The use of mosquitoes in Sarah Hammond’s Cancer Walking Through These Woods
From the second line of the first stage directions we can see that flies are important characters in Sarah Hammond’s play. She uses them in every possible way to tell us things about the characters and the story. They become a tool to create spells, measure time, and show frustration. They create a physical action that keeps repeating itself in a situation that carries a level of timid intimacy and trust. The mosquitoes become a tool of communication, to express through physical action the way they feel and at moments an obstacle that separates them. When they finally connect and decide to trust each other, then the mosquitoes disappear.
Slaughter is waiting for Chesnutt in the woods “slapping mosquitoes as they land on her arms, neck, legs” (38). She is killing time by killing mosquitoes. She catches one bug in both hands, holds it for a moment and then Chesnutt arrives. It’s as if by catching the bug she made magic, and Chesnutt appears because of her spell.
The bugs and mosquitoes are the first thing they talk about when they see each other. “You know, at night, the mosquitoes become large. They grow teeth, stand up on two legs,” (38) says Slaughter to Chesnutt, as if she was measuring the time she was waiting for Chesnutt in the woods through the life and transformations of the mosquitoes.
Then “the bug flies away and Chesnutt finds her,” the author says in the stage directions. We don’t know if he catches the bug or if he kills her -- we just know that he finds her.
The mosquitoes create invisible lines between the characters, keeping them somehow connected through illness and infestation.
“They stand on two legs, and they walk up beside you with their invisible bodies. Beside you in the dark, they slip their threadline lips into your ear so soft you just hear the buzz, and then, sip by sip, they siphon off your brain,” explains Slaughter to Chesnutt, adding that she is “down to three quarters brain matter” (38). She measures time through the mosquitoes sucking of her blood, emptying her brain. Soon we’ll find out that Chesnutt is afraid that that is exactly what Slaughter is doing to him, making him a hypochondriac, washing his brain. He shows his frustration scratching frenetically a mosquito bite. “You have me brainwashed,” he complains, searching for the mythical tumor. (40) Cancer, tumors and family curses are the themes flying around them with the mosquitoes. A bug flies away from Slaughter and Chesnutt catches her. They are still connected through the insects. The fear of infestation and death is expressed though the fantasy of mosquitoes siphoning off their brain. They touch their own body to scratch mosquito bites; Slaughter touches Chesnutt’s body in search of tumors; Chesnutt comes to Slaughter because he has a headache and fears it could be the beginning of the family spell that will kill him before 30.
But trust is the main theme of the play. Slaughter wants Chesnutt to trust her and Chesnutt wants Slaughter to trust him. The obstacles they have to overcome to finally get close is shown through the device of the mosquitoes. The insect becomes so animated that it seems at moments to be Tommy (Chesnutt’s dead brother, who had a strong relationship with Slaughter) coming in between the two characters as a ghostly presence embodied in the mosquito surrounding them. Tommy trusted Slaughter, in spite of her trench coat. He didn’t think she was a terrorist. Chesnutt is aware what other kids think of her, that she looks “like those Columbine kids. That she is gonna shoot up the place”. She is an outcast and she is not allowed to enter his baseball game. She doesn’t trust anyone enough to tell them her name, a girl’s name. She feels more powerful and protected in her trench coat, using a non-gendered last name. But she knows Chesnutt is “better than regular people” (40) as Tommy was.
Chesnutt finally gets from Slaughter what Tommy couldn’t get from her. She tells him her first name: Elizabeth. He then gives in to her powers, holding still and letting her perform some kind of mystical-surgical operation of his tumor in the woods. They are finally close. The flies then disappear.
Sarah Hammond, Sarah. Cancer Walking Through These Woods. Hanover: Smith and Kraus, Inc. 2004.