Ants Go Marching

Elizabeth Ballou

Elizabeth Ballou

The ants’ carapaces were black like piano keys, glinting as they scuttled over the bare and baked earth of the backyard, and if left undisturbed he could watch them for hours.

They were his friends, and he knew them each from the other, counting them in pairs (always pairs) like the story his mother had once told him about that man and his ark. There was Liza, the biggest and boldest, who could carry the largest crumb of food, and Maisy who was missing a leg. There was Sarah who was shy and her sister Caroline the vain, who liked to stop and admire the pretty black segments of her body when she thought no one was looking. There was Zoe who was curious and Grace who was wily and mischievous. Megan and Roxanne, Marie and Laura, Claire and Aileen…he knew them each. All female, of course. Everyone knew that.

The ants go marching two by two, hurrah, hurrah, he thought, pressing his nose into the dirty glass of the windowpanes. Watching.

There was just one ant he had never met, and that was the queen. He had imagined her many times: the intelligence in her sloe-black eyes, the gleaming elegance of her thorax and mandibles, the regal bearing with which she would carry herself. Until their meeting he would dream up a name fit for a queen. Something exotic and shrouded in mystery, like Esperanza or Marguerite.

His thoughts were interrupted by a sharp rap on his door. “Max? Max, are you in there?”

He did not answer.

A sigh. “Of course you’re in there. I know you won’t talk to me, but—just make some sort of noise, would you? Use Morse code or something?”

Max frowned, his face still shunted against the window.

A hand on his shoulder. He whirled, suspicious, but it was only his sister, with her bottle-blond hair and tired eyes. Genny’s mouth was turned down, and a web of tiny, almost invisible wrinkles spread out from the corners. “It’s your twelfth birthday today, Max. And I got you something special. Cake, for breakfast.” She smiled, but the smile did not reach her eyes. “Come on, soldier, let’s get some food in you.”

He looked away from the queasy pain of eye contact, but felt a small warmth begin to burn in his belly. Birthdays—he had forgotten about those. Silently, he followed her from the room and down the dark, cramped hallway.

As he dug into the piece of chocolate cake which had been set at his place, Genny spoke fast into the phone, twirling the cord around her fingers. Her words chittered and slid together like a mouse’s. Max tried to listen but then gave up to concentrate on shoving cake into his mouth, and Genny’s words flowed fast around him, a stream of sounds.

“That was Gran,” Genny told him when she had hung up the phone. “She wanted to wish you a happy birthday. And talk to you.” She shrugged, and Max shrugged back. “I told her you have bronchitis. We’ve gotta do something about this, Max. I’ve been telling people you’ve had bronchitis for five months now. Can’t you just open your—”

Abruptly he stood and pushed in his chair, tripping over his feet as he loped back into the hallway.

“Max, wait, I didn’t—” Genny’s shrill voice followed him down the hall and back into his room, where he curled up against the cool comfort of the window.

Maybe, he thought, the queen will come out for me today, just this once. As a birthday present.

 

Max had first befriended the ants the day his mother’s heart, fluttering like a green finch in a cage, had quietly seized up and lain still. That was the day that Genny had come back to live with him because there was no one else, and she had said guess it’s just you and me, Max with that martyr-like smile he so hated. He had not replied, because it was also the day he had locked his voice away.

May 16th, 2007. Grief had scored the date onto the surfaces of his dreams.

That was the day names had run from his mind like water, and he had first seen the alien beauty in the segmented, wiry body of an ant. Before that they had been his mother’s creatures, keeping her company as she tried to coax violets and hollyhocks from the piteous square of urban backyard they shared with four other families. Look, Max, she’d say. The ants. They’ve come to say hello. She would drop bits of chips or cookies on the ground to show him how strong the tiny animals were. Max would watch, incredulous, as the ants hefted crumbs twice their size onto their backs. They’re going to feed their queen, Max. It’s like a whole little city down there, can you believe it?

His mother had understood that Max was not the same as everyone else. When he did not meet her eyes, or spoke in stuttering whispers, or threw plates across the kitchen in a haze of uncontrollable anger, his mother made him mint tea and stroked his hair. She smiled with her whole face when Max watched Jeopardy and got every single question right, even though his report card came home marked with fat black Ds and Fs, a disgrace.

Her name had been June: a feathery summer breeze, a yellow rose about to open, a thrush’s song in the morning mist.

 

The clatter of rain against the window startled him from sleep. The sun, a blurred streak of yellow-gray, hung heavy and low. I have slept my birthday away, he thought, feeling the burn of disappointment in his chest. He had waited for hours, watching the ants parade by his window in pairs—Alice and Eileen, Liza and Caroline—as they paused by his window, antennae waving, to wish him a happy birthday. And yet he had not seen the queen.

Rain was coming down harder now, dashing itself against the glass with a harsh staccato beat. Max yawned against the windowpane, watching his breath fog the glass, and then sat bolt upright. The rains had come, like they had for that man and his ark, and his ants would be washed away.

God had sent the rain, and the man with the ark was him, and his ants were waiting two by two.

Genny was paying taxes in the kitchen when he skidded in from the hallway. She barely glanced at him as a slight frown tugged at her mouth. “Now he’s going to come out, is he? I’m busy, Max, what do you want?”

He opened his mouth, lips trembling. His nails dug deep crescents into the palm of his flesh as he tried to speak. A thin wailing noise escaped from his mouth, and Genny looked up with concern.

“What the hell, Max?”

A weak effort. He had to try harder. Max clutched at his throat, feeling the muscles grind against each other like rusted gears. Nothing. Tears began to leak from the corners of his eyes.

Genny grasped his arm. “What is going on? Tell me, write it down, I can’t—”

He was wasting time. Max snatched his arm out of her grasp and darted out the front door.

Outside, the rain pounded his small frame like bullets. He knelt down by the ant hill, which was crumbling under rivers of brackish waters. No ants. Max shoved his fists into the earth, feeling fistfuls of dirt erode under his fingers. The queen, he thought desperately, pawing at the ground. Have to find her, the others can’t survive without her, I need—

Thunder crackled overhead, and the rain beat down harder.

There. A flutter of feeling, tiny legs on his fingers. He lifted his hands to the sky, and in the haggard stormy light he saw her. Bigger than the others, with a faint cast of mahogany to her body. Her antennae waved intelligently at him. I found you, he thought, reverent.

“June,” he told her, his voice a faint whisper. “Your name is June.”

And as the rain rippled down his face in icy rivulets, he felt the words come tumbling out.

2 Comments

  1. This has always been one of my favorites. Beautiful.

  2. That was beautiful, and a great ending bit with “he felt the words come tumbling out,” like he didn’t realize he was gonna name her that. Really nice.

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