ANTS INVADED OUR HOUSE. Our first summer in Baltimore. The first year of our marriage—your only marriage, my second one—when my kid became our kid. This house, our home.
We watched the parade of ants—polite little soldiers marching single file along the kitchen baseboards in a thin and steady stream. You took a white sheet of paper from the printer, slipped it under their quick feet, then whoosh, like a magician and his tablecloth, you scooped them off the floor and out the door. Scoop and flick, scoop and flick, like magic, they were gone.
Until they weren’t. Back again the next day along the baseboards, and then moving in a line up and down the cupboard doors to the countertops. I saw them and sighed. But you, ever eager to guide any creature to safety, scooped and flicked, scooped, and flicked again, not wanting to harm any of them.
I watched you with the ants and thought of that night in Iowa City when we met in my first graduate class, when we were both still new to each other. Sitting on my porch, feet up on the rail, deep into the night we’d talked. I told the story of my life to the dark, to you, your kind presence beside me, and you told me yours. I felt your heart turn toward me then. Just a little. And mine to yours. Months before we arrived there together, we turned.
A mosquito had sucked on your leg while we talked. I saw it in the light of the streetlamp. Its fragile and long-legged body made fat with your blood. And I slapped at it for you.
Had we touched before then? I don’t remember. Don’t know why we would have, except for maybe a drink passed hand to hand, maybe fingers brushing, a leaning forearm against the other’s. But even that, I think I would have remembered. So, our first touch was this slap, my palm against your leg, my defense of you, and then my hand pulled back and your blood was smeared against us both. More blood than seemed reasonable for such a small being.
Hymenoptera on the brain? Consider the nurse ant.
I remember it well, even now, these years later, the look on your face. Your eyes filled with horror, how you’d lifted them to mine in slow motion, and how you must have seen—what? My own face rapidly shifting from laughter to confusion? Embarrassment? I only know what I felt. What I was trying to hide from you.
Not even mosquitoes? I asked.
You’d tried to rearrange your face for me. Didn’t want me to feel badly because of it.
It’s OK, you’d said. I know it’s weird. It’s OK.
I’d never heard of not even mosquitoes before you. Hadn’t ever imagined that much care extended to those smallest of annoying lives.
And then two years later in Baltimore, our kitchen and its ants. In the butter, in the flour, even in the fridge, and somehow, miraculously, inside the screwed-shut jar of honey. I’d bought a bottle of ant killer to stop the rising tide of them.
Please, you’d said. Just give me a day. I’ll figure out what to do instead.
You told me the story of the summer you moved to Iowa City—two years before I arrived, and how your apartment came with a colony of ants that had built a home right in the middle of your living room floor, tiny roommates you hadn’t asked for. You tried to scoop them out then too, that day when you first unlocked your new door to find them waiting, but they were there again when you returned. A new mound built right where the old one had been. So, you’d bought poison. Laid down a pile of it, knowing the ants would share their little packages of death with the rest of the colony and bother you no more.
Except that they did. You woke in the dark your first night there to quietness all around—you inside this new city, inside the new life you’d just begun—and you thought of the ants, those scurrying bodies hurrying their poison parcels home to their families, the queen, and how their collective self would die because of their lives of cooperation. And you were sorry for what you’d done.
THE EASIEST TRUTH in the world to understand, and maybe the easiest one to forget, is that nothing comes from nothing. Ants have been around longer than we have. They evolved somewhere between 140 to 168 million years ago, probably from early wasps. I know this now, but didn’t know it then. This means that ants lived alongside dinosaurs, probably carried off food from their picnics too, and that ants survived what the dinosaurs couldn’t when the asteroid hit. Ants survived what most of life couldn’t—75 percent of all species went extinct, but ants took up fungi farming. They’ve been fertilizing and tending their farms for 65 million years, while humans have only been at it for the last twelve thousand. Once, there was a time when ants were small in number as well as size; now, there are a million ants for every human on Earth.
Ants have a history and a home on this planet.
In Baltimore, you made a plan for them. You placed a few small dots of honey in the kitchen where they gathered, out of the way of our feet, and left a path along the baseboards and out the back door. Outside, you made a trail to a bowl of it on the deck. Each day, you wiped another dot of honey from the kitchen and moved the bowl farther from the door until you settled it in the shade, away from our home. The kitchen was cleared of ants, never to return.
You called it Honey Church, because of how they gathered around the bowl, kneeling and raising their tiny ant arms as if in prayer.
Later, you showed me where they’d gone. You called it Honey Church, because of how they gathered around the bowl, kneeling and raising their tiny ant arms as if in prayer.
That was the time of our own evolution. When the days ratcheted up one after the other with my ever growing fear of the hurt you could do me. Those early days when I had thought that I’d learned to trust you but found that I couldn’t, despite no reason not to. Couldn’t rest in the goodness of our life together, was only certain of its coming end, more familiar with the wildfire of fear within me than anything else.
But nothing comes from nothing.
I’d wake crying from dreams with your face on his and all the things he had done. His words in your mouth, his ways turned to your ways, my heart grinding between my teeth. And I’d leave you in bed sleeping, slip out to check your phone, your texts, your email, the booze bottles, our bank accounts. So certain the end of my happiness had come again. And again. And again. I morphed into a little spy lying each night beside you.
But after all my looking and finding nothing, after our arguments and shouting, my weeping, and your wounding, I’d confessed to my invasion.
I remember your face then, too. All these years later. The hurt of it.
I’m sorry, I’d said. I’m sorry.
The rearrangement of it for my benefit again.
It’s OK, you told me after. You can do it if it helps.
THE MORNING YOU showed me Honey Church, you shook your head and smiled, so happy at the sight of their eating and praying. You crouched over them like a strange and benevolent god refilling their dish, watching from the edges while I watched you watch them. Those tiny creatures so completely at our mercy.
There are easier ways to respond to an invasion; everyone else understands this. But not knowing the kind of hunger that moved them, you built a home for love of them anyway.