Scarabs

I am standing in front of a whitewashed wood frame house in New England. The house is completely surrounded by cobblestones, and there are several similar structures inside the high stone wall. There are other people with me; I am part of a tour.

There is one house that I know is not normally visited in the tour, but the guide senses my curiosity about it. He opens a large grey steel switchbox on the side of the house and pulls down a knife switch, causing a small cascade of sparks. He tells us we must to wait a minute or two before entering. From the same steel box he removes a large, thick aerosol can, and inserts the nozzle into a brass fitting in the wall. From the muffled hiss I can tell he is releasing its contents into the house.

After a few minutes we are allowed through the peeling white door. The house is a typical late 1800s house, but most rooms have been filled with bookcases. As I walk through I notice that in some rooms there are small, pale, iridescence scarab beetles on the floor, dome on their backs, legs waving feebly. The guide warns us not to disturb these bugs—some girls slide paper under them to pick them up, and them put them in their coat pockets. The guide sees this, and warns them against it. I ask him why they are there—their numbers increase. He tells me they are in the house to protect the books. He doesn’t mention what they are guarding against.

I see a parade of coruscating scarabs crawling across the ancient leather-bound spines. I smile at the sight; it feels right.

[May, 2003]