Late Sunday afternoon, when the weak side of Hurricane Frances dragged its scudding tail of clouds from the south like a ragged cur, we abandoned the family lockdown and took the dogs for a walk.
We’ve been married 25 years, my wife and I, and one of the accompanying joys of a long relationship is finding new things to talk about.
So I asked my wife, who was wheeling her way around puddles gingerly, trying to avoid the soaked foliage and slipping on the edges: Where do mosquitoes go during a hurricane?
This seemed to me a less trivial matter than to her and one rife with possibilities born of a giddiness to be out on a stroll and not sifting through hurricane-scattered belongings under the open sky. It is terrifying when everything you own to make sense of the world is ripped from where it belongs, leaving a pattern on the bare Earth, a puzzle forever unsolvable.
For mosquitoes that hadn’t fed in days, our presence offered great opportunity. Yet, I pointed out to my wife, there were none to be seen.
To which my wife responded crisply that conditions made it imperative for her to pay attention to not falling and killing herself.
So I silently followed the example of my dogs tracking fresh scents brought down by the storm.
Are mosquitoes the first victims of a hurricane?
Are they slammed mid-flight against tree trunks or walls, mashed, torn apart by winds, corpses now curled specks of husk and wings undifferentiated from dirt, their inadvertent demise unmourned by any rescue crew or rain-soaked TV newscaster who has turned over every conceivable stone for a story but this?
My feeling is that mosquitoes go to ground. To safe harbors under leafs, in eddies of air where Hurricane Charley, Frances or Ivan can’t reach them.
In the moist, humid interstices they are protected by a pocket of calm, like focus groups in soundproofed, office-park conference rooms scattered across suburbia.
This is their quiet time. No TV cameras to record their conversations or freedom of information act requests to disclose what they plan. No health nuts with bomb trucks to worry about. Nothing to do with Homeland Security.
A hurricane is when mosquitoes plan new strategies to get under the skin of their hosts. While the furies rage overhead, mosquitoes crouch on all fours, stingers set to idle speed, and poll new tactics with quivering probiscii.
This year it is all about fear, but fear at the right time, in the right dosages. Color-coded terror alerts every now and then. A whiff of West Nile to tenderize the host for the feast to come.
We so want to be safe from that. We so want a place to tie up the boat where no winds will show what happens when what carries us safely over water crashes into concrete, an avalanche of Fiberglas and wood and metal piling up on the shore of our lives.
Big storms tear up the world outside, but they also pull up preconceived notions by the roots. Who hasn’t felt toppled by tempests nature blesses us with such capacity to paper over?
For whom has the Barcalounger at home never felt like the captain’s chair on the flight deck of Star Trek? Something is always coming at us.
The next hurricane is always forming off Africa, no matter how many systems we cobble against furies whose weight we cannot measure with any more accuracy than the wing of a fallen mosquito.
Is it possible that terror is a natural condition, that the only way to know it in ourselves is to empathize with the terror that others feel, whether they are in the next time zone or the next room?
We’re back at the car we drove to take the dogs for a walk. My wife says, apropos of nothing, that she’s been bitten a couple of times.
Not me. Either the new recruits to the cause, home-schooled in the delivery of toxins, can’t touch me, or some people are just more susceptible to mosquitoes.
I don’t tell this, of course, to the woman I will spend the next 25 years with. You can never tell when it will be your turn to feel the sting.
ALAN FARAGO, a longtime writer on the environment and politics, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.