This story first appeared in the Sunday Times Lifestyle on 14 September 2014
Granma Vito talks like she’s a hundred years old, but she’s only been alive for seven summers. Don’t get me wrong, that’s pretty ancient for a Parktown Prawn, but sometimes she spins her tales a little fuzzy.
‘Give me some of the sweet stuff,’ she says, her broken left mandible clutching uselessly at the air in front of her mouth.
I spear a bit of moist dog pellet from the pile and approach her, trying not to inhale her stink as I point the mush into her mouth. ‘Mmm …’ Her jaw clatters and scrapes as she guzzles. ‘Have some,’ she says.
‘No, thanks, Granma.’ I’ve never developed a taste for dog food. I prefer fruit, worms, carrion. Anything natural. Once, I ate a snail.
Granma Vito shrugs, her hinges creaking. ‘Come closer then, little grub, and I’ll tell you the truth.’
That’s another thing about Granma Vito: calling me a grub. I know she does it to annoy me, to get some response. I’ve moulted four times since I hatched – as a newt, Granma Vito, not a grub! – and I’m almost an adult. But I’ve seen two summers now, and I refuse to rise to the bait.
The fact is, I love Granma Vito. I love her stories, whether they’re fact or fantasy. Frankly, they’re the only bit of light down here as we huddle in ever-diminishing numbers against the terrible siege from beyond the burrow.
It wasn’t always like this, I know. And Granma Vito’s tales remind me of a glorious time before I was an egg.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Excuse me, Granma?’
‘I said: What’s your name?’
‘I don’t have a name. I’m just a …. Just a …’
‘Just nothing!’ Granma Vito croaks with such vehemence that mucus shoots out of three of her spiracles. ‘You are Libanasidus vittatus!’ she annunciates. ‘Never forget your name. It is all that will be left of us.’
‘I thought we were Parktown Prawns –’
‘Prawns! Prawns? Have you ever seen a prawn? How on earth humans can think we have anything in common with those sodden, bottom-feeding, ten-legged freaks is beyond me. So typical of their arrogance and ignorance.’ She puts on a slow, deep, stupid accent: ‘Oh, all arthropods look the same.’
It was also humans who named us Libanasidus vittatus, I don’t remind Granma Vito; she looks angry enough to soil her burrow. ‘Can I get you more food, Granma?’ I say, soothingly.
She takes a few breaths and calms down. ‘I’m all right. It’s just that it …’ She rubs the stump of her right-hand antenna with her claw. ‘Where was I?’
‘You were going to tell me the truth?’
‘Yes. That’s right. The truth. Go fetch me that snail shell. On that shelf.’ I try not to laugh at her humanesque vocabulary; her shelf is nothing but a dank hole in the burrow’s wall.
I scan across her collection of surface memorabilia: a hunk of squeegee mop, a twist of lint from inside a schoolgirl’s shoe, the nozzle from a can of Doom.
‘No, not there,’ she fusses. ‘The next one. Yes, there.’ I’ve heard stories about all the objects in Granma’s gallery except for this one. It’s a beautiful specimen and reminds me of the best meal I ever had.
‘Bring it to me.’ I place the delicate spiral bowl by her feet. ‘You don’t remember when we ruled the surface, grub. By night we’d forage in force. The humans loved us so much for eating all the snails in their gardens that they left food out for us and let us sleep under their pillows.’ Suddenly, she lashes her good mandible a hair’s width from my face. ‘Then it all ended.’
‘I wish I had lived back then,’ I tell her. I sometimes dream of the moonlight on my back.
‘I am growing old, grub, and I will not see another summer.’
‘Don’t speak like that, Granma,’ I say. ‘You’re …’ But I say no more. I know she’s right. I creep closer. ‘What is the truth, Granma?’
‘Tell me why are we vanishing.’
I know the answer to this. It’s common wisdom, passed from newt to newt in every nursery. ‘Because of the hadedas, Granma. They followed us to the suburbs and will not stop until they have picked every last one of us out of the ground. We must hide from them and move – very carefully – only on the darkest nights.’
I finish my recitation and look into her face, expecting approval. Although I know nothing about the ways of the surface, about history, politics or genocide, I have said what was expected of me.
But Granma Vito bursts out with a joint-freezing hiss. ‘Wrong!’ she says. ‘So, so wrong. That is what you are forced to think. But the truth is,’ – now she turns with horrifying speed and stamps her massive rear leg onto the delicate snail shell – ‘it was them! The snails!’
She smashes the shell into small pieces, convulsively flicking the shards around her burrow, a manic, shrill tinge to her voice as she begins to mutter: ‘Them! All along! A ghastly revenge. They hid it in their blood. A biological agent that rendered us infertile. When last did you see an egg, when last did you … Them, all along. The hadedas … just a smokescreen. They are our –’
Then I hear it: a rustling scrape from up above, a pounding thud, a shearing scrape, and the rustle. A sound of threat I’ve never heard, that makes my body instinctively curl and tense, ready to leap, makes me push back into the walls in terror.
I let go a bloom of black odour.
The scimitar-shaped thing thrusts down through the ceiling. It’s awesome, massive. Clods of earth rain into the burrow as my body stops.
The scimitar opens, clamps Granma Vito and pulls her up and away, into the glare above.
She’s dead already.
When it’s over, I hurry back to my tunnel and begin to moult again.