Once upon a time there was a long, grey, two-headed worm. It poked out one head in one town and stuck out its other head in the next town over. It let insects march through its fibrous belly, a highway with no off-ramps. Many of the insects died along the way not really comprehending how long it was. This is how the worm sustained itself.
One day a boy was collecting bugs and their trail led him to the worm. He tugged on this grey thing. He pulled and tugged to exhaustion. The next day he returned with friends. They dug down four feet which was enough for his father to put down his beer and come take a look.
The grey thing, the worm, was clearly alive. You could tell that just by touching it and watching it recoil. It was exceedingly tough. It withstood any amount of tugging.
The worm, long accustomed to the shelter of the earth, found this probing to be unacceptable. It expelled the insects from its belly that night. The insects gathered in the hole they boys had dug. They wanted to know when the highway would be reopened. Soon, the worm reassured them, and bade the ants to help bury him back.
In the morning the boy gathered his friends and family to see how the hole had been refilled by the swarm of insects. They were quick to dig out the hole again. An uncle, from the University, sampled the earth and collected jars of insects. They dug further than they had before. The worm was gone.
The worm had reeled itself in, deeper into its passage. As it no longer provided a service, no insects would willingly go into its mouth. It was unaccustomed to being hungry.
“Malkin, you’re home,” the worm’s mother said. She was at least twice his length, but preferred to stay coiled up so that she could use both her heads together. Twice as smart that way, she always said.
“Do you have anything to eat?” Malkin said.
“Come, coil around. Let me talk to both sides of you at once.”
“I’m too long. It would take a day to bring myself here. I’m too weak. Never been so hungry.”
She unwound several crickets. She handled them like a luxury.
Malkin felt shame at digging into his mother’s treasures. He shook his head.
“Only some fresh dirt,” he said. “If you please.”
She gestured to the cavernous walls. “Help yourself.”
Malkin ate his fill of the ceiling and allowed himself one cricket for dessert.
All the while he pulled his other head closer, inch by inch. His one head dozed while the other neared. By morning the two heads were together. It was the first time in many years. You may be surprised to learn that worms may live for so long. This rare species of worm lived longer than most religions. It took little notice of surface life except to have shrunk a little from the topsoil on account of the traffic.
The two heads did not have a happy reunion. They snapped at each other over the simplest matters. Each thought the other grotesque to behold.
“How do you stand it, mother?” Malkin asked.
Niklam growled. “Don’t like me so close, do you? Well you shouldn’t have hauled me in, then. Let’s have another cricket.”
Niklam hadn’t seen their mother handle the crickets preciously. She was too generous a host and had covered over the previous error of manners she’d let slip to Malkin.
“There are only so many of those, you know,” Malkin said. “Think they just come down here and roll up and die for you to eat?”
Niklam shrugged and ate away. It soothed them both.
“What next?” Niklam asked.
Malkin supposed that even his idiot other half was catching on that they would eat through mother’s stores in no time. They’d ruin her and would have to move on anyway. They agreed to leave before she was bereft.
Before they left–and they hadn’t decided firmly what their destination would be, but were agreed to head generally for swamp land–they embraced their mother and swallowed one last cricket each and thanked her for helping them get back on their belly.
“You asked how I do it,” she said.
Malkin saw now that she spoke with both heads at once, sometimes speaking the same word from both heads for emphasis, sometimes alternating words or sentences. They seemed to have the same personality–remarkable.
Malkin waited for the advice, but Niklam was impatient and couldn’t be bothered. Niklam bored into the tunnel wall. They were going in a new direction from here so would need to eat their way through. It would keep the hunger at bay during the trip.
“I was waiting for him to go,” mother said.
“You have to come to terms with yourself, but I’m afraid he’ll never want to do it. You are the sensitive side. It’s up to you. Some worms are homogenous, as I am and your father was. But you are lopsided and the vast portion of your sensitivities reside in you. Poor Niklam has so very few. You must care for him. Promise me you will. You do him a service by reeling him along. I know it isn’t easy, but stay close.”
Malkin didn’t know how to take this. They had spent their lives far apart, straddling long miles for as long as his memory held. Already Niklam lead and there was no digging two holes unless he wanted to make an ouroboros of the situation. If he dug his own hole, he’d double the work and then what? They’d be caught in the middle. So Niklam lead. Fine.
“And what if we don’t stay together?” He asked his mother, as he retreated. He’d never considered the possibility. It was barbaric . . . and yet the possibility resounded with childhood lore. “What if we were severed?”
“He wouldn’t do well without you. You are the thinking half.”
“But we’d survive.”
His mother kissed him farewell.
“Keep your ends close.”
Malkin let Niklam dig the way. There was no way to choose the direction or really know where Niklam was headed. Oh, he could have dug in. The stalemate would have given him a say. No wonder he didn’t have much contact with Niklam. When their heads weren’t together there was little in the way of communication. Just a distant pulsing–impossible to sense while in motion, a raw struggle of wills without nuance. So Malkin followed, pushing, when he could, to help.
A searing pain gripped him. It throbbed. Something had wounded him down the line. Had they gone too close to the surface? Had one of the relentless digging machines cut into them? Maybe a bird had hold of Niklam’s head. Malkin frantically yanked himself back towards his mothers den. He pulled hard down the tunnel. He had to pull Niklam back to safety. It was the hardest, longest pull of his life.
His mother, alarmed at his sudden reappearance, fed him and fussed over him as he pulled his body in.
“What happened?” She asked.
“Something bit into Niklam, but I think I’ve got him now.” Malkin strained. The rippling pulls edged him back into the safety of the den tug by tug.
He was all in before he should have been. The severed tip of him, red and smeared with mud wiggled, wounded. His mother fainted. He propped her heads together gently and then turned to his wounds, bandaging them with mosses. He inspected the wound. It had been made by wormjaw.
“I’ve been attacked,” he told his mother when she roused. “By another worm. I have to go rescue Niklam.”
“Be careful,” she said.
A war between worm clans was exceedingly rare, but not unheard of. The main reason was that a worm of their kind could not really be killed. If you cut a worm in half a new head would grow in the stump, though it took some time. Wormkind tended to resolve its disputes through distance. There was ample earth to put between any disagreement.
“Can we be rejoined?” Malkin asked.
She nodded. “But hurry. Bring him here as fast as you can. Before your new heads sprout.”
She set to grinding moss into a salve. “Go.”
Malkin sped down the tunnel. He came to the point where he had been severed. There was no sign of anyone else. The earth lay still. He edged forward. No sign of other worms. A tunnel came in from the side making a three-way intersection where he’d been bitten.
He had a choice now. Follow Niklam or to pursue the worm that had attacked him. He was not worried that Niklam would die. It was more likely that Niklam had gone on the attack himself. The side passage, then.
The passage looped around. He came to another fork. He was too disoriented by the wound to mentally track where he was and at first he thought it was another bloody attack site, assuming that another worm had been just as he and Niklam had been. Malkin shot forward in blind fear. Had it been Niklam, attacked a second time? He burst into his mother’s den. She was as surprised to see him as he was to see her.
She comforted Malkin back to health and listened to his recount many times. While he slept, she ventured out to discover what had happened.
The jaw marks, the blood, the path looping back in a circle lead to one conclusion: Niklam had bitten himself in half, tearing Malkin loose.
Her boy was separate now, had spawned. But not equally. This troubled her. One was good and thoughtful, the other full of malice and low cunning.
She nursed Malkin while he grew his second head. It was like Malkin: a true child, equal and balanced. Double Malkin she called him. He would do great things for the world of worms. He improved her nest and fortified it and dug deeper to build her a secondary chamber in case Niklam attacked.
Niklam. She wondered if Niklam had found another to nurse him. If not his new head may have always trailed behind him. It may never have synchronized. A terrible thought. It was thus that the lot of worms had worsened over time. The ancients, it was said, came from one long worm that round around the earth.
“We have to do something for that other head, we must bring it around. Even if we have to trick him.”
“Wouldn’t that make a Double Niklam?” Double Malkin said.
“The untended head, the one ignorant of its nature is worse off alone. I let you boys stretch too long between those towns. I thought it was only a phase, but I let you grow up like that.”
“Don’t blame yourself mother,” he told her. “I’ll find him.”
Double Malkin, with its superior, double-headed intelligence, dug a labyrinth of coils that looped erratically. It took longer than he would have liked to find Niklam, for Niklam had sprinted far, but eventually Double Malkin was able to lay his trap.
Niklam’s new head trailed in the darkness, pulled behind Niklam. As Malkin approached, it struck out, unable to speak.
This head looked like Niklam, but terrified. Its muscles were underdeveloped–it looked like it had only ever been dragged its whole short life–had never been given the lead, had probably never even met Niklam.
Double Malkin cunningly curved off to the side and, digging furiously. He intercepted Niklam.
“You,” Niklam said. “I thought you died.”
“Why did you do it? You hate me so much?”
Niklam smirked. “More than you know. I am so glad we are apart. I can’t tell you how happy it makes me. You shouldn’t have come.”
Double Malkin’s second head arrived.
Niklam recoiled. “Who’s that?”
“Do you not know? Our line of worms grows a second head if cut. You will have grown a second head, too.”
Niklam winced. Evidently he had not studied well his wormologies.
Double Malkin’s heads both spoke, filling the tunnel with his most compelling wormwords. “Are you just going to bite off that head, too? And then the next and the next each shorter and more ignorant than the last?”
“I am not ignorant!” Niklam charged.
Double Malkin was ready for this and fled. He lead Niklam back through the coiled tunnels until Niklam had circled around himself. Double Malkin disappeared down a hidden siding to listen as Niklam caught up with his trailing head.
“What are you, you disgusting thing?” Niklam challenged, but the head gave no response. It wept.
“Make peace with yourself,” Double Malkin urged.
Niklam struck at the walls. “Be quiet, you! You tricked me. I hate you. I have always hated you. I should have severed you closer to the head.”
Niklam’s end stirred at this and spoke its first word, a word that changed Niklam’s manner at once though Double Malkin couldn’t make it out through the passage walls, so weakly was it spoken.
When Double Malkin checked the passage, Niklam was already gone and a stub of the head of Niklam’s end wriggled, severed at the neck.
“No,” Double Malkin said. He would be hard pressed to catch Niklam if he was to save this fledgling.
Already a second head was struggling to be born a the back of the head of Niklam’s severed stub.
A stranger worm he’d never seen, it would always be double, short as that. He nudged it back to his mother’s nest.
His mother wept. At last she said, “Niklam is a monster, but he may well have created a saint.”
The stubs, Nik-Nik, grew in her sweet care strong and smart. When Double Malkin came to birth his descendants, he too severed his own head. Right at the neck so the two heads could always be together, never ignorant nor estranged. This became the custom, and is why worms are so short these days.
And so saintly.
Michael Carychao writes fiction, designs games, and hacks code. He’s an experience engineer at Greater Studios where he mixes games, stories, activity tracking, behavior change, and training into applied entertainment. He lives in Berkeley, California but is willing to relocate to Mars.