Song of the Rice Barge Coolie
“Carpenter ants,” said the Flim-Flam Man. “Gotta get ’em early.”
by Rob Hunter
“You will be my eyes. I seem to be blind.”
Hail to our mother, who caused the messenger, the soldier, the worker,
Who scattered the seeds of her body
As she came forth from Paradise:
Great and white, fat with honeydew,
Her diadem a ring of captive queens.
Hail to the goddess who shines with her bright wings
Triumphant in the face of the deceiver.
Hail to our mother, who dropped her wings,
Who poured forth abundance as she came from Paradise.
See how they love her, gathered near!
“Oh, Jim—it’s a full cape,” trilled Ginny Levitan. The house was a daisy chain of architectural whimsy, a ramble of weathered ells, wings and add-ons in the style of whatever moment. Their house-to-be cuddled coyly behind a tangle of alders and runaway roses.
The house was not unoccupied. Ten-by-ten-inch white spruce sills had been shaved thin from the inside out, resonant as a fiddle back for over a century. Raddled with passageways, the sills still supported the house. Beneath the floors, past wide boards of ancient pumpkin pine pumiced, oiled and varnished by successive generations of householders disappeared, dead or run away, lay the galleries of the Long Walkers.
“It’s leaning,” said her husband. “And I don’t think it’s quite a cape—too many floors and chimneys.” Theirs was a marriage defined by silent protocols, forgotten but honored. No fights. Not today. Not yet at least, but it was still early. “Anyway it’s most likely got issues—rotted sills, bats, beetles. Something, carpenter ants. The carpenter ants own New England,” said Jim. “Bob Vila said that once on This Old House. If we’ve got ’em, we’ll never get rid of them. Or maybe Norm Abram said it.”
The house clung to a granite outcropping, the Ledge locally. An overgrown path led out back. “Hold on. I’ll do some reconnaissance.” Jim picked his way down the ragged slate of the ledge to get around for a better view. He stopped to examine a shrub, a dwarf juniper stunted by the perpetual on-shore wind, and gave the shrub a yank. From the rocks below came a delayed rattle of pebbles—there was a sheer drop to the shale beach. Ginny went to thumping clapboards and poking in the remains of a perennial bed. Sandpipers dodged the pebbles and scurried after small things left by the tide.
As Jim scrambled around the far end of the house he stumbled and fell clutching at a tussock of witch grass. It was a long way down. His heart galloped in his ears; he’d better get started on that exercise program. He gingerly picked his way back to his wife. There she was, trying to look in a window. “The place goes on and on,” he shouted.
“What?” The wind took her words. Ginny rubbed at the windowpane with her sleeve to get a better look inside. Her cry had startled a flight of swifts from one unused chimney.
“There’s an outhouse,” Jim bellowed through cupped hands. There was a mild medicinal odor of gin from the juniper branch.
“You what?” Ginny called. Her husband was at the far corner of the house; he must have circled the place. The wind that twisted the juniper shredded her words. The chimney swifts twittered, circled, then flew off.
“I said we have outdoor plumbing. I almost fell over a cliff. Didn’t you hear me?”
“No. A privy? Really?”
“Yeah, stuck on way down at the end so they didn’t have to walk through four feet of snow in the winter.” He dusted off his knees and tried to look none the worse for wear. “Neat.”
“Think we can afford it?”
“Let’s find out.” They called and made an appointment. Barbara Casmirczak, a licensed broker, would meet them the next morning.
The Lady Mother of the Long Walkers was singing.
Her ululations were a requiem: the kidnapped queens, her sisters, were dying. Large, pallid bodies lay lifeless in an orderly row. This was not the usual order of things. The queen suspected a slaughter by slaves, rogue elements running wild.
The Mother of Us All, goddess and progenetrix, had summoned her Master of Messengers. “You will be my eyes. I seem to be blind.”
“And wingless, goddess, as it was meant to be when you went forth from Paradise.” The goddess had been blind for all the generations that called her goddess and mother, but the royal scout—Indltainalyei, known as Indil—thought better of reminding her of this.
“My sister, is she dead? Go and give her a poke, would you?” The great white presence that was the Lady Mother of the Long Walkers indicated the row of captive queens on their dais beneath her, deferentially lower.
“Which sister, Lady?”
“Pick one. The closest. Use your celebrated initiative.” This was as close to irony as the Lady Mother allowed herself to come. She felt the threat of immediate extinction excused some flexibility.
The Master of Messengers approached the nearest brood queen.
Indltainalyei, known as Indil, hooked into the supernumerary queen’s eye with the distal spur of a middle leg. The head detached and bounced dispiritedly away down a slight grade into a connecting chamber. “Your sister would appear to be indeed dead, Majesty.”
The Mother of Us All, goddess and progenetrix, sighed. “Indil, Indil, what shall I do with you?”
“I am your Master of Messengers, Lady.”
“Yes, yes, yes, yes. But which one?”
“Ask the Icaros, Lady. They will tally me out when I am enumerated at the doorway to beyond the sand.”
“Suppose you ask them, then tell me. Are you not an individual? But then I suppose it is too much to ask you to think for yourself. And a rain of oily poison has enflamed the nannies and the soldiers. Look into it.”
Indil pretended not to hear.
“Hi, I’m Barbara. Call me Babs.”
The woman was waiting when they pulled up, fiftyish and an almost natural blond. A great body, Ginny noticed, and eager—attractive, with the too-even tanning that spoke of hours at the spa. The woman wore a no-nonsense blue power suit with crisp shoulders and a deep cleavage that announced she was all business but could play hard, too.
“Babs Casmirczak, your estate representative.” Babs negotiated a minor adjustment to her breasts. They jiggled back into their snuggery. Too casual, practiced, too unconscious this gesture, designed to draw an onlooker after them. The woman leaned forward to shake hands.
“Jim Levitan.” Jim’s eyes lingered at Babs’s tanned clavicle, then dropped into her cleavage. He pulled himself up short and threw an arm across Ginny’s shoulder. He still held the woman’s hand.
“This is Virginia Levitan,” said Jim Levitan. He did not say, My wife, Ginny. Ginny Levitan added Babs Casmirczak to her catalog of affliction, right after menopause, and dubbed her The Real Estate Vampire.
The Vampire turned to Ginny. “Hi there?”
The woman ended every sentence with a question mark like a high school girl. Moves and boobs were her stock in trade. The Vampire was a people person. Ginny figured Babs and she were about the same age.
“Command me, Lady. I am your Master of Messengers.”
“But you all look so alike,” said the Mother of Us All.
“We are not the same. Your sisters leaven the moiety, Lady. The captive queens strengthen our blood lines.”
“But you are the same.”
“The same as yesterday, Lady.”
“Indil, don’t lark about. You are worse than one of the nannies, rolling my eggs and clucking lullabies. Indil?”
“If my sister is dead, and believe me she has been thus for some days, where then is Housekeeping? They should be hauling her off.”
“They have gone mad, Lady.”
“And you did not think to tell me.”
“I am yours to command, Lady.”
“And I neglected to ask. Very well. Go out, beyond the sand. Tell me what you see.”
“While you are gone I shall recite the annals. Rains of poison have enflamed the nannies and the soldiers. I shall now sing.”
The Master of Messengers departed, down the dais, stepping over the large white corpse of a supernumerary queen.
The Real Estate Vampire rummaged in her bag, dipping and jiggling. “I do have the key. Oh, here it is.” A large key ring with a green tag was held up triumphantly and they were in. The great mahogany door swung on silent hinges.
The men must have oiled it, thought Babs.
She probably had it oiled, thought Ginny.
“Nice door. Lignum vitae, the captain brought it home from the Indies. Architectural detailing...” said Babs. She let her sentence hang, an inflected question with no answer.
“Nice door.” It was mahogany, thought Ginny. There probably was no captain; the woman was winging it. There was a remote fluttering as a trapped bird banged its head again and again against a windowpane on one of the upper floors.
“Oops.” Babs dropped her set of keys. At the jingle the trapped bird gave a last desperate flutter. Then there was silence. Jim leapt forward to retrieve the keys but with a sidelong glance at his wife let Babs pick them up. As she straightened she shrugged her décolletage out of play and tossed back her hair. Jim studiously examined the turnings of a baluster.
“I know it seems a little bleak now. But wait till you see the kitchen.”
Kitchens were a girl thing. Ginny noticed a pair of running shoes in Babs’s shoulder bag. For a fast getaway after a quick sale? Ginny doubted it.
Nodding dismissal to the Master of Messengers’ retreating second abdomen, the goddess, the Mother of Us All, intoned the chronicles of the Long Walkers. Her emissary felt the tremulous trilling rise behind him as he gaited down an access gallery. The Lady Mother noodled vaguely recalled scales, a bagpiper testing a psychic melody pipe, a music that was new when the moon was closer to the Earth and the pine forests shivered to the cry of the giant red wolf.
There was nothing, not a clue of colony-wide madness and death in all the millennia of her kind. Time was smooth; the madness of the great-headed soldiers was but a stutter. The poisoned rains were nowhere in the annals.
Indil passed out of the brood chambers and turned upward toward the light.
“The owners left in a hurry but the house is broom-clean. We had the exterminators in. Just in case.” Babs was improvising as she went along, but she figured that they had. “And here...” She attempted a piece of stagy business involving her arm and a window blind. “You have a wonderful oceanfront view. Without all the extra taxes...” The blind collapsed, scattering slats across the floor. The Real Estate Vampire stepped gracefully aside as a minor dust cloud settled on her Clark walkers. “...because of the road. Between your property and the shore,” she finished.
Aplomb, grace under fire. Gotta hand it to her, thought Ginny. Already it is our house; we have a view. She took a surreptitious peek at her husband.
“Really?” said Jim. Evidently the hustle was working.
“You’ll love the kitchen, it’s original, or restored, whatever.” Babs led them down a narrow, twisting inside stairwell that seemed to revolve around the big central chimney. The Real Estate Vampire tossed back her hair. It fell into an effortless arrangement, styled. “They were going to open a colonial-style bed and breakfast before they divorced. A walk-in fireplace with a brick oven, Dutch tiling, terra cotta floors... Ta-Dah!” A wonderland of cooking paraphernalia depended from chains and hooks, there being a scarcity of shelf space.
“The kitchen is indeed a panoply of pots. That’s a joke,” said Ginny Levitan.
Negotiating a series of switchbacks, the Master of Messengers gained a main tunnel where Icaro the soldier saluted him.
“Hail Indil.” Mandibles gaped; antennae swept the floor beneath his massive and, compared to Indil, oversized head.
“Which Indil am I? The Lady wants to know.”
The Icaro caressed a scented ceiling. “Thirty-seventh. That’s the tally.” He consulted other patches of olfactory memory that clung to the walls of the passage. “Weather report: south southeast, go against the wind. Dry today.”
“Thanks for the meteorology. Any of the others back yet?”
“No. There is a thing out in the world that kills them.” The Icaro groomed an antenna. “Die well, Master of Messengers. The world is ours. Hail, Indil Thirty-seven.” Icaro the soldier returned to his post.
“If they are dead, these Indils one through thirty-six, how do you know?”
“Food exchange and perhaps I will tell you,” said the Icaro, exposing his underbelly, a gesture of trust. Indil had no food to share but mounted the Icaro and massaged his abdomen. “Ahh, that’s it, right there.” The soldier was ecstatic.
“So how do you know they are all dead? Dead is dead.” Indil Thirty-seven clutched at the Icaro’s compound eye with his mandible. There was the urge to squeeze, ever the slightest. The Icaro felt the adjustment in Indil’s grip and his ecstasy diminished.
“Careful there, Indil. You could die here and now.”
“Pardon me if I breathe your air, Icaro. Go and milk a louse.”
Mandibles snapped as the soldier threw off the Master of Messengers. “One made it home. Number One, not the pronoun. Died right where you are standing. Housekeeping came and cut him up for the common pot. Those guys are right on the ball.”
“Eat any of the returned Indil number One before Housekeeping made away with him?” asked Indil Thirty-seven.
“Just a nibble,” said the Icaro. “Odd you should mention it, scout. I have been having the digestives ever since.”
“We have gone too far, then,” said Indil.
“Where is too far? Beyond the sand?” The Icaro was perplexed for he was a creature of duty.
“Too far is wherever you do not return from,” said Indil Thirty-seven, Master of Messengers.
“Well then, we have gone too far. We must die, scout.”
“Hail then, Icaro. And farewell for I too must go beyond the sand. Icaro?” There was no reply. The Icaro had died standing, his joints locked. The dead Icaro’s sweet death-sign was in the air. From two levels down there was a rustle as Housekeeping felt the snap of the soldier’s final rigor.
Indil Thirty-seven gaited away.
“And down there...” Babs Casmirczak peered over the soapstone sink to check on the view from a kitchen window “...is Delsey’s Head where they laid the keel of the Barbary Princess, the last of the opium clippers. That was in 1853.” Ginny wondered if the Barbary Princess got laid a lot. She just bet that Babs did.
“Wanna look?” Babs wriggled off the sink.
Jim took her place and with some effort got the window pried open. The tide was coming in. The kitchen looked out on a prospect of ocean and the outdoor privy. The stunted juniper was gone. He must have loosened it. “Whew! It’s a long way down. At least we’ve got some air.”
Jim Levitan thumped a floor joist with a heel. He bounced up and down a few times. “Huh. Springy. Any trouble ahead?”
The word trouble hung in the clammy air. “Like insect damage?” said Ginny.
Ginny Levitan caught a slight movement at the corner of her eye. Indil Thirty-seven, Master of Messengers, threaded through a fisheye astigmatism of glittering implements, his passage mirrored in a hanging dangle of polished copper bottoms. A dot, the messenger moved in his myriads.
“Our house seems to have an infestation,” said Ginny. She added a plague of ants to her catalog of affliction. Babs first, then menopause, then ants.
“New England. Carpenter ants everywhere. Bob Vila said that.” Jim nodded knowingly. “I saw this one show where...” He was the expert; he watched home improvement TV. “Poison is tricky stuff, Ginny. We can learn to live with the ants.”
Like we have learned to live with each other, thought Ginny Levitan. “There’ll be more.” She reached out to squash the ant.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake, honey, it’s just one ant.”
“I don’t want them,” said Ginny.
“We had some men in,” said Babs, uncertain as to just what the men had done; they had probably done something. “The men put out some bait. They sprayed...” said Babs.
Underfloor, maddened by the dust precipitated by Jim Levitan’s footfalls, the Icaros cast about, blindly killing any living creature that struggled past. A line of foragers passed the entranceway each carrying a grain of rice; they died under flashing mandibles. There was a distant clicking as Housekeeping readied to clean up after the slaughter.
Indil Thirty-seven scuttled through a grouted aisle separating tightly fitted slabs of terra cotta.
“Shit. It’s gone down a crack,” said Ginny.
The Real Estate Vampire shrugged. “You know these old homes...” They were assured the house was sound.
Jim thumped the floor one more time for good measure. Through the thunder, the Master of Messengers still heard the song of the Lady Mother.
Jim’s wife had that someplace else look of hers. Ginny was hearing God’s dial tone, somewhere. Again. She was gone.
“You don’t hear it?”
“For Christ’s sake, Ginny! Not here.” To his immediate shame, Jim Levitan was angry at his wife for perhaps dying just as they were about to become homeowners. We can save the epileptics for our curtain call. Or at home. This home, ours if we just...
“Snap out of it, godammit,” he whispered in her ear. No response. Ginny Levitan’s pupils were centered and small, her eyes expressionless. For her, time had stopped; she was off counting the lines of force from the Earth’s magnetic field.
“Ginny...” this was a hoarser whisper, more urgent. Jim Levitan felt, and rightly, that his wife having a fit during a house tour would damage their credibility in future negotiations. “Poor Jim, his wife has fits...” the word would get out and the neighbors would not exchange invitations for drinks, smorgasbords, croquet, whatever the hell they did in Maine. They were socially ruined before they had even begun.
Jim took a fast check, one unmonitored quick peek to see if the real estate agent had noticed that she had lost half of her house tour.
Babs had stopped cold. The Moen faucets, her next destination in the directory of detailing, were forgotten. “Hey, you okay?” She smiled at Jim and knelt next to Ginny. She suspected one of those small strokes she heard about on TV. They were a sign of aging. Tiny pupils. Weird. Maybe she was on dope. You never could tell.
Ginny willed her eyes into a coherent focus. “You really don’t hear it?”
“Hear what?” said Babs. Maybe the house was settling.
“A song, sort of. Music, singing,” said Ginny.
Jim Levitan steered his wife to an upholstered window seat. The cushions had been covered with newspapers as a dust cover. The papers crinkled as they sat together. “Honey?”
“I was hearing something strange. Like a cheap battery radio playing Armenian music in a far-off room. I just imagined it. I’ll be fine.” Jim looked at her for several long moments, silent.
Babs picked right up with her pitch. “...completely rewired. I mean new. And they pulled out the stops on the plumbing. A thousand dollars a pop in all the bathrooms.”
Ginny rubbed her eyes, checking for any for residual damage. Normal. Jim was such a worrywart.
Babs smiled a thin, grim smile. “They spent all they had. They went broke before they opened.”
Unchaperoned, Jim and Ginny examined their dream house. Babs Casmirczak had run them through to closing in a record five days. The Levitans adored the house, their house. It was an easy sale for Babs.
They called in a contractor for a thorough inspection.
“Whippy,” said the contractor. He bounced up and down a couple of times to demonstrate what he meant. The brass drawer pulls of a bleached oak dresser jiggled and rattled, its mirror tilted threateningly. “See? Whippy.”
“Strange air, strange air,” beneath their feet an Icaro plodded by at the ready, his giant head swiveling from side to side, alert. Work parties made careful soundings lest a shivered exterior wall had let in strange air and unwanted light.
The contractor jumped again. He looked wise and said, “Four-foot centers. This used to be the attic. You hear things at night?”
“Like what?” Jim readied himself for a quaint, historic tale of a sea captain’s ghost.
“Yes,” said Ginny before the man could reply. “A clicking sound. In the walls. Like somebody cracking his knuckles. But not.” Jim looked at his wife and registered exasperation.
“A clicking?” asked the contractor. “Real steady?”
Ginny nodded and glared back at her husband. “I know what I hear, Jim. Yes, even over your snoring.” Touché.
Ginny walked the man to the door. “Whippy,” he repeated his diagnosis. Ginny felt her head getting tight, a warning.
The contractor waved and called from the street. “You got ants, lady. Better call the exterminator.”
“Bugs. A potential infestation. They could be big trouble down the line. Carpenter ants,” said the contractor. “Gotta get ’em early. You don’t want to hear an estimate.” The contractor left a card. He neglected to say when “early” was.
Ginny’s eyes were glued shut with the mucilage of sleep. She rubbed them at their corners to loosen the bond. Ouch, too much light. Her eyelids slammed shut. Slowly, slowly, Ginny Levitan, née Bujac, eased them open, squinting at a hazy morning through a paling of lashes. She tried to remember her father. They had splashed through the puddles together, puddles with their upside-down skies.
“Well, honey, that’ll bring in Chicago.”
Ginny’s dad had erected a TV mast when she was six years old. Her favorites were Buffalo Bob and his sidekick Howdy Doody, the freckle-faced puppet with, she supposed, red hair. Color TV had yet to reach Racine, Wisconsin. Dad had bought her a metal lunch pail with a color lithograph of Howdy with red hair so it must be so. She tried to remember her imaginary playmate. “How’s your little playmate today, Ginny?” Dad thought the Flim-Flam Man was an elf. Dad had named the Flim-Flam Man: “Careful Baby, the Film-Flam Man goin’ getcha!” There would be giggles and a laugh as he swung her high into the fluffy friendly clouds. Dad believed in the Flim-Flam Man too.
“She flashed her tits at Jim, Dad, the Real Estate Vampire. Oh, I wish you were here. I wish the Flim-Flam Man was here.” Dad gave no response. Dad was dead. Her father’s face faded. Ginny balanced over the side of the bed and allowed her head to dangle to the floor. The world was refreshingly different upside down, like the sky in a rain puddle, blue with high summer cumulus clouds that she once obliterated with her little girl yellow galoshes.
“Carry your lunch pail today?” The Flim-Flam Man had red hair, just like Howdy Doody. But he was more, well... masculine. Ginny Bujac, for that was her name then, liked his tight curly hair, the corded musculature of his shoulders and forearms. He was a comfort when the other kids picked on her.
“That was in Racine, Wisconsin, fifty years ago. I splashed the sky away,” said Ginny.
A line of ants, single file, marched across the pine flooring beside her nose.
“Hello, ants,” said Ginny. A lone ant appeared from under the baseboard. He was carrying a grain of rice and headed against the flow of traffic back down the line of marchers.
“Hello, Little Ginny,” said the Flim-Flam Man.
“You are a figment.”
“Really,” said the Flim-Flam Man.
“Of course. I am nuts. You were all well and good when I was six years old, but...”
“Ginny... we splashed the puddles and made the sky go upside down, didn’t we?”
“You’ve got ants, Little Ginny. You heard what the contractor said. Better call the exterminator.”
The Flim-Flam Man smiled, a hearty manly smile. “They could mean big trouble down the line. Carpenter ants,” said the Flim-Flam Man. “Gotta get ’em early.”
Ginny decided to kill the ants herself.
Ginny found out that she was a loser at the game of life by accident. It was the running shoes. She noticed them in her husband’s gym bag and recalled the pair of shoes in Babs Casmirczak’s bag. Jim had been working out three, four nights a week at the Bangor YMCA, a good hour-plus drive away. He had said, “I’m closing in on 58 and I want to slow the process.” Reasonable enough.
Dinner was on the table. A bouquet of purple periwinkles in a jelly-glass vase sat between them. “Macaroni and cheese. Again?” The implication was that Ginny was trying to fatten him up against all the good work he was doing at the gym. Ginny noticed that Jim was putting on a spare tire despite all his workouts.
“Help yourself, enjoy,” said Ginny. Jim tucked right in.
Two nights later and Jim was a no-show. Ginny called the Bangor YMCA. A valley girl voice, sounding knowledgeable, all chirpy and preppy, assured her they were, indeed, open till 9:00 P.M. “Levitan? Jim Levitan? I’ll call down and have one of the trainers check the sign-in sheet.” Ginny was on hold. After five-plus minutes, the chirpy girl returned.
“No, he’s not signed in. But that doesn’t mean anything; it’s just suggested, not required. In case of an emergency. Do you want him paged?”
No, Ginny did definitely not want him paged. “Thank you for taking the trouble.”
“No problem. Say, why don’t you sign up? Our Seniors’ Special...” Ginny hung up on her. Later on, ten-ish, Jim arrived, hair slicked back and still wet from the shower.
“You know... I was thinking of maybe joining myself.”
Jim started to talk, then hesitated, “It’s a long drive...”
“Just over an hour...” Long enough to get your hair dry if that’s where you were. “You do it. We could get the family rate. Or I could sign up on the Seniors’ Special.”
“You’re not that out of shape.”
“Thanks for noticing.” She pulled one shoe from her husband’s gym bag. The tissue paper from the factory was still wadded into the toe. He had never laced them up. “Nice shoes. If I didn’t know better, I’d guess you were having an affair with Babs, the real estate agent.”
Jim flushed, turning the color of a boiled lobster from his neck to the part in his hair. “Uh... What?” He shuffled his feet and looked away.
Ginny slept in the guest bedroom from then on.
“Sister, sister, can you hear me?”
“Yes, I can hear you.” The voice—which Ginny feared only she could hear and at that only in her mind—quavered with the peculiar quality of an overseas radio transmission, the heterodyning phase shifts she had heard from her father’s short wave radio: “Shhhh, pumpkin, that’s London calling, the BBC World Service.” Or Moscow, or Mozambique.
“Sister, soon it will only be you and I.”
Ginny Levitan struggled to be awake, rubbing muzzy cobwebs from the edges of her consciousness. “Who are you?” She could not locate the source of the voice.
“I am the Lady Mother. Except for myself, of course. I did not know my mother but I must assume that there was one. My fecundator, the Father of Us All, died at the moment of consummation.”
“My father died twenty years ago.”
“Ah, sister, so did the Father of Us All.”
“Where are you?”
“Where I have always been. I am singing.”
“Uh, that’s nice.”
“No, it is not nice, as you say. But it is necessary.”
“If you are not just some imbalance with my endocrine system, where are you?”
“I might ask you the same question if I knew what it was. Sister, sister. I cry alone, always alone. Into the emptiness, the great darkness outside the galleries, beyond the sand. I have reached out in my despair and you have answered. Where have you been?”
“Racine, Wisconsin, then Chicago mostly. Jim organized seminars for the University. Then here, to Maine. We retired early.”
“I do not know of these things. Where is early?”
Ginny rummaged in the drawer of her bedside table for the card of that therapist Jim had recommended. She deliberately tore the card apart. “There. He says I am nuts. What does that make you?” The shredded bits fell to the bedroom carpet like confetti behind a parade.
“What I have always been, the Lady Mother of the Long Walkers. Sister, I need your help,” the voice sang.
Ginny stirred the fallen confetti with a toe. “About now I’m the one who needs professional help. Just what did you have in mind?”
A wordless singing went on for several minutes.
With a burst of pre-menstrual energy, Ginny was beating the blues by cleaning out the attic when she discovered the ancient can, tucked away where the roof timbers met at the eaves.
“Rodenticide, kills ants and other household pests,” she read. “Arsenic trioxide.” The label was printed on parchment colored paper in red ink. There was a picture of a rat, looking feral and healthy. A skull and crossbones adorned one corner. She carried the can to the kitchen where she spread some newspapers and prised off the lid. The can was full of a dense, white powder.
And the phone was ringing.
“Yeah?” Ginny was trying to read the label on the can of ant poison. She balanced the phone against her ear while she rummaged in a drawer for her spare glasses.
“Shit,” said Ginny.
“I just spilled my poison. Who is this?” Ginny decided there was not enough poison spilled to do any real damage and squeegeed up loose powder with a wet paper towel.
“Spilled your what?”
“Ginny, it’s Linda.”
“Linda.” Who the hell was Linda?
“Linda Throckmorton. I haven’t seen you since high school.”
“Oh God. Linda.”
“I wanted to call and tell you how sorry I am about your father. His death?”
“Linda, that was twenty years ago. Have you just heard?”
“I didn’t know what to say at the time. I couldn’t call. And now...”
“Better late than never.” A pause. “Linda, is that why you haven’t talked to me for twenty years, because you didn’t call when my dad died?”
“Linda, where are you?”
“California. Bob teaches at San Jose State.”
“Jesus Christ, Linda. We were friends.”
“Ginny, I’m so miserable. We, I, am in counseling, A.A. My marriage is a mess; I’ve been going to Weight-Watchers, Jenny Craig...”
“You’re fat, you’re seeing a shrink, you’re drying out and Bob is fucking the cheerleaders and you’re sorry my dad is dead. That about right so far?”
“Oh...” There was silence, then a quiet sobbing.
Ginny watched a line of ants struggle with the task of transporting rice from a bag of basmati down from the kitchen counter back to their nest. Her rice from her cabinet. She reached for the can of arsenic trioxide and slammed it down on the counter, hard. The lid popped loose, sending a cloud of gray-white dust into the air. Ginny dived for the paper towels and moistening one placed it against her nose. She juggled the telephone. She had twisted the cord into an electrical macramé.
“Get a grip on yourself. Linda. We’re fifty-six years old, for Chrissakes—terminal ennui, the death of marriage, blah, blah, blah. And forget passion. I started high impact aerobics to tighten up my ass. Now Jim is fucking Babs Casmirczak.”
“Casmirczak, the Real Estate Vampire. She’s the agent who sold us our dream house. Jim is fucking her and I’m suing to get some equity back.”
“And you’re suing for divorce?”
“Or something, anything. Or I will be.”
There was a snuffle at Linda’s end of the conversation. “Ginny, this took a lot of courage for me.”
“Pick up the phone Linda—just once in twenty years—it’s not heavy. A little penitence goes a long way. Fuck you. I am one royally pissed-off screaming termagant.”
“I called you every day, in my mind. I’ve been in therapy. I was there for you, Ginny.”
A reedy skirling of tiny bagpipes, “Sister, sister, help me...” The bagpipers ceased but the song continued, a song with no content.
Trailing the telephone cord behind her, Ginny went to the refrigerator and pulled out a container of yogurt, full of fat and with sugary fruit syrup on the bottom.
Linda said something, stopped, waited for a reply. Ginny hummed tunelessly. “What’s that?” Linda was still on the line.
“Oh, you’re still there; I thought I heard someone breathing. That’s The Song of the Rice Barge Coolie. I was watching ants walk cross the kitchen counter just now. Bertolt Brecht. I learned it in college. A theater course.”
“We did Showboat in high school, remember?”
Ginny peeled the seal from the yogurt container. Elbows on the kitchen counter, her fingers traced idle swirls in leftover poison dust. “The ants are emptying a five-pound bag of rice. Grain by grain. I thought the ants’ achievement deserved some recognition.”
Linda sang, “It’s just my Bill, an ordinary guy...”
“They work all day for a chance to work the following day, the coolies. They get to eat whatever spills. They sleep under a bridge if they are lucky. Then they die.”
“Like Ol’ Man River. In Showboat.” Linda’s small, snot-filled voice rose and fell in the earpiece. “’He jes’ keeps rollin’ along...’”
“Not really. The coolies will never get there. They will all die. Their children will finish the trip. Then their children will die.” Ginny’s hands played with the old poison can, prising off the lid, squeezing it shut. The lid became jammed. A large ring of keys, Jim’s keys, with Babs’s Century 21 advertising bauble lay on the table. Ginny bent a key getting the lid off. “Ouch.” A bright spot of blood shimmered on the white powder, her blood. Ginny cursed Linda Throckmorton. In far California Linda took a snot-filled gulp, a warning that she was taking on air for an extended conversation. Ginny hung up the phone.
That song again, the Armenian music from a distant radio.
“Hello. Are you there?” said Ginny.
“I cry alone, always alone,” said the Lady Mother of the Long Walkers. “I remember the sun,” the singer trilled, “the great light. And the blessed wind with white blossoms falling upward. They promised much but I was betrayed.”
“That’s true love for you, once in a lifetime. Jim is fucking the Real Estate Vampire.”
The Lady Mother did not ask the meaning of vampire or even fucking a vampire. Ginny figured the concepts were a given. After all, the voice was her hallucination.
“Kill your husband, sister, as I killed mine. He has betrayed you after all...” The Lady Mother became hushed and insinuating. “Sister,” she said, “I ripped out his organs of generation. He was so beautiful.” Her song rose and fell. “The eggs, my eggs, my larvae, my pupae, the hatchlings, are dying, my sister queens are dead and lying in a row...”
“I have my own problems.” Pictures of tunnels, shafts and galleries, brood chambers and a purposeful thronging skittered across Ginny’s mind. Large white bodies lay dead. “Jesus Christ. You’re an ant.”
“If you say it, sister, then it is so.” The Lady Mother of the Long Walkers was sure and composed.
Ginny felt an early tingle of migraine, a hometown nova about to bloom in her head. Where was the Dilantin? The first time this music played she had had a seizure. She could kill the ants and stop the singing in her head. And, so it followed with ineluctable logic, why not Jim, too. The idea was not unpleasing. Virginia Levitan, née Bujac, was not sure that her husband deserved killing just for having an affair—or really bad taste in women, meaning Babs. He had said she was fat. Fat and fits. And he had criticized her right in front of the Real Estate Vampire. Death happens for reasons. She trusted that the ants would appreciate this.
“I have seizures. Prozac wasn’t invented yet. I got Dilantin. I got the anticonvulsants. Try Dilantin for twenty years. I have hair on my tits. I hear voices; I am dizzy. I foam at the mouth and fall down. Boom. Like that. Right on my hairy tits.”
“There is one I can trust, a messenger. You will help him.”
Ginny Levitan, cuckolded wife, awakened to the reasonableness that her rear end was cold. Coffee-making odors and subdued businesses filtered in from the kitchen. Motion was not on the menu until she got sufficiently coordinated to figure a way through the overnight tangle of knotted bedclothes. Her foot was caught.
Too early. This was as early as days got. One extravagant fling got all the covers over back on top of her and Ginny was in the secret garden of her own woman smells. A click from the kitchen, low radio morning sounds. The refrigerator lunked shut, more coffee aroma. Her wandering husband had come home.
“Yoo-hoo, Ginny, coffee’s on and the bathroom’s clear.”
Reveille. Considerate Jim.
Jim came into the bedroom, tousled Ginny’s hair and gave a desultory peck on the nose. He ran a hand up the inside of her thigh.
“Indil Thirty-seven, Master of Messengers, I would have you visit my sister.”
“Your sister is dead, Lady.”
“This is another sister. A woman.”
“Lady? I am sincerely sorry for the deaths of your sisters.”
“Master of Messengers, you are a fool.”
“I have talked with my sister and now she is going to kill us all. Then there will be no more Long Walkers. This I cannot allow. It is my duty. “My sister, the new, the living, sister has revealed to me that I am an ant. You too are an ant, as are the workers, the Icaros and even Housekeeping and the nannies. She believes that we are insignificant.”
“What is an ant, Lady?”
“Why, we are. And have been so since the moon filled the sky and the seasons did not change.”
“What may I do for my Lady?”
“Kill the woman... and her husband too,” the Lady Mother added as an afterthought. “Failing that, bring home her corrosive powders to destroy the Icaros. The poison rains have made them mad. I can always make more.”
“What is a woman?”
“Do I have to tell you everything?”
At the granite-topped center island of her renovated, better than new, kitchen, Ginny poked around in the drawers the previous owners had left chock full of utensils.
“Ahh...” She came up with a silver-handled mold for forming decorative cones from confectioner’s sugar. Dipping it in the can of poison she pressed out mounded ellipses in a half-circle.
Indil Thirty-seven, after navigating the grouted alleyways that separated the tiles of the kitchen floor, struggled with clicking articulations over the polished stone lip of Ginny Levitan’s countertop. Another obstacle, a range of white powder mountains, lay ahead. He made for a valley.
“Oh...” As Ginny shifted her weight on the high stool she set one mound of white, white powder into motion. Snow, snow, white and deadly, drifted a millimeter deep to bury a miniature alpine pass. She watched a lone ant struggle out from under the arsenic fall and skitter back to the edge of the polished granite slab.
“Hi there. Is that you?” Ginny felt ridiculous asking.
“Thus far, sister of the queen.” The words were close and foreign, a strange accent. Was that the Armenian music? And mixed with the tiny, tinny bagpipes, too.
“Who are you?” No answer. Ginny Levitan faced the windows, her eyes focused on nothing. A busy day, today, voices in my head.
“They are killing the captive queens, the Icaros are,” said the voice.
On the countertop the lone ant groomed its antennae as a miniature bagpipe band played from the poison buffet. “You are going to kill your husband. He is wearing out, then?” The ant was dusted white from its struggle through the arsenic.
“I am doing the wearing out. Would you kill my husband? If you were me?”
“Whatever advances the colony. My colony is killing its spare queens. This is usual in times of dwindling food or an overabundance of foragers. But Housekeeping’s behavior is not normal. They will kill the Mother of Us All.”
“Holy shit. You are the messenger.”
“Your sister, the Mother of Us All, said she had prepared you for my coming.” The ant was diffident.
“All this is for real, then?”
“What is real? Solid? Then that is what this must be.” The messenger was pleased, having figured things out by himself.
Ginny licked off her fingers, then self-consciously wiped them on her khaki shorts. “You are an ant. I am talking to an ant.” She had meant to kill them, the ants, and felt contrite.
“So that is indeed what you call us. I have learned this twice today. And are you perhaps the great presence shutting out the light? Thank you for sharing your air with me. Ant. Indeed. I am a Long Walker, messenger and scout.”
“You work like rice barge coolies: no future, no past, only the work and a scrap of food,” said Ginny. “You are an ant. I could kill you.”
“Should I consider this a warning or a call to combat?” Indil Thirty-seven crouched defensively on his second and third leg joints and tucked his abdomen under his thorax.
“Fight me? You are an ant.”
“I am bigger than you. I would win.”
“So then I must die.” Indil Thirty-seven groomed an antenna. “Could we not work together?”
Almost flattery. Ginny crossed her legs. “Some men find me attractive.”
“You are a men? What is a men?”
“Then if I were a men I, too, would find you attractive,” said the ant. “But the joy of duty you find shallow. Duty is the greatest satisfaction imaginable. Soon there must be a swarming. I have no wings. Housekeeping will cut me up alive for it is not in me to resist them. I will be their last meal then they, too will die.”
“Then you all die and are eaten.”
“Self-death and the violent ending of another are expediencies. We are familiar with these,” said Indil. “Your husband. Will you eat him or may I take him home?”
Ginny uncrossed her legs.
“I could call 911,” said Ginny, remembering the arsenic. “For all of us.”
“You could. Who is 911?”
Ginny explained medical emergencies. “Are you real?” This was stupid, of course he wasn’t real.
“Ah, yes, 911. For your husband. The Lady Mother could call Housekeeping and they would come to cut him up for that is the way of things.”
Ginny washed her hands at the sink and thrust a spoon into the container of yogurt. “What do you do with the rice when you haul your grain of rice home?”
“We eat it. You have eaten the white powder. You will die. Then again, perhaps not. But then, so will I for I have unwisely walked through it. Or not. Whatever is the will of the Mother of Us All.”
“My name is Ginny, by the way.”
“Thank you, Ginny. I am the Master of Messengers. Today I am Thirty-seventh. This is my time, Ginny. Is that a sweet, sticky thing you have there? Don’t lick the spoon, lay it near me. Gently, gently now.” The Master of Messengers walked through the sticky blueberry essence, then the powder, covering his tarsal joints blue and white. “At present you are pondering the choices of suicide or killing your husband.”
“How do you know?”
“The Mother of Us All has informed me of this. I gather that either option will advance your colony’s sense of duty. However, both choices bring you unease.”
“Breathe well, Long Walker. Thank you for sharing your air.”
“May you sing like a queen, Mother of men. This is a dark and doubtful life we have around us.” With the easy clicking gaited grace of one born to duty, the Master of Messengers escaped beneath a baseboard molding to make his report. He had the gift of obedience.
Jim Levitan came home late again, moist and fresh from a recent shower. The reek of French milled soap did not cover the smell of sex, likewise moist and recent.
He found the house a symphony of aromas. His wife greeted him with powdered doughnuts, home-baked, lightly fried in sesame oil and covered with white, white powder. Confectioner’s sugar, he guessed.
Ginny Levitan wondered whom she would call, perhaps Linda Throckmorton with her belated atonements.
Hail to our mother, who caused the messenger, the soldier, the worker,
Who scattered the seeds of her body as she came forth from Paradise.
See how they love her, gathered near!
The Indil, master of messengers;
The Icaro, a soldier, a terror:
A stirrer of strife, A maker of war;
The worker, humble and wearied.
She is our mother, goddess of the earth, she offers
food in the desert, and causes us to live.
Our lives are the wonder.
And I am the master of messengers.
Mother of Us All, be merciful.
copyright 2007, 2019 Rob Hunter
Song of the Rice Barge Coolie was first published in Aeon Speculative Fiction Eleven, edited by Bridget and Marti McKenna.