The Odd Bods and Death Husk
By Moti Black
The first version of this story was a runner up in the Cymera 2021 short fiction competition.
It has been over three months since the last reported case of Death Husk, the bacterial infection which starts as a minor belly ache and, within two weeks, reduces the body to a desiccated pile of chitinous membrane.
Our offspring had not long left home for the glamour of the Central Colony when the Information Dissemination Network (IDN) carried news of the first deaths there. Shortly after, most of the bugs in that colony had died, and those who survived perished in the purifying fires that followed.
Five of us mourned our six beautiful children.
Keh-tuh and Keh-kah, who worked in the infirmary, said that even a remote colony like ours would be lucky to make it through with half of us still alive.
Teh-teh and Keh-ti, who worked with larvae in the nursery, said that maybe death would be a blessing.
They were right.
The last thing each of them did before they died was to crawl into their own self-dug graves at the bottom of our garden and wait for death. The next day, officials in protective suits came to spray their remains, and cold machines dumped soil over their bodies.
I had to watch from the window, not even allowed to set foot in my own garden to say goodbye, as the four bugs I loved most disappeared into the earth.
At least there were only four occupied graves in our garden, not ten, and I didn’t have to watch our children shrivel up and die. I could pretend their deaths weren’t real, that they were still out there somewhere: immortal and exploring the world.
At the thought of my own little Tah-teh-keh, my legs buckle, and I skitter to the floor.
Tah-teh-keh always wanted to travel, visit far off colonies, get away from our parochial hub and the stigma she faced from our unconventional family life.
And now she is free.
Through the thin clay walls, I hear the family next door cheering. I guess a household which still has a garden full of empty graves has a lot to celebrate.
The shuffling sound of something being pushed under my door forces me to stir myself from my lethargy and retrieve the correspondence.
It’s a small card bearing the IDN logo.
The sensation of being outside runs through me: the breeze against my skin; licking the nectar out of the blue flowers that grow by the pond; rolling around the grass with Tah-teh-keh when she was still a little grub; watching the sun’s rays bring out the blue sheen in Ke-tuh’s exoskeleton, the amber glow of Keh-ti and Teh-teh and the red tint of Keh-kah…
And I’m back to the present, the fleeting memory of pleasure making my grief all the more painful. I used to wish Tah-teh-keh would grow up to shine the same blue as her father; I’m such a dull brown colour. Now I just wish she’d had the chance to grow up.
I pry open the back door, which has not been opened since Keh-ti left six months ago; but I can’t go into the garden and return to my old life.
There is no life to return to.
I used to tend an abundant garden, collecting small flies and tasty foliage to feed my family. Now I only have myself to feed, and I have no appetite.
I sit on the hard clay floor, staring through the open door at the untamed chaos of colour and foliage that grew rampant during my housebound year. The old me would have loved it, but the new me has four heaps of dirt and one empty grave at the bottom of the garden.
I know that when I cross that threshold, my family will be gone, and I’ll be alone facing a future I do not want.
I try to think of food. Something to lure myself through that portal. Maybe the flies that swarm around those yellow coneflowers. I never really liked them, they were too sweet, but Tah-teh-keh loved them, so I always made sure the yellow coneflowers thrived.
Over the last year, I’ve only eaten the expensive, tasteless, chemical packed, unethically sourced IDN rations which were delivered to the doorstep once a week. Each month, the credits were deducted from the household account, even though we had no choice. We couldn’t go out and collect our own food, choose suppliers, or even the food which was delivered.
Our health suffered and we went into debt.
I can no longer remember what a fresh fly tastes like or recall the sensation of gnawing on a leaf right off the plant.
I could experience all that right now if I could just get up and walk through the door.
Maybe I’ll go mainstream and eat the IDN junk like everyone else. Now I’m on my own, living authentically is a lot scarier. I was never the strong one, and if I act like the other bugs, I might find a job, pay off the debts of my dead spouses, and find acceptance into a conventional family.
It’s not a future that appeals, but it’s a future that’s livable.
Why did I survive?
Next door spill out into their garden, the adults talking loudly, the children screaming and laughing.
Over the last year, I’ve heard them far more than I care to have done.
After Keh-kah dragged herself from the house into her grave on that horrendous night, I lay in bed and could hear the pompous Huh-kah-keh through the walls.
“What did they expect when they live like that? Of course the Death Husk will take them! Bloody odd bods, bringing the neighbourhood down.”
I inhaled sharply at the slur, and lifted my leg to bang on the wall, but Teh-teh gently pulled me back to the bed.
“She worked in the infirmary, that’s why she caught Death Husk.” I sobbed into their amber chitin. “Huh-kah-keh can work from home, so can all of his family with their cushy IDN jobs. Keh-kah’s death has got nothing to do with how we live.”
The stridulating sound of Teh-teh’s legs rubbing together calmed me.
A sound that is lost to the air.
I rub my legs together, but my sound was never as beautiful as Teh-teh’s.
Maybe Huh-kah-keh was right. Why else is my entire family gone, and he’s still sitting high with his family intact.
His voice booms through the air. “We’ll strip all this back and pack it with clay. After this year, I never want to see another weed in this garden. We don’t want people thinking we’re like those freaks that used to live next door.”
The six adults chatter about their next holiday and the kids play fractiously. Before long, the novelty of being outside wears off, and they return inside.
My garden is empty of all sounds except the whispers of ghosts.
I see Keh-kah dragging herself out to her grave. Halfway across the lawn, she stands up and starts dancing the way she used to. Teh-teh rubs their legs together, Keh-ti sings, and Keh-tuh beats his legs on the ground.
I pull myself to my feet, and move forward to join in with the percussion, but trip as I step over the doorframe.
And they’re gone.
I walk out onto the overgrown lawn and throw myself down.
I think about Keh-tuh and Keh-kah, who worked so hard and cared so deeply for those who were ill, and the work Teh-teh and Keh-ti did, shaping the formative years of our young grubs. Why do their lives mean so little to our world, when the likes of Huh-kah-keh, whose IDN job consists of ‘shaping’ information into ‘official versions’, are considered so valuable?
In the safety of our home, we called the IDN the ‘Dis-information Network’, but far too many believe their lies.
I know that the bacteria that killed my family infected them because they went out and helped people, despite the risks. But the official record will say they died because we lived as a family with an odd number of adults.
And part of me believes it, as Death Husk has sapped my strength to have faith in myself.
I hear Huh-kah-keh’s voice echoing through the walls and my head. “Why do they insist on forcing us to think about their sleeping arrangements? How difficult is it to add someone to their household? They have to wave it in our faces! Do they all sleep in one chamber, or is it three in one and two in the other? A good bug doesn’t need this distraction!”
I move my legs through the long grass. I like the garden this way. I snap a fly out of the air and enjoy my first organic snack in over a year.
So, do I conform? Or do I seek what comes naturally, falling in love with those I am drawn to? Whether that be an even number of bugs, or an odd number.
Shakily, I get to my feet. I know a third option: the best option for an exhausted odd bod like me. Too old to make an impact; too tired to go on.
I walk to the bottom of the garden and stand by the four full graves and my empty pit. The last time I stood here was when quarantine was announced. We all had to dig our own graves ‘just in case’, then retreat inside and let Death Husk take its course.
I climb down into my grave and lie down. I’ll stay here until starvation takes me to join my family. I close my eyes and listen to my ghosts.
“Ka-ka-keck, we love you… Mamma… Ka-ka-keck… Mamma…”
I hear Tah-teh-keh’s voice so clearly. She’s calling me.
“Mamma!” Tah-teh-keh jumps on top of me, rubbing her antennas against mine. “Don’t scare me like that! I thought you were dead!”
“But you are.” I say without opening my eyes. She has come to get me.
“No, I’m not! I met up with some friends and we went to the coast instead of the Central Colony. I survived Mamma, I survived!”
I sit up slowly and she hops back out of my grave.
I look at her juvenile face. She’s still a nymph, a few sheds away from her adult form, but it is my Tah-teh-keh, slowly turning a mottled blue like her father.
“You came home.” I say to her.
“I’ve come to take you away from here.”
“But I can’t leave my garden, my flowers.”
“Mamma, we have to leave. There’s nothing left for us here. And the bugs out there don’t care if we live in a household of four, five, six or even eleven.”
“But you like the flies on these flowers.” I say, dragging my aching limbs out of my grave and limping over to the patch of yellow coneflowers.
“Mamma, flowers grow everywhere; prejudice only roots where people let it, and this place has watered those weeds for too long.”
“You are young and idealistic. It’s the same everywhere; you just don’t see it when you’re hopping past on your travels.”
“No, Mamma. There are whole colonies that reject prejudice and fight against the Dis-Information Network. Whilst we’ve been locked down, the DIN has grown stronger. Now we have to fight back. I believe I survived for a reason, and I will make the world a better place before they put me in the ground. Will you come with me and help me build a better future?”
I’m old and weary, but when I look at her, I know.
There is only one option.
“I will come with you. I will tell the world about those we lost. I will keep them alive and show people that we may love differently to them, but that is the only difference. Maybe then future generations will grow up in a better world.”
She reaches her pretarsus out for mine and leads me out of the garden.
We leave the past behind us, but never forget those we loved.