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Copyright © 2003 by Ralph Robert Moore.
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do insects have names for each other?
august 16, 2003
This past Monday morning, August 11, I trudged out from our bedroom to the kitchen, absent-mindedly flipping on lights, it was five o'clock, I was still only half-awake, or perhaps even half-asleep, which is even worse, to where you're particularly vulnerable to weirdness, like glancing up and thinking for a nanosecond the ceiling fan is the propeller of a crashing plane, followed on my slow shuffle over to our coffeemaker by our eight cats.
I lifted the coffee pot out of the dishwasher, filled it with water, flipped up the back flap of the Mr. Coffee, poured the water in, then, looking down, noticed there was a thin brown trail of ants passing over the aluminum rim of the sink.
We had roasted chicken for dinner the night before, had gotten nearly all the dishes into the dishwasher, but the roasting pan itself, large, white, heavy, had to be left out. I filled it with hot water before we went to bed, because there was still some gravy along the bottom, put it in the sink to soak.
Now, the next morning, these ants were rushing towards the roasting pan like it was a huge McDonalds.
There were actually two trails of ants lowering into the sink, then up the white side of the roaster. It was a single line going up the walnut cabinet, but then at the top, just before the line reached the aluminum sink, it split into two trails spilling over the edge. I have no idea why they would do that. Maybe one ant said, Hey, this way's shorter!
Whenever I see a trail of ants, inside or outside, I always see the jittering brown line as a single thought traveling on multiple, stomping legs. All those antennae.
As happens with ant trails, every four inches or so along the line there was a lone ant standing outside the rush, apparently directing the six-footed traffic. As I watched, one wrangler would run up to another, touching antennae, then resume its previous position.
Do insects have names for each other? If they do, since there are so many of them, are their names like AOL names, like Harold4367?
We rarely get insects in our home. When we first moved in, the builder took us on a last inspection tour of our rooms, so we could check to make sure everything had been painted the way we wanted. In the kitchen, he warned us it was not uncommon to see some bugs the first few weeks of living in a newly-built home ("bugs" in American usage refers to any type of insect). He told us to be particularly careful if we spotted any scorpions. This was Texas, after all.
"Is that common, to see scorpions in a house?" I'd never seen a scorpion in real life, which was fine with me.
"You might. You're out in the country. They hide under rocks, but in new homes you might see them on the kitchen counter for the first week or so. They lay really flat on the counter. They change color to match their surroundings, like chameleons do."
"I never knew that."
"Yeah. They're super-quick, too."
"Hmmm!" I'm thinking, could you leave now?
We never did find any scorpions, in all the years we've lived here, but those first few weeks, whenever Mary and I would go out in the kitchen in the early morning, we admitted to ourselves the first thing we'd do is really, really peer at the white kitchen counters.
That's the thing about bugs. If they're inside the house, you have to kill them.
It's even worse with ants, because you rarely see just one ant strolling across a floor. It's almost always no ants, or hundreds of them.
This time of year, in the heat of Summer, ants usually do make several attempts, over the course of a week or so, to invade our house.
One time we got home from work, and there was a trail of ants leading from the front garage door all the way down the garage's concrete floor to the rear, up over the sill into the utility room, under that room's door into our kitchen, to a curved path rising up over the side of our cats' food bowls.
So I stood there at the sink, five o'clock in the morning, thinking, shit, this is how I've got to start my day, killing all these hundreds of ants.
I opened the cabinet doors under the sink, ignoring the rising trail to my right, and pulled out a big, stern can of Raid Ant and Roach killer (we're at least spared cockroaches).
I pulled a paper towel off the vertical rod on the other side of the sink, sprayed some insecticide into the towel, the cats behind me, standing by their still empty food bowls, getting restless.
"Just a minute."
I patted the towel down on the trail where it forked near the rim of the aluminum sink.
Instantly, the whole line started to broaden and lighten in color, as the ants tried to escape.
Pat, pat, pat.
I pulled off another square of paper towel, eyeing where the ants were going, sprayed more Raid into it (I didn't want to spray directly into the air, since the cats were nearby), and went with the wet towel down the line of ants, then leaned over and got all the ones in the aluminum sink.
Using the same paper towel, I mopped up all the little dead bodies, threw the towel in the tall black trash can.
Now I had to figure where the ants had come from.
Obviously, somewhere on the floor.
Getting down on my haunches, holding the can in my right hand (I had pushed the cats away by this point), I saw a tiny ant head emerge from under the vinyl flooring, head swinging around, the entire small body jointedly emerging, the ant, going by a tragically out-of-date issue of Ant News, hustling towards where the end of the free food line had been.
He or she or it never made it.
But then another ant emerged from under the vinyl, vigorously pulling itself up into my problem, but this ant, instead of feeling its way across the floorboard like the first had, climbed up into the floor cabinet directly above its questings, the one beneath the coffeemaker and our microwave, disappearing inside.
I swung open the cabinet door.
There were wide, brown ribbons of ants crawling all over the big bags of dry cat food we keep in there. Probably a thousand ants.
Did I mention this was five o'clock in the morning, and I hadn't had any coffee yet?
I reached in with the can, spraying everywhere.
They fell off the bags by the dozens, twitching on their backs, some of the half-dosed ones stumbling around blindly.
It was like any mundane household chore you have to do, like chipping away at the build-up of ice on the interior walls of your freezer.
Afterwards, I sprayed all along the floorboards, feeling toxic-headed from all the insecticide in the air.
A few years ago, I wrote a Lately column which in part dealt with how I felt bad after killing a large, noisy insect that buzzed me in our backyard. The column was called, Do Insects Go To Heaven?
You know, I hope they don't. Or maybe they go to their own, separate, Insect Heaven, which I guess is probably, instead of comfortable clouds, a big garbage can.
I'd hate to get to Heaven and be confronted by all the insects I've killed over the years.
What could you say?
"Guys, I am really, really sorry. Who knew you had souls?"
A few weeks ago, I mentioned I was working on a new story which I provisionally called the Tornado story, although of course I'll try to come up with a better title by the time I finish.
At that point, I had written 9,000 words of it, and thought I was about halfway through.
I'm now up to over 20,000 words, and there's still a number of scenes left, so it looks like the final length will be 25,000 to 30,000 words.
Each time I think I see the final scene in the shimmering distance, I realize there's another scene that can be added, and another, and another, to more fully develop the ideas in the story.
But I do now have the final, final scene in my mind.
I'm having a lot of fun writing, a thousand words here and there, in the early mornings, the late afternoons.
There are no insects in the story. That's another nice thing about writing fiction. You control the world. An author who has to push unpaid bills out of the way to get to the blue lines of his latest story can pen a scene where the protagonist dines on Beluga caviar on the open air deck of a yacht; a writer dying of cancer can have his hero squat down, square his shoulders, then leap straight up in the air, flipping over, landing gracefully on the wing of an airplane.