In the Glowworm’s Shadow

< Humbug Tales: Keeper of the Swarm

In a remote desert, a pair of young humbugs discover the wonder—and danger—of the night.

“Asra, wait!”

Asra buzzed her wings once in irritation. Turning around, she saw the smaller humbug bumbling along, waving frantically toward her and panting. He moved with an awkwardly stiff gait, his arms and legs kept mostly straight like a toy doll. “What do you want now, Eowils?” she groaned.

“Where are you going?” asked the younger humbug.

“Not that it’s any of your business,” snapped Asra, “but I’m going to speak to Father.”

Eowils continued panting and inching toward Asra with forced motions. “Can I come?”

“You’ve been following me since before the crickets started chirping,” said the irritated Asra. “Why don’t you go play by yourself?”

“Oh, okay,” said Eowils, his antennae lowered in disappointment. With effort, he forced his stiffened form into a half-rotation and began sauntering away. Asra watched, her eyes narrowed.

“He looks ridiculous,” she muttered to herself as he left earshot.

She turned to look upon the skeletal remains of a piece of cholla cactus. Dessicated and gray, the hollowed dwelling sat atop the earth like driftwood floating in the burnt yellow sand dunes of their desert habitat.

Asra climbed up the irregular shape of the body. “Father?” she called, peeking her head through the natural perforations along its surface. Seeing the shadows of movement inside, she leapt through one of the perforations into the cactus’s interior.

Upon entering, she was startled to find herself facing the large chitinous claws of a scorpion. Though she had outgrown much of her childhood fear, she still tended to find herself uncomfortable being too close to her father’s steed. Raahi was tame, but it frightened her to imagine how easily he could crush her with his muscular grip.

“Father?” she called, stepping back from the regal beast.

“One moment!” came a voice from above. Asra looked up to see the older humbug clinging to Raahi’s tail, carefully changing its wrappings. She waited patiently until, finished with his task, Father tossed himself from Raahi and landed on the ground in front of her, using his wings to guide and soften his fall.

“Yes, Asra?” asked Father, smiling. His humbug face projected a faint bioluminescent glow within the shade of their home.

“Aren’t you afraid of getting stung by that thing?” asked Asra, pointing a finger to where her father had been perched.

“Are we not Seekers, child? We need not fear the effects of Raahi’s venom,” boasted Father. Asra looked up at the creature’s enormous barblike weapon and shuddered. She fully understood their peoples’ resistance to the toxins of desert predators, but the thing was still large and sharp enough to impale clean through her.

Asra bowed respectfully. “May I go out?”

“To where?” asked Father.

“Nowhere in particular,” responded Asra. “Just wandering.”

“A journey to nowhere…whose daughter are you again? Certainly no child of mine is a wanderer.”

“Are we not travelers? Is it not a Seeker’s nature to wander?” asked Asra, careful to keep her tone respectful.

“It is a Seeker’s nature to seek, not to wander aimlessly as you seem so fond of doing. We should be deliberate, like the cicada who waits so patiently for its time to take flight.”

“But Grandmother said ‘a Seeker knows what they seek only after finding it,’” said Asra impatiently. “Like that night we found a prickly pear fruit and brought it back to share with the whole caravan. We weren’t even looking for food!” Her antennae wriggled in anticipation of Father’s inevitable permission.

“It seems my advice has been outranked by Grandmother’s yet again.” He chuckled, lifting a coiled rope of spider silk from the ground nearby. “Very well, enjoy your wandering. But take Raahi,” he added, attaching the rope to Raahi’s halter. “For safety.”

“But it’s nearly dark,” said a hesitant Asra. “Is this not the safest time for a Seeker to travel?”

“Safe from the heat of the Mighty Glowworm,” Father said, gesturing toward the sky through the perforations above. “But after nightfall all manner of creatures emerge, no longer in hiding from Her watchful eye.” He offered the reins to Asra, who reluctantly accepted them and turned to leave. 

As she began leading the scorpion along the length of the cactus wood toward an opening large enough to accommodate him, she heard Father’s voice once more. “And what of little Eowils?”

Asra flinched and buzzed her wings once more. She knew this would happen. “I was hoping to get a break from Eowils,” she said.

“Come on, Asra,” said Father. “What has the boy done to irritate you so?”

“He won’t shed his stupid skin,” insisted Asra, “even though it’s old and dirty and he can barely walk in it anymore. It’s embarrassing.”

“So he has a bit of ‘attachment,’” said Father. “That’s normal for a humbug his age. Or did you forget? Only a couple of months ago, you were his size and struggling with attachment too. Even after you shed, you brought that skin with you everywhere and pretended it was an identical sister. You insisted we set a place for it at dinner!”

Asra blushed. “At least I shed it. He slows everything down, wearing that bulky thing and following me around like a processionary caterpillar.” But she could see from Father’s expression that she would not win this argument. “Fine. I’ll take Eowils, but he’s taking the scorpion.”

Walking through the sand, Asra thought about her father’s words: “be deliberate, like the cicada.” Asra had never actually seen a cicada but, coming from a Seeker family, she knew all about their peculiar lifecycle. The creatures would wait underground beneath the Great Tree, unseen by bug or humbug, for seventeen years. Then in one glorious Emergence, the entire cicada brood would climb the bark of the Tree, shed the wingless skins of their nymph form and fly to the treetop above. For a few weeks they’d buzz a magnificent chorus, casting a torrent of deafening vibrations on the earth below, before laying a new brood to begin the cycle anew.

Seventeen years, thought Asra. An entire humbug lifespan spent underground, suckling the root of the Tree. The thought made the fidgety young humbug terribly claustrophobic, but if the Emergence were even half as magnificent as Grandmother’s vivid descriptions, it must be worth the wait. And this very summer, thought Asra, I’ll see it for myself. I must memorize every moment so I can share it with my own grandchildren someday. A once in a lifetime celebration at the Great Tree, to be shared with all of the nomadic Seeker relatives together at last.

“Wait up!” cried Eowils from behind.

Asra stopped but splayed her wings in clear agitation. She was starting to regret this little adventure now that it meant constantly waiting for him. “Hurry up, Eowils. We need to be home before the Glowworm rises.”

“Hey, Asra,” said the trailing Eowils, gently tugging at Raahi’s reins and seemingly oblivious to her irritation. “Why does the Mighty Glowworm only come out during the day?”

“Because She molts at night. See Her skin?” said Asra, pointing to the gray orb in the sky above.

“Oh,” said Eowils, apparently satisfied. Asra turned and resumed her brisk walk. “Asra?” he called again mere moments later.

“What?” Asra responded with a sigh.

“How long does it take the Mighty Glowworm to shed her whole skin?”

“About 30 nights,” Asra responded from up ahead. “And if you keep stalling us to ask silly questions, She’ll be finished before we get to see anything.”

“That’s not fair,” whined Eowils. “My legs aren’t as long as yours, plus I’m leading Raahi.”

“It has nothing to do with your legs or the scorpion, Eowils. It’s because you won’t shed.”

Eowils frowned at her. “I’m not ready! I’m too little.”

“And you’re not going to get any bigger if you don’t leave that thing. Besides, it’s starting to smell.”

Eowils tried to stamp his foot in indignation, but struggled to bend a knee and nearly toppled over. Sighing, Asra held his tiny form upright. “Everyone molts, Eowils. You, me, the Glowworm–even Raahi,” said Asra, gesturing to the steed. “And you don’t see him getting ‘attached.’ He just leaves it behind and moves on, like we do with our homes. That’s the Seeker way, right?”

“But it’s part of me. It’s been part of me since I was a larva, through all the places we’ve been. It was…it was my skin when Grandmother would hug me.” He looked sadly at the ground. “She’ll never get to hug a new skin.”

Asra looked at Eowils and realized from his expression that he was about to start crying. She retracted her wings and changed her tone. “I’m sorry, Eowils. Look, I should probably be walking ahead of you anyway to scout for danger. That’s what big sisters are for, right?”

Eowils still looked miffed, but he accepted Asra’s words and she moved on ahead. He’ll be fine, Asra thought. He knows my scent. Even a larval humbug can follow a scent. The emission of pheromones as she walked was almost subconscious but the network of trails she left behind covered the ground behind, offering clear direction back to the family’s dwelling and helping to identify areas still left to explore.

The unexplored land had other scent trails too, of course. One in particular caught Asra’s attention, familiar but not quite recognizable. Following the lines of the trail, Asra suspected it might be an ant searching for food. If she could trace it back to its nest, Eowils might enjoy that. The child had demonstrated a growing fondness for ants lately, even laying simple scent trails of his own for the creatures to follow.

Asra cocked her head to examine the scent with her sensitive antennae. It appeared to be leading her toward a small, flat rock and, although she could not see far with only the soft light of her own bioluminescent skin, she thought she saw something stir beneath it. The girl quickly moved toward the rock, each stride lengthened by the buzzing of her wings.

“Don’t be afraid,” Asra whispered to the potential new friend beneath the rock. “I’m family.” From this close she could digest the creature’s scent in its entirety. With a bit of concentration, Asra began emitting a new pheromone concoction, utilizing the humbugs’ gift of mimicry to recreate the smell as best she could.

Soon enough, it seemed to be working. Slowly digging its way from under the rock, the source of the smell made itself known. Barely reaching her knees, the creature was smaller than any indigenous ant Asra had encountered so far. With its chubby white body and stiff orange head she thought it might be a legless larval ant misplaced from its underground nursery, but soon realized the bug was walking cautiously toward her.

A termite! she thought excitedly. Eowils will love this. She lifted the termite and turned around to find her brother.

Asra held a hand up toward the darkness and concentrated, exciting the bioluminescent chemistry of her humbug body to project a temporary flash of light. She couldn’t see Eowils or even the giant Raahi, but no matter; she merely needed to retrace the pheromone trails she’d left in her wake.

Carrying the termite on her shoulder, Asra closed her eyes and concentrated on the scents around her. Yes, this was the way, she thought as she followed the trail at a brisk pace.

After what felt like half the night, Asra was awakened from her trancelike trail-following when she walked headfirst into something hard and dropped her termite passenger. The insect landed on its back, wriggling its legs in confusion at the abrupt end to its casual ride. As it flipped its body over, Asra rubbed her bruised head and opened her eyes to find that she had returned to the same flat rock.

Uh-oh, thought Asra. I think I’m lost.

Suddenly her concerns for Eowils heightened. As annoyed as she had been at him, she would never forgive herself if anything happened to him after she had so carelessly abandoned the boy.

She looked nervously around until she saw the termite meandering away. She must be going back to her nest, thought Asra. If Eowils were here to see her, he’d be so excited he’d probably insist on following her there.

She raised her head in excitement. Perhaps Eowils had already followed one of the termite’s siblings back to their nest. Yes, he’s probably waiting there already, safe and sound! She followed the termite’s scent, emitting just enough light to ensure that Eowils could see her coming.

Soon enough, by the light of her skin, Asra saw a mound of dirt up ahead. Here the scent grew stronger, and Asra could see several of the termite’s family already ascending the gentle incline of the mound. Excitedly, Asra leapt ahead to a hole in the center of the mound: the entrance of the nest.

“Eowils? Are you in here?” Asra asked hopefully. Hearing no response, she leapt through the hole. A few nervous termites approached her defensively, but she quickly emitted a scent to put them at ease.

To her surprise, the termites approached only a bit closer before one of them turned and hurriedly scuttered from her presence. Successively, each of the others soon did the same. “Don’t worry, I’m just looking for my brother,” spoke the humbug softly, but as she entered further into the nest, the termites fled even further into tunnels and recesses outside her view. “What’s wrong?” she asked aloud.

Suddenly Asra heard a frantic noise behind her. She turned to see the figure of a behemoth arachnid following behind her.

“Raahi!” she shouted, never so relieved to encounter Father’s intimidating steed. “Eowils, are you with him?” But she heard no reply and, as she watched the figure approach, she wondered how Raahi managed to squeeze himself through the compact entrance of the termites’ home with his bulky tail.

With rising unease, Asra raised her hands and emitted another quick flash, hoping to shed light on the friendly scorpion but instead revealing a monstrous image. Horrified, she leapt out of sight, quickly squeezing herself into a small tunnel of the nest. With quick, panicked breaths, Asra muttered a word: “Solifuge!

The behemoth was not Raahi after all, and it was far from friendly. She’d never seen a live solifuge before, but she could instantly recognize the most fearsome creature of the night. Neither spider nor scorpion, it was a peculiar and surreal animal; its yellow exoskeleton, narrow segmented body, and four pairs of legs resembled those of a scorpion but, in place of the venomous tail, its weapon of choice was a wiggly and enormous set of mandibles. Its sharp jaws alternated biting the air in quick succession, continuously grinding imaginary prey like some sort of macabre humbug machinery.

While Raahi’s movements were stately and methodical, the solifuge’s were a rapid and chaotic frenzy. Protruding from beneath its mandibles was a pair of long leglike pedipalps, which blindly probed the ground ahead, reading the earth for the vibrations of nearby life to quickly extinguish. Occasionally its beady eyes would meet a termite whose flight to safety was not quite fast enough. Asra looked away in pain.

Oh, Mighty Glowworm, prayed Asra, trying to distract herself from the sounds of the solifuge’s feeding. Please grant me an escape from this nest. I’ll never be so careless again. Just let me hear Father and Mother and Eowils again.

But as the words came to her mind, her wish came true too soon. “Asra?” called the voice of a humbug child. Peeking her head from the tunnel and looking a bit deeper into the nest, Asra saw the outline of little Eowils, exposed and vulnerable to the solifuge.

“Eowils!” she cried, the sound attracting the beast’s attention. She squeezed out of her hole and ran toward her brother’s tiny form, the speedy solifuge quickly closing the gap. Suddenly she felt the creature’s pedipalp on her back and tripped on a pebble, tumbling into another tunnel.

Asra gathered herself and pivoted toward the entrance of the tunnel. She watched as the beast examined the hole, pecking at the soil with its pedipalps in an attempt to dig its way to her, until its little black eyes noticed the shape of Eowils and it turned its attention to the easier meal.

“No!” cried Asra as she desperately climbed back up the hole, stumbling again in her panic. But as she reached the entrance of the tunnel, she saw the…thing, its horrible mandibles tearing into the smaller humbug’s body. With a burst of anger and fear, Asra lifted the pebble and tossed it at the solifuge, who quickly turned to face her.

Asra fled toward the nest entrance as quickly as her legs and buzzing wings could carry her. As soon as she could see the soft light of the Glowworm’s skin through the hole above, she felt the creature grasp her leg tightly. She buzzed with all her might, grasping at the rim of the entrance even as it slowly collapsed around her. Her body was nearly above ground now, but the solifuge’s grip remained tight.

Then suddenly, with a crunch, the creature’s grip loosened and Asra went flying out of the mound and crashing to the ground nearby.

Breathing feverishly, the bruised humbug girl looked back to see Raahi–that mighty, beautiful scorpion–pulling the solifuge from the collapsed nest entrance with his enormous claws. His unwrapped stinger was buried deep into the beast, pumping it with deadly venom. Asra watched in awe as the solifuge’s struggle quickly ended and her father’s mount began to feed.

“Are you okay?” came a voice from behind her.

Asra turned to see Eowils wrapped in a makeshift cloak of dry brown detritus.

“Eowils! Eowils, you’re alive!” She ran toward her brother as fast as her bruised leg would allow and hugged him tightly.

“Ow! Please stop,” said the boy. But Asra continued to squeeze her brother until her breathing returned to normal.

“I didn’t think I’d ever see you again,” said the tearful Asra. “You’re so pale!”

“It feels weird. I don’t like it,” said Eowils.

“It will feel normal again soon.” Asra grinned at him. “I can’t believe you went down there with that beast!”

“I can’t believe it worked. I guess the skin is gone forever now.” Eowils looked wistfully toward Raahi devouring his meal.

“It’s okay, Eowils. Everyone molts.”

“Yeah,” said Eowils. “I know.” The siblings stood in silence for a while.

Asra looked at her brother. Be deliberate, she thought, like the cicada.

Finally, she said, “you know, we all leave parts of ourselves behind. But a skin is just a dead thing. Not like Mother, Father, you, me, or even Raahi. Wherever we travel, family will always be part of us, including Grandmother. Anyway, thank you for not leaving me behind down there.” Eowils looked up at her. “And I’m proud to be the first to hug your new skin.”

“Careful,” said the wincing Eowils. “It’s still kind of sensitive.”

“Well, once Raahi finishes, should we head home?” asked Asra.

“Do you remember the way? Or should we wander until we catch a familiar scent?”

“Silly boy, of course I know the way,” lied Asra, rolling her eyes haughtily. “After all, we’re Seekers, not wanderers. Just follow me,” she added, gripping the supple new skin of her brother’s hand.

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  1. James Lonnie Bowler Avatar

    Thank you for reading, and thank you to the illustrator, Lydia, for bringing this story to life!

    I’ve greatly enjoyed this opportunity to share some of the peculiar native bugs of my desert home.

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