The Worm King
by Micháel McCormick
pa owned HANK’S LIVE BAIT, “Home of the Panhandle’s Most Fidgety Earthworms!” Dill recalled when folks visited the shop to
meet Hank the Worm Charmer, even local celebrities whose dusty headshots shared
a wall with bobbers and sinkers.
was slower nowadays. Worse with the
and Dill looked up hopefully when the front bell tinkled. A city fellow walked in, wearing a floppy hat
adorned with hooks and lures. He peered
at some worms and wrinkled his nose.
nightcrawlers look tired,” he complained.
“I thought this place was known for lively worms.”
are nocturnal,” Hank said. “They’re
resting right now.”
don’t fish at night.”
turned to Dill. “Go out back and catch some
fresh worms,” he said in a voice of quiet command. “Use the thumper.”
loved a weird old science fiction book about giant worms. People summoned them with “thumpers” pounding
on desert sand. Real life earthworms also
respond to such vibrations.
went to the grassless yard behind the shop and moistened the ground with a
garden hose. Then he pushed a steel railroad
spike into the soft ground and began striking it with a hammer, grunting with
each swing, finding the rhythm Hank taught him.
soon appeared on the damp soil. Dill plucked
them gently. They wriggled in his
fingers, then went limp as they landed in the pail with their kin.
be scared,” he told each worm. “Pa says
the hook don’t hurt much.”
ran inside with the pail, but the customer was gone.
wasn’t angry. “Worms can’t be hurried.”
Michael bore down on the Panhandle. Dill
helped Hank board up the bait shop as rain lashed the windows. Sheets of water coursed down the street. A neighbor’s palm tree bowed before the storm.
changed into dry clothes. Dill made
popcorn and they sat upstairs, listening to the wind keen and moan. Hank seemed lost in thought. Dill could guess why. Worms were scarce, business was slow. And now a hurricane.
I be a worm charmer?” Dill asked.
blinked. “You already are. Anyone who can coax earthworms from the soil
is a worm charmer.”
but I mean a famous one like you.”
smiled. Dill assumed he was famous.
better charmers than me,” Hank said modestly.
He liked talking about worms. “The
largest earthworm ever recorded officially was sixteen inches, and I’ve heard
tell of 18½. My personal best is only thirteen.”
worms can grow over twenty feet.”
pictured himself riding a mighty worm through the African desert. “I never catch anything big.”
big ones are hard to snag ‘cuz they live so deep. Some burrow more than six feet underground.”
do they hear the thumper? Do worms have
ears or eyes. They feel vibrations
through the earth.”
flashed as a rain squall rattled the windows.
me about the Worm King.”
Hank said wistfully. “Harder to catch than
Moby Dick. He’s down there somewhere.”
never seen him?”
one’s seen the Worm King lately. But
Seminoles summoned him to chase away the Conquistadors.” Hank laughed.
“I bet those poor Spaniards peed their pantaloons.”
bayed like a wounded wolf. Plywood tore
loose from one of the windows, downstairs.
They could hear it banging against the frame. Then it stopped.
hurried downstairs; Dill close behind.
Plywood was missing from a window.
Glass rattled. Hank grabbed a
raincoat. “Wait here!”
watched from the window as Hank retrieved the wayward plywood in some
bushes. Rain lashed Hank’s face, so he
held up the plywood as a shield.
gust of wind ripped the board from Hank’s hands. It struck his head, whirled to the street,
and raced away in the rushing water.
Hank lost his balance and fell.
woke on the floor of the shop. He tried
to sit up. He touched his forehead and
felt a bandage.
rushed over. “You’re awake!”
I get here?”
pulled you inside. Your head was
bleeding. I wrapped it with stuff from
the first aid kit.”
looked around the shop and moaned. Glass
and debris littered the wet floor.
have to clean this up.”
worse outside,” Dill said.
struggled to his feet and opened the door.
The entrance was blocked by a cottonwood tree that had fallen against
the building, snapping a power line.
stared. “I don’t have insurance.”
could lose the shop.”
was on the phone talking to the bank. It
sounded like it wasn’t going well. Didn’t
the bank know his dad was the best worm charmer in the Panhandle?
went out back and found the hammer.
Tears stung his eyes. He pounded
the spike, falling naturally into the worm charmer’s rhythm, striking the steel
over and over. He began to feel better.
ground swelled. Something struggled up from
the earth, shedding cascades of dirt. Dill
jumped aside as the ground disgorged a great worm in a shower of dirt and
stones. Its eyeless head rolled from
side to side, open mouth gulping air in spicy gusts.
worm glistened in the morning sun like a beached whale. It quivered and made a thrumming noise.
on,” Dill said. He fetched tarps from
the garage and draped them over the worm to shelter it from the sun. The creature seemed to relax. Dill touched its snout gently, getting sticky
goo on his fingers.
moistened the worm with the garden hose.
Then he stroked its wet skin, fascinated by the ridges and vents.
you come up? Was it the hurricane? Do you want to go back home?”
had an idea. He fetched a long rope,
tied one end around his ankle, and the other to the railroad spike. Slowly, he eased himself onto the worm’s
back. The creature trembled.
hugged the worm tightly, remembering what Hank always said: Fear is the mind
pinched the worm’s slimy skin. “Dive!”
ripple ran through the beast, then it plunged headfirst into the earth. Dill clung to the worm as they dove into wet
darkness. Dill shut his eyes tight, but
dirt got in his nose.
worm slowed. Dill opened his eyes. Faint sunlight filtered down the fresh
tunnel. Earthworms wriggled from the
surrounding walls to greet their returning king.
entered an open cavern, illuminated by bioluminescent mushrooms and glow
worms. Crystals glittered in a stony
heaven. Thousands of earthworms emerged.
addressed the worms. “I brought your
king. But my dad needs your help.”
worms trembled. Or was it the earth?
avalanche of infalling dirt filled the cavern.
Dill tried to yell as mud filled his mouth.
went out back to look for Dill. He found
a gaping hole in the yard.
looked into the hole and saw only shadows.
A rope led down into it. Hank
tugged on it but felt no slack.
climbed into the hole, using his phone as a flashlight. He kept his other hand on the rope, following
it deep into cool darkness, hearing only the squishing of his boots.
tunnel ended in a wall of mud. The rope
disappeared into the damp earth. Hank
tugged on the rope but it wouldn’t budge.
started digging frantically with his hands.
When he was in the mud past his elbows, he felt something solid. He grabbed on and started pulling.
popped out of the mud, knocking Hank backward.
The rope was still tied to Dill’s ankle.
His face was gray. He wasn’t
dragged Dill to the surface. He laid the
boy’s body in the sunshine, cleared debris from his mouth, and began CPR.
three chest compressions, Dill’s eyes opened.
He coughed, spraying dirt. Color
returned to his face.
blinked in the sunshine.
you okay?” Hank asked.
nodded. His eyes grew wide. “Look.”
carpeted every square foot of the yard, wriggling, squirming, dancing.
was astounded. “Did you do this?”
never seen worm charming like this,” Hank said.
“We’ll be famous again. You may
have saved HANK & SON LIVE BAIT.”
laughed. “My son, the Worm King.”
© 2023 Micháel McCormick
Bio: Micháel McCormick's work in
more than seventy magazines, journals, and anthologies has earned a
Best of the Net, Pushcart nomination, Opossum Prize, and other awards.
Mike belongs to the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA), Science
Fiction Poetry Association (SFPA), Codex Writers Group, Academy of
American Poets, League of Minnesota Poets, and Loft Literary Center.
Mike and his wife Laura split their time between Saint Paul, Minnesota
and Lake Superior. They enjoy travel, hiking, Tai Chi, and perplexing
They have two grown daughters and a growing collection of books, vinyl
records, ceramic owls, and other anachronisms.
E-mail: Micháel McCormick
Website: Micháel McCormick's
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