I found on the sidewalk one day a catastrophe of insects. The legs of a walking stick braced under the cellophane wings of a cicada, but the body was closer to a beetle’s. Black eyes bulged on a bulldog head. Curved mandibles crossed at the tips in the fashion of mammoths and mastodons. When my dog nosed it, the whole mess, which was long as my hand, moved as one and raised its tusks. The dog, a hundred-pound chocolate Labrador who knew his size, barked a warning and stepped back. My arm hair stood as if pulling a primeval me out from under thin skin. The monster paused but kept its ground. We were all three paying attention to each other, right there on a side street of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, near a dumpster overflowing with chicken bones and diapers and broken furniture.
It didn’t take me long on the Internet to discover that lots of people paid attention to this insect, which they then photographed and described with horror—pinchers, four wings, six legs, three inches long, four inches, five, the biggest goddamn insect I’ve ever seen. Entomologists quelled the panic: just a male eastern dobsonfly, Corydalus cornutus, one of the largest North American insects, common around the Susquehanna River region that I called home. Aggressive, yes, but not a threat: the freakish mandibles are ungainly against curious girls and their dogs and useful only for battles and brides.
Female dobsonflies don’t live more than two weeks, and the males rarely make three days. Therefore, the largest insect on the continent was common but hard to spot. I liked it right away and went back with my camera, but the “king bug” was gone.
It was the first monster I’d ever seen, and I wanted to see it again.