I got worms in the mail last spring. Two pounds of “red wrigglers,” the best compost-making worms in the Western hemisphere. A lady in Michigan raises them and mails them out overnight express. I built a wooden box and put it down in the basement. I put the worms in the box, on a bed of torn up newspaper. Two by two, and four by four and handful by handful they did enter the ark. I poured in all my kitchen scraps, my leftovers, my tired foodstuff yearning to be fertilizer.
The worms eat up everything, and it passes through them, and when it comes out the other end, the garbage of life has been transformed by some holy and wholly secret process into the most nutritious fertilizer known to man. When I leaned close, and put my ear to the lid of their little box, I could actually hear them gnawing away, transforming my scraps into the compost which gardeners like to call “black gold.” I liked listening to them gnaw.
For the worms, the box was the best of all possible worlds. Plentiful food. Constant temperature. Dark, sloppy and stinky. No floods. No drought. No birds. A world of stability and hope and peace. A perfect world to bring worm children into.
And they were fruitful and they did multiply all summer and did fill the box. Sometimes I would lift the lid and look in on my chosen worms. And I would sing:
“From germinating earth
to terminating firmament
Where is your mirth,
since nothing here is permanent?
The truth can make you squirm:
everything goes to the worms.”
They ate everything that I put in the box. Egg shells became a cup running over with worms. A cantaloupe rind became their hammock. The hull of a watermelon became their canoe, gliding over a sea of delicious rot. They lived in a perfect world with sweet and salty manna raining down from the Great Hand, which did regularly lift the lid of the universe.
Did they argue over whether I existed? Did some claim there is no worm-god; rather, the falling food can be explained by the four laws of wormo-dynamics? Did some say it is a worm-eat-worm world, and to concern wormself with myths was a waste of time? Did others construct psalms of praise, huddling together, murmuring their writhing melodies, their hymns to the unknown, unimaginable unseen hand? Were there worm fundamentalists who insisted that I was shaped like a worm and that I wanted worms to act in a certain way to assure their prolonged life? Did believing in me help bring meaning to their Earthy life?
It is daunting to be a god. I admit I preferred them to believe in me. But I couldn’t tell by their actions who were true believers and who were not. And when I fed them, I did not only feed the faithful. When I sprinkled water in the box, the drops fell equally on believer and faithless. I loved them all. I was their God, who brought them out of Michigan, and who placed them in their promised box.
Then the centipedes came.
Of all the bugs and microbes in the worm box, the centipedes are the only predators, the only worm-ivors. They hunt down and devour worms. What chance does a squirming worm have against a hundred-limbed trained killer? At first there was only one or two of the leggy monsters. Soon this was the best of all possible worlds for centipedes too.
Dozens of fat centipedes roamed smugly through the former worm-Eden. Clumps of forlorn worm refugees huddled in corners or under grapefruit rinds. Some desperate individuals escaped by squiggling up through the lid only to fall off the edge of the world and dry up on the basement concrete. What must have their last thought been — to exit their small world, to expand their consciousness, but to die for their noble effort?
Did a melon rind faction blame the situation on the corrupting lifestyle of the spinach eaters? Did others say that it was somehow the worms’ own fault for falling out of balance with box-nature? Or did certain worms claim that the centipedes had been there from the beginning and were an eternal foe of the unseen hand, forever locked in battle?
More disturbing yet: did centipede priests sing praises to me for bringing them at last to a land flowing with worms and honey? Was I the God of both centipede and worm?
But I had my own problem. Fruit flies. Swirling clouds of them drifted up whenever I lifted the lid to drop manna into worm world. Fruit flies are kindly beings. They float more than fly, with a gentle grace. They do not spurt nor leap. They do not bite. No bug is their master or slave. Fruit flies have no ambition save one: to reproduce. They love this life so profoundly that all they care about is to bring hundreds of children into the world to experience its magnificence. For fruit flies, too, this was the Promised Land, the best of all possible worlds.
No one can truly hate a creature as ineffectual as the fruit fly. But the multiplying thousands upon thousands were too much for me. Even a god does not brook fruit flies up his nose. So I set out to eradicate them. I placed glasses of beer in worm world. Intoxicated by the ambrosial fumes, the fruit flies plunged by the hundreds into that hoppy lake of woe. Neither did they know I had engineered their death. They went singing my praises.
Every morning at ten o’clock I came with the shop vacuum. And the great whirlwind did wreak desolation on the fruit fly civilization. What kind of stories were the fruit flies telling about this god of punctual wrath and hellish deceit?
I had to admit it. Worm world was out of my control. I was a failure as a god. Certainly a worm Nietsche was proclaiming that I was dead. My fantasy of being a god was going to the worms. I did the only thing I could do: I packed my bags, and I went on an end of the summer vacation. It didn’t matter where; I just wanted to get away from all of — them.
When I returned, autumn was settling in around the house, and an unnatural silence hovered over worm world. I lifted the lid. A couple of dainty fruit flies tried to swim up my nose and I splattered both against the wall with one quick master thrust.
With dread, I gazed into the box. Not a single movement. Not a single sound issued forth from my creation. Worm world was dead.
But not just dead. Empty. No bugs. No centipedes. No worms, dead or alive. Every living thing had vacated worm world. What happened? Where did they all go? Was this the worm rapture? Maybe the centipedes had eaten the entire known world and had moved on to other conquests. Or one of the worm prophets who had gone through the lid came back to lead the worms away to another promised land, through a crack in the basement wall, out to the garden. The mystery endures to this day.
I owe a lot to worm world. I know now that I am not long for this box, and while I’m here, I want to eat a lot and wriggle around with my pals as often as I can. I want to stay away from the centipedes. I want to be sure that whoever I sing my psalms to knows what he’s doing.
Now, sometimes, late at night, I too wonder if I live in a mail-order universe. Maybe I’m from Michigan, too. It’s impossible for one small wriggling creature to know such things. I keep my eyes trained on that lid, to see if I can catch a glimpse of whoever is out there, dropping food, or messing up the best of all possible worlds. And I sing my praises to the unknown and unknowable lid-lifter.