PseudoPod 790: The Humbug

The Humbug

By Orrin Grey

Joshua caught it in a glass jar with holes poked in the lid. He came running up to the cabin with it, shouting, “I found a bug! I found a bug!”

“There aren’t any bugs in winter,” Amanda said crossly, though no snow had fallen yet and the trees and ground outside were simply bare and gray. 

When Joshua placed the jar on the big, heavy dining table, however, there was no mistaking that a bug rested on the bottom, lying on its back with its unpleasantly segmented legs folded up toward its abdomen.

“Then it’s dead,” Amanda huffed. 

She was the middle child, and seemed to have reached a stage in her development where she felt the need to compensate for being neither youngest nor oldest by always knowing everything. 

“Or hibernating,” Alice quickly added, having only recently learned that some insects burrowed down into the ground and slept a deathlike sleep through the winter. “Cicadas do it for years and years!” she added cheerily.

But when Joshua tapped on the side of the jar, the bug inside sprang to life like a clockwork toy. Righting itself with a strangely mechanical hop, it scuttled to the edge farthest from where Joshua’s fingertip still rested against the glass.

“You’ll have to put some sticks or dead leaves in there for it,” I told him, “or it really will die.” He dutifully ran out to gather up some twigs and bits of fallen foliage, leaving the insect in its jar on the table.

I bent down to examine it as Alice climbed up on a chair to do the same and Amanda pretended disinterest by going to the sink and rattling glasses around in an exaggerated pantomime of getting a drink of water.

The insect itself was uniquely ugly, and of a type that I had never seen before, in spite of spending my own childhood among these trees and mountains. In shape, it was a bit like a poorly-wrought shield. Its color was uniformly gray, except for green bands and red spots which decorated its back and abdomen.

“It’s a Christmas bug,” Alice observed, thumping her small hand against the glass in an effort to point out the colors. I simply bit my lip and nodded.

I was never one to shy away from what my father had called “creeper crawlers.” My own girlhood had been spent turning over rocks in search of snakes and splashing in shallow pools looking for newts and salamanders. Even had that not been the case, a willingness to handle—and, indeed, admire—just about every manner of odd creature is all-but a prerequisite for being a good governess, in my experience.

No, it was something peculiar about this insect that made me loathe to handle the jar, that sent an impulse to my arm to slap away Alice’s hand as I would from a hot stove. It evoked a shudder of the grotesque, as some insects and spiders instinctively do, even while others seem harmless or even adorable.

The bug’s head was not at the point of the shield, as I might have imagined, but instead along its “top” end; the eyes red grills, the mouth a sort of hinged contraption from which poked a stunted and somehow obscene proboscis.

When the insect was in motion, its legs appeared to jut first upward from its body, then hinge suddenly down like a surgeon’s needle. In every aspect of its movement it seemed somehow mechanical; as though it was a simulacrum of an insect, fashioned by someone who had received only a cursory explanation of the breed.

I say that I was loathe to handle the jar, and that’s true enough, but I also found it hard to look away from the squat, ugly gargoyle within. In fact, I only realized how long I had been staring, watching the insect explore its small, round prison, when Joshua came back with a handful of twigs and dirty leaves, his hands smeared with black.

“I want to put them in,” he said, dropping his handfuls on the table.

“No outside things on the table!” Amanda shouted from over by the sink. It was something she had heard her mother say, and I could even hear a childish attempt at approximating her mother’s voice. Nor was she wrong. In fact, their mother would probably not have wanted the insect in the jar on the table in the first place, though rules were somewhat more lax in the cabin.

“I just need to get the lid,” Joshua shouted back, the jar already in his hands, the black residue from the leaves slipping as he tried to unscrew the top. With the jar tilted, the insect was rapidly making its way up the side—which was now the bottom—toward the lid.

“Why don’t you wash up your hands,” I said, suppressing a shudder as I scooped the jar away from Joshua, “and I’ll give these to your friend. Amanda, bring me a towel.”

Amanda smirked as she gathered up a yellowish towel from the drying rack next to the sink and brought it over to me. I wiped off the lid of the jar and placed it back onto the table, then unscrewed it, picked up the twigs and bits of rotting vegetation, and quickly stuffed them through a small gap that I opened between the lid and the jar.

The insect sat at the bottom looking up at the opening, and didn’t so much as twitch as the sticks and dirty leaves rained down on its face.

“I want to arrange them,” Joshua said, coming back from pumping the water to wash his hands.

“You can arrange them later,” I said, wiping my hands off on the towel. “For now, it’s time for little children to eat their lunch.”

“What do bugs eat?” Alice asked.

“Oh, bugs eat all sorts of things,” I said. “I’m sure this fellow will enjoy eating some of those leaves we just dropped in there, but unless you want to eat leaves, you should start getting out your plates and things.”

The children scurried to do as I asked, and I made sure I tightened the lid down extra tight before I placed the jar on the mantle.

In spite of my assurances, the insect did not eat any of the plants or sticks that Joshua had put in the jar. After lunch, the children went outside for a while, and I tidied up while watching them through the cabin windows. 

When they came back in, their cheeks and noses red from the cold that hadn’t fully set in yet, there was already a fire and hot cocoa to distract them for a time, but it only worked for so long. Joshua wanted to rearrange the sticks and twigs inside the bug’s jar, and I hadn’t been able, in the intervening few hours, to come up with any good reason why he shouldn’t.

I watched him carefully as he placed the jar on the card table and poked at the sticks with a long spoon. I had already cautioned him against poking his hand down into the jar. “You may hurt your friend,” I had said, though I was actually more concerned with the other way around.

“He isn’t eating,” Joshua said, a note of worry edging toward panic in his voice.

“He may not feel hungry just yet,” I said in an attempt to placate him. “He’s had a big day, after all.”

“If he doesn’t eat, he’ll die,” Joshua complained.

“He’ll die anyway,” Amanda said. “He should be dead already. He’s an anomaly.”

“He is not an anomaly,” Joshua said, clutching the jar to his chest. “He’s mine!”

“He may well be an anomaly,” I said, interposing myself between the two children and—surreptitiously, I hoped—screwing the lid of the jar back on. “An anomaly just means something that’s unusual or unique, and I’ve certainly never seen anything like him around here before.”

“What does he like to eat?” Alice asked again.

“I’ll tell you what,” I said, directing my sentence at Joshua, who looked like he was about to cry, “let’s try to find out what he is tomorrow, and then we’ll know what he eats.”

Mollified somewhat by this, I was able to convince Joshua to relinquish the jar, partly by telling him that the insect would be warmer on the mantle than anyplace else in the cabin, and get all the children into bed.

Joshua named the bug Henry, and it accompanied us on the train ride from the cabin back home to Gillford, where the children’s parents were supposed to be waiting for us. Waiting instead was a telegram saying that their trip to the continent had been prolonged unavoidably but that they should be back in London within a fortnight and, if so, the children could come down and spend Christmas Eve in the city.

The rest of the telegram—the part which I didn’t read aloud to the children—thanked me for my forbearance and promised a substantial bonus for my troubles upon their return, though it wasn’t any inconvenience on my part that irked me, it was the crestfallen faces of the children themselves when they heard the news.

Little Alice began to cry, asking when Mummy and Daddy would be home, while Amanda stormed up to her room and slammed the door. Joshua simply asked if he could go outside and play, to which I told him that he could, so long as he returned promptly within a half-hour. He took the jar containing Henry with him, and I confess to a secret hope that he would release the insect into the wild and we would be rid of it for good.

“Mummy and Daddy do very important work,” I told Alice as I held her in my arms, “and sometimes our work takes longer than we mean it to.”

“I want them to come home,” she sobbed, her face red and wet with tears.

“They’ll be home very soon,” I said, “and you’ll see them for Christmas Eve.” But even as I reassured her, I feared that I was lying.

The appointed time came and went, and with it another telegram explaining their continued absence in words that might have appeased another adult but held little balm for children. “If we cannot make London by Christmas Eve, we promise a grand celebration upon our return,” the telegram ended.

On the day that the second telegram arrived, I took all the children into town to browse for things to put in their letters to Santa, or so I told them, though really it was to take their minds off the absence of their parents.

Joshua had continued to keep Henry in his jar, and had begun to drop other small bugs in with it, which promptly disappeared, neatly solving the problem of what Henry ate. As to what sort of insect it was, we had exhausted all the information that was to be found in the encyclopedias at home, and were no closer to identifying the unusual bug. So, while we were in town, we stopped into the tobacconist’s shop, which doubled as a bookseller’s, and asked Mr. Keene if he had any books about insects.

He brought out one that was filled with sketches of all kinds of insects from all over the world—insects that looked like sticks and leaves and everything else you could imagine, but though Joshua and I sat on the bench inside the shop and turned every page in the book, the warm smell of tobacco settling around me and reminding me of my own pa, who always smoked a pipe in front of the fire before turning in for the night, we could find nothing that matched the creature he had found.

“Mine isn’t in here,” he indignantly said to Mr. Keene. A smile crinkled the old man’s weathered features, his red nose shining in the afternoon sunlight as he leaned over so that his face was closer to Joshua’s level.

“Well, son, there’s all kinds of insects in the world, you know? Thousands and thousands. Millions, even. For every beast and bird and fish in the whole world, there’s probably at least ten different insects. So, it only stands to reason that we haven’t found ‘em all and named ‘em all and wrote ‘em all down yet. Who knows but that you may be the first to find a whole new species, eh?”

“How would we know if I’d found a new species?” Joshua asked as we left the shop. He struggled with the last word, pronouncing it “spee-see.”

“Well,” I replied, “I guess we’d have to write to a scientist or someone who works in a museum. How about we do that as soon as your parents get home?”

When we got home, I had the children write their letters to Santa. Amanda insisted that it was silly. “Mom and dad get us presents,” she informed her two siblings hotly.

“And me,” I reminded her.
“And you. But not Santa.”

“And how do you know that Santa doesn’t pass them along to us? Do you know where we get them from?”

“The shops in town.”

“But certainly not everything that you get is something that you’ve seen in the shops in town. Don’t your mother and father give you things that you’ve never seen anywhere else?”

She conceded this point, but remained convinced that it was, at best, impractical for Santa to work through such a middleman.

When all the children had gone to bed, I opened the envelopes into which they had carefully placed their letters but which they had not sealed, and read their lists by the light of the fire. I sucked in my lip when Alice asked for mommy and daddy to be home.

In contrast to his extensive lists from previous years, there was only one item on the list that Joshua left for Santa: a terrarium home for his new six-legged friend. Feeling guilty for the absence of his parents, I caved in and bought it for him early, from a little shop down in the village while one of the maids watched over the children. I had the shopkeeper deliver it.

“Why does Joshua get one of his presents early?” Amanda asked, when I told him that he could open it a week before the holiday.

“You may all open one present this evening,” I said, not willing to tell her that the reason I had rushed it was because Henry was already very near to outgrowing the jar in which Joshua kept him.

The snow began on the night that the children opened their one present. “Does this mean mommy and daddy won’t be able to make it home?” Alice asked as the three of them pressed their noses against the cold glass the following morning and watched the blanket of white grow deeper.

“There are lots of ways to get through snow,” I replied. “Sleighs and skates and those sleds pulled by lots and lots of dogs…”

“Can we make snow angels?” Amanda asked, her perpetual ill-temper momentarily forgotten.

“As long as you watch Alice, and come right back in when you start to get cold,” I said.

It would have been one thing if the snow had fallen and then stopped. We might even have still enjoyed a white Christmas, if the temperature didn’t climb too high during the day. But that isn’t what happened. The snow didn’t let up. Not that day, when the children came in rosy-cheeked and damp with sweat and melted snow, and not that night, as we all sat gathered around the fire drinking cocoa.

The next morning, it was still snowing, and that day it never seemed to get bright. It was as if the dawn struggled and failed to climb over the edge of the world, and the low clouds gave us perpetual twilight as the snow piled soundlessly higher and higher.

For the first few days, we still saw carriages and horses passing along the road from time to time. The mail came and went. By three days before Christmas, however, we saw not a soul, and the snow had piled to the bottom edges of the windows.

“What happens if snow buries the house?” Joshua asked.

“Well, the chimney is at the top,” I replied, “so Santa can still get in.”

Yet, I was growing concerned. The maids and cooks had not arrived, stuck in town due to the growing mounds of snow that continued to bury the world outside. I had been quick-thinking enough to bring in extra wood from the pile outside and stack it in the pantry, but even so it would only last for so long. I encouraged the children to leave their bedrooms and come sleep down near the fireplace, next to the Christmas tree. I told them it would be cozy.

That’s where we were on the chilly, dim afternoon of December the 23rd, when we heard the sound of breaking glass from upstairs.

“Could it be Santa?” Alice asked.

“Santa doesn’t break windows,” Amanda said.

“It’s too early for Santa,” I cut her off. A kinder explanation, anyway. “It was probably just the wind. The three of you wait here, and I’ll go see what it is.”

I genuinely believed my own explanation, but I felt a shiver of fear as I left the warmth of the hearth and headed up the stairs. I told myself that it was worry over the plunging temperature inside the house, which would only get worse if a window had, in fact, been broken, say by the branch of a nearby tree. But I knew that it was something else.

On the second floor, I walked from outside window to outside window, trying to find the source of the noise, expecting to see snow piling on the windowsill and drifting to the floor. All the windows appeared to be intact, however, and I was about to give up and head up to the third floor where the lumber room and now-unused servants’ quarters were, when I noticed the bits of glass next to Joshua’s bed.

He had placed Henry’s terrarium on his desk, and now the side of it was shattered, as though it had been hit with a mallet. The glass wasn’t inside the terrarium, though, it was all over the floor, where dirty, round spots the size of a pencil eraser led away in two uneven lines until they vanished not far from the door.

“What was it?” Joshua asked as I came back downstairs, hoping that the firelight would hide how pale and drawn my face had become.

“Your terrarium fell over,” I said. “I think Henry got out.”

Joshua made to rise and go look for him, but I grabbed him around the waist. “I don’t think you should,” I said. “There’s broken glass and you could cut yourself. We’ll clean it up when it’s more light outside.”

“But what about Henry?” Joshua objected. “He’ll freeze.”

Somehow, I doubted it, but what I said was, “Insects know how to survive. You found him in the winter, so obviously he can withstand some cold, and it’s not so cold in here. Besides, he’ll know to go someplace warm.”

Looking at the fireplace, I hoped it wasn’t true.

That evening, we heard a sound from the upstairs. A clicking sound, like two sticks rapping together. “Branches,” I told the children, as we all looked up at the ceiling above our heads, “tapping on the windowpanes.” In silence, we listened to the sound moving from one side of the house to the other; searching.

“How big was Henry when you last saw him?” I thought to ask Joshua at one point, when the noises had subsided. I realized that I had been avoiding the terrarium since it was installed, hadn’t even peered inside. Joshua held up his hands a little way apart, indicating a space the size of a large man’s boot.

“Bugs don’t get that big,” Amanda told him.

“Henry did,” Joshua replied. I didn’t argue, though I wanted to.

“I have to go to the bathroom,” Alice said, tugging on the sleeve of my dressing gown. I looked at the big clock that stood upon the mantle and saw that it was a little after three in the morning, making it officially Christmas Eve.

“It’s just down the hall,” I said.

“I’m scared,” she replied.

So am I, I wanted to say, but I knew better. Looking at the other two children where they lay on the rug in front of the orange glow of the hearth, I nodded and took her small hand and led her out of the parlor and toward the water closet.

The door to the washroom was just beyond the base of the stairs, and when we got there I asked if she wanted to go in by herself. “As long as you promise to wait right here,” she said, and I held out my pinkie, which she wrapped in hers and gave it a firm shake.

She went into the room and shut the door, and I leaned against the wall and felt how cold the house was already growing everywhere except in the parlor, where I was keeping the fire tended. The snow outside had drifted higher than the bottoms of the windows, now, and in places it blacked out the glass. I could feel the cold oozing in.

On the stairs, I heard a sound. A familiar clatter. It was one I had heard many times before. The children’s mother kept a brass statue of a cat on a small table on the landing, and every time one of the children went barreling down the stairs—or up them—and took that corner too quickly, they knocked into the table and sent that brass cat clattering to the floor.

The sound was so familiar that I even assumed I knew the entire story of its origin in a moment. Joshua had awakened and, noticing my absence, had decided to slip upstairs to look for his lost pet. I pushed myself off the wall and stepped around the corner, expecting to see his feet disappearing up the stairs and readying my voice to call up and scold him.

Something was on the stairs, but it wasn’t Joshua. It was the size of a small pony, and even in the dim light I could see the color of its boxy body, gray with green bands and red spots. Its squat proboscis was the length and girth of my forearm, and its legs hinged up and down with that horridly mechanical jerkiness as it came hurtling down the steps toward me.

I might have been frozen there until it arrived had Alice not chosen that moment to step out of the washroom and, when she saw the massive monster coming, let out a high-pitched scream. This seemed to stop the creature in its tracks for a moment, and when Joshua and Amanda appeared in the doorway, I saw that Joshua was holding a fireplace poker.

Unsure of what I was doing, save that I had to keep the children safe, I grabbed the poker from him and advanced on the demon on the stairs. At first it seemed uncertain how to proceed, and then it lunged forward. I brought the poker down and struck it, the pointed end glancing off one of its red eyes. 

Though seemingly uninjured, the creature drew back, and I pressed my advantage, forcing my way up their stairs, batting at it with the poker. On the same landing where it had, indeed, knocked the cat statue from its perch, there was a round, stained glass window the size of a dinner table, and with a single, mechanical hop, the thing propelled itself away from me and through the glass, out into the snowy night.

Now it is midnight on Christmas Eve. Immediately after the creature’s departure, we retreated to the parlor, and I stoked the fire as bright as it would go. We heard it moving outside the windows, against the walls. I built the fire up until it was blazing, thinking of that hideously segmented body coming down the chimney like some profane Santa Claus.

Now, however, the fire has died to embers, and I have nothing left at hand to throw on the flames. I made an effort at breaking down the furniture earlier in the day, but most of it is too sturdily constructed for the tools at hand.

The children are sleeping fitfully, huddled as close to the fire as I will allow. They should be harassing me to open their presents early, not wanting to wait for Santa to come, and I should be giving in, as their mother always does, and allowing them to each unwrap one present tonight—just one!—and save the rest for the morning.

Instead, most of the presents are burnt, still in their boxes and shiny paper. I’ve taken a heavy knife from the kitchen and sheared most of the branches from the tree and burned those as well. I have made two trips to the pantry for more wood, but the pile there is dwindling to nothing, and I am loathe to leave the children alone for long.

The back door is snowed shut, even if I were willing to open it, which I am not. I’ve seen the shadow moving outside the windows, and the last time it passed, it must have been as big as a horse. It has been hours since I saw it last, but I know that it’s still out there, waiting for us. I can hear it now, up on the rooftop, click click click…

About the Author

Orrin Grey 

Orrin Grey

Orrin Grey is a writer, editor, tabletop game designer, amateur film scholar, and monster expert whose stories of monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year. He’s the author of several books, including Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts and Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales.

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Orrin Grey

About the Narrator

Nicola Burke

Nicola Burke

“For as long as I can remember my curiosity has gotten me into trouble. I am fascinated by us and the meaning of things. As a qualified Optometrist, I studied physics in depth. The more I learned the more I realized that the universe is way more magical than we realize (remember)! I also enjoy reading ancient texts including the bible (the Old Testament is a very interesting read!) I believe it is possible that stories and imagination, play an important role in our collective consciousness. So here I am, trying in my small way to pass on stories and stimulate the imagination and having some fun in the process.”

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Nicola Burke

About the Artist

Kitty Sarkozy

Kitty Sarkozy

Kitty Sarkozy is a speculative fiction writer, actor and robot girlfriend. Kitty is an alumnus of Superstars Writing Seminar , a member of the Apex Writers Group, and the Horror Writer’s Association. Several large cats allow her to live with them in Marietta GA, She enjoys tending the extensive gardens, where she hides the bodies. For a list of her publications, acting credits or to engage her services on your next project go to

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Kitty Sarkozy