Fiction — December 11, 2012 12:41 — 0 Comments

Scenes From The Reverse Metamorphosis – Robert Yune


One morning, a beetle turned into a man. The setting: an observation room in the corner of a basement laboratory. Two unpainted concrete walls, one with a large circular window. The other two made of shatterproof glass, with a glass door.

Describing the former insect’s emotional state requires translation. First, his sight no longer compounded. His panorama reduced, it was necessary to swivel and tilt his head, the range of gyrations dizzying. His antennae had shifted south, the segments reformed into joints and tendons. He had neither the language nor the desire to explain the strangeness he felt—as an insect, he had no such concept. There was a new vulnerability that, if dwelled upon, would have wrung from him an intense sadness. Transforming from invertebrate to human meant his shell had compressed to an elegant interior curve of bone. He received the heat of the world through an expanse of flesh.


This was the secret project that had drawn the researcher every night to the soundproof basement of the house he shared with his daughter. His legacy. “I’m close, and I’m sorry,” he told her in the hospital shortly before his death. Even during the funeral, God help her, she imagined herself finally walking down the unlocked stairway to his lab.

Later that day, she stood outside the laboratory, watching. On hands and knees, this new man moved along the walls. He would circumnavigate the room forever if uninterrupted. The crawling wasn’t out of confusion, she knew. She had read her father’s notes, left for her on the lab table outside. “It is crucial to understand his mind, the collective nature of insects. He was once a tongue of flame in a great fire of consciousness. And now: a candle, truncated.” Ultimately, what he sought in his perfectly rectangular path was a way to return. Knowing he never could, and the vastness of everything he would never understand, she felt Godlike, a sensation that settled heavily in her chest and limbs. She was almost forty, had spent her life as her father’s assistant.

And now, this discovery made her a caretaker. She watched the man pause and glance at her, raising slightly on his haunches to sniff the air. She noted the muscular line in his thighs. Something didn’t register, and he returned to his travels. It was unsettling, the way his fingers undulated. She understood—antennae—but felt a wave of revulsion nonetheless. In a few minutes, she would have to open the door and face him. She stood with her hands clasped, as if in the position of a supplicant, her back perfectly straight.  What held her back for a moment was his sheer physicality—the muscular, sinewy arms, his genitals, two rows of teeth. How long was he alone? she wondered. Which of his hungers coalesced in that tiny glass room?


She avoided hating it, reminded herself it was a him and not an it, but she felt the pressure of caring for him; gravity changed and came in waves, pushed new wrinkles around her eyes and mouth. She had a dancer’s body that once moved gracefully down library aisles. Time and gravity had overlooked her, quiet as she was, but found her the day she discovered her father’s terrible secret. She knew it wasn’t a coincidence. There was no such thing.

It took weeks to teach the new man how to dress, how to eat—that his hands were not feelers but tools. Helping him stand, she realized it had been years since she had pressed against a stranger’s flesh. She tried not to shudder at the smoothness of his skin, the eerie fresh baby-scent of it. She had never been a mother, never dealt with issues of bodily waste. And urges: She knew that female zoologists who worked with male primates often drew unwanted sexual attention. Even his gaze, through large brown, long-lashed eyes, unsettled because she could still sense the insect in him, the digital thought process, the reliance on instinct.

But he was human, technically, a fully-formed adult male. Anyone watching them would have wondered why a Caucasian male in his mid-twenties was sitting quietly on the observation room floor, his eyes darting a little as she ran blood tests through the machines at the in-house lab. He didn’t have movie-star good looks, but he was handsome enough with his close-cropped blonde hair. The researcher’s daughter dressed him in teal scrubs—the less she saw of his sleek, muscular body, the better.

Why this particular experiment? Why conduct unethical research? What were her father’s goals? The questions would have expanded had she given them room to breathe. But there was so much to do. Simply feeding him took hours. When the researcher’s daughter was young, her father would not permit her to name the lab mice or rabbits. Still, she saw them as rows of Elizas and Ogras and Jeffreys, waiting quietly and blank-eyed, as if processing the horrors that awaited them.

She named the beetle-man James and moved him upstairs to the guest bedroom, which was furnished with a bed and dresser. There was also a window, covered by a green gingham curtain. There was also an outside world, and knowledge he needed to grasp.

“I’m sorry, James,” she said, and pulled aside the curtain.

In a previous life, his compound eyes saw color, but mostly in washes, like a black-and-white television—or, more precisely, a technicolor film from a great distance. Now, he saw the garden in the inner courtyard, each flower its own color. Due to its wavelength, red had been invisible to him until today.

It must have felt as if his newly formed soul were being pulled from his body through his optic nerves. Pushing on the trauma was the fact that he recognized plants, remembered paths he used to wind through on six legs. Insects he’d never seen vibrated and zipped through the air. In the end, his own height overwhelmed him: imagine waking up five miles tall. Colors magnified and he backed away, his hands cupped over his closed eyes. He was trying to unsee, the researcher’s daughter knew. He made a giant wailing noise as he backed into the wall and fell to his hands and knees before sitting, pushing himself against the wall. He covered with his arms as much of his chest and face as possible.

She knew James needed sensory stimulation, and this was a first step. But still, she marveled at her power over this thing she never wanted. And the height, perhaps, of her resentment. What were her true motivations?

“Stand,” she said, and it sounded like a command. It had taken months to teach him how to walk on two legs. She walked over and gently lifted his elbow. He pulled away. “Stand,” she said, louder, but now she was sobbing. She left the room quickly.


There was an adjacent observation room, in which she noticed another beetle brimming with possibility. She placed a petri dish over it, watched its awful potential curl into nothing.


The salt was delightful, and he loved the heat of them. The way he cupped his hand around the thin red-and-yellow container, the warmth and smell blotching through the paper onto his fingers, washing over his face. But he ate them with a fork because she had taught him to. Chewing carefully before swallowing required self-control. Because there was no such thing as taste in his previous life. How surprising, this short fleshy proboscis. He tumbled the food one last time before swallowing. How could anyone not want to do this every single moment until forever? He looked up and she paused before nodding. She said something, but he still couldn’t understand. There was a gratitude in him that he couldn’t express. He wasn’t even heartbroken when the container was empty and she didn’t have any more.


Compared with teaching James to stand, eat, and bathe, dressing was easy. On his first day outside, he wore a pair of khakis and a cable-knit sweater. The researcher’s daughter walked next to him as they navigated the sidewalk. She was confident that passing neighbors would see two normal humans out for a stroll. James walked with a slight limp and was prone to stumbling—a side effect of evolution, she figured, less stability with two legs instead of six. Still, he was smart and wanted to please her. Cut off from the chorus of the hive, he fixated on following her commands, watching and reading her in a way that was eerily patient. She thought, When they perfect artificial intelligence, it will act like James. As they passed a white house with vinyl siding, she remembered that neither she nor her father had spoken with the neighbors in decades. It wasn’t a feud—she couldn’t remember the last time she’d gone for a walk, pursued the outdoors. Anyone seeing her with James, she realized, might assume they were mother and son. She pulled the fur-lined hood of her coat over her head but didn’t change her stride or pace.

To James, the cold was a blessing. On his face, the soft skin of his neck, his fingers—it was a glorious sensation, the way it called attention to one’s nerve endings, the slick layer of moisture over the eyes. Unlike sunlight, the cold penetrated and spread itself evenly over all creation, holding them together under its brief dominion. He pulled up his sleeves and breathed in as deeply as possible, feeling the air press against the limits of his lungs. There was a slight hiss as he exhaled, but he stopped when he noticed the woman frowning.

The snow—he’d seen it from the window but had never felt it. He swatted at the air and she didn’t seem to mind. The snow, its particles like atoms shed from some great collective. They drifted and kissed the sidewalk. In the past, he would have simply frozen, let nature’s grip hold him. Now, he kept moving. Maybe it was the warm coils inside him. Something in the cold made his joints click, but he knew he could walk forever.


She had watched his eyes widen as the buses pulled in. They were standing near the terminal and had gotten used to the cigarette smoke just as the diesel fumes rushed in. Her hair was all grey now, the years spiriting away the color, and there were thick lines around her mouth, under her eyes. Time had cut into her, but she no longer minded. She said to James, “I’m sorry. Maybe that’s all you’ve heard from me, but it’s true.” He nodded even though she knew he didn’t understand. She gripped his shoulder and leaned in, but didn’t press her head to his chest like she wanted to. Years later, she would regret that she didn’t leave that tiny impression on him, didn’t mark him before sending him out into the world.

“You’d better go,” she said. “The truth of the matter is that you’ll never truly be alone. If you remember anything from me, remember that. I know you will. Please remember that I tried.” He handed the driver his ticket and walked up the stairs to the bus. He didn’t look back at her because she hadn’t asked. He wanted her to see how perfectly he followed her request.


The seats on the bus were soft and something about the wash of pastel rectangles pleased his eyes. He walked carefully down the aisle, his hands occasionally grabbing headrests for support. The woman he sat next to had long hair, brown, that fell straight down her back. It didn’t cascade, but rather hung stiffly, as if she had just straightened it. He couldn’t see her face, even when he leaned forward and craned his neck. He had thought maybe it was the woman who taught him things, but he knew it wasn’t. The woman next to him had smaller bones. And she smelled different, a scent of flowers and musk. James slid his hands so he was sitting on them, just like he’d been taught to. No one else on the bus would understood how much he’d learned, how far he’d come.

He was wearing a thick jacket with a large pocket in the chest. Inside were important papers and a paycard with yellow arches. He could point to it at any stop and people would direct him to the eating place.

Now, as he looked at the pattern on the bus—people scattered, sitting by themselves, tiny circle lights shining on some, some sitting on the outside seat—he understood what the woman who taught him things had wanted.

“Window,” she once said, pointing to the glass he saw the garden through. Outside the bus, the landscape sped and blurred. He glimpsed a beautiful patch of color and mouthed a word to his neighbor, almost ready to breathe life into it. Everyone on the bus was once insect. But now, they were like him. He could pull everything together and teach them. And soon enough, they would collect.


Robert Yune's stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, The Los Angeles Review, and Avery, among others. In 2009, he received a fiction writing fellowship through the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. He earned his MFA from the University of Pittsburgh and teaches at Chatham University and Pitt. In his spare time, he works as a volunteer tutor at The Neighborhood Academy, a college prep school for low-income students.

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney