Art Pact 218 - Ticks
There was no doubt that the house was full of ticks - that it was, in fact, a house owned and run by one big tick, for the benefit of smaller ticks. The inhabitants were packed in so close that I doubted there would be room even for the tiniest of additional occupants, yet whenever I thought that, one more unfortunate would arrive at the door and be ushered grimly inside, assigned to a bed - or, if they were unlucky and arrived late, to the floor. In this manner the building was packed even more tightly with the poor workers from the dump, until it resembled most closely an eighteenth-century slave ship. The heat from so many people in such close confines was tremendous, so that even with the winter cold outside and the drafts from cracks and ill-fitting window panes, one could hardly breath for the closeness of the air. As you might imagine, with so many people breathing in and out the air quickly became stale with carbon dioxide and the smell of the unwashed mouths of the workers.
It was not clear to me whether it was preferable to be in a bed or on the floor. The floor, uncarpeted and rough with splinters, was of course physically less comfortable in the absence of other factors. But with so many people lodging in the building, each bed was filled way beyond its capacity, so that in a bed made for one person you might find three, topped-and-tailed, and in the building's one double bed I saw at one time five people. The cover for that bed was thinner than the mattress, which meant that the two outside sleepers slept uncovered, but since it was foolish to take off one's clothes for sleep anyway and the building fairly steamed with the mass of bodies within it, there was no real need for a cover anyway. The floor, by contrast, was at least large enough that one could stretch out - by canny manoeuvring one might even get one's legs beneath a bed. This was not possible with all the beds, since some were simple pallet beds laid directly on the floor, but there were enough beds that were built from actual frames where this luxury was available.
What the bed- and floor-bound sleepers had in miserable common, though, were the biting insects that were the true rulers of the house. While we were packed in like sardines, living and sleeping in such considerable discomfort that had it not been the depth of winter outside vagrancy would have been preferable, they enjoyed all of the luxuries that we could not, by virtue of their degenerate evolution and miniscule size. They could stretch out their legs as much as they liked, they could find plenty of space in which to promenade, they could sit still and reach as far as they might without bumping into one of their fellows. And of course, they were as well-provided with food as we were starved of it.
Every man and woman among us was bitten dozens of times a night. (There were a few women, who for the sake of propriety were all bedded together in one corner of the upper room, separated from the men by a series of sheets pinned to the ceiling with carpet tacks. Every night at least one of the tacks would fall out of the ceiling plaster, sometimes more than one, so that the sheets sagged madly at the top). It was common to wake up to find one of the foul beasts sitting on one's arm, bloated fat with blood it had taken in the night. Then they had to be removed carefully, teased out so that the fragile mouthpieces would not break off under the skin. The process was at the beginning painful and distressing, even worse if the tick had chosen a less public place to being its feast. It was amazing, then, how quickly one came to find the whole process not horrid but merely tedious and annoying. By the time I had been living there for nine or ten days I was so used to the frightful chore that I often found myself doing it while still only half awake, only realising what I was about when I found myself looking at one or two crushed corpses in the palm of my hand, my fingers stained with a dark juice that must mainly have been my own blood.
The death toll among these arachnid tenants must have been horrific if quoted in actual numbers, but in terms of the percentage of their population it was trivial - certainly lower than the turnover amongst the human occupants, since we lost two people during the first month I was there. First, one of the men simply died in the night (causing a certain amount of panic about contagion, since he had been coughing mightily ever since he had been there, I was told). He lay in bed until the late morning, when one of the other occupants of the same bed complained that he could not wake the unfortunate to get him to move over. He was carried out by me and three of the other irregular tenants. We took him straight to the doctor, who advised us that if there were any suspicion of sickness the body should be burnt directly, and we should present ourselves back at his surgery for a sterile scrub - itself a terrible ordeal involving stripping down and being sluiced with cold water before being swabbed with some noxious chemical that I had a suspicion was related to sheep dip. We reaped an unforeseen crop of good karma, though, as for a few nights after the scrubbing we were unaffected by the ticks, who apparently did not like the taste nor smell of the residues.
The second of us to die could have benefited from that, if only someone had taken the time to examine her. It was one of the women - at twenty-eight more susceptible to the endemic tick-induced anaemia than the men - who began to fade, and finally one day collapsed at the bottom of the stairs and could not be roused.