In the corridor outside my bedroom, I’m eyeballing a dead mosquito that I squashed against the mirror. My face is so close that I can see the pores in my forehead as the dead mosquito might have seen them — a hundred thousand points of entry. Pushed up against its reflection the way it is, it resembles two ballerinas crashing into one another, legs akimbo. On the mirror there is a trail of blood going from right to left that describes the blow that killed it. The blood, now rust-coloured, is or was mine. The dead mosquito looks into the mirror at its double, and the dead reflection stares dispassionately back at itself, witnessing its own death for eternity, or at least until I clean it off, which I have no intention of ever doing. I will leave it there as a trophy, as a warning to the others.
All this time, my ankle calls out to be roughly scratched.
When I look back at the days I used to hop and clap around my room trying to sandwich a mosquito between my palms, I see myself as comically prehistoric. Nowadays I seek out mosquitos where they live using my Miky Vietnam Rechargeable Electronic Mosquito Bat. It is man’s greatest achievement since the wheel.
Directly below the mirror where the dead mosquito is trapped in his death-loop there is a stack of dusty picture frames leaning up against the wall. Before I killed the mosquito, I moved the frame nearest the wall and a cloud of mosquitos flew up from behind it. I was at once disgusted by their numbers and exhilarated at the sound of the electric bat, crackling and popping as it killed two, three and four at a time. There must have been whole generations in there. All the while I kept my thumb firmly planted on the red button so that the ones who were stuck to the bat from the beginning had sizzled to crisp flecks of carbon by the time I was done. When there were no more left to kill, and the air was thick with a smell like burnt hair, I counted 24 dead mosquitos between the yellow floor tiles and the metal latticework of my bat.
Then I saw the dead mosquito smeared against the mirror. I walked right up to it and said, “Gotcha, you bastard”.
Out of the corner of my eye I noticed my housemate leaning against his doorframe. I had no idea how long he’d been watching me.
“Everything okay?” he said.
The tip of my nose was touching the mirror. I turned to him. “Yeah man… just… you know, killing mosquitos.”
“I thought I heard someone laughing.”
“Really?” I said. “That’s weird.”
When I was a boy growing up in Ireland, my family home was wall to wall with Christian icons. And although Jesus stared back at me from most walls, God the Father was, for the most part, conspicuously absent. Of course, He was much harder to draw because He was an abstract notion. Also, there’s the artist’s difficulty in personifying The Creator — every detail becomes significant.
Take Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, for example. In it, God is shown as a kindly older man with a grey beard, but even here you could see how careful the artist had to be to avoid upsetting the Church. Sure, God is a man in his senior years, Michelangelo conceded, but He is also virile — look at those body-builder arms, that thick head of hair. And chicks? Man, He is up to His neck in them.
Notably, He’s the only one in this picture wearing clothes, which is odd when you consider the fact that God chastised Adam and Eve for covering themselves up in the Garden of Eden. However, I can only guess at the mental hurdles Michelangelo must have went through trying to decide the size of the All-Father’s penis: It should be big in comparison to Adam’s modest cashew, certainly, but not boastful. Nor should it look as though God is rocking a semi-boner as He reaches out to touch Adam. Rather than open this can of worms, Michelangelo rightly decided to avoid the issue entirely and slap a pink tunic on Him.
While most artists avoided drawing God for fear of blasphemy, when it came to drawing Satan their imaginations ran amok. My aunt is a nun and my uncle is a priest, so as a child I was exposed to a rich bank of material that offered up Satan as an all too real and present notion that could be illustrated a thousand different ways.
Take your pick, the artists seemed to say: Satan is a shadow, a goat, a serpent, a horned man, two women gossiping. But of all his many incarnations, none frightened me more than Beelzebub, the Lord of Flies and carrier of pestilence. When I was five, we had a nest of bluebottles under our dining room floorboards, so that’s how I imagined him: a bluebottle, except as big as a bear, with glistening mandibles and bristled legs as thick as broom handles.
Today when I consider my ongoing war with biting insects, I return to that image of Beelzebub — except now he’s a mosquito.
In my house in Kim Lien, I am tormented by them, as I’m sure everyone in Hanoi is. I spend much of my free time researching mosquitos trying to find either a humanising quality or some weakness. So far I have found neither. What I have found is an abundance of slow motion, high-definition, super-zoomed-in videos of mosquitos sucking blood.
I’ve learned they kill more people than all other animals put together. The WHO put the average number of deaths they caused in 2012 at 627,000. They transmit malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever and encephalitis, and there’s a half-arsed rumour that Himmler looked into using malaria-infected mosquitos against Allied troops. A friend told me that Bram Stoker’s Dracula was inspired in equal parts by Vlad the Impaler and mosquitos. He said when a mosquito finds you asleep at night, it buzzes in your ear, and it does this intentionally, to ‘anger up the blood’ and get it pumping faster. I have chosen to believe this, and every other bad thing I hear about mosquitos.
For example: In the North Pole, when the sun melts the snow the air gets so thick with mosquitos that it causes the migrating caribou to stampede, and each year hundreds of newborn calves are trampled to death by their own parents. It is said of the famous arctic mosquito that if there were any more of them they’d have to be smaller.
I am reminded of a line from the Book of Mark when Jesus asks a man possessed by the Devil what his name is. The man says, “My name is legion, for we are many.”
I got another fresh bite. This time on my hand. “Bastards,” I said, even though I know it’s only female mosquitos that bite. I cannot bring myself to call them “bitches”; this seems needlessly misogynistic. “Bastards,” I said again, and rising from my chair, I took up my mosquito bat and ambled about the house. Swinging the bat jauntily in wide loops, like a rich man would twirl his cane, I went from room to room listening for that distinctive crackle.
I zapped one and laid his body out on a small white piece of paper to get a good look at how he’s put together. I brought my head in close and my breath made a sail of his tiny wings, fluttering once more as if he were alive, as if I were breathing life back into him. I felt like a God. One of his wings was doubled over on itself from where it had touched the electric grid. I unfolded a paper clip to poke at him, and when I did he wheeled his legs like a dreaming dog.
Up to now I supposed that pain was not really an issue for mosquitos. They were either alive or dead, but the divide between one and the other marked by pain and fear did not exist for them. But poking that stunned mosquito, I could see his panic and how much he desperately wanted to cling to life and get away from me. I probably should have put it out of its misery then and there.
Instead, I took the piece of card and tipped the mosquito on to the bat where it lay on its back. The bat was low on power, so only a dim charge ran through it, not enough to kill the mosquito but certainly enough to cause it pain. I hit the red button and he seized up. When I released the button and the current passed, he began his frenzied dance once more. Then I zapped it again. And again. And it didn’t die. It couldn’t, even if it wanted to. I reminded myself of all the times I had woken up scratching with bites on my toes, the tip of my elbow, my forehead. I gave him another jolt. That a mosquito could communicate its suffering was a marvellous novelty to me, so I kept this up for another ten minutes.
When I finally got bored I put him back on the white piece of card and stabbed him through the belly with the point of the paper clip. He sat in a pool of my blood with his legs slowly flailing.
“That’s my blood,” I said to it. Its legs and wings flapped again in the gust of my breath. “And now I am going to kill you.”
And so I took the paper clip and drove the point of it through the mosquito’s head.
Consider it: your mother abandoned you at birth. Your father was nothing more than a sperm donor. Your life begins on the surface of a dank swamp huddled together with your brothers and sisters. They hatch into the water dozens at a time and are gobbled up by dragonfly nymph just as quickly as they are born. You wriggle free of your egg and narrowly avoid being eaten by a fish. He eats your brother instead. “Move, move, move,” you say. This is your mantra for survival and you repeat it over and over as you swim to a shallow corner of the pond. From here, hiding out among the stems of sedges, you watch as the rest of your siblings get eaten.
Over the next few days your body undergoes a series of metamorphoses. As a larva, you burst out of yourself to become a pupa. And as a pupa you split once more to become a mosquito. You emerge from the pond and, standing on its surface, you look down into what you previously thought was the entire universe. Here you see your reflection for the first time: six legs, wings and what looks like a large drinking straw between your eyes. Your antennae are not ‘feathery’ — you are female. You stand for a moment and feel your exoskeleton harden. This feels right, like you’ve finally become what you were born to be, like a great circle has been completed. You move up into the sky.
This is your default setting: you are bloodthirsty.
You fly to the city. You enter a French colonial house through a second-storey window and find yourself in a tiled corridor where a man is ironing a green shirt. You land on his ankle and dip your proboscis into his skin — it slides in so easily. Your saliva delivers two chemical compounds. First, an anaesthetic so he feels no pain, and second an anti-coagulant so his blood won’t clot. The blood begins to flow. Your belly fills and it feels so good. You drink so much blood that it inflates your body and pushes a small drop of urine out of your cercus, which then lands on the man’s skin. “Woops”, you say, and after pulling out you fly blood-drunk to a far corner of the corridor to rest for the night.
Here, behind a stack of picture frames, you meet other mosquitos. They welcome you, and ask to hear your story. You tell them about your dead brothers and sisters, and how you alone escaped the leviathans of the pond. They all listen with quiet kindness. When you’re finished you ask why the pictures where they’ve made their home are not hung on the walls. An older mosquito, Earl, tells you that the artwork on the pictures is amateur. He takes you around to the picture at the front of the stack. The painting is entitled The Brave Little Tailor. The subject’s face is flat and asymmetrical.
“The painter was no Michelangelo,” you say, because that’s the only artist you know of. You really want Earl to like you.
“Yeah, but praise God for shitty artists,” says Earl, “otherwise we’d have no home.”
He is so funny. You want to stay with him forever behind the ugly paintings.
“Earl? Will the paintings always be there?”
He looks deep into your compound eyes and says, “Always”.
Later that night, when the lights go out and everyone is asleep, you and Earl — who seems to know so much about art and the world and God — have sex. It is just like you hoped it would be, linked tail to tail, steady and motionless, and in that lack of movement you find serenity and not for the first time in your life you sense that a great cosmic circle has been completed. That night you dream of your life in the pond and see yourself as your mother, laying a new raft of eggs. Sunrise, sunset.
In the morning, you wake up to a sound like snapping whips of lightning. The picture frames have been moved out from the wall and the man you drank from yesterday, wearing his ironed green shirt, is killing your newfound family with something called a Miky Vietnam Rechargeable Electronic Mosquito Bat. You rise up and stay close to the wall. You see Earl fly bravely towards the man’s head, as if to knock him down, but with one deft swing of the bat, Earl is zapped. His body burns up upon the electric grid and everything moist inside him sizzles. One cell at a time dries out and then ignites like a tiny amber coal, spreading to the next cell and to the next until all that’s left is a wisp of smoke and a charred shell. You land on a wall-mounted mirror and recall the moment you stood on the pond’s surface and first saw your reflection. Seeing it now, you wish you could escape back into the pond, back to when you were just an innocent egg. And then you see the hand of the man sweep towards you. “Move, move, move,” you think, but you are distracted and heartbroken, and you know it is too late.
These are your final thoughts: What God would create a world so full of monsters? After you made love, Earl told you about God and described Him as an all-powerful and all-loving supreme being. If God could not prevent these monsters from existing, was He not then impotent? If He could prevent them but chose not to, was He not then malevolent?
And then you die, flattened against your own reflection.
Dara O Foghlu, 35, Irish
I started writing short stories about ten years ago, did a Masters in Creative Writing in 2008 in Galway, and followed this up with three collections of short stories through a writing collective I was with back home. This was all good, harmless, self-congratulatory stuff.
Then I did a writing workshop in Dublin with Greg Baxter, which was nearly the death of me. Certainly it stopped me writing. The problem was that I became obsessed with critical thinking, which paved the way for too much doubt and uncertainty about my own writing and highlighted the gulf between good writing and great writing.
In the three or four years that followed I edited freelance, read a lot and compiled a creative writing course called The War Against Cliché (thank you Martin Amis). This course was intended to go beyond where Baxter’s course had left me, at cynicism and hyper-criticism, and move past it to humour.
To put it briefly: my working definition of Cynicism is a pre-emptive disappointment with everything. Humour, on the other hand, has at its core Surprise, which circumnavigates the oppressive ‘can’t’ of Cynicism. In any case, facilitating this course was cathartic and I have started writing again, but this time without the pressure to be the next James Joyce.
I can’t really write short stories any more, so I tend to write things that start as personal essays and then pepper them with lies as and when they’re needed.
What is the scariest insect? Any insect that burrows into you. Saw the Wrath of Khan as a kid and those little earwigs kind of stayed with me.