He looked at the clock before turning off the light. He was turning in 15 minutes early. On the bed, he straightened his legs under the blanket and bent down to touch his toes. It started a tingling in his hamstrings. Then he hung his head down towards his knees and the crawling sensation crept up his spine and spread across his back. He tensed his arms and pulled back at the shoulders, becoming stiff all over like a drawn bowstring. Easy now, he told himself like every night. It was not important for head to meet knees, only the stretching mattered. It was important to end a sedentary chair-bound workday with every muscle, every joint irrigated with blood. Finally, he gripped the soles of his feet firmly in both hands and pulled his toes backwards to a slow count of ten. And then, feeling lighter, he crashed backwards on the soft pillow, pleased with himself.
February had ended and the night was just a little warm, made warmer by the recent rush of blood. He let his head loll to the left, as was his habit, and fidgeted a bit. Tonight he was keeping the blanket level with his shoulders. He tried to think of something to dream about, it was always a schooldays reverie. Something about cycling to school on winter mornings. It made him less warm.
Then he heard it. A rustle. It came from under his left ear, the one buried in the pillow. There were old newspapers under the bed. Something had rubbed against their corners, it seemed. What could it be? He had seen a mosquito in the room, but mosquitoes did not rub against newspapers. Not audibly. A lizard? Not a nice thought. He hated lizards. Alone, he was afraid of them. In front of his wife and son he had learned to act brave. No, it couldn’t be a lizard. It was too early in the year for them to creep out, and besides, they hardly ever got any lizards in this house. In the seven years they had spent in it he couldn’t count half a dozen lizards that he had chased out or killed.
With lizards, he never compromised. They brought out his most brutal instincts. He would strike at a lizard till it was squashed flat and then his hands would tremble for several minutes. It was a primeval, visceral hatred. Man against reptile. Each time he killed a lizard he understood how men, seemingly calm, inoffensive men, transformed into monsters capable of ghastly, beastly murders, chopping up their victims, burning them, pulverising them in road rage. And he dreaded the monster inside him. He was careful for a few days not to judge others for their crimes reported in newspapers.
No, not a lizard, cannot be, he told himself and tried to sleep again. Maybe his own movement had shook the bed and stirred the papers underneath. Maybe it happened every night but he slept too soon to notice. Maybe he had just imagined it. Then he heard it again, a little farther to the left, and this time there was no mistaking it. There were no cockroaches in their house either, unless one had crept up a drain. He tried to think it was not a big red one. Killing it would be messy.
At the back of his mind lurked a fear that he refused to acknowledge — the building itself had shook. That it was an earthquake. His wife always panicked in a quake and he hoped she would sleep through it, that is, if it was an earthquake. For himself, he had decided two years earlier, after the scare of the big Nepal temblor, that trying to run eight floors down and out of the building was pointless, and if their apartment was destined to crash, he would let it crash on himself without making any effort to beat his fate by continuing to do what he was doing, whether listening to a song, or reading a book or writing a report.
But a quake couldn’t last that long, and now the night was silent. Whatever it was had gone away. He turned his thoughts back to to the cold wintry road 25 years ago, and his sweetheart cycling ahead in the mist. A discordant flutter of wings surprised his right ear and he felt a puff of air over his right cheek. He knew then it was a fly. The big, ugly kind of fly that looks like an overgrown house fly, only filthier. They flew in sometimes. But flies buzzzz, not brrrr, they don’t beat their wings heavily. A grasshopper? Locust? They were often in the corridor but never inside the house. They appeared sluggish and were reluctant fliers, but adept at escaping an attack. Whatever it was was now flying about the room without pause. It had been inside the room, behind him, all the while he was working, and had chosen the safety of darkness to expose itself. But it was not a creature of the night. He heard it ping against the window glass and thump against the shut door and slam against the walls and the ceiling, and set a blade of the idle ceiling fan ringing.
He was loath to open his eyes. He wished whatever it was would grow tired, realise escape was impossible tonight and conserve its energy — and let him sleep. How much energy did insects’ tiny bodies hold, he wondered. They were rich in protein, he remembered reading. He pulled the blanket over his right ear, dug the left deeper into the pillow and then admitted reluctantly this was no way to will himself to sleep.
Throwing off the blanket he left the bed, groped for the light switch and squinted as 28 watts of fluorescent white light filled the room. He did not want to wear his glasses. They would drive sleep farther away. He looked around, hoping to find the culprit in plain sight on a wall but it had disappeared. It was a sly intruder. They were going to play hide and seek. Then he saw it on the green curtain, a brown, hideous, indistinct form. A moth. Easy prey. He bent down and drew a newspaper carefully from under the bed. Slowly, he rolled it up into a hard, lethal truncheon. Moths were always easy to catch and kill, he remembered from long ago. It was butterflies that frustrated you. And when you caught one it lost the will to fly and died. That’s why he had stopped trying to tame butterflies.
He wished this moth had exposed itself on a wall. Not the door, because the ring of wood might wake up the other two. But on a wall the moth would not stand a chance. The first blow would incapacitate it. It would fall to the floor, beat around and then be crushed. Not stamped but crushed with the steady pressure of a slippered foot. There would be a slow crunching sound but he would leave it at that not to have to scrape off the brown two-dimensional form from his slipper later. But moths weren’t squishy, he remembered. Anyway, the floor wouldn’t get stained with its juice. But on a curtain, the moth had a fair chance. The impact would get dulled by the motion of the cloth.
He couldn’t be sure if the rolled up paper made contact with the moth. It just flew away. He should have worn his glasses. Now it flew with the desperation of a marked creature. Pinging the glass, ringing the fan, thudding the door. Something from school, from physics class, came to mind. What was it called? Brownian motion, or was it random motion — an image of molecules shooting about in a vessel of boiling water? There was a name for it, this rapid criss-crossing in the air. The moth was weaving an invisible cat’s cradle with its flight path.
It flickered near the lamp, frustrating his attempts to strike at it. The bright white light blinded him and he did not want to risk breaking the lamp. He tried to hit it in mid-air, but could not. One blow would have stunned it into crash-landing, and then — crunch! He really should have worn his glasses.
The moth dived behind the shoe rack and disappeared. He felt beaten. It was a foolish creature, not intelligent, mere insect life. It would peek out soon. He stood leaning against a chair. The clock showed it was 15 minutes over his usual bedtime. He was calm, though.
Wait, he could fool the moth into coming out by turning off the light. He was sure it would. But standing in the darkness, every second seemed a minute to him. The moth didn’t stir. At last — which could not have been a very long time — he unrolled the paper, slipped it under the bed and stretched himself once again under the blanket. He was going to lie in ambush for the moth. He would let it come out of hiding, let it become free and careless again before flicking on the light, and this time he would wear his glasses first. Morning would find a body on the floor. He would crush it, never mind the mess. But there was his sweetheart in the distance, cycling slowly through the mist of long-ago years. And he went hurrying after her, smiling.