When biology student Leon Sumsa awoke one morning from a bout of dreamless sleep paralysis, he found himself transformed into a monstrous vertebrate. Instead of hanging upside down from the ceiling, as befitted a respectable housefly, he was lying on his belly surrounded by a rumpled landscape of blankets and pillows. Where his body had been, polished to a shine and protected by a sturdy exoskeleton, there was now a gelatinous form in its place, from which unsightly bristles sprouted in patches. The blue-black, iridescent armour had gone, and Leon instead found himself encased in a stretchy, porous, pig-pink membrane, riddled with glands, fat deposits, and bulges.
He rolled onto his back, raised his head a little and examined himself from top to bottom: Where before there had been three finely articulated pairs of legs, segmented in an orderly fashion and replete with tiny, sensitive hairs, he saw four clumsy extremities protruding, seemingly at random, from a whale-like torso, each attached to five unevenly sized stumps at the end. No suckers, no claws, no hooks, no pincers.
His sensory range had evidently shrunk by at least 90 percent. He could hardly feel anything at all, and what’s more, his antennae had completely vanished. And, as he felt over his elephantine body, he couldn’t tell whether he had a sophisticated sense of taste. His head, a pumpkin-sized lump wobbling on top of a fleshy stalk, was largely covered with a kind of fur. They certainly weren’t the tactile hairs found on any normal insect, simply a dull, furry coating that didn’t transmit any stimuli when touched.
And what had happened to his lovely big eyes, his compound eyes, which had always enabled him to charm the lady gnats and female dragonfly workers from the factory? Compound eyes, the pinnacle of sensory organs, oculi compositi, eyes that consisted of thousands upon thousands of eyes, that had been his gateway to a world filled with colours and wonders. They were gone, simply no longer there, stolen by the blind, brainless god that had turned him into this albino creature. Where his eyes had once been now sat two slimy, light-sensitive balls in deep, bony hollows, over which a type of curtain drew down at the slightest touch.
“What has happened to me?” thought Leon Sumsa. Okay, they had gone a little wild last night. Kleinhans, a fellow student, had been celebrating passing his Masters in Comparative Anthropocentrism, so they and the whole gang from the department had buzzed on over to that hip new cowpat, the one with the delicious little mushrooms growing on it. Even Leon’s doctorate supervisor, the stern Professor Mayakovsky, had tagged along, and Dean Kothurnus had made a speech that was as sentimental as it was drunken.
When Professor Mayakovsky had taken his leave, not without cautioning Leon—only half in jest—not to show up late to the seminar tomorrow (that is, today), the young folk had moved on to the spot under the woodlouse stone which was open all night. The burly woodlouse bikers who hung out there weren’t especially fond of students, but for them, mingling with the lower forms of life had its own particular appeal. And the snail bimbos there weren’t so stand-offish and prim as the female flies at the university. But the snail pimps didn’t like it one bit when snotty little fly guys started putting the moves on their girls. Had it come to blows again? Had the hornet militia had to step in again, like last time? Leon couldn’t remember anything like that. As far as he could recall, they had ended the night with one last nightcap at their classmate Schmeißmeier’s digs, which were in the left kidney of the squashed rat in the road. And then he had probably buzzed on home sometime in the small hours.
Schmeißmeier, the eternal student. Leon couldn’t help smiling. No one knew exactly how long Schmeißmeier had been studying at the university, but there was a rumour he had started out at the same time as Dean Kothurnus. He had it good—he lived for the moment and didn’t bother about lectures.
Leon looked around the room in which he found himself. Nothing in it had changed. It was still the same room he used as a bedroom and living room, which he shared with a family of cockroaches, three mosquitos, half a dozen of his own species and their host animal, a hominid of indeterminate age with a pleasant habit of sweating profusely.
Yes, it was definitely still the same room and yet it seemed somehow. . . different. The world around him seemed strangely flat in general. And then it came to him, as if the scales had fallen from his eyes: the room was no longer curved! The non-Euclidean geometry was gone. These stunted sensory organs only allowed him to perceive a grotesquely reduced, simplified version of the world, clunky and coarse. Instead of the usual eleven primary colours, he could now only make out three. There was no mistaking it—he was seeing the world through the eyes of a primitive mammal.
“This is the worst hangover of my life,” thought Leon Sumsa, and decided to go back to sleep. Surely things would look a lot better when he woke up again.
He didn’t doze for long, as an uncomfortable thought awoke him rudely from his half-sleep. To his horror, he suddenly remembered the seminar. There was no way he could miss Professor Mayakovsky’s seminar. An eminent bark beetle from Princeton had been invited to speak as a guest lecturer. Leon could not afford to miss it—it would severely hamper his academic career.
He sat up in bed with a jerk and looked down at himself. No, it hadn’t gone away. He still looked like a monstrous mammal. But he would have to worry about that later. All that mattered right now was making it to the university’s Alexander von Humboldt lecture theatre, in the big anthill, on time.
Leon’s head buzzed. He felt oddly naked without his exoskeleton, and he felt as though the liquid insides of his body would soon be splattered all over the floor. But the bag of skin held everything together; at least he seemed to be somewhat sturdy despite his porousness. The grotesque sacks dangling between his nether extremities, which bore a vague resemblance to root vegetables, were obviously supposed to be some sort of sex organ. It’s a miracle these creatures manage to reproduce at all, thought Leon. He supposed beauty was in the eye of the beholder. What would his classmates say about his getup? Leon couldn’t worry about that just now. He needed to leave right away, or he’d miss the beginning of the lecture, and if he stumbled in late, he would get even more funny looks.
He took aim at the open window and took flight.
He didn’t fly very far. In fact, he didn’t fly at all. He only made a little hop forward and landed on the ground in front of his bed. It hurt quite a lot: At least he was definitely still sensitive to pain, the scientist in him noted. And then the realisation hit him like a slap in the face: He couldn’t fly anymore. He no longer had wings!
He tried one more time, flapping his upper extremities helplessly, but it didn’t work. He, Leon Sumsa, a freeborn housefly, majestic master of multidimensional space, had been reduced to crawling on the carpet—how embarrassing. Where had his wings gone? Had he fallen into the clutches of some hominid on the way home, so drunk that he hadn’t even noticed? Hominid calves were particularly notorious for ripping the wings off flies. Nobody knew why. They didn’t eat them in any case. And they couldn’t fly with them either.
Because nobody had ever managed to keep a hominid in captivity, very little was known about these primitive giants. This reminded Leon of an interesting article by neuropterologists Glöckner, Zettel, et al. in the journal “Buzz of Science”, in which they issued the hypothesis that this oft-observed phenomenon was a case of wing envy. In other words, the ungainly hominids begrudged flies their ability to fly. However, coprophilologists Kerbholz, Lamprey, & van Bog had vehemently opposed this view in the journal “Fly Today”. According to them, Glöckner and his colleagues were basing their views on the hypothesis, not grounded in any hard scientific evidence whatsoever, that hominids possessed something resembling consciousness and were capable of purposeful, reasoned actions, even complex emotions like envy. An extremely fascinating debate, Leon thought, which had caused a great stir among scientific circles and was nowhere near being resolved. Other new research also indicated that the great apes may not be as stupid as previously assumed: American scientists had recently discovered that hominids could even open screw caps, an ability previously only demonstrated by their distant relative, the octopus. The host animal on which Leon had spent the last couple of days, so almost half his life, did not show any signs of possessing a higher consciousness. When it wasn’t sleeping, it was eating and drinking, usually while staring at a flickering cube, swearing at it occasionally.
Leon felt like swearing, too, as he crept across the room on all fours. He was heading for the other, smaller room, where the host animal performed its weekly ablutions, and which contained the large, shiny surface in which one could look at oneself. After that, he had to go to the lecture. He didn’t have a clue how he was supposed to make it to the university on time in this state, but he had to at least try.
Suddenly, he stopped. Was he even breathing? Feverishly, he ran his hands along the sides of his body—no, no openings were to be found, no spiracles to draw air into his body. Had he somehow become an anaerobic lifeform? Or was he on the brink of suffocation? Panic bubbled up in Leon, and for a few long moments he really couldn’t breathe. He tried to remember his Introduction to Zoology course. How did vertebrates breathe again? And then it hit him: through their mouths. Yes, that’s right, through their mouths and olfactory organs.
How they had laughed back at maggot school. Breathing and eating through the same hole? What an unappetising aberration of nature.
Leon tried it, and it worked: Great bulky masses pumped air through his nose and mouth and back out again. He tried to vary the rhythm and had a coughing fit. He still had a lot to learn about his new hominid body. Maybe he should start a scientific blog to write about his experiences and observations; then at least one good thing would come of this ordeal.
Then, he heard a noise—a kind of buzzing, whirring noise. It was his flatmates, Martenstein and Schirrmacher, flying around him.
“Hello, lads,” he cried, and his voice boomed far too loudly in his ears. Martenstein and Schirrmacher flew away—they didn’t appear to recognise him.
“Hey, guys,” shouted Leon, “it’s only me, your old friend Sumsa.” But they both buzzed off. He knew Martenstein and Schirrmacher would be exchanging pheromone messages that very moment, he just couldn’t decipher them. His underdeveloped sensory organs meant that sophisticated communication with other insects had become impossible. The only way he had left of making himself understood was this primitive booming noise: “Hey, Martenstein,” he yelled. “Hello, Schirrmacher,” and rose unsteadily on his nether extremities. “Don’t go! I’ve got a little problem we should really discuss in a flatmate meeting.” They couldn’t understand him. Schirrmacher flew out of the window, while Martenstein fled towards the corner of the room. Leon followed him, his new giant’s legs growing more and more obedient.
He would have to catch Martenstein so they could talk, Leon thought. If he were very careful about it, he would surely be able to manage it without hurting him. He reached out his right hand. Martenstein darted out of reach.
Maybe he should stun him, really gently, just enough to allow him to be caught. Plus, that panicky buzzing was gradually starting to get on his nerves. Couldn’t the guy sit still for one second?
What was it the host animal always did? Oh yes, the newspaper, that was it. Leon wondered for a moment how he knew the thing was called a newspaper, then he lunged. But Martenstein got away again. Leon needed to be quicker, no mean feat considering the rudimentary nervous system of the colossal creature he had become. There! Now Martenstein was sitting in his favourite spot by the patch of mould. He would be sure to sit there a little while. Leon crept up on him, slowly, very gingerly, and then: Smack!
Oh dear, he’d probably been a bit heavy-handed there: What was left of Martenstein was stuck to the wall, surrounded by his last meal. Strawberry jam—and yesterday they’d told him there was no more strawberry jam left. You couldn’t trust flatmates, thought Leon and flopped, exhausted, into a chair.
“It’s your own fault,” he said to what had once been Martenstein, “I only wanted to talk to you.”
Then, it slowly dawned on him what he had done: murder—he had murdered his flatmate. Okay, he hadn’t done it deliberately. A regular ant jury would probably just convict him of manslaughter, but even that would mean a life sentence milking aphids. He could forget about his academic career.
“But what’s done is done,” thought Leon and stood up. Time to hit the road. The lecture must have started by now. Something crunched under his feet. Oops. Chanelle, the youngest daughter of the cockroach family. He would have to learn to rein in his newfound strength.
If this was all just one of Schmeißmeier’s crude pranks, then that guy would get what was coming to him. He already had two lives on his conscience. What would their other flatmates say?
Suddenly, Leon no longer had any desire to go to the lecture. He wouldn’t be able to get in without his student ID anyway. And the student ID was a cocktail of pheromones the ant porter used to identify him as an ant. If he didn’t have it on him, he would be classed as edible and fed to the larvae by the security guards.
Where could his ID be? Leon didn’t know. His old body had had that handy pheromone pocket, but his new body didn’t have anything like that. Just pointless openings all over it.
But now he was overcome by hunger, quite an astonishing hunger. He could see a tempting dog turd on the pavement. Leon suppressed the urge to fly and climbed out of the window.
The hominids on the pavement went into a frenzy when they saw him, pointing at him with their fingers and making angry noises. Was it because he wasn’t wearing any cloth armour? Leon grasped his genitals and made encouraging noises—that always made a good impression on grasshoppers. But these creatures shrank away from him and wouldn’t stop making angry noises. Never mind, he was hungry. But as he approached the dog turd, he was struck with a sudden nausea. Yuck! It stank. His senses were obviously even more impaired than he’d thought. Perhaps he had caught some gastrointestinal virus. Hominids were known to be walking cesspits of disease, after all.
The commotion still hadn’t subsided. A whole flock of gabbling hominids had gathered round him, and he decided to clamber back into the flat.
Something crunched under his feet again: Phoenix, the oldest son of the cockroach family—but somehow, he didn’t care. They would just have to make another one. Cockroaches bred like rabbits in any case. Some primeval instinct drove Leon into the kitchen, to the fridge, where he knew there would be sausage and cheese. And beer. He didn’t know how he knew; he just knew. Beer—yes, please! A fly followed him into the kitchen. Schirrmacher? Whatever. He swatted him away. Hasta la vista, Schirrmacher. Never again would he have to share his food with a parasite.
He opened the fridge, put sausage and cheese on a tray, took out a beer and went back into the living room, where he sank into a chair and switched on the flickering box. He took a gulp of beer and belched loudly. Thank God it’s Friday.
From Francis Kirps, Die Mutation, Hydre Editions, 2019.