Short Stories–May, 2018

Time and Time Again

2.  The Cockroach  (2/7)

His multifaceted eyes scan the bright whiteness surrounding him.  It is beyond experience.  There is nowhere dark to hide.  Before he can panic, he hears a soft hiss say, “Tell of your life.”

He calms and begins because he must, “I am in an egg case that is fastened to the underside of a log.  From it I free myself, as do the others of us.  We look for dark shelter.  Scattering fast in all directions.   I move under a leaf and wait.  We are white and small and soft when we leave the egg case.  We need someplace safe to wait while our outside body hardens and darkens.

I feel the vibrations of something moving nearby.  Too big and too fast.  I smell the body fluids of a casemate that is being eaten by this large thing.  Later I find out it is a centipede.

I stay very still.  I don’t even move my antennae to sample the air.  I feel it go away.  And I can move again.  My body has hardened and it is now dark.  I need food.  My antennae search the air.  This way.  Here.  Rotting fruit fallen from above.  There are other cockroaches, small like me.  And big like I will become–the ones with wings that fly without fear.  And gray sow beetles.  And ants.  These I already know to stay away from.  How I know that, I do not know.  Just that they are not safe for me.”

The soft hiss says, “How did you come to live so long?  You have lived far longer than your egg case mates.  For almost two circuits of the sun before you came to this place of brightness.” 

“I stay in the dark.  Always in the dark.  Except for now.  But I do not fear this brightness here.  It is strange that I do not.

I am always careful, always watchful, always fearful.  For there are many bigger things that could eat me.  And smaller, like the ants that would do the same.  Always I hide; always I taste the air with my antennae.  I feel the surface vibrations with my leg hairs.  I know the vibrations that mean larger, and those that mean smaller.  Small is safer for me.  Except for ants. 

There are the large flying ones that I cannot sense until I feel the air pressure when they descend and are almost there on the ground.  They have caught many of us.  They are out when it is bright, so I hide until it is dark.  They are called birds.  It is very dark when I go out.  But in the dark are also the large hopping ones.  They too, eat many of us.  They are called toads.  There are the ones that move through the brush and climb into trees.  Some are large and others smaller but they are all bigger than me and they all would eat me.  They are called lizards.  And they hunt day and night.” 

“You have led a life of fear,” the soft hiss says.  “Always afraid of being eaten.  When are you not afraid?”

“When the mating pheromone is in the air.  Then I seek out a mate.  I am less careful then.  The scent is so powerful.  I have mated many times and not been eaten.”

“Until now,” the soft hiss says.  “Tell what happened to you.”

“Yes, until now.  I smell the mating pheromone.  I follow it.  There are others of me that are also drawn.  I hurry to beat them to the female.  I am not careful.  I feel a sharp burning in my first left leg.  It is an ant.  I run, I shake my leg but it hangs on and bites harder.  There is venom in the bite.  Others of the ants come running.  They swarm.  There is a numbness rising up the leg.  I forget about mating.  Other ants grab and bite and hold on.  Another leg and then another.  The pain is terrible.  Numbness rises all from where they bite me and I can no longer control my legs.   I fall over on my back and my legs wave in the air but I cannot right myself. The ants start to bite deeper.  Pain, much, much pain for a long time.  Then all is numb.  And I am in this bright place.”

“Oh little insect,” the soft hiss says.  “You, in another life, were a pitiless hunter who preyed on the weak.  In this life you were the tiny, fearful hunted.  Now you will go back, and you will be sometimes the hunter and sometimes the hunted.

3.  The Squid  (3/7)

It was bright, brighter than the sea’s surface with the full moon, brighter than the predawn light that sent her down into the dark depths.  But she was not in water.  White was a color she had no name for, but if she had, that’s what she would have termed the brightness all around.  She could see nothing else.  Then bright lights flashed in front of her, signaling, “Tell of your life.”

She signaled back, wondering as she did, but how can I do this when I cannot see my body?  “We were in the egg cluster and one by one we broke free and swam away from where it was anchored to a rock on the sea floor.  There were bigger shapes that were waiting for us to hatch and they darted in to eat us.  But there were so many of us in the water that the big shapes that I later knew as fish could not eat us all, and I managed to escape.

When it was bright, I moved deep, in the water with the plankton.  Then in the dark of the night sea, I instinctively rose with the rising plankton and ate those swimmers and flutturers that were even smaller than me.”

“Did you swim on alone by yourself, squid?”  the lights flashed.

“No, we found each other, those from the same egg cluster, and swam together after feeding,” answered the squid.  “Not really in a school like the fish.  Less organized, more like a cloud.  The fish and porpoises would have eaten many more of us if we swam alone.  And because we grew quickly, we soon no longer had to worry about the smaller fish eating us.  In fact we were able to hunt and eat the smaller fish.”

“As you grew bigger, were you unafraid?” the lights flashed.

“Less afraid, but always careful, watchful.  My large eyes let me see very well even in the deeps.  I could swim faster too as I grew.  Better able to catch prey and better able to get away from those who would eat me.  And yes, I was afraid of those.”

“What did you eat?” the lights flashed.

“Anything that was smaller, slower, weaker, or that I could surprise.  I caught and ate fish, shrimps, and smaller squid.  They were all good.  I grew and matured.”

“And what tried to eat you?” the lights flashed.

“Of those there were many.  Those that were bigger, faster.  Fish like tuna, sharks, trevally, and porpoises, seals, whales, and squids bigger than me.  Bigger squids with their large eyes could see me in the darkest water.  And there are many more of them then the fish and others.  Them I feared the most.”

“How did you come to this place, squid?” the lights flashed.

“The time came in my life to mate and to lay eggs.  I was called to join a giant swirling mass of other squid that had gathered and were also ready to mate.  Males and females swam in large circles.  Several males surrounded me and placed their spermatophores within my mantle.  Then they swam away and died.  I was tired but first I had to lay my eggs.  I joined the other females who were also looking for a place to attach their egg clusters.  I found a solid rock ledge and began.  My eggs were enclosed in long strands of jelly and one by one I attached them to the rock, forming a mass like the one I had hatched from.  Already fish of various sizes were gathering for the future feast.  But I didn’t care.  I had completed my cluster.  I had fulfilled my life purpose.  I was very tired and I sank toward the sea floor.  Perhaps I was eaten, I do not know.  I no longer cared. 

And then I found myself in this bright place with no water.

“You have done well, squid,” the lights flashed.  “In your short year of life you have killed and eaten but just to sustain yourself.  You have evaded those that would have eaten you so that you could complete your cycle of birth, life, and the laying eggs for the next generation.  Now you will be sent back.”

4.  The Cane Toad  (4/7)

It was night, and in an instant it was over. He had left the weeds and was hopping along across the hard flat surface of a road, the asphalt still warm from the sun.  Suddenly there was a blinding light, a loud rushing sound, then a brief, great, painful pressure.

He found himself in a place of bright whiteness where he could see nothing.  A croaking voice came from out of the whiteness saying, “Tell of your life.”

“I was born in a pond where the egg string had been laid.  There were many, many of us at first.  Our lives as tadpoles consisted of eating algae and growing larger.  There were fish that tried to eat us, but we were just poisonous enough so that did not happen too often. Birds, crayfish and dragon fly larvae did hunt us but I was among the lucky that survived.  As I grew, I sprouted first back legs and then the front ones.  My tail grew shorter and disappeared, just as I was ready to go onto land.  On land I was very small compared to the many creatures that would eat me.  I would become poisonous later when I grew poison glands.  But until that time, I would be harmlessly edible to the hunters.”

“But you evaded the hunters and grew,” said the croaking voice.  “Tell how.”

“I hid by day in dark places, moist if possible.  When I was very small, there were the centipedes.  Fearsome, fast, hunters.  They sought the same dark places to hide during the day and hunted at night.  Later when I was full grown, I looked for and ate them.  They were good to eat.  I stuffed them into my mouth with my front feet and swallowed them still wiggling.  It was pay back for all my early fears.

There were the birds.  They hunted during the day, but some learned to turn over fallen branches and stones looking for our hiding places.  There were snakes and lizards too.  Rats.  Opossums.  I grew too big for the lizards to eat.  But ants were always to be feared.  So small and yet they would swarm and kill us slowly and painfully for their food.  Our poison was useless against them.”

“And did you fear dogs and cats?” asked the croaking voice.

“Only when we were younger and not poisonous.  Once we had our poison sacs, we were safe.  They quickly learned that even one bite was very painful to them.  If they did eat us, they would die.”

“Did the humans bother you?” asked the croaking voice.

“Mostly they avoided us.  They thought we were ugly and that touching us would give them warts or poison them.  But those cars of theirs, they killed many of us accidentally.”

“As you well know,” said the croaking voice.  

“Yes, as I know too well.”

“You did not have to be as afraid in this life,” said the croaking voice.

“That is very true.  Once I grew big enough and once I had my poison glands.  The clever rats that knew to tip us over to eat our under sides safely and the opossums that were not harmed by our poison were a danger, as well as snakes, but I could bluff many of them by puffing myself up to look bigger and more fearsome.

And there was plenty for me to eat.  I ate anything smaller that I could get into my mouth.  Lizards, cockroaches, the centipedes I have mentioned, worms, slugs, smaller toads and frogs, even mice.  No, there was not too much to fear once I had grown large.

“And then came the fateful night you were on the road,” said the croaking voice.

“Yes.  That night.  The night I was going to the pond to call for a mate.  I had to cross the road to get there.  And I didn’t make it across.”

“And because you did not, the chapter of your life as a cane toad has ended.  And now it is time for you to go back again.  You have reached a point where you will have to make some choices in your life,” said the croaking voice.

“Wait, what do you mean by making choices?”

“You will see,” said the croaking voice.

 

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