I watched in ignorance from the seat of my mower as my wife was "assassinated."
Connie was in the process of removing the anti-bird netting from her blueberry bushes, trying hard to avoid touching a dead and decaying bird that had become entangled in the netting in its attempt to steal a few of the last tasty berries of the season.
I turned to ensure that Connie was out of the way of the blast of grass cuttings flying from under the mower when I saw her hurl the netting from her with a look of what I interpreted as disgust. I smiled, assuming that she had inadvertently touched that revolting and repulsive avian corpse.
But then she began jumping, flailing her arms, batting at her hair, and brushing her pants leg vigorously. I stopped the mower, thinking she had once again disturbed yet another yellow jacket nest. (She had been stung repeatedly a few weeks earlier after disturbing a nest while weeding.)
But she began running toward the house, stopping occasionally to swat at her head or her legs, then continuing her race to the house.
I knew the house was locked and that she didn't have the key on her. She would run around to the front of the house and enter through the garage. But with both of us working in the backyard, I had closed the garage door. And I had the opener on the mower.
I slammed the mower into the closest thing a John Deere X-350 has to warp speed and raced around the house in the opposite direction, hoping to get within range of the garage door to have it open by the time Connie got there. I was a few seconds late. She was there already, still swatting at her unseen attackers and yelling for me to open the door.
As she ran inside, she kept yelling, "It's in my hair! Is it in my hair? Get it out!"
I looked, but nothing was there.
Inside, she removed her pants, revealing three large, red welts behind her knee. They were quickly swelling. But that was the least of her worries. Her right hand, especially the middle knuckle of her ring finger, was red and swelling rapidly.
She doctored herself with a homemade concoction she had used for bee stings before: vinegar and baking soda topped with an ice pack. The pain subsided somewhat over time, but it was still excruciating, nothing like previous bee stings.
"It's much worse than those yellow jacket stings," she declared.
"If it wasn't yellow jackets, what was it?" I asked before answering my own question: "Assassin bugs!"
Several weeks earlier, Connie had seen assassin bugs while she was picking blueberries, and she had made a point of steering clear of them. We had had enough experience with them to know that their bite was painful. When we lived in Tennessee, one of our daughters had been bitten by one when she was young, and we knew vicariously how painful it was. We had captured the ugly-looking insect and later took it to an entomologist at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He immediately and unhesitatingly identified it as an assassin bug, specifically the species known as a wheel bug, and gave us a crash course in the terrorist.
There are literally thousands of different species of assassin bugs, so no single description is sufficient. They can be dull gray or brightly colored. The wheel bug looks like some sort of prehistoric creature with half a gear on its back. Assassin bugs can be large or small. But one characteristic common across the various species is a long, thin proboscis with which they inflict their painful bite.
They pierce their victim with that snout and inject a toxin that kills the bug almost immediately. They also inject a substance that turns the insides of the victim into a liquid. Then they suck out all the life juices, leaving behind a mere shell. Thankfully, assassin bugs don't devour their human victims that way; otherwise, I'd be minus one daughter and would be a widower today. But the toxin causes a terrific pain and swelling that the victim won't soon forget.
The morning after my wife was "assassinated," her hand was swollen a third its normal size. The area behind her knee was swollen, too, but nothing like her hand. The skin was tight and painful looking. Her ring finger looked as though it had been broken, and she could bend none of the fingers on that hand.
"Look on the positive side," I said, trying to be encouraging. "At least it took care of the wrinkles on your hand."
Fortunately, she thought that comment was funny. "Better than Botox!" she added her own touch of humor.
Over the next several days, the pain and swelling subsided. All that remains is the painful but instructive memory.
To be forewarned is to be forearmed. Beware the assassin bug!