ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"A Beetle's Tale", by Fred D. White

At first I thought I was dreaming; after all, beetles like me dreamed vividly. A few days earlier, I’d awakened in terror, having dreamed that I had changed into a jackdaw; but to change into a human--and for real? What could have triggered such a preposterous event?

I instinctively tried to scuttle into the nearest, darkest hiding place; but instead of six rapidly propelling legs, I now had only two, absurdly long, gangly, skin-sheathed and unmanageable, tangled up in bed sheets. How did I wind up on a bed? I forced myself to calm down. Since it was possible to change into a human, surely I could just as easily change back into a beetle. Could it be that the insect gods may be punishing me for some egregious sin? I had always been observant of the Laws, had faithfully consumed the dung of other creatures, thereby cleansing the environment while simultaneously enriching the soil. Such a transmutation in nature—dung-to-nutrient—was worthy of praise, even of reverence, was it not? Consider my cousins, the Egyptian scarabs. On the other hand, I was insatiably curious about humans, the world they built, the strange, often destructive behaviors they exhibited among themselves and, alas toward my kind—like gassing us to death with vile insecticides or gleefully crushing us to a pulp with their shoes.

I needed time to understand this ordeal, to pinpoint my transgression, before I could figure out a possible path to redemption. For the moment, however, I had to confront the crisis at hand: how was I supposed to survive in this unwieldy human form? I gazed woefully at the two dangling appendages at my sides—“arms,” the humans called them—and tentatively moved them about. They were difficult to manipulate, particularly the digits at the extremities (“fingers”), which reminded me of squid tentacles, although utterly lacking the grace of those stately sea creatures.

Then there was the matter of my nakedness—a concept alien to me, of course, but apparently intrinsic to human nature. Clothing. I needed to cover myself with clothing. It made sense, considering my unsightly skin, those ridiculous-looking protuberances between my legs, and the cold draft which, at the moment, was causing me to shiver. 

My first steps out of bed were clumsy. I toppled over twice; and when I tried to scuttle on all fours, my “hands” and “feet” quickly cramped up. I guffawed at the absurdity, my human “throat” producing a distasteful sound not unlike that of the garbage disposal that humans occasionally switch on in their kitchen sinks. 

I lurched toward a door, managed to open it with my hands, removed a white cotton robe from one of the hangers and put it on. It was tight-fitting, but would have to do.

Cautiously, laboriously, I made my way into the kitchen by clasping the walls as I moved forward on my two spindly legs. Seated at the kitchen table was the human inhabitant of the house, a woman whose glittery slippers I recognized at once, for they had come perilously close to squashing me on one occasion. Even now, despite my oversized head lolling a frightening distance from the floor, I could barely control my instinct to hide under the stove or the refrigerator.

Before I could think of what to do next, the woman twisted around in her chair, apparently distracted by the scraping of my unwieldy feet against the floor. She leaped up, screamed, and backed away from the table. “What are you doing in my house? Who are you?”

Clearly, I did not resemble any human she had seen before; and unlike beetles, who have no qualms about sharing their spaces with strangers of their kind, humans often feared or despised other humans with whom they were unfamiliar. I felt an uncanny urge to respond; and so, extending my elongated appendages in a gesture of—what—supplication? sympathy for her confusion? I opened my “mouth” and uttered words of my own, to wit:

“Madam, forgive me for startling you. I am lost, confused, and hungry.” That last word I had not intended; it just leaped out—and thankfully so, for I was indeed famished. I could not even recall the last time I had ingested so much as a single cookie crumb or dried bit of cheese.

The woman’s expression changed slightly and she straightened herself out of a cowering position.

“I see. But you just can’t barge into someone’s house like this—and wearing only a bathrobe!” She wagged a finger at me. “I could have you arrested.”

“I understand,” I said. “Does that mean you have no food for me?”

“That’s right! There are homeless shelters you can go to, you know. Isn’t that where you came from?”

“I shall go to one,” I replied, having neither any idea of what a homeless shelter was, nor the will or the strength to find it. I turned carefully around, nearly stumbling over my feet, and headed toward what I hoped was an exit. I walked as if I were on stilts toward the living room and the front door. One of my legs grazed an umbrella stand and I stumbled again, grasping the wall to steady myself. 

“Wait!” the woman shouted. She rushed over and helped me stand upright again. “I can see that you’re weak from not eating, so—against my better judgment, mind you—I will give you some food. Would a bowl of cereal do? Or a sandwich?”

“In all honesty, madam,” I said as she guided me by one of my arms back to the kitchen table, “I will be grateful for anything at all. Anything.”

“I’ll fix you a cheese sandwich, then, with mayonnaise and a slice of tomato.  Do you prefer wheat or white?”

It took me a moment to understand her question. “I have no preference.”

“You’re easy to please. But I suppose if you’re famished . . .” The woman prepared the sandwich, cut it in half, and placed it before me.

“Something to drink? I don’t have any soda.  Milk or orange juice is about all I can offer. Or tea.”

I was in the process of trying to maneuver my fingers to grasp hold of one of the sandwich halves, and so did not answer her.

“I’ll pour you some juice.” By the time she set a glass of orange juice on the table, I had figured out how to bring the sandwich to my mouth and commence chewing—but to my embarrassment, I coughed and lost my grip on the sandwich, causing the bread and cheese and tomato slices to splatter across the table.

“Oh, you poor man!” the woman exclaimed. “You’re even weaker than I thought.”

“Forgive me for being so clumsy.” I hastened to reconstruct the sandwich, desperately willing my flailing fingers to obey my intentions. This time, when I brought the sandwich to my mouth, everything stayed in place. I masticated and swallowed happily, enjoying the enormous amount of food my new mouth could accommodate at a given time.

The woman sat down at the opposite end of the table. For a while she merely watched me eat, her face expressionless, except when I reached for the juice: the glass slipped slightly from my fingers, causing some of the juice to spill, and the woman’s mouth opened in alarm. But I managed to drink without any further mishaps.

“By the way, my name is Lucy,” she said. “What’s yours?”

“Franz,” I replied. I had no idea why I uttered that name; it had never occurred to me until this moment that I even had a name.

“‘Franz,’” she repeated. Is that German?”

Something strange was happening to my mouth: both sides of it began to stretch.

“What—you find that question amusing? Why are you smiling?”

I was “smiling,” as she put it, not because I was amused, but because the idea of names or nationality struck me as nonsensical; but I decided not to share that sentiment with her.

Lucy continued to watch me eat. As I did so, I studied her face. In my insect state all human faces (not that I paid much attention to them) looked more or less the same, owing, I suppose, to how high up they were—although I recall, in a different house (perhaps an adjoining one), a child pressing his face to the rug as he played with a couple of toy soldiers. I had just emerged from under the sofa where I’d been feasting on several cookie crumbs, and was startled by the boy’s face, which he’d kept twisting and stretching, presumably to dramatize some antipathy between the two plastic figures. He also uttered strange sounds as he smashed the soldiers together, at which point his face reddened and seemed to bloat.  But Lucy’s face was serene; she had thick black hair, and her large eyes were nearly as dark as her skin. My human skin was an unsettling pinkish white, not unlike that of the grubs I sometimes encountered in discarded foodstuffs. 

As I thought of my original state, a wave of sadness swept over me. Would I ever be a beetle again? I finished my sandwich and juice. Perhaps now I could redirect my attention toward figuring out a way to return to my true nature. 

“I have some apricots, Franz. Would you care for an apricot or two for dessert?”

I wasn’t sure what an apricot was, but if humans were anywhere near as omnivorous as beetles, I would indeed enjoy one.

“Yes,” I replied, nodding enthusiastically. That was a mistake—the rapid vertical head movements made me so dizzy that I wobbled and nearly fell off the chair.

“Franz, I think you’d better lie down; you’re still weak from not having eaten for so long.”

I rose shakily from the table. “You are most kind.”

“It’s not every day that a total stranger winds up in my house, mind you. But I know people, and I can see that you are a decent person.”

I was about to nod again but caught myself.

“I have a guest room. Well, actually, it’s my son’s room; but he recently went off to college. You may rest in there.”

I considered telling Lucy that that room, and its bed, was where I had awakened to find myself in my alien body; but I decided it would be best to stay silent on that matter. Maybe—just maybe, if I returned to the bed and fell asleep, I would return to normal.

Lucy gestured for me to follow her, and we went into her son’s bedroom. But she stopped abruptly. 

“Lord-a-mercy, I could have sworn that the bed was made.”  She hurriedly straightened out the sheets. “I assure you, Franz, that the sheets are clean; I must have absent-mindedly lain down here, for the bedding to be so disturbed.”

“It really makes no difference to me, Lucy.”

“Sleep as long as you need to.” She started to walk out, but then paused. “The bathroom is just down the hall. And you’re welcome to use the shower. Unfortunately, I don’t have any, ah, male toiletries, like shaving cream or a man’s deodorant. My son took his with him, and my husband and I have been divorced for several years.”

Once again, I felt the stretching of my mouth.  “I assure you, that that is not a problem at all.”

She stared as if there was something else she wanted to say but could not find the words. And then she stepped closer to me, scrutinizing my face, frowning. “You remind me of someone, Franz. I can’t place it. Some celebrity, perhaps.”

“I’m flattered.”

“You are quite good looking, you know. I’ve always been fond of men with intense, dark eyes.”

What I did next both surprised and confused me: I reached for one of her hands and brought it to my “lips.” What on earth was I thinking? But Lucy’s face glowed with delight. “Why, Franz, you are so gallant!” she chirped. “You’d better watch out, mister, or I might think you’re flirting with me.” 

I wasn’t sure what Lucy meant, so I bowed my head slightly (I did not want to get dizzy again) and turned slowly to face the bed. “I’m afraid,” I said, “that I may sleep for quite some time. I feel utterly exhausted.”

“Wait—just a second.” Lucy rubbed past me and leaned over the bed to fluff the pillow, presumably to make it more comfortable for my head; but being a beetle, as I’d fervently hoped I still was underneath my rickety human form, comfort was irrelevant. “There we go, dear. Sleep tight; don’t let the bedbugs bite.”

I started to remove my robe but paused; something told me I should wait until Lucy left the room. She focused on my fingers as they clasped the ties; then she looked up, frowned and grinned slightly. “You’d better behave yourself, young man.”

“Of course,” I replied, not knowing what else to say.

“That robe of yours . . . my son has one just like it. But I suppose they’re quite common.” She turned to leave the room and paused just before shutting the door.  “If there’s anything you need, Franz, just holler.” And she closed the door.

I removed the robe, hung it back in the closet, and climbed into bed, pulling the covers completely over me. My first impulse was to pray to the insect god(s) I must have angered, to tell them I was now prepared to atone for my irreverent fantasizing about becoming something other than what I was (as if this past hour of occupying human form weren’t atonement enough). But then my thoughts drifted to Lucy, to her kindness, her charm—and yes, her flattery. I replayed in my mind the moment I had pressed her hand to my lips. For the first time since my transformation, I was having second thoughts about returning to my beetle state—and that frightened me, for surely fantasies like that had been the cause of my being changed into a human in the first place. My mind was roiling with conflicting thoughts. Perhaps the best thing for me to do was sleep...

And sleep I did. My dreams were chaotic—fragments of experiences from my beetle life, like hiding under stoves and refrigerators, or (much more pleasantly) rolling horse dung into balls. And by the time I’d awakened it was pitch dark outside.

The first thing I did was scramble out from under the bed sheets and scuttle—yes, scuttle—across the bedroom carpet. I was a beetle again! For the next several moments I zipped around the room and even climbed the walls. It was exhilarating. Never again would I fantasize becoming anything other than a better beetle. Memories of my human phase were beginning to fade, thankfully so—although the image of Lucy remained, and for a moment I felt a profound sense of loss. 

I detected lamplight spilling into the room from under the door. Curious, I dashed under the door and into the hallway. The light came from the kitchen, and I scuttled in that direction, contrary to my impulse to remain in darkness. And there, towering above me, stood Lucy, doing something with the microwave oven. For a crazy instant, I wanted to call out to her, to tell her that I would stay in the house with her and continue to be as much of a companion as it was possible for me to be in my natural state—but then I realized I no longer had the apparatus to vocalize.

Lucy began walking in my direction. She was wearing her glittery slippers. Suddenly she froze, screeched—

No, Lucy, it’s me, Franz! But I no longer possessed vocal cords to convey my alarm.

In desperation I lifted myself on my hind legs to an almost vertical position, and then I opened and closed my mandibles as rapidly as I could; but despite my preposterous un-beetle-like gesticulations, Lucy grabbed a tissue and,  uttering a guttural expression of disgust, reached down to me and— 

—and something made her stop what she was about to do, drop to her knees, and put her face as close to mine as it was possible for a human face to get close to a beetle’s. Did it have something to do with my frantic gesticulations? Did a profoundly intuitive awareness of what had befallen me suddenly dawn on her? Whatever the reason, she jettisoned the tissue and exclaimed—no, whispered in a manner that conveyed both astonishment and delight, “Franz! My poor changeling Franz. Now I think I know who you really are...”


Fred White's work has appeared in OffCourse #68, "The Voice";  #58, "Four Poems", and recently in Better Than Starbucks, Deep Overstock, The Citron Review, Edify Fiction, Zodiac Review and Sky Island Journal. He lives in Folsom, CA.

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