A mourning dove hung pinched between two warped planks of the attic eaves. It struggled and coo’d, caught in the grip of incongruent timber.
We were young and childless and thought it was cute that birds nested in our roof. We didn’t know anything about birth or death or how long life can be.
I stuck a broom handle out of the window to pry the boards apart. One beam snapped and fell to the concrete along with the plump broken-winged bird I was trying to free. It slapped sickly on the cracked ribbon drive and bled from its beak.
Our attic was full of birds. They fluttered in and out of the unpatched gap left by the missing board. Wads of nesting bristled at the edges. We heard them flapping up there–sparrows, pigeons, starlings–confused feathers beating the dense, dusty heat.
We made clumsy love on cool quilts underneath.
Spring came and my legs itched. I scratched the little red prickles until my shin was red and raw. Steph itched too.
I peeled back our tulip quilt to scan the sheets. Nothing at first. Then my vision narrowed between the warp and the weft. There, skittering in the weave, a little black pinprick. Then many skittering black pinpricks.
Do not go to birdmites.org. Do not Google it. Do not read about how they need your hot blood to breed. Do not read that all known pesticides are ineffective. Do not read the personal testimonials from people who have lost their house, their relationships, their sanity. Do not read about how the early instars are small enough to nest under your fingernails, in your ears, in your throat, in your urethra, in your bloodstream. Do not look at the slides of the pinpricks you just saw in your own bed magnified to Lovecraftian proportions, legs and maw tangled hideously at one end of a bulbous blood-swollen thorax. Do not let your stomach drop as you look at your one-year-old son and realize you have absolutely no idea what you can do to protect him. Do not feel yourself free-falling through the prospect of interminable years being slowly devoured and watching those you love be slowly devoured, a blood-meal for seething parasites. Do not read that the infestation can never be eradicated, but that it might be managed through constant, unflagging, obsessive diligence. Do not download that virus. Do not let those stories burrow through your eyes and nest in your brain.
The one I trapped in a fold of Scotch tape was too mangled to identify. The exterminator asked for a live sample. I found a few in our bed, crawling in the sheets we just washed last night, and sealed them in a ziplock bag.
“Well, it’s either a bird mite or a body louse. Let me take it back to the shop and look at it under the microscope.”
Please be a body louse, I thought.
After ripping out chaotic whorls of dried grass and mewling, sightless fledglings. After the clouds of poison and residual granules scattered in the blown-in insulation and light fixtures. After the bill. After tossing the detritus from the broken window of our sweltering shit-pocked attic. After filling the curb with mounds black bags and plush baby things and whatever else might harbor a secret clutch. After laundering every stitch of clothing in a special dryer that reaches the specific heat needed to kill eggs and larvae. After retraining my eyes not to narrow to pore-level microfocus, convincing myself not to check the beds again, not to type in the website into the search bar again. After all this I sat on the floor to play with my son and saw a little pinprick skitter along the yellow deck of the Fisher-Price pirate ship. And I wondered at how everything alive can be so fragile when Life itself is raging, teeming, and profoundly indifferent to its individual parts.
I wondered and then I squashed that bloodsucking son-of-a-bitch right there on that plastic galleon.
None of it was true of course. The poison killed the bugs. They probably would have died without their preferred host anyway. Still, day after day, I scrubbed my hands raw until the skin stretched taut and reptilian over cracked knuckles and veins. There was nothing on the outside to wash off anymore. They infested the place where I couldn’t reach.
Eleven pumps sent the Walmart pellet through the neck of one bird and into the chest of the next. They both tumbled off the shingled outcropping and hit the ground bleeding. I shoveled them limp into a paper sack and set them on fire in a rusty ash-caked basin. Dark feather-fed smoke diffused into the cold air.
I stood hot-breathed in the snow to see what else would try to land.
Justin Longacre lives in Toledo, Ohio where he teaches at Toledo School for the Arts. His work has been published in Word Riot, Spartan, Great Lakes Review and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @justin_longacre.
Header Image: Creative Commons, Public Domain, modified.