The Secret Life of Insects by Bernardo Esquinca

BOMB 94 Winter 2006
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Two things to mention: 1) I am going to speak with my wife, two years after the last time. 2) My wife is dead; she died two years ago, in odd circumstances.

Today is my free day, and the “date” is not until tonight, so I plan to spend the day at the beach. Lucia loved the sea. She couldn’t swim, as she felt too much fearful respect for the sea. But she used to take long walks and enjoyed letting the waves lick her bare feet. Strangely enough, she once told me that after her death, the last place she wanted her ashes to be spread was in the sea. “One night I dreamt I was dead and the only thing I did was swim; swimming in the darkness at the bottom of the sea, like a blind fish.” I didn’t pay too much attention then—nobody takes it seriously when a healthy person talks about their death. But I think about it now as I put some beer cans into the ice box and take along a book to read, lying in the sun.

I am a forensic entomologist. My job is to study insects that invade corpses and give clues for catching murderers. Bugs like to leave their eggs on the faces, eyes, and noses of victims. The key is to relate the biological cycles of insects to the body’s stages of decomposition, which allows one to guess the moment when the death actually happened. They work, to put it briefly, like a clock. One can even determine whether the corpse was moved or not. Insects like flies, beetles, spiders, ants, wasps, or caterpillars also like to eat rotting meat. And they are voracious. The remains of an adult in the open air are rapidly devoured. We entomologists call the necrophagus faunae “death squads.”

My most famous case to date was as follows: A family moved to a new house, and two months later they found the corpse of a murdered child in the basement. The police saw them as the main suspects. However, after analyzing the bugs that had colonized the corpse, I was able to determine that the crime was committed before the arrival of the family in the new house. Then the previous tenants were charged—an old couple who turned out to be the child’s grandparents and were the actual perpetrators of the crime. An entire family’s skin was saved thanks to a fistful of mites.

Six months ago, my friend Leonardo told me he had met a medium. He told me it was no sham and that I could get in contact with my wife. I listened to him attentively, but I refused; I belong to the scientific, rational world. Besides, I have seen too many atrocities and too many bodies mutilated in unsuspected ways to believe that there is a God, and even less an afterlife. Evil reigns everywhere, and at ease. There is nothing to stop it. It would be better if there is no life after death, as very likely evil would continue to reign there. Leonardo insisted, “You’ve got nothing to lose, and, if it works, you will have answers to those questions that torment you now. I’ll pay for it myself.” He could not convince me. But three months ago, when I finally decided to take over Lucia’s case, I started to consider the possibility.

Insects are first attracted by the odors of a dead body. They can smell them long before humans can. Sometimes, they even invade a dying person. The eggs of some kinds of insects have a short incubation period and their eclosion is simultaneous, which creates a mass of larvae moving through the body like some kind of alien. Larvae are white and they get themselves immediately into the tissue under the skin. They liquify it by means of enzymes and bacteria and they continuously feed on it, sucking. Time passes and if the corpse is not found after, say, six months, other bugs appear to leave it completely dry. Everything is edible: hair, skin, nails. Sometimes the only thing we forensics find is bones.

I said before that my wife died in odd circumstances. Her corpse was found in a forest located an hour’s journey from this port. The previous night, I had driven her to the airport. She was going to visit her mother in the capital. In the early morning, when I was still sleeping, Lucia came back home and told me the flight had been cancelled due to bad weather. She was going to go back to the airport later. I listened to her half-asleep. She came to the bed and laid down on my chest, the way she used to. When I woke up, she had gone. I thought she had taken a cab, not wanting to wake me up. A few hours later, when I learned about the horrible find, I decided not to be the one to investigate the case. My boss agreed and gave it to Alejandro, a student of his at the Medicine School. I didn’t want to know a single detail. Lucia was dead. She had been murdered. That was all I needed to know.

Nobody knows for certain the origin of insects. Some studies say they evolved from myriapods, animals with many legs and with windpipes for breathing. Others think they evolved from crustaceans. What is certain is that, in the Devonian period, some 400 million years ago, there already existed terrestrial insects in humid, warm swamps. And in the late Carboniferous, some 350 million years ago, they went through their first evolutionary explosion, when they developed wings and learned to fly. The most persistent and evolved insects are, no wonder, cockroaches. Strangely enough, however, I have never seen one near a corpse.

My wife’s killer had still not been caught, so I decided to take the case. I analyzed all the information gathered by Alejandro, and found many mistakes. One of them really shocked me: the calculated time of death was wrong. Lucia was found in the forest around 9:00 AM by some hikers. Alejandro deduced she had been dead for an hour. My own analysis proved that she had been dead for at least six hours. That is to say, she had died in the early morning, when she was supposed to be asleep, in my arms. As I did not have a clear idea about the hour she had left me that morning, the whole matter became puzzling. Leonardo had a theory: she was already dead when she “visited” me in bed. “That’s something dead people do,” he said. “They go to say goodbye to their loved ones.” Somewhat out of my mind about the whole situation, I ended up giving in to his suggestion about the medium. We went to see him two days ago. I took along some belongings he had requested: photographs of Lucia, clothes, personal items. Then the medium gave a precise day and hour: today at 9:00 PM. “She will phone you,” he said, solemnly.

I have recurrent dreams in relation to her. At first I see insects secretly devouring her corpse. I get to the crime scene and I realize she is still alive and I try to get them away from her, but to no avail: there are too many. She chides me: “You brought them along.” Then they start coming out of her mouth and she cannot speak anymore. Then I shut her eyelids and wake up.

It’s just a few seconds before 9:00. I have not eaten anything all day. I wasn’t hungry. I lie in bed. I stare at the ceiling and it is cracked and peeled off; it badly needs a coat of paint. I see a spider’s web in the corner. Some dead insects are trapped in it. Suddenly, one of them shakes: he is alive and trying to struggle free.

Then the phone rings.

Once …

Twice …

Three times …

Four times …

Five …

I answer.

I hear the sound of the sea.

Translated from the Spanish by Hector Luis Grada.

—Bernardo Esquinca was born in Mexico City in 1972. A writer and journalist, he is the author of the novel Belleza Roja, published by the Fondo de Cultura Econòmica this year. He is also an editor at the Día Siete magazine.

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Originally published in

BOMB 94, Winter 2006

Featuring interviews with Plastilina Mosh, Andy Palacio and Christopher Cozier, Pedro Reyes, Francisco Goldman, Pablo Vargas Lugo and Ruben Gallo, Carlos Brillembourg, Julieta Campos, Jose Castillo, Julieta Campos, Daniel Sada, Jose Luis Rivas, and Beto Gomez.

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