I was already late for work, but I couldn’t seem to rouse. In my dream, I was in the old apartment, before the fire. The horsetail fern sat in the pink pot beside the TV and my son’s favorite lamp, the one with the pineapple stand, cast a soft glow, exaggerating the contours of the foldout bed where Michael sometimes slept. Even my geezer cat Lucia, was there, perched atop a stool and licking her paws. When I tried to touch her, the sorry gal hissed, flashing a gold tooth.
Despite everything, it felt terrific to be back. I walked around the place, running my fingers along the striped velvet couch, pulling novels off the shelf, books written by authors I used to know well and had long since forgotten. Lucia stalked me, her body in a crouch, swatting at invisible foes.
The kitchen looked terrific, cleaner than I kept it. No dishes loitered in the sink. No splats decorated the floor. Inside the refrigerator, the shelves were spotless and bare, save for a yellow box of baking soda. Even the burners on the mini-stove had been polished.
But there were ants. The insects zigzagged across the counter, aiming for a crack in the caulking behind the sink. I couldn’t imagine what lured them—the cabinets were empty—but the industrious critters stayed busy, marching single file, each lugging a tremendous load. Curious what stash they’d found to raid, I put my finger in their path and, when a little guy climbed aboard, held him to my face. His antenna wiggled furiously. His black shell shone. Upon his back was neither crumb nor morsel. The ant bore a strip of curled paper marked in black ink with a capital D.
What would an ant do with the letter D, I wondered.
The slight movement of the ant’s legs tickled my fingertip. There was an oily quality to the air that I hadn’t noticed before that reminded me of my son. Michael had liked the smell of gas since he was a baby. As a toddler, he would clap his hands in glee when we stopped at a fill station, breathing in loudly. My nose tickled and I scrunched my face to keep from sneezing. Perhaps the curled paper was part of a chewing gum wrapper or some other food packaging. On closer inspection, I noticed that inside the tiny scroll—for what else could I call it—were more letters, written in an even smaller script. With the tips of my pinkies, I tried clumsily to unroll it. I’d just managed to hold one miniscule corner down when the sneeze I’d been holding back burst from my nostrils and the ant, along with its mysterious message, vanished.
My attitude was no longer lazy intrigue. I needed to know where the creature had gone. I searched the floor on my hands and knees. I looked by the stove and the refrigerator, but the tiles were bare.
When I turned, I bumped heads with Lucia. Grumpy as ever, she arched her back, batted her paw across my cheek, and retreated beneath the couch. I clutched my face and whimpered, stunned and certain I was bleeding. My cat didn’t attack me because I startled her. She’d waited for her moment and pounced.
Standing by the sink, I dabbed my face with a wet towel. The counter was empty. I must’ve scared the insects off when I sneezed. I wasn’t bleeding badly, but the scratch really stung. More than my cheek, my heart hurt. I’d saved Lucia’s life on more than one occasion. Shortly after my divorce, I pulled her from the jaws of a neighborhood terrier. Her wide blue eyes had communicated fright, but she let me hold her shaking body. I took her home and gave her warm milk. She slept in my bed that night. Since then, I’ve rescued her from the fire escape, where she could’ve dropped to her death, and paid for emergency treatment after she swallowed a deadly helping of rat poison. To be honest, she hates Michael, and she’s never been particularly sweet to me either, not since our first night together, but we’ve always had an understanding.
“Lucia, my lion,” I said, kneeling beside the couch. “Why’d you do it?”
A nuzzle or a whiny meow would’ve assuaged me, but she stared right back, swishing her tail. I thought of picking her up and telling her what a bad girl she’d been, but I didn’t trust her not to swipe at me, again. Besides, scolding wouldn’t change what I already knew. She wasn’t sorry in the least.
And then I saw them, black ants parading behind her. They must’ve changed course. My gold-toothed cat, who’d never nurtured anything, was protecting a lousy collection of insects. Like a mother worried for her litter, she watched over them. She was guarding them from me!
Lucia narrowed her eyes. She had the stony look of a career criminal, a heart resigned to necessary violence. I wondered who her associates were and what her story was, her real story, the history I could never know.
She flipped her tail and the ants, who’d been snaking along the wall where the floor meets the wainscoting, did an about face. Each held a paper above its armored body and, when Lucia tapped her paw against her nose, the ants stepped forward, unfurling their documents. If my son could’ve seen this, he would’ve died all over again, this time from happiness.
The bugs crawled over and around one another, rotating their tiny heads this way and that, forming meaningless phrases with their alphabet papers—“I Pie,” “A limp.” Their movements had a practiced determination, an earnest, if bumbling, precision.
Michael once told me that ants can barely see. They navigate by smell and by touch and transmit messages through the grass-like movements of their antennae. I imagine this must’ve been what slowed the insects down. Spelling, after all, is a visual exercise.
Then, like a marching band snapping into formation, they stilled.
I reached for my phone, intending to snap a photo of the miracle before me, but my pockets were empty. Even my wallet and keys, which I always keep on my body, were gone. The ants wobbled towards me, and, behind them, Lucia licked her paws. Her lazy expression reminded me of something I’d read in a film class in college.
The air in the room grew thick and gloomy. I could’ve crushed the insects under my boot, but that would change nothing. Ants are mercenaries. Killing a few would ensure the arrival of replacements. With my eyes on Lucia, I backed across the room, nearly tripping over my horsetail fern.
The bulb on the pineapple lamp flickered and buzzed. A book matchbook was nestled between the brassy leaves of the sculpted fruit. On the floor by the cord sat a plastic red gas canister, filled to the brim.
The old cat was perched on the sofa’s armrest, staring me down. “Lucia?” I said. “Why?”
She lifted her paw, and I touched my cheek. The scratch still smarted. I’d been buying cigarettes at the corner bodega when my apartment building caught fire. Michael stayed behind. He was assembling a shoebox diorama for a science fair. For over an hour, I’d watched him dip strips of newspaper into watered-down glue, layering them one atop one another to create hills and valleys. “I’m making a city,” he told me.
“Where are the buildings?” I asked. I was annoyed at him all weekend. The previous day he’d refused to get out of the car when my ex-wife dropped him off. I’d had to bribe him with the promise of an ice cream sundae.
“There are no buildings,” he said and rolled his eyes. “It’s a city for ants.”
I offered to help, but he shouted at me to go away, so I left. By the time I returned, tunnels of flame were shooting out the windows. I tried to run in, but neighbors grabbed my arms. “There’s nothing you can do,” someone said. I’ve always been a coward. I let them hold me back.
Lucia hissed. I picked the matchbox off the lamp stand. Two matchsticks rattled inside. I took one out and struck it against the box. Tiny at first, the flame grew tall. My lungs constricted and my throat ached. I felt as though I’d swallowed a sponge soaked in bleach. The flame flickered and dipped. “Dad?” a voice said. I turned to find the apartment door ajar. In the hallway stood my son. “Can I come in?” he asked.
As though he was still a small child, I dropped to my knees and opened my arms. Michael ran to me and I tried not to sob. “You won’t believe what I saw,” I whispered to my boy. “Ants that can spell, standing on top of each other. They made a pyramid, like cheerleaders. And Lucia’s involved. I got too close and she scratched me!”
Like most adolescents, adult emotions embarrassed my son. Melodrama was his language, not mine, and after a short embrace he shrugged me off. “Where’s my diorama?” he asked. “The science fair’s tomorrow.” He walked to the pineapple lamp and opened the fuel canister, inhaling deeply. Lucia watched, perched on an armrest,.
“Careful, son. That’s flammable. It’ll give you a headache.”
“I get headaches when I don’t inhale,” Michael told me. He tipped the canister, splashing fuel on his shirt and on the lamp beside him. “Relax,” he said, when he saw my panicked face. “Dad?”
I don’t remember lighting the match. When I looked down it was already there, blazing between my fingers and I became aware once more that I was dreaming. Was the flame a metaphor? If I extinguished it, would the dream finally end? I trembled. “Put the lid on the gas can,” I told my boy. “Please,” I begged. “Don’t you ever follow directions?”
Steven Mertens is a director and animator who has worked in many forms, from traditional stop motion animation to 3D motion graphics, live action and design. Steven got his start as an animator by using the “multi-plane” method to create fantastic landscapes from cut out paper. His work explores surreal subjects, often with roots in science fiction. Before starting his career in animation, Steven toured extensively as a bassist with many bands. Originally from New York, Steven now resides in Los Angeles.
Anya Groner‘s prose and poetry can be read in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Ecotone, The Oxford American, and Meridian. She’s received scholarships and grants from the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, the Sewanee Writers Conference, and the Louisiana Board of Regents. Currently, she teaches writing the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and for the New Orleans Writers Workshop.