An Insect Turns The World – A Short Story
An Insect Turns the World
I wake curled up in fear, with a cry still on my lips. This is quite normal. I know what will follow. For a few minutes I will lay motionless, eyes closed, ears alert to the sound of movement around me. Gradually I will accept that I am indeed alone in my bed. My breathing will return to normal and I will allow myself to open my eyes, almost entirely certain that nothing will be looking back at me.
While I wait for this happy state of affairs to arrive, I review the contents of my most recent nightmare. They were there, as usual. The insects. Four of them this time. Launching themselves from cupboards and across tables, turning the furniture of my mind into their own special playground. I can recall their touch, the brush of their hairy legs hard against my back that shocked me back to consciousness. Even though the settings of my dreams change – last night it was a well-appointed sitting room unknown to me, tonight it might well be my childhood nursery or my uncle’s stable – the insects seem to vary little in shape and size. They are always a shining, metallic blue in colour and stand about as high as a small dog. My own dogs, the offspring of my father’s prized hunting hounds, have become a source of mild dread to me. They are forbidden the house and I can barely stand to hear the sound of their barking outside my window. My wife still retains some affection for them or I would have given them to the Cavalry as trackers.
I can feel warmth on my face. The sun must be up, shining through the narrow gap in the heavy curtains. When she comes to check on me, my wife will want to draw them, just for a few hours, to let in some light. She thinks that the sunlight may help my condition. I am no medical man so perhaps she is right. We certainly don’t want for sunlight anymore. It is already late September and there’s no sign of the release of autumn. It as though the world has become so angry, it has lost the ability to cool down.
The knowledge that the sun is in the sky and the thought of my wife helps calm me. Soon I will be ready to open my eyes, to move a little in the bed that has become my permanent location.
Quite unexpectedly, from the recollection of my dream, the insects’ name drifts into my mind. The name is something new, a detail that I have never been granted before. My lips try to shape the word but cannot. It’s an ugly sound and does not come willingly. Still it is so mercilessly clear that I can almost see the letters forming in the darkness behind my eyelids: Cicicyprid.
This is a puzzle. Why do I know their name now? The insects have never spoken to me in any of the dreams. Sometimes figures from my past make a fleeting appearance alongside them but they rarely have anything intelligible or useful to say. People in dreams are much like people in reality in that respect.
It certainly is a strange name. It sounds as much like a term for a plant as for an insect. Do they have leaves and I’ve never realised? I had thought that their long, thin legs were covered with hairs but perhaps they are spines, like those of a cactus?
BANG! BANG! BANG!
At first I think it is my wife, come at last, knocking on the door but of course it is not. Mercy’s gentle hands could never produce such an ungodly racket. I wouldn’t have married a loud woman, not even in the days of my strength and vigour. No, it must the Cavalry. Just manoeuvres probably. Real action seldom comes anywhere near my door nor is it ever invited.
Colin will be out there somewhere. Miles away, overseas. Leading his battalion remorselessly on. His last letter was full of pride; tales of medals and feathered hats and plush braid. Was he always such a braggart? I can see him in my mind’s eye, resplendent in his finery, a musket held aloft in triumph. It should make me proud too.
The familiar sadness settles on me. What matter dreams of monstrous insects or the state of my own failing health when my son has become such a stranger to me? My anxiety is gone, smothered by melancholy. It is a sort of relief. I open my eyes.
I am, naturally, alone in my bedroom. Well, unless you count the portrait of the Duke that nearly covers one wall. I hate it. The fat fool with his stupid moustaches. He’s draped in a red cloak that makes him look like a belligerent tomato. I’d have quite happily had the thing burnt long ago if it hadn’t been a gift from my son. Once, I remember, Colin used to like to draw butterflies. Badly but with such concentration on his face as he filled in the bright colours on their wings. A long time ago now.
The rest of the room reflects more of the taste of my wife and I. Floral wallpaper. Chairs elegantly but simply carved, with cushion bearing embroidered birds. On the low dresser facing my bed stands a vase full of flowers that is changed without fail every day. I am increasingly convinced that the damn things insist on dying as quickly as they can, just to depress me even further. Arranged next to the vase is a collection of phials and bottles, herbs in jars and sachets of powders. All used in my wife’s attempts to rally my failing mind and body. I am thankful that at least we got the leeches out of the way early on. That wasn’t a happy day, to say the very least.
Another explosion, bigger this time. I begin to suspect that the Cavalry might be up to something more serious than manoeuvres. Whatever they are using for shot, it sounds as if it makes a huge impact. I would not like to be on the receiving end of it.
A gentle rapping on the door. Despite myself, despite her coming every day and despite her endlessly revolting remedies, I find myself smiling. I married her because she could make me smile after all.
‘Come in Mercy’
She enters with a slight hesitancy. I can understand why. It is not that the she doesn’t wish to see her husband. It’s that she’s in fear of what state she might find him in. I have seen that hesitancy increase in the last few days. I must be worsening.
Mindful of her feelings, I sit up and try to look strong. I am conscious that my nightshirt is open at the chest and I hope that her eyes won’t linger on my protruding ribs.
‘Good morning Arthur’
‘Good morning Mercy’
She is a stout woman, always was. At the time, this was one of my family’s concerns about our marriage. It is considered well, by those who advise on such things, to marry a woman who appears as if she will depend on her husband’s fortunes for her supper. Mercy didn’t belong to a wealthy family but she had seen no reason why she should therefore deny herself the pleasure of good, hearty meals. This was one of the things I had found so disarming about her in those early days. As I came to appreciate, the apparent strength of her fuller figure was very real. She gave birth to our son a month early on a beach, with only a maid to assist her. She calmed my old stallion when he threatened to throw her. And she even managed to tolerate my Aunt Audrey’s appalling perfumes without wincing. Of late though, there is a growing thinness about her eyes and mouth.
She is wearing a yellow dress, a particular favourite of hers. The colour always makes me think of a dandelion in the last moments before it turns to seeds. Her hair is, as ever, immaculate. Our son took some of his vanity from her, I think. In her right hand she is a carrying a large, leather satchel. Today’s medical miracles.
I attempt some humour.
‘I hear the Cavalry are treating us to a dawn chorus’
‘They are hunting for insurgents’ she says without feeling. These things just are. We have all had to become accustomed to them. Those that didn’t now fill the madhouses and prisons.
‘I’m sure they will find them’ she continues and then, with more bitterness ‘Don’t they always? It’s their one talent’
I understand her hatred for the brutal men running across the land, making a nonsense of common decency. All the same, I automatically look around in case we are being overheard. There have been stories of spies found in wardrobes and of chamber pots turned into elaborate eavesdropping devices. It’s easy to laugh at such tales, but I remember what happened to the Deverings. The whole family, even the child, denounced and deported. All because of a rhyme mocking the Duke’s notoriously bad breath.
‘Do you think they will come here?’ I ask. The Cavalrymen on our grounds is something we both dread.
Mercy shakes her head.
‘They are moving towards the Castingtons, I think. Lord Castington will be most distressed if he has to cancel tonight’s gathering. Especially after Lady Castington has been so liberal with his money when it comes to the arrangements’
I can’t help but be amused. Lady Castington was once a rival for my affections. Mercy has never quite trusted her since, despite my reassurances that I would rather take the gallows than spend a night alone with her again.
Mercy takes the seat nearest me. It is well over an arm’s length away from the bed, just in case there is a risk of infection. The satchel she sets down beside her. It strikes me as odd that she doesn’t open the curtains first. Has she lost her faith in the curative power of sunlight?
‘I gather Lady Castington has hopes of marrying her son before he goes off to war’ she continues with a lightness that immediately strikes me as forced.
‘A prolonged absence maybe the best arrangement that that useless lump can offer any future wife’ I observe.
‘I’m sure it will be an added enticement’
This savaging of our acquaintances has been an ongoing, shared pleasure for many years. When we were young and very much in love, it reminded of us of how separate to the rest of the world we felt ourselves to be. As love faded and was replaced by fondness and tolerance, it became just another amusing pastime, a distraction from the ever changing world that seemed to be leaving us behind.
Mercy reaches down for the satchel and places it on her lap. I see that her hands are shaking and know that something new and terrible is coming.
‘Don’t you want to open the curtains?’ I ask, aware that I am playing for time.
She shakes her head with the slow, infinite sadness of a woman who knows she must tell her husband something he would rather not hear.
‘Not yet, Arthur. I don’t…’
She breaks off. Swallows. I can tell that she is steeling herself.
And then she finds her voice again.
‘I don’t want anyone else to see’
‘What I have to show you Arthur’
‘It can’t be that bad’
I laugh to try and bring back some normality.
‘If it’s opium, we’ll probably have Cavalryman asking us where they can get some’
She sighs heavily.
‘It’s not opium Arthur’
‘Well, if not opium, than what is it? What do you want to show me?’
I’m unable to keep the trepidation from my voice. My wife has always had a certain mysterious distance from me, even at the height of our passions. Today that distance seems to have suddenly multiplied.
She reaches down and opens the satchel. I catch myself hoping it’s just some new and vile medication that she will produce from it. But no. It’s a book. Old and tattered, held together by little more than spring. I can smell its age from here.
Mercy holds it carefully, as though it might break loose and bite her.
‘A book’ I say, for want of anything more incisive.
‘I found it in Lord Merry’s library’ she tells me. ‘When I paid a visit to his wife’
A visit to his wife. Quite. She must get lonely after all.
‘It’s a book of old tales and myths’ she explains. ‘I was looking through it while…’
She hesitates for a moment. I nearly add for her ‘While Lord Merry was dressing’ but that would be needlessly cruel. I was hardly the most faithful of husbands when I was in full health.
She stands. Comes closer. Hands the book to me. I expect her to return to her chair, but she remains standing over me.
My hands are shaking slightly as I hold the book. There is a narrow strip of cloth acting as a marker in the pages.
‘Look at the picture’ Mercy instructs. Her tone is firm and yet filled with regret.
I open the book where she has placed the marker.
I know a second before I look what I will see.
The illustration is remarkably detailed. The eight long, hairy legs. The thick body tapering to a narrow neck and tiny head. The faceted eyes and delicately hinged three jaws of the mouth.
Beneath it, a single word is written: Cicicyprid.
My whole body shakes. I feel angry at my wife, truly angry for the first time since my illness began. How dare she bring this thing here and place it before me? What cruelty has she suddenly found herself capable of?
‘I’m sorry’ she says and I don’t have to look to know that she is crying, the tears rolling heavily down her cheeks.
My eyes will not leave the illustration.
‘Where did this come from?’
‘Lord Merry’s Library’
First cruelty, now foolishness! My patience is gone.
‘I know that! Where did the book come from before that?’
‘He came across it on his travels. A market somewhere. You know how he collects things’
I look at her now.
‘Oh indeed I do’
Mercy has the grace to blush but she manages to speak nonetheless.
‘It’s exactly like what you’ve described to me from your dream. Those insects. Appearing in your nightmares every night for a year. When I saw it in the book, I recognised it at once. Arthur, you even cried out that horrible name last night! I heard you all the way from my room. I knew then that I couldn’t be mistaken’
She stops and looks down at her hands.
‘I knew I had to bring it to you Arthur’
I start shouting.
‘But it’s just a damn dream! Part of my illness. How can it be real? How?’
The strain hurts my throat and the sound of my raised voice makes my ears ring. The effort is too much. My body can no longer sustain such anger. I collapse back on to the pillow, the book tumbling from my hands. I am so very tired. I sometimes think my whole world has become exhaustion.
Mercy picks the book up from my lap. She sits on the end of the bed. Her tears have stopped. She begins to read from it, in as calm and measured a voice as I have ever heard from her.
‘Although traces of the tale have been found in several continents, no exact source has ever been located. However the fundamentals of the narrative are largely consistent. It is recounted that the real world was dreamed into existence by insects. For many years the world continued unchanged, disturbed only by the wars of men. However one mischievous insect, the Cicicyprid, eventually grew tired of all that they had made. It wanted the world to change, as a caterpillar longs to turn into a moth. So it laid its eggs in the dreams of man. Whenever a man dreamed of the children of the Cicicyprid, it signified that they had infested his mind and were preparing to escape and re-make the world. If the man died, then the danger died with him. If he fell into the right kind of half sleep, then the Cicicyprids would become real. They would emerge into this world which would then become the dream. A new waking world would replace the one that had existed before. Thus the world was remade whenever the Cicicyprids escaped from a man’s dreams. According to some variations of the story, this has already happened many times before and the original world was lost long ago. The illustration above is a composite based on several written descriptions and decorative mosaics found in various states of ruin’
She closes the book. For a few minutes we sit in silence.
‘I don’t want you to die Arthur’
She doesn’t have to add that I will die soon all the same. There is no cure for whatever is wasting me away. Not even a name for it that any doctor can provide. Perhaps it really is all the doing of the insects.
‘I know’ I say and I take her hand. I hold it tight. So many shared memories between us, even if not all of them are happy ones.
‘Arthur, if the story really is true, we can change the world’
My weary mind struggles to find her meaning.
‘What are you saying Mercy?’
‘The right kind of half sleep. That’s what the book says’
She stands, goes to her satchel and reaches in with both hands. She returns, holding a small green bottle in her right hand and a sheet of paper in her left.
She sits beside me and runs a hand gently through my straggly hair.
She holds up the bottle.
‘I mixed this last night. I think it will do’
‘What is it?’
‘A draught. The women at court use it when they must be calm but can no longer bear to feel. Rumour has it that it’s all that keeps the Duke’s wife from the sanatorium. Normally only a small amount is taken. A larger amount I think would do it. You would be both asleep and awake’
I understand now and it shocks me. Is this some madness? My wife wishes to end the world? Is my illness truly so hard for her to bear?
‘Why would you want me to do this?’ I demand ‘If the world becomes a dream then surely so does everyone we know. So do you. So does our son. Everything Mercy. Everything becomes lost. Even if it’s true…why?’
She hands me the sheet of paper. I recognise Colin’s hand.
Dear Mother and Father
The Duke has lead us to greater glory than even I could have imagined. I have been mentioned in despatches not once but five times, as a fearless and merciless campaigner. The entire continent is now put down. We have taken their children and we have turned them to ash blowing in the wind above their ruined cities. Their few surviving women are to be employed as Cavalrymen’s wives. When I return home, it will be as a married man. Mother will welcome another pair of hands and an obedient mind around the kitchen.
. This is truly the greatest moment of my life. I plan a Dukedom of my own. I look forward to sharing more with you, in person, very soon.
I crumple the letter in my hand. I remember the boy who sat on my lap, watching the dogs play, laughing at sunbeams. I take in my wife’s face for a moment. Imagine what reading those words must have done to her and the horrified anticipation of hearing them from his own lips.
‘Give me the phial’ I say.
Perhaps this is madness but it is also hope.
The taste is heavy and bitter, as seems appropriate. I drink it down in two swift gulps. Mercy takes the empty bottle from me. I lay staring at the walls, at my blankets and the furnishings. They all seem less familiar now, as though someone has broken into our house and filled it with strange objects. This is the sleep coming I think. The right half sleep.
My limbs are distant from me. The aches and pains of so many long months have finally been banished. I have the sense that blood may be running from my nose, but it doesn’t seem to matter. For a few fleeting seconds, I can hear my own heart and imagine I can see the fleshy walls of it throb with every beat. The walls of the room also seem to pulse, so slowly and so gently.
Mercy makes a long, drawn out sound that I don’t understand. Eventually, I realise that it’s a gasp. She is standing and pointing.
I look down, my eyes seeming to take hours to complete the journey. The Cicicyprid stands on my chest. Eight legs covered in – yes, they are needles not hair. I think there may even be tiny, purple leaves between them. Sharp, pointed feet press into my skin through the thin material of the nightshirt. The long blue body of the insect gleams in the light streaming in through the gap in the curtains. Faceted eyes, like the jewels I bought Mercy for her first birthday as a married woman, regard me calmly.
I hear scuttling behind my head. More are coming.
The one on my chest makes a noise. It is like the scraping of wings, the hiss of seeds being expelled from plants, the sweetest of lullabies.
The pulsating walls are changing. The floral wallpaper is consumed by red and green swirls. Last to go is the picture of the Duke. All his blood and glory and stolen sons and his world can be unwritten by an insect. I’m smiling, for the first time in weeks.
I’m becoming cold. A wonderful chill reaching into the very the core of my being. Is that snow, tumbling from the ceiling, covering the bed in a new blanket?
Then I can no longer see.
A hand squeezes mine.
The world I knew.
I am still smiling.
I am gone.
A figure made of glass, filled with smoke, stands on a beach. It watches as the sun begins to rise. It sings the new day into being.
Text (c) Damian Mark Whittle