Fiction Issue #67

Final Molt

Andy boils the cocoons and unravels the silk because he doesn’t feel bad about killing the pupa. “It’s not even a real bug at that point—the body is basically deconstructed, a chunky organ soup,” he says. I’m not convinced this means silkworms are immune to pain since organ soup doesn’t mean the worm has died, and they’ve got human brain equivalents that house enkephalin and beta-endorphins. I keep it to myself though, since Andy can be vindictive, and if I were to tell him I think he’s committing murder, he’d abandon his job, leaving it to me. Instead, I tend the mulberry trees, pruning crisscrossed shoots and rooting branch cuttings to expand the forest. We don’t need this many trees, but we nurture them in honor of our ancestor who wrapped herself in a horse hide that hung on a tree, the two transforming into silkworms with cocoons as thick as wool. 

Andy kills several hundred silkworms a day while I wander by the mulberry trees, cleaning up the sticky berries smeared on the ground and eating the ones threatening to fall. The purplish red from the mulberries supposedly came from the horse who’d been killed and skinned, body left to dry over the tree. The blood dripped down the branches, absorbed into the leaves and roots. Our ancestor’s father killed the horse because the horse wanted to marry her and he’d rather his daughter marry a beggar than a beast. He was the type to place honor above family, something we’d been cautioned about since childhood. Especially since our ancestor promised to marry the horse if it would bring her father back safely home from war, only for her father shot the beast turned it into meat. 

Now we exploit our ancestor’s sacrifice and churn out silk scarves and handkerchiefs. “You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to earn a living,” Andy tries to convince me. “No one cares about horse hides and desperate daughters anymore.” I don’t oppose him since we have no other way to put food on the table. 

I’m nearly done cleaning the fruit stains and pruning the branches when I hear Andy scream. I run over where he clutches his right hand in his left, bent over, eyes closed, brows furrowed. I reach over and wrangle his hands in mine, revealing his scalded, bright-red fingers. Water drips from the edge of the pot, steam comes off the ground like ghosts coaxed from their graves. Andy pulls free from my grasp, trying to reach for the paddle he’d been using to stir the pot of cocoons. Andy believes that if you boil the cocoons for just one second too long, the silk loses its softness even though I can’t seem to tell the difference. I grab the paddle before he can and hold it behind my back. “You need to get your hand under cold water,” I insist. Andy attempts to steal the paddle from my grasp. “Or else you really won’t be able to use your hands for the next few days,” I continue. He stops and pivots to the sink. Threats to his habits work like magic. 

“Can you monitor the pot while I’m washing?” Andy asks.

“Sure,” I agree even though I dislike being near the cocoons or participating in their death. I reluctantly begin stirring, trying to ignore the large, white, slightly translucent globules and whatever guts are enclosed. Beyond the low simmer of the pot and the steady flow of chilled water from the faucet, we remain silent and I find my gaze returning to the cocoons no matter how much I focus on the wall or my feet. For the most part, I can convince myself they’re oversized pills—at least, until I eye one too long and notice something shifting from the inside of the silk, like bubbles pushing against one another, trying to burst free toward the water surface. Fighting for space and an exit. 

“Are these supposed to move?” I ask Andy. 

“Move? Like in the pot? Yeah, the cocoons will move because the boiling water is moving,” he says. 

“I mean inside the cocoons.”

“The heat should’ve dispatched them from the start of the boiling. Right now, the heat is just making the fibers extractable.” 

I look closely at the cocoons again and see another flicker of movement in the same cocoon, this time more of a pulse. “You sure?” 

“What worm lasts through a boil?” Andy shoots back. 

I shrug, turn my back to him, and carefully spoon out the pulsing cocoon and let it cool on the edge of the pot. Once steam no longer rises in waves and the water has dripped back onto the ground, I pocket it. 

“Is your hand all cooled down now? If so, it’s all yours,” I say, extending the paddle to Andy. He twists the faucet closed and grabs the paddle from me, eager to return to his job. I slip out of his work area and head toward one of the older mulberry trees that provides an impenetrable shade at all times of day. I sit on a damp patch of grass and withdraw the cocoon from my pocket. I can feel it pulsing in my fist—a tiny, barely perceptible heartbeat. As soon as I open my fist, the cocoon begins to tear open. Instead of a moth emerging from the damaged silk pupa, a pool of dark liquid leaks from the crack, dripping down from between my fingers, viscous and dense like a cross between honey and toothpaste. I hold my hands close to the ground, letting the fluid drip until the cocoon has hollowed and deflated. The dark liquid seeps into the ground like water, with only a damp, black patch of earth remaining. I bury the empty cocoon too. Its silk is no longer usable but at least it makes good compost. 

The next day, I find the mulberry tree and the three surrounding it rotten. The trees bend and wind toward the ground like they’re parched and must seek out water. They hunch more than stand, twisting and warping, barely holding together against their weight. As I step closer, an entire branch snaps with my footstep, hitting the ground and breaking into more pieces, more brittle than my hair during winter. The leaves have turned gray. The small, white silkworms that once decorated the green leaves like grains of rice have all fled to other trees. The grass that had been growing in the area where the liquified pupa had dissolved into the dirt has died. In the now barren patch of land, I find a smooth, rounded black surface protruding from the ground. Its curvature captures the edge of the planet. I poke it with my shoe, and rather than hitting resistance, my foot sinks inward, the surface giving in to my weight like rubber. With each passing day, it seems to grow slightly larger until finally, Andy visits the forest to help me gather cocoons from the trees. I try to steer him around the huge, black surface, skirting the edges of the forest whose leaves are the fullest and berries largest, hopefully large enough to block out the view of the inside. Andy finds the black mass anyway because he wants to cut through the center as a shortcut to the other side. 

“When did this start growing?” he interrogates. 

“I don’t know,” I lie. “It wasn’t there yesterday.” 

“Do you think our ancestors are upset?” I continue. “That’s why they’re killing our trees?”

“For what? Doing the exact thing all their other descendants did?” Andy believes he’s the pinnacle of rational thinking. He uses numbers to formulate judgment—a productive day defined by how many dollars worth of silk he’s unraveled, my care for him measured by the number of visits I pay him while he’s boiling pupa from their havens.

“Maybe they’re fed up. There’s no giving without taking,” I suggest.

“So our ancestors decided to grow this lumpy thing in the ground?” Andy scoffs, poking at the surface with his bare hand. He presses inward, the surface forming a small dent that holds its shape briefly, even after he has withdrawn his fingers. He wipes his hand on his pants and tells me to wait before running back over to the house. I crouch by the black protrusion in the ground, watching for any movement, but it’s too dark to see past the top, and I’m not willing to hold my hand against it long enough to pick up on any jitters or vibrations. As I wait, I begin tossing fallen, mushy mulberries at the area. The juice stains my hand, trickels down my sleeve,  sticky and sweet. Instead of rolling down the sides, the berries disappear under the black, absorbed like ducks in quicksand. I dump all the mulberries staining the ground into the protrusion, cleaning up  so ants won’t congregate here. The mulberries are absorbed almost instantly.

Andy returns with a spray bottle of pesticide and the steel-hardened hoe I rarely use. 

“I’m not sure that’s going to work,” I say.

“Don’t underestimate pyrethrins,” Andy replies. He swings the hoe above his head with both arms and lets gravity bring the paddle down, the sharp edge of the triangle pressing into the black layer, eventually puncturing the exterior. Tossing the hoe aside, Andy grabs the pesticide bottle, twists off the spray nozzle, and begins pouring the entire bottle into the rip. For a moment, I watch the fluid trickle out of the tiny opening, trying to gauge a reaction from within the lump. 

Maybe it’s a trick of the light, but I think I’ve spotted a flicker of white worm its way toward the opening Andy spliced. “Hey, you might be killing something,” I tell Andy. He shakes the bottle so the pesticide will flow faster even though we both know the bottleneck is the opening hole. 

“That’s what pesticide does.” He enunciates the “does” which he says right as he shakes the bottle at full force. Some of the fluid nearly flies into his face. I lunge toward him, snatch the pesticide bottle from his grasp and place my hand on the opening so it doesn’t spill onto the ground. 

“What the hell?” Andy yells. 

“Look, the pesticide is obviously not doing anything. I don’t think this tiny bottle will make a difference. Why don’t we just wait it out? Who knows, this thing might not even be harmful?” 

“Tell me that after all the trees die and the silkworms have got nothing left to eat.”

“That won’t happen,” I insist.

Andy relents and returns home while I wait by the black lump all night, monitoring the tear in the surface and the surrounding trees for rot. The lump rises and falls to a constant rhythm, protruding from the earth and then receding downward like it breathes more easily. I hug my legs to my chest and lean my forehead on my knee bones, shifting my head back and forth such that my skin stretches against my frontal bone, wondering if it’ll slide right off if I rubbed and stretched hard enough. I liken skin to a cocoon, but Andy claims my comparison is invalid since skin is one of our organs that we grow and nourish while cocoons get discarded once the pupa matures. But silk comes from the larva’s salivary gland so I consider it an extension of the larva, albeit an eventually ruined and discarded extension. I ruin skin too—if I scratch hard enough, I accumulate enough white bits of skin cells under my nails that I can dig out a small, snowy mountain—my flaky remnants of a cocoon. 

I’ve nearly dozed off when something pokes out from the rip—almost imperceptible if it weren’t for the contrast of white specks against black. They look like fingernail-sized eggs wriggling out from beneath the dirt, more solid and tough than any cocoon I’ve touched. They accumulate at the tear, the opening bulging and stretching as the egg-capsules grow in number. I’ve gone completely still, no longer bobbing my leg or thrumming my fingers or scratching my skin off the same, reddened, tender area on my nose. 

The tiny white objects spill from the fold, rolling down the slope of the protrusion and attaching themselves to the surrounding mulberry trees. As soon as they make contact with the trees they worm their way up the bark and implant themselves on the trunks and thicker branches. One of them hits my foot, sticking to my sneaker. I try to shake it off, but it doesn’t budge. I try to poke it off with the nozzle of the pesticide and the sharp end of the hoe, but it continues to stick like it has melted into my shoe, transforming into one entity. Eventually, I grab it with both hands, digging my fingers into the flesh—soft enough to let my fingers sink in and leave an imprint, but resistant enough to protect against laceration.

“Come on,” I whisper, tugging so hard I feel my fingernails lifting away from my skin. No movement. No sign of loosening. Instead, several more of the capsules latch onto my legs, each equally sticky and steadfast in covering my body.

When I give up, I’ve already been engulfed by the white substance, each of the individual objects flush side by side, creating one cohesive cocoon. But I can still blink and breathe and see through the shell, more a translucent film than an opaque barrier although it had appeared solid from the outside. The cocoon blocks out the wind which had cut like knives on my dry, scaly face. All that’s left is a soft cushioning and pleasant warmth surrounding my limbs, once covered in hives from the cold and blood from my scraping, now comforted by sturdy insulation. 

“This is a lot of silk,” Andy proclaims when he returns the next morning. I hear him speak, but his voice sounds more like a blur of words, muffles caught between dreamscape and reality. I’m unable to reply, but also don’t feel compelled to, as though my capability of speech has been rendered obsolete. 

Andy carries me to his workplace, the pot already simmering. 

“I am too big to fit in there. I’m not sure if this silk is usable,” I want to tell him. Instead, I rock back and forth in his arms, trying to communicate.

“Hold still,” Andy says. “I’ll get you out of there. Just need to loosen the cocoon with some heat.”

Andy dips the bottom of the cocoon into the pot, my body too large to submerge. The hot water penetrates through the cocoon and floods the interior. The silk begins to loosen and Andy starts unraveling it, slowly making each loop around, freeing me thread by thread. As soon as Andy reaches the interior where I dwell, revealing the beginnings of a tiny gaping hole at the bottom of my sanctuary, still hundreds more threads to unwind to fully release me, I begin to leak. My organs are too large to flow out, but the rest of my body gushes into the pot, diluted into the boiling water.

By Lucy Zhang

Lucy Zhang writes, codes, and watches anime. Her work has appeared in Salt Hill, The Worcester Review, The Pinch, The Baltimore Review, and elsewhere. She is the author of the chapbooks HOLLOWED (Thirty West Publishing) and ABSORPTION (Harbor Review). Find her at or on Twitter @Dango_Ramen.