The Prophet of the Road

Some parasites live on man’s body . . . but there are other creatures that just like to

live near him . . . .

ERNEST CALLENBACH, “Living Poor With Style”

PITY THE POOR BIOLOGISTwho had to prove (I never found why) that caribou in the Canadian barrenlands lose a pint of blood a week to the mosquitoes. Of course caribou have more blood to spare than we; perhaps it is not as bad as it sounds, to pay a pint a week for the privilege of living. I remember summer days in Alaska when I could hardly see the backs of my hands because they were so thick with mosquitoes. And a bush pilot told me how he once overflew a man on a hilltop who seemed to be signaling him with long black streamers; these too were mosquitoes in their thousands, using the man for a windbreak while they attacked him, rising and falling in eerie concordance with his frantic arms, veiling his face with whining hungry blackness. It is usually difficult to apprehend the concept of an ocean by analogy with a single drop of water, but in the case of these unpleasant creatures, one will fall upon you with sufficient vampirish alacrity to represent the whole swarm, unlike a dewdrop that lies so docile in the palm as to seem altogether alien to reef-tides and shipwrecks. The dewdrop is at rest anywhere. The mosquito seems fulfilled only when installed upon your skin, its six knees drawn tightly up above its wings, the forelegs stretched partly out like a basking dog’s, antennae alertly cocked, head down, proboscis stabbed into you to drink a little more of your life. Even in this state of fulfillment the creature appears tense. It is ready to withdraw from the wound at any time (although as it swells up with blood it becomes less able to do so quickly); it gains, in short, a furtive and half-disengaged orgasm, which is all that natural law permits when a pygmy rapes a giant. The spectrum of feeling between lust and fear and satiation in mosquitoes must be very narrow. When they crouch restlessly on leaves or ceilings they do not seem so different from when they are feeding. This family Culicidae is a family of machines. Delicately tooled with bands and scales, equipped with near-infallible sensors to locate their victims, they’ve been adjusted by their maker to the behavior best suited to carry out their mission in a given place. In the tropics they are silently multitudinous. Knowing that if one doesn’t get you another one will, they launch themselves directly, though by all means taking advantage of leaf-shade and darkness. Temperate latitudes do not hold so very many of them. As a result, they are cunning and wary. On a black sticky night, a single mosquito in a room may succeed in biting you half a dozen times. When you finally turn on the light to search for it, you cannot find it. Farther north, and again they have less need for these subtleties. Kill one or 10, it makes no matter. A hundred more will come. Proof that the manufacturer is not concerned about the potential loss of a few automata is given by the noise they so often emit, which not only alerts the victim, but also annoys, as anyone who’s endured the quavering whining of a mosquito lodged inside the ear would agree. This provocation, combined with the itching, would require a Brahmin’s self-control not to avenge. Anyhow, kill them, shoo them away, or let them bite, it makes very little difference. They will win out. I remember how grateful I was when the days were cold enough to keep them sluggish, and even when they swarmed everything was so beautiful with flowers and red sphagnum moss that they didn’t matter until I began to get tired; parting the river brambles and river trees I forded braids of rivers without minding the mosquitoes on my face, and then I climbed the tussock-hills to where the tundra was very thin, like the greening on a pool table, and had a nice view of rivers and snowdrifts, always the sound of a river to remind me that mosquito songs were not all there was, and sometimes a bird sang, too. If I was lucky there might be a breeze to scatter the mosquitoes, and I could eat my lunch very quickly. But I’d often stop early on those days, not having been able to rest enough. (Doubtless if I’d been born there they would have affected me less.) Pitching my tent was unpleasant, because the time it took was more than sufficient for my guests to thicken about me and I could not fight them all off since that required constant use of both hands and I must use at least one to work. If I slapped a tickle on my cheek, I’d kill a dozen bloated mosquitoes, my palm wetted with my blood. I did have repellent, but it didn’t stay on long, because the thick clothes that the mosqui toes compelled me to wear made me sweat. So by evening, when I was exhausted, I’d squeeze a few more drops of that bitterly toxic elixir onto my skin before I shook the tent poles out of their stuff sack, but I’d always miss a few places: maybe my ankles that time (secure, I’d thought, behind the armor of my pants cuff), or the inviting slice of flesh at the back of my neck, just behind my collar. I’d scarcely have one pole assembled before being seized by that maddening itching, which I was already tensed to expect, and as I forgot everything but slapping, the pole would fall apart again, and I’d have to laugh, since swearing wouldn’t have helped. At least I did have thick clothes on and could get the tent up in due time, then crawl inside and zip the door shut behind me, kill the 20 or 30 mosquitoes who’d ventured in (they were not good at hiding), rub some cold canteen water over my burning lumps, scratch my swollen face and hands, and relax upon the top of my sleeping bag, listening to mosquitoes pelt against the fly of the tent like rain. The next day, more mosquitoes. Four miles up Inukpasugruk Creek was a waterfall climb. Surges of water made me uneasy. I didn’t know whether it was runoff from rain over the ridge, or whether a glacier finger waited for me. The mosquitoes weren’t too bad. They only bit my eyelids, earlobes, cheeks, knees, buttocks, wrists, hands and ankles a few times. The worst thing, as I said, was that singing whine. It was not enough that they bit; they must also make that noise, louder as they got closer, always teasing, uneven so that I could never get used to it; and one note became a chord as more of them came singing around until I could think of nothing but where they would land next. I’d sweep the air and my arms would meet mosquitoes; I’d make a sudden fist anywhere and mosquitoes would be caught inside. -- Of course it was a failure on my part to be so disturbed by them. There’s a scene in Tolstoy (in “The Cossacks,” I think) when mosquito bites suddenly become glowing lovebites and the sportsman strides happily through the forest of his own self-reliance. -- And what about the Inuit, who’d lived with mosquitoes for perhaps 20 centuries without repellent? An old lady from Pond Inlet once told me that she could remember living in a sod house. The mosquitoes had been very bad, but her family fanned themselves with feathers. They’d done that every summer for all their lives until the whalers came, and it was something that they just did and accepted because they had to.


AND NOW I DID not have to think about the mosquitoes too much either because I was in my tent again looking at the bloodstains on the ceiling where I’d squashed the ones that had followed me in and bitten me and gotten away for a minute or two before I caught up with them, and I could see the shadows of so many others on the outside of the nylon smelling the blood inside me but unable to get at me, waiting for me to go out, and then after I ran back inside scratching my new bites and killing the assault guard, the others would land on the fly again, waiting now for the sunny night to end so that I’d expose my flesh to another day; but meanwhile I was inside and they could not torture me; I did not have to slap the backs of my thighs every minute on general principles, or sweep my sleeve across my face to kill mosquito crowds; and it was astounding how quickly I forgot them. They were all around me and had not forgotten about me, but I’d shut them out and they meant nothing. I cannot remember what I thought about. Most likely I did not have to think about anything, because I’d gained asylum in an embassy of the easy world that I was used to, enjoying it flapping around me in the sunlight like a boat, all blue and orange, with the shadow of the blowing fly bobbing up and down.

WHEN I HITCHHIKED from San Francisco to Fairbanks, mosquitoes surrounded me with the hymning hum of a graduation. As soon as I was safely in a vehicle they could not affect me anymore and I rode the familiar thrill of speed and distance, lolling in the back of the truck, with a beautiful husky kissing my hands and cheeks, and we slowed to let a moose get out of the road and at once I heard the mosquitoes again. -- A mosquito bit me. -- I was on the Al-Can Highway now. As long as I moved they could not reach me. I forgot the night I’d given up, not yet even in Oregon, and stayed at a motel, my face red-burned and filthy, my eyes aching; and it had been hard to spend the $16 on the room but it was raining hard and had been all day, so no one would pick me up. In hitchhiking, as in so many other departments, the surest way not to get something is to need it. The more the world dirtied me, the less likely someone would be to let me into his car. -- But the next morning it was sunny and I had showered and shaved and a van picked me up within half an hour and took me into Oregon, and as I rode so happily believing that I now progressed, I didn’t even realize that the inside of the van was not so different from the inside of the motel; I was protected again. -- Sun and rain; sun and rain. Each night I camped by the side of the road. Sometimes I was cold and wet, but never too uncomfortable, even when my sleeping bag got soaked. It was summer. Sleeping bags, stuff sacks, coats and tent were all shiny nylon.

ON THE LONG stretch of road between Ft. St. John and Ft. Nelson, where the mosquitoes were so thick that every now and then we had to stop to clean the windshield, we came to where the Indian woman was dancing. It was almost dusk, round about maybe 9 or 10. The windshield was turning whitish-brown again from squashed mosquitoes. The driver did not want to stop again just yet, but I noticed that he was straining his eyes to see through the dead bugs, and I was just about to say that I didn’t mind cleaning the windshield by myself this time so that only one of us would get bitten, when far ahead on that empty road (we hadn’t met another vehicle for two hours) we saw her capering as if she was so happy, and then we began to get closer to her and saw the frantic despair in her leapings and writhings like those of some half-crushed thing that could not die. Just as her dance of supposed happiness had seemed to me entirely self-complete, like masturbation, so this dance of torture struck me as long-gone mad, sealing her off from other human beings forever like some alcoholic mumbler who sheds incomprehensible tears. It was not until we were almost past her that I understood behind our hermetic windows that she was screaming for help. The driver hesitated. He was a good soul, but he already had one hitchhiker. Did he have to save the world? Besides, she might be crazy or dangerous. But as he slowed to think about it, we both saw the mosquitoes blackening her face. He stopped. The mosquitoes began to pelt against the windows. We had to help her get in. She embraced us with all her remaining strength, weeping like a little child. Her fearfully swollen face burned to my touch. The mosquitoes had bitten her so much around the eyes that she could barely see. Her long black hair was smeared with blood and dead mosquitoes. Her cheeks had puffed up almost like tennis balls. She had bitten her lip very deeply, and blood ran down from it to her chin where a single mosquito still feasted. I crushed it.

THAT AFTERNOON, no doubt, she’d been prettier, with sharp cheekbones that caught the light, a smooth dark oval face, dark lips still glistening and whole, black eyes whose mercurial glitter illuminated the world yet a little longer, shiny black hair waved slantwise across her forehead. That was why the man in Ft. Nelson had decided to support her trade. Reservation bait, he thought. She got in his truck, and there were some other men, too; they used her services liberally. But unlike slow mosquitoes, who pay the bill, if only with their lives, the men had their taste of flesh with impunity. They weren’t entirely vile. They didn’t beat her. They only left her to the mosquitoes. They let her put her clothes back on before they threw her out.


SHE’D TRIED TO DIG a hole in the gravelly earth, a grave to hide in, but she hadn’t gone an inch before her fingers started bleeding and the mosquitoes had crawled inside her ears so that she couldn’t think anymore, and she started running down the empty road; she ran until she had to stop, and then the mosquitoes descended like dark snow onto her eyelids. Two cars had passed her. She’d almost killed herself. I remember the tenderness I felt, wanted to hug her as she hugged me, wanted to make her happy.

THAT WAS THE most horrible thing that I have ever seen. For a while I thought about it every day. I know I thought about it when, at the end of that summer, I was hitchhiking back and I’d gotten as far as Oregon and slept entented in a tree-screened dimple on a field by a white house, hoping that no one in the white house would see and hurt me, and the next morning I ducked under the fence and was back on the shoulder of the freeway and it was already a very hot morning, so I was drinking from my canteen (which I’d filled at a gas station in Portland) when another hitchhiker came thumping down the road toward me. He was like a prophet from the old times. He wore a long robe and carried a great wooden staff that he slammed down at every step. He was not so old, and yet his beard was long and gray (possibly from dust), and his gray hair fell to his shoulders and his eyes were wild like a bull’s. His face was caked with dust. He licked his lips as he came near me, and his eyes were on mine unwaveringly, so I offered him water and he came closer and closer, continuing to stare into my eyes, and then he shook his head sternly and walked on. I did not live up to his ideals. There was another hitchhiker I’d met in Washington state who’d been crazy and called himself the Angel Michael and whispered to me that he didn’t know anymore whether he was a boy or a girl and I believed him because he was so angelic: Angels are undoubtedly hermaphrodites. In the same way, I believed in the prophet wholly. I could not but admire him for rejecting me. He went on and on down the freeway shoulder, with barbed wire at his right shoulder and cars at his left, growing smaller (though I could still distinctly hear the tapping of his stick) and I wondered what he would have done or said if it had been he and only he who came across the woman whom the mosquitoes were eating. I could almost see him there on the Al-Can, toiling on, mile after mile, his face black-veiled like that minister in Hawthorne’s tale, black-veiled with mosquitoes; he’d walk on and stab the gravel with his staff and never deign to brush away a single mosquito; he’d glare terribly through eyes swollen almost shut by mosquito bites and go on, mile after mile, week after week; and maybe someday he’d come upon that woman shrieking in her crazed torment. Would he stop then; would the mosquitoes leave her for him in a single flicker of his divinity, after which he’d pass on in silence, followed by unimaginable clouds of humming blackness? Would she fall to her knees then and thank God and regain herself? -- Or would he never have stopped at all, marching contemptuously on, ignoring her need as he ignored my gift, and dwindled just the same along that highway’s inhuman straightness?