“Singing Worm,” short fiction by Marilyn Chin, appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of MQR.
After twenty years of postponing her love life and toiling as a professor of immunology at Cal Tech, Moonie finally has a breakthrough. She has been studying the humoral and cellular system of an earthworm named Carlos for fifteen years. Carlos is not just any worm. Carlos’s immune system is so strong that Moonie can bombard it with legions of aggressive invader organisms, and Carlos fends them off. But what’s truly remarkable about this worm is that while gobbling up intruders like a worthy ninja, it screeches out the famous first bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. This discovery was both too sublime and too ridiculous to countenance at first though Carlos’s performances are uniformly sustained and ever nonpareil. Nevertheless, Moonie has not had the guts to disclose this virtuosity to her colleagues, not even to her assistants, lest they think she is a lunatic. So until she can wrap up her empirical conclusions, she has confined the worm to her personal lab in the basement of her house.
After finishing up another exhausting semester battling with her colleagues about the recent cuts in the budget, Moonie flies to Beijing to be a part of an immunity panel at the World Health Organization conference. There, she comes upon a striking six-foot-tall biochemist—a half-Chinese, half-Mongolian beauty named Maggie May Wu, who teaches at Beijing University. (Yes, her mother was once one of Chou En-lai’s drivers and got wind of that lugubrious song by Rod Stewart over Radio Free Europe airwaves during an ad hoc trip to Xinjiang Province. Thus was bestowed Maggie May’s unfortunate name.) She stands there, arms crossed, in her perfect kabuki bob haircut: tawny, skinny, legs up to her neck. “Dr. American Moonie Genius Shortstuff,” she says, “let’s go to my apartment and have wild sex!” Therefore, after Moonie’s talk, they skip a couple of panels on sub-Saharan diseases, make exquisite passionate romping in Maggie’s twentieth-story apartment and afterwards gobble down two bowls of steamy veggie dumplings at the corner noodle shop.
The second day of their love affair, Maggie drives Moonie around in her antique pink Vespa, showing her all the must-see tourist spots in Beijing. At the Forbidden Palace, she says, “You have nothing majestic enough to rival this in your feudal American past.” At the Great Wall, she scoffs, “If Bush had gonads, he would erect something of this scale to keep out the Mexican barbarians.” At the new People’s Gymnasium, she declares, “We’re going to destroy you American blowhards and squish you like gnats at the Olympics!” By late afternoon, Moonie is sick of Maggie’s competitive jousting. She feels like yelling redguardsredguardsredguards or gangoffourgangoffourgangoffour to remind Maggie May of China’s recent historical failings. However, for the sake of international peace, she keeps her mouth shut, and besides she wants more sex before she leaves this wretched, polluted city.
At a quieter moment, over a glass of soothing bubble tea, Moonie divulges to Maggie the pending blockbuster, her singing worm Carlos, thinking that Maggie would be impressed. Maggie, however, yawns and says, “Dr. American Moonie Genius Shortstuff, I’m sorry to say that your experiment is a pittance. You must come to my lab at Beijing University, and I shall show you truly sublimecreatures.”
So, they Vespa to a brand new lab that puts all of Cal Tech to shame. The size of a football stadium, the lab shows the prowess of the new medical research wing. Gleaming white walls, stainless steel counters, brand new equipment, Maggie May’s lab makes Moonie’s look like a medieval dungeon.
Maggie escorts Moonie to a vast smelly room filled with noisy animals in cages. There she points out her “sublime creatures”: a two-headed goose that honks Frost’s “Mending Wall” in stereo; a cloned goat that baas the best hits of the Confucian Odes; a Hummer-size immortal butterfly who mocks Chuangtzu; a three-hundred-and-two-year-old tortoise who belts out the aria Pace Pace, Mio Diofrom La Forza del Destino in full-throated soprano. Finally, Maggie introduces a lizard-looking animalcule from the Amazon, yet to be classified, which might possess the enzymes that inhibit the neural transmitters of pain. Maggie pouts and pets its head with a mocking tone of sadness. “This is my favorite creature, Number C2AH2354905. Someday, it will cure the world from suffering.” But the poor bard has a compulsive disorder. Number C2AH2354905 just sits in the corner babbling nonstop Wordsworth from its slimy purple orifice.
After ten minutes or so listening to the creature, Moonie grows impatient and finally breaks her silence. “Oh lord, JesusMaryHolyBuddhaKrishna,” Moonie shouts, “the stupid reptile has no artistic discernment. It can’t stop itself from reciting all of Wordsworth! How can it save the world if it can’t mitigate its own suffering!”
Moonie refuses her last Vespa ride and takes a gypsy cab back to the hotel. Maggie tries to call Moonie’s room several times for a last goodbye conversation, but Moonie mutes the ringer and does not pick up. She feels relieved to get away from the braggadocio giantess and has no intentions of speaking to her again.
Moonie sleeps through most of her long flight home. When she arrives at her doorstep, trellises of California jasmine greet her with their knock-out sweet scent. A battalion of hummingbirds flit about competing for the best nectar. Verbena and hibiscus flash vibrant yellow and crimson. Her entire yard is brilliantly alive. Once in the house, she takes a refreshing shower, pours a cup of white tea, and slips into her comfy Hello Kitty p.j.’s. She skims through her telephone messages, most of which are from Mei Ling and various associates from the lab, and to her surprise, two amorous hot and sexy breaths from Maggie and then this joke whose punch line got lost in the translation. (This is President George . . . Oh my, they are all named George, aren’t they? There are two in the Bush and one crossing the Delaware, ha ha ha!) Moonie calls back and leaves Meow Meow Mao Mao Mao Mao on Maggie’s machine. She has to succumb to the idea that this might turn out to be an interesting long-distance relationship.
Moonie erases the messages to begin a fresh memory, shrugs on her favorite psychedelic tie-dyed lab coat and walks down to her basement lab. And there to greet her is her paramour Carlos, who has sprouted four new heads during her absence. They crane their tiny pink necks upward and belt out several verses of “Ode to Joy.” Unfortunately, after a fine streak of spontaneous “hallelujahs,” they lose their perfect a cappella harmony and devolve into some ghastly fingernails-on-the-chalkboard yawping toward God.
Image: Park and woodland insects. Elm leaf beetle and bag or basket worm. New York Public Library Digital Collection.