back in and slammed the balcony door shut.
I studied her from inside.
Was she going to die? Would I have to shovel her dead body onto a piece of scrap paper then flush her down the toilet? Or would she wobble about in a trance for a few minutes before turning over? Most of the time, I drown them in the bug spray; I go heavy on the stuff so a portion of the balcony floor is slicked in insecticide grease. I need to be sure they are dead. Motionless. D-E-A-D. I know about their zombielike tendencies. I’ve read that their bodies can remain animated for weeks even after they’ve been decapitated. One magazine reported that even their severed heads retain life well past a week. I also read that they can go a month without food, and have no problems surviving nuclear disasters.
Last summer, I thought one of my balcony invaders was dead. He was on his back, looking like a crispy, alien baby with six fowl furry twigs for arms and legs. But when I went to scoop him up, he started twitching again, so I had to smother him before disposing of his body. With a huge pile of kitchen paper towels resting in my right hand like an oven mitt without the backhand section of cloth, I picked him up and wrapped him in the pile. I felt him writhing beneath the paper. I squeezed hard, crushing him until movement ceased. I flushed the paper-towel-casket down the toilet bowl. I hate having to go out on the balcony and clean up these messes. I hate having to have such close contact with them.
Yesterday’s visitor was good though. She didn’t just roll over, and she relieved me of the odious duty of undertaker. She started flapping her wings, then rose about three and a half feet off the balcony floor. I looked at her hovering in one spot for a few seconds. With the glass door as a shield, there was less than two feet of distance between her and me. I’ve never had this close and this lengthy an encounter with one in flight before. Most of the time when I see them, they are on the ground, loitering in groups behind garbage cans like bored gangsters, zigzagging across pavements like frantic, office workers nursing hangovers, or meditating alone in dark corners, antennas flickering about, perhaps in search of transcendence. I’ve always thought of them as pedestrians or subterranean dwellers rather than swift and graceful denizens of the air. Through the glass door, she looked more like a purposeful bee or a mighty hornet than a filthy roach, maybe even a butterfly if I squint my eyes. Then she flew off the balcony and away from me.
I wondered if she would make it.
I’ve read that if the world as we know it comes to an end, if the mountains and the buildings crumble to dust, and the trees and the flowers and the animals and the people all die, cockroaches will still roam the earth. Her kind will outlive my kind. I will kill her every time, but she will show up again. Until, one day I am no longer here to kill her.
Copyright® Michele Koh Morollo 2015