The Siren and the Worm
The houses on our street were built all at once after the war. They had pointed roofs, windows flanking the front doors, and eavestroughs painted green and red to match the doors. My parents were children when they were new. By the time I grew up the houses were already broken, the little front lawns were weedy, and the vinyl siding engineered by the war scientists had been warped by the sun.
It was the first week of warmth after the winter. It was the year I was fifteen, my first year of service. I was still unused to work and it showed in my dirty black uniform, my dirty hair, and the sores around my mouth. My grandmother told me to try and remember to eat an orange once in a while, but it was hard to remember when there was little in the pantry to remind me. I never ate with my family any more. I left before it was light and when I got home in the afternoon, I usually crawled into bed and slept through my supper.
Early in the morning, I started out for work and the shop on the other side of the freeway that flowed past the end of street one-thirty-six. Trudging down our row of single family dwellings, most of them like mine with a grandmother in the basement, I felt immense sympathy for all creatures displaced from their natural environments, especially for the pink and purple worm I saw gasping on the sidewalk. It had rained during the night. He must have tunnelled up through the roots of dandelions toward the damp night air, our six visible stars. Somehow he found himself stranded on an endless pad of concrete. My grandmother said worms were great helpers and I thought perhaps it was time someone did them a good turn. I crouched down. The worm coiled around my finger like a ring of muscle, all friendly. I should have transplanted him back to a lawn, it would have been kinder. But I took him to the goddess’s shop.
Although I wanted to parade through the heavy steel door with my prize, I was obliged to cover my left finger with my right hand because Siren might have seen me, the people might have cried out. The other aprons and I milled around, gathering our hair into nets and removing the rings from our noses. We all lined up for the clock. I slipped the worm into my green pocket. So Siren wouldn’t guess I’d brought a fellow foreigner to work, I was sullen as usual.
Every day she pushed me up in front of the slavering crowd and made me perform. Today, I hoped the worm would somehow help me. Jostling, balancing on spiked shoes, silk nooses around their necks, the people would ask me to do a series of impossible tasks. I was to heat water past the boiling point, mirror the molecular structure of sugar, cure the common allergy to fat, and cause ice cubes to float in hot tea. I was to make coffee that tasted unlike itself and transform a cup of milk into a celebration feast. I was also to smile at insults, do nine tasks at one time, and speak everyone’s true name, whether they had told it to me or not.
There was no time to think, rest, or even urinate. I forgot all about the worm in my apron pocket.
When I remembered my helper, I was struggling to create a blizzard in a glass jar. The knives spinning in the bottom of my vessel screamed, but I paid no notice. I scrabbled in my pocket, trying not to pinch the worm and sever him. Rogue chunks of ice rattled against the sides of the jar. The worm lay limp and hot like a snapped elastic band in my palm. Panicked, I started stroking him. As gentle as I tried to be, holding the weight of my hand stiff in my wrist, my finger skidded on his darkening body. I could feel his segments feebly contract. He was drying out quickly. I had forgotten all about the mob, but as my blizzard started to liquify, their murmurs grew. And as I lifted my hand to the handbasin’s crusted, dripping faucet, the worm lying abject on my flattened palm, the noise of the people’s outrage broke over my ears.
Another apron, with a collapsed chin and faded purple hair, shot me a desperate glance. Her eyes looked like the eyes of the raccoons who roamed our street in a pack to protect themselves from the stones and hockey sticks of the little kids.
I looked around. The mob was threatening to climb over the money counter separating them from us. Slowly, I backed away from them, holding the worm out in front of me like a talisman. A man jabbed his finger in my direction and said that I would never get another job in service. Then my hip hit a machine and I couldn’t back any farther, except by pulling the hand holding the worm in toward my body. Cradling my wrist against my chest, I turned to face the machine. The people screeched. The machine was open, in between brews, the basket of boiling hot coffee grounds above one of the big urns pulled out like a convenient, microcosmic substitute for the worm’s native soil.
I dropped my friend gently into the steaming basket. He reared up in solidarity, what must have been his eye-end, his mouth-end, weaving back and forth in the air like a rebel protester’s bullhorn a few inches from my nose. For the first time, I noticed the way his whorled pink face resembled a fingertip.
Inside the forgotten glass jar, the knives started to buck and clatter. The worm, my helper, squirmed around, staining himself with coffee grounds and stupidly burrowing down. After a few seconds, he stopped. I could no longer see his clean face. Half-burrowed, he lay there. I slammed the rusty basket in.
With a loud jeer, the people called for more ice and air to be whipped into foam, for the blizzard to form anew for each of them, for liquid snow sugar to drink. I turned back to my counter, my jar, and my knives like a helicopter. The other aprons didn’t speak to me.
That night, Siren called for a congregation. Her star-wreathed head loomed against a bar of fluorescent light above the refrigerators. When everyone had gathered, she hauled me up in front of the other aprons, pulled my wrist behind my back, grabbed a handful of coffee grounds from a compost bucket and pushed it into my mouth. Her hair snaked over my shoulder and rolled over my chest and held me still. The coffee was like oily dirt in my mouth. I chewed and swallowed.
Shuffling home, I tried not to look at the cool green lawns choked with clover and chickweed, lush in the dark. My throat hurt and my bowels felt twisted. Siren had not paid us after the congregation and I had not been paid in six weeks. I wondered if I was hungry. It didn’t matter; the thought of eating the dry oatmeal, grape-flavoured apples, and canned beans in the kitchen made me more weary than I already was.
The screen door clanged behind me as I entered our house. My parents were in bed, but my grandmother heard me, and slowly and loudly she climbed the basement stairs. I waited for her in the dark kitchen. There were dirty dishes piled up against the window above the sink. My grandmother’s head rose in the kitchen doorway, her scraggy hair shining white. She spoke from the stairwell. “You’re sick, little one.”
I sunk down in the lawn chair at the head of the kitchen table. My stomach was so distended that I sat with my legs spread like a man or a pregnant woman.
My grandmother flipped on the machine that boiled water by the cup, a wedding present of my parents’. It had a water chamber on top, like a small plastic coffee maker, with an element spiralling into it, and a red button you pushed to turn it on, and a green button to dispense the hot water into the mug or soup bowl below. It worked slower now that the element was thick and white with calcium, but it still worked.
“To make the worm drink,” my grandmother began, “use a worm that has been thoroughly cleaned.” She winced as she raised her arm to reach into the cupboard and pulled out a twisted plastic packet full of yellow powder. “To remove a fishy odour, worms are usually boiled with a ginger root. After the stew is filtered it is ready to drink, but more delicious when added to honey or practical sugar.” She coughed. “Little one. Reach me the sugar.”
My grandmother had never made the worm drink for me, though she’d been mixing it for herself since I was a little girl, standing in the corner of the kitchen stirring, her back to us, while the rest of the family crowded the kitchen table. I stood up and took down the white paper sack and sat back down. My back ached. I could feel the grain of the wooden table bristling under my fingers. Siren had made us use the lye to clean the machines and my hands were raw as peeled carrots. My stomach bubbled.
“Thus, myths about the earthworm are fulfilled, and thus earthworms can safely treat us in terms of commercial good-enough.” When I was a child my grandmother told me the worm drink cured world weariness. She walked slowly to the table and set a small lozenge and a mug blazoned with the usual propaganda in front of me. The drink was sweet and good. As she rubbed my back, my muscles began to unclench. A warmth rose in my throat and spread down into my body. As my face relaxed it became slack and loose, so that a tear spilled out of one of my eyes. My grandmother dug her swollen knuckles in between my shoulder blades, encouraging me. “There, good.” The pain in my stomach subsided and flowed out through my limbs.
My grandmother descended the stairs to the basement one step at a time. I went to bed.
In the middle of the night I woke and stumbled into the dark hallway, tripping over a hairbrush on my way to the bathroom. I was going to vomit. I planted my arms and legs and hung my head over the sink and stared into the porcelain bowl grimy with glycerine and face paint. Saliva poured into my mouth.
The row of lightbulbs above the mirror whined.
The worm was swollen, three feet long, as long as the Siren’s week-day braid, as whip-like and powerful as it reared up in my throat. My mouth filled with cold, segmented flesh. I could feel him pressing against the inside of my lips, which finally split open. The worm spilled halfway out, half-burrowed, half-emerged. He hung there, his mouth-end, his eye-end bobbing between me and the streaky mirror. I started to choke. The muscles in my abdomen spasmed.
Ever since I was small, I’ve closed my eyes tight before vomiting.
When I looked down, my friend was curled up in the sink, filling it, his skin pink and slippery again, his segments rolling and shuddering in the air. I wiped my mouth, sagging against the counter a little. He had grown so much. I put out my whole hand. The worm stretched out his neck as if to smell me, nosing against the base of my thumb. He seemed to be drying out already. At least, I could feel the wet spot of his mouth, distinct. I cupped my hands under the faucet, ran a trickle of water, just enough to slick my palms, turned off the water, and carefully ran both my hands over the worm’s exposed skin. I murmured as I worked. “There, good.” For a few seconds, he seemed to relax.
Then the worm coiled blindly around my hand. He twisted up my arm, heavy as a wet sheet. At my shoulder he turned to face me with some effort, like a child correcting her posture. His head bobbed inquisitively. His eye-end, his mouth-end tapped against my lips like my grandmother’s white cane on the red letter days when she left the house. When I spoke, my lips brushed against him ticklishly. “What is it my friend?”
He nibbled my bottom lip in response. He knocked against my lips like a door. It was hard to fathom such tiny, delicate movements. I laughed and I couldn’t help opening my mouth.