Dirge on Violins

My roommate keeps two toads in a small terrarium on our kitchen counter. Once a week, he goes to the pet store down the road and buys two dozen crickets to feed to them. Last year he was hospitalized for almost two months, and the task of keeping his toads alive fell to me.

The workers at the pet store gave me the crickets in a clear plastic bag filled with air. It can be difficult to relate to insects, their eyes and their form are so different from our own. There is a lack of mammalian familiarity. Even so, I confess I feel for them. But I feel for the animals that become my own meals as well, yet that has not stopped me from eating meat—too much, if I am being honest.

So I apologized to these two dozen doomed crickets as I used a pair of scissors to cut the knot off the bag. It deflated immediately and I poured the crickets and the small cardboard egg-carton piece they assembled on into the terrarium.

If you have never seen toads feed before, it is a savage spectacle. They hop out from their hiding spots and lash out with their tongues faster than your eye can see. A cricket trying to gain its bearings in its new “home” simply vanishes from sight. One after another, after another, they vanish, their lives snuffed out by amphibious executioners. They won’t all die in that moment, either. The toads satiate themselves and leave the rest to wander the terrarium. It will be another two or three days before they are all gone for good.

I think about this, sometimes.

This week, however, my roommate is here, returned from the hospital for nearly a month. The usual crickets were not available at the pet store. Instead of buying more, smaller ones, he chose to pick up a few large crickets. I came home from work in the evening, and the toads had already eaten their fill for the day.

One thing to know about larger crickets is that unlike the smaller ones, you can hear them chirping. And I hear them. It is called stridulating, and I use that word and try not to think of the crickets as small fiddlers playing their final tunes. There is a certain level of detachment needed to cope with another animal’s feeding habits—or even one’s own. There are plenty of reasons—good reasons, moral reasons, health conscious reasons—to consider giving up eating other animals, but even plants live. We animals, all of us from human to toad, must constantly snuff out life to maintain our own.

Yet, for reasons I don’t immediately grasp, I walk over to the terrarium and see three crickets gathered within a patch of plastic flora, twitching and drawing their legs to make noise. Stridulate. I watch them for a moment, in this glass box where their lives will end, and maybe our eyes meet, neither side quite understanding the other. Then I turn, and decide to write about them.

A little over a month ago I found one in our sink, still alive. My first thought was to put it back in the terrarium, but I couldn’t. This lone cricket had somehow escaped its fate; I wasn’t about to be the cruel hand to strike it down once more. I captured it in a cup and released it outside our apartment, where it likely met an ill end all the same at the hands of the local wildlife. But I had done my part, or so I thought, although it was I who originally sentenced it to its predicament.

The apartment is quiet, now. I think of the bedraggled trio, drawing leg across leg to make their last song. Are they still because they sleep, or because the toads roused from their lethargy and decided to gorge themselves once again? God help me, I’m afraid to look.

It’s all such a mess.

Season’s End: The Harbingers’ Last Stand

The glass lenses on the apothecary’s mask glinted in the sun as they rolled an unconscious Sir Bretonnian onto the litter. They applied a green, foul-smelling paste to the thrower’s bleeding torso.

“He’ll live.” The mask muffled their voice. Znut Mournmaul, Kritt Crowbasher, and Varisk Trollcleaver stood quietly over their fallen teammate.

“At least the heat’s let up,” the apothecary added. “I’ll take care of blondie, here. The rest of you try not to die. New contracts are expensive.” They began dragging the litter and its unconscious passenger back toward the dugout.

Varisk looked back over his shoulder at the line of scrimmage, where some of the Worsca were milling around. Several of them were prodding the yhetee to keep it in check.

“I’m not a betting rat, but I think our chances ain’t good. Three of us, and… well I was never any good at counting, but a lot more of them!”

“Great match so far,” Kritt said, wiping blood off one of his knuckle-dusters.

Znut grunted, his attention focused on the receding Sir Bretonnian. Sweat and blood dripped from his mask.

Varisk shook his head at the two Stormvermin. “You both have issues.”

The three Harbingers lined up, assembled against the full strength of the Worsca of Norsca. Varisk stared up at the tower of white fur and claws that was the yhetee and said a silent prayer to the Horned Rat. Just then, one of the goblin referees approached.

“Overtime’s done, players!” the goblin said. “Since the score’s tied at two to two, it’ll be down to a coinflip!” This didn’t draw happy looks from the humans across the line.

“Hell Pit Harbingers, since you have the fewest players remaining, the call will be yours!” The goblin waited for a moment and then tossed a brass coin into the air. It spun several feet above their heads.

Znut grabbed the referee’s arm and twisted hard. There was the sound of snapping bone, and a scream. Varisk’s eyes widened, but Kritt was already shouting at the Worsca. “Kick it, you bastards!”

The ball flew through the air, as the referee went to one knee, his coin falling forgotten on the pitch. “Double overtime!” he choked out.

Varisk shook his head, dodging the yhetee’s claws just in time as the ball landed somewhere behind him. He never thought he would miss Sir Bretonnian quite as much as he did now.