All about Ants!
One of the key characters in The River Goddess & Other Stories is Mr. Two, a large red ant who becomes Alyssa’s confidant and good friend. Two, as she affectionately calls him, is a wee bit like C-3PO, the droid who behaves like a proper English butler in most of the Star Wars movies. It’s definitely time you met Two, so…
The Ants’ Treasure
Alyssa plunked down beside the Ant Hill at the top of the barranca, drew her legs up, and rested her chin on her knees. Some days made absolutely no sense. Especially this one! Heart, usually calm and endlessly patient, had actually snapped at her after breakfast and told her to find something to do outside. Gentle Owl, slamming his metal palette against the tiles on the kitchen counter while cleaning his brushes, was uncommonly loud and boisterous. Alyssa wondered just what was going on. Had they had a fight? Was someone sick? Neither of her parents seemed inclined to discuss matters, and she’d retreated to this quiet place to hang out till the storm blew over—if it ever did. Sometimes the arroyo, the Earth Hole, or in extreme cases like this one, the Ant Hill, were good places to hide while the adults sorted out whatever was displeasing them and life got back to normal. People so rarely got mad at each other in the little casita. Alyssa thought that whatever this was, it must be serious. Perhaps the quiet world of Things held the answer.
She sat there for awhile, and was just wondering if it might be a good idea to sneak back down to the casita and see if she could learn anything by listening to her parents in secret, when she realized that she was looking at a strange mark, or series of marks, in the sand around the Ant Hill. She inched closer and reached out to trace the marks with her finger, taking care not to squash any of the many ants moving in determined little trails around the area. The marks looked a bit like letters, but not letters in any alphabet Alyssa knew. The first one looked like a crazy Z. The next one was a sort of T with a tilted top, and the third looked like the number 3 with a curly tail.
“Huh! What’s this mean?” she muttered out loud. Then, louder so the ants could hear it, “Hey, you guys! What’s this writing?”
A large red ant crept to the edge of its hole in the center of the Ant Hill and stared at the girl. “What do you want?” it demanded frostily. Humans were such a bother—constantly wanting to know this or that thing, impatient, careless of where they walked. One had to watch all the time simply to avoid being stepped on! This human seemed more sensitive than the rest, but still—
“What writing?” A second ant joined the first, waving its antennae quizzically.
Alyssa heard their questions at the same time that they appeared at the entrance to the Hill, and repeated hers.
“What’s this writing? Here, on your Hill?”
“What’s it look like?” the first ant snapped peevishly.
She chose to ignore the dart and appraised the ant critically. “Are you having a bad day too? I came up here ‘cause Heart and Owl are so mad. Isn’t anybody in a good mood today?”
“You deal with this, Number Two,” the first ant said crossly to the second. “It’s ridiculous! I’m going back down.” With that, it disappeared into the hole.
“Have it your way,” Number Two replied. “I’ll talk to the human. Seems pleasant enough.” It waved its antennae again at the girl. “What would you like to know?”
Alyssa sighed. Patiently, she began again. “I want to know what this writing is, here on your Hill.”
“What writing? I don’t see any writing.” Number Two made a great show of looking all around on the sandy surface of the Hill.
“These marks, here, look like writing,” she pointed to them. “They look like letters, but different from any letters I’ve seen before. Is it a message?”
“When we send messages,” said the ant, “we think them at each other. A kind of numbering system, actually. One, two, three—that sort of thing. We don’t know what letters, or writing, mean.”
“But then why are they here?” She was determined to get an answer from the stubborn creature.
“My, you are persistent!” it responded. “I have no idea why they’re here. I shall ask the others.” And it plunged down the hole before she could say another word.
Undaunted, Alyssa sat back on her heels and waited. In a minute or so Number Two returned, accompanied by four more ants.
“No one seems to know anything about it,” the ant said matter-of-factly. “It is causing quite a stir down below, as you may imagine. The others are concerned that an enemy may be lurking about, and that this is its trail.”
“What kind of enemies do you have?” Alyssa was mildly curious.
“Oh, spiders, and some toads, lizards, and a few birds. And ants from other nests, of course. The four-leggeds don’t bother with us, and here in this part of the world humans tend to leave us alone, except when they want to use the space occupied by our hills.”
“Do humans bother you in other parts of the world?”
“I have heard that in some places, like Africa, they eat us.”
“Ugh!” she wrinkled her nose. “I wouldn’t eat you if you were the last thing on Earth!”
“You say that now,” sniffed Number Two. “But if you were hungry enough you would. Did you know that in some places ants are considered a delicacy and are covered with chocolate and sold in cans?” He shivered slightly.
“Well, don’t you worry,” she laughed. The day was definitely beginning to look brighter. “I wouldn’t eat you if you were drenched in chocolate, in cans or out of them. But I really do want to know what these letters, or whatever they are, mean.”
“My dear child,” one of the newcomers said haughtily, “if we ourselves have no idea what the letters mean, how can we possibly answer your question?”
“Good point. But maybe we could explore and find out together.”
“What is explore? We have no picture for this word.” It looked at its fellows, confused.
“Explore means to hunt for clues, to look for new things in new places. To—um—to go where you’ve never gone before.” She was amazed that it didn’t know the meaning of the word.
“We would never go where we’ve not been before,” the ant responded promptly. “That could mean instant death. Who knows what might be out there?” It waved its antennae vaguely at the broad sweep of low hills and little arroyos that surrounded the Ant Hill.
“Well, I ‘spect there’s lots of things out there,” she said, surprised at its fearfulness. “But I don’t usually think about them hurting me.”
“That’s because you are much larger than we are,” it replied. “Small creatures like ourselves are vulnerable to all kinds of things.”
“Oh, well then,” she said coolly, “don’t bother. It’s only on your Ant Hill, this writing. I don’t suppose it has anything to do with you.” The trick worked. Number Two pricked up his antennae. (She had decided that Two was a “he” rather than an “it.”)
“She’s right,” he turned to the others. “It is on our Hill. Whatever it is. And if anyone’s liable to be affected by it, it must be us.”
“But Two, what do you want us to do?!!?” Quite a few more ants had joined the first five and formed a circle around the entry. Their mood was one of near-panic, and Alyssa had to suppress a smile, looking at these tiny beings so upset about a delicate tracery in the sand.
“Perhaps we could Dream the solution,” Two suggested calmly.
“Dream?” The others echoed the word unbelievingly. “Dream?! No one has Dreamed anything around here for centuries.”
“Ants dream?” Alyssa was amazed. “I thought only people dreamed, and sometimes cats or dogs.”
“Everything dreams, in its way,” Two replied. “But ants Dream. That is quite different. Dreaming is what holds the world together.”
”How do you do it?” Alyssa leaned forward, entranced.
“You envision what you want to have happen, and Dream it into being.” Number Two looked at the others for confirmation. They bobbed their antennae sagely.
“You mean, if something isn’t the way you want it, you can dream—I mean, Dream—it differently and it’ll change?”
“Exactly. So we will Dream these marks away and they will disappear.”
“No! Don’t do that!” She put out a hand as if to stop them and all the ants backed up hastily, some of them diving down the hole for protection. “I’m sorry. I mean, if you Dream them away, we won’t know what they mean, will we?”
“Hmmm…Now that you put it that way, you are right, of course. But these—these odd marks—these are not what we want here.”
“But maybe they’re there to tell you something you need to know,” she persuaded. “Maybe if you don’t find out what they mean, something could happen to you that you wouldn’t want. Or maybe,” she added, noticing their distress, “something wonderful could be waiting somewhere for you, and you’d miss it, because you weren’t willing to find out that these marks say.”
“The child is right, Two.” One of the ants boldly stepped to the front. “We might lose an excellent source of food, or a new, larger, safer nest, because of our reluctance to pursue this investigation.” It was a bit pompous, this ant, and the others shifted from leg to leg, looking bored and irritated. Alyssa refrained from informing the ant that she was no child, being fourteen and a half after all, and seized her advantage.
“If we all Dream together, maybe we could find out exactly what this means, and your whole family would be better off.”
“This is a wise child,” Number Two, seeing her plan, spoke quickly. The others nodded as if it had been their idea to begin with.
“The only thing is,” she added shyly, “I don’t know exactly how to Dream.”
“Why, that’s easy enough,” Two replied. “We simply join our minds and envision the same thing.”