• Introduction to the Epic of Centipidus

    by  • May 15, 2017 • Fiction • 0 Comments

    An essay by Edward Mathis, as provided by Hamilton Perez
    Art by Shannon Legler


    You were likely drawn to The Epic of Centipidus by one of two factors. The first is the legend itself: full of mystery, intrigue, adventure, and war, taking place on the smallest grand theater a story can be set. Whether it be the pill bugs rolled down mole-hills, crushing enemies in their path; or the labyrinthine, cavernous abode of the ants which no traveler can escape without the aid of the capricious Queen; or the taciturn hero, who famously has “more legs than words at his disposal,” it’s no wonder the epic has been described as “the Iliad of insects.”[1]

    I suspect, however, that what brought you was not the wonder of the tale, but the second factor, which has received far more attention.

    It began with my insistence that I be listed as the book’s translator, rather than its author. This, of course, begged the question: Who wrote it? and my answer has turned friends and colleagues against me, but it also inspired a trend of searching uncut lawns for strange glyphs written on grass leaves.

    As academics debated the issue, the media largely lampooned it. Fox News did a roundtable discussion which cast the unlikely spotlight on “experts” in the field. Forget Joe the Plumber–Terry the Exterminator is here to tell you there are no bug languages, bug cultures, or bug books.

    The Nightly Show did a skit in which Larry Wilmore interviewed a giant grasshopper in Groucho Marx disguise. The conspicuously named Hugh Mann claimed to be an entomologist and assured us that there is no secret insect society, and we should all just go about our lives grazing grasslands and raising pupae.[2]

    Despite the evidence included in the appendices, skeptics have persisted in painting me as a puppet master pulling strings in an elaborate and theatrical hoax. But it was never my ambition to inspire the budding field of cultural entomology. That was something passed on to me by my father, and I think it cost him his life.

    ~

    The last I ever heard from him was a strange voicemail he left me. He’d found something unusual on his Missouri acreage, something he couldn’t make sense of. “If you look closely–” The message cut off.

    When I tried getting hold of him, my calls just went to the answering machine. Dad refused to own a cell phone, let alone carry one, so at first I didn’t worry. But after a few days without word, I grew concerned. He was all alone out there; meanwhile, I was deconstructing texts half a country away.

    Three days after that first message, the phone rang. I rushed to answer it, and on the other end, the compassionate but no less official voice of Seligman P.D. asked if I was Gregory Mathis, Dad’s next of kin.

    The tinny voice informed me that a neighbor found him in his home, sprawled across the kitchen floor after an apparent stroke.

    All sorts of things ran through my head then–none of them what should have: “If you look closely–”

    It didn’t occur to me that there might be a connection between his final message and his death. Not until after I returned to my old home and saw the strange glyphs he’d been drawing, the leaf-litter scattered through his office, did the uneasy sense of foul play first creep into my mind.

    ~

    Returning to my childhood home was an eerie experience. An empty house is disturbingly corpse-like, possessing all the appearance of life, though a chilling stillness whispers otherwise.

    Dad and I used to sit on the porch, watching the sun bruise the clouds deep purples and reds, listening as the air became electric with the chattering buzz of insects. This ritual I now undertook alone, and the empty chair beside me ached like a phantom limb.

    But then I noticed something unusual nearby. At the lip of the field, a cricket was perched on a blade of grass, scratching its legs together as if to sing but making no sound.[3]

    What appeared to mute the cricket was a blade of grass caught between its legs. Intending only to move the insect, my approaching hand scared it off entirely. The night might have ended there, and the world might have been the happier, but the grass leaf which the cricket had been standing on now caught my attention.

    There were markings on it that seemed like more than just arbitrary scratches. They had the look–the feel–of intention. And there was something achingly familiar about them as well.

    I took the grass leaf inside and examined it with a magnifying glass from my father’s study. That’s when I recognized where I’d seen this mark before. It matched one of the many symbols that Dad had drawn.

    The implication was certainly absurd, and I spent the rest of the night determined to prove the absurd idea wrong. I stalked through fields of long, uncut grass, searching for leaves with unusual markings on them.

    I found an astonishing number.

    Each was brought inside to be carefully analyzed under a light and magnifying glass, and after comparing a hundred or so to the first and finding no discernible system, I had nearly given up. But then I examined one that matched the first perfectly, as if made by a copyist.

    Looking over the others, I started noticing patterns and consistencies–a clearly organized system of communication. I could hardly believe it. I’d stumbled upon the writings of an insect language.

    ~

    “If you look closely–”

    This was what my father had discovered, and it was possibly the greatest discovery since heliocentrism–that we are not alone in the universe. In fact, we have never been alone, and all this time we’ve been looking to the stars we ought to have been looking to our toes.

    It felt as though he had dropped his torch before passing, and I’d returned home to find it still blazing–to carry it in his stead. In a way, I felt closer to him than I had in all the years separated by state lines.

    Initially, I suspected this language to be rudimentary, only capable of conveying simple concepts like “Water nearby” or “Danger.” It couldn’t be too difficult to decipher, I thought. I had no idea the tremendous feat I was undertaking.

    Dad’s study became my workroom. Bookshelves were cleared to make room for catalogs of data. The walls were plastered with high resolution photographs, and the desk was buried under books exploring language, ciphers, and insect behavior.

    Translating started as a game but developed into something more important as comprehension continually eluded me. As I studied the texts from different angles, I found the writings more and more complex.

    I was not deterred, however. I was obsessed.

    Days burned away, squinting and scribbling. I missed Dad’s funeral, only realizing a full week after he’d been buried. My sabbatical from grad school passed in a flurry. Emails and phones calls went unanswered. I couldn’t leave. This was too important. What could be greater?

    Experimenting with different methods of translation proved fruitless though. The texts before me seemed just as alien. I needed help.

    I captured a cricket and placed it in a square-shaped jar with three common phrases drawn on small pieces of paper and taped to the walls, facing inward. A blank grass leaf was provided for the cricket to write upon.

    The cricket examined the writing on the walls, curiously. When it turned toward me, I wrote another phrase and showed it to the cricket. It was unimpressed. I wrote another. Once again the cricket was unresponsive. Finally, I taped a fresh Germander flower to the last open wall of the jar and left for the night.

    My expectations for what the cricket might write were as numerous as a black widow’s brood. Would the cricket describe the blue color? Would it identify the flower by its genus and species? Would it simply write: “flower”?

    The next day there was a marking on the grass leaf. I had no way to read the note, but it was nonetheless a promising step forward. I only learned much later what was written was actually an insect phrase for “Leave me the hell alone.

    I bought over a hundred jars and spent long nights collecting crickets in the field. I decided to stick with the same insect for consistency. After all, I’d only seen a cricket make these markings. Perhaps they were the only ones that did–an insect intelligentsia.[4]

    Using photographs for translations proved the most useful technique for learning other parts of speech. A picture of a toad would be placed side by side with a picture of a toad jumping. Similarly, a picture of a dog might be contrasted with that of a wet dog–or a dead dog.

    It was important to keep the crickets content, and not merely captives. They were never kept in jars for long periods. Once they etched their markings, they were transferred to a large terrarium designed to mimic their natural habitat, including an attached room with moist substrate for breeding.

    This brings me to one obvious challenge to be overcome in human-bug relations, and that is the dramatic contrast in longevity. Thousands of crickets were born and died during the course of the experiment. To view them each as individuals would keep one in a perennial state of grief. To give them each their own grave would quickly crowd the field with tiny tombstones.

    Instead, I created a mass grave site with one large stone beside it to commemorate their lives and their contribution to my research.

    The crickets certainly weren’t viewed as friends. Nor did I treat them as “people,” as one might find it tempting to anthropomorphize them like dogs. There was respect, but never camaraderie. I never learned any of their names, nor they, mine.

    That was until I met Crickthus.[5]

    In order to keep incoming generations literate and in touch with their cultural heritage, it was necessary to periodically introduce crickets from the fields into the terrarium. When I first spotted Crickthus, I mistook him for a cockroach, so large was he and so dark his coat. But he was clearly writing, perched atop a thick blade of grass.

    I put him in a small terrarium used to initiate newcomers before integrating them with the others. This terrarium included leaves to write upon and a note taped to one of the walls that explained the enterprise they were now a part of.

    Most captives left notes requesting that I let them go, or not kill them, or–by far the most common–that if I told their mating partners they put up a valiant fight but were tragically squished and shouldn’t be looked for, they would cooperate entirely.[6]

    Crickthus simply wrote: “You’re in way over your head,” followed by a curious sign that I spent hours failing to decipher. Only through asking him, days later, did I learn that this curious scratch and scribble was his signature.

    Art for "Introduction to the Epic of Centipidus"

    In order to keep incoming generations literate and in touch with their cultural heritage, it was necessary to periodically introduce crickets from the fields into the terrarium. When I first spotted Crickthus, I mistook him for a cockroach, so large was he and so dark his coat. But he was clearly writing, perched atop a thick blade of grass.

    During our first sessions, he lectured me through a series of notes, chastising me for interrupting his endless work cataloguing manuscripts. I had to continuously drop in more leaves for him to write on. Crickthus came around only after learning of my grand enterprise, and was henceforth delighted to discover someone interested in learning about his culture.

    As it turns out, most insects aren’t inclined to read for pleasure. Crickthus was an exception. He was a scholar, an educator of sorts.

    He was quite critical at first, pointing out that all the texts I’d been translating were writing exercises used for educating. If crickets had a kindergarten, my manuscripts would be their “Letters to Mom.”

    With his direction, I discovered the monistic philosophy of Betlen, the 18th century beetle;[7] the romances of Lady Arget, the 12th century lady bug; and the tragicomedies of the contemporary cockroach Barmalowe–my favorite being the story of Icthyl, the suicidal cockroach who repeatedly fails at killing himself: “I will die if it’s the last thing I do!”[8]

    A whole new world opened up to me, a world of adventure and intrigue occurring in the most mundane, unexceptional places. My bedroom or my kitchen might be the setting of some harrowing adventure or sweeping epic. The battle of good and evil occurs not just at Armageddon, nor the hearts of human beings, but also in our cupboards, our backyard gardens, our basements, and our bed sheets.

    Indeed, there is much we can learn from the tragically short but nevertheless full and fulfilled lives of insects. Their world is so vast, so beautiful, so new, so full of wonder. “All is not illusion,” writes Betlen, dismissing the coleopteran skeptics that anything exists. “All is imagination!”[9]

    Many of the works I was translating were too long for a single blade of grass, or even a large leaf. The Epic of Centipidus consisted of over two-hundred grass leaves that would have taken weeks of dedicated work to get in the proper order without his help.

    My relationship with Crickthus inspired a dramatic change in my treatment of insects and other arthropods. How many times had I swatted at, even hunted, an irritating fly? How often had I called the exterminator? How many newspapers and shoes had I wielded like a weapon?

    And the literature itself! Imagine the countless stories and philosophies potentially lost forever every time somebody mowed their lawn.

    It comes as no surprise that humans have something of an unfriendly reputation amongst insects (even more so with arachnids),[10] which will have to be overcome if our two civilizations are to merge.

    To make amends, I began bleeding myself after dinner and leaving droplets of blood on the backdoor stoop for the mosquitoes. Spiders traversed the walls of the house with impunity. Ants found leftovers in a great pile outside.

    In retrospect, this may have drawn too much attention.

    One afternoon, I went to collect the latest translations and found the crickets, each in their individual jars, hopping about like lunatics. They were chirping and hitting the glass with their bodies, making an awful cacophony of shrill notes and soft thuds. Each demanded my immediate attention except for one which was strangely inactive. Leaning closer I realized, to my horror, its head was missing. It was murdered.

    The crickets wouldn’t tell me what happened; they refused to speak. Even Crickthus was unresponsive. This was more disturbing than the homicide itself. To have my friend and mentor suddenly revert to such a state of non-identity shook me.

    I buried the decapitated body at the grave site and determined to forget the incident. It was a fluke. An accident. Something that could be prevented with stricter security measures.

    One can only deny the truth for so long before it comes skittering out from behind the dresser and crawling up your leg. That night there was a cricket head waiting on my pillow. I was being warned.

    I kept at my work developing the Cricket-English Dictionary and translating various texts. The crickets remained unresponsive. Many wouldn’t even look at me. Crickthus gave me nothing.

    Setting twelve jars in a row with a cricket and a leaf in each, I wrote a note asking why they had stopped working and assuring that I could protect them. Hours passed before one of the twelve wrote something down. It was Crickthus.

    The others hopped about violently. I opened the jar and retrieved the note. The message read, “They’re coming for us.”

    Who were they? And who was us? Did us mean only the crickets, or was I included as well? The solitude that I’d experienced during the crickets’ silence was now reversed. Now I felt nothing but eyes on me–unblinking eyes hiding in every corner, watching, waiting.

    In a panic, I left the house. There was no where I could escape to, though. No one I could call. Who could I turn to? Who could protect me? Who could make it alright?

    Only then, in my helpless, fearful state, did I realize that it had been three years since the enterprise began. Three years holed up in my father’s house with minimal human contact. Three years a hermit scribbling secrets to crickets.

    There was only ever one person I could always rely on.

    ~

    They misspelled his name. “Arther Mathis” read Dad’s tombstone, and I knew then how badly I’d let him down.

    Dad always said it’s the little things in life that are most important. They’re the easiest things to miss, but they’re what make the difference. “Pay attention to what’s in front of you,” he used to say. “And underneath.”

    Were they what killed him?

    “If you look closely–”

    I tried telling him about my research, about what I’d found. I tried to unburden myself to him as though he were alive, telling him about our discovery and the awful things now resulting from it. But talking to a headstone is a lot like prayer: trying to get a reaction from a wall. It just stares back at you, stone-faced and cold.

    All I could imagine was his stern countenance, glaring at me for abandoning the crickets in a fit of fear. Then a monarch butterfly landed on his gravestone and rested there, observing me. It waved its antennae my direction.

    Another landed beside the first. And another. There was one on my wrist, two on my shoulder. Soon the whole cemetery was swarming orange and black, fire and smoke.

    My heart sank. While butterflies are often symbols of hope and change in our culture, they foreshadow catastrophe and doom in the literature of bugs.[11]

    I raced back to the house, and when I returned, I found one of the jars was now full of webbing. A cricket head, body, and six legs were severed and spaced apart on the web in a grotesque anatomical display.

    As I approached, I could tell by the size and the dark color of the individual that this was not just any cricket–it was my friend. It was Crickthus. In my terror, I’d forgotten to put the lid back on.

    The rest of the crickets were catatonic, mere shells. I realized too late: they were being silenced.

    ~

    There was a strong desire to give Crickthus a private grave, one as large as his influence was in my life, one that would draw more notice than the mass grave I’d given to all those that came before and all those that would follow.

    I knew it wasn’t right, though. The others were just as much individuals as Crickthus. To single him out would be to deny their identities, almost their existence, and so I buried him with the rest, though this was the first burial that drew tears.

    That night when I went to bed, I found a brown recluse hiding under my sheets. It seemed to be waiting for me. I realized then that my persecutors didn’t want to create a union between humans and arthropods and would do anything to prevent it. My assailant escaped before I could squash him.

    In the morning, I went to the nearest general store and returned home with a can of Raid holstered to my belt and my pant legs tucked into my socks. I brought the cricket terrarium into my room and duct taped the windowsills and door frames around the house.

    The threats only got worse, however.

    Once, I awoke to find hundreds of cricket corpses in my bed; the enemy had raided the grave site.

    The worst was when, in the middle of translating at my desk, a horde of black widows crawled up my legs. I sprayed them with pesticide and jumped out of my clothes and nearly out of my skin. I put their bodies on toothpicks and placed them at the windows and doors as warnings to the others.

    I could no longer protect the crickets; I could barely protect myself. The crickets remained unresponsive. I had no more use for them, and keeping them in the house only endangered them further. I freed them a mile away from the house.

    Walking away from my former colleagues was painful. I had emptied the terrarium gently into the grass, and the crickets sat there, lifeless. I stood over them, pleading internally for them to move, to escape, to be free.

    At last, one of them leapt and disappeared into the wild. Another rode on a friend’s back. A pair strolled off together atop intersecting grass leaves, following some path only they recognized.

    At home, I could hear my prosecutors in the walls. I couldn’t understand them, of course, but I distinctly recognized the hushed hisses, clicks, and gargles of insect speech. I could hear the buzzing of wings and tap of hard bodies bouncing off each other.

    There was some sort of parliament going on, I’m sure of it.

    Over the next few days I could hear them almost constantly, to the point that I suspected–still suspect–they were following me throughout the house.

    Initially, I wondered if they were studying me as I was studying them. There was something far more sinister going on, however.

    They became all the louder when I tried to sleep. Some of them climbed in my bed, bit and pinched and itched me terribly. Spiders and ants and earwigs, all crawling under my sheets. I couldn’t shut my eyes without feeling the tickle of some foreign creature on my body and the nervous need to scratch all over.

    Before long, I was attacking the walls of my home with a sledgehammer, and the creatures must have anticipated this, for as soon as I swung through the wall they were nowhere to be found.

    I was no longer master of the house. The insidious insects had found their way in and were driving me out. The long battle was lost before I knew it began.

    The house that my father had passed on to me was difficult to leave, but it had become something different than the home I grew up in, even different than the home I began my life’s work in. It was full of memories beautiful and pure, but also painful and hard. To preserve the good, I poured gasoline on the walls and floorboards and lit the house like a funeral pyre.

    ~

    Arthropods, it turns out, are neither quick to forgive, nor to forget. Their connecting webs span the length of cities, states, perhaps even countries.

    I find traces of them everywhere: small holes puncturing the pages of notebooks, leaving them illegible; spider webs in my hair when I wake up; dead crickets scattered throughout the house. I have yet to spot a living one.

    Whether it is their intention, I cannot say, but the critics and insects are working in tandem to prevent the merge. The arthropods sought to drive me insane, and the critics want to prove they’ve done their job.

    I hope that you, reader, haven’t been dissuaded by my prosecutors. There are forces at work all around us that we cannot see nor comprehend. The simplest answer isn’t usually the right one; it almost never is. But it satisfies our nagging curiosity. We are creatures that can bear anything but the thought of not knowing. That’s why we bother with belief.

    It may be, however, that my critics will not be silenced until I am. Once they find my body drained of blood by mosquitoes, or swollen with bites and stings, or covered in a crawling, writhing, all-consuming blackness of ants–then they’ll know. They’ll understand. It was all true after all.

    Again, it is the little things that are the most dangerous. And there are an awful lot of little things.

     

    Edward Mathis
    Berkeley, California
    March 2016

     

    Editor’s Note: Edward Mathis was reported missing four days after submitting this introduction. Authorities are following several leads regarding his whereabouts.

    [1] Anthony Gallego. “A Bug’s Lie.” Time Mar. 2016: 64. Print.

    [2] Of course, insects don’t actually rear their young. One can’t help feeling the joke would have landed better if a little more research had been put in beforehand.

    [3] At this point, I was still under the misconception that crickets chirp by rubbing their legs together. They actually produce sound by scraping their wings.

    [4] Further study has revealed that, just as in the human world, there are many different languages as well as dialects. The world of arthropods, however, has evolved to be far more multicultural than our own. A cricket might speak its own native language as well as that of flies, centipedes, earwigs, and mosquitoes.

    [5] Names of insects are rough, phonetic approximations. Insect languages consist mostly of chirps, clicks, and hisses.

    [6] While insects have no official form of marriage, monogamy is the closest analogue that functions as a social institution. Unfortunately, insects are even less evolved for this than humans and have a persistent, itching need to escape from it shortly after entering.

    [7] Insects have no exact concept of centuries; in fact, they have no real thought of years. Most only think of time by hours, days, or at most weeks. The work of a termite historian proved exceptionally helpful. He used seasons to chronicle long periods of time, charting migrations of certain other insects and predatory birds. Using this and certain references to plagues and natural disasters, for instance the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, I have calculated when many of these writers likely lived. I have included my calculations in Appendix D in the back of the book.

    [8] The Life and Death of Icthyl III, ii, 58

    [9] Betlen. Eyes and Legs of Gods. New York, NY: Stone & Benn, 2015. 203. Print.

    [10] There is a famous arachnid tale of revenge–akin to our Count of Monte Cristo–in which a noble, impoverished spider is unjustly swatted at by a human only to escape and return for revenge once the would-be assassin is sleeping.

    [11] Hence the phrase: “Never trust a Monarch Butterfly.”


    Edward Mathis is a cultural entomologist, lecturer, and the acclaimed translator of many controversial texts including Seven-Legged Spider, Stone and Carapace, and The Life and Death of Icthyl.


    Hamilton Perez is a writer and freelance editor living in Sacramento, California. He enjoys long walks through the woods and things that aren’t real. His stories have also appeared in Daily Science Fiction and Between Worlds.


    Shannon’s professional title is “illustrator,” but that’s just a nice word for “monster-maker,” in this case. More information about them can be found at http://shannonlegler.carbonmade.com/.


    “Introduction to the Epic of Centipidus” is © 2017 Hamilton Perez
    Art accompanying story is © 2017 Shannon Legler

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