I’m an intern working at the Center for Entomology in Colombia. Like all interns, I do the jobs everyone hates: fetching coffee and tea, delivering mail, janitorial work, etc. The hours are long, the pay is nonexistent, and the people are rude. All that said, though, I’m learning a hell of a lot. I get to work with some species seen nowhere else.
The other night, I was mopping the floors. Since the Center is in the middle of the of the rainforest, quite a bit of mud gets tracked in by the researchers and employees. So, every night, usually well after midnight, I’m the last guy in the place until it’s all cleaned up. One of the final rooms I clean is where Scolopendra gigantea are housed.
I hate that room. Despite my love of insects and bugs and spiders and all manner of other creepy-crawlies, giant centipedes scare the hell out of me. They shouldn’t be so big and aggressive; something about them seems out of place in a rainforest that otherwise appears to have an equilibrium among the species. Maybe I’m just a wimp.
Anyway, giant centipedes are a major point of focus for the Center. Something about their venom potentially having anti-carcinogenic compounds. Because of that, we breed them. The room is pretty big; maybe 50’ by 75’ or something close. All the centipedes are housed in a system of stacked tanks. They’re accessed by opening a drawer, almost like a post office box. There are 10 rows of tables across and 15 going down with 2 containers on each table. Each container has 20 drawers, with every drawer containing one centipede.
Whenever I go in there, I start to itch. It’s the sound that does it: tens of thousands of sharp little legs scratching on the metal surfaces of their enclosures. This time, the room was absolutely filthy. I was annoyed; it’s like these scientists want to make my tasks more difficult. I figured I’d have to get used to it, considering I was trying to get a job working with them.
It was about halfway done with the room when my phone rang. I’d left it on the desk near the front of the room. What I shouldn’t have done was try to leap over the mop and bucket in the middle of the aisle because the floor was still slippery. But, of course, I didn’t know that right then. I jogged and tried to jump. As I planted my foot, it began to slide. Without thinking, I overcorrected badly, flailing my arms and legs to stay upright, and I crashed into one of the tables, landing on my back. The wooden front leg snapped off and the table fell on me, the other front leg buckling as it fell.
I tried to lift the table off my thighs, but there was no way I was getting it off without help. I was thankful it didn’t seem to break any bones when it landed. Then I looked up and realized some of the drawers had slid open with the momentum of the table pitching forward and stopping so suddenly on my legs. “Oh no,” I choked.
The first one to venture out was dark red and maybe 8 inches long. I watched, breathless, as it skittered out of its drawer and hung by its rear two legs. The rest of its body squirmed through space, about 6 inches above my neck. Its pincers were massive compared to the size of its body. I mustered up my courage and slapped it away as hard as I could with my right hand. It sailed nearly 10 feet and hit the ground with a heavy clatter. I turned my head and watched it, hoping it was dead. When it didn’t move for a few seconds, I felt a tiny bit of relief.
It didn’t last. There were six more of them coming out of the drawers. I batted away two, but the other four landed on my neck and chest. The room was filled with the sounds of me shrieking and crying as I tried to get them off me or kill them or whatever came first. Another one landed on my chest. It was the biggest one I’d ever seen; easily 14 inches long and as fat as can of Red Bull. I sobbed as I was forced to grab it in my fist. It bit my hand over and over, causing the worst stinging sensation I’d ever experienced. I tried to throw it away, but its legs dug into my wrist and it went nowhere. It kept biting.
As I felt one crawl under my shirt and bite my chest near my left nipple, I punched the area with the fist containing the huge centipede. The midsection of the big one burst against my shirt, killing the one underneath. Thick, orange slime coated my hand, shirt, and had splattered on my face. Now I was able to throw the remains of the big one away and slap and punch at the others until they, too, were dead.
The whole ordeal lasted maybe a minute and a half. Two minutes, tops. I sobbed on the floor and tried to nurse the bites on my hand, chest, and neck. The pain was exquisite – like the sting of ten hornets. After another five minutes, I was fairly certain that whatever was going to come out of the drawers had already been dealt with. Ten minutes after that, one started to crawl up my leg.
This time, there was nothing I could do. I tried to thrash my legs around as best I could, but they couldn’t move much with the table pinning my thighs. It wandered up and up. It only bit when I squeezed my legs together, hoping it could be crushed between my knees. No luck. Upward it went. Eventually, it found the warm, dark spot it had apparently been looking for. I felt its hard body and pointy legs scratching the underside of my testicles before I passed out.
When I woke up, I was in a bed in the Center’s infirmary. Apparently the venom from the centipedes is more toxic than I even knew; that’s why I’d passed out. My hand and neck are terribly swollen and the welt on my chest is the size of a golf ball. My thighs ache from having the table on them all night. They said I was lucky I didn’t develop compartment syndrome. Lucky.
I happily took the valium they gave me as memories of the night before slowly came back and brought horrible anxiety with them. I stayed in bed for a couple hours, chatting idly with Janet, the pretty med student who was in charge of the infirmary that day.
Janet was horrified by what happened to me. She couldn’t stop telling me how brave I was and that the people who found me were so worried I’d die. I nodded and jokingly asked what they said when they found the one in my pants. She looked puzzled.
“We wanted to get the antivenin in you quick,” Janet told me. “We didn’t take off any of your clothing.” As she spoke, I felt an inquisitive antennae brush the tip of my penis. It took her a full ten seconds to realize why I was screaming.