It’s sort of a meditative process of looking through this microforest of follicles and hairs and looking for just the right potential movement or shape. – Dr. Michelle Trautwein
It’s near midnight on a Friday and a mosquito banks in a wide orbit around me. Such quiet determination. Such patience. It’s not unlike the patience exhibited by the microscopic world as it waits each day for us to sink into the pillows and wander into the hours of dream.
If we could look closely enough at our own skin, and if we magnified that landscape so that the fine downy hairs of the body, known as vellus hair, might rise into view like the trunks of saplings, and if we were to walk in that strange grove of leafless trees and then peer down into the pores which hold each knotted root as it forms below, where the well of the follicle is coated in oil secreted by a sebaceous gland—we’d discover the home of Demodex folliculorum and Demodex brevis. Mites. These are microscopic animals, whole communities of them, and they have dwelled in human skin likely since our earliest ancestors looked up in wonder at the stars. With claw-tipped legs and fusiform bodies, they are arachnids, cousin to the spider, and their lives span the duration of about two weeks. Some estimates suggest we harbor hundreds of thousands of these animals within the largest organ of our bodies—our skin. Think: eyelashes, the tiny follicles and pores within the forehead, nose, cheeks.
By day, they clamp onto the hair follicle and it’s thought they feed from the oils there. It’s possible they might also feed on the ragged waste of dead skin cells. Some suggest that they insert a retractable needle from their mouth organ and then nourish themselves by draining the fluids from within dead cells. They face downward as they feed, as if staring into the burrow they live in, while others work their way into the deepest structures of the pore, except when laying their eggs just outside of the burrow.
As we speak, our diaphragms compress in order to funnel air out of the lungs and through the tracheal tube so that it might be modulated within the larynx. The things we say to one another and to ourselves resonate through the bones of our skulls. Soundwaves travel throughout our bodies, and that language also travels through the fluid cellular structures of our skin in a muted version of the original. Where the mites live. There in the cross-hatched shadows where strands of hair curl over in a gentle matting of keratin and oil.
By night, the Demodex mites living in our faces emerge from their dens in search of others to mate with. They travel at about 16 millimeters per hour, or a little over half an inch. And I wonder if they recognize something in the rise and fall of their terrain as I whisper to you in the dark, or when we made love in the hours before dawn. I imagine them pausing in their own lovemaking then, or as they traveled from one burrow to another. Under a canopy of fine, tangling hair, they tilt their heads back to take in the darkness, which is sweet and washed in pheromones, to consider how strange the world is, how mysterious, how fortunate they are to live in this forest of lovers, where the voices of the gods sometimes call out across the sky, and the thunder of it rolls through the living flesh of the world they know as their one and only home.
A plume of carbon dioxide rises in our bedroom at 3 a.m. The mosquito banks in a slow spiraling turn as if following a thunderhead down to its source, the vapor in the air exhausted of its lightning, filled only with the warm signature of the sleeping body below.
On most nights the room is hushed in contemplation, in the journey of the body through time. Quiet as a temple, or a cave, or a tomb. But tonight, small speakers play a composition from Dvořák, in F major, the strings in lento figurations of swelling waves that rise and fall as this sleeping body in the sheets is transported to the wide rolling plains of Iowa and beyond. It is a vision of flight, with arms stretched wide and easy, hair blown back in the breeze, the waves of grain below a sunlit echo of the ocean, which rolls in from as far as the wheat fields of Montana.
This is the landscape the mosquito navigates in the dark, landing softly, at only 2.5 milligrams in weight. It touches down in the smooth hollow just below the medial malleolus, the rounded bone of the inner ankle at the tibia’s base. And with knowledge handed down through the generations, from as far back as the Cretaceous period, 100 million years ago, the mosquito leans down to retract the sheath of its labium so that six slender needles might begin their work. Two of those needles, notched with fine sets of teeth, must first cleave and saw through the skin while two more needles hold the serrated flesh open—so that the mosquito might delve beneath the skin for capillaries to puncture and draw blood from, its abdomen then filling while the last needle injects an enzyme-rich saliva that acts as a blood thinner and a protein-based numbing agent.
But there’s so much more to this moment.
The dreamer glides over the rolling fields of summer. Soundwaves resonate from within the purfling embellishments of the viola, an instrument crafted by Andrea Amati in the year 1568, then handed down through the centuries so that these notes might blend within its body. And there is the delicate body of the mosquito poised over its sleeping host, large and magnificent as a god in slumber. A god that offers the blood of its dreaming hours so that the mosquito might propagate its species. The blood itself hums with sunlight, with memory, with a day in history when two lovers crossed the country, with wind pouring in through the windows as they drove into an afternoon of music, their lives together only just beginning, while the old South sank in the rearview mirror and the Rockies were rimed with dusk. And this journey over the plains is what the mosquito draws into itself, as much from the deep pool of a life as it can hold, returning as often as it can within the short life remaining in its winged frame, night after night, if not for the tiny flyers this blood nurtures within the body of the mosquito, then for the taste of the blood itself, that combination of sunlight and melancholy, so elemental and sublime, deepened with the oxygen and the sugars of a life, a remembered life, that which echoes in the bodies of gods when they lay themselves down to dream.