Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Chapter Eleven: Of Wings and Venom

(photo by Jerzy Proszynski)

“Hugh Octavius Smythson-Carruthers was a famous English arachnologist. Perhaps ‘notorious’ is a better word, and, in fact, despite his being heralded as ‘famous’ by such irreproachable sources as Wikipedia, very little about his life is known.”

The Natural History Museum of Reading, England was hosting a Night of Famous English Entomologists. It was sparsely attended, and for most of the names on the list, the appelation “famous” was more than a bit of a stretch. Still, Dr. Robson, biographer of the beguilingly odd, was pleased. All eight of his students whom he’d recently threatened with a failing grade in his English Eccentrics (colloquially, “Notable Nuts”) class had turned up in hopes of brownie points for their brown noses; his office mate at Reading Poly was there to show support (which was only fair, since he’d attended her treatise on the Evolution of the Uniramous Antennae less than a fortnight ago); there were smatterings of bored homeless people, the dateless and dull, genuinely interested types (two), and an intriguingly cloaked woman – he guessed it was a woman – in the third row.

“Smythson-Carruthers,” said Robson, hitting his rhetorical stride, “was a genuine English eccentric. His spiders, many of them deadly poisonous, had free reign in his home. It was rumored that, while he was alive, he was bitten so often, he was well-nigh immune to nearly any toxin his eight-legged companions could deliver. He had a favorite spider, a salticidae, otherwise known as a ‘jumping spider,’ named Rafe that rode along with him on his shoulder or under his hat when he went out walking. Smythson was notoriously impatient with conversation, and when he felt someone had been bending his ear for too long, he’d somehow prompt his four-eyed friend to leap towards his interlocutor. It nearly always discouraged further dialogue.” He paused here for the titter that always came. Even the bored homeless crowd, at first only here for the warmth and the cheese and crackers that followed a lecture, were paying close attention now. Attack spiders rarely failed to arouse interest.

“He was also a great lover of dragonflies, though these he kept out in his prodigious gardens. He built climate-controlled shelters and ordered exotic water plants from around the world in order to attract and keep the widest possible range of dragon- and damselflies.”

Here the woman in the cloak leaned forward, almost involuntarily, as if startled.

“Tragically, or perhaps heroically, Smythson-Carruthers was never able to provide as much information to the world of entomology as his brothers and sisters in research, for he refused, full out, to kill any of his bugs. He would not be the cause of death for any of the world’s creatures, he proclaimed, and he did indeed eschew meat, leather – even going so far as to prohibit his publisher from producing his books in hard, leather bindings. His books and papers, therefore, were bound in humble cloth.”

“There is one very important fact that he added to the world of entomological knowledge, though his discovery is only now getting the respect and attention it deserves.”

Almost as one, his audience leaned forward. He let a long moment pass, let the tension build, let them try to guess before he hit them with the shocking truth.

“Insects, said Dr. Smythson-Carruthers, insects, those humble creatures who constitute 95% of all living creatures on this planet, those humble creatures who number as many, perhaps, as 10 quintillion – that’s ten followed by eighteen zeroes – insects, says Dr. Smythson-Carruthers, have a very special secret. They can read minds.”

The audience froze for a second, processing. Then they all leaned back again, some snorting, others thinking, still others just waiting for the punch line.

“Just so. How else, says the good doctor, can you explain the complex behavior of ants in colonies? Their ability to respond, in unison, to a stimulus that most can’t even see or hear or smell? There have been others who have posited this theory to explain the ability of flocks of birds to change direction, simultaneously, and too quickly for each to be responding to a clue from a lead bird. Rupert Sheldrake called this ‘morphic resonance’ and claims that clairvoyance explains a great deal of animal behavior. How many people here have a dog?”

Here several people raised their hands, rather reluctantly, afraid they might find out something disturbing about their canine companions.

“Have you ever returned home to find your dog at the door? Waiting? As if knowing your arrival was imminent? Now, you may say that he heard your car or she recognized your tread on the stairs. Perhaps. But how long has your dog been sitting there?” He paused to let them mumble for a moment. “But getting back to the bugs: Dr. Smythson-Carruthers didn’t just theorize about bug ESP, he got proof. And to do it, he used dragonflies.”

Dr. Robson rested his forearms on the podium. This was his favorite part of this lecture, and he had this audience in the sweaty palm of his soft, academic’s hand.

“Dragonflies have long had the reputation of being one of the most intelligent insects in the kingdom of insecta, the phylum arthropoda. They use simple tools, respond with intelligence to situations, problem-solve and even remember. A dragonfly, treated kindly by you one day, will remember you the next and the next and the next, up to a year later, if they – and you – should happen to live that long. They can attack prey singly or in phalanx, moving with skill and in coordination.

“In order to study their behavior, Dr. Smythson-Carruthers separated one dragonfly from its community. He placed several bowls on colored cards. The bowls were of transparent glass. In most of the bowls he had ordinary water; in a few, a food made specifically for dragonflies. A colorless, odorless, but nonetheless tasty food. He let his single test bug loose in the room, gave it time to sample the wares of each bowl. It took several hours for the dragonfly to test them all and discover which bowls held food, and which mere water. When a host of dragonflies was released into that room, they instantly flocked to the bowls that held food – not one dragonfly so much as sampled the bowls that contained water. How did they know? I’ll tell you how they knew: telepathy. The good doctor did his experiment again and again, and each time had the same result. The one dragonfly would test the waters, so to speak, then pass the message along so that all could share in the bounty. Would that human beings were as generous.

“Indeed, the more competitive arachnids seemed to send their compatriots to the wrong bowls, quite intentionally, to save the good stuff for themselves. Alas, Dr. Smythson-Carruthers was never able to gain much traction with his theory in the greater scientific community. After a paper on the topic was delivered to much derision at an entomological conference, he gave up. He holed up with his beloved bugs and wasn’t heard from again. He died, alone, rather ironically of a bee sting.”

Dr. Robson fielded questions for a good quarter of an hour – fourteen minutes more than was expected by his hosts. When the room finally broke up for biscuits and tea, Dr. Robson descended from his podium, exhausted but well pleased. The woman in the cloak approached him, her hands already pulling down her hood. Her face took Dr. Robson’s breath away.

“Mina,” he breathed, when he could finally talk again.

“Hello, Ethan.” She put something hard and cold in his hand, then turned away. “You can find me at the Forbury.” And she walked out.

Ethan Robson looked down at the object in his hand. It was a bug. In plastic. He was about to put the curious cube in his pocket when he was approached by his officemate.

“Brazilian wandering spider,” she said, taking the cube from him. “Possibly the most toxic spider known to humankind. The entomological equivalent of waking up with a horse’s head in your bed. You made someone pretty angry, hey?” She handed the deadly bug back to him and began heading for the door. “Mind your bananas.”

No amount of rapid blinking could make sense of that last comment.


NuclearToast said...

<rapid blinking at two quickly-published chapters>

Awesome! The dragonfly mystery deepens...

Ash said...

I am so happy that you posted TWO chapters so quickly! More please! :)

DK said...

wow - good stuff!