Poison || Anne Coray

          “The mosquito,” Uncle George once said, “is better off with a moose.” 

          What he meant was, better off with moose blood than human, because we lack what mosquitoes like. It has something to do with an amino acid deficiency, and George even said the name, but leucine, lycene, kerosene—for me, they all ran together. Bottom line: when the mosquitoes are thick, decoy them with a moose. 

          Of course, June’s no month for a moose hunt. It’s illegal and unethical. End of May, early June, that’s when the calves are born. Even bush-savvy guys like me understand that kind of sentimentality. 

          As for mosquitoes, my buddy Freddie said, “How embarrassing would that be, taking them out of season? They have bag limits on those suckers nowadays.” He was always cracking jokes like that. Truth was, he loathed mosquitoes, and I found it hard not to agree.

          But when Freddie wanted to turn his Super Cub into a fumigator, I had hesitations. There was my health to consider. 

          Freddie lived five miles downriver, in a little community called Coldstamp. There were twenty of them there, bachelors and widows and five kids. Every one played some instrument: fiddle and Jew’s harp, and the kids did washtubs and spoons. You’d think all that music would’ve confused the mosquitoes, the pitch competing with their flight noise. But when you live on a river in interior Alaska, the mosquitoes are in charge of the tuning fork. 

          Coldstamp was all right. Every couple months I’d hike down there for some beer and bluegrass. I hiked because the river was shallow, the water churning around wheel-sized rocks that would have been murder even on a jet boat. No matter, I wouldn’t have owned one if my place was on the Yukon. Those engines are loud enough to make a jackrabbit deaf. 

           It was weird living near water that was only safe for a big rubber raft. But who wants to tote one of those heavyweights back upriver when you’ve got two good legs and a daypack? Anyway, the upside was that few visitors came to Coldstamp: the airstrip was private, and only long enough for bush planes. That’s why Uncle George picked this spot in the first place. When he granted his land to me, I was old enough to know about overpopulation and eroding waterways. I suppose that’s why the Coldstampers settled here too. The difference between them and me was that they had a lazy streak, rarely hoofing it except for firewood. Only Freddie came to visit me. 

          The morning he stopped in to announce his fumigation plan was about like any other in our cranny of the woods: a good rain the night before and calm winds meant the conniving scoundrels were out in full force, ready to exercise their stretch muscles on ample servings of our blood. Maybe it’s inferior, but it’s still blood. 

          “Ho, Ethan, let me in,” Freddie called, with a frenzied knock on my cabin door. 

          I released the inside latch I used to discourage bears, and Freddie barreled in, wearing a head net, gloves, and a light jacket. A seal of duct tape encircled his cuffs. He held out his hands. “Peel that off, wouldya.”

          Whoever’d done the wrapping had gotten some skin. When I yanked, Freddie flinched, as curly wrist hairs tore away.  Freddie removed his gloves and jacket and went for his head net. When he pulled it off, dozens of winged leeches flew with their heavy cargo of blood to my windows. 

          Dispatching them was a breeze; their potbellied walk across the panes was no match for my two-dollar Chinese fly swatter. But the crimson memorabilia they left on the glass required multiple passes with a vinegar-soaked handkerchief.

          Freddie settled into my only padded chair. Already he was scratching his scalp, forehead, the back of his neck, like a cross-fox covered with lice. 

          “You’re making it worse,” I said, and tossed him my last tube of calamine. Freddie squeezed out a palm full and slathered it on his neck. Then he inverted the tube and deployed the rest on his head, the pink goo forming a baby rose on his cropped black hair. He rubbed the lotion in and beamed. 

          “Found some juice in the old storage shed,” said Freddie. “Fifty-five gallon drum full. I got the pump, the sprayer. Cub’s all rigged. I’ll start with Coldstamp and work my way up to the swamp.”

          I’d spent enough time with Freddie that I could usually decipher his lingo. But this time I was slow on the uptake. I cupped my good ear into the shape of a trumpet and moved closer. “Whoa, buddy, what’re you talking, juice?”

          He grinned. “Malathion. Works on the nervous system. FDA approved. Been around since ’56.  The stuff I have is pure.”

          I connected the dots. “Poison,” I said. 

          Freddie shrugged. His indifference was wickedly ironic, since Freddie, like me and everyone in Coldstamp, refused to use bug dope on their skin. That’s because the only effective repellent contains deet, and once, after a bottle spilled into one of Freddie’s big totes and melted the plastic, we decided it wasn’t a good thing to work into our pores.  So we’d settled for head nets and protective clothing. But when the ’skeeters were bad even this proved useless, as Freddie was modeling for me this very moment. 

          I didn’t like his proposition. What he did downriver was his business.  But the swamp was a good ten acres, and it started a mile upstream from me. When the winds blew west, the remnants of that juice would come my direction. I didn’t want it in my air or water. 

          “Not the swamp, Freddie.”

          “Fifty million are breeding in there every day. We gotta wreck the cradle if we’re gonna squash these babies.”

          I vacillated. I hated the S.O.B.’s as much as anyone. How satisfying would it be to annihilate the whole nursery, wipe the slate so clean I could strut around my property wearing only a T-shirt and shorts? 

          Freddie saw my weakness and pressed his points. The mosquitoes made life miserable. Their numbers were multiplying; before you knew it they’d be carrying malaria and West Nile. But I stood my ground. Well, mostly. Let’s say I tried to postpone Freddie’s attack.

            “Give me a month,” I said. “Maybe there’s another solution.”

 

            What I thought might be that other solution arrived the very next day, in the form of a woman. Kendra was knuckle-tough from her nose to her toes. A born-again Buddhist with a savage strain of independence, she dragged her inflatable kayak to my doorstep on a gloomy, bone-soaking afternoon. If I said our river wasn’t floatable except with giant rafts, Kendra proved me wrong. She was a white-water warrior used to scrapes and bruises—and to some degree, mosquitoes. She had a fascinating relationship with them. 

           The passive part was Buddhist. Don’t let them get to you, she advised. They seek you out when you call attention to yourself: sweat and exertion make them swarm. Wear white clothing. Drink garlic milkshakes.

          But at night, when we were settled into the twin-sized bed we now shared, tucked safe beneath a canopy of netting, her Swiss army scissors lay within easy reach. At four or five a.m., when the vampires were ramping up their maddening hum outside the mesh, Kendra would sit upright and prepare for her attack. As soon as a long proboscis would poke through, she would grab it with thumb and forefinger, take up her two-bladed instrument and sever the blood-siphon from the insect’s head. She kept a log of her amputees. Some mornings the numbers were in the fifties. 

          She performed these surgeries because what she hated, above all, was the mosquitoes’ drone. For me, their flight noise was the easy part; I simply turned on my side, deaf ear to the ceiling, and fell back asleep. 

          By nine o’clock Kendra’s daytime persona resurfaced. She drank her garlic shakes and furthered her enlightenment. She studied the Tao te Ching and gained new tolerances.  She sat at my table chanting phrases like:

                      The gentlest thing in the world

                      Overcomes the hardest thing in the world. 

 

                      Stop trying to control.

 

                      When two great forces oppose each other,

                      The victory will go

                      To the one that knows how to yield. 

 

          Thus Kendra embarked on her new project: me. Her mission became to teach me compassion, care for all living things. She gave up her scissors and practiced ignoring the hum. She explained the mosquitoes’ great purpose in the universe, providing food for swallows and bats. The work they did pollinating bog orchids. 

          If I’d been more experienced with women, she might not have convinced me. But I was in my mid-twenties and my last date with a girl had been my junior high prom. I was delirious with what I believed might be love. 

          Next thing I knew, Kendra proposed the slow peel. July arrived, the first week topping out at eighty degrees in the shade. In the intense heat the mosquitoes thinned, lying low near vegetation and eaves of buildings. It was miserable warm walking to the river for drinking water or flailing away at the chopping block splitting wood. Those chores couldn’t wait either: the need for water obvious, the need for wood because that was what I cooked with. 

          First Kendra dispensed with our hats and bug nets. Soon it was long-sleeved shirts, then our jeans. I hadn’t worn shorts for years, and it was liberating. This was my turf, not the insects’. Before long my T-shirt was replaced with a tank top, and by mid-summer Kendra had me bare-chested and practicing tensing my flexors. From there she coached me on the whole muscular system: delts, traps, pecs, quads, gluteus max.  

           “When you feel a mosquito, tighten.” 

          Another winged leech landed on the back of my neck. 

          “Trap,” said Kendra, “tighten, tighten.”

           I did as told, and the ’skeeter drank its fill and flew. 

          “It’s about practice,” said Kendra. “Stop trying to control.”

          That seemed contradictory, but what did I know? I was in serious love.

          Then came a sodden low that filled the skies with Dracula-looking clouds. It rained, then it rained some more. After three days we had a clearing-up shower, and finally the thermometer settled at a stagnant forty-seven degrees.  

          The mosquitoes came, not one-by-one, but like double-aught buckshot from a semi-automatic. You’d think I would’ve donned a shirt. But I was a salivator ready to do Kendra’s bidding. Soon I was covered with bites. Kendra, remarkably, seemed immune. Her skin was white, and smooth as silver. Was it the garlic shakes? Mind over body? Clearly, I had more work to do. 

          That was when Freddie returned. Kendra was chanting some mantra, sitting yoga-style on the floor. I whisked my buddy inside. He wore his usual protective regalia, and this time he didn’t bother to strip. I barely had time to make introductions before Freddie made his announcement: he wanted to start spraying that afternoon.

          When Kendra got the full scoop on his proposal, she was aghast. She brought him up to date on her enlightenment, reasoning about every living thing’s place in the ecosystem and the need to keep the water supply free of chemicals. I stood by her, nodding at her every point. 

          “Wanna watch me?” said Freddie. “I’ve waited weeks, and the blooming buggers are worse than ever.” He turned to me. “Ethan, you look like a Morse code book. I don’t give a bleep about our friendship anymore.” He made an about-face and headed out the door. 

          Kendra never glanced at me as she followed him out. She caught Freddie by the shoulders and spun him around. I listened from the doorway, training my good ear in order to pick up the conversation. 

          “Let me explain,” Kendra said.

          “You’re ridiculous. Look at Ethan’s face.” 

           She smiled charmingly. “Feel my skin.” She held out her silken arm. Not a single mosquito hovered around her. 

          Freddie held up his gloves. “How am I supposed to feel your skin with these leather mitts?” 

          She cooed and coaxed. “I’ll go to Coldstamp with you and we’ll talk this out.”

          “Nothing to talk about,” grumbled Freddie. 

          She massaged his back. “You’re very tense. I can help you relax.” 

          I could see Freddie weakening. She was persuasive. He shrugged. “Whatever.”

          Kendra smiled broadly and waved good-bye to me as they headed down the trail. 

  

           I wouldn’t know until later what happened in Coldstamp. Meanwhile, in Kendra’s absence, I was determined to keep up the practices she’d coached me on. I wanted to remain in her good graces.  I didn’t want to lose her.    

          Early one evening I was finishing up at the chopping block, bare-chested, stubbornly working my way through my last pile of spruce. I concentrated hard on my ax swings, believing I had perfected Kendra’s mind over matter and muscle-tightening strategies.  I knew the ’skeeters were doing touch-and-goes on my bare back, but I swung and split, swung and split, not realizing until I stopped to towel off the sweat that my back must’ve been covered like the surface of a pile rug. Then I felt the itch. I dug my nails in for the satisfying scratch, and when I came away with blood it wasn’t just what the ’skeeters had siphoned up. I had welts the size of speed bumps. I felt like I’d been dragged through asphalt. I wasn’t just dealing with mosquitoes anymore; now no-see-ums were in the mix.  

          I made a dash for the cabin, and that’s when I noticed Kendra’s kayak missing. I’d gotten used to it sitting alongside the cabin, a polyethylene sculpture that had become part of the landscape. Apparently she’d made off with it, snuck back somehow in the middle of the night and left me to squirm in my misery. I knew then that I was a fool. 

          Once inside I fished out my hand mirror and held it to my bigger wall mirror so I could assess the damage to my back. The examination wasn’t pretty. I thought to go for the calamine, but Freddie had used it up. 

          In my Red Cross medical kit that must’ve been put together by Clara Barton herself, I discovered that my iodine bottle had broken, leaving nothing but a dry residue at the bottom of the tin box. I had no rubbing alcohol, no whiskey. I gritted my teeth, but when the itching wouldn’t let up I ran to the river and wallowed around like a bear on its back, in the mud. Finally I got some relief. 

          The next day I was making supper, slicing onions and sniffling, my eyes smarting—partly from the onions and partly from Kendra’s flight and my stupidity—when I noticed a red line on the inside of my left arm. My knife clattered to the floor and I guess I was the one who dropped it. A red line, far as I knew, meant one thing: blood poisoning. I cussed myself for scratching my back with dirty fingernails and rolling in the mud to relieve the itch. Maybe I wasn’t savvy in the female department, but I understood a medical emergency. 

          In my woodshed, strung from a high beam, was an inner tube Uncle George had left from an old 1950s front-end loader. I kept it inflated in case of a flood. Now I cut it down with one sweep of my scythe and lugged it to the river. I thought if Kendra can float this so can I.  Maybe I was just scared witless, knowing that a five-mile hike to Coldstamp would take over three hours. Anyway, I plunged straight into the water with my tube and rode it like a bronco to my destination. Those rocks were fierce. I came away with terrible scrapes and suffered a hard hit that cracked some ribs and bruised my funny bone, but I made it. 

          Thank God for Alaska summers and long stretches of daylight that make flying possible late into the night. Freddie practically shoved me into the back of his Super Cub. When he got me to the Anchorage hospital, the doctor prescribed antibiotics and told me to stay in town for a while.  

          The red line and the welts disappeared, and I learned from another doc that I’d possibly not had an infection at all, only a reaction to the no-see-ums. But my side ached terrible with my cracked ribs, and at that point I was almost ready to give Freddie’s Malathion the green light. When I called him to get a ride back to Coldstamp, I learned the truth. Freddie, taken in by Kendra’s charms, had slept with her two nights. On the morning of the third, he woke to find her gone. She’d left him a note: Sorry about the mess in the shed. Forget-me-not. Kendra

          The mess in the shed was this: Kendra had dug a pit, loosened the bung of the fifty-five gallon drum that contained the poison, and punched a walnut-sized hole in the bottom. The entire contents had leaked out. Not only that, she’d hacked Freddie’s fumigator attachment to smithereens with a hatchet. 

          Freddie never rekindled his annihilation plan. Instead, he met his one true love and left Coldstamp for good. I, meantime, got a desk job with the Forest Service and only went back to my cabin to pack my things. 

           I never heard from Kendra again. I imagined her running the rapids in her kayak, and I hoped that when she pulled into shore, hordes of mosquitoes descended and left her scarred like a kid with bad acne. It’s a terrible thing to wish on anyone, and maybe I’ll pay for it in my next life. But she almost killed me. At the end of the day, I’m not sure anymore who I was fighting, or fighting for, but I’m grateful that the insects won the war.