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One morning, as Cragin Beetle was waking from pleasant, dung-filled dreams, he discovered that under his leaf he had been changed into a monstrous avaricious human. He lay on his unarmored back and saw, as he lifted his head, his abdomen was blank, unsegmented and soft. Rather than several, handy little legs, he had two chunky legs, so long he could barely contemplate the distance they’d put between him and the ground.
A sensory assault drew Cragin to realise that his stomach was missing his several respiratory holes. His breath whooshed in through his mouth, all at once, as if to sate him, but it only whet his appetite.
‘What’s happened to me?’ he thought. The leafy branch shuddered as he shifted to examine himself. The bark scratched his new skin. He had retired for the night on this bough to be alone, and avoid sharing the breakfast aphids with his flock.
Through the great open craters of his ears he heard the other beetles trudging above him, prodding aside leaves with their antennae, clacking their mandibles and stuffing minuscule bugs into their mouths with their fingery palps. Cragin had often fancied being a larger creature, something that didn’t have to scrounge all day for a basic, unvaried diet. However, he did not know how to identify food in the mass of smells he inhaled every second. And with what part of this big, inexact body would he guide food to his mouth?
He heard someone clicking on the next bough over. ‘I’m surprised Cragin hasn’t rammed through and snatched half the food already.’
Cragin was inspired to show them how he’d suddenly grown. Let them shudder to think how much he’d eat now. He grasped the tree limb with the little legs on the ends of his upper appendages. ‘I’m here, friends.’ The sound of his voice was like farm beasts lowing.
The other beetles went still. He smelled their anxiety. Then the group’s elder, Jephir, investigated. With his front-facing eyes, Cragin could now discern how close Jephir flew. But his peripheral vision was severely restricted, and he didn’t dare take his gaze from Jephir’s mandibles although he heard other beetles rising. Frequently he’d pushed his fellow beetles around, while now they intimidated him despite his increased size. After all, he no longer had an exoskeleton.
‘I don’t want your food, actually,’ Cragin said. ‘I might… find something more suitable.’ He slid down so his feet could touch the ground and cautiously transferred his weight to stand.
‘It’s unlike others of its kind,’ said a beetle.
‘Because it’s Cragin,’ replied Jephir. ‘There are legends of such transformations.’
Swaying, lurching, forcefully landing those long feet, Cragin followed his nose to a berry bush. The fruit smelled sweet, lacking the pungency which would normally attract him. How was he to grasp it, with so few appendages? He’d used his forearms to hold the tree for balance. Without mandibles or palps, he had no choice but to use them for food too. He was terribly hungry. He always had been.
Cragin’s fingers were clumsy in their pudginess and they crushed the fruit before his jaws did. He shovelled more handfuls into his mouth. Then he recognised the buzz in the air behind him. He turned, wobbling, and saw the air darkened with the hovering tribe.
The beetles' repulsed pitch was distinguishable to Cragin’s human ears. An insect’s way, of course, was to examine surroundings with antennae, grasp nutrients with mandibles, and convey food with palps at the mouth. They considered themselves quite hygienic.
‘At least I’m not eating shit anymore,’ Cragin defended himself. ‘I can’t help how I handle my food. I’ve only got these.’ He waved his arms with their little finger-legs. Scarlet juice dripped from them.
The beetles could not decipher his bellowing human voice. Their disapproval robbed Cragin of his appetite and he crouched miserably at the trees’ roots. Daylight passed, the sunned hours blazing with complaints about Cragin. ‘He always was greedy,’ his flock said. ‘But to surrender so quickly to this uncouth form… We have to find a new tree. He’s dangerous, see how big he is.’
‘But that’s exactly why we must stay,’ Jephir argued. ‘With human Cragin skulking around, no birds will chase us. The aphids are too diminutive to notice him, and we’ll have our pick of all the prey. We won’t even have to share the food with him.’
At night, Cragin crept forth for food. But the fruit’s brambles pricked his unshelled flesh, and he tripped over a twig. He stayed where he fell, uncomfortable and cold, so the beetles would pity him when the sun revealed his tribulations.
However, they investigated with unrelenting exasperation. ‘He can’t expect us to help him, someone of his size. Is he even alive? Of course he is, listen to the interminable roar of his breath.’
Cragin flinched at their proximity, the beating wings blurred beneath their raised elytra armour. They insulted him for breathing! ‘Get back.’ He swiped to ward them away, and accidentally crushed a front guard. Black exoskeleton flecks crumbled through his fingers.
The beetles swarmed around him, attempting to flee but getting in each other’s way. Cragin buried his face in his arms, terrified.
Even more frightened of him, the beetles returned to the tree, where there were plentiful aphids and no rival flocks, as Jephir had said. Cragin limped back under the lower branches and curled up listlessly. He didn’t wish to taste berries again, or see their colour on his hands. He didn’t desire dung or tiny insects either. The hum of his old flock haunted his waking moments, and he often felt as if broken beetle wings still itched his murderous fingers.
‘Is he going to lie there forever?’ said the beetles. ‘Well, he’s more use this way than he was before.’
At dawn one day another buzz sounded. Cragin’s flock found his use expired, and they were beset with intruders. Flies crawled over his body. No breath sailed into his terrible mouth.
Leaving the flies to their uncivilised work, the beetles steadied themselves on upper leaves. They raised their elytra to free their wings, and with a collective whoosh, they took flight.
Nastasya Parker writes contemporary literary fiction, including two stories published in Bristol Short Story Prize anthologies and two read at Stroud Short Stories events. In 2017, she won the Gloucestershire Writers Network Prose Prize, reading at Cheltenham Literature Festival. Her blog, nastasyaparker.com, celebrates the bits and pieces encountered in daily life which sometimes grow into stories.