An ant woke one morning to find he had been transformed into Gregor Samsa. Gone his perfect exoskeleton, chitinous and dependable, the ability to lift ten times his body weight. Gone the six legs that so nimbly moved him along in excellent unison, the distinct head, thorax, and abdomen, and gone that most important feature: the petioles, allowing him to tuck his abdomen under his body, spray an attacker with poison from the abdominal glands. Gone the dependable trail of ants to follow. It was true that yesterday he had walked, alone, the sill of the Samsas’ kitchen window, on a reconnaissance of sorts, planning a descent. Below him had lay a perfect crumb, like a tiny planet or asteroid, though he knew not these terms until now they formed as small moons unto themselves in his brain, orbiting the word “crumb”—from some strudel or marlenka no doubt—and the ant had considered his rate of escape versus the possibility that Anna (the name, the notion of a name, forming now in his mind!) would enter with her swift palm and crush him. Her shadow already moved about the room, and this made Ant understandably afraid. Knowing her relentless sense of order and anger, Ant had determined to come back at an hour when she was busy with some other occupation.
But now, as Ant struggled to understand this Gregorious form—the way it wasn’t his body that breathed, but his mouth, singularly, the same mouth he would use for eating!—Ant missed the opportunity to move nearly invisibly along the edge of something. Wiggling his feet, for they were trapped under the weight of a thin but all-covering mass that, despite its lightness, was not as easy to lift as a hunk of crumb, Ant began to push back the blankets that enveloped his body. As he did so, he noticed the friction of cloth against—what was this? an apparent fifth limb, poking out from his middle, not an antenna, exactly, or a foot spur, for grooming—but here, Ant paused, and noticed the appendage hardening, and as it did, he drew in a breath—a gulping heave of his chest, the alarm of not allowing air to pass through him, but rather pulling it in? It was as if a crumb had been lodged, not above him for transport, but within him—a deep, guttural feeling he knew not how to manipulate beyond its happening. For he found that now he drew shallower breaths, and they came and went of their own accord, and when he concentrated on breathing, noticed the fifth appendage soften again, and then in considering it once more, he noticed it anew. Ant moved his upper legs—arms—and the sudden movement made him realize his fingers, and the word for them sprung into his mind, startling him, and the startle amazed him, too. On the inner side of each hand was a quite opposable digit, bent differently than the others, and somehow more exacting. Ant imagined it might be for washing, and, curious as to the appendage rising again in his middle, he moved the thumb—so easily, the whole hand!, such dexterity—down to this member, and began to examine it, stroke it, as if part of his regular cleansing ritual, though now he found his reflex quite different.
But he heard thumps in the hallway, and something new—a feeling not like fear, or instinct; he knew the word for it, as it warmed his neck, shame—made its way into his chest and joined the heat of his middle region. The thumps came faster, and he knew it must be Anna. He was surprised to find that in this human form he could feel both shame/fear and arousal, at once, and that their coupling had a profound effect on his—there was the word: penis. At the sound of it in his own brain Gregor—Ant—recoiled, but also surged and, too, his penis surged.
Could it be this simple, to be a human man? Among the many complications Ant foresaw—for already he could tell there was some measure of ultimate control one would need to exercise, beyond the impulses of hunger and fear, beyond the intense drive of social responsibility, community, and even now he felt these things fading as his world narrowed, became smaller, even as his form swelled with its new size and shape—among the many complications was this ethical dilemma. His gaze met his briefcase, and he knew suddenly that he had to go to work, and in a frenzy of movement flung himself out of bed, surprised he could stand on only two legs.
Do you think I had no idea that Gregor had been suddenly possessed? I had been witnessing his person for quite some time; I knew his routine, understood, as one understands how to predetermine the patterns made by tree shadows outside the window, in the afternoon, which shapes will play across the floral or argyle paper, which will dance and in what wind. When one morning I heard him thump from bed and wobble, I ran the short distance from the kitchen to his quarters and though I knew it to be improper, flung open the door, which, however heavy, however small my body against it, was possible to push ajar. Gregor stood looking at me, but there was something different about him: his eyes, perhaps? His cocked head? Or was it the way he studied me, as if I had transformed?
Eyes, yes. They gazed at me as if focusing a kaleidoscope. Or maybe not his eyes. I spun rapidly through the parts of Gregor I’d memorized—there were many—and took inventory.
Facing me, Gregor seemed to lean forward. He displayed a ferality, but not too wild—no, it was slight. It was his overall demeanor, I decided. Yes, his way of being. Something about him felt larger, as if he’d expanded overnight.
Gregor?” I said, my lips parting. He clutched his chest, but I noticed from his evening gown a lump—that of his male form, like a protruding morsel under a nightsheet. I glanced away, but he seemed not ashamed; instead, he allowed the shape to lean further, bending as if the body were in segments and this were the one most instinctually inclined my direction. I blushed. “Gregor?” I said again.
He stared. But what was I doing here? Before this, I had been in the kitchen, making breads, and thinking, foolishly: Where does an ant go when it is not on my counter? It was a pretty dumb question—obviously, they take the crumbs back to their queen. I spent a lot of time considering how delightful it would feel to be queen, surrounded by all those crumbs. To an ant, loaves! Like a miracle of Jesus, except richer, and for no other reason than loyalty. Of course there’s another reason, but I know little of ants, and I had to knead that dough. It floated into my nostrils, bringing that floury smell to which I’m accustomed. And then, it rose.
I was thinking of that rising when I saw Gregor’s, um, appendage rising from his middle, like strange-shaped dough under its warming cloth.
Just then Gregor became aware of Anna’s attention to his middle. His eyes, beginning to adjust to their new single-focus, were also processing—or sending signals to his brain to process—reactions to what occurred outside his body, not fear so much as desire, and the words coming fast, and again he felt shame. But more, he found himself hungry to mate, to share sperm a queen could use for years. He was forgetting all but Anna—no, it wasn’t her, but his own appetite he needed to answer! He knew somehow, as one knows when one has left a body and gone back to a body, that though an ant would die, in this form he might survive. There was calling to him something deep from within her, something—spiritual?—he felt the word in its contradictions thrumming, pulsing inside his chest.
Kafka, perhaps, understood insects, but if you don’t, what you need to know is ants exercise a lot of the same behaviors as humans. They employ group decision-making, dispose of their dead, apprentice and teach their young, divide labor, practice agriculture, use herbicides and other disinfectants, farm livestock—such as aphids, etc., which they milk among other things!, fight wars, and, perhaps most disturbingly, practice slavery.
Let’s review: Anna loves Gregor, in secret. Ant seeks crumb, becomes Gregor. Discovers humanity’s contradictions. Anna notices his penis, a change in his being. Do I need to tell you what happened next? Can you guess? Pretend each of these possibilities is a crumb, but only one is carried home to the queen.
__Mother rushed in, too late to stop Ant-as-Gregor and Anna.
__No one else was home, so the two copulated long and deliciously, into late afternoon, Gregor discovering each of their bodies in turn, Anna satisfied by these splendors as she never had been from baking or kneading or even watching Gregor move through a room. In seven to fourteen days, she laid a cache of eggs that hatched into larvae, white as salt, transparent as rain on a window beating itself furiously in Gregor’s dreams. The larvae molted and molted again, sprouting hairs, until they morphed into small, strange children, no bigger than a thumbnail, furry as sunflower leaves.
__Only Anna felt the love; Ant-as-Gregor just wanted bread.
__Pigeons flew suddenly through the window and, being sentient, and birds, attacked Gregor, devoured him, departing quickly as they arrived.
__Queen ants can live up to thirty years, but they obtain that position by slavery and slaughter. So Gregor is lucky he didn’t remain an ant—he might have been slaughtered much sooner. Of course, the non-mating males usually survive. Females murder other females.
__Remember, this is only one way to tell the tale. There are other ways.
__Shapes come in different people.
__This is only one way to tell it, as if a manual, from Latin manus, or hand. Is this a magic trick, a sleight-of, are you being man-handled? Is this a mandible, a man, a handbook? Is it a guide to a spell?
Under your pillow, place a card with the names of three different animals you wouldn’t
mind becoming if, in the morning, you were to awaken as one. Consider how difficult it
might be to adjust to your new body. Consider how your family might react. Consider
how your secret lover would feel. If you become yourself (an ant?) again at the end of the
story, would you still be able to contain the affection for your lover? And would that love
be able to navigate an impossible divide between species?
__Verily. This is not the time for giving up!
__Wondering and wandering, the ants go in a line, marching one by one into Gregor’s bedroom, rescuing their comrade and hoisting him wholly on their shoulders, carrying him off, Anna shouting but I love you, I love you, I love you, following him all along the edge of the hallway, into the kitchen, to the edge of the window, ready to—
X the answer you prefer, then return to Gregor—or Ant—our accidental, antecedental protagonist. Antecedental, of course, related to antecedent, that which precedes (as in, a naming, a being). Continue: Ant felt himself fold over the petioles, their shape the hollow ache of a lodged soul in his torso, the throb above and around the other throbs. Being human was torture, he decided. Being human was divine.
You don’t have to choose just one.
Zephyrs bring this to you: a torrent of language. An Ant woke one morning to find he had been transformed into alphabet—a whole array of curiosities, a tray of letters, from first to last.
Maya Jewell Zeller is an associate professor of creative writing for Central Washington University and poetry editor for Scablands Books, as well as the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Alchemy For Cells & Other Beasts (Entre Rios Books, 2017), an interdisciplinary collaboration with visual artist Carrie DeBacker. Recipient of a Promise Award from the Sustainable Arts Foundation as well as a residency in the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest, Maya is at work on a memoir called Raised by Fern, as well as a story collection, A Few Nondescript Adventures of Some Consequence.
Born in Buffalo, New York, Mark Yale Harris spent his childhood enthralled in a world of drawing and painting. Though honored for his creative endeavors, he was encouraged to pursue a more conventional career. After finding conventional success, his artistic passion was able to present itself. Harris began sculpting, and has since created an evolving body of work in stone and bronze, now featured in public collections, museums and galleries worldwide, including Hilton Hotels, the Royal Academy of London, Marin MOCA, Four Seasons Hotels, and the Open Air Museum in Ube, Japan.