Vanuatu is pretty lucky when it comes to its fauna, as most of it is friendly, or at least harmless. No large, threatening mammals. No lions, tigers or bears. The closest we've got are wild pigs and cows which, while they're nothing to be trifled with, just aren't really what one pictures when asked to think of a fearsome predator. There are no poisonous snakes (actually we do have white and black striped sea snakes whose venom is lethal, except their jaws are so small that the only place where they can bite you is on the ear lobe) and the spiders, while gigantic, are also harmless. There are no black widows or brown recluses or even wolf spiders. Basically, any animal you might even consider being afraid of doesn't live in Vanuatu. Except for the centipedes. These impossible creatures abound in the country particularly, it seems, in my house. They aren't unique to Vanuatu, really, you can find them in the desert southwest of the US, hanging out with the scorpions and other creepy-looking insectioids. In fact when I was in Big Bend National Park in west Texas over Christmas I noticed them selling centipedes encased in glass as paperweights. They were labeled as “giant centipedes” despite the fact that they were barely four inches long. Any self-respecting centipede enthusiast would scoff at such measly specimens. The centipedes in Vanuatu grow to mutant proportions far exceeding what would conveniently fit inside your average paperweight. Around these parts, centipedes upwards of eight inches aren't an unusual sight to see clambering across my walls. These are centipedes that you wouldn't be particularly surprised to see carrying off small kittens or one of those obnoxious football-sized yappy dogs.
My training group's fear of centipedes was cultivated early on in our Peace Corps experience. A few of us had read accounts of such creatures in various books about Vanuatu and the stories quickly spread. During our first week in Vila we were constantly on the lookout, expecting giant centipedes to be lurking behind every corner, ready to inflict all kinds of unimaginable horrors upon us. I didn't end up seeing my first centipede until we'd moved to our training village, in the bush a little north of Port Vila. Like any self-respecting monster, centipedes eschew the light and prefer dark, damp haunts. However, come nightfall they emerge in search of food and sometimes would venture into my family's dining area. Your average adult centipede is six to eight inches long, reddish brown, and has far more legs than is really necessary. They're about the thickness of your little finger and are made up of countless little segments, each segment sprouting a spindly pair of legs. A menacing set of what are undoubtedly pincers adorn the head and you can tell, without any questions asked, that they just HAVE to be poisonous. It takes about a second to put together the fact that these things are up to no good. Ni-Vans go after centipedes with a overly religious zeal usually reserved for witch-hunters and exorcists. Whoever spots one sounds the alarm and everyone within a fifty foot radius instantly springs into action. Even nakamals, where peace and quiet held sacrosanct, dissolve into frantic mayhem if a centipede is sighted. Flip-flops are quickly removed and converted into clubs with which to bludgeon the beasts. Dirt and gravel fly everywhere as dozens of men ruthlessly pound the ground with their shoes. And then, just as suddenly, when the foe is vanquished, the all-clear is sounded. Everyone replaces their shoes, returns to their seats, and continues their conversations as if nothing had happened.
Although physics would seem to dictate that, as the number of legs attached to a creature increases, eventually it would have far too many than is useful and any further increase in leg number would simply lead to increased clumsiness, this does not really seem to play out in the case of centipedes. They move with an impossible grace that has to be seen to be believed. They don't so much walk as they flow. None of their myriad of appendages ever really seem to move, and yet somehow they are propelled forward with terrifying speed. They ooze through the smallest nooks and crannies like syrup, making them all but impossible to keep out of your house. Of course, anything able to move with such horrible fluidity is certain to be predatory. Centipedes are the lions of the insect world. They descend upon unsuspecting cockroaches and toiling ants and slaughter them like lambs. Frightening enough as they are for us, veritable behemoths hundreds of times their size, one shudders to think how a centipede must appear to its prey: the sudden flurry of legs, the quiet whoosh of impending doom, and those giant pincers closing you.
On dry days, the centipedes stick to the outdoors, preferring the warm and moist hideouts offered by the soil. When it rains, however, they are driven from their holes and begin to creep inside. With the lights out, they claim full reign of the house, rushing across the floors and oozing up the walls to prey on the roaches, beetles, moths, and others who make up my usual collection of house guests. Once sated, they seek out warm nooks to roost: underneath pillows, in the folds of bedsheets and clothing, snuggled up against a sleeping human. I had my first close encounter during my first few weeks on Malekula. I awoke in the middle of the night with the odd sensation of something crawling on me. Still groggy, I glanced down to investigate and froze. Nestled on my sternum was a massive and distinctly alien creature. I'd seen a number of centipedes before, but never one this big. Its fangs glistened in the moonlight. My adrenaline was flowing freely, I was ready for action, but, if it came to a showdown, I was uncertain which one of us would emerge the victor. The thing was HIUGE. I mustered every ounce of strength I had and swatted the beast to the side. It went flying, hitting the wall and falling to the floor. I bolted upright, waiting for it to retaliate, but it was already in full retreat. My mind, in its panic, had vastly overestimated the size of my foe. It was tiny. Even by American standards. Little more than a baby. I smiled and relaxed and settled back into bed. But when you've shared your bed with a centipede, it puts your senses on edge. Suddenly, everything feels like a many-legged creature crawling across your body. The brush of your sheet, the night's breeze against your skin, the tickle of your mosquito net, has you bolt upright in moments, searching for your assailant. It was a long time before I was able to fall back asleep.
Over the months, I've become a seasoned veteran of centipede attacks. At a glance I can distinguish a baby centipede from its somewhat dopey and entirely harmless cousin, the millipede (millipedes rarely get to be more than an inch long and, rather than being fearsome predators, they instantly curl up into little balls whenever they're startled. Their sole purpose in life seems to be to crawl into my house and die. I have to sweep millipede corpses off my floor on a daily basis). I straighten the folds of my bed sheet and shake out my pillow before heading to sleep. And I'm a survivor of many a centipede bite. After spending almost a year in fear of being bitten, my first bite was a surprisingly painless experience: a sharp sting lasting a minute or so subsiding to a dull throb and then an itchy lump by morning. Many a centipede has regretted its decision to sink its fangs into my skin. Usually, I get stung at night when I accidentally roll on top of or brush an appendage against a centipede that's decided to share my bed with me. The sting brings me awake and is followed by a glance at the affected area of confirm the cause. Centipedes leave two little puncture holes right next to each other that make it look like I've been bitten by a midget vampire. The larger centipedes can even draw blood with their bite. With the sight of those two little welts, the hunt begins.
Centipede hunting can be a tricky business. First, you have to choose a weapon. Centipedes are well armored, so going after them empty handed is generally ineffective and will often earn you a second bits. However, they're also fast, so if you delay too long whilst arming yourself your prey will have escaped. The edge of a shoe is generally the choice I prefer (stepping on centipedes is also usually ineffective, they're too fast and slippery and, more often then not, they'll just crawl on top of your foot and deliver another bite). Next, I turn the lights on. When the room floods with light, the centipede will bolt for the nearest cover it can find. If you catch it out in the middle of the floor with no cover in sight, it can become disoriented and start running around in circles, making it an easy target. The key is to drive it out of any cover its able to find. Lift up clothes and pillows and sheets, pick up books or any other objects and force it out into the open. Then, you strike. You need to deliver a sharp blow to effectively damage a centipede. You need a hard edge. Rolled up newspapers aren't going to do you any good, neither will the flat of a book or a shoe. You need something to focus the force of your blow and crush through the centipede's armor, hence the edge of the shoe or the book will work much better than the flat. Once you've delivered one or two good blows, you're on the home stretch. Centipedes are pretty hardy, so it will probably still be alive, but you'll have effectively immobilized it by crushing some of its segments, now you just have to finish the job. Chickens are fond of eating centipedes, so you can carry it outside and feed it to one. You can also burn them. Or you can keep on hammering. Once you're sure that the centipede is damaged enough that it's not going anywhere anytime soon, you leave it and wait. The ants will finish the job for you. Once prey for these mighty beasts, the ants hover on the outskirts of the conflict waiting for you to turn the tables in their favor, then they descend upon the wounded predator. Before long, the centipede is covered in a swarm of these relentless creatures who tear it apart and carry it back to their nest for food. Of the large variety of insects and other small animals that inhabit my house, centipedes may be the most frightening, but the ants are definitely the most insidious. They may be small and weak, and one swipe of my hand my obliterate hundreds of them but, in the end, they always get the last laugh.