The Assassin on the Porch

Standing on our side porch waiting for the dog to do his midnight perimeter check, I spot the real danger: a giant, silvery black, fiddle-shaped bug with a bright red spot and long, angular legs. Gingerly, I push open the door and reach inside to switch on the porch light. Bending as close as I dare, I snap a photo, the only sort of capture that interests me. There is something sinister about this new bug, something stronger than my usual childish revulsion at anything with an exoskeleton.

When the iNaturalist app serves up no name, my shoulders sag. Lately I have been obsessively learning the names of trees and shrubs and, yes, even scary bugs, probably because I know they are vanishing fast. Not that I want to save this particular bug, but names have become a habit. They aid in comprehension—which is why free-floating anxiety, anonymous threats, and even a dozen red roses with no card will all drive you insane.

If I can name this bug, I tell myself, then the tenacious way its bent legs hang onto the mesh of our dog’s porch bed will cease to haunt me. Named fears can be controlled—look how Adam’s naming rights gave him dominion over sharks and sabre-toothed tigers. Naming an illness lets us begin to live with it. We name storms, ships, scandals; we attach nicknames to uncaught serial killers. I once teased a wealthy, arrogant guy at a party by refusing to tell him my name. He stuck to me like glue, could not let it go, finally found out from somebody else—and promptly lost interest.

The soundscape of that party was an undifferentiated rise and fall, rumbles and trills of speech, all of it gooblymush until—ha! Someone just blew the game and told him my name. In a blur of voices, we can pick out our own name the way a dog can pick out the word “treat.” The easiest way to dehumanize people is to lump them into a demeaned group, refusing to acknowledge their individuality. Every time Trump was named in a headline, my husband winced, wishing the media would simply say “this administration,” because withholding the name is the cruelest punishment for overweening ego. I was delighted to find that Margaret Atwood also refuses to name the forty-fifth president, as does his predecessor.

The bug does not, however, have an overweening ego. I press on. Clearly this is not just any old bug, anymore than a witching elm is just “a tree.” Besides, the quest is easing my initial repulsion. Aristotle sternly insisted that we “must not recoil with childish aversion from examination of the humbler animals. Every realm of nature is marvelous.”

I send my camera photo to a naturalist friend, Dr. Susan Barker, who shoots back, “Assassin bug?”

Of course. The danger resonates in its name.

Seven years ago, when a dark mole appeared on my arm, I kept twisting my arm to look at it. My skin could be chocolate-chip ice cream— there are hundreds of freckles and moles—and not one of them had ever interested me until this one. Sure enough, though it had no weird coloration or irregular borders, it turned out to be melanoma.

The bug is exerting the same fascination.

Alas, there are as many shapes and sizes of assassin bugs as there are human assassins. This one looks like a paler, less exotic (but similarly sized, shaped, and striped) version of Pstalla horrida, the spiky king assassin bug native to tropical western Africa. Which opens all sorts of questions. Do they make it this far? Are they worn out by the journey, thus drained of bold color? The aptly named Pstalla horrida has bold red and black stripes along the edge of the abdomen and on its legs; this one has darker, subtler stripes and only that dot of red.

It did come out at night, though, presumably to ambush and feed upon its prey. Some assassin bugs inject a poisonous saliva, I read, and after the venom has melted the critter’s insides, they “suck out the soup.” Those long legs are used to hold down their prey, which tend to be garden pests. One assassin bug, Stenolemus bituberus, crawls into a spider web and pretends to be prey, using its forelegs to vibrate the silken strands as though they have been disturbed by a trapped and struggling fly. When the spider moves in for the kill, the assassin surprise-attacks and eats it.

What of my (how easily we appropriate) assassin bug? What are its motives? Normally, I am less frightened when I force myself to be gentle with some horrid bug, carrying it outdoors in an aloe-softened tissue rather than squashing it in panicked bloodlust. But this is not a bug I can imagine carrying anywhere. It is also too big to kill; it has presence.

Still reading, I skim over the part about not bothering anybody if it is not bothered and land on the bit at the end about venom that can leave you numb for weeks. My gut-instinct aversion was sensible after all.

How do we know when to be scared? Some people are scared by anything unfamiliar, but I have been entranced by some of the bizarre new bugs climate change has brought to our backyard. Nor is the issue one of aesthetic revulsion; this assassin has an intriguing shape, angles meeting curves at just the right points, and its dull metallic sheen would work beautifully if you magnified it for a Japanese horror movie. Do we have built-in alarms for snakes, malignancies, poison?

According to scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, even six-month-old babies stress out when they see a spider or a snake. Those fears may not be universal, but they are not learned, either; they are innate, driven by ancient survival strategies.

So why are there not four-alarm warnings blaring every time we look at our air, our ground, our water, our vanishing or migrating species, our violent storms, and the record temperatures that, in my pretend narrative, brought this creeping assassin so far from home?

Or maybe there are, and it is easier to ignore the big picture, refuse to name the real dangers, and scream about a bug.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.