Summer. The most dangerous season in Texas. Remy watched a praying mantis decapitate a brown-spotted grasshopper. The grasshopper’s body twitched as the praying mantis devoured everything except the legs.
The fed praying mantis retreated into the bristle grass and Remy collected the grasshopper legs with a pair of soft forceps. He dropped them into his waist pouch and examined his findings. Transparent cicada wings that glistened iridescent like stained-glass windows. A dried-up, spiky, painted-lady caterpillar. The smushed body of a giant stick insect that had been run over by a cyclist. Time to call it a day.
Back at home, the screen door slapped Remy’s backside as it banged shut behind him. “What’d you find?” his wife, Liv, called from the kitchen.
“Some bits and pieces. Nothing I can use.”
“Still looking for the Hercules beetle?”
“You know it.”
“What about that giant leaf bug you pinned last week? I bet you could win with that.”
“Not a chance. Last year’s winner was a panda ant. Euspinolia militaris. Powerful sting. They call it the cow killer.”
“Who won? Simon?”
“Don’t say his name.”
“I bet he cheated. Probably ordered the ant in the mail and killed it in the freezer.”
“Now you’re talking.” Remy wrapped his arms around Liv’s waist from the back and kissed her neck. “You smell like vanilla. What are you making?”
“Cake.” She scraped flour from the sides of the bowl with a spatula. “Don’t you remember? Oscar’s birthday tomorrow.”
“I don’t think a dog wants cake for his birthday.”
“That’s why Oscar likes me best. I understand him.”
Remy kissed his Liv again. “Gotta go. Have a job today.”
Remy pulled five empty bug catchers from the shelf and loaded up his truck with shovels, rakes, a mower, leaf blower, and garbage bags.
The house at the end of the cul-de-sac was big enough to fit six of Remy’s houses inside. Koi fish swam in a fountain below a statue of a dolphin spitting water. A woman in white Bermuda shorts and a sun hat stood in front of the house, her eyes a shadow in the shade of the hat’s wide brim.
“You the landscaper? You look different from the last guy.”
“Yes, ma’am. We work together.”
Cicadas chirped from the towering, strapping trees like a well-rehearsed orchestra. Remy perked up. “Did you know a cicada’s ears are in its abdomen?”
“Uh, okay. Just make sure you clean up all the weeds and leaves and stuff, will you? We have friends over tomorrow.”
Remy nodded. One of those rich ladies. Probably hadn’t pulled a weed in her life.
With the woman out of the way, Remy scanned the yard for the most likely final resting spot of a Hercules beetle. He trimmed a few branches for show while examining the base of the trees with the most sap.
Near the garage, Remy ran his fingers along the bark of an ash tree. The tree looked like it had been in a mortal gun fight with circular black holes the size of bullets dotting its trunk up and down.
Remy crouched down at the base of the ash tree. He used his forceps to turn over the leaves, one-by-one. Under a wet, brown leaf he spotted something.
It was small and bright. Not a Hercules, but brilliant. The tops of its outer wings were scalloped and shimmering gold and green like the tail of mermaid. Its compacted black eyes looked like the oversized goggles of a pilot and its six legs were intact and folded towards its abdomen. He collected the specimen in plastic tube and slid it into his pouch.
Remy thought he saw the woman staring at him from the kitchen window. He picked up a rake and started moving the leaves about. After four hours, six bags of trimmings, and a half cup of sweat, Remy was finished.
He knocked on the front door. The woman opened the door, leaving the screen shut. With her hat off, Remy could see the shiny black curls that framed her face.
“All done, but you need a tree doctor.”
“An arborist. The ash trees. They’re infested with Emerald Ash Borers. Holes all over.”
“A kind of beetle.”
“Can’t you just spray them or something?”
“We’re not pest control.”
“Fine.” The woman rolled her eyes. “See you next week.”
Remy’s basement workshop smelled of mixed chemicals. The wooden shelves were lined with glass jars of larvae suspended in alcohol. The motionlessness of the larvae’s supple bodies was the only sign of their deadness.
Remy slid on his headwear with an attached magnifying glass that covered one eye. He focused on the Emerald Ash Borer. It was his most colorful specimen to date. Remy rolled the Borer in moist paper towels like an egg roll and closed it into a plastic container to soften.
Remy checked his pin drawers. Not again. He was out of size twos.
Walking down the craft isle of a local store, Remy ran his fingers along the sequins and pom poms. Who uses this stuff? People with too much time on their hands, that’s who.
Remy picked of a box of insect pins and shook it next to his ear like a rattle. “My old friend,” a voice called from behind. Remy recognized its slippery tone. Simon.
“Number twos?” Simon said. “Are you entering something itty-bitty this year?” Simon was holding a box of number four pins.
“Big enough to beat you.”
“What is it? A termite?”
“You’ll find out next week.”
“I’m not telling mine either.”
“I didn’t ask.”
“This would be my third win in a row.”
“The rules say you can’t kill it yourself, you know? The head of that panda ant last year sure looked glued on to me.”
“Probably easier to believe that than face you’re a loser.”
“You won a bug competition not the world Olympics, just so you know.”
Remy’s thoughts swirled and swarmed and multiplied inside his skull like locusts. He didn’t remember driving home. He tossed the bag of insect pins on the kitchen table and collapsed into a wingback chair. Oscar rested his muzzle on Remy’s knee.
“That bad?” Liv said.
“I shouldn’t even bother. The Borer’s a beauty, but no one’s going to crown a tree killer.”
“You still have a couple of days. Why don’t you take Oscar camping, and you can look for Hercules together? Oscar’s been cooped up for days. A boys’ birthday trip might do you both good.”
“His birthday. I forgot. Happy birthday, buddy.” Remy rubbed under Oscar’s neck and behind his ears.
“I reminded you yesterday.”
“My mind. It’s stuck on —”
“I know. How about some cake?”
After singing an off-key happy birthday, Liv put a small slice of cake in front of Oscar. He inhaled the cake faster than a hawkmoth slurping nectar.
“Told ya he liked it.” Liv held eye contact with Remy. “Go camping. I feel like you’re going to find it.”
“Don’t tease me.”
“Besides, fresh air always cheers you up. Come on. I’ll help you pack.”
The air hanging over the campsite smelled of musky pine trees. Twilight. The abdomens of the fireflies surrounding Remy and Oscar flashed red and green like soft-blinking Christmas lights. Remy spiraled pieces of bacon around some roasting sticks and held them over the flame of the fire until the edges waved and crisped.
Oscar nearly jumped out of his fur when Remy held a tin plate of bacon in front of him. “Better than cake, right? Liv’s not the only one who’s got you figured out.”
Ash from the fire exploded in puffs under Remy’s boots as he extinguished the embers. The last stream of smoke curled up into the night. Remy zipped up the tent and fell asleep nose-to-nose with Oscar inside their sleeping bags.
Remy awoke an hour before sunrise. A faint darkness covered the landscape like a dim, blue blanket. The sky was dotted with wisps of clouds, their undersides painted pink by the impending sunrise.
Remy pulled a small backpack over his shoulders. There was a chance he could spot a live Hercules beetle before the light of day enticed it under the soil for a slumber. “Come on, Oscar.”
Within minutes, a bright orange glow appeared along the horizon like a magnificent halo. Remy breathed in the glow and pressed his hands together in prayer. “God. I know a lot of people probably don’t bargain for a beetle, but here I am. I’ll do whatever you want. Just help me find this one beetle. You know how awful Simon is. Don’t let him win. Again.”
Oscar barked in the distance. His nose was on the ground, tracking something. Remy smiled. Deep wrinkles burst like the rays of sun from the corners of his eyes. It worked. There is a God.
Thin tree branches whipped at Remy’s cheeks and thick brush pulled at his ankles as he tried to keep up with Oscar. The dog was exuberant. Close to his catch.
Would a dog eat a beetle? Oscar had been known to munch on house flies. Remy hustled faster against the thick vegetation that clutched and clawed at him.
He found Oscar up ahead, barking at a pile of thick ground cover woven together like a basket. Something moved beneath, rocking the whole pile. It was large.
Remy leaned in closer. He jerked back when a young armadillo shot out of the brush and ran deeper into the forest, its striped silver tail bobbing behind it.
“Not even close,” Remy huffed. His cheeks burned with misplaced hope. Stupid hope.
Oscar seemed like he might have another go at the armadillo when Remy grabbed ahold of his collar. “Leave it alone. Looks like we’ll both go home empty-handed.”
Oscar protested, barking and tugging hard against the collar. Remy held on tighter. “Give it a rest, buddy.”
From under a rotting log, it emerged. Two inches. Two horns. Six legs. A dark yellow exoskeleton spotted with black. Dynastes Tityus, a.k.a the Eastern Hercules beetle.
“Yes!” Remy shrieked. “Hallelujah!”
Oscar was dragging Remy now, intoxicated by the pursuit. Remy kept pace as best he could, stumbling and tripping over the rocky path as the Hercules beetle weaved in and out of ground cover, scurrying just ahead of Oscar’s teeth.
Near the edge of a lake, Remy lost site of the beetle. He rubbed his ankle, which was twisted and throbbing. This can’t be happening. We’re too close.
Remy scanned the dirt and rocks lining the sides of the lake. Nothing. He deflated with a sigh. His hold on Oscar’s collar loosened just enough that the dog slipped from his grip.
Oscar shoved his nose into a clump of nearby leaves. The beetle emerged once again and ran towards the lake.
“Oscar, don’t you dare!” shouted Remy as Oscar snapped at the beetle.
With a nudge from Oscar’s nose, the beetle fell horns over feet into the placid lake. A ripple of rings radiated around the fallen Hercules. The beetle paddled furiously to reach the rocky edge of the shore. Moss growing around the rocks made for a slimy surface and the beetle struggled to climb the slick surface. It slipped back into the water again and again.
Oscar was now barking at Remy, who dabbed sweat from his hairline with his t-shirt and squinted his eyes. Am I killing it? Am I cheating? I mean, I didn’t push the bug in the water, right? It’s not my fault the rocks are slippery. But we were chasing it. Oh God.
Anoxia began to set in. The beetle stop moving. When it looked like it might be carried under, Remy retrieved a plastic bug catcher from his backpack and scooped it up.
Remy stared at the beetle corpse floating in the container. A heaviness began to sink down into Remy’s stomach like a stone destined for the bottom of the lake. He grabbed the beetle from the water and fanned his hand wildly to dry it. No movement. Dead.
Liv was scouring the cabinets for the last jar of jam when Remy and Oscar arrived. The house smelled of fresh-baked bread.
“Welcome back,” Liv said. “Did you find it?” Oscar’s tags chimed as he galloped to greet her.
Liv plucked pieces of leaves from Oscar’s fur and stood in front of Remy. “What happened? You look so . . . strange.” She reached for Remy’s shoulders, but he took a step back. “I need to shower,” he said. “Clean off.”
“Okay. Then can you tell me what’s going on?”
“I found the Hercules beetle.”
“Did something go wrong? Was the horn broken? Did you lose it?”
“No. It’s here.” Remy open the bug catcher and unfurled the beetle, bit-by-bit, from a moist paper towel.
“Oh my. It’s perfect!” Liv looked at Remy. He was slumped. Dejected. “I don’t understand,” she said. “Why —”
“I’ll be in the shower.”
Remy looked down at the shower drain as the water puddled above his eyelashes and slid off the tip of his nose. He scrubbed his skin raw with a bar of orange citrus soap, but the stink remained.
Hair still wet, Remy set to work in the basement. He wiggled the legs of the Hercules beetle free and spread them out on the pinning block millimeter-by-millimeter. He selected some number four pins from a drawer and methodically pinned the beetle to the block.
Remy stepped back to examine the Hercules beetle. Instead of a prized specimen, it looked like voodoo doll that had been struck with needles, cursing him with every prick.
Liv was wearing thick socks and entered the workshop without a sound. “That’s your best work,” she said over Remy’s shoulder.
“Do you think I trapped its soul in there somehow?”
Liv rubbed the back of his neck. “Whatever happened out there, it’s okay. You’re a good person.”
“I used to think that, too. Look. I just need some space right now. Figure things out.”
Liv was biting her lip, chewing back tears. “Okay. I’ll be upstairs.”
“I know. Thanks, Liv.”
Liv exited as silently as she entered. Oscar was sitting in the corner, looking at Remy with amenable brown eyes. “Don’t look at me like that. You know what I did.”
That night, Remy dreamed of a beetle battle. He was facing off against the Hercules beetle, balancing on the thin branch of a tall tree. They prodded with their horns. They wrestled for position. Locking, pushing, sliding. Remy finally thought he had Hercules pinned, but with the whirl of a tornado, the beetle broke free and lifted Remy high into the air. The beetle hurled him off the edge of the tree branch. With the wind at his back, Remy watched the beetle looking down at him from the edge, its horn shining in the Texas sun.
Remy peeled open his eyes. The framed beetle sat on the bench under the bedroom window. Pins and all, Remy sensed it was still alive. At any moment, it would pry itself from the pinning block and impale Remy through the heart with a stab of its horn.
Remy opened an overstuffed dresser drawer and yanked out an old black sweatshirt. He hung the sweatshirt over the frame of the beetle. He shuffled back into bed and pulled the covers up around his neck. The framed beetle now peered at him as a headless, dark creature.
“What are doing?” Liv asked, her voice hoarse and drowsy.
“I think Hercules is trying to kill me.”
“Remy, you’re scaring me.”
“Did you put it on the bench? I don’t even remember —”
“Everything’s okay. Did you have a bad dream?”
“I’m still in it.”
“You’ll feel better in the morning. We’ll go to the contest and have some fun. Supposed to be a sunny day.”
“It is the morning. Five o’clock. I’ve gotta to do something before we go.”
Remy ran downstairs to the workshop. He slid the Emerald Ash Borer into his pocket and drove to the mansion at the end of the end of the cul-de-sac. At the base of the hole-filled ash tree by the garage, Remy tried to re-create the pile of leaves where he had first found the Borer. He used his forceps to return the insect back to the place it fell. “Rest in peace, my friend.” Remy crossed himself like he had seen in the movies.
“I called the cops,” the woman said from behind the screen.
Remy smiled at the woman and held up his hands in surrender as he backed into his truck. No time to explain. Liv was waiting.
The line for the contest was around the corner. Several patrons were dressed up head-to-toe as insects. Their animated voices buzzed, chirped, and hummed behind their masks.
“Welcome to the 21st annual bug bash,” a man called out over the speakers. “Please have your tickets ready at the door.”
Inside, artists sold bug portraits, paperweights, and jewelry. Between the artwork and trinkets were snack stands stocked full of barbecue-flavored cricket chips, salted water bugs with mustard, and chocolate covered ants.
“Are you hungry?” Liv said. “The chips sound kind of good.”
“You go ahead. I’m going to fill out the paperwork.”
“What do we have here?” the woman behind the counter asked. Remy handed over the framed Hercules beetle. “Whoa! Never seen one of these here before. You must be proud.” She handed Remy a slip with personal information at the top, specimen information in the middle, and an acknowledgement at the end that the specimen had been found in nature and killed by nature. Remy filled in the blanks and scribbled some wavy lines in the signature block.
“You’re all set,” the woman said. She held out a folded sheet of paper. “Here’s a map of the stations and where to find the stage. I have a feeling I’ll be seeing you in the final round.”
The crowds of people were vibrating with chit-chat. Remy could smell their excitement, their sweat. It was giving him a headache. He found a bench next to a game of hornet skee ball and fell asleep.
Remy awoke to Liv shaking him. “It took me hours to find you,” she said. “They’re making the announcements. Come on!”
Sitting in the audience near the stage, Liv pulled a corndog from her purse wrapped in foil. “I think it’s still hot,” she said, offering it to Remy. “The breading has some kind of crushed-up bugs. It’s pretty good.”
Remy felt sick but took a token bite and chomped a few times. “Thanks.” When he swallowed, the half-chewed chunk of corndog lodged in his throat. He tried to move it down his esophagus. He tried to cough it up. He turned to Liv, wide-eyed.
“What is it? Tell me.”
Remy put his hands around his neck.
“Are you choking?”
Remy nodded. He was started to feel light-headed. The bugs were choking him to death.
Remy passed out and awoke a second time that day to Liv shaking him. “Wake up! It came out. You’re okay!”
Remy was flat on his back. He sat up in an instant like being jolted from a coffin. He brushed the itchy grass from his hair.
“Wow. I feel invincible!” Remy kissed Liv’s hand. “Sorry for freaking out. From now on, I’m going to focus on the things in my life that are alive.”
“Glad to have you back.”
After thanking the man who had dislodged the corndog, Remy and Liv took their seats to applause from the onlookers. Liv squeezed Remy’s hand and Remy squeezed her hand back.
The large, elevated stage now looked majestic to Remy. He felt his destiny being rolled out in front of him like a red carpet as the announcer asked the two final contestants to come forward: Remy and Simon.
“Good luck,” Remy said as he took his seat next to Simon. “I hope you win.”
“Seriously?” Simon scoffed.
“What’s gotten in you?”
“I had it all wrong before.”
“And now you have it all right?”
“That’s right.” Remy pulled the map from his pocket and scribbled notes on the back. Just as he had written the last word, Remy was announced the winner to resounding applause and sonorous cheers.
Remy stood behind the microphone at the podium. “I thank God to be standing before you. A new man. Reborn today. Baptized by bugs. I’m not a poet, but I’ve written a poem. An elegy, of sorts. For Hercules.” Remy read from the back of the map:
Without a peep, a shriek, a scream
You ripped the mask right off my dream
With flesh and bones and hair and teeth
I found the nightmare underneath
How each will fall, only time will tell
But now I wish to wish you well
With your corpse pinned down, may your soul fly free
And find your place in that eternal tree
And fall asleep to the cicada’s song
A final home, where you belong.
“To Hercules,” a man called out, his beer raised up in a toast. “To Hercules,” the audience agreed.
With the exit of the audience, Remy took pictures holding the framed Hercules beetle for the daily newspaper.
“Can you back up just a bit?” the newspaper photographer asked Remy. “I want to get the signs and the background.”
“Sure.” Remy took steps backwards. He hadn’t noticed he was near the front edge of the stage. With a final step back, he was airborne. Before his descent, he had dropped the framed beetle on the edge of the stage. With the wind at his back, Remy watched the beetle looking down at him from the edge, its horn shining in the Texas sun.
Tahlia Kade is a fiction writer living in Austin, Texas. This story was written in honor of the many insects and creatures she has encountered exploring the green belt with her two young children.