THE THEATER MIRROR, Boston's LIVE Theater Guide



Copyright 1996 by the author, Larry Stark

I was alone on the top floor of the library stacks that morning, as usual, shelving books that had been returned the previous afternoon. It was the second day of what later turned out to be a rather severe cold, though at the time not even my sneezing and runny nose had gotten as bad as they would. The closing of schools had flooded the library with returns. They overflowed the storage-shelves provided for them, and lay heaped in uneven piles on the work-table near the stairs, and upon the chairs. The job was oppressive in its immensity, and the cool, dry morning air chilled me into frequent fits of sneezing. The work progressed slowly, as it always seems to do when one is alone. The shelves were so full I had no free space on which to sort books and until I had cleared enough of them away, that part of the job remained half done. I had removed all the books to the left side of the aisle, and had taken two cart-loads to the right, when I saw the winged animal.

I have always hated insects, large flying insects most of all. This creature, however, seemed a compendium of all my worst fears given physical shape. Its body was over an inch long, with a long, thick black tail. Its head was an incredibly tiny triangle of dull, smokey-orange color which seemed, as most insects of this size do, to wear an impersonally cruel scowl. Its four stubby, misshapen wings seemed to sprout where a neck or shoulders ought to be found, and they projected forward and back, leaving a wide cleft between. Motionless as they were the black wings looked as inert and lifeless as the wings of a maple-seed, and just as irregularly warped and striated. I took no notice of the creature's legs but, hanging downward from the dull, black body, in a position where I might expect to find a mouth, two bright orange filaments hung which twitched and jerked almost like the forks of a snake's tongue with an irregularity I cannot forget.

The winged animal didn't move. In fact it seemed not to notice me at all. I stifled a shriek when I first recognized what the creature was and that it was alive, and I could feel my body contort with disgust and horror. I stood, tensed and gasping, staring at the ugly shape of the thing, fascinated by the jerking filaments. The creature had perched on one of the metal-wire book- ends that projected down at the end of each shelf. I suddenly wondered what my reactions would have been had I reached blindly for that clamp and found the creature by touching it. I shivered and turned away, too shaken to think further. I emptied the cart and returned to the storage-shelves, feeling insect fingers scrabble across my shoulders and up the back of my neck.

I sorted another load mechanically. "I'll have to kill it," I decided, fearing the thought of such an act almost as much as the sight of the animal itself. "Hit it quickly ... with a book ... give it no chance to escape ... " As I approached the spot, I rehearsed every motion, forced myself at every point to review the consequences of a misstep. Fear and revulsion were driving me into a hysterical assault on the object I feared most.

I approached along the shelf between the rows of books and stood for a moment, paralysed at the task ahead. I suddenly abandoned the project, scooped up three books in my arm, and stood before the shelves, looking -- unseeing -- for their appointed places. "Get it over with," I decided. I had a book in my right hand, grasped low down at the binding. In a step the creature came in sight, and as I took the next I swung the wide, flat side of the book swiftly at the insect. I heard the metal of the book-end squeak, like a surprised shout, as the blow forced it back along its track, and I jumped and dodged back along the shelf to a place of safety --- a place where I could no longer see what I might have done.

I crouched there a moment, gasping fish-mouthed, feeling suddenly sick. "It's done," I thought, glancing toward the place. I searched out its spot on the shelf and deposited my murder- weapon there, careful to touch it only by the lower end, tapping it into place with another book, ever on the lookout for bug's blood. The side of the book bore a faint scratch but no stain of any kind. "It's done," I thought.

I emptied the cart, working my way again down the rows of shelves away from the storage area, and away from my deed. But all the while I knew it wasn't finished. It was not enough to strike the blow. I had to see the corpse. The load of books was finished and I began the return trip, trying to ignore the fact that I must pass the spot. But as I came abreast of it, I could control my eyes no longer. I looked, and my body stiffened and knotted to prevent another scream. I had knocked the metal clamp back up against the last book on the shelf. And there, with that thick black tail wedged between, hung the winged animal, its tiny black legs straining vainly to pull free, its faceted head craned, it seemed, upward, away from the book, in an almost pleading attitude, the stubby black wings occasionally shaken with its attempts to get free.

I pushed quickly past and fled down the aisle. I stood, unable to continue my work, my mind dwelling in numb fascination on the subject. "Its tail is crushed under that clamp," I reasoned. "It will probably die soon of that alone. And if it does not, it will starve or dehydrate." I remembered the empty husks of other insects seen before. But even as I did I realized I would not be content with such a course. I would pass that spot twice with every cart-load of books I returned to the shelves --- an endless number, from the look of the table and chairs. "No," I decided, "I'll have to finish the job, now."

Once again I returned to the spot, but from the far end of the shelved. I peeped at the creature, hoping it might have died in the meantime. Its furious struggles had stopped, but it still strained upward in that plaintive fashion, and as I watched it moved once or twice. A plan formed in my mind. Obviously, though pinned the winged animal had not been as severely crushed as I'd thought. I retreated a step down the shelf, and placed my hands on the backs of the books. This time I wouldn't even have to strike at the thing. If I merely widened the crack between the books, that would press them more tightly up against the creature's pinned tail, killing it. I tugged at the volumes, inserted my fingers, and drew them apart. But, to my horror, the top edge of the last book caught the clamp and forced the wire to bend outward, Away from the book! I heard a soft Plup as I saw its body drop onto the shelf, and then with a swish I only thought I heard I saw the curve of its flight deeper into the simple maze of shelves. I pressed my hand to my mouth and swallowed several times, breath rasping into my plugged nostrils. My eyes bulged, and I quivered in every limb.I went back and filled another cart- load of books. Then instead of rolling them back into the maze, I began clearing a shelf and setting the books in order. The insect, I realized, was softer than I had first suspected, when its horn- shaped wings gave me the impression of gnarled toughness. It bore no resemblance to a wasp. And those wings, short and set wide apart, were really inefficient in flight. Yet, though tormented and hurt, the winged animal was still very much alive, and still on the third floor, somewhere.

I sorted books mechanically for a few moments, tense and exhausted, before I fled the floor entirely and set to work shelving on the floor below. The next day the cold took hold and became much worse. I was apparently close to delirium. After two days in bed nursing the cold away from work, I had no problem on my return. I recalled the incident occasionally, when passing the scene of the crime, but without much real emotion. On the third- floor landing, when I returned, was the crushed and smeared body of an insect. I could not tell if it was the winged animal or not.

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THE THEATER MIRROR, Boston's LIVE Theater Guide