by Tim Gilmore, 3/3/2016
Her former landlord told me he’d never seen anything like it. She’d been out of the house six weeks, but when he opened the door, fleas covered the bare hardwood floors. They covered his pant legs like a swarm of pixilation.
After beating at his legs like a maniac beside the pink-blossoming azaleas in the front yard, he screwed his courage back up to approach the house to close the front door through which he’d barreled outward.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he repeated. “How many thousands of fleas? In an empty house! What do they survive on? What are they eating? What do they eat?”
Ahmed knew I’d want to see it. He knew I loved old houses on old streets, recognized my infatuation with the earth’s constant claim on the world we’ve built and our delusions that the world is separate.
We did it. We stepped into the lovely little house. Two bedrooms, one bathroom. Wood-frame. Heart pine. Built in 1944. Solid as a tank. 900 square feet. The peninsula between the Trout and Ribault Rivers.
Total silence. Thousands of black dots sprang hungrily upon us. “What are they eating?” Ahmed shouted. “What are they surviving on? How can this be?”
So I ask my friend Tommy. He’s an entomologist. “My friendtomologist,” I call him, “N. Tom Ology Tom.”
He turns his face smugly to one side, smiles with the side of his mouth that faces me, squints, nods slowly. He calls it “Empty House Flea Syndrome.”
“Say the renter leaves the house with her dog and her cat, leaves behind a few fleas, no big deal. She knew nothing of them. The furniture is gone. The house is empty. No warm-blooded hosts present themselves. Eggs hatch in a few days. One flea might lay 5,000 eggs in her short lifetime. One flea. Always there’s more than you can see. Larvae hatch and hide in the tiniest cracks and eat anything that rots—dust, hair, wood, shit, maybe even old stone and brick. Larvae pupate,
surrounding themselves in silky cocoons. If adult fleas aren’t triggered from their cocoons in a couple of weeks, they’ll maintain their pupal stages and wait for months for blood. So massive breedings and hatchings pile up and adult fleas wait dormant and hungry.”
I tell Tommy it’s crazy to think that the absence of available food causes the flea population to boom, but he says that’s exactly what happens.
“Life cycles of fleas reach maturity. Then they wait. Other life cycles catch up with them. They wait alongside them. Then you and Ahmed step into the house. You rattle the floorboards and exhale carbon dioxide and walk around with all that tasty warm blood and all the dormantly pupating adult fleas awake at once, vicious and hungry.”
I picture William Blake’s strange 200 year-old painting The Ghost of a Flea, and think of John Donne’s poem “The Flea,” first published after his death in the 1630s. Donne’s poem imagines the blood of a man and the blood of a woman who denied him coming together in the body of a flea that bites them.
“Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare, / Where we almost, nay more than married are. / This flea is you and I, and this / Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.”
I ask Tommy what he thinks of Blake and Donne.
“You know the Venus of Willendorf?” he asks me. He means the 28,000 year-old four-inch obese feminine limestone statuette found in Austria in 1908.
“Sure,” I say.
“Some people think she’s a symbol of Mother Earth or a fertility goddess.”
“What’s this have to do with fleas?”
“Well,” he says, “being from Florida, if you really understand the state we’re in, we’ve grown up in the Primordial Ooze.”
“So when a Florida entomologist pictures the Earth Goddess, she looks like a flea. I see her and call her Flora. Maybe I should’ve named her Fauna, but I don’t think so.”
“Sexy,” I jest.
“Believe me,” he says solemnly, “She doesn’t care what you think, doesn’t care that you can’t imagine her rightly. This whole enterprise is on her terms, and you and I, we’re immaterial. She is all there is.”