By Paul Mirabile

My flat is very small and unhealthy: a roach-infested kitchen and bath, a stuffy dining room and bedroom. And I must admit that I made no particular effort to remedy this unhealthiness. Because there is no heating system, in the winters I board up the tiny windows that are found above my bedroom and those in the dining room. This may appear primitive, but I do live on the fifth floor where cold winds blast frosty air through flimsy boards. It goes without saying that I freeze during the winter. With the arrival of spring, though, I remove the boards and replace them with wax curtains so as to keep the insects out. They build their nests on top of the roof. In the kitchen there is a skylight, square and tiny, the brittle glass of which I had the misfortune of breaking some time ago. I haven’t either the skill or the pecuniary means to repair it. This broken skylight had been constantly on my mind because of those huge nests atop the roof. I indeed could have mustered up the money, but … you know how people get when their existence is reduced to tiny cubicles and thoughts ?

Not long ago I left town for a short stay near the sea. The weather had been exceedingly hot, and my flat was like an oven. The square below was filled with sultry, polluted air, with noisy gypsies hawking and haggling. My pleasant little holiday terminated horribly as soon as I stepped into my flat : the kitchen, stifling, was crawling thick with black ants ! I was beside myself. There were streams of them forming enormous black, billowing pools on the unclean white-tiled walls. I puked on them for I have detested these ever since I had buried live ants as a child, relishing the sensation of their tomb in the midst of hard-packed humus, suffused with dampness and pervaded by silence. I often wondered whether this sentiment was mine or theirs ?

The mere sight, now, of one or two made me break into a cold sweat; and here, before me scampered millions, fat and juicy. I ran to the bath grabbing a mop and bucket. Pouring alcohol into the soapy water, I set to work crushing them on the white-tiled floor, knocking them off the white-tiled walls and ceiling. The toil seemed endless, yet, as time went by, the mass slaughter gave me a sort of perverted delight ; an abnormal sensation of power, divine and unholy at the same time. Toppling the darting beasts from the walls, I sent them hurtling to a watery death. The strong smelling alcohol caused them to shrivel up into tiny black balls. I finished off many by simply crushing them between my fingers or under my bloody heels. Two hours later there were none left on the wall to tell their disheartening tale …

Exhausted, I owed their hideous trespassing to the broken skylight, and vowed to replace it in the morning. And still I hadn’t unpacked … That would be left for the morning ; for now, I needed a good, sound sleep. Yet the heat that evening was unbearable. I threw myself onto the bed, trying to forget the images and those disgusting ants. No use, I couldn’t drive them out of my strung-up mind. The sheets were soaked in perspiration. I tossed them off, wiping the sweat from my face and arms with them. The bedroom stank of sweat so I got up and staggered into the kitchen to splash some water on my body. When I switched on the light a terrible sight made me fall back into the kitchen table : the walls heaved and throbbed with myriads of black and red ants which were making their way through the skylight. Many of them were huge. They swarmed round my feet, naked and exposed to their scrabbling, biting and scratching. Involuntarily I let out a scream and ran back to fetch my trusty mop. I would have to begin the whole gory operation again …

Returning to the amok beasts, I took up the mop, smashing the filthy creatures against the walls and floor, picking them out of the fissures and cracks, wrenching them out of corner and nook. It seemed as if I were fighting for my life ! Alas the battling brutes out-numbered me ; little by little my strength wanned as the colonies gained the cracks throughout the kitchen walls, filling them until the plaster broke and crumbled down. They dived into my hair, swiftly seeking the orbits of my eyes. Falling to my knees … I awoke …

It had been an evil nightmare ! Were the black beasts coming back to torment me after so many years of burials and extermination ? The wall-clock chimed three ; My mind raced and body ached. And the darkness of my chamber offered no consolation, nor the oppressiveness of the heat. I dared not walk into the kitchen although my throat, parched and swollen, yearned for a glass of cool water. The nightmare had turned the beads of sweat into icy droplets : would this bed-chamber be my tomb ? And yet … yet, the temptation gnawed at me. Yes, enter the kitchen, see whether it had all been a nasty nightmare, or reality, or something in between. Yes, my little coffin in which I had passed much of my existence. I laughed aloud, then louder. Speedy thoughts formed icicles in and round my soul. For I did believe in the soul : wasn’t that the very reason I had buried those ants alive ? 

However, the clammy heat kept me riveted to the bed. Laying back, I suddenly detected slight noises coming from the door which led into the narrow, yellowed peeling wall-papered hallway. I listened … and listened with greater intensity, steadily growing conscious that something was alive in the room. Frozen to the bed, I listened even more attentively, carefully, so as not to disturb this pulsating thing.

Finally, plucking up courage, I flung myself out of bed and darted to the door. I noted a foul smell reeking from the hallway ; the scent of the dead ? Flicking on the light a jolt threw me back in horror : millions … no billions of ants were smothering two half-dead mice, dragging the screeching rodents across the threshold of my room. And there inside it, I had nothing to kill them with ! The screeching of the half-gnawed mice drove me mad ; strange, too, were the indescribable crunching sounds that elicited from the open-mouthed rodents. I soon realised that this was no nightmare. However, I couldn’t be sure whether the mice were dead or still fighting off the floods of ants with the last flickers of their unfortunate lives.

I grabbed a chair and squashed them at my feet, attempting to clear a path to the kitchen. The mop was my only salvation, since that of the mice could no longer be redeemed. But what would the kitchen look like ? I was trapped. Nonetheless, I put on my shoes that were still stained with the blood of the black beasts, and made a bee-line towards the sacred door. Those ant nests must have been immense ; the walls, floor and ceiling had been blackened by them, caked, dense and throbbing …

The door loomed in sight, albeit it swelled in a tidal wave movement of heaving, pulsating ants : clinging, swirling, skirling, raging … They fell upon me like wrathful wasps whose nests had been discovered and disrupted.

They fell upon me I say, hordes of them racing up my naked legs. Yet, I couldn’t budge; I tried to inch forward but my feet wouldn’t move. They were attacking my face and hair now as I crawled closer and closer to the oscillating door. I started to scream for help; yet, who would have come to my succour ? Thoughts of the half-eaten mice suddenly flooded my mind ; they were probably dead by now, buried beneath a layer of ants, like the ants I had buried, beneath layers of dun soil ! I imagined an ant-hill at a time when pirates would bury their sad prisoners up to their necks in them, waiting until the disturbed red killers chewed through the eyes of their screaming interlopers. I reached for the door-knob ; something held me back, an evil, insalubrious odour that stealthily began to suffocate me. My breath became shorter and shorter, and when I managed to gasp for breath a billow of soft, mushy, black flooded into my open mouth … I sat up screaming in bed …

Like a lunatic I paced back and forth in that death chamber. All I asked for was to sleep. But the ants … I placed my ear to the moist floor boards … there was no sound. Cautiously I moved through the narrow hallway, my fingers touching ever so tenaciously the viscous, soiled paper, probing each and every crevice and crack. I couldn’t, however, bring myself to switch on the light, thus there I remained in the dark, a man afraid to exit from his own shelter. Would they bury me alive in this earthy niche ? Into the kitchen I ventured still in absolute darkness. I stooped down to touch the floor : nothing, absolutely nothing. I laughed a rather hysterical laugh. The floor was somewhat wet from my mopping. I did indeed mop then ! I slipped and slid about, so happy about this nothing … this absolutely nothing. So thrilled about this … that …

Suddenly the phone rang. At this hour of the night ? I sat up listening … listening … it suddenly stopped, as abruptly as that ! Then there was a knock at the door … I sat up listening … listening … It too stopped, as abruptly as that ! As I lay back, the flat echoed with various breathing sounds : they would come and go, like the ringing and the knocking. The phone rang … no one. A knock drilled … no one. Gradually an inky blackness crept over my still, stiffened body until the rim of a faint light allowed me to peer into the hallway where billions of soldier ants were busy bearing the burden of their dead …

Paul Mirabile is a retired professor of philology now living in France. He has published mostly academic works centred on philology, history, pedagogy and religion. He has also published stories of his travels throughout Asia, where he spent thirty years.



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