This is a short story for children. I didn’t write it with the purpose of condemning humankind for its treatment of insects, nor with the illusion that we can easily resolve the moral conundrum that sentient cockroaches would present, but rather with the belief that an answer requires, first of all, a question. If we challenge the adults of tomorrow with a provocative question, perhaps they will be motivated to seek the answer, and their collective creativity will take us to places we can’t even begin to imagine today. My story seeks less to impart wisdom on children than to beg them for the wisdom that our spiritually starved and casually cruel world is longing for.
On a beautiful planet by the name of Neanta, in a remote corner of the Universe, about four hundred light years away from the Earth, lived the cosmobugs.
You wouldn’t say they were very remarkable in looks. They had six legs. They had antennae. Their skeletons were on the outside of their body instead of inside it. And they were tiny, as tiny as the tip of your finger. In short, they were just like our insects.
But the cosmobugs were the best space travelers that had ever been born or hatched in the world. For centuries, they had known about the existence of a Hole in the air that led into a tunnel and connected Neanta to thousands of other planets. We have such holes on Earth, but they are so small that we don’t notice them, and the tunnels are too narrow for us to crawl through.
Cosmobugs Moby Murmur, Tangy Tills and Wispy Wings were best friends. One day Moby Murmur told the others, “Let’s visit Earth!”. They agreed and immediately began their preparations for space travel. They collected three pieces of the sacred fruit. They ate from the sweet flesh, packed the rest, and used the yellow skin to make protective suits. When they were ready, they walked up to the Hole together.
As Tangy Tills was slipping into her suit, she was reminded of how cozy she had been in her cocoon when she was younger. “To the Earth, please,” she thought, and Moby Murmur and Wispy Wings thought the same, and on they went, in less time than it takes to stretch one’s segmented body, across four hundred light years, all the way to our planet and into a kitchen.
The trio climbed out of the tunnel. “I wonder if there is life here,” Wispy Wings said.
Sure there was. A cockroach darted across the floor the moment it sensed their approach. Tangy Tills tuned into its thoughts. She could feel that the cockroach was a sickly little male and that his name was made up of a chemical smell, best translated as Essst. “Don’t be afraid,” she told him, “we come in peace.”
Essst stopped dead in his tracks and slowly turned to face his alien visitors. Tangy Tills knew that he was surprised by her use of the universal language. Most beings were. Whether they communicated through chemicals, sounds, or dancing, and whichever planet they inhabited, all beings spoke the universal language of thought, but they rarely knew they did.
“Where do you come from?” asked Essst. “Your smell is odd. Where are my friends – have you done something to them?”
“We come from another place,” Tangy Tills went on. “We just got here and would like to get to know you. I am sorry, but we don’t know where your friends are.”
“A few nights ago,” the cockroach said, “I woke up to find them gone. There had been so many of them – my relatives, my buddies – and they had simply vanished. I can’t find any traces of their odor. I’ve been so sad. I don’t want to live without them. I have lost my appetite. I think I’m going crazy.”
“Maybe we can help you.” Moby Murmur tried to comfort him, though he hadn’t the slightest idea how they were going to help Essst.
“You were always a sickly one, weren’t you?” asked Wispy Wings. “Even before you became separated from your family. I can feel that about you. Why have you suffered so?”
Essst said, “My family and I, we are not very healthy. The other cockroaches told us it was because we wouldn’t eat sweet foods like sugar. But we don’t know what “sweet” is. To us, sugar tastes nasty and bitter. We would rather starve or eat glue than eat sugar.
“Really?!” the cosmobugs exclaimed all together. “And what is glue?”
“It’s a sticky paste that the Hoarders leave around. Some believe the Hoarders feed on it. I am not sure about that. But it’s true that the Hoarders will eat anything. Like us.”
Tangy Tills, Wispy Wings, and Moby Murmur were very curious. They felt pity for the lonely insect who had lost his friends and couldn’t taste sweet, but they also wanted to learn about life on Planet Earth. So they begged him to tell them more about the cockroaches and the Hoarders (who, you might have already guessed, were none other than human beings).
Essst sighed – not a real sigh, but a mind-sigh which was accompanied by a peculiar odor that, were you a cockroach, you would have found most doleful. “Visitors from another place,” he said, “I will share with you the legend of my tribe. For all I know, I may be its last survivor. There is, however, much disagreement as to whether the legend is true. We don’t smell it in our usual language. It is transmitted to us in a dream, a dream that every one of us will have while still a fragile white nymph, and the story it tells is this.”
The cockroaches had once been respected by other beings and led a peaceful coexistence even with the Hoarders. The Hoarders appeared very late on the planet and at the beginning they weren’t hoarding any grains or nuts or anything. But when they started to hoard, they decided that the cockroaches were their enemies, and they set out to kill them all, by crushing them with their enormous, terrifying bodies and by leaving out food that made the cockroaches very sick in their tummies.
Cockroaches, Essst explained, only want to take what the Hoarders don’t need themselves, but with the Hoarders being so careless about where they leave things, it is very difficult to tell which food is for the Hoarders, and which food is for the cockroaches.
Essst then told them the reason why some cockroaches refuse to believe in the legend. It was quite astonishing. To the doubters, these Hoarders are not beings but rather a force of nature that makes the air tremble and tramples to death those on the ground. They agree it is scary, but they don’t think it is conscious. It is too big to be a being, they say.
“Back in our world, we have friends who are trees,” Tangy Tills said thoughtfully. “They are very big too, but they are definitely beings. They talk to each other through their roots, although they speak to us in the language we are using now. We break down the leaves that have fallen and the bodies of the insects who have died beneath the trees, so they can get nourishment. In return, they give us the gift of their fruit. When it is ripe, it drops on the ground. It is very good for healing and protects us when we travel to faraway places.”
“Wow!” Essst stood there in amazement, small and frail bug that he was. “I believe that’s how our ancestors lived too. Rumor has it that many of our kind still do. Please tell me more about the trees!”
“Some trees are too old and weak to bear fruit,” Wispy Wings said. “And then there are those who have never borne it. But we care for them just the same. They are our friends.”
At that moment, the conversation was interrupted by a loud racket. Eight little cockroaches scurried towards them and were suddenly all over Essst. To the cosmobugs, they all looked very much like him, save two white youngsters. Their joy at reuniting with Essst gave way to fear of the alien beings, but the little bug cried out:
“My family! You are alive! Do not be afraid; these are my friends from another place.” He talked to them in the language of chemicals, and Tangy Tills could feel that his tube-shaped heart was full of love – in a Hoarder’s manner of speaking – though she also knew that part of him was grieving for those who had not returned.
After all the excitement had cooled down a bit, the eightsome told their story. They said that the other cockroaches had found sweet food and called their mates to share it, but it had poisoned them. The little ones who never touched sweet things survived but got horribly afraid, seeing everyone else writhe in pain. They ran away, hid in a crevice they had never been to before, and huddled together for comfort. They stayed there without food or drink for a long time, but when thirst finally got the better of them, they decided to go back. The Hoarders had erased the cockroaches’ trails with their powerful chemicals. They did not know if they would find Essst alive.
There was a long silence. Then Moby Murmur spoke.
“Beings from Earth, your story has touched us deeply. Before we bid you goodbye, we would like to give you something that is very precious to us.” He reached into the folds of his suit, taking out his piece of sacred fruit, and gave it to Essst. Tangy Tills and Wispy Wings did likewise.
Essst took a bite from the fruit. Then, for those who could understand him, he emitted a very peculiar smell – the smell of a dawning recognition. “So this is what “sweet” means,” he said in awe.
He looked around. A cookie crumb was lying on the floor. Essst approached it and looked at his guests. Wispy Wings nodded (as you and I would say). Essst waved his antennae as he hesitated; in the next second, he was onto the crumb, repeating over and over how delicious it was and calling to his hungry family to join him.
“This fruit will protect you from all poisons,” Tangy Tills explained. “Eat a little bit every day, and you won’t have to torment yourselves with that awful sticky thing Essst told us about. When you run out, we will come back and give you more.”
With that, the cosmobugs prepared to go back through the tunnel and return to Neanta. Four of Wispy Wings’s legs were already through the Hole when he felt the air tremble and the ground shake. He paused and looked back.
The cockroaches had fled. A giant being appeared, and Wispy Wings suddenly knew that this was a Hoarder, that it was female and called itself Astra. Astra was lost in thought. “Are we alone in the Universe?” she wondered and wondered, and Wispy Wings just stared at her until Tangy Tills, who had not seen the Hoarder, pulled the rest of him through the Hole.
That night, while the cosmobugs were falling asleep under the dead leaves, Wispy Wings lay awake. The huge tree above him rustled gently in the darkness.
Did you know?
Scientists have discovered that cockroaches are very social insects. Their community is important to them. Like the children of people and other mammals, young cockroaches fail to develop properly and seem to suffer when they grow in isolation.1
Art by Michelle Westerlaken, quote by Vinciane Despret2
Featured image: “Peonies” by Natalia Pivko (detail).
: “Cockroaches Get Lonely, Kind of (But a Little Feather-Poking Can Help)” by Sarah Zhang in Discover Magazine, May 3, 2012, citing “The social biology of domiciliary cockroaches: colony structure, kin recognition and collective decisions” by M. Lihoreau, J.T. Costa & C. Rivault in Insectes Sociaux (2012) 59: 445-452.
: Despret, Vinciane. (2016). What Would Animals Say if we Asked them the Right Questions? p.47. (Buchanan, B, (Tr.)) Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.