Silverfish don’t grieve


There was a silverfish on the wall of our bathtub yesterday. I caught sight of it from the periphery of my vision. A mark to be wiped away until I realised it was one of those monsters, paper eaters and destroyers of books.

Silverfish, a lovely name for an ugly creature, not so much the creature itself but what it does.


So I plucked off a square of toilet paper and tried to trap it. The fish did a few laps around the bathtub before I had it pinned, and then I flushed it down the toilet.

‘Drown silverfish. Drown. No more paper for you’.

It occurred to me then that my knowledge of silverfish is limited to my childhood when someone told me these insects were pests for the way they ate up books. And I believed them.

A moment later, after the drowning, my guilt set in. Another person might not have been so quick to be rid of the silverfish, this insect without wings and with two long feelers in front. Silver grey like dust, these insects blend in well with the places where we find them, the cool and moist corners of libraries, the place of old books.

There was only one silverfish in our bathtub. Where was its family, the others of its kin?

Would they grieve?

Of course not. Silverfish don’t grieve. Kangaroos might.

I saw a YouTube clip on Facebook of a male kangaroo cradling the head of its kangaroo wife, a dying female, while their joey looked on.

And later I saw the short clip of a koala throwing a tantrum and screeching furiously after its fellow koala had ousted it from a eucalypt somewhere in Adelaide.

The koala looked indignant, paws punching the air and it squealed like a devastated child.  The kangaroo, too, had looked grief stricken.

The point of these clips perhaps: animals feel too.

A silverfish is lower down on the animal pecking order. But can we ascribe emotions to the insects of this world in anything but a Disney or Pixar cartoon?

We measure psychopathology by the degree to which a child, typically, a small boy, takes pleasure in plucking off the wings of butterflies.

I find myself remembering a Katherine Mansfield story about a man whose ‘friend’ visits and reminds him of that man’s son who had died in battle six years earlier during the First World War.

Left alone soon after, this man, the father of the dead son, expressionless and in shock, unable to grieve it seems, notices a fly struggling at the lip of his ink bottle. The man helps the fly out and onto some blotting paper on his desktop, where he marvels at the fly’s determination to dry its wings.

Then the man takes out his fountain pen and lets a blob of ink fall down upon the fly, now resting in the sunlight. The fly beats its wings again as if to flap them free of the tormenting ink.

It flaps and flaps until it looks as though its wings are ready to work again, when the man picks up his pen and drops another blob of ink onto its back.

This time the fly hesitates before starting to work once more at drying those wings. All the energy involved in getting them dry, flap after flap of wings, until at last the fly is ready for take off, and once more the man drops a blob of ink onto the fly’s back and this time, or maybe it’s one time later, the fly cannot muster the energy to go on.

It flops down motionless, dead on the blotting paper.

End of story, or maybe the end comes when the old man flicks the fly off the blotting paper and into the waste paper basket, a man unable to grieve, a man who cannot let himself know about how dreadful he feels to have lost a son in a war that he is responsible for, however indirectly.

The wars of old men, the generals who set things in motion, the war lords, the presidents, prime ministers, dictators, men who compete with and try to dominate, men who use their sons as fodder.

And here I am letting my mind wander too far afield.

The silverfish I flushed down the toilet in one swift act did not suffer as much as the fly in Mansfield’s story.

Grief is like that, too. It comes upon us when we least expect.

And grief can also be exhausting, something some of us might well want to tip into the wastepaper baskets of our lives so that we need not know too much about our suffering.

Only, the removal of rubbish or flies or even silverfish does not work.

The grief sneaks back, repositions, like a swarm of insects. It comes again and again to haunt us.



12 thoughts on “Silverfish don’t grieve”

  1. Good grief! Grief again. (Why is grief ‘good’?) I’m not sure what more I have to say on the subject. David Bowie died this week and Alan Rickman (both sixty-nine) and my wife noted—with a smidge less humour than is normally typical of her—that she is also due to reach sixty-nine this year. Now I find myself wishing for the death of some anonymous (and probably very nice) sixty-nine-year-old so the rule of three is satisfied and we can breathe again. Bowie’s death hit my wife quite badly; she burst into tears on me over the phone the next day. She’s in America again to see to the interment of her father’s ashes and so I suppose any death was likely to set her off. I cried too the day before. I’d saved a programme to watch, ‘The Genius of David Bowie’, which turned out to be nothing more than a collection of old videos but it was appropriate and just what I needed. I was fine until the opening bars of ‘Heroes’ but then I’ve always found it an emotionally-charged song. I’m afraid the loss of Alan Rickman had little effect on me. I watched ‘A Little Chaos’ that night and delighted in his performance but that was it.

    I, too, saw the video of the joey apparently grieving. I say ‘apparently’ because someone posted a response suggesting that we humans were misinterpreting the animal’s actions and although it is true that we have a terrible habit of anthropomorphising animals I’ve seen enough even myself to realise that animals can and do suffer emotionally. If they can be happy—and who, for a second, would suggest that a dog, for example, cannot be happy?—then why not sad? How subtle their emotional palette might be is another matter. Insecta, however, tend to be practical and do not think twice about eating their mothers, their offspring or their mates after (or even during) copulation. I find it hard to connect emotionally with any kind of creepy-crawly and yet I am selective in my treatment of them. There is a spider in my kitchen at the moment who is standing guard on the floor at the edge of the washing machine and I’ve left him (or her? how does one tell?) in peace for now. It’s bitter outside and I really would feel bad ousting it which is why I normally do. It had been many years since I deliberately killed a spider. I have no reservations about squishing beetles or earwigs although I do try to be quick about it. I was never one of those kids who enjoyed torturing small creatures or insects. I do have a vague recollection of accidentally de-winging a moth or a butterfly because of mishandling but I could be making that up.

    I hated your retelling of the Katherine Mansfield story. It doesn’t matter that it’s made up; I hated it. Earlier this week I watched Bela Tarr’s seven hour long adaptation of Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s ‘Sátántangó’. It’s not easy viewing especially the section in which a cat is tortured by a young girl and then poisoned. Tarr insists this was done humanely under a vet’s supervision and my gut feeling is that it was—cats can handle a fair bit of roughhousing (if the cat was really being hurt he would’ve let her know in no uncertain terms)—but it was still uncomfortable viewing (the whole scene can be found here: although nothing compared to the slaughter of the water buffalo in ‘Apocalypse Now’. ‘Sátántangó’ is a stunning film by the way if you’ve never seen it. I’m reading the novel at the moment and in its own way it’s even better although it’ll probably still take me a good seven hours to get through it.

    1. Sorry to overload you with grief again, Jim. It occurred to me people might be weary of the topic but this is what came out when I sat down to write the other morning and somehow grief seems be the theme at present. It’ll shift soon enough.

      I wonder about your hatred of the Mansfield story. Was it the story itself or the idea of such ‘sadism’ for want of a better word? Sadism in the place of grief. I must say torture of any kind tortures me, too. Though that’s not to say there haven’t been times when I’ve experienced that sense of schadenfreude you get when one of your enemies suffers a set back. But only a mild set back. Despite my thesis topic, I’m not really into revenge, just the delicious and occasional fantasy of it.

      Thanks, Jim. I love your responses to my posts. You always take us further afield.

      1. You write about what you want to write, Lis. I was half-joking when I opened my comment; it just seemed a fun way to get going. As for the Mansfield story it was the unnecessary cruelty that got to me which does suggest there is a place for necessary cruelty—you’ve got to be cruel to be kind—but there’s a world of difference between taking a firm hand with a disobedient child—no, you can’t go out to play until you’ve cleared your plate—and torturing to death an innocent fly. I wrote a poem about a fly years ago. You’ll forgive me if I can’t be bothered getting up and finding it—it’s so old the only copy exists on paper—but the gist of it was this: Question: Why did God create the fly? Answer: To teach us a lesson in godship. If you accept the account of Genesis that God gave Adam “dominion over … every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” then, yes, we can do what we like with silverfish and earwigs but just because we can doesn’t mean we’re justified in doing anything we want. I really don’t know much about the animal rights movement but I do get upset when I see photos of animals that’ve been mistreated. If you’re going to kill a fly—they do spread diseases after all—then kill the damn fly and be done with it. I have a fly swatter and I use it and I do my best to make sure that I hit the thing squarely and with such force it never sees it coming.

        Revenge is another matter. Have I considered getting back at someone? Yes. I’m only human. But my desire for revenge tended to lack specificity. My mind skirted about the details. I just wanted to jump to them feeling as bad as they’d made me feel. The chore of hurting them didn’t really interest me. I would’ve been perfectly happy to subcontract the work. (Now I am joking.) “[T]hose who rejoice at the misfortune of others will be punished,” according to Proverbs. Maybe the Creator of the universe won’t be the one to do the punishing but there’s definitely a “what goes around comes around” vibe here. Of course there’s no logic to any of it. Some of the nicest people in the world have lived miserable lives through no fault of their own but I can’t pretend there’s not a side of me who’s a little wary about being cruel in case someone remembers that and payback’s just waiting until I’ve turned my back.

        I just read an article talking about schadenfreude and it made an interesting point about rejoicing in the misfortunes that befall our enemies: WE were not to blame; WE just got to watch. A few years back I learned from my daughter than the man who’s now married to my first wife, the man my daughter called “Daddy” growing up, the man who was partly responsible for the breakup of my marriage had developed some stomach thing—I forget what it is but there’s no cure and it’s horrible and he’ll suffer from it for the rest of his life—and I do remember struggling with my feelings at the time because a part of me DID wish him ill and WAS glad to learn about it; it was a small part and a part of me I’m embarrassed about but I’d be lying if I said I was completely sorry to hear the news. A part of me wanted to beat him up at the time. I didn’t want to kill him but I did want to hurt him. Focusing on that did help at the time but I can tell you here and now had an opportunity arisen I would’ve done nothing. Probably. We’ll never know.

        1. I had my suspicions you were joking about another post on grief, the interminable, Jim, and I share your horrors about cruelty to animals and to people, alongside a sense that sometimes a bit of – let’s call it aggression – is necessary. Thanks again, Jim

  2. I found this emotion-packed and well-crafted. My immediate reaction after reading it was “SUBMIT.”…..perhaps with some editing.

    Especially like the idea of tipping our exhausted, bug-like grief into a wastepaper basket.

  3. I loved this short piece, Elisabeth. It’s very tender, mesmerising almost. Says so much in so few words. I hope you gave full expression to your grief—I’d love to read about that one day.

    1. Thanks, Louise. The thing about grief it comes in waves. I’m doing well at this minute. Most minutes I’m fine, but it’s those in between moments that can fire the feelings, memories and the writing. And then it can look as though the grief might be greater than most of the time it is. Writing has a way of freeze drying moments in time. It can concretise an emotion, when in fact as you of all people know, feelings move around all over the place. and a good thing, too. It’s terrible to get stuck in an emotion that won’t shift.

    1. Thanks, Elizabeth. I still quiver at the thought of that silverfish, and then yesterday, my daughter caught the dog playing with a small gecko, which the cat had dragged in. A poor one armed, one legged gecko used as a play thing. I tried to rescue it but it was dead by the time I returned it to the garden. It’s dog eat dog out there.

  4. As I’m working through the death of a niece who passed away aged 15 from leukaemia at the moment, I can relate to this post. It’s the process of letting it all be – watching your reactions, watching your thoughts and feelings and letting them be. I’m working through this stuff – keeping busy, making things beautiful, giving things a new order. it doesn’t take away the pain, but it give it an outlet. Great post

    1. It’s tragic for someone so young to die, Amanda, no matter what the circumstances. And it certainly puts things into perspective. Your idea of watching your thoughts and feelings and letting them be alongside the business of making beautiful stuff seems to me the right balance of pain and of beauty. After all death is everyone’s lot one day and the fact that some of us go too soon, only makes that reality harder to bear. Thanks, Amanda

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