DENDROS • by Sheryl Normandeau

Bill couldn’t breathe. The heavy, wet body of the helicopter pilot crushed painfully against his chest, lolling over his neck in a grotesque hug. Bill swung helplessly at him as the aircraft groaned and lunged in its perch. All Bill could see was the blur of tree branches below them, solid ground fifty feet down. The chopper shuddered again, and the pilot dislodged from his torn harness, falling through the smashed door frame. Bill heaved for air, and discovered his own body was studded with chunks of glass and metal. Something was wrong with his knees, and he couldn’t feel his feet. He was bleeding everywhere, dizzy and sick with pain, but he was alive.

Red conifers. It was all they had seen as they flew over the Peace River Valley. It was the same all over northwestern B.C. and Alberta. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think it was beautiful.

But for Bill, all that blazing red meant that they were too late. Dendroctonus ponderosae, the dreaded mountain pine beetle, had bested them again. It wasn’t difficult to wrap your head around: the beetles ate and the trees died and turned red.

Bill’s job was to inject the trees with poisonous Monosodium methanarsonate, which was supposed to kill off the invading beetles and their larvae and save the trees. But the beetles kept coming.

They had been hit outside the East Sector, above a tract of land bumped up against the Peace River, miles of muskeg to the north. Bill knew it was crazy — how could a bunch of beetles take down a helicopter? — but he remembered the words of Dr. Ellis Frey, a scolytid specialist who had lectured on beetle evolution just a few short weeks ago: “We’re now seeing targeted beetle swarms. As you know, they send out a female scout first and then follow up with reinforcements when the tree seems a likely candidate. Now they’re descending in hordes, with no scout. And they’re taking any tree they see.”

The swaying of the wreckage made Bill reconsider his frantic attempts to move. His legs seemed to be fused into the control panel, and pain knifed up into his torso. For few seconds, his world darkened again. He groaned loudly, despairing.

Radio static suddenly filled the cockpit, and Bill snapped to attention, scrabbling for his headset. It had been knocked off his head during the crash, but was still connected to the cockpit radio by the audio plug. A reassuring voice from the control tower confirmed his location and asked if he and the pilot were okay.

The microphone had been disconnected and needed to be reinserted into the jack before Bill could respond. He struggled painfully to reach the cord. There was a crack as loud as thunder against what was left of the roof of the chopper. Bill jumped, his upper body convulsing. The noise came again, accompanied by a sound Bill knew well: the thrum of fast-beating wings, but this time so many it seemed he could hear nothing else, and suddenly there were Dendroctonus everywhere, blasting at him from all angles, filling the ruined aircraft as a black, writhing cloud. The horde slapped against him, inserting millions of piercing mouthparts, taking up epidermis and blood, pricking down deep into muscle and nerves. Bill screamed, clutching at his thighs, trying to free himself from the wreckage.

He tore at his useless legs, plucked at his chest and face as the beetles sought the skin beneath his clothes, wingblades slicing the fabric, hard bodies rattling and scraping against him as they ate. Despite his wild panic, Bill knew Dr. Frey would be excited by this new development: changing diets was obviously another effect of the beetles’ rapid evolution, and they were no longer strictly vegetarian.

Bill strained through the onslaught to connect the microphone to the radio and shriek out an SOS.

The response from the tower was immediate. A rescue crew had already been dispatched, but Bill knew what they would find when they arrived.

Cambium, xylem, tongue, spleen — it was all the same to Dendroctonus.

Sheryl Normandeau is a Calgary-based writer. She spends an inordinate amount of time at the public library (mostly because she works there). Her work has appeared in several North American publications.

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 average 4 stars • 25 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    Very well done. I enjoyed your previous stories here and knew that anything with your byline would be a pleasure to read. I thought the writing here needed just a bit of tightening, but I certainly admire Bill’s composure…. Four stars.

  • Michael Stang

    An entertaining ride (NPI). Clever progression through an unusual hypothesis.
    Will they eat the helicopter next?

  • Rose Gardener

    Good mix of suspense and horror & fascinating use of beetles. I was on board with the story the whole way, so apologies for raising a technical question. How could a helicopter stay in the air so long without a pilot? Isn’t it usually a matter of seconds to a crash if you let go of the controls? They don’t hover or glide like a plane (at least to my knowledge.) Genuinely curious if others know the feasibility of this duration of unmanned helicopter flight.

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

      The helicopter has crashed into a tree…

      • Rose Gardener

        Thanks, Sarah. I misunderstood, but I’ve got the picture now. 🙂

    • S Conroy

      Funny, I had the same misunderstanding and had to re-read. I think it might be the word “below” which got my brain thinking of a plane still in the air. Perhaps “beneath” or “underneath” would have made it clearer.

  • Paul A. Freeman

    This piece had a 1970s/80s retro feel to it – like James Herbert, or dare I say Guy N. Smith. A nostalgic read.

  • Carl Steiger

    Fun! In an icky sort of way. I think I could have lived without all the taxonomic language, but cutting that would mean changing the title. Bill is a specialist, but does he really think “Dendroctonus ponderosae” whenever he sees a mountain pine beetle?

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

      I think the story can get away with that by having the omniscient narrator say that mouthful, and there was a nice tonal contrast between that rather ominous Latin classification and the common name used throughout the rest of the tale.

  • S Conroy

    Gross and/but very well told. It’s certainly made me appreciate how the tree must ‘feel’.

  • I very much enjoyed this little gem. The language, the pace, the story – excellent. And yes, I’m getting to the “however” – the last line. I’m not sure that it’s the best way to end the story. I think there’s something repetitive in that we already know the voracious appetite of the dendros, so it’s anticlimactic. I do agree that a line is needed beyond the last line of the previous paragraph but I’m not sure what.

  • Chris Antenen

    Might want to check out the spelling of ‘despairing, ‘ and insert an ‘a’ into the sentence beginning ‘For few seconds.’ Also, the pronoun ‘it’ seems to refer to the antecedent dp, when it should be referring to the science, and ‘but’ is too many times the ‘connector’ of choice.

    Sorry, but I have that illness that most of us have–automatic edit. As soon as we see one error, we turn to edit mode and keep going. I usually just give in and read the story again after I’m finished.

    Beautiful writing! I love great phrases and this story has them in abundance.
    ‘lolling over his neck in a grotesque hug’
    ‘land bumped up against the Peace River’

    Pacing and buildup to the final end was excellent. I honestly did not anticipate the end until I hit, ‘obviously. . .they were no longer strictly vegetarian’ and now I feel dumb that I didn’t, but I’m going to chalk it up to excellent scene-building on the author’s part, so no trouble with the ending for me.
    (We’re such a fickle bunch.)
    Easy 5.

  • Kate

    An easy five for me too, and brilliant scene work within the container of the cockpit- kept it urgent, sensory, and the added layer of the voracious beetles… well damn Sheryl, you really creeped me out!

  • Thought I commented earlier but apparently I didn’t submit it.

    This was a solid and enjoyable little story. Great descriptive language without being wordy. I could visualize everything with clarity. Creepy ending but it fit perfectly. Easy 4 stars for me (wish we could do halves). Thanks for sharing.

  • MaryAlice Meli

    Wonderfully creepy. This story reminds me of an old radio show called Escape and the episode about omnivorous giant African ants that ate everything in their way even crossing a stream to get to the main character.