Friday, February 14, 2014

"The Sourwood" by Richard Wolanski (Novella)

Genre:  Fairy Tale, Dark Fantasy

Type of Short Story:  Novella

Summary:  Fig is an insect and in twenty-seven days he will die. He crosses paths with the nihilistic Fly King who offers Fig a chance--the promise of eternal life. With only the name Alice Abernathy and a crew of bug bunglers, Fig will discover a truth the Fly King has been hiding for over three hundred years.


In a most sudden and mysterious disappearance of man, there was no chaos, no panic, no outbreak of paranoia, nor cries for ideological upheaval. It sounds like a kind of apocalyptic disaster, yet the empty houses still stood. The buzz of the blender, the hum of the dining room fan, and the blinking red and yellow lights on the child's play things all remained. Not a living sound could be heard, except for the hopeless whimpering of the dogs they left behind. However, it was not deserted. Not every creature resigned to stillness instead of stirring.

They trickled in from behind the walls and from in between the panels on the red oak floors. They flew in pairs through the open attic windows. At first, they meandered around cautiously, aware of the phantom presence of their predecessors. They crawled only in the recessed cement cracks on the countertops and behind opened cereal boxes. For a time, they lived like scavengers, until one crept from underneath the shadows of a dusty faucet and the others followed. It became their kingdom. They ate. They ate the spoils from the warm refrigerators, stripped the wilted leaves from the potted plants, unwove the fabric in the sheets, pecked through the plush of limp teddy bears, and gorged on splintered dinner tables. Their numbers grew.

They flew in empty homes by the tens and then the thousands. They covered every inch until there was nothing but a sea of segmented beings. They devoured everything. Because of their short lives, they had no allegiances. The insects had only a single purpose—to multiply. They indulged in feckless fecundity. Out of the nothing, what remained was their perverse satisfaction with survival. No longer was there the threat of the flat palm of a hand or the broad reach of the kitchen broom. Their stiff bodies piled up backwards in the ceramic bowls. Empty cupboards and sticky plates surrounded them. The food was gone. Finally, with nothing left they mired in marasmus.

Then a sudden flame burst through the houses. A hellfire, known only as the Great White, turned fireflies into tinder, arachnids into ash, and left nothing unburned. With little left, they crawled back into the wilderness. All of the insects that survived searched for a new colony. For three days they traveled. Once again, they were forced to experience the horrors of their mortality. Their chitin cracked from the cold and desiccated under the heat. Natura was most unkind and left many to die by her elements. When all seemed lost, the wasted wanderers found themselves at the roots of a glorious organism.

It sat at the top of a hill, on a cliff far above the water. Its massive roots contorted into the soil underneath the grass. The trunk of the tree was immense and blocky at its lowest point, but narrowed like a neck far into the sky. The fruit hung freely from its limbs while its leaves provided thick cover from the watering mouths of winged predators. The leaves collected rain drops for the thirsty and the wide trunk stored food for the hungry. It stood impenetrable like a wooden fortress. They called it the Sourwood. In their new home they wanted a new beginning. The insects decided to design a pact—the Arthropoda Aeternus. This alliance was the foundation for their social hierarchy.

Their first creation was the Orders.

Hunters were the guardians and the brute strength of the insect kind. They had large limbs like wolf spiders and the horned mandibles of stout stag beetles. Their power and bravery knew no limits and their lust for violence knew no satisfaction. Second, were the Collectors, an order given exclusively to moths. They were the revered pallbearers that performed the last rites of the living. At the slightest hint of terminal illness or death they would collect you and fly you to their lair underneath the wet roots of the Sourwood.

Third, were the Gatherers. They provided food and water for all those who lived in the tree. Carpenter beetles and Harvestmen fumbled to and fro like lumberjacks of the six-legged and eight-legged world. They essentially were the workers. Fourth, were the Nesters, an order only given to aphids. They lived in the Nursery at the neck of the Sourwood. Every insect ever born would first see the face of a Nester. Finally, there were the Seekers. The ladybirds who tended to their gardens or the damsel and dragonflies that worked as prudent academics. The Seekers enjoyed being the diplomats, the architects and the priests that presided over all the others.
And yet, not all of the insects were interested in keeping with the pact. The insects called them the Parasites, the orderless. The dissenters came in many forms as ear wigs and louses, houseflies and wasps. They bore a divide between themselves and the followers of the Great White. After much deliberation, the Seekers banished them to the Wanderland where the fleas frolicked around the dead and scorpions roamed through the dirt. Because of their heresy they lived in the Great White’s shadow as leaderless vagrants existing beyond the safety of the Sourwood.

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