PseudoPod 806 : Garden Empire
by Chris Matson
I’d bought the house only the week before, when I was still in possession both of my teeth and of my job as the Head of Machine Learning for an Auckland-based startup. A two-story villa with a section of native bush so dense that it baffled the city noise into a murmur.
After David called to tell me I was being pushed out, I wandered in a daze out of the house and into the cool heart of the garden, where I slumped against a tree fern and watched a bumblebee clamber about a lavender bush. Its bulbous shape evoked the image of a furred twitching brain – my brain, I idly imagined, always seeking nutritious data. But where would it feed if the lavender sickened? Would it throb unhappily to a dark corner of the garden, to dine on sullen fungal growths or the entrails of a dead mouse? My mind’s eye would not hold the bee’s gentle fur in the same scope as a rodent’s cadaver, and the bee flickered into a fat black fly, and the fly multiplied into a swarm. Bees, entrails, flies … Mother had often warned me to be on guard against unhealthy mental progressions, and I realized that without a job I would need something appropriate to occupy my teeming mind.
I needed a hobby.
The bee reminded me of the fever for insect collecting that had gripped me as a child – an obsession that saw my bedroom engulfed in pinboards and killing jars and the soft chill of chloroform – and I returned to the house to track down my old copy of The Insects of New Zealand.
The next morning I armed myself with a flask of coffee and magnifying glass and made my way down the dew-spangled steps. How to describe that magnificent day, and the cascade that followed? A return to potent childhood memories; of fingers probing soft earth in search of the robotic cicada larvae, eyes searching for the moth’s wings like crayon rubbed over bark. I began to travel to the Entomology wing of the Auckland Museum to examine more exotic specimens. At first, I felt a sense of silent camaraderie with the larvally soft-skinned habitués of the research library, each secreted within his – for their vestigial genitalia, beneath sexless knitted exteriors, were invariably male – cocoon of flannel and paper, jaws working to dissolve sweets from clandestine bags secreted in coat or trouser pocket, like the preening mandibles of the mantids and centipedes they studied. For a single hour each afternoon a single high window admitted a blade of sunlight into the dim basement room, sending each inhabitant it touched scurrying to a safely engloomed booth.
But that fraternal sense soured to a mixture of pity and contempt when the superficiality of their commitment was disgracefully exposed.
I had noticed a gentleman withdrawing a copy of August Cladet’s Mundus Fabula, a fascinating book that illuminates the method of staccato clicks that certain beetles in the African Xylotrupes family use to communicate with each other by the percussion of their ridged rear legs against the brightly colored wing-casings. Purely by coincidence, I had challenged myself to learn the basic language units of shell percussion, which is akin in principle to morse code. When he got up and made his way to the restroom, I followed, permitting myself a small, secret smile in advance of his presumed delight at my mastery of this obscure language.
I entered behind him and waited at a polite distance as he squared up to the urinal. Then, using my heavy signet ring as a foreleg substitute, and the heavy porcelain washbasin as a mock carapace, I sounded out the rhythm for the Zairean Side-Scuttling Beetle’s version of “HELLO”. He froze, presumably in recognition, his stream trickling to silence. Encouraged, I ventured a modest joke by tapping: “NESTMATE OR FOE?” His head swiveled slowly until his eyes met mine. I smiled and nodded encouragingly, indicating with an extended hand that he should join in the jest, only to step backwards in astonishment as he rushed past me to the door. As I pondered his strange behavior, he re-entered, accompanied by the elderly librarian who viewed each withdrawal as a matter of personal offence.
The altercation that ensued was a farce. The librarian ventured that this sort of behavior was not permitted at a place of higher learning. I responded – perhaps overly aggressively, I must admit, given my hurt pride at what I’d considered a more than passable shell-percussion approximation – that the vocabulary for this kind of interaction was limited by necessity. Somehow, the overlapping voices and gesticulations escalated into a struggle, during the course of which my coat was torn open. The compressed limbs of my apparatus sprang forth, and a glinting foreleg whipped across the librarian’s cheek.
Both men stepped back from me then, the librarian’s face pale as drops of blood beaded in his wound. I carefully folded my apparatus, wrapped my coat around myself, and exited the library in wounded silence.
Stung by my shabby treatment at the hands of those self-anointed “academics”, I secluded myself at home and began to excavate the online entomological forums. The most easily accessible layer consisted of predictably superficial prattle (“… my roses are infested with small scaly insects that I …”, “… while walking with my wife I came across a brilliant green beetle whose …”). The layer below that, a world of dilettantes obsessed with Latin nomenclature. And far below that, in the deepest recesses of the sub-internet, that chthonic level under whose distorting pressure only the true obsessive pokes and squirms, I found myself creating an account at esoterica.subforum.entomophiles.
As I browsed the members, I found myself arrested by the profile picture of “Scarabgirl1978”. The image was a bisected square, the left side comprised of a magnified view of the iridescent green shell casing of what I assumed was a Pyronota Festiva – a native New Zealand beetle of the scarab family – and the right side consisting of the right half of a woman’s face, ingeniously augmented with “make up” designed to mimic the subtle shimmer of the beetle’s wing case. Her profile indicated that she lived in a town only an hour’s drive from the city, and that her interests included “Scarab Play” and “Ethno/Ento-Communion”. I was not familiar with either phrase, but was curious enough to send her a short message praising the aesthetic effect of her profile image, and teasingly (but with the serious purpose of determining if she was legitimate) asked if she preferred her thorax ridged or noded.
I admit that I felt some trepidation as to whether she would reply. But just as I had resolved to go and work on my biofilms project in the kitchen, the laptop chimed with her response (“Ridged? Noded?! Both! You have me spinning with excitement!!!”). I laughed out loud with delight; she had not only correctly divined the trick nature of my question (the male Pyronota beetle’s ridged thorax becomes speckled with nodes as it enters sexual maturity) but had further made droll reference to the clumsy spinning dance that the females employ as a mating cue.
A whirlwind of forum messages culminated in a “face to face” meeting at an Auckland restaurant. Arabella (her allegedly real name) was instantly recognizable in an inventive costume of shimmering emerald layers; another artful play on the beetles’ distinctive casing. I had left my improved apparatus at home, having vainly decided that it ruined the cut of my jacket, but when she arrived at the table I presented her with an orb of carefully woven flowers. She gasped with touched recognition – the gift was inspired by the balls of decaying leaf matter that the male Pyronota crafts for potential mates – and a most successful “date” ensued.
As we lingered over cake and dessert wine, I declared that I had greatly enjoyed our first physical meeting and inquired as to whether we might repeat it. Flushed from the wine, Arabella said that she would love to do so, and ventured that we might even “take it to the next level”. I agreed immediately, for although our dealings thus far had been pleasant, and Arabella had greatly impressed me by proving herself even more familiar with the Melolonthidae family than I had expected, our discussions had focused more on her somewhat anthropomorphized appreciations of their appearance and habits (their resemblance to living jewels, their habit of mating vigorously and polyamorously even for insects, etc.), and I was eager to graduate to the hard study that I assumed we both had in mind.
I inquired as to whether she meant a “physical” level, picturing us collaborating on the practical work I had been doing at the house regarding pheromone signaling and biofilm nutrition. She flushed deeper, and said that I could certainly put it like that.
I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirrored bar as we got up to leave the restaurant. My blandly handsome face has often seemed somehow contingent to me, as if there might be a series of hidden tabs lining that trustworthy jaw, or a method of depressing in sequence those thoughtful eyes, that might cause the entire facade to split and lift away with no pain, like wing-cases parting to reveal the scything mechanics beneath. The superficial fitness for mating indicated by that face’s pleasing distribution of fatty deposits under skin, however, is no doubt what induced Arabella, upon my having walked her to her car, to kiss me firmly, her hand fluttering at my thigh with a salacious comment about my “engorged node”.
Stunned, I drove home and pondered this stroke of good fortune: not only to have found a potential research partner, but in all likelihood one with whom the possibility of regular mating was achievable. Mother had always maintained that proper hygiene, in terms of satisfaction of one’s natural impulses, was to be ignored at one’s peril.
We had set another “date” for the following week, this time at my house. Following a meal and a considerable amount of wine, my attempt to show her my diagrams was pre-empted by her insistence that we dance to a recording of Pyronota clicks that she had loaded onto her phone. Barely had we begun than she moved in close and began fumbling at the buttons of my jacket. ‘I can’t seem to … there’s something caught under -’ she muttered as the final button slid free of its confounding slit. Her eyes widened as the articulated limbs unfolded on smoothly oiled hinges, the candlelight projecting eight graceful shadows onto the wall and ceiling. I slid my fingers into the hidden gauntlets, whose nylon fishing lines manipulated the legs via an ingenious system of eyelets attached to the tibial spurs. (After the unfortunate incident at the library, I had perfected the design by adding rubberized tips to the tarsal claws, to avoid accidental gougings.)
Arabella drew in her breath as I expertly worked my fingers and my new limbs enfolded her in a gentle embrace. Her eyes flickered, some animal awareness invading the alcohol’s sheen.
‘I … think I need a glass of water,” she said softly.
‘Of course,’ I said, ‘through here’. I gestured down the hall and opened the cradling arms on that side with a carefully practiced movement. She moved crabwise, pretending playfully – or so I believed at the time – to keep her eyes on me as if I might pounce once she turned her back.
The candlelight in the kitchen barely illuminated the dark floor, so it was not surprising that Arabella failed to appreciate the pale discs that magically appeared around our feet as we entered, and moved with us like patches of charmed moonlight as I followed her to the counter. She poured a glass of water with trembling fingers, eyes darting around the room as her vision adjusted.
‘Did you put something in my food?’ she asked.
I stared at her in confusion, then followed her gaze and realized that the kaleidoscopic throb of the “wallpaper” might seem rather hallucinatory to the uninitiated. I had begun to chuckle at the misunderstanding – only realizing in retrospect that the candlelight had likely pasted my shadow limbs up to the high ceiling in a regrettably sinister fashion – when she looked more closely at the floor and screamed. Before I could protest she had leaped towards the light-switch, landing on the dark “carpet” with murderous feet. She flicked the switch and the pale circles expanded as the legions of beetles (that had congregated to sample the biofilms I had so carefully applied to the floor and walls, and had maintained a respectful distance from our lumbering feet) fled the spiteful bulb, leaving only those who had met an ignoble end crushed and embedded in Arabella’s callous soles.
I will not detail the ugly specifics of her exit.
After her departure, I finished the bottle of wine and, in a state of bitter inebriation, checked my old work email for the first time since my dismissal at David’s hands, having retained administrative privileges he was not aware of. I was about to log off, oddly cheered by the fact that the colony I had helped create was still running so efficiently, when I came across an email from David to another of the partners, from which I gleaned their plan to betray the entry-level shareholders (myself included) by transferring the company’s intellectual property to a foreign jurisdiction shell.
I opened another bottle.
I woke with my cheek broiling in the sunrise through the kitchen window, the fizzing throb in my head resolving into a trapped fly droning against the window. It occurred to me, watching it thrust against the invisible obstruction, that the obtuse intentions of my species (David’s betrayal, the spiteful creatures at the museum, Arabella’s hollow gloss), constituted a veiled barrier against which I had battered myself all my life.
I relaxed my eyes until the kitchen’s reflection in the glass superimposed itself on the garden, two paths laid before me. I suddenly realized what, despite my fascination with that lattice of soil and branch, I had failed to comprehend: that the empire beyond the glass was a realm of violence without cruelty, of killing power without degradation, of orgiastic fecundity without shame. The revelation of a new world had been offered, and I had debased it as a tool for approximating human experience, blind to the opportunity of true communion.
A memory lurched forth: as a child I had been intrigued by the idea of metamorphosis, after learning that when the caterpillar enters its cocoon it does not morph into a new shape, but rather liquefies into a cellular soup that then constitutes itself into the new stage. I remember asking my mother whether it hurt the caterpillar, and her – following that curious tic of hers, whereby she would stare at me for a moment as if I were a stranger in her house before configuring her expression into a careful smile – baring her teeth and assuring me that it did not.
Unable to self-weave a cocoon, I set about dismantling the rear of the house so as to more fully integrate with my environment, leaving the facade intact in order to avoid undue attention. I reframed my diet through force of will, lapping dew from the morning leaves and preying on skittering protein morsels. My stomach rebelled at first – I spent one writhing afternoon after consuming an innocuous-seeming Shield Beetle, glad of the sound-cancelling effect that reserved my weeping moans for the garden’s private consumption – but soon adjusted.
The house had become chill at night since the power was cut off, and the honeycombed roof transformed my mattress into an eruption of fungal scallops with the first rain. But it was more the insect’s wariness of spaces wide enough for swooping wings that soon led me to burrow into the compost pile at sunset, seeking the energy radiated by anaerobic organisms breaking down dead matter.
Thus it was that on a still dawn I emerged from that pungent womb with my body perfected: my frame grown leaner, senses finer, soft skin scarified into a leathery carapace. My only concern was that I had been unable, as yet, to shed the entanglements of the human mind – the hurt, the fantasies of revenge – and feared that I would remain trapped within this psychological caul, like a larva too weak to split its cocoon.
Then came the fateful knock.
It had been so long since I had interacted with the outside world that I thought at first I had imagined it, and remained frozen until it repeated. I made my way through the house’s new geometry to the front door, so swollen by the moisture admitted by my renovations that the lock no longer engaged.
The shape behind the glass shifted at my approach.
‘Carl?’ said a voice, ‘It’s David.’
I did not respond.
‘Would you please open the door? I can see you through the glass.’
I panicked and scuttled backwards up the stairs, crouching in the kitchen doorway.
The shape shifted. ‘Come on Carl, don’t do this. I just need two minutes.’ Another knock, and door juddered free of the swollen jamb.
David stepped over the lintel, his eyes adjusting to the gloom. When he saw my face at the top of the stairs, he took a step back, and then laughed.
‘Jesus, you gave me a fright.’ He flicked an unresponsive light switch. ‘What the hell is … it’s freezing in here. I’m coming up, OK?’
I retreated through the kitchen as the warped stairs creaked with his weight, sliding instinctively behind one of the rotting curtains like an earwig beneath a decaying leaf.
He entered the kitchen, his expression momentarily slipping a cog at the sight of my pale face floating at the edge of the curtain, before calibrating into a friendly smile.
‘Look, I’ve clearly caught you at a … bad time.’ He pulled a sheaf of paper out of his jacket pocket. ‘I just need this document signed. It’s about your severance package – I felt bad about how we let you go, so I wanted to make it up to you.’
He began to move slowly towards me, as if on a tightrope.
‘I think you’ll find it’s very generous.’
I knew, of course, from the intercepted emails that the document would contain an improved severance payment … along with an IP assignment clause tucked in the fine print, allowing him and his co-conspirator to transfer the value out of the company.
This was the moment I had simultaneously feared and craved, the imagined confrontation that had obsessed me each night as I twisted in my hot slot. As the ragged curtains compressed the sunrise into sluggish butter, David held a hand out towards me in a gesture both calming and warding, and a ring on his finger flashed in the sullen light.
Something seemed to slide and click behind my eyes, and I felt in that instant that my brain had liquefied in its bone cocoon and been made anew, dull grey coral replaced with a smooth iridescent sheen. There was joy in that migration of the mind, and I threw back my head and emitted a mushy hoot.
David’s face tightened, the true wires under his skin teasing a snarl from the feigned smile.
‘Are you laughing at me? You?! You -’ He stepped forward and ripped the curtain aside with one hand, the other raised to strike.
But something revealed in the flooding light – perhaps my nakedness (my clothes having been offered to moths and other fibrophiles), perhaps the empty cave of my gums (my teeth having contributed their calcium for precious nest-bonding pastes), perhaps my twitching jigsaw of helpers (tirelessly buffing away dead cells and parasites) – made him freeze and jerk away, as if our polarities had suddenly reversed.
He instinctively flung open the door to his side that had previously led to the upstairs hallway, ignoring my warning cry, eyes wide over his shoulder as he darted into a void.
I leaned forward with my hand on the door frame and peered down through the lattice of framing timber and wallpaper shreds – all that remained of the rear half of the house following the ministrations of a thousand mandibles – at David’s body lying at the edge of the garden, his sparse limbs twitching.
I climbed down through the joists and landed on the ground with a heavy spider’s plump thump. David croaked entreaties, threats, enticements of splitting the fruits of his deception, all accompanied by the whistling labor of what I assume was a pierced lung.
But I could not save him. For the amber flash of his ring had echoed the withdrawn sting (a globe of yellow ichor gleaming at its tip) of a wasp I had seen struggling with a Praying Mantis in the western reaches of the garden beyond Big Log. The paralyzed mantis would become a living larder to be consumed and discarded, and with that spark I had instinctively seen David for what he was – the wasp in a corporate nest, piggybacking on the flesh and energy of others – and my fantasies of revenge had evaporated. An ant would have no concept of cruelty, of punishment or torture; there was only the clean solution of removal of the parasite.
As my new colleagues approached the raving cave with its precious salivary springs, it seemed a greater mercy not to warn him to close his mouth. Soon all noise and movement ceased, save for the rustles and clicks of an army of engineers gauging the extent of its windfall.
Although I doubted anything could be proved either way – and the authorities might even conclude that it was my body that lay there, once my brethren’s work was complete – I could not risk the interruption of my learnings that an investigation would entail. I spent the rest of the day harvesting eggs and queens, gathering substrates and exhuming camping gear.
By sunset, the Range Rover had been transformed into a loam-scented incubator. I looked up at the windows of the house, plastered with dying clouds, and thought of the afternoon of David’s call, the dipping spray of flowers that had led me down to myself.
I started the ignition. The GPS screen blinked on, a crooked red line leading to a mass of pure green, a world of freedom to experiment in peace.
As the car’s suspension thunked over the curb, a wave of pinpricks percussed my skin, causing the surface of my coat to ripple as countless legs realigned for balance.
I shivered with pride: I was the pillar of regurgitated earth on an ochre plain; I was the constellation of papery chambers beneath a sheltering eave.
Their limbs clutched me tight, and I was finally loved.
About the Author
Chris Matson writes fiction and screenplays, and has worked in film/television production for companies including Magnolia Pictures, HBO and Netflix. He grew up in New Zealand, has lived in London and New York, and currently splits his time between Los Angeles and a section of regenerating native forest in New Zealand, where he tries not to get too involved with the local insect community
About the Narrator
Dan Rabarts is the author of the grimdark-steampunk-madcap fantasy novel Brothers of the Knife, first in the Children of Bane series, and co-authors the supernatural tech-noir crime thriller series The Path of Ra with Lee Murray. He narrates stories for Tales to Terrify and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and hides on the web at dan.rabarts.com.