"He squirmed out his box when I was feeding him. I was running upstairs to get a mouse out of the refrigerator when he got out. He was just sliding between this tiny gap between the linoleum and the drywall when I got back downstairs. I was too late to grab him."
"If you see him, just grab a pencil or pen and hold it in front of him. He'll just wind himself around it. Don't worry, he's not poisonous. I'm really sorry about this. Poor little guy."
My neighbour stammered another apology and trudged back to his half of the duplex. He was a large man in every direction. He had a bulky Norse muscularity and a wiry, fiery mane and beard to match. He certainly looked capable of ferocity, but on this occasion he just looked deeply worried. His skin was pale and his shoulders were scrunched. There was an almost maternal tremor in his voice as he told me of his pet's escape.
His news was disturbing in many ways. The thought of this slithering fugitive beneath our duplex's shared wall filled me with only a vague discomfort. I had seen them before and even allowed a zoo keeper to wrap a python around my neck during a high school field trip. It was not altogether unpleasant. Its skin was agreeably warm, though it seemed a little agitated at the texture of my leather jacket and had to be removed quickly. What I was more worried about was how my wife would react.
Rita had been going to a tanning booth in anticipation of a Caribbean vacation we were planning, but every cent of tan drained from her face as I told her. I had tried to offer a reassuring explanation of the situation, but it was like trying to put a pleasing spin on the news that the house was on fire.
"Didn't you know that the small ones are the most dangerous! Why should we believe him that it isn't poisonous? How could he let this happen? We have to phone the landlord and complain. He ought to be evicted! This is a half-duplex, not a reptile farm! I'm thinking of going to my mother's!" These concerns were thrown at me in rage and panic, through tight lips. It was if my calm had backfired and I was somehow partially responsible for the problem because I was not fretting as visibly.
We passed two tense weeks. My unease was mostly vicarious, but was still unendurable. My wife mostly stayed upstairs. She slept on the couch. She only used the basement to access our closet and the showers, and only then after she had pulled on and tied her runners. I can't confirm this, but I think she might have even worn her shoes in the shower, wrapping zip-lock bags around them. Her dressing was accomplished by removing and then replacing one article at a time. This situation caused some discomfort for me as well. I started having to carry my own clothes to our basement bedroom after the laundry was done, and many other spousal privileges were similarly suspended.
Our neighbour dropped by for daily updates. He would always inquire if we had seen his pet, and then politely remind me of what to do if we found it. He once remarked that he thought his friend might go hungry, but he reassured himself that there were certainly enough insects in this crevice to tide him over until he returned. At one point he mused, in a largely self-delusional way, that the crawl space was greater under his half of the wall and maybe it would really remain nearer his side. This was a promising speculation.
I seized on this opportunity to concoct the most soothing story I could think of. I assured my wife, several times, that I had personally inspected the whole basement and that there was no space for anything, save a subatomic particle to fit through. It was surely still on our neighbour's side. I also told her the landlord had confirmed this when I called to complain thereby using evidence from a conversation which never took place to confirm our neighbour's already dubious hypothesis.
This eventually did sooth Rita. She started to sleep in our room again. Her dressing routine became more conventional. I noticed, while making my lunch that we were not going through nearly as many zip lock bags. It seemed that the worst of it was over.
Then, at about 4:00 one July morning, as I was stumbling out of the bathroom after relieving the full bladder that had awakened me, I was confronted with proof positive that there was plenty of room under our shared wall. The fugitive pet was lurking, in no particular hurry, it seemed, six inches from our bedroom door.
Although I had turned the light off when I left the bathroom, it was far from pitch black in our duplex. In the ashy light the creature's speckles appeared more as a texture than a colour. It was not perfectly black, but rather shadowy. It writhed darkly on my linoleum like a couple of lovers in a tastefully rendered cinematic romance sequence. I didn't move for several minutes.
For the rest of the morning my actions were energetic, but completely devoid of intelligent thought. The stranger seemed to be in no hurry, so I took this as an opportunity to bolt upstairs and retrieve some trapping equipment. I somehow forgot my neighbour's advice, and instead emerged with an entire role of paper towel, an ice cream pail, and an "ever-sharp" brand paring knife. I rushed back downstairs and discovered that it had made no significant movement. It was a very casual trespasser.
I approached him. I wrapped a thick wad of paper towel around my hand so thickly that it looked like a boxing glove. I gingerly gripped the creature. It felt very thin but tautly muscular, like the arm of a long distance runner. I dropped it, along with the paper towel in the ice cream pale. I snapped on the lid. I poked some holes in the top so it would have room to breathe. I had heard that this was a good strategy when catching fireflies.
Next, I ran out the door and rang the neighbour's doorbell. He was not in so I decided to wait and try again later. I went back home and watched t.v. for five minutes, channel -- surfing relentlessly as I was too wired to watch any one program. All the while I kept my eye on the pail with my captive inside it. I tried to ring his doorbell again. He still was not in. More television was followed by another attempt to call on my neighbour. After an hour of this, my eyes became heavy and my body started to ache with the effort of being up too early for a stressful reason. My neighbour clearly was not home.
I thought vaguely of leaving it in the mailbox, but I thought this might be cruel towards the mailman should he intercept it before my neighbour got home. Leaving it in our unit was not an option. Rita would kill me, or at least move out, if she knew that I had even kept it for an hour.
With no rational purpose in mind, I went outside and started walking. I felt like a zombie. I circled the block five times. It was probably six thirty by now. I could already tell it was going to be a muggy day. It was still sort of grey outside. I thought of releasing him on the road but decided this would not be a suitable environment for him. There was no grass to speak of anywhere near us. I discovered I still had the paring knife.
I did it. I ripped through him like he was gristle on a steak, and as I was tearing, both ends started to squirm frantically. As I reached the pavement with my knife, both ends twitched with even more violence. I thought briefly, though this contradicted what I had learned in high school science, that I had merely created two of them. In any second it seemed that one would bolt off to find his destiny in the East, as the other made his way West. Then both ends stopped squirming.
I picked up the evidence with the paper towel and returned it all to the ice cream pale. I deposited the pale, its contents, and the pairing knife in the dumpster behind the convenience store down the hill. I went home.
Rita was still sleeping when I arrived. I washed up to my elbows in scalding water passed the next hour, until the alarm went off, fretfully. I felt something crawling up my leg the whole time. It turned out that the bed sheets were askew.
I told Rita what had happened that morning. She was somewhat annoyed I had deceived her, but she seemed to draw a perverse relief that she lived with such a ruthless defender of the realm. She even told her parents and her brother about my hunting that night.
I spoke to the neighbour the next morning. Out of sheer cowardice, I changed my story at the last minute. Suddenly what happened was that I had briefly seen his pet, but could not catch him before he slipped under the common wall again. He repeated some earlier concerns. "I just hope he has enough to eat down there, poor little guy."
Later if we invited the in-laws to barbecues they would sometimes joke about my exploits that night. I would feel sick to my stomach. I would plead with them to change the subject in case my neighbour heard. He moved out some time later.
Even with him gone, the memory haunts me. I look at that spot
where I first saw it on the floor and I relive my own foolish, frantic
desperation. The night I became, in my own small way, a murderer.
The intruder must have become very grimy in his travels, because I
have found the stain he made curiously difficult to scrub out of the old
linoleum on my basement floor.
© 2001 John Williamson, all rights reserved
appears here by permission