If the tides are high
It never will appear,
That little winking island
Not very far from here;
But if the tides are low
And mud-flats stretch a mile,
The little island rises
To take the sun awhile;
If the tides are high
It never will appear,
That little winking island
Not very far from here;
But if the tides are low
And mud-flats stretch a mile,
The little island rises
To take the sun awhile;
The edge of the sea is a harsh place, a borderland of elements at odds, a battle line where two worlds take turns to invade each other's spaces and impinge on slopes that must endure a daily change of guard between sallow straits and a stony island. At the eastern fringe of Pulau Ubin, on a promontory that straddles two channels and overlooks a flat of grassy beds, rain, wind and unmitigated earthworks sweep soil, wood, dirt and other terrestrial fragments towards rivulets that run to the shore, while the waves and rising tides send lines of jetsam and discarded resin to the high water mark, where they join heaps of Ulva and drift seeds in search of coastal settlements to form a layer of decay, of dead and dying things, that do little for lovers of long walks on clean beaches but offer a smorgasbord of flesh and fraying fibres for diners with greener habits – beachhoppers, ghost crabs, pigs out of sty, seaweed flies, monitor lizards, dog whelks, mynahs in raucous gangs.
The edges of Chek Jawa are too steep, too narrow, too hemmed in by the sea and a wall of trees to provide much of a beachhead for low, ground-hugging vegetation. But the sheared crowns of some of the outcrops that guard this cape provide, in parts that receive dunkings only from the most severe of storms, footholds for a herb that has lost its grip on mainland shores. On these plateaus of unpolished granite, foliage, petals, fruit and seeds from durians, nutmegs, sea almonds and fan-flowers drop, or float on seasonal breezes, into shallow basins and miniature faults – what remains after the monsoons have taken their toll is a sliver of humus, an ounce of sediment too thin even for unruly grains but enough to sustain populations of a wildflower that grows prostrate on stems bearing a spiral of fleshy leaves and tufts of axillary 'hair' resembling the hides of shrivelled hamsters and which must have struck Linnaeus, for he dubbed this plant the 'pilose purslane'. Their habit is ungainly and lacking in lushness, but Portulaca pilosa ssp. pilosa makes up for the sparsity with a constellation of delicate, rosy-pink blooms that light up the tips of its shoots and evoke, in the pale whorls that threaten to envelop the corolla and bracteole, Venus in furs, stars in a swaddling of vegetable fibres.
The hairy portulaca, which flourishes on ledges inhospitable to most other plants, owes its survival to photosynthetic pathways that allow it to thrive in water-stressed habitats. Evident on its leaves are a branching network of dark green lines indicating dense bundles of chloroplasts which receive carbon dioxide solutions in saturations that fuel growth in hot, dry conditions. Another mechanism may come into play during periods of drought, namely the ability to accumulate carbon dioxide after hours when the plant can stop holding its breath and open its pores to let in the sour stuff without losing too much fluid; come daylight, when the stomata are closed, dissolved gases stored in pockets to spare are shunted to the chloroplasts for conversion into sweeter bonds.
Local colonies of Portulaca pilosa – which may never have been common, for they escaped even Ridley's notice – appear restricted to rocky or sandy coasts: littoral deserts too dry for true halophiles, too bare for bushier flora but not nearly too wild for them fighting words don't come easy go hard or go home, truly. A different succulent, one formerly thought to be allied to Portulaca and named accordingly, still occurs in considerable densities on the upper end of exposed beaches, such as those of Pulau Semakau, Pulau Hantu and isolated stretches of Changi and Lim Chu Kang, where they emit a satisfying crunch underfoot en route to deeper parts. The herb probably suffers little permanent damage, for it is a diffuse, decumbent being that sprawls on stems secured to the ground by roots from regular nodes. The flowers, which share a base with the thickish but narrow leaves, are a far lighter, more delicate, shade of pink, but as the greenish tips suggest, consist of five coloured sepals rather than soft lobes, which frame a cluster of slightly darker stamens. Vast carpets may have tinged the lower reaches of the Geylang River in centuries past, for this waterway and the surrounding district are said to have been named after gelang pasir, a plant that is variously identified as Sesuvium portulacastrum or Portulaca oleracea. This botanical muddle matters not in times of callous appetites, for neither the provenance of a neighbourhood nor knowledge of natural histories that shaped recent landscapes can match, in debt and flavour, the pursuit of gastric availment through island geographies in nomen eet numen.
The tiniest of jellies bobbed by as a hairy crab dragged a common sea star over a bed of pneumatophores at Pulau Hantu, while the sky was still dry and the sun dripped with soft, warm beams that lost their way and gave up hope before breaking down on the cusp of an uneventful horizon. It was the teeniest of constellations, a blob no bigger than a nymphal barkfly, a phasmid egg, a button shell that died before its time – its ring of arms still a mere smudge on a flopping disc. The bell, ajar and agnostic to the drama writ large, wobbled its way to the aboral surface of the star, a mat of loose pebbles and prickly bars, where it sampled last light before the day caved in and petered out before a chorus of motor rhythms and blue notes from an island of small red pokka dot com bubblegum crisis on main streetwise ground foolish heart of darkness in a city of tyred screams.
Cassiopeia may have traded her earthly realm for celestial reaches, but her avatar at sea occupies a narrower fief: inshore flats, lagoons, bays and seagrass beds in a planetary belt of warm waters where the scyphozoans can lounge topside down and graze on sunshine, flexing their concavities every now and then to keep the goods flowing. Locally, the jellyfish, in various shades of grey, brown and green, are more often spotted at Pulau Semakau, occupying the thin rad line between the trees and the trough that sweeps past the western flank of the tethered island. Some planulae may have drifted to more haunted parts and coves inviting to nestle amid the pneumatophores of aged pioneers. But these polyps remain by and large transient indulgences, for the muddy banks between two shackled phantoms discourage loiter, especially when the tide is fleeing, floundering, falling in streaks, forming minor estuaries, miniature bores through capes of sand, crumbling in surrender to syndromes of lunar withdrawal, deltas of venus in furs, a storm in a cup on tea placed on the boil for far too long and just waiting to blow over unwind cut loose and wade beyond the gap in the wall and watch the world beneath the waves, a riot of bodies aglow, aflame, ashamed, tepid and in thrall to the embrace of spirits that never cease their wonderings even when the worst is over and work turns to war.
Archaster typicus, the most common of asteroids on beaches that suffer from urban neglect, teem at Pulau Hantu, sitting on tongues of fine sand, sifting, ploughing, wallowing through sediment trapped by wedges of loose rock, a zone of elevation, of partial, perforated exclusion, created by the framing of two coral islands and a reef between to paint a picture perfect storm trooper pooper of a party state your business or bring it on kick a bucket let Atlas shrug off your chains nothing to lose but a world to whing. The stars huddle on silty ridges, occupying the gaps between the roots of stiff old Sonneratia trees, exposing themselves to opprobrium from morose opponents of sex on a public beach, even though privacy's never an option and there's nothing more exciting than a waiting game – no shudders from mutual thrusts, no fumbling over buttoned nails and dismantled cavities, no skirting around the moral hazards of sharing, nay squeezing, one's saline secretions into a sea all juiced up and run down – just a tango of small arms in a grip of vice versus verity, spinal tapestries on the margins of plates serving as barriers to entry, proxies to a meeting of mindless vessels on grounds that straddle two worlds: the sallow and the hip.
Archaster favours depths beyond the reach of tetraodontiform fishes. But other animal crackers, built for trudgery on shallow flats, pay no heed to claims of celestial impunity. A harry crab, dripping with ill menace and draped in tatters that trap dirt and reduce its profile to a clump barely distinguishable from muddy frocks, dragged a smallish star through puddles pierced by skinny cones, gripping its prize between naked fingers which exercised no restraint – the chelae had crimped the edges of its victim's appendage and snapped off some of the spines that led to the tip. The crab ran the risk of a runner: these asteroids not infrequently rend themselves under duress, ditching their extremities to preserve the core of their being. But the detained individual appeared non-plussed by its plight; perhaps the pilumnid gave off no foul hints, being a creature of brute, unaromantic, force, and so failed to trigger alarm in its supper. Stuffing the entire star into the crab would have been, literally, a stretch, so such episodes and, if nothing particularly stellar was imbibed, their recuperatory aftermaths may account for the not uncommon occurence of animals with fewer arms than the standard array.
Islands of sargassum littered the upper rim of Pulau Hantu's reefs in late September, but the bloom was then still benign; messy ridges and bladdery mounds lined the outer fringe of the slope before petering out closer to the water's edge. The fronds gravitate around larger outcrops and coral heads, leaving pale gaps between the colonies, an archipelago of basins filled with bodies frenetic in silver and glass, slivers of flesh and fibre that dart, float, dip, hang, perch, sit, clamber and crouch in a space of three dimensions and multiple fates. Halfbeaks, sleek, slim and full of it, trace the contours between the elements, a layer breached every now and then by silversides erupting in panic at imagined threats, releasing sprays of structural blue that fall to black as the shoal re-enters the splash zone. A few land on bundles of wrack and flounder on their flanks until their scales flake off or a friendly wave shoves them back into the brink, where they join shoals of fry in midwater, hovering, rowing, dancing on tenterhooks, maintaining safe distance from each other but hedging their bets on a zero-sum huddle, a race to keep their heads below water, to roll, pitch, stay in play, survive the night and last another day in paradice.
Small, spineless creatures run circles around nervous fish, refusing to let the tide put their lives on hold and lose a chance to grab a meal or grapple with fellow malacostracans. Epibenthic carideans, encased in flimsy armour that reveals all but their bright blue eyes and a gullet of goo, frolic on barren bottoms, holding fort on tiny bluffs and challenging their poolmates with primary chelae that probably threaten nothing larger than a louse. These shrimp forage with four legs and amble on six, while swarming above them are cousins eons-removed that had turned their thoracic limbs into feathery sculls and now wheel about crowded pools, invading the personal space of larger crustaceans who paddle only when pressed.
The shrimp, be they humpbacked or happy-go-lucky, party hard, for the decapodence of tidal pools is short-lived. Disguised carnivores – scorpions, frogs, toads and stones in piscine form – snap up careless treats, while deaths looms from above in minute, molluscan doses. Pygmy squid, which have half their senses trained on potential prey and the other on lurching pokemonsters, betray their chase with hues of excitement, their chromatophores swelling and sinking in sympathy with the pursuit of small game; the hunter putters, stalls, swivels, blanches and braces before a plunge that proves fatal to a thin-shelled thing and prompts brief flashes of deep, dark pigments, as if the squid were celebrating or cutting it loose after a less-than-lucky strike.
The seaweed and a landscape of shadows, drowned by cold fire from towers that stain the sky with nasty nocturnal emissions, cloak many of the larger beasts, offering but glances of fins, spines, limbs, tails, shells and segments – a flash of leg from an egg crab, the swish of a carpet eel-blenny scooting down an alpheid hole, glimpses of mandibles agape, tentacular manouevres in spots too tight, flurries of sediment from fossorial decapods in reverse gear, arms that tease and twist as they wave goodbye and drag a skeletal disc into a crack of gloom. A pallid worm, probably armless and caught flat-footed on a bed of bubbles, the breathless by-product of benthic filaments, felt its way across the silt, puking rainbows from its cuticle as stiff chetae and a nose for burrowed time led it to a cave guarded by a goby that offered neither resistance nor welcome to a bristly guest.
It was probably our final survey of Pulau Hantu for the year. But each trip to this and every shore remains a singular moment, a sojourn too sharp, too quick, too fleeting, too sweet, too much of a chore to dismiss and drop at a hat in the ring before the bell hits ten and the boat leaves the pier pressure cooker of a coastal settlement in cash and carry through a rumbling a tumbling a fumbling on the deck with rubber heels past the port go aft look stern hang tight as a duck be arsed about it don't ask don't tell no one just what you want what you really really want – a buoy a star a clown a clam a dollar in the sand bar none but the lonely heart of an urchin in trouble in tears from pieces of eight when ends the ride, falls the night. By then it's too late to turn back, force a light and restore what you shook off before you wandered into the worst of times, the worst of signs, a malady of royal bents, of anguish at a distance, at a point close enough for comfort but where being becomes unbearable, knowing turns bile, and it's still possible to count each day and curse your blessings, to swear at the gods of later days, the crippled heirs of a house of spirits in exile and pain from an island of kings who sold for a song.
The skies are seldom friendly these days. It is a time of predictable unpredictability, a season of forewarned extremes and unwanted miracles, when storms from beyond the straits roll over the city in swift, sullen clouds, inflamed cushions of grey, growling moisture, cloaks on the warpath that drag the day to a premature close, curtains of precipitation on a downward march from heaven to earth. When the pressure finally dips, the drop is far longer than it used to be, and much harder – the payload, more often that not, hits a tower or three, a bank, a flat, a court, a yard, a plaza, a park, strikes not wet soil but stiff walls, splatters on pools of cold, cruel emulsions before losing its way in a maze of urban passages, narrow channels with no mind for ancient floodplains and little regard for zones of percolation consumed by shrinking lots and subterranean lairs, for signs of overkill and underthoughts that raised the stakes – cassandras of a land planned just for man.
The skies are so fiendish these days. After a week or two of late morning outbursts, lashes of rain that sweep the streets clean of humanity and spoil plans for an early lunch, the city drips with pleasure wanting, as suits tread on stained sheets, mirrors of filth on polished tiles in which scrapes of sky shudder and shake with every passing foot, as shoes enter ponds too wide to be forded, too deep to be crossed without risk of damage to fragile fashion senses, as forgetful soles rediscover the sensation of walking in the wake of their ancestors, feeling their way through streams of muck, puddles of invisible dangers, a swamp of eww things. But respite comes soon enough, in a sustenato of unwelcome blues, a spell of light, heat and scorching hews, a wish quickly denied and sorely decried, dawns of bare skin, noons in conditioned retreat and nights of warm sweat, unrelieved by squalls that taunt the masters of tropical homes, teasing, touching, tapping sealed windows in futile attempts to tell those within that there is no escape from a climate of change, an age of innocence repealed, an industrial revolt against costs external and death by credit and consumption.
The sky seldom fails to stir a sense of impunity, a feeling of exemption from the elements, carte blanche to think what you will of the world beyond the coast, this archipelago of unreliable stories and unmourned settlements, each with a name enshrined in myth and shrouded in memory, vernacular tributes to long-dead warriors and their battles, to pirates, pilgrims, sisters and spirits, totems of an era ruled by half-truths and living legends, when a long line of green and gold, trees in a nigh unbroken belt with trims of sand, guarded the northern rim of the straits, a barrage of wood and wilder things, creatures that spread fear and aroused flimsy notions of leonine glory, whose remains fell into tidal rivers, flowing, fading, flickering into renewed existence as free-floating particles and dismembered fibres, fodder for pelagic cells near the bottom of the larder, for roots in estuarine waters, rhizoids in salty beds, the two-stage manufactories of sweet and starchy chambers, leaves of grass in jelly, long beans stuffed with sprouting germs, saplings infected by the urge to grow before their time, before the sea is done toying with their vessels and tosses them, bud and shoot, amid wracks on the edge of reefs, onto the broad fringes of shallow isles ever on the verge of submission, zones of contention where the waves seek, with every hungry lap, to gain ground on lands that fail to coalesce, consolidate and hold captive a rising film of silt, ingrained hostages to a war of attrition in which continents have drowned and seas have succumbed to dust.
The skies have given up, ditched all hope, shed every semblance of resistance to modesty, to majesty, skirting utter damnation with shreds of vapour, teasing, tantalising, yet too thin to offer relief from seduction, from sunny pecks and sweaty backs, tattered wisps of cirrulean on blue, a canvas fading to white as one blinks westwards and sees, half-burnt by flares and still hazy drifts, a new point of anchorage, a harbour of resurrection for shores condemned by trade, consigned to oblivion, carved into contours straight and true, where pots were kept at bay, hills levelled, swamps filled and villages defeated, piers of mercantile pressure that fuelled the town and powered the horses of men unwatchful and unwatched, builders of empires, bullies of kings. Islands of second choice lie farther to the south, their breasts and bellies still largely bound by natural seams and nautical limits. The boat, a craft dedicated to leisure and amply stocked with rod and vine, cruises between the dragon's teeth, past ferries, tankers, ro-ros, reefers, dredging platforms, cast-off launches, barges and tugs, swings by Pulau Sebarok, hugs the eastern flank of the landfill before a tight loop brings the yacht away from the sights of maritime patrols, around the southern curve of the dump, where it crosses a gap marking the end of the road for casual visitors, who brave sunstroke and skin cancer to immortalise their ride to the tipping point.
The sky is falling, the seas are rising. A brace of terns, too far to tell if they sport black napes or see swallow but little, rest on a buoy placed to mark the personal space of cells filled with junk. The enclosing bund, a layer cake of dry stones with a darker underlay of biotic sediments, two bands separated, or joined if you will, by a tidal stain, is guarded by a lone brahminy kite, a bird of wastrel lands and herald to the lord whose colour is infinity, who skims over the shrubbery on chestnut wings, saving its strength for the weaker hours, when cool drafts offer no lift, less light, slow pickings. We arrive in an inflatable tub, manned by a sailor new to these parts, the heir of an older hand, who was a master of landings on murky flats, overseer of flips and flops with neither ceremony nor grace, a trooper deprived of honest labour by sentiments as thin as the papers they desire, a victim of true blue flavours with an aftertaste of bitter twits. Still, every crash on the surf, against rubble in disguise, rocks incognito, such shores of reefer manners, that spills no blood, suffers no loss of life or limp, is reckoned a blessing, an invitation to cast aside soiled footings and sprout legs at sea, the better to brave singular monsters that bob in gentle swells, hunters with squiggly arms with eyes fixed on deccapods, stars in barely concealed nebulae of silt, which cap their crowns even when they rise from the dirt and streak across the universe, helter skelter over worm holes and eventual horizons, losing their way in strawbury fields, forever trapped in an archasteroid belt betwixt the beach and the bloom.
The sky is bleeding, the weed is seething. Sargassum drapes sponge, coral, mound and trough, as shadows grow to invade frames of mind that remain uncomposed, indisposed, in a state of flagrant refusal, as the sun issues a brief groan of languor, of wavelengths that survive the scattering of deeper hues, rays of soft, warm colours calculated to throw the senses off-balance, turn green to gold, bark to bread, mead to roast. The fronds form a canopy that traces the shoreline and is thickest where the world plunges and the water peaks – they smother and shield, hide and sit, sparing their neighbours the worst moments of the day but stealing from them a dose of solar power, a tribute imposed by layers of filaments that mock the vascular branches of the tree of life, with flattened blades and fleshy stalks assembled from mucilage and joined at the base by a colloidal fastener, the only part of the organism to outlast the fervour of each season, at the end of which the foliage, stretched taut by its own unconstrained exuberance or gnawed off by rabbitfish and sea hares, breaks loose and rafts to oblivion.
The sky is brooding, the stars are hiding. It is becoming harder to see what lies just a few yards ahead, to take the measure of shifting perimeters, where unpolarised beams, hitting the water at increasingly oblique angles, turn fluid glass into cloudy mirrors, framed by ridges of sargassum, too dense to be probed by soggy feet unwilling to take the chance of crushing innocent polyps or crying foul over pierced toes, and outcrops overrun by marine spiders, minute crabs and minions of larger beasts. In this scene of criminal ambiguity, there are no clues, no field good guides, no runs of bloody colours – random stumpleupons alone betray the icons of the landfill, bruisers with five left hooks and a battery of hard knobs, blind juggernauts of shoal business, who gather in leagues of extraordinary gentleness to patrol the seagrass for lesser particles, lurching and lounging under a seasonal robe that preserves their modesty of emotions, pretends to devotion, peters to naught.
Protoreaster commands the front-, or rather, the topline of the sea bottom, the eight inches or so of liquid goo that grazes the tapes, spoons, needles and noodles of coastal lawns, clutching and cleansing the epilayers of prodigal macrophytes, devouring in situ the contents of immotile skeletons, skintight tunics and velvet discs. Below them, burrowing, bulging, belching, breaking cover when the mercury slips, labour hollow cukes, ersatzworms in perforated hides who shuffle the sediment, displacing buried goods and releasing entombed flavours, sucking in juice from both poles and sharing the spoils with lodgers, lurkers and losers happy with sloshy seconds and scrappy hours. Sticophus and scabra share their haunts with other diggers: streamlined shell-swallowers, depressed urchins and grey lovers-in-waiting, in precoital couplings, prickly hugs, occupants of an intersection between the water column and a bed of tossers, where it is impossible to tell what lies beneath pale, powdery sheets, between the loins of invisible bodies, impotent pairs – carapaces, coils and cancers trespassed by feet in tubes, in tatters, limbs on joints, legs with feathers, benthic assemblies tethered to indiscrete messages and unsafe words, the amoral hazards of discourse with sloppy endings, of pillowed talk, of the art of making everything out of love and nothing count.
The sky is sinking under the weight of denser colours. Azure fades to cobalt, baby to denim, and a streak of vermilion simmers behind a low cloud, a photon bomb that obliterates the sun, sends pixies into overdrive, skews the slow drop of a crystal day. We plough under an arc of growing longitude, between a rainbow bridge and the gravest of blues – moods indigo, plush life, passion flowers, a sunset belle, diminished heavenths in a key of alternate modes, mostly flats, never resolved, probably minor but ever lust. A crab ambles by, stops short, sounds the alarm and makes a run for it – too thick for shrimp holes, too tough for stoned cracks, it tumbles under a loose sponge but finds no respite from filling strobes. In desperation, the beast, one of the few large xanthids to venture onto intertidal reefs, clings to soft, green straws, swings its forearms in a bid to fuck with its spoons, finds to its dismay a spot blind to nips, resorts instead to bubbly incantations against the duck arts, acts of parsimony doomed to flailure, done to deaf.
The shore is stirring, swashing, tired of basking wails and cutty sharks, anxious to reclaim its damp fringes before last light, before the magic hour consumes, bleeds dry, the rugs, fronds, leaves, valves, pores and tubes that are losing their senses to the tide and lie in dishabille on the lap of a mangrove island, off the butt of an old flame, a belt of rare asters, a garden of hidden tripes, hollow types. The shore is stirring with creatures seeking to bed down, wake up, draw upon their reserves when the sun don't shine, while the sea runs amuck with haywire figures, hyperactive swarms that gather wherever there is room to spare, space for manœuvre, hell to pay – there is no abstaining from a game of chicken where everyone loses, eventually, and privilege is fair play, the upshot of simple gifts: organelles that blow hard and tissues with friends in hand, in arrangements with mutual benefits.
Come twilight, the reef's bolder elements, starved by the stars, succumb to a madness that turns boulders, brains, bushes and plates into battlegrounds between colonies, between polyp and plankton, calcite factories moonlighting as offensive magazines, miniature medusae in poised chalices, mostly mild monsters in walls with teeth. More massive discs, petallate columns glued to lower bluffs or rising from sandy plains, double as cots for shrimp, cradles for damsels, folding traps for dazed wanderers, for whom a step too close is a brush with destiny. Other cnidarians languish in skimpy basins, baring their orifices or flaunting their bottoms up, the latter with branches ajar, bells tipped – free-wheeling rebels come lately on a turf of anchored gains. The sky is dimming, the tide is dying. A dozen kites that gathered on a dead tree to survey the flat and launch dummies at each other have scattered, collared kingfishers have silenced their cackles, plovers, whimbrels and redshanks coast in from sinking regions of the bund for a final bite of the cherry, of the spice of islands far to the west of a garden city, south of a power plant, habitats in the line of fire, the next to fall on a board where every player is a pawn, every plot a plan, all is game and nothing, including the worst of human natures, is left to fate, to chance.
The custom of giving nuptial gifts, as a prelude to sex and the softening aftermath of affairs that begin with whams and end with nary a bang, has evolved in a number of insect lineages, whereby males add a dose of meat to their genital offerings, which serves to fortify their mates and by proxy their putative offspring, buy time such that sperm transfer is maximised and rogue inseminations discouraged, or perform this cocktail of tasks and more in the game of throes that dominate the final, fleeting stage of six-legged lives.
Mecopterans and dance flies typically do the deed snack in hand, although some empidids are happy with a stand-in bribe of empty love balloons. Many butterflies and moths flock to damp soil, sweaty skin, animal droppings and decaying bodies, from which they ingest a measure of salt and amino acids, flavours absent from the folivorous escapades of their youth and missing from floral nectaries – these minerals enjoy a second life as conjugal supplements that boost the viability of unscaled pillars. A more extreme case of coital investment is practiced by humpbacked grigs, orthopteran relics of which the lads sing to be suppers, using their sclerotised tegmina to woo a mate before allowing their partners to mount their backs and munch on fleshy hindwings. The money shot then follows the bleeding edge, and the female enjoys extra helpings of protein in the spermatophylax, a scrotum-like bundle of nutrients attached to the ejaculatory package, which occupies her senses until an accompanying ampulla has downloaded all its contents into her chambers and is fit for nothing more than a hollow meal.
This exchange of favours, of food for a fuck, foreplay with a turn to vore, sans the loss of dorsal appendages, is shared by katydids, be they garden-variety minstrels or moansters restricted to fragile woods. Tettigoniids are rather less conspicuous than short-horned grasshoppers, but a fair number can be seen by the paths that run from Venus Drive to the higher core of the central nature reserves, clinging to the blades of unmown grasses and rampant stems of Aystasia, Urena and Leea, chewing on seeds, buds and shoots, or changing out into new coats of chitin, song in wing or sword in rear end: young coneheads that have yet to trade their red and black livery for the sombre tones of later instars, large, leggy striders with wings that resist contrast against a wall of waxy green, and lumbering giants with tibial spines used to skewer creatures with nary a clue that some browsers have acquired a taste for beef.
In deeper trails, where the canopy is denser and floor is thick with leaves, spores and an epilayer of moist, mushy air, there are limber hunters, still largely a mystery of marvels, and shy huggers of leaves, who melt away when they stretch forth their arms and fall flat on a plane of veins, under capes that mask their segments and disclose little of their forms until the day draws to a close and forces them to hitch their joints, fold up their tents and take a hike through the treetops, measured steps in pursuit of a night train of thoughts driven by hunger, by the countdowns of silent body clocks, and to distraction by recursive chirps, scratches, trills, clicks, whirs, buzzes, tsicks, rattles and croaks – a chorus of frequencies tuned to find a match in a tutti of perfect pitch black velvet underground railroute of contention, a plea of sylvan desperation too rooted in natural harmonies to reach minds limited to what accounts for reason, heedless of sinking baselines and blinded by compulsions that are all too, and solely, human.
Hoppers, be they steamed or built from tougher strings, tend to be largish insects, certainly a handful or more of spines, spurs and slicing limbs. It was thus a surprise to find one recent night, in a loop out of the usual zone, a track fraught with demential wanderings and far too bright for flights of intimate concentration, a pair of bush-crickets on a low branch, dripping with guilt and bearing, in the jaws of one, evidence of a coupling minute and still too fresh for her mate to disavow, a gelatinous slug she bit into while other secretions wormed their way up her orifices to become the sons and daughters of a smoking gun. Barely two-thirds of an inch long, the katydids seemed a mite too young to be trading gametes on an island where such deeds straddle a fence that makes wolves out of sheep, shoots both and leaves them out as invitations to trepass virgin ground.
In less hallowed settings, the katydids were keyed out as Lipotactes maculatus, one of a small subfamily of flightless tettigoniids restricted to primary forests from southern China to Borneo and Sulawesi. Lipotactinae consists of small to mid-sized orthopterans in two genera, Lipotactes and Mortoniellus, which differ in pronotal sculpture and the shape of the forehead. The insects have large, bulging eyes on a broad but short head with a generous angle of rotation, the better to follow the trajectory of active prey, which they lunge at when within range, grab with their mandibles and secure with strongly spined fore and medial legs. Observed victims include small flies, juvenile hoppers, grass and commercial fish food. Some species are arboreal and one dwells in savannas, but lipotactines are more commonly associated with the understorey of well-shaded jungles.
Described in 1922 from a holotype collected at Bukit Timah, Lipotactes maculatus is a "handsome and extraordinary little insect" with "deep chestnut" eyes and a general shine of "brussels brown". The hindlegs are distinctly marked, with an "elongate-trigonal patch of blackish brown" spanning the base of the femur to the dorsal margin. The female bears a "tawny" oviposior and lack wings altogether, a loss of little concern to katydids at home in the tangle of low vegetation. Males have rudimentary tegmina with stridulatory veins that emit "crescendo verses of variable length", from terse asides at rivals to symphonies in microseconds. One such ode had long fulfilled its task that evening, and the two were already in the final stages of their fling, a prelude to separation, still fraught with anxiety on the part of the lover who lingered on, less so perhaps from a desire to prolong the pain but the instinct to guard his deposits and ensure that she does not add his babies to her happy meal or succumb to further temptations that may pull the plug on his party and spoil the jizz of his gift.