Worm Song

Edited by Kate Dollarhyde

Copyedited by Chelle Parker

August 2020

1298 words — Reading time: around 6 minutes

Listen to this story, narrated by Hollis Beck:

It’s spring. And the trees have refrained from leafing. There is no global warning. They ask no one. They tell no one. Instead: they plan ahead. They dig deeper, waiting for the ending to be over. Everything above ground, they abandon.

Caterpillars leave a trail of frass and caravan for food. It’s fruitless. Birds and their bird lice, debarking their perches, enter the air in exile. Squirrels, suddenly a food source, squat in mole and vole holes with the dogs of the prairie. Families and orders, with bites and flights in equal measure, reorder in an exodus of genesis. Even the riverine fishes of the low-lying runnels know something is no longer shady. Out on the verge, thready and spored, fungal communes reassess.

It’s spring. And the trees have refrained from leafing. There is no global warning. They ask no one. They tell no one. Instead: they plan ahead. They dig deeper, waiting for the ending to be over. Everything above ground, they abandon. Their skeleton canopies become brittle in anticipation of the bodies.

Once upon a time, atomic magnesium was held lovingly in a porphyrin ring. The metal axis — a vow, an axle — has since been broken. The green leaf was the blade. The green leaf was the blade of khlōros phullon. The green leaf was the chlorophyllic axial bract — the embryo, the seed, the spore, the needle of biologic riot. From an alchemy of sun, water, and air, manna once regularly appeared.

It’s spring. And the trees have refrained from leafing. There is no global warning. They ask no one. They tell no one. Instead: they plan ahead. They dig deeper, waiting for the ending to be over. Everything above ground, they abandon. Their skeleton canopies become brittle in anticipation of the bodies. Their roots seek a deeper subterranean heat.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with the sun. It is still the star, hot and unbothered. The earth is the world awry and the error is spheric: misfires in the thermo-, washouts in the meso-, traps in the strato-, exhaust in the tropo-. Earthy whorls of vapor are screw-locked in heat. The atmosphere is smoked. The sky is empty and white. Heat drives away any warmth.

It’s spring. And the trees have refrained from leafing. There is no global warning. They ask no one. They tell no one. Instead: they plan ahead. They dig deeper, waiting for the ending to be over. Everything above ground, they abandon. Their skeleton canopies become brittle in anticipation of the bodies. Their roots seek a deeper subterranean heat. They worm through the earth like the worms that have abandoned it. They worm and they wonder where the worms have gone to. Have they bored to the core? Have they amassed offshore?

The soil is not a loamy gumbo. Threadworms do not scale an elaborate mineral lattice. Earthworms do not thread a vein of hearty clay. Beetles do not shield their hind wings from a trail of sloughed-off castings. The soil is dead. As dead as dirt. Soiled. Stripped. Denatured.

It’s spring and the trees have refrained from leafing. There is no global warning. They ask no one. They tell no one. Instead: they plan ahead. They dig deeper, waiting for the ending to be over. Everything above ground, they abandon. Their skeleton canopies become brittle in anticipation of the bodies. Their roots seek a deeper subterranean heat. They worm through the earth like the worms that have abandoned it. They worm and they wonder where the worms have gone to. Have they bored to the core? Have they amassed offshore? Without them, the earth is hard, hard and unforgiving. Without them, the downward growing is slow, slower than the trees had planned for, slowing. Their roots sprout rootlets but the splitting is lonely. The roots sprout rootlets but the growing is slowing. The roots sprout more rootlets but the rootlets are fraying.

The voice of the trees, still a physical thing, vibrates the branches of their subterranean mycelial networks for the last time. These fungal hyphae and mycorrhizal cords, the means of their speech, will subsume them now, will eat them into otherness, caps, conks, and brackets. The physical voice of the trees vibrates the branches of their future selves for the last time and, through their subterranean mycelial networks, they reach an arboreal consensus: we must abandon our roots and travel without bodies.

The core is inedible. Its fluids are non-potable. Its borders are indefensible. There are no walls. The walls would be windows. There is no air. The air would be windswept. There are no bodies. The core is ill-suited for bodies. The trees arrive here, the tree spirits, at the middle, from all places — the Querquetulanae, kodama, meliae, Nang Tani, Ghillie Dhu, epimeliads, hamadryads, dryads, and nymphs. The middle is spacious and warm. The middle is fluid and fertile. The middle is demonstrative and communal. The middle is the end of one journey.

Pleasurable, it is non-celebratory. No spirit moves with celerity, yet nothing is grave. There is no gravity in the middle. The tree spirits speak here, tree to tree, without intermediaries. There are no middlemen in the middle. The tree spirits speak here, with immediacy, of their intermediaries. Of echolocating mammalian pollinators; of long-toed arboreal frogs; of ant-thrush; of anting crows; of tube-snouted ant bears; of long, extensible ant bear tongues; of the upward-pointing horns of ruminating antelope; of the ants, their hills, colonies, swarms, breeding queens, and formic acids; of water-cooled magmatism; of water-eroded igneous earth; of water sediments; of water sedimentation; of wind-cracked and root-eroded sedimented rock. The tree spirits speak without intermediaries, tree to tree, about themselves as intermediators. Of the invisible ocean forests and their engines of oxygen, of seed-bearing service trees and the fruited acuity of avian eyesight, of flowering dogwood and the dispersal of water blight, of transpired mists of phytobiotic aerosols, of rising vascular sap and the bark holes of sapsuckers, of the curious frequency of tree song and the often earless audience of its transkingdom transmission. The tree spirits speak here, tree to tree, of the last tree songs sung, when they were still entrunked enough to sing them.

Way up above, beyond the cold midden, tree bodies are snapping. No birds can be blamed, for the freed air is birdless. It’s paws and paws only that do all the clawing. Willow and Olive and Douglas and Holly, they name their last offspring as the seasons stop cycling. Their blue mitts, now freezing, burn our last offering. The world is an ending. Their world as an ending. Their world is their ending. The world as an ending with the tree spirits dreaming. And, somewhere, the worms.

It was spring. And the trees had refrained from leafing. There was no global warning. They had asked no one. They had told no one. Instead: they had planned ahead. They had dug deeper, waiting for the ending to be over. Everything above ground, they had abandoned. Caterpillars left a trail of frass and caravanned for food. It was fruitless. Birds and their bird lice debarked their perches and entered the air in exile. Squirrels, suddenly a food source, squatted in mole and vole holes with the dogs of the prairie. Families and orders, with bites and flights in equal measure, reordered in an exodus of genesis. Even the riverine fishes of the low-lying runnels knew something was no longer shady. Out on the verge, thready and spored, fungal communes reassessed.

The world was an ending. Their world as an ending. Their world was their ending. The world was an ending with the tree spirits dreaming. And, somewhere, the worms.

Somewhere they’re singing.

© 2020 David Naimon

About the author

David Naimon

David Naimon is host of the radio show and podcast Between the Covers and co-author of the Locus Award-winning and Hugo Award finalist Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing, with Ursula K. Le Guin. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Orion, AGNI, Boulevard, Tin House, Black Warrior Review, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. It has been reprinted in The Best Small Fictions and the Pushcart Prize anthology and been cited in Best American Essays and Best American Travel Writing. Naimon’s conversations with authors, including many SF/F greats — Ted Chiang, Carmen Maria Machado, China Miéville, Jeff Vandermeer, Helen Oyeyemi, Daniel José Older, Sofia Samatar, William Gibson, and Neal Stephenson, to name a few — can be found at tinhouse.com/podcasts.