Listen to this story, narrated by C. S. E. Cooney:
The chiripas came with the rain season. They were small, bean-sized insects the color of coffee that ran and hid whenever they felt seen and followed. At first, nobody paid any attention to them. Why would we? They were bugs. There are bugs everywhere. Most living organisms on Earth are bugs. It’s no big deal.
When they came, we’d see them in regular places. Late at night, strolling in the kitchen looking for food crumbs on the floor or around the sink. Walking with their constant but erratic march out of the bathroom drain, from under the bed, or behind the furniture; crawling the walls trying to reach the ceiling.
Nobody talked about them. Why would we? You’d just grab a sandal, a shoe, a notebook, a napkin, or your bare hand, and you’d squash them. You’d drag their gutted-out shell someplace where it couldn’t be seen and later you’d sweep it into the trash with the litter and the dust.
But the chiripas didn’t go away. You could see them on the shelves, stepping their little feet over the bags of rice and flour, inside the drawers on the cutlery, and inside the medicine cabinet. If you put your hand inside a purse, two or three popped out, tickling the tips of your fingers. At the end of the day, after taking off your shoes, you weren’t surprised to find a couple smeared on your socks.
If you saw something blocking your light and you looked up, the chiripas would be there, getting crisped inside the lampshade, reminding us of their omnipresence as they died.
Nobody would acknowledge them since we weren’t sure if they came from you, from me, or from somebody else, and nobody wanted to face that terrible shame. In the privacy of the night, no matter how many times we shook the mattress and the bed sheets, we twisted ourselves, scratching in the darkness, sleeping less every time.
We realized something was going on thanks to the shortage. We would go to two, three, five, eight supermarkets and there was no kind of pesticide or cleaning product available. They all flew right off the shelves as soon as they arrived. People started to pile up in front of the stores, waiting for them in long lines for entire days.
A robust black market was born overnight, selling imported or homemade cleaning products at two, three, five, eight times above their market price.
But it was still bearable by the time it started to affect the food. Fruits and vegetables were bought as soon as they were delivered, out of fear of finding critters wandering on them. People would rip open packages of spaghetti, grains, sugar, and salt to make sure they were clean. And yet, no matter how much they dug up, you would always find some during the meal.
Soon we were eating nothing but fried eggs, because it was impossible for them to get inside the shell, and plain white rice, since it was easier to pick the chiripas out in the whiteness. And we would soak our white rice with egg in ketchup, soy sauce, BBQ sauce, mustard, mayo, margarine, guasacaca, in anything as long as it no longer tasted like white rice with egg.
Canned goods, in theory the safest choice, were nowhere to be found. The rumor spread that upper-class people were hogging them to resell them with higher prices and the government started to take over companies and warehouses one by one.
Despite the media circus, with the National Guard showing boxes and boxes every week on national TV, the canned goods were never seen again. The rumor spread that they were now being divided between the military high command and important government figures.
It was around that time, when we had to save the little food we had left in double or triple plastic bags inside hidden beach coolers, and kept glasses and plates inside the fridge after washing them with chloride, that the government finally issued a statement.
They didn’t want to, but they had no other choice. The media, despite all their vagueness and their unofficial censorship around the subject, were interviewing more and more doctors and experts giving advice and disproving home remedies, including a favorite: taking a quick, short creolin shower.
The President didn’t make a speech. Nor a Minister. Not even an intern from some little-known government agency. All we got was a written statement from the Ministry of Health explaining, in the broadest terms, an ongoing situation. Nobody was making a news conference to yell to the world that we were some backward, bug-infested, Third World country. All silence and saving face.
Soon fumigation trucks filled the streets of poor neighborhoods with white smoke while squads of Civil Defense went up and down hills and slopes, picking up old tires and rotten garbage to burn. They gave away pamphlets in schools and hospitals along with gloves, masks, and a special soap that you had to use over all surfaces. But no matter how many weekends we lost scrubbing the kitchen and the bathroom with that goddamn blue soap, everything was the same or worse.
Then they brought scientists from abroad that set up makeshift labs in large tents next to the highway and took pictures of plants and soil with venerable patience as they were escorted by the National Guard. They imported delicate equipment, made a census of the population, and went around giving talks in town hall meetings, church congregations, and school assemblies.
No matter how much money and praise was given to their research, their results are now in a yellow folder, inside the drawer of an old plywood desk, forgotten in one of those entities for scientific development where nobody is certain what they do.
When the government discovered the futility of its actions, it issued another statement: The infestation of chiripas was fake! One night we all saw, our mouths agape, the President on an official broadcast accusing the press of spreading fear, in tandem with foreign superpowers, to subvert our national well-being.
We were incredulous witnesses of hastily-forged data, repeated one thousand times, that assured us that chiripas were nothing but an optical illusion produced by mass hysteria designed by top secret expert psychological operations laboratories that unpatriotic terrorists had planted in our feeble and alienated minds.
And we saw with indifference how newspapers became thinner, how radio stations went quiet except the ones promising eternal salvation, how broadcast television was filled with bland shows where smiling women taught you how to cook chiripa-free dishes that nobody could ever afford, and slick men in suits gave away washing machines and used cars with the most pathetic decadence.
As if they didn’t have long, sleepless nights covered in chiripas in their own homes.
The government, meanwhile, made barricades around the ministries so nobody could protest, and kept all scientific data out of reach so that the public would never be allowed to read the official reports ever again.
They transferred the duties of the proper institutions to anonymous departments dependent on obscure entities that would report to Congress once a year, and stressed they made it possible for you to sleep well and not to talk about anything else because that’s fear-mongering, because that’s terrorism, because that’s an attack against the peace of our sovereign nation and the capital-letter State that we, the citizens, are all part of.
But nobody was shocked. In fact, nobody was paying attention anymore.
By then we had learned to live with the chiripas. Sometimes you would squash one, but it was more a gesture done out of habit than a true, heartfelt effort. Like any collective agony, we coped by making fun of them. When, at noon, we pulled out our plastic-wrapped lunch, it was followed by the jokey chorus of, “Did you make sure it doesn’t have any little critters in it?”
And if it had any, it didn’t matter. We had grown accustomed to the taste of dry dirt that we all knew but never admitted knowing.
Those of us who didn’t get used to chiripas, emigrated. There were many who had left in the early years of the infestation but, when it became clear it would never be solved, many sold the little that they had and left to anyplace that had not declared us in quarantine.
Wherever we ended up, foreigners would give us a confused, if pitiful, look. The way we obsessively wiped every plate and cup we were going to use, how we wrapped ourselves around our meal and swallowed it down with hurried anxiousness. Irritated, we would turn around and ask them, with slightly rude frankness, if they had no bugs on their high horse.
We’d say that there are bugs everywhere. We’d say that most living organisms on Earth are bugs. We’d say that it’s no big deal. And their eyes would stay on us, without understanding.