Archive for January, 2012

The Insect Play

January 29, 2012

The Insect Play.


In hindsight it was on that frost-bit morning in early November, as Sale stood rubbing the rheum from his eyes and hopping from foot to foot to ward off the cold, that I knew he wouldn’t make it to the end of the year.

‘Ah, man. I totally forgot,’ he said.

I’d like to say that this was unlike Sale but I can’t. It was exactly like Sale, which was why I didn’t wait more than ten minutes for him at the gallery before heading over to his house.  He leaned forward and pushed up onto the tips of his toes, his arms swinging wildly round as if he was doing some weird swimming stroke. He hopped about some more.

‘It’s on for a while though, yeah?’

‘Until February,’ I said. ‘There’s plenty of time to see it I guess.’

And I was gripped by a sudden sadness.

Sale seemed to notice this and tilted his head slightly in that way of his that always put me in mind of huge land-bound birds in those moments before they throw their beak-heavy heads into the mud.

He grinned.

‘Automated ants, eh! Honestly, I’m looking forward to it.’

The exhibition was by the Prague surrealist Adalwine Meyrink; a collection of intricate clockwork insects and environments both mirroring, and mocking, human society. We’d been talking about it excitedly for months. Entomology was Sale’s thing. Sale’s main thing as just one look into his warren-like house, with its collection of nests and farms, would attest.

‘I’m expecting a delivery, though. Waiting in for it.’

He craned his long neck out into the street and swung his head from side to side as if acting out a mime.

‘Anything new and interesting?’ I asked.

‘Oh, very new and very interesting,’ he said and acted out another mime; this time pulling an imaginary zip across his lips.

‘We’ll go and see the Meyrink soon, though, yeah?’

I put on a smile and nodded and was about to do a mime of my own when Sale disappeared behind the closing door and I was left on the street alone wondering what new species of ant or stick insect or mantis was due to arrive and why Sale had not asked me in out of the cold.


It was a couple of weeks before I saw Sale again and we managed to get to the exhibition. He seemed distracted and subdued as we wandered around the dimly-lit space.

‘My God,’ I said, as I crouched to read the label attached to one glass bell jar. ‘This one is actually made from the bones of a humming bird and toothpicks. Look. The wings there look like rice paper.’

Just then, with a sudden flutter, the insect took off and bounced around the inside of the jar furiously for a few seconds before landing in its original spot and becoming perfectly still once again.

I stood up and stepped back looking to Sale for a comment. He said nothing.

I stooped again.

‘A malachite don’t you think? Sale?’

Sale seemed to come to from a distance slowly blinking and focusing on the jar.

‘A malachite? Yes….yes… I think it probably is. Very good. Very…um…lifelike.’

He drifted off to the next exhibit but seemed more interested in the lights than what was actually encased in the glass. I joined him.

The glass tank was about twenty feet in length and seemed to be full of plants. These, on closer inspection, were actually made from green crêpe paper and cloth. Buds of clay and string ferns curled up into the air. Cardboard and balsa branches and vines entwined the length of the tank and what looked to be soil and mulch on the floor seemed to be a covering of coffee granules and loose tea. Warm golden gel-covered lamps lit the scene from various angles both above and below and every few seconds a fine spray of hot water shot out, from hidden hoses in the undergrowth, covering the leaves and ferns with a glistening sheen. The walls of the tank sweated and swam as a speaker piped in a cacophony of clicks and whirls, croaks and cries.

Amongst all this marched the ants.

Each was a life-sized two or three centimeters long and there were thousands of them. They crawled along the vines making the whole tank pulse with streams of dotted lines. I leaned in for a closer inspection. Each ant was as intricate as a watch with an assemblage of tiny wheels, gears and pinions which propelled the insect into life. They shuffled along in a weird mechanical dance on tiny metal runners, which zigzagged about the foliage, many of them leaf cutters hoisting chunks of pastel paper leaves above their heads in their metal mandibles.

They had antennae of spring and wire.

‘Oh, these are just beautiful.’ I said, almost pressing my nose against the hot glass.

I looked up to Sale but he was gone.

I found him later, sat in the café that looked down on the gallery space from a floor above, staring down at the visitors as they milled between the glass below. I bought a couple of lattes, some sandwiches and some carrot cake and sat down next to him. We sat in silence for a few minutes.

‘What did you think of the exhibition Michael?’ he asked, still staring down at the people.

‘ I thought it was wonderful. Enchanting,’ I said, taking a bite out of my sandwich.

Sale turned and watched me chew.

‘Enchanting? Yes, yes I suppose it was.’

‘Enchanting,’ he said again as if playing with the word. ‘People like to imagine they see the real world. People like to think they are clever.’

He turned back to the bustle below and gazed sadly down.

‘So,’ I said, seeking to lighten the mood, ‘tell me about these new arrivals then? They settled in ok?’

Sale sighed wistfully and a strange smile danced across his face. He faced me and looked into my eyes.

‘The life history of an insect must be considered as a whole,’ he said.

I met his gaze for a moment, frowned, then looked down at the table.

‘You’re not making any sense today Sale,’ I said.

Later, as we were leaving, I stopped by a huge preying mantis. It was swaying slowly from side to side in what looked like a circus booth. Plush red drapes framed its huge, bulbous head as mirror-glassed compound eyes spread dancing light across the darkened room. In its long raptorial legs it held what looked like a roughly made puppet of itself which it pulled this way and that.

‘Sale…’ I started but he cut me off.

‘You stay and watch the insect play if you want Michael. I’m going home.’

And with that he was gone leaving me alone amongst the whirling and clicking of the machines. The huge mantis tilted its head slightly and a large foreleg jerked.

The mantis puppet shed straw and string.


It was well into the depths of winter before I heard from Sale. The phone rang late one afternoon and through the static I could hear Sale’s excited voice.

‘Michael!’ the phone buzzed. ‘It’s so wonderful Michael. You’ve got to see. Really.’

‘Slow down Sale. What? What is it?’

I tried to cut in but he was babbling. He sounded far away and as if he were in a large room. His voice seemed to echo across many walls.

‘Oh, Michael! If only you could know. Could see. To be here where I am now. Truly be here. Oh, they’ve laid eggs you see. Eggs! The larval stage.  But..but that’s not all. Oh, they’re so complicated but so perfect. Their life cycle. Their larvae. So beautiful. Elateriform I’d say but no, no that doesn’t cover it. Oh, I had no idea it would be so beautiful. The next stage you see Michael. From larva to pupa. Incubation… So special!!’

He went on, the pitch of his voicing rising.

‘Sale. Please. Are you alright?’ I pleaded. ‘Do you want me to come round?’

‘Yes, Michael. Yes. Come round. You’ve got to see.’

Twenty minutes later I was at his front door still out of breath from the run. It was twilight and the house appeared dark and empty. I knocked on the pane and a few moments later an open door spilled light into the hallway and I could see Sale fumbling with the latch inside. When he finally got the door open I was shocked by what I saw. Sale was almost unbelievably gaunt; his pale frame clothed only by a grime-covered vest and boxer shorts, he leaned his head towards me and his dark sunken eyes blinked.

‘Yes, yes. Come in. Come in.’

His voice sounded strange as if he were eating or had a swollen tongue. His long fingers pulled me into the house and closed the door behind me.

‘You’ve got to see, Michael. Oh, it’s beautiful. Come on, this way.’

He set off back down the hall walking in a grotesque juddering manner. His head jerked back and forth with each step as he implored me to follow. His arms seemed to involuntarily swing out at odd moments, knocking sharply, and painfully, into the corridor walls.  He didn’t seem to notice. He reached the end of the hall and beckoned me into the light of the front room. His eyes glazed over and he twitched with excitement. I was hit almost immediately by the stench; a vile bitter smell that burned my eyes and grasped the back of my throat so as to make me gag. Sale bustled himself into the room and I blinked away tears to follow him.

The front room was a tip; furniture overturned and broken up into the centre where it mixed with torn books and papers and the remains of Sale’s numerous aquariums and farms. Broken glass and plastic, ripped up clothes and soil was compacted into every nook of the pile. The broken frames of what were left of his kitchen cupboards and bookshelves propped up layers of dirt reaching almost to the ceiling. Packets and emptied tins of food were scattered about.

I looked to Sale, at a loss as to what to say. He was squatting and hopping around the edge of the giant nest scooping up loose bits of debris to pile back onto the heap. My head swam. I realized I was sweating and as I wiped my face it was as if the whole room came into focus and with a mounting horror I suddenly realized what I was looking at.

The entire nest was alive with movement.

I staggered slightly and was drawn in closer seemingly against my will. I peered into the nest.

‘Oh god,’ I said as I struggled to comprehend. ‘Sale. But…but they’re not…they’re…’

‘They’re beautiful I know.’ Sale was beside me now, his twitching body bumping against mine. ‘Their life cycle is perfect. From embryo to larvae to pupae. That’s when it becomes really interesting.’

I looked up at his face. His skin was as thin as paper drawn across bone. He smiled and I could see that most of his teeth were gone as his dry tongue rolled across his lips. He opened his mouth wider and it was full of white movement that caused his cheeks and throat to squirm.

I gagged and almost fell to the floor. Sale was rubbing his stomach and talking.

‘And then eclosion. Michael, you’ve got to be a part of this. It’s perfection.’

Moments later I was outside in the street vomiting. Sale didn’t follow me out and I saw him quietly shut the front door as I ran off down the road.


A week later I finally felt able to go back to Sale’s house although I knew I would find nothing. The front door was off its hinges and the hallway was a mess of beer cans and graffiti. I walked slowly to the front room. Inside, the structure had been broken up. What looked liked the remains of small fires blackened the walls. I called out Sale’s name in a small voice-just to be sure- but, of course, there was no answer.



January 27, 2012