The Worms | K. James D’Agostino

The garden was nothing if not a lesson in death. Brown spots immediately appeared on the leaves of the pepper plants, outpacing even the blooming of the marigolds and reducing half her hopes to diseased compost. The squash seemed promising, vines bursting with life so eagerly that they smothered the more humble strawberry bushes. But of the squash that did not turn brown and fall off the vine, only one grew nearly ready to harvest before it was stolen by a hare nesting in the neighbor’s weeds.

After that, the war factory awoke on the horizon. These were massive and ancient mountains of black metal. They hadn’t been run in over five hundred years, but they sprang to ravenous life when the vote passed. The factories roared and quaked, coughing black clouds that obscured the sunlight most days. Growth in her garden stalled. The plants endured unhappily. The leaves turned yellow to begrudge what sunlight the clouds permitted.

But she didn’t surrender. She was still out there every day plucking cabbage worms off her broccoli with a pair of tweezers. Green caterpillars that could be almost invisibly small or a fat inch long, they would defiantly transform into white butterflies if she missed them. But the caterpillars reduced the broccoli leaves to withered webs if left to feast. So she picked them up, crushed their bodies with the tweezers, and threw their tiny corpses into the yard.

Her husband thought this was horrible. He watched her one day while he rinsed the factory ash off the basil with the garden hose. She split an inch-long green caterpillar in half with the tweezers. It writhed in pain, but she ignored its death throes and threw it away. He said, Oh my god, how can you do that to them? That was going to be a butterfly, he said.

She said, They are worms.

This was the same summer that the ground began to sing. The entire planet emitted this sound. The voice of the earth was not a low groan. It was not gravelly. This was a person’s voice, passably beautiful in a way that defied criticism, like a child singing softly in the basement underfoot. It didn’t sing well or badly. It was not good and it was not bad. It was pretty. It sang one song endlessly, soft and slow in a language no one knew. It was a ballad, or it was a dirge, or it was a lullaby.

It was an interruption. She had to leave her garden. She was called to the Academy by the Director of Linguistics, whom she had known professionally for some years and had never known to take illogical action. The director was a man who did not fear many things, who had a large garden of his own and they had, in fact, been competing to see who would kill more cabbage worms over the summer. He hadn’t left the Academy since the vote, however, abandoning his garden to wilt beneath the clouds of the factories. The streets were not safe since the vote, he said. Not for people who knew foreign languages and studied foreign literature, who valued foreign things.

He placed her in a room with other experts of translation and linguistic science. He instructed them to translate the words of the song that the earth had begun to sing.

Impossible. They all sat in a circle, the great oak hall around them. She faced a corner and fussed over a neglected ficus. The hall had not been burned, though most of the bookshelves had been emptied within days of the vote. Impossible, they told one another, pulling at their coats and looking often toward the shuttered windows and locked doors. Oh, they tried, for an hour or two, but they had no basis of comparison. It was unlike any language ever heard, and they didn’t even know what the earth was singing about. Vocabulary? Grammar? Context? Nothing! Impossible, they said, and left it at that. When the meeting broke up, some remained in hiding in the Academy. Some tried to make it home but were waylaid, their vehicles left empty on the side of the road.

She carried home the wilting ficus, dirt from the pot on her blouse. By this and the worm blood on her fingers, marking her more as a woman of the earth than an academic, she made it home unbothered.

In the city, as days passed, people grew quiet while they listened to the song. Anything else seemed rude, like it might interrupt the performance. Families chose not to speak at dinner, eating quietly while they listened. Music did not play in the cafés, and people placed their orders in whispers. Theaters were empty. Construction work ceased. Even the people who pulled the linguists, the journalists, the artists from their cars or their houses, did so quietly. When they came to the Academy, the Director of Linguistics made a point of complying in respectful silence. People moved about in a confused hush, pretending to live normally while the song repeated around them over and over.

But the war factory roared on, all the more hideous for its inattention. Perhaps one could not hear the song from inside the roaring factory. Perhaps the workers therein, the soldiers awaiting their weapons in those giant, greasy stockrooms, had no idea that the earth was singing beneath them. She watched the factory in the evenings, while she listened to the song. Once, her husband came up beside her at the window and said, Did you hear about the Director? She glanced at her husband sideways and put a finger to her lips.

Rain had been forecast for the weekend, but it did not come. On the day rain was supposed to come, the sky was neither overcast nor sunny, possessed entirely by the smoke and heat of the factory. She was out in her garden, looking askance at where the wall of her house had been blackened by the factory’s soot. The factory was like a giant engine shifting back and forth beyond the mountains, almost invisible now in its own fumes. Red light bled upward from the factory, discoloring the entire sky. It was like a long sunset, but too red, too bright, the fumes too black beneath it. No, this was more like every sunset and every sunrise blooming out of every night all at once, a plague of daybreak and eventide. Once it burned itself out, the sun would be stuck in between, a darkening coal suspended forever just above the horizon.

Her husband was washing the soot off the basil and squash and the withered strawberries. He was overwatering them, rinsing them like this every day. She was crouched over the broccoli with the tweezers, pulling off the cabbage worms. He said, Why don’t you just leave them alone? But no, no. She could still save this broccoli, this one thing, if she could just keep up with the worms.

God, they were everywhere, though. Every leaf she overturned harbored a colony of worms. They piled one on another and hid under each other’s bodies. The biggest lined up along the stems, so dense that the broccoli bent with their weight. But she worked at it. She pulled and killed and threw them away. She lifted them in the tweezers, divided their bodies, and did not hear their pain. She cast their twisting corpses into her blackened grass.

The earth sang beneath her. She had been listening to the song for almost a week now. Her academic mind, still instinctively trying to distinguish word, structure, inflection, had memorized the song’s melody and strange lyrics. They repeated every six minutes. She found she could sing along, and she did. It was simple, once she started. She’d once enjoyed singing, had sung often in her youth and did not know why she’d stopped. Maybe she hadn’t heard a song this beautiful in a long time. Yes, this song, this voice. Like her mother’s voice, now that she thought about it. Smooth words, blending, with plenty of time between them to breathe. It was a meditative song. It was soothing and easy to sing.

While she sang, the worms did not writhe. They did not seem to object to their deaths. She plucked them smoothly from the leaves. They hung calmly in the tweezers. They twitched just a bit when she pinched them in half. She laid them gently between the blades of grass, their green bodies like wet seeds in the black soot.

The earth’s song struck her differently, now that she was singing it. She recalled a song that had a similar taste in her mouth, one she had translated as part of her Academy work when she was still trying to prove her muster in the department. The song of a long-dead people, their culture mostly lost to time, except for the one song that they held had been taught to them by the earth itself. It was a lullaby they had sung at funerals, lulling the dead to sleep so that they would float placidly atop the rivers that ran beneath the world.

Look, her husband said. Look up.

She laid a worm in the grass and then sat back on her haunches, turning her face upward. There, amid the black and the red rising from the factory, were white streaks like new clouds. They traced the path of orange points, sparks in the sky that flew too straight, too fast. From the zenith of the haze they pitched down, the way a hawk dives for a rodent or a thrush for an insect: gold-feathered and screaming. They had come a long way to dive, now, toward the factory and the city.

Oh, she said, while the earth continued to sing around them. She sighed and fell back in the grass. Black soot rose around her and settled on her like dust. She lay still and said, Oh, we could’ve been so beautiful if only we’d been given the time.

K. James D’Agostino holds a BA from the University of Houston and is currently enrolled in the MFA program at the University of Illinois. Their debut novella, Absolute Tenacity, was published in 2014, followed by Atargatis in 2015, and their newest novelette, “The Falling Women,” appears in the recent volume of Kairos Literary Magazine.