Returning to our October story, Dealing with the Devil, we were onstage with Jonathan Menkhir and Satan as they delved deeper into Jonathan’s beloved wife Chloe’s history as he tried to win her freedom from Purgatory. Let’s see what happens next.
The devil never mentioned the box, nor did I. I could still feel its weight in my pocket as the curtain drew wide to reveal the bedroom set from Fiddler where we had enacted the nightmare scene together. The devil began to blather on about how this was the bedroom set we had picked out together, but it was not – I recognized it as the one from the stage production, and a lousy facsimile at that.
Everything about this setup felt less and less substantial as time wore on. Chloe began to look even flatter and further away, just a fading photograph of a memory depicted as one of those life-size cardboard cutouts. The scene that surrounded me was sloppily finished chipboard and nothing more, painted too quickly in a bad last minute attempt at deception. The more that I stared at it the less real it became, all just caricatures of my life. The chipboard began to erode away to cardboard, the corrugated surface subtly showing from behind the façade. The decadent velvet draperies were nothing more than flimsy sheets of paper. I pulled the ring box out of my pocket. The box itself was made of folded cardstock; the ring inside just a circle of wire with a pink sequin in place of the rose quartz. It was all an illusion, and the production value was terrible.
Satan continued pontificating on the bedroom set. He droned on like a sleazy car salesman, the kind that would sell you a lemon of a junker by trying to convince you it was first rate, who would move decals to a beater car in order to convince unsuspecting and naive buyers that the car was a genuine Rolls from back in the day. At any minute, I expected him to hold open his white silk suit jacket and try to sell me a fake luxury watch.
“Lies, all lies,” I called out. “Just what do you take me for?”
The devil stopped suddenly, fire rising in his amber eyes. “Aw, Johnny Boy, you have to believe. You cannot lose faith in your love for Chloe. She is waiting for you to make the right decision, and we’ve barely even started.”
“This has nothing to do with Chloe, leave her out of this,” I retorted as a sudden gust of wind knocked over the cardboard cutout standing in the middle of the stage. “I was right at the start – you never had a grip on her. This is not Purgatory or a game, it’s just a cheap knockoff to connive me into your clutches. I’m not buying in.”
The devil began fuming, heat and smoke rising from the collar of his ill-fitting white suit, which was starting to look like as if it were made of rice paper rather than silk and was now slightly smoldering. A shrill whine echoed forth from his yellow teeth, “Now, Now, Johnny Boy. You simply MUST believe. You can choose the outcome but you must choose wisely.”
I shook my head. “I don’t believe you. There are no choices here that hold any meaning: a cheap replica of our sweetheart ring or the prop setup from Fiddler? None of that matters now. What is done is done, Chloe is gone and I am alone and that is how it is. You have nothing to offer me.”
The wind that had knocked over the cardboard cutout pretending to be my beloved bride was picking up. The cardboard and crinkled paper stage eroded around us into nothing more than brittle dry chaff. What was left of the paper dream morphed into mere leaves as my yard again came into clarity, the piles I had been painstakingly raking now scattered again.
“So you’ve made your choice then, Johnny Boy. And to think, you two could have been so happy together,” Satan cackled, “my dear, Jonathan Menkhir, you have chosen… poorly.” Satan’s head rolled back on his neck as he erupted in a fit of laughter. As he cackled to himself, a grating squeal bellowed forth from the depths of the cavernous pit of his gaping maw. He seemed to turn inside out, doubling back and swallowing himself as he reverted to the form of a gaunt man picking up a pile of dog poop from where his Westmoreland Terrier had so fervently buried it. The dog turned towards me, smiled a wide yellow-toothed grin and winked before it trotted along with the dog-walker in tow.
I reached into my pocket and fingered a small box. As I took it out to examine it, I realized it was the exact box that the genuine sweetheart ring had been kept in before it had been lost. The burgundy velvet case was still intact and was the real deal, not a poor facsimile. Sure enough, when I opened it, the actual ring was there, gleaming at me as sunlight danced across the faceted rose quartz. The devil dog was nowhere to be found, but I could still hear him chuckling on the passing breeze.
Nightmarish Nature: Worrisome Wasps
This time on Nightmarish Nature we are examining wasps. Wasps are truly terrifying, and not just because some of them sting or are aggressive, though those are often the first ones we think of because we as humans come in conflict with them more directly. No, wasps are extremely varied and some are just outright bizarre… stinging doesn’t even begin to touch on the worst horrors they can inflict.
Now many wasps are actually very helpful to us humans. They act as pollinators and keep pests under control. But if you are another insect, especially a large or fleshy one bulking up, watch out. An encounter with the wrong wasps can mean an untimely and horrible death. A few wasp species will disassemble and eat insects bit by bit but that’s just the start of it, others do even more sinister things.
There are parasitic wasps that will lay their eggs in or on a host insect, like a large beetle, a cicada, a spider or a big juicy caterpillar – there’s pretty much a wasp for everything… A female may sting said insect to subdue it while she acts out her nefarious plans for the next generation (I once watched a spider hanging out in an outdoor potted plant whose fate was sealed, unaware of the horror that awaited it as a female wasp flitted on and around it, stinging and laying eggs before flying off again). Different wasps have different host insects and strategies for this, but the result is pretty much the same. Essentially, when the wasp’s eggs hatch, the larva will eat the creature from the inside out, either saving its vital organs for last or waiting until the time is right.
Caterpillars are especially susceptible to this in all stages of development: egg, caterpillar and pupa. Some species of wasps will lay eggs among caterpillar eggs, others will lay them within the caterpillar eggs, and still others will target the caterpillar itself, or even its pupa. Most build upon the host’s voracious appetite and ability to grow in mass so quickly, waiting until the opportune time to engage in their own frenzy of consumption. Some wasps will even target other wasps that target caterpillars, and this can go like four layers in – it’s like Inception level consumption from within.
And weirder still is the mutualism found between fig trees and very small wasp species. Both are dependent upon one another for their reproductive cycle to be complete. It’s very complicated and I won’t do justice to the cycle trying to explain it, so I recommend that you check it out here on the US Forest Service site.
Anyway to make a long story short, eating figs can even result in eating wasps. Crunch. Crunch. It isn’t actually all that terrifying though; the fig breaks down much of that matter (especially from the original female insect) to use itself as it ripens. And honestly a lot more foods contain insect parts than you may be comfortable with already, they’re pretty much in everything… So that horror aside, the coevolution of figs and wasps that has gotten them to this point is really quite remarkable.
Wasps are truly extraordinary. Many species are super specialized in their life and reproductive cycles. There are over 900 species of fig wasps alone, each dedicated to a different species of fig tree. And the parasitic wasps are also very specialized, with different species targeting different hosts at different stages of their development.
Nightmarish Nature: Freaky Fungus
Now I’m not talking about your aunt’s mushroom pate, I’m talking about mind-controlling tendrils of terror. They aren’t animals, they aren’t plants, they aren’t yummy mushroomy goodness, they aren’t magical (at least not the good kind of magic) and they’re actually kind of terrifying, especially if you’re a bug.
Essentially there are whole subspecies of cordyceps fungus (as well as others) that spread through insect hosts, and no, it’s not like a bad dinner party where your guests just don’t take hints but more a sort of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Well, more specifically like The Last of Us. Variants of these fungi are very targeted to specific bugs, and certain species of ants, beetles, spiders and even mantids can find themselves afflicted by this. The results aren’t pretty, and it’s also called zombie-ant fungus for good reason.
So the fungus spreads its spores through the air where they comes in contact with new host insects of its selected type and are absorbed into the body. Once they find an appropriate specimen they begin the takeover… An insect affected by the fungus will begin to behave oddly as the fungus signals its brain to act in ways that the fungus needs it to in order to complete its own life cycle. The host will not engage in its normal buggy activities while the fungus drains it of nutrients and prepares it for the next wave of terror. The fungus can even grow tendrils to control muscle movement, puppet-mastering the host’s body.
As the fungus grows and prepares to send forth spores, it sends signals to its host to climb as high as it can, perch atop a plant or blade of grass or whatnot, and clamp down with its jaws in a death grip, to contort itself into a perfect spore-dissemination cannon. The fungus will grow long tendril blooms out of the insect’s body to rain down more terror on new unsuspecting hosts going about their buggy business. If the insect is a social creature (like an ant), it’s nest-mates may also try to drive it as far from their home as possible out of fear of what will soon come to pass. As these spores implant themselves in new host insects, the cycle repeats itself.
Here’s a link to National Geographic, not for the feint of heart. This is enough to strike terror into the heart of every ant, among many other bugs.
So essentially here’s yet another reason to be glad you’re not a bug. Because you don’t want to fall victim to a zombie body snatchers fungus takeover. Frankly, I’d prefer the sneaker-squash to the slow and confusing death that this sort of thing brings.
Nightmarish Nature 2: Perilous Parenting
Returning to our new series on Nightmarish Nature, last time we looked at some Vampires Among Us. This time we will consider some Perilous Parenting…
I’m not going to go into reproductive habits among the natural world. Some of that is outright horrifying too, at least in terms of our human-normative perspective. Yeah, angler fish have attachment issues. Spiders & mantids are totally safe word averse, courting death as much as sex. And ducks are more than kind of rape-y. But rape is still NOT our sponsor and this isn’t intended to be an R- or X-rated segment. So instead we’re going to skip right to parenting perils…
Parenting is inherently scary for first-timers seeing as how there’s no instruction manual or anything that comes along with the new role. And now you’re responsible for a totally new little critter knowing that a lot of its mental & emotional baggage issues will start with you. It’s a huge responsibility, and some creatures have developed some fascinating strategies to deal with raising their young before sending them off in the world. (As opposed to those who just let the kids fend for themselves starting out completely on their own, that’s a different kind of horror.)
There are parents who die for their offspring, like octopus. There’s the sort of devotion that comes from sealing mom in a tree to sit on the eggs, relying solely on dad to feed her (hornbills) or from having all the dads huddle together for survival, holding their eggs on his feet to keep the babies alive during the harshest winter ever (Emporer penguins). And there’s the kind of cuteness that comes from having pouches, like kangaroos and sea horses, which are totally not the same for oh so many reasons, but both still kinda adorable in their own ways. (Remember, it’s not just moms but dads too.)
Where This Gets Horrific / Trypophobia Warning
But I think the most terrifying parenting horror stories for me are those things that trigger trypophobia or worse. Oh by the way, if you are afraid of or disgusted by clusters of slightly varied objects, you might want to sit the rest of this segment out. In fact don’t even keep reading, just go back to thinking about cute things with pouches, like good designer handbags (so hard to find these days).
So I’m going to look at this first from the plant world. A coworker once brought in a mother-of-millions plant to work to share around, which was the first time I encountered the species. Now these aren’t your spider plants which send off little offspring on stalks to start anew a ways off. Oh no. These succulents form little tiny baby plants along the edges of their leaves that fall off and start growing beside themselves. Some make it, some don’t (competition for resources when you’re all living literally on top of each other can be harsh, but you’re obviously in a great location so why not share the bounty?) That doesn’t sound so bad until you remember the “millions” part of this. These plants can be very very VERY prolific. Think rabbits on steroids but a couple orders of magnitude on steroids, so more like bugs or fish or something. The sheer quantity of it honestly kind of creeps me out, so needless to say I did NOT adopt one of my coworker’s plants.
Bugs and Aquatic Life and Baby Central
Moving on, as mentioned, lots of bugs and water critters breed like rabbits on steroids on steroids, so they are kind of naturally prone to the whole trypophobia thing, though a lot of them are also pretty hands off. There’s those jumpy fish who let the babies swim in their mouths for safety at the slightest sign of danger, which is both creepy and cute and so a little bit spoopy in my opinion. And spiders and scorpions will carry lots and lots of tiny babies on their backs. Tiny baby spiders are also known to balloon en masse on little strands of silk to drift on the wind to new homes where they can forge their own lives, hoping to land in primo locations and not someplace uninhabitable. (Please oh please let me drift to the penthouse suite and not the dump…)
But the one that really takes the cake in my book is the surinam toad. They’re kind of weirdly flat creepy looking creatures in all the good, bad, ugly categories to start with. You know, perfectly suited to being mistaken for leaves in the mud by both predators and food. But their parenting style gets even weirder than their physical appearance. So, the male toad will entice a female to mate with him and then shovel their fertilized eggs on to mom’s back to be absorbed into her skin when it grows around them, kind of like bubble wrap. And then, when the time is right, the true horror begins…
Surprise! They all pop out, with all of the babies literally erupting from little tiny holes in mom’s flesh. Let that sink in a minute. I’ll repeat in greater detail in case you weren’t listening. Mom develops the fertilized eggs under her skin in these little pockets on her back through all beginning life stages, from hatchlings to tadpoles to fully formed froglets, until it’s time two to three months later, when she births LOTS of little baby toads. The tiny toads literally erupt from beneath mom’s skin to swim to the surface and fend for themselves. She then molts and starts the cycle anew.
Just, no, I can’t even… So that’s it, I’m done for now. I’ll leave you with that image burned into your psyche as your last impression of this segment of Nightmarish Nature. Until next time…