Kathleen Kiirik Bryson
Baby earthworms are white when they first hatch from eggs the size of rice grains. They have two parents and each parent is transgender in the fullest sense possible. Each baby is also a hermaphrodite. They are called names like Chris or Pat or Nicky.
Carrie's excavation group consisted of Carrie plus the two non-ethnically Swedish Swedes on the course (Lisa, whose parents were political refugees from Chile, and Åsa, who was a Sri Lankan adopted at birth). All three had had to re-sit the first exam. All three secretly felt it to be the reject group. Only Åsa had a Swedish last name. Only Åsa spoke without an accent. (Her first name was gendered, unlike those of baby worms.)
Of the other archeology students, most of the boys liked to wear Thor's-hammer pendants around their necks like little penises (very little penises). Of the professors themselves, several liked to comment on the probable "beauty" of certain female skeletons whenever female skulls were found with any remaining long blonde hair (or sometimes red hair). You cannot strictly call human skulls hermaphroditic. The way you tell a female skull from a male skull is by the fact that it is nearly always the boy-skulls that have a little hole in front of the ear and girl-skulls generally do not. You can test this on living humans. Challenge your friends down the pub to an ear-hole experiment. Come on, you fucking ear-holes, I'll take you all on!
Carrie challenged her main tutor Jesper on two points. Once when Jesper said he couldn't for the life of him figure out why two Bronze-age women had been buried together in a marriage grave. It was thought they were probably sisters until testing proved otherwise, and now they were probably just good friends. Once when Carrie wanted to write her final essay on Viking cannabis farming because she had found concrete proof of hemp cultivation in the Iron Age. She did her final essay on Neanderthal hybridism, as her challenges fell on deaf ears. Earthworms are themselves deaf because they do not have ears. (They do not have distinguishing holes.) But they can feel vibrations. Perhaps you have seen the film Tremors.
Carrie had known one of the archeology boys from three years before when she was an exchange student. He had had a crush on her then and had been a nerd, which she had admired. Now that they were both at university he had become full of himself, probably because his mother was a famous artist. He had one of the biggest little penises on a leather thong round his neck. He was not in the reject group.
Before digging, the reject group first had to remove seventy-one beer cans. This had to be written down in the notebook. Carrie took the notes. The other girls thought her Swedish was worse than it actually was, so were impressed that she knew all the slang terms for beer cans, binge-drinking and alcoholics, while Carrie was deeply insulted by how little Swedish knowledge they credited her with. The group removed all the cans and put them in a heap under a tree. This was marked down in the notebook. Tuborg, for the most part. This was also noted. Measuring, and then sketching. Finally they got to dig. The ground was fertile with worms. Åsa had a worm phobia and ran away screaming. Perhaps she could have a desk job if her career developed further.
Lisa, a bored single mother, told Carrie she was considering dropping the course anyway. Åsa came back. Carrie hated doing the grunt work, being very lazy. So Lisa did the digging, Åsa sketched and took notes, and Carrie removed the worms, fidgety and yielding earthworms; most of them cut in half by the shovel.
It was an entirely different nation. But there was the same uncertainty in Sweden as there was back home regarding worm regeneration. Myth or not? Carrie hoped so and put all halves back into the upturned dirt pile too, but it secretly pained her.
Another uncertainty in Sweden concerned epilepsy. Should you put a spoon in an epileptic's mouth to stop him from swallowing his tongue? The second day of class, the mature student had had a fit and everyone around him panicked; he had fallen to the ground and banged his head so there was dark blood on his forehead. A upsetting gash, but he had turned out to be alright and came back to class several days later. Six months later, his own excavation group included several practicing Christians, a rarity in Sweden. Even this group had more social clout.
On the day he fell, Carrie had resolved that she would look up epilepsy in the encyclopedia and also take a first-aid class about mouth-to-mouth and CPR in case she was ever again around anyone falling or drowning or having a heart attack.
But she hasn't done that yet and that archeology class was a long time ago. Way back then, Jesper the professor said that worms live about three years in the wild and ten years in captivity (captivity?!). If all the halves have survived, they will be thirteen years old now, or rather 13 + y, y being the age of the original worm. Carrie doesn't think they get to start afresh when they divide. They're like clones and are as old as the cells that start them, the way Dolly the Sheep was older than a standard sheep of the same age, before Dolly the Sheep was put to sleep (did she drift off counting clones of sheep?). That is if worms can divide and conquer at all.
She and Silke are in the rental car. She is not an archeologist. They are driving to Silke's home town. Carrie does not know if Lisa or Åsa became archeologists. Jesper told them that worms aren't drowning when they come up when it rains because worms can't drown but rather they are looking for mates. Carrie didn't believe him because of his other inaccuracies but then she looked it up and he was right, though she kept on saving them if she found them on the sidewalk. That is to say pavement if you're saying sidewalk in London and gångbana if you're saying it in Sweden.
Germany (she's traveling through it at the moment), foreign; Sweden (she studied there), foreign; Seattle (she lived there), foreign; London (she lives there), foreign; Alaska (she was born there), now foreign too in its own way. Cut and divide, divide and grow.
The rental car (Silke had flirted her way up to a Mercedes with the nice man at Hertz) passes by one of Carrie's favorite signs. WORMS! Carrie thinks she remembers something about a Council of Worms. It always makes her giggle. She is immature. It makes Silke giggle as well.
Humans have 98.5 complete genetic compatibility with pygmy chimpanzees, also known as bonobos. Humans have 35% genetic compatibility with daffodils. Which is fantastic. Humans have 65% genetic compatibility with earthworms.
The next sign says WORMS-NORD.
"Worms north," says Carrie, "what does that mean?"
"Ah," says Silke, "it's the North-South divide. Obviously it's when they cut the Worm in half. North and south."
"I know all about that," Carrie says. She tries to remember an archeological dig from a long time ago.
Silke shifts gear. Carrie hates driving shift. She only drives back home in the States anyway.
"Speaking of the North-South Divide,' says Carrie, there are terrible problems. There are terrible problems," says Carrie, "when one Worm has polka dots and the other is plaid. Sometime they get mixed up when they re-merge. When they re-attach they are fashion disasters."
"Oh yes," says Silke. "Definitely. That's what is meant by the term 'fashion separates'."
WORMS PFEDDERSHEIM whizzes by.
"Does pfedder mean feather?"
"Sort of," says Silke. "That's the feather-home. It's actually a torture chamber. It's a torture chamber because feathers remind the Worms of chickens, and of course chickens are the mortal enemies of Worms, as is every bird."
"They tickle the Worms with the feathers," says Carrie. "Tickling is a form of torture!"
WORMS ABENHEIM. "Abend-heim," says Silke, and waits
"Evening-home!" shouts Carrie. Where they sleep. Though not in feather beds."
The next sign says WORMS 1000M.
Neither of them says anything. The car grumbles on along the autobahn, where there is no speed limit. The word autobahn always makes Carrie think of Kraftwerk, but Silke does not have this association; to Silke the word just means motorway. (Carrie never thinks "motorway"; after nine stubborn years in England, Carrie still thinks "freeway".)
"1,000 meters," Silke finally says, "that's one big Worm."
Carrie starts to laugh.
WORMS, says the next sign.
WORMS, says the sign after that.
Then KOBLENZ. That's boring.
"Dom Worms means the Cathedral of Worms in German," says Silke.
"That doesn't work for me. Sorry."
"Well, excuse me."
"Dom means Dom means house in Russian," says Carrie, trying to remember a long-ago language class.
That's lame," says Silke in a huffy voice.
Neither of them speak for a bit.
Carrie has, at various times in her life, studied Russian and German and Norwegian and French and Old Norse and American Sign Language and Swedish.
Lisa and Åsa and herself. What has happened since their own lives separated forever? They, and Carrie, are 13 + y. But their halves grew differently and everything is different.
"Is it Worm incest if brothers and sisters re-attach to each other? More importantly, is it divorce when the Worms separate?" asks Carrie. She is looking out the window.
"Don't sulk,' says Silke. "I'll buy you a Flammkuchen tomorrow. You know you like them." Carrie is smiling, but she doesn't let Silke see. Then she realizes Silke can see her reflection in the window.
Carrie is a long way from home. Carrie has a London day-job editing erotica. Carrie left Alaska at eighteen.
"And what about the exchange students," says Carrie. "The exchange student Worms, when they divide in half and then one half stays in Alaska and one half goes to be an exchange student."
"Those kind of Worms have a hard time adjusting."
"Yes, they do. I don't know how half an Alaskan Worm would feel here in Germany."
"It would be difficult," says Silke. She put her foot on the brake suddenly, to avoid crashing into a lorry. Truck. Lorry. Whatever. "Lorries only drive on the motorways during the week in Germany. It leaves the roads free for families on weekends," she says in an informative voice.
"The Alaskan half would be an Ice-Worm," adds Carrie. (If you leave a freaky place like Alaska, you'll be freaky all your life. If you return you'll be freaky even to the freaky place. And what if you were a freak right from the get-go? Le Freak. Say Chic. Carrie took modern dance when she was seventeen and they did a funky dance to it. Her teacher said she had talent but no confidence.)
"Once I knew a lot about worms," Carrie tells Silke, "but I've forgotten it. They are hermaphrodites. But they still have to mate with another one who is also a hermaphrodite if they want to reproduce. One per thousand humans are also hermaphrodites. They lay eggs. Worms, I mean." She looks out the window where Germany is skimming quickly past. In four days they'll be going the other way back to Frankfurt Hahn airport. "What happens if you're a Worm and you lose your half and you realize you miss it, and then you end up looking for it the rest of your life?"
"Now you're talking about Platonic spheres," says Silke. "Where there were originally male, female, and hermaphroditic spheres and all three split and each half is always looking for the half it split from and that explains gay men and lesbians and heterosexuals and so on."
"We are not the same halves. We're as different from each other as can be. We grew differently. We're different."
"I'll say," says Silke. She drives off the autobahn ramp to the B-road towards her small hometown.
Thirty years from being a little Alaskan girl playing witch games. Twenty-one years from eating green M&Ms and listening to The Fixx in junior high. Eighteen from her failed high school future-problem-solving team, and sixteen from drinking Kir by the Stadshuset building in Stockholm. Fifteen: maybe even Carrie would have made managerial level at McDonalds by now. What has happened to Phil the Eskimo and Adam the Wiccan from university, fourteen years back? Mattias. Carlos. Buckanne (she knows that one, she's in email contact; Buckanne is getting married in the fall).
And all the many boys and girls she's ever snogged, and there are very many, because although she's slept with few she has French-kissed an awful lot. She has been called a tease. But really she's just careful. She's kissed over thirty. Each gender. Would the witch-girl have kissed other girls? Probably. Witches like other witches. Would the high schooler have gone on to edit heterosexual literary porn? Maybe. And maybe not. She might have thought it unfeminist. Everything is different. Her own past with Silke, now nine years on the same worm. Altered too. Fashions, haircuts, tastes. Silke drinks Earl Grey now. Carrie owns a suit. Although: Carrie is painting again, like she did back in Seattle. Silke's bought herself a new bass guitar, the kind she wanted as a teenager. New commemorative gravestone benches in Hampstead Heath Park, new graves in churchyards, everything shimmering in new change like a kaleidoscope, cells shifting and splitting and dying and beginning, all the way up to five minutes ago seeing Worms and now, and then now, and then next.
"The giant earthworm of Australia is over ten feet long," says Carrie. "This is a true Worm fact."
"That is so cool," says Silke.
Silke pulls the car into her aunt's driveway and turns off the headlights. They sit there for a second. All of Germany is asleep. There is already a thick meringue of snow on the driveway. Silke will have to shovel the walk tomorrow and Carrie, being lazy, will make a token offer to help while the snow falls like sugar past the window where Silke's aunt will be watching.
Everything is different. But it is all good.