By Deanne Wortman
On sale at TJ Maxx, $5 each—Uncle Walt’s Ant Farm Kit. I bought two for my grandson, Dean, the Bug Boy, so we could learn more about nature together.
We unpacked the ant farms and read the instructions carefully. We did just as Uncle Walt said. We set up the ant farms on the living room coffee table and hooked them together with the clear plastic tubes that came with the kit. We poured in the special sand. Along the top of each ant farm, in green plastic, stood the silhouette of a barn and silo, with an adjoining fence. We named them North Farm and South Farm.
While we waited for the ants to arrive—we’d sent off to California for special ant farm ants—we learned all about them from a little booklet that Uncle Walt had written. We learned how they tunneled and made little rooms and what they ate. We learned that they took naps and rested together. We learned how they communicate by waggling their antennae at each other, how they can smell each other, how they are part of a single ant community, part of a great single ant mind, how there is no such thing as a lone ant.
After two weeks, the special ant farm ants arrived in two thin plastic tubes. Some of the ants were dead, but it was hot and they had come from California and then sat in the mailbox until I went for the mail.
Dean and I poured the ants into their new home, plugged up the hole, and watched to see what would happen. The ants went right to work making tunnels and little rooms. They hurried back and forth through the tubes carrying grains of sand from one farm to the other.
We watched them meet in the tubes and waggle antennae at each other. We watched them make more tunnels and little rooms. We watched them rest in the tubes and crawl over each other on their way from North Farm to South Farm. We watched them eat and tunnel and waggle.
They made a little ant cemetery above ground and hauled the corpses up there. At first there were only a few dead ants in the cemetery. Then there were more and more. We watched the living ants haul the dead ants through the tunnels up to the top, struggling most with those that had grown stiff, grasping the body parts, going backwards up the tunnel, tugging the dead in little jerks. We watched heads or legs pop off as they got caught on the sides of the tunnels. The live ants would go back for the missing parts and drag them up to the cemetery, placing them with the other remains. Soon the cemetery was a little hill with specks of black right under the green, plastic barn silhouette in South Farm.
Each day there were more bodies in the cemetery and fewer ants waggling antennae in the tubes. Dean wanted to know about the dead ants. I told him how death was a natural part of living, that living things just got old or sick, and how interesting it was that the other ants took care of their dead friends, how they must have cared.
I wasn’t comfortable talking about death to a small boy so I stopped sharing the ant farms with him. I moved them to a high shelf out of sight and told him the ants needed privacy. After a while he forgot about the them.
I continued to feed and water the ant farm and the ants continued to die until there was only one left. It loafed in the tubes as though hoping to meet someone. It tunneled and made rooms for a while then became lethargic, spending more and more time in the tubes doing nothing. It didn’t seem to have the heart for tunneling anymore.
Sometimes it didn’t even change tubes. It just sat there not moving.
I imagined it realizing that it was alone, the only one of anything, the last one of a family, a species, a race. I imagined the silence of an ant world with only one ant voice.
As I thought about my single ant I remembered the Borg on Star Trek, a compound organism as big as a planet floating in infinite space composed of individual beings constantly tuned in to each other, constantly hearing and feeling all of the other beings, simultaneously, in a kind of tinnitus of consciousness. I remembered a captured Borg, a creature with a human eye, part of its face normal flesh, the other part black metal with tiny, blinking lights. We saw the Borg alone in a stark white cell. We saw the fear and hopelessness in its one human eye. We knew it was unable to hear or feel the other Borg.
We saw it totally and completely alone in a silent, empty, endless universe.
And then one day, the last ant died.
There wasn’t another ant to carry him to the cemetery at the top of the ant farm under the
green plastic barn and give him a decent burial so I disconnected the tubing and took the ant farms, North and South, outside, took off the top with the green plastic barn and emptied the sand into my garden under the tomatoes. I scratched the sand and the black, broken ant bodies into the rich black soil and patted it smooth. I put the ant farm and the tubing and the green plastic barns in the attic with the Christmas decorations and outgrown children’s clothing.
Deanne Wortman lives between North Liberty and Iowa City surrounded by critters and trees and greenery. She recieved her degrees in Art from the University Of Iowa but spent twenty plus years in the Children’s room of the Iowa City Public Library where she became a storyteller. This is her first published story!