When They Spoke
When cockroaches started speaking, most people thought that they were imagining things. Someone would encounter a quiet conversation between roaches in front of the refrigerator. Or would hear one talking to itself in the back of a drawer. Or would even happen upon a roach perched on a baby crib, squeaking out a lullaby. And that someone would shake their head, chuckle, and continue with their day.
Yet only a few days after this had begun, enough encounters had been documented to convince people that roaches could now speak. Children began chasing them and packing them into jars, while scientists ran them through a battery of tests. Talk shows sparked controversy on the phenomenon. “Isn’t it interesting that these insects—which are the most likely of all living creatures to survive a nuclear holocaust—have now developed the ability to speak?” mused one expert. Incredulity turned to curiosity—and suspicion. But the roaches never spoke under duress, whether at the hands of an interrogator, scientist, or little boy; in fact, they never conversed directly with people at all.
Until the fire. The fire started in a subway tunnel—some said that the cockroaches themselves started it, while others believed that failing electrical wires were at fault. No one could deny, however, that it was the cockroaches that saved hundreds of people from potential disaster. Even before the alarms could alert subway personnel, even before the thick black smoke began pouring into the tunnels, swarms of cockroaches had collected onto the two neighboring subway platforms and had begun warning the waiting passengers. Voices normally disappear quickly into a subway’s cavernous spaces, but when the cockroaches spoke, in unison, their voices simply became louder and clearer. All of the people under- ground escaped safely—although thirty-eight roaches died in the rescue.
After the fire, suspicion changed to approval and gratitude. But it was unclear where to direct these feelings, because the cockroaches had suddenly disappeared. People, ready with praise, searched the dark corners of their apartments. And when they found no cockroaches to coax out into their homes, they became unsettled and then increasingly disconsolate. Questions quietly plagued them. What had they in fact experienced? What had it all meant? What had they been given, and why had it been taken away?
And in a desperate attempt to regain it—whatever “it” was—people began treating with reverence any other insect they could find. Spiders, ants, centipedes. People took down sticky fly traps, swept away boric acid, left cobwebs where they were found. Crumbs were summarily left out on counter tops. Yet the attachment people formed with insects seemed lost on the insects themselves. Moreover, these insects, no matter how ardently venerated, no matter how dotingly cherished, never spoke a word, and never saved a life, so far as anyone could tell. They simply continued doing what they had been doing: searching for food, creating nests, and dying rather ignominiously on kitchen floors, in bathtub drains, and in the crevices of window sills.
Soo Jin Lee (Fiction Editor): In “When They Spoke,” Katherine Romba asks big questions—Do we humans only recognize kindness, the intelligence of others, if it’s on our own terms? What are the limits and potential of our empathy?—in pleasingly clean and precise prose. I was so taken with the clarity of this story, the deftness of its telling and construction, the feat of packing its rich tale in such a small space.
This piece appeared in Indiana Review 33.1 in Summer 2011.
Katherine Romba teaches art history at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. She has written a collection of very short stories called The Magistrate’s Glass Figures and Other Tales, illustrated by Heather Smith, and published by Puddles of Sky Press.