As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from awful dreams he discovered that he had changed in his squalid corner into a little man. He stood on his two pale legs, stretched out his two pale arms, stifled a scream, and nearly fainted.
This was no dream.
In the opposite corner his parents were fast asleep, head to head, their antennae lovingly entwined and their hard brown backs glinting in the first rays of the sun. Nearby his young sister, half sunk in the soggy green morsel of bread she had been sucking on for the whole of the previous day, looked almost angelic as that same sunlight crept towards her under the kitchen cabinet. All three slept on contented, engorged and satiated with life’s bounteous harvest, as if nothing at all could go wrong in this, surely the best of all possible worlds. It was, then, a typical morning in the life of a normal, happy family of cockroaches.
But something had gone wrong – something terrible. Gregor shivered, pulled a piece of foil from an old ball of dust and hair, and wrapped the foil round his shameful nakedness. A rusty pin, for months lying barely noticed in the den, he now took up and thrust through the foil to secure it.
His sister stirred first and, seeing the thing her brother had become, emitted a deranged clicking noise as she frantically pursued herself in circles. Not that the parents were much calmer: they scrambled out of the den onto the kitchen floor at the sight of their son’s transformation, their beloved handsome son, now this… this monster. The father, recalling his position as master of the den and realising, as cockroach patriarchs always have, the danger presented by the vast desert of a recently mopped kitchen floor, forced his wife back under the cabinet to the safety of the den, with its moist, fetid air, rotting fragments of food, and years of dirt drifted into random heaps. The three huddled together and, afraid even to blink, gawped at Gregor. He stretched out an arm, friendly or threatening, it mattered not: his father, drawing on his old reserves of cockroach courage, dashed at his son, butted him in the groin, and knocked him flat. Never was a snout put to better use than this! Meanwhile, wife and daughter, instinct conquering fear, rolled everything roundabout towards Gregor’s corner – dust balls, breadcrumbs, meat and cheese pellets, spent matchsticks, mucus-encrusted tissues – till Gregor was imprisoned behind a barricade of rubbish. He got up, brushed himself down, once again secured his modesty with the rusty pin, and peered through a gap in the barricade. “Father, mother, dear sister – it’s me, Gregor, your beloved son and brother!” At the awful noise, incomprehensible and unearthly, the family backed off. Certainly it was a Gregor, but of what sort?
Mother’s tears seeped.
But time moves on. Gregor’s sister, hunger again gnawing at her belly, crawled over to her putrid soggy green breakfast and sank her face in it. Mother poked her wet snout through the gap and, despite everything, gazed lovingly at her son. He was busy tidying up his corner, as if disgusted by the lovely filth in which he had been fortunate enough to be hatched. It pained her to see how ungrateful he now was as he gracelessly paced back and forth on his thick and ugly white legs, his once comely face now an ugly mask of disgust and disapproval. Father, dining on a dainty morsel of rotten bacon and occasionally glancing through the gap, suddenly brought up the contents of his stomach and, no doubt stirred by fatherly obligation, vomited them towards Gregor (his only son, after all). But Gregor, even more disgusted than before, ignored his father’s offering. Let him starve then, like the countless ungrateful wretches before him!
As the days passed and the old normality became a faded dream, the family learned to bear their affliction. It was unfortunate that Gregor’s mad repugnance at filth and squalor had led to his living quarters deteriorating into a state of the utmost cleanliness (his poor house-proud mother could hardly bear to look), but even more disturbing was his rejection of any food at all, even the splendid lump of cat vomit his sister, at immense effort, had barged all the way across the kitchen to the den and then through the gap – only for her beloved brother to turn his back on her! So, while they gorged themselves on the fruits of the earth, Gregor, whose share of these fruits was his by right, became thin and weak, and was soon just a bag of bones, whining and wheezing and muttering gibberish to himself in his corner, the food that he once relished no longer the equal of his fastidiousness. No one now bothered to shore up the crumbling barricade: only a fantasist would look upon its pathetic prisoner as some dangerous monster, plotting evil against the world as he lurked in infernal cleanliness.
It was the mother’s mournful scrabbling which announced Gregor’s final end. There was much moistness in their eyes that morning, though it soon dried up. Life goes on, after all. They considered eating Gregor, but an old taboo, its origins lost in the mists of time, held them back. His parents dragged the corpse to the cat bowl at the far end of the kitchen. On returning to the den, they were pleasantly surprised to see that their daughter, stretching her many legs and tucking into a tasty titbit of something or other, was on the verge of becoming a fully grown cockroach in her own right, indeed a great beauty.
Thus did Hermann Kafka, canny businessman and father of Franz, an obscure author, strive to outdo his son, whose literary ambitions he scorned. But the son was more cunning than the father imagined: he stole his father’s crude fairy-tale, turned it on its head, and wrote a Metamorphosis of his own.
* * *
Andreas Smith has published stories in several UK literary magazines, including Monk and Storgy. He has also written several novels and is now represented by the David Grossman Literary Agency in London. He lives in County Durham and works as a freelance editor, though he sometimes travels to India for several months at a time to write in cafes while drinking chai and watching cows pass by.