Short Story: Wheatlice

“Ladies and Gentlemen, this is Johnny Stetson welcoming you back to Weird Tales and Unbelievable Truths. Earlier this week, I was fortunate enough to be able to speak with a fascinating man with an even more fascinating collection of wheat seeds. Now, I know how that sounds, but trust me folks, this is a wondrous tale. So much so, in fact, that I am presenting this recording to you unabridged.”

Click.

“It is currently March 23rd 1948, and I am here with Dr Glenn Avery, a Kansas based researcher who has made a fascinating discovery right here in the Wheat Belt. Now, Glenn, I understand that you are not yourself from Kansas originally. Before we get on to the … wheatlice, was it?”

“Wheatlice, yes.”

“Right. Before we get onto the wheatlice, could you tell the listeners how it was that you ended up coming to Kansas?”

“Of course. My brother … I apologise, but he has asked to remain anonymous. Will that be a problem?”

“Not at all. Please, continue.”

“My brother works for a bank in another State, and he was seconded here for a time. Finding things to be rather dull, he invited me to visit in an effort to alleviate his boredom. I had no significant work on at the time, so I accepted his invitation and, while he was conducting business one day, I stumbled upon an interesting newspaper headline that read ‘Insects Stole my Crops’. Now, I have a fondness for what you could call local legends and the suchlike, so I decided to visit the subject of the piece in the hopes of discovering a new tale to tell my fellow aficionados.”

“Which was when you met Mr Walter, correct?”

“Yes. That’s right.”

“Now, my notes say that Mr Walter wasn’t himself any different to most people. Born on November 17th 1902, he was named Hugh after a member of his father’s favourite baseball team, the Nashville Vols. As was tradition, he worked on the family farm and eventually married his long-term sweetheart, Sally Harvey in 1929. When you met him though, it was June two years ago. How about we start with what he told you.”

“Of course. Mr Walter had noticed a small patch of wheat growing out of season, but had been unable to inspect the mystery crop as his dog, Jasper, was on continuous high alert and would physically pull him back away from the field.”

“Jasper. That’s a nice name. Farm Collie?”

“He was, yes.”

“Good, strong dogs. I bet he just loved table scraps too.”

“I … I could not say. Can I …?”

“Of course, my apologies. Please go on.”

“Well, around a week after appearing, the wheat seemed to vanish overnight. Jasper however continued to patrol the edges of the field and kept the family from getting too close. Another week passed and the wheat again appeared at the back of the field, but this time, the patch was around three to four times the size of the original growth. Much like the first appearance, the crop was only present for around a week before it disappeared without warning. Eventually, Mr Walter decided to ignore Jasper’s warnings and take a closer look at his mystery crop.”

“Now, I’m no wheat expert so, looking at these photographs here, I can’t really tell what sets these apart from any other crop. Perhaps you could explain for the listeners at home, what exactly I’m looking at here.”

“Certainly. The key is in the thistle-like protrusion at the end of the stalk. That was, shall we say, less than conventional.”

“I see. Now, Mr Walter did nothing about this until May, as I understand.”

“Yes. It was in the early hours of May 20th that the Walter family was woken by Jasper ‘acting crazy’ by the wheat field. Believing there was an intruder, Mr Walter took his rifle and rushed out to investigate the disturbance only to discover that Jasper seemed to be barking at the field itself. Such was his confusion that it took Mr Walter a moment to realise that the wheat had once again vanished. Ignoring the panic-stricken dog, he walked out into the field and found that the ground was covered in what he described as small insects that appeared to be carrying wheat seeds on their back.”

“Hence the ‘Insects Stole my Crops’ headline.”

“Quite. I myself was fortunate enough to arrive during one of these swarms. In truth, I think that Mr Walter was quite glad for my visit as the strange wheat had by this point overtaken around half the field.”

“Now, this is where things get interesting. During our initial conversation, you told me that the insects were not actually carrying the wheat.”

“No. Upon closer inspection, it became apparent that the creatures Mr Walter had discovered were similar in appearance to the common woodlouse, but with the normal exoskeleton replaced by layers of wheat seeds.”

“Ladies and Gentlemen, I have a photograph in front of me, and it is truly remarkable to look at. Wheatlice.  It’s an apt name for them.”

“Thank you.”

“Moving forward, can you tell the listeners what happened next?”

“With permission from Mr Walter, I took a sample of the wheatlice to a local college and proceeded to conduct a study into their behaviour. Within a matter of days, we had solved the mystery of the sudden crop regrowth. You see, the wheatlice would normally scurry about their container without rest, but during the third day of observation they came to a sudden stop. Standing in neat rows, they began to shake violently until the seeds on their back sprang from their bodies, ricocheting against the glass.

“As soon as the seeds landed in the soil, they began to twist, burying themselves in the process. Meanwhile, the wheatlice themselves dissolved into a dark liquid that was quickly absorbed by the soil. Our belief is that this liquid may have acted as a rudimentary self-produced fertilizer.

“Over the coming three months we saw this pattern repeat itself without variance. Each wheatlouse had between six and eight seeds on its back, around a third of which would grow into the next crop. The remaining two thirds seemed to vanish without a trace, leaving us to ponder if they suffered the same fate as the wheatlice themselves.

“Through a series of experiments, we discovered several interesting facts about the creatures and their seeds. The first was that both are extremely resilient to cutting, burning and water damage. We also discovered that the seeds do not take root in the soil, per se. Instead, they remain in their initial form until the top point of the seed cracks.”

“Like an egg?”

“Yes, quite, like an egg. From there, the by now familiar stalks start to grow. This process, once initiated, takes but a matter of minutes. We also discovered that if the seeds or stalks are taken from the ground, the growth process seems to freeze itself until they are reintroduced to soil. We had originally attempted to recreate the creature’s natural environment by using soil from Mr Walter’s field, but it transpired that the origin of the soil is unimportant. Once replanted, even if a different container to the one in which the process began, the cycle will simply continue from the stage it had reached before being removed. Ah, and if a stalk is picked and then trimmed, it will regrow within an hour. While not as accelerated at the initial growth, this is still quite remarkable, and points towards a strong regenerative ability, at least in the early stages of reproduction.”

“Fascinating. Now, you mentioned earlier that about one third of the seeds on each wheatlouse becomes a new wheatlouse. Given the speed of growth, that’s quite a potential increase in numbers.”

“Yes. By this time, we had gathered all of Mr Walter’s crop. It had started encroaching on other areas of his farm and we feared that it would affect his livelihood. After several trips to check that no wheatlice had escaped our harvesting, Mr Walter returned to his old routine.”

“I see. You have quite a few jars here too, all devoid of soil I note. How many wheatlice seeds do you currently own?”

“Roughly 256,000. Having been unable to ascertain their origin or any feasible way to control their number, we, that is my fellow researchers and I, felt that keeping them in this seemingly frozen state is our only option. The wheatlice themselves do not appear dangerous, they neither eat nor drink, and they do not display aggression, but the speed at which the population of this fascinating species grows is simply unmanageable. Why in a few short years, they could overrun half the country.”

“Thank you for your time, Dr Avery.”

Click.

“There you have it folks, wheatlice. Weird Tale or Unbelievable Truth? I’ve seen the photographs, and I cannot honestly tell. Call the station and the let us know your thoughts.”

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