After her daughter had – for the third time, no less – laid her eggs in the fruit bowl, Mrs Jane Smith lost her temper, because if she had told that girl once, she’d told her a thousand times: no procreation in the house. Not even the parthenogenetic kind. And especially not on the nectarines.
But there was no reasoning with that child. Stubborn as a mule, just like her father. In fact Jane Smith was often saying it: My Georgia – just like her father, she is. She was a testy girl, always giving her parents the contrary. She’d swear the day was night just to naysay her mother. There really is no reasoning with that child. Not that you could call Georgia Smith a child anymore.
Lately the girl had been all over the place, literally: climbing up the walls, hanging from the ceiling, scuttling furtively up and down the stairs at night. She’d developed infuriating habits like going round the house, turning off the lights and drawing all the curtains because she preferred lurking in darkness. Last Sunday she had even bitten the dog. And why did she do it? She was thirsty. She was thirsty, she said!
But the breaking point for Jane was her daughter’s ovulation onto the fruit.
Thinking about it later, Jane struggled to justify, even to herself, why she had become quite so apoplectic over the incident. Yes, she had been waiting days for the nectarines to reach just the right stage of ripeness and, yes, her craving for juicy peach flesh would have to remain unsated a little longer, but this frustration could not begin to account for the cataclysmic intensity of her reaction, which had culminated in Mrs Jane Smith running – screaming – down the High Road, in her dressing gown and slippers, the fruit bowl held aloft with outstretched arms before she flung it furiously from the Station Road overpass down onto the train tracks below to be lacerated by the 0737 to London Victoria.
The inconvenient truth – the truth that buzzed around her head in the silence of night – was that Jane Smith felt for her daughter a nauseac aversion that bordered on the fanatical.
It had not always been that way. Until her transmutation, Georgia Smith had been a delightful daughter – giggly, compliant, and affectionate, the envy of all of Jane’s friends.
Your Georgia is an angel, they would say, marvelling as they watched her placidly entertain herself on the play mat while their own children attempted to stick toy animals into the nearest orifice – their own or someone else’s. On one occasion Clare Jones’ daughter had succeeded in ramming the neck of a plastic brontosaurus so far up her left nostril that the nasal trauma resulted in years of violent nosebleeds.
But Georgia Smith had, throughout her childhood, been her mother’s pride and joy.
Until the change began.
Jane first noticed the change in her daughter one Friday evening when she was giving the child a bath. It seemed to have started over night, this transformation. On the Thursday evening Georgia had been a little girl, all joy and protruding belly and drinking the bathwater from a plastic cup. But on the Friday night, when she lifted Georgia’s arms above her head, Jane couldn’t fail to notice two conspicuous new additions to her daughter’s body. Right there, just under the armpits, were two dark spots. Freckles, perhaps? Or the measles. Whatever they were, they were certainly new.
It’s nothing to worry about, Mrs Smith. The doctor had been very reassuring. Nothing more than a classic example of polythelia.
Polythelia, Mrs Smith. Supernumerary nipples developed in utero and retained at birth. The doctor straightened his papers. If your daughter had been born a cat or a pig she would have had six or eight or even ten.
I’m sorry… Mrs Smith said. I don’t quite understand. Ten what?
So Jane Smith went home pondering her daughter’s extra nipples. To Jane Smith it seemed profligate. How many nipples does one woman need? Indeed, how many children does one woman need? To Jane, one child had always been more than sufficient.
Looking back, Jane felt that Georgia’s insistence on developing twice the ordinary number of nipples marked the beginning of her effrontery towards normal human development, though at the time she had been unable to put her finger on quite why the extra nipples unsettled her so severely.
Before the week was out, in an act of extravagant contempt for her mother’s wishes, Georgia had developed two more pairs of nipples – a set on her abdomen and a set on her groin. The sprouting of thick, black hairs followed soon after: from each nipple erupted a stiff, dark tendril so coarse that it resisted any form of depilation. The aestheticians at the beauty salon, who valiantly but vainly applied everything from hot wax to electrolysis, were horrified; but while Jane remained under a dark cloud of humiliation for the rest of the day, Georgia seemed wholly unashamed of her aberrant hirsutism. Quite the contrary: she seemed to get a perverse satisfaction out of standing in front of the mirror and stroking the long black strands, curling them tenderly around her fingers.
Naturally, Jane Smith could not allow this revolting self-indulgence and insisted that the hairs be trimmed. At first she was able to keep them under control by cutting them down with nail scissors every few days, but soon the rate of their growth accelerated so that they had to be trimmed every few hours to stop them from protruding insolently through her daughter’s school uniform. By the end of the month the hairs had grown so long and so strong that even garden shears could not slice them. Jane was forced to accept that the repellent hairs were there to stay.
Horrifyingly, Georgia learned to use the hairs to do tricks. It began one evening at the dinner table when her father asked her to pass the salt. Georgia manipulated her two uppermost appendages to reach across the table, pick up the salt cellar, and grind its contents onto her father’s plate. Her father simply thanked her and continued with his meal. But the sight of her daughter waving her insectean feelers around over the food sent shivers down Jane’s spine, and she sent Georgia to her room.
It’s a phase, Mr Smith said. It’ll pass. Before you know it she’ll be bored of the whole thing. Then the hairs will just drop off.
But the hairs showed no signs of just dropping off. In fact, they seemed to be developing hinges and joints and little hooks on the end which Georgia could use to latch onto food and walls and God only knows what else. Before long there was, in all frankness, no denying that they were anything but six new arthropodic legs.
Georgia taught herself to eat with them. She taught herself to skitter about the house on them. At night she taught herself to stridulate with them to make what she called ‘music’ but what to her mother was a maddening atonal buzzing, punctuated by shrill erratic clicks, that kept her from sleeping and pushed her to the brink insanity.
She’s exploring her self-expression, Mr Smith mumbled to his wife from under his pillow. It’ll pass.
Jane understood very well that her daughter was ‘expressing herself’. What she couldn’t understand was why her daughter had to ‘express herself’ as a cicada. What was wrong with the usual channels for adolescent angst, like death metal – it’s good enough for Susan Brown’s son. Or what about that slutty music girls are listening to nowadays?
Jane was convinced her daughter derived a perverse pleasure from disturbing her: the girl often crouched silently in dark crannies where she could go unnoticed, only to suddenly scuttle out unnervingly and make her mother scream. A new favourite spot was in the corner of the shower cubicle, where she could squat just out of reach of broom handle or rolled-up newspaper and unsettle her mother by watching her bathe with enormous unblinking black eyes and a sinister rubbing together of her feelers.
Her daughter’s exploration of the entomic lifestyle only deepened. Around her fourteenth birthday she stopped speaking altogether and began to wriggle away from kisses, hugs and all human touch. It was then that even Mr Smith began to believe that Georgia’s choice of transformation would be permanent, and he began to feel an ache in his chest, which – had he ever taken the time to examine it – he would have recognised was sadness.
Georgia developed for herself a hard beetle-black exoskeleton from which her parents shrunk in discomfort. She shaved her head but, at the same time, stopped shaving anywhere else. Eventually Georgia was so reliant on her insectean limbs that she discarded her original arms and legs altogether, unceremoniously dumping them in a pile in the hallway one day as she arrived home from school. Jane gathered them up, wrapped them in tissue paper and stored them at the top of the wardrobe in a hatbox.
She might want them some day, she reasoned with Mr Smith. When she’s older. When she has her own children.
If. Mr Smith interjected.
If she has her own children.
Jane often asked herself why her daughter couldn’t be more like other youths with normal pursuits like drugs and drinking and clumsy fumblings behind bike sheds. What she wouldn’t give for Georgia to have a stint in rehab or a police caution or a rush to hospital with alcohol poisoning – these sorts of antics Jane could have handled. But arthropodan metamorphosis was beyond the realms of her parental skills.
Jane felt exhausted, as if her daughter was sucking the life right out of her. She took to sleeping for long stretches of the day and, eventually, on her husband’s insistence, she visited the doctor and was told she was suffering from an iron deficiency. As the doctor examined Jane he found a scab on her neck the size of a five pence piece. Had she suffered any significant blood loss recently? he asked her.
It was then that Jane realised that her daughter was, quite literally, sucking the life out of her through a sharp blood-stained proboscis, and Mr and Mrs Smith were reduced to sleeping under mosquito netting and dousing themselves in citronella and camphor oil to keep their parasitic daughter at bay.
Many years later, when Mr and Mrs Smith would look back on the stages of Georgia’s metamorphosis, they would agree that the worst was the time when – immediately after the decimation of her ova in the fruit bowl by the 0737 train to London Victoria – she grew a scorpion stinger. They would remember how her segmented tail would uncurl and rise menacingly when she grew angry and how the venom when she lashed out would smart on the skin for days.
And yet Mr and Mrs Smith would also admit that, with hindsight, there was some strange beauty to their daughter’s unconventional form. Like the way the sunlight through her opaque scorpion’s tail would cast trembling reddish shadows on the floor, like rays through stained glass. Or how the sound of her arachnid claws made a pitter-patter like summer rain as she scuttled across the floorboards overhead. Or how the colours of her compound eyes danced from azure violet to bronze.
But it was still, if truth be told, a relief to Jane when her daughter shut herself away for good, which began when Georgia glued herself to her bedroom ceiling and refused to come down. Anxious at first, Jane wanted to consult a doctor.
An entomologist might be more appropriate, Mr Smith suggested.
And so an entomologist was called, the eccentricity of the situation was explained, and reluctantly – believing the story to be a hoax – he came. He examined Georgia in her vampiric pose and said matter-of-factly: She’s going to build a cocoon.
From then on there was no more scuttling out of dark corners – no more dropping from the ceiling on a strand of silk – no more night-time stridulation. Just an ashen bundle, hanging from the light-fixture, silent and still.
And, with her crustacean daughter wrapped up in a cocoon, Jane could immerse herself in the memories of her infant girl, all pink toes and flaxen hair and gurgling laughter.
She brought down from the loft the box of baby clothes and pressed them to her face, inhaling the powdery clean scent that still clung to them, untouched by the dank, damp years of storage. Leafing through the photo albums, she relived the golden years of quiet familial normalcy, of picnics in the countryside and Sundays at the beach, when every family member had possessed only two limbs and no stingers. In each photograph she looked into the face of the smiling little girl who had been her whole world and whom she had once believed she would have with her forever.
On the eve of what would have been her daughter’s eighteenth birthday, Mrs Jane Smith sat at the kitchen table, wide awake, watching a fly repeatedly singeing its body on the flame of a candle to which it was inexorably drawn. All of her friends’ children were preparing to leave for university or to seek their fortunes in the city, while her daughter – my Georgia – swung from the ceiling in her bedroom as cold and stiff as a corpse.
She sat and watched until the fly burnt itself to death and dropped pathetically onto the table. Then she snuffed out the candle and climbed the stairs to return to bed.
When she later recounted the story of the night to her friends, she was never able to account for why she had peered into Georgia’s room as she passed it, but that is what she did.
And she saw the cocoon cast off like an old rag in the middle of the floor and there, perched on the window-sill, was her daughter, feeling for the scents on the twilight air with her feathery antennae and tentatively curling and uncurling her proboscis, as if in awe of her new body. Spread out gloriously behind her was a pair of enormous and downy wings that were almost handsome, though grey and opaquely pallid. On the hindwings were two circular markings like eyes looking right at her with an intimacy that Jane had not received from her daughter in years.
Jane wanted to reach out and touch her daughter – to stroke the soft hairs on her daughter’s wings, wrap her arms around her daughter’s thorax and hold her.
But before she could stretch out her hand, her daughter leapt out into the night.
As Jane watched her fly over the rooftops, reflecting the moonlight off her ashen wings, she could not help but regret that her daughter had not transformed into a creature more beautiful than a moth. She wondered why her wings were not more colourful. Why her abdomen was not more slender. Why her antennae were not more lustrous.
But at least her daughter was flying. None of her friends’ children could do that.