Read the short story. And then, watch the short film.
A Biology professor encounters a cockroach on his chalkboard, struggling to get rid of it. Instead, he begins to communicate with the bug. He names the bug Cuca – short for Cucaracha in Spanish. The close alliance seems to improve until someone makes a terrible mistake.
I can still remember the moment I became a pacifist, an animal lover, and a defender of animal rights. From that moment on, I also turned into a better person.
Armed with a flyswatter, playing in the backyard, I squashed a butterfly with it. My big brother witnessed the act, became upset, and gave me a lecture I would never forget.
“That butterfly probably had a family to feed. Everybody loves butterflies. They’re harmless, beautiful creatures. The way they fly and the way they move bring happiness to everyone. All living creatures have a right to live. Even if it’s a cockroach, mosquito, or bee, you should respect their lives as much as possible. Only if an animal attacks you should you defend yourself. And only then, you have a valid excuse to kill an animal.”
My big brother was twelve years old, and I was seven. It remained in my mind forever. It affected me for the rest of my life. Since I received that lecture, I have never knowingly hurt any living animals. I didn’t like violence. I was never involved in a fight in my whole life. I was patient, and I reasoned with measured actions.
That lecture sure had an impact on me. I became a teacher, studied biology and zoology, and became an entomologist. I had many books on animal behavior. And I loved pets and all animals that crossed my path, even after my big brother got killed by a bear on a camping trip in Yosemite National Park.
When I was in sixth grade, it took me a week before I could decide to dissect a frog, I loved science class, but whenever they had to experiment with tiny insects, I couldn’t do it. Only when I went to college I began to overcome that phobia. Visits to the Zoo became more enjoyable the more I learned about animals. I supported PETA and regularly volunteered my time at the local animal shelter.
The first time I saw that cockroach on the blackboard was the first time I’d seen a roach in my house. My reaction wasn’t normal, like calling the exterminating company or running to the store to get a can of Raid or Combat. But I wasn’t too happy about it either. I knew how they propagate if you don’t take the proper steps. My house was clean and organized. I barely cooked at home. The kitchen was impeccably clean most of the time. I lived alone and hardly dated anyone. I was introverted and loved my solitude. I left the bug alone.
In the following weeks, I saw the cockroach a few more times, always on the blackboard. I hoped it was the same one, and the only one. I struggled to decide if I should get rid of it. I thought that if I saw more than one at the same time, I would take action. Not directly myself, but I would call an exterminating company and leave the house for a week.
My blackboard was always full of notes and writings. Every week, I would scribble all the highlights about the next test I’d give to my students. After a few weeks, I noticed that the roach was always at the center of a letter. Having all the time in the world, I decided to check what its favorite letters were.
The first two letters I noticed were h and i. I smiled and said “hi” in return.
The next day, the letters the roach ‘stepped on’ caused the biggest shock in my life, ‘f o o d’. After the surprise faded, I thought it was a coincidence until the next day when the cockroach stepped on the same four letters.
I thought it was so absurd. I needed more proof, much more.
Baffled and still in shock, I put some bread crumbs on the board next to the chalk holder.
All rationality and common sense disappeared after those ‘conversations’ with the cockroach. Curious but still doubtful, I erased all writings on the blackboard and left them clean for a few days.
The cockroach disappeared for the same period.
I knew cockroaches could survive a nuclear war or live without food for about thirty days and water for about a week. I assumed that my house, being so clean, my little friend would starve to death or move out of the house. Both outcomes would have caused great misery in my heart. And, of course, my heart wouldn’t allow the poor bug to die.
I couldn’t bear that guilt, and after a few days, I wrote on the board again. And right away, my little friend showed up, and we resumed our ‘correspondence.’
“Food,” wrote the hungry insect again in a few seconds.
With my eyes and mouth wide open, I ran to the kitchen to get bread crumbs.
After that, I stopped all experiments, and during dinner time, I gladly shared my food with “Cuca,” which was the name I gave to my new friend, which was short for ‘Cucaracha’ or cockroach in Spanish.
I knew cockroaches preferred dark places, so I closed all curtains and blinds in the morning. I started to give small chunks of food to my friend. And I also began to write a journal.
I had never been so happy.
One day, Cuca spelled “ugly” on the board.
“Me?” I asked.
“Yes,” Cuca replied.
Of course, I agreed. Obviously, every animal species thought the rest of the species were ugly. What could a gorilla think about a hyena? Or a chicken about a snake or a peacock about a crocodile? But it was a little different for humans. Many animals were beautiful to humans, like doves, eagles, Blue Jays, deer, and even elephants and whales. And, of course, butterflies too.
“What about pain?” I asked.
“?” Cuca answered.
“Can you feel pain?” I asked again.
“?” replied Cuca.
Okay. Cuca has never felt pain, I concluded. How fortunate.
Then, I had an idea. I went to get my magnifying glass. I thought about meeting Cuca up close and personal. When I returned, I opened the window to let some light in. It was a little after noontime. The sun shone on the board. It was perfectly bright to meet Cuca for the first time, face to face. When I put the magnifying glass near Cuca, smoke emerged from one of its wings. Cuca vanished in a fraction of a second.
“Ah!” I screamed and threw the magnifying glass to the floor.
“Oh no, what did I do?”
Cuca didn’t come back for an entire week. And when it did, it spelled “Pain.”
When I approached the board, Cuca reluctantly stayed. I brought some food, enough for an entire colony. I wished Cuca could get all its family and friends; I didn’t care if they caused the worse infestation ever. I was that sad. It took another week before all things went back to normal.
Cuca healed nicely. It only left a small black mark on its wing.
One afternoon, when I returned from school, I met the cleaning lady as she was exiting my house.
“Good afternoon, professor,” she greeted me. “I must tell you something; I killed a cockroach on your blackboard. You must call the exterminating company before an infestation invades your house.”
*Just because a subject is serious doesn’t mean it doesn’t have plenty of absurdities.
-P. J. O’Rourke
Lancaster, Ca. Nov-25-2016