Our City on the Roach's Back
Ah, but we knew roaches. Packed as we were into our leaning apartment buildings—those brick tenements stretching twenty stories high, where the higher you were the harder it was for water to build up pressure in your leaky pipes, and the lower you were the more mildew and water stains crawled over your walls—we knew the scuttling hurry of roaches on the wall when we clicked on a light, like leaves blown over the sidewalk. We knew the caramel-taffy crunch of a beetle body under our toes in the night. We knew the exquisite sadness of roaches thrashing for their lives in our cereal bowls, our sink drains, our toilets, and we knew how merciless we were to flush them away. So when the roach appeared on the horizon outside our walled city, we knew what it was.
Yes, it was bigger than any roach we’d seen before. When it was still a few days away, it looked like a storm front coming. A wall of black like towering clouds moving over the weed-speckled wasteland around us, that poor flatland stretching to the four corners of the sad earth. We might have thought it was only the rain coming but for the long antennae that proceeded it, sweeping through the sky and casting their long-limbed shadows over our windows. Like most bad things that came our way, we faced this by stockpiling water and saltine crackers. We made sure that we had bug spray, though we doubted it would do any good.
When the towering cockroach was almost upon us, its body eclipsing the sun and throwing our city into night, a group of people opened the gates and fled. We knew them by their nice coats and leather suitcases. Three mobs fleeing in three different directions: an army of preachers, politicians, and bankers. Through binoculars, we spied that their pockets and bags were stuffed with titles and deeds, with holy laws, and with our city’s constitution. They were taking everything we had, though we imagined ourselves better off without it.
The roach dipped its mountain-like face and veered away from the city to follow the preachers first. The old men threw their holy books at its compound eyes, shoved one another into the dirt, scattered wailing in every direction. The mandibles, like a bridge splitting as it raised and lowered, scooped them up and swept them into the yellow mouth, tearing furrows in the land as it ate.
Next the giant roach wheeled and ran down the politicians, and finally it circled the city and ate up all the bankers, even chasing those who bounced over the dry flats in their shining cars. There was no escaping it, we saw, so we sat down to lunch with our families and waited for it to crack our city open like an egg.
All through the heat of the day, the roach skittered around the towers of our city. Occasionally, a steeple-like leg would tap the asphalt, but it would draw back. Around and around it moved, unsure how to pierce the jagged city outskirts. As it circled, it threw us in shadow and light, back and forth, so it seemed that twelve days and twelve nights passed, the sun setting and rising every hour of its passage.
Just before nightfall, the roach collapsed. Its fall shook our apartments and made dishes bounce out of cabinets, lamps tumble from our nightstands, books slide from our shelves. We rounded up a group of health inspectors, morticians, exterminators, and restaurant hostesses—the best we could do since our doctors had hidden themselves deep beneath the city when the first preachers were eaten—and sent them out to see if the roach was really dead.
After a few hours, they confirmed that it was. The exterminators thought that eating the bankers might have sickened it, but the restaurant hostesses touched its shell, hot like molten glass, and insisted that the sun had killed it. Without the preachers around to tell us what this meant, we decided to be kinder to the roaches we cornered in our kitchens. We looked out our windows at the dead thing, lying like a sweep of hills, and oh, how alive we felt.
It wasn’t long until we found a way to make some money off the roach. Curious children went out to slide down the glossy slope of its back or climb the fibrous legs. They peered into its compound eyes and called down to us that they could see into the roach’s mind, that men in suits worked there. We laughed at this, knowing that roaches’ minds couldn’t work this way.
A group of body shop mechanics pried away at the scales along its belly, cut them up with torches, and found that the carapace could be welded like metal. It wept black fluid and stank when they burned it. In a few days, they’d made a glossy, bug-plated car, touting the superior gas mileage.
Then the electric company went after the dead insect, severing an antenna and hauling it off to shave into long cables to run new power lines through the city. Beauticians took mops and swabbed at the waxy wings, filling buckets with an oily yellow ichor that they sold as conditioner. More and more of us ventured out and took some piece of the bug, bringing it home to keep or sell. We shipped fragments of it to other cities. The bug was so big, it seemed we’d never run out.
Our children linked hands and climbed up and down the bulbous eyes. “We can see men working there, inside its mind,” they insisted. They were strange, children. We didn’t know yet whether some of them might become bankers or preachers, waiters or cooks, cab drivers or maintenance men. Not knowing who they were, it was hard for us to talk to them. We told them to get down and to leave the eyes alone. “Who knows how much those eyes might be worth?” we asked. “What if you spoil them?”
It was the carpenters, we think, who first broke into the bug. They tunneled deeper and deeper through its outer crust, erecting scaffolding to shore up the layers of sinewy skin and white fat. When they breached the belly of the roach, hot acid poured down and burned them up, killing every man who’d been in the tunnel. The acids flowed out and burned a hole in the sand, making a briny pond. It smelled foul.
But with their deaths, the carpenters had made a way for us. The acid cauterized their passage, making it sturdy. We now had access to the great unknown, the inner bug, and all the wonders that might lie within. With no preachers to say words for us, we had the bartenders raise a toast in the carpenters’ honor. Then, gathering flashlights and ropes, we delved inside.
Inside, the giant roach was infested with smaller roaches, like the ones in our apartments. They had dug through the layers of it like termites, eating away at the unprotected flesh. This, we reasoned, was why it had died before it could consume our city as nature had intended. We felt bad for it. Being devoured by roaches, we imagined, must be a fearful way to die.
Further into the belly, we found a heap of dead preachers, bankers, and politicians. They clung to one another, their skin burned black. But only a few of them lay here, twisted and dead. We wondered where the others had gone. We pictured them stuck in the crevices of the roach’s mandibles, like stringy bits of steak. We moved on.
The roach’s interior was a spacious series of caverns, the ceiling sloping over our heads like a cathedral. We swept the beams of our flashlights back and forth, walked carefully around the streams of acid, and set our eyes on treasures.
The roach must have devoured many cities in its time. We found their remains here, whole buildings lying against each other. We knew their age by the avian look of the metal-bodied cars, by the faded billboards selling hair dryers, by magazine pages advertising munitions-grade brassieres. We found whole car lots, toy stores, clothing boutiques. All slimy and acid-rotted, sure, but riches to us.
We went deeper and found a petrified forest standing over rolling hills. Birds still moved in the stony branches, kept alive, we surmised, by eating the plentiful cockroaches. Maybe the birds had kept the giant roach alive this long, like tickbirds to pick away its parasites, the strange ecology of its belly. Deep, far in the back, we found a stone ziggurat half blocking the opening to its bowels. We wondered if this had made it weak, hampering its digestion. The temple was free of all writing or joint work, tumbled like a stone in the fluids of the stomach until it was smooth.
We spent the rest of the day racing the old cars through the belly, getting into terrific accidents in the dark. We sat inside the old buildings of the forgotten towns and didn’t want to leave. What did we have to go back to? Only our crowded apartments blocks, their bad plumbing and steep stairs.
As though the dead flesh understood our desire to leave the city behind, we felt a shuddering pass through the body of the bug. We felt our stomachs drop and were thrown to the floor. The roach was moving.
Outside, we could hear the legs crashing through the city, a rain of bricks and broken glass. There were screams, distant wailing through the thick shell. More and more people came into the bug, up through the opening we had made, the only safe place.
First, we rounded up those we’d sent to make sure it was dead, and we demanded an account. “It’s dead,” the exterminators assured us. “We know a dead bug when we see one.” We asked if anyone knew what might be making it move. Maintenance men took their flashlights and examined the walls, checking for pipes or pistons.
In the lightless streets of the roach’s belly, our children linked hands and danced. “It’s the men behind the eyes,” the children said. “They are the mind, and these are their thoughts.”
We weren’t of a mind to entertain childish nonsense, but we hadn’t yet checked the upper bug, the respiratory system and head. Maybe answers lay there. So we joined hands in a long line, waggled our flashlight beams back and forth, and walked out of the stomach, up and up.
There were entire sections of gut we would have never thought existed, and we passed glittering ruins stretching back to encompass all of time. Strange animals moved in the dark. We passed bulbous air sacs, not understanding this way of breathing without lungs, and we kept going. Some of us became lost in the long tubes, the sinuses and heart cavities, the circulatory maze of plumbing that fed oxygen through the vast body.
The body narrowed, pinching between the thorax and head, and we walked toward the sounds of voices. Here we found the men our children had warned us about. Their bodies burned raw and their fine suits in tatters, the politicians, preachers, and bankers swarmed over the dead insect brain. They’d brought gasoline generators, the air heavy with exhaust fumes, and they used electricity to selectively shock the tissue. The roach’s legs jerked up and down as they fed current to it. The whole enterprise smelled of ozone and burned meat. As they worked, the men spoke to themselves. “A giant roach of our own. Think of the wars we will win. Think of the believers who will come. Think of the product we will ship.”
We left the head chamber and went back into the belly, bringing up rusty logging saws that had been buried in the dead forest. We went back to the small hallway connecting head and thorax, sank the saws into the vulnerable flesh, and we started to cut. Back and forth, back and forth, we sawed through the dead insect. When we hit the outer carapace, the welders arrived with their torches and began to cut. Before the bankers, preachers, and politicians knew what we were doing, we’d severed the head and all of them with it.
Looking out of the end of the bug, we saw the head go tumbling. It rolled through the wreckage of the city and fell into the harbor. We hoped it would sink, but it rolled in the murky water and floated. The men inside looked out through the eyes. They used the remaining antenna like a long oar, driving themselves forward to other lands and other mischief. We worried for whatever shore they washed up on.
The bug began to fall, and we braced ourselves. It collapsed hard onto our city, the sharp buildings rupturing its belly, the tallest of them shooting up from its back. With our city crushed, what else could we do but move into the roach? We swept out the old buildings, peeled back the wings and carapace to let light in on us, and made our new lives in its hollow. We shared the riches we’d found within, and our city prospered.
As the bug rotted, all the old temples, the petrified forest and hills, the numerous cities stretching back to the beginning of time settled down in their layers. We could feel the press of history beneath us, and we knew it intimately, had walked the halls of every old place. We drove tiny, rounded cars shaped like the bodies of bugs. Our suit jackets split along the back, like the wings of a beetle. Our headdresses protruded like wings, and we slicked our hair back with an oily conditioner.
Archaeologists descended on our city and poked through the dirt. They unearthed fossils and billboards, ancient stones, the bones of the dead. “There is no place so old in all the world,” they told us. “You are the oldest people in the oldest place, the cradle of humanity.” They readjusted the histories, redrew the maps, put us at the center of the world. Outsiders came and told us that there had never been a finer city.
We raised our children to become cab drivers and cashiers and fry-cooks. We let the world come and bury our old, bad lives under its new myths. Our grandchildren asked us, “What was it like? All the way back, at the very beginning?” We remembered a poor and crowded time, sun and sand, our city ignored. But we didn’t tell them any of that. Pointing to the roaches moving on our floors, we said only, “In the beginning, there was bug.”