The Trouble with Nature

At first, when the rivers rose and buildings at the bottom of the hill began to sink out of sight, the ants stayed in the yard, moving their eggs to higher ground till there was nowhere to go but the house, and the six-lane egg-moving ant highways wound up the walls like some newly imported vine that grew even faster than kudzu. In a day or two, a few scout ants ventured inside. After they found the cat food in the sunroom, The Cat refused to go downstairs. Soon there were ants almost anywhere in the house one looked: inside the bedroom slippers, between clean plates in the cupboard or sitting on the computer screen like extra cursors.

By the time Mom agreed something needed to be done, the ants were covering the kitchen floor like a rug.

"A pretty color, actually," Mom said. "Look at all those shades, all the way from soot to chocolate. I once saw a designer cover a living room wall with moss. You know the show I'm talking about? "While You Turned Your Back?" The moss was green when she put it in but turned this color and texture in the end. Except it wasn't moving, of course. The owners didn't want to keep watering a wall so they took the moss down. Of course, they never had any houseplants to start with."

"You and your green ideas," Dad said, reaching out to swat at a foot-wide ant column snaking up the near wall. The kitchen table wobbled when he shifted his weight. It was a good old solid oak table that seated twelve. They'd be fine on it, Mom had said, piling up canned goods and pillows on one end. A little tight for all of them, of course, but cozy.

Little Sister looked alarmed and Mom shook her head.

"Do you absolutely have to do that?" Mom asked Dad. "They're just sugar ants. And, please, don't let the animals get down onto the floor."

"Pavement ants, most likely," Big Brother corrected.

"Why not--if the ants are harmless?" Little Sister asked, but tightened her stranglehold of The Cat till its eyes crossed and it started wiggling and squirming backwards until only its head was stuck in the crook of Little Sister's arm. The Cat dug all four feet in the girl's plump backside, claws out, and pulled.

"Ouch," Little Sister said and let go.

The Cat fell sideways from the table and disappeared for a split second in the roiling sea of ants before surfacing, still on its side, bobbing up and down on top of the black mass. It almost looked like the ants were playing catch with it.

The Cat looked surprised. Its eyes rolled in the head and all hairs stood on end when it jumped high into the air and bounced out of the kitchen, scattering ants in its wake.

They could hear it screeching all through the house.

Finally a crash from somewhere, and silence.

The ants closed ranks on the kitchen floor. The rain knocked on the window, loud and insistent like it had for a week now, ever since Hurricane George stalled just off the Louisiana coast and started churning up Gulf waters like a meany cartoon genie intent on drowning Alabama, and much of Mississippi. (The pundits on TV looked for some deeper meaning in the name but there really wasn't any. Well, maybe some if you thought very carefully about greenhouse gases and such but the pundits, of course, never did.)

"Bedroom window, most likely," Dad said. "I left it open."

"She's probably on the roof now," Mom said. Or in that big oak. Make sure the other two stay put."

"Yes, ma'am," Dad said, tugging at Aard's leash.

"Too short a distance," Big Brother said, peering down from the table. "That's why it couldn't right itself. Cats fall great distances without harm if they have time to flip over and land on their feet. Their skin actually works like a parachute."

"Fascinating," Mom said. "See what you can learn from Nature. Did you see that on the Discovery Channel?"

"You and your Discovery Channel," Dad said.

"I'm hungry," Little Sister said.

"Have some more peanut butter."

"I'm tired of peanut butter. And why can't we ever have the kind all other kids are eating? The sweet kind?"

"This kind is good for you. Organic. Without added sugars."

Little Sister pushed the peanut butter jar with her toe and pouted. "You said the ants would leave us alone if we left them alone," she said after a while.

"Yes, but it's still raining outside."

"I just hope they don't learn to swim in a hurry," Dad said. He looked down at the buckets of water he'd put under each table leg to stop the ants from climbing to the table. A thick layer of dead and drowning ants floated on top of the bucket. Dad bent down and scooped the ants out with as soup ladle, carefully draining them before letting Vark have a go. He handed the ladle to Big Brother.

"Here. Don't waste water but keep the surface clear. Otherwise they'll use the dead ones as a bridge."

"They'll go away as soon as it stops raining," Mom said. She shivered a little and hugged Little Sister, hard. "And the ants keep snakes away. In a natural way. In a rain like this, we could have snakes in here. Snakes would be much worse."

"Or skeletons," Big Brother said. "Last time they had a big flood down south, coffins popped out of the ground. They found one a hundred miles downriver, high up in a tree. Empty. Never found out what happened to the body."

"Ants ate it for sure," Dad said. "I saw a guy in a movie cut a hole from the attic into a woman's bedroom, just above the bed, then pour honey on her."

"Hush," Mom said and cupped her hands on Little Sister's ears.

"Next, he dropped ants on her. In the morning, there was just a skeleton in the bed."

"Oh please," Mom said. "I wonder if ant phobia has a special name. Myracophobia?"

Little Sister shook herself free. "I'm still hungry," she said.

Mom checked the pile of cans and opened the last dolphin-safe tuna and handed it to Little Sister. She made a face but stuck her spoon in the can.

The ant rug on the floor became restless, then undulated till it created a wave that rose up and lapped on the sides of the table before falling back down. Little Sister pulled her legs under her.

"Getting closer," Dad said. "Just say the word..."

"We should have left when everyone else did," Mom said.

"The car didn't start, remember? I bet the ants ate the wiring. We wouldn't have gotten far anyway. The downtown was already under water."

"You blame the ants for everything, don't you?" Mom said. "We're safe and dry on our hill. Everything's fine. Let's pretend we are on a picnic."

"On our ant hill," Big Brother said.

"Yeah, like Donald Duck in one of those cartoons where ants steal all his food and then carry him off, too?" Dad said. "Sorry, I forgot. Our kids haven't seen rubbish like that. We should've stopped the ants when they first started coming in. But no-o-o, you had to feel maternal. 'Look at all the eggs they're carrying.'"

Mom frowned and rubbed her leg. "Turn the other way," she said. Let's sit back to back for a little while. I need to stretch my left leg."

Dad shifted. The table groaned. Little Sister looked at Mom, the last spoonful of tuna stopping halfway to her mouth. Mom smiled reassuringly, and Little Sister popped the spoon in her mouth, licked it clean.

On the other side of the kitchen, a few desperate ant patrols were checking the cabinets one more time for a forgotten crumb. But only shreds of soy flour bags and empty muesli boxes remained on the shelves. Salt and pepper. Baking powder. Marjoram, oregano, parsley and tarragon. The ants didn't care for Mom's potted herbs.

"I wonder how long it'll take them to learn to open cans," Big Brother said, taking the empty tuna from Little Sister and dropping it into the ant sea. The sooty mass rose to catch it.

"Don't be silly," Dad said. "They can't even get to the fridge."

The ants were swarming all over the fridge, some climbing up from the floor, others venturing down from the top but invariably losing traction on the stainless steel door and sliding down, colliding with the upwardly-mobile columns and knocking them down with them.

"I saw it on National Geographic," Big Brother said. "Some scientists found an ant colony that extended for hundreds of miles under California. They had no idea how big it actually was because they never found the end of it."

"How did they know it was the same colony? Tap their phones? Hah!" Dad said.

"Ants fight ants from other colonies, but none of the ants they tested, from Oregon all the way down to Mexico, fought. Plus--and this is really interesting--they'd apparently learned to pool their intelligence. Wouldn't it be cool if this was part of that colony?"

"I wish they were. We could teach them tricks. Roll over." Little Sister said. "Fetch me an apple."

"Vacuum," Mom said, getting into it.

"Play dead," Dad said. "We could have a regular flea circus in here."

"It's all about zeroes and ones, after all," Big Brother said. "That's all it takes. They'd work like a multiprocessor computer. Intelliants. Programmed by the DNA to multiply and take over the world.

"How would they communicate?"

"Pheromones. Like they do now. Like see, just over there in the corner, near the fridge? Looks like they are planning something."

"One can learn so much from Nature," Mom said without looking.

"No, Mom, look. It's real interesting."

"Mom, look!" Little Sister echoed.

"Yes, dear," Mom said and rubbed her leg, then followed Big Brother's gaze.

"Oh," she said. Something in her voice caught Dad's attention and he turned to look, too.

Near the fridge on the floor, something was definitely happening. The ant rug had cleared out a square of floor space into which a single procession of ants was marching.

"Cool," Little Sister said. "They made a circle."

A second column of ants rushed into the clearing.

Big Brother said, "Looks like a P. I wonder..."

"N," Mom said. "The next one is an N."

"OPN. What kind of a word is that," Little Sister said.

"I know! I know! They want us to open the fridge!" Big Brother said.

"The stupid ants don't know how to spell," Little Sister said. "Even I know how to spell O-P-E-N."

"This is crazy," Dad said. "Totally bonkers. Who's ever heard of spelling ants?"

"Hear that, ants?" Little Sister said. "Whaddya think you are? Spelling bees?"

More ants marched in, rapidly now.

"R," Big Brother said. "E-S. They are getting good at this. I-S."

"F-U-T-I-L-E. There's no such word. Is there? Mom? MOM?"

Mom inhaled sharply, put a hand to her lips.

"Resistance is futile," Dad read. "What the heck does that mean?"

"Hollywood," Mom said angrily. "Too much TV. See where it leads? Spoiled ants! That's the trouble with Nature. It's so easy to spoil. Where's the originality now? Instead of reaching inside, what are the ants doing? A Star Trek number! I give up!"

"You give up?" Dad asked. "Just say the word."

"Yes. You were right. Absolutely right. These are no good ants."

"You mean it?"

"Who needs spoiled ants? I give up. Let's just get it over with."

"Wait!" Big Brother shouted but Dad had already let Aard and Vark go.

About the author:

Tua Laine, a long-lost Finn, lives in Alabama. She wishes the agents reading her first novel would hurry up and send the contract.