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.

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