In June of 2008 I was hired by Taylor Studios in Rantoul, Illinois, to do murals for the new Audubon Insectarium in New Orleans. The project had been delayed for years by the City’s recovery from Hurricane Katrina. I was particularly glad to land this job because it was in my home town and I hadn’t had the heart to go back and see the devastation since the storm.
I come from a big family, so I expected to see a lot of relatives and that would be some compensation. Also, I spent so much time as a boy in Audubon Park, just a short streetcar hop up St. Charles Avenue from my house, that I expected to feel like Brer Rabbit being thrown into the briar patch.
A year before Katrina hit, I had been home for a visit, staying alone in the house in which I was raised, just inside the angle of the streetcar tracks in the River Bend neighborhood, uptown. On the last day there, I had a strange feeling that I should photograph the important places from my childhood because they might not be there forever. It was a gloomy day. I walked in a radius of about six blocks around the house, snapping photos of every house, park, school, church, store, or restaurant which held some association for me, contemplating the impermanence of things, the unreliability of memory.
But when I arrived to do the job in 2008, I found that the uptown district was virtually untouched by the storm and the foot of Canal Street at the West edge of the French Quarter, where the Insectarium was being installed in the monstrous old Customs House, was also in fine condition. I had anticipated that the sight of terrible destruction would be traumatic and resurrect some painful memories, but I didn’t expect the horrifically scary memory caused by a particular insect at the job site.
On the day I finished the job, when the time pressure to finish by the deadline had subsided, I took a few minutes to look over the insects being put into their exhibits. Now bugs don’t usually bother me. When I was kid, cockroaches, doodle bugs and anoles (we called them “lizards”) were our earliest playmates. But walking up the Insectarium’s central hall, I glanced at a glass terrarium on the left and something stopped me cold. A giant centipede, maybe 10 inches long, was worming its fluid way up a mossy branch. I bent over, square-mouthed with a combination of horror, fascination and curiosity.
A young woman in khakis, seeing my arrested progress and its cause, walked over, asking cheerfully if I was a fan of centipedes, her area of expertise, and offering to answer any questions I had.
“No,” I said, “I’m actually terrified of them, I just haven’t seen one in about 30 years.”
“Oh,” she said delightedly, “you’ve seen them in the wild?”
“Yeah, just one, but he was a doozer.”
“Really, and where was this?”
“Okinawa,” I said. “I was stationed there in the Marine Corps in the early 70s.”
“Oh yes,” she said, “the ‘Galapagos of the Western Pacific,’ a lot of unique insects there.”
“The one I saw was bigger than this one.” I held my hands about 18 inches apart.
“They don’t get that big!” she said, allowing a bit of indignation into her tone.
“Well,” I said, “maybe it’s grown a bit in my memory, but it was a good deal bigger than this one. It was about as big around as a giant Tootsie Roll, and about the same color, and it had sturdy legs, like sort of with biceps, y’know? And there was this set of big black pinchers at the front end, sharp and nasty-looking.”
I proceeded, uninvited, to tell her how I had been walking back to the wall tent I shared with my platoon sergeant, pitched on a shelf cut into the hillside overlooking the jungles of the Northern Training Area. As I reached for the flap to enter, I saw this vision from Hell leisurely snaking his way up the canvas near my left hand. I drew back in horror and hit the canvas below him with the broad blade of an entrenching tool, a folding shovel I had in my right hand. He paused, digging his needle-tipped feet into the fabric, but he did not fall to the ground as I hoped. A few more whacks were equally ineffective.
I calmed myself and realized I’d have to scrape him off and scoop him up so that I could throw him out into the jungle. I loosened the collar of the shovel, folded the blade out to its useful position and tightened the collar back. When I tried to scrape him off, he became very animated, twisted around and climbed onto the shovel blade, furiously biting the edge with his pinchers. Panic crept up my spine. I shook the shovel violently but he hung on, moving up the edge toward my hand.
Desperate, I decided to smack the blade on the ground, hoping the jolt would knock him off. But a part of him was wrapped around the lower edge of the blade and the effect of the blow was to cut him in half. I watched in horrified astonishment as the two halves continued operating, madly snaking about on the ground. Now the fear had saturated to my core and some reptilian part of my brain took over. I started yelling, hacking the two pieces into further pieces until there were 10 or 12 self-propelled segments of centipede scrambling around, bumping into each other. The thing would not die!
I began scooping up the pieces with the shovel, walking to the edge of the cut and tossing the pieces far out over the tree tops below. The head was the last part to go, still snapping. My platoon Sergeant appeared and had a good laugh at my story. But that night he woke me because I was yelling in my sleep. I told him I had a dream in which hundreds of giant centipedes surged over the edge of the cut, blood lust in their tiny black eyes.
As I finished my tale, the Insectarium’s young insect-lover was staring at a self-confessed centipede assassin with the same square mouth I’d adopted earlier.
“That’s horrible!” she whispered.
“Yeah, it was. The worst part was how he roared.”
“They can’t roar,” she said, “they have no vocal cords.”
“But I remember exactly how it sounded.”
“Maybe in your memory, your imagination…” She never finished her sentence. I think she saw the absolute conviction on my face that the thing had roared at me and her eyes widened. She backed away as a vampire would from a cluster of garlic and disappeared into the busy crowd.
Back home, I read everything I could find on the internet about giant centipedes but got no validation. I looked at my photos of my childhood neighborhood and contemplated the impermanence of things, the unreliability of memory. But just between you and me, the thing roared!