Rick Bragg Says Don't Let the Red Bugs Bite
I was in the tall grass of the pasture when it happened. I was peering into the dark water of the pond, trying to see if any bass and bream had survived last year's heat and drought. I threw in a piece of bread and saw tiny minnows rise to it. It lifted my heart.
That was when I found myself in the jaws of the flesh-eating Eutrombicula alfreddugesi—the vile chigger, who goes by the alias "red bug." I could feel it inject its awful, corrosive saliva into the wound and begin to feed on my skin. Then, a hundred were crawling all over me. They could feast on me for days, and all I could do was watch.
"Well," sighed my big brother, Sam, who stood right next to me, laconically watching as I was being consumed. "That's the way a chigger will do you."
I scratched and clawed at the welts and pustules that were rising on my ankles. I writhed and blasphemed. I begged, "Oh, Lord, just take me now."
"Or," said my brother, who has no sense of drama whatsoever, "you could just go put some calamine lotion on it."
I noticed he was remarkably free of trombiculosis (chigger bites). "I always wet a rag with kerosene and tie it around my boot tops," he explained. The old ways, he said, are best.
After the dark, uneasy months we have all, as a region and a country, suffered through, I intended to write something bright and uplifting in this last column of summer. But that was before I was eaten alive in the tall grass. The truth is, I'd forgotten how miserable a thing the chigger could be. I had not been eaten alive in quite some time.
"Well, that's 'cause you don't move around much," said my brother, who believes that, since I am a writer, I am essentially unemployed. Now, I may never go outside again.
These insidious creatures gather in their larval state in clumps on grass, weeds, and leaves, latching onto the clothes of any passerby and creeping onto the flesh, where they feed on the skin itself. There are scientific terms for this process: "Yuck" and "ick" are easiest to spell. The virtually microscopic chigger doesn't usually spread disease, but infections are common, mostly from the incessant scratching.
They are not unique to the South. I discovered there are chiggers all over the world, including the rare Norwegian ice chigger (okay, I made that up), but none is quite as ferocious as the flesh-gnawing E. alabamus. (I made that one up too—but not the ferocious part.) We have the meanest chiggers in the world right here. Ask my mom, who knows everything. She said Southern chiggers attacked her, head to toe, when she was picking wild blackberries as a young woman. "And I was standing in the middle of the road," she recalled.
I said we should alert the scientific community about this asphalt-hopping Calhoun County chigger, and maybe, as with any previously undiscovered species, they might name it after us.
She told me to be quiet.