Of Gnats and Longing
“It is almost impossible to follow the flight of any one individual gnat...”
If you’ve seen delicate black insects, in March maybe, dancing around sink drains and windows, it’s likely they are gnats. Bodies like flicks of pencil lead, transparent sloop wings they hoist to catch the hurried air and then tuck away on their backs like muslin: gnats aren’t invisible, but they always seem half-imagined. They’re the size of things too small to consider, a crumb carried by an ant, a freckle on a pinky toe, a mote of dust swirling in a beam of sunlight. Still, I’ve been conscious of them for some time. At first, though, I merely sensed a new presence. A haunting in my kitchen.
Winter gnats carry mushroom spores like bees carry pollen, so they’re also known as fungus gnats. They belong in damp places and there they perform a duty for our ecosystem, feeding on microscopic fungi and hastening the decomposition of organic matter. Overwatered houseplants are the favored domicile of winter gnats, but my gnats have taken up residence in the kitchen sink instead. They like the garbage disposal and will dart through the drain’s sleeping jaws like miniature Jonahs, flying down into its belly.
Dishwashing is a duty I perform for my ecosystem, but I don’t have the gnats’ enthusiasm for the sink. Dishes pile from the basin and are level with the counter by the day’s end, when I get to them. To wash the dishes, I begin by sighing. Then, tabulating the hours I’ve wasted washing-up, I start at the top of the stack and work my way down to the bottom. I can be content in the task, almost, if I dream myself away from the stainless steel and food scraps, from the tedium of being present in one moment, in one chore.
When my first marriage was ending, my husband was a dishwasher at what is now a Vietnamese restaurant. Sometimes I’d crack open the kitchen’s backdoor and watch him while I waited for his shift to end. Feet planted at the sink, he’s adjust the taps to achieve a perfect temperature, turning one knob a pulse to the right, the other a pulse to the left. He’d lather the soap up on his sponge, bubbles spreading from his palms like lichen. He’d sort his work into a system, placing each dish with its own kind, and then proceed to wash all the cups, all the plates, all the spoons, then all the bowls. He said that by grouping alike dishes, he established a pattern. A breath. He created a rhythm that rooted him in the moment. He’d read The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh and approached his work this way: “While washing the dishes, one should only be washing the dishes.” Being present, to him, was being aware of “a wondrous reality,” but I didn’t want to be present for chores. I wouldn’t root myself in a less-than-ideal reality.
That memory is hazy now, but insistent as a gnat flitting around a drain. Watching my then-husband trace the damp surface of each dish with his fingers, searching for food particles with eyes half-closed, his head tilted toward the light. Watching him smell each dish before setting it in the sanitizer, ensuring that it retained no trace of previous meals, ensuring each was perfectly clean. Years later, I still can’t tell the difference between things merely washed and things truly cleansed of the past, but I know a little about the difference between looking and seeing.
I first saw, really saw, a gnat on a recent evening when one flew too close to me as I was scrubbing dishes. At first, I misidentified the creature, thinking she was a moth fly. Also known as sewer gnats, moth flies have furry wings in the shape of aspen leaves, and long, feathery antennas. Both species enjoy the semiaquatic habitat of sinks and both are attracted to light, but moth flies are true flies: they’re smaller than gnats but they’re also rounder, fatter, almost cuddly in comparison to the waif that was then haunting my kitchen sink’s drain.
The gnat’s longing caught my attention more than her form. She—I imagine it was a she—hovered an inch above the gushing faucet, almost static. Then suddenly she darted toward the drain at breakneck speed, swerving up and away from the water at the last gasp. She repeated this stunt several times, growing more frenzied with each pass. Looping letters in the air above the sink, the gnat swerved through ricocheted spray and soap bubbles. I tried to dissuade her: Have a seat on the couch while I finish up, then the sink is all yours. No, she was determined. I tried an emotional appeal: I’m attempting to be mindful here. Will you shoo for five minutes? But the gnat wouldn’t listen. Running her daredevil course over and around the faucet’s waterfall, she was wholly focused on her desire, unconcerned with her impending suffering.
Strange: to see a creature so small strive so ardently. She longed with every might and microscopic muscle—but for what? Garbage disposals aren’t only buffets for winter gnats; these damp, nutrient-rich environments also serve as a breeding ground. Perhaps she’d deposited eggs down my drain. Perhaps her larvae were hatching, feeding on shredded organic matter stuck to the disposal unit’s wall. Weaving, veering, dashing in and up and around, maybe she was trying to get home. Or she was crying as I flooded her nursery Help! Save my babies! I don’t know. Maybe this was her idea of spending the day at a water park.
Whatever it was, she distracted me from my washing practice. A plate slipped from my hand and crashed into the flooded mouth of a mixing bowl, sending geysers into the air. A bead of water caught the gnat mid-flight, dragging her down to the sink’s dull, metal floor. I gripped my sponge, yellow as sunflowers, ready to brush her body down the drain. A gnat’s breath away from extinction, she freed a leg from the water pinning her, then freed another, and clung to the sponge’s porous corner. Reverent of her narrow escape from death, I gently laid the sponge on the windowsill to dry. After a pause, she shook—I’m certain I saw a punctilious little shake—shedding water from her thin legs, the fine line of her body, and her short antennas. Fanning her clear wings, she twisted and smoothed them out, first the left, then the right, like some Pre-Raphaelite maiden sitting on the yellow sand of a lakeside, wringing out her long, pale hair.
A mixture of baking soda and white vinegar will fizz like Vesuvius in a bowl. Poured into a sink, this concoction will extinguish scores of drain-dependent pests. I accept gnat extermination as a necessity, in principle. Consider the fecundity of these little creatures: a single female can lay up to three hundred eggs during the one week of her winged, adult lifetime. Winter gnats are harmless; they don’t bite or sting. They’re noiseless. Odorless. Flavorless, I assume. Yet, they’re not unobtrusive. The almost-there-ness of a gnat is unsettling, like the grist of a memory wafting, resurgent. Each gnat is a life, a discrete and fleeting life, dancing in the sleek space of the present. Heedless of the future, incurious of the past. But I think, somehow, they are also filled with longing.
I felt relieved that my gnat, the gnat I had rescued, did not die. I grabbed a new sponge and finished washing up while she recuperated. The next evening, though, she was back to her old ways, flying zigzags in front of the faucet. Small and ephemeral, she was also rock-ribbed, dogged, and desirous.
Fireflies use their light to flirt with mates, and moths, it is theorized, navigate by moonlight, but no one’s certain why gnats are attracted to light. Technically speaking, this allure is called positive phototaxis. I think it’s synonymous with longing.
I’ve yet to see winter gnats migrate from my sink over to the kitchen window, but that’s are the other place they gather. Dancing across the panes, they flutter and rest, then flutter again: one or two, maybe three gnats at a time. They are weak flyers and can only manage a quick jig before they stop and catch their breath. Gnats are lungless creatures, but I imagine they can still get winded. Sometimes they prefer to rest their wings and will walk instead, their six legs skittering across the vastness of a window sill or lattice.
I would like to witness their window-ward journey, if only once, to verify. Do they pack up on an impulse, because the weather is lovely, the light just right, and the baby gnats begged mama gnat to take them to the window-side for a picnic? Or do the teenage gnats break off alone, lured like all adolescents by the call of anywhere else? Either way, the gnats eventually tire of their drain nursery and head over to the widow.
When they arrive, they walk the cool surface of the windowpane in rambling circuits, tracing the outlines of barren trees, bisecting houses, the wind howling safely beyond the glass under their feet. But then, mid-stroll, they leap into frenetic flight, careening up and down, pressing their bodies against the glass in quick, repeated motions. As if it’s not enough to walk above the world and maybe, if they tried hard enough, they could squeeze through the grains of glass and soar up toward that fiery orange ball hanging in the blue. To see the window is to see beyond it. Longing begets longing. It’s a strange creature that doesn’t desire more.
In infestations, gnats’ teeming bodies can cover windows, amassing to eclipse the sun. When gnats mate, black clouds of them gather and shiver in space, a formation called a ghost, almost really there. Each gnat longs for the heart of the ghost, flying towards an intangible, shifting center, and the spirit moves as a churning whole. I’ve never suffered such an infestation, but on a recent afternoon I did spot a lone gnat by my kitchen windowsill where I was painting.
When I first met my ex-husband, he was a housepainter. He called his practice “fine line painting.” No tape allowed. The trick, he said, is to be present for the process. First you must be aware of how you apply paint to your brush: never more than halfway up the bristles. Then slide the broad side of the brush along mouth of the paint can and watch the veil of excess color fold like fabric into the paint. Find the place where the wall’s run meets the trim’s rise. Place your brush at that meeting point, keeping the side with excess paint facing down. Hold the brush still. Inhale. Know where you are. When you exhale move the brush in a long, even stroke, breathing it down the line you’re drawing until the paint grows thin, then disappears, and your lungs empty. Be still. Inhale. Begin again. “When a worker takes hold of his own breath” Thich Nhat Hanh said, “he has already become awakened.”
I was half-awake at least as I painted around the window frame. I inhaled, aware I was inhaling a body breath. My hand found its track on the wall. I exhaled, aware I was exhaling a body breath, moving my hand slow as a distant train toward a skyline. But then, I caught sight of a gnat trailing my brush like a wisp of engine smoke. He flew nearer with each stroke, finally landing where the paint was still tacky. Stuck, straining his wings, he reached for flight again, but the paint clung to him with equal tenacity.
Why was he hovering near my hand, inches from the wall and oblivion? Maybe he thought the paint, a watery blue, was the sink he’d left so many days ago. Or maybe this gnat was a nihilist, longing only for non-existence. I don’t know, he could have thought he was the first gnat to achieve a moon landing. He looked tired, but after a moment’s struggle he did manage to free his feet from the paint. I pursed my lips and whistled him away from the wall with a stern breath between strokes.
Once I thought belonging was a compound word, formed from being and longing. I have existed as dictated by my understanding. Recently, I learned belonging is derived from the Old English gelang, meaning simply “to go along with.” A mindful life might go along with the present moment—but still, I cannot pare away desire from existence.
Consider the gnat: its lifecycle is brief. Say today is Wednesday, then last Sunday the gnat may have first unfurled its wings and next Saturday it may flutter them no more. Yet in this short week the gnat is divided, desirous, torn between decaying matter in a drain and a gold-filled window pane. Between birth and light, these insects be-long. I flutter here too, between the past and the future. But this bridge—the present—is finer than the breadth of a gnat’s wing. A gnat’s flight lasts only one week, but now dies every second. How, without longing, can I live inside the space of something so small, so fleeting?
After painting the window trim, I looked back to survey my work and saw my gnat had flown too close again. One of his legs was hopelessly stuck in paint, ice blue up to the bend—should I call it a knee? He scoured the air with his antennas and batted his wings, but the flimsy sails were powerless to realize his longing. Could I have saved him? I couldn’t grab onto him without crushing him. I couldn’t pinch and pull his wings up without tearing them apart. I wanted to enlarge that last second of his life with mindfulness. I wanted to stay crouched on the floor, breathing, watching sunlight spill through the window, igniting his vitreous wings. I wanted to be with the gnat only to be with the gnat, but the more I tried, the faster I felt now slipping away from us.
So, I marked the horizon with my brush. I drew a deep breath. The gnat’s body tightened, his wings fanning out: last scraps of desire, his fate swiftly drying. I exhaled and brushed his body forever into the landscape of the wall. His belly filled with paint as blue as the sky, hardening in his gut the moment he drowned.
R. S. Wynn has a bio coming!