“If one of them, just one of them gets into this house, it’s over.” For a minute, Ari thought by “them,” she meant him. Melda often referred to Ari not by his name, but by some pronoun, making him feel like he didn’t have a name, making him feel like the worms he’d been collecting for years. He tried to convince his wife that earthworms were good for the soil. “They aerate it, help the plants grow,” he told her. But she wouldn’t listen. Just kept repeating her mantra, “If one of them—“

He retreated to the garden watching his worms undulate through the dirt, their ringed bodies a miracle of composition. Often he stayed in the garden all night protecting his compost against predators. He feared some jealous neighbor might steal a bagful. They’d seen his beautiful produce at the Saturday market where he displayed melons, strawberries, eggplants, and tomatoes. The sweet smell of ripening produce perfumed the air. Everyone seemed to smile. It’s as if nature’s gift had reformed them, made them think twice about purchasing their vegetables at Von’s, Pavilions, Ralph’s, or Gelsons. They would grow them in their own backyard, or dig up the front lawn and replace it with vegetables. That was until they discovered the difficulty of that enterprise. They’d need compost, the rich soil earthworms provided. But they might be too lazy to build their own compost or too cheap to purchase good soil from the garden shop. So why not just tiptoe into Ari’s garden one dark night and bag some? He’d probably never notice. He had so much.

Ari had noticed a depletion in his compost of late. The pyramid was diminishing. He’d thought maybe it was just an illusion. But now he knew it was true. Thus, his night watch began.

“Come to bed,” Melda called down from the bedroom window, her long gray hair rippling in the breeze.

“Maybe I could climb up the trellis,” he called back. “Remember, I used to do that. You liked me to surprise you.”

“You’re not Romeo anymore. “ She slammed the window shut.

And you’re not Juliet either, he thought, taking a shovel to the compost, mixing the rinds of oranges and grapefruit, watermelons and lemon with eggshells. Would Darwin’s wife have objected to earthworms, to the hours her husband spent researching them? There were 1,800 species. Members of one Australian species could grow as long as eleven feet. What a magnificent job they could accomplish on his compost. But here in the USA, he’d have to settle for the much smaller L. Terrestris, only ten inches of ringed segments, but there could be as many as 150 of these segments in the ten inches. Amazing.

Ari settled back in his old wicker garden chair, a beer propped on the curve of his stomach. Nothing like a cold beer or three to help the night pass. He was determined to stay awake, to catch the thief. What would he do when he caught him? Strangle him? Knock him out with his shovel? Bury his head in the compost until he suffocated from the stench? All these options pleased him. He spent the next several hours visualizing his options. On his third beer, he began to feel sleepy. He tilted back his chair. Propped his feet on a dilapidated orange crate. His eyes drooped. His shoulders slumped. His head rolled to his chest.

The night was so peaceful. He was sure he heard the worms singing to him in their silent language. He inhaled deeply, the compost’s perfume overcoming him. Just as he was falling backward into the mound, he started. A shadow passed beneath the moonlight; a small, thin shadow. He bolted from his chair to follow it down the garden steps, behind the house, and up again to the driveway. ‘Round and ‘round he followed it, shovel in hand, until suddenly it turned, revealing itself in the blink of moonlight lighting the compost. “Melda,” he gasped. “What?”

She waved a burlap sack bigger than she was. Her wiry body stood firm. She approached him with the sack. It was big enough to bury him in it. She twirled it above his head. “It’s either you or that disgusting compost.”

The shovel fell from his hand. Earthworms called to him. A burlap darkness descended.