I thought I might find a Dryococelus australis at the bayou, and I signed up for a tour by boat.
There were insects everywhere. I saw a clutch of Dytiscidae. I heard six feet echo through the moss, suspiciously heavy, resoundingly singular, and my heart stood alert in delight; but then I saw someone go in, and I recognized that what I heard was only more Dytiscidae.
I got into the boat and we took off.
"Good afternoon," I said.
"Noon," said someone. It was a man sitting in the boat. I hadn't noticed him, for he was hunched and small; but while the boat was designed for fifty or more, it was just us three—him, me, and the boatwoman. We bobbed about in this sea of space like loose teeth.
"Did you see that diving beetle just dive in?" I said. I had specifically requested an insect-informed boatwoman. But she sat stationary like the sun.
"Do you know the Dryococelus australis?" I said.
She was quiet like the sun.
Overhead were impossible trees, meeting with outrageous ferocity and blotting out the light. Overhead was a cacophony of sadness.
"Yup, saw it," said the man. I craned my head to make out what I could of his intent. Finally I saw his bothersome face, and I turned back again.
"Got a chicken?" he said to the boatwoman. She didn't reply.
"Got a chicken," he said, as if satisfied. He scooted up laboriously—his knees bent, his arms waving—until he sat directly behind me. "Wait until you see the chicken dinner."
"I don't want to see it," I said. "I'm here to meet an insect."
"Got plenty of those, too."
But I was not interested in what he had to say.
"Insects are everywhere at the bayou," he said.
"Insects are everywhere," he said.
"Look there," he said.
I looked; he was eating a banana.
"Alligator insects," he said.
"When you say that, do you mean Fulgora laternaria?"
"Alligator insects," he said, louder.
"Do you mean the Fulgora laternaria?" I shouted.
"Never heard of him," he said.
"I'm ready to be quiet now," I said.
He continued talking. The slurp of the bayou interrupted the units of sound and units of meaning, both; but I was unsatisfied, for I could still hear his mumbling.
"I can make out neither meaning nor precision of sound," I said, waving a hand to dismiss him.
"Could you tell us about the area?" I said to the boatwoman, furious about the mumbling of the man. But she would not.
We boated past some machines in the water.
"What are those?" I said. I could tell she knew by the involuntary lift of her left shoulder. But she wouldn't answer.
"Machines," said the man.
"I know," I said. "I wanted additional information."
"Sewing machines," he said.
"They had wheels," I said.
"For sewing," he said.
A large insect swam by, paddling along on his back.
"I didn't know a Fulgora laternaria would do that," I said.
The man shook his head. "That was a Dryococelus australis.”
"It wasn't," I said.
"It absolutely was not," I said.
"Twas," he said, nodding.
"It was what?"
"One of those water skippers. A magic bug."
"That isn't what you said," I said.
The boatwoman boated languidly with one hand in the water. This pose of unconcern and inattention enraged me.
"You are not who I wanted in a boatwoman," I said, shouting because of the din of insects and water. But she did not reply.
"Hot day," said the man.
"A Dryococelus australis is not a water skipper," I said.
"Sure," he said.
"Sure what?" I said.
"Water skipper," he said.
I couldn't believe it. "Please stop talking," I said.
I had a butter sandwich in my pocket and ate it. I wished for additional butter sandwiches. I sat on my legs and extended them, sat on them, extended them. Hours passed and we never saw the sun. I moved my head backwards, then forwards, sideways, then forwards. I drew my fingers in, then I drew them out. It seemed batches of five minutes were all I could manage, but I couldn't identify the number of minutes; minutes were subsumed by hours in no time. I wished desperately for another butter sandwich, for white bean soup, for something substantial in the way of pasta. It was like midnight from the moment I stepped into the boat. It was like midnight in no time. I stared into the water so long I nearly fell in; the passage of time and the movement of the water seemed a great union, but I was too warm, and the time and the water turned into a sort of sickness. I couldn't place it; my faculties were dimmed by the heat, rendered flawed; it's possible the sickness was only sadness.
"I was told there might be someone here," I said to the boatwoman. "An insect with a meditative face."
The boatwoman didn't say anything. She steered the boat casually, with a finger. She ate dried peas.
"I'm sick," I said. "I'm very sick. But it's possible the sickness is only sadness."
The man was eating noodles from a bowl.
"Where did you get those?" I said. They were steaming.
"We were supposed to be uncircling," I said.
"What I mean is, the trip was only made of flour."
"What I mean is, the trip is only for an hour."
I kept hearing the same bird.
"That unhappy bayou bird keeps singing the same song," I said.
"I mean that we should be uncircling by now, and here were are, still circling."
"I mean there's a noodle dangling from a noodle prong."
The man's mouth was full of noodles. The boatwoman had a tin of apricots.
"What I mean is," I said, grasping for the right combination of words, "it's very hot, and the air is very wet, and the insects cannot find their way."
"I mean we keep circling and it doesn't seem right."
"I mean it's time for night."
I realized we were traveling in circles around the bayou. The unhappy bayou song I'd been hearing was from one bird, one mortal bird, stationed unrelenting on a low bayou branch.
"I thought we were traveling a far distance," I said.
"I thought we were going goating."
"I thought our one-hour trip was one straight out and back."
"I mean we shouldn't be boating."
No one said anything. It seemed odd the man wouldn't say anything, him with his abominable loquaciousness; I looked back; he was asleep. The boatwoman was asleep.
"Oh dear," I said.
Someone crawled onto the boat.
"Hello," I said. "Come in." But he slipped back into the water. I didn't see who it was; I was ill from longing. Was that a small voice I heard? But no; it was a wind chime, swinging out from the branch of a low-hanging tree. The someone who'd crawled in and out of the boat poked his head out of the water at me. It was just a giant ant with swollen feet and a giant cherry tomato head.
Someone banged the boat; it was an alligator with a giant ant head.
"Another ant!" I exclaimed, shaken. But the alligator lifted his head unhappily as I said this, and I saw I was wrong, and that his giant head was distinctly alligator in appearance.
I was sick with misery. I was getting bored. My legs were irate, my bones incensed with inaction. It was so dim I couldn't see, yet there was no dark to speak of: just a complicated, unwieldy green, dotted red like a bloodstone.
The bayou bird's song grew worse in the green.
The boatwoman woke up. The boatwoman began boating.
"Can you tell me where we're going?" I said, but she didn't answer.
"Can you tell me where we're boating?" I said, and she didn't answer.
"Do you know the time?" I said, but apparently she didn't.
The man woke up. "It's nearly three," he said.
"Which three?" I said.
"Morning," he said.
"Is that a greeting," I said, "or the three?"
"Both," he said. "It's three in the morning."
"How do you know? The hours don't distinguish themselves very well here."
He jumped and a thick substance, full of something once alive, slipped over the side. It was the bayou. The bayou bird was right behind us. His song was anxious, rude, bespeaking a terrible misery, and I thought I heard him weeping.
"Sorry," said the man. "It's just that the Dryococelus australis startled me, screaming like that right behind me."
"What?" I said.
"I'm sorry," he said, gesturing to the substance, which was the bayou, which was now in the bottom of the boat.
"It's a good thing I'm a scientist," I said, "and used to this." But in fact it was horrible.
"Too loud," said the man.
"You said something about a Dryococelus australis."
"That's just the shrimp," said the man.
"That ungodly weeping. They ask a lot of us out on this bayou."
"Are you angry?" I said.
"No," he said. But I could tell by the contemptible swinging of his arms that it wasn't true.
"Hello there," I called to the shrimp, in part because I was rabidly uncomfortable.
"Shut up!" shouted the man.
"That." He pointed at the shrimp.
"That's a shrimp," I said.
"Inconsiderate, self-centered," he said, his voice trailing off.
"Me?" I didn't understand.
"That!" he said.
"Self-centered shrimp," I said. The weeping was loud, yes, but the expression on the shrimp's face was not one of self-centeredness.
"Where's that singing?" I said.
The air had become very thick, and although we moved little, each forward motion brought us further into the thickness; or perhaps we did not go further into the thickness, and perhaps the thickness came of nothing.
My nose spoke to me of the destruction of plants in the water, and plants overhead, and plants to our left, on the banks; it revealed an unkind sweetness, a season of sweets decaying under the dual forces of heat and water.
"There aren't enough insects," I said.
"Does everything just happen to be green?" I said. "Or is it the green air, turning it this way?"
The man tossed and rocked and flung his arms. He shrieked and sighed with misery. It was giving me a headache.
"It's always this way in the middle of the night," he interrupted himself to say.
"But surely it's not midnight," I said.
"S'about three, I think," he said.
"It's always green at three?"
"Is it still three, after all this time?" I said.
"What's the sound?"
"Which one?" he said.
"What's the smell?"
"Where are all the larger insects?" I said.
But one flew right by.
"Who's playing a lute out here?" I said. "Why is there someone swimming? Must she travel in circles like that? Her dress is ruined."
He shook his head. "These things always last too long."
"Are we done yet?" I said. The boatwoman didn't reply.
It's incorrect to say a scientist is impervious to attachment or preference, disappointment or heartbreak. We have more important things to do than worry over the pointed nose of the Broad-nosed weevil or the hopeful soul of the Eastern-eyed click beetle; our searches can expend the whole of our lifetimes; what we believe may turn out false and what we aim to prove may turn out impossible. But that does not account the special happiness caused by a lightning bug's large eyes or a Dryococelus australis's complex disposition. And it does not eliminate the potential devastation of a search gone wrong, a purpose unfulfilled, an insect unfound.
"What's wrong?" said the man, suddenly gentle.
"I am well," I said.
"I can see you are not," he said.
"I'm looking for someone," I said.
Lorie Broumand is a librarian. She plays guitar, hurdy gurdy, and Tetris. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Confrontation, SmokeLong Quarterly, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Slush Pile Magazine, Whiskey Island, Memorious, and Fiction Southeast. Follow her @LorieBroumand.