I found myself lurching across an uneven desert, fastidiously placing each foot on juts of serrated grains of silicon that kept trying to pitch me on to my feelers. Whatever my purpose in life might prove to be, my objective now was to reach concealment without being eaten.
I cowered beside a gigantic pebble as an enormous winged dinosaur landed nearby in a whirr of windswept feathers. It stood cocking an eye large as the moon in all directions except, I’m thankful to say, in mine. One of my elder siblings came fluttering past on an eddy of air, and the great scything beak took him with a single horrific snap. I saw the feathery throat rippling as the contents of his crushed carapace went down in two or three noisy gulps.
“Is that what I’m here for?” I wondered. “Just to feed creatures like that?”
At the edge of the sandy patch I entered a forest of grass, safe for the moment from predators. Another beetle came towards me from among the tangled stems trying to make himself look twice the size he was. When he saw I wasn’t intimidated he grudgingly introduced himself. “I’m Thrush,” he said, “and this,” indicating a stalwart female half-camouflaged behind him, “is Maidenhair.” He kept between us as if she needed protection, although she was bigger than both of us.
“Call me Mistletoe,” I said. “No need for a friendly kiss.”
Stung by this sarcasm he thrust his mandibles angrily towards me, but I strutted scornfully forward. Why shouldn’t I approach her if I wanted to? We squared up thorax to thorax while she waited contemptuously in the background.
“You’re not ready yet,” she said. “I’ve eaten two previous husbands, so I know.”
When Thrush saw he couldn’t scare me off, he became philosophical. “Cooperation is more productive than conflict, when it comes to foraging,” he said, drawing in his mandibles. So together we pushed our way purposefully to the other side of the forest.
Out there, what had been a breeze to the bird became a hurricane to us. It whipped us over an area of scrubland to collide against a cliff or long ridge of sand which I thought must put an end to our journey. I was surprised my carapace wasn’t cracked, but it was evidently designed to withstand such puffs as that. Even so, I felt some flaps stirring that had somehow got loosened on my back.
“What now?” I asked.
“When your wings get a little stronger we’ll make for the well-stocked supermarkets in the sky,” Maidenhair answered. I looked up, but could see nothing that would help me understand what she meant. “Just beware how you fly out into the open,” she warned, as another sharp gust got us airborne.
We found ourselves veering among the stems of a bed of tulips, sturdy pillars that towered high above our heads. Effortlessly those tireless flaps buoyed us up on the wind, and we blew into the colorful cups at the top. Such a cornucopia of every kind of sweet-smelling excellence I had never hoped to see, let alone imbibe! I flew joyously from bell-bowl to bell-bowl, cleaning my sticky legs on the stamens as I went. At last, cloyed and satisfied, we sank gently to the ground.
“How wonderful,” I said, “to get all that for nothing!”
“Oh, you didn’t,” Thrush replied, wiser than I. “Those flowers got their pennyworth out of you, all right. It wasn’t for yourself that you carted so much muck from one cup to another. That service is what keeps their generations going.”
“What, is that all I’m here for, to help these brightly topped flagpoles multiply?” I said in surprise.
“Not your only purpose, if you survive,” said Maidenhair. She was more experienced than Thrush.
Then I looked at her for the first time properly. Familiar yet strange, she was more alluring than the tulips. And I saw that Thrush was beginning to realize the same thing. I marched boldly up to him and forgot about Maidenhair, who had retreated behind the tulip stems.
“Enjoyment is one thing, socializing another, but it comes to this in the end,” he said, “even for friends. We owe it to the next generation to weed out weaklings. Reproduction is the privilege of the strongest.”
“Do you mean to say we’re here just for the sake of the unborn?” I exclaimed. “Surely we want something for ourselves!”
“Yes,” he growled. “The top spot!”
Then he dipped his head suddenly and aimed for the kiss beneath the soft part of my neck. I was barely quick enough to bring my extended mandibles down on his, and there, locked together, we wrestled on the grinding grains that heaved and slipped beneath our pounding feet. But in my enthusiasm I had taken in more nectar than he, and eventually weight told. I flipped him on to his back and bit mercilessly through the slender part to sever the head from the thorax. Friends we had been, but there could be only one survivor. His legs thrashed about for a few seconds, then curled up and gradually stopped trembling. His head still tried to bite, but soon that too was still.
In front of me, large and infinitely inviting, loomed my bulky reward, Maidenhair as I had never before seen her. Eagerly we clasped, and melted together like one dream into another. This, then, was the crowded moment I had lived for, not the snapping beak, or the delicious tulip, or the strenuous victory. Prolifically packing her with progeny: that was the lyrical refrain that came into my head as I thought I understood my purpose at last. Wasn’t this the kiss that all that foraging, friendship and fighting was aimed at?
At last I lay limply upon her, while she undulated gently against me.
Then her head turned, and I saw neither gratitude nor compassion in her gaze. What was that she had said when we first met?
Brian S. Lee lives near the beetle-infested slopes of Table Mountain, not far from the University of Cape Town where he was formerly a student and teacher.