The Beetle Men
of Meadow Brook

by Jo Withers

When the village men returned from war, they became insects. These men so physically strong from rural toil, from herding cattle and ploughing fields, were malleable on the inside. They hadn’t known the world could be so cruel. That pain could be inflicted without reason. Not pain with purpose like that which came from birthing lambs wrestled from their bleating mothers, but human hatred—one man ripped apart by another.

Some of the village men had already changed when they returned. Some had lost parts in battle, but insects could survive with missing limbs. They sat twitching their remaining stick legs, minds and hearts unreachable within their exoskeletons. Their eyes were dark and doubting, bulging from their temples in two enormous semi-spheres. Their pupil-less eyes were dense with thousands of light-reflecting parts. Bug eyes that had segmented and reformed from the myriad of horrors they had witnessed. They scuttled into dark corners where they could hide away, and their wives, who had wished for their return for so long, were ashamed to admit that they were now afraid of them.

Some of the men hadn’t physically altered yet, their mutation was much slower. Their wives tried to pretend that nothing had changed, hoping that they could reverse or at least stall the process. They tried to talk to the men as they had before, but the men clicked their pincered arms in irritation, flicking the women away. The wives implored them to keep talking, to work things through. Perhaps if they shared their experiences on the battlefield it would affect them less. But when the men opened their mouths to speak there were no words, their throats vibrated with a mournful buzzing noise, and the women realised they would never understand.

As time passed every, man was transformed. They bore no resemblance to the men they once were. Eventually, they removed themselves from their wives and families. For days, they wouldn’t eat or sleep, cocooned away from light and life. As their hearts ballooned with despair, their ribs split and cracked, segmenting their aching bodies. Their spines would bend and harden and soon they were trapped within their dark shells, forever broken from their past lives.

When they emerged after their metamorphosis, they were no longer men. They hung at the outskirts of their homes like flies in webs watching their wives and children move around them like characters in a play. Sometimes, their tired wives would stop, hand them a child unthinking, too busy to remember things were different now. The insects would weep as they tried to hold their babies in their chopstick limbs and the infants wept as they found no tenderness or comfort in brittle, beetle arms.

Finally, it was decided that the insects could no longer live within the village. They must be banished to the forests nearby where they could live out their days together, blanketed by moss and foliage, reliant on plants and grubs for sustenance. The wives and children gathered to watch as they departed. Some crawled, some scuttled, some half-flew on their feeble wings which barely lifted them above the ground. But none looked back. There was a relief as they were released, a dark dust cloud of tragedy, pluming like a toxic gas throughout the fields of their old homes on the path to their woodland exile. They were free now, they could wallow in their suffering together, could screech like cicadas when the nightmares shook them, no more disguising the mass horror, no more pretending any part of them felt human.

Afterwards, the women hugged their children, especially the boys. They whispered that they would fill their lives with light and love so war would be redundant, and the men’s sacrifice would not be in vain.

For decades after, the women and children lived in peace surrounded by the deep woods, soothed by the hum of bugs and beetles in the intertwining branches. And sometimes, in the evening as they sat around the fireplace telling stories to their sleepy young, they would hear a thud upon the rooftop, the click-clack of giant insect legs against the window, and wonder if their beastly visitor was attracted by the flames or perhaps drawn back by a father’s love.

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