Bathed in the reddish-orange light of the gallery, Irene and Peter rested limply at the open mouth of the tunnel. Their hands wound together.
Blood whistled in Peter’s ears, pounding in vessels placed by nature far too close to his tympanic membranes. Was something hemorrhaging? Of course not. Filthy and bitten, he raised his free hand and without thinking extended a finger to his ear, meaning to stretch the canal out a bit. But he stopped. What if one of the horrible insects had lodged in there? What if it was now unable to fulfill Irene’s command? It would be thrashing, piercing the gentler internal layers of his sensory organs with its tiny bug-hooves and many-spiked leg segments. His finger would push in, piling wax under the nail. The black bug, separated from its brood, would kick. A claw would scrape the ridges of Peter’s fingertip.
Peter relaxed his hand, which had become tense, poised at the side of his head. What would the struggles of a stuck insect sound like? And with the arrival of this thought, Peter became sure that there was no bug in his ear. He was reassured that it was merely the blood circulating in his own skull; it was a noise that had always been there. Peter was, rather, healthily paranoid about the possibility of stray insects buried in his hair, his clothes, his person. An old instinct, inherited from furred ancestors thousands upon thousands of generations ago. The nature of those ancestors was yet debatable. Were they bat-like? – two-breasted with long fingers so adaptable that they might take to flight as easily as tool-making? Or, perhaps they bore the stereoscopic facial configurations and nimble clinging hands of the tarsiers, tiny predatory primates of Asia? But, whatever the case of his origin, the instinctual aversion to insects had been carried with the first ape-man from his very birth, from the moment he had slid out from some hairy womb. And with that instinct came the need for a companion to pick out the lice.
With her face pressed into the crook of Peter’s neck, Irene found minute solace. The mental noise of the styrgae’s clatter finally began to recede from her conscious mind. Yet – just as the swarm itself had only withdrawn deeper into the shaft from which Peter had emerged, their calls did not and could not fully vanish. There had been in her mind, as in all human minds, a film stretched across the abyss. By dark magic, this film had been pierced, and there would always be a scar. Through this aperture the styrgae’s echoes continued to reverberate. Something else echoed through this rupture too, marking the disparity between the current and former woman –
The pain was sharp and sudden for Peter. His immediate response to it was to slap his free left hand down over the tear in the back of his right. He felt it then, in his palm, between Irene’s thin fingertips. He had been right: something had been caught in his person. In a wound on Peter’s hand, an insect had remained. Camouflaged in the general soreness that had wrapped his body all round, Peter had not noticed the pressure of the unmoving creature – until it finally did squirm. Now it kicked as he had imagined it would. The sensation of claws against the unprotected inner flesh of his hand proved more terrible than his imagination could have prepared him for. Peter suppressed a high pitched note, short and not unlike a bark. It came out as something like a hiccup.
Her attention drawn from the comfort of his shoulder, Irene moved her entire body to bring Peter’s hand before her. As she shifted her feet beneath her, she pushed the dust of the library floor into a little pile against Peter’s knee. She felt it too now, a body moving just below Peter’s skin. It was blindly struggling, still trying its best to obey her, but horribly misinformed about the proper direction to take. She pressed her fingertips more tightly against the bones in Peter’s hands. She felt the tiny intruder nudge against her knuckle. Peter bit his lip. Only moments ago he had been enveloped in pain, his entire corpus had been chewed, and he had somehow persevered. But this single sting . . .
His eyes began to well with moisture. Irene saw the sinews in his neck become tense. She massaged the beetle. It seemed to respond to her touch. Peter lifted his left hand from the wound and locked it around Irene’s wrist. He looked first to the fidgeting lump in his skin, and then to Irene, who was concentrating, and then back to the remnant beetle.
Something short and black and jagged emerged: a mandible. The other, broken and opened wider than its twin, dragged alongside the creature’s head, slightly tearing the acute edge of the wound as it passed from Peter’s flesh. An antenna sprung into the orange light, like a stiff hair. The other was missing. Peter could stand to watch no more – the lost antennae must have been rested somewhere inside his right hand. Irene’s concentration remained unbroken. Having this task, into which she could pour herself – this helped.
Freed from its confusion, the bug fell into the dust. Neither Peter nor Irene could have smashed it. Devoid of the strength required for anger, neither of them would have garnered any satisfaction from killing it. The insect writhed and righted itself. It scurried from Peter’s knee, across the miniature dune created by the pressing of the two giant primates’ thighs. It left a trail as it fled. Tiny footprints kicked the dust into a series of chevrons that seemed to point the way to the lip of the shaft, and over the edge.
Above them, the shelves loomed, filled with the relics of even greater beings.
Beneath them, the chatter of the styrgae had faded into a soft murmur. Other sounds rose. A lapping, almost of waves; then a disturbingly familiar sound. “It’s all right.” Peter’s own voice was calling to them from below. “It’s all right. I’m right here.” Irene’s brow furrowed and her lower lip curled into a bunch. She looked to Peter – but what could he say? – then into the tunnel. “It’s all right now.”