by T.A. Hayduke
Invasive species and war. Written for a very short story competition. It lost.
I run through the process in my head as I first lower myself into the freely growing grass. The air is already so cold, seeping in through my cuffs. Sinking down, dew falls from the grass above, wetting my face, surely soaking into the fabric of my pack, forming droplets on my rifle's receiver. Canvas rubs against leaf and soil, with a quick, dull clap of metal on plastic, and the thud of a human body hitting the Earth. A pair of final , rasped word comes from someone unseen; another like me, huddled into the grass, wet with dew.
All noises cease, save the birds, insects, and breeze through the nearby trees. Trees with unfamiliar small leaves and long arching limbs, insects making unfamiliar clicks and creaks. I try to identify them, but it's no use, the sound muffled by the grass, and too different from home. Time passes, and the cool air warms. Too late to keep me dry; moisture from nearby plants and the ground below has saturated my tunic, matting it to my chest- a clammy feeling, uncomfortable to be so acutely aware of without distraction. I separate the two with my fingers, but without getting up my skin and the drenched canvas won't stay apart.
Somewhere unseen, a bird calls out. Its song is complex and ongoing; a mating call, I'm certain. A brief, rapid repeat of a single note, followed by a long, high-pitched trill , a lengthened sound scattered in a few places. Unfamiliar, just like the trees, but reminiscent of the warblers back home. Based on where we are, it should be Horornis diphone, a Japanese bush warbler. Who knows, though? It may well be any member of Horornis, and individual lost or spreading to a new range. Perhaps even a released pet from elsewhere in the world.
Its call goes unanswered, and eventually the bird quiets. Far, far away I hear a boom, an explosion, its source unidentifiable by my ears. Not my field. Then a running engine, the pitch of its humming increasing very slowly. Getting closer, but still far away. Directly in front of me, a spider hiding behind a blade of grass reveals itself, stretching, swinging, crawling across to another. Rebuilding a web with a fine, beautiful silk, invisible to the prey it hunts until its too late, inescapable once caught. A trap just like the once we have lain. A trap just like the uniforms we wear and the guns beneath us. An intricate web, invisible, then beautiful, then inescapable.
Sweat replaces dew on my face and chest. A beetle crawls onto the magazine inserted into my rifle, its bright orange carapace and black dots contrasting nicely with the gray metal its on. Before long, another joins it. Harmonia axyridis, the harlequin lady beetle often mistaken for native Coccinellidae lady beetle species, both incorrectly called “ladybugs” colloquially. An invasive species back home with large swarms; I recall vacuuming them en masse as they crawled through every crevice into the house. Unwelcome guests that did not belong, degrading the finely tuned systems around them. Perhaps not the individual beetle's fault, but a fact nonetheless. And yet here they were, in a native habitat. Perhaps still a nuisance to some, but not harmful. Here, in this system, another Coccinellidae beetle would be the invasive, unwelcome one. The one out of place, uninvited into a home, individually innocent but still guilty.
The engine closes in, then its humming ceases. Vehicle doors open, then close, and voices speaking in a foreign tongue begin pushing through the grass. Voices of bodies clothed in a uniform colored differently than the one clinging to my chest. My heart pounds, eyes still focused on the spider and beetles. I clench my rifle, shifting the unaware, insects upon it. It was not long ago that those uniforms were near my home, their own rifles of a different caliber aimed toward me, toward my family. They were invasive there. An invasion I donned my own uniform and rifle to remove- successfully. Now I was here, far away from home, huddled in grass, soaked. I was the invasive one now, the one that did not belong. But by being here, it meant the other uniforms could not be there. My family- I would not risk them again. One of the beetles, sick of the useless surface of the rifle, took to the air, flying directly into the nearly finished spider's web, almost as though willingly. The spider reacted quickly, rushing to it, wrapping it in seconds, rendering it immobile. The beetle did not resist.
The voices and brushing grass came closer. Then very close. The other beetle took flight too, first toward my face, then reversing in fear. It too found its way into the web, struggling hard. Too hard for the spider, which instead of wrapping the beetle, sank its fangs into its underside. Dead, and no less trapped. A sharp whistle came from behind me, signaling those hidden in the grass. I pushed myself to my feet, rifle raised. Before me were the other uniforms, perhaps a single shade lighter than my own. I lined my sights on one. A boy, no older than nineteen, with a sad, dull expression and a soft frown, surprise only just appearing on his face, his rifle still at his waist. The same uniforms that attacked home, but not the same wearers. They were a reaction to our being here, in uniform to repel the invaders not to invade; trapped in the same web, resisting out of fear and family. Innocent and guilty at the same time.
It was not his fault. Could it have been mine? No. Regardless, a chorus of rifles joined the