I know I have called forth many words about how Hawaii is the ultimate paradise, but I feel like I haven’t been entirely honest. You see, there is a dark secret that underlies life on the islands. A hideous beast that lurks in waiting. A terror that you won’t read about in the tourist brochures. Its Latin name is Scolopendra subspinipes. It is commonly known as a Centipede. And before you go saying, “Oh, I’ve seen one of those, they’re not so bad,” stop and ask yourself, have you ever encountered a Giant Pacific Centipede?
Like some creature from an alien planet, they scurry and weave, making eerie clicking noises as their multitude of legs clatter across the floor. I’ve read stories of the Polynesian varieties of these reaching up to two feet long, and being able to kill small animals. Our Lonely Planet Hawaii Guidebook described the bite as “being able to keep a grown man writhing on the floor in agony for hours.” Although the Hawaiian critters rarely reach more than eight inches, they are something to be genuinely feared, or at least to be deeply concerned about.
I must admit that when I came to Hawaii, I already had some apprehension about these little devils, and made a point of asking several people about their experiences with them. Because, hey, what better way to allay one’s fears than validate them. Most people who live in Hawaii will encounter them at some point, and will most likely get bitten. In the year and a half that Theresa had lived on Hawaii previously, she had never seen one, but thought she had received a minor bite. Some say the bite from a small one is no worse than the sting of a bee, but leave it at “You don’t want to get bitten by a large one…”
Getting ready for a beach outing one day, Theresa came up to me with a concerned and knowing look in her eyes. I could tell she had found something intense, and could only guess that I might have to deal with a Centipede. They are lightning fast, and won’t hesitate to chase a person down. They must know that their reputation precedes them.
I was in luck though; this was a dying centipede. He was about 6 ½ inches long, and had little energy left to do anything. I put him in a plastic container to observe him, and to serve as a reminder to be cautious. Only two days before, Cyrus had found a small one under his bed, and now that their presence in our midst had been confirmed, my thoughts started to dwell more and more on them.
Later that week, we were having dinner at Cyrus’s Auntie Eleni and Uncle Ryan’s house, when we noticed that Ryan was limping somewhat. After some coaxing, the story came out that they had been sitting watching a movie when Eleni noticed something crawling on the couch. Ryan rescued the tiny centipede, and took it outside to let it go.
Later that night, while going to the bathroom in the middle of the night, he felt what he described as an ‘ice pick to the foot’ from what was probably a full-sized centipede as it bit him. After a nearly sleepless night, his ankle had swollen up to twice its usual size.
None of this was doing anything to assuage my fear of these creatures, and I was starting to obsess a bit over them. I would make a point of shaking out any clothing, shoes, bedding etc., and began to walk very gingerly in any tall grass.
One evening after we had been sitting outside on the lawn, we came in to sit on the couch. (Well, actually, the floor. We didn’t have a couch in our vacation rental.) We all watched in amazed calm as a small one-inch-long centipede crawled off my leg and onto the floor. I rescued the little guy and took him outside, thanking him for not biting me, certain in the knowledge that all centipedes would now recognize me as a friend of their kind, and would spare me their painful attacks. Through that cathartic process, I felt as though I had come to some agreement with my fear, and that I had maybe been blowing things out of proportion.
Sleeping comfortably that night, I was awakened by a movement on my legs. I opened my eyes in time to see a vague shape flip across my ankle, and I felt something hit my legs. I bolted upright, not sure what I had seen, but the word ‘centipede’ floated across my mind.
Theresa murmured “Whas going on?” in her dreamy reverie. With a little shaking in my voice, I whispered “Get out of bed, quickly.” We both slid out of bed and she shot me a questioning look as I flicked on the light. I still wasn’t sure what had happened, or if I had merely dreamt something and thought it was real.
As our expectation mounted, time played that funny trick where a suspenseful moment can seem to stretch on for an eternity. It was then that the monster revealed itself, a full eight inches of centipede which snaked its way across the floor, legs clicking against the hardwood as it darted under my hat lying in the corner. At this point, Theresa jumped back on the bed, and mutteredy “Oh my goodness!” in a low whisper.
“Yup, that’s what I was afraid of.” I said, still with a slight trembling in my voice, legs week and wobbly. I know my reaction sounds irrational. It’s a bug, not a tiger. One swift blow with a shoe, and my fears would be purple goo. However, I refuse to kill anything on principal, and despite these being the freakiest looking creatures to walk the Earth on 60 legs, I was caught in a dilemma of how best to dispose of this venomous alien creature.
At this point my heart was racing, and a cold fear had come over me. Bear in mind that it was 3:00 in the morning, and my sleepy self was not necessarily functioning at full capacity. It took me a moment to calm myself to the point where I could fetch a bowl from the kitchen. I returned and quickly picked up my hat, and, Indiana Jones style, dropped the bowl over the hideous creature.
Several minutes later, I was calm enough to get a book to slide under the bowl. I had another Indiana Jones moment as I lifted the edge of the bowl enough to slide the book under, being careful not to harm the intimidating insect. Another few minutes later, I felt calm enough to pick my flimsy centi-trap up and take it outside.
As I walked across the lawn to find a good place to let it go, the thought crossed my mind that centipedes may have some sort of distress signal or homing beacon to call other centipedes. I banished the horrific vision of hundreds of angry centipedes bearing down on me, and goose stepping my way up to a Banana tree patch, I put my mini Alcatraz down, and carefully lifted the bowl. As the creature slithered away into the bushes, I thanked him for not biting me, and wished him well.
The thought began to occur to me that perhaps he had been trying to bite me, but that my thick pants had been enough to stop his powerful mandibles. As Theresa later pointed out, my thick pants might have been also responsible for making me warm enough to draw the centipede to me in the first place. 3:30 am is no time to think of deep matters like these, so turned out the lights and went back to bed.
At least, that was the plan. After about twenty minutes of thinking that every little movement, twitch and noise might be a centipede poised for deadly attack, I realized that I had to deal with my fear once and for all. I got up and meditated on the nature of fear, and I came to realize that by putting so much energy into my fear, I had made it become a reality. Without my worries, this may or may not have happened, but worrying about it would not have changed what had or might have been. So much of my energy had been wasted on this, and it made me realize that this extended well beyond the centipede and into every corner of my life. This was powerful medicine.
There is little we can do about so many of the things that may happen to in life, and yet we let our fears of these things control our actions. Worse, by putting energy into these fears, we gave them more of an opportunity to become real by feeding them. Armed with this new insight into the inner workings of the mind, I did a visualization exercise where I pictured a whole herd of centipedes all waving their heads at me as they backed away into their little centipede holes. I thanked them all for being alive, and wished them well in their journeys. But most of all, I thanked them for their valuable lesson. And for not biting me. Yes. For that I was most grateful.