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  Ellen Davignon: Lives of Quiet Desperation

The Devil and Missus Davignon

May 15, 2004

I was out on my deck bagging up compost when Gibson erupted in a series of high-pitched yelps, further irritating my already ragged nerve endings.  We’d just returned from our morning walk – well, some might call it a walk; I’d call it our morning drag-along – during which Gib had, as is his very great pleasure so to do, taunted and yelled obscenities at every chained, or otherwise pent-up, dog in the neighbourhood and I was pretty much barked out.  Yelling a few obscenities of my own, I re-entered the kitchen and found my wiry little companion dancing back and forth in front of the open cupboard below the sink, in a state of great agitation.  Ducking my head down to his level, I peered into the murk.

“Jeez, bonehead, knock it off, will ya?  They’re only ants.”  Gibson shut his mouth in mid kiyi and moved up to (peer) with me.  “See,” I continued, “no big deal, just a few of the little critters come to call.”  Gibson gave me a bland I-knew-that stare and the doggy equivalent of a shrug, and as he wandered off to do battle with his rubber duck, I knelt down to coax my visitors onto a paper plate upon which I had put a spoonful of sugar.

I like ants.  I don’t especially want them setting up light housekeeping in the warm cave under my kitchen sink – hence the plate of sugar with which I intended to lure them out – but they don’t send me screaming hysterically for the Raid the way spiders or beetles might.  I’m sure they bring in just as many germs or ugly microbiotic thingies as any other insect but if I find one drowned in my syrup jug or dining on the edge of an apple turnover, I’d simply pick it out, or off, and carry on with breakfast or dessert. Ants just don’t make me shudder and go all goose-pimply in that regard.  A weevil, on the other hand, would have me pitching out the whole plate of turnovers as well as the remains of the bag of flour from which the pastry had been made.

And I love to study them.  It is my greatest entertainment to sit on a log and watch a colony of red ants as they go about their everyday, ordinary busy-ness in the sawdust pile out beside the woodshed. At least, I call it ordinary even though, on one particular day that comes to mind, that busy-ness included the torture-murder of a big, stupid carpenter ant that had unwittingly wandered into the path of a small clot of the militant little rascals. I thought later that I could have fished the larger ant out of danger but I had interfered, once before, on another ant-y situation, with unsettling results, so instead I indulged in a bit of bloody-minded curiosity and saw the drama through to the bitter end.

Now, as I sit brooding over that recent crime and my participation - or rather, my lack thereof – in its perpetration, the memory of that other scenario returns, front and center in my consciousness.   Semi-reclined on the kitchen floor with my plate of sugar in hand, I re-live the event that still weighs heavily on my mind.

It happened in those halcyon JC Lodge days when we worked 18 hours daily, 365 days a year with little time off for good, bad, or even indifferent behaviour.  Once in a very great while, an occasion would arise that would allow me, or Phil, or, very rarely, both of us, a whole day off.  I don’t remember the reason, now – perhaps it had been a road closure but more likely, my mother and father had decided to come out and make sure they still had the moves - but all of a sudden, there we were with the absolutely unheard of: a whole weekend off.   

A quick call to our good friends, Walter and Doreen Duncan, set up a trip to their cabin, a 30-mile jaunt up Teslin Lake, for a couple of days of fishing and relaxation.  Soon after our arrival there, we were joined by two other friends for a supper of fresh lake trout and an evening of Bridge.  With six of us, and with the rules of Bridge allowing for only one dummy per hand, we rotated players and while four played, the other two kibitzed.  At least, some of us kibitzed.  Some of us wandered away out of doors to see what mischief we could get up to.

I was not long finding entertainment of another sort.

Just outside the big picture window facing the lake, there stood a very large, half-dead spruce tree.  Upon arrival, I’d notice a drift of sawdust up the side of the tree.  It had struck me peculiar then and now I sauntered over for a closer look.

The drift appeared to have its starting point at a round hole about three feet up the trunk and then fanned down the rough bark all the way to the ground, spreading there in a roughly semi-circular pattern about the foot of the spruce. A few ants moved industrious-ly on the ground but leaning closer to the tree, I realized that the real activity was occurring in the round hole and I settled down on a tall block of wood to observe. Riveted, I watched an unbroken line of ants appear, each one carrying a single grain of sawdust which he released to fall down onto the bark of the trunk.  After dumping its load, each ant moved over to a smaller hole to the right and re-entered the tree.  It was an exercise in efficiency, an almost mechanical operation that rivaled the most modern production line. 

I was delighted, at first, with this overwhelming evidence of the much-vaunted industry of these insects, but after a short time of observing the unvarying procedure, boredom set in and the wee voice in me was advising that a monkey wrench, so to speak, thrown into the works would liven things up.  With no thought other than that of my own entertainment, I picked a large cranberry and stuffed it firmly into the largest hole, never realizing what a chain of events I had set into motion.

The cranberry filled the hole with only a bit of space on either side through which I could see the frantic activity within the cavity.  Almost immediately, the line of egress shifted to the right and an awkward bit of maneuvering began, the unburdened ants forming an unsteady return line over the line of laden ants struggling forward to dump their load.  Behind the berry, several ants appeared to be discussing the situation and shortly, one bulled his way through the assembly line and emerging from the hole, turned left and came to the front of the obstruction. Shortly, he was joined by another ant. This second insect was slightly larger than the rest and from his air of authority, I took him to be a foreman or even, possibly, an engineer.  After much studying of the situation and a certain amount of manual, or perhaps, legual assessment, the two ants put their heads together in deep consultation.   Arriving at a conclusion, they gave the ant-y version of a high five and turned back the way they’d come, shoving arrogantly through the double line in the small hole.

Through the spaces at the sides of the berry, I could see a wriggling black mass, a buildup of worker ants whose focus appeared to be the resolution of this dark red problem, the removal of this blockage that had so inexplicably arrived to disrupt their well-ordered operation.   The group withdrew a slight distance and then, as if acting on a shouted command, the front runners hurled themselves at the obstruction,  They were followed by the next line and the next and the next until the sheer weight of numbers pushed the cranberry from the hole and sent it tumbling to the ground, along with several crushed bodies of the sacrificial forward line.

Immediately, it was business as usual as an orderly line of ants began dropping their loads from the large hole and returning through the smaller.  My malicious itch momentarily appeased, I watched a bit longer and then, yawning, returned to the cabin to take my turn with the pasteboards. 

The following morning I went out to view the aftermath of my intervention.  Had the busy little insects doubled their production to make up for the brief hiatus?  Had more bodies joined the small pile at the front on the tree as the wounded succumbed to their injuries during the night?  Had the foreman or, perhaps, engineer who had resolved the situation… My speculations ceased as I drew to a halt, unable to believe my eyes.

The big spruce tree stood there as before but of its frenetic inhabitants, there was no sign.  The two holes gaped emptily and the bark of the tree was clean and free of the pale yellow wood particles that had spread over it like an apron only hours before.  The tiny black bodies of the dead ants had vanished and the sole indication of the feverish and unceasing activity of the previous evening was the absolutely flat plain of sawdust that circled the foot of the tree.  The ants had ceased their busy-ness, tidied up their operation, and like Arabs, had folded their tents and silently stolen away. Where did they go?  And why?  Because of my interference in their well-ordered operation, my mean and unconscionable act of sabotage?  Reports from the Duncans indicate that the colony never returned to the tree and at this time, I can only speculate on their fortunes and hope that Fate was kinder to them than I.

Returning to the here-and-now, I glance again under the sink where there appears to be some discussion as to whether or not my home invaders should chance my invitation to dine.  One or two hesitantly approach the plate and as they do, I hear an evil, snickering voice in the depth of my beady little brain.

“Hey,” it asks, “what would happen if you poured a little bit of vodka over that sugar?”

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