“Don’t bother,” the pregnant mother ticks grunt in the layered mush of leaves and dead flowers beneath the birth-bush. “You’re better off starving to death then living as a one-hoster. Time spent doesn’t pay off the pain of loss.”
The mothers each lay between two and eight thousand eggs, and then they die.
After the third and final bloodmeal, I will have to leave her. My host is marked with swollen-warm rings, soft hair, and infrequent, nubby moles. She has lasted me through my larval blood meal and my molt into nymph-hood. As I am about to enter my molt into adult-hood, it is bad timing to discover she is sick. Yet, her temperature skyrockets, and she begins to smell like death: fermenting flowers.
I want to make it to adult-hood, and I want growing up to be not as futile as everyone who’s already done it so callously implies. If I let myself pretend to know her mind, I think that my host wants the same. It is this mutual desire we share that now puts us at cross-purposes. I think I am killing her.
I am a tick.
In the bushes where I was birthed, I learned that this type of infection – heat, stillness and then death – is common: that I’d likely unwittingly contracted one human-targeting virus or another while still in my egg.
Ticks always say: the trick to keeping a host alive long enough to get what we need is an art of subtlety, and if that fails, persuasion.
I thought I had more time, but sweat drips, now at a steady rate, from her hairline down to and around the raised mound where I’m engorging myself. Above all, I know I must prevent her from seeking other humans. The time for subtlety is at a close.
After itching for days at the heating rings, which alternated red and pale like a target, my host starts to think more like a tick: not with vision, but with sensation. She comes up with a tactile tactic. Her fingers brush in concentric, ever-narrowing circles, adjusting their direction as she feels out the mound where I have anesthetized and incised my entry point.
For ticks, negotiations start with threats: Don’t squeeze – what if it’s a tumor? What if you damage something in your neck? You could be paralyzed if you pinch nerves. You could die. I push these thoughts of paranoia at my host in the form of subtle brain chemicals, which I secrete in slow dribbles. I make myself as small as possible, even as her blood slowly fills and bloats me larger and larger still.
“I think there’s something there,” my host says, fingers brushing my scutum-shell. She says this just to me – I can feel no other body heat around, and I see no other exhalations but ours: sluggish, mid-air puffs. The bare echo of her words reverberates through her skin and vibrates the air currents around her head. The flavor-sensation of her voice meets up in the sensory organs on my front legs, which I have folded tight to my body. With these legs I see her heat, taste her smells, and feel her breath as it moves through the room.
I say: “Do you think that your life is worth more than mine?”
I am confident. I have spent two-thirds of my life with my host. I think I know her. I know the neat scars on her wrists, her boney ankles, the smell of her panic and the taste of her fear. Though she whirls around at my words, she doesn’t see anyone who could have spoken. The only conclusion she can come to is this:
“A tick! Oh, but I’ve heard how you vampires croon so sweetly that your victims choose death over separating. Your face cannot be as pretty as your voice. Where are you?”
“Oh, all about, right here. Beside you and behind. Say, what’s going on with your neck?”
She jerks her hand away from me – my ploy is a success. My host isn’t one to blush often, but the fever, mild though it is at present, makes it happen easily.
“Are you going to eat me?” she asks, and I cannot tell her that she’s fed me once already, is feeding me now in throbbing pulses under the numbness of my saliva.
She continues, “Am I going to die? The stories say the people who die from ticks are almost always happy to go, that they go laughing, or in love. But I’m – don’t kill me. I don’t want to die, not anymore, and I’ll never forgive you if you make me want it.”
“Would you prefer to die in pain, afraid, in tears?” I ask, as her breath leaves her all at once.
My breaths are smaller, dispersed from the spiracles on the underside of my body in a steady, chugging stream. Her’s are all drama: a big billowing cloud, nothing, and again a huge exhale in shades of heat. A tick’s weak eyes can see some color, and motion in blurs from far away. I have to rely on her breath and her warmth to teach me the way space exists around us at scale, but up close I can count the inflamed rings around me.
I lose focus when a shiver runs up from her toes to where I continue to feed. I am buried deep enough that getting knocked loose is inconceivable, but suddenly her health is much more in question.
“Already it’s begun,” she whispers. “I can’t feel my toes.”
The next morning, I am swollen. Anything sharp or hard could burst me. I disengage my mouthparts from the hole in the back of her neck and make my way delicately into the space behind and above her ear. It is the safest place on her body.
“Tick,” she says softly, rubbing the back of her neck. “What do I call you?”
I am settling in to molt, and, after leaving the hot spot of nerves at the base of her neck, I can’t discharge the toxins needed for her to receive my response anyway. I listen, despite wishing she wouldn’t speak.
“Tick,” she repeats, “tell me what to say, what to do. What can I do so that you’ll let me live?”
Of course, she hears nothing in response. She digs her nails into the back of her neck – I can smell the blood mixed with my saliva. I wonder if she’s regained sensation there yet.
“Where are you?” she says, and then she is yelling and yelling. My host struggles upright. Her lower limbs seem weakened. Possibly, they have also begun to numb. I wish she would stop moving, stop trying. I realize with a suddenness that could only come from repression that I want to tell her: Stop that! You’ll only spread it faster.
I can’t say anything, so she uses her upper limbs to drag herself to her reflection, which she has mounted on a wall. I am hidden behind her ear and long hair. Even if I was not: I am less than a millimeter in size, and so hidden anyway. An insignificant lifeform. Without considering it deeply, I inch forward to get a view of what she does next, sloughing off bits of my exoskeleton with every miniscule movement. My host stares at her own reflection with something visibly moving in her eyes, like a heartbeat. Like passion.
“Look at me. I’m only nineteen. That’s practically –” She cuts herself off, and I watch as she touches her face. It is twitching. She moves her lips again, slowly and without words.
In the mirror, one of her eyes loosens from its stare and begins to spin on its own. The eye is blue – clear sky between branches, singular. The eye seems to chase after her breath as she shudders it out. She brings her hand to its lid and tries to force it shut, but even closed we can both see it still moving, circling.
There is a thrum like bullfrogs in her throat when she speaks next, and I can sense a warm liquid ooze from her eyes.
“I’ve barely begun – I’m still learning to be happy about it. Please. If you have any mercy at all – please give me more time.”
My host is clearly dying. I don’t want to think about it.
Why is my life an antithesis?
Am I supposed to accept it: being the shadow, not the shape, and never the sun; a reflection; a parasite… numbing eyes losing focus on the real?
She is solid, overflowing with blood and life, larger than me and my purposes. She’s given me my first unhindered view of the sky. She’s given me her blood.
I can only take. I only take.
I shed my skeleton behind her ear, safe while she is afraid, warm while she is burning up.
I worry that it might be too late. I worry that I will not make the best choice. I worry that there are no good choices here.
As my molt comes to a close, I know there is no time for me to recover, to lie dormant. I weave my way through her dark hair to peel the remaining bits from my new shell, hurrying back to my incision site. I begin once more to feed, as I must, but also to plan. My host has not left her spot in front of the mirror all day; she mumbles about love and hospitals.
I am running out of time.
That night, after I drink for some hours and regain my energy, I offer to give her a vision.
My host is belly-up, vulnerable. Her breathing is hitched, difficult. I have already pumped her with as many calming neurotoxins as I safely can without inhibiting all her brain activity. Her body spreads out above me, heavier than the heavens.
“Adult ticks can grant wishes,” I tell her.
This is true, on a slant: as we mature, ticks’ toxins strengthen, allowing us to move beyond communicating and affecting the emotions of our host to a hallucinatory, mind-altering influence. A “wish” is the best I can give her without giving up my own chance to live.
“You can – you will?” She is slurring, not fully lucid.
Yet: “I will,” I promise.
I will let her feel the sun on her carapace, gentle, not burning, I tell myself. I will help her know the community and comfort-without-hunger of an egg cluster. I will give her whatever gentle, warm things she asks for.
“I want to have sex,” she says, and I am repelled by her violence. “I want to, to see my girlfriend again, and hug my parents, and tell everyone I love them. I was going to get a new job. I planned on learning how to sing – they tell me it’s learnable with lessons! My lease is nearly up, but I was looking forward to decorating a new place. There’s so much… Let me live another five years, another five weeks, another five days even. I want to live. I’m finally getting selfish; I’m finally asking for what I want: let me live, let me live, let go of me!”
“Do you want me to die?” I ask. “This thing you ask from me, it doesn’t come without a price. Either I take you, or I die. My choices are simple. Anyway, you aren’t special. Copulating, bargaining, dying. Anyone can do those things. Why not me?”
“Have you ever wondered if a cloud was telling you a secret?” Ah, so she is desperate now. “When have you sat in a field doing nothing but staring as it moves across the sky? And have you ever practiced how to fall until it’s muscle memory? How late do you stay up? Why do you wake up early? Why do you wake up? I kiss my mom on her cheek when I see her. My girlfriend makes my favorite foods on all the holidays. My best friend makes me laugh. My job makes me scream. Do you know what any of that means? Can you live like I do?”
We let the silence curl up with us on the floor for a few minutes.
Finally, I ask, “What is your name?”
“It’s Sala,” she says.
“Let me know your life before you ask me to give up everything for it, Sala.”
“What would you have me do?”
Instead of answering, I nudge my straw-like mouthparts deeper into her neck and focus on her words: clouds-in-a-field, moving skies, tears, practicing the muscles of memory and staying, waking kisses on her cheek, see makes food, laugh, make screams, living.
She goes under without a word, and the vision takes over. I’ve never gone this deep before; I’ve always heeded the warnings of the birthing-bush mothers.
Mouth to mind, I live through her dreams.
I wonder why I risk myself to tell you these things.
I live as Sala for a week. I let her girlfriend make love to Sala’s body, and it is warm and not painful or too much. I say I love you to all of Sala’s friends, and to her family, and to a few others who Sala does not describe to me, since they are around. Sala’s lips purse and her tongue dips up and down, but I say the words.
I say them over and over, each time meaning them more. By the time I say “I love you” to three strangers with blurry faces, knowing I speak the truth, I understand the “you” to be Sala.
A tick is a parent to its meals and a victim to its children.
I feed Sala’s body and feel her joy in sensation – how flavors for her don’t come from the healthiness of her meal but rather from its unique gustatory attributes. By walking to the edge of the forest where I was born from her home, I crack myself open. The world is much bigger than I will ever get to experience: it is miles and miles in every direction, and Sala could slice through the distance like I could flesh. I know I’ll see no more soon.
Time stretches around us similarly without limit, but this is the illusion, the dream.
Eventually, I let her wake up.
* * *
A week later and after her dream, I release my grip on Sala. She is still feeling weak, but she goes to the forest’s edge, where my people finally catch up with me. A male tick grabs onto Sala’s calf from a nearby bramble. His questing forelegs hook on the jeans I fit her into only that morning. As the male climbs up Sala’s body to reach me, I gentle her to lay limply on the ground and then detach myself from her completely.
I am well-engorged on Sala’s blood, meaning I am maybe ten times larger than I was after molting. When the male performs the mating, he feeds me flavorless goo to make me grow bigger still. It is quick, not painful, but efficient.
I think of Sala’s girlfriend and feel ashamed.
When he finishes, the male crawls to Sala’s shoulder, as if to look around. Low to the ground as we are, his last sight is of green things and, unreachably, the sky. He dies there seconds later, and I have to push him off of her before I can reconnect.
I get Sala up, and let her follow a paranoid impulse to brush her shoulders off twice more before moving on. As we circle the edge of the forest back to her home, I balloon.
This is not growth ten times’ larger than a nymph, this is six hundred times’ or more.
My mouthparts jut grotesquely from my body. Blood and eggs stretch me until I think, once again, I will pop.
I took Sala’s phone with us that last day to the forest. When we arrive at the borderland between shrubbery and trees, I smell flowers. We call an ambulance, and then I slowly remove myself from Sala’s neck, toddling into the safety of the birthing bush.
Of course, safe is where we go to rot. As I watch Sala stumble, colors swirl, the screaming truck arrives to take her to a hospital, and I think about death.
When I die tonight, and she lives, I wonder what new thing will grow.
Taylor V. Card is a fiction writer from Metro-Detroit, Michigan. She recently graduated with an MFA in fiction writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Taylor has been published in See Spot Run and the Pine River Anthology. Both her writing and her favorite hobby, pottery, reflect her fascination with animals and the natural world.
Serge Lecomte was born in Belgium. He came to the States where he spent his teens in Brooklyn. After graduating from Tilden H. S. He joined the Medical Corps in the Air Force and was sent to Selma. There he was a crew member on helicopter rescue. He earned a PhD. from Vanderbilt University in Russian Literature and taught Russian and Spanish at the University of Alaska for 20 years. He now resides in Bellingham, WA.
He is a published novelist and poet and painter.
His works are available on Amazon.