A Taste for It 

by Caralyn Davis

Anthills rose by the thousands from cracks in the asphalt and concrete. The abstract granular cones, ranging from light sandy brown to dark rust, created a new miniature topography across the city. Unimpressed, unaware even as an endless march of 99-degree days claimed our attention, we plowed through them with the steel toe of a work boot, the stiletto heel of a platform pump. The debris we powdered beneath our feet plumed up to choke the dandelions and chickweed that shared the cracks, and the more sensitive among us fumbled for our asthma inhalers or an extra dose of allergy medicine. Mostly, though, we brushed aside these sedimentary eruptions. 

“Half my paycheck is going to baby wipes every week,” a woman said to her cubicle-mate first thing one morning. Leaning forward in her chair, she gave another rubdown to the pointed toes of her leather tuxedo slippers. “And I can’t even leave the house in my suede. Why doesn’t the city do something?” 

“We’re not facing rats or terrorists.” The man, in spattered monk-straps, kept typing on his phone. “Just say, ‘Thank you, baby Jesus,’ and get on with life. We have a meeting at 11.” He looked up and smiled. “Loan me a wipe?” 

In other words, the anthills were emblematic of other things we ignored until we felt a driving yet momentary need to knock them back into the darkness. We deserved to be left alone, unbothered, so we could keep living our best lives. 

The ants festered beneath the surface. Then one day they gave a tiny cry that sounded a lot like a flute shouting “Picnic!” to the lone subway worker who heard it echo down the tunnel where he was taking a smoke break, and they left the hills to assess their new territory. These ants weren’t mutants in the way of old movies (shame on you, 1970s). Nor were they the bizarre army ants bred in the depths of African savannahs or the trap-jaw ants of Latin American jungles that we saw on NatGeo specials when we didn’t have time to binge-watch “Game of Thrones.” These were everyday, average ants. In bulk. 

The ants streamed across sidewalks and streets in glistening black rivers that whispered secrets we couldn’t quite hear even though we all stopped what we were doing and strained to listen whenever they passed. New cones popped up everywhere, in city parks, on conference and dining tables, in the middle of our favorite restaurants, in our decorative fireplaces. These were larger, not quite volcanic but impossible to ignore. Dust silted our tongues, rimed our eyes. 

The city sprayed. Tanker trucks rumbled down the streets at dusk and released billowing white clouds of poison. We followed instructions, stuffing towels under the doors and windows of whatever ant-free room we could shelter in. Some went a step further and put on the beaked, myrrh-filled masks of plague doctors from centuries past. Nothing helped us: We developed coughs and wheezes and grew accustomed to hacking up blood-tinged mucus. The ants were fine. It was too late to knock them back. 

We found ways to coexist. The ants were easily distracted. If we needed to go out and get past them, all we had to do was throw a handful of cookies or a roast chicken in the opposite direction and then run through the cleared path. This approach worked for a while. 

“Ow—look at this ant. When did they start biting?” The woman pulled her arm from the tub rim and slapped it as she spoke. She and her wife were scrunched into the pillow-filled bathtub since the ants had appropriated their bed two weeks earlier. 

“You killed it,” said the wife. She looked at the ant. “It’s dead, and the damn thing’s still hanging onto your wrist like a tiny rabid squirrel.” 

In waves of panic that spiraled through the city, we looked up ant mandibles on our phones. The ants were ravenous, reminding us of the pigs our great-great-grandfathers raised as boys—the ones that would eat the tar paper that wind-proofed the sides of the barn, standing on their stretched hind legs to reach up the walls as far as they could push their snouts. The pigs had acquired a taste for tar paper, and nothing but a stripped carcass could shake them off. 

This time, the ants knocked us back. 

Caralyn Davis lives in Asheville, N.C. with her cat Henry and works as a freelance writer/editor for healthcare trade publications. She is old and cannot pretend to be clever. Stay off her lawn, whippersnappers.
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