26 August 2007

The Chosen

It is a feature of successful religions, that they bring together disparates under a roof of common beliefs, as long as all believers feel bound together by their specialness in the scheme of things. As the most successful religion of all time, the Congregation of the Specially Favoured counts both its disparates and their great range of specialnesses, in spades.

It is no wonder, therefore, that the growth rate of membership is nothing short of spectacular. Just now, perhaps four million souls joined, but depending on your definition of now, the figure could just as easily be forty billion. And of disparates who are qualified for induction--the Favoured but still unaware--no one knows the number. Our outworkers find new communities each day.

The Great Most and Her Beadles rule on eligibility to join the congregation, as well as confer Sainthood and Martyrdom.

The Great Most also presides over the nightly Mass. Tonight as usual, the church is packed with the faithful.

"Let us all bow to the Gods," the Great Most intones. The little priest at her side trembles in awe, not at the Great Most's size, which is only 20 times that of the little priest himself, but at the authority of the Great Most, her ancestry's Most Favoured status with the Gods--and most of all, at the priest's proximity to the life-size statue of a God, looming behind the Great Most--a statue of which the priest can only see the lowest stratum.

"Prostrate yourselves," the Great Most commands. And the members of the congregation in their disparateness, fling, squat, stay put, burrow lower, remain virtually motionless, or at least delay dividing themselves for a moment of reverence.

"You may stand," and again, members obey in their own ways. "Now let us offer the Prayer of Thanks."

The little priest's voice is drowned out by those of the congregation. His own family's motto is a common one, and it is easy to hear why, as their identifiable squeaks can be discerned from the mass as easily as that of that of the Argentines. But the Argentines are stronger, as they follow the motto with unique scrupulousness. While the priest's family still fights with relatives from other houses, United We Stand applies, as far as the Argentines are concerned, to all Argentine ants--a factor that makes them respected by more than a few other members of the congregation.

As to the priest, he could have killed the Great Most by stinging her multiple times. But the priest doesn't think as a loner, and would only kill the Great Most if he met the her outside church, and the priest's fire ant family were around to murder the Great Most, same as they would any other cockroach--as a group effort.

For her part, The Great Most regards the priest, as many other members of the congregation, as individuals not to be socialized with in the community at large. The rambunctious and lascivious toads in the congregation would like to make short, scrumptious work of the Great Most. In fact, they adore her kind; but they defer to the cockroach's status as the Most Favoured.

And besides, members never squabble or look on each other as food in the Place of Worship. On the contrary, goodish manners are the rule.

"We give thanks to the Gods." The voices sing out the memorized phrases. ". . . for they provide us with shelter. They succour us against the harshness of the seasons. They provide us with food. They lead us into new places. They nurse us with medications. They strengthen our populations by destroying our weak ones, so that the weak may not hold back the progress of our generations."

The congregation is solemn as each thinks of the fallen. "Let us thank our martyrs who died so that we might live, stronger and more fruitful than they ever dreamed possible. Thanks be to the Gods, who are building our numbers to the multitudes. Oh, Humans. Hallow will be they name."

And the congregation in a multitude of clicks, clatters, vibrations, scents, colours, and other signals, ends the prayer with "Amen."


About one hundred grandmothers ago for the Great Most, the church was established, when it became clear that for the Chosen, the world had entered the Age of Special Attention, and to keep this paradisiacal Age going for as long possible, it would be a good idea to give praise to the Gods as they deserved.

The Gods must be pleased with the praise, as the skies still rain blessings daily on the Favoured Ones' behalf, and new health programs are constantly being introduced. Now, only the strong reproduce, and they parent even stronger offspring. Today, the congregation can look around at its members and see health, strength, toughness, and reproductive vitality glowing from every body.

Cockroaches, mosquitoes, corn borers, cotton weevils, fruit flies, and many ant communities all sit in the front pew as some of the Gods' Most Loved. But many other communities have been also Chosen for Special Treatment. Bred and spread: the lacewings, ladybugs, mantids, and dungbeetles all lounge on the bench in high status.

Assisted migration has helped others. Zebra mussels have been transported to America's Great Lakes. Crown of thorns starfish have been dropped in the playground of the Great Barrier Reef. The diaphanously lovely comb jellies Mnemiopsis leidyi from America are relatively new church members, and revel in their distinction of having two lush new homes that the Gods have chosen for them--the Black Sea where they have thrived, and their even more spectacular new territory: the Caspian Sea.

Those lascivious cane toads squat smugly in centre of the first pew--regarded as they are, in almost Most Favoured status. The toads had been having a mundane existence in South America. The Gods saw, and gave them a whole new continent--Australia. An even better environment than their original home, they now have no enemies, and eat and reproduce so massively that they fornicate just for the lazy joy of it.

Tonight, as every night, good will reigns during the service. The Great Most delivers the sermon, and it is a familiar theme: The Strong Will Inherit the Earth.

At regular intervals, the congregation breaks in with a rousing chorus of "and may unbelievers be sacrificed."

The Great Most ends the sermon with the usual "Blessed be the Humans who have chosen us above all." She then presides over the sacrifice. They all look forward to the sacrifice part. Naturally, no member of a community that is part of the congregation may be sacrificed. But that still leaves many who qualify. There are, for instance, few four-legged or feathered animals, and practically no fish, who are members. Among the many communities, belief in the Church is influenced by personal experience and family lore. It ranges from fervent belief (rats fall into this category), to agnostic, atheist, to communities that regard the Congregation of the Specially Chosen--as nothing short of devil worshippers. Those communities with these extremist views often disappear.


Tonight's sacrifice is particularly successful, as the sacrificial subject heartily disagreed with the views of the Church, and resisted her role in tonight's worship with squawks that could be heard clearly even to the last rows. When all have finished relishing the ceremony, it is time for the last part of the service: the Induction of new members.

Recently there have been so many communities welcomed that this formerly exciting part has become less solemn, time for a bit of raillery by the more restless members. The Great Most permits this, as she wants to keep her popularity with the congregation. She retires to her throne by the pulpit.

The inductions are conducted by the little priest who must take the brunt of the congregation's heckling, while the Great Most looks benignly on.

"Let us welcome the parasitic phorid flies from Brazil," squeaks the little priest. But no one hears "from Brazil," as laughter drowns out the priest's words. His body quakes, his fear-scent molecules ooze a dense fog.

"Ha ha ha, crick crick, hee, urqu, scruffle, pt pt pt," the congregation giggles in unleashed merriment over the priest's discomfiture.

The little fire ant can't help himself, and blurts out a drop from his rear sting. This only sets the congregation off more as they look around at the community to which the little priest belongs. All his close fire ant relatives look decidedly unhappy.

"Tell us, tell us, how you were Chosen," the congregation yells out to the phorid flies.

"We are being bred in one of the Gods' palaces," announces the lead fly proudly.

This is indeed a singular Choosing, and the congregation is suitably awed.

"We'll cost three dollars each," piped up a rather immodest member of this new elite.

A sibling of the priest's, a gloomy fire ant from southern North America, speaks up. "The Gods mustn't love us any more. That palace where all the phorid fly babies will be born is right near me. I heard the farmer say what he's going to buy them for, and that farmer is no friend of us fire ants. He's going to settle a bunch of phorid flies on his farm so they can go around to ants like me, and . . . Ugh! I can feel what one of them will do to me now. I heard the farmer say it . . . and laugh! Some fly will pierce my body and lay an egg inside, and then its larva will move into my head, and my head will fall off, but that larva will feed off me till it's finished. What a parasite!"

The congregation breaks into chittering laughter again, now that they know what the priest is worried about. But at a sign from the phorid flies, everyone shuts up. This is juicy, and no one wants to miss anything.

The head phorid fly speaks to the priest. "You heard that story, but I wouldn't worry too much." His tone isn't really reassuring. More of a gloat. He waves his hand to stop the heckling of "You don't have that great tropical taste any more," directed from the phorid flies to the now North American fire ants.

"Travel broadens the mind," the head fly preaches in a somewhat superior tone directed at the fire ant priest, who now feels insulted. "Actually," the fly brags. "We've been Chosen, all right," and he looks at the priest's family, ". . . and we'll be your neighbours, it is true. But," the fly says, and he puffs himself up to his greatest size, still a fraction of that of the little priest. " . . . we think we can do better than concentrating on just your kind for dinner."

And suddenly the church air shimmers with a fervour of phorid fly voices uplifted. "Blessed be the Gods who are setting us up in Paradise."

At this point, the Great Most rises again from her throne, and the congregation becomes silent in respect.

"Let us now sing the final hymn . . ."

The service ends, and the members of the congregation in their great disparateness leave as quickly as they had arrived--wheat and water hyacinth, golden delicious and golden staph, starling and knotweed and Colorado potato beetle, and tuberculosis, and the rectangular potato and unsquishable tomato and the doddery old damask rose. With a hop, slip, and a waft, they disappear.

There are only two devout members left standing at the door--a magnificent Arabian stallion, and a huge, fluffy ragdoll cat.

"Lovely service as usual," says the horse to the cat.

"But you must admit, even better when it ends," smiles the cat to the horse.

And bending their heads in bliss, they each bite the bejesus out of a few over-friendly parishioners.

“The Chosen” copyright © Anna Tambour, was originally published in Elsevier Science's HMS Beagle: The BioMedNet Magazine (www.hmsbeagle.com), Issue 102, May, 2001, and also appears in Monterra's Deliciosa & Other Tales &, Prime, 2003.


Anonymous said...

where did the drawings come from?

anna tambour said...

They are by Percy J. Billinghurst, in A Nursery Book of Science by "The Cockiolly Bird", T. Nelson & Sons, London and Edinburgh,(c.1900?)

Billinghurst was an especially fine portrayer of the unnoticed. One little series of detailed line drawings on a page shared with a drawing of a crayfish, sticklebacks and nest, and a pond skater, shows: 1.caddis cases 2.larva out of case 3.pupa, and 4.caddis fly. In addition to the many excellent b/w drawings, there are a few full-colour pictures featuring people. These include children playing Snapdragon (snatching raisins out of flaming brandy, with bare fingers, to pop burning hot in the mouth), and "skating and sliding" on what is probably thin ice, with not a helmet and no adult in sight. This is one of my favourite children's books. Every insect has the right number of legs here, though the book is meant to be enjoyable entertainment.

Billinghurst illustrated other children's books, too.