Northwords Now

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by William McLean

Act One

Scene 1



THE DEVIL frowns thoughtfully. He looks down at an exhausted middle-aged man slumped on the floor.

THE DEVIL: Now then… where have we got to? Day… 19,967. Excellent.

THE DEVIL raises his eyebrows and looks optimistically down at THE MAN on the floor. THE MAN doesn’t move. THE DEVIL feigns sympathy.

So how are we feeling now?

THE MAN: Terrible.

THE DEVIL: Good! Not quite, as terrible as you did a moment ago, I should think?

Those neonicotinoids were quite an invention.  Even I had to wince a bit. The paralysis, the twitching limbs, foaming at the mouth. Even in the context of eternity that wide-eyed stare you gave me went on for a very long time. It was quite something. I compliment you and your ability to cause undue suffering on all of God’s dear little creatures, but you’re paying for it now aren’t you dear boy? Oh Yes. Ha ha!

Remember all those nagging doubts you had? Hmm? Remember plunging a lobster into a tub of boiling water? Extracting a hook from the mouth of a fish before smacking it over the head? What about the worms eh? How they writhed and stretched and twisted when you stuck them on a hook!

I delight in it all of course, knowing that when you, at last, finish your days, I get to repay you in kind for each and every last one of those moments of terror you inflicted upon your fellows of the earth. I must say I’ve got my work cut out with you lot. How you came to believe that you are superior and immune to this I will never know. Arrogance I suppose. Yes that’s it! Arrogance! It’s the one thing I’m sure I’ve never witnessed in any creature, other than humans. Anyway…not to worry eh?

THE MAN looks up and groans weakly.

You think you’ve got it bad do you? It could be a lot worse. You were a vegetarian. I mean I know you ate meat, but venison … well it’s virtually a vegetable isn’t it! One minute the deer is happily munching grass on the hillside, the next, “Bang!” and it’s dead. One single intoxicating rush of adrenaline to the brain and it’s all over. The perfect kill. You get to eat; the deer hardly knows a thing. Down here my boy you can view that kind of death as a veritable holiday!

You should spare a thought for those who like their food fast and junky. Sometimes they eat battery chickens that weren’t quite dead when their feathers were stripped off and their giblets sucked out! Try that for a laugh why don’t you? Or what about those wonderful sporty types who kill simply for the fun of it? Oh yes you can take some comfort from that. They really get to understand that it really isn’t all that much “fun” being splattered with hot lead. I love all those guys! I just think they’re great! They all wish they’d been a bit more careful, a bit less eager to impress, when they reach here, I can tell you.

Anyway… I do apologise. I digress. So… day 19,967… still in your fifties… we’re getting there. Don’t worry, you’ll soon be dead. Ha ha!

THE MAN groans loudly.

Now then let’s see…I wonder if you can remember this one. Shall I give you a clue?

THE MAN sits up and pleads.

THE MAN: Please! Whatever it was I did … please … can we get it over with?

THE DEVIL: Aha! Remarkable! He Speaks! I see you’re recovering from that last little incident with the fly spray then. Excellent!  It’s always so much better if you’re feeling refreshed and a just little bit hopeful before embarking on your next bit of abject misery. It heightens the senses and makes the whole thing so much more worthwhile.

As for “getting it over with” I’m afraid that will never do. You know the routine: Quick discussion about the misery you inflicted before you get to experience it yourself in exactly the same way… one by one … in all their glorious visceral beauty. All, I might add in chronological order. So here we go then, without any further ado, day 19,967…

It all began when you went out into your shed. You noticed a faintly foetid smell and slightly curled up your nose in disgust. Just as you were thinking “something must have died in here” you spotted, struggling across the floor, a large black beetle. Do you remember the beetle?

THE MAN sobs

THE MAN: Yes. Yes, I do.

THE DEVIL: What was it about the beetle that caught your eye?

THE MAN: It was covered in red mites. Completely covered. They were crawling all over it and it looked like the beetle could hardly walk.

THE DEVIL: Hmmm? Go on.

THE MAN: I don’t know. I felt sorry for the beetle and I was worried that the mites might infest the place.

THE DEVIL: You felt sorry for the beetle?


THE DEVIL: Interesting. Go on. What did you do next?

THE MAN: Er… I found a jar and I nudged the beetle into it with a stick. It was still covered in mites. All over it! I thought I saw a red mite on the end of each antennae but then I realised the antennae were red just like the mites. An odd coincidence I thought.

THE DEVIL: Coincidence! Do you really think so?

THE MAN: Well yes, I don’t know, but then all I could think was the poor beetle must be suffering. I was imagining it as if it were me and I had rats crawling all over me or something like that. I wanted to put it out of its misery.

THE DEVIL: Aha! There we go. There it is again! Ha ha! If I had an ice cube, for every time I’ve heard that, this place would be flooded. I could have pot plants, a shrubbery even! Imagine that! You “put it out of its misery”… please do go on. How exactly did you “Put it out of its misery”, this poor, miserable beetle?

THE MAN: I… well… I thought about stamping on it, but then I thought about all those mites and what would happen to them. Where would they end up?

THE DEVIL: Tell me… sorry to interrupt again, but did you, at any point, really spare a thought for the mites? Were they also… ‘Miserable’… perhaps?

THE MAN: No! I admit it, I didn’t! I thought about how mites kill bees and bed bugs. Honestly… I felt sorry for the beetle. I was trying to be kind!

THE DEVIL: Kind! Kind to the beetle? Kind to the mites?

THE MAN: Yes! Honestly! I didn’t know! Please! I… I thought…

THE DEVIL: Thought? You didn’t think at all di you! You were thought…less! I’m quite happy to draw this out if you wish. It prolongs the agony. No sense in brushing over the details. We do have an awful lot of time don’t we. Go on… what didn’t you know… exactly?

THE MAN: I didn’t know that the beetle was a… a carrion beetle. That it feeds on dead animals and that the mites are … basically … its … friends.

THE DEVIL Shakes his horned head and jeers

THE DEVIL: “Its friends”. Ah that’s sweet.

THE MAN: The mites eat flies’ eggs so then there will be more flesh available for the beetle to eat and less for flies’ maggots. The mites were just hitching a ride and the beetle was probably oblivious to them, grateful even to have them on board. It was an incredible example of how things interact and how nature is balanced. Without the beetles and the mites and the flies, all the dead mice and birds or whatever would just pile up… but I didn’t know that at the time!

THE DEVIL: I see. Oh dear, oh dear. What to do? So, tell me, what did you do next?

THE MAN: I lit a fire

THE DEVIL: Marvellous! I love fiery endings! Go on! Please… do go on!

THE MAN: It was only a very small fire

THE DEVIL: Yes, but it was a very hot, little fire, wasn’t it?

THE MAN: I blew into it to make sure it was very hot yes.

THE DEVIL: You are a man after my own heart. Splendid fellow!

THE MAN: I was trying to make it as quick and painless as possible.

THE DEVIL: Ah yes… of course… how very considerate of you. So how did that go?

THE MAN: Not very well. The beetle crawled and the mites scrambled all over the place but in a few seconds, they stopped moving and the beetle then … popped in the heat.

THE DEVIL’S red eyes glow like hot coals

THE DEVIL: It popped! That sounds marvellous. I do so very much, especially like the sound of the popping bit! We’ll let’s get going then, shall we?

THE MAN: What? But I meant well?

THE DEVIL: Did you now? I’m not sure those poor little mites would see it that way. Well, that’s enough chatter… you know the routine…C’mon up you get.

THE MAN Staggers slowly to his feet and looks pleadingly towards the Devil.

THE MAN: Please! I’m sorry!

THE DEVIL: It’s no good saying that now. You say that every time! It’s boring and to be honest with you I’m losing patience so I’m going to sit back and really enjoy this one. All the quick deaths: the fly swats and chopped off hens’ heads. That’s all routine. Not like this one. This is a good one, a “popping” good one. 

THE MAN: Please! No! Don’t!

THE DEVIL: I do so much enjoy how you all plead for mercy after the event, after the deed is done. If you people took just a little bit more time to think beyond the confines of your own pathetic little existences, you’d realise that your only real friends on the earth are the beetles and the mites and the only parasites are you! So please… if you don’t mind… hurry along now. Your fire is ready. It’s not very small, but don’t worry I made sure it’s very very hot.

THE DEVIL ushers THE MAN towards a door and opens it. He gestures to THE MAN to go through.

After you. Please.

THE MAN, followed by THE DEVIL, exits through the door into a fiery furnace. THE DEVIL joyfully sings as they pass through the door.

An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

A lie for a lie, a truth for a truth.

The Board and Editor of Northwords Now acknowledge support from Creative Scotland and Bòrd na Gàidhlig.
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