“Fire Ants” – Fiction by Perry Lopez

The Ants - Salvador Dali, 1929
The Ants – Salvador Dalí, 1929

Get toasty & tropical with “Fire Ants,” a surreal & revolutionary piece of short fiction by Perry Lopez from our Winter 2016 issue.

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THE CUBAN’S SKIN IS BLACK WITH SMOKE. He sits beneath the shade of the palm, cross-lashed with sunlight through the fronds, rolling a dead ant between his fingertips. As he toys with it, the soot comes off his pads and encases the ant in a sticky ball that grows and grows until there is no more ant-shape to it. Just a tiny planet of pitch, smoothly gyrating and gathering and dereticulate, obeying the laws of form. He is shirtless and shoeless and thin, his eyes are blood-webbed and watching. Thermo means heat means fire.

He cannot smell himself. Cannot smell the ocean either, though he can hear it. That mellow storm of crash and suck he has heard all his life. He cannot smell the rotting plantains, but tastes them when he breathes. Sweetness and salt in the air that burns in his raw throat, sticks there piquantly burning. His own smell covering everything, but then he cannot smell himself. All he smells is smoke.

“Ah Cristo, my eyes are stinging. I think I will go blind soon.”

Arlo is drunk. He may in fact go blind. They went to the University of Havana together where he studied science and Arlo studied culture. Now he is drunk with a bottle of fine spiced rum in each fist and is crouching over the anthill, squinting and rubbing at his eyelids with the back of his hand, spitting dark gobs full of cinder-grit down on the mound— the mound that sits between the two men and pulses with their frenzy, those thousands, those millions, their knobby red bodies strung together like simple molecules. Swarming along their prickly vortices, building up their warren of dirt on the shore.

He rolls the ball of grime back on his thumb then flicks it into the beach-grass, shooting out so fast and small that his eyes cannot follow as it disappears soundlessly into the airy shush between breakers. He looks back and searches for another.

“But so what if I do, eh? A man should go blind after seeing such a miracle as I have; the rest of the world would only disgust him! Make him wish he was in the dark, alone with just the memory.”

There are hundreds of them at his legs, drawn in by the acrid smell. They tickle-fight atop his toe-crests and caravan down along his shins; at his knees they eddy and trace out in strange ellipses, caught up in the foci of his body’s landscape, skirting his mountains. They are red and his flesh is black and they travel him without rest, cherry bright in the morning sunlight through the fronds, their tiny antennas held out like dowsing rods, silly stupid things, searching him for their need, something to carry back to the mound. They are hundreds but he cannot feel them. They cannot bite him and he cannot feel them. The smoke-crust is far too thick and they will find nothing to eat of his body today.

One ant stands motionless atop his kneecap, waggling its tendrils and watching the others scuttle-dance by. He reaches down and carefully crushes its head between his thumb and middle-finger, then pinches it up and sets to rolling again just like the last.

Across, Arlo spits and drinks and bares his teeth at nothing.

“And can you believe the fool had no guards posted? Only a Captain could be so stupid, so secure. Pah! What do you think it was that finally woke him, uh? The whole damn town knew his house was burning before he did, the pig! How he ran out still naked from sleep and batting embers from his beard to find everyone watching! How he looked back and screamed Oooooooh Mi Madre, Mi Madre, Dios ayuda a mi Madre…”

Between them and the sea is a comb of palms, their scaly shafts serried close like whale teeth, the kind used for straining. And will they hold out the tide? No, no, of course they mustn’t. See the salted, sandy bands about their trunks, a meter high where the surge-tide has risen and will rise and rise and rise again. Carrying it all back out to waste until…

“…he tried at the flames again and again, you remember? By the time he gave up, the fool had no beard left at all! And then, oh brother, I will love you forever for this, how you gently pushed him aside and dove through the flames yourself! I lost count of the minutes you were inside, but you should have heard the Captain sing your praises! He wept and said he would make you a rich lieutenant, that he would kiss the dirt from your feet…”

…and then the Island and the Ocean would be concomitant, once the waves had ground flat the strands and the mountains were all scorched naked and gray, when the roots were withered off and the hills sloughed in like dead jellies. Then the tide would seethe over the brim and this time it would not roll back.

“…but when the palm-thatch roof caught flame, I was sure you were dead. It went up all at once, an explosion of light and a roar like a hurricane squall and all these little red fairies floating through the night, but stinging us as they landed! Oh, it was a vision of hell, brother! I nearly knelt and wept beside that naked wretch, you know. But then there you were! Stepped right through the inferno, I saw it, and in either hand the Captain’s finest Bacardi! Unburnt, either one!”

He strikes and the ball of ash and ant is gone. Its last word is the sticky slap against his nail plate and then it is gone. But another has found its way squirming into his navel, testing there for entry, so he roots it out and crushes its body together. Sets then to rolling.

“From where I stood, I could not see his face. What was his expression, brother? I cannot guess it. But I was amazed, struck dumb. I was sure he would attack you, or at least lunge for his rum. But to clasp at your ankles as he did? To mewl like a babe and as naked, an appointed Captain? Mad with grief, I suppose. A man reduced to nothing…And you know, I never heard the old woman scream…perhaps she breathed in the smoke as she slept…never felt the fire…Ah Cristo, Cristo…”

Arlo speaks on, but he does not listen. He knows they must make an end soon.

So, when they have finished with the rum, he will say that they must go and join with them who fight in the mountains and in the jungles, los Guerrilleros, and Arlo will agree, and they will leave out before he sobers. The two men will tell the fighters what they have done and give them the bottle of Bacardi they have not drank from, to be used for burning, and then be welcomed gladly into their ranks.

But now Arlo has had enough. He hands him their bottle, thrusts the other into the sand, and goes off groaning to vomit into the beach-grass. The Cuban slugs once from the amber dregs, afloat with white flecks of mouth-tissue and black stars of cinder, then dumps the rest down onto the ant hill, the stream roping out in a sun-gold helix as it slaps at the mounded earth. And they die instantly beneath the liquid fire, curling themselves into neat little balls as the rest scatter out to nowhere and their home goes muddy-loose beneath them.

The bottle chugs once more and then is empty.

And when he is ready, he will walk down to the lapping waterfront. He will step out into the brine and let the waves lick him clean, clean of ants and smoke and the rest beneath. And the water will go dark, of course, but then only for an instant, while inside his belly the rum will be burning.

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Flapperhouse picPERRY LOPEZ is a fiction writer and a student at the University of Texas. His writing is forthcoming in various bathroom stalls and study carrels around Austin.

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