As a linguist I have a love for words descriptive and versatile. Bicho ranks right up there with fuck in its versatility. Insert it wherever words fail you: pega isse bicho lá para mim? (grab that whatzit over there for me?) and with a certain air of the expletive: bicho está trabado! (damn thing is stuck!). And then there’s the offical translation: critters. We have bichos of all sorts: armadillo bichos, bichos do mato (I’ve never seen one–I can gather based upon its description it’s like a lynx), amphibian bichos, and of course, bugs, all kinds of buggy bichos and creepy-crawly critters. In addition to having a variety of things that get stuck or tools with names momentarily forgotten our pantheon of creepy-crawlies means that bicho gets used a lot on the farm.
There are the ants. The fire ants–tiny, red, and nearly invisible–punish you with itchy welts if you are so foolish as to stand too close to their nest. The swarming black house ants. What brings them is a mystery, and once there they are impossible to get rid of. Smash one, and ten arrive to mourn its departure and carry away its remains. The tiny red sugar ants. Mercilously persistent, they penetrate plastic bags and almost all forms of tupperware to feed on anything sweet. Your morning coffee usually has one or two mixed in with the sugar, and if you can’t handle that you probably shouldn’t live on a farm. Really, this is not a place for people with control issues. There are the large termites that swarm after the spring rains. Cumbersome and ungainly, they fly for the first few weeks of existence until they grow too large and their wings fall off, grounding them for the rest of their lives. Locals snap off their rears, roast and grind them to make a protein-filled flour. I tried it (honestly, I come from a land where people eat sea insects as a delicacy–is it my place to criticize?), and it’s yummy and nutty and rich in a I’m-so-filled-with-vitamins-you’re-not-going-to-be-able-to-eat-more-than-three-spoonfuls-of-me sort of way.
There are the flies. Blackfies, swarming in droves, tiny, anatomical marvels that seem to have more teeth than body. Sneaking in the windows and driving me to the edge of sanity in the morning as I try to just sit still for 10 minutes and drink my coffee. Somehow they don’t seem to bother the other adults here. Just me and little Anésio (age 2), we get eaten alive, smattered with pink bites that in a strange sort of astrological tattoo. Incidentally, bichois one of the first words Anésio learned. Is it any wonder? There are the houseflies that swarm in at the slightest hint of sweetness. Our cousins who work in making cheese have swarms of them wherever a drop of milk was spilled (and for this reason I rapidly nix any discussion of cheese production at our humble milk farm). There are the big flying beetles, harmless and clumsy, careening like drunken cattle given wings. Lao likes these as an evening snack.
There are the man-eaters. (WARNING: STOP HERE if you are grossed out easily and jump down to the next paragraph) Foremost is is berne, a nasty, nasty, bicho that lays its eggs on brush and plants and its larvae literally crawl under your skin where they will grow and feed on you. The cows and dogs develop berne welts that require either treatment to kill the larvae or squeezing the infected area to push out the pest. They hate it; I imagine it’s like squeezing a painful pimple multiplied by one hundred, and yet our hearts break and our skin crawls to see them untreated. We work in teams to pin down the dogs (who romp through the brush and are the most likely to get infected) to clear their skin. Tigrão will wait to gobble up the expelled larvae–his own or from the other dogs, which places him as the unchallenged champion of the Grosser-Than-Gross Games. There’s also the foot-munching bichos that live in the dirt near the pig-pen. Walk near there in anything but closed shoes and you’ll inevitably get one of these in the sole of your foot or the tip of your toe. Like benre, they infest under your skin causing a wart-like welt until you remove them. We all maneuver sewing needles and alcohol like surgeons. And finally there are the tics. Let’s pause here to admire the Portuguese word: garrapatas. That means “leg grabbers”, which they do in droves, sneaking up pant legs and into shirts no matter how tightly we bind them. Thankfully there’s no Lyme Disease epidemic here like in my home state, but these guys’ bites still itch like the dickens and by day two or three of the bits I usually resort to my prescription-strength steroidal cream intended for my skin allergies just.to.make.the.itching.stop.
There are the stingers. Mosquitos, large and small. The large mosquitos come in hoards in the rainy season, causing you to barricade yourself in your home, windows sealed, sheets tightly tucked over your head all night until they go away. In the morning the sheets are blood stained by the carnage of battle, spots where they got you and you got them. The small ones work alone, light and agile, buzzing in your ear in the middle of the night and then zipping away to safety as soon as you swat. What ensues is a battle of Lilliputian proportions, and usually I finally resort to swatting at my invisible attackers with a speed and strength sufficient to wake my partner and potentially rupture an eardrum. But the little bicho is dead, and I can go back to sleep–that’s really what matters.–bees and wasps. Tiny black paper wasps that persistently set up shop under every eave. When we moved in they had made a home around the power transformer into the house. We spray and burn and knock them down and they move back to somewhere else. There are the bees that make delicious honey, but perversely like to choose the worst quarters–around the transformer that we cleared of the wasps, in the outdoor oven, or right over our back door. The ground wasps that occasionally get struck by someone clearing land and leave the poor offending soul swollen for days. The Maria Bola wasps that create mud tubes for their eggs. Harmless and huge, I feel slightly guilty each time I knock one off a windowsill or door jam only to see momma Maria Bola buzzing about 10 minutes later wondering what holocaust had demolished her home.
There are the hoppers. At first it was the big green or big brown grasshoppers. They’re good luck in Brazil, so we either leave them alone or gently usher them outdoors. There’s the tree frog that decided he liked our bathroom and bedroom area. Toss him out the window, and he’d come “plop”-ing right back in as soon as you turned your back. While not an insect, he frequented our quarters enough that he earned the “bicho” term–isse bicho entrou de novo! (dang critter got in again!). The cute little black crickets showed up a month ago. With long antennae and spindly long legs, the poor bastards resemble spiders at first glance. I’ve instinctively swung more than one sandal in their direction before realizing the error of my ways. Lucky for them, they’re quick and usually outrun me. This brings me to the last category of bicho.
Last but definitely not least of my worries are the arachnids. Spiders of all shapes and sizes. Daddy Long-Legs and little tiny spiders with wispy webs. Light green spiders, almost translucent in direct light. Crawly ones the size of quarters that seem to like to come out right before I turn off the lights to go to sleep (which, unfortunately for them, combined with their size merits a death sentence). Huge spiders the size of a child’s hand that thankfully seem to just like to make webs in the woods. I used to be extremely phobic about spiders; familiarity has desensitized me. The other thing that has desensitized me to spiders is their cousins: the scorpions. My phobia has moved to these nocturnal nasties. One sting will leave an adult in extreme pain, and can be deadly to small children. I stepped over one, stark naked and on my way into the shower. Three of the longest minutes of my life were marked by me staring at it and it staring at me–a cold war, each waiting for the other to escalate. Lovers of dark corners, the back of closets, and all types of nooks and crannies, bedtime in scorpion season includes a full inspection of the room, around the bed, up the walls, and under the sheets. I found five of them hiding in a pile of construction refuse, which taught me that I’m much braver when armed with a large shovel. After reading taught me that they glow under UV light, for months I schemed to place black-light nightlights throughout the house. Yeup, that’s me, armed with my Brazilian black light flashlight, because in there ARE monsters hiding under the bed.