Some instances must be considered stand-alone moments.
Night settled with a slight chill, and Albuquerque’s adobe buildings still held heat like stone warmed by a doused fire. I sat upright in bed, reading by lamplight an article about a plutonium vault in southern New Mexico that would outlast our society. Scientists, historians, and science fiction writers had assembled to determine a warning for the site, something that would convey meaning through 500 generations of linguistic change, a symbol that could caution robotic slaves or extraterrestrials or intelligent cockroaches.
As I read the wind stilled, and I heard cockroaches swarming my compost pile outside, the rustling of their hard skeletons through my food waste. Between the quiet turning of pages I heard a closer scratching, a sound not unlike the breaking of a bleached and fragile eggshell. The immediate proximity of the sound diverted my gaze. On the opposite side of the room a cockroach had burrowed through the wall, half of his body extruding. His front legs braced and pushed against the whitewash that lined the interior of my adobe home.
“Roach,” I exclaimed and cast a finger to the dark window, “be gone.”
The roach flexed its antennae but did not retreat. He had made such great progress tunneling through the compact sand, clay and straw wall, willed onward by the pheromone trace of others, following new and ancient trails. A spined front leg pressed the wall; he was pleading with me.
“Roach,” I said again, “you are not welcome here.” When the roach did not withdraw, I laid my article down and advanced. These roaches and I had been at war.
In other parts of my country–the bluegrass fields, the alabaster cities, and amber waves of grain–these cockroaches are considered pets that live with dirty citizens. I carried to New Mexico this disgust that the “clean” feel for the cockroach. The desert clime aided the roach, as the winters were often too mild to freeze them or force them back into hiding. And I lived in a poor neighborhood where cockroaches came up through the cracks in the sidewalks, and where they, having successfully invaded a home, could survive for almost two months on the glue on the back of a postal stamp.
One Sunday I bombed them. I locked the doors and sealed the windows and released toxic chemical gasses. When I returned four hours later, I found no corpses on the carpeted battlefield. One defiant cockroach strolled along the ceiling. He made no errant steps but followed a straight path across the spackling.
I imagined him triumphant, and I staged the next maneuver: boric acid. This chemical sounds dangerous–acid–but in reality, it’s about as dangerous as table salt to a large mammal. The tiny crystals are used to wash babies’ eyes, but my hope was that these same crystals would be eaten by the roaches and then shred the insects’ digestive systems. I poured out 16 ounces of it, lined the baseboards, and waited. The roaches waded through the white powder, unfazed.
A single roach would appear in the living room during daylight. I viewed this as a testament to their numbers. When one is backed by hundreds, one becomes braver. These brazen few I ushered into the next world with the swat of a shoe. I wrapped them in Kleenex shrouds and gave them inelegant burials in the toilet.
They meandered through the living room, but they never crossed the kitchen floor because I left nothing in the kitchen for them to eat. But they weren’t in my house to eat anything. My house was just another part of their territory. And I wanted the house to myself.
Another day I decided to call in reinforcements. I phoned the exterminators. My house sat behind another house, a mother-in-law’s quarters, which made it hard to find and impossible for pizza delivery. When I returned home that evening, thousands of dead cockroaches covered my walkway. Their bodies glowed in the light of the setting sun. I felt like a victor–the flag flung, the bugle trilled–as I edged along the fence to avoid stepping on the crackling mass of the dead. Then I entered my house and saw no massacre. The exterminators had gassed the front house. The clean carpet brushed in vacuum lines was bare of roaches. There was only the faint trace of boric acid, remnant of my last tactical failure. No, my house was clean and sheltering cockroach refugees from the front house. I was still losing the war.
And now, months later, I read of an imagined future where roaches–inheritors of our earth–might decipher human symbols on plutonium vaults. Now, one courageous roach greeted me with head and thorax sticking out of my wall. I approached in peace and with a mind to parlay. I knew this struggle would outlast us both.
The roach strained against the wall, unable to free himself. He tilted his head in my direction, looking at me through his compound eye. Perhaps the horror of my kaleidoscopic figure prompted him to stiffen an antennae in my direction.
The gesture seemed to say, “I am helpless; do not strike me. You have killed my kin without remorse, although we have done nothing more than trespass.”
True, the cockroaches had a slim number of actual offenses. One might lose his footing while crossing my ceiling at night, and fall upon my bed to disturb my sleep, but really, who could blame him for a misstep in the dark while travelling upside-down? Their only true fault was a matter of cultural perception. My upbringing had instilled a fervent dislike of these basic, ancient insects. I had been told they spread disease and bacteria from the rotting food they consumed. But the fact was that I hadn’t caught even one common cold since cohabitating with them.
I stood and studied the roach as I had never done. Lodged in my stucco, he fought to free his hind legs. His brethren might labor in a similar manner in our radioactive vaults one day, wrestling through the symbol-scrawled walls. I decided to spare this roach. I would neither hurt nor help him. I left him to determine his own fate. I switched off the lamp and lay down.
I could hear the cottonwoods make their chattering sounds, each relating a Homeric epic. I listened long, trying to discern part of a plot that takes a century to fully unfold. But unable to understand the language of the cottonwoods, I tempted sleep under their canopies that unfurled in the sodium city lights. Or, the sound could have been cockroaches gorging in the compost. Or, perhaps it was the one struggling cockroach, which I found next morning still stuck in the wall, crisp and dead. But for now, I shed myself like cottonwoods in autumn. And in my mind, I allowed those trees and those roaches to do the same.
Amaris Ketcham is an honorary Kentucky Colonel and the former managing editor of Willow Springs. Excerpted from Sacred Fire (Issue 15), a modern voice of Indigenous spiritual approaches, Traditional Knowledge, and the ancestral ways that foster global balance and sustainability.