Brushing Ants

This is something I wrote long ago, with a few minor revisions here and there. It was originally published on my old GeoCities website and then on a earlier version of this site. For the last few years, it lived over at Figment.com, but due to culling of the social media heard, it needed to come back home. I’m also hoping it will inspire me to write a bit more.

 

When you’re four, the world is a very big place. Every turn is a potential discovery—or a potential danger. Only adults can really help you tell the difference.

For me, the world barely covered two southwest Mississippi counties, but it seemed expansive. Trips to Mamaw’s seemed like an all-day chore, even though she lived about 8 miles away. Visiting Daddy’s family in Brookhaven seemed like driving to another world, and we didn’t have much use to drive to McComb very often, except for the special trip to Winn-Dixie or Rose’s—until the 1975 tornado destroyed them. So we spent most of our time in that little green house near Summit. And it was like heaven for us kids.

We had the pond just across the barbed wire fence, and every rain created a creek that ran into it. We’d sometimes swim in that mud-hole of a creek, but only because water moccasins weren’t on our radar at that age. We could also explore the pastures, though we never went far, and an open grill in the back yard lent itself to adventures in toasting bread—over burning newspaper.

When that failed miserably, we’d just make sugar sandwiches at the suggestion of the neighbor kid across the road. Just white bread and sugar! He enjoyed his with butter, but Mama’s distaste for it had already rubbed off on me, I guess. I had mine dry, much to the delight of the sugar ants, since I left a trail of sugar everywhere I went.

Sugar sandwiches weren’t Chris’s only contribution to my life. He had outgrown his lime-green bike with training wheels, and Mama decided to buy it from him.

I was thrilled. My first bike! I couldn’t wait to take it across the road to show Chris’s family that it was just right for me. I was still learning to ride it, so I just walked it across the road and up the sloped driveway into their yard. As usual, Chris’s grandparents and uncle were there on the porch to escape the heat of their small un-airconditioned house, which was surely turned into a sauna by the Mississippi summer.

They weren’t too impressed with my excitement for my new bike, but they smiled anyway. As I stood there next to the bike, though, something suddenly didn’t seem right. I felt the ticklings of what must have been a million tiny feet on my bare legs. Wearing shoes, I hadn’t noticed anything unusual underfoot, but now that the fast-moving menace had reached my legs, a sensory overload started building.

I looked down and there they were—hundreds of fire ants attacking the foreigner who had invaded their territory with a bike’s training wheel. In a panic, I moved away from the ant bed, still holding my new bike. But it was too late—the troops were in place and already at battle. I looked up at the neighbors, hoping for something—reassurance, help, or just shared horror.

They didn’t budge. They sat there, slyly grinning with anticipation of what I’d do next. They had already noticed what was wrong, but they didn’t offer any help or even kind words. Instead, they erupted into laughter, with the uncle saying “Git outta that ant bed, boy!”

But it all happened so fast—just as soon as I felt the tickling and saw the plague of ants, they began biting almost in unison.  It wasn’t the sweet little pinches that the “sugar ants” would sometimes give.  It wasn’t even the harder pinch of the giant, solitary cow ants that lived under the shade trees. This was a gripping, fiery pain that felt like hundreds of hot needles dipped in alcohol piercing my skin over and over.

As the pain took hold, I looked up at the neighbors again. They still didn’t move. They sat there, with their bare legs, fanning the heat and swatting at bugs, all the while laughing at my misery. The old lady was barefoot, since she usually just walked from inside to the porch. I had never seen her make it past the bottom step, so I didn’t expect much from her. The house next door, where Chris and his parents lived, was quiet and still. There was no help to be found there.

[pullquote]They never stopped laughing at the scene that was turning out to be their entertainment for the day.[/pullquote]

The laughter became louder and louder until it faded into the muffled dizziness of my panic and pain. By now I was crying, and I begged for help for what now felt like hours—but it all likely happened in less than a few minutes. They never stopped laughing at the scene that was turning out to be their entertainment for the day. There was no cable TV that far out in the country, and the nearest TV stations were 60 miles away.  Besides, to them, this must have been better than any Andy Griffith rerun.

I turned to look across the road, toward home. The world appeared surreal as the sun grew brighter and the summer heat more intense. It was as if the sun was lowering onto the neighborhood. The cicadas sang their usual song that meant something like “it’s hot as hell out here.” But that day, I think they were joining the neighbors in laughter.

Just as the world seemed to fade into white, I pushed the bike away and darted for home, where I hoped to find some help. Every few steps I would bend to brush off ants and then run some more. By the time I got home, I wasn’t running, but staggering. I was exhausted from the pain and the rush of terror. I could still hear the laughter, but it faded in and out, seeming to follow my heartbeats that were now going in slow motion.

I wondered if Mama would laugh too—adults were adults, and I was already sure that they were all against me. Or maybe she would just yell at me for coming into the house dropping ants everywhere.  But she heard me coming and met me at the door. She had a sudden look of terror, but it quickly turned to a look of determination, as if she knew exactly what to do.

Unlike my “city-boy” father, Mama had spent her whole life in the country, so indeed she knew exactly what to do. She pulled me toward the water hose, brushing my legs the whole way. She ripped off my shoes, then wiped and sprayed the ants away with water so cold it felt like ice on my burning skin. She never laughed—she never even said a word. She just kept that look of diligence on her face.

Once the ants were gone, she took me inside and ran a cool bath for me. My older sister soon appeared from her room just as my older brother returned from his adventure in the pastures with Chris.  Of course they thought the whole thing was hilarious and pointed at my “polka-dotted” legs—but they weren’t really ones for sympathy either.

The day began to quiet as the sun started dancing along the treetops. Daddy came home from work and settled in behind the newspaper while waiting for supper. Missing all the excitement, he didn’t think much about the war-zone on my legs. Mama checked the bites a few times that evening and blotted me with some magically cold calamine lotion.

As the horror of the day lulled into a memory, all seemed right with the world again. I was at home—protected from that big  dangerous world.

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