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The Prophet of the Road

June 28, 1992|WILLIAM T. VOLLMAN | "I write my stories quickly," says William T. Vollmann, "but 'Prophet' was in my head for years. Pretty much everything in it is true: I saw the woman in Canada. I wrote that, but it seemed flat. Then I started wondering what the prophet character would have done." Vollmann's previous works, such as "You Bright and Risen Angels" and "The Rainbow Stories," have earned him comparisons with Thomas Pynchon. In July, Viking will publish "Fathers and Crows," one installment in a fictional series on early North American history. The same month, Farrar, Straus & Giroux will publish his nonfiction account of the Afghan war. Vollmann, 32, was born in Santa Monica and now lives in Sacramento.

PITY THE POOR BIOLOGISTwho had to prove (I never found why) that caribou in the Canadian barrenlands lose a pint of blood a week to the mosquitoes. Of course caribou have more blood to spare than we; perhaps it is not as bad as it sounds, to pay a pint a week for the privilege of living. I remember summer days in Alaska when I could hardly see the backs of my hands because they were so thick with mosquitoes. And a bush pilot told me how he once overflew a man on a hilltop who seemed to be signaling him with long black streamers; these too were mosquitoes in their thousands, using the man for a windbreak while they attacked him, rising and falling in eerie concordance with his frantic arms, veiling his face with whining hungry blackness. It is usually difficult to apprehend the concept of an ocean by analogy with a single drop of water, but in the case of these unpleasant creatures, one will fall upon you with sufficient vampirish alacrity to represent the whole swarm, unlike a dewdrop that lies so docile in the palm as to seem altogether alien to reef-tides and shipwrecks. The dewdrop is at rest anywhere. The mosquito seems fulfilled only when installed upon your skin, its six knees drawn tightly up above its wings, the forelegs stretched partly out like a basking dog's, antennae alertly cocked, head down, proboscis stabbed into you to drink a little more of your life. Even in this state of fulfillment the creature appears tense. It is ready to withdraw from the wound at any time (although as it swells up with blood it becomes less able to do so quickly); it gains, in short, a furtive and half-disengaged orgasm, which is all that natural law permits when a pygmy rapes a giant. The spectrum of feeling between lust and fear and satiation in mosquitoes must be very narrow. When they crouch restlessly on leaves or ceilings they do not seem so different from when they are feeding. This family Culicidae is a family of machines. Delicately tooled with bands and scales, equipped with near-infallible sensors to locate their victims, they've been adjusted by their maker to the behavior best suited to carry out their mission in a given place. In the tropics they are silently multitudinous. Knowing that if one doesn't get you another one will, they launch themselves directly, though by all means taking advantage of leaf-shade and darkness. Temperate latitudes do not hold so very many of them. As a result, they are cunning and wary. On a black sticky night, a single mosquito in a room may succeed in biting you half a dozen times. When you finally turn on the light to search for it, you cannot find it. Farther north, and again they have less need for these subtleties. Kill one or 10, it makes no matter. A hundred more will come. Proof that the manufacturer is not concerned about the potential loss of a few automata is given by the noise they so often emit, which not only alerts the victim, but also annoys, as anyone who's endured the quavering whining of a mosquito lodged inside the ear would agree. This provocation, combined with the itching, would require a Brahmin's self-control not to avenge. Anyhow, kill them, shoo them away, or let them bite, it makes very little difference. They will win out. I remember how grateful I was when the days were cold enough to keep them sluggish, and even when they swarmed everything was so beautiful with flowers and red sphagnum moss that they didn't matter until I began to get tired; parting the river brambles and river trees I forded braids of rivers without minding the mosquitoes on my face, and then I climbed the tussock-hills to where the tundra was very thin, like the greening on a pool table, and had a nice view of rivers and snowdrifts, always the sound of a river to remind me that mosquito songs were not all there was, and sometimes a bird sang, too. If I was lucky there might be a breeze to scatter the mosquitoes, and I could eat my lunch very quickly. But I'd often stop early on those days, not having been able to rest enough. (Doubtless if I'd been born there they would have affected me less.) Pitching my tent was unpleasant, because the time it took was more than sufficient for my guests to thicken about me and I could not fight them all off since that required constant use of both hands and I must use at least one to work. If I slapped a tickle on my cheek, I'd kill a dozen bloated mosquitoes, my palm wetted with my blood. I did have repellent, but it didn't stay on long, because the thick clothes that the mosqui toes compelled me to wear made me sweat. So by evening, when I was exhausted, I'd squeeze a few more drops of that bitterly toxic elixir onto my skin before I shook the tent poles out of their stuff sack, but I'd always miss a few places: maybe my ankles that time (secure, I'd thought, behind the armor of my pants cuff), or the inviting slice of flesh at the back of my neck, just behind my collar. I'd scarcely have one pole assembled before being seized by that maddening itching, which I was already tensed to expect, and as I forgot everything but slapping, the pole would fall apart again, and I'd have to laugh, since swearing wouldn't have helped. At least I did have thick clothes on and could get the tent up in due time, then crawl inside and zip the door shut behind me, kill the 20 or 30 mosquitoes who'd ventured in (they were not good at hiding), rub some cold canteen water over my burning lumps, scratch my swollen face and hands, and relax upon the top of my sleeping bag, listening to mosquitoes pelt against the fly of the tent like rain. The next day, more mosquitoes. Four miles up Inukpasugruk Creek was a waterfall climb. Surges of water made me uneasy. I didn't know whether it was runoff from rain over the ridge, or whether a glacier finger waited for me. The mosquitoes weren't too bad. They only bit my eyelids, earlobes, cheeks, knees, buttocks, wrists, hands and ankles a few times. The worst thing, as I said, was that singing whine. It was not enough that they bit; they must also make that noise, louder as they got closer, always teasing, uneven so that I could never get used to it; and one note became a chord as more of them came singing around until I could think of nothing but where they would land next. I'd sweep the air and my arms would meet mosquitoes; I'd make a sudden fist anywhere and mosquitoes would be caught inside. -- Of course it was a failure on my part to be so disturbed by them. There's a scene in Tolstoy (in "The Cossacks," I think) when mosquito bites suddenly become glowing lovebites and the sportsman strides happily through the forest of his own self-reliance. -- And what about the Inuit, who'd lived with mosquitoes for perhaps 20 centuries without repellent? An old lady from Pond Inlet once told me that she could remember living in a sod house. The mosquitoes had been very bad, but her family fanned themselves with feathers. They'd done that every summer for all their lives until the whalers came, and it was something that they just did and accepted because they had to.

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