As I immersed myself in books about the island’s past, I started seeing the small events of my life as stages in a larger military campaign. Living in Malta was giving me a siege mentality. My conflicts were fought, not with Turks, but with the Genus insect.
Where other places have seasons of weather, Malta had seasons of insects: enormous springtime slugs like watery snot; brittle black millipedes that curled in rings high on a wall; giant cockroaches drawn into the open by the summer heat; and crumb-devouring columns of ants.
I loathed them all with equal fervour, but I harboured a genocidal antipathy towards Tiger mosquitos. Enormous and visibly striped, they had a nose like a bayonet which administered misery in great itching stabs.
Every old Maltese house was built with a rock cut cistern. Ours occupied the entire space beneath the courtyard, with drains in every corner to collect winter rainwater from the roofs.
I couldn’t figure out why mosquitos plagued us in winter as well as summer until I lifted the stone boards and shone a flashlight down that well. The entire space between water level and arched ceiling was filled with them: minute, numberless, man-eating, inexorable.
Immediate action was called for. A quick search of the storage rooms off the courtyard turned up an old metal rod that used to be a carpet runner, and a ball of string. I wrapped the string around the centre of the rod, tied the end to a lit mosquito coil, and lowered the smouldering ring into darkness. And then I stood outside with a can of Raid in each hand and slaughtered the bastards as they tried to escape.
I did succeed in reducing their numbers, at least for a while, but they always bred reinforcements and bounced back.
My next attack struck at the source: their filthy, squiggling larvae. I visited a garden shop in search of water-soluble poison, but they sent me to a farm supply store in Zebbug instead.
“Le le le… Don’t use poison,” the clerk said. “You’ll ruin the water in the cistern.” He pointed at a large brown sack. “That has a microscopic organism that eats mosquito larvae. It’s organic.”
“Will it really work? I want to kill everything.”
“Yes yes yes. Awwwl-right?”
He sold me two 50-pound bags. I took them home, cut them open and dumped them into the cistern, coating myself and the entire courtyard in agricultural dust. It did nothing to slow their vicious attacks.
The war raged for months, with small victories on either side and a lot of furious itching, but we seemed to have reached a stalemate. And then one night I had an Archimedes moment.
I didn’t actually yell, “Eureka!” It was probably more like, “Fuck!” But both the cat and Tomoko jumped from their chairs, and two books fell to the floor.
“The problem is the opening.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’ve been bogged down in the trenches of 1917, fighting a pointless war of eradication. What I need is a Cold War strategy of containment.”
The opening in the corner that led to the well would be my Thermopylae. I set down my book and switched off the light.
The next day I went to the village ironmonger’s and bought a roll of fine plastic window screen, cut a piece to fit the opening, and glued it down with a thick layer of caulking. Their only point of entry into our world was now closed.
I would go back to that corner from time to time to lift the boards and inspect my defences. There was always an enormous swarm of mosquitos clinging to the underside, filling the space below with an angry whine, but the barrier remained intact even in the heaviest rain.
I would flick the screen a few times, like the North Koreans firing shots across the DMZ, simply to torment them in their impotent rage, stirring them up with the scent of my blood, and every once in a while I emptied a can of Raid through the mesh out of sheer cruelty and a thirst for revenge.
I had won a decisive victory. We were never menaced by them again.