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The Ant That Found God

Mathai / THE ANT TFG / 254

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ant That Found God

By Zubin Mathai

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE ANT THAT FOUND GOD

Zubin Mathai

 

Published by Zubin Mathai at Shakespir

 

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

This e-book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This e-book may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

Copyright © 2017 Zubin Mathai

All rights reserved

 

ISBN: 0-9982155-1-1

ISBN-13: 978-0-9982155-1-8

 

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

 

www.zubinmathai.com

Please remember to leave a review for my book at your favorite retailer.

one

Dreams

 

 

The fallen flower caught the light of midday and shimmered with the pink of a perfect dawn, and the ant so wanted to lift it up above her like the sun. She twirled her one antenna, then held her breath and blurred her eyes to imagine. In her mind, she had two equally happy antennae, and they touched the flower to feel its textures and smells before giving the go-ahead.

She grabbed the bulb with her two front legs and grimaced and groaned — in her mind’s eye she was quite dramatic — and then hoisted it above her head. She spun around to do her dance and even added a few happy hops to show that this flower was no match for her strength. A wave of applause raced along the ground, up her legs, and then vibrated into her body as joy. Turning around, she saw the rest of the workers, and some warriors, all hollering and cheering at her incredible show of power.

It was a good day to be an ant.

Snapping out of her reverie, the ant’s eyes refocused, and the flower was exactly as it was before; it still caught the light with petals like pink, beckoning flames, and the ant was still captivated. She stared at the dancing colors and no longer needed to daydream lifting them up to feel their perfection.

Just then a wind blew through, exciting some unclaimed dust beside her to swirl it away into the air. A few seconds after the wind died down the ant sensed something approaching. She felt it not in her antenna, legs, or body, but someplace else, a place her brain couldn’t pinpoint. The wind returned, this time laying claim to the flower, shaking and rolling it enough that the ant had to jump back to avoid being crushed.

On its third approach, the wind became perfectly accurate and ripped a petal from the flower. It twirled the petal around the ant for a few seconds before shooting it up into the blueness of the sky. The petal danced on the wind, as if tempting the ant to follow along, and so she did, mirroring the movements with her tiny feet. She jumped and dipped, raced forward and back, and giggled with little squeaks in between each of her laughs.

Ants don’t have ears, and so it was quite strange when the ant thought she heard something. Again, it was not the ordinary vibrations through her antenna, legs, or body — but something directly dropped into her mind, like dew fallen from a leaf. As the wind carried the petal higher and higher, and then began moving it towards a sparse line of trees, the ant swore she heard a delicate whisper: Come follow me. Come find where I live.

two

Work

 

 

Our little hero, the worker ant with the lone antenna, began running in the direction the wind had taken the pink petal. She was looking up, not focused on where she was going, and not using her antenna and legs to feel for vibrations like any careful ant should do. She also began daydreaming again, this time flying on the wind exactly like the petal. The wind was her friend, tickling each of her legs playfully, before helping her get closer to the petal flying far ahead.

With a crunch and a gasp, the ant (on the ground and back to reality) smashed into something large and rock hard. It took a while for her eyes to refocus, and when they did, she smiled and wiggled her antenna in happy arcs at seeing her best friend. The soldier ant in front of her was a giant compared to her, its shiny, black skin thick like armor, and its two antennae twitching and twirling, always ready to read their surroundings.

The soldier angled its head down, and our hero could see the shadowed space where her friend’s left eye should be. The worker wanted to play, so she hopped to her right, and every time the soldier moved her head she hopped some more, always staying hidden in her friend’s blind spot. The soldier’s antennae twirled furiously and her body tensed, for she sensed something must be right there. Finally, the game was up when the little worker burst out into a laugh. Her laughter was loud and high pitched, and even though the soldier immediately spun and put up a leg to stop it, a wind far away heard the laugh and laughed too.

“I knew I’d find you here, little one.”

The worker looked down sheepishly, knowing she might be in trouble. She looked up with an innocent smile, and the giant soldier let go of her frown and cocked her head. The soldier then lined her up in front of its blackly shining eye and tapped her kindly on the head with its antennae.

“Come, my little friend. You should not stray so far from the colony. What would you do if some animal came to eat you — and I wasn’t here to protect you?”

The two ants made their way towards more familiar ground, over glistening grains of sand and smooth stones sending the day’s heat up through tiny legs. They crawled through the fallen leaves of a dying bush, and as it called out to them for water they did not slow at all, for these two species did not speak the same language. The soldier was in front, leading the way and focused intently, swiveling its head to keep its eye scanning and ready. The little worker trailed, distracted by everything around, the way the light shimmered along the ground, or how hidden crickets all around were loudly showing off the roughness of their legs.

The rhythm of the march soon made the worker sleepy, and she fell into another daydream. She was on the wind again, bobbing and twirling, this time almost caught up to the flying pink petal. In her mind, she thought she heard the whisper again, coming from a place in her body she had never felt before, and that whisper once again beckoned: Come find me.

“Oh my, you’ve done it again!”

The tiny worker was snapped out of her reverie by her friend’s exclamation, and she looked up to see where the soldier was staring. Her large friend rarely laughed — she was always so serious about her role — but the little worker giggled when she turned and looked behind her. The barely visible trail she had left in the dust and dirt was not a straight line like her friend’s, but was stuffed with zigs, zags, and even circles.

“Having just that one antenna sure keeps you from walking a straight line, doesn’t it?” said the soldier, stepping forward. She patted her tiny friend’s head, and even brushed some dust from her body, before giving her a gentle push with a giant leg to send her in the right direction.

The ants crested a little hill made up of gravel and dried grass, and could finally look down to see the bustle and ordered chaos of their kin. Beneath them were hundreds of workers, all walking in such perfect, straight lines, going back and forth with purpose and focus. The little worker rolled her eyes as she surveyed the scene, always reacting that way whenever she saw her sisters like this. How come they never walked in curves, never looked up to smile at the sun, or never even stopped for a rest or to share some jokes, she wondered.

With another encouraging shove from her friend, the worker had no choice but to go join the lines. A few nearby sisters greeted her happily, eager to dance and communicate where the food they were carrying was up ahead. A few, however, when they recognized who it was — that tiny one with the lone antenna, always dreaming instead of working — ignored her or teased her amongst themselves.

Pretending she did not hear, the worker walked the line and blurred her eyes, retreating to the comforts of imagination.

The soldier moved off to the side to join another soldier, and together they kept watch, scanning back and forth and all around, ensuring the safety of the colony as the workers worked. They played their roles of guarding, and the workers played their roles of the lowly grunt work, and together these two sets of ants unioned to keep the colony alive and churning.

The little worker got to end of the ant trail, where the food source was, and was happy to see that it was succulent greens (she so hated when it was a dead insect or animal). She tried on her own to lift a piece of a leaf, grunting and groaning, hoping some of her sisters would come to her aid. Finally they did, and luckily it was enough of a number that the little ant didn’t have too much of a burden. On the way back she got lost in another reverie, picturing the shade of this leaf as a kiss blown down by a smiling cloud blocking the heat of the sun.

“Why don’t you pay attention! Why don’t you keep the line!” shouted one of the other ants, and soon the rest joined in when they noticed that it was the little one — the one who always went in circles — that was the reason they kept pulling to the left.

In frustration, the rest of the workers tossed the leaf to the ground and then surrounded the little one and began yelling at her. They shouted insults at her lack of work ethic, at the tininess and weakness of her body, and worst of all, how she wasn’t really an ant if she only had half of a functioning set of antennae.

The little worker didn’t like this wall of noise, the words which stung, and being made to feel so alone and separate. In her mind’s eye she felt water roll down from her eye and wasn’t sure what that imagining was. She just knew that she wanted to be even tinier, tiny enough to disappear so that no one could see her well enough to yell at her.

When her friend, the soldier, saw the commotion, she came over to defend the worker. She broke up the circle of ants with just her size and a stern look, and told everyone to stop picking on the small one and get back to work. Most of the workers obeyed her, but some stood up, accusing her of always sticking up for that tiny, defective ant.

When one worker even defiantly said she must only stick up for her because they were both crippled, one missing an eye and the other an antenna, the soldier scoffed and stepped up to glare down at the insolent worker. But, it was when another worker spoke up, saying she would tell the queen about how the soldier was playing favorites and not acting like a true soldier, that the soldier stumbled back, as if those uttered words burned her like the sun.

For hours in the shadeless sun, the workers worked and the soldiers guarded. The little one tried her hardest to push away whenever a daydream came to knock. She so wanted to not be picked on again, but she mainly didn’t want her friend to get in trouble with the queen again, so she put her head down, focused on the straight line of ant-prints in front of her, and played her role.

She marched in that single column with the rest, greeting any ant coming the other way and robotically dancing to tell them where the food was. She went to the end of the ant trail and waited for the right number to join her to pick up a leaf, and even didn’t complain later on when they had to pick up a dead grasshopper. She kept quiet and worked, as the heat of the day left her alone with her kin, and as the thoughts settled in that tomorrow, and the day after, would probably all be the same.

three

Family

 

 

The pair walked along a line of cool stones, but these were not ordinary stones, like the ones the little worker would encounter when she would wander off on her own. These were flat and square, all exactly the same size, arranged in a grid, and separated by lines of dusty grayness the exact width of four ants side by side.

While the soldier dutifully walked along the dark grey line, excusing herself politely or with a silent nod when other ants passed the other way, the little worker chose her own path. She ran in circles along the flat part of the stones, along their brown, clay-like smoothness, and tried her hardest to keep up with her friend. She ignored most of the other ants, but one thing in the distance did catch her attention.

Two pale, tree-like, giant columns moved along the stones far away, casting their own shadows and vibrating the entire ground whenever their bottoms smashed down. She had seen this thing before, often when she would come this way home to the colony, and decided to muse out loud to her friend.

“Just like lizards are with four legs, and us ants with six, do you think there could be an animal so giant — so tall that we couldn’t even see it’s head — an animal with only two legs?”

The soldier scoffed and turned to look at her little friend (the worker was always kind enough to walk to her right so she was easier to see).

“My tiny friend, we ants don’t have to worry about such things. Even if there were animals so huge, they would not be a threat to us,” said the soldier, picking up her pace. “They probably would not even be able to see us.”

They walked for a bit more in silence, as the soldier kept her head straight and her antenna oddly still. The worker continued her hops along the flat stones, all while stealing regular glances at those two weirdly moving trees so far away.

Suddenly, the soldier stopped and used its front legs to wipe the glisten off its head and body, and even used its right antenna to wipe down it’s lone eye. The little worker could sense her friend hesitating, could see an anxiety wash over her like a shadow, and so she spoke up.

“Why are you so nervous?”

“My friend, you are young and innocent — perhaps too innocent for what colony life is like deep inside.” As the soldier responded she stood tall, gathering her courage as if for battle, and straightened out her antennae to crisp lines above her head. “When the queen calls on you, it is never for a good reason.”

The pair entered a small hole at the end of the line of dusty grey, in between two smooth stones, and all the light was suddenly snuffed out. They went deep into the dirt and rocks, with the little worker following trustingly behind her bigger friend. They scurried around corners and climbed down tunnels, all while feeling the wriggles of hundreds of other ants coming and going. They passed the sea of youth in training and passed the immense walls of newborns curled up and waiting for sparks of life to animate them.

Finally, after the long, crawling journey, and with not a word uttered between them, they entered the queen’s lair. At first, the little worker’s eyes could see nothing, but then they slowly began adjusting. The tiniest splinter of light reached down from above through a shaft, and it brought a little mercy against the terrors of imagination. There were five giant soldiers in a semi-circle along the far wall, and they all stood still, stoically so, and none had any nervousness on their face like the worker’s big friend.

At first, the worker could not make out what the giant black shape at the center of the semi-circle was, but then she heard a few grating scrapes, as crisp legs moved along a hard and bulbous abdomen. It was the queen, an ant bigger and blacker than the worker had ever seen. For a few terrifying moments, she just stared, and the silence in the room came to shove a scary daydream into her mind.

She pictured those dark soldiers just waiting for the command to seize and torture, and relish every second as they did. She pictured the queen with giant and serrated, snapping jaws — jaws bigger than the entire worker’s body — ready to separate the heads of any ant that even looked at her the wrong way. Luckily, even darker images did not enter the worker’s mind, cut short by the queen clearing her throat and speaking up.

“Let a little more light into the room. I want to see these two,” the queen said, and her voice was the deepest and richest the worker had ever heard, like the fire of a sunset poured onto the wind.

One of the guards reached up and flicked a few grains of sand from the edge of the shaft above her, and more more light, precious light, spilled in. Even though the queen was less scary now that she could be seen, the size of her, easily four times bigger than even these giant soldiers, still scared the worker, and she immediately scurried to hide behind her friend.

“Come out, little one. Let me speak to you,” the queen said.

“ I- I can hear you just fine. We can speak without seeing each other,” the worker said back with a shivering stutter.

After a pause, the one-eyed soldier, spoke up herself. “Forgive my friend, my queen, she is a timid one.”

The queen, at the words of that soldier, immediately tensed and drew up to her full height, stomping all six of her legs violently enough to make the entire cavern shake. The light caught her eyes and set them ablaze. “You! I did not ask you to speak. How dare you even address me?!”

At that, the soldier shrank back, almost stepping on the head of her little friend behind her. She did not even answer the queen, instead the little worker could see her tremble, and her antennae instinctively reach up and rub where her missing eye had been.

The queen waited for a few seconds, still glaring with red-fired eyes, but satisfied that that that soldier was put in its place. She tried coaxing the little worker out from behind again, but gave up when the tiny one only had a few smartly squeaking remarks, but wouldn’t budge at all.

Deciding to get on with business, the queen spoke again. She spoke of all the stories she had been hearing of the little worker getting in trouble: sneaking off in the middle of the day to explore, not carrying her share of the burdens. She spoke of other ants coming to her to complain of the worker’s daydreaming, spacily getting herself lost, not obeying orders, or walking in circles instead of the called-for straight lines.

But when the queen spoke of the soldier, her tone changed from a wind to a hurricane. “And you — you who have a duty to protect, to offer your life for the colony — I’ve heard how you wander off to find your little friend and bring her back. You leave your post as if it were not the most important responsibility you have!”

“Do you know, little one,” the queen said, directing her words to the worker still timidly trembling behind her friend’s legs, “that a soldier is sworn to protect a queen with her life?” And as she uttered those words, the soldier backed up a bit into a shadowed space, reaching up to cover its missing eye with its front legs.

“For a soldier to survive a battle — a battle in which nearly an entire colony is wiped out — is the worst shame of all,” the queen continued, and the little worker could feel her friend trembling above her. She looked up to make out terror painted by the dim light on her friend’s face, and she did not like seeing her brave friend so belittled.

Hoping to get attention back on her, to save her friend, the worker piped up. “I know I am not a good worker,” she said, and the queen angled a head and antennae to her, easing the tension that had been building.

“Maybe I could switch roles?”

“Ha!” scoffed the queen. “You are too small to be a soldier. You have only one antenna. How could you know when danger approaches?” And then she glared at the soldier, not breaking eye-contact for even a second. “Ants with missing parts are not full ants. They cannot do their duties. You were born that way, little one, so you could have learned, but others… others become half-ants because of their failures.”

“I could be an explorer!” yelled out the little worker, again to deflect the attention from her friend.

A moment of silence draped the room, as the queen, and perhaps even the circle of stoic guards, tried to understand the word what they had just heard. Finally, the queen let loose a laugh, a laugh large enough to shake loose sand from the walls and ceiling. As the laugh spread out through the colony, vibrating through walls and stone, all the ants underground stopped their movement to listen, and soon they shook and vibrated in tune, mimicking, with their bodies, the spreading laugh from their beloved queen.

“Listen, my little worker,” said the queen after recovering from her laughing fit. “You are the youngest here, one of the latest born in this new home, a home I found at the edge of the sea of flat stones, a home I had to bring myself to when our old colony was attacked and obliterated.” And for that last sentence she once again looked at the one-eyed soldier, glaring down at her with acidic eyes and tensed jaw.

“You are too young to understand,” the queen continued. “I dragged myself here, wounded and near death, with only a few workers — and one lone soldier — and we rebuilt this place. You are perhaps too young to know of roles and responsibilities. There are only workers and soldiers out on the surface. Nothing else. We don’t need explorers.”

“But I like to wander, to look at new things,” the little worker said faintly.

The queen laughed again, this time, however, a little impatience was creeping into her voice. “How could you explore? You are too afraid to even come out from behind your friend to look at me.”

The worker thought for a moment, thought that she should step out and show the queen she was brave, but her mind was always more brave than her feet, and so she stayed put. She tried blurring her eyes, readying to call up a daydream for courage.

“If you forget about your daydreams, forget about the images you constantly play with, could you actually go out and explore?” asked the queen. “Could you actually go out into a world where everything is hundreds of times larger than you — go out and meet dangers even your over-active mind could never fathom?”

A flash of a pink petal on the wind, beckoning with a twirling dance and whispered mysteries, raced through the little worker’s mind, but she tamped it down immediately. Her queen was asking her a question, and so she owed her mother the dignity of an honest response. She cleared her head, came back to the moment, the moment of being the tiniest in a colony of purpose and roles, the moment of her needing to hide behind her friend even in her own colony, and finally spoke up.

“No, my queen. I think not. I think I am too afraid.” and the little ant gulped down, unable to stop her trembling, before finishing her sentences. “I think I am only meant to be a worker. I think my only choice is to try harder.”

four

Death

 

 

Days fell away, each an exact copy of the one before, and on each, the little worker tried her hardest. She picked up leaves and rotting bugs, didn’t run to hide or talk back when others teased her, and used all her mental might (which meant no daydreams) to walk a straight line when carrying a load with her sisters.

As other workers worked through the night, our little hero often found a quiet spot to sleep peacefully, for she was so exhausted from the day’s travails. On occasion, she did have dreams, and oftentimes the dreams were of the wind. With her mind free to run and fly, it dreamt of pink petals floating all around, calling with a sweetness like nectar falling over her eyes and antenna. When, during one night’s dream, a floating petal said to the ant to ‘Come find me’, the ant woke up with a start.

She crawled out from beside her hiding place and went to look at the long line of workers churning away. The moon above lit them with silver streaks, and the coolness of the air carried vibrations of their thousand-feet march right through her little body. She did not spy her friend, the soldier, at her normal post, and so the little worker went towards the colony, towards the grid of flat stones.

Here, the moon was unobscured, shining down its entire face just for the tiny ant to see. She made a wish upon its tender rays, praying to see that pink petal outside of dreams, and in reality, once more. She waited a few hopeful moments, but there was only still air, no wind, and no flying petal.

Just then, however, the ant felt a tremendous thud and shaking. The entire grid of smooth stones quaked beneath her, and the lines of grayness between coughed up minuscule amounts of dust. What had looked like two ordinary trees in the distance, was really those pale moving trees the little one had seen before, and now they were moving right towards her.

As they neared, more shaking and thuds rebounded around, and the line of workers close by tumbled — but quickly picked themselves up and resumed their march. Only the little worker was struck dumb and frozen solid, as the two giant trees got closer and closer. Within moments, the pale trees surrounded the ant, one on either side, and she could see a blurred shape, very high up, drifting down. The trees angled, bunching up and wrinkling as if covered in the skin of an animal, and the immense, floating shape above grew larger. The little worker soon saw an unfathomably large head come into view, and upon it, two giant eyes.

The eyes stared for a minute, right into the eyes of the little worker. The ant thought of her friend, the soldier’s words, that something so large could probably not see things as tiny as ants, but still she took no chances, remaining frozen except an unstoppable shivering.

More movement began, and one of the giant trees — which the worker now assumed were this animal’s legs — raised up and hovered directly above her. The leg paused for a second there, a dark shape smelling of rubber and large enough to block out the moon, before starting to move downwards. It sped up, forcing the air in front of it to create a pressure entrapping the ant. The ant wriggled and writhed, called out for help, but still she could not move.

Suddenly, a black blur flowed through and tackled the worker and flung her off to the side just as the leg came smashing down with the might of an earthquake. The soldier who had saved the worker, her friend, came scurrying over to check on her, lifting her to her feet and bringing her to the side to safety.

When they were at a guarded distance, they turned to stare in awe at the giant animal with trees for legs and a mountain for a head From one of its other limbs — yet another tree extending from its torso — they could see a yellow shape moving back and forth. Soon, it began to rain. This was not an ordinary rain, and the little ant could smell it even with her lone antenna, and her friend, the soldier, could smell it too. It was raining sweetness.

The workers filing past could smell it too, and soon they all stopped, with antennae wiggling in joy and excitement. Even more workers came up from the nest and from the food lines stretching far away. A sea of ants formed around the little worker and soldier, ignoring them as it continued to rain drops of sticky, sweet dew.

One of the drops landed on the soldier, and she wiped it off her body, rolled it into a ball, and held it in her mouth to savor its precious taste. A drop fell near the worker and her lone antenna touched it, and she immediately jumped back. Something was wrong with this dew. Something odd, for there was a strange odor coming from behind its sweetness.

She looked over at her friend, who still holding a drop of nectar in her mouth, and immediately ran forward and knocked it away. “Don’t eat any more of this. This is not food. This is danger!”

The soldier was shocked at her friend’s words, but took it in stride, and the two ants turned to see the carpet of sisters around them sucking up the manna, rolling it into tiny balls, fighting over it, and even lining up to carry it back into the colony entrance at the far end of the sea of flat stones.

For the next three nights, the sickly-sweet dew fell from the sky near the two moving trees, and all the ants ate it up. As the little worker ran around and desperately tried to warn everyone, they ignored her and brought samples to the queen and the others deep in the colony. They even began feeding it to the youngsters and newborns, and had enough for every single last ant. For those three days, the colony celebrated, forgetting about the food in the forest, the leaves and dead bugs, and instead gathered each night under the slimming moon to wait for the drippings from heaven.

The little worker and her friend, the soldier, were the only two who did not partake. When their voices had become hoarse from trying to warn, and their legs tired from running around trying to stop their sisters, all they could do was stop, stand and watch.

And it was on the fourth day that their nightmare became true.

It started first with some of the newborns falling over and dying. Then, the youngsters started shaking. Their legs curled up and didn’t respond, and their bodies trembled violently. They begged the elders for help, but nothing could be done. Yes, it is the worst thing in an ant world, to see the next generation die off in front of the previous one. Finally, the older ants began their torturous dances, as they shook and trembled, coughing up dried granules of a poison already coursed throughout their bodies. The ants in the colony came out into the waning moonlight to die, and soon the flat stones were littered with countless corpses. The giant soldiers were some of the last to go, and their faces were no longer stoic, as they clutched their abdomens, kicking and flailing, and then falling still.

The queen came out of the depths of the nest at last, and she could not walk in a straight line. She took a few steps and fell over, and yet with determination lifted herself up and tried to move forward. Her instinct was taking over, her aching need to move to safety and start yet another colony. She cried out for help, but all the ants around her were dead or dying, wracked with the pain of acid burning every last corner of their crumpled bodies.

The little worker and soldier saw their queen and ran over to her, stepping over dead friends and sisters along the way. When they got near, the queen used the last of her strength to look up at them before falling over and wriggling in torment. Her joints and muscles began contracting, crushing her innards and cracking her once proud and shiny skin.

“Oh, my little one,” said the queen to the worker as she tried to lift up a leg to stroke her daughter’s head. She was unable to move anymore, and cried out for mercy, for the pain infesting was too much to bear.

And yet, even though wracked with this burning from the inside out, when she saw the one-eyed soldier, so healthy and standing tall above her, she summoned her last dying breath to share the poison in her body and brain. “You,” she spat out, “you failed in your mission again. You failed once more to give your life for your queen and colony.”

And then there was silence for a moment, as the heart of this colony left the queen’s body, and the bodies of all her daughters stopped their death throes, on this sea of flat stones she once thought would be a safe home for all generations.

Before the worker and soldier could react to the death of their beloved queen, before even her stinging words could sink deeper into the head of the soldier, the moment was shaken up by the two giant trees approaching once more. That immense animal was surveying the scene, and in the little worker’s imagination she could see it smiling. The animal was walking amongst the carcasses, hoping to see any still writhing and stamping on them to snuff out the last lights of this once proud colony.

“Come,” said the soldier, as the giant legs of the death-dealing animal approached, “we have got to go. There is nothing left for us here.”

She grabbed her friend, for she knew the little worker was frozen with terror again, and dragged her towards the edge of the sea of flat stones. This time, the soldier did not take the lines of gray outlining those stones, but rather the straightest line possible, right over the tops, then past the edge, onto the gravel and sand, and towards the sparse line of trees in the distance.

five

Lost

 

 

The pair ran from the scene of death and out into the dry and dusty land beyond the familiar. They climbed over pebbles, which to them were boulders, and crawled through tangles of dried grass. Motion all around, from exploring breezes and small, unseen animals, kept the little worker close by to the soldier. The rising heat of the day excited curious little twirls of dust to greet the travelers, but neither ant was in the mood for company.

The soldier kept quiet as they moved, but she did look back on occasion, angling her head so that both her seeing and blind side could gaze to where the colony she belonged to once thrived. When the worker slowed, hoping her friend would take the lead, the soldier slowed too, not wishing at all to be in front.

“Where are we to go?” asked the little worker, but the soldier did not answer. The worker tried again, “Where are we to live?”

At one point on their trek, they came across a darkly shadowed hole in the ground. The worker stopped at its edge and peered down, trying to make out a shape which seemed to be at the bottom. There was a silky web covering the hole, and the worker let her eyes blur so that a daydream could take over. She pictured jumping on the web like a trampoline, bouncing higher and higher, but the daydream went quickly, replaced by the images of all her dead sisters that she could not shake.

“You don’t want to stand too close to that hole,” said the soldier — the first thing she had said in an hour — as she less-than-delicately pulled her friend back from the hole.

“Why?”

“Because there is danger within, danger at the bottom.”

“What sort of danger? An animal?” asked the worker, inching closer and staring again into the darkness. She saw faint movement at the bottom, a lot of legs uncurling, and jumped suddenly back. She felt the vibrations from the hole through her body, and they were ones she had never felt before. In fact, this entire world was too new for her. The grasses were bigger than she imagined, the bushes eclipsed the sun when close, and there were no well-worn ant-paths to guide her.

“Whatever is in that hole, I’m sure you could protect me,” she said, in a half-believing tone.

The soldier stepped aside and motioned for the worker to take the lead, for she was still unwilling to continue the march unless she was in the rear. When the worker moved ahead, the soldier whispered faintly, uncaring if her friend heard her or not. “We are just two ants without a colony. I can’t protect you, or anyone. Evidence is back there scattered across that sea of flat stones.”

They marched for an hour more, as the sun got to its high point, stole any moisture from their skin, and made the granules of dirt they trekked across painfully hot to the touch. The worker tried to lead, tried to walk in a direction she hoped the soldier really wanted them to go, but with her one antenna it was difficult. She’d walk for minutes in what she thought was a straight line, but then would look up and find herself behind her friend, having walked in a circle.

Being the leader carried too much responsibility. One way, through a row of curled-over branches looked too scary. Another, over a jumble of tumbled pebbles, looks too impassable. As they walked and got nowhere, the little worker became increasingly afraid. Whenever a vibration passed by, whenever a blade of grass rustled, or whenever a distant animal sounded out, she stopped and trembled. Things were always so big to an ant, and only the grains of sand underneath were small enough to comfort. The worker paused and looked back from where they came, stroking her head with her one antenna to try and calm herself. She missed her sisters and their teasing.

“Without a plan we will get nowhere,” said the soldier at one point when they had stopped to rest. That was all she said, no advice or encouragement, and the little worker flopped to the ground dejected, kicking away some dust and a splinter of grass as she did.

The soldier knew she was being difficult, but she didn’t care. She could not stop thinking of the queen’s last burning words to her. She could not stop thinking of her failed duty. She reached down with an antenna and rubbed the spot where her left eye used to be, and then rubbed her right eye, and wished it were gone too.

The little worker saw a tiny leaf near where she was lying, and ran over to pick it up above her head. She felt comforted by carrying something, and she resumed leading the march while holding tightly to the leaf. As she felt the weight of her load, she couldn’t stop memories of all those days of work she hated, carrying leaves and bugs, surrounded by her sisters, even the ones who laughed at her, and wished she had never complained about any single one of them.

A shadow passing overhead made the little worker freeze. Was it a bird? Was it something coming to eat them? She dropped the leaf and ran under the cover of a nearby bush, hesitatingly peeking out. At first all she saw was the haloed and scorching sun baring down. She scanned the skies, and soon felt the cool wrap of the shadow again, and came out to see the pink petal, high above. It was twirling and spinning, showing its dark and light sides, at play with the breezes which kept it aloft, and whispering once more to its friend on the ground, “Come find me. There is safety here. Come home.”

The worker looked over to her friend, the soldier, to see if she was seeing this too, but the soldier had her head down, almost dipping into the dust beneath, and seemed oblivious to everything.

“What if we find a new home?” said the worker, still transfixed by the dancing petal far above, as it eventually moved off behind some trees to the east.

The soldier winced, using one of her legs to rub her abdomen, before letting the words of her friend sink in. She had heard tales from some of the older soldiers, ones who had been more traveled and experienced than she, of wayward ants taken in by new colonies. She was going to speak up, offer her opinion on her friend’s suggestion, but another stab of pain came from her abdomen and she winced once more.

She knew, and her friend didn’t, that on that first day, back when the drops of poison first rained down and her friend had knocked a drop of it out of her mouth, that the tiniest splinter had crossed her jaws and settled in her stomach. She could feel the poison in her, and she welcomed it, hoping that perhaps it would bring justice to her, bring justice for failing at the only role she, as a soldier, was born to do.

The poison working its way through the insides of the soldier made her bitter, and she was ready to speak up to shoot down the plan of her friend. Just then, however, a commotion caught her attention. She felt a wave of vibration reach her legs and move up her abdomen, and immediately spun so her one eye could scan the surroundings. Instinctively, she grabbed the little worker and moved her behind to protect her.

A wall of dust was kicked up and something ran in and then stopped right in front of the two ants. The worker moved over, hiding fully under her giant friend, and the soldier spread its jaws and raised its front legs, readying for a fight.

“I finally caught up to you two!” shot out a squeak of a voice.

When the dust finally settled, in front of the ants was another ant, even tinier than the worker, almost whitish with little black streaks running along its body. It had two perfectly-formed antennae and two perfect dots for eyes.

The mini newcomer jumped up and down in excitement, and each hop scared the worker and tensed up the soldier, at least until the newcomer ran forward and hugged the legs of the soldier. When she went to hug the worker, the worker jumped back with a trembling yelp.

“Who are you?” asked the soldier, putting one leg on the head of the newcomer and gently pushing her back to a respectful distance.

“I am your sister!” yelled the tiny white ant. “They brought me into the world just a few days ago, and then went to sleep.”

The worker and soldier both looked at each other, confused.

“Yes,” continued the newcomer, “they were all asleep. I explored the nest and they were all sleeping in the tunnels. I came outside and they were sleeping all over those flat stones. Even mother was sleeping there. But then I saw you two running off and decided to follow you. Luckily, you two kept going in circles so I could catch up!”

The worker was finally brave enough to come out from behind her protecting friend, and stepped up to the newcomer to look her over. Seeing the perfectly formed tiny ant, she angled her head to hide her missing antenna. “You are our sister then,” she said, patting a tiny head friendlily, then looking back at the soldier, hoping the big ant was as happy as she. “Now there are three of us!”

Still feeling unimpressed, and still the stabbing pain all along her insides, the soldier said nothing. Instead she turned to survey the surroundings, wondering where this lost and doomed trio might go to next before the inevitable happens. She inspected the angle of the sun on the grass, felt for signs of moisture in the air, and even tapped the ground to see if any vibrations returned. No direction seemed to hold any hope over the others for the soldier.

“Oh my, look at those! You have tiny wings!”

The soldier spun with a flurry of kicked up dust to see the worker lifting up a translucent wing from the side of the newcomer. The soldier brought her one eye close to inspect the wing, the way it’s thinness created a rainbow, and then stared for the first time at the face of this little white ant before her.

“You… you are a princess.”

“I am?” said the newcomer, standing up as tall as she could and giggling at the attention she was now getting from these two giant sisters.

Suddenly the pain in the soldier’s abdomen faded away, receding to her heart where it could be ignored behind each of its beats. The soldier rubbed her good eye, and immediately begin thinking. Her role was returning, her instincts were re-forming. Her mission, the only mission she was born for, to protect the queen of her colony, was pounding out from her brain to erase previous shades of doubt.

“My future queen,” said the soldier, kneeling on its legs so it could get closer to the tiny newcomer, “I am your servant. I am here to protect you. I am here to bring you to a new, safe place so that you may start a fresh colony.”

“No!” shouted the worker, and the intensity of her yell startled both the soldier and princess. They spun to look at the worker.

“We can’t just find a new, empty space for her. We have to find a new home, someplace safe, away from all these unknown parts. We have to find a new colony of sisters for all of us!”

The soldier patted the little worker on the head. With the pain from the poison in her abdomen subsided, the worker was her best friend again, and she tried explaining to her what they must do. The worker would have none of it, and argued back, for she so wanted to follow the whispers of the wind-born petal, whispers which spoke of safety, which spoke of a home calling like the sweetest nectar.

Tiring of the arguing, the princess stood back and took it all in, letting the newfound and happy knowledge that her role was for some reason more important than these two larger ants. She counted a few seconds, thinking she will speak up dramatically only when the other two will have calmed down or paused their conversation. Finally, unable to hold it in anymore, she piped up with a squeak.

“If I am a princess, then I am the leader!”

The soldier and worker stopped their arguing to look the princess, as she stood there, barely bigger than the grains of sand beneath her feet, and as her tiny wings flapped to catch the light and surround her with a robed shimmer.

“Since this ant here,” said the princess, pointing to the worker, “is closer to my size than you over there. I think we are going to take her suggestion. We are going to go look for a new home for all of us.”

six

Help

 

 

The three ants, the last of the once-great colony and daughters of the queen doomed to misfortune, marched through the heat of the day. Eventually, the sun set, unseen animals quieted down, and the coolness of the night took over. Stars came out to twinkle, and the little worker was tricked, thinking that those points above must be as small as she.

“Where are we going to look for a new home?” asked the tiny princess, ending her question with a little test-flap of her delicate wings.

The worker looked to the east, to where the pink petal borne onto the wind had disappeared, and he only motioned silently with one front leg in that direction. She turned to look at the princess, to see if she understood, and a tiny nod returned was good enough.

Bringing up the rear, marching with a purpose strong enough to mask the pain in her belly, the soldier kept her one eye constantly scanning. At one point in the night, and all of a sudden, she tapped her leg into the dirt in a rhythm that any ant would understand. The princess and worker froze, for they recognized the warning of danger.

A coyote in the distance howled up to the missing moon, and the worker tensed up, never having heard such a sound before. Even now, with two companions, she was still afraid of the strangeness of this world. The howl faded into an echo, and its vibrations came to remind her that without the walls of a nest, or circle of surrounding sisters, she was vulnerable. She ran past the princess and cowered beneath the legs of the soldier, and the princess stifled a giggle when she saw an adult so scared.

“What is it? asked the worker of her big friend.

“It feels as if something follows us,” said the soldier, and her antennae moved in arcs, tuning in and reaching out for any clues which might shed light on her feeling.

After a few seconds, with the only thing keeping them company silence and an air cool enough to settle into every cranny, the soldier shrugged and told her companions to restart their march.

Far up above them, beyond the limit of what they could feel, a shape hovered against the backdrop of stars. It’s legs hung relaxed beneath its yellow striped body, and its wings beat into a transparent blur. When it starting moving again, an angry droning could be heard, and the starlight outlined a stinger with the sharpest of points.

The wasp focused on these travelers and followed them for the rest of the night and into the shifting oranges of early dawn. When they stopped to rest, so did the wasp, either hovering or landing on a twig to run its legs across its gleaming stinger. It especially stared at the soldier ant, and how tiny it was compared to it. The wasp, a yellow and black striped soldier, a hater of filthy ants, knew another soldier when it saw one. Not only a soldier, the wasp thought, but a weakened and battle-worn one, missing one eye.

By mid-morning, the ants had come to a clearing, which to them was an expansive desert, and cutting right through the middle of it, was the deepest of ravines. They looked to their left and right, and could see no way across. The soldier did not like this area, for their was no cover, no protection. Her brain churned, her antenna honed, and she thought she felt a faint buzzing overhead, as if something had been hovering, but then zoomed away.

“We have not come across any other ants so far,” said the soldier. “No colonies, no signs of any place which could be a new home. I think we should change direction.”

The worker only stared to the east and let her eyes blur. She hoped for a daydream to come, to offer up clues once more, but all that was there was the shimmer of rising heat in the distance. She turned to her friends, and they could see the look of disappointment on her face. She opened her mouth to speak, but then stopped, dropping her head, knowing she had no real reason to continue east.

The princess stood at the edge of the ravine and jumped up and down, sending a few grains of sand tumbling over the edge. “If you want to go east, let us go east!” she yelled in excitement. She spun around on her next hop, and looked down the cliff-side opening up beneath her. “We can easily pass this,” she said. “I could probably even carry you two over!”

Without letting her words sink in, the princess ran right over the edge and began furiously flapping her wings — wings still not grown —and she dropped out of sight like a stone. The soldier shoved the worker aside, and ran to the ravine, falling to her tummy and sliding right up to the edge. As she angled her head so she could peer over, she dropped her antennae in happy relief. The princess had landed on a little ledge, a few inches from the top, but still above a treacherous drop-off.

“Give me your leg!” shouted the soldier as she reached down for her princess. The princess only giggled, not seeing the seriousness of the situation, and slowly raised one of her legs. The soldier tried to reach for the tiny one, but she was just beyond her grasp.

“Don’t worry, I can do this,” said the worker as she stepped up to stare over.

“You aren’t strong enough!” said the soldier, looking left and right, desperately trying to find a solution.

“Yes I am. I am a worker.”

The worker offered up her hind legs to the soldier, and then moved as close as possible to the edge. To the princess, this was all a game, but to the worker it was torturous torment. She tried blurring her eyes, but that didn’t work, and as she was lowered, all she could see was that drop-off to a certain death. Grains of sand tumbled and smashed into pebbles and rocks, and then even kept falling beyond. But thankfully, the worker was able to grab the princess’ leg and hold on tight. The little worker called out to her friend and the soldier began pulling them up.

At top, the princess did a few happy hops at the adventure, as the soldier raced over to check on her. The worker only fell to the ground, stroking herself with her antenna to try and regain calmness and composure. She looked over and sadly noticed her friend fawning over the tiny princess, but then smiled when the soldier finally asked if she was okay.

Before she could answer, a breeze came to caress the worker’s head, and she perked up. She jumped to her feet and stared up to the sky, scanning the washed out blue, looking for any hint of pink.

The breeze came again, this time, accompanied by a strange vibration.

“Pardon me, my ladies,” range out a voice with baritone words, deep enough to vibrate through the ants’ bodies and make the princess giggle.

The ants saw a tank of a beetle, shiny and black, with a tiny head and rotund body, march on through with a purpose. Before they could respond, another passed by, this one a little less polite and only offering a slight nod. Soon another and another passed, until the bulk of the army came through, thousands of glistening beetles, enough to make the ground tremble beneath the pounding of purposed feet. Bringing up the rear was the largest beetle of them all, an old and slow one, its head eclipsed by the mammoth body its tiny legs had to support.

This last beetle stopped when it saw the ants, and looked down at them for a focused second. It slowly spun to stare at the disturbed sand by the edge of the ravine, then held itself as still as the sun above, and began reading the scene.

“I see you stopped here, wanting to cross the ravine. I see this pattern in the sand where one went over, probably the tiny one, and then the medium one was lowered by the big one to pull her up. Here, a few happy hops were made, and the medium one flopped down.”

The beetle paused to let the ants show their amazement, with three mouths agape, and five antennae frozen in awe, before continuing, “This ravine is not a problem, my elongated friends. If you want to cross it, come with me. I can help.”

Leading them along the edge of the ravine, the beetle walked slow and quiet, going around pebbles as the princess hopped over, or pushing aside blades of grass as the worker kept right behind in his wake. The beetle led them to where his kin had stopped, where they were a shiny, excited and throbbing mass at the base of a old, bent-over tree.

The tree was gnarled and gray, more like the color of stones than the richness of other trees, and a few of its naked, dying branches were overhanging the ravine. The sun lay bare the cracks of the tree’s trunk, turning them into golden rivers, and turning its branches into black cracks against the washed-out blue.

The worker stared up, taking in the tree’s height, not as imposing as some other trees, but still an easy giant next to her. Something seemed very gentle about this tree, as it stood defiant to the rising heat of the day, and so the ant went right up to it and touched it. Even though the bark was rough and dry, something in the touch back from that tree calmed the ant.

“The tree is looking right at you,” said the beetle, rising up on its hind legs to get a better look. “It has taken an interest in you. Can you see it?”

“No,” answered the little worker.

“Sometimes, when you get still, and nature feels like playing, she will share secrets with you,” said the beetle as he dropped back to the ground. “Climb up the tree, go to that large, knotted hole you see there in the middle, and you might be able to hear the voice of this old, wise agent of the wild.”

The worker looked up to where the hole was, ringed with a lip of knotted wood, and trembled at the thought of going to such a height. Ants are not meant to be so far up off the ground, she thought. But she still had one leg up and touching the bark of the gentle giant, and a calmness began flowing through her. She decided to blur her eyes, and let a daydream bring her some courage.

She crawled up the bark, and in her mind, she was crawling up a vine ripe with green, succulent leaves, while her colony sisters were all gathered below to cheer her on. She stepped across branches, and they were instead little glowing caterpillars giving her pushes of encouragement. She wound her way around the trunk, and stopped on a small branch right next to the shadowed hole. In her mind, the hole was the farthest from scary, for it was a mouth blowing out warm and sweet kisses.

“Hello, my little friend,” came a rumbling voice, vibrating the whole tree with each of its words, and comforting the ant like a warm patch of sun on a cool day.

“What troubles you, my tiny one,” said the tree.

The ant lay down on the branch, wrapping her legs down the side of it in a hug, and paused for a second, hoping to feel a hug back. For a moment, all she felt was the dry and rough wood against her abdomen and legs, and her lone antenna drooped down.

“I never felt at home in that colony,” said the ant, resting her head against the trunk. “But, at least I felt safe. Now the colony is no more, and I am out here in this wilderness, feeling neither at home nor safe. This world is so scary to an ant.”

“But you are no ordinary ant,” said the tree after a thoughtful pause. “Other ants have randomly climbed my trunk, many insects of other kinds too, but you are the first one to give me a hug.”

The little worker smiled at this, and wrapped her tiny legs even tighter around the branch beneath her.

“Where are you and your friends going?”

“We are heading east. I saw a petal on the wind, and it called out to me, before heading in that direction. That petal, even though it makes no sense, seemed to be calling me to a new home.”

The tree shook a little, a rippling vibration sending joy through the ant’s body, and she thought that maybe the tree was laughing.

“My little friend,” said the tree with a sigh of branches, “a hundred years ago I was young, young like you. I had leaves, and bark which was smooth and soft. And at the tips of each of my branches, I had flowers which bloomed every year with pink petals.”

The worker perked up at this, and her antenna lifted in excited curiosity.

“At the end of each season, when the flowers were ready to go, winds would come and strip them bare. A wave of my pink petals would always be carried off on blessed currents to the east. I would miss those flowers terribly, but still bid them good journey.”

The tree curled one of its branches towards the ant, trying to pat her on her head, but the branch — and tree — were too old and dried-out to succeed.

“So, my friend,” continued the tree in its rumbling voice, “I encourage you to follow the dream in your heart, planted there by a glimpse of something magical. Head east, to where the sun rises, to where it gives first light to these lands, and find where your home might be.”

The worker had no response to give, for she felt a silence from the tree, like the empty space after a wistful sigh, and it was large enough to live in. She lay her head down and thought she could rest for a while, not yet ready to leave this gentle friend, or continue her journey.

Minutes passed, as the sun rose higher in the sky, and shone down a stifling heat. The bark and branches of the tree grew warmer, and the air all around began burning with rippling waves.

“When I was young,” said the tree with a rumble, and startling the resting ant, “I did not know a lot of this world. Trees are born with love, if you are curious, and we love by offering shade.”

“When I had full branches, covered in leaves, I was happy for scorching days like this. I would wake in the morning and stand patiently, twiddling my branch tips, just hoping for a tired animal to come seeking a cooler place to rest. When any living thing came to take my shade, it made me happiest tree ever.”

The tree paused, and the ant looked down to see the countless beetles begin a slow, circular swarm around the base of the trunk, so far below.

“But, on a day years ago, when I lost all my leaves and flowers, and felt old and tired for the first time, I cried. I cried into the night, shaking off branches that abandoned me too easily, and no other trees were nearby to ever comfort me. How would I ever be able to continue sharing what is in my heart, if I could not offer shade?”

The beetles at the base of the trunk began climbing up, in a random tangle of motion, and the little worker could feel the tree shake under the thousands of tiny feet marching across its bark.

“These little friends came along a couple years ago and taught me how to love again,” said the tree, “taught me that love could come in all forms.”

Beetles fanned out onto every branch, lining up from tips to bases, and stepping over the ant as necessary. Quite quickly, every last corner of the tree was covered in the round, blackly glistening shapes. As the beetles moved into position, gripping tightly and beating their wings for balance, a shade grew under the tree, spreading outward, a pulsating, vibrating shade.

It was not long before a squirrel came out from between two rocks, near the edge of the ravine, and ran to the tree to lie down in the buzzing shade, resting its head against the tree’s rough bark. Even through the overwhelming wall of vibration, from the tens of thousands of beetles covering every branch, the ant felt a gentle, wooden sigh of bliss.

“These beetles give me back my shade for a few hours each day, give me back my purpose and love, and through them, I learned to also love differently. And, now I will offer my love to you, my little ant, by helping you on your journey.

A silence followed these words from the tree, and the ant could feel that silence move up from the trunk — possibly even from its dying roots — and spread to each and every waiting branch. Beetles began shifting positions, a few hundred here and there, and then a large faction moved to the end of the longest branch. As more beetles began shifting, the long branch began dipping down under the weight, until its tip delicately reached and kissed the ground on the far side of the ravine.

A wave began undulating through the rest of the beetles, and the worker felt itself get picked up and passed along, from beetle to beetle, across that long branch, and then to the ground just beyond the ravine. She looked over and saw the soldier and princess get picked up from the ground where they stood, passed upwards by the beetles, then over the branch, until they were deposited right next to her too.

The beetles on the branch re-shifted, and soon the branch sprung back to its original place, bouncing ever so slightly, as if a hand waving a bidding of good journey. The ants saw a jackrabbit bound out from some grass and hop to the tree, curl up and rest, and the worker was happy to see love shining down. The worker looked to the soldier and smiled, and the soldier and princess smiled back. They all looked at each other, and then noticed the beetle, the wise and very round one from before, was standing there too.

“Well, my friends,” said the beetle from its tiny head atop its tank-like body, “I think I’ll accompany you. This old beetle could use another adventure.”

seven

Hate

 

 

Before them stood a field of dried grass, with stiff amber immune to the slight breeze, and outdoing the sun with a brilliance of yellow. While the others conferred, with the soldier offering suggestions as to how to proceed, the worker turned and looked back to the tree. She had hoped to feel its presence, even from this distance, but instead only felt the day’s heat on her back and the vibrations of the unfamiliar all around.

“ As a future queen, and the only one qualified to lead,” said the princess with a giggle, “I am going to decide that we-” and she paused to look at the soldier, trying to guess what his plan was, “- that we go around the grass and then continue east.”

The soldier and beetle stared at each other, and the beetle fluffed out his wings, bringing them back in a flurry of amusement. “I am always fascinated by insects who have leaders like queens. I will let you two figure it out.”

Looking to the princess, as she continued her little happy hops, the soldier cleared her throat and angled her head down. “I’m sorry my princess, while that is a great suggestion, my advice is-”

“But aren’t I the leader?” asked the princess, now a little less happy, and a bit sulky, as she stopped her hops and tried kicking a grass stalk behind her.

“- yes,” said the soldier, “but, a queen takes advice from advisors. So, respectfully, I would say that going through the grass is fine. It offers cover, and is the straightest path east.”

“Fine,” said the princess, wiping her head dramatically with a leg. “I was going to say that next anyways.” She flapped her wings furiously, barely getting an inch off the ground, and then added, “when I can fly, you all will miss my company.”

The worker looked to the forest of grass, where nothing could be seen but a few inches ahead, and heard its rustling, as if a warning, and she tried gathering the courage to speak her lack thereof. “Perhaps going around is a good idea,” she said, but no one heard her.

The ground entered the forest of dried stalks, with the soldier bravely taking the lead, and then the princess and beetle following. The worker could hesitate no longer — otherwise she’d be left behind. She entered the grass, and the sun and its light disappeared, replaced with a glow above and a shadiness all around. When she entered, so focused on keeping sight of the beetle ahead, she did not notice that the breeze had deposited a pink petal on the ground where she had been standing, a dried and crumpled pink petal, drained of color and life.

Sounds found them from all around. They heard animals far away moving through the grass, pushing it aside like it was nothing, for everything out here was bigger and stronger than lowly bugs. Breezes would come, not to check on their progress, but to tussle the grass into pushing them left and right and disorient them. The soldier needed to calm down, she needed to focus on her journey, reminding her over and over again that she needed to press on, for there was nothing for her behind.

The beetle was wise, and sensitive, and could feel the ant’s worry, so he spoke up to fill the too-empty silence. “I am an old fellow,” said the beetle, “my life has been full of adventures. Can I tell you of some of them, my little friend?”

“Please do,” said the worker faintly, as her antenna furiously spun, trying to make sense of the vibrations and sounds swarming in from everywhere.

“Well, there was that one time I climbed a stone that every beetle said was impossible. I did not even use my wings.”

The beetle looked ahead and behind, trying to make out through the tangle if the ants were impressed.

“Also, there was a time when dirt had fallen on some youngsters, and I was the only one big enough to go in and burrow them out. I had to go down at least two, maybe three, lengths of my body to find them. My friends still talk about that one at night, as we sit around gazing up to the stars.”

“Yes,” continued the beetle wistfully, “I have life a long and full life.”

The princess giggled as the less-than-impressive stories continued to tumble out, and the soldier stopped and turned to the beetle. “Exactly how old are you, our new friend?” she asked.

“Oh, I am the oldest of all the beetles I know. And if I’m lucky,” said the beetle, knocking a leg against her body with a clang, “I’ll reach maybe seven months.”

The three ants all laughed, and the princess tried to do a happy hop, flapping her wings to lift her up, but the soldier held her down with a respectful leg.

When they restarted their march, the beetle turned and looked at the little worker behind him, and smiled. “I know you ants are older, youngsters at a year and old women at two, but we are all different.”

The beetle’s leg touched a tiny pebble amidst the grass, and he tapped it again for emphasis. “This little fellow is laughing, for it heard our words, and says that until you live to a billion, you know nothing.”

The worker looked to the beetle curiously, unsure if he was joking or not.

“If you get still inside, still enough that your heartbeat becomes the world, then nature sometimes whispers to you,” said the beetle as he turned and continued walking.

The worker felt the stillness mentioned, in the beetle’s words themselves, and knew he was not joking, and so she stopped to inspect the pebble. She looked up to ask the beetle a question, but he was already gone, replaced so quickly by the prisoned tangle of amber stalks.

Running with all her might, the worker weaved in and out between the grasses, climbing over dirt mounds and across little ditches, but still she could not find her friends. She called out, and all that came back was a rustling of something big in the grass nearby. She ran in the opposite direction, at one point even climbing a stalk to see, but the breeze at top was too much, and she only needed to cling for life for a few seconds before dropping back to the ground.

She ran and ran, as the grass taunted her with rustles and waves, with its shadows hiding dangers and thickness hiding progress. Suddenly she tripped over a tiny pebble, and it looked so familiar. She reached up to her lone antenna and fell to the ground, dejected, knowing she had been going only in circles.

A vibration came from up ahead, and she saw a blur of movement through the tangle. She called out tentatively. “Beetle? Is that you?”

The movement came again, and she could see some grass move. She ran forward, fully expecting to see her friends soon step out, for they must have turned around and come looking for her. An especially thick stalk of grass blocked the way, and the ant ran around it, then another and another, following the vibrations coming up through her body from the ground, and she finally stepped into a clearing.

A flurry of dust was kicked up, blinding her for a moment, and in a snippet of a daydream, she saw her friends run forward to hug her. But when the dust cleared, there was an immense shape ahead, eclipsing the sun like a mountain, and staring right at her with an eye the size of her body. A robin, with sharp talons and sharp, giant beak, was looming over her, with a worm half in her mouth and half in the ground.

The bird had been tugging at the worm, flapping wings to gain leverage, but all that seemed uninteresting as soon at the ant had stepped into the clearing. The robin let go of the worm, which immediately slunk back underground, like a spring let go, and the bird angled her head to get a better look at this tasty intruder.

It brought its giant head close, and opened its beak, and the little worker could see into a darkened throat, smelling death from beyond, where so many bugs like her had come and gone. The bird pecked at the ground right at the ant’s feet, once then twice, sending little swirls of dust up into the air, before it shoved the ant with its beak, sending her flailing onto her back.

Panic flowed in, as the ant tried to right herself, and she wondered if it would be quick and painless. A random thought came through, and she also wondered if maybe this was for the best. She felt at home nowhere anymore, for this world was too scary, and perhaps it would be best if she were no more.

But, then another thought came in, a remembering of the beetle’s words about stillness. Just remembering them, without any effort, made the ant quiet and calm, and she turned over and stood up. The giant bird above suddenly closed its beak, and angled its head, bringing it closer and it brought its big eye right next to the ant’s.

There was a stare down, and the worker had no idea what was going through the bird’s mind, but if it was like her in this moment, perhaps it was nothing at all but calmness.

Suddenly, a buzzing built-up overhead, an angry droning cutting through the air like the sharpest of thorns. A yellow and black, streamlined insect zoomed by, barely above the robin’s head, and it startled the bird enough that it took to wing with a tornado of dust. When the air cleared and the ant was alone, with the bird and zipping bug gone, she could faintly hear her friends up ahead calling out for her.

She stepped out from the last of stalks of grass to meet her friends, and they asked if she was okay. The soldier chuckled when the worker said she had gotten lost, turned around in a few circles, though she did not mention the strange encounter with the bird or buzzing shape.

“This clearing, with no cover nor protection, and in the scorching heat of such a day, is not good for insects like us,” said the soldier as she scanned the expanse before them. A parched yellow dirt stretched out to the east, with no features to break up its monotone.

“There,” said the soldier, angling her head so her one good eye could see, “I think I can make out in those grey blobs over there a patch of stones. If those are indeed stones, we can make it there for a spot to rest and catch shade, and then see if anything is beyond.”

“I can see them easily. They are indeed stones, two small leaning up against a large one,” said the worker.

The beetle looked at the little worker, with her two good eyes, and then looked at the larger soldier, with her little concave depression where second eye had been.

“How can you see so well into the distance, and with only one eye?” said the beetle in jest.

The soldier was not amused, and immediately reached up to her missing eye, a reaction she had when her injury was mentioned. She suddenly started feeling a pain in her abdomen, and felt like it spread to behind her eyes, and was reminded that remnants of the poison were still in her system.

The beetle apologized, “I am sorry, my new ant-friend, but I have quite the dry sense of humor, a perfect match for these arid lands,” but he also did not know when to stop. “How did you lose that eye?”

The soldier was not offended by the question, for she knew beetles did not have the same rules of life as ants. She was not even bothered by her friend, the worker, being there, for that one knew of her past. She was only embarrassed that this question was brought up before the princess, someone whom she hoped would learn to admire her strength and valor.

“There was a battle long ago,” said the soldier. “A battle where I lost my honor. I lost my honor because I lost my eye instead of my life. We will leave it at that.”

They began their march across the flat, dry and barren expanse, and all along the way the princess kept excitedly talking and doing test hops with her wings flapping like mad. Even though the soldier told her to conserve her energy, for the heat would soon get to her, she ignore her. She chatted about how fun this adventure has been so far, and even grabbed the worker at one point, egging her on to dance with her, and how there must no doubt be something wonderful in the east waiting for them all.

It happened quickly and surprisingly, and even the soldier, whose duty was to keep these charges safe, had no warning at all. It came as a blur of black and yellow, and a horrid buzzing, a deep, taunting droning setting the air above them on fire. And then with a thwack — a thud rippling out deafening vibrations — it landed before them in a wave of excited air.

A wasp stood proudly before them, its slender torso ringed with yellow and its wings easily twice the size of even the large beetle. It reared up on its hind legs, showing them its full height, and then went back quietly to prone to polish the dust from its sharp, gleaming stinger.

“Well, hello, strangers,” said the wasp with a hissing, as if its voice buzzed even when its wings were still. “You seem distant from your homes, visitors to this land. I am surprised you are so far into this barrenness. Just a warning, it is quite dry up ahead, you know.”

And then silence. The wasp said nothing. All it did was continue to rub its stinger, slowly.

“Okay,” said the soldier hesitatingly, as she moved the princess and soldier behind her. The beetle moved up to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the soldier. “Thank you for the warning,” the soldier added.

When the wasp offered nothing in return but silence, the soldier moved the two smaller ants to her right, in between her and the beetle. The whole group slowly started walking, giving the wasp as wide a berth as they could. Just as they were passing the wasp, however, it flew up with a flurry of dust and landed again with a thud right in front of them.

“I hate ants,” said the wasp menacingly, with its antennae forming a frown and its black-lined jaws opening up to full-width. “I despise them with every last leg on this body.”

“But you,” said the wasp, as it curled its abdomen under. It pointed its stinger towards the beetle, who tensed up and took a step back, before the wasp finished, “you I have no problem with.”

“I’ve lost count of all the ants I’ve killed,” said the wasp, this time taking a step forward to tower over the soldier and stare down into her eye. “Do you know why I hate ants?”

The soldier did not answer right away. She was sizing up this wasp, preparing for battle, planning and strategizing. She knew she might not survive against such a large foe, but if she were lucky, pincering off a leg, or even that lethal stinger, she might have a chance. If only she had her full contingent of sisters behind her, she thought, before reluctantly answering the wasp, “No, I do not know.”

“I was but a youngster,” said the wasp, “when they attacked.” It brought its stinger to the eye-level of the soldier, but positioned it in front of her missing eye, and not the good one. “A giant, disgusting, swarming army of ants. They came to raid for food, entering our nest as if it were not our home. So many of my kin died that day. But, thankfully, more of them did too. We chased them out. We rebuilt. I became a soldier. A ruthless one. I spend my days killing ants like you.”

The wasp moved its stinger even closer, brushing against the empty socket of the soldier, curious why it was not even budging. An unlucky fly chose that moment to lazily buzz through, and with the speed of lightening the wasp spun and impaled it on its stinger. The wasp then kicked it off, dropping it still in its final, writhing death throes at the feet of the ants and beetle.

At the distraction, the solder grabbed the moment. “Run!” she yelled, “run for the rocks!” And then she ran forward, bounced off the fly to land on the wasps back and begin biting its eyes from behind. The wasp yelled and bucked, but the soldier held on bravely.

The beetle shoved the princess and worker, snapping them out of their shocked stare, and the three began running for the rocks with all their might. They had only taken half a minute’s worth of steps before they saw the soldier fly above them, tumble mercilessly through the air, and then land in a crumpled and pained ball before them.

The soldier groaned and unfurled, trying to lift herself up to stand. A blur of yellow and black, a wave of wind, and suddenly the princess disappeared from the midst of the group. The next time the soldier looked up, the wasp had the princess a few inches away, on her back, with a giant stinger pointed right at her abdomen.

“No!” yelled the soldier, slowly bringing herself up to stand. “Please do not harm her!”

The soldier took a step forward, as the wasp lowered its stinger, resting it directly against the soft and pale abdomen of the princess. This time, the princess did not giggle, or try any happy flaps of her tiny wings. She just lay there frozen, with eyes wide and imploring, trying to move her head to find the comforting sight of her kin and friends.

A wind far up above blew through, and on its back was a fresh pink petal. The worker saw it out of the corner of her eyes, but she had to ignore it. She ignored the dance, and especially the delicate whispers which tried to come, and thankfully, they were polite enough to not try again.

“She is all I live for,” cried out the soldier, falling to her knees. “She is my charge, the last hope for my honor. She is innocent, young. Please do not harm her.”

The wasp looked up and nodded slowly. What a foolish soldier, it thought, giving away its weakness so easily.

“One thing I hate more than ants,” said the wasp with its hissing, “is ants who are soldiers. If killing this tiny one will bring you torment, then doing so will make my day.”

The wasp primed its stinger by raising it up a quarter of an inch, tensing its muscles along its spine and abdomen, readying for the killing thrust.

“This cannot be allowed to happen!” yelled out the beetle, and he ran forward with legs churned to desperation, ran forward like a fully armored tank, and smashed into the side of the wasp like a crashing boulder. The wasp flew off a whole foot before smashing into the ground. The beetle did not pause its charge, running forward, lowering its head, and bashing the wasp again with full fury and momentum.

“Run for the rocks you fools! Run!” yelled the beetle as it readied for another charge.

The soldier did not hesitate. She ran forward and grabbed the princess and threw her onto her back. She spun and raced for the small pile of stones, yelling at the worker to keep up. The trio dove into the tiny space between the two smaller rocks, and then inched their backs up against the larger one. There was a tiny space, just large enough for them and their panic, and they could see out the crack they just dove through.

The light of day entered through the tiny crack, scorching heat did too, and then, furious sounds. There was smashing and buzzing, scrapes of a stinger against a hard shell, yells of torment and cries of rage. The ground shook nearby, vibrations came to keep the ants blindly informed, and then, suddenly, the noises stopped. Now only dry dust came in through the crack, for one second, two, and then five.

“It is safe,” came the baritone deepness of the beetle’s voice, and it echoed into the space the ants hid in, wiping clean their cowering. The soldier went out first, slowly and carefully, and then motioned for the other two to follow.

The beetle was covered in scrapes, and one of its legs was bent at an impossible angle. It limped for a few steps, and then stopped to rest. The ants dashed over to their new friend, running their antennae over it skin in thanks and appreciation, and the worker was sad he had but one to use. They saw the disturbed dirt where the battle had taken place, and saw the pinpricks in the ground where the stinger had thrust and missed its mark.

“That foul beast is gone,” said the beetle, as it winced in pain. “I banged her up pretty good.”

The beetle tried taking a few more steps, but the pain was too much, and it fell over onto its side. The worker went to the beetle and used all her strength to delicately roll it back, keeping tender eye contact the whole time, and then lifted as much weight as she could from the broken leg. Together like that, beetle and loving ant-crutch, and with the soldier and princess following, the group made it back to the stones to rest and recuperate.

“I banged her up pretty good,” said the beetle again, once they were all safe inside the rocks. “But she will return. And we will have to be ready when she does.”

eight

Wonder

 

 

It had been an hour since the wasp attack and the group was near their end. The shade was doing little to protect them from the heat, and none of them had had any water that day. The air in the cranny with them had become heavy, and its scorching dryness was sucking the life from them all.

The worker had been constantly peeking out through the crack at the slightest noise, expecting to see the wasp zoom by or land for another assault. When the soldier suggested it was time to leave and press on, the worker tensed up. The scariness of this unfamiliar world now had a face, had a stinger, now had rage and hate.

“We could stay until sunset,” said the worker, trying vainly to convince her friends.

“No,” piped up the princess, much to everyone’s surprise, “this place is killing us. We have to go.”

The soldier smiled at the princess, smiled at her seriousness and, finally, a right decision from her, but the princess looked away. She backed into the corner and looked down, for the encounter with the wasp, the reality of being an ant in this world, had sucked some innocent joy from her youth.

The soldier went out to check for danger, and then he beckoned the rest to follow. The beetle had a time trying to get his fat body through the crack, and the worker was there to help with a friendly shove. When the group stood atop the largest rock and scanned around, all they saw was dry dustiness.

It was the worker who first saw something, mentioning trees, a whole cluster of them, perhaps a forest, further to the east. The rest couldn’t see what she saw, and the soldier wondered aloud if she were daydreaming again, or if the heat and lack of water was affecting her, but the worker was adamant.

A couple of brittle, dry leaves, as cracked and colorless as the ground itself, had been parked against the rocks from a long-gone wind. The worker jumped down and picked one as if it were weightless. “We can use these for shade and camouflage,” she said, happy to have found something in her wheelhouse she could contribute.

For a few awkward seconds she tried to teach the others how to properly carry. The beetle put in a good effort, but with such a round body and tiny legs, there was no way he could get a grasp. The soldier was a little better, but couldn’t walk with something held. Finally, it was decided that the worker would carry both, balanced precariously, and angled so that everyone could fit under, and she smiled at being so useful.

They set out, with the soldier aiding the limping beetle, set out into the stifling heat which came curious, and inched forward. At every little vibration, the worker expected to hear the angry buzzing of the wasp, but she pushed those images out of her mind and stayed true and focused. She kept her antenna as still as possible, ensuring a straight walk, kept the two leaves raised above her perfectly, for the group was depending on her.

By the time they reached the edge of the sparse forest it was evening, and the heat and light from the day was replaced by a silent coolness. They passed through the scrubland, relishing the little moisture trapped under each bush, and then made it to the towering trees. Dropping the leaves, the worker looked up at the red giants and marveled, feeling smaller than she had ever felt before.

“These trees have been here long before our times, before even the times of most of the animals here,” said the beetle. “The river which flows these parts is dry now, but when the odd rain comes, that river trickles, and these trees stay here hopeful for the rare drink.”

They traveled in silence, each insect lost in their thoughts of the day. They crawled over stones and stepped through exposed roots crying for moisture, and soon another problem faced them. To the extent the heat plagued them in the day, the coolness of the night was plaguing them now.

“This land is a land of extremes,” said the beetle. He looked to the worker, the timid and caring one who was still transfixed by the tree-giants. “You no doubt miss the warmth of a colony, and I miss my burrow and kin for the same reason.”

As they rounded the next tree, and the worker caressed in passing and wonder the smoothness of its bark, the group suddenly saw a glow far up ahead. Amber light spilled out, dancing on the way to meet them and sending shadows bouncing in all directions as it did. As they cautiously approached, they soon felt a warmth, and it was a godsend. They basked in the heat, let the glow light up their faces and smiles, and then moved even closer.

The little worker was the first to make out the scene: a fire atop cut and broken wood, and gathered around, with their faces made shadowed and jagged by the excited amber, were three of the giant, two-legged animals; animals just like the one that had poisoned and destroyed the only home the worker had ever known.

Turning to the beetle, and then the soldier, the worker reached out for them with eyes wide and jaw agape. She wanted to run, wanted to tell her friends that here was danger, but was even more afraid to make any noise at all. The beetle looked to her, then to the humans sitting around the campfire, and in his own wise way, knew what was upsetting the worker.

“Do not worry, my new ant friend,” the beetle said. “True, these creatures have sharp eyesight, but theirs is not like ours. Motion is not so pronounced for them, and we are too tiny for them to notice in the darkness. We can sit here safely and keep warm.”

As orange and white flames swirled and dance up into the darkening night, the group settled in. They parked themselves near a little mound of dirt, about twenty feet from the fire, and stood as still and mesmerized as the trees all around.

When a spark exploded out of the fire and drifted up, the worker tried to follow it with her eyes, and then became distracted by the stars. She stared frozen in awe, as her one antenna relaxed and curled down to touch the side of her face. She wondered if those points above were the same, sparks exploded out of some fire too distant to see.

As the warmth came from the fire to wrap her in comfort, the ant smiled and looked over to the beetle. “This almost feels like home,” she said.

“Yes, my friend,” said the beetle. “I know you and your friends are lost and searching for a new colony, but I wish to tell you something.”

The beetle rubbed its broken leg for a bit, wincing at the pain, and then gathered his thoughts before continuing. “Perhaps it is because we beetles are more solitary, and ants need kin. But I find home in warmth when cold, or in finding water on a hot day, or, most important for me, on adventures. I think you could too.”

Letting her friend’s words sink in, the worker thought for a moment. She remembered all the moments of happiness in her life, and they all seemed to involve her former sisters. Even when she was treated differently, teased mercilessly, and made to work from morning to night, she still felt at home. She could not picture that feeling coming from anywhere but a colony.

She and the beetle talked for more minutes, which to insects this tiny felt the timeline of hours. The beetle told her of the adventures he had, of the strange insects he met in the night, and the even stranger animals which always came chasing. When the worker had had her fill, with the beetle stories, starlight, and warmth from the flames tucking her in to a welcomed space, she excused herself, for she saw the soldier sitting alone by herself.

“Why do you not sit with us closer to the warmth?”

The soldier did not answer, she only rubbed her antennae together for warmth and stared ahead. The worker followed the line of her eye and could see that she was staring at the beetle and princess. The princess had nuzzled up against the beetle for warmth, listening to his fanciful stories with rapt attention. When the princess wanted to run forward to dance closer to the flames, the beetle used a good leg to stop her and draw her back.

“I’m sorry,” said the beetle, “my humor is dry, even more so by these flames, but if you, my dear princess, get too close up there your humor would instead be fully cooked.”

“What did I do?” whispered the soldier, and only the worker heard. The little one turned to her big friend, curious.

“The beetle has his wisdom. You have your strength to carry and your sight with two perfect eyes. You know that that wasp almost killed the princess, “ said the soldier, and after a pause, she kicked at a grain of sand that was annoying her. “If that had happened, how could I live with myself? What would I be?”

The worker felt the sadness in her friend, and she saw her friend’s one good eye look down to the dust and sand, knowing she was not one to usually share her pain like this.

“Look at the stars, my friend,” said the worker, hoping that might help. “Do you not feel any comfort from them? Do they not chase away all your questions?”

The soldier looked up, and even wiped down her eye with one antenna, but then looked back down to the dirt. “I only see a canvas of black up there. My sight is not as perfect as yours.”

The worker wiggled her one antenna. “I am not perfect at all,” she said. “I am missing parts too,” and she smiled when she heard the soldier faintly chuckle. “I walk in circles if I don’t focus, and am scared out here at a feather falling.”

Looking back at the flames dancing against the darkness, and feeling the deep vibrations of the humans talking, the worker paused for the moment to fill her. She wondered if she was different than other insects, for she felt things. She felt happy and sad sometimes. She felt longing, and she knew no other of her sisters ever said they felt that same thing. And now, in looking at that fire and humans laughing, at those strange creatures so connected to each other, she longed for home like nothing else.

“My big friend,” said the worker to the soldier, “you are my longest and dearest friend in this world. I know your role takes over your mind and heart sometimes. I know you live to protect — and fight, when necessary. But we are in this together, seeking a new home, a place of comfort, a place where you can rest your role for a bit, and we will be in this together forever until we find that place.”

She reached out with one of her legs and held the tip of one the soldier’s. The soldier looked up to her friend and felt strange. Just like the flames were warming her body, her friend’s touch seemed to be warming her insides. It was a strange feeling to the soldier, one she usually only felt from duty, from her role fulfilled. For the briefest of moments, the soldier forgot her dishonor of the day, and even forgot the faint pain of the poison eating away at her abdomen.

“Come, let us join our princess and beetle friend,” said the worker.

Just as the soldier and worker went to rejoin their friends and warm themselves closer to the fire, fate and circumstance changed the night.

Who knows what was different about that log, perhaps it was gathered from closer to where the river sometimes trickles, and so had moisture or moss trapped inside. But when a human threw it on the fire, it only took a few seconds before it began smoking and sparking.

Hisses broke the still air, and then explosions and showers of sparks. Even the humans seemed alarmed, for they all jumped up and tried kicking at the log or reaching for it with other pieces. But it was already too covered in flames, and the shower of sparks kept coming. Most fell harmlessly to the ground, but so many danced with the rising smoke, happy to be free to fly. They flew up into the branches of nearby trees, trees which had not tasted moisture in months.

It was when the humans began throwing possessions into metal boxes that the insects knew something was really wrong. Now there were flames not only on the ground, in that contained space, but up in one tree, then another, and another. It didn’t need the beetle to yell out to run for the ants to know, for instinct was in them as much as wisdom in their round friend.

The beetle ran to the worker, and begged her to look around, to find the safest escape route. Branches began cracking and falling, covered in flames, and smashing to the ground in an explosion of sparks and vibrations. The worker scanned around, but was overcome with the confusion from around and panic from within.

The human were screaming, the fire was spreading, tree trunks were now on fire as much as their branches. The soldier ran to the princess to grab her, for she was furiously flapping her still-useless wings in a moment of franticness, thinking she could fly away to safety.

When the worker saw the human run in one direction, she yelled out to her friends to go in the other. She helped the injured beetle, while the soldier had the princess on her back, and they escaped just as a flaming branch fell and flattened the dirt mound they had been sitting on.

More trees caught the fire, smoke and sparks filled the air, and the heat was unbearable, but still they ran. They ran between rocks and hills, through little depressions and around clumps of dirt and falling embers. But they were tiny things, and even with six legs, they were no match for the speed of destruction. Now the fire was all around, as trees so thirsty for water seemed to be just as thirsty for flames.

The air was orange, there was no more darkness or coolness, and the worker only ran and ran, aching for a home and safety more than ever. Her instincts took over, and lucky she ran in a straight line, for her friends were depending on her. She ran where she thought the edge of the forest was, but wasn’t sure. She could no longer see clearly, for everything was too bright, and the heat now seemed to be even in the ground, singing every time her feet touched down.

“Over there!” yelled out the beetle, and the worker saw what he was pointing at. There, beyond a little hill, was something flat and reflecting the flames all around. They run up the hill, then tumbled down the other side, and there before them was a saving grace from nature, a little spring-fed pond. As the heat and flames encircled, the worker saw a leaf by the shore and yelled at everyone to jump on. When she felt the leaf attached, she ran to its edge and gnawed, more furiously working than she ever did, until the leaf was free.

With the help of the soldier, she began kicking, churning up the tiniest splashes behind, until the leaf began drifting forward. When they felt the heat from the left, they kicked to go right, and when they felt it from in front, they kicked to go back, until they were dead center in the pond, with death and destruction fully around.

“That is a squirrel!” yelled the beetle over the fury of the flames, as a grey shape ran past, but the ants were too distracted by their terrified huddle to care.

“That looks like a coyote!” said the beetle when the next shape, this one more brown, ran past. The worker would have marveled at all the new animals she was getting to see, if it were not for the fear chewing away. This is what not having a home feels like, she thought, and she did not like it at all.

“Oh my,” said the beetle, “these ones I think we all know.”

From behind nearby stones, lizards were emerging, and indeed, all the ants did know of lizards. These ones were brown, with slithering bodies and eyes so black they betrayed nothing. The came to the waters edge, and while the flames were chasing animals from every last corner of this forest, these lizards, with their lizard brains, were only focused on the meal at the center of their pond.

With the air excited by the churning heat, the leaf they were on began to float, and one of the lizards, the one getting closer and bigger, seemed to smile. The worker and soldier began their furious kicking splashes, but still they were not changing direction. They could see the lizard open its mouth, revealing a black fate inside, and now even the beetle was kicking with his good legs. The princess was flapping furiously, doing the only thing she could to help.

A swirl of hot wind came to save them, just as the lizard snapped down a inch from their heads, but the wind was not perfectly merciful, for it was pushing them towards another lizard.

For minutes this game continued, with the lizards uncaring of the scorching heat all around and getting closer, and the winds toying with the group’s lives, bringing them closer to one set of teeth and then another. The princess was crying and the wise old beetle had no words to encourage. The worker wanted to go home, even to that poison-filled scene of death by the flat-stones, anywhere but here.

The winds weren’t done, and now they were bringing the flames closer too. One lizard snapped out of his instinct for food, for it could feel the singing heat on its scales, and it turned and ran to safety. But the remaining lizards stood firm, spacing themselves out around the pond and waiting for the leaf and dinner to come to them.

The next time the princess began flapping her useless wings in panic, the soldier had had enough. “You cannot fly!” he shouted, grabbing her and flinging her to one leaf corner. She collapsed to the edge, and the worker was the only one to see, that her wings had created a shiny little amber bubble on the water.

“Do that again!” the worker yelled, even as the leaf was drifting too close to one gaping mouth, and as the soldier was begging for backup to steer the leaf away.

The princess flapped her tiny wings, and more bubbles formed on the surface. The worker grabbed the beetle and soldier and spun them around. “We go under!” she yelled.

They all knew exactly what she meant, and also knew there was no other choice. The princess churned her wings, half in the water and half out, forming more and more bubbles, with a variety of sizes to choose from. Just as the leaf touched the tip of the shore, and as a giant lizard was baring down on them, each of the bugs gathered as many bubbled around their bodies as they could, and dove under the surface.

Amber, dancing light, heat and destruction, was replaced by cold darkness as the bugs pushed down into the stagnant pond. Murkiness brought a different kind of terror here, for they knew not what lived down here. Were there frogs or fish down here? Debris brushed against the workers body and she panicked, wanting to resurface, but the soldier held her back.

They all looked up and could see an arc of yellow and red defining the sky, and they could see the remaining lizards silhouetted and looking down, just waiting for their meal to come bobbing up. Seconds passed, then minutes, and the insects knew the air in their bubbles couldn’t last forever.

Flames above grew brighter, and the ground even at the bottom of this pond vibrated as giant trees came crashing down. The light above went from amber to yellow, to orange and then white, as the heat grew so intense that even the water began to warm. Finally, minutes later, that same light dimmed, going from bright to a glow, and then back to darkness.

Cautiously the group surfaced, making sure to come up in exactly the center of the pond. But it did not matter, for there were no more lizards at water’s edge. There were two charred lumps, which could have been lizards, or perhaps they had all come to their senses and bolted when the flames got close. In their wake, however, was only lingering heat and glows, and a blackened ground as far as the group could see.

They swam to the edge and the ground was still too hot to the touch, and so they jumped back. They found their leaf and climbed aboard to kick towards pond-center, knowing they would have to wait a while. They huddled in silence, as the glow moved to their horizon, heading on to consume the rest of the forest. Older trees kept them company, the bigger ones, old and wise enough to have stayed standing through countless other of these fires, and the group nestled down under the stars to wait for normalcy to return.

The sun hinted at its presence with a glow, and the group turned to face it. They had huddled through the remainder of the night for warmth, mostly in silence, as the crackling faded around them. Excitement sometimes ran through, as the odd escaping animal sped by the pond, and birds came curious of the smell of burning, but then left when there was nowhere to land. In the rising light, the insects spun to survey the scene. The small, dry trees were all burnt to a crisp, the bushes along the ground were no more, and if they had noses they would have smelled the acridness.

The soldier was the first to speak, and she kept it simple, “If East is our destination, let us continue.”

She leant over and began kicking and the leaf floated to shore. She stepped off and helped the princess and beetle, while the worker hopped off on her own. At the tip of the lip of dirt surrounding the pond, they stopped to plan their route, and the worker pointed at then way which was the least blackened, and then they set off.

To lighten the mood as they marched, the beetle began humming. It was a flutter of his wings and a rubbing of two of his good legs, and it excited the air around him into a high pitch. The ants, of course, heard nothing, but they felt the vibrations through the ground and their legs. Soon the humming locked their steps, so they looked like a real and good tiny army, and they all began giggling at the effect.

They soon passed the edge of the forest, the place where the fire must have stopped, for the ground turned back from black-crusted to the familiar sandy brown. The worker was the only one who turned back to look at the trees, both the burnt and untouched ones, and had this odd need to apologize to them. One of the trees, and old, red and wrinkled giant, rumbled out to the ant a thank you by shaking one of its branches. It added, not to worry, my tiny friend, for this is our life, and we look at things differently. The other side of fire is a blessing, for it kills the few who are weak and gives young ones a chance at the sun.

In between the vibrations of that giant’s branch, tweaking out its message for just the worker, she thought she saw another pink petal on the wind. It was the only shout of color from that direction, and stood out stronger than just a whisper against all the burnt and black. The petal flew over the group’s head, and the wind carrying it followed, but when the worker told everyone to look up, the petal was already gone before they could catch a glimpse.

The group did not notice that the worker stopped for a few seconds. She turned to look back in the direction of the distant dead colony, her former home, and all she saw was the burnt forest. She turned to face east, to where the petals were flying, and all she saw was the unknown. The colors were brighter up ahead, and even though the fear was brighter too, this seemed to be the first time where home pulled her more to the east than the memories behind.

Mountains rose before them to pierce the sky. The group had marched for hours, and were happy that the sun was at just the right height, here to warm but not yet scorch. Now they stood facing this rocky, mammoth obstacle, unsure how to proceed. This would be formidable, an outcrop of huge boulders, even to giant animals like humans. Going around would take days, and going over, with possibly no chance for shelter or moisture, would be foolish.

“I can fly up and over and check the way!” the princess squealed, and began flapping her tiny wings. She only got an inch off the ground; it was progress but still not really a flight, and she fell to the ground winded and dejected. She gave another flap of her wings to swirl some dust to help her to mope.

“My little royal ant,” said the beetle, “I can fly, like you will be able to soon, but that freedom is not the same as wisdom.”

The beetle took one of the princess’ legs and limped her over to a tiny crack in the mountain. To any other animal it would not even have been visible, but insects had the advantage of noticing the small.

“If you had looked around before looking over, I’m sure you would have seen this and had this idea before me,” said the beetle, as he got the princess to peer into the crack. Sunlight was bouncing off red rock walls somewhere beyond, bringing with it an enticing glow. The crack was barely big enough for the group, but the princess could see they would be able to make it. She stood there staring and smiling, imagining the journey, while the beetle smiled at her, imagining her inevitable future, where she was a leader, wise and just.

The princess was about to run, but the soldier jumped forward to grab her. “Wait, my princess,” the soldier said. “I will take the lead.”

Today was a day of learning for the princess, and instead of preferring to sulk over all her silly decisions, she stared in awe at the soldier stepping up to her role. She mapped out the plan, that she would be first, the princess next, with the injured beetle behind her, and the worker bringing up the rear. The soldier barked out commands and warning, teaching how to tap out warnings for different types of danger, and how to always keep scanning and knowing the surroundings.

The soldier stepped into the crack and looked around, satisfied that this canyon (to insects) was the best shortcut to the other side. She held up her leg for the princess to take, and the princess accepted and stepped on through.

Being a bit rounder and larger, the beetle needed a few moments to fit through the opening. He tried the normal way, and when that didn’t work, the worker pushed him up onto his head, so that he might fit in vertically.

“I do have a bit of a dry humor,” started the beetle, “so I might say that doing a headstand was not on my list of goals for-”

His sentence was cut short by a fierce buzz cracking the air like a whip. The beetle and worker looked around frantically for the source, and could see nothing. The whine got louder, and they all knew what it was, for it was familiar, the last time hearing it during the attack of the wasp

“Let me back through!” yelled the soldier, pushing on the beetle, but the beetle was wedged in tightly.

The worker huddled down in the dirt, up against the mountain face, her eyes darting around, and her antenna too, but all she saw was the sun and sky. The buzz got louder, changed to a higher pitch, like the whine of a bomb falling out of the sky.

From the wasp’s point of view, the sky was its domain. It had recovered from its bruises and soreness imparted by the beetle, and that fractured part of its brain told it to catch up to the ants no matter the cost. Now it had them in its sights — for that black beetle was so easy to spot against the dusty browns. The fat one was even wedged into a little crack, his giant rump a perfect target for the wasp’s stinger. It angled its attack, aiming strait for the beetle, but at the last moment, barely a few inches above the group, its wing slapped into a pebble.

From the group’s position, all they heard was the whining increase in intensity and then replaced by a thud. Grains of sand and tiny pebbles began tumbling down into the crack, and dust was kicked up to cloud the air. When the dust settled, the situation was fully different; the crack opening was blocked, with the beetle covered with dust and debris, and the soldier and princess still on the other side.

Suddenly, the buzzing started again, and the beetle strained to look up, but could see nothing. The worker jumped back from her hiding spot to look up the mountain, and there, with two legs stuck between two pebbles, was the wasp beating its wings in an enraged flurry. Its wings were exciting the sand and dust around, and the pebbles under its legs were slowly sinking. It would only be a matter of time before it was free.

With all her worker strength, and with terror birthing courage, the worker ran forward and yanked on the beetle’s body. With a pop he was free, and tumbled on top of the worker beside the crack. They could now see the way was fully blocked and stuffed with sand, and so they spun around to look for any other option.

“Over there!” shouted the worker, pointing to a little shadowy space in the ground. As they began running, the wasp managed to get one leg free, and its flapping wings increased in pitch, for its rage was still fueling it. It could see the fat beetle and small ant heading one way, and to its left, could see the canyon opening covered in debris. The wasp was not sure if the soldier and princess were crushed and dead, or not.

Reaching the target, the shadowy spot, the worker and beetle stood at its edge and peered down. They could see it was a hole stretching deep underground, and they both hesitated, for coming up from it was nothing at all inviting or certain.

“We can’t leave our friends!” shouted the worker as she stared towards the collapsed canyon.

It was the wasp who helped them decide, for it broke free its last leg and came zipping towards them. The beetle grabbed the worker and threw her into the hole, and then dove in right after. He kicked up his back legs, including the one broken one, churning through the pain, shoving dirt behind him until the opening was half closed, letting in only the tiniest slivers of light.

The wasp stopped and hovered in an angry circle, studying the hole and coming up with plans. It knew it could land and start digging, but also knew that its advantage was flight, was using its stinger from a diving attack. It looked back towards the collapsed crack in the boulder-mountain and thought of the soldier. There were two ants in that direction, and only on here in this hole, so the wasp let go its rage against the beetle and took off to fly east.

When their eyes adjusting to the darkness, with the tiny shaft of light behind them helping out, the beetle and worker could make out the way ahead. They were in a long tunnel, stretching off as far as their eyes could see. The worker’s mind immediately began running to fear. What made this tunnel? What animal is down here ready to eat them? Is the wasp about to smash through the hole behind and thrust its stinger deep into them?

But the biggest feeling in her mind, like a bubble on a boiling surface readying to pop, was loneliness, accented by the darkness of this tunnel. This was the first time, she realized, she had absolutely no ants around her, not even her oldest friend.

The beetle broke his chain of thoughts by whispering, and his voice brought a little calmness with it. “This tunnel appears to be heading east. That is a godsend.”

nine

Alone

 

 

As their eyes adjusted to the darkness, they could see spears of light penetrating from the surface ahead of them. Even though the beetle was calm, as he always was, he still did not take a step forward. The worker looked up to the half-covered escape route, and then looked forward to the darkness of the tunnel, and did not budge a millimeter either.

“Perhaps we can stop right here. We can stand here and wait, and then go back up to the surface when the wasp’s gone,” said the worker, as she reached out with a couple of legs and her antenna to feel the safety of the walls nearby.

The beetle half-turned to face the worker, not wanting to turn the whole way and have the full darkness of the tunnel behind him.

“I am not exactly sure of this either, my little friend,” said the beetle. “But right now we are separated from your friends. Who knows if they are injured and need our attention. We cannot go around that mountain of rocks, nor over it, especially when that crazed wasp is out there. Our only choice is to go east, through this tunnel, and hope that it takes us beyond the barrier.”

The beetle finally took one step forward, feeling the edge of the wall with his legs, and then he took another step forward. The next step he’d take would be on his injured leg, and when he noticed the worker still not moving, he half-turned again.

“My little friend, with my dry humor I will say that me being so wise has perhaps borrowed from my courage. I cannot do this alone. I need your help.”

The worker gulped down her fear and paused for a moment. She was tempted to blur her eyes and daydream, perhaps picture sunlight flooding or transform the entire tunnel into a row of flowers bathed in pink light, but she resisted. She needed all her senses to be able to navigate this darkness. She stepped up and moved to the side of the beetle, and began helping her along.

“This tunnel is in disrepair,” said the beetle a few steps later, as he knelt to look at the debris lining the floor. “I think this tunnel was made by small animals, perhaps a mole. If this tunnel were well-kept we’d be in danger-”

The worker pressed up against the beetle, almost tipping him over.

“No, my little friend. No need to worry. I see no signs of animals down here. And the disrepair is in our favor, for the crumbling is letting in these shafts of light we see piercing the ceiling.”

The pair continued inching along, moving through the light and dark sections, and the deathly-still air. They passed offshoots of this main tunnel, branches leading off left and right, and for each they paused and studied. As their eyes adjusted, they could see some tunnels absolute pitch-black, and others slightly less scary, with the same crumbling ceilings letting in pinpricks of light.

At one point of their march, the worker thought she felt vibrations. As an ant, she was more sensitive than the beetle, so when the beetle said he felt nothing, the worker was not assuaged. She reached out with her antenna and touched the wall, and stifled a little giggle when the coldness of it surprised her. She paused for a second, and feeling no more vibrations, she was ready to continue.

They got to a perilous section of the tunnel where there were no tiny holes to the outside at all, no light shafts, only pitch blackness. “Stay close,” said the beetle as he inched forward. The worker didn’t need the warning, for the fear coating each of her steps was more than enough. She pressed up closer to the beetle and kept up.

She felt those odd vibrations again, and they seemed to be shaking the whole tunnel in the most ominous of ways. She spun to look behind her, thinking they were getting closer, but then, suddenly, they stopped. Turning back, she held her breath and felt around in the darkness for the beetle, and resumed breathing when she felt his side again.

She whispered she was ready to continue, and took one step forward, then another, and was curious why the beetle wasn’t moving at all. She reached over with her one antenna and felt the side of the beetle, at at first everything seemed right: cool, smooth, round. When she tapped him with her antenna she realized something was wrong. She felt with her legs too now, and it dawned on her that she was holding on to a pebble.

Immediately she panicked and spun around, grasping in the dark, wiggling her legs and antenna. Only empty air came back. She started calling out, and swore she heard the beetle calling for her up ahead. She inched forward, still completely blind in the dark, and the voice she thought she heard suddenly dropped off to nothing.

She decided to stop and collect her thoughts. She didn’t like being in the center of the tunnel, so nakedly surrounded by emptiness, so she moved to the side. Then she stopped. Is the the direction for the side of the tunnel? She spun around, once, then twice, and her lone antenna had no idea which was the right way. Eventually she picked a random direction and stepped cautiously, relieved when she could eventually feel a wall she could back into.

“Beetle?” she called out. She waited for an answer, keeping her antenna still and feeling the vibration of her voice emanate outwards. She heard nothing, and so she waited, priming her antenna to pick up even the tiniest of vibrations in return.

Finally, after ten tense seconds, she felt something. She froze her body, slowed her heartbeat and rested her antenna against the wall, getting as sensitive as she could. There was the vibration again. It was a step.

“Beetle?” she called out again. Nothing answered.

She blurred her eyes and daydreamed a source of the vibration, and saw the beetle — her dear and wise friend the beetle — step down with one foot. She felt another ping of the vibration and pictured the beetle putting his next leg down. This continued until she got up to her feeling five steps, and she imagined the next step, coming from the beetles poor injured last leg, would be slightly less easy to pick up, so she honed her focus.

There was the next step, felt as the faintest of vibrations through the tunnel walls. But then she felt another step. This did not make sense. Her instincts would have told her when the vibration matched the first, when the beetle was restarting his stride, and yet this was definitely a vibration from another leg. Then she felt another step.

She rubbed her antenna across her head in confusion, and counted again in her mind. That couldn’t be the beetle. It had to be some other insect. In her daydreamed vision, she was trying to picture a solution: a long beetle; a beetle with an additional body part. What could it be? In her short life, she had never met an insect that had eight steps in its stride.

When she felt the steps restarting, ever so faintly tapping out along the tunnel floor and wall from far up ahead, she decided to cautiously inch forward and meet the source of this strange stride.

Around a corner, the worker finally saw some light. It was only a pinprick of sun reaching down through the ceiling, but it was enough to reveal a cavern. Any light was good, thought the worker, and so she stepped inside. She could see this was a central room, dug out by whatever small animal had first excavated these tunnels. Fanning out in all directions were more tunnels, some darkened and some half-lit.

The ant poked her head into a few tunnels, whispering out for her beetle friend and waiting for a response. She stepped into one of the darker tunnels and thought she saw the outline of a beetle. She shuffled to the side to let some of the light from the cavern through, and then shrieked and jumped back in terror.

Littered along the ground of this tunnel were bodies, hundreds of them. Curled and dead insects, with the life sucked out of each, lined the floor. That odd feeling wanted to come to the worker, that feeling she sometimes felt of moisture wanting to fall from her eyes. Her heart skipped a beat and something in her chest felt heavy, something that ants wouldn’t normally feel or know how to name: empathy.

As she scanned the bodies, bodies of all manner of insects, she saw their faces and wondered what lives they had, what friends they played and talked with, what homes each had. The worker suddenly thought about her friend, the soldier. As a hand reaching out for another in the dark, her thoughts were looking for a connection, a familiar spot to hide in. She thought of her friend, how she always made her safe in the colony, how she was always there with an encouraging word. She wondered if any of these dead bugs had had friends too.

And when those thoughts did not erase the bodies before her, she tried thinking of the petal and its whispers, how those whispers felt like a friend, vague, undefined, and yet still a friend. She knew, sadly, that no petals or whispers of home would be down in this darkness.

The ant started backing up, unable to look away from the pile of death before her. She backed up through the cavern and headed to the tunnel she first entered through. Something was blocking her way. She felt it first with her hind legs. She reached around in the faint light and felt something furry, and immediately she wondered if it was the original animal tenant.

She spun and there before her was a sight to see. Hairs, eyes, and legs. Way too many of each. She saw giant pincers the size of her entire body and above were all eight black eyes staring right into her. When she was younger she had heard tales, and knew this thing before her was a spider, a big one, one of the biggest, a tarantula.

She jumped back and darted for one of the other tunnel openings, but there was that eight-stepping vibration again, and it shook the entire cavern. The spider appeared before blocking the way, reaching out with its front legs for her. She ducked under and spun around, racing for another escape route. But the spider was fast, even with its size and too-many legs, and it was there to block her again.

With the speed of lightning it grabbed her between two legs and lifted her up into the air. She writhed and screamed out, smashing the tarantula’s leg with her one antenna. The spider brought her close, in between its two giant jaws and gave her a lick. The worker wished she had eyelids. She wanted to close her eyes, something other than blurring them for a daydream and seeing her soon-to-be death so clearly.

The spider brought her to the center of the cavern, and the worker thought it a sick game, how it did not just eat her right away, but wanted to look at her in the better light. It turned her over in its legs, brought her close to its eyes and mouth again, and then, oddly, brushed some sand and dirt into a little mound. It tamped down the mound to make it flat, and then dropped the worker on top.

“Hello,” said the tarantula, and the vibrations of its voice shook a few grains of dirt loose from the ceiling.

The worker did not answer. She only trembled in terror.

“How is the air outside,” asked the spider, and with its next sentence, it plopped down to the floor, spreading out its legs, trying to get closer to the height of the ant. “How’s the air? Has it rained lately? What is your name?”

The ant still could not speak. Even if she could, she didn’t know what that last word meant.

Grabbing the ant and picking her up again, the spider pushed some more dirt onto the mount, trying to make it as comfortable as possible. It went to set her down gently again, but paused, brought her to its mouth for another lick before putting her atop the mound.

“I hope that’s more comfortable now.”

When the spider saw the worker dart her head around, towards all the tunnels and escape routes, she dropped her head into the dirt. The worker swore those eight eyes all looked down dejected at the same time.

“I’m sorry I scare you,” said the tarantula. “I know I’m ugly. I know you don’t want to be my friend.”

It sighed out, kicking a flurry of dust over the worker.

“ I- I don’t mind being your friend,” stammered out the ant, for a little grab at hesitation before her inevitable death.

The spider could her the lie in her voice, and it got flustered. It grabbed some dirt and threw it up in the air and then shot to her feet to kick it before it landed. “Don’t patronize me!” the spider shouted, and this time a lot more dirt from the ceiling shook loose from the vibrations.

The little worker backed up on the mound, her eyes blurring, for a daydream wanted to come to take her away from this terror.

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” yelled out the spider. It flopped back down to its belly, and even reached out with one giant leg to pet the top of the worker’s head.

“I don’t eat ants,” said the spider, and when it spoke, it oddly hit itself on the head with its front legs. One thump, and then another.

“Let me tell you my story,” the giant beast offered, in a tone as gentle as her huge mouth could offer. “Once I finish, if you are still too terrified of me, then I will let you leave.”

The worker only nodded, amidst her trembling, still just agreeing for hesitation to diffuse the situation. As the tarantula spoke, since the ant’s eyes were already blurred, daydreamed images easily came to match the story being spun.

“I used to live in these dusty lands,” started the spider, and the worker saw the tunnel collapse and sunlight flood in. Now the tarantula was outside, on the surface, proud and large against the dirt and sand.

“It wasn’t so bad out there before the drought started. There was so much food.”

The worker saw the spider hunt and kill. Hunt and kill, day after day, just like the worker would pick up leaves and move dirt, day after day. The spider played its role and lived its life, just as the worker used to do.

She saw the tarantula happy sometimes, run and chase little eddies of dust excited by the wind. None of her elder sisters ever told her, in all their scary stories, that spiders liked to play.

One day, with the sun beating the day into a sea of washed out colors, the worker saw the tarantula attacked by a bird, pecked and injured, and then, when the bird thought this prey too large, she saw the spider crumbled and near death on the ground. It tried to limp to safety, for a little shade in its dying moments, but could not move at all. The heat of the day dried it up, and the injuries hollowed it out, and it fell to it back and let its legs begin curling.

Suddenly, the spider felt something under her back, a gentle touch. Then another and another touch, a sea of caresses. She looked down and saw ants, hundreds of them. The ants brought her into these abandoned tunnels where they were starting a new colony, brought her limp and injured body to this giant cavern where the queen ant was.

Even though the spider was no threat in its current state, the giant soldier ants still formed a wall three thick around it, to protect their queen.

“That queen was just,” said the tarantula, from its spot on the floor where it lay with its head resting on its front legs, pouring out its story for the worker to hear. “I had never met a queen so wise and loving as her.”

The worker saw the queen of the story tell her workers and soldiers that this spider was too large for them to eat, and they could not turn it away in its desperate state. They would let it stay down here with them and nurse it back to health.

Day followed day, and slowly the spider regained its strength. Worker ants would go out and fetch it food and would even collect dew drops in their mouths to give the spider a drink. The spider never felt so loved and cared for in all its life. This was even a better feeling than the times she laughed and played with dust eddies. Play was a bright and sharp feeling, but being cared for by this colony was a warm and pleasant feeling, like a sigh in and out overlapped.

“We spiders are usually so solitary,” said the tarantula. “I never once imagined what it would feel like to have friends.”

The tarantula played in these tunnels with the baby ants. It helped the workers repair the crumbling walls. It even enjoyed its regular audience with the queen, where they talked about the world and its wonders. As long as he was well fed his instincts were tamped down, and he never once thought of eating any of her new friends.

But then things began to chance. The ants would bring less and less food for him. It was not their fault, the surface world was drying up. A drought was flooding the lands. The grumbling in her tummy would keep her awake at night, and she would start salivating whenever a plump ant would walk by.

He would sometimes walk to the main tunnel’s opening, the one that opened up to the outside world, and stare up at the night sky, wondering if he should leave and return to his spider ways. Something kept him here however, that warm and full feeling, that energy of an overlapped sigh, the love he felt from every passing ant.

“They said I did it, but I don’t think I did,” said the tarantula to the worker, and as his eyes stared off into the distance, he picked up the worker to lick her. When he noticed what he did, he immediately dropped her back to the ground and gave her one guilty pat on the head.

“They said I ate one of them, that I ate an ant. I swear I didn’t!”

The worker saw the rest of the story in her daydreamed vision, saw the spider over a dead ant, with its life sucked out from it. She saw how the colony began to treat the spider so differently that day. The workers never asked him for help with the walls, and the ants who, as babies, had played with him, always said they were busy when he came around with a hopeful smile.

The queen one day brought him into the main cavern to tell him the colony was leaving. This time, the soldiers had surrounded him ten deep, and the queen was so far away. The land was drying up too much, the queen said. There was too little food for them here.

Perking up at this news, the tarantula became excited, wondering where they were all going. But the queen broke the hardest news of all, that the spider would not be able to come along. The spider begged and cried out, imploring to be taken with them, for it had been so long since it had been alone, it didn’t know how to live like that anymore.

He spoke as if his instincts had dried up, how he had forgotten how to hunt, and would surely starve to death on his own, but he was really too used to the feeling of love here, and didn’t want to give that up ever.

The queen could feel the sadness in the spider, and so she struck him a bargain. She said the colony would leave, perhaps establish a new home close by. She would send workers to check on the spider and bring it some food, and as soon as the waters returned to this land, she would move the colony back.

It was not the best of solutions, but the spider accepted it, unwilling to believe this dear queen would lie to him. On the day of departure, he stood under the tunnel opening, even tenderly picking up some ants and lifting them to the surface. He waved goodbye to each, patted some on their heads, and asked them all if they still loved him.

“I have never left these tunnels since that day months ago,” said the tarantula to the worker. “I’m sure they will come back soon. Don’t you think?”

The worker was moved by this spider’s story, and again there was that feeling, of moisture wanting to come from her eyes. As much as she craved for a home, a space to feel safe in again, this spider craved one too, and craved that warm feeling of connection that came with it.

“How have you survived all alone all this time?” asked the worker.

“I have never killed since that day they left,” said the tarantula. “I don’t want them not to come back. Sometimes insects fall into these tunnels, and I bring them here, just like I did you. I make them comfortable, chat with them, become their friends. Soon enough they die, and I feel sad when they do, for there goes another friend. When they die I eat them, for what else am I to do?”

The spider inches closer and opened its mouth to lick the ant, but then caught itself doing so and backed up.

“My little ant friend, do you think the colony left because of the dryness up there,” asked the spider. “Or do you think they left because they were afraid of me, that they think I ate an ant? Do you think they left because they stopped loving me?”

The worker had no answer for this, so she only reached out and rubbed the tarantula’s leg to comfort him.

“I don’t know why they left,” said the worker. “But I do know that this is not a home for you. This is a lonely life you are leading. I am alone now too, but I am heading east to look for my friends, and a new home too.”

“Can I come along?” asked the spider, perking up with some excitement.

The worker didn’t answer. She knew that would not be possible, to have a spider following them.

“I swear I don’t eat ants,” said the tarantula. “Ants are my only friends. Beetles, worms, and crickets. Those are the main things that fall down in here. I could never eat an ant. I could be your and your friends’ new friend.”

“I don’t think that would work out,” said the worker. “My friends aren’t as understanding as I am. I have a soldier friend, and he is always so careful and cautious.”

When she saw the tarantula sink down into the dust, angling its head and eyes away, she added more words, “But I heard a whisper on the wind one day, coming from a pink petal set free into the sky. That feeling you describe, of warmth and belonging, I felt that in that whisper, the whisper that said to head east. So I think you should leave this place and head east too.”

Just then a voice came vibrating through the tunnels. Faint at first, but then it came again more strong. It was the beetle calling out for the worker.

“Oh my!” said the spider. “Who is that? From the timbre that does not sound like an ant.”

“Oh no,” said the worker. “That is my ant friend. A big one. Really big ant. He can be your friend.”

“That sounded like a beetle,” the tarantula said, standing up to tower over the worker.

The worker’s antenna picked up the vibration again, as the beetle called out once more. She knew exactly which tunnel it was coming from, and as the spider spun to look too, the ant jumped up and started running. She ran for the tunnel, jumping over the dead bodies lining its mouth, and ran into the darkness.

It was only a few seconds away that she ran headfirst into the beetle, sending them both tumbling into the dirt. When the beetle righted itself and helped the worker to her feet, he saw the terror in her eyes.

“What is it? Danger?” the beetle asked.

The worker spun to look behind her, towards the big cavern, and she could feel the vibrations sounding out as the tarantula approached at speed. “I don’t know,” she said. “I just know he have to get out of here!”

The beetle had found another opening to the surface, and he grabbed the ant’s leg and pulled her along, running through the pain of his injured leg and the darkness of the tunnels. Left, then right, and another right, and they were under a huge shaft of sunlight calling down. The beetle threw the ant up to the surface and then half-climbed, half-flew to get himself out.

The brightness of the outside blinded them for a moment, but then the surroundings faded in. There was dust and dunes, a washed out sky and some bushes and trees in the distance. “That is east!” yelled the beetle, and began running, as the worker raced to keep up.

As they disappeared towards the vegetation, the tarantula emerged from the tunnel. Immediately, it backed up, putting four of its legs back into the hole. It had not been out here for almost a year. Everything looked so dry and scary. He wondered if a bird at any moment might swoop down and attack him again. But most important, he wondered if the ant colony had already entered through another opening and were in the tunnels calling out for their giant friend.

That is silly, he thought. They might never be coming back. As he saw the little ant run away with a juicy black beetle, he got sad, wondering why his new ant friend had lied to him. He was not bad. He was nice. He swore he had not eaten that ant that day the colony hated him down in the tunnels. Why did that new ant not want to be his friend?

Flooded by the light up here, the tarantula suddenly became sick of those tunnels. There was only darkness and emptiness down there. Friends coerced, would drop down sometimes, but he could tell they never really wanted to spend their final days with him. And so the spider took a few cautious steps forward, and then some more. East, he thought. He will go east and see what friends are there.

ten

Honor

 

 

The soldier grabbed the princess and pulled her under her body just as the avalanche of sand and pebbles came crashing down. A few pebbles smashed into the soldier and she cried out in pain, and she had an odd thought, how the sharpness of that pain was more preferred than the dull ache of the poison so slowly eating away at her insides.

When the dust settled, the two ants were in a little space beside a rock, where pebbles had angled in their tumble to lean up and create a pocket of survival. Sand, rocks and twigs had filled every other crevice, and the ants were just an inch in any other direction, they would have been crushed.

Staring down at the princess trembling beneath her, the soldier took a long moment to relish a smile. The aches in the soldier’s body, from where the pebbles had hit, was the ache of honor.

It took a few seconds for them both to return to the moment and understand the situation. One second they were in the crevice between the giant boulders of the rocky outcrop, with the beetle stuck and wiggling, the wasp diving in for an attack, and the next they were huddled down and buried by darkness.

They could hear an angry buzzing above — even though it was muffled by inches of sand — as the wasp flew off. Then there was only silence.

“We cannot stay here,” said the princess. She had stopped her trembling and moved out from under the cover of the soldier. The soldier heard a calmness, a seriousness, in the tiny one’s voice, for gone was the squeaking excitement of before.

Surveying the piles of sand surrounding, the princess knew what had to be done. She turned to the soldier and pointed out exactly where she needed to dig, and then asked for her to commence. As the soldier moved forward and began kicking with her legs to clear the way, the princess felt odd. She could feel the muscles beneath her wings wanting to churn, but she calmed them for now. There was a stirring inside, a rising serpent of instinct taking over, and it was giving her the voice to command.

As the soldier kicked and shoved, creating a tunnel to the surface, the aches from the pebble hits started to fade. For a moment she still felt good, for here were roles being played, she as the soldier guarding and the princess as the ruler giving orders. But when the pebble aches fully drained, so did the soldier’s honor, for she could see the princess standing, sure and confidant, as if she no longer needed a protector.

A shaft of sunlight broke free from the surface to stab the darkness for the pair. As more of the opening was cleared, more light rushed in, until it was a bright as the outside.

“Wait,” said the princess. “Listen for the wasp.”

The soldier was already listening, and did not need for the youngster to tell her to do what came naturally. Her antennae were already primed, waiting for vibrations in the air or on the ground. When the air and ground sent back only stillness, she spoke, “It is safe, princess. The wasp seems to have gone.”

“You go out first. Make sure the way is clear. Then I will come out.” As the princess spoke, she could feel that serpent of instinct rise higher, and it was telling her to ensure her own safety.

The soldier poked her head out of the opening and scanned around. She saw a mound of sand, from what she had dug out, and also some pebbles and half-buried twigs. Up above was the washed-out blue of a sky housing the relentless sun, and, fortunately, nothing else. There was no wasp visible, and no buzzing felt anywhere. The Soldier nodded back towards to the princess to let her know the coast was clear.

As soon as the princess stepped out into the daylight was when the attack happened. The wasp was standing right there, and the princess immediately saw it. Only the soldier was blind to it, for it had been standing behind some twigs off to the right side, the side where the soldier had no eye.

An angry buzzing was the briefest of warnings before the wasp shot straight and dove down for a killing blow. It went straight for the princess, thinking her the easy target, and it angled its abdomen to thrust its stinger forward. The soldier spun as soon as he felt the vibration, and he saw the blur of yellow and black and dove to protect the princess, but it was too late.

She had already saved herself. With a millimeter to spare, she jumped to the side and began flapping her wings in a panic. This time, she flew straight up, not one inch, but ten, before falling gently back down to the sand. Both the wasp and soldier were surprised, with the wasp smashing to the ground and impaling the dirt.

The soldier got over her shock more quickly, returning to her role of protector to run forward without any fear. She tackled the wasp’s midsection, a half-blind soldier against a killing machine three times her size. They both tumbled to the dirt, kicking up a wall of dust as they grabbed, chomped and stabbed at each other.

Getting in a few good bites, the soldier was using her cunning, honed from months as a battle-hardened fighter. She stayed slow until the last millisecond, leading the wasp’s stinger and then bending away at just the last moment. She jumped onto pebbles and dove in from above, to bite and cripple the wasp’s wings.

The wasp fought with less cunning, but made up for it with all its size and rage. It stabbed wildly, knowing that all it needed was one good hit for this battle to end with death and dripping satisfaction. It tried to fly, but its injured wing made it difficult, so instead it hopped upwards, gaining the advantage of perspective, to dive back down with the sharpest of weapons.

The inevitable happened. The size difference was just too much, and it had the poor soldier pinned to its back. The soldier was trying to regain her strength and focus, pushing with all her might, but it had no effect. Just then, the soldier could feel the pain of the poison in her abdomen burning like lava.

“You are, surprisingly, a worth opponent,” hissed out the wasp as she tried to flap the pain and anger from her injured wing. “I usually kill ants by the dozen in this time I have been fighting you.”

The wasp then curled up its abdomen, bringing the stinger up to the good eye of the soldier. “Do not feel shame, ant. I have devoted my life to killing your kind. You are simply outclassed and outfought here. There is no honor for an ant to die with a wasp’s stinger through their head.”

During the battle, the princess had been standing off to the side, watching wide wide eyes as her soldier fought valiantly. The instinct rising inside was whispering for her to leave, to save herself, to accept that this worthy knight was sacrificing itself for her. She flapped her wings again, and knew they were getting stronger by the second, but then she stopped. Seeing the soldier, with the wasp’s stinger about to snuff out its life, was just too much.

“Fight!” she yelled as loudly as she could.

The princess’ voice gave the soldier a burst of strength, and it pushed back against the wasp even more, but still it was too strong and the stinger hovered right there, eclipsing everything else in the soldier’s view.

“I am your princess! If you have honor in your service to me, then you will obey my rule. I am telling you to fight! I am telling you to live!”

The pain suddenly receded from the soldier’s abdomen, washed away by the princess’ commands. Replacing it was clarity. She scanned the surroundings as time slowed, and saw the end of a twig nearby. It lay beneath a pebble propped up precariously by already shifting sand, and the soldier knew that was her only hope. She writhed with all her strength, the entire strength of a life aching for regained honor, and managed to kick out.

Sand collapsed and a pebble rolled, and the motion was enough to distract the wasp enough for the soldier to escape its grasp and crawl away. The pebble smashed into the wasp to send it flying.

Unfortunately, it was not enough, for even though stunned, the wasp was uninsured. “A worthy attempt,” said the wasp, clenching all her muscles to stop the scene before her from spinning, “but I am sorry it had no real effect.”

Just then a flurry of dust was kicked up and a tornado-force wind ripped through the area. Sand and twigs were hurled aside like they had no mass, and a shape eclipsed the sun. Wings and a sharp beak touched down inches from the wasp, and just as suddenly, it was snatched up in the talons of a jay. Its blue shimmer caught the light of day, and it towered over ants, and then nodded to them.

“Thank you for stunning the meal,” said the jay. “I’d normally not go for wasps, for they sting a few times before succumbing. I’d usually go for ants like you two, but I had my fill of tons of dead ants back there, at a sea of flat stones, and I’ve been feeling sick ever since.”

And just as quickly as the jay landed, it took off with another tornado of dust, with the limp wasp now hanging from its beak. The soldier and princess were stunned at the scene, and all the princess could do was run to her friend to help her up. The soldier winced and gasped, and two of her legs went to her side, and the princess could see she had been stabbed.

The princess was too focused helping the soldier to the shade of a nearby bush that she did not notice, far up above, a wasp in a jay’s clutch, sting the bird once, then twice, then be dropped to the ground far away, severely wounded.

 

“How did you lose your eye,” asked the princess. The sun was now at its zenith, and the land seemed quiet in honor of the heat. No sound nor motion, except the soldier rubbing her side and the princess beside pushing sand against her injured companion to make her comfortable.

The stab from the wasp fight was not life-threatening. The soldier would survive. But, as she rubbed the wound, she chuckled inwardly. A brief glimpse of all that nasty poison in her draining out from the hole flashed through her mind, and she thought perhaps that’s what her worker friend meant by a daydream.

As the princess looked after her, piling more sand under her head, the soldier felt smaller and smaller, as if the sand was a mountain and she was as tiny as an aphid. The soldier could not help thinking of her friend once more, that worker who always looked up to her and needed her help, and she hoped that little ant was okay.

“My eye was lost in a great battle almost a year ago,” said the soldier faintly. She rubbed the socket where her eye used to be, as if recalling times when she could see as perfect as any other ant. “We were attacked by another colony. We were outnumbered, for those other ants had an entire army. In that battle I saved the queen, your mother, and escorted her to safety.”

Added the soldier, after moving away some of the sand under her head so she could feel the hard ground again, “and even though I saved her life, your mother, my queen, never forgave me for surviving.”

“If I were to start a colony, it would be a proud and strong one,” said the princess. “I’m not sure I would have room for injured soldiers like you.”

She gasped as her last sentence surprised her, and moved a leg up to cover her mouth. “I’m sorry,” said the princess. “I’m not sure why I said that.”

The soldier nodded and showed no reaction at all on the outside. She stood and bowed before the princess, keeping her head down as close as possible to the dirt.

Even though the princess offered that apology, she knew exactly why she had uttered those words. She was feeling the serpent of instinct rise higher within. It was telling her of her role, and just as the soldier had a role of honor and protection, so she had a role of ruling over a colony whose reason was to flourish.

They rested through the night and into the morning, and then set out to continue their journey. They marched south, hoping that within a day or two they could clear the giant, rocky outcrop and be able to locate the worker and beetle again.

Even so early in the day the sun beat down and dried up any moisture which collected at night. The ants had to rush to drink drops from the underside of leaves before they disappeared, and they continued that way, from bush to bush to avoid the direct sun for as long as possible.

Under one bush they could see a splash of up ahead and approached a caterpillar on the ground. It had a buffet of fallen leaves around it, and yet, oddly, it was eating none of them. It’s shiny green and black body just lay stretched out and still.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” moaned out the caterpillar. “Do you need to get by?”

With the slowest of motion, as if all its energy had been sucked dry, the caterpillar inched off to the side at the pace of a snail.

The soldier grabbed the princess and moved her behind her, but the princess immediately stepped to the front again.

“Who are you, and what are you doing here?” asked the princess.

“Don’t mind me,” said the caterpillar, taking the leaves around her and pilling them over her head.

“Tell us what is wrong,” said the princess, in a voice which was getting increasingly confidant and commanding with each use.

The caterpillar looked up and then sighed out, speaking with a lifeless monotone. “I come here to eat these leaves, for these bushes have the last green ones in this area, but I have no appetite. I am too busy worrying to eat.”

When pressed for more information, the caterpillar filled these new strangers in. She spoke of her friend, her dearest friend that she grew up with, that one she hung from leaves with or joked with into the night about all the less colorful like slugs and worms. She said her friend had gotten into danger, and was now trapped somewhere and could not get out. The caterpillar was worried sick about her.

“We can help you,” said the princess, and immediately the soldier scoffed at the idea, pulling the princess aside to talk some sense into her.

“My highness,” said the soldier, “are you forgetting that we have to get back to the other side of that mountain and find our friends? The worker and beetle might be in danger.”

“Soldier,” said the princess sternly, “I am feeling something inside me, a churning of thoughts and ideas, and as they spin they spit out conclusions. I am beginning to know what it means to make decisions. This caterpillar needs our help. Just look at it. It will not survive another day if this worry is not taken from its mind. To rule, to create a strong colony, a queen knows to help those around who are not a threat to us, for then nature is balanced and provides for us.”

The soldier said nothing for a moment, she only bowed and rubbed the spot where he eye used to be. She thought of her friend again, the worker, and tried to stop imagining all the horrors which might be befalling her. The soldier then checked her abdomen, and could not feel any poisoned pain.

“I am only here to serve you, my princess.”

 

They kept to the shade by running from bush to bush, with the caterpillar finding a quickness to its step, now that there might be help for its friend. As they made their way, the soldier looked up and noticed each bush get paler and paler. Greens were replaced by pale greens, and then browns, as leaves which bursted with life on the first few bushes, now had their life squeezed dry.

More dust was blown up against these latter bushes, and the ground was only dry sand, no more patches of dirt. The could see the next bush far up ahead, but between here and there was a corridor of open sand, and a fierce wind was blowing through it.

“The lands have gotten so dry so quickly,” said the caterpillar as it looked across the dusty patch of desolation. “I used to play here as a youngster and everything was so green.”

The caterpillar then raised one of its tiny legs, and the princess knew exactly what it was offering. She nodded to the soldier and the soldier took the caterpillar’s leg then offered one of its to the princess. She took hold and they inched forward, connected and on a mission, into the blowing dust.

A few steps were easy, but the wind grew stronger, hurling grains of sand and little twigs past them in a blur of motion. They could see a tumbleweed approaching, and to them it was a rolling mountain, and they panicked and separated, letting go of each other’s legs.

In the blowing dust, visibility disappeared and the princess could see just vague outlines for where the soldier and caterpillar were. Instinct suddenly told her to fly, and without a thought she churned her wings and took off. For a moment she flew above the chaos to the clear air, but then she panicked, never having been so high up. She dropped back down into the gusting dust and looked down at her body to see that it was nearly black, no more white translucence, and felt so calm.

Just as suddenly as the wind had started, it dropped off to nothing, for they had crossed the corridor and were on the other side. They all paused for a moment to check on themselves and each other, and the silence surrounding seemed so deafening. Ahead of them was a deep chasm filled with prickly burrs, all collected and deposited there by that fierce wind.

The caterpillar made it easily across, for its body length was wider than the chasm. When it offered to help the other two across, they both refused, each for their own reasons. The soldier jumped across, making sure the princess was looking to see how strong she must be to so easily clear the obstacle. She held out her leg for the princess, but the princess smiled as gently as she could, and then flew across instead.

Here the bushes were mostly dried out, with leaves with no lusters. Up at the top of the bush the caterpillar led them to, they could see its friend. There was a silken cocoon on one of the higher branches, and the princess and soldier could see a small hole in one side and movement inside. The cocoon was not shiny and white, not lit up by the midday sun, but was brown and dry, caked with the blown dust which was covering everything here.

The caterpillar immediately flopped to the ground and moaned out when it saw once more the predicament of its friend. Inside the cocoon there were legs furiously kicking, and the princess could see them through the hole. She immediately commanded the soldier to climb up and free the prisoner, and the soldier nodded and began climbing the bush.

Not being as strong as her worker friend, the soldier wasn’t sure what she would do once she reached the cocoon, but she had received a command from her princess, so she had no choice. Once at the right branch, she held on to it with her jaws and began kicking at the cocoon with her legs, shaking free some of the sand encasing it. She also crawled onto the cocoon and began biting at the opening, trying to widen it.

With her help, and the kicking from inside, suddenly the cocoon broke open and the caterpillar’s friend burst out. The motion knocked the soldier loose and she fell through the air and into the sand below with a painful thud. The soldier picked herself up and dusted herself off just in time to see a splendid sight.

The butterfly which had emerged was colored the most delicate of blue, like the sky turned into a cloth and wrapped around the sun. She flew on gossamer wings ringed with silver the color of the moon, and with a body furry as animals, and yet as shiny as a rippling lake. The butterfly relished her freedom, and was not too quick to land. She flew down to send breezes of greetings and affection to her caterpillar friend, but then flew up as high as she could, letting out a giggle the entire way.

The princess marveled at the butterfly, how light and carefree she looked. Looking at the caterpillar, and then at the butterfly looping and diving, fluttering like a living feather taken by the wind, the princess could not fathom how these two creatures were kin. She also saw the soldier ahead of her, limping from its fall, with its one missing eye and wound on its side, and could not help fluttering her wings.

She took off to join the butterfly, and they danced in the air together for seconds which felt like hours. The princess laughed like she had never laughed before, and not the immature laugh where nothing mattered, but the laugh of life, of seeing that every last thing did indeed matter beyond understanding. It was a laugh of instinct breaking free to say a destiny was determined, and that destiny was a free as flight.

The butterfly and princess landed, and when the soldier saw the princess’ expression, she knew. She knew what was coming next. She immediately ran up to the princess and knelt on all her knees before her, bowing her head and lowering her antennae.

“Take me with you, my highness,” said the soldier. “I can be your guard. I can raise you an army to protect yourself.”

The smile drained from the princess, and she stepped forward to lift the soldier to her feet. Even as the soldier towered above her, she still caressed her giant head with her front legs.

“I have to say something you do not want to hear,” said the princess, and the soldier looked away. “It is not for me to decide. It is the fire of instinct burning in my tummy. Just as you kneel before me, I kneel before it. It says my destiny was never to follow you and the worker to find a new colony. It says my destiny was always to start my own.”

The princess flapped her wings — wings which so recently could barely get her off the ground — and she circled above the soldier as slowly as she could. When the soldier would not look up to her, she called down to her friend.

“My soldier, there is no shame in this. Your honor is intact.”

Those words stung the soldier, deeper and more painfully than the wasp ever could, for them being uttered had the opposite effect as their intention. The words brought thoughts to the soldier of all the times she did not save this princess.

“Even with one eye, I am still an asset,” cried out the soldier. “This wound on my side is nothing. I will heal soon… please.”

The princess could near bear to hear the pain dripping from this once-proud soldier’s voice, and so she flew up higher and higher. She circled a few more times and was ready to fly straight and true, fly to where her instinct was to lead her, but before she did, she called down once more to her friend.

“Until I leave I am still your princess, my soldier. You still are to obey my command. I am telling you that honor is still in you, and to keep it there go and find your friend, the worker. I am no longer a member of that old colony, but you two are the last of it. Find your worker friend and keep her safe. Help her find the new home she seeks.”

The soldier could not bear to look up, but she knew the princess had left, for the air was still and silent, and it cut like a knife through her abdomen, awakening the ache from that terrible poison forever resting there.

A leg brushed her head, and she looked up to see the caterpillar and butterfly standing next to her trying to comfort her. The caterpillar even found a barely green leaf and broke off the brown parts with its legs and was offering it to the ant — for how else could insects show affection to each other. The soldier took a nibble, but then dropped the leaf and her head to the sand.

“Your little princess friend said you have another friend? A worker?” asked the butterfly, and the soldier silently nodded.

“Then come, let me repay the favor for your having helped to free me,” said the butterfly. “Let me take you up so you can get a better view. Let me help you reunite with your friend.”

The soldier said nothing, did not even move. But she also did not resist when the caterpillar came over and lifted her up and placed her tenderly on the back of the butterfly. The butterfly slowly churned her wings, catching the light like a trophy to the moment, and told her caterpillar friend that she would soon be back.

She floated upwards and the soldier held on with little effort. At first the soldier did not care if she stayed there or tumbled through the air to her death. She did not care for the heat rising around, tickling like whispers, or the breezes against her body. The butterfly swooped and turned, did loops and dives, all to try and impart the thrill of the flight to its passenger.

The soldier lifted her head for the first time, and felt the wind against her face. She could feel it on both sides, over her good eye and even in the place of her missing one. It started to feel nice, like a cool stream running over her, a cleansing, and she offered a faint smile back to it.

eleven

Seeing

 

 

The soldier and beetle ran from the tunnel opening and through the dry dustiness towards a cluster of bushes and collected tumbleweeds ahead of them. They did not know that hundreds of feet south of them, a soldier was riding on the back of a butterfly and starting to smile.

The pair made it to the protection of one bush and stopped to collect themselves. The beetle still wasn’t sure what they were running from, and when he asked the worker, the worker didn’t respond. She only darted her head left and right, thinking any little movement was danger. A breeze moving a bush looked like eight legs running. A shadow at play with the ground looked like a circle of eyes staring.

The tunnel had danger lurking in its darkness, but now this open space had dangers all around, even with the sun baring down with only light. As minutes rushed by, and no threat could be seen from any direction, the beetle began offering plans.

He mused if they should return to the tunnels, to the exit near the rocky outcrop so they could look for their friends again, but the worker refused with a silent head shake. The beetle looked up at the sun and measured its angle with his legs and a squinted eye. He said he is sure they were standing northeast from the rocky outcrop, and that they could head slightly south to wait there. If their friends were not buried in the collapsed canyon, and if they continued to head east, the beetle would be able to pick up their track there.

The worker had no objection to that plan, and so they set off.

They marched through the afternoon, as the sun replaced yellows with oranges and lengthened shadows, and into the evening, when the braver stars began faintly appearing. As they trekked through plains of sand and clusters of bushes and tumbleweeds, the worker kept mostly silent. She was following the beetle, sometimes helping him when his leg hurt, but she was mainly lost in worry. This was the longest she had never seen her friend, the soldier, and the only time in her short life she had ever been homeless.

She looked to a shadowed collection of tumbleweeds just as the wind grabbed one, sending it tumbling away into the darkness on its own.

She heard a howl in the distance, a piercing cry which seemed to scare the stars into dimming a shade, and so she moved closer to the beetle. When the howl came again, she nestled too much and stepped on the beetle’s broken leg, and he added his own howl to the night air.

“Please walk on my other side,” said the beetle, rubbing his leg with a few of his others.

Each step into the fading light of the evening made the worker feel more and more afraid. She kept her lone antenna focused and straight, not wanting to lose the beetle again, like she did in those tunnels. With one leg resting on the beetle as she walked, she looked up, wondering if she would ever see a pink petal or hear its precious whispers again.

The moon came out, rising tenderly, and it seemed so comforting to the worker. Its silver light, not as harsh as the yellows of the sun, reached down gently, allowing the worker’s eyes to blur into a waking slumber. She pictured herself on the moon, surrounded by a silvery dust floating down in slow-motion. She ran and jumped, and could jump so high up there, while a blanket of soothing silence came to wrap her. Stars seemed brighter up there, and they shone down to show her the way.

When the worker came back to the moment and told the beetle what she was daydreaming about, the beetle chuckled, patting her on her head and telling her she had such a fanciful imagination.

At one point on their march, as the sky continued to fade and shapes turned to outlines and then shadows, the worker stepped near a dark spot and heard a hissing and rattling. She wasn’t sure what those vibrating sounds were, so she only froze. The beetle, on the other hand, wise in his ways, knew the danger exactly. He grabbed the ant and pulled her back, and then ran a few steps with her to the left, until the rattling could no longer be heard.

When they were in the clear, the beetle brought the ant close to his eyes to look her over, making sure she was okay. He ran his legs over her head and back, making sure there were no injuries, and when he was satisfied, he gave her a pat on her head and resumed the march.

The worker felt soothed by this wise beetle’s kindness, and she could not help contrast it to her friend, the soldier’s, ways.

“Beetle,” said the worker, “my soldier friend is like you, always looking after me. I am too easily lost in dreams — or just plain lost — and I know I often need looking after. But when the soldier saves me from something, she is always stern and silent, never really cracking a smile or any tenderness.”

“Well,” started the beetle, as he rolled a tiny pebble out of the way so that the worker would not trip over it, “in the lessons I have gained from nature, from wandering these lands alone or with kin, I have learned that friends don’t always have to be friendly to have a place in your heart.”

A blur of pink faded in up ahead and above, and the worker took off running. The beetle wasn’t even sure if she heard his last sentence, for she bolted without even a word. He ran to try and keep up, but his broken leg would have none of that. He switched to limping along, calling out for the worker to wait for him, when all of a sudden he collided right into the back of the stopped worker.

The worker was staring with wide eyes, trembling at seeing something unknown, and she moved herself behind the beetle so she could peek out from safety. The moon was lighting up a cluster of cacti, and on some were pink flowers shouting out to be seen. Their colors were a splash of life in all the darkened grays and browns, but there was something else stealing the worker’s attention.

On top of a closely cacti, precariously balanced with tiny paws to avoid the needles, stood a small coyote pup. It was focused on the cactus’ flower, balancing on three legs while gently swatting at the flower to get it to fall. All of a sudden, it stopped what it was doing and threw its head back to howl at the moon. It let out a cute howl, one a bit too high-pitched, but to the ant it was deafening, vibrating through her body like an earthquake.

“Oh, my little friend,” said the beetle, “don’t worry. That is a coyote.”

“An animal?”

“Yes.”

“Do they eat bugs like us?”

“No,” said the beetle with a chuckle. “At worst they might step on us if we are not careful, but we get back at them by tickling their noses if they try to sniff us.”

The coyote thought he heard some murmuring from the ground and paused his howling to look. His eyes were almost as good at night as during the day, so he had no problem picking out the two shiny shapes on the ground.

“Hello there,” said the coyote, and the vibrations of his giant voice made the worker duck down behind the beetle further.

The beetle nodded a hello to the coyote and brought the worker out from behind him, but all she offered was a timid little nod before running back behind.

“If you are trying to get that flower,” said the beetle to the coyote, “might I suggest using one paw to carefully press down the needles on one side and then swatting the flower up from underneath it.”

The coyote tried what the beetle said and the flower tumbled down to land upright on the ground and shimmer brightly in the moonlight. The coyote jumped down to pick it up in its mouth and then walked over to the beetle and ant.

“Thank you little strangers,” said the coyote, and as he approached the worker started to calm. Even though a giant, this animal’s ears and eyes seemed too big for its size, and its paws were a bit too floppy to be scary. It had a smile on its face, and the worker recognized it as a smile of youth and curiosity, something she often carried, even though she was no longer young.

“Do you mind pulling this out?” asked the coyote, as he flopped down to the ground and held up a paw. There was a lone cactus needle embedded.

“My friend here is strong,” said the beetle.

The worker stepped forward, still a little cautious, but when given a task she always able to replace fear with focus. She looked at the needle, it’s angle and depth into the coyote’s skin, and knew exactly how to grab it. With barely any resistance the needle came out and the pup was happy. He ran around — careful not to step on the two new friends — and howled and yelped at the moon. When he tired of his celebration, he came back and lay down once more in the sand.

“Thank you!” yelled out the coyote in an excited flurry of breath, and then it picked up the pink flower, holding it off to one side of its mouth so it could speak out of the other.

“My mom always gets so angry when I sneak out at night on my own — but this land is so fun and interesting, especially when the moon is out in full. I just can’t help it. I love running around out here.”

Noticing the worker staring at the flower, the coyote addressed her, “You like this flower, little one?”

Finally the worker was calm enough to speak up. “It is beautiful,” she said, mesmerized by the petals, even as few vibrated in a faint breeze.

“I think if I give it to my mom, she won’t yell at me too much when I get back,” said the coyote.

Still noticing the worker staring, the coyote inched forward on his tummy, and in the most gentle of way for such a large beast, moved his head so that the edge of the flower could brush against the worker.

Feeling the delicate petal against her cheek, and seeing the pink flow in to take up her entire view, made the worker giggle. Soon the giggle turned into a laugh, and she rolled over to her back to kick up her legs to join in.

“I’ve never seen an ant so happy,” said the coyote. “Never saw one so interested in a flower either, except when trying to eat one. I like you. I think if you were a coyote, you’d be like me, disobeying your mom for a chance to run around any play under the moon.”

“I’ve danced and jumped around on the moon itself,” giggled out the worker.

The beetle tapped on the ant’s head to get her to calm down. “Forgive my friend here, coyote, she has a wonderful imagination.”

“It might’ve been a daydream,” said the worker defensively, “but it was also still true! I saw those stars, that line of three close together up there, and they were even brighter on the moon, like they were close enough to touch.”

The coyote giggled at the squeaking defiance in the tiny ant. He brushed the flower gently against her head again, and laughed as a giant echo to the little one’s.

“I’m so sorry,” said the coyote, “I wish I could stay here forever with you two, but I do have to get back. I’ve already been gone a few hours. My mom will be really mad,” the coyote turned and took a few steps away and then froze. It dropped the flower from its mouth and turned to face the bugs.

“Wait a minute,” said the coyote, “how can you make out those individual stars? Insects can’t see like that?”

“As I mentioned,” said the beetle apologetically, “my little friend has a big imagination.”

The coyote asked the worker to describe the shape of the stars in a section of the sky, and the worker was able to do it perfectly. The coyote then asked her to count the crisp boulder outlines on a faraway ridge, and she returned the exact number, even mentioning the two tiny formations the coyote had to squint to see.

“I’ve played with insects before,” said the coyote, “I’ve run up behind them, or come in from the side, and I know they don’t see like animals. They just see fuzzy shapes and movement.”

“That is what I see when I blur my eyes for a daydream,” said the worker. “but normally everything is nice and sharp.”

“Hmm,” said the coyote as he picked up the flower again, “this changes everything.”

He looked to the cacti, to the ones which held flowers at their peaks, and then turned to the little worker. “I think when I come back this way I may have to grab another flower for my mom. She’ll be mad when I get back so late, but I really have to show you two something.”

 

“What about that?” asked the coyote as they walked, pointing with his snout into the distance.

“That is a bush,” said the worker.

The coyote smiled and nodded, then moved the flower in his mouth to the other side. He never met any insect like this ant, one that could see as clearly at night as he. The trio trudged through the sand in a little gap of silence, avoiding the cacti which stood proud against the starry sky, and the coyote used tiny steps to allow his new friends to keep up.

“Where I’m taking you is the place to be during the full moon,” said the coyote. “And for one who can see like you, it will definitely be a treat-”

Two beams of light cut into the coyote’s sentence and the night air, sweeping back and forth like searchlights. The coyote immediately fell to the ground, kicking up a cloud of dust that made the beetle and ant cough. When the dust settled, the worker strained her eyes to search for the source of the light. She traced the beams back down to their brightest points and saw two of the two-legged animals. These ones were smaller than the ones she saw at the sea of flat stones, or at fire in the forest.

“Humans,” said the coyote in a whisper, “Young ones. Boys.”

“So?” said the beetle. “I’ve walked close to such creatures. They’ve never caused me any trouble.”

“Well,” said the coyote, still trying to keep as still as possible, “for insects it is different. You are hard to see. But for animals like me… when I was younger, and my mom would tuck in me in for the night, she’d always tell me so many scary stories about humans.”

The beams of light swung wide, chasing away shadows along the ground and turning pebbles and bushes back to washed-out versions of their daytime selves. The boys laughed and chatted, running along and chasing tiny things the trio could not see, and the ant could feel the vibrations of their run through her body. One of the beams infused something shiny on the ground, and a silhouette from inside it caught the worker’s eye.

She did not know the name for the container, that it was a glass jar, but she recognized the shape inside. Those eight eyes and legs were familiar, and she knew it was the tarantula she had recently met. Back then it was trapped in crumbling tunnels, and here it was trapped in something transparent and beautiful, and yet which — with the two boys lording over it — seemed more solid.

When the boys moved off, continuing to shine their lights along the ground looking for more things to catch, the coyote stood up and was ready to lead the beetle and ant in the other direction. The worker could only stare at the imprisoned tarantula, how its head was low and legs were rubbing frictionlessly and desperately against the glass.

“I don’t know how, but we have to save that spider.”

The beetle and coyote stopped, and the coyote even dropped the pink flower from his mouth.

The worker looked to her friend, the beetle, and knew his wisdom would be easy to convince, but when she looked to her new friend, the coyote, she was unsure. She blurred her eyes for a moment, going to the spot inside which dreamed up safe and sure ways, and began speaking.

“Just like you howl up to the moon to shout out its beauty, and I can see the night stars and match each of their twinkles to my heartbeat, so too can I see that poor trapped spider’s preciousness. If we are able to do something, we should. How can we go on to enjoy this night, and each other’s company, knowing we abandoned another life?”

The beetle and coyote looked to each and knew. They would have to do what the worker is asking.

“We will distract the boys,” said the beetle. He walked over to the coyote and crawled up its leg, along its neck, and then parked himself on the coyote’s head next to its ear. At the tickling sensation, the coyote stifled a little giggle.

“Just take my turn-by-turn directions,” said the beetle into the coyote’s ear, “and the boys will not catch us.” Then the beetle turned to the worker and spoke to her, “You go and free the trapped spider.”

The beetle then yelled in the coyote’s ear to run, and the animal took off. The coyote ran straight towards the boys, and the worker could see their lights flick towards him. She could see the beetle yelling in the coyote’s ear, telling him to run around one bush, jump over a little dune, or duck behind a cactus. The boys were no match for the speed of the little pup, nor the cunning of the beetle holding on for his dear life.

The worker ran to the bottle and tapped on the glass. The tarantula spun to face her, and its movement rocked the bottle to and fro. At first the spider’s eyes did not show recognition, and its head still hung low, but after a few seconds it drew up to its full height.

“Ant friend?” it whispered, rubbing its eyes with four of its legs.

“Yes,” said the worker, as she looked at the bottle and surveyed the scene. A plan came to her, and it evicted the lingering fear at seeing the giant humans in the background chasing her friends.

“Can you help me?” asked the spider. It brought its head close to the glass, and all the worker could see were its giant jaws. “I am so hungry, but I swear I did not eat any ants since I left that tunnel.”

“I am going to rock this container you are in,” said the worker. “It is going to take all my strength. If I can rock it up over this mound, it might roll down and smash into that rock.”

The spider licked the glass at exactly the spot where the worker stood, and the worker stopped looking around, and even paused her planning.

“If I get you out. However,” said the worker, “you have to promise not to eat me.”

“What?!” answered the spider incredulously. It crossed two of its legs in a huff and looked away. “Ants are my friends. I have never, ever, ever eaten an ant, and I will not start today.”

“I want you to promise,” said the worker. “Promise that you will run away from here as soon as I get you out.”

The tarantula looked back at the worker, and its eyes and body drooped again. “But, don’t you want to be my friend? We can looks for new homes together.”

“Promise!”shouted the worker, and the spider, after sulking for a bit, reluctantly gave a tiny nod.

The worker felt guilty at shouting so rudely, and so she added some softer words. “My friend just told me something. He said that sometimes the best friends are ones that aren’t always friendly, and that they will always have a special place in your heart.”

It took all her strength, including reserves of strength she never knew she had, but the worker was able to begin rocking the jar back and forth. Even as the boys laughed and chased, as the beetle yelled and the coyote howled and ran, the worker built up a momentum. After minutes of grunting and trying, she managed to rock the bottle over a lip of sand. It rolled down, picking up speed, tumbling the tarantula round and round, and then shattered against a sharp rock at bottom.

The worker ran over to check on the spider, and it righted itself and shook off bits of glass before standing up. As soon as the worker got near, the spider grabbed it and brought it up to her giant jaws for a lick.

“I am so hungry,” said the spider plaintively. “But I swear I don’t want to eat ants.”

“You promised!”said the worker, and with a fierceness coming from her voice, one that surprised even herself, the spider put her gently down and ran off into the night.

 

As they approached the destination, the worker could begin to see the source of the strange vibrations she had been feeling for the last little while. There was a shape cutting a crisp outline against the moonlit sky, and it was immense. Its vibrations shook the ground, but they were not jarring, rather smooth and continuous, and intense enough to feel like mother earth itself was humming loudness to the moon.

“This is where I come on full moon nights,” said the coyote.

The worker could not stop staring. Before them was a wonder to her the size of a mountain. Triangular legs balanced a long and slim body rocking back and forth. A red head dipped down and up, and with each swing another of the earth’s hums whirred and whined. Even though the worker could sense that this giant oddity was not alive, she could not help picturing it as an ant. This giant kin dipped over and over again, and in the worker’s blurred imagination she saw it drinking the blackest, gooiest of nectar.

It was not long before her staring was interrupted by a falling star. An amber point crossed the sky, streaking its light against the giant dipping ant. Soon another star fell, and then another, but these ones circled close enough to the giant that it seemed they were kissing it. Even the stars are so much in awe of this wonder of wonders, the worker thought, that they are falling from the heavens for a closer look.

“Interesting,” murmured the beetle, and his voice fell off to be swallowed by the vibrations singing up from the earth. “I have never seen so many fireflies swarm in one spot.”

“Yes, it is beautiful,” said the coyote. “Most nights I sneak off to play with other animals that can’t sleep, but on full moons I come to see the show of lights above this metal dancer.”

The coyote looked to the worker, smiling at her wide-eyed wonder, and then motioned for her to follow. They stepped up closer to the triangular legs, and as they neared the worker’s head angled further and further, until her neck was straining to keep her head pointing straight up. The real stars high above clapped their twinkling at the show, as the giant ant bowed repeatedly at its own performance, and hundreds of glowing fireflies blanketed the whirring air.

“Even though the front and back ends are swinging too fast to hold steady,” said the coyote, looking up in wonder just as the ant was, “I usually climb the center — it is less dizzying — and stand at the top to stare. Will you try it?”

This worker was an ant afraid of all the unknown in these strange lands. She was sensitive enough to be hurt by the teasing of her former sisters, and timid enough to never even look her former queen in her big eyes. And yet here, with the help of the coyote’s soothing voice and the fireflies circling out of curiosity, she began climbing the metal giant.

The vibrations filled her body and drove her her legs to match its rhythm. Soon she was timing it that four sets of slow steps on her left side, then four sets on her right, and the whirring hums of the giant beast would repeat in sync. Her vision blurred and she pictured her steps tickling this giant ant, and suddenly the titan stopped to turn and look at its tiny kin. Climb my back and see the world, said the giant to the worker, and then it went back to dipping down for its nectar, laughing out its smooth hums at making a new friend.

The higher the worker climbed, the more the fireflies swarmed, thickening and lighting up more of the metal beneath her feet. At top she stood for a moment to catch her breath, focusing at first on the soup of fireflies come to swirl around. She lifted a leg up to brush the tummies of the closest ones, and wondered if ever again in her life she would be close enough to the heavens to touch the stars.

The fireflies in unison rose higher up, circling and dancing out their light, daring the stars above to do any better. The worker could now see clearly in all directions, and the vista came to snuff out any motion of mind. She could see dark shapes stretch out from the base of the giant ant, shapes like bushes, rocks, and gentle hills. Further out she could see giant boulders and mountains, rare clusters of trees standing defiant against the dryness.

Even further she could see a sea of lights of all colors, flickering red and green, strings of white, and even some moving in lines. For a moment she blurred her vision and knew that that was the world of the two-legged animals, the humans, as the coyote calls them. From up here their world seemed as tiny as ant worlds, and it was not scary at all.

She could not keep her vision blurred for too long, for this was the furthest and clearest she had ever been allowed to look. The stars defined the boundaries like protectors, while the giant mountains in the distance stood proudly to oversee the preciousness. The moon smiled, whispering to the ant that this is why it rises, to drip down silver sighs at the beauty that can be scooped up with every glance.

From up here nothing at all was scary, even the unknown corners, for everything seemed like splices of an unspliceable whole. The worker held her breath and blurred her eyes, and prayed for a pink petal to fly in to make the scene even more complete. When she returned to the moment, there was a breeze coming to kiss her, but no pink flowers or whispers from anywhere.

She wondered if she was on the right path, if she would ever find a home, or if even finding a new home was her destiny. To feel so lost, and yet, in this moment, not afraid, was the strangest feeling to the little ant. The fireflies, all in unison, felt the next out-breath of the universe give them a secret, and so they began swarming to the east, drawing the worker’s attention, before returning to their flow high above.

To her right, a little ways off, the worker saw a dark space, one with no outlines or light, and wondered what it was. Beyond she could see random lights and craggy collections of outlines she assumed were sparse forests. But what drew her eyes was the faintest dusting of color. She squeezed the muscles in her face to focus as much as she could, and soon the color defined itself: pink.

It was faint and small, but she could see it, a pool of pink nestled in the darkness. It did not whisper, but yet it was faintly calling by its presence, and now she knew exactly where she must head.

Just then a piece of the moon seemed to split off and circle her a few times. A silver streak floated between all the amber of the fireflies, bouncing in the joy of its flight. The worker saw it was a butterfly, and she saw it float down, escorted by a happy sub-swarm of curious fireflies, and then saw it land at the base of the giant ant she stood on.

When she saw her long-lost friend, the soldier, step from the back of the butterfly, the worker could not contain her excitement. She squealed and hopped to tickle the back of the giant, and then raced down its legs to the ground. She ran to the soldier, just as the butterfly was saying its hellos and goodbyes. The worker grabbed the soldier with the tightest hug her little legs could muster and swirled around in delight. The soldier’s eye and smile lit up, and she giggled a bit, but then immediately tamped it down, let go of her little friend, and straightened up.

“It is good to see you, worker,” said the soldier as plainly as she could.

twelve

Danger

 

 

The worker told the others what she had seen up there, the lights and stars, the shapes in the distance, and even the faint spot of pink, and only the coyote got just as excited, for he had seen those on his climbs up there too.

Without even giving them a word in edge-wise, the worker rattled on with a renewed vigor of their need to head east, for she now knew, beyond any doubt, that there there must be a home for her. She also mentioned the expansive, dark and unlit place close by that looked like they would have to cross, and the coyote nodded and began leading them away, saying he knew how to help.

As they walked, the soldier stayed mostly silent, only piping up once, amidst the workers excited squeaks, to mention that the princess had left. The worker barely registered it, but the beetle was saddened, musing that one less of their party would see their wondrous adventure to the end.

By the time they reached the expanse that the worker had seen from up top, dawn was beginning to creep across the land. With the rising light, the group could now see before them a barrenness. Scrubland gave way to swirls of brown sand, rolling dunes, and the occasional boulder or cactus standing defiant. To larger animals, it was a mile-wide patch of parched land, but to the insects it was a sprawling desert.

Seeing the featurelessness up ahead brought the worker back to reality. Even with the new drive to continue east, her timidity was still persistently whispering its fear into her heart. She put one tiny foot onto the sand, paused to find some courage, but then pulled her foot back quickly.

“Before she left,” said the soldier, staring solemnly ahead and letting danger-scenarios play out behind his one eye, “the princess said that I must escort you to a new home. It was her last command to me, and so now it is my mission. Little friend, if you want to go this way, then I will have your back.”

The beetle saw the worker’s hesitation and chimed in with some wisdom too. “We have not seen a colony for you two to join since we began, so if crossing this desert is a means to finding one, then I will gladly follow. I agreed to come on this adventure of yours, and as beetles all know, adventures have a beginning, middle, and end. If you stop here, then this adventure would only have a beginning and middle.”

Absorbing the support of her friends, more real than any whispers, the ant stepped forward onto the sand again. This time she could feel its coolness vibrate up through her body and tickle her senses.

“This is the longest I’ve been away from my mom, and she’ll yell so loud when I return,” said the coyote, still with the pink flower dangling from his mouth. “I can’t join you guys, but I brought you to this spot for a reason.”

They coyote placed the flower gently on the ground, and then bounded over to a mound of dirt. There was an opening to a burrow there, and the coyote shoved his head in and let out a little howl. Silence and an echo came back, and the coyote perked up his floppy ears to listen. He than ran over to another burrow and thrust his head in for a follow-up howl.

An avalanche of squeaks and chirps filled the air and an explosion of brown flowed out from the burrows. The shapes scurried in all directions, like a wave running dry, until all that was left was the empty land again. One more brown shape popped up from a close-by burrow and began chirping angrily at the coyote.

The worker had never seen such a strange animal. It was barely the size of a small stone and hopped towards the coyote on hind feet springing with staccato. Its tiny forearms dangled, a long tail with a patch of fluff at the end floated steady, and its small black eyes were the shape of dew drops.

As it continued to chirp angrily at the coyote, the coyote turned to the insects and spoke, “My little friend here is upset.”

The animal continued to complain, but to the coyote pup everything was a game, so he only smiled and barked, rolled over in the dust, and even pawed tenderly at the little one’s head. Finally, the coyote and animal approached the insects.

“I saved him from a bobcat once,” said the coyote, “so he knows he owes me a favor.”

Kangaroo mice were proud, never accepting their place in the size-order of animals, and so the little animal hopped forward to sternly look the insects over. It then spoke out in as proud a tone as squeaking could be, “Which one is the injured one?”

The beetle slowly raised one of its legs, and the mouse stared at him, taking in the shininess of his plump body. Then the mouse turned to lord over the ants, stopping his long feet right next to them, just shy of stepping on their legs, as if to show that it was his choice not to crush them.

Turning to the coyote, the mouse spoke, “I will take your friends across the desert. The injured one can ride on my back, the other two will have to walk beside. I promise I will try not to eat them — even though the fat beetle looks tasty — just like you didn’t eat me that day you saved me. And then, we will be even.”

The coyote said its goodbyes and then tried awkwardly to hug things as tiny as bugs. It left its new friends with wishes of luck before bounding back, with the flower dangling from his mouth, and wondering if he’d need two extra flowers for staying out so late. The beetle then climbed atop the mouse, the soldier and worker readied for the march, and the group of four set off into the unknown.

The sun awoke from its slow-starting morning and dropped extra sunlight across the landscape. Heat flowed across the sand and in between boulders, between every needle of the cacti, and across the backs of a tiny hopping mouse and its three new companions.

The group trudged on for hours, across shifting mounds of sand and in between wayward tumbleweeds running from the wind. The beetle held on for dear life, bouncing up and down with each long hop of the mouse, while the soldier and worker ran to keep up. By noon they were all feeling the effects of the heat and the worker ran her legs over her jaw, trying to soothe the ache of its dryness.

“Is there any water in this area?” she asked.

The mouse stopped after its next hop, and its long feet spread out the sand beneath into two little craters. “One of my seed caches is buried close by. I can find it. Whenever I’m thirsty, I nibble on seeds and it helps.”

As the beetle climbed down and the mouse went off to search, the worker saw a pattern in the sand. She went over to look, and the soldier cautioned her not to stray too far. Swirls in the sand stretched off into the distance, and the worker could sense that these were tracks of some strange animal.

From the top of a small dune, the mouse squeaked out for them to come up and join it. The soldier went first, running up the hill fast enough so that the shifting sand did not swallow her up. The worker was a bit more cautious, even though the solider kept yelling at her to quicken her pace. The first few steps were solid, but then the sand started sliding.

It all happened so fast, first the ground was moving and then the worker tumbled and disappeared. The brightness of the day was replaced by the darkness of burning sand closing in from all directions. She felt like she could not breathe, and tried to spit out the grains that had been shoved into her mouth. Moving her legs did nothing, and soon she could feel the sand closing in, crushing more and more.

She felt a vibration from up above, and from its thumping she knew it was the soldier and beetle digging furiously with tiny legs. She felt the sand shift more, squeezing tight like a deathly hug, and then she suddenly felt herself pulled into the fresh and parched air. The soldier was there, brushing dust from the worker’s body, and only nodded when the worker hugged her in thanks for saving her.

“This is a foolish place to be, for little bugs like you,” said the mouse, shaking its head slowly and wondering why it had agreed to this silly task.

To answer the judging look from the giant mouse, the worker only crested the dune and jumped down the other side, never once breaking eye contact.

The mouse found its spot and dug down beside a little rock to unearth a collection of seeds. “I get water from seeds and usually tasty little insects, especially round beetles like this one,” said the mouse, crunching on a few seeds and smacking its lips noisily, for the sand all around to hear.

Moving the worker behind her, the soldier readied herself for however this scenario might play out. Nothing could be seen behind those black dabs of mouse eyes, no emotions could be read, they only reflected the dryness and washed-out amber all around.

The beetle, in his wise ways, broke the tension with a joke. “My humor is as dry as these lands, mouse friend, so I will only say that the fatness of my body is deceptive. Everyone knows I’m too crunchy to be tasty.”

That might have been a chuckle behind those mouse-eyes, the soldier was not sure. But the mouse did pass around the remainder of the seeds, and the ants and beetle chewed them to extract their moisture. The worker thanked the mouse for sharing its food, but did not want to dawdle, so she encouraged the beetle to climb back on board and for the mouse to resume leading the way.

They trudged through the afternoon and into the evening, and the heat of the day sank into a coolness. Stars came out as the group settled down for the night, and the worker looked around, at the beetle and soldier, and wondered what they saw when they looked up to the heavens. She looked at the mouse, lying on its back with its legs up in the air, and knew it at least could see the points of wonder above.

Knowing that another could see the stars was enough for the worker, so she lay back and relaxed her antenna, pointing it at star after star, counting as high as she could, but really only sharing the treasured silence shining down.

The next morning at dawn the sun kissed away the shadows on the ground and set it back to its amber tones. The worker rolled over to stand, and saw those strange tracks in the sand again, as if the odd, long animal had passed them in the night without even noticing them.

Heat washed over the land and the group marched through it, driven by the worker’s longing, the soldier’s honor, the beetle’s curiosity, and the mouse’s begrudging promise to a playful friend.

As hours melted in the sunlight, and time dripped to a slowness, the worker wondered if they were heading the right direction. She asked the beetle and he assured her they were still heading east. The proud mouse scoffed a little, sending a snort of flying dust, for it thought it should have been asked that question, and not the fat passenger on its back.

The worker had not seen a petal on the wind in ages, and she wondered if another would ever come this way to whisper secrets. The wind was alive in this desert, for at random sand was picked up and pelted, and the loose tumbleweeds tumbled at the slightest agitation. With the thought fresh in her mind, the worker looked up and saw a splash of color. At first she thought it was a daydream, but she knew her eyes were as sharp as the sand grains prickling her feet.

She began chasing the petal dancing high above. “Do you see it?!” she yelled, not even caring if her friends even answered.

Right away the soldier gave chase, and the beetle asked the mouse if it wouldn’t mind keeping up too. The mouse was the first to overtake, and came to a screeching, sand-skimming halt in front of the worker. The worker paid it no mind, however, and darted between the mouse’s legs to continue her chase.

The petal dipped and spun, as if its dance partner was the sunlight filling the air, and the worker giggled and jumped at the show. She wished she had wings like other lucky insects, for then she could fly and land on the petal, to be taken away to the home to the east that she knew was awaiting her.

By the time the soldier caught up, the worker had already tripped over an obstacle and tumbled to the sand. When the worker looked up again, the petal was gone, leaving no trace or whispers against the blue. The mouse and beetle hopped in, and the mouse immediately looked worried. It swished its tail, as if feeling the air for danger.

“We have to go,” it whispered.

The worker followed the mouse’s stare, looking down at what she had tripped over. There were angled lines cut into the sand, edged by two straighter lines which stretched off into both distances. The worker could feel the sand beneath her more compressed than elsewhere.

Before she could ask the mouse what was wrong, she started feeling a vibration. It was a quick and high pitched whine melded with a low rumble, and it was powerful enough to vibrate straight through the worker’s body. She shot to her feet just as a metal monstrosity bore down on them. It was the size of a boulder and had a human animal caged within. The metal beast kicked up sand and noise as four black discs spun beneath it, and it was heading right for them.

As the buggy stamped more tracks into the sand, the worker dove out of the way, and the soldier ran to help her up. The mouse’s first instinct was to turn and run, to abandon its charges, but the beetle yanked on its ears to get it to stop. The mouse turned and charged straight for the ants, and the worker’s eyes went wide. The mouse did not slow, and the thumping of its feet was lost in the thunder of engine noises all around. At the last minute, the soldier jumped and pulled the worker into the air, and both landed on the back of the mouse next to the beetle.

Now all three bugs were holding tight to the hairs of the mouse, as another and another buggy arced over the horizon and slammed into the ground like mountains falling. The buggies spat burning heat and clouds of dust, as the mouse hopped left and right, ducking under wheels or hopping out of the way at the last second.

The worker curled her jaws around the mouse’s fur, wishing she had eyelids like animals, so she could close her eyes and pretend none of this was happening. The jarring of the mouse’s hops and the body-crunching vibrations were taking its toll, and the worker no longer cared about pink petals on the wind. She just wanted this ride to end and wanted to never cross the paths of humans ever again.

As quickly as the dune buggies had appeared, they disappeared, taking with them their sickening vibrations and spraying sand off towards the next dune. When the scene had calmed, the mouse crouched to let the soldier and worker down, and it could see the panic still quivering in the worker’s little face.

“Living out here can indeed be challenging for bugs like you,” said the mouse. “In this place, whenever you see tracks in the sand — of any kind — the best option is always to run. If you do that, then I won’t have to save you again.”

They crossed the remainder of the buggy tracks and picked up their pace, trying to get far away as quickly as possible. Soon, the vibrations turned to a gentle murmur, and then disappeared completely. The soldier asked if the worker was okay, and the worker nodded and smiled, but still stepped over to walk closer to her big friend.

At the next seed cache, dug up with a flurry of kicks and pawing, the mouse this time shared the bounty without any smart remarks. The group settled down as day turned to evening, and the beetle regaled the group with stories of its youth and adventures through forests and rock fields far to the west. At the tales, the worker blurred her eyes and painted images came singing; they sang of the mysteries of these lands, of so many places yet to be seen, and into the safety of those imagined pictures the worker’s shyness and fear were not invited.

That night the group was awoken from their slumbers with a start. A hissing was in the air, and the mouse immediately jumped to its feet, scanning the darkness for danger. The soldier stood over the worker, ready to protect her, while the beetle limped over to stand ready too. The hissing turned to a whistling, and then a roar, and a wall of sand rose up to block the stars.

Before they could prepare, the flurry of wind reached them, pelting them with grains of sand like bullets. They crouched down, circling and putting their legs over each other so as not to be taken away. Their backs stung and the worker yelped with every hit. All they could stare at was each other’s terrified faces, as the roar of nature, of winds usually gentle enough to float petals, was now shouting out its power.

The mouse had mass, and the ants had strength, digging their feet into the ground, but the beetle had such stubby legs and large body that the wind seemed to focus on him. He was lifted into the air, about to be whisked away into the night, but was grabbed by the soldier, as she grimaced and shouting for help.

Joining in, the worker reached up to grab a leg of the beetle, and the roar of the wind and pelting sand formed a horrific backdrop to the silent expression of doom on the beetle’s face. The worker dug deep inside, to the place that helped her lift leafs and pebbles a thousand times her strength. She gripped tightly to the beetle and dug in her legs, angling her body, but still the wind was winning, and she felt the beetle slip from her grasp.

An avalanche of sand suddenly smashed into the ants and beetle, but this was not from the wind. The mouse was furiously digging, spraying sand over its companions, circling and pawing, until they were all covered and insulated, with the mouse curling its body to trap some air for them all. The roar of the wind turned to a muffled hum, as the ground around vibrated like angry ghosts.

The worker reached out to hold the soldier, to seek some comfort, but she did not see in the darkness that the soldier was shaking too, and that her big friend calmed half a degree at the touch.

 

Morning came to kill the wind, and the sun rose to wash the land in yellow. The mouse wiggled its body to shake off the sand, and it and the insects were free once more. The worker looked around, and even took a few steps off to the side to stare to the east and collect her nerve, and then she told everyone that they must continue.

By mid morning, the worker, ahead a few strides and marching with purpose, came across a disturbance in the sand. She recognized the flat tracks from before as from those human machines which spat and sprayed sand, but she also other tracks. The curved tracks she had seen before were there, and they split the sand like an empty, twisting river. There were also peppered dots across the other tracks, as if bugs had passed this way recently.

She remembered what the mouse had told her, to run whenever she saw any tracks in this desolate patch of land. She turned to see the soldier catching up, and the mouse and beetle not far behind. The worker paused, wondering if she should speak up, even as her lone antenna, unnoticed by her, started pointing in one direction.

A patch of sand ahead and to her right exploded, and suddenly a rattlesnake shot out from where it had been half-buried. It uncoiled with the force of an exploding gun and snatched the mouse out of the air mid hop, and caused the beetle to tumble from the mouse’s back with yelping thuds.

The beetle ran past the stunned soldier and grabbed her to pull her along to where the worker stood. For a second they stared, as the snake had the mouse in its mouth and started to widen its jaws, readying to swallow. The soldier was the first to snap out of it, and she yelled and her friends to run. At first they were still stunned, but then she shouted louder, and they all began scurrying away.

They ran for a few seconds, feeling the hot air against their faces and bodies, and feeling the crunching sand beneath their churning legs, and then the beetle stopped. A few steps ahead, the soldier and worker stopped to stare at him with wide eyes.

“We cannot just abandon that poor mouse,” said the beetle. “She has escorted us all this way, and has kept us safe.”

The soldier grabbed the worker’s leg, readying to pull her away, and turned to speak to the beetle, “No. We can leave her. We are bugs. We are no match for a snake.”

The beetle turned to look at the worker, and could see the worker staring behind him to the mouse and snake. To the worker, all she saw was danger slithering into death, scales and piercing eyes, fangs sharpened to points, and a dark, shadowy throat. The worker just shook her head no at the beetle and trembled, aching to put this entire dry patch of land behind her.

Gulping away its fear, the beetle turned his back on his friends and began marching back to the snake. When the worker started reluctantly following, the soldier grabbed her to hold her back.

“In this world there are not always safe endings. You are not always the hero who can never die, and that is true especially for ants like us.”

The worker stared at the beetle marching bravely, all alone, and then broke free from her friend’s grasp to follow. The soldier dropped her head, sighed out, and began following too.

“Listen snake,” said the beetle as he approached, “I know that little mouse is a tasty snack to you, but could you do me a favor and hold off on eating her?”

By now the worker and soldier were there standing beside, and the worker could see the look of terror on the still-alive mouse’s face, with the animal’s black eyes wide like moons. Three fangs had missed the mouse and one had pierced her skin, but still she lay limp in the snake’s jaws, her instincts freezing her body as if it were already dead.

The snake was quite surprised to be spoken to by a lowly little fat beetle, and not only that, but a beetle backed-up by two tiny ants. The snake dropped the mouse and curled its body around her so that she could not escape, and then answered the beetle.

“Well,” hissed out the snake, “this is quite interesting. I have never been requested to drop a meal by an insect. Why should I not eat this mouse?”

Darting its eyes, left and right, the beetle looked for a plan. It knew it was wise, having walked these lands for months, from the time it was a little baby to now, and had seen and encountered so much. It knew of trees which could whisper through their roots, of rocks which walked at night with the winds, and of birds which might land anytime for a chat about the luster of clouds. Yet still, nothing was coming to its mind. No plans were appearing.

The worker was the first to feel it, a dull vibration which turned into a distant murmur. She tapped the beetle’s side with her lone antenna, and the beetle could suddenly feel it too. They both knew exactly what it was.

“Oh, you’ve misunderstood me sir,” said the beetle to the snake. “I don’t want you to not eat the mouse, just to hold off for a bit.”

“And why should I?” asked the snake.

The beetle thought for a moment, and there was the plan he had been waiting for, offered up by the sun above and sand below.

“Because,” said the beetle, “that mouse has been the bane of my existence, threatening to eat me every chance it gets. So I want to relish this moment. I want to see it squirm and die.”

“Oh, in that case,” said the snake, opening up its jaw to swallow the mouse.

“But wait!” shouted the beetle. It took a few steps forward, as the distant vibrations grew louder, and raised himself up to his full height.

“You may not recognize me, for I am far from my normal lands, but I am a famous beetle artist. So, before you eat the mouse, perhaps you could pose with it, and I could sketch it out in the sand for you to remember it by.”

The snake scoffed in disbelief, but the beetle started scurrying across the sand, kicking at some sections and pulling his body through others, and he began drawing the beginnings of a snake. Surprisingly, he was quite good.

As the vibrations got louder, turning into a throaty rumble, the snake asked what the beetle what it wanted it to do. The beetle looked to the right, to the source of the rumbles, and then told the snake to back up slightly into the better light. Snapped out of its focus on the beetle ahead and mouse in its clutch, the snake finally felt the strange vibrations and looked down to see track marks running across the sand.

It looked up just in time to see a buggy baring down, arcing sand into the sky and over its caged human grinning obliviously. The snake unfurled the mouse and tried to slither away, but it was not fast enough. Springing back to life and coiling its strength, the mouse hopped free with giant bounds, just before the rattlesnake was fully flattened into the sand.

The mouse did not want to wait around to see if the snake was alive. It just ran forward and grabbed the beetle, and both ants, then threw them on its back before bounding away. It hopped as fast as it could, its long tail swaying, almost moving like the snake which had just been squeezing it, and brought the insects to the edge of the arid land. There, it deposited them tenderly to the ground and said its goodbyes, saying it needed to get back to its burrow to rest and heal.

It hopped away a few feet, and then paused to turn and look at the beetle and ants. For the first time, its black eyes seemed to show something other than dull or angry reflections, and the mouse returned to crouch down near the beetle. It angled its head so that its whiskers could give the beetle’s head a gentle pat.

“I think I like you the best,” said the mouse, before heading back into the desert and over a nearby dune.

The beetle turned and smiled at the ants, then ran over and hugged them, for some reason wanting to feel the contact of other life in his legs. When he let go of his friends, his smile was still there, stretching his jaws to the widest. “I think that is enough excitement for today. I am ready to continue this adventure, but hopefully with a little section of uneventfulness.”

It came quickly. First there was a flitting of vibrations that the worker could feel, and then a blur of brown and black as the giant shaped crawled over. The soldier reacted quickly, grabbed the worker and pulling her off to the side. When the soldier saw what it was, a huge tarantula, she dragged the worker further away.

The spider went straight for the beetle and grabbed it in its jaws, and the worker screamed out. The spider took a few steps away, and only when the worker screamed again, wiggling against the vice-like hold of the soldier, did the spider stop and turn.

“I am so sorry, my ant friend. I tried. I tried to head east as you said. I crossed the desert and there was nothing to eat. I came to these grasslands and still nothing. I am so hungry.”

The spider turned and began to crawl away again, but the worker yelled out for it to stop. Looking up to his friends, the beetle writhed against the jaws of the spider, and knew it could not escape. He then tapped the tarantula’s head with his broken leg.

“I have a bit of a dry sense of humor,” said the beetle, “but now that we’re in the not-so-dry lands, maybe my humor might get me out of this. Look at me for a second…”

The beetle angled his body. “Black,” he said, and then shifted his body to the left. “And now it’s blue,” he said. He repeated this a few times, even as he felt the spider’s pincers tighten. “Is not the light of this world fascinating?”

The tarantula ignored the beetle and looked up at the worker. “I’m sorry,” it said, “I swore to you I don’t eat ants, and I won’t start today. I am not a killer, but your friend can be my friend for a while until he can feed me.”

With that, the tarantula crawled away, back into the desert and blazing sun, as the worker tried to chase. The soldier was holding tight however, and would not let her budge, and even began pulling her away into the tall and dry grass. When the worker began kicking and screaming, even trying to bite the soldier, the soldier had enough and threw her to the ground.

“Listen, friend,” said the soldier, “you are now my charge. I was given orders my our princess to keep you safe and to bring you to a new home. That is what I will do until I succeed or die.”

When the worker looked up and then jumped to her feet to run after the spider and beetle, the soldier got more forceful. She grabbed her little friend in a tight hug and dragged her away.

“No!” shouted the worker. “We can still save him!”

“Stop it!” said the soldier. “We are ants. That is a spider. It is certain death. We will not go back”

The soldier ran for a minute with the worker in her grasp, even as the worker continued to bite and kick at her. When she was finally a safer distance away, and the worker tried biting her good eye, the soldier had had enough and threw the worker to the ground again.

“Fine!” yelled the soldier, “Go. Go after your friend and try and save him.”

The worker jumped up and began running, but in her frantic state, her lone antenna would not cooperate, and flopped over. She ran for a few seconds, thinking she would emerge from the grass back to the desert, but instead she found herself face-to-face with the soldier again, having run in a circle. She tried again, but the grass blocked her and clawed at her face, and she did not know where was West or East, or anything anymore. She ran and ran, and each time she ended up back in front of the soldier, until she could not take it anymore and collapsed in a heap at her friend’s feet.

For the first time, that moisture that wanted to come to the worker’s eyes all this time, finally did, and the worker began crying. It was a strange sensation to her, and even the soldier was confused, for she too had never seen water pouring from the eyes of an ant.

The worker felt so alone, and she tried gathering the dirt around her for a blanket, but everything was so blurry that she could not see. No daydreams came to comfort in this blurriness, only more and more water falling from her eyes. She felt herself drying out, hollowing out as if nothing was in her body and heart anymore, and then she dropped her head to the ground to feel its scratchy dryness and hoped to disappear.

Sadness can point the way, just like unbounded bliss, came a whisper on the wind. Through her tears, the worker looked up and saw a smudge of pink above the amber of the grass and the washed-out blue of the sky. She rubbed her eyes with her front legs, clearing her tears, and saw, as clearly as ever, a pink petal dancing on the wind.

“I see it too,” said the soldier, looking up, quite perplexed, for she thought she had just heard the petal, or perhaps the wind, speaking.

thirteen

Winds

 

 

This was the first time on this adventure that the worker was not excited by seeing a pink petal. The petal tempted, it dipped and swayed on the breeze, even dropped completely to the ground to tumble for a while, but still the worker did not give chase. Eventually the petal gave up and flew away, and the worker lay her head down in the dirt, happy that the tall grass kept beautiful things like the sun and blue sky mostly hidden.

When the soldier stroked the worker’s head with a leg and asked if she was okay, the worker only spat out anger. “You held me back!” the worker yelled. “I could have saved the beetle. I could have bargained with that spider.”

The soldier was going to say she was only trying to help, but she saw the look of betrayal so thickly painted on her friends face, so she kept quiet. As the sun heated up and the sky went from rich to pale, the soldier kept guard. She even became a worker for a moment; she ran to a nearby bush to rip off a leaf and carry it back to shade her friend from the little sunlight reaching her. The soldier also marched to a nearby bush to find the hard berries on the ground around it. She ripped them open, using all her strength, portioning them into softer pieces, and then put them on a leaf in front of her friend, hoping she might eat.

The worker ignored the kindness, and her friend, and continued to sulk.

By mid-afternoon, nature had had enough.

When a breeze came exploring, the worker did not care, and she did not even look up to see if a petal was on its back. Waiting for the breeze to pass, she kept her head down and kicked away the leaf her friend had tenderly placed nearby. The breeze was persistent, however, making the effort to find the ant through the grass, but when it had no effect, the breeze did what it sometimes did for those with special hearts, it whispered.

We are sorry that your friend is gone, said the breeze, and the whisper brought something special to the worker. Even with her head down in the dirt, she felt it. Folded into the breeze was the wisdom of the beetle, his affection floating through like a cloud, and even memories of the worker’s colony, of feeling safe and at home.

We know you have been chasing our cousin, the wind, and that he has whispered to you of home. We are smaller, less forceful in our ways, and so, please know, that us speaking is very special. But, we would like to ask you a favor.

The worker perked up at these words. She looked over to the soldier, wondering if she heard them, but the confused look on her face indicated she heard something not as clear. Since the start of this adventure, the worker had been following the migration of petals, of splashes of pink in this washed-out land, and she ached for where those petals would lead. She ached for the secret of the wind which whispered, and she was so used to be always seeking, always hoping to be given something, that she did not even consider that the wind itself might have wants too.

“How can I help?” asked the worker, and the soldier looked over at her, wondering who she was talking to.

The breeze picked up, increasing in intensity, but not quite turning into a wind, and it parted the grasses just enough to make a path. The worker began marching, and from the crunching,she knew the soldier was marching behind too. The breeze led the ants from the grasses to the dustiness of open fields, where it kissed the high points of rocks. It brought them through scrubland and circled round trees, apologizing for the distraction, saying it was just doing what breezes did.

As the breeze led them, it whispered some more to the worker. The river which flowed through here dried up a year ago before the drought. Many animals left a few months later, and so did so many insects. But do you know what the first thing to leave was? The wind.

Without it, we tried our best, exciting aromas for bees to find flowers, or cooling rocks so that lizards would stay a bit longer. But, we are breezes, here to just play with dust or bring smiles; we are not as experienced as our bigger cousin.

Through a sparse forest of ten trees the ants and breeze went, and the soldier started to feel that familiar, dull ache in her abdomen. When the soldier began rubbing her tummy, the breeze noticed and caressed her body, taking her mind off the poison which festered inside.

The breeze eventually brought the ants to the edge of a sandy field, where a group of large boulders defined the line of one edge. There, at the base of the boulders, the worker saw a horror of horrors.

Even though they still held the faintest of colors, most were dried and turned to wrinkled brown, as if they had stared too long at the medusa of the sun. The worker ran forward, needing to see this up close, and she picked up one of the petals, but it crumbled to dust in her jaw.

This could not be it, she thought. This could not be where all the petals she had glimpsed had ended up. This could not be their fate, the end of their journey, and by extension, the end of hers.

We tried, said the breezes, but we are getting weaker each month. Just like we whisper to you, the trees whisper to us, the clouds them, and the sun to all. Nature told us that this area is our responsibility, that we must take the petals from the edge of the desert and then on to the great canyon which borders this land. Elder breezes know of that canyon, but we youngsters have never reached it. These petals have an important destination, but we have never gotten them past this line of boulders.

The petals started shaking as the breeze stepped forward to caress them. Some petals cracked and crumbled, some shifted out of the way, and there at the bottom was one petal which had been shielded from the harshness by its kin. It still had the vibrancy of life veining it, and it greeted the breeze with a sweetly thankful smell.

Coursing around the worker’s head, like a warm hand gently stroking her, the breezes whispered an implore, Can you help us, little ant?

 

The worker held the petal in her jaws, as delicately as she could, for this was the most precious cargo she had ever been given: a daydream come to life to hold. She climbed to the top of one boulder, with the soldier following, and the breezes rose as high as they could.

The trees told of us a friend further east, said the breezes. If you can find him, perhaps he can lead you to the canyon where we hear the wind still plays. You and your friend-

“I am not sure we are still friends,” cut in the worker, looking away from the soldier and towards a clumping of bushes and trees which lay far ahead.

The soldier looked down, rubbing her tummy, and was saddened that the breezes could not reach this high to soother her. By this time, she had figured out that those breezes were what the worker had been talking to. “I am still this worker’s friend,” said the soldier, “and whether she cares or not, whether she ever smiles at me again or not, I will follow her wherever she goes.”

As the ants climbed down from the boulder and ventured beyond, the worker held fast to the petal in her jaws. Pink filled up most of her field of vision, and a softness, a caress from life itself, was touching her lone antenna. Even without fully seeing, the worker was able to walk a straight line, and not go in circles.

They soon reached the clump of bushes and trees the worker had seen from the boulder, and they could see that it was the edge of a sparse forest. These were hardy trees, eucalyptuses, ironwoods and desert willows, holding fast to the dry and cracked ground.

When the worker saw a squirrel up ahead, nibbling on a seed pod and curling its tail proudly over its head, she began running towards it. The soldier reached out and grabbed her, but the worker broke free and spun to face her.

“Don’t run into the unknown,” said the soldier. “Don’t run into danger.”

“We have to find the friend that the breezes told me about. You speak of missions and honor all the time. Now I have a mission, more important than any you’ve ever had. I have to bring this petal to the wind. I have to return it to its freedom. Can’t you see how important that is?”

By this time the squirrel had run off, but a squawk of a crow in one of the trees excited the worker. Could that be the friend, she thought. She was actually set to run up the tree straight towards the crow, straight towards something that would happily eat her as a mid-morning snack.

When the soldier grabbed her again, the worker spun, fully angry this time.

“The beetle was wise! He knew when a scenario was right to barge into. I wish the tarantula had taken you instead of him!”

The crow took off, and its departing echo grabbed the worker’s words and stabbed them in deep. The soldier looked around, rubbing an antenna over her missing eye and a leg over her abdomen, and she wondered if she should tell the worker that the poison in her belly would soon win out. Instead, only a thought flashed through her mind. Perhaps if I were more whole of a soldier, she thought, I’d know how to be a friend who was liked.

With the worker leading, still holding fast to the precious petal, the ants trudged on, and soon came to a field amidst the trees. Dry grasses, cracked dirt, and a few fallen leaves filled the space, and the trees surrounding it were leaning over curious of a timid occupant at its center.

A deer nibbled on the grass and sought out the fallen leaves, and the faded white spots peppering its coat showed that it was still a youngster. It’s large black eyes glistened with moisture, reflecting the dryness around as an amber glow. Even with that glow, however, something was lacking from those eyes, and the worker and soldier could see that something was wrong with this creature.

The deer moved slowly. Too slowly. After it had finished chewing on a leaf in the most cautious of manners, it raised a leg and inched it through the air as if it were underwater. It places its hoof down as if it were in a minefield, and took ten times as long as needed to get to the next leaf. The poor deer did not even wiggle its ears, something that all fun-filled young ones would normally do at any chance.

The soldier reached out to tap the worker on her shoulder, and then pointed to the tree-line at the opposite end of the field. Even though well camouflaged, with its coat the same rippling browns and yellows of the land, another animal was visible. Life could easily spot life, and the worker first saw its eyes, then its nose, and then its mouth filled with fangs. A mountain lion was crouching in the grass and staring with predator-focus at the young deer.

Seeing this lion, and out of habit, the worker inched over to stand behind her bigger friend. When she realized what she was doing, she stopped and moved over to the other side, to instead stand behind a thick piece of grass.

An odd scene was playing out, for from the deer’s actions it must have known it was being watched, yet it did not run. One of its eyes kept fixed on the lion, and it continued in its odd sequence of slow-motions as it sought out more leaves and grass. Somehow the worker knew, that this strangely-acting deer was the friend the breezes had whispered of.

Even with the lion right there, the worker found courage. Perhaps it was the sweet taste of the petal in her mouth, as it sat there in front of one eye and tinting everything pink, but the worker knew she needed to approach the deer. Even as the soldier reached out for her, yelling at her to stop, the worker walked forward.

When the ants got closer, the deer stopped its nibbling to watch their approach, and they could see its eyes grow larger and larger. Barely moving its lips, the deer whispered out to them, and they could hear the terror in its voice. “Strangers,” the deer said, “please slow down. Please don’t move so fast. Please don’t excite the winds. If you do, that lion will come eat me.”

By this time the lion was standing up, staring curiously at these two little bugs, one with a vibrant petal in its mouth, approaching the deer. The worker got close to the deer, almost right under its nose, and began pleading her case. She spoke of her mission, to find a new home, and of how petals had been leading her. When she spoke of the breezes that whispered, the deer jerked its head back half an inch, but then froze. And when the worker mentioned the canyon she had heard of, the one still filled with winds, the deer panicked and jumped back.

Immediately the lion pounced, propelling itself forward ten feet, baring its teeth and letting out a roar, but oddly, as soon as the deer froze again, the lion froze too. It squinted enough to see the ants and, in addition to the deer, now stared at the newcomers with a ferocious focus, then retreated to the edge of the field to lay down.

“I know of the canyon you speak of,” whispered the deer faintly, “I used to play there as a toddler. But I cannot go back there. I cannot feel the winds on my face. I cannot run ever again, for the moment I do, I will die.”

The soldier leaned over and whispered into her friend’s ear that perhaps they should leave, for this deer and situation did not feel right, but the worker was curious. She brought the petal from her jaw into her front legs, so that she could see the deer more clearly, and then asked the deer what it meant. The deer inched its head down, so that its nose touched the ground in front of the worker, and began speaking.

“One of my earliest memories was of being a tiny fawn with my mother near the canyon you speak off. The land was different then, more life and more water, and plenty of winds. I was happy and playful, and so I ran and felt the air rushing across my face. I begged my mother to come play too, and after a moment she joined in. She ran and laughed, and I could see her enjoying the wind like me. Then, through images which are seared into me, I saw this lion pounce from its hiding spot and kill my mother. It ate her right there in front of me. I know if I feel wind across my face again, if I ever run or laugh or play, it will be my last moment.”

As the deer spoke, water collected and fell from its eyes, and the worker knew that feeling. Those tears bound the deer in kinship to the worker, for while ants did not know the motherly bond that many animals felt, they did know the feeling of home.

The worker lifted the petal and leaned it tenderly against the deer’s nose. The deer perked up at this, her ears wiggled, and the lion took one bounding step forward. Managing to calm down, freezing the lion back to stillness, the deer only angled its eyes to stare cross-eyed at the vibrancy of pink touching its nose.

“This petal wants to feel the wind,” said the worker. “You do not have to run if you don’t want to, but can you not lead us to the canyon, so that this poor petal can dance and play, can do all the things you no longer do?”

Blurring her eyes, quite unconsciously, a daydream came to the ant to show what the deer was thinking. She saw it run and play with the petal, as its pink flew upwards to be taken on by the freedom of winds. She saw the deer laugh and bleat, running alongside the floating petal, as if its movements were painting outlines of a mother onto the air. Returning her eyes to normal, the ant saw the deer smile faintly and nod its head half a degree.

With the slowest of movements, the deer began walking towards the edge of the the field, away from the lion. The ants followed, as the deer kept its head frozen, stepping carefully over a clump of dirt and a few stones, and then entering the protection of the trees.

The lion stood, with its focused and piercing eyes never wavering, and began following just as slowly.

 

Beyond the forest the sun was waiting, and it laid down a stifling blanket of heat over everything. Trees turned to grasses and then empty plains of dry dirt. Little oases of vegetation broke up the landscape, with huddling bushes, lone trees, even a moss-covered stone, all unaware or unaccepting that they were in the midst of a drought.

The deer continued its slow-motion walk, fixing it head level towards the horizon, as if it its neck were concrete, and its legs arced up and down as if time was a tenth of normal. The worker held on tight to the petal, and looked back regularly to see the lion keeping pace, staring at the deer with the most unblinking of amber eyes.

Knowing the mountain lion was not a threat to her only concern, the worker, for lions had no interest in bugs, the soldier was more relaxed. She walked in front of both the deer and worker, keeping her eyes scanning ahead. Now on mission, on point, she felt the pain of poison in her belly only if she dwelled on it.

Do you know where our kinfolk are, said the air above, in a whisper heard plainly by the worker. She looked up and saw nothing, and the whisper came again, this time accompanied by a little orphaned breeze. The breeze saw the petal in the ant’s jaws and tried to grab it, ruffling it and pulling on it with all its might.

When the petal broke free and tumbled, at first along the ground and then into the air, the worker was horrified. The petal seemed to be heading back, seemed to be going west instead of east. She ran after it, even as the soldier yelled and tried to stop her. Her lone antenna froze, collecting all her focus and energy to stay straight and true.

When the ant saw the petal heading straight for the lion, she stopped dead. She yelled out after the petal, as if it were a best friend turning its back, and begged desperately for it to return to her. She saw the petal go right past the jaws of the beast, and she saw the lion reach out with a giant, clawed paw to grab it.

That was too much for her to bear. A pointer home was about to be destroyed, all her hope to feel safe and secure in a new colony, even to be just a worker cog in a wheel for the rest of her life, was about to be obliterated. She ran straight towards the lion, and her normal timidity and fear were nowhere to be felt. The fading breeze took the petal higher, right over the top of the lion and then over its back, and the worker ran between legs the size of saplings. She felt the air warmer from the lion, felt the vibrations of its panting through her churning legs.

She finally caught up to the petal and jumped atop, and the lost breeze took both the petal and ant higher up into the sky.

“Please stop,” said the worker to the breeze.

We must take this petal to its destination, answered the breeze, and then it began circling, exciting little eddies of dust, before becoming trapped in a little depression in the dirt. There, it circled more and more, getting weaker with each revolution.

“You are lost and confused,” said he worker. “I know you don’t have the strength you normally do and are fading each day, but your kin further back said your mission was to take petals east, to the canyon.”

The breeze may have whispered again, but it was too faint to hear; the worker only felt the petal and herself float slowly to the ground. Remnants of the breeze brush passed to the west, as if reaching out with one last dying breath to kinfolk so far away, and then the breeze was gone.

Immediately, the worker checked on the petal, making sure it was intact, no tears or folds, and even began brushing the dust from it, for she knew bright pink was its deserved shade.

When she picked up the petal and turned around, ready to get back to the soldier and deer, there blocking the way, towering over her like a fiery mountain, was the lion. It brought its head down to sniff the petal, and that created little hints of wind that the petal giggled over.

At first, curiously, the lion did not seem aggressive, and so the worker held her breath, and held tightly to the petal, and began walking around the lion. The lion looked back behind it, towards the deer, and when it saw that the ant was heading back there, was when it erupted. It drew itself up to its full height, eclipsing the sun, and then slammed one paw into the dirt. It raised its other paw and slammed it down, trying to crush the ant over and over again.

The worker ran left and right, as giant paws parted the air and kicked up clouds of dust. One hit and she’d be dead, but still she did not drop the petal. She held on tight and zig-zagged, running as fast as she could between the lion’s legs, through some shielding grass, and then towards the soldier and deer.

She could feel the earth wake up. Vibrations shook it and cracked the dirt around her, and she knew the lion was beginning to chase. She could feel it getting closer, and so she ran faster and faster, feeling the air on her face and the petal flapping, and then she dug down and ran even faster.

Up ahead, she saw something strange. The deer, still keeping its slowest of motions, began inching towards her, like a giant snail. And when the ant passed, the deer floated its head down to protect her. When the lion saw the deer’s movement, it skidded to a stop. The deer froze, and so did the lion, a mere five feet apart. The deer held its breath, and the worker held the petal, backing up slowly towards the soldier.

Eyes like molten lava pierced the empty air between predator and prey, and the lion was the first to act. As a surprise to the deer and its new friends, the lion slowly backed up fifteen feet, back to its normal separation, and lay down on the dirt to stare at the deer.

Afternoon shifted to evening, heat clocked out for coolness to take its place, and yet still the lion and deer only stayed frozen, staring at each other. It was only when the stars came out to chaperone that the deer calmed, turning like molasses to the ants, and then slowly lying down in some dried grass to rest.

“My mother and I used to play here,” whispered the deer in the middle of the night when she could not sleep. The worker woke up, and she felt the petal beneath her head and smiled.

“I thought the wind was my friend back then,” said the deer. “Whenever I was happy I would run, and so I thought wind was a reward, a friend, a blanket of love come to wrap from nature. But I would still give up all the play in the world, if I could just have my mother back. I miss her.”

When the deer began sobbing, the worker walked over to run her tiny leg against the side of its head to try and soothe. “I miss my sisters,” said the worker, and she brought the petal up to the nose of the deer, so the deer could smell its sweetness. “I miss my home. You may not know it as the same, but to me it is.”

The deer nodded, and cautiously moved a leg forward to tenderly brush up against the worker. Both the deer and worker looked to the soldier, for she was up and listening. They waited for her to share, to say anything, but she only stood proud, turning back to resume her watch. They did not know that she wanted to say she missed the princess, and that she missed her friend, the worker.

 

They had resumed their slow journey the next day, as the sun rose to paint amber across sleepy shadows. At one point of their march, at mid-morning, they came to a moss-covered hill. This must have been where a pond or water collected after rains, for the moss was still stubbornly springy, defiant to the parched surroundings.

A need to play suddenly came to the worker, the first time in so long on this adventure, and it was perhaps because she felt the precious petal in her jaw. She ran forward and hopped and twirled, bouncing off the moss like a giant trampoline. With the petal acting like a sail, she got incredible height, summersaulting at top and then drifting down to land and bounce back up. She giggled, and the laughs vibrated to petal so that it laughed too, and its color may have even brightened half a shade.

The deer stop at top on a boulder, looking down the hill at the bounding ant and smiling. The pink got the deer’s eyes and she was mesmerized as it went up and down and twirled as if dancing with unfelt winds. The deer got so caught up in the moment that it wanted to jump. It wanted to fly through the air and land in the moss to bound around in bliss. She closed her eyes, held her breath, and readied to give in.

A roar cut through the air, like a dagger slicing joy, and the deer turned slowly to see the lion a mere five feet behind. Its claws were out, digging into the dirt, and a fierceness painted its face exactly like that day, a year ago, that day the young deer would never forget. The deer backed up an inch from the edge of the boulder, wiped intentions for play from its mind, and the lion stepped backwards and lay down.

“Can you feel that?” asked the deer, as they were walking later on that afternoon. “I think we are close.”

The worker had been feeling it for the last little while, for the petal in her mouth had been twirling delicately. Winds were nearby, and their faintest echoes were reaching the deer, the two ants, and the lion still following twenty feet behind.

Soon the landscape changed. Dirt and sand changed to rocks and boulders, the ground went from amber to reds, and up ahead they could see the destination sought, the canyon. It cut through the ground, a jagged line running north-south, blocking the way further east. As they neared its edge, the winds intensified, for here they were trapped by steep rocky walls tens of feet high.

This was the first time the deer had returned to this spot, the spot of its mother’s death, for over a year. It was also the first time it had felt wind on its face in just as long, and it was feeling it without even running or prancing. It closed its eyes, and enjoyed it for a while, feeling the little hairs around its nose and eyes wriggle and writhe. Then it shot its eyes open. Wind, it thought. Danger, it thought.

It turned to see the lion running towards it, claws and fangs bared, thumping into the ground with giant paws primed to attack. It launched itself into the air, jumping with impossibly powerful hind legs, and flew straight towards the deer. This is it, the deer thought, the end. Perhaps it would be quick and painless, or perhaps it should be welcomed, for at least missing her mother would end.

But the lion flew straight over it, landing a few feet beyond, and it faced away from the deer, growling with the full strength of its powerful throat. A huge coyote was facing the lion, with hackled fur and a snarling, fang-filled mouth dripping saliva. The coyote took a step forward and the lion tensed its muscles and opened its mouth wide to fully expose its giant teeth.

A stare down froze time for seconds, but the coyote knew it was no match. It backed up, not letting up its snarling and growling, and the lion did the same. Finally, the coyote turned and ran, and the lion took its time to calm. When it did, it turned around to face the deer, and flopped down to the ground, kicking up a cloud of dust.

“What… why did you save the deer…”

The lion looked down, waiting for the dust to resettle, and there next to its paw was the little ant with the pink petal. The lion was startled and jerked its head back, for it swore it heard the ant speak.

Bringing its head closer, the worker could feel hot breath kicking up more dust and exciting the petal. She backed up a few steps and moved the petal behind her, just as the soldier reached her and tried to pull her back.

“You speak the language of lions?” said the lion to the worker.

“I can hear and understand you,” said the worker.

The lion looked up to the deer, as it stood frozen and staring, and could see the wind coming up from the canyon to playfully ripple the deer’s fur.

“And you speak to deer too?” asked the lion.

When the worker nodded her tiny head, the lion dropped its head to the ground, and the worker thought she heard a few faint sobs. When the lion looked up again, tears were running from its once-fierce eyes.

“I’ve never seen an insect that could, not only speak like animals, but speak the languages of different species.”

The lion stood to step closer to the deer, but when the deer slowly backed up, terrified, the lion stopped and lay down again.

“Can you please tell the deer something for me?” said the lion.

The worker remained silent, and so the lion continued.

“A year ago, in this very spot, I saw a fawn and its mother here. When I saw the mother run, instinct took over and I pounced and ate. It is what lions do. I could not help it. But when I saw the little fawn collapse to the ground, cry out for its mother, I was shattered. I felt so guilty.”

The lion looked to the deer and could not stop the tears flowing from its eyes.

“I retreated to those distant rocks and watched that fawn lie here day and night, next to its dead mother, and cry hour after hour, until all its tears had been used up. I had never seen so much pain and longing, and it touched something inside me.”

“I followed the fawn that day,” said the lion, looking down to the tiny worker and the petal she held. “I kept watch over the years, trying to keep him safe, but he stayed so still no other predator ever came for him. Whenever he was in danger, or afraid, I tried to run forward to comfort him. When the petal you were carrying startled him back in that field, or when it was about to jump from that boulder into the moss and hurt itself, I just wanted to run forward and keep it safe.”

By now the tiger’s own tears had been exhausted, and its amber eyes were red and raw. “I have been watching this poor deer for over a year, just waiting and hoping he would play and run, kick up its legs and laugh, like that day with its mother. If I ever saw it happy again, I would be happy too, and could leave knowing it was okay.”

The worker continued to stay silent, taking in the lion’s story to her heart. The petal brushed up against her cheek, and its color and softness brought wisdom. As the worker thought, and finally spoke, she did not know that it was the beetle’s wisdom coming through her, as imparted by the magic of nature, through the petal, and by speaking that, the petal was helping her let go of her friend.

“I could repeat everything you have said to the deer,” said the worker, “but that would serve nothing.”

“What?” yelled out the lion. “I need to see the deer understand that I am so sorry.”

“If you want to see the deer happy, if you want to see him laugh and play, then just leave. Go far away and stop worrying, stop looking over him. Your presence is stopping him from joy, and the string tying you two together is stopping the winds in this place.”

For a few seconds the lion argued and pleaded, but the worker would not back down. The petal spoke to her by its presence, and she spoke from a place inside that she never knew she had. She eventually convinced the lion to leave, and it looked around, wanting nothing more of this place, and so it began climbing down into the canyon.

It got to the canyon floor and walked towards its center. When it saw a collection of boulders, it moved towards them and chose the tallest one to climb atop and lay across. The lion’s eyesight was the best of these lands, and it knew that while it could see the deer, the deer could no longer see it. A different kind of tears now came to the lion’s eyes as it watched the deer. It saw the deer feel the winds from the canyon and then run and play, kick up his legs, as if he was as light as the air, as light as happiness itself.

 

The deer ran and laughed through the afternoon. The worker, with the petal in her mouth, felt the energy of winds and deer-play amplified a hundred fold. She could not keep up with the deer, but she ran and laughed too, and her laughter vibrated the petal in her jaws into a song. The worker stopped to rest, and the deer finally came over and lay down, thanking the worker for asking him to come on this journey. Then it asked the worker why she had not yet let the winds have the petal.

“Because,” said the worker, staring into the canyon stretching before them, “the winds in the canyon seem to be heading south, and I know that this petal is not meant for that direction. I can see across the canyon, and I can see — from the dust dancing on that side — that the winds I want are over there.”

As the deer and worker continued to talk, the soldier stood off to the side and stared up into the sky. Her eyes were not as sharp as the worker’s, but still she could make out a smudge of color that seemed to be hovering on the winds. What she lacked in sight, she made up for with her role, with the soldier’s instinct which coursed through and warned of danger. That smudge, with its hints of black and yellow, seemed to be in the shape of a wasp.

fourteen

Water

 

 

The steepness of the descent into the canyon was a challenge to the worker. She focused with all her might, trying to keep her lone antenna pointed ahead, but it so wanted to dance in the wind and lead her into twirls and spins. The soldier lead the way, stepping carefully and too-often looking back to check on her friend. Flapping happily in the wind, the petal in the worker’s jaw acted no differently here in the face of danger, in the face of falling down a steep wall, than on the flat plain above.

To most animals this was a deep and wide gully, but to the ants this canyon was a wonder of wonders. It was large enough for trees to stake out claims and for boulders to lord over worshiping shrubs. The grasses here were not the pale and dry ones the worker was used to. Instead, many were green, little curls of color, standing huddled in clumps and whispering to each other the joys of water. In the center of the canyon, was the source of all this life: a stream trickling through.

The petal seemed excited for the moisture, and it picked its hints out of the air and became an even more vibrant shade of pink. Even the sun seemed to bow down at its brilliance, and the ant teared up at her responsibility, of having to carry such preciousness.

On the canyon floor, the winds picked up, excited and churned up by that little stream. They rushed south with a roar, funneled by the canyon walls, and while for animals the winds would be strong enough to ruffle fur, to the ants they were powerful beyond belief.

The soldier liked the wind, for it took her mind off the pain in her belly, and so she could focus on the threats around. She scanned the canyon floor, memorizing the positions of rocks and bushes, escape routes and hiding spots, and knew which trails through the grass were the shortcuts to each. She looked up and tried to spot the wasp again, and she knew in her gut it was the same one from before. Her poor eyesight only returned an arc of blue above, and she could not see the wasp near the top of the canyon, struggling to fly against the winds.

The lion was still laying on its boulder, and it took a break from staring at the deer still dancing up above to look at the ants and flapping petal. At one point the petal won over and began to lift into the sky like a giant sail. The worker held on with the conviction of a life, her jaws clamped tightly enough to lift her up with the petal, but always gently enough never to damage it. For a few seconds, the lion giggled as it saw the tiny ant twirl and spin a few inches above the ground, and then it saw the soldier run over and grab her friend to bring her back down to safety.

In an alley between grasses, where the wind was particularly strong, the lion saw the ant struggle and grew to admire her. That unique insect — that could speak to all animals — held fast to the petal, as it flipped and swung left and right, aching to lift up into the sky and take its protector with it. The ant angled her head down, stepping with all her strength, one leg at a time against the fierceness of the wind, as slow as the deer above once moved.

All this for a little petal, thought the lion, as it continued to watch the ant, knowing she was pouring as much love into protecting that petal as the lion herself poured into watching that poor deer over the last year.

The lion jumped down and bounded over to the ants, using his giant body to shield some of the wind. “Little ants,” said the lion, “if you want to get to the other side of the canyon, I will escort you and keep you safe.”

As the ants pressed on, the lion paused to look up canyon wall again, tracing it up top to where the deer still pranced in the wind beyond its edge. The deer was far enough away, that the lion could only see its head, its smile and joy-filled eyes.

“If you want to come with us, then do so,” said the worker, “but you must let the deer go, knowing she being held by the wind up there, held as safely in its arms as a mother holding a child.”

The worker’s voice, amplified through the vibrating petal, came to the lion louder than any of his roars, and so he turned away from the deer for the last time.

Another wind came to lift the petal and worker up into the air, and the lion’s paws were too big to bring them back down without injuring them. The worker ran up the lion’s leg, tickling the beast, and then up to his head and jumped off into the sky to grab the worker and float with her and the petal safely to the ground. Once they touched down, the worker looked to her friend and saw her painted with a delicate pink sheen by the petal. The soldier nodded when she saw the worker was okay, being stoic as always, but the worker smiled, knowing she could not stay angry at her big friend forever.

“Welcome to paradise!” came a garbled voice from behind.

The trio spun to see a fat little squirrel on top of a rock, with its cheeks stuffed beyond reason. It was surrounded by piles of seeds and bits of flowers, a hoarded treasure, and it threw its arms over and pulled everything closer when it saw the strangers staring. It spat out the food from its mouth, realizing its words were not clear, and spoke again.

“Welcome to paradise!” it shouted. “Don’t worry, the winds are easier to handle as you get away from the walls.”

As it spoke, the squirrel’s chubby cheeks flapped and its round body pranced across the top of its stone. It laughed and hopped over piles of food, stuffing bites into its mouth in between each of its words. “The grass here is green, the trees are happy, birds sing as loud at night as during the day, for here there is water. This stream has come back to life, after so many months gone, to paint its wetness across this thirsty canvas. Here there is peace for everyone. Here there is food for-”

The squirrel suddenly disappeared in two sickening crunches, snapped from thin air and the rock by the lion that had quietly snuck over. The lion chewed a bit more and then gulped the squirrel down, licking his lips with a satiated sigh.

“Sorry,” said the lion, turning to lap up some seeds from the rock, “I am a lion, can’t help it.”

 

Past a conferring cluster of trees, the trio emerged to finally see, up close, the stream that they had been smelling and hearing. It babbled through proudly, turning dirt into mud on its banks, making nearby stones glisten, and drawing in close all the animals thriving in this canyon.

Deer stood and drank, and upon seeing them, the lion immediately turned to look up towards the high ground, aching to see if his young friend was still playing. Rabbits gathered in groups to wiggle their noses, raccoons washed fruit next to each other, and frogs grumpily croaked for no reason, and yet they were all here to celebrate water trickling life through this canyon.

There were a few coyotes scattered about, but they were the loners, not caring to smile at anyone but their own kind. They came to bend down and drink, keeping their eyes up and focused on all the tasty prey nearby. Squirrels here were fat, with their bushy tails arcing like dusters in the air as they hopped towards the stream to drink. Insects were also aplenty here, with bees hovering, and flies come to land and lick all these animals.

High up above, having won out against the wind further back, the wasp with the injured wing had made it closer to the stream. It ignored all the animals, even the other bugs crawling and flying everywhere, and was only focused on the soldier ant and her companion, the worker. As it landed on a branch of a nearby tree, it rubbed the crack in its wing and built up its rage.

Here the winds had turned to breezes, strong but not impassable, and so the wasp planned and readied its attack. It knew it would need to come in from the other side, away from that lion that was shadowing its targets, and away from any of the insect-eating animals congregated in this spot.

When it had its plan, it jumped up and churned its wings to action, hovering for a moment and then readying to dive. Before it could shoot forward, however, it was surrounded by four other wasps, much larger and healthier looking than it. They closed in, forcing the wasp back, through the branches of the tree and then towards another tree further back, where a nest swarming with wasps was awaiting.

On the ground, the lion, soldier, and worker all rushed forward to drink from the stream. The water was cool against all this heat, and its waters brought smiles down their throats, through their bodies, and then to their faces. The worker let her focus slip for just a moment, as she held the petal with her legs as she took a sip, and an opportune breeze ran through to grab the petal.

The worker cried out, but the breeze had already taken it on a ride up high. She started to run after it, crying and yelling, creating such a fuss that most animals nearby stopped their drinking to look. The ant jumped over petals and dove through grasses, for desperation was driving her legs, and tears were blurring her eyes. Seeing the little ant running oblivious right towards two lizards drinking, the lion roared out for her to stop. When the ant showed no signs of slowing, the lion took off in chase.

He bounded forward on the strongest legs of this entire collection of beasts, and passed the worker within two bounds. The ant screeched to a halt as she saw the lion blurring past, jumping over boulders like she jumped over sand, and barging through bushes as if they were grass. The lion was so focused on the petal, mesmerized by its dance, that at first he did not notice the effect his run was having.

As he was gaining on the petal, the lion began seeing animals run. Raccoons darted up trees, and rabbits flung themselves up to twist in the air before hopping away like mad. Even the brave coyotes, the larger males with their fierce, hardened stares, were backing up slowly. They were all reacting this way because here was an apex predator running full force.

The lion caught up and grabbed the petal out of the air, tenderly grasping it between two sharp claws, and he then jumped atop a nearby boulder. For the animals still remaining, he threw his head back and let out a roar loud enough to send ripples across the stream. Lizards darted to cover, possums and moles jumped into holes, and even the lion’s cousin, a bobcat that had come to quench its thirst, bounded away with cowering respect in its eyes.

After a whole year of obsessing over that poor little deer, thought the lion, it feels good to be king once more.

 

The wasp was brought before the queen of the nest, a large creature, with a fierce looking scowl, wings that even here, in the darkness, shimmered with blues and purples, and a huge body curled towards a formidable stinger. All the wasps of this colony were easily larger than the visitor, for they flew in this land of plenty, but this queen was a specimen beyond measure.

“We normally do not take kindly to visitors,” said the queen, “for in our experience they either come here lost — in which case we send them on their way back — or they come here to start trouble.”

The queen looked over the visitor, with its ripped wing that had barely healed, its beady eyes, and its body so slender. She wondered what, beyond the dryness and lack of food in the lands surrounding this canyon, could have made this wasp look so wasted.

“What category do you fall into?” asked the queen.

“I follow two enemies,” said the wasp.

The queen nodded, now knowing the source of the rage in this visitor’s eyes. She knew that this was a wasp — like so many in the drought-stricken lands — that was feeding on grudges and battles to make up for the scarcity of food and water up there.

“And what have the two wasps done to you?”

The visitor stretched its wings and looked around, taking one step forward, and the soldiers surrounding the queen began vibrating, sending a wall of buzzing crashing into the visitor. It stepped back and froze.

“The two I follow are ants,” said the wasp.

A little giggle could be heard from the back of the room, and the queen shot a stern glance in its direction. She sighed out and spoke to the visitor, trying on her friendliest voice.

“My strange kin, you are new here, so I will explain our ways. Here we live in paradise, for there is water and food. We steal honey from the bees, but we do not kill them. They, in turn, pollinate the flowers and set off life in this canyon. Animals thrive here, and they are at the top of the chain. We build our nest and raise our young, and some of us are taken by birds and smaller mammals, but we do not cause troubles; we do not rock the boat. Tell me, is one of the ants you follow a queen?”

“No,” said the visitor.

“Then there is no chance they would establish a colony here. It is true that ants could be trouble, for they are always disrupting. When they grow to too many, they swarm and consume everything in their path, and some kinds even have built-in hatred for us.”

The visiting wasp had a sickness inside. Just like the soldier ant was being eaten away by poison, this wasp was being eaten away by its rage. So it gathered its words and spun a tale, mixed in with pale truths, about the ants it chased. It spoke of a scarred and beaten soldier, one with too many lives, that had somehow survived all of the wasp’s attacks. That soldier seemed to be on the prowl for trouble; it was crazed, despising wasps for no reason, and would stop at nothing to find the closest ant colony to return and attack in full force.

This queen had lived too long in paradise, and she had forgotten the ways of war and hatred, but her instincts were still there. She knew it was her duty to protect this colony at all costs. Even though she did not like this visitor, something about it was too desperate, and lies seemed to be coating half its words, she listened patiently to it pleads its case.

“I perhaps could lend you some soldiers,” said the queen, “If I did, how how many would you need?”

The wasp smiled and then hid it, hoping the nearby soldiers could not see its satisfaction. It had this stupid queen right in the palm of its stinger. It knew it only needed one or two soldiers to mount a multi-pronged attack, but it held its tongue, knowing this fat and well-fed queen would keep on talking.

“Okay,” said the queen, “I will lend you five soldiers. Since you know the ants and their tactics, my soldiers will be under your command until the mission is done. You are to shadow the ants while they are in this canyon. Do not harm them or attack while in this paradise. Do not rock the boat. But, once the ants leave this place, you are free to do to them as you will.”

The visiting wasp smiled, this time unashamedly, rubbing the wound on its wing and nodding. “Thank you, great queen of this great colony. Your kindness will be remembered.”

 

Near the creek, the lion returned with the petal and dropped it in front of the tiny worker. The ant ran to it and circled it a few times, checking from all angles to make sure it was undamaged. A tear that made her gasp was just a trick of the light, and so she caressed the petal, held it tenderly in her jaws once more, and whispered to it that she was happy it was safely back.

The lion saw a low-point in the creek, where a line of stones was peeking out and could be used to cross to the other side. When he mentioned it to the worker, she was still obsessed by the return of the petal, and the soldier had to tap on her head to get her attention. She finally looked up and nodded, thanking the lion for seeing the way, but more importantly, for returning the petal.

They began heading towards the stones, with the soldier on point, keeping her lone eye scanning to make sure the way was clear for her friends. The lion brought up the rear, stepping as slowly as possible, head held up high, relishing that the animals that had returned to drink were cowering at his feet. Most did not make eye contact, and the ones that did bowed their heads with trembling respect.

“Little ant,” said the lion to the worker, bringing his head down and whispering so that the animals around could not hear, “I like this place. I like it a lot. It makes me feel like lion again, and it feels right. After I escort you two to the other side and then up to the eastern ledge beyond this canyon, I think I will return here to live happily.”

The worker smiled up at the lion, happy for this giant friend’s return to the rightness of instincts, and she let the petal in her mouth twirl once to show it.

Reaching the rocks, the soldier jumped atop the first one and held out a leg to help the soldier up. The current from the stream was fast and excited a breeze, and it tried to grab the petal from the worker’s mouth. She held on tight and spoke respectfully to the air that came to tickle her skin. She told it that it was relieved of its duty to escort this petal, for she, the worker, was going to take it to the rightful winds to the east. The breezes giggled, thanked the worker, and then went back to their play with the rushing water.

For all his ferocity, with fangs and claws outclassing any that gathered here, the lion was terrified of this piddling amount of water. He could have jumped across the stream with one powerful bound, but instead he waited for the ants to cross, and then tip-toed from stone to stone, making sure not even a drop of water would dare touch his paws.

The other side of the creek had a different energy. It was wider and flatter, and as the winds brought more of the moisture in this direction, even greener. Animals here seemed quiet, not full of the life and noise of the other side. The ones that had gathered to drink by the water looked up in amazement at the sight of a lion, but they did not cower like the other animals. The trio made their quiet way away from the water and further inland.

“Why do you walk so slow,” asked the worker of her friend, the soldier.

The soldier picked up her pace, fighting through the pain in her joints from the poison working through her, and then spoke as nonchalantly as possible, “Oh, I was just mesmerized by all these animals, all this green. Isn’t it something?”

Not even paying attention to her friend’s response, the soldier looked up and scanned the sky, wondering if that wasp that would not give up was somewhere up there. The pain of keeping two secrets, that of the wasp and the poison eating her insides, was a lot for the soldier to bear, but she did, and she was proud to march through that pain, for that to her was her honor.

With the winds bringing life from the creek, in this spot trees erupted from the ground, bushes exploded in fullness, and wildflowers of yellows, reds, and purples bloomed their shouts to the sky. Animals lay around with full bellies and thirst-quenched to laze away the heat of the afternoon.

Even as the pecking-order played out, with bugs at the bottom, birds feeding on them, and then larger animals, in turn, chasing and snacking on them, there was a peace in this spot. Nature, when balanced, exudes that peace, and that, at first, was what the worker thought was playing out here.

But the lion, being normally at the peak of that very play, sensed something was wrong. His sharp eyes spotted it in the the way the animals stayed so quiet, the way that even the trees kept still in the breeze, as if the peace was something they were all effort-fully trying to maintain.

A double-line of birds, robins, jays, and small hawks, formed an avenue in front of the trio, and they took the clue and began marching down its middle. The lion took the lead, stepping carefully between the birds, and the two ants followed behind. The ants looked up to these towering birds on each side, with their round, feathered bellies, and their beaks overflowing with wads of insects ready to be swallowed.

The soldier kept the worker close by her side, ready to act if even a single of these birds looked ready to add to their snacks. Trembling as she walked, the worker began feeling — for the first time since she had held the petal — a fear. The scariness of nature, especially a splice like this, so oddly unbalanced, took her attention from the pink brilliance in her mouth, and she was suddenly back to her normal timidity of the unknown.

“Why do you look so scared, little ant,” asked a blue jay to the worker’s left. The bird had swallowed the worms it had been holding and licked pieces of them from its beak. “Even if any of us were to eat you two little ants, you should be happy. You feed us; we feed the foxes; they feed the lynxes, and everyone should be happy. Right?”

Like a flash of lightening, half the birds took off with a flurry of wings and the rest closed in to surround the ants. The lion spun at the noise of flapping, but it was too late. He was also surrounded, for a group of coyotes had charged in from behind the trees to circle and snarl at him. They bared their fangs and growled, shoving their paws into the dirt and tensing their muscles, showing the sum of their power.

The lion knew he could take perhaps one or two of these beasts, but not a group of ten. He retracted his claws, un-tensed his muscles, and brought his lips up and over his fangs. Then he slowly bowed his head to the very species that had been doing the same to him just minutes earlier.

The trio was brought to a grassy clearing, surrounded by huge boulders to one side and towering eucalyptus trees on the others. At the clearing’s center, on top of a boulder so huge that it put the smaller trees to shame, lay a black bear of huge proportions. It lay curled, with its giant snout against paws lined with claws as large as the lion’s head. Even though its eyes were open, it did not move, as if these visitors could not hold his interest just yet.

Only when the coyotes and birds brought the bugs and lion to the base of the boulder did the bear lift its head and smile down at them.

“Welcome to my land,” it said, with a voice that rumbled the ground. “I see you have met my guards and subjects. The other side of the creek thinks they are paradise, but they know nothing, for they have not seen a kingdom like mine.”

The bear king rose to its paws and towered over the visitors, eclipsing the sun and parting the winds. It had to squint to see the ants, and saw a little splash of pink that piqued its curiosity, but it was really interested in the lion. Though the lion bowed its head and averted its gaze, its relaxed stance betrayed its fearlessness. The king did not like that at all.

“Why do you three pass through my kingdom?” asked the bear.

When none of the three responded, a nearby coyote guard reached out and slapped the lion. The lion spun and roared, bringing his head and giant fangs right up to to the coyote’s face. Instinct rippled through the crowd of animals gathered. First, the coyote shrieked and jumped back, and then the other guards took a step back too. Birds took flight, and raccoons and rabbits ducked to hide in the grass.

The bear king was impressed. It had never seen a lion up close, and had never seen such a strong carnivore flex its muscles. When it saw that its guards had not closed their ranks again, the bear stood up on its hind legs and let out a roar so loud that it echoed through the canyon for a full minute. Loose rocks seemed to shake free from the canyon walls, and the worker ant swore she saw a cloud above evaporate in fear.

The animals around feared their king, but it was a different fear than to the lion, and the bear saw it. It saw how the coyotes stepped forward again with eyes down, and how the rabbits calmly hopped up to re-form their obedient line. This was not a fear powered by instinct, but one only faintly dusted with duty and respect.

An example needed to be made.

The bear leapt down from its boulder with a blur of rippling fat and fur, and landed with an earth-shaking thud. He raised a giant paw and smashed it into the side of a nearby coyote, sending it, squirting blood, and a pained scream hurtling through the air. When the coyote fell to the grass, it was already dead, and the nearby animals swarmed. Coyotes ran in to feast, and flies and worms raced in for scraps. Hawks and other birds dipped in between the flurry to grab pieces of flesh, and even raccoons and the other small omnivores happily chose meat in that instance.

Looking at the lion, the bear waited for a reaction, and was enraged when it saw none.

“I will ask again,” said the bear, glaring at the lion, “why do you three pass through my kingdom?”

Seeking to diffuse the situation, the lion crouched in the dirt, making himself as small as possible, and spoke in as soft a voice as his throat could muster. “My bear friend-”

“My highness!” roared out the bear.

“My highness,” said the lion, “I am escorting this little worker ant, for she is special, and she has a special mission. She seeks to bring this petal to the winds beyond this canyon, for it is showing her the way to a new home.”

When no reaction came from the bear, the lion continued.

“This ant is a marvel. I have never seen one so tiny have a heart and drive so big. She can speak to us animals — all our species — as easily as she can to insects. She can see and hear like animals too, and I’ve witnessed her whisper back to the wind.”

“I had a passion once,” continued the lion, “and it was driven by guilt. This little ant’s love for this petal, and her love to find a new home. was so strong that it cleared me up with just her being herself. I hope, my king and highness, that you can see the purity of this ant’s drive and can let us pass through.”

The bear turned to look at the little ant spoken so highly of. The soldier ant beside it seemed nothing special, scarred and missing an eye, and even though it brought the worker behind to protect her, the bear could easily suck it up with just a misplaced inhale. The worker seemed uninteresting too, so insignificant, but the petal in her mouth was captivating. It was pink, unlike all the wildflowers of red, yellow and purple that grew here. It was also bright enough to reflect some of its color into that bowing lion’s eyes.

“I will let you three pass,” said the king, and the lion sighed out held-tension and rose slightly. “But, as payment I want that petal.”

The worker yelled out a defiant no, but her voice was still coated in fear, and it came out too lightly for any of these large animals to hear. The lion looked up and could see a smugness across the bear’s face, and it also saw once more its size. It was easily twice the heft of the lion, and while its jaws were no match, its claws, funneled by huge muscles rippling along massive legs, could easily tear the lion to shreds.

Having only a second to react, the lion chose his course. He smashed his front paws into the dirt near the ants and dug in deep, grabbing mud, grass, and pebbles — and hopefully two ants — and threw the pile onto his back. He then leapt up onto the huge throne boulder and leapt beyond, over nearby shrubs and saplings, and began running away with all his strength and speed.

When the lion heard the bear behind him laughing, he stopped and spun around. The bear had the petal resting on his snout and two robins had landed to grab the two writhing ants in their beaks. Falling to the ground in a pile, surrendering to the dirt and moment, the lion did not move when the coyote guards came to surround him. He did nothing, even though he could have killed one or two, when they brought him to a tight circle of trees and forced him into the middle. The ants were brought in too and dropped roughly to the ground, as thorny weeds were moved to close the gaps and guards encircled the stockade two animals thick.

The three prisoners could see the bear climb back atop his rock and lie on his back, making the petal flutter above his nose with each of his out-breaths. He yelled with his commanding voice, even as he continued to play mesmerized with the petal, “In my kingdom, we have games to keep the animals entertained, games to the death. Tomorrow, crowds can gather to have fun, and we will let the spiders have a go against the ants, and maybe ten coyotes can go up against that weak and feeble lion.”

 

Night descended and pushed stars into the sky. Animals quieted down until the only noise was the creak in the distance rippling against stone and sand. The lion and ants stayed alert, unable to rest, and the lion kept a watchful eye on the surrounding coyotes. At first, the coyotes were focused, facing inward and staring with wide-eyed mistrust of the lion. Soon, however, as the hours turned dark and the air cool, one by one the coyotes lay down to sleep.

When the last one stopped stirring, the lion pushed out his claws and reached as quietly as he could through the branches keeping them prisoner. He managed to snag one of the thorn bushes and lifted it up and away, tangling it in the tree so that an escape route was cleared. He then turned to the ants and nodded silently to them.

The lion stepped through first, and his eyesight was just as good in this blackness as during the day, so he stepped over sleeping coyotes with barely a sound. The soldier wanted to exit next, but she was scared, for her eyesight out her single eye was no match for the inkiness of this night. Holding up one leg for her to take, the worker smiled and led her friend out of the prison. She led the soldier around the dust being swirled up by the snoring coyotes, and then to where the lion was awaiting them.

When they were finally far enough away, behind some boulders and near the edge of the eastern canyon wall, the lion felt safe enough to whisper. “I think we should leave this place. We need to find a way up this wall and out of this canyon.”

The soldier nodded in agreement, but the worker said nothing. Even when the lion and soldier stepped forward, she stayed still. “You know I cannot leave without the petal,” was all she said.

Arguing with their friend, the lion and soldier pleaded with her, trying to convince her that there was too much danger in this canyon to stay too long. Here the energy was toxic, nature was unbalanced because of the rule of that bear-king, and they needed to escape. The worker politely listened, but still did not budge.

She looked at the soldier and knew her friend would stay with her no matter what, and so she turned to the lion, knowing he was the one she had to convince. For the first time in her short life, and without even the petal in her mouth, she unearthed an eloquence that was aching to escape.

“You may not understand, my dear friend,” she said, walking over and stroking the paw of the lion with her tiny leg. “Lions may not be as social as ants. We ants crave a home, a sisterhood that we can belong to. That instinct is in every joint in our bodies, and it pumps every second one of our heartbeats. Without a home, a place to belong, we are just empty shells with legs, marching until we die. The drought-stricken lands up there, and this fractured canyon down here, have no ant colonies, and so my only hope to see the way is that petal.”

The lion quietly lay down in the dirt beside his friend, bringing his head close so he could hear every last word. Tears came to the worker’s eyes, and even the lion’s eyes watered, for she spoke of the death of her colony, and the twisted, poisoned bodies of all her sisters. The worker spoke of the emptiness in her, the ache to fill it, and the preciousness of the petal, and how, so far, it had been the only thing to whisper hope to her out of all the things here in nature.

When she finished speaking, the lion stood and then looked up to the stars for a few seconds of silence. Starlight washed over the moment, and the lion felt a stillness inside, just as pure as when he saw the deer prance and laugh in the winds above this canyon. He then turned to the little worker and smiled, giving over a faint nod.

To the ants, it looked like the lion had no plan, but they followed him anyways. Their giant friend marched past the stockade and sleeping coyotes, over the grassy fields and right up to near the creek, where the bear lay snoring on his throned boulder. Letting out a roar loud enough to wake the fainter stars, the lion threw his head back, and the ants ran to cower under his body.

With a start the bear awoke, and the petal that had been laying on its chest fluttered down to the base of the boulder. The bear stood and answered the lion’s roar with his own, and his shout boomed out to wake the coyotes and all his subjects. Animals scurried to the creek to find out why their king was yelling with more rage and might than they had ever heard. The guards came running too, and were embarrassed that the three prisoners were free; they surrounded the lion, but none was brave enough to get too close.

“Fine,” yelled out the bear, “if you cannot wait until tomorrow for the games, we will do it now. Let us have this entire pack of coyotes against this insolent mountain lion!”

Not a single coyote made the first move, for they all stared wide eyed at the size and claws of the specimen before them. The lion tensed his muscles and bared his fangs, and a couple of the coyotes backed up. Animals surrounding the scene began murmuring, and the king would have none of it.

The bear jumped down from his boulder, almost crushing one of his guards in the process, and them stomped over to tower above the lion. He raised his giant paw, with its line of razor-edged claws, above the lion’s head and waited for the lion to look up with the fear he expected and craved.

The lion looked back towards the west, to the faraway wall of the canyon, and wondered if his deer friend was still up there dancing. He then looked to the creek, filled with water that terrified him and could easily keep him prisoner, and missed the animals on that other side. He smiled when he finally turned to look at the little worker ant. Gathering his courage, the lion readied his words, and looked up to the king without a trace of fear.

“I will give you something in exchange for that petal and freedom,” said the lion, and the bear became intrigued, lowering his paw a few inches.

“What will you give me?” asked the bear, making sure to roar out his words, full force enough to remind his subjects who was the leader.

“Give the petal to the ants and let them go, and I will stay in this kingdom of yours.”

The bear frowned, not at all sure if he liked how this offer was shaping up.

“I will be your servant,” continued the lion. “I will never roar out in this land of yours, never show my strength or act like a lion in front of any of these animals. I will bow down to these coyote guards, even to the rabbits and raccoons, so they can snicker at this predator who would never harm them, but most importantly, I will bow down before you when you pass. You will be my king, and I will be your obedient servant.”

It took a moment for the words to sink in, but then the bear chuckled, rippling the fat along his jowls. He lowered his paw and smiled, already picturing the respect that would shower him from having conquered this lion. The bear then turned to his boulder, crouched and snorted out, sending the petal flying into the air and towards the ants. The worker grabbed it and drew it close to her, holding on tight.

“Go little bugs,” said the bear. “Go before I change my mind.”

fifteen

War

 

 

(flesh out commander)

 

Dawn was slow to come that night, and the ants waited hopefully for it as they walked through the darkness. They passed the collection of animals, passed the tree prison where they had been kept, and finally went beyond the far edge of the bear’s kingdom. As the neared the canyon wall, breezes turned to winds, and the luckier ones were able to splice off and escape, heading up over the lip to become eastern winds running free from the madness down below.

In the hours it took them to reach this eastern wall, and even though the worker could hear the echoes of all the creatures calling this canyon home, she never once heard her friend, the lion, roar. She knew he had been silenced, and that silence spoke the loudest of the kind sacrifice for her she had witnessed. She could not comprehend it fully, so all she could do was weep, weep for the love offered from a giant beast, letting tears fall as glisten onto the petal in her mouth.

They planned a path up the wall and began heading along it. Winds intensified, and they gripped to the rock and and sand for their lives. When the soldier slowed, partially because her grip was not as strong as the worker’s, but mainly because of the winning poison within, her friend took the lead and helped her along.

A calm spot found them, where the winds curled across a ledge to skip over, and the worker was able to safely put the petal down and rest. She looked down to the canyon and knew the soldier beside was gazing down too. The worker was also able to look farther, to the drought-stricken lands to the west, the lands where she once had a home, and knew she could never go back there. Even the soldier knew, and the silence in this windless spot was the acknowledgment between two friends that they would never cross this canyon again.

Once they crossed the threshold and stepped onto flat ground again, the winds came with a vengeance. The ants could see up ahead, where dust eddies died down and bush branches waved only slightly, and they knew they needed to get there. They put their heads down and stepped into the wall of air, fighting for each gained step.

On the air the worker thought she heard a buzzing and turned slightly to see a blur of yellow and black. When she focused her eyes, the blur morphed into six blurs, and she knew she was seeing wasps fighting the ferocity of the winds.

“That one will never stop,” said the soldier over the roar, “It will not stop until we or it is dead.”

Just as suddenly as the wasps had appeared, they disappeared, and the ants retreated back to the edge of the wall to look down. There, they saw the wasps at the bottom of the canyon, choosing to walk up instead of fly. Even with their wings pressed tightly against their body, the wind was affecting them much more than the ants. With a determination both ants had never seen before, the wasps fought against the wind, angling their heads and bodies into it, and made slow and steady progress upwards.

“We have to go!” yelled out the soldier.

The ants tried running, but the winds up here were too pushy, and the petal in the worker’s mouth became cumbersome to her. It flapped and twirled, aching to be set free, but she was not ready to let it go. Even as the soldier pulled ahead, and she was almost lifted off the ground once, then twice, she only squeezed her pincers tighter around the pink.

“Let it go!” shouted the soldier. “You have to let it go.”

Home and freedom were so close that they were tinting everything before her, and the worker did not want to see the world so amber and washed-out again. But when she saw her friend tumble to the ground and begin sliding past her, she had to act. She opened her jaws and the petal flew up. Grabbing her friend, she used her worker strength to pull them both to a nearby rock where she could grip more tightly.

The petal flew higher and higher, and in a bit of cheekiness, almost flew back into the canyon, before arcing up over the ants’ heads and then towards the east. As the worker followed the petal’s splash of color against the sky’s awakening blue, she caught sight of something in the distance: a line of black.

She grabbed the soldier and pulled her along, until the winds spread out across the lands, into breezes once more, and the ants were able to walk easy. The line of black grew to a flurry of scurrying, and they could see six-legged shapes like them.

One of the black shapes put down a piece of a berry it was carrying and spoke, “Hello strangers. We’d not expect to see other ants so close to that windy canyon. Are you lost? In any case, welcome to the great colony of the eastern plain.”

 

“I only ask that we can stay here,” said the soldier. She and the worker had been brought by the ants into their nest, deep underground, and into the royal chamber. The queen towered over the soldier guards ringing her, and she stood mostly silent. Back to her timid ways, the worker was half-cowering behind her friend, staring wide-eyed and speaking with a shaking voice as the soldier made her plea.

The queen finally spoke, and her terse sentence shattered the worker, “It is rare for ants to take in other ants into their colony.”

Looking around at the soldiers standing guard, including a large one with a red mark down its spine, a scar improperly healed, and also at the curious workers lining the perimeter, the worker didn’t care that all these ants mirrored the stolid look of their queen. These were all potential sisters, in a colony — the first she had seen in weeks.

Oddly, when the worker tried to find courage to speak, she only thought of the petal and missed it, and she even blurred her eyes for a moment to picture it. She then gulped down nervousness, refocused her sight, and stepped half a step out from behind her big friend.

Finding that elusive spot of eloquence inside, the worker stuttered out a retelling of their adventures. She spoke of the tree and swarm of beetles that helped her cross a chasm, and of the coyote pup that showed her a giant, pumping ant bathed in starlight. She spoke of the lost tarantula, the dancing deer, and the canyon filled with winds and life, and when she finished speaking she noticed the queen did not look so scary anymore.

“And I have gone through all that,” said the worker, “just to find a new home.”

“That is fascinating,” answered the queen, taking a few steps forward to look over these two strangers. “I have never heard a tale of adventure like this before, especially for ants.”

As her little friend was speaking, and the queen looking them over, the soldier had crouched further and further down. The poison was winning out, and she could feel it tightening her joints, burning her chest and abdomen. It was almost as if that wretched evil was seeking out all her scars too, for she could feel its acid mocking from the insides, along her missing eye, all the scratches on her body, and especially the place where the wasp’s stinger had grazed her.

“We would be honored if an ant such you, little worker, would join our colony,” said the queen.

When the queen began inspecting her, the soldier averted her gaze in shame, for she knew she was not the best of specimens. She tried to stand up a little taller, but the poison inside would not let her.

“And you, soldier,” said the queen, “one so scarred must have seen tremendous battles and survived. We would be tenfold as honored to have such an experienced soldier in our midst.”

The worker saw her big friend smile, and she realized she had not seen her smile like that in much too long.

Needing to be truthful, especially if these were now to be her sisters, the soldier cleared her throat and spoke up. She told the queen and nearby soldiers of the wasp and its new comrades trying to climb to the top of the canyon wall.

The queen laughed, the first time the two visiting ants had seen her not serious, and she twirled around with arms wide, “Look at the size of this colony, my dear ants,” she said. “No wasp has ever reached us or bothered us in the years I have ruled. Not only are the wasp species nearby plant-eaters — not the horrid kind I’ve heard of that eat bugs — but our colony is so well-hidden that none could find us. And if — in the impossible chance — they did, we are so well protected by soldiers, tens of thousands of them, that no wasp would stand a chance.”

“You do not know that wasp as we do,” said the soldier. “That wasp, that has now found five others for its cause, is crazed. It has a blood lust. As you said, my dear queen, I have lived through many battles. Each scar on me is a lesson learned. I only ask that you heed my warnings.”

As the soldier persisted, the queen relented and agreed to send out a scouting party of soldiers. The soldier suggested twenty, but the queen countered with two. The soldier then offered to lead the party, but the queen refused flatly upon seeing how weak and bent-over the solder was standing.

“Let the scouts go and return to tell us there is no threat,” said the queen. “In the meantime, let me show you around this nest, its size and fortifications, to put your minds at ease.”

 

There was a front exit and back exit for the nest, both well hidden by their tiny size and surrounding grass. Apart from the two long tunnels to the exits, the nest was a maze of chambers deep underground, all protected by the mass of dirt and stones surrounding it. The nest also had a top hole that exited to a space under a canopy of piled, flat stones. The queen said she often stood there to look out over the plains, at her workers gathering leaves and berries, or the soldiers training for battles that, thankfully, never came. The soldier inspected the rocks there, running her legs over the main opening, satisfied it was too small for a wasp to fit through.

“The only thing that will save us is that this colony is indeed well-hidden,” said the soldier. “But I beg you to be safe and begin preparations, just in case.”

With wisdom and instinct convincing her, the queen agreed. The worker volunteered to lead a contingent of workers to do the tasks the soldier suggested, and when the soldier said she herself would not join, but rather just stand back in the queen’s lookout spot to observe, the worker smiled.

“Yes,” said the worker, “you are tired from all our adventures. You should rest.”

The soldier smiled back, but said nothing.

Getting one hundred of the strongest volunteers, the worker led her sisters out into the fresh air. She made them collect dew from the grasses and store them in huge pools within the nest. Using that water, she commanded the workers to make mud and fortify the entrances, building up walls that would harden in the sun. She piled pebbles against twigs to make traps, and she showed the others how to cut grass with their pincers at angles, then sticking them in the mud to create a forest of spikes that no wasp would dare fly through.

With a lightness of step, the worker commanded, fawning over the sisters in turn fawning over her lead. She laughed with some, and answered questions of her adventures with others. When she went to check on the line of workers stocking up the food stores, she was so happy and distracted that she did not notice that her lone antenna had made her go in a wayward circle. She froze in her tracks and looked cautiously around at all the ants nearby.

None laughed, none teased, they only marveled at how fun-filled and different the ways of their newest sister was. The worker relaxed and ever ran in a few more circles, setting the others off in a chorus of joy. In all her time out in the sun, leading the workers, and being a worker herself, the worker did not once look up to the sky, not once look for a petal or whisper, for she knew she had found her new home.

When the worker returned to the nest, the soldier asked her to plan a new chamber for the queen to hide in deep underground. Overhearing, the queen rose to her full height and refused in a booming voice. “I will not cower in the darkness,” she said. “I am the queen of all these ants. If it came to war, I would be standing proud with them, looking out over my children from my lookout, or even on the battlefield fighting right next to them.”

A day later, when the scouts did not return, the queen began to wonder if the new soldier was indeed right. She sought the soldier out and asked her advice, but when the soldier said that they should stay put, for the nest is well-hidden, the queen refused. She instead gathered ten of the strongest soldiers and tasked them to find and kill any nearby wasps. The queen did not know, as she looked over the volunteers who had lined up proudly before her, that none of them would return.

 

Well into the second day of preparations, the worker was picking up the pace. She asked the ants under her charge to grab larger pieces of berries and leaves, all so that the storerooms back in the nest could fill up faster. When the ants could not obey, the worker showed them how, lifting up an entire berry, and even a good chunk of a leaf, and felt good at all the gasps of wonder that followed.

At one point in the afternoon, when the worker was surveying the lines, she spotted something in the distance. There, on the winds, was not the familiar pink, but a blurred line of yellow and black. She focused and stilled, and could make out six wasps zig-zagging over mounds of dirt closer to the canyon.

Immediately she told nearby workers to look, but none other had eyesight has sharp as hers. She told them then to get quiet, to feel the vibrations of the buzzing hit the ground and travel up their legs and into their bodies, but none of these workers was as sensitive as she. None even wanted to scurry back to the nest when she implored them to run.

Desperately jumping over piled leaves and pieces of berries, the worker dove into the nest and darted through tunnels to the queen’s chambers. A line of soldiers blocked her as she barged in, but the queen and her friend, the soldier, told them to let her through. The worker spat out what she had seen, and the queen, seeing the agitation in this little ant’s face, knew this sighting was true.

The queen turned to the soldier and asked her advice, and one of the queen’s soldiers, a grizzled commander, the largest of the lower ants, with a red scar down its spine and standing right next to the queen, looked away in disgust.

The soldier was about to answer the queen, but when she opened her mouth the room started spinning. Something was grabbing her from the insides, a prickly numbness, and her vision faded to black before she fainted. The worker ran over and tried to lift her up, and even the commander reluctantly offered a leg, but the soldier was fully unconscious.

“She is tired and stressed!” yelled out the worker, trying to revive her friend.

“Then she can rest, but I still need to make a decision” said the queen, before turning to her commander. “What is your advice?”

“I say we send out an army of one thousand of my soldiers to find and destroy those wasps — if they really are out there.”

The worker, still holding on to her fallen friend, piped out in a panic, “My new queen. You do not know me well yet, but I know my soldier friend, for we have been through so much together. She fought with this wasp on many occasions, so she knows its skill and tactics, and she has repeatedly said that this nest’s strength is in it being hidden.”

“Then, little worker,” said the queen, “what do you think your soldier friend would advise?”

“Send one hundred ants to the north,” answered the worker. “Send workers, and send them to a mound and tell them to gather food and look busy. They can trick the wasps into thinking that is where the nest is. I know this wasp. I know he only wishes to battle soldiers, and he will leave those workers alone.”

The queen looked over at her commander, and the commander seemed impressed, nodding faintly in agreement.

“Fine,” said the queen. “We will try your plan, little — and apparently wise — worker. Now, go take your friend to an empty chamber where she can rest and recuperate.”

 

Slowly coming back to consciousness, the soldier had a half-waking dream. At first she was a commander of a huge ant army, a force that was feared by its enemies and would easily win all its battles for their queen. They were heavily decorated and praised, and when ants of the colony spoke of honor or respect, they used those words interchangeably with the soldier herself. When her fading-in vision saw the worker standing over her, she incorporated her friend into the dream, and now both of them were fighting together on bloodied fields, looking after each other in battle and friendship.

“Oh my, it good to see you awake — and even smiling,” said the worker.

The soldier shook her head to clear the remnants of the dream. As she did, the waiting pain of the poison raced back in, and her smile was wiped in an instant.

“I fed you when you were out, nectar made from the berries of these fields,” whispered the worker to her friend. The worker made up for the soldier’s missing smile with a huge one of her own. “You were talking a lot in your sleep. I have never seen you so animated ever!” she said.

“There is a poison in me, and I do not know if I will recover from it,” said the soldier bluntly. She said it and then looked away at the dirt walls of the chamber they were in.

For a full two seconds, silence was the only answer, and so the soldier looked to the ceiling too.

The worker had an intelligence, a creativity more so than most any other ant, and so she immediately knew what the soldier was talking about. She flashed back to that day on the sea of flat stones, the last day of their previous colony home. She remembered the instant clearly, when she slapped a drop of poison from the soldier’s mouth, and even back then, wondered if any of it had passed her friend’s pincers.

“We can get you help. We can cure you!” said the worker, as she frantically began pacing the room.

“Help me by keeping my mind on important things,” said the soldier. She righted herself and forced herself to stand tall, trying to show her friend that she still had plenty of strength and time. “How goes it with the queen? What is the situation with the wasps?”

The worker knew that the best help, for now, was to let her friend be a soldier, and so she told her of the current plan. Quite proudly, she told the soldier how she told the queen to send workers to the north as a diversion.

“You fool-” shouted the soldier, and then stopped herself when she saw her little friend’s expression. “You smart fool,” said the soldier, “you do not know that wasp like I do. These soldiers here don’t know that wasp either. You sent workers out there, and the wasp does not care. It will kill them without a second thought, and even worse, it will torture them for the location of this nest, before it does. Soldiers would rather die than talk, but workers will spill.”

The soldier took a few steps to the door, but then collapsed, as half her legs weren’t cooperating anymore. She stood and motioned to the worker to help her. “Quick. Get me to the queen, so that we can right this before it is too late.”

They checked the royal chambers, and the queen was not there, so they went up to her lookout spot. They got there just in time — and yet a time too late. As the queen was watching a line of workers collecting berries and filling the nest’s food stores, the first attack came. Six wasps flew in, and their buzzing shook the pebbles and stones around.

They flew in low and slow, for they were each carrying something. Onto the line of workers they dropped their sisters, curled and pierced dead bodies of their sister workers, workers tortured exactly as the soldier had predicted. After the sick bombing run was finished, an evil taunt from these vicious wasps, they proceed to kill every last panicked worker out there.

The queen gasped and fell to her knees at the sight, and the soldier helped her up.

“The battle has to begin now, my highness.”

Looking at the soldier, the queen only saw a strong specimen, no hints of the soldier that had collapsed, and both she and the worker did not know that the poison in the soldier was letting her have this moment.

An alarm vibration spread through the nest like lightening, passing from ant to ant, until the workers nears the exits moved dirts and pebbles into place to seal them up. For now their home was safe, for the wasps could not enter, but they had to do something. The queen gathered all the troops in the vast network of chambers at the base of the nest. She stood at the front and boomed out her words, telling the soldiers that a battle was upon them, and they were to earn their roles.

Most of these soldiers had never seen any fighting, and those that did had never seen a full-blown war like this. Whispers spread through the ranks, about not one wasp being out there — which would have been terrifying enough — but six of them, with five being giants and the smaller one being crazed. It was understandable, when the queen asked for one thousand volunteers, that no one stepped forward.

The commander with the red scar along his back stepped up next to the queen and tried next, calling on his generals and troops by name. While a few stepped forward, it was not nearly enough.

Asking the worker for help, the soldier inched forward to stand on the other side of the queen. When she was finally able to just barely stand on her own, she waved the worker away and tried to straightened up. It took all her strength to summon a voice loud enough for the room, but she ignore the pain burning her insides and did so.

“Fellow ants,” said the soldier with a wince, “most of you do not know me for I am new here. Where I came from, the drought-stricken lands where food and water is scarce, we unfortunately knew too many battles. In my years I fought spiders and wasps, and even other ant colonies. I want each of you to look to your sisters to your left and right, and then to your sisters in front and back. I want each and every one of you to know that when we fought, we never fought for ourselves, but for our comrades around us, for the weak workers who did their duty to keep us fed, but most importantly, for our queen.”

The soldier looked to the queen, nodding at her smile, and then looked to the commander. The commander had a frown on her face, but, seeing that her troops were responding to this outsider, she stepped aside, back into the ranks, to give the soldier his time.

“I want you also to know,” continued the soldier, “that from what I know of this wasp, you are not fighting a battle for fighting’s sake. You are fighting to survive!”

It took some doing, but when the ants saw this brave solider, barely able to stand up on her own, willing to fight for this colony she had only just been welcomed to, fight with such valor and determination, they began to step forward. Ant after ant, each one feeding on the courage from the last, took a step forward and raised their leg, saluting both the fearless, weakened soldier, and their queen.

The commander with the scar saw this unfold, watching it with her permanent frown. She stared not at the new soldier with the rousing words, but at her queen, and could not fathom how she looked on in such admiration.

“Death,” whispered the commander to the generals who stood near her. “This stranger will bring death to us. She will get us all killed.” And the generals nodded in agreement.

 

The worker was at the front exit, supervising as other workers cleared the dirt and reopened the way. She peered out and could see the wasps resting on the ground far away, their wings primed and their stingers curled under, thirsty for targets. The worker stepped aside and the soldiers marched out in single file. Their march was not a boisterous one, but a solemn one, with heads held level and not a whisper between them. They formed their lines in front of the wasps, unable to take their eyes off their incredible size, and held their collective breaths in unison.

Up in the lookout, both the queen and soldier stood watch, and the soldier had her legs up in the air, directing in her mind where troops should be. She felt so powerless up here, resigned to waving her legs in the wind, instead of being down where she was needed, but the queen did not want her to fight in her weakened state.

They both witnessed the wasps make the first move, as the enemy took to the air in a vicious buzzing. Their wings excited dust and parted grasses, and they shot up into the sky, straight towards the sun, so that the lined-up soldiers could not easily see them. The attacks were relentless, dive after dive, with stingers easily finding target after target. Ants would have the advantage in tunnels and nests, but out here on these plains, with the sky the domain of the wasps, they had no chance.

The worker peered out of the entrance, even as the other workers begged her to let them close it up, and she saw the hope of a new home fading with every death. Bodies piled up and shrieks of pain filled the air, as stinger after stinger pierced the bravest of the brave. And then, as quickly as it had started, it was over, and the ant battle was lost.

Hearing of their sisters so heartlessly cut down, the second set of volunteers was easy to raise. They ached to go out and fight, somehow thinking that their rage and blood lust would give them the advantage, that they somehow would be better than the last.

The soldier insisted she go out too, and the queen relented when she saw how hopeless the tides looked. Even the scarred commander was out there with her generals, and she and the soldier stood at the front of a legion of five thousand charged and ready ants.

When the battle resumed, the wasps were just as merciless as before, and they even began to relish this slaughter. Where was the resistance and challenge, they wondered, as they stung ant after helpless ant. Soon, the green field of grass turned black with the bodies of soldiers strewn as far as the queen, from her perch atop the nest, could see.

In the chaos of the battle, the weakened soldier was overwhelmed by the noise and stress, and the poison in her came back with a vengeance. Her vision blurred and her head swirled, and she wasn’t even sure where on the battlefield she stood. The commander saw her state and ignored her, and even offered a faint smile when it looked like one of the larger wasps was diving for her. Soon, the command thought, that outsider forever whispering poison in the queen’s ear would be gone.

At the last moment, before the wasp could kill the soldier, it was blindsided by an attack from the side. It was not an ant that had struck it, but the small wasp, the one that had been dogging the soldier for so long. That wasp spat anger at its larger companion, saying that that soldier was hers alone. The wasp then dove in for the kill, with a fierce grin and her stinger glinting. With the soldier so disoriented, the wasp would have easily gotten this kill, if it were not for the her soldier sisters coming to the rescue.

They surrounded their new friend and fought for her, raising up on hind legs and flailing desperately, trying to grab wasps with their pincers at every attack. Bodies continued to pile up, ants were sliced in two or pierced right through, until the soldier was the bottom of a mound of death and luckily insulated from that crazed wasp.

This battle was not as horrendous as the last, for one wasp had been killed. Almost five thousand ants to kill one wasp. That was how lopsided this war was. As the wasps retreated to re-gather their strength and check their wounds, the handful of surviving ants brought the soldier inside and handed her over to the worker. The commander came to the queen and gave her a debriefing, telling her that there wass no chance they could ever win this.

“Surrender,” said the commander, “that may be our only choice. Give them those two ants that the wasps seem intent on killing, those two ants who threw this death and destruction right on our doorstep the day they arrived.”

When the soldier awoke from her last incident, once again the worker was caring for her and nursing her back to health. The worker told the soldier of the queen’s intention, that she was — as they now speak — heading out to negotiate terms of surrender, and the soldier gasped out in horror.

Even with the poison curling her legs and burning her brain, the soldier tried to lift up to stand. She took three steps and then collapsed, but she fought the inevitable. With the help of the worker she tried again to stand, and she put on a brave face, bookended with a smile and her one eye wide-open, not wanting to show her weakness even to her friend. Each of her pained steps to the doorway was pumping the poison further along, but she did not care. Not another queen would die on her watch.

When she finally could not take another step she crouched to rest and begged the worker to go help the queen. “Please, my little friend,” said the soldier, “we have been through so much together and I don’t think I’ve ever asked you for a favor. For all the times I’ve helped you, please help me this one time. Please go out and make sure our new queen is safe, and this new home of ours does not crumble.”

 

Out on the plain in front of the nest, the queen approached the wasps. The queen had her show of force behind her, ten thousand of the remaining soldiers lined up and standing with brave faces. The four remaining wasps of the canyon, so giant and scary looking even to the large queen, stood in line behind the smaller wasp walking towards her.

In the middle they met, and the queen did not even wait for pleasantries. “We know you seek two ants in our midst,” said the queen. “Those ants are now a part of our colony, and their sisters are ready to fight for them. We may have suffered so many losses, but we still got one of yours. We have twenty-thousand more soldiers in this colony, and you are only five wasps. Consider that when you tell me what it would take for you to leave.”

The wasp smiled at this little queen that only came up to its legs. She was brave at least, thought the wasp. It knew it could jump up into the air and angle its body so it came down on her stinger-first, and then this colony would be queen-less, ruined and disoriented. But, thought the wasp, there’d be no fun in that until I hear her vainly plead her case.

“I may have come here chasing those wasps,” said the wasp with a sneer, “but now I am here for everyone. You do not know me, your highness, and you will probably not live long enough to get to know me. I hate ants, all of them, workers, soldiers, and even queens.”

The queen tried again to strike a bargain, and each time the wasp gave no accommodation or compromise, only his sneer. With each sentence back, the queen softened her tone, until she was on her knees and begging, pleading for any solution that did not involve more fighting, but still she refused to give up the two new ants under her charge.

The wasp was growing tired of this conversation, and ached to thrust its stinger into more ants. In the midst of one of the queen’s pleas, without even a warning, the wasp thought now was the time. It churned its wings, shooting itself up into the air, and curled its body so that its stinger pointed right at the queen’s head beneath it. It stopped its wings and began to drop.

Before it could impale her, a flash of black ran in, and the queen was snatched up into the air. The worker had run out, through the lines of soldiers and over the spongy grasses, right up to the queen and lifted her above her head. Most any other worker would not have been so strong, but this special worker had made a promise to a sick friend.

Before the worker turned to run back to the nest, she made eye contact with the wasp. The wasp recognized this silly little ant, with its lone antenna and eyes that seemed a shade brighter than all other ants. The wasp knew this ugly bug was the best friend of that horrid soldier, and so it smiled at her. The worker saw that odd smile, and felt the energy behind it, and knew it contained a promise to never stop chasing until both she and the soldier were gone.

The wasp did not even give chase. It only landed to watch the worker run with the queen above her head, back through the lines of soldiers and into the nest. The soldiers charged forward, as the nest was sealed up again, with the workers inside wetting dirt to create mortar to make impenetrable walls.

Offering a happy cackle up to the sky, the wasp took off, and so did its four comrades behind it. Ten thousand more bodies about to be piled up, it thought, as it started dive bombing the silly little soldiers below. This battle lasted longer, and the ants actually fought more fiercely and cunningly, for they knew each battle was bringing them closer to victory or full colony-death. By the end of the fighting, almost an hour later, two more of the fat wasps were dead, and so was every last soldier.

The two fat wasps stood on either side of the smaller, crazed wasp, as it started barking orders and suggestions. It said it was only a matter of time before the ants came out again from the safety of their nest, and that the wasps should rest and regain their strength for when they do.

“But,” said one of the other wasps, “did you not know that we wasps of the canyon are burrowing wasps. Why should we wait?”

The small wasp froze when it heard this. It ran a leg over the now fully-healed scar on its wing, then turned to the grass and dirt mound before it, and smiled.

 

“How is the pain?” asked the worker.

“It comes and goes,” said the soldier, limping towards the door of the chamber they were in. “Thank you for saving the queen. I’d like to go check on her now.”

“Once this battle is over, we will get you help. We will cure you.”

The soldier stopped and turned to her friend, and she saw the little one’s innocent face, with her one antenna curled over and her eyes tinted wet with sadness. The soldier put on her biggest grin and patted the worker on the head. “Sure,” said the soldier, “we can do that.”

The two ants just managed to reach the queen in her chamber when chaos exploded into the nest. The alarm was sounded by a ripple of panicked vibrations spreading through like wildfire, for the wasps were now inside. Soldiers around the queen ran to fight, and the soldier yelled at the worker to go too. After a flurry of scurrying, it was only the soldier left to guard her new queen.

The worker ran through tunnels and around corners, racing to find workers to help her set off traps. She did not yet see the wasps, but she could see their trail, for dead and wounded ants were everywhere. Priming traps by herself, the worker was forcing herself to exhaustion. Even when other workers finally caught up and helped, the worker herself performed most of the work.

She pushed ants away that were moving too slow and reset spiked grass into the walls if she saw them go in crooked. She mixed water with clay patches to create mire traps, and loaded pebbles into holes to create crushing traps. Even as her legs and pincers began to ache from frantic overuse she kept going, and when another ant told her to pace herself, the worker only turned, with tears to her with in her eyes.

“I — we — cannot lose this home,” the worker said.

The traps and soldiers fighting worked, for one more of the large wasps was killed. When the worker saw the soldiers chase the wasp and get it stuck in some clay, and then pebbles roll out from the wall to crush it, she did not rejoice like the workers around her. She only sighed out from exhaustion and tenderly picked up the wasp, bringing it to a chamber deep below, and then mumbling to her sisters that they must keep their nest clean.

In the queen’s chamber, the soldier and queen huddled in the corner and listened to the thumps and screams of battle all around. As ants they could feel the vibrations pounding all around, and the vibrations spoke as clearly as language. They knew that those vibrations meant twenty soldiers fell along a corridor three levels above them, and those thumps were a trap sprung, and pebbles and spikes just missing one of the giant ants. They also knew that all the vibrations were getting closer.

It was only a matter a time before the fateful moment, and the soldier was relieved, letting out her breath as she steadied herself against the wall, that it was one of the large, canyon wasps instead of the crazed one who entered the chamber. Immediately, the soldier limped forward to put herself between the queen and the wasp. The wasp ignored the crippled soldier, who to it, looked like just a dying smudge of black, and focused on the queen.

The ceiling was too close for it to fly, so it tried darting to the left and right, but the soldier blocked it at every turn. Even as the poison ate her insides, the soldier found her strength, fighting for her honor, for her queen, much more than her own life.

More vibrations came from the hallway, and the soldier knew help was on its way. As the wasp tried to curl its abdomen to sting the soldier, the red scarred commander burst into the room. She took only a second to scan the situation, seeing the cursed soldier vainly trying to defend the queen, and seeing the queen’s look of terror as she huddled in the corner.

The commander ran forward and pounced on the back of the wasp, and her strength and surprise attack gave her the advantage. Her pincers found the neck of the wasp, and five powerful bites severed head from body. The wasp fell with a few convulsive buzzes from its wings, right at the feet of the soldier. The only thought that flashed through the soldier’s mind, before even relief that the wasp was dead, was that why could it not be her that had saved the queen.

Stepping over the wasp’s body, the queen did not even acknowledge the soldier, but ran straight to her commander and gave thanks. The commander told the queen that it was time to sound the final alarm, that it was time to abandon the nest. The queen did not hesitate, knowing that this advice from her trusted, right-hand sister was the only recourse. She tapped out vibrations along the wall and floor, and all the ants in the colony, those fighting in darkened hallways, or those cowering in corners, all knew that their queen was telling them to flee.

The queen ran from the room, and when the soldier tried to limp after her, the commander blocked the way. “You stupid ant,” said the commander, now looking with pity at the spent and gnarled body of the soldier. “Do you think you are worthy enough to follow my queen?”

Straightening up, ironing out the pain from each joint by standing as tall as the commander, the soldier readied for a fight. She even managed a smile, for a part of her craved a fight, for fighting these wasps, or even an ant, was more real and easy than fighting the thing killing her from the inside.

The commander only laughed, looking at the one-eyed, scarred and beaten half-soldier in front of her, then turned to scurry away after her queen.

 

At the back exit of the colony there was chaos and death, as the final two wasps lay in wait, springing their own trap on the escaping ants. Black bodies piled up as stingers ended little life after little life. Workers were the first to flee, and the first to die, but when the soldiers emerged, they were able to put up a better fight. They drove the wasps to a safe distance, to engage them there, while giving the rest of the workers, and the queen, a chance to escape.

The last to leave the nest were the soldier and worker, for the soldier was slow and the worker wished to wait until all her sisters were out. Taking a look at her home, a home crumbled from the burrow marks of the wasps and all the traps set off inside, the worker fell to her knees and began crying. It was a ghost home now, no lives or sisters inside, and it had come and gone just as easily as those petals on the winds.

Seeing her sisters, and the queen, running towards the bushes at the edge of the plain, the worker grabbed the soldier, leaning her up against her own body, and began limping with her after the other ants. “Wait for us!” cried out the worker, but her plea was lost in the sound of the buzzing and fighting behind them. She waved after her sisters, the ones she worked beside the last two days, laughing with and garnering respect from, and yet none of them turned to her.

The queen was the only one who had heard the tiny voice, and she stopped, along with the ring of one hundred soldiers that were surrounding her. Even as the commander to her left was begging her to keep moving, the queen stayed put, letting the worker and soldier catch up.

“Please,” said the worker, “we are still a part of this colony, aren’t we? Can we not come with you.”

The queen stayed silent for a moment, and then walked forward, reaching the pair and then putting a comforting leg on the head of each. Both the worker and soldier knelt before their queen.

“My little friends,” said the queen in her soothing voice, “my only responsibility is to the remnants of this colony, and the hope that we can start anew somewhere. I am afraid I cannot let you come with us. And if you try to follow, I will ask these soldiers to dispatch you.”

The worker began crying, and her body retched at this news, at the universe giving and taking away a home and sisters so easily. The queen looked in wonder at the little worker, never before seeing water drop from an ant’s eyes like so, but the queen was more interested in the soldier. She stroked the soldier’s head softly, and waited for her to say anything, when only a trembling silence was returned, the queen spoke.

“What is on your mind, soldier?”

The soldier looked up, and no tears were in her lone eye, and she spoke faintly through the wincing pain, “My queen, I helped rouse and command your army. I sent my friend out to save you when you tried to negotiate. I tried to fight this enemy for you. I only ask — I only beg to know — in your eyes, do I have my honor.”

The queen spun to look behind her, at her fallen colony to her right, the fleeing workers beyond, and the wasps and shrinking contingent of soldiers fighting to her left, and she said nothing for a while. Instincts in her, roiling up, were taking in the scene and screaming at her to run and restart the colony, but she fought them to answer this broken soldier.

“You are a soldier. You will always be one. You should be proud of that.”

The queen then turned to leave, escorted by the commander and soldiers around, but the soldier on the ground piped up. She bowed her head and spoke feebly, and her words were hands reaching out for others to hold. “But, my highness,” she said, “you did not answer my question.”

Her frown was replaced by a sigh of sadness, but the queen said nothing. She only turned and fled with her guards, not even looking back once to either ant. The soldier collapsed to the ground and let out a wail, and it was the first time the worker had ever heard her friend cry like this.

Two ants now lay crumpled in the dirt, one crushed and homeless, and the other crushed with no honor. It was the soldier who stood up first, against the hole inside, hollowed out by poison and the queen’s words, and lifted her friend to her feet. She put two legs over the worker’s shoulder and begged her to help her walk. They needed to escape from this place, she told her friend, they needed to live, to continue their mission.

As they headed in the other direction, away from the dying battle and scurrying former sisters, the crazed wasp noticed them. Those two ants stood out against the green of the field and layer of black, dead bodies scattered around, and even stood out against the fleeing queen and her guards.

“You go end the queen, end the remnants of this colony,” said the wasp to the last canyon wasp fighting beside it. “I have to go end a battle that started weeks ago.”

sixteen

Friends

 

 

The worker and ant fled from the plains, plains made lush with the moisture and sun flooding, and made black with the bodies of fallen sisters and crumbled home. The soldier was limping, helped along by her dearest and only friend, and even though the poison was winning against her body, her resolve was not yet broken. With each step, as she heard the cries of ants and buzzing of wasps behind her, she fought more and more. Soon she was able to walk on her own, through a grimace and pained gasps, and she stopped to turn around.

She saw the last of the surviving soldiers lose against the pair of wasps relentlessly stabbing from above, and she saw one wasp, the larger one, race after the queen and her guards. The soldier wanted to run and save her queen, but she knew she was in no condition to chase and fight. Her role’s instinct bubbled up through the poison and into her mind, and told her her only mission left was to save her friend and find her a true home.

When she saw the smaller wasp peel off towards them, the one with the scarred wing that had been dogging her for days, the soldier was fully taken over by that bubbling instinct. The pain rescinded to a stabbing ache pulsing out with each of her steps, and she yelled at the worker to run.

The worker’s shock at losing her home began to crumble. At first all the scenes of killing, of the wasps stabbing stingers into sisters, made her numb, and she had been blurring her eyes to avoid seeing it. But upon hearing her friend’s yell, she came back to the moment and came back to the fear that sometimes plagues her. All she could see now was the wasp hurtling towards them, and so she turned and ran.

The terror was so strong that she did not even know if the soldier was running beside. She only jumped over pebbles and scurried between grass, heading towards the only safe spot she could see: a collection of bushes along the edge of the plain. On that run to the bushes, the worker had never felt so alone in her life. The ground didn’t care that she was homeless, and even the sun shining down seemed to be no friend.

When she got to the first bush, she spun to a vision of relief, for the soldier was only a few steps behind her. She grabbed the soldier and led her through the first bush, then to a second and third, stepping through branches and fallen leaves, hoping to throw off the wasp giving chase. She eventually stopped at a bush further inside the cluster and threw the soldier to the ground. Picking up the largest leaf she could find, she then lay beside her friend and covered them both. Now, they both held their breath and waited.

A buzzing stepped out of the silence, like a shark looking for prey, and the ants could feel its vibrations passing back and forth above them. It would get louder, and then with relief they would feel it get fainter, but then the whole thing repeated. Finally, it got loud enough for them to know the wasp was so close, and the buzzing stopped with a little clack, as wings slapped into a body and legs hit the ground.

The ants heard leaves being turned over close by.

“Foolish little worker,” said the wasp, and to the ants its voice was muffled through the darkened space protecting them, “why do you spend all your time with this injured soldier. She cannot protect you. I’ve seen her state on the battlefield back there. She doesn’t have long to live.”

The sound of footsteps and leaves being turned was getting closer and closer.

“If you want to live, worker, why don’t you give her over. I can let you leave, and I won’t even make you watch when I kill her.”

A crack of light fell across the ants as the ground nearby was disturbed. The worker looked over and could see something on her friend’s face she had never seen before. Beneath the pain of the soldier’s racked and spent body, in her lone eye wide and her mouth trembling, the worker saw fear. If her friend, her big friend who always looked out for her and kept her safe, was afraid, what hope did the worker have?

The worker reached out with one leg to hold her friend’s leg, and all she felt was a cold and shaking.

With a slap of light and explosion of dust, the leaf they were hiding under was snatched and thrown away. Towering above them was the wasp, its stinger fully out, its size so imposing, and yet all the worker could see was the sharp angles of its face leading to a sinister grin. Without even a word, it thrust its stinger down and missed the soldier by less than a leg’s width.

Fear grabbed the worker by her throat and held her as still as a stone. She tried to move, but none of the muscles in her body were answering, and the stinger came down again. This time, the soldier reacted like a flash of lightning, angling out of the way and grabbing a nearby leaf to shove it under the wasp’s attack. She then grabbed the worker and pushed her out of the way, and even slapped her to snap her from her frozen terror.

The leaf was impaled by the stinger and the wasp was struggling to reach down and remove it. All the worker felt, like a voice inside shouting at her louder than any vibration she ever felt, was the need to run. She shot up to her feet, grabbed the soldier by her body, and took off in a flash. By the time the wasp noticed, the ants were already far away, and when it tried to jump up to fly, the leaf on its stinger made it fall straight back down. It went back to kicking and tugging at the leaf, as the ants disappeared into the nearby forest of grass.

The grass was like a maze, and the worker ran through it, turning left, right, and left, wherever there seemed to be a way, and she half-carried and half-dragged the soldier behind her. She could feel the fluid inside pumping with pounding thuds as her heart beat like mad, and she ran and dragged until all her energy was spent. Whenever she stopped to rest, she could hear a faint buzzing from behind, so she started again, even beyond what her body and will could normally handle.

When she heard a ruffling off to her right, the worker, who normally would be so afraid of things unknown in these wilds, veered right towards it. Whatever it is, she thought, it has to be better than the crazed wasp that was chasing them.

“I am tired of dung,” said a voice from up ahead.

“I am tired of that rotten mushroom,” said another voice.

The ants burst into a little clearing amidst the grass, and nearly ran right into two giant worms in the midst of an argument. Both worms, the larger one with a band around its midsection, and the smaller one with no band, turned to look towards the ants, sensing a disturbance in the light, and then went right back to their fierce debate.

“We had mushroom yesterday, and the day before too,” said the long worm.

“So?” answered the small worm. “What is wrong with that. If I had my way, we’d feast on it every day. It will soon dry up and be gone, you know.”

“Excuse me,” gasped out the worker as she gently lay the soldier down. “We need your help. My friend is ill, and there is something chasing us.”

The worms turned again towards the ants, and moved their eyeless heads back and forth, trying to make out the shifting light before them as they did.

“What are you?” asked the long worm, as it saddled up a bit closer, secreting a slimy trail as it did.

“We are ants,” said the worker, “and a wasp is chasing us.”

“Oh my,” said the worm. “We hate wasps. We don’t mind ants though.”

By this time, the smaller worm came up beside and reached out with its tail end to feel the ants. As it did, it left a film of mucus across them both. The soldier gagged and spat at the foulness of the taste, and the worker rubbed herself along a nearby blade of grass.

“We should probably help,” said the small worm, “but do something for us first.”

“What?” screamed out the worker, darting her head around as she began hearing the buzzing once more.

“Tell us which is better, dung or rotten mushroom.”

“Mushrooms!” said the worker.

The worms turn to each other and stared blindly for a while, not even sure if they were looking at each other, and then they both nodded. “Ok,” said the longer worm, “I will make do with mushroom for another day.”

Inching closer, the worms touched the ants again, and then slid over, curling into a pile on top. “Hide here until danger passes,” said the big worm. “But you’ll have to let us know when that is, you see. I can’t hear or see anything, and my little friend here is the same.”

It wasn’t long before the buzzing from the wasp increased, and the worms new danger was approaching, for they could feel the bodies of the ants beneath them tense up. In a panic, the larger worm began secreting more and more mucus from its band, until the ants and ground around was fully drenched.

The wasp hovered over the worms, and the worker new it was right there staring down, for even if she could see nothing but slimy darkness, her blurred vision showed her everything. She saw the wasp hover lower and lower, looking carefully at the worms, trying to see if they were hiding anything. She saw the wasp land on the ground an inch away and step closer, and then she saw the wasp turn its bitterly contorted face away in disgust, having stepped into a sticky pile of mucus. The wasp took off again, shaking off the slime from its legs and then zoomed away, and the worker’s vision went back to black.

 

Hiding in the long grass, the worms feasted on the rotten mushroom at the base of a big oak that wept shade. The ants were further back, nestled up against the protection of the tree, and the worker stayed tense, waiting for any vibrations that might shatter the quiet. She had gone to the mushroom to break off a piece and bring it back for her friend, and now she was delicately feeding the soldier a few bites.

When a yellowed leaf fell from the tree, the worker jumped back, thinking it was the wasp come to finish its threats.

“My little friend,” said the soldier, lifting herself up against the pain to stand on her own, “why are you so afraid. You are with me. I will keep you safe.”

The worker looked up at the tree, making sure the other leaves above were all green, for she did not like the hues of the leaf that had fallen. She picked up the leaf and put it aside, and it had a bitter taste to it.

The soldier continued to speak, and the worker half-listened, more interested in scanning the grass and sky, waiting on edge for anything out of the ordinary. “You should learn to calm yourself in nature,” said the soldier. “We are ants, we belong in these wilds. I understand, without a colony, it must feel scary for you, but if you learn to relax out here, you will survive longer.”

Switching to a softer tone, almost a whisper, the soldier continued, “Let me tell you how to use nature, how to use the landscape to your advantage. Use rocks to gain high ground, or bushes to gain a vantage point. Not every vibration is a threat, so learn which are danger and which are helpers. But the most important thing for an ant is to know when to run and hide. If you were ever to find yourself alone and scared, find a safe space to hide and wait for danger to pass over.”

The soldier’s words slapped the worker away from her staring at the sky, and the little one spun to face her friend. “Why are you telling me this,” she shouted, and the soldier raised a leg to calm her. “I won’t be alone,” said the worker. “You’ll be here with me always to protect me!”

The soldier smiled, then winced as the pain inside eclipsed everything else.

Having had their fill, the worms returned to the ants, almost running them over, and asked where they wanted to go now. The soldier explained their predicament with the wasp, how it had been pursuing them for days, and how it would probably not stop until it killed them or was itself killed.

“How about the bullfrog,” said the large worm to his friend.

“No,” replied the smaller worm, “are you mad? If I had eyes I’d roll them. We should take them to the wise owl of the rock.”

For a few seconds the worms argued, not even realizing they weren’t even facing each other, until the large worm won out. He convinced his little friend, that since he had given in to eating mushrooms, that they should now give in about the bullfrog. With the argument settled, the worms turned back to the ants.

“We know a frog next to a little swamp up ahead,” said the worm. “He is a big one, fat and lazy, but he’d eat anything that gets too near, probably even wasps.”

The worker perked up at this news. Any friend, especially a large one like a frog, would be welcomed in this frantic time. The soldier, however, was a bit more careful. “But wouldn’t the bullfrog also eat ants,” she asked.

Giggling at the question, the smaller worm piped in, “Of course he would. He even tried to eat us the first time we met. Just be careful around him. Don’t get too close.”

 

Through the maze of green grasses they traveled, with the soldier on the larger worm, and the worker on the smaller. Atop the rippling, as she bounced up and down, the worker could not enjoy the ride, but rather she scanned the sky and kept her lone antenna primed, looking for the next sign of the wasp. She also peeked through the shifting stalks to her left, trying to catch glimpses of the soldier on the other worm, hoping her big friend was alright.

When they got near the swamp, the worms dropped the ants off and then said their goodbyes, saying if they would ever like to share a meal of mushroom or dung with them in the future, they are free to look them up.

Through the last few blades of grass the ants stepped, with the worker helping the soldier limp along. They emerged to a clearing and the air here was dense and moist, for up ahead was a swamp pumping moisture into the scene. It was not large, but its presence still altered the surroundings, making the bushes and trees nearby more green, the ground more damp, and even the birds flying by a little more joyous.

The water was stagnant and a gray film floated atop, and a collection of flies swarmed around at a chance to land on lilies to lick up some of the slime. These flies were huge, four times the mass of the ants, and they flew with a bouncing laziness, as if they wished the air was thicker so they could just walk.

Mesmerized by the flight of one of the flies, the worker was shocked when it disappeared out of the air with a wet snap. She then heard a crunching and followed the noise to see a fat, giant bullfrog further back from the edge of the swamp. The frog looked obese, even for a frog, and the depression around it suggested it has been sitting in that spot long enough to sink into it.

The frog’s bulbous eyes were half closed, and it finished chewing the fly and swallowed, without even blinking. Even though the air was filled with snacks, the frog didn’t move for the minute the ants stared at it. It just sat there unblinking, its green, mottled skin as murky as the swamp, and it rasped its breath, waiting for the flies to come to it.

The worker was ready to run in, but the soldier grabbed her. “Remember what I told you,” the soldier said. “Be wise out here in nature. Observe and plan.”

Limping out from behind the grass, the soldier inched forward and tried to get the frog’s attention by waving her legs. The bullfrog was still staring dazed into the air, not moving at all except for wheezing, when suddenly it shot its tongue out right at the soldier. The soldier jumped back and saw exactly where the tongue slapped the ground and left a slimy mark.

“This is the safe distance,” said the soldier to the worker. “She looks too fat and unwilling to move, and her tongue can only reach three inches.”

After seeing the strike of the tongue, as fast as a killing blink, the worker was a bit more tentative, and it took more of the soldier’s soft tone to coax her out. She finally stepped up beside the soldier, just as the frog shot out its tongue again. This time it hit the ground exactly where the soldier was pointing.

“I don’t want the big one,” said the frog, with a rasping croak at the start and end of its sentence. “She’s missing an eye and is all bent into shapes. The little one looks more whole. Come a little closer so I can eat you.”

“No,” said the soldier, moving the worker behind her. “This is my friend. You will not harm her.”

“Okay,” mumbled the frog as it snapped another fly out of the air that got close. “Then I’ll take you. Step forward please.”

“Listen,” said the soldier. “We’ve not come here to be eaten by you. We’ve come to ask a favor.”

“Does it involve food?”

“Yes.”

“Then, what is it?”

“There is a wasp that is chasing us. If we wait here for it to find us, can you finish it off for us?”

“Hmm,” said the frog, and even though it sounded like it was thinking, it’s expression stayed just as vacant. “I’m not sure if I would like wasps. They are crunchy and have sharp stingers on one end.”

The soldier and frog argued back and forth a bit, and there were times the soldier had to pause, thinking the bullfrog had died or fallen asleep, with that lifeless, blink-less look in its eyes. But, then eventually it started croaking or talking again, and the soldier was relived.

Their argument was cut short by a buzz. The worker was the first to feel it split the air in two, and by now she recognized, knowing the wasp was closing in. It was too late for the ants to run back to the grass to hide, and they were fully exposed in this clearing by the swamp. They could not run forward too close to the frog, so they just froze in place, and the soldier kicked herself for not having planned a better escape route.

In a blur of yellow and black the wasp landed and began cackling, happy to have found its targets once more. It rubbed its front legs together for just a second, before jumping up and shooting into the air, then diving right towards the ants.

The soldier grabbed the worker, and her limp turned to a run through poisoned-pain, as she dragged her friend around the frog to the other side. The wasp headed right for them, but when it passed over the frog, a slimy tongue shooting straight up almost snatched it out of the air. It dove the left, just in the nick of time, and crashed into the moist dirt.

Being a soldier of her species, as smart as the ant soldier, the wasp only needed one try to figure out this frog. She began scurrying along the ground, in an arc around the frog, keeping just out of reach of its tongue. The ants began running in an circle around the frog too. The wasp chased and the ants ran, and anytime any of them stepped too close, the frog shot out its tongue, murmuring a rasping croak of complaint when all it got back was dirt.

The soldier and worker would switch directions or speed up and slow down, always keeping the wasp exactly on the other side of the frog, but soon the soldier began tiring. She could not keep up this pace forever, and the poison inside came back to remind her of mortality. She fell over onto her back, wriggling her legs to try and right herself, and the worker cried out at seeing her friend in such helpless pain.

“Step aside worker.”

The worker turned and the wasp was standing right there, towering over her, its huge black eyes betraying nothing but coldness, and its abdomen curled under to aim its stinger right at her head.

A collision of energies froze the worker in place. Emotions ran through, buoyed by that energy of connection to her best friend, and those emotions smashed right into the fear of this giant threat staring her down. The worker had never stood so close to a wasp before, had never seen its streamlined body, shimmering wings, and stinger easily the size of her whole body. In the distance, this wasp was terrifying, but up close it was beyond anything the worker could process.

“I said step aside,” the wasp repeated, and this time it moved its stinger to a leg’s width away from the worker eye.

In a decision she would regret for the rest of her life, the worker felt overcome with the fear, with the instinct to survive, and she backed up, stepping over her friend, until she was on the other side, and the wasp had a clear line.

If the soldier was shocked or hurt by the worker’s actions, she did not show it. She only righted herself, grimaced and cried out in pain when her body objected to moving so fast, and stood up tall before the wasp. The wasp didn’t give even a moment’s rest to this injured, fellow soldier, it only pounced forward, leading with its glinting stinger.

The soldier grabbed the stinger and angled to the side, and she saved herself from death by less than a millimeter. She tried shoving the wasp away, but the wasp had size and wings, and was pushing forward with unimaginable strength. Using the wasp’s momentum, the soldier spun and pulled the creature through, flinging it away a whole inch.

Standing up with a defiant laugh, the wasp was ready for another charge, but the frog’s tongue suddenly smashed down right beside, sending the wasp tumbling into the dirt. It stood up again, this time enraged, and its wings fanned the air around to a cracking whine. It charged again at the soldier, and this time it was fast and powerful enough that the soldier could not stop it.

They rolled on the ground and came to a stop with the soldier pinned and the wasp on top, with its stinger fully out and primed, and ready to push down through a weak and crippled black body.

“Run” yelled out the soldier through a gasp of effort, as she turned to the stunned worker, trying to give one last smile to her, and fought to push against the wasp and stinger from getting any closer.

Snapping out of her terror, the worker came back to the moment, seeing the frog to one side and the wasp and soldier to the other. Her only friend was near death, all contorted and aged from the poison inside, and with a stinger grazing her abdomen and face as she writhed and fought.

What drove the worker to action was when the wasp’s stinger scratched the soldier’s eye, her lone eye. The soldier cried out in pain and tried to wriggle her head away, but the wasp was just too strong, and it brought it’s stinger back, ready to plunge fully into the soldier’s eye.

The worker ran forward, gathering all her strength and momentum, and smashed into the side of the wasp, sending it flopping back to the ground a few inches away.

A laugh was all that came back from the wasp, as it stood up and brushed the dirt from its stinger, making it gleam once more. “When I am done with your friend,” said the wasp, pointing her sharp face and black eyes right at the worker, “then I will come you, little useless ant.”

The wasp’s cackling was silenced as suddenly as a finger snap, as the frog’s tongue shot out, smashing into wings and body with a wet slap, and then pulling the wasp right back into it’s mouth.

Grabbing the soldier and pulling her to the edge of the swamp, now it was the worker’s turn to yell at the soldier to run. The soldier tried standing on her own, tried fighting through the pain, but when the worker saw her stumbling, she knew she could not see. The worker grabbed her friend’s legs and yelled at her to keep up, then ran around the edge of the pond, and off towards the protecting grass on the other side.

To the wasp, all it felt was pressure, wet, slimy pressure from all sides, and so it thrust its stinger into the closest soft spot it could find, pushing down with all the strength it had. The frog croaked out a complaint, spat the wasp onto the ground, and then started rubbing its wound with its tongue and lips.

“Disgusting!” yelled out the wasp, trying to stand up, but the mucus covering it kept legs and wings glued to its body. It dragged itself to the swamp and rinsed off the slime, stretched out its legs, and flapped its wings to dry them. It turned to look at the frog, but it just sat there, with its fat, spread out face, with the silly lifeless expression in its eyes.

The wasp jumped up and went on a rampage. It led with its stringer, and churned its wings into a furious roar. It stabbed one fly, then another, and another, watching them all tumble down dead into the pond. It continued until the air was fully clear, looking at the frog between each kill, and the wasp’s smile came back to grow. When all the flies were gone, it did not even glance back at the frog, but just took off in chase of the ants.

It was impossible to tell, from the outside, if the frog was annoyed, for it just sat there in the mud with the same dull expression. It did let out a little depressed croak, however, and wondered, since it had become too fat to move, if any new flies would show up before it died.

 

Everything was so dim to the soldier, and the only thought coming to her was how she’d be able to care for the worker if she were blind. She tripped over grass and pebbles, and with each stumble the pain inside became harder to bear. She cried out to the air for mercy, wishing for it all to end, but the worker paid her no mind, just dragging her and running without slowing at all.

Some of the soldier’s vision did eventually return, and shadows became shifts in light, colors began fading in, and she could tell they were still in the grass. Finally, a yellow flooded her vision, and she tensed her eye muscle, trying to figure out what she was seeing.

“We can be safe!” yelled out the worker, and when she saw the soldier still confused, she pointed with her legs ahead. The soldier turned to her friend, could make her out, but still could not see into the distance.

“I have never been able to see as clearly as you, my little friend” said the soldier. “Have I ever told you how proud I am of your sight?” she said with a grimace, trying to pat the worker on her head. “If I didn’t, then I want to say it now. I’m proud of you, of your sight, of your daydreams, of your laughter and lightness.”

The worker did not even look at the soldier, instead she stared straight ahead with tears in her eyes, for she did not like this tone in her friend’s voice, a tone of weakened finality, of goodbyes.

The soldier managed a smile through her pain, and continued, “I am proud of your running in circles. Do you remember how you used to do that? But, I guess, the biggest thing I am proud of, in fact the biggest thing in my life, bigger than honor and my silly quest for it, is that I am your friend.”

The soldier then paused, trying to stand up straighter and failing. “Please tell me what is ahead.”

Gulping down the emotion collected in her throat, and wiping away the tears from her eyes, the worker looked ahead and tried to describe the scene to her friend. “There is a plain ahead, where the grass is shorter. It is so even and flat. There is also dried grass, all amber and shining, and that grass is rolled up into giant bales. It is a beautiful sight to see, for animals are grazing, the sun is shining down its brilliance, and there are so many places to hide. We can make it to one of those bales and crawl through the curled up grass. The wasp would never find us. We would have food and moisture, and can hide for days or weeks, wait until the coast is clear, and then continue on our way.”

The soldier coughed and doubled over, before righting herself and smiling at her friend. “Wonderful,” she said. “Then help me across this scene of beauty you’ve described so wonderfully. Help me to one of those bales, and let us hide.”

Running down the little hill they stood on, the worker continued to help her friend along, and she focused on the nearest bale of grass. It was twenty feet away, then ten, then five. Not a buzz was in the air, so the worker breathed easy and even grinned. Soon they would be done with the wasp, in the clear, and she could focus on getting her friend healed, she thought.

It happened so suddenly. Even the sun seemed surprised, for the blur of yellow and black didn’t seem bright when it dove in with a vengeance. The wasp went straight for the soldier and grabbed it with its legs, then shot straight up into the sky. It flew as high as it could, and then let go of the soldier, letting it tumble and writhe through the air, before smashing into the ground with a body-crumpling thud.

The soldier was stunned, but still alive, shouting out in pain and confusion. She didn’t even have time to right herself before the wasp landed on top and held her down, priming its stinger and bringing it close. For a while the soldier fought, grabbing the wasp and pushing its stinger away, but her sight was still blurred, and her strength was gone.

She had no more strategies, no more advantage, all she had was her friend.

Turning her head, she could make out the black shape of the worker, and she called out to her. “Help,” was all she faintly said.

The worker took a few steps forward, but the wasp turned its attention to her. “Try and interfere if you wish, little stupid ant,” said the wasp. “But if you get closer, then my first stab will be for you; know it, and know that it will be the most painful thing you have ever felt.”

Freezing in her tracks, the words and tone of the wasp stabbed the worker just as if a stinger had found its mark. She could not help focusing on the size of the wasp, how strong it looked versus her friend, how it seemed to have no goodness at all in its shape and form, and how long and sharp its stinger was.

The soldier saw her friend stop, and she sighed out. Memories of her friend’s timidity and uniqueness in this world brought a smile, even as she was using the last of her strength to keep the wasp’s stinger away. She felt the burning in the her abdomen, as the poison staked claim to more and more of her body, and she knew what she had to do.

She grabbed the wasps stinger and thrust it into her own abdomen, as deep as it could go. The pain was unbearable, a sharp explosion, cleaving more of her life from this world, but she then used all she had left to push the wasp’s abdomen up against its body, stabbing the wasp with its own stinger.

The wasp was taken back and now fully enraged. It was a minor wound, but it was furious that this little, crumpled, dying soldier thought it stood a chance, and that it was stupid enough to fight back. The wasp readied its killing thrust, but when the soldier started laughing, it stopped.

“Wasps are not as hardy as us ants,” said the soldier, coughing up liquid from her insides. “You’ll soon feel a burning. You’ll soon feel the poison I have been carrying all this time.”

She then turned her head to the worker, and now her vision was returning to how it was. She could see her little friend still frozen, staring wide eyed at the scene. Even in her final moments, all the soldier could think of was protecting that precious ant.

“Don’t worry, my little friend,” said the soldier. I am only sorry I could not help you find your home.”

The soldier looked up at the wasp, as it grinned and cleaned off its stinger, then brought it back into position. The soldier turned again to the worker, smiling at how still and terrified she was.

“I know,” said the soldier. “I am afraid too. I’ve never been more scared in my life.”

Then, against the life and strength oozing out from her open wound, she grabbed the wasp’s stinger and pulled it towards her with full force. “Run!” she yelled with all her might, shouting with all the conviction, all the thirst for honor that had ever been stuffed into her role and life.

Her tone was defiant enough that the worker snapped out of her staring. Even the echoes of the soldier’s shout were loud, a slap to the worker’s senses, and so she turned and ran. She ran over the cut grass, past the bales, every last one of them, and even past the grazing animals, towards the safety of the taller grass far beyond.

The worker ran without even turning around, not seeing the soldier, her friend, thrust the wasp’s stinger into her body, this time so forcefully that it went straight through and into the ground.

The wasp struggled for a bit, trying to pull its stinger from the dirt, and when it did, it still had to contend with this ugly, dead ant now impaled. As it worked to free its stinger, a gift of a life floated up into the air, a gift of an honor-filled friend to another, and it gave the worker a few more seconds to make her escape.

seventeen

Chase

 

 

The worker reached the tall grass, and she heard no buzzing, but still, to be sure, she ran further into the grass. She ran left and right, even in circles as her antenna and legs became numb, and then collapsed down to the ground.

No tears came to her eyes, even as she knew her friend was dead. A connection that formed years ago, a home in a friend, even when she had no other home, had been cruelly shattered, and the energy of crushing aloneness that followed that shattering was suffocating this poor ant.

The grass lost its color, the sky its tones, and even the sun lost its brilliance, and yet the worker still only stared, unfocused, at the dirt beneath her.

She did not see, a little ways ahead, and towering above the grass and nearby trees, a rocky outcrop rising as a cliff above the land. On top sat an owl, with its brown feathers trimmed with white, and its amber eyes as large as two moons within two suns. The owl had been staring far into the distance, as motionless as the breeze-less plain, but then it sensed something, the faintest of movement, the beating of a tiny heart, and it turned to look into the tall grass.

With a rush of wind, the flap of its wings swirled the grass around the worker, and the owl came in for a landing right next to her. The worker didn’t care. She barely glanced at the giant owl towering over her, and blurred her eyes, waiting for the beast to grab her in her beak and swallow her down.

The owl was looking into the distance, towards the west, and then spoke in a deeply rumbling voice. The vibration of that voice was something the worker had never felt before. It felt like the earth itself was moving ripples all around to caress and soothe.

“I see it coming,” said the owl. “Five, four, three, ah here it is, and now those little friends that were keeping me company for the last few seconds will continue their journey.”

Exactly when the owl finished speaking, a wind came in from the west, parted all the grasses, sending waves dancing along their tops, and then rushed up the rocky cliff and over its top. When it reached where the owl had been standing, a twirling mass of pink petals was grabbed and spun into the air. They danced with the winds for a few seconds, happy to be set free from the ground once more, and then slid down the backside of the cliff.

When the owl noticed the worker barely registering the beautiful dance of pink, it spoke out again. “Why have you given up on your quest?” asked the owl.

The worker only shook her head slowly, not wanting to summon the energy from behind her numbness to remember language and answer.

“Okay, fine,” said the owl, still with a soothing rumble, and then it looked back at the cliff. “I have to return to my perch to continue my job of surveying the lands. I could easily grab you and bring you up there, but I am not allowed to interfere in these things. So, I will leave it up to you. If you want to stay here, know that that wasp will eventually find and kill you. If you want to see something different, then climb the rocks and find me.”

With a flurry of twirled air, the owl took off and silently returned to the cliff-top, and in its absence, the worker noticed, behind the numbness and shock, that she missed its soothing, stern calmness. She climbed to the top of a nearby blade of grass, and took note of the cliff, how high and rocky it was, and wasn’t sure if she wanted to head up there.

There was nowhere else for her to go, however. The west was only the past, where dead friends and no homes were. The north and south were more of the unknown, this horrible unknown of nature that hadn’t been so kind to the ant. The east held the promise of the secrets of wind and petals, but even that was not the reason the ant walked to the cliff and began climbing it. She only wanted to feel the calmness of that owl again.

“I’ve never seen an ant climb so well,” said the owl, as the worker reached the top and walked over to stand beside.

The owl then returned to staring off into the distance, into the west, and it’s irises grew large, until the amber of its eyes were pushed to black, two giant discs sweeping slowly back and forth.

“I see everything from up here,” said the owl. “I have the best eyesight in all of the animal kingdom, for I see beyond only shapes and colors. The west is the past, and the east is the future, so now, as I look to the west, I see a pair of ants leaving a destroyed colony. I see them finding helpers and friends along the way as they trek drought-stricken lands. I see a wasp chasing them, and I see them finding a twisted paradise at the bottom of a creak-carved canyon. I also see, a little closer, a sacrifice from one friend for the other.”

The owl looked at the worker, waiting for a reaction, but the worker was still only staring numbly and quietly. A gnat buzzed around the owl’s head, and then another and another came, until a small swarm was filling the air with a gentle whine. The owl smiled at the bugs, nodded to them, and then they flew off down the back of the cliff. The owl then turned it’s head fully around so that it could stare off towards the east.

“Now I see your future, little ant,” said the owl. “Do you want to know what I see?”

The worker only shook her head slowly. “I don’t care anymore.”

“I see something wonderful,” said the owl, ignoring the worker.

“Can you kill the wasp that killed my friend? Can you kill it if it comes this way looking for me?”

“I’m sorry, my little friend,” said the owl. “My job is not to interfere. Time is my father and mother, and I report only to them. I look to the west and east, to the past and future, to make sure things are in balance. If something is missing from one direction then I look to the other, to make sure something else is there to add it back up.”

“What if something doesn’t add up? What do you do?” asked the worker.

“It’s never come up,” said the owl. “I’ve never once seen time not balance things out. Perhaps not for individuals, but for life itself, things always sum up to something perfectly level.”

The owl fluffed up its feathers and then shook off its wings, sending a blanket of warm air to wrap the worker. “All this staring at the equations of the ages has made me wise,” said the owl. “So I have some advice for you, little ant. Head east because you have no choice. Life is an energy that paints the world, and we creatures are lucky because it also animates us and binds us to time. Walk into your future because you have no choice to live out what is meant for you. All I can say is, in your future, you will find your home.”

The worker looked to the east, to where the petals from up here had flown to, and her motivation was all dried up. “What if I don’t go east. What if I stay right here?”

“Right here,” said the owl, “on this cliff is the midpoint of time. If you stay here with me, in your world the wind would not blow and the sun would not rise or set. Nothing would change. You would not age or die, but also nothing in your life would be different. This mood of yours, this emptiness you now feel, will paint your days forever.”

The worker felt the numbness inside trying to settle in, trying to make itself at home, and she did not like that feeling. She did not know what she wanted to replace it, but she just knew she did not want that deadness to stay too long.

“To help you in your decision,” said the owl as it turned back to the west. “I will let you know that I see the wasp coming.”

The image of that wasp’s face, so cold, angled and lifelessly staring, spurred the worker to run. Even though images of the wasp were stuck in her head, images of the soldier and her death were just beyond a barrier in the worker’s mind, a barrier of numbness and shock she did not want to look beyond.

She left the owl and began down the backside of the cliff. At first the way was easy, a gentle slope of dirt and sand, but then the dropoff to the rocks began. These rocks were not connected, but rather towers of reddish sandstone, with inch-wide gaps and drops to certain death between. The worker jumped a few of the smaller gaps, and each time in the air, she could not help but look down into the shadows, not fully caring if she made it or fell.

The further down she went, the amount of swarming gnats increased. They swirled in the air, bringing a wall of buzzing and flurry of breezes with them. In some sections they were thick enough to darken the sun. Before the worker committed to the jump to across the next gap, a gnat landed next to her and whispered, “hello, bug friend. I heard from a gnat, who heard from another gnat, who heard from a wise owl, that there is an ant who needs help. Even though the owl cannot interfere, I can, so please look to your left, where there is an easier jump.”

The worker looked to where the gnat was pointing with the tiniest of legs, and she saw the gap between towers was so much slimmer. She ran to that side and easily made it across, and on the other side another gnat was on the ground, jumping up and down to get her attention.

“Hello ant,” said this gnat. “I heard from a gnat, who heard from another gnat, that you need some help. Let me just say that gnats know what gnats know, and it doesn’t matter if the gnats are next to each other or across the world. So, I know what the gnats up top know, and they know that a wasp is flying through their midst. Because of this, I’d suggest you pick up your pace.”

Turning back to look from where she started, the worker only saw the jagged top of the cliff and swirling, dancing, and blackened sky. She jumped across the next five gaps as quickly as she could. The ground below seemed to be getting closer, but this high up it was hard to tell, and so the ant picked up her pace, choosing a path, with the help of the gnats, from tower down to tower, across shadows and slivered gaps.

From the buzzing all around, a vibration that tickled the worker’s senses, she felt something different move through. It was a deeper vibration, a deadening to the dance of gnats, and she knew the wasp was approaching. She spun to look behind her, and through the swarm of black she could see a hint of yellow. Suddenly she froze, teetering on the edge between two sections of the cliff, and where she stood sand and a few pebbles dropped off into blackness.

A gnat swirling nearby saw the worker’s terror and flew in a little closer. “Don’t worry,” said the gnat, “I will tell my friends.”

Moving through the swarm with a ripple of whispers, gnat after gnat, starting from the one next to the worker, began silently telling something to their neighbors. As the ripple moved through, it increased in size, fanning out like fingers on a growing hand, until it reached the section of sky where the wasp flew. The gnats in that section began swirling around the wasp, faster and faster, as more joined in, until the wasp was blocked by an near-impenetrable wall of pestering gnats.

This gave the worker more time, and she picked up her pace jumping from cliff-piece to cliff-piece. Towards the bottom, some of the gaps were too wide, and so stopped and spun around, looking for another way. She was about to begin crawling down one of the towers, a path that would take forever, but then a gnat flying nearby held up a leg to get her attention.

“Hello,” said the gnat. “I heard from a gnat, who heard from another, that there is an ant that needs help from the currents of life. I’ve sent silent whispers on ahead to touch the ears of others who might aid too, but for now, let my brothers and sisters lend a leg.”

Nearby gnats from the swarm descended towards the worker, first two, then ten, then twenty, and they all squeezed in to grab a part of her and lift her up into the air. For a few seconds the ant felt the freedom of flight, the taste of sky, as she was brought down the rest of the way and placed gently on the ground. As quickly as the gnats had appeared, they left her, returning to their lively place across the back of the cliff.

The worker knew the gnats could not hold the wasp forever, and a flash of a daydream was already telling her that the wasp was killing gnats left and right just to make its way through. Before the worker was a small clearing, but then beyond was something interesting. Stretching as far as her eyes could see, lay a matted tangle of thorny weeds. They were shouldered so tightly that the worker knew she would be invisible within, and so she ran up to the edge and began crawling.

It wasn’t long before she heard a buzzing overhead, a slower buzzing, one she knew was the wasp flying back and forth in search. She stepped around stalks and between thorns, and looked up, relieved that if she could not see the sky then the wasp could not see down to her.

She avoided any clearings and kept to the thickest parts of the weeds, and when a thorn lightly grazed her side she stopped dead in her tracks, thinking she heard a voice. She looked at the thorn, leaned in a little closer, and a faint whisper came to her senses.

I heard from a thorn, that heard from another thorn, that heard from a gnat and an owl, that an ant needs some help. Please keep sticking to the densest parts of this field of weeds, forgive our sharpness, and avoid any clearings.

As the mat of weeds thickened, a wall of green green closing in from all sides, the ant felt a shade safer, as if the thorns all around were now pointing the way. The buzzing above was relentless, always just a few feet behind her, but she let her guard down, focusing on the way ahead.

When she came to another clearing, a sandy circle that no weeds could grow in, she kept to the perimeter, well within the safety of the plants. But a noise from inside the clearing grabbed her attention. She inched closer, making sure to kept well hidden, and spied the source of the commotion.

In the clearing was a hawk, its lean body no match for the height of the weeds, and yet it seemed to stand so proud, the master in this moment. It’s beak was sharper than even the surrounding thorns, and its eyes were focused to the west, to where its ears had heard a buzzing. For a moment it stared, and then, determining that that sound was no threat, looked down. Under the left foot of the hawk was a trapped squirrel, with five razor-edged talons surrounding it.

The worker could see the look of defeat and fear on the squirrel, and she knew that that look was just on her face less than an hour before, as a wasp pinned a friend down to the ground. With the whispers of the thorns egging her on, the worker began walking away, but a little chirp from the squirrel stopped her. She turned again to look at it, and in its eyes she an energy.

That silent energy from this round, brown eye, seemed to be a magnet searching for its pair, an energy cleaved off from wholeness, and the worker knew that the squirrel’s ache to live, gleaming out desperately from that eye, was the same as her own ache for home.

Against the whispered advice from the nearby thorns, and as the buzzing of the wasp grew louder, the worker went to work. She circled behind the hawk and began furiously chewing at the stalks of weeds, apologizing to each as she did. Soon, thorned stalk after thorned stalk began falling into the clearing, with many slapping the back of the hawk. At first the hawk only jumped from side to side, but as more stalks fell, it got startled enough to fly away, leaving the stunned squirrel behind.

The squirrel righted itself and checked its wounds, then ran to the edge of the clearing, ready to dive into the weeds and make its escape. It paused first, turned to look at the little ant that had saved it, and smiled. The lost energy in its eyes was replaced by something, and it was shared through the worker’s eyes into her heart. It was an energy of thanks, of connection, of life recognizing life, and it made the worker smile back, just before the squirrel disappeared.

 

Walking for hours through the tangle of weeds, the worker eventually reached an area where more light was reaching down. Soon, the green let in some blue and amber from up ahead, and the weeds began thinning more and more. When she heard a buzzing from overhead again, she froze in place, afraid to move to the thinner section of weeds. She looks up and saw a blur of yellow and black zip by, and it struck her how this wasp would be relentless. It would not be satisfied until it found and killed her.

The buzzing stopped as suddenly as it started, and the worker darted her head around, trying to find the wasp again. Finally, with a smudge of black against all the green, she saw it sitting at the top of a nearby weed. She crouched down and hid behind a stalk, and so far the wasp did not see her. It just sat there, resting its wings and cleaning off its stinger with its legs, looking at the sun and its painted light on everything around, as if it had no memory or care that it had recently killed a precious ant.

Needing to avoid it, the worker went far off to the side, back into the thicker tangle, before re-emerging to the edge of the weed-field and looking for the wasp. So far it still did not see her, so she decided to put one foot out into the open. As she did, the wasp froze in mid-clean, with one of its legs still resting on its gleaming stinger. It took off with a snap of wings and a fierce buzz, and the worker dove back into the weeds behind her.

She could hear the wasp getting closer, and she could even catch glimpses of it hovering nearby, and so she froze and held her breath. She knew she needed to get to the denser weeds behind her, for here she was too exposed, but she also knew that any motion or vibration from her would easily be picked up by this enemy.

When the buzzing stopped again was when the worker felt most terrified. She darted her eyes around, primed her lone antenna, and frantically hoped to spot the wasp again. With a thud something landed behind her, and she suddenly felt the vibration of six running legs through the matted mess. She did not even turn around, she only dove into the thickest part of the weeds and ran with all her might. She zigged and zagged, grabbing stalks and using her momentum to half-run and half fling herself forward.

At one point she stopped, trying to calm her heartbeat so she could pick up the vibrations again. She thought she felt a rhythm behind her, the faintest vibration of another heartbeat behind the tangle of green, and quietly she chose to whisper out. “Why are you chasing me? Have you not taken enough already?”

She listened for a response and nothing came except a shifting of weeds, as the vibration slowly moved closer. The worker backed up, trying to move as delicately as she could, and she thought she saw a splash of color other than green right in front. She spun and began crawling as fast as she could, at first ignoring the imploring whispers of all the passing thorns, offering to keep her safe with each of their prickly scratches.

It was only when she paused to catch her breath, that one of the thorn’s voices was a bit more clear. Go right here, back to that thinner section, and listen for help.

The worker dove to the right and picked up her pace, and did not even focus on the sound of steps behind her. She reached the edge of the weeds, where they met a field of shorter grass and dirt, and she stopped to catch her breath.

A new vibration was reaching her body now, a vibration eclipsing anything she had ever felt before. It was a blanket of motion, soft when a part was focused on, but huge, encompassing, fully wrapping everything, when the whole was felt. She looked to her left and saw a wondrous sight, for a migration of snails was approaching.

There were hundreds and hundreds of the shiny, inching creatures approaching, and each caught sunlight in slightly different ways. Every shade of gray shimmered out for attention, and even some vibrant blues and greens danced up from curled shells into the sky. The vibration of all their slithering eclipsed out the whisper of thorns, and even the sound of the wasp almost catching up.

When the front of the wall of snails reached the worker, most did not even acknowledge her, but one smaller one off to the side turned and smiled. “Hello,” said the snail, “I heard from an injured squirrel back there, who heard from a thorn, who heard from a gnat, who heard from a very impartial owl, that an ant needed some help. I assume it is you?”

The worker only quietly nodded, still in wide-eyed awe at the amount of snails slithering past and shaking the ground.

“Good,” said the snail. “Glad to make your acquaintance. Come into our midst and hide in our numbers.”

The worker stepped slowly forward, making her way around heads turning and tiny antennae reaching out to touch her. She crawled over shells and stepped over slimy trails, until she got to the center of the march and began keeping pace. She looked ahead and behind, to the left and right, and all she saw were snails. Keeping her head low, she spoke faintly to a snail beside her. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

A nearby snail smiled and spat out a little leaf part it had been chewing on. “Hello ant,” it said. “We gather in numbers sometimes, and I’m sure ants are the same way, but maybe you’ve never noticed it. We gather like this when animals aren’t looking, because we love to dance with life in this way.”

When the snail saw the confused look on the worker’s face, it continued it’s explanation. “Usually it starts with one snail by itself, munching on some tasty vegetation. It is happy to be well-fed, happy with the warmth of the day and simplicity of existence. Then, perhaps of all a sudden, it gets caught up in a dance. It feels the swirls of life all around, that unseen energy that animates everything. It lets itself be carried by that energy, becoming a single wave floating on the ocean of creation, and that freedom of that snail attracts others. Soon we are hundreds, just walking through the day, letting life do nothing but express itself.”

The worker had nothing to say, no answer or comment was coming to her mind, but she noticed that her march had matched the pace of the snails around her. She looked around, and could feel that something else, something bigger was picking her pace and direction, and so she blurred her eyes and fell into it. She felt safer than she had ever felt, as if a slimy, slithering home had come to find and embrace her, to dance with her like those petals danced with winds.

A buzz from overhead snapped her out of her dreamy surrender, and she focused again into the world of separate shapes. Up above, she could see the wasp buzzing over, flying back and forth over the mass of snails. She crouched down but kept on walking, and the nearby snails moved in closer to cover her.

The wasp flew high to get better views, and then flew low to inspect every black spot or discoloration that could be an ant. Its buzzing went from the sound keeping it aloft, to a louder, angrier version, and the ant knew it was getting frustrated. She heard it dive, and she heard snails cry out, as stinger bounced off hard shells or mercilessly stabbed softer heads.

A large snail nearby moved towards the ant and told her to stay close, and then it leaned its giant head over and let the worker climb up underneath and hold on tight. Even though the snail, like the sea around it, was moving so slow, the sliminess of its skin was hard to hold on to. As the worker heard the wasp get close, she felt herself slipping.

She did not know, nor see, that further ahead, at the front of this massive migration, a wounded squirrel stood at the edge of the grassy field and whispered to the snails at the front. Like a larger wave across agitated water, something big enough to calm smaller ripples, that whisper spread silently through the ranks, until the giant snail the worker clung to smiled and nodded.

“Nature just whispered a suggestion to us,” the snail said. “We are going to split off into ten branches to keep that silly wasp guessing.”

At the edge of this grass plain lay an expansive mud flat, stretching far off into the distance towards other plains and trees. Some of the snails turned away to keep to the grass, while some ventured into the mud. In all, ten columns of snails formed, each picking a random direction, and they did it with no leaders, no commands being barked, just waves of the ocean choosing to break on their own, to stream off in directions as random as the breeze.

When the worker saw the wasp chose one of the other fingers to follow, as it disappeared into the distance diving down to check each individual snail, she let go of the snail she was riding and thanked it for its protection.

“No worries,” said the snail. “Nature and time are sometimes so caring, so all-encompassing, that they become uncaring to the individual, but we snails, like other animals and bugs, don’t mind sometimes making a choice to help.”

The worker chose to leave the column of snails as they continued their march through the mud, for she saw bushes and trees far ahead and knew those would offer her the most safety. As the snails moved off, she became exposed, her cover taken away, and so she began stepping quickly.

Covered with their slime, the snails had an easier way through the mud than the worker. Her little legs pierced the surface and would get stuck, and she’d have to yank them up with all her might. She made her was slowly, as tiny sucking sounds accompanied each of her steps, and did not notice that further away, on some rocks at the edge of the mud flats, that three sunning lizards took notice.

When the buzzing overhead returned, the ant froze. She saw the sun up above, and knew its glimmer was lighting everything around. She could see shininess in the moisture of the mud, the leaves of the faraway bushes and trees, and all across her black body. She quickly rolled over, covering herself in mud, and gathered more to paint every last bit of her.

She froze, covered in the wetness, now hopefully the same color as everything around, and never felt so cold in her life. She tried to stop her shivering, tries to calm the fear that layered her all around just under the mud, as she could see the wasp getting closer.

The wasp hovered nearby, floated for a moment, and then dove down, stabbing the mud with its stinger. It paused for a second, then shot back up to a low hover, its face showing the angry disappointment when all it had stabbed was a blacker bit of mud. The worker was so focused on the wasp that she had not noticed the lizards approaching.

With flicking tongues and slithering bodies, the lizards stepped slowly through the mud. They were also having a hard time through the stickiness, but their spreading feet and better strength allowed them to make steady progress. They were attracted by the buzzing, tasty wasp hovering close to the ground, and that speck of mud-covered black that had just been walking.

The worker was still frozen, and with her eye the only thing clear of mud, she could see the wasp close, hovering and inspecting every thing in the mud that could be her. She knew the wasp’s instinct was telling it that something alive was close by, and she cursed nature — the same nature that had just helped her — for gifting such a perception to all living things.

As if she did not have enough problems, she felt the slither of a vibration from behind and strained to see without moving her head, and finally caught sight of the approaching lizards. She looked up to the sun, imploring it for help, for it was the only other thing she could see, but all it did was shine down with a vacant smile.

Now the wasp had moved a little ways away, inspecting other black specks in the mud, and it was the lizards that were closing in. Two had fixated on the wasp, and began turning in that direction, but the remaining lizard headed straight for the worker. She could see its flicking tongue, its weird orange eye showing no kinship, as it slowly stepped closer and closer.

A blur of gray ran in from the edge of the mud, and the worker turned to see that it was the same wounded squirrel she had previously saved. It was an animal of higher order, and it stepped smartly through the mud, picking the denser, less wet sections, bounding across at full speeds. First it passed the two wasp-fixated lizards, and the motion made them run off towards the wasp even faster. Then the squirrel changed direction and ran towards the final lizard, and just before it could reach the ant, the squirrel ran by, gave it a little nip, and then kept on running towards the bushes and trees in the distance.

The lizard jumped and twisted in the air, landed back into the mud with a wet slap, before running off to join its companions. By this time, the other two were chasing the wasp, trying to jump up and catch it, and the final lizard joined it.

Seeing the squirrel’s footprints, the compressed circles of dryer mud, the worker stepped into them and began running to follow their lead. If she had felt cold before, she felt even worse now, as the wind from her running was taking the last of her heat. As she raced towards the bushes, she wished she were not a cursed little ant, with nothing warm flowing through to heat her up.

When she got to the edge of the mud flat and stepped onto dryer dirt, the squirrel was nowhere to be seen, and so the worker collapsed to her side, shivering and alone.

“Hello,” came a voice, and the ant looked up and saw nothing around.

“Hello,” repeated the voice, and the worker felt a warmth in it, a vibration that seemed to be flowing in from all around. When she looked up again, she realized it was the sunlight itself, the same rays giving light to every form around, that was speaking to her.

“Hello ant,” said the amber glow kissing the air beside the worker. “I heard from a squirrel that just ran by, and he told me he heard it from a thorn, who heard it from gnats, and they in turn heard it from an impartial owl, that an ant needed some help. I don’t mind lending a hand.”

More of the sunlight came down, bringing with it a tender warmth, like tens of caressing hands, and they dried the mud from the worker’s body. The mud flaked and fell away, and then the sun warmed the worker back to joy. Before the sunlight returned to a voiceless shine, it gave the worker a parting gift, lighting up the forest ahead, turning greens and browns to gold, bathing everything inside with the light of life.

 

The worker had been walking for minutes through the forest, marveling at how everything around seemed so bright and alive. The browns of trunks and greens of leaves were, in this moment, more than their singular words, for they had been touched by the same sunlight that warmed the worker’s heart. Looking at the dirt and how it seemed to glow, the ant wondered if this is what nature always looked like, and she had just never noticed.

Her wonder was short-lived, however, for soon that buzzing that had been chasing her returned. She spun around to see the wasp in the distance, land on the dirt and begin crawling forward. Its vision was not like the ant’s, so it could not yet see her, but the worker knew instinct would soon lead it right towards her.

Looking up to the trees, to the canopy created from all the touching branches and leaves, the ant through she crawl up there to make her escape. As the warmth the sun imparted started leaving her, the canopy dimmed a shade and the shadows hiding within it began growing. Now, her escape route looked too scary.

She heard a chirp from somewhere up above, and scanned the green to see the squirrel. It seemed to have a smile on its face, in spite of the talon-wound on its side covered in dried blood. With its tiny paw it waved at the worker, encouraging to climb up to her. As the vibrations of the wasp’s walking grew in intensity, the worker ran to the tree and crawled up to meet her new friend.

For a few minutes, the two in the tree observed the wasp. It crawled slowly along the ground, pausing to look around and look up. They could see that the canopy was too thick for the wasp to fly high, so it continued walking, sometimes taking off to hover low to the ground and fly back and forth in expectant search patterns.

When the wasp was at the base of the tree the two were in, it raised its leg to touch the bark, looking up, readying to climb. Somehow it knew, and the worker froze in terror. Its desire to kill was fueling its instinct, and somehow it knew its target was in this tree. With a loud chirp and angry squeak from the squirrel, the wasp backed away, but still kept its eye honed and focused.

The squirrel looked at the worker beside him and smiled again, and then pointed towards the east, to where the sun seemed brighter. The squirrel went towards the tip of one of the branches, and when the worker was hesitant, the squirrel motioned for her to follow. The worker stepped carefully, sticking to the leaves and thicker parts of the branch, and she kept her angles right, so that the staring wasp below was not able to see her.

When she got to the squirrel, it chirped out a happy squeak and then walked to the absolute tip of the branch. The branch began bending under its weight, gliding down so that it touched the tip of a branch on the next tree over, and the squirrel stopped, waiting for the worker to follow.

As the wasp stared curious, following along the ground, the squirrel continued in this way, bridging branch to branch, connecting tree to tree so that the worker could make her way safely. Any time the wasp’s curiosity got the better of it and it jumped up to fly, readying to zoom up to tree-level, the squirrel chattered angrily and ran down the trunk, scaring the wasp back to walk only along the ground.

Soon, the ant and squirrel got to the edge of the forest, where trees stood shoulder to shoulder to stare in awe at the clear view of the sun. Leaves curled in warm comfort, branches froze in wonder, and the squirrel and ant smiled together at the brilliance. When the worker whispered a thank-you to the squirrel, it only nodded silently and disappeared back through the branches, hopping from tree to tree, towards where it started.

The worker peeked over the leaf she stood on and the wasp was there below, still somehow knowing that a target was in this tree beside it. The worker knew she could crawl down the other side of the trunk, keep the wasp from seeing her, and then sneak into the grass beyond the forest, and race towards a cluster of rocks in the distance. While she knew she could do this, she waited for the actual courage for it to somehow come.

With a flurry of wind and disturbed branches, a falcon flew in over head and landed on the tip of the tree the ant hid in. From its face, its sharpened eyes, and the blood along one of its giant talons, the worker knew it was the same hawk that had almost eaten that kind squirrel. The hawk spied the worker, and flew down to her branch, hopping over until she stood right beside.

At its approach, the worker tensed, but was unsure where to go. If she moved too suddenly, and without care, then the wasp below would have a confirmed sighting, and so she crouched down and waited, building a little wall of terror and hiding behind it. The hawk towered over her and looked down, bringing its giant, sharpened beak right down next to her, and then opened its mouth.

“Hello,” said the hawk with a deep warble. The worker’s eyes went wide, not responding at all, and so the hawk continued. “I heard back there, from some tasty snails, who heard from some gnats and perhaps a wise owl, that an ant is is need of some help. I assume that is you?”

Finally, the worker found an ounce of courage, just enough to respond, but she kept her voice as faint as possible so that the wasp below would not hear. The hawk frowned and leaned in closer, asking her to repeat her words, and the worker did.

“Yes,” said the worker.

“Do you want me to kill that wasp down below?” asked the hawk.

The worker peered over the edge of the leaf again, and saw the wasp staring up. It felt weird to have the power of a life in her hands. She knew that if she gave the word, the hawk would swoop down and snatch up that wasp in a beak or slice it in two with a talon. There was a numb spot inside the worker, where memories of her friend, the soldier, lay covered, and she did not look inside it. Instead, all she thought about was herself, her own safety, and weighed it against the yellow and black life down below.

Finally, and faintly, the worker shook her head.

“No,” she said. “I think I can make it down safely, and can then make it to those rocks at the edge of that field. If I can make it far enough away, this wasp will give up on chasing me. Please do not kill it. It has already taken too much life from this world, so no more needs to be taken.”

The hawk frowned again, bewildered by this creature that seemed to value life over survival. Then it shrugged its shoulders, smiled at the worker, and took of with whoosh of wings and excited air.

When the hawk was airborne and the wasp focused on its flight, the worker made her move. She hurried from branch to the trunk of the tree, circled around to its other side, and then crawled down as fast as she could. Once on the ground, she raced away quietly, keeping the bulk of the tree between her and the wasp. When she was far enough away, she breathed out and looked to the open field, happy that she had made it safely.

“Do you think it would ever be that easy?” came a voice, and the worker spun.

The wasp was right there, barely a foot away, and it held the same viciously creepy smile it did every time the worker saw it up close.

Without even a warning or another word, the wasp threw itself upwards and began churning its wings. Its buzzing started, reaching the worker with a slapping shock of a vibration, and she jumped back an inch. She looked to a nearby tree and knew she could not make it there in time, and then looked to the field to her left and knew it would not offer enough protection.

Before the wasp could reach her, however, a wind suddenly began blowing. It came to ruffle the worker’s lone antenna, and she would have giggled if it not for the wasp flying towards her. The wind came again stronger, this time bringing a whisper along with it. Hello, said the wind, we heard from a hawk, who heard from some snails, a gnat, and an owl, that an ant needed some help. We have brought with us some friends.

As the wind blew stronger, a wall of pink appeared, first over the tops of the trees, and then down to ground level, a fluttering wall of pink petals. They swooped in, carried by the winds, and twirled and dipped, spun and sparkled, at play with the preciousness of nature’s dance. The dirt they excited seemed happy to join, as did the leaves and branches on nearby trees, and the wind laughed by blowing stronger and stronger.

The worker held on tight, as petals twirled around and then headed right towards the flying wasp. The petals swirled around the pest, circling and trapping it, and the wind that carried them spun the wasp in circles. Soon the wasp was swallowed by the dance of pink, it’s buzzing swallowed by the wind, and it was brought to where the plain met the forest. There, the winds split in two, as some petals went south on one splinter, still dancing and giggling, and they brought the wasp with them far away.

The rest of the petals, the bulk of them, obeyed the main splice of wind beneath their curls, and floated off towards the east. As the sun above took a step towards the west, lights and shadows renegotiated deals, and something far ahead turned on its brilliance. Something flat lay on the ground far away, a disk of amber, a cauldron of fire shouting thanks at the sun for all its light.

All the petals heading east were heading straight for that flat spot of brilliance, and the worker was so entranced by the petals and amber call, that she began running after.

eighteen

Love

 

 

The worker had been running for hours, and still she did not tire. The shock of the near-attack from the wasp had faded, and even thoughts of it did too. For all she knew the wasp was dead, suffocated by the twirl of helping winds, or at least carried far enough away that it should never bother her again. All she was now focused on was the trail of pink up above leading her on.

Even though the petals had never spoken to her — it was always the wind whispering — the worker knew the petals were shouting a call to follow. Something so brilliant, so vibrantly colored in these lands of muted greens and browns, had to be a siren call to something wonderful. These petals always showed up whenever they were most needed, and the worker knew they were here to lead her home.

When she rounded a small hill, she caught sight of that flat disk of amber fire again, and now that she was closer, she saw that it was a lake. The lake reflected the sun, and the sun itself seemed entranced by that body of water. They were both locked staring at each other, silent, motionless, and yet speaking volumes, for they were the destination the petals were racing towards.

The wind played with the worker, sometimes dipping low and bringing petals with it. At those times, the worker giggled, trying to jump up to hitch a ride on the dancing pink, but they were always just out of reach. The wind tickled her, and she thanked it for its motion, letting her lone antenna wiggle fully surrendered.

The worker did not know, as more of the wind came to caress her face and run alongside, that it was really asking where her friend, the soldier, was.

A collection of trees were lined up ahead, and they seemed to be welcoming the worker with stretched out branches, bowing to this little traveler who’s adventure had taken her so far. She ran in between the trunks, yelling out a greeting in passing to the towering giants, for she was only focused on the lake ahead and the string of petals above.

Finally, the destination was reached, and the worker reached the shore of the lake. She could easily see the other side of it, for it was a small lake, surrounded by a few proudly guarding trees and bushes. Glancing up, she could see the wind was carrying the petals around the shore, and so she ran to follow.

She reached a spot where petals seemed to be converging, for winds from all directions were bringing in petals of every color. From the west, where the worker had come from, came the pink; the reds and purples flew in from the south, while the north and east were bringing in blues. Here all the petals happily collided, as the wind died down, and then all the petals tumbled down into the lake.

The worker sat on the shore for minutes, staring in wonder, as the petals fell to the water and floated, trapping more brilliance of the reflected sun and wetness of the lake. The petals floated for a bit, continuing their show, now happily stuck in two dimensions, twirling around, bowing politely to each other and asking for the next dance. Then, one by one, as each petal became waterlogged, they dimmed in brightness, lost their color, and sank down into darkness.

The worker stared for a moment, dumbfounded. This could not be it, she thought.

She sat expectant, staring in wonder as more petals arrived, collided, and fell, then floated, danced, and finally sank. Eventually the wind died down, done for another day, and no more petals were delivered. The worker stared at the petals on the lake, holding her breath when they first landed and were set to brilliance, but then sighing out in confusion when the last of them sank.

She stood and spun around, looking for clues of a home she knew must be here. She ran to nearby trees and rocks, looking beside or under, and she even flung aside leaves and pebbles, hoping to find a hidden entrance somewhere.

Nothing was here, except nature as usual.

It was not so easy to accept, and so the worker tried again. She retraced her steps back to the welcoming line of trees and checked there. No ants or colonies were spotted. She ran back to the lake, to where the petals sank under, and once more checked all along the shore. Nothing was there except leaves and twigs in the dirt.

The sun floated down further, and it reached an angle where the lake’s light was suddenly turned off. The lake was no longer a brilliant cauldron of fire, but now just a lake, slightly darkened and cold, sitting innocently, as if it had no memory at all of the sun-hands it had just been holding.

Nature quieted down as the sun began to set. Birds stopped chirping, and rustling in the dirt from unknown little animals faded away.

This could not be it, repeated the worker to herself.

As the sky went from blue to grey, and some brave stars began twinkling, the worker inched up to the lake to look down into its depths. Perhaps, now that it was not only reflecting the sun, she thought she could see where the petals had gone. All she saw, when she peered over the edge of the shore, was her own reflection.

The lake was still enough that her face was clear, and she looked into her eyes, and saw nothing. She saw her lone antenna flopped over in defeat, and felt nothing. A nearby leaf from an overhanging branch fell into the water and sent out ripples, and when the worker’s reflection began blurring, everything changed.

For an instant her reflection was that of her friend, the soldier’s, and it shocked her enough to jump back. Cautiously she crept up to the lake again, and when the water calmed, it was her own reflection looking back. That brief image of the soldier began chipping away at the wall inside, and the numbness the worker had wrapped herself with began to unravel. She fell to her knees, and tears started welling up in her eyes.

My friend, she thought, my soldier friend. My best and only friend is dead. I will never see her again…

The worker fell over as memories tore open wounds in her mind. She suddenly remembered all the images she was blocking, of the wasp killing her friend, and of her friend’s sacrifice to save her life. She saw imagery on the lake as if it was happening all over again, all the times her friend had stood up for her, had helped her or kept her safe, always in her own stolid and quiet way. And then she saw the wasp sting its stinger into her friend’s abdomen, again and again.

Night came, and the worker did not sleep, instead crying out, heaving and gasping and crying, as the stars above tried to keep her tender company.

 

The next day came, the sun rose and the air warmed, and eventually, by late afternoon, it kissed the lake and set it to brilliance again. Winds rose up and petals flew in, but still they did not greet the worker, who was still lying on her side, and they only fell to the lake and sank under. Another night came, and so did more crying.

Days passed, and the worker did not move or eat. Some days there no winds and no petals, other days there were only breezes, but sometimes the winds and petals came, but they never did anything different. All they did was dance, twirl, and then sink into darkness. The worker lay where she had fallen the first day, as the wind pushed dried leaves up against to keep her warm. She kicked them away, and instead chose tears running down her face to make her cold.

She dared not stand and look to the lake, for she knew she might see images of her friend again, so she only lay and cried, hollowing herself out as much as this journey had done so physically. Morning dew would come to find the ant as the sun awoke, dribbling down from leaves to her mouth, hoping to get her to drink, but she would always turn away. The wind tried to bring green leaves to the worker, leaves that she would normally love to nibble on, but she kicked those away too.

One day, a day that the worker did not know was a whole week after she had first arrived, some round and fluffy birds floated down to land. They began chirping out to each other excitedly, yelling out the joys of nature, and began upturning leaves to look for food. When one of the robins saw the ant, he called his friends over, and they all gathered around in a circle. One pecked at the worker, missing her by a millimeter, and then leaned over, cocking its feathered head in curiosity.

The robins chattered at each other, each asking if any knew why this ant was on its side leaking water from its eyes. Each of them dared the next to eat it, but every last one of them was cautious, thinking it diseased. Finally, a creak of wood sliding against wood rang out, echoing across the lake, and the birds took off into the sky in a panic.

The worker rolled over to her other side, and saw a large animal approaching. She saw that it had come from a square structure, one she had not noticed on her first day here, for it was a structure made of tree trunks to blend in so well to nature.

As the animal approached, the worker saw that it was one of the horrid ones, the two-legged creatures she had learned were called humans. It stepped right up to her, almost crushing her under its foot, and then crouched down, obviously curious at what the birds had been staring at. When it leaned in close, each of its eyes the size of twenty ants, the worker could see that it was an old man.

The man stared at her for a while, frowning, and even got down on hands and knees, squinting his wrinkled eyes for a better look. He pursed his lips and blew across the worker, seeing if she would moved, and only frowned some more when all she did was wriggle her legs in annoyance.

Finally, the man stood up and retreated to his home, and the worker was glad, for in solitude she could wallow in memories, in home-less memories, and cry until she died.

It was only a few seconds before the creaking wood sounded out again, and the man emerged from his home, walked across dried leaves and crunching twigs, and then crouched again near the worker. All she saw was his wrinkled face frowning again, and his wrinkled hands lifting up something yellow and shiny. Then, all of a sudden, drops of liquid began raining down all around.

Since the worker was busy wallowing in the past, memories of the first time she had seen one of these two-legged creatures came easily. She remembered that fateful day, when that woman who must have lived beside the sea of flat stones, rained down poison all across the worker’s colony. That was the day her sisters died, and the day her queen came out to writhe in agony and shrivel up right before her eyes. That was also the day that her best friend had tasted a sip of poison that would spell her doom.

What if, thought the worker, the soldier had not tasted that poison. She would have stayed her strong self. She would not have been in so much pain, and would have been able to fight off that wasp. She would still be here today. She would still be here to help me find a home, and to be my friend.

If all these humans did was dole out poison from the sky, the worker was okay with that. As the man stood up and walked back to his home, the worker angled her body and strained her neck so she could reach one of the drops of liquid. She drank it up and waited to die, hoping that if there were an afterlife, perhaps she would meet her friend once more. If she were given the choice of what role to play in heaven, she would choose worker. She would lift leaves all day, have her sisters tease her and the soldier stand up for her, have everything be exactly as it was when she hated it so much that she loved it.

She thought these humans were such evil tricksters, for this poison tasted so sweet, almost as if it were honey.

 

The next day came, the sun arose, and the worker was still alive. The man came out to check on her, and this time he dropped some cooked grains of rice all around. The worker reached out and nibbled on one when the man left, thinking it so cruel that these humans made poison in all manner of shapes and tastes.

When the third day came, and the sun turned the lake to fire once more, the worker began to suspect that she would not die. The honey and rice the man had dropped were not poisoned, and indeed, it seemed instead to be giving her strength. She stood up for the first since since the memories of the soldier had overwhelmed her, but she still had no idea where to go.

She took a step towards the lake, to take a sip of pure water, but she stumbled, for she was still weak and disoriented. Perhaps if she had two antennae, she thought, she would be able to walk better all those times, and this time too. Perhaps if she were whole, she would have found a home faster, and could have kept her friend alive.

When the man came out to find her, this time he did not drop any food. Instead, he tenderly scooped the worker onto a leaf, and brought her closer to his home, to a cut tree stump, where the top was weathered but smooth. He softly placed her down and left the leaf for a bed, and then dripped some honey and rice in a pile to one side. On the other side he dropped some tiny glimmering grains, and to the ant they were huge cubes with intoxicatingly sweet smells.

The worker stepped cautiously to the crystals, keeping one of her eyes on the towering beast crouching over, and then tasted one of them. It was the most glorious thing she had ever eaten, and the notes of its taste were as bright as the sunlight being captured by its angles. Without hesitation, perhaps even with the first smile since she had arrived here, she stepped forward and ate another of the cubes.

“Sugar,” spoke the man, but his voice was too loud to the worker, and its vibrations shot out in a shocking wave, hitting the ant and knocking her over. It felt, if the vibrations were any more intense, that they could have instantly liquefied her.

The man squinted and looked at the ant, and his breathing was strong enough to create warm winds to tumble her about. He then closed his mouth and softened his eyes, and now his eyes were catching the sun as brightly as the lake behind.

“Sugar,” said the man, still with his mouth closed, and this time softly enough that his voice seemed a caress instead of a slap.

When the man saw the worker seemingly smile, and then walk over to grab another grain of sugar, he spoke again, and still his mouth did not move.

“I can see you understand me, little ant,” said the man. “I am speaking in my mind, letting my words float out on the silence of nature, and it is precious to see that you seem to know this quiet language. I never had confirmation, that creatures knew when I was trying to communicate, but now it seems to be.”

The man cracked a smile and knelt to one knee, staring fascinated as the worker became adventurous with the food, mixing honey and rice, and coating it all with speckling bits of sugar. She ate it all with a smile, and even a tiny hop to her step as she went for more.

“Can you tell me how you got here? Or why you are here? You seem a different type of ant than I have ever seen. There is something unique about the way you carry yourself. It is like you can see me clearly, and also, on that first day I saw you, you seemed to be crying — which is not at all possible for an ant.”

The worker at first did not answer, for while she was relishing this tasty food, she still wasn’t sure if she should trust this human. He was too large for her to relate to, even if he did speak her language, and even if the sun in his eyes was painting him as part of the nature the ant was a part of.

When the ant stayed quietly eating, the man decided to make her comfortable by sharing his story. “Okay, little ant. Let me tell you about me first then. I grew up nearby, in the city a few miles down that road,” and the man pointed at a clear swath through the trees, and somehow the worker now knew what a road was, and even what a city was. Any time the man used a word she had never heard before, the way it was delivered, through the stillness of his mind locked in step with nature, seemed to bring with it its definition too.

“I worked in those oil fields down across the canyon, started when I was still a teenager, and worked until my hands, eyes and back would no longer cooperate. I grew old, had a wife and watched as our one child grew old too. When I was alone, when my family was no longer there, I decided to retire to this plot of land, build my cabin, and wait out the remainder of my days.”

As the man spoke, still through a closed mouth, the worker began to fall into his story, and with her full tummy her eyes were more easy to blur. Daydreams came, daydreams painted by truth instead of imagination, and the worker say the man’s past as clear as day.

She saw him old and bent over, with curled and pained hands, come here one day in a vehicle she learned was a truck. She saw him spend the first day in a sleeping bag under the stars, and then the second day chopping trees. As he worked, surrounded by nature’s un-forceful embrace, the worker saw that his hands began to straighten, and his back slowly seemed to stand taller.

He built a log cabin, spending time on little things as if they were the most important, taking a whole two days to carve a door handle so that it was smooth and symmetrical. He whittled a branch and dug it out with his knife into the shape of a spoon, and then removed the roughness with a sanding stone and now-steady hands. That spoon was a work of art, could have hung in any gallery, but the man only used it to eat his morning oatmeal with a peaceful smile.

After hearing, and seeing, more of the man’s story, the ant began feeling a kinship to him. Even though there was a tinge of jealousy, for he had the skill to build his own home, she saw through her daydreams the moods of the man, how he went from alone, with no family to care for him, to fully connected, where all the things he made were nature and love come to embrace.

The worker was now brave enough to speak to this new friend. She swallowed the last bit of rice and sugar she had been chewing on, and then spoke in her mind, as silently as the man. “I came here,” she said, “because I followed petals on the wind. I was sad and crying when you saw me because I am alone. My best friend — the only true friend I ever had — is dead.”

Reacting in a surprising way, the man stopped his silent story and began to cry. His tears were as huge as rain drops, and when one almost smashed and drowned the poor ant, he apologized and turned away. He leaned up against the stump, and the worker could see his body heave up and down. The man’s knee was close enough to the stump, and so the worker inched forward and reached out. She held on to the stump with five legs, and stretched further and further, until she was finally able to offer a tiny caress.

The man turned back and gave over a faint smile through his water-welling eyes. “You are indeed special, little ant,” he said, then wiped his tears with a wrinkled hand, before continuing. “I know of death. We had a child who didn’t make it, who the world wanted to take back. Another of our children grew old with us, but then was taken too. I know the empty hole inside you, because for years that is all that made up my insides.”

“Let me tell you, ant,” said the man, as he wiped more tears, and then brushed the disturbed rice and sugar into neat piles on the stump. “The first year I came here I wondered about food and water. I taught myself everything from books and common sense. I built a well and planted crops, and soon I didn’t need to go into the city for any supplies. Once that was all taken care of, when I didn’t need to worry about how to survive, I had no other choice by to sit by the lake and think. At first all I dwelled on was the past, and I cried my tears like you did, but then one day a stream of petals flew in on the wind. My mind was brought back to the wonder of the present, and you know, little ant, that was the day I started to wonder about God.”

The worker perked up at that last word, and curiously, the man’s silent voice did not bring in a definition along with it. The ant frowned, and raised a little leg to stop the man. The man noticed and brought his head in close.

“What is God?” asked the worker.

The man crouched, silent for a bit, and then smiled. “I was going to tell you about death and life, but yes, perhaps speaking about God would be a bit more interesting.”

Then with a loud grunt, through an open mouth that shocked the ant with its wave of vibration, the man struggled to stand and straighten out his back. “But that is enough talking for today,” he said. “I would invite you inside, but there are too many places for you to get lost in. Stay out here in nature, where ants belong. The leaf will keep you warm, and the food will keep you fed. Watch the stars, for they are some of the eyes of that new word you heard, God, and then tomorrow I will come out to tell you more.”

 

“Day after day, those petals came,” said the man in his wordless voice.

It was a new morning, and the sun was out early to warm up the dew and turn moisture into mist. The ant threw off the cover of the leaf and found a patch of sun to warm up in, and then began nibbling on some rice and honey for breakfast.

“I chased those same petals all the way from the drought-stricken lands,” said the worker between two bites.

“They are beautiful aren’t they?” said the man with a grin. “For months they teased me with their mystery. Where did they come from, and why were the winds bringing them here? But then, when I saw that questioning them was taking me away from the beauty of their dance, I let that go. When I did, when I surrendered, they began to whisper to me.”

By now the worker was stuffed, sitting with a satiated grin, and the man sat on a blanket, with his back leaned up against the stump. He turned to make sure the little ant was listening, before continuing.

“My old friends would think I was foolish if they saw me back then. Harold sitting by a lake and watching petals fly in, twirl around on mischievous winds, and then sink into some water. But I didn’t care. I came here thinking I was to wait out for the end of my life, that the world had nothing else interesting left in store for me, and so the petals coming were a gift from God.”

“That word again,” said the worker, interrupting, “what is it?”

“This will be an interesting challenge,” answered the man. “How can I describe what took me twenty years of sitting quietly by a lake to see? Well, perhaps me teaching you will save you some time and grief, so I might as well try. I learned — and mind you, it was not from those petals, but rather what animated them — that God was in everything, too big to comprehend, but so simply pervasive that it was impossible not to.”

The worker still look confused, and so the man went quiet, trying to figure out the best way to explain a concept that, to him, he had never converted to words.

“I think there are four ways to catch glimpses of God, and by describing those to you, you might get a better picture. Together those four glimpses add up to everything that life forms in this world need to live in peace within the most divine of reflections.”

“Since you mentioned the death of your friend,” said the man, and the worker felt a stab of pain at the reminder, and she reached out for a grain of rice for comfort. “Sorry, little ant,” continued the man. “But let me tell you that death and life, all things that change, must be held in something bigger for them to make sense. The first lesson is that God, the changeless, is the only thing big enough to hold the changing.”

As the man began speaking his silent language, his mouth still not moving, the worker’s eyes could not help but blur. Tones and vibrations seemed to be coming not only from the man’s softly watering eyes, but from the trees and waving leaves, from the sun chaperoning, and from the lake laying calm.

A precious daydream came to the worker, and she did not know — that like all the other daydreams that ever came to her — it came on loan from God herself, rather than from the worker’s own mind.

The worker saw the soldier, her best friend, crawl up over the lip of the stump and run happy towards her. The worker knew this must not be real, for the soldier was happy and smiling, and she had two perfectly-formed eyes ablaze with life. The soldier ran over and hugged the worker, and even though there was no real physical touch, that hug imparted something powerful.

Tears came to the worker’s eyes, and at first she thought she was sad, but she quickly saw that these were tears of joy, of happiness, of feeling love and connection. She ran and played with the soldier, something they had never done in reality, and she felt the most whole she had ever felt. She reached up at one point and felt both of her antennae waving in the wind, and she began laughing out loud.

They chased each other in circles and zig-zags, jumping over the rice and sugar, and whenever the soldier would catch her, she’d give her a friendly little shake. Their play excited the winds and all of a sudden petals began swooping down. The pink swirls wanted to join in on the play, and they surrounded and danced, bringing with them winds that caressed with a gentle warmth.

Locking their front legs together, the soldier and worker stood at stump-center and spun in circles, faster and faster, and the worker could see her friend’s face explode with joy. Laughter, from both of them, seemed to be spurring on the winds and petals, and they surrounded the two ants with a swirling wall of pink.

For an instant, the worker looked away from her friend, distracted by one of the petals behind, and when she looked back, her friend was suddenly gone. The worker fell to her knees, shocked at the slap of suddenness, of the feeling of connection ripped from her heart. She cried in this daydream, enough tears to flood the stump and dissolve the sugar. When she began to cry, tiny petals came from her eyes, and when she tried to cry out for her only friend, petals tumbled out from her mouth.

Then she gave up, for she was feeling an odd feeling in her legs. She frowned and focused, stood again and began spinning, and could feel her friend’s legs in hers, and felt her friend’s weight and momentum. The worker then looked inside, and it was as plain as day. There was still joy and completeness all around; there was still a feeling of play, of home, but now it was coming from the petals and wind twirling around.

The next time the worker looked up, she was holding onto a petal and spinning with it. All the petals eventually receded, except the one she held on to tightly. The sunlight came to help with the lesson, and as she spun, the worker could see that the petal had both a dark and light side. On one revolution the petal was dark pink, and the worker felt sad. On the next, the petal was set to brilliance, and the worker felt happy.

When she let go of the petal, let it fly up into the sky to rejoin its sisters, all the petals were only bright, and the worker felt something mysterious, something more diffuse than the extremes of sadness and happiness, something that could only be described as peace. She wondered if this feeling was what that word God meant.

“I see you have heard my words, little ant,” said the man. The worker was snapped out of her daydream, but her smile remained. “That is good enough for this precious morning. Enjoy some more of the day, the sunlight and warmth. Play with the flies and butterflies, and I will come back later with the next lesson.”

 

The man returned later on, stepping out of his cabin at just the moment the sun dipped low enough to set the lake on fire. Today was a day that a few petals flew in on the wind, and the man took a minute to walk to the lake and stare in wide-eyed wonder. The worker could see him standing in frozen appreciation, even as the petals landed and sank in the water, and she felt ashamed at her tortured reaction when she had first seen the same.

“I appreciate you giving me food and keeping me company,” said the worker when the man came over to the stump to sit beside. The man smiled, the worker gave over a faint smile back, and finished the sugar grain she had been nibbling on.

“But,” continued the worker, “I only came this way looking for a home, so soon I will have to be on my way and continue my search.”

The man dropped his smile for a moment, and the wrinkles on his face shifted, pulling long and hinting at a pained spot inside. “Home,” said the man, as tears welled up in his eyes, “is an interesting word. The way you said it, little ant, I know you know the treasure that it holds.”

Pausing for another stream of petals to fly by overhead, the man brought his head close to the stump and tried on another smile, this one combined with his still-saddened eyes.

“It took me twenty years of sitting out here to realize that home is God,” he said. “And that is the second lesson, little friend, that God is home, is love. Before I came here, however, even though I lived in a house with my lovely wife, and our one child, I don’t think I knew the the true meaning of ‘home’”.

The man settled in to tell his tale, and his silent voice softened, with the silence seemingly coming out from nature itself. Trees and sunlight on the lake were themselves speaking the man’s words, and they came to caress the worker, relax her, and blur her eyes to a daydream.

The worker saw a small version of the man standing on the stump before her, and his shimmering form was on the order of her size. He was old and bent over, but he began regressing before her eyes, wrinkles faded, a back straightened, and his hair turned from gray to black. A woman appeared, the wife of the man, and the young couple danced happily on the stump to music the worker swore she could hear.

Images of a baby came, and then another, and the babies grew to young children. Images of the husband and wife dressed in black suddenly faded in, as one of the children faded out. Tears and sadness, and then distance and arguing, were all acted out by the translucent figures in front of the worker. The worker saw how alone the man was, even with his wife by his side, alone and homeless inside his own house.

A real petal on the real wind flew close to wipe the images of the young, grieving couple, and they were replaced by the man, now older and living in these woods, with a smile on his face. The worker somehow knew his thoughts and feelings, and knew that he had learned to feel at home in this spot of nature, and that the petals on the wind were somehow involved.

The tiny man on the stump faded out and what faded in to replace it brought laughter to the little ant. Her colony appeared, and all the sisters who used to tease her stepped out of shimmering light, ghosts twinkling in to a seeming solid reality, and they ran forward to hug and caress the worker.

For precious moments, the worker felt at home again, as she picked up imaginary leaves pulsed with pink, and carried them in line with all her sisters. Maybe it was being surrounded by her sisters, or maybe it was because she was playing her role, marching in line with a load held aloft, but all these images were doing were convincing the worker, more than ever, that she still needed to find a new colony to take her in.

She un-blurred her eyes, forced away the daydream, even as a pink petal flew down close to the trunk, ready to show her the true meaning of the word home. The worker did not know that that petal even had a speech prepared, the first real whisper a petal was willing to give over to her. It was going to tenderly say to her, through its pulsing pink, Little one, hear me when I say God is home, home is love, and all love is, is self-recognition in things other than oneself.

 

The next morning there was a bartering, with the worker ready to leave this spot and continue her journey, and the man begging her to stay.

“Do you not ache with curiosity to hear more of God?” asked the man.

When the worker said she was indeed curious, but the call to find a home was just as strong, the man struck her a bargain. He brought out more food, especially more honey and sugar, and plastered it all over the empty spots of the trunk.

“Stay a while,” he said. “Stay and let me finish my lessons, and then I will help you on your way.”

The worker smiled and nodded, already gnawing at the new sugar grains. The man settled down against the trunk, grunting a bit as his body resisted having to bend over to sit. With a wistful smile, the man added a few more words under his breath, so soft that the worker did not hear them.

“Or perhaps,” whispered the man, “you might learn to love it here and keep me company forever.”

When the man was comfortable, sitting on his blanket and leaning up against the trunk, he checked to make sure the little ant was well fed and smiling. He asked if she was settled in and listening, and when she nodded, he began speaking again in his quiet and pervading inner voice.

“I will tell you, little ant, a new lesson that perhaps no one wants to tell you. I’ve told you that God is the thing that holds life and death, holds all change. Then I’ve told you that God is home and love, and love is only self-recognition, and now I will tell you a shocker.”

With a full tummy, it was easy for the worker to fall over to her side and listen with dreamy eyes, letting the winds of imagination blow through to paint the man’s words into her mind.

“God is not a trickster,” said the man, and the worker saw petals raining down from the sky.

“People will tell you that God is hard to find. That She is hidden, that you have to spend decades in practice, study, or penance to find her.”

As the man spoke, the pink rain of petals spread out over the forest, and petals flew off in all directions. Petals landed on leaves and became absorbed into the green, and they flew to cover trunks, morphing into the roughly channeled brown. Petals covered the lake and became ripples, and even landed on the ground to rot into dirt.

“But God is just aching to be seen,” said the man. “And that’s the third lesson, that God’s only wish — that one wish of Hers that intersects this world we live on — is for life to see life, for us to see Her, for us to see that we are all already in Her bosom.”

More petals rained down, and they soon covered the worker in their soft, soothing pink. The worker could feel them all around, touching and caressing her, making her feel as if drowning in their color and aroma would be the highest blessing in her short, little life.

“God calls you through every agent of the present moment,” said the man. “Only your beliefs convince you otherwise, so God sends agents to dance with your stubborn beliefs, to tire them out so that you can surrender to Her presence in everything around.”

The worker so wanted to drown, so wanted to inhale the petals through her body, but her longing for home came up from inside to interrupt the moment. She fought with it for a while, wiggling her legs, frowning, trying to focus on the petals. Alas, habits were strong, and she couldn’t handle the fullness of this gifted and torn-open present moment. She began thinking of yesterday’s daydream, of images of her sisters and the soldier playing, and her longing grew. Even a longing as pure as a longing for home was still a barrier to these dancing petals, and so their color faded to the faintest of shades.

Snapping out of her reverie, the worker realized she must have been in daydream too long, for the man had gone back into his cabin. A light was flickering from inside as a fire burned in a wood stove, and she saw that he had left extra food and leaves for her. He must have even grabbed a few petals from the lake, before they sank, and piled them up on the stump.

That night, under the stars, the worker had the most soft, precious, and blessed pillow to rest her head on.

 

The lake was not shining, even though the sun was low enough to set it to its usual amber glow. All the worker saw was a faded reflection of the sun against the still waters, and she wondered why. A new afternoon had rolled around, and with it the dreamer was caught in a new daydream, as the man leaned up against the stump to tell his fourth and final lesson.

“The last lesson of God I found in my years here is that She has put peace and joy in us at birth. We are already always happy, already at home wherever we are, and only our beliefs occlude that happiness, for they place the devil’s seed of doubt in us.”

In her daydream, the worker still wondered why the lake was dim and the colors of the forest subdued. Surely, as per the previous dreams, petals should come in to paint their color and life on everything around. As the man kept speaking, talking of this last face of God, the worker decided to leave the stump’s center, hop over the piles of rice and sugar, and crawl down to the forest floor. She then went to the lake to look to its depths, and there before her was her faint reflection.

She was not scared, nor did she find it a surprise, when her shimmering reflection began moving its mouth, uttering words in a delicate whisper.

My greatest longing, the only thing convincing me I am incomplete and lacking, is that home is somewhere else, and that I am not already there.

A single petal entered this day’s daydream, and it came in on a nonexistent wind. The petal’s color was reserved, just a hint of pink against the turned-down contrast of the forest, sky, sun, and lake. When the petal hit the water, its ripples erased the worker’s reflection, and for the briefest moment the worker caught sight of the lake bottom.

There, in full and splendid color, were all the petals that ever came this way to be reclaimed. They sat at lake bottom — not obliterated, torn apart by water — but fully preserved, perhaps even more whole and perfect than ever. At the bottom the petals were the most perfect pink the worker had ever seen, and their shadings were so bright, so coalesced from all the individuals, that they shot out a wall of glowing light that made the worker stumble back.

Perhaps it was fear, fear of the simplicity of what the man was telling her, but the worker pushed away the daydream, finding herself at stump center once more, and she spoke a faint and cold sentence. “I thank you for these lessons,” she said. “I truly thank you, but I need to leave soon and find a real home, real sisters, a real colony that would take me in.”

The man only sighed and dropped his head, and then silently stood to gather his things, before retreating to his cabin.

 

“I will tell you a final bit of wisdom,” said the man the next morning. The worker had awoken from her restful slumber under the stars, rubbed the sleep from her eyes and saw the man doing something odd. He had piled rice and sugar grains in a perfect circle around the perimeter of the stump, five stories high to the ant, and then dribbled honey all around the inside edge. The worker sat in curious confusion as she saw the honey run together, forming a towering, sticky trap to keep her in.

“I’ve only told you the simplest and deepest faces of God,” said the man, “but She is so much more. Don’t you know She was there for every chapter of your adventure? Think back to all you have gone through and see that She spins our dreams and moves our hands as we work. She infuses our family and gives life so that death is real. When we are lost She is there in the form of help, and She even lights the flames of hate, wonder, aloneness and honor. If you need to see, She perfects your eyes, and is both the danger and winds of salvation. She brings water to the lands and fuels the hatred of war. She is, simply, everything: friends, the chase, love, surrender, and, of course, home.”

“Why are you putting all this honey around?” asked the worker.

“So you will have enough to eat.”

“No,” said the worker, “you have already given me enough. You have brought me back from the edge of death and taught me lessons, told me of God and wonder. You are piling up this honey so that I cannot leave.”

The man chuckled and put the container of honey back into his pocket. Then he reached down with his giant, wrinkled hand, moving it fast at first, but then gently towards the end. He uncurled a finger and brought it right above the worker’s head to give her a tender pat and caress.

“When I walk around this lake to get my exercise, I see many ants on the other side. They are always so busy, doing ant things, carrying leaves or dead bugs. You, my friend, are special. You don’t fit into the categories that they would want to squeeze you into. So, why don’t you stay here, by this side of the lake where the petals come to find their salvation. I will keep you fed and warm, and you, in turn, can keep me company.”

“I need a home. I need a colony of my kind,” said the worker.

“Then you haven’t accepted the lessons I’ve tried to teach,” said the man. He looked to the worker with a sadness in his eyes, and they seemed to droop, pulling wrinkles down with them. The man’s tone became apologetic, and there was no malice in his bent-over posture or the warmth of his smile. He even reached into his other pocket and pulled a handful of rice and dropped it right next to the worker, saying it was warm and freshly cooked.

The worker could feel the vibrations of the man’s beating heart, for an animal so large pulsed the air with each of its breaths. Those vibrations reaching the worker felt full, at peace, swimming in happiness, and yet, oddly, also lonely. How could it be, thought the worker. How could such a full heart still think itself empty. She did not realize that those thumps reaching her were beating out a clearer reflection of her than the lake itself.

Even though guilt rang through the worker that night as she slept, she knew she would have to leave this place and seek out a true home. She stirred, sat up, and looked over to the log cabin, where she saw the flickering of a fire from under the door. Love and warmth drifted out from that house, that the worker was certain of, but she also knew that that love may not be in her best interest.

The worker decided to kneel and pray to this new word she had learned of, to this God that seemed to be in everything around. The worker kept it simple and said that if God wanted her to stay she would, but that if she did stay, her ache for a home would pester her mind, hollow her out and grey her days.

A wind blew that night, the first time the worker had ever felt breezes under a starlit sky. As if in on the cosmic joke, the stars took turns to wink, and then they kept quiet as one single petal flew through the darkened sky. The petal landed right in the honey, leaning up against the walls of rice and sugar to make a perfect ramp. The ant crawled onto the petal, feeling its tenderness and pulsing life, and she thanked it for its sacrifice as it began sinking into the stickiness. She then crawled over the barrier, down the stump, and began her march to the other side of the lake.

nineteen

Surrender

 

 

Morning came slow as the sun crept up, curious of this little ant striking out on her own once more. Coolness receded, as did the morning dew, and they asked the arriving warmth to fill them in later on how the ant would make out. The worker stepped over the carpet of dried leaves and fallen twigs, and it was slow progress, for she was used to scurrying over dirt, sand and stone.

Even though she left the man far behind, she still felt his words and lessons somewhere inside, for even if the man wasn’t fully right, the truth he spoke was, and it made its imprint. The worker looked up to the sky and could not help but giggle at how it seemed to be peeking shyly through the trees to catch glimpses of her. She looked to the trees, and they seemed vibrant, and their browns — a color often under-appreciated — became a most glorious shade.

From the bigleaf maples and black oaks more leaves fell, and the worker saw in the leaves’ tumbling, death. She stared at the trees and saw no grief drip from their branches, and wondered if they were also like God, like how the man spoke of things bigger than life and death. When she saw a fallen tree, rotting and covered in moss, she knew that there must be something even bigger than leaves and trees.

She kept her head scanning and her lone antenna primed, staring at dead and living leaves, trees and the sky, and the lake to her right, and wondered if all these things added up to God, to the only thing big enough to hold them all as little pieces.

Picking up her pace, for she was getting used to walking through the forest, learning to hop onto fallen leaves and run up and over their curls, the worker felt her mood brighten with the day. She knew, in the back of her mind, that there would be no more petals in this direction to show her the way, and yet she still felt confidant that the home she deserved would soon be found.

By midday, the worker was tired of her march, and she went in closer to the lake, to sip and sit by its shore. Here the sky was unhindered, and it seemed to glow with a blue the worker had never seen. She tightened her eyes, making sure she wasn’t daydreaming, and the only answer to such a brilliant hue was a laugh, where she rolled onto her back and kicked up her legs with delight.

She heard a cry from somewhere further up on the shore, and her first reaction was to dive behind a nearby rock and hide. Even though lessons of God were coursing through her body, there was still enough room inside for her fear and innocence to hold on tight. She peeked out over the rough, angled stone and caught sight of a writhing blog of green.

When she saw the helplessness of it, her fear faded, and she stepped out and ran forward. It was a little turtle, barely more than a baby, stuck on its back in the wet, fallen leaves, and struggling with all its might to right itself. When the turtle saw the ant approach, it stopped its panicked wriggling and called out.

“You! Help me, please!”

The worker closed the last few inches a bit more cautiously and stepped up to touch one side of the turtle’s shell. She pushed with all her might, gathering all her worker strength, even dug down deeper, using the power that sourced her daydreamed imagination, and pushed and pushed, but still the turtle did not move.

“I am not strong enough to turn you over,” said the worker. “I am just an ant. You are an animal.”

“I’m a turtle.”

“You are a turtle,” said the worker, looking around, back at the forest, and then at the lake. “How did you get yourself in this predicament?”

At first the turtle did not respond; it only churned all its legs at once, rocking back and forth, disturbing the leaves and flurrying the air, but then it gave up when it made no progress. As consolation it craned its neck backwards, saw the world upside down, and saw a close by leaf that it began to nibble on.

With a sigh and a flopping of a tiny head agains the damp ground, the turtle finally answered the ant’s question. “I was lost in the woods,” said the turtle. “You see, I was born near another lake over that little hill, but that lake was too small for all the turtles and fish that lived in its waters. One day I set out, hoping to find a new home.”

At this, the worker perked up, shouting out an interruption, “I too seek a new home!”

“Then we are kin in that regard,” said the turtle, “even though we are not kin in our ability to right ourselves when fallen over.”

When the turtle saw the worker un-react, it added another sentence. “That was a joke,” it said, and smiled when the worker finally gave over a faint chuckle.

“I missed the water,” continued the turtle. “It took me four days to make it through those woods, and even though the ground was deliciously damp, there is something to be said for submerging oneself fully under the stuff. Have you ever tried it?”

“Just once,” said the worker. “I did not like it at all.”

“Oh, then one more reason we are less than kin,” said the turtle, adding a squeaking giggle to remind the worker that that was another joke. “When I emerged from those trees and saw this lake, I got so excited, perhaps too excited, for I ran fast — fast for a turtle anyways — and tripped over a twig and ended up here as you see me.”

“Have you ever ached for home?” asked the turtle, its high-pitched voice becoming more serious. Before the worker could answer, the turtled strained its neck to look at the lake, and tears began welling in its eyes when it could not see it.

“If you do nothing else for me, can you at least spin me around so that I can see how close I was to my new home?”

This, for the worker, was easier, for the turtle was perfectly balanced on the smallest point at the top of its shell. The worker pushed and strained, grunted at the effort, and was able to spin the turtle so that its turned-over head was pointing at the lake.

“So close,” said the turtle with another sigh. “I’m not sure if that was a good idea. Now I have no choice but to look at that lake… It looks so beautiful.”

When a tear fell from the turtle’s eye, the worker felt a lesson spoken by the man become a shade more real in her being. The longing in this doomed turtle was the same as in the worker, and seeing that sameness, that sparking self-recognition, connected two hearts, across two species, as love.

“I will not leave you like this,” shouted the worker. She spun around, looking for solutions, but nothing immediate was presenting itself.

Just then, a blue petal drifted by overhead on a high-up wind, and it grazed a pepper tree in the background, forcing it to drop a pink berry. While the worker did not notice the petal, she did feel the vibration of the berry hitting the ground, and its thud was like a light bulb turning on in her little head.

She ran and grabbed a number of the largest twigs she could move, and piled some up next to the turtle. She then angled the strongest one under the turtle’s shell and over the pile, creating a perfect little lever. At the end up in the air, she impaled the ripe berry, and set to work to attract a bird.

Jumping up and down, throwing leaves up into the air, and even screaming at the top of her lungs, finally worked for the worker, and a robin landed in one of the nearby trees. The turtle started giggling when it finally understood the ant’s plan, and began wiggling its legs to do its part to help attract the bird.

The robin was only focused on that dripping, pink berry, ignoring the odd turtle and hopping ant, and it flew down to land on the twig and grab the snack. By the time the bird took off, with a flurry of disturbed leaves, the turtle had been flipped through the air to land on its feet.

The first thing the turtle did, before even running to the lake, or even glancing at it again, was crouch down as best it could and give the ant a hug.

“Do you want to join me in my new home?” asked the turtle.

“No,” said the worker, giggling. “That is another thing that makes us less kin, our idea of homes are quite different.”

The turtle laughed and laughed, throwing its head back, almost laughing so much that it rolled over onto its back once more. It spread its legs to balance itself, and stood up to tower over its new friend. “You are getting the hand of these jokes, little ant.”

With a wave of a leg, answered by the worker with two legs, the turtle was off, parting dried leaves as it ran. It went straight for the lake, entering with a splash, then happily dove down under its welcoming waters.

 

Night came to interrupt the worker’s progress around the curve of the lake. Under a starlit sky she slept, and happy dreams kept her unaware of the stream of blue petals that snuck by overhead. When she awoke the next morning she fondly remembered the images that had visited her, images of the safe colony and playful friends expectantly awaiting her on the other side of the lake.

This shore of the lake was more rough than where the man lived, for here there were none of the roads or trails — two new words the worker had learned. Fallen trees, all claimed by moss, lay criss-crossed across the woods, and heavy branches and stones battles for spots too. The worker would let nothing slow her, and she crawled over everything with a smile, stopping only to sip from the lake or nibble on a leaf just long enough to recoup her energy.

At one point of her march, she heard a little yelp, and froze in her tracks. Nature still had a sharp edge to it, in her mind, and it was too easy for her fear to return and cloud her mind. She could not place the yelp to a known animal, and so she spun around, looking for a place to hide. When she heard the sound again, this time more clearly, she turned and saw movement.

At the base of an oak tree, in a little cubby surrounded by the trunk and rocks, lay two sleeping fox cubs and a third awake and staring with wide-eyed wonder. It looked at the inside of the tree, at the sunlight hitting the ground and fallen leaves outside the opening, and especially looked at the little ant marching closer. It was too comfortable nestled up against its curled siblings, so it just stared, then lay its head down to rest with a smile.

The worker saw motion up above too, as a blue jay took off from a high-up branch with barely any noise to its flick of motion. On the branch the worker could see a well-built nest, and could just make out the tips of three tiny heads, with their still-unopened eyes and gaping mouths end their begging and close in unison.

Home, said the worker in her mind, trying to speak as silently as the man had spoken to her. The nestlings above and pups below all quieted at the word, falling deeper into the safety of their slumbers. Appreciate it, said the worker, for it is the most precious thing in your lives. It will form the foundation of everything you are after these moments.

 

With tiny splashes with each of her steps, the worker noticed the ground — even so far back from the lake — was getting wetter and wetter. More moss came to lay claim to any fallen branch or tree, and the leaves here had mixed with the water to become a stagnant pulp. Luckily, the ant could smell nothing, for if she were an animal, this area would not be a pleasant experience.

At first, she plodded on, determined to make it around the lake and to the home she knew awaited, but soon the ground became so soaked that the water rose above the height of an ant. While the worker could swim, it was not her strength, and certainly she would not have the energy to make it through this entire marshy area.

She looked to her right, towards the lake, and obviously the ground was even wetter in that direction. To her left the ground sloped up quickly and at an extreme angle, covered in rocks and trees clinging desperately. She could go up in that direction, but it seemed it might add a day or two to her journey. Ahead of her was a fallen tree, so much larger than the rest, and as she approached, she could see that the inside was hollow.

Climbing up to the top, she tried for a few minutes to crawl the length of the log, but the moss and moisture made it too slippery. She almost tumbled a few times, and would have fallen into water too deep for her to wade through; so she stopped and retreated, coming back to the front of the fallen tree, knowing that the only way forward would be to go through its center.

Even though the tree was hollow, it was still not fully empty. Apart from the rotting, slivered wood, the moss and mushrooms, there was also a darkness there, bringing fear. The worker pointed her antenna forward, waiting to hear if any vibrations came her way.

Nothing. But still she was not too eager to rush in, so she waited a few more seconds.

God aches to be seen.

The words of the man came back to the worker’s mind, and with them they brought a calming. From that calming, clearing a quiet spot inside, the worker was able to refocus on her true longing to find her home. God better be in here too, said the worker, taking her first step into the tree.

She inched forward, feeling around in the darkness for the sides of the log, and stepped as cautiously as she could. After every sixth step, she paused and waited for vibrations, and it was only a few minutes into her journey that she began feeling some.

These vibrations were weird, for they were not the staccato of steps, but rather the mysterious murmur of some sort of collective crawling. Holding her breath and gathering her courage, the worker pressed on, and soon tripped over something soft and squishy.

“Pardon me,” rang out a tiny voice.

The worker froze, as she felt the thing she had tripped over slither past. Then, to her side, both of them, and even behind her, more slithering came and went. Whatever was in here, there were tens, or maybe hundreds of them.

God aches to be seen, and calls you through the agents of the present moment.

The worker repeated the words of the man, over and over in her mind, trying to reassure herself that the things in here must be safe, must be faces of God, just like everything else in this forest. To save her from her own terror, the sun fell a bit lower in the sky, setting the lake to its afternoon amber fire, and the reflected rays shot through to light up the fallen tree.

The worker was surrounded by grubs, hundreds and hundreds of them, and when the light came in they scurried around, slithering on their backs with their legs wiggling up in the air. Their white, almost translucent bodies caught the sun and glowed, and they crawled to feast on the rotting wood all around.

When one of the grubs saw the worker, it came over and parked itself beside. “Oh my, aren’t you an interesting specimen,” said the grub. “You are small like us, but yet you walk on your legs.”

The worker smiled, and petted the grub, giggling at how bouncy and squishy its round body was. “Why do you crawl on your backs if you have legs?” asked the worker.

“Our legs are too small,” said another grub who had slithered over to see the new visitor.

“One day we’ll grow up to be proud bugs, with legs long enough to reach the ground,” said the first grub.

“Yes, but for now we make do, living in this wonderful oasis, having our fill of rotten wood,” added the second.

More grubs gathered, and their bodies reflected the lake’s sun to light up the ant from all sides. She was bathed in an amber warmth, with hints of the home she felt in daydreams on that stump with the man. She felt safe, soothed by this glow, and she laughed at her fear, how it was so quick to return on this journey of hers, no matter how many times it was misplaced. The worker reached out and patted a few more grubs, as they lay on their backs with their tiny legs wiggling up in joy.

“Have you seen any ants in this section of the woods?” asked the worker.

A ripple of excited chatter rolled across the grubs, as each turned to its neighbors and repeated the worker’s question. Someone had to have an answer, but first the question had to reach to the ends of the glowing sea and ripple back, then repeat, before a close-by grub answered in the negative.

“Then,” said the worker, “it was a pleasure to make all of your acquaintances, but I will be on my way. I hope you don’t mind that I’ll use your log as a shortcut, and hopefully the other end will get me to dryer land.”

Now a gasp rolled through the rippling, shiny bugs, and the first grub leaned in towards the worker, for some reason choosing to whisper what all its siblings already knew. “You can’t go that way,” said the grub. “for there are webs there, and you know what that means.”

When the ant remained silent, the grub rolled its upturned legs, and all its neighbors did the same. This was the grub way of rolling their eyes, and the worker could feel their patronizing pity. “I guess I’ll spell it out,” said the grub. “There is most probably a spider up ahead.”

As the sun sank lower, the lake-reflected light reached further into the hollowed-out log. As the light inched forward, the worker saw more rotting wood, more moss and fungus, now all faintly glowing. Using her eyes in their special way, eyes that could see further than any normal insect, she examined tens of feat ahead.

Only the bravest of the light, dim splices of the brighter sections, reach the far end of the log. As it did, the worker saw hints of webs connected in a mass of darkened tangles. Perhaps there was even an eight-legged shape hanging down in the shadows.

The worker backed up, almost stepping on a few grubs.

“I… I don’t think I can go that way then.”

“You are not as foolish as we all thought,” said one of the grubs, nodding in approval.

“You’ve never gone down there?” asked the worker. When silence was her only answer, she added another question. “What about this other end of the log? Have you ever stepped outside? Have you ever seen a bird, or the sky, or that precious lake?”

“Never!” said the grub, wiggling its airborne legs for emphasis. “We are happy here. We eat the rotting wood in these few inches of log. We don’t go out into the fresh air on this side, nor to the sticky darkness on that side. That you have come from that end, and want to go to that other end, seems very silly.”

The worker looked over the grubs, and was confused by their happy ignorance. How could they be so content in such a narrow world, she thought. Nodding with a faint smile, she then backed up slowly, unable to take her eyes off the hanging outline, black and sharpened, with two legs too many, blocking the other end of the log. She said goodbye to the grubs, left them alone to their feasts, and retreated out into the fading sun of the afternoon.

She already knew the top of the fallen tree was too slippery, and so she stood on the lip of the hollow and thought out plans. When she saw a leaf float by in the deeper sections of the water, she knew what she must do. She climbed to the top of the log, found a fallen twig just the right size, nibbled away its offshoots to make it smooth, and then jumped down onto the leaf and began paddling.

Avoiding the shallow and muddy parts, she kept to the trenches where there was enough water to keep afloat. Soon she found a deep channel and picked up her pace, watching the giant, hollow tree float slowly by to her left. There was a quiet in the air, as the sun descended further and the lake strained to catch the last crumbs of its light. Birds stopped their chirping to puff up and huddle against each other on branches, and the crickets began sounding out to keep the forest awake.

The worker felt a knot in her stomach, for the trees turned into craggy outlines and the lake the darkest, rippling shade of orange. She squinted to make out shapes in front of her, avoiding twig-jams and rocks, and soon her daydreamed imagination began playing tricks with her. A hopping cricket, with just its black outline visible, startled the worker and she thought it was an attacking lizard. A butterfly flitting by, for a terrified instant, looked like a black bird diving in for an ant-snack.

She crouched down as close as she could to the leaf and pulled her oar from the water, choosing to let herself float until her eyes adjusted to the darkness. She looked up, hoping to see some stars, for they brought her comfort, but they were not out yet. It was the worst time of day, when the sun was closing its giant eye, and the stars had not yet opened theirs.

When barely at the midpoint along the fallen tree, a vibration shot through the worker, something she had not felt in a long time. She grabbed the twig-oar and planted it over the side, bringing the leaf she stood on to a full stop.

In the fading light, just before the tiniest tip of the sun parted for the night, the worker saw a large shape fly by. It landed on a nearby rock, used its legs to clean its wings, and paid special attention to the wounded wing on its left. The worker squinted even more, trying to make out the shape, and she saw it suddenly fall over to its side. As it did, a faded glimmer of the sun found and barely colored its yellow and black bands.

Now the shape rubbed a wound across its abdomen, a place where the tiniest traces of poison had entered its system. It stood up again on wobbly legs, and then looked to its stinger and kicked at it. The worker could now see a curled-up shape, barely visible in the gone day, an ant of a different species. It fell from the stinger, with a hole through its middle, into the fetid water below.

The wasp had returned.

 

The worker was holding on for her dear life. She had scurried to the underside of the leaf she stood on and hid. Luckily the leaf was curled, with the middle not touching the water, so the worker froze there and held her breath. The twig was still resting on top, so she had no way to steer, and just hoped for the best.

As twisted luck would have it, a breeze began blowing, and the leaf — instead of heading back from whence it came — began drifting towards the wasp.

She could see nothing, except a blur of shapes beyond the crack between the leaf edge and water, and she thought she caught glimpse of the dreaded black and yellow. Gripping with all her might, against gravity and the slickness of the leaf, the worker wanted to chuckle to herself, thinking she must look like those fat and jolly grubs, on their backs and with their feet wriggling up in the air.

Silence erupted into a buzz, as the wasp took flight, and then, to the horror of the worker, it landed right on the leaf she clung to. With the leaf pushed down, suddenly the ant was underwater, where everything went silent, and a suffocating coldness closed in. She held her breath for one second, then two, and knew she would soon have to let go and swim up for a gasp of air.

The wasp was still rubbing its abdomen, as a frown grew across its already angled and contorted face. It took one unsteady step forward on the leaf, and then took off into the air, flying a not-so-straight line, before landing back on its rock to rest. Even though its feet were on solid ground again, it still churned its wings, whipping them up into a frenzy, as if shouting in rage at the entire forest.

Once the leaf bobbed back up, the worker pulled in air all along her body and gasped as silently as she could. She then summoned her strength and quietly bit into the central vein on the underside of the leaf. Holding on with her jaws and two front legs, she let go with the rest, hanging down and pushing slowly aginst the debris and mud, to begin inching away in the darkness.

“You are such a strange creature,” berated one of the grubs in its high-pitched voice. “Why would you be so obsessed with the end of our tunnel?”

The worker had returned, climbed from her leaf back into the hollowed out tree, and found the sea of grubs. Even in the darkness, with the gift of the reflected sun gone for another day, they were a bustle of activity, feasting on the rotting wood and fungus plastered all around.

Home is everywhere, came a silent voice from inside, and at first the worker thought one of the grubs had said the words. She did want to accept that it was her heart speaking, that it was her heart acting as an agent of the present moment, voicing the love of God right into her mind.

She only looked behind, back to where the lonely man lived, and wondered if she should return there and live out her days. She looked around at the outline of slithering grubs, and wondered if she should stay here, and giggled when she thought, of all things, that rotten wood sounded much better than it tasted.

The wasp that would not give up was somewhere outside, and to face it again was too painful and terrifying to the worker. The home she ached for in her daydreams was calling her, and the longer it went unanswered the stronger that longing became, so the worker began walking down the tunnel, towards the webs and spider.

When darkness came to fully claim, and when silence was no longer a comfort, but a terrifying and suffocating blanket, the worker froze, wondering if she should wait for another day to light the way. She was tired, though, tired of this journey, of the close calls, of the aching but never finding the home she was promised by mischievous petals, and so she pressed on.

It was only a minute of crawling before she tasted the first web. A strand settled against her body, and it would have tickled her if she were not frozen in fear, and so she ripped it away and kept moving. Soon more hanging strands found her and suddenly she was trapped. The more she struggled, the tigher the webs held on, until even her legs were bound up and could not budge.

The stickiness across her eyes blurred them for an instant, and images of death crawling in on eight legs faded, to be replaced by bright and cheery images of ants in a bustling colony. The worker was amidst new sisters, laughing and playing, welcomed into a perfect home, and her dancing and running in her dream translated into real life, and suddenly she was free of the webs.

A trickle of starlight came in from ahead, and she knew she must be near the opening at the end of the tree-tunnel. That same starlight faintly lit up the webs around, turning them for scary to sparkling, and the worker could easily see a path through and around. She stepped carefully, inching along and contorted her body, making sure not to touch any more of the stickiness.

Then it was there, its outline made crisp by the now stronger light, and it hung upside down, right above the ant, as the eight-legged king of this webbed domain. The worker froze and prayed to the God she now believed in, asking her to either save her or at least make death quick and painless.

The worker stood for a moment, then two, and her imagining the spider uncurling and crawling never became real. The spider just hung there, motionless, its legs angled in against its body, and the red dot on its abdomen faded and dusty.

Perhaps feeling brave, or perhaps too uncomfortable in the undecided moment, the worker reached out and snapped one of the nearby strands of web. The vibrations rippled out through the entire structure, and the spider bounced and swung, but still it did not uncurl.

The worker moved up a few inches, and she twanged the webs some more, but still the spider did not move. She finally felt satisfied that it must be dead, and breathed a sigh of thankful relief. Even though she kept one eye on its carcass, she stepped away, led on by the speckled light flooding in through the nearby opening.

On the lip at the edge of the log, she breathed in the fresh air, letting it wash away the mustiness of rotting wood and tangled webs, and was happy when she looked down and saw dry ground on this side. She turned around, thinking of the grubs, sorry they were trapped in such a small, little corner of this tree-world. After she found her home and settled in, she thought, she might come back for a visit and tell them that the fear of the spider that kept them trapped was not real.

With a skip to her step, she ran the final inch and jumped through the air, thankful for its crisp coolness, and flew out the log opening to land on the dirt and dried leaves kissing the ground. That was when the waiting wasp dove in for its attack.

 

The wasp was tangled in the webs hanging down across the log opening. It had missed the worker by inches and was now buzzing and flailing in full rage, getting itself more and more tied up. The webs broke free from the log and now the worker could not help but stop for a moment and stare, mesmerized by the now-cocooned wasp thrashing along the ground.

When the wasp got enough webs torn away so that it could walk was when the worker began running. The wasp could not fly, for the sticky strands still gluing its wings, but it could drag itself along the ground. For its size, and the fury powering its motion, it easily caught up to the scurrying worker.

The worker was grabbed and violently pinned to the ground, and all she saw was that giant face, with its death-pooling eyes and giant jaws, shove itself down next to hers. She wondered what being stabbed by a stinger would feel like, and images of her friend, the soldier and her last moments, flashed through the worker’s mind. She wanted to cry, to chase away the images, but terror came instead to do that deed.

The wasp tried to curl its body, to bring its killing end towards the ant, but the remaining webs around it made that impossible. When the worker saw the wasp struggling, using two legs to hold her and the rest to pull at the webs, she found an ounce of fear-tainted courage to yell out.

“Why?!” shouted the worker. “Why do you still chase me? Why are you intent on killing me?”

The wasp was surprised that this little worker could speak, for in every other encounter of theirs this one always cowered in the background. It stopped its fight against the webs to rear up on its hind legs, and the worker could see the scar on its abdomen, from where the soldier had stabbed it with its own stinger.

“I curse you, you stupid little ant,” yelled out the wasp in its spitting rage. “Your companion, that cowardly soldier, had something vile in its insides, and when it got lucky and stabbed me, that vileness is in me. It burns. I feel it daily. It clouds my mind and aches my muscles.”

When the wasp thought the worker might think it was complaining of the pain, it added a frown to its face and more power to its voice, “I love it. I love this rank liquid in my gut, for it fuels my rage and strengthens my mission.”

The wasp brought its body and head down close again, and then opened its jaws wide, placing its pincers easily across the neck of the tiny ant. It closed its mouth slightly, and the worker could feel the sharp, stabbing pressure. She knew that it would barely take any effort for the wasp to cleave off her head.

“No,” said the wasp, moving its head away. “Death to you should not be so easy. I want to stab you. I want to see you still alive when my stinger tears you open. I want to see the pain and horror in your eyes when life drains from your wound.”

At that moment a breeze blew through, and it came curious of these two splices of nature, these two lifeforms locked in battle. The breeze enraged the wasp, and it churned its wings, trying to cleave off more of the webs around its body, before calming down just enough to resume its yells.

“When these stupid winds and those petals grabbed me, I knew you were heading east,” said the wasp. “I fought those winds and swirling petals, and I was stronger than they. My thirst for revenge was stronger, and I broke free and came this way searching. I swore I would not rest until the stupid little companion of that cowardly soldier was dead too.”

With the wasp distracted by its own rant, the worker gathered her strength, all that was left of it beneath her terror, and kicked off the wasp and began running. It only took half a second for the wasp to recover from the surprise and begin dragging itself after, and as it did, the roughness of the ground helped clean more of the strands wrapping her body.

The worker stumbled over twigs and dried leaves, and could feel the vibrations of the wasp getting closer. When she reached a wall of pebbles and twigs, she knew she would not be able to get over in time, so she spun to stand her ground.

“I am not a soldier,” she said, trying to barter her way out of death. “What joy will it bring you to kill something so defenseless. I don’t want to fight you. I don’t want to kill anything. I just want to get home.”

This begging brought a laugh to the wasp, and it stopped its dragging charge to through back its head and laugh some more. The worker could see the last of the webs pulled away, and the wasp tested its wings with a furious buzzing, and tested its stinger by freely curling and uncurling its body.

“Yes,” said the wasp, “since I first saw your party of three lost and wayward ants, you were always heading east. You think there is a home for you somewhere here.”

With a blur of motion and a snap of disturbed air, the wasp was flying. It grabbed the worker and took off back to the west. The worker had no time to react, no time to fight, but she did notice the wasp’s flight was not strong, not steady, and she could see its face wince with every flap. The wasp dropped her near the mouth of the fallen tree and landed before you.

“Why don’t I bring you back to west,” taunted the wasp. “Why don’t I bring you all the way back to where you started?”

This was a threat worst than death to the worker. She knew she was so close to home, and it was the only thing that she ached for, that her heart was left beating for. She grabbed dirt and sand and threw it at the wasp. She kicked with all her might, flinging twigs and leaves, but the wasp only stood there and cackled.

The wasp stopped its laugh to get serious for a moment, and it brushed off the dirt from its eyes and body as it spoke. “Stupid little ant. Why do you think you are special? Why do you think you are nothing else other than an unimportant splice of nature. Life comes and goes every day in these lands, and nature doesn’t bat its eye.”

Taking a step closer, and leaving its stinger to the last, the wasp now brushed the dirt from it until it shined. “Why do you think your stupid little quest for home is more important than mine? My dream is to have a land without ants. That is my idea of home. That is what wakes me up each morning. What says that that vision of home is less than your stupid one?”

The worker turned to run again, but the wasp was on top of her in a flash. It threw her to the ground and stood over her, trapping her with two of its legs. It then dragged her back to the west, right near the opening of the fallen tree. The worker kicked and flailed, and even bit at the wasp, but it had no effect.

“Now, let us get this over with,” said the wasp.

It curled its giant body and brought its stinger above the worker, who froze in terror. The wasp tapped the worker’s body up and down its length, and then stopped right above her abdomen. For a tortured moment it rubbed its stinger against the worker, and then it smiled and moved it upwards. It brought the stinger up to the eye of the worker and held it barely a leg’s width in front. All the worker saw was the point of stinger, and the stinger itself in expanded perspective, eclipsing even the sneering face of the wasp.

“Let us make you like your dead friend,” said the wasp. “Let us make you one-eyed.”

With a searing pain imparted, the wasp then scratched a line above and below the worker’s eye, and she yelled out it pain. When her cries and writhing stopped, the wasp brought the stinger back above her eye.

“That is now a nice target,” said the wasp in its taunting rasp.

This was the end, thought the worker, as she ached to reach up and rub the throbbing from her eye. No more petals, no more saving winds, no more lessons of God would come save her. She would be stabbed and killed, and her body would lay here and dry up, returned to the dirt it sprung from, claimed without an afterthought by nature.

She thought that she should go in the blur of a daydream, so she softened her eyes, fighting the pounding of her heart, until the trees and sky began fading. Everything dimmed to a blackness, and she tried to focus her mind, tried to push away the fear lumped in her throat, until the blackness became a soft glow.

It was the time of day that the sun was at its perfect spot, and the lake woke up from its lazy morning to shout its precious gift of amber reflection. The forest was suddenly lit up, with browns and greens turning gold, and shadows running to hide.

What a precious moment, thought the worker. If I am to go, then I will go like this, dripping with appreciation for the beauty tearing open this present moment.

As she continued to blur her eyes, something miraculous happened. Every last shape in the forest became co-opted by the infiniteness of the present, and the worker’s mind could not grasp it; all it could do was continue its daydream, turning everything in the forest to glorious petals. The trees became stacks of floating brown petals, peppered with green ones all along their branches. The sky was an arc of shimmering blue petals, falling without even moving, while the ground was a blanket of dancing, brown light. Each rock was a vibrating clump of gray petals, and the log behind the wasp was a coiled cylinder of green and brown petals locked together.

The worker tried to focus to the top edge of the fallen tree, behind the wasp, for there was a strange petal there. The petal up there was an inky black one, with barely any of the lake’s reflected amber reaching it. When the worker saw that black petal inch to the edge of the log, she also saw a tiny red petal at its center, as if it were a beating heart, and she un-blurred her eyes enough to see what the shape really was.

She had thought that the spider carcass in the tree tunnel was the king of those webs, but now she saw the bigger one, the actual queen of those webs. It stood for a moment to survey the scene, its spindly legs half-curled beneath and its giant abdomen heavy with venom. It glided down across the opening on a single strand, its pointed legs spread, its eight eyes catching the tiniest slivers of light from the lake. When it hit the ground it reared up, showing the vibrant red shape on the bulbous half of its blackened body.

This was an agent of the present moment, thought the worker, a whisper from God, just as the man had spoken of. She wondered if her surrender to death from a moment before had awoken this agent, or her begging for life and home from God had brought it here. Or, perhaps, it was always there, always on top of its log home, just waiting for food to come by so that it could eat and continue its day and life, as just another undirected facet of God.

As everything slowed, as the wasp’s stinger closed in and the spider inched forward, the worker found it interesting that she wasn’t sure if she wanted the wasp dead or not. Why was her own life more important than the wasp’s, she thought. Why was her ache for home any different than the wasp’s ache to kill.

Do as you will, said the worker in her inner voice to the present, for the peace coming from her daydream, from her vision seeing the trueness of this moment torn open, suddenly did not have any vested interest in any specific outcome.

Before the wasp’s stinger could stab, the spider’s bite found its mark, and the wasp immediately jumped and spun. It fought valiantly for a while, but now there was both poison and venom in its body. It tried to fly, but the spider was determined to gain a meal and grabbed the wasp, hanging on tight to bite more and more.

Soon, it was over, and the wasp was dragged back to the fallen tree and cocooned into the webs it had broken free of only minutes before. The worker did not wait around to see if the spider wanted another meal, she just ran.

Her daydream quickly ended, everything was back to its rightful shape, and there were no more petals anywhere. The light from the lake was still here, however, and it blinded the worker for a moment as she stumbled towards the wall of twigs and pebbles. She stopped to catch her breath and spun to make sure the spider or wasp were not chasing her.

For a moment she felt a stillness wash over, as if a dragging weight was cut free from her shoulders. She felt the coolness of the rocks behind her, and the softness of the dirt beneath, and they came as comforts to amplify. The sky was bluer and the trees a vibrant brown and green, all without help from her daydreaming mind. She sighed out and was free of her past, from the thing that was tying her back to the drought-stricken lands. She collapsed and leaned her head against a pebble, taking a moment’s rest, for she knew, now more than ever, that her journey was at its penultimate step.

“Incredible,” came a voice from above, and the worker scrambled to her feet. A soldier ant stood on top the pebble wall, and, for a confused moment, the worker swore it was her friend. It had scars and one eye, and a tender, friendly smile on its face. The worker rubbed her eyes with her lone antenna, and the ant on the wall came into focus. It was not her friend; it was a soldier ant of a different subspecies, and it had two eyes and no scars.

“Interesting,” the soldier repeated, “I have never seen a worker fight and defeat a wasp before.”

twenty

Home

 

 

It was an especially beautiful sunrise. The sun found its way through the trees, trying extra hard to reach through leaves and across small hills, and kissed the worker standing on a rock. She had been staring silently at the lake, but when the warmth brushed her back she turned to it, smiling up at the gold. Leaves woke with wriggles and dropped their dew, and mist rolled away from the forest to find other spots to sleep.

“There you are, new friend.”

The worker turned to see the soldier, the same perfect specimen that had greeted her the first day. She smiled at her new sister, but didn’t say a word, for she wasn’t done letting the sun greet her with its morning rays.

“Another day begins for our brave sister in her new home,” said the soldier. The worker noted, as the soldier spoke, that she didn’t once turn to nod to the sun. “What will you do today?” asked the soldier. “Do you want to be a worker, or a soldier; or do you just want to take the rest you have earned?”

“I rest just before the sun rises, and in the afternoon when the waters are set to brilliance. You should try it too. There are such precious moments here in these woods.”

The soldier only smiled, and while it was perhaps half a friendly one and half a humoring one, the worker focused only on the friendly half and smiled back.

“When can I see the queen?” asked the worker.

“She sent word that perhaps tomorrow or the day after,” said the soldier. “She is busy running the colony, worried about that wasp that killed a few of our sisters, but she has passed on her warmest greetings. She told me to take care of you and make sure you had everything you needed.”

“That wasp was acting alone. It is now dead, and I know no others of its kind will come this way.”

“How do you know that?” asked the soldier.

Now it was the worker’s turn to only smile, offering no explanation as to why her statement was true, and how she would bet her life on it.

That day, the sun would not leave the worker alone, finding and keeping her warm wherever she was, even as she picked up leaves with the line of workers. These new sisters did not tease the worker, even as she sometimes lost focus and let her lone antenna lead her around in absent-minded circles.

At one of those times, when she left an arcing trail through the sand, smiling and letting her mind blissfully bathe in the sun, she heard the other workers whispering behind her. She turned, hoping they might be playfully teasing her, mocking her lone antenna or the scars across her body. Instead, the workers only backed up an inch and stopped their talking.

When one of the ants saw the worker staring, she stepped forward and bowed her head. “Sorry for whispering behind your back, new sister. We are still just in awe of you. My sisters were telling me that, not only did you kill a wasp, but that you supposedly saw a red-dotted spider and were not terrified.”

“Your left leg,” said the worker, pointing at the little ant before her, “no, not that one, the middle one on your left side. It is a little crooked. Maybe we can call you peg-leg.”

The worker exaggerated a laugh, hoping the others would join in. When the line of ants only answered with wide-eyed staring, the worker then drooped her antenna, letting it float down as if deflating. “And…” she said, “what would you sisters call me, with my scars and sad antenna?”

“We don’t do nicknames here,” was all the other ant responded, with a bowed head and sheepish smile.

That afternoon, the worker found time away from colony life to head to the lake and sit on a stone by its shore. She turned around and found the sun through the trees, measuring its angle with two of her legs. She knew it would only be minutes before the lake was set on fire, so she inched forward to find her reflection.

I am a bit uglier, she thought, as she rubbed the scars around her eye that the wasp had gifted her with. For a moment her reflection was caught in a ripple, and her distorted face reminded her of her friend, the solider she had grown up with, and who had given her life for hers.

I wish you were here, said the worker, using the quiet inner voice that the man of the cabin had taught her. I finally found a home. You would be so proud. Maybe you would even crack a smile and run and play with me in celebration. They are very nice here, even if they are a bit dry and humorless — even compared to you.

The worker chuckled at her distorted reflection, and the memories of her friend, before continuing, They feed me and care for me and fawn over me too much. They think I am something special, after hearing about all my adventures, also because I was there when that wasp was killed. Just wait until I tell them about you, about your courage and adventures, about your sacrifice and friendship.

 

The next day the worker was asked the same question at sunrise by her new soldier friend. What role did she want to play today, worker or soldier? The entire colony by now knew she was special, and would be the only ant in their midst to be given such an honored choice. No other worker here would ever dare to dream of being a soldier, and vice versa.

“Soldier,” said the worker. “I suppose I could try being a soldier today.”

She made the rounds with a small troop of ants, with her new soldier friend leading the way as their sergeant. Before they set out, they had said they would be patrolling far, so the worker should pack a leaf for food and drink extra rations of water. The worker was excited, and all along their march she kept asking if they would be going even further still.

She was happy to step over twigs and pebbles, race up hills (even though no one raced with her), and for each section she continued to ask if they would go further. Would they make it all the way to interesting spots like the marshy lands? When the soldiers began circling back, still focused on their silent march, the worker realized that for these ants and herself, the definition of far was very different.

“These are the rounds we make every morning,” said the soldier. “We march in this circle, round and round, for hours on end. The last few days have been particularly tense, because of that wasp that you killed. We kept our eyes peeled for it, and now we watch for any others wanting to come and attack us.”

“Do you ever feel adventurous?” asked the worker. “I understand wanting to keep the colony safe, but what about walking in zig-zags instead of a circle? What about going to visit the man of the cabin, or maybe coming out here at night and finding a spot where fireflies light up the sky?”

The soldier only stared blankly at her, not knowing what most of the words of her sentences meant.

 

Days came and went, and the worker was happy, but she did find herself sneaking out more often to sit by the lake or walk in circles wider than any of the soldiers. One afternoon she sat by the lake, waiting for the sun to set it afire, when she surprised herself by sighing out. She looked around, making sure no one was there, and then she sighed out again, this time a bit louder.

She looked inside, curious of this feeling of peace that seemed to be there, and wondered when it had arrived. It definitely was not there before she got to this colony, but why, she wondered, was it there now, when she was away from the colony and all by herself.

When the lake caught the sun and flung it up to the sky and around the forest, turning everything to gold, the worker stood up and spun slowly around. The peace inside her seemed to be over there on that rock too, and even on that dried bit of leaf all crumbled beside her. It was in the trees and moss, in the amber rays seeking out every last space. She was also certain it was there a minute ago, even before the lake gave up the sun’s reflection.

She remembered one of the lessons the man of the cabin had spoken to her, how we are all already at peace, already filled with God, and that nothing needs to be added to feel it. That pristine glow is our core, perhaps our soul, but certainly the foundation on top everything else of our life is built atop. The worker started giggling, for she caught glimpse of the truth the man was trying to get her to see, that God was home, home was peace, and they didn’t need to be traveled to to be found.

Stepping up to the lake, she was ready to stare down at her reflection, wondering how it would look with the sun so brightly shining. Before she could, however, she was pulled roughly back. She spun, and her new soldier friend was standing there with a terrified look on her face.

“Friend!” the soldier yelled out, “Ants can’t swim. Don’t get so close to the water!”

The worker laughed at the absurdity of the warning, throwing her head back and laughing and laughing, and she saw it so plainly, that her laugh was home, was God, too.

Standing with a frown, wondering what had gotten into this new sister, the soldier waited for this odd display to die down. When the worker turned quiet, wiping what the soldier swore was water from her eyes, the soldier finally spoke up. “The queen,” she said, “has time now to see you.”

 

This was the first time the worker was brought to the bottom levels of the colony’s nest. The deeper she went, the more the bustle died down, until, on the lowest level, only large soldiers quietly shuffled through the corridors. She was led by her new friend to the queen’s chambers, past a row of giant guards, and right up to the queen herself.

The queen sat on her dirt throne, half in the shadows, and something about the way she held herself, so still and proud, so quietly regal, caused the worker to re-adopt a little fear. Out of instinct she jumped behind the solider and peeked out to catch glimpses. When the queen leaned forward and the shadows left, the worker smiled at her own shyness, how it seemed to return not so stubbornly anymore, and she stepped out from behind the soldier.

“Come a little closer,” said the queen, and the worker stepped up.

“You are the little one I have been hearing about,” said the queen with a smile, studying the worker from head to legs. “I’ve heard you’ve had quite the adventure, having come all the way from the drought stricken lands. I’ve heard of animals and winds, of friends you’ve lost, of giant ants at night sucking nectar from the ground, and even of this relentless wasp that you finally defeated.”

The worker stayed silent for a moment, only returning the queen’s smile.

“How are you liking our colony?”

“I am enjoying my time here,” answered the worker. “I am thankful to you for allowing me to stay, and for the sisters for taking me in and welcoming me.”

“Indeed,” said the queen, “but I also hear that you sneak out quite often to be by yourself.”

The worker sheepishly grinned, looking down at her feet and then back up at the queen. “Yes,” she said, “I think the adventures I’ve gone through have changed me a bit. I like to explore when I can.”

It was hard to tell by the worker, but it seemed like the queen’s smile fell half a degree before she picked it back up. “I’ve heard that you’ve helped the workers and have also walked with the soldiers,” said the queen. “For a special ant like you — and know that I would do this for no other — I am giving you a choice. You were born a worker, but you helped kill a wasp, so you have earned the right to be a soldier. Tell me, little ant, now that you’ve settled in, what role will you choose for your life here?”

“I have to choose only one?” asked the worker, looking to her soldier friend, and disappointed that her head and eyes were bowed down in respectful aversion to the queen.

“We do have rules in this colony,” said the queen. “We do things for the greater good here. We play our roles and honor them. The workers bring in food and rear the young. The soldiers patrol the grounds and keep us safe.”

“Do you let any ants, in their spare time, wander? Have you left this nest, or have any ants explored the woods? There are precious spots at different times of the day out there, just aching to be seen. You may not know the word, my highness, but God is out there in abundance.”

This time it was easier to see, and the worker noticed that the queen’s smile actually rose a shade higher. The worker studied her face and saw something there, beyond the wisdom and calmness that came with the role of being a queen. She saw that this queen had perhaps one of her six legs in something deeper, in that same quiet language spoken by the man and some faces of nature, and that she knew of the word God when the worker had uttered it.

“To answer your question,” said the queen, “I do not let any ants stray too far. I do not let any ants go beyond the ocean.”

“Ocean?” asked the worker. She looked at her soldier friend and at the ring of guards, and none seemed to be reacting at all. “What ocean?”

“That body of water an hour’s walk to the south of this nest — that ocean.”

The worker scoffed, trying to stifle a laugh from erupting. “But, my highness, I respectfully have to say that that is not an ocean.”

“It is an ocean,” said the queen. “It is too big to see to the other shore. That, by definition, is an ocean.”

“But!” shouted the worker, taking a step forward, only to be stopped by two fierce guards. The queen waved them back, letting the worker step up closer. “But I can see the other side,” said the worker more quietly. “I have even come here from that side. I have walked around most of that lake, passing through the marshy lands, even through a hollowed-out tree, to get here. I have seen that lake set afire every afternoon by the sun. I have seen that lake’s bottom and sides. It is not even that big a big lake.”

The queen frowned and looked around at her guards and the soldier, all with their gazes averted and heads bowed. When she was sure none of her ants were looking, she offered the worker the faintest of smiles beneath her scowl, before continuing with her stern voice. “It is an ocean,” she said. “It defines our southern boundary, just like the hills define our northern ones. We do not venture beyond those points.”

The worker shook her head in disbelief. She did not even have to blur her eyes for her daydreamed future to come. She saw her days, and they were all the same. Perhaps she would be a worker, but every day would be identical, carrying leaves and moving sand. Perhaps she would be a soldier, but all she would do would be to deepen ruts in the dirt of that tired circle around the grounds. She thought of the man of the cabin, and the wonder he introduced her to, and she also thought of all the friends and adventures that had come her way over the past few weeks.

“I will ask you again,” said the queen, breaking the silence. “If you are to stay here, you will have to choose a role. Tell me what you want to be.”

The worker stared around at all the ants, and she frowned, suddenly not liking how much dank and darkness there was this deep underground. She was focused on the ring of soldiers, and her new friend, and did not see the queen smile again at her as she began speaking.

“I think I may not stay here,” said the worker. “I think I have some unfinished business. I just now thought of some friends I had made. There is a lonely man in a cabin on the other side of the lake. I don’t mind stopping by and saying hello.”

“And then?” asked the queen.

The worker paused to think, before answering, “There is a lion trapped in a canyon he doesn’t want to be in. I will need another friend to help me save that lion.”

“Who is that?”

“A beetle,” said the worker. “If I can get to him in time, I think there is still a chance, for the one keeping him has sworn off killing.”

“And then?” asked the queen.

“Then,” said the worker, proudly looking into the queen’s eyes, “I think I will choose the role of explorer.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

over…

Author’s Note

 

I hope this book brought you to silence and wonder inside, and also made you think about your own roles you have played in your life. The Oarsman represents what we all are at our core, and if you look for it, you too can see that precious peace that has been with you your entire life.

 

If you enjoyed this book, please share by leaving a review on the store you purchased from, or mention it to your friends or your book club — as an indie author, it is the only way word can get out about my work.

 

If you would like to keep up with my blog, send me a message, or look at other books I’ve written, please visit my site and sign up for my newsletter: zubinmathai.com

 

Zubin Mathai

October, 2016

Ojai, CA

 

 

 

Copyright © 2017 Zubin Mathai

All Rights Reserved

 

Published by Beyond Yourself Publishing

Ojai, CA

Books by Zubin Mathai

 

These books are available from the bookstore or e-store where you purchased this book from. More info on each, and ways to get some books for free, is also available at zubinmathai.com

 

 

The Oarsman

A magical river begins singing out, and a dying man aches to know if the paradise at its end is real enough to fill his heart. He hires an oarsman to take him upstream, but before he can reach paradise, he must first revisit every role he has played in his long and winding life.

 

The Ant That Found God

An ant gets separated from her colony and sets out into the most unknown parts of nature as she searches for a new home. The adventures, friends, and enemies she meets along the way change her life in the most wondrous of ways.

 

Little Bites of Truth

Over 600 snippets of prose and poetry to help the reader explore into their true nature. A great companion book for your mindfulness or self-enquiry practice. — Coming Soon


The Ant That Found God

From the author of the acclaimed spiritual novel, The Oarsman, comes a new adventure. A worker ant moves dirt and lifts leaves, day after day. Her sisters tease her for being small and an absent-minded dreamer, but she focuses on her tasks. One morning she sees a pink petal let loose on the winds, and thinks she hears it whisper a beckoning call. When disaster strikes her colony, she has no choice but to set out into the deepest and most unknown parts of nature. Lost and scared, unsure where to turn, she decides to seek out that curiously fleeting petal. On her adventure she will find friends, enemies, the wonders of nature, and perhaps she might even stumble across the biggest mystery of them all. The only thing certain is that her life will be changed forever.

  • Author: Beyond Yourself Publishing
  • Published: 2017-04-26 23:20:22
  • Words: 94477
The Ant That Found God The Ant That Found God