Volume 24, Number 4

Ant Eater

Walker Smart

Recess began and the kids spread out over the playground. Sally skipped over to her teacher, who sat on a bench sipping mindlessly on a Big Gulp. Sally joined the teacher on the bench. The teacher’s eyes stayed on the children at play. Her thick hair was in a ponytail save for two strands falling down the sides of her eyes. Sally wanted to brush them aside; she liked to look at the teacher’s crow‘s-feet.

“I watched a documentary last night about chimpanzees,” Sally said. “Did you know the bonobo chimp is our closest living relative? Except some of the scientists in the show thought the common chimp is closer. But bonobos act more like people.”

“Be mindful, Sally. Some people believe we aren’t related to monkeys at all.” The teacher put the straw back in her mouth to sip more carefully so only the inside of her lip, the part without lipstick, touched the straw.

“We are related to monkeys, but not as closely as we are to chimpanzees.”

Her teacher checked the time, although they had not been on the playground for more than a few minutes. “You should be sensitive to people’s beliefs.”

With no one else to talk to, Sally looked for a stick to use like the chimpanzee in the movie. When she found one long enough, she knelt by a fire-ant colony and poked holes into it. She failed to notice where her knees disturbed the mound. She broke the stick in half and placed each in a hole. She waited until one of the pieces was thick with ants and pulled it from the dirt. She brought it to her mouth like a corncob, but then decided to put the stick ant-side down into her mouth and suck the ants off. They were difficult to chew, and she swallowed most whole. They tasted like dirt, only a little more metallic, like blood.

She reached down to grab another stick from the mound when she noticed her legs. Bright red bodies were swarming her legs. Panic delayed her before she thought to wipe them off. The bites began to hurt, and Sally was afraid. She ran for the teacher, who still sipped on the Big Gulp. As Sally got closer, the teacher realized what the red moving spots covering Sally’s legs were. She panicked and dumped the Big Gulp down Sally’s legs. It made little difference; the ants continued crawling up and down Sally‘s leg, stopping periodically to sting. The teacher led her to the gym.

Sally sat on the floor in the shower with her legs under the flow of the water. She watched the helpless ants. Her brother Daniel had shown her how ants couldn’t move in and out of water. Once trapped inside a puddle they could only move within it, unable to break through the water’s edge.

“Look at your legs. It’s terrible,” the teacher said. Her grey eyes were still wet with tears. It made Sally uncomfortable to see her teacher cry. She looked at her legs. The bites were swollen and red. Each was as large as any spider bite or wasp sting her classmates had shown off before.

“You need to go to the nurse’s office while I call your mother.” It hadn’t occurred to Sally that she might be in trouble until now.

The nurse, Ms. Franklin, was visibly disturbed by the number of swollen welts dotting up and down her legs. “What happened? Is there a bee hive on the playground?”

“No, a fire-ant colony.”

“We’ll soak the welts in bleach water. That will break down the toxins in their sting. Hopefully it hasn’t been too long.” She had Sally put her legs in tub of bleach and water.

“I’ve always gotten big ant bites before, even from regular ants. I could be allergic.”

“I hope you don’t get anaphylactic,” Mrs. Franklin said. “I would hate for your throat to close up. How do you feel?”

“It hurts. Is that something that can happen from ant bites? My throat closing up?” She’d had an itching feeling in her throat, and she pictured an ant she hadn’t swallowed still crawling.

“It might, but probably not. Is there anywhere else that hurts? Open your mouth for me.” Ms. Franklin peered into her mouth with a pen light, and turned it off after nodding approval.

It wasn’t much earlier than usual when her mom picked her up. Her mom was a good mother. People told her this a lot. They told her she was lucky. There were four boys before Sally. Her mother was excited to have a daughter, even at her age. Earlier in the day, while dropping her off at school, she told Sally, “You’re my special little girl. You’ll know how to take care of me.” She’d said this many times. After Sally’s father passed away three years ago, her mother had aged considerably.

Sally’s mother regarded the pustules forming on her daughter’s legs as Sally climbed into the back seat. “I can’t believe you would let this happen,“ she said, shaking her head. “You’re supposed to take care of yourself.” It was a short drive home. The tingling in Sally’s throat seemed to be moving down towards her chest. “It’s bad enough Robert married that crippled girl, bless her heart. She can’t walk too well. She wouldn’t be able to lift me out of the bath or to drive me to the doctor.”

Sally got out of the car and went inside. Her youngest brother, Daniel, the only one that still lived with them, was watching a Simpsons DVD. He was wearing his Papa John’s shirt, apron and hat.

Daniel was the one she saw the most. Her oldest brother Steven taught philosophy at a university in Austin. He usually ignored Sally when he came to visit. Craig, the park ranger, lived in Alaska. He was the nicest, and he talked to Sally about the animals he worked around. He didn’t come home much. Daniel told Sally it was because he was gay, and Mom wouldn’t understand. Robert had just bought a house with his wife, who Sally and her mom hadn’t met until a couple of months ago, right after they married.

“Want to watch this with me?” Daniel asked when he noticed Sally.

“No. I don’t really like the Simpsons much.”

His face was unbelieving. “What’s not to like?”

“It’s too silly. I want to watch things like real life.”

“Maybe it’s more like real life than you think,” Daniel said. “You’re only nine.” Sally glared at Daniel. She wanted to say something mean but knew it was wrong. The itching was in her stomach now. She decided to look on the Internet instead of arguing with Daniel.

Daniel and Sally had set up their library in Robert’s old room. The old dining room table was in the back of the room, half cluttered with Sally’s science magazines and books, and the other half cluttered with Daniel’s notebooks, textbooks, and a novel he allowed himself the time to read. Daniel made a privacy barrier in the middle from unused pizza boxes taken from work. The computer desk cramped the room but there was nowhere else for it.

Sally signed into her e-mail. She opened a letter from Science News for Kids and found an article to read. It was about a restaurant in a museum that served mostly insect-based food, like grasshoppers, ants, caterpillars and crickets. In the article, a nutritionist said that insects were as nutritious as other animals humans eat. It talked about scientists in the Netherlands growing insect cells in vats to produce clean bug protein as a food additive.

After she read the article, she looked up chimpanzees on YouTube and watched another video of a chimpanzee eating termites with a stick. She found a link to a series of videos about bonobo chimpanzees. In one the narrator explained how their testicles are proportionately large because of sperm competition with other males. The narrator said since the females ranked higher than males they could decide when they wanted to mate with a male. The narrator explained how bonobos were relatively peaceful within their group and solved most of their conflicts with sexual interactions.

Another video showed bonobos in a sanctuary during a feeding. When presented with food, rather than eating, the first thing they did was have sex with each other. Sally watched bonobos of all ages rubbing genitals and rumps and engaging in intercourse before sitting in a circle to eat. In another video, Sally watched as a female who had split from another group approached a new group to join. At first, she had to approach the alpha female and offer oral sex, and if the alpha female allowed it, they would bond further by rubbing genitals. Then the rest of the females would bond with the newcomer by rubbing genitals with her, welcoming the female into her new tribe.

When Sally went to bed that night her legs were itching. Though she knew it could scar, she decided to pick an area to scratch. She chose her right ankle. She bent her arm down and her knee up and scratched her ankle nonstop for several minutes. It was a new, elating feeling. She finally stopped when her leg started to get slimy from the pus and blood coming out of the pustules on her ankle. She wiped her hand on the side of her bed and tried to sleep. In the dark, with the sound of her fan to drown out her mother’s television show, the internal itching became unbearable. “What if the ant bit inside my throat and stomach?” she wondered. She didn’t know how long it could live inside her stomach, but maybe enough to bite her a few times. “How long would it take for my throat to close?” she thought.

Sally brought a magazine from the school library during recess the next day. The teacher asked her to sit with her in the shade. She read an article about multicellular organisms, animals living at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea where there was no oxygen. They were the only animals known to live without oxygen.

Although they didn’t usually talk, the girls in class were officially not speaking to Sally. A few of the boys came up by the table, despite the teacher’s protests, to check out the pus-filled bumps on her leg. She showed them how the ones on her ankle had burst. She demonstrated how easy they where to pop by squishing another one on her knee. Pus oozed out and the boys let out a choral “Ew.” The boys were finally shooed away by the teacher, and Sally sat smiling.

The teacher spent the rest of recess trying to cover all the pustules on Sally’s leg with bandages. She gave up when the bell rang, and she herded the class back inside. The rest of the afternoon was free reading, which Sally had spent recess doing. “Can I do free writing instead?” Sally asked quietly at the teacher’s desk.

“Okay,” the teacher said, exhaling as she consented.

Sally wrote a story about feeding her mom and brothers a pile of bugs she caught from the yard until the bell rang and it was time to go home. As the class filed into the hallway, Sally dropped her lunch and her half-eaten bag of chips and sandwich spilled on the ground.

“Did you drop your ant sandwich, Anteater?” Stacy asked her, laughing. Her friends laughed with her. Stacy was one of the fourth grade alpha females. Sally reached for the bag of chips but another girl kicked it away.

“Stick to ants, Anteater,” one of Stacy’s friends said.

“Anteaters use their mouth. I was using a stick like a bonobo chimp.”

“Anteater! Anteater!” the girls laughed.

“Please don’t call me Anteater. You can call me bonobo if you want to make fun of me.” She knew she sounded crazy.

The girls dispersed when the vice principal walked by. He smiled at Sally and gave her a nod of general approval, although she knew he didn’t recognize her.

Sally’s mother was in a bad mood when they left school. Sally was too, but when her mom was in a bad mood, everyone had to pay their respects and politely leave their own issues out.

“What’s wrong, Mom?” Sally asked.

“The dishwasher’s broken, and Daniel can’t fix it. I called Robert, but he’s busy. He has to get home right away to be with his wife. Poor thing. She’s pregnant, you know. I meant to tell you. Already couldn’t get around too well, even before she was pregnant.

“I can help with the dishes, Mom,” Sally said.

“Who can help me with the dishwasher?”

“Maybe I can.”

When they got home, Daniel was watching his Simpsons DVD. In the kitchen, the dishwasher was open and little pieces from inside were arranged on the counter by the sink full of dishes. Sally laid some towels on the counter and began washing by hand, although she never had before. She set clean dishes on the towel to dry like she’d seen Robert do in his old apartment. Her mom came to rinse, and she looked like she’d aged more than a day since Sally had come home with ant bites on her legs. Sally felt the itching inside again, and she wondered if maybe the ant was still biting her inside, where she was more vulnerable. How many more bites would it take?

When the dishes were done Sally searched the Internet for tips on dishwasher repair, but she wasn’t sure what kind of dishwasher they had. She closed the browser and remembered the bleach solution Ms. Franklin had soaked her legs in. She went to the kitchen and found the bleach under the sink. She poured a splash into a cup and filled the rest with water. She took a sip, but her mom knocked the cup out of her hand before she could take another.

“Why are you drinking bleach?”

“I have to stop the ant venom,” Sally said. “The bleach water will stop the venom.”

“You can’t drink bleach, Sally! You should know that. Any other kid your age knows that.” Sally’s mom walked from the kitchen into the living room to sit on the couch. “Sometimes you’re too smart for your own good.”

Sally put the bleach away. The smell was starting to bother her stomach. She went to the living room, where her mom had put on Wheel of Fortune. She sat down on the couch, and it wasn’t long before the repetitive wheel-spinning had lulled her mother to sleep. Her mom looked older every day. She would be sixty on her next birthday. If she was supposed to take care of her mother when she was old, how soon would that be? Why couldn’t Daniel do it? He knew how to drive. He had a job. He could take care of their mother much better than Sally. If they were in a bonobo society, all her brothers would have stayed home and helped take care of her as she got older, and Sally could leave to find another tribe to live with. But Daniel would probably move out after college like the rest of her brothers. Sally would be the only one left.

The next day during recess, Sally found the remains of the ant pile. Someone had poured water over it, maybe with poison in it, or maybe boiling hot water. She thought about the ant biting at her insides of her as she looked at the ants floating in the water, unable to breathe and unable to escape.

“Looking for a snack, Anteater?” Stacy stood nearby with a few other girls. Sally remembered how a bonobo female would approach a new group’s alpha female, “solicitously” as the narrator put it, and they would have oral sex or rub genitals. The other females would allow her the same, and they would accept her into the group. Sally thought of telling this to the girls, but her throat tightened, and she only managed a cough. Somewhere in there, an ant was still biting. She looked back down at the drowning insects, trying to ignore the taunts. She couldn’t manage the words, but she could show them. Afterwards, they would accept her. As she imitated the body language of the new female’s approach, her throat stayed tight. The girls howled with laughter but she wouldn’t be discouraged. She hoped her throat didn’t close for good.