“One day when I went out to my wood-pile, or rather my pile of stumps, I observed two large ants, the one red, the other much larger, nearly half an inch long, and black, fiercely contending with one another. Having once got hold they never let go, but struggled and wrestled and rolled on the chips incessantly. Looking farther, I was surprised to find that the chips were covered with such combatants, that it was not a duellum, but a bellum, a war between two races of ants, the red always pitted against the black, and frequently two red ones to one black. The legions of these Myrmidons covered all the hills and vales in my wood-yard, and the ground was already strewn with the dead and dying, both red and black. It was the only battle which I have ever witnessed, the only battle-field I ever trod while the battle was raging; internecine war; the red republicans on the one hand, and the black imperialists on the other. On every side they were engaged in deadly combat, yet without any noise that I could hear, and human soldiers never fought so resolutely.”
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Even with her new cane, the walk to the park was difficult. Joann needed her artificial hip replaced again and didn’t want to go through that pain another time. The excitement of the day sped her up, though, and thoughts of the past decades made the time go by quickly. She found her bench – dark green paint peeling a little more than it did a year ago – and sat down.
She pulled her birthday card from her grand-niece out of her purse. It said “I always think of you as my grandmother,” and that made her smile. She had been coming to this bench on her birthday for fifty years now, she had been looking forward to the silver anniversary.
Joann jumped with excitement as a few birds landed on the little-used playground equipment next to her bench. She chuckled as she thought that the scene was so similar to the one out of that old horror movie, “The Birds,” – though this wasn’t scary. Slowly more and more began to show up, lining up along the bars.
She couldn’t help but think back to the first time she had come here – thinking about James… when she still was in college down the road from there, a half-century ago.
Joann hadn’t actually been out on a date for over a year and she wasn’t sure she was out on one now, but it was close.
That afternoon – she had been working on her graphics assignment in the sixth floor lobby – her room wasn’t large enough to stretch the huge canvas out. She was working on two large horizontal triangular sections. While the rest of the piece was made up of geometric shapes of solid colors, fitted together in what she hoped was a clever, attractive, and subtly symmetrical design, these two triangles required, in her mind, a graduated hue of orange. It went from a bright saturated color a the pointed end to a pastel, almost white at the other. She worked slowly and carefully with an airbrush, slowly layering the colors, learning as she went.
She had been so intent and concentrated she didn’t even notice the boy walk up and sit down in an extra chair.
“Hey! Whatcha doin?” he said, a little bit too loud.
The unexpected sound startled Joann enough that the airbrush spray drifted out of the border a bit.
“James! Look what you’ve made me do!”
She angrily picked up a razor blade and began carefully scratching off the errant pigment. She shook her head at the mistake.
“Sorry Joann, I was just tryin’ to be friendly.”
The still-wet paint came up easily enough and after only a few seconds she looked down at the fixed error. Then she realized that the boy knew her name. For the first time she tilted her head away from the canvas and looked at him. He was a few inches shorter than her, stocky in a pasty sort of way, and had an unkempt shock of long, thin, red hair. He peered back at her through a pair of thick black-rimmed glasses.
She remembered him. His name was James… something… James Ellsworth. She had met him through some mutual friends at some informal group gathering or party or something. He didn’t live there – he couldn’t afford it… she seemed to remember. He was always hanging around, though. Didn’t seem to have anything better to do.
“That’s OK, I guess,” she said. “I didn’t see you come up and you startled me.”
“Sorry. What are you working on?”
She explained her ideas on the piece, how they fit in with the assignment from her graphics class. He listened intently. He even asked what seemed to be half-intelligent questions. After a while Joann began to forget her aggravation at being startled and started to enjoy the conversation.
“Well,” he said, “How much longer are you going to be working on this?”
Looking back at her work, she realized that the paint had dried and she would have to wait until it cured, at least twelve hours, before she could start blending again.
“That’s it for tonight, I’m afraid. I’m going to have to leave it sit to cure before I can work on it some more.”
“You gonna leave it here?”
“Yeah, it’ll be good – I leave big stuff out all the time. Everybody knows to leave it alone.”
“Cool. You hungry? You wanna go get a bite?”
Without thinking, Joanna nodded yes.
James had no car and no money. The only thing he had to offer was some food and some wine at his apartment.
“It’s not far. We can walk it no prob,” he assured her.
It wasn’t far, across the highway on the pedestrian overpass and then down into an older neighborhood of once-wealthy big wooden mansions now run-down and subdivided into tiny apartments for college students.
The only tough part was getting up into James’ place. He rented an attic space in a high turret of of of the largest, but now most decrepit homes. It was little more than a garret and after climbing up three stories past countless wooden doors, each leaking some genre of overblown music; they had to twist up a final spiral stair into his place. He pushed open the thin, unlatched door.
“No reason to lock it. Nobody comes up this high, and nothing inside worth stealing.”
The place was a large single, round room. The entire floor was cheap patterned linoleum. Blankets hung from cords divided up a kitchen, living area and a bedroom peeking around one side. Joann used the bathroom and was relieved to find it clean, although small with only a sink, toilet and narrow standup shower.
When she came back out to the kitchen, he had set out plates with microwaved chicken breasts, mixed vegetables, and rice. He had a cold bottle of some generic white wine and was pouring it into a pair of mismatched jelly glasses.
The meal was surprisingly good. Joann had been eating in the cafeteria or various fast-food places around campus for so long, a sort-of home cooked meal, no matter how humble. After they finished eating, James rinsed and piled the dishes in the sink and they finished the wine and another large bottle of something red.
The wine was gone and Joann was feeling more than a little tipsy and she began to wonder whether she was on a date or not. She was beginning to like James more than she thought she would – and he had fed her and given her wine. He hadn’t driven or taken her to a restaurant, but it wasn’t his fault he was a poor student – there were plenty of those around. She fell silent, thinking for a minute, when James spoke up. His voice was a little slurred and Joann realized that she didn’t know if he had drank more wine than her or not.
“Hey, Joanne… I wanna show you something.”
He stood up from the table and walked over to the couch. He reached behind and pulled out two cardboard boxes – one a small shipping box and the other the kind you use to sell shoes in. It was a bit bigger than usual – maybe a boot box. Joann noticed that it had holes cut in the lid and pieces of fine screen glued over the openings.
“Watch this!” James said, his face flushed with wine or excitement. “I’ve been working on this for two years.”
He gestured for Joann to back her chair up and then folded the table and set it away. He cleared the other chairs and pushed a shelf back to make as big a space in the center of the kitchen area as he could. He turned on some lamps to illuminate the linoleum as much as possible.
Then, with a little bow and a flourish, he opened the small box up and poured its contents out onto the floor. At first, Joann thought it was only little pieces of paper, like confetti or something, but she saw that each one was glued to a tiny stick. They were a pile of miniature flags, a fraction of an inch high, some were bright red, the rest were green.
James how had the large shoe box and was getting ready to take the lid off. He was getting excited now – he sort of hopped from one foot to the other as he pawed at the box.
“Watch closely! This is really something.”
He slid the lid off and poured out a mound of what looked like some sort of reddish coarse powder. At first Joann thought is was a copper colored rough sawdust, but as soon as it hit the floor it began to flow and move. She realized with a start that it was alive.
“Ants!” she shouted. “Dammit, you dumped out a bunch of ants.”
“Don’t worry. Relax and watch.”
James had some sort of an odd flashlight in his hand. He pointed it at the ants and pushed a button.
“Ultraviolet. The ants can see it but we can’t. It’s what I sue to train them with.”
Suddenly the roiling movement of the large pile of ants began to setting into a shape, a square. James flashed again and the ants swarmed over the pile of tiny flags and Joann realized that they were picking them up – each and was emerging with a flag in its tiny jaw.
Another click and James began to yell.
“Watch this – it’s what took so much time to teach.”
Joann felt her eyes widen and her breath catch in her throat. She simply could not believe what she was seeing. There, on the cracked linoleum, the ants were marching in formation – moving geometric patterns of green and red, colored by the tiny flag that each insect was holding aloft.
They started with a checkerboard of red and green and then the ants marched past each other, forming two separate grids apart. Then they wheeled and separated into two linear ranks that moved past each other. Then they moved in a confused heap until they lined up in one square – red on one side, green on the other, with a graduated mix in between. Finally the square dissolved into a triangle, then a hexagon, then, finally, a red circle. A smaller green disk began to roll around inside the larger circle.
“That was the hardest to do. It took a long time to train them to do that,” James said.
He flashed another code onto the insects and they dutifully dropped their flags in a neat pile. He laid the larger box on the floor sideways with the lid off and the ants swarmed back inside.
“See, they like it,” he said.
Joann was speechless. Five minutes ago she was worried about how to deal with this dumpy, nerdy guy, now she was faced with something fantastic and unbelievable. She felt as if the floor had been pulled out from beneath her feet. She jumped up, breathless.
“Umm, I gotta go!” was all she could blurt out.
“Wait! Don’t you think that was cool! Aren’t you amazed?”
“I… I don’t know what I saw. That was impossible. That scared me.”
“It’s only a bunch of trained ants.”
“But… I feel… I feel the world isn’t the same as it was when I got here.”
“The world is the same, maybe you saw something you didn’t know before.”
That was all she could take. She stammered out an “I’m sorry,” and staggered to the door. The stairs down were steeper than she remembered, the brick sidewalks outside more uneven, the blocks home longer and lonelier than she could imagine.
As she feared, James kept calling her every day for a week. She was so confused. He explained that it was all a simple, though ingenious process, to train the ants. A combination of rewards for proper behavior and an electrified grid that provided punishment for errors – the ants were able to learn amazingly complex tricks. He said it was his ambition to expand his techniques to other species and types of animals.
She would talk to him on the phone but asked that he not follow or try to meet her. The thought of going back to that attic apartment gave her chills.
Time went by and she began to thaw a little.
Then one day, one her twentieth birthday, he asked her to go to an isolated spot just a bit off campus. There was a bench in a little used park. She sat down and waited, more than a little nervous. Then the first one came, followed by the rest.
And now Joann was in the same place, fifty years later. The bench had been replaced twice, but she supposed James had made sure that the city put the new one in the exact right place. It was funny, she had never seen any children playing on the equipment – though she supposed some must have. Somehow, they all disappeared on her birthday. She was sure James had something to do with that too.
She had not actually seen him in twenty years. After they had left school his life became more and more disjointed. He said that his innovative animal research had made him some serious enemies in the government and that he would eventually have to disappear.
Joann always wondered how much of this was real and how much was paranoia from the strange recesses of James’ brilliant mind. Almost certainly a little of both. Even though she never saw or heard from him anymore, and missed him terribly, she knew he was still out there, somewhere. Otherwise, where would the birds come from?
She sat back and watched the last of the dense flock of birds land on the playground equipment. Most years there were only one type of bird but this year half were some small brown wren and the rest were large gray doves. She purposely had avoided learning types or species of birds – the mystery made her birthday present all so more special. She knew that James had planned something special for the silver anniversary – and having two kinds of birds reminded her of the dual-colored ant flags from so long ago.
She smiled as they lifted into the air, as if on a signal, all at once, in a mass. Rotating in a whirlwind above her, they began to separate into smaller groups and these groups began to form patterns.
Her fiftieth trained bird presentation, her seventieth birthday present, was beginning and Joann was very happy to get to see it.