The worm – a short story

Tina’s father had business at Durham University and took Tina and her mother with him. While he was engaged with the University Tina, and her mother went sightseeing. Tina’s mother bravely drove a rented car and soon became an expert at navigating on the left side of the road. One day, they visited Penshaw Monument[1] with its commanding location at the top of a hill. They scrambled up the monument’s steep stairs enjoy the view and afterward walked in the surrounding park.

It was unusually dry that summer; the ground was parched and even the weeds looked distressed. When Tina saw an odd-looking, desiccated, worm lying upon the ground, she deduced it to be dehydrated and almost dead. She had always been interested in fauna, and so she picked it up. When she looked at it carefully she realized that it had a distinctive head with eyes and mouth and nine tiny holes on each side of its head. She had never seen anything like this before, and so she slipped it into her bottle of distilled water. The water appeared to revive the worm, and it wiggled around in the bottle and looked at her. Later, when she and her mother ate their picnic lunch, Tina pushed a few crumbs from her sandwich into the bottle. The worm devoured the crumbs, and it seemed to Tina that it was thanking her, by the way, that it shook its head and waved its tail. Her mother watched in disbelief,

“Tina dear, please dispose of that disgusting wriggling thing.”

“But Mama,” Tina pleaded, “I feel a rapport with Wormy. I think that he communicates with me. Poor thing he is all alone. I think that we need to find out more about his genus.”

Tina’s mother looked at her daughter; she had picked up on the fact that Tina had already given her ‘Wormy’ sex by referring to him, as ‘he’ rather than ‘it’. Later, back at their Bed and Breakfast, Tina found nothing similar to the worm on the Internet. She learnt a great deal about worms, eels, salamanders and lampreys. She read worms don’t have eyes, and now knew that her ‘Wormy’ was not a worm. The next day at lunch at a pub in Durham City a kindly gentleman, hugging a frothy pint of beer, laughed at Tina’s worm and suggested that it might be a descendent of the Lambton worm. He launched into a quick summary of this piece of folklore.

One Sunday morning young John Lampton, son of the local Earl of Lambton, skipped church and went fishing in the River Wear. On his way, an old personage warned that nothing good would come to him for his truancy. The only thing he snared was a slimy worm, which was so disgusted him that, on his way home, he threw it down a local well. Time went on, and John Lambton matured and left County Durham to join a crusade. He was gone seven years. When he returned he found his father’s estate in ruins. The entire countryside was being terrorized by an enormous worm which ate livestock, milked cows and even took the occasional child. John was deduced that this worm was the worm that he had thrown down the well. Many had unsuccessfully tried to kill it, for it appeared to have magical powers and could reconstruct itself when cut into pieces. John took counsel and commissioned armor with outward pointing knives. He met the Dragon in the River Wear. It attacked him by wrapping its body around him like a boa constrictor. The tighter it squeezed; the deeper the knives severed its body. As it was cut up, each piece was washed away by the river current before it could reconnect. The worm was dead. John had been warned that, after he dispatched the worm, he must kill the first living creature that greeted him. He had instructed his father that this should be his dog; unfortunately, his father was so excited that he forgot to release the dog and ran to hug his son. John did not kill his father, resulting in a curse that succeeding generations of Lamptons would not die in their beds.

Of course, everyone agreed that the tale of the Lambton worm was just a tale. They ordered more beer and joked to reinforce their collective belief in a carefully nurtured local legend. Tina was as convinced as everyone and was not about to kill her Wormy. She did entertain a modicum of fear tinged with foreboding meaning, and knew that she was not going to release it into a well or any other body of water in County Durham.

Tina decided to give Wormy a better name, because she knew that ‘Wormy’ was both inaccurate and conveyed the wrong connotation. As they walked back to their B and B from the pub, she hit upon calling him ‘LW’. ‘L’ as a reminder of Penshaw and the Lambton lands where he was found and ‘W’ for worm as a reminder that this is what everyone originally assumed him to be. When it was time to return home in Austin Texas Tina wrapped LW in wet towels and a Ziploc bag and carried him in her suitcase. When she got home, she placed him in her tropical fish tank.

LW appeared to like the fish tank. Every day when Tina fed the fish, he came up to the surface and ate with them. The fish took their food with apparent indifference. LW ate his while looking directly into Tina’s eyes. She was sure that he was communicating with her. She watched him grow bigger, and wondered how large he was going to get. By December, LW was several inches long and began to eat the other fish. He started with the tetra and progressed to the larger fish finishing off with the algae eater. Tina tried giving more food fish food, but this did not appear to stem his appetite. Tina’s mother told her that the LW had to go. By now, Tina was convinced that she and LW could communicate and that when he winked at her; he was telling her that he needed a larger body of water.

Tina’s father suggested that they release LW into Tina’s grandparents’ decorative backyard fishpond. He would be fed when the fish were fed, and Tina could see him when she visited them. Tina discovered that if she stood at the edge of the pond and rubbed two rounded stones together, periodically tapping them, LW would come and lift his head out of the water and greet her. Tina took to placing her hand near him when he rose above the surface of the water, and he would put his head in her palm and rub against her skin. She understood this to be his expression of love. As time passed LW grew bigger. When he was a couple of feet long he slowly devoured the Koi in the pond, then he took to making nocturnal excursions from the water to consume frogs and any local domestic cats who came by. The neighborhood assumed that the cats were being attacked by coyotes, until they realized that the coyotes were also gone. Again LW communicated as he wiggled his head back and forth against her hand. He told her that he needed a larger body of water.

For several days, Tin worried about LW’s need for more space, and then she hit on a solution. She told him to leave the pond in the dead of night and to make his way across the Greenbelt behind her grand-parent’s house to a small stream. He was to follow the stream until it came to a much larger neighborhood lake. She told him to keep himself hidden at all times; explaining that if anyone saw him, they were bound to do him harm. She reassured him with the promise that she would meet him at the lake in three days.

When Tina arrived at the lake, it looked as it always looked, and she thought that she must have lost her friend. She followed the path around to a place where she was hidden from view by the other park users. She took out her stones and rubbed them together and tapped them. Immediately she saw a ripple in the water moving towards her. It was LW. He lifted his head out of the water and extended his red tongue to wrap it gently around her legs. She giggled, and lent down scratched the back of his head. Again, time passed, and as it did LW continued to grow. At first, no one noticed that the duck and geese population of the pond was decreasing. By the time that they, and all the fish and turtles had disappeared, LW was over twelve feet long and beginning to have trouble remaining concealed.

A string of emails flowed around the Travis Country neighborhood. Each offered a speculation on why the pond wildlife was disappearing. In response to their concerns, the neighborhood park committee called in an environmental expert to test the water. To everyone’s relief, the expert reported that the water was well within the normal range. The report advised that the depopulation must have another explanation and recommended that a close watch be given to the pond so that the true explanation could be uncovered.

Tina communicated their findings to LW. She told him that she feared for his safety, especially as he was obliged to go on nocturnal foraging trips. They both agreed on the need for a larger body of water. Tina told LW to leave the lake and to follow the stream that connected it to the Barton Creek Greenbelt, and from thence to follow Barton Creek to where it fed into Town Lake. Tina herself was about to enroll in the University of Texas to study biology and vowed to take an apartment on the south side of Town Lake close to the new South-side boardwalk so that she, and LW could commune daily.

A week later when the pink light of dawn was caressing the waters of the lake and illuminating the bridges against still dark waters Tina walked along the south bank. Then when no-one was around, she slipped underneath one of the support piers of the boardwalk. She squatted beside the waters and rubbed her stones together periodically tapping them. After a few minutes, LW appeared. He arose from the water and placed his head in her lap. She stroked his scaly skin and scratched his neck.

LW told Tina that it had taken him several days to travel down Barton Creek. The problem was that Barton Creek periodically went underground rushing through deep limestone caves too tight for LW to navigate. This had meant that he had had to follow the dry surface Creek bed with its limestone boulders. During the day, he hid among the lush foliage of the Creek’s ravine only able to take brief naps due to the large number of bicyclists and people walking along the Creek banks. He went on to tell her that he liked the Lake; it teamed with fish, and he was optimistic for this to be his final home.

Again, time passed and LW grew relentlessly.  He gradually ate all the fish, ducks, swans, herons and turtles (he told Tina back he didn’t like turtles much). He began taking foraging trips away from the lake. They both knew that it was time for another move. This time the only waters Tina could think of was the Gulf of Mexico. She explained to LW that if he slipped over the Town Lake dam he could follow the Colorado River all the way to the coast. She warned him that seawater is saline, and brought a sample from her university lab for him to taste. He told her that he was sure that he could survive in salt water. He confessed to her that he had begun to feel an urge to return to his place of birth.

By now, LW was over fifty feet long. He put his head on Tina’s lap and listened to her as she gave her instructions,

“The route down the Colorado River will be long and exhausting.  The river winds its way across the plane to the ocean; it has frequent turns and switch-backs, but if you persist, I assure you that it eventually empties into the ocean.’

LW wiggled with excitement and assured Tina that he would be patient.

“Now LW, you know that you will have to travel by night. I warn you that if you are spotted, we shall never see each other again. Indeed, I dread thinking what might happen. Either you will be killed outright and your body hauled off for scientific research, or you will be stunned and kept in a cage or small tank while you are being gawked at, prodded, and studied.”

LW flailed about, waving his tail in the water to indicate his understanding, and a light-hearted  mood.

“No LW, listen to me; this is not a laughing matter. You must always be discreet and unseen. When you get to the ocean, that’s when the water becomes salty. You will be confronted by a barrier island. Follow the island to the south and you will find an opening to the vast ocean beyond.”

Tina sighed and looked out over the calm waters of Town Lake. She scratched LW’s head and stroked his scales placing her finger gently on each of his nine holes on either side of his head. LW rolled his eyes in an indication of extreme pleasure.

“OK, once you are in the ocean; you will be free. Eat and go where you please. You may find companions in the ocean deeps. However, if you do decide to return to the coast near where I found you; and I assure you it’s a very long way; I’ll be there. I shall be there for three or four days on either side of next year’s summer solstice. Now listen carefully. The River Wear empties into the cold North Sea at a place called Sunderland. There are two breakwaters around the mouth of the river. North of the North Breakwater is a sandy beach. The beach is bracketed on the North by a cliff of rocks and to the south by the Breakwater. I shall wait on the beach.”

That morning Tina and LW remained together longer than usual while each wondered whether they would ever see each other again. When the pounding of joggers on the boardwalk overhead began to intrude upon their communion, Tina rose and looked at him with tears in her eyes,

“Good-bye, have a good Journey. I hope to see you next June; if not, I shall always treasure my memory of you. You’re the best. ”

******

The following June 19 Tina sat at dawn, as promised, on the County Durham beach. She rubbed her stones together and tapped them as hard as she could. A cold wind blew across the sands, and she shivered. All morning she waited but nothing arose out of the pounding surf. The following day she took a red balloon and rug with her. She wrapped herself in the rug, tied the balloon to her wrist and persistently rubbed and tapped her stones. When the beach began to fill up with other people, she left. It rained on June 21; Tina wrapped herself in a red Macintosh and sat upon the beach rubbing and tapping her stones. This time her persistence was rewarded, and she saw LW drifting towards the shore shrouded in a mantel of seaweed. She waded into the water and touched him. They both felt a thrill of reconnection. It didn’t take long for Tina to realize that LW was not himself. He told her that the saltwater was killing him. Tina cried. LW swirled his tail gently around her and reassured her that he was content. She came to understand that he was hermaphrodite and had produced a sack of eggs. He carried them in his mouth and opened that cavity and using his red tongue, gently pushed the sack into Tina’s hands.

“What do you want me to do with your eggs? I can’t take them back to Austin. It would be their death.’

LW waved his tail and then Tina understood. LW had an innate dream of deep clear waters somewhere to the North of the landmass on which they now stood. It was a place where his eggs could hatch and grow without human intervention. At first, Tina could not think where such a place should be, but as she stood there shivering in the cold water, she remembered the stories of the Loch Ness monster and knew where LW’s eggs had to go.

[1] The Penshaw Monument in County Durham is a half-sized size scale replica of the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens.  It is a folly built in 1844 in memory of John Lambton. It was given to the British nation in 1939.

 

9 thoughts on “The worm – a short story

  1. I agree with Cynthia – this is weird. And for me, Wormy is not in the same league as Beauty & the Beast or the Frog Prince. Those are humans turned – Wormy is something else…
    I suppose Wormy will make a good bait for a mosasaurus 🙂

    • If you insist , although a mosasaurs may be too a tough fate! I didn’t intend the story to complete with HCA only meaning that I believe, and hope, that it is possible to love beyond outward appearances.

  2. Well, I think that’s a stroke of genius. ‘Wormie’s’ kids are up there reviving the old legends and the newer tourist trade even as we write! We always knew the Lambton Worm had a bit of an eye for the girls – and the crops; and the sheep. Perhaps he made it back up the Wear into the fresh water. If he did, I’ll be sure to spot him someday.

    • One of my friends dubbed it “magical realism”. Cynthia “weird”, and you ‘strange” and I agree with you all. I had fun imagining and writing it.

  3. I think I’ll award you the prize for WEIRD on this one, Jane. It’s funny, but as the story progressed I actually did have the Loch Ness monster at the back of my mind. The caressing of the beast was a bit unsettling to me, but then, love is blind, isn’t it. This was great fun!

    • I agree about WEIRD which I accept as an apt descriptor. The original folk lore is often repeated in NE UK. The unsettling love, which I portray, is because when I re-read the legend I got to wondering why an ugly worm, who only eats because he has to, couldn’t be loveable and capable of love. After all everyone enjoys such tales as “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Frog Prince.” OK weird it is!

    • I agree, and it seems that everyone who reads this expects LW to consume Tina. I’m glad that he didn’t although it might have been a better story if I had added tension by letting him consider doing so.

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