They began coming in even larger numbers, and, upon waking, we found many of their bodies beneath our beds and beside windows where they entered at night. They lay with their legs in the air. The survivors scrambled along kitchen tiles, hid beneath an old cupboard and chests, and looked for cracks in the walls. “I have never seen so many of them,” said Marta, disgusted. She was afraid they would creep up into her bed at night, and she often woke up to check if her sheets were clean. The invasion was harder on her than me.
I did our grocery shopping. The store was three miles away from our rented house. Walking down the road, I noticed hundreds of those insects slowly crawling in rows along and across the asphalt. They were black and large; even the smaller ones were big, and, watching them, one would involuntarily think that things would not be so bad if the insects were not so big. Their bodies glistened in the sun like polished metal. Eight tiny, relentlessly twitching legs protruded from their bodies. Many of them died on the road, because every now and then a car went by and crushed their hard armor. We stomped on them, too, because in July they were already everywhere, and we could not watch out all the time to see if any of them were under our feet. Nevertheless, we tried to avoid them, since the sound of their bodies tearing was awful.
The summer was hot, without rain, and the cloudless sky gleamed like a mirror. Raising our eyes to see the sun was difficult. We slept separately, because our joined bodies produced double amounts of sweat. But sheets that were wet in the morning dried by noon and looked fresh again. Marta got up at six, while it was still chilly, and wrote beneath a plastic awning on the porch. In four hours, she would write a few pages and then read them through. It was her third novel, a tool for whitewashing the remains of her previous life, which she did not want to talk about. She would say, “You will know it when I’m finished.” I did not want to push it, so I waited for the day when she would show me what she held inside herself. I woke up late, like back at home, when the sun had already heated up the narrow patch of asphalt that wobbled by the house. Marta would sit in the shadow of the awning and fan herself, drops of sweat trickling down her neck and breasts. I would look long at that beautiful body, so much prettier than mine, thickset with small breasts. I imagined some other hands touching it, whether male or female, I did not know.
When she raised her head and looked at me beneath the awning, I would sit down next to her and put my head in her lap, still dazed from sleep.
“How much have you written today?”
“Little. The bugs are distracting me. They’re giving me the creeps.”
The bugs had been laboriously moving since dawn. They scurried across the porch and disappeared down the stairs, as if on a mission known only to them. Down there, across the road, they ventured into corn fields and vegetable patches. Day by day, they became wiser. They started climbing the stems of corn, wheat, and rye, and on fruits picked among the grains. In the village grocery store and in the bar, nobody spoke of politics anymore. Confused villagers protested and shook their heads. The harvest was uncertain.
Marta suggested that we should return to Zagreb, because it was obvious that the number of insects was growing larger every day. But the rent for the country house, isolated high on the hill, whose flowerpots spilled green asparagus, had been paid two months in advance. I knew she talked about returning just to remind herself that she had a choice.
I was trying to forget that in two months’ time I would be going back to teaching history in an elementary school. Long holidays were the only good side of the job. I had not yet learned how to deal with eighth graders who jumped around the classroom and fearlessly yelled offensive stuff at each other and at me. My parents, with whom I still lived, called me every day to ask if the condition had improved and to persuade me to come back. Our current residence served as a home twenty years ago. The interior was full of beds with moldy, coarse canvas sheets and shaky cupboards where foggy glasses cowered next to chipped, rose-patterned plates. Those glasses were once filled with wine from local vineyards, which still ran uphill. The stench, which reminded one of a stagnation in time, hung in the air like a curtain. Still, my neighbor, who lent us the house, came every summer to check if everything was the same. Marta said that she cultivated oblivion here, that she came here to remind herself that she should forget.
On my way to the shop, villagers passed me by in their cars, but they never stopped and offered a ride, as if I were some kind of vermin. Five years ago, the way to the village had been a plain dust road, trodden only by tractors and a few cars. Then the workers came and paved that cow path, which led from the village high up into the hills. Now only a few secluded little houses faced gravel roads that sloped steeply through the greenery.
There were two grocery shops in the village: one at its entrance, where I always went because of the proximity, and the other one in the center, near the church. Their owners openly competed, putting signs on the entrance like, “It’s cheaper here,” and each observed who went to their opponent’s shop. Villagers in work clothes or worn-out trousers always lingered in the shops and discussed daily events, drinking beer from the refrigerator. On the main road that split the village in half, the bugs had scattered, hiding in the shadows, running away from the sunlight, nimbly looking for holes in asphalt and walls. Older villagers sat on the benches under the trees and played cards. The sun meandered among the leaves and branches, and the shadows made awkward shapes on the villagers’ faces. Thus adorned with war paint and motionless, they looked more like lizards than humans. In the tiny shop stacked with boxes of milk bottles, I pushed my way through the bunch of people who were resting from the morning’s work and drinking beer. The faces on sturdy shoulders were burnt red, which proved that they did not waste time hiding in the shade. Somebody was yelling in a high-pitched voice that he had put poison on his house’s doorstep but bugs crossed it without difficulty, completely unaware that they should have died. The rest of the people agreed in a single voice and then began polyphonously describing their own situations at home. While I was taking sugar and coffee from the shelves, I heard that the minister had claimed during his sermon that there were fewer insects in the church than anywhere else in the village, an indisputable proof of its sanctity. On the other hand, the bar and the landfill behind it had the most. The bar keeper was obviously not religious.
Day by day, the number of pests grew conspicuously. The new generations were more adventurous than their ancestors. They not only crawled across the floor, but also climbed up the smooth walls and slippery lacquered furniture, adorning it with various patterns. Corn leaves became full of holes, and bug bodies blackened the lettuce and cabbage in the gardens as they rummaged devotedly among them. When one of the villagers fell sick and vomited for three days, a rumor spread that the vegetables were poisonous. On the square in front of the church, old stooping women with head scarves said that the man’s wife had to hold a bowl beside his head because he could not get up to go to the bathroom. Savoy, lettuce, and broccoli were soon transferred to garbage disposals.
When he realized that the insects were no longer avoiding the church, the minister had to unburden his mind. He said that every evil occurrence had its beginning in a human being. If God was punishing us, then we must have been doing bad things. After the sermon, villagers talked to each other in front of the church for a long time. Many of them had to put special poison around their houses because the pests went everywhere. They found them in flour jars, in drawers among underwear, and in children’s beds. The postman Kovačić told people that the bugs spilled out of his bag when he was taking out the letters. Although he was notorious for his stories about attacking a bobcat with his bare hands and straddling a two-hundred-pound pig before cutting its throat, nobody laughed at him now. The village doctor’s opinion was that the insects had come from the city, where they had multiplied, and that it was a natural migration of organisms. But the people in the village were seldom sick, and almost nobody was intimate with the doctor.
One afternoon Marta and I went down to the village. I had to persuade her to go. She dreaded the trip, telling me that we would only encounter more bugs. That morning, the rain had cooled the road, so we walked lightly, holding hands. A few cars went by. The village was even cooler because of the many trees that shielded the ground from the sunlight. The puddles that remained slowly evaporated under the trees, encircled with sparrows and blackbirds that drank reverently. Walking down the main street, I noticed that the villagers were watching us carefully. As we passed them, they became silent, as if that was their way of letting us go by. We came across the small square with a stone church, whose pointy, narrow tower jutted from the heavy building. Its sunbathed stone reflected the light and kept the square warm. On the right side of the church, in a shade of a walnut, villagers sat cross-legged on the benches of a nearby café and smoked. They stared at us, unblinking. The bugs were running across the concrete industriously, and the sparrows were chirping and pouncing. But despite that, it was as if everything stood still. “Good afternoon,” said Marta, but the villagers did not reply.
Marta was not making any progress with her writing. She had wanted the quiet of nature, where the silence is disturbed by a bird’s pecking around the garden, or by the buzzing of bumblebees and crickets, but this nature was hyperbolized, and its epic proportions frightened her. She could not relax, and the story about the other life, which was waiting in the chest of her heart, did not budge. Each morning I would secretly look into her notebook and see it empty.
The next day, I went for a walk in the woods. I climbed up and down the slopes for a long time, following the wavy line of the hilly landscape. I waded across moist leaves, hidden from the sun by huge trees, and listened to birds that called from one side and another, as if in warning about an intruder. I was thinking about Marta, about our differences, as well as the things that drew us together. Leaving the forest, I came across our neighbor’s cornfield. I passed through the rows while the sunlight slanted and revealed black spots on the corncobs. When I got back, Marta told me that some people had come by while I was away and asked for her husband. She was confused and said she was not married. Then they said they wanted to talk to her fiancé. She told them that she was spending the summer with her girlfriend. Then they left.
When I entered the store a few days later, the people inside were talking about the most recent sermon. The minister had preached about the corruption of the soul, about disobeying God’s word, and about impending doom. One man was hollering and waving knobby hands darkened by the sun. His corn had gone to waste; his garden was eaten up; he had nothing to sell on the market anymore. He had lost a load of money, and he could forget about grape gathering. The clerk looked at me as if he did not want me in the store. When it was my turn, I put the groceries on the counter and gave him a fifty-kuna bill. He put it in the till and kept watching me. I wanted to tell him that he owed me two and a half kuna, but his look became even more penetrating. The conversation ceased. Suddenly, under the heavy weight of air, one could hear breathing and the rustling of clothes. I turned around and faced ten people who were staring at me. There was something firm in their looks, like an oath, something that would not give in. I pushed my way to the street.
The ascent home was especially hard because the sun had became hot again. Drops of sweat formed on my forehead and tickled my nose, forcing me to put the bags on the ground and scratch myself. At one point, a white car sped by me. An egg flew out of its window. Thrown with insufficient force or will, it cracked on the ground, the yolk spilling like sick, yellow blood.
Despite the minister’s spiritual efforts, the insects continued destroying crops and vegetables in the gardens. It looked as if gangs had ransacked the village. One morning in mid-August, we woke up and found a mad crowd beneath our window. About thirty people shouted that we should go home. They yelled that they did not need us there, that we were filthy, corrupted, and perverted. They waved their sticks, rakes, and axes and shouted. Marta calmly watched them from behind a curtain as if she had been expecting this all the time. I panicked, trying to think of what to do. The closest police station was ten miles away. There was no second exit from the house. When they saw us watching them from the window, they started swearing and threatening and went for the door. Somebody threw a stone and broke the window. Shards of broken glass fell on me, and suddenly I was covered with blood. I screamed, which encouraged them to start throwing everything they could get their hands on. Stones, dirt, flower pots, and beer bottles flew in through the window. We cowered in a corner. Marta’s face was distorted.
We sat in the corner for a long time, holding each other, listening to roars and thuds from outside. My heart was thumping madly, my body shaking.
“Let’s call the police!” I yelled.
“They’ll go away,” Marta said.
“How do you know? They can break in. They’ll thrash us,” I protested, but I did not move.
The shouts finally stopped; the voices started to fade. I peered through the window and saw the people going away, leaving a mess of broken bottles, flower pots, and earth.
While she put alcohol on my wounds, Marta held back her tears. We cleaned up the mess and packed our things. The next day, we went to the bus station, where once a day the bus stopped on its way to the city. It was early morning and fresh air breezed above the meadows, above yellow and green fields. The forest breathed heartily, not knowing that before noon it would be shrouded in a thick veil. From the bus station on the hill, we could see the tiny village with people crawling through it like insects on the ground.