The Ant King
Located in a crack in the mortar between the tiles of a downtown sidewalk, the queen’s new home was small. Laden with fertilised eggs, she had dug far enough into the hard earth for the nest to be hidden.
Then she had carefully laid each one in a special incubation chamber.
The hard work was done. Her daughters, once they grew up, would help her to build rooms and pathways and make the nest a home, the kind she had always dreamt of.
Bristling with new-found resolve, she moved quickly about the cramped quarters, pushing the last of the grains of sand out of the mouth of her home, sending them tumbling to the bottom of the pyramid of particles that marked the nest’s entrance.
Soon, her sisters would arrive. They had braved the dangerous trip for her nest-warming and she had to be ready. She had warned them of the wasps around the nest that attacked without provocation, the brutes. Still, she couldn’t help but worry that harm would befall them.
She distracted herself with thoughts of the main event of the evening: her wing-tearing ceremony.
She’d had wings, her ticket to freedom, for as long as she could remember. That is how she knew she was different from her sisters. She’d spent treasured months at home waiting for her chance to fly outside into the never-ending blue sky she had heard much about but hardly seen. Now she had seen that sky and had set about her duties. She had started her own colony.
She’d barely thought of her mate, a drone named James, since they parted. Their courtship was brief. Her sole intention was to mate. With that fulfilled she vanquished all memory of him from her mind. A successful one-time mating with the drone gave her all the sperm she’d ever need to give birth a colony of millions.
James felt lost. He no longer had a home. He’d spent his youth preparing for this short-lived freedom. He was born to mate with princesses so they could begin reigns as queens of colonies. After leaving home, the drone had met many princesses, yet chose only one as a mate, Isabella.
Duty fulfilled, he awaited his ultimate fate. Death.
Hours went by. Then days. Then weeks. But nothing. Cowering in a tiny hole he had dug, he contemplated suicide.
Growing up, James knew he was different from his brothers. Unlike them he was not content with a sloth’s life. He wished sometimes to have been born a regular worker, a wish that he once let slip, causing his brothers to laugh uproariously. To them it seemed absurd to wish for the lives of his sisters, who worked tirelessly collecting food, cleaning and fighting off intruders. They, the drones, had it good. James’s wishes to have a purpose beyond being waited on until it was time to mate and die seemed beyond ridiculous.
Unlike them, however, James for some reason could sense the disgust with which the nest regarded its sons, the drones. One by one, as his brothers left to find queens, he could tell how relieved his mother and sisters were to have them gone. He wanted to be missed when he left, not to be a burden lifted.
He’d heard that many colonies smaller than his own avoided having sons altogether, because they were a drain on resources.
When his turn came to leave he wanted to beg to stay. He wanted to prove himself too useful to be allowed to leave, but that was unheard of. Besides, his natural instincts as a mature male would not allow him. He felt not only pushed but pulled by an invisible string out of the only nest he’d ever known to find queens.
So, he opened his wings and found and chose only one. Now even she was gone.
Wallowing in his misery and mystified that death had not come for him, he spotted a tiny lake. He flew directly into it without a second thought. He floundered and gagged instinctively for air but was determined to die.
Or was he?
As the edge of a tiny leaf floated past, he grabbed on to it and was carried to safety.
Drying himself in the sun, James began to ponder the meaning of life, now that he’d avoided death.
Perhaps it’s death avoiding me. Perhaps, he thought, I am special.
Isabella had a privileged upbringing. She was a princess from a renowned and unconquered colony; a colony that had, in fact, conquered others and captured their queens and raised their brood as their own. Her family had been city ants for generations and never had to endure starvation, thanks to the gigantic beings that dropped food from the sky.
She herself didn’t do much work. Her sisters fed, defended, cleaned and cared for the colony.
She recalled vividly their tales of the outside world, before she saw it for herself. Wars over territory, horrific stories of colonies wiped out by natural disasters and chemicals, and recollections of areas where food was scarce. These stories sometimes made Isabella envy her sisters. They saw the world while she was destined to life in a nest, popping out one egg after the other.
Nonetheless, the reality of life after her home colony sat easy on Isabella. It felt right. She had turned out to be among the lucky. Her mother and her thousands of infertile sisters doubted she’d survive long in the outside world, having never experienced much of it.
More than that, her mother and sisters were aware that a princess, once outside her home, became a target for predators.
Yet, here she was, safe. Home. The spot she had chosen for the nest was in the most favourable district. There was a constant supply of food near by. She had laid her eggs and was waiting for them to hatch. Her hunger and yearning to go outside was dulled by this, the sense of duty she felt towards her brood. She contented her grumbling tummy with dreams of her home growing. She imagined long corridors and many different chambers. She pictured several rooms built just to store food and others for her small children to play in. Her children, she thought, lost in the wilderness of a waking dream, would build her a palace that would rival even her mother’s.
A noise at the entrance to the nest startled her back to the present. It was too early for it to be her sisters. It had be an intruder, an enemy. She snapped her pincers, readying to fight not only for her life but also for the lives of her unborn daughters.
That voice. It was familiar. She felt her fear turn to revulsion then searing, white-hot rage.
What are you doing here?
She spat out each word.
I ... I didn’t die, the drone said.
I don’t know, he said sheepishly.
No. Why are you here?
I thought maybe I could help out around here, help to raise our children, he said.
The words disarmed Isabella. She’d never heard of any colonies that included a father. What work would he even do? She herself had never met her own father, and her mother never once spoke of him.
Despite her better judgment and her sisters’ warnings, Isabella let James stay. She felt sorry for him. She even at times, before their daughters were born, found herself glad for the company.
Yet she couldn’t help but wonder what role the drone would play.
In time the larvae became pupae and, not long after, their first daughters were full-grown.
James watched his children work but refused to leave the nest. Each time Isabella asked about his promise to help he mumbled something about it being dangerous outside and children being too noisy, then shuffled off to another chamber, where he ordered his daughters around and had them see to his every need.
As queen, Isabella did not really command the nest. Her daughters went about their duties unasked, unordered, by her. James’s presence, his barking orders, disturbed the natural flow of things.
Frustrated and laden with her next brood, she cornered him in an incubation chamber. She went methodically through each of the promises he’d made when she agreed to let him stay and how he’d broken every last one of them.
She asked: Why should we to let you stay when you do nothing?
Because, the drone said, without skipping a beat, you are the queen of this colony and I am its king.
The words caused Isabella to stumble, fall over and almost topple the larvae stacks beside her. Speechless, she lay there as King James gingerly tiptoed around her prone body. In the passageway, he grabbed a morsel of food from a passing worker and loped merrily away.
Isabella’s babies, although fully grown, were still her babies. The queen worried about sending them off on their own, especially their first time out.
King James continued to do nothing.
She tried to see things from his perspective. James, like all drones, was given special treatment in his home colony. The drones’ most important duty was to fly off to mate with queens. Drones were never expected to help their sisters with any tasks.
Maybe in time he will find a purpose, Isabella said, assuaging herself.
The queen’s concerns about her babies were obvious to King James. It was impossible for her to hide her emotions.
When a queen was angry, the entire colony could feel it. Even though the reason for this alchemy was to ensure that a colony stayed in tune with their queen, King James found this disruptive. The queen projected her anxiety into the air around her, making it more difficult for his daughters to obey his commands and fulfil his wishes.
The day their children left the nest for the first time was the worst. James could not understand her worry. It was their daughters’ duty to work; to serve them as king and queen. James thought death a part of life, even though he’d seemingly cheated it. He could tell the queen wanted him to go along with their daughters but she could not control him any more than she could control her daughters.
The only power she had was over herself.
The drone now known as King James was full of cheer and merriment each time his foraging daughters all made it back home safe. The queen’s worry would ease and he could once again bend the will of his children more easily to serve him. So merry was James on this particular day that, before he dug into the offerings laid out before them, he separated a large portion of the food for Isabella.
She needed the extra provisions to fertilise and lay eggs from the lifetime’s supply of sperm he’d given her during their one and only mating. She would never have claimed more food for herself and took James’s gesture as a sign that he was invested in the colony’s future.
As they ate, their daughters regaled them with a tale of how they’d killed a wasp. By now all but the youngest had become confident in their work, so much so that the cluster of wasps that competed with them for food had diminished. The wasp had attacked alone and all the worker ants had fended it off together, as a unit.
That night, in his bedchamber, James found himself despondent. He was again longing for death. Even though he’d found the family he had always longed for, he still felt gnawing away at him the same feeling of purposelessness from his youth. The queen no longer needed him to reproduce and, despite her needless worrying, their daughters did not need him to assist in foraging for food or to defend the nest.
The next morning, one of their daughters, the one who’d led the attack against the wasp, was dead. Retribution. Her body was found at the entrance of their home; battered, lifeless.
Isabella was distraught, which annoyed James no end. He told her she was being melodramatic in worrying that this was the start of an attack on the colony. He said he also found her suggestion that they relocate, because she had raised too few daughters to fend off a full-frontal assault, preposterous.
But there was no easing her pain. Isabella’s mourning filled every chamber of the nest with grief and stifling sorrow, so stifling that James felt he had no choice but to step outside for the first time since he entered.
It was then, in the light of late morning, with the sun ascending to its highest point, that everything became clear. Purpose. The drone was the only ant in the colony left with wings.
He swept immediately to Isabella’s side and offered to keep a nightly watch outside the nest, to patrol the surroundings, to keep everyone safe. His wings gave him mobility. He could easily fly in and out of the nest to warn the others at the first sign of danger.
Everything will be fine, he said, stroking her foremost left arm.
Isabella was ashamed that she had ever doubted James’s usefulness. She thought his individual happiness and survival was all that mattered to him. But his offer to keep night watch, to use his wings, the only feature he had that the others lacked, vanquished her previous annoyance with him.
Perhaps a colony could function well with a king?
Isabella had resented James before for staying in the nest, and avoiding exposure to danger. But now with the assurance of his winged nightly patrols to keep them safe, she wished more than anything that he’d live forever.
As king, and the new leader of their armed forces, James ate and slept in more, this time without the self-righteous looks from his family.
Another one of Isabella’s babies died during the night, this one among the youngest.
It weighed heavy on her conscience. She had persuaded King James to train her newest workers before their first expedition and it had resulted in death, this time in the nest.
It would appear that James, exhausted after a hard day’s training, fell asleep during his night watch, and the wasps had snuck in and murdered one of the gentlest and most caring of her children. It was unusual for the wasps to be so co-ordinated. But seemingly they had, the primitive creatures.
Immediately she set about fertilising more eggs from the sperm stored within her and prepared for war. James was right, she conceded. Moving was not an option. This was their territory and they would fight for it. Her daughters had come to the same conclusion.
They all pleaded with James to take it easy during the day, to sleep, rest and eat, so he could keep a vigilant watch at night.
Months passed without any further attacks. The plan, it seemed, had worked. Although exhausted, Isabella had laid enough eggs to build a fledgling army, one that could withstand any more attacks.
The resentment towards King James began to ripple through the nest once again. Nothing overt. Just whispers.
Remind me again ... Why is he here?
What does he do other than eat and sleep?
Attuned to his surroundings, James lengthened his patrols to begin before dusk. He buzzed back and forth over everyone’s heads, making sure they could see him at work.
One early evening, as he hovered at the entrance to the nest, keeping watch as the sun winked below the horizon, one of his daughters came in from the rushing night, dragging something in her pincers.
Look, Papa, she said, beaming.
It was a wasp. She had killed it all by herself. As one of the eldest in the brood, the death of one of her youngest sisters had emboldened her to grow from forager into a maker of weapons her family could use to fight the backward wasps.
James beamed with pride. He embraced and congratulated her.
At dawn, he said, when the colony awakes, we will present the dead wasp to them all. Everyone could use a boost in morale, but they also need a good night’s sleep, he added.
He, the king, also promised to announce formally in the morning that she was his new lieutenant, for her initiative and bravery.
James sat perched deep into the night beside the entrance, thinking. He knew that no wasps would attack that night. His patrols had revealed to him that the wasp nation was embroiled in infighting so intense that there was no way they could co-ordinate an attack to avenge what his bravest of daughters had done.
He breathed a sigh of relief.
From where he sat he could barely see inside the nest. The colony was growing, and the entrance split out quickly into multiple corridors and chambers. Numbering now in the tens of thousands, they were safe. Or at least able to defend themselves, if attacked.
The ant king looked over at his new lieutenant, his daughter, as she lay in peaceful sleep in the corner beside him. She wanted to be there in the morning for the announcement, and had chosen to sleep at the entrance, a short distance away from the carcass of the wasp.
He admired her lack of fear and willingness to risk her life for her family.
With one of the weapons she had made in hand, he quietly approached her and nudged her foot. She jumped up, ready for battle, as though she hadn’t been asleep at all. She gestured to him, asking if there were intruders. She, too, wanted to be armed.
No need, he said, as he sunk the weapon into her forehead.
He was surprised by the ease with which it pierced the exoskeleton. The last ones were not this easy to kill. One thrust of the weapon is all it took with this one.
He licked the weapon clean, picked up the wasp his daughter had killed earlier and placed it beside her lifeless body. Beholding the macabre scene before him, James felt satisfied. Morning was coming and with it the return of his importance.