Who Are My Enemies? — A Maui Fairy Tale

by Roger M. Altenberg

© September 17, 2003

Once there was a seventy-eight year old man named John who lived by himself in a house near the sea. His wife had died ten years before, leaving him in a prolonged retreat from the world. His home became his universe. Every day he vacuumed the rugs, morning and evening. He scrubbed the dishes by hand in the kitchen sink, rinsing them four or five times so that not a molecule of food or detergent could be found on them.

He wanted to live in peace with no invaders of his privacy. There might be an occasional desire for some company, but the visit would have to be carefully prepared and of short duration. The only exception was his thirty-five year old son, Phil, an easy going fellow. He had a key to the house and came by daily at odd hours to see that all was well.

Some months before, John's world had changed drastically: he had Enemies. There were Invaders; Mice and Ants entered his home. Perhaps it was the long months of drought that had sucked the moisture out of the nearby fields and driven these creatures to search for water in neighboring houses. Perhaps it was simply his destiny, because his life had become static. His ideas had been fixed, as if in concrete. He was here and the world was out there. Memories of his years in the corporate world, the tenderness of companionship with his wife, all were frozen. He kept coming back to these images, dreaming of them while mindlessly repeating his household chores. He spent hours polishing his car, which he never drove anywhere. If he went out at all it was in his son's station wagon with its surfboard racks and outrageous bumper stickers. He devoted himself also the front lawn, which he mowed over and over. It looked like a flock of half-starved goat had been let loose on it.

Now there were these Enemies. They were out of their element. They belonged out in the fields, in dry grasses and the earth, not in his nome. When he saw the first shadowy black mouse slithering into his kitchen pantry, he stared incredulously. "What the hell," he shouted out loud. "You little bastard, get out of here!" He reached for a broom and began creating havoc in the pantry. Cans of Mama Mia Spaghetti Sauce rolled off the shelves. The mouse stayed discreetly out of sight.

The next day his son came by and left a very humane trap. The bait inside the little grey metal jail consisted of a piece of cheddar cheese and a blob of pungent peanut butter. When the mouse entered through the little opening of the trap, a door clanked shut behind him. The next day Phil took the trap and released the mouse in a field a few streets away. This practice went on for many irritating months, but no mice ever had a long stay in the house.

With the ants it was a different story. The old man tried a variety of poisons but nothing worked. The creatures seemed to inhabit a number of places in the house, but mainly kept court in the kitchen and the bathroom. Only one or two emerged at a time. he hated these copper colored insects "with a passion." When they crawled over a coffee cup in the kitchen, he again called them "bastards". But his vocabulary also included "little stinkers" when they crawled out from behind the toilet in the bathroom — an act of free association on his part. In the kitchen sink he would spray them with water out of the faucet, forcing them down into the garbage disposal. In the bathroom he lost all control of himself. One audacious ant crawled out in an inspection tour of his toothbrush, which lay at the side of the sink. As it made its way over the bristles, he grabbed the toothbrush and with a violent flinging motion turned the anti into a projectile headed in the direction of the bath tub. It landed safely at the bottom of the tub. He then rolled up magazine and attempted to strike the insect with a fatal blow, but managed only to bang his knuckles in a fearful wallop against the hard surface of the tub. At a breathtaking speed the ant ran up the wall of the enclosure.

Weeks and months went by. The ants were always with him. When one evening he entered the bathroom and turned on the light he could see an ant on the toilet seat running fro cover. Another ant lolling on the top of the toilet tank water made a dive for the back of the tank. Increasing his vocabulary of crude curses, he yelled, "Little shits!"

He lifted the tank lid and saw that a number of the ants had found an apartment for themselves just above the water line. Not the safest place. Some had drowned, their bodies floating in the water. Odd thoughts flickered through John's mind: A somber scene. A battle lost. Who would blow taps for these fallen soldiers?

One day he asked his son, "What shall i do? they keep multiplying. I can't get rid of them.

"Dad," said the surfer, "try to cool it. They're not a colony. These are just a few scouts."

"Their behavior is so stupid," John told himself. "They run around in crazy circles, then shoot off in tangents. THey keep chasing up walls where there's no food or water. Don't seem to be trying to get anywhere, really. What kind of scouts are these?"

He had been on a campaign of shoving them into the toilet bowl and then flushing them. As time went on he couldn't stand to see them struggling as they drowned. He would close the lid so as not to watch. He realized that he had by now been responsible for many deaths among these invaders. His view of the ants was undergoing a change. Yes, they were a dreadful nuisance, but they were also victims. Enemies was too strong a term for them.

And so it went. He say their instinct for self-preservation. How smart they were. They could escape so rapidly when they sensed danger. And they were so strong. THeir bodies seemed made to take all kind of punishment and yet keep going. They could fall the equivalent for them of fifty to a hundred feet in human terms and get up and start running. Their speed astonished him. Their tiny bodies, about one fourth of an inch in length, raced at speeds perhaps five to ten times the rate of the fastest human.

One night he saw an example of their persistence, their absolute determination to get to where they wanted to go. He was lying in bed, his reading lamp on the night table beside him illuminating that area of his room. An ant began climbing up the wall next to his bed. The insect went up about four feet toward the ceiling, lost its footing and slid down about two feet, and started up again. It performed this action over and over. Losing his "cool", he reached for a Kleenex and tried as gently as he could to fold it around the ant, but then irresponsibly tossed it across the room. Within no time the ant was back clambering up the same section of the wall. The old man was getting extremely annoyed and yet full of contradictory sentiments all at the same time.

"Damn," he muttered, "Damn, damn!"

But he couldn't drive away the thought: What harm is he really doing to me? He brushed past my ear, big deal. What if he is a leader of his class?..."

"If he could speak, if I could hear his voice what would he be saying to me?"

John tried listening as hard as he had ever one in his whole life, to get some message in the silence of his room. He waited patiently, staring fixedly at this tiny emissary, who was not moving.

Suddenly a voice reached him. It was gentle. He heard it as if it were coming directly from the insect to him.

"We are one."

The voice grew louder and louder.


John sat there frozen, looking at the ant. The message had to permeate his entire being. After some time he noted that the ant was once more starting his journey upward. The old man reached for a Kleenex and thought "I'll pick him up gently and this time I'll carry him out the back door where he can join his soldiers in the fields."

He twisted around in bed and thrust the Kleenex around the ant as carefully as he could. Because of his twisted position, however, he lost his balance as he reached backward. His hand plunged heavily as it folded the Kleenex around the scout.

With dread he slowly unwrapped the Kleenex. A tear came into his eye. Then, more tears. Before long he was crying, something he hadn't done in ten years. When his son came by to check the mouse traps in the kitchen, he heard his father's agitated weeping. The young man knocked softly on the bedroom door and entered.

He saw his father sitting on the edge of his bed, holding a Kleenex and sobbing. On the white tissue an ant was lying quite still. Dead.

John's son wondered what in God's name had gotten into the old man.

He turned ever so quietly and tiptoed out of the room.