Outside magazine, July 1998
The bug scream is a distinctive human sound. It is characterized not by volume or intensity or duration, but by the very sound itself: a kind of high-pitched, astonished loathing that combines the eeewww of disgust with the aaahhh! of abject terror. Eeewwwaaahhh! Every human has produced a bug scream at one time or another, and every human has heard someone else generate such a sound. Here is the First Rule of Vermin Shrieking: When a human being other than oneself bug-screams, the sound is, by instinctual definition, funny. Cahill's Corollary to the First Rule is this: Bug screams screamed by individual human beings are not funny to the individuals screaming.
Not that I consider myself squeamish. Quite the contrary. I've actually eaten bugs. More frequently, bugs have eaten me.
Not too long ago, for instance, I was walking across the Congo Basin in company with an American scientist, a filmmaker, three Bantu villagers, and 13 pygmies. It was hot, and the forest contained what I imagined to be the better part of all the noxious bugs that have ever existed upon the face of the earth, including bees and wasps, which I found particularly annoying because the creatures with stingers tended to congregate on me to the exclusion of my expeditionary colleagues.
Why me? The scientist, Michael Fay of the Wildlife Conservation Society, said, in effect, "Because you're the big fat sweaty guy." He explained that all living organisms need salt and that one of the factors limiting the abundance of life in the swampy forest is the lack of salt. The fact is, I was taller than Michael by several inches, more than a foot taller than the largest pygmy, and I outweighed everyone by 50 to 100 pounds. I also sweat a lot. I was, in effect, a walking salt dispenser, an ambulatory fountain of life.
There were at least half a dozen different kinds of bees in the forest, and every time I stood still for a minute or more, a score of them took up residence on my drenched and sweaty T-shirt. Here, I thought, is an opportunity to observe nature in action. One interesting bee fact I learned is this: The little bastards generally only sting in response to dorsal pressure. If, for instance, you happen to be setting up your tent and there are 50 or 60 bees sucking salt off your T-shirt, they will not sting unless you touch them on the back. For this reason, I found it necessary to walk with my arms held out stiffly from my sides and to move in a slow, somewhat robotic fashion.
The problems occurred when salt-thirsty bees crawled up under the sleeves of my shirt, toward the armpits, headed straight for the fountainhead, as it were. Then, no matter how robotically I moved my arms, there was some small dorsal pressure involved. It was worse when they crawled up the legs of my shorts.
Aside from the bees, there were tsetse flies, which can cause sleeping sickness, a disease characterized by fever, inflammation of the lymph nodes, and profound lethargy. Sleeping sickness is often fatal.
Moreover, the insects that carry the disease are intensely annoying creatures. They are long, thin, malnourished-looking flies, with skinny iridescent wings, and the ones I encountered moved so slowly I could actually bat them with a palm while they were in flight. Occasionally I'd get a really good whack at one, and it would seem to falter in its aerodynamics, then wheel about in a lopsided loop, as if woozy and staggered. But it would keep coming at me. Once it was dazed, I could sometimes pop it three or four more times using both hands — whap, bap, whap, bap — just like working out on a speed bag. The fly would back off, lose altitude, and then, as through an act of will, seem to straighten up and fly right, zeroing in on me yet again, willing to take any amount of punishment simply to get its filthy, disease-ridden, bloodsucking proboscis into my flesh. It was like fighting Rocky in the movies. Tsetse flies never quit.
Worse, you can't swat them on your skin, like mosquitoes. They have some kind of dorsal radar and, when threatened from above, simply fly away.
A pygmy who looked a little like a short, dark version of Jerry Lewis showed me the way to kill tsetse flies. Simple thing. Put a hand on your body some small distance from the fly and roll right over the son of a bitch from the side, like a steamroller. This produces a nasty swatch of blood and bug guts, and is immensely satisfying.
Aside from the tsetse flies, we often encountered aggregations of fire ants, which are small and red and prone to swarming gang-stings. They frequently looked like seething hillocks of red fungus on downed trees that crossed our path. Sometimes, walking along a nice, wide elephant trail near such a tree, I'd see pygmies in the column ahead suddenly break into a strange hop-step sort of polka as they attempted to shake the fire ants off their bare feet and legs. The convention was to yell formi, "ants." In fact, watching someone out ahead do the Fire Ant Polka was all the warning anyone ever needed. It's awfully funny. When someone else is dancing it.
There were also driver ants, of the type with two-inch long pincers. It is said that various native people in Africa use driver ants to stitch up wounds. It is supposed to work like this: The ant is held in the fingers and positioned with a pincer on either side of the wound. The ant then bites, as ants will, the difference in this case being that driver ants won't let go. At this point, one simply twists the nasty little body off the pincers: instant sutures.
Among the most unbearable of the insects was a kind of stingless bee, like a fruit fly actually, called a melipon. Michael Fay said the word came from the Greek: meli, meaning honey, and pon, meaning, I think, incredibly annoying little sons of bitches. They arrived out of nowhere in clouds, so that suddenly every breath contained hundreds of melipons. They crawled into my ears and nostrils. Every time I blinked, there were several melipons ejected from my eyes, rolled up and kicking their fragile little legs, like living tears rolling down my cheeks.
Sometimes we crossed orderly columns of termites, thousands of them, marching along on some destructive mission or another. At night, they would crawl in formation under my tent, and I could hear an unnerving clicking and clacking sound: termites, moving under my body in their thousands, all of them snapping their hideous little jaws.
Nevertheless, none of these creatures ever caused me to produce a single distressed sound beyond owww. Halfway through my Congo walk, I believed myself almost immune to that universal human frailty, the bug scream. Vermin shrieking was something other people did, and they did it for my personal amusement.
I AM, IN FACT, GUILTY OF ARRANGING certain situations designed to test and trigger the First Rule of Vermin Shrieking. It was high school speech class, and here was my evil plan for the final assembly of my final year. There would be 400 students in the new auditorium, every seat filled, and I intended to hear them scream.
We'd use the impressive new spotlights designed for stage plays. The best student actor I knew — and the only one I could trust to go along with me on this deal — was Dave Hanson, who would walk onstage wearing a funereal black suit. Stepping up to the podium under a single spot, Dave was to solemnly open a book, fix the audience with his best Vincent Price stare, and begin reading Edgar Allan Poe's merry little contemplation of corporeal decomposition after death, entitled "The Conqueror Worm."
We knew what would happen. My fellow students, fearing Culture, would no doubt fidget for a bit. The poem postulates a throng of angels, sitting in a theater. On the poetic stage, Poe has positioned "mimes, in the form of God on high."
At this point, we'd begin to shrink the spot on Dave. The auditorium would become very dark as he dug down deep for his best shuddery bass voice on the verses we needed to really hammer home in order for the prank to work.
The mimes in the poem are — good Lord! — human beings. In their midst, Poe has "a crawling shape intrude." Blood red, it writhes, it writhes. "The mimes become its food," and it — the blood red crawling shape — is "in human gore imbued."
Dave could read that well, I knew. He'd pull the audience into the horrid realization of what this poem is all about. The last verse begins: "Out — out are the lights — out all!" Which is when we'd kill the spot altogether, leaving the auditorium in total darkness while Dave gravely intoned the last lines, which are all about the poetic angel audience sobbing heavenly tears because they realize "That the play is the tragedy, 'Man,' / And its hero the Conqueror Worm."
Here, timing was important. We needed to hit them during the silence following Dave's recitation, but before the muttering and mumbling began. I had three confederates all lined up for the nonverbal punch line. In the darkness, the four of us would run down the aisles of the silent auditorium, tossing out great handfuls of cooked spaghetti, still warm and a little damp. The spaghetti flingers all had a two-word line, a terror-filled scream, to be repeated as necessary: "THE WORMS... THE WORMS..."
Do it right and everybody would scream. Four hundred flat-out bug screams, or more precisely, worm screams. Different creature, same sound.
One problem: Along with the rest of my worm tossers, I needed a pass to be in position at the back of the auditorium. A damn fine teacher named Fred Metzner demanded to know why the four of us wanted these special passes. He wouldn't accept "it's a surprise" as an explanation. Fred Metzner had learned not to trust student surprises.
And so my plan was foiled at the last moment. Mr. Metzner described the idea as "juvenile," though I thought it was a good deal more mature than that. It was adolescent at the very least.
ONE NIGHT, SEVERAL WEEKS INTO THE Congo walk, I was just dropping off to sleep sometime around ten in the evening when a half-pound centipede fell from the tent ceiling onto my naked, sweaty chest with an audible plop. Later, under my headlamp, I was to discover that it was not one of the poisonous ones. Just a normal Congo Basin jungle centipede and only about the size of an ordinary polish sausage. It looked naked and pink and was curled in on itself like something the dog left on the lawn. Under a flashlight, the bug wasn't something you'd necessarily scream about.
But half-asleep and in the dark, I had no idea what it was. Just something wet and heavy that seemed to have been dropped from a great height. I shouted, eeewwwaaahhh! I believe I shouted eeewwwaaahhh! several times in the darkness — a crescendo of half-awake terror — and when I brushed at my chest with blind, fluttering hands, I suddenly felt the heavy wormlike thing just above my wildly beating heart and swept it to the side. I said eeewwwaaahhh! several more times as I leapt to my feet, nearly stuck my head through the fabric of my tent, fell down somewhere near where the unknown creature had to be, rolled over, and finally came out of my tent like a scorched cat, all the time saying eeewwwaaahhh! eeewwwaaahhh! eeewwwaaahhh!
The pygmies, all 13 of them, were over in their camp, maybe 50 yards away. I could hear their battery-powered shortwave radio blasting out static-ridden music. The sound, as usual, was turned up into that range of irritating distortion in which it is impossible to tell reggae tunes from English madrigals. Pygmies, I had learned on my Congo walk, listen to the radio all night long. And they will always sacrifice fidelity to volume.
I had started out on this long jungle trek determined to get close to the pygmies, to understand their lives, their hopes, their dreams, their music. Most of all, I wanted to absorb a small measure of their knowledge of the forest. But they kept the radio on all night, never seeming to sleep, and I generally camped some distance away, just out of earshot.
So it was possible they hadn't heard me bug-screaming.
But no, they were shouting and howling among themselves, and the howls were those of high-pitched, helpless laughter.
"What?" one of them called out to me in French, our only common language. I think it was Kabo, as handsome as a homecoming king and one of the leaders. "What has happened?" he called.
I didn't know the French word for "centipede." I don't know much French at all, but the word for "insect" isn't particularly difficult for an English speaker.
"Insecte," I said.
Kabo strolled over, along with half a dozen other pygmies. I had scooped the centipede up onto a machete, using my notebook to avoid touching the thing, and was about to dump it, alive, a good distance from my tent. But the pygmies had to examine the creature that had caused me to say eeewwwaaahhh! several dozen times.
They aimed their one flashlight on the machete. The beam was very dim and yellow in color. The pygmies said some words to one another in Sangha, their native language, looked up at me, and — unnecessarily, I thought — began laughing again. They shook my hand and slapped me on the back and laughed until tears came to their eyes. It was, I thought, incredibly juvenile behavior.
Later that night, I could hear them in their camp, shouting over the static on the radio. They used the word mundele, "white man," which has about the same connotation that the word gringo has in Latin American countries. It is sometimes merely descriptive and neutral of nuance, and sometimes it can mean greenhorn, oaf, imbecile, or doofus. The meaning depends on context. In this case there would be silence for 10 or 15 seconds, then one of the pygmies would say mundele, meaning me, and the rest of them would begin howling with a kind of hilarity that I believed to be entirely inappropriate to something as human and unaffected as a few dozen simple bug screams.
It was in those moments of sweaty humiliation that Cahill's Corollary to the First Rule of Vermin Shrieking was born, screaming.
Illustration by Greg Clarke