The stench was horrendous, as was the cold. Then there was the heat, enough to melt us into a watery puddle like the sap of aphids. But we hung on, not bent nor broken, for twenty months in that dark, oozing swamp. None of us thought we were going to make it. Nor was there anyone we could ask about why we had been abandoned there. We wouldn’t have known who to ask, anyway, even if we had mouths to ask with. But just when we were about to give up hope, that emotion that only presents itself under the most futile of guises, hope appeared. Something strong and flexible swallowed us all, and when we had come to we were inside the creature’s bowels. The first thing we did was to shed our cilia and grow new skin that would absorb nutrients easily. Nobody had told us to. We were simply compelled to do by some mysterious power.
The snail was paying dearly for its first post-hibernation binge. The rich dung it had consumed must have been contaminated. It was feeling liverish, its insides queasily upset. It slowed down its feeding and all other movements, but to no avail.
It was a better place than before, that was for sure. It was dark, so there was no need for fear, and while not ideally so it was warm and moist enough. Made happy by small mercies, we decided to go through a cycle of benevolent transformations rather than self-harm or harm our brethren. Miracidium, sporocyst, redia, cercaria… Complicated names were attached to us. But were all those names really meant for us? We could not be sure, confused as we were by the multitudes of selves that poured out of ourselves. Who were we, we that were I, and I that were we? Perhaps we were gazing at the sky through a straw.
Hampering as our multiplied state was, however, we found a certain comfort in numbers. The most obvious benefit was our long tails. Nobody knew what the tails were for, but we were thankful for them. And our gratitude was not in vain, for the tails helped us in our next adventure. With the tenacity of grinding an ax down into a needle, we whipped our fragile tails back and forth. Finally we broke through. We passed from the spring in the bowels to the lungs. It was a long and arduous journey and we lost a few brothers, but we made it in the end. Had we not already been through a situation where our hopes had gone from the merely hopeful to reality, we would have had a hard time making it.
After four months of suffering from the same symptoms, the snail nearly asphyxiated itself coughing up phlegm. Whatever it was that had been plaguing it was finally gone. Exhausted, the snail lay limp for a while, more dead than alive. The phlegm it had coughed up was teeming with countless tiny organisms, but the snail with its poor eyesight did not see them. Relieved that its discomfort was over, the snail slowly lurched off, leaving behind a world of things it had no interest in exploring.
Outside, we were greeted by fresh air. The sun shared its rays equally with all living things, whether they lived a day or a hundred years. We allowed ourselves to forget for a moment the harsh reality that lurked around the corner. The world was a peaceful place.
Reality would not wait for us, however, and we were soon sucked into an even narrower and darker place than before. There was even less room and the stench was worse than ever. But somehow we were reassured that we were going where we had to go. There was peace in surrendering to the mysterious power that was leading us so far.
The ant slurped up the sticky stuff without thinking. The white foam was sweeter than anything it had ever tasted. So foreign was this sensation of bliss, the ant even forgot to report to its superiors. For the first time in a long time, it felt completely nourished. Its mouth was filled with the smell of snail, a concentrated source of protein. Eating the snail itself and taking some back to the nest would have been better, but it could not have managed that by itself. The ant satisfied itself with the fact that the foam it was eating tasted almost exactly like snail. The world was a better place when one appreciated the attainable over the remote.
Soon, however, it became obvious that we would have to move on to another place. We did not know much about revolution or progress, but electing a leader seemed about the same thing to us. Like an awl poking out of a pocket, he stood out without trying, and we naturally gravitated towards him. Confident in himself, he made a worthy leader. We gave him all the credit for us having arrived safely in the new place, entrusted him with control of everything, and went off to seek an appropriate place to recuperate from the toll the journey had taken on our health. Two months, minimum. The leader would have to tame our new host within that time.
It was not an easy task. Our leader focused on conveying his thoughts to the host so he might control it at will. It was rough going, more so than any form of ancient asceticism. From his place close to the host’s head, the leader trembled from the effort of controlling the creature. We were in a harsh place. Not nearly enough food, and not enough space, either. As we grew hungrier, doubt began to gnaw at our minds. Why must we move on to another place? Would we be free of this hunger and thirst there? And would we finally be at peace, free of niggling cares? All of this was wearing us down, driving us to distraction.
On the night of a full moon, an ant uncharacteristically broke rank. As if in its sleep, it crawled up a nearby blade of fresh, soft grass. The closer it reached the moon, the greater the danger of exposure, but the ant seemed beyond such concerns. Its strong mandibles clamped down on the blade of grass. And there it stood like a statue until sunrise.
Our leader finally succeeded in sending the host back to its colony. Too much exposure to direct sunlight not only threatened to burn the creature, but to melt us as well. And should the creature be discovered breaking rank, it would be torn to pieces. For us it meant that life and death hung on a matter of seconds, a few millimeters. To say that our nerves were on end was an understatement. As the saying goes, burnt on hot soup, blow on cold salad. But we could not afford to take chances in that situation. We were praying, somewhat contradictorily, that the creature would lose its mind but not go too mad.
At nightfall, the ant broke rank again to crawl up a blade of grass. A passing ant looked around, sensing something odd, but failed to detect the rogue ant. The whispers of the stars and moon and wind passed slowly. How it had come to be dangling on a blade of grass, its body completely stiff, the ant had no recollection. The details of the situation eluded it, much as the everyday details of life remain forgettable for the most part. Was it really the ant itself that was dangling on that blade of grass? Was it really its strong jaws that were holding onto the blade? Everything was a haze.
As we could not let go of the tiger’s tail that was already in our hands, we took a chance. Our leader continued to occupy the host for a long time after the sunrise. The rest of the colony, as dull as their lost comrade, appeared to be unaware that one of their number had disappeared. They took no notice of the creature that had broken rank, falling into formation like always.
It was getting hotter and hotter. A number of us turned on the leader, their disappointment all the greater for having expected great things from him. Betrayal always comes from within. One of our brothers began crawling towards the leader from his spot not too far away. He insisted that we had to move the creature away from the heat at least for a short while. We didn’t want to kill the ox by trying to straighten its horns, the traitor appealed to us. But even if the creature moved away from the heat, it would not keep us from starving. We did not know which side to support. The leader kept unfailingly calm. Follow me. We knew now that those words were uttered without conviction. If anyone, it was himself the leader was trying to convince, we thought.
In the end it came down to a fight between the leader and the traitor that had challenged him. The rest of us watched listlessly as they duked it out. Their fight was not so much against each other, but against the immeasurable force that was crushing us all. What was the use? We were teetering on the brink of no return. A match to the death. But at that instant, we were suddenly sucked into a dark, cavernous passage.
The careless young ewe had committed the mistake of grazing grass before sunrise. She had completely missed the tiny ant holding onto said grass for dear life, of course. Not a shadow of self-recrimination ever crossed her mind, however, as she savored the fragrance of the delectable herbs. She champed rapidly on as much of the tender, sweet grass as possible before the other sheep woke from their sleep. The early bird catches the worm! But perchance the early bird is also prey for the early hunter. It was of no consequence to the ewe at that point, by all means.
The place where we found ourselves was like finally coming home again. Slippery and intimate, just the way we liked it. We raised a glass in celebration, remembering days of hardship now safely in the past. There was much feasting, drinking, and dancing. Finally we began mating with ourselves, wiggling our newly leaf-shaped bodies suggestively. All of us were hermaphrodites.
A glow of satisfaction hung in the air as we lay back, sated. We had had a narrow escape from being squashed to death and saw no reason not to celebrate. Our leader and the traitor that had challenged him all became part of us again. No longer did we fear the harsh reality lurking around the corner. That being said, however, we could not free ourselves completely from a sense of melancholy at not knowing who we were, where we came from, and where we were going.
We knew what we had to do to resolve both our satisfaction and loss. There was no other way.
We had to lay eggs. Shuddering all over, we caught sight of someone who had not been with us on our journey, but resembled us in every way. Our eyes met and he was smiling, no matter that he had no mouth or facial muscles to smile with. How could all of this be just coincidence? He asked, holding our gaze. Without needing to be told, we knew that he had given birth to us, and that he was another form of us that had never left that place. That was it. Our scientific name was Fasciola hepatica, also known as the common liver fluke. Twenty thousand eggs seethed within us, ready to exit our bodies. Eggs that would go through everything that we had and would perhaps come back to meet us again, their other selves.
We looked no more at the one who had been us before us. Right now, the only thing of importance was to see that the eggs made their way out safely. We were past recalling any time, place, or event. We could only push with all our might. Ah, life! The eggs hurried away from us every which way, without even saying goodbye. We wept, for all that we had no eyes or tear ducts to weep with. We could not think that all of this could possibly be just coincidence.