By Momo Wang
When I was a teenager, maybe 15 or 16 years old, I was sitting on the couch in the living room when I saw a ladybug run across the corner of a table. The sight filled me with a sudden and strong sense of horror. The ladybug was tottering madly about, its body halfway squashed, its dotted orange shell cracked like a pistachio, revealing an almost completely flattened abdomen. It stumbled forward in a sort of crazed and horrible dance, running at an alarming speed, given the extent of its injuries. I couldn’t look away from it.
It’s just a ladybug, I know. It’s just a beetle with barely any brains. But you would have understood if you’d seen it, too — the way it walked, the way it dragged its twisted wings, and the horrible way its legs moved, like a broken mechanical puppet.
I remember this ladybug, may it rest in peace. I remember the spider my karate teacher smashed on the mats with his bare foot in 2016 and the fat, buzzing beetle that struggled for days in the bathroom, hanging by one leg from a spiderweb. I remember the upside-down cicada I put back in a tree. The friendly cricket in the basement to whom I fed a piece of pumpkin. And that enormous fly from years ago, about the size of a thumb, that rode into the house on my dad’s back, sending me and my siblings running and screaming from the kitchen. The fly was biting him, but no one would help because we were all terrified out of our minds.
Don’t worry, spiders,
I keep house
– Kobayashi Issa
When my siblings and I were younger, we used to play with the ants that lived on the patio in our backyard. Every few months, my dad would make a bonfire, and we’d pick through the ashes for pieces of charcoal. We drew extravagant mansions for our ants, complete with restaurants and classrooms and state-of-the-art movie theaters. It was a grand time. We smashed grapes and berries where we wanted them to go, then watched with absorption as more and more of them trickled into our rooms, outlining our offerings with their dark bodies. Black, red, brown, shiny, fuzzy, smooth, fat, slender, winged, big, medium, tiny — all came to feast in the great, glittering city.
I’ve always been more fond of the smaller ants. The big black ants that seem to grow fuzz on their bodies and become hairier and hairier the older they get disgust me a little. I’m not sure why. I suppose I don’t like it that they’re large. I don’t like it that they look almost blue in the sunlight. I don’t like their skittery, skittery legs and the fact that you can feel the weight of them as they run up your arm.
One sunny day, I’d turned on the tap to wash the dishes when I saw, too late, six or seven of these guys struggling at the bottom of the sink. Most were clear of the water, but one was right in the middle of a puddle, wandering around in circles. Moving with practiced efficiency, I tore off a corner of a paper towel and turned back to the sink to fish it out. But when I returned, I found it curled up. Its body, so active a few seconds ago, was lifeless and unmoving. I prodded it. I scooped it up. I stood there with the paper, unable to believe it. A life gone, just like that? A few seconds had made all the difference? I remember feeling disappointment and a little guilt. If I had moved faster, if I had grabbed the whole paper towel instead of stingily tearing off a corner, if I had stuck my hand in to rescue it instead of looking for something else …
I’m afraid I’m revealing myself as somewhat of a sentimental idiot. Who cares so much about an ant drowning? Or a ladybug? There are people starving in the world. There are people at war and children fishing through garbage dumps to find scraps to sell for their families. What is a bug to that? Why even bother? It seems so stupid when I write it out.
Perhaps a bug is nothing.
In this world
we walk on the roof of hell,
gazing at flowers
– Kobayashi Issa
I remember the waxworms I used to fish. I remember the wriggling earthworm that I cut into pieces as a child to feed to a baby bird we’d found in the grass. The bird died. I remember when I was maybe seven or eight, searching for acorns at the park while my dad fished in the pond. Some of the acorns had holes in them, and inside would be an interesting treasure — a small white worm, surrounded by the mush it had made out of the acorn meat. For hours, I diligently cracked nuts, looking for worms. I put them in a plastic bug-viewer which I took home and filled with various plants. Then, that night, I found an even greater treasure — a little frog. Out I went and dumped my worms onto the dirt to make room for my new pet.
I remember a spider I accidentally tangled in its web one day while I was sweeping. Sorry and determined to offer a quick end, I stepped on it. I remember my family’s Great Ladybug Extermination, that time we used the vacuum cleaner to suck up the hundreds of ladybugs perched on the walls or running across the tables or flipped over and kicking on our windowsills. I remember a big brown beetle, one of those lumbering and slow-looking fellows that bump against the window screens in summer. It’d gotten stuck in a spiderweb in the corner of the bathroom mirror. By this time, I’d developed my own principles for dealing with bugs stuck in spiderwebs. If I saw no spider, I took it down. If there was a spider, I left it in. A very small spider occupied this web. I couldn’t imagine how it could possibly consume such a large beetle. But for two days, the beetle dangled there by one leg, buzzing. Sometimes, it looked as if it were almost about to get free. Finally, I couldn’t let it be anymore. I took the beetle down from the web, hoping it was not too late. It had earned its life with its endurance.
I remember my freshman year of college, when I found a green worm in my salad. I brought it to my dorm and snuck lettuce out of the dining hall for a month for it to munch. And munch it did. It grew fatter and lumpier, until one day it stopped moving and became a cocoon. I removed it from its cup and placed it on the shelf above my desk. Occasionally, I’d check in to see if anything had changed. One day, I returned to find the cocoon empty. The moth or butterfly — I never found out which — had emerged while I was away. I wonder what happened to it. Maybe it starved to death somewhere in my dorm hall. Maybe it found its way outdoors?
are you enjoying yourself,
– Kobayashi Issa
I remember the attempted rescue of another worm, this one from just a couple years ago. Visiting my mom in Kansas, I found an earthworm blistering on the sidewalk, a victim of a rain spout that had come and gone before the worm had completed its journey across the cement. It was shriveling in the sun, attacked by ants. I picked it up and carried it back to the house, using my hands to shade it. Learning from the times when I did harm through good intention, I searched the internet for expert advice on dried earthworm rescue but didn’t find any answers. Doing my own amateur best, I made a moist bowl of dirt, placed the worm on top, and then a wet paper towel over the bowl. In a couple of hours, it was moving a bit more, its skin moistening up. But it looked pale and swollen and unnatural, and by the next morning, it was dead.
In the same house, during that same summer, my dad brought home some catfish in a tub. They were alive and still struggling. I hated to see them moving their gills, trying to breathe the dry air. I had the urge to grab the tub and run back to the pond where they’d come from and dump them in the water. If they’d been my fish, I would have. But what would my dad say? Wouldn’t that hurt my dad, who had worked so hard to fish them? I thought about taking a knife or a big stick and ending their struggle quickly. But wouldn’t that make me more responsible for their pain than if I had just left them alone? For a long time, I couldn’t decide. I stayed in the kitchen, watching them, and crying. In the end, I did decide to leave them alone. I craved clarity, a simple world where I could avoid culpability by just refusing to take part. Perhaps if I never caused pain with my own hands, that would be enough. But the next time, when my dad brought home a large bass, I took the back of a cleaver and tried to kill it with one blow, the way I’d seen in Asian supermarkets. I’m too small and weak, though, and it didn’t work. I hit it several more times to put it out of its misery, and by the end, there were thin lines of blood on its scales.
A huge frog and I,
staring at each other,
neither of us moves.
– Kobayashi Issa
I have tears in my eyes as I type this. I feel so small and confused, like a ridiculous clown. Regret for the bird. Regret for the fish. Regret for the bugs I chose to kill and the ones I didn’t. A hypocrite for the pain I caused on purpose and for the pain I caused from neglect. For the pain I’m still causing. You can be forgiven for your thoughts. You can be forgiven for the pain you cause yourself. But the pain you cause to others is the one thing you can truly never take back. It is always there, unerasable. Some days I think I care too much. Some days I think I don’t care enough. Maybe I should have never brought home the bird. Maybe I should have left the worm on the sidewalk. Maybe I should have smashed the struggling ladybug, which I sat and watched crawl on its miserable way until it disappeared from my sight.
About the Author …
Momo Wang graduated from the U of I in May 2022 with a B.S. in Earth, Society, and Environmental Sustainability. She lives in California, where she works as a performing violinist, music teacher, and scriptwriter.
This article was the memoir award winner in the 2022 Janelle Joseph Environmental Writing Contest.
Hass, Robert (Editor, Translator). The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa.