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Short story by Maja Ina Ruparcic

The first time I saw Stephen’s house, I liked it very much indeed. I don’t like it so much now, of course, but I am older now, and wiser—Stephen always says so. I was, I think, very excited to have a bedroom of my own at last, so as not to share it with Algie, who used to be such a nuisance, and still is occasionally. I suppose boys really can’t be bothered to keep things neat and tidy.

Stephen’s house has a large garden and front yard that detach it from other houses. We never used to have that big a garden, so I thought it a fantastic playground when we moved in. It is swarming with some excellent hiding spots (I know them much better than Algie, so I nearly always win when we play). Algie has no imagination; he always hides in the tool shed, whereas I choose a different place every time. Once I hid in a hollow oak trunk and missed dinner because Algie took so long to find me. He has little patience, Algie has?

I can spend the whole afternoon in the oak chatting to the squirrels over a cup of tea or lying in a petunia bed listening to the busy, busy bees, so Algie is bound to get bored to death trying to seek me out.

I would like us to play more in the garden together, but Algie says my games are too childish and fantastical, so I just play by myself. Last week I was an archaeologist in Egypt, and a week before that a pirate, but I fell into the pond trying to walk the plank and now I’m forbidden from playing pirates again.

So you see, it really is a fabulous garden, with all its nooks and crannies, the tall trees and hawthorn bushes, the bees, squirrels and thrushes. The only thing I don’t like about the garden is the anthill just behind the tool shed. I never used to mind ants, but what with their colony growing in number each day, I am not so comfortable with their living behind the shed anymore, as they interfere with my games. I showed them to Stephen and he laughed at me.

‘The ants won’t do you harm,’ he said. ‘See? They are friendly, hardworking animals, minding their own business. And besides, you are much taller and stronger than they are.’

Still, I avoid the anthill if I can help it. I don’t care for seeing their little ant feet wiggle and sneak through the grass like some malignant thieves. I suppose it is their large number that bothers me so. Even the tiny sprigs and twigs in the anthill seem to shimmy with the incessant movement of their bodies. Stephen told me anthills somewhat resemble icebergs; the mound is only a visible exterior and the real home of the colony lies underneath the ground. I think he meant to comfort me, but it just unsettles me all the more. For all I know, there could be billions of ants living under our garden. Perhaps their narrow tunnels stretch all the way down to my oak, or the petunia bed. Or maybe the ants are just nourishing one giant, magnified ant, which will break free one day and crawl out of the anthill with its plump, glossy black belly and its livid blind eyes and the cobweb antennae and the many, many feet—

I check up on the anthill when I can, although this is getting trickier and trickier. It used to be about as tall as a molehill, but it has since grown over a nearby flower bed and reaches up to my knees, so I watch it from a safe distance. What’s more, the ants are becoming insolent. They have been tiptoeing up the shed, boldly scratching at its wooden walls with their sharp teeth. Even Algie won’t go near the shed now, and he won’t play hide and seek anymore as he’s lost his favourite spot.

All the lovely flowers are either withered or drying up. Of course, it might be due to this unbearable heat; insects like hot weather, and I secretly suspect they have been damaging the roots of the plants to make more room for their tunnels. The pond is in a sad state, too. Most of the water has evaporated, leaving stinky fish to roast on the rocks. I tried to overcome my disgust for ants by including them in my games about Egypt and casting them as scarab beetles, but all I ended up with was a series of bites. They also stole my explorer’s lunch.

Now that the mound is the size of a box tree, Stephen has finally decided it ought to be exterminated. He bought different repellents and tried burning the anthill down when those did not work, but I think he just upset the ants. We spent the whole morning shut inside the house because the garden was teeming with the angry, revengeful creatures. Eventually, the ruckus subsided, and the ants returned to the anthill.

I hardly go out into the garden anymore. The hateful bugs have occupied my oak tree and driven away the squirrels. The tree fights back magnificently, though, because the ants get stuck on the sticky resin and suffocate, so I shan’t lose hope. Its bark is now covered with a slimy texture and patches of dead black bodies, but I’ll sort that out once the ants have disappeared from our garden. The tool shed, on the other hand, hasn’t been so lucky as my tree. It is all but devoured by the tall mound boasting proudly behind it. Stephen claims he never cared much for the hut anyway, so he’s willing to let it go to ruin.

Today I spotted an ant sneaking through the dining hall. I crushed it with my shoe, but then two more ants hurried in and carried its broken body away. I am sure I saw their eyes glisten hatefully as they passed me on their way out.

I borrowed a book on insects from the library. It’s got a cross-section of a worker ant with the organs and all. I can now name all its body parts and their functions. I have been reading about their behaviour, too. It seems that one needs to kill their queen in order to eliminate the entire colony, but there can be several queens, and according to the book these can live up to thirty years. This leads me to despair a little, especially since I noticed five more ants today in the kitchen. They were feeding off some blueberry pie, scraping and stealing the crumbs and transporting them back to their nest. I haven’t told Mum about it, because she gets awfully upset whenever I so much as mention the ants, but Stephen tells me I need to be brave and stop minding them so much. Sometimes I think I’m the only one that takes notice of their loathsome, clipped tummies and hears the patter of their lithe feet; everyone else appears to have grown used to them, goes about their daily business as usual and pretends not to see.

I am afraid the ants are invading our house. I saw two drowning in my milk yesterday and twelve scurrying up the kitchen cupboard. These days I half expect to swallow them accidentally with a spoonful of soup, so I take special care with my meals. I have seen them get in through the windows. They linger on the sill and sneak in quietly when they’re sure you’re not looking. When I tried scattering salt and cinnamon around the doors and such to prevent them from entering, Mum and Stephen got angry with me again and made me clean it up; besides, I’m not sure it would have worked anyway. Ants are very resilient.

I constantly dread the ants climbing up the stairs and into my bedroom. It might be just my fancy (at least Mum says so), hearing them rattle about the house and listening to the staircase creaking with their heavy footsteps. From time to time, Stephen comes into my room at night to comfort me with a nice little pat on the knee. He says I shouldn’t be scared because ants are harmless little creatures and that nearly every household experiences a bug infestation at some time or other. I suppose he is right, and I really am being silly, only I wish there were fewer of them and that their feet weren’t so ticklish.

The garden is quite lost to us, I’m afraid. It is a pity, it used to be such a wonderful garden. Now I look out of my bedroom window and see a throbbing black sea stretching all the way from my oak tree to the vegetable beds near the porch. And in the middle reigns the anthill, with workers swimming out in waves. Mum needs to wear thigh-high fishing boots just to hang the clothes out to dry. It’s a wonder our neighbours aren’t inconvenienced by this ant armada at their doorstep. Even our front yard is swarming with a lively rustle, so I don’t go out much anymore, except to the library, because I can’t stand them creeping into my shoes and tingling all over my toes.

It is not a surprise that the ants are growing in number in the house as well. I don’t think the house likes them either; I can hear her moaning and groaning under their weight and sleazy bites. The other day I noticed a heap of wood shavings under the parlour sofa, and a tiny hole in the wall behind it. Ants, burdened with wood dust, were rushing in and out energetically. I’m guessing they are busy building nests inside the walls and furniture. I told Stephen about my discovery, and he promised to call pest control as soon as possible. He tried to sound careless, but I think he is a little concerned.

Meanwhile, signs of a serious infestation are more and more obvious. I stumble upon a new pile of larvae each day. I detest them even more than ants; they remind me of maggots, what with their sickly white cocoons, and they move their heads a little when an adult ant comes to feed them. I daren’t destroy them because I am afraid the slimy shells will pop in my hand and crawl into my sleeves—I’ve had it with their impolite intrusion as it is. I can’t even brush my hair without combing a few ants out on my skirt. The ants aren’t very considerate neighbours. As they have bitten their way into the decaying wood, I don’t sleep well. The scratching and tearing noises in the walls keep me up most of the night. I imagine it is only a matter of time before they burst through the wallpaper and swallow me in my bed.

Whatever will I do? I did not know ants could fly. And those who can are nearly thrice the size of regular ants. One emerged from a lamp wire in the ceiling yesterday when I was playing cards with Algie. I panicked and smashed it with the nearest book, so now we have a gory stain on the wallpaper. Her ant friends will surely come for the carcass to have an ant funeral. She must have been someone of great importance, but I fear there are more winged ants where she came from.

My worst fears are coming true: the ants have occupied my bedroom. It was bad enough having them peep out of the bathtub drain and munch on the dry bread in the kitchen, so I do not know how much more I can take. I think they nibbled their way in through the ceiling, or perhaps the chimney. They seem bigger and plumper in my room than anywhere else in the house, and bolder, too. My arms are strewn with itchy red bites. In the evening I hide under my duvet and pray for them to leave, yet I wake up nearly every night with hundreds of ants mounting my thighs. Last morning, I was roused by persistent tickling and discovered my legs drowning in them from hip to toe. I cried for hours, only very quietly, because I didn’t want to wake up Mum and upset her again. My only comfort is I’ll be leaving for school for the first time this autumn, and hopefully the ants will not plague me there.

I am quite sick of them. Dozens slither into my pillow cover and wriggle under my head so violently the whole bed shakes. This of course makes me have unpleasant dreams. I had a nightmare not long ago, involving a giant queen ant with wings worn back like a tailcoat, acting as a conductor. She waved her baton very gently at first, but as she picked up the pace, all the ants in her orchestra started buzzing and screeching and rattling their claws. The fuss was unbearable, my eyes flew open and I realised I was covered in sweat, ants sticking to my damp skin. Luckily, Stephen was there and stroked my hair until I was calm again.

It took him several weeks, but on Monday Stephen phoned pest control at last. He had to walk to town to use a telephone booth though, because the ants had chewed up the telephone wires. The exterminator, however, didn’t look very competent to me. He had small, stupid piggish eyes and a very damp handshake. I reckon an exterminator ought to be more cunning so as to trick the nasty insects into leaving our home. Besides, I didn’t appreciate his silly manner of speaking.

Still, he assessed the situation with some accuracy.

‘It’s rotten through and through, this house is,’ he told Stephen. ‘When was it built anyway? The wall panels are so brittle it’s a wonder it still stands.’

‘Uh,’ said Stephen.

The pig-eyed man shook his head. “These are carpenter ants, these are. Get into old decayed wood, they do, to make nests, and thrive. See this pile of wood shavings here? Should’ve called me as soon as you noticed them.”

He went on to inspect the house. He must have been quite surprised to find so many ants, but he never said a word. He went up to my room too, opened the drawers where I keep dead ant bodies, searched under my bed (two winged ants fluttered into his face). He even borrowed Mum’s fishing boots to assess the garden.

‘It’s mighty unpleasant, what you’ve got here,’ he said. ‘I can give you some boric acid—that’s what we usually use with ants—and hopefully the workers will carry the grains straight to their queen. But seeing how crowdy you’ve got it, I’d say there are scores of queens, I would. We can try the borax a few times, but I can’t promise you nothing, I can.’

Stephen said we’d try boric acid. It worked wonders for a while; we had ant corpses piling under furniture, dropping from the ceiling, winged ants plopping down on our heads mid-flight. But I suspect ants have a way of communicating with each other. A few days after this wonderful massacre, the rest of the borax powder was left untouched and even those that did eat it grew immune to it.

So the pig-eyed exterminator had to come three more times, and after each visit, the house deteriorated further. The fourth time we called he swore he wouldn’t come, said we were a lost cause and that he ‘wanted nothing to do with us, he did’. We phoned again, but he wouldn’t pick up the telephone, so I walked to town on my own to beg him to help with the ants; he just lowered the blinds on his shop window. I rang the bell anyway, and called him a coward through the letterbox. After all, it is I who must live with the loathsome ants every day and put up with their agile feet, not he.
There have been some developments. First, I pity the house more and more. I don’t suppose there is a single piece of furniture or wall left uninfected. The ants have been rushing about the place with a new-found vitality ever since the borax experiment went to the dickens. Second, I think Mum is beginning to crack. She won’t speak of it, but I have my suspicions. I catch her sobbing over the pots and skillets when she’s cooking. And her handshakes violently when she holds her spoon. Ants, by the way, taste very sour. I told Mum it’s because of formic acid (I learned that from my book).

Anyhow, Mum hasn’t been herself. She has spent three nights in a row reading me bedtime stories (even though I insisted I was too old for fairy tales, going to school in autumn and all) and the poor soul falls asleep next to me every time. She must be very tired, or bored by the stories, or afraid of the ants. She and Stephen have been arguing a lot lately. I’d say it’s on account of the ants, because I heard Mum say, ‘We can’t go on living like this, Stephen. It needs to stop.’ I couldn’t catch Stephen’s reply, but it sounded grumpy.

This afternoon we sat down for lunch, as always. We had some delicious carrot soup and a nice roast with potatoes and peas (I didn’t eat the peas). Mum’s hand shook so hard during the meal that she spilt some gravy all over Stephen’s trousers, and he got very angry. He slammed his fist on the table and all. ‘Watch it, can’t you, you stupid woman,’ he said. I’d never heard Stephen call anyone ‘stupid woman’.

So Mum burst into tears and started yelling at Stephen about how she can’t stand the ants anymore, and how normal families don’t have to live like this. Algie and I tried to finish the roast in peace, hoping they’d leave off arguing. Stephen got all blue in the face with yelling, and I didn’t like it, and he grabbed Mum by the wrists and swore that if she ever complained about the ants again, he would make sure they devour us and the house. Mum was shaking all over, but I could see she was scared and didn’t want to fight anymore, so we all let Stephen have his way.

And that was the end of it. I don’t suppose anyone can chase out the ants now, they have grown too tough. So we simply went on living in the ant house, with their little feet crawling over our thighs at night and the quiet rustling in our ears and the gentle tickling in our bellies when we chanced to swallow one with some butter and jam.

Originally published in Issue XVIII in May 2019.