Scritch. Scuttle. Chik-chik-chik.
These are the sounds of my nightmares, waking and asleep. Even now, as I sit at my computer to write. Scritch. Scuttle. Chik-chik-chik.
I never should have gone, should have declined the invitation outright.
It just sounded too good to be true. A vacation to the rainforest? All expenses paid? How could I resist? When Robert told me about it of course I was skeptical.
“It’s for a research study.” He’d said, as if that clarified everything.
While it’s true that I don’t know much about the world of grants and academic funding, it still did seem strange that his roommate should be allowed to tag along for free.
“They just need bodies on the ground,” Robert said. “It doesn’t matter what your background is--if you can dig a trench, you’ll be useful.”
So, I agreed.
I’d expected that we’d be staying at a resort somewhere, or at least in an air-conditioned building. In reality the tents we were sleeping in had little for air circulation. It was almost a treat when we were woken in the morning to hike to the dig site. At least if we were pushing out shovels into the boggy ground the heat made sense.
During the day we’d curse and dig, drenched by our own sweat and the humid air. I never thought to ask why we were digging and the pale, pudgy man in an academic’s approximation of a safari outfit never offered to explain. It was something archeological, or at least that’s what I gathered from the words whispered by the men in cotton jodhpurs holding clipboards and taking notes with every shovelful of dirt turned over.
At night I’d lay on my cot, sweating in the nocturnal heat. It was like simmering in a lukewarm soup, waiting to become the first course. Occasionally the miserable stagnant air would be broken by the buzz of a mosquito that managed to work its way in through the too-big holes of my netting. I’d swat the tiny menace against my skin, feeling its body burst under my hand. By morning my body would be graffitied with other people’s blood. Spoils of the evening’s battles.
It was six days in when I struck something with my shovel. The metal hit metal with a hollow clank. Before I could bend down to see what I had hit, a swarm of academics enveloped me, pushing me from the center of the circle of bodies to the exterior in one smooth motion. A cacophony of mutters and barely-repressed squeals emitted from the learned men before me.
A box was pulled from the earth and whisked away to a research tent before any of the “volunteers” could get a good look at it. Robert popped his head into my tent that evening.
“Did you see what they found? Dr. Huffington says it’s going to be a game changer.”
I told Robert that I hadn’t been able to see anything at all, not with the throng of bodies guarding the find. He grabbed my hand and pulled me from my back. We rushed, half crouching, through the sleeping camp toward the tent where the mysterious item was held. Robert and I managed to get inside without being seen.
Inside was a small metal box. It was the one I’d struck earlier in the day. Robert clasped his hands together hungrily and opened the box. I had expected something extravagant. Maybe a solid-gold amulet of unspeakable power. Instead all that resided in the metal box was a small stone disk. On the surface was carved several symbols, presumably of importance to the tribal people whose lands we were stripping.
I reached out and touched the disk before the sharp slap of Robert’s hand came down on me.
“What are you doing?! You can’t touch that!”
“I’m just seeing what it is. I thought that’s why you brought me here!”
Robert groaned and shut the box before practically dragging me from the tent. We crept back through the camp and parted ways at my tent. Even in the dark I could see disgust written on his face.
I tried my best to sleep that night, but the oppressive humidity and thoughts of the disk kept me awake. What could possibly have been so bad about me touching it?
My answer came in the early morning hours. I heard a rustle near the door of my tent and called out to Robert to let me sleep. The tent door began to unzip and inside crawled a figure.
“Seriously, man, you’re letting the mosquitoes in!”
The figure made no response. It continued to crawl towards me; it wasn’t Robert. I couldn’t make out the figure’s face or manner of dress. It was somehow blurry in the pre-dawn darkness of the camp. I would have gotten up, would have run out of the tent, but I found that I couldn’t move. I couldn’t do anything but watch the figure approaching my prone body. When it arrived at my side, it did not move to harm me. It only pressed its lips against the side of my face and blew gently into my ear canal. I recoiled and the figure was gone.
That’s when I heard it. Scritch. Scuttle. Chik-chik-chik.
And I felt it. The scratching and the burrowing.
It would not let me sleep the rest of the morning. The sound, the feel. The constant itch that would not go away. I clawed at my ears, dug my nails into my ear canals, but still it remained. Scritch. Scuttle. Chik-chik-chik.
The next morning, with bloodshot eyes and raw, painful skin, I told the head researcher that a bug had crawled into my ear in the night. It was an insect that crawled into my ear, he corrected. He sighed deeply and shined a penlight into my ear, eventually concluding that there was nothing there. The sound told me otherwise. The sound that came from deep within my head. The itch that lived in my skull. Scritch. Scuttle. Chik-chik-chik.
He gave me a salve made of some ungodly jungle plant to soothe my skin. It didn’t work. I dug and dug until welts formed, red and ragged. I could not stop it. Scritch. Scuttle. Chik-chik-chik.
They excused me from the research team; sent me to a hospital in the nearest city. I needed help, they said. There was nothing there; it was all in my head. That’s the point, I screamed. It’s in my head. Scritch. Scuttle. Chik-chik-chik.
The doctor in the city said the same thing. As did the highly-paid specialist back home in the states. An MRI. A CAT-scan. A pile of bills I’ll never pay back. They had no help for me. Only anti-itch creams, anti-fungals, and anti-psychotics. For a while they kept my hands restrained against a hospital bed. It seems I had struck bone the last time I started scratching at my scalp. The sounds were coming from deeper inside. Scritch. Scuttle. Chik-chik-chik.
They gave me my meds and released me. Couldn’t hold me, they said. Clipped my fingernails short, nearly to the quick. But still they say there’s nothing there. Scritch. Scuttle. Chik-chik-chik.
Yesterday I thought I’d discovered the solution. I drove a nail (a short one. I’m not insane) into my ear. Deeper and deeper until I felt the pain, the pop. It was excruciating, perhaps the worst pain I’ve ever felt. Blood leaked, and then poured, out of my ear. A rush of relief came over me and I turned my attention to the other. Push, pain, blood.
Then silence. A total silence that filled my head with such an unspeakable bliss. It was gone. Only the silence remained.
I sat, comfortable finally since the night it began. I would sleep first, then deal with the ramifications in the morning. Or the next morning. I thought I might sleep for days. My eyes closed and I lay my head against my pillow. I smiled.
That’s when I heard it. Scritch. Scuttle. Chik-chik-chik.