Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Happiness of the Island Ants

In the summer of 2013 German publisher Beate Forsbach invited writers to submit stories, poems, or personal essays  for a collection of stories about people who live on an island, who have fulfilled their dream of living on an island, or who dream of living on an island. 
The best entries were chosen for publication in the collection "Inselgeschichten" (Island Stories) 
My previous blog post "Imagine"-  the personal essay about my first encounter with Manhattan - was the first entry I submitted, and the story "The Happiness of the Island Ants" was my second submission.  I am very happy that both were chosen for publication, and would like to thank Beate Forsbach for the inspiration to write them. Both were translated from the original German, and published on this blog with permission from Edition Forsbach.  
The book is available for purchase in the original German through the following link "Inselgeschichten"


“We’ve got to run, man. It’s about time we got out of here,” said Wizzy to Busy after another close encounter with the sweeper at Hamburg Central Station. The machine showed no mercy for anything that crossed its way. 
“Get out of here! Again!” Busy complained. “You already said that in Valparaiso.”

Port of Valparaiso

The two ants had arrived at the port of Hamburg by ship six months ago. Of course they traveled as stowaways, because ants aren’t allowed on board officially.
A couple of large metal tanks, a little rusty in several places, weren’t supposed to be on board, either. A strange liquid seeped through occasionally. It had a sweet, heavy smell, like syrup, and the taste was very sweet. It had attracted Wizzy and Busy in the port of Valparaiso, the home of the ant colony where they grew up. They couldn’t get enough of the syrup, even though they always felt slightly dizzy afterwards.

            They didn’t care. They simply lay down and slept it off. They never worried about time, or being late for work. When they woke up again, they simply ingested more of the sweet stuff. In the end, they decided to camp out right by the tanks, so they didn’t have to walk so far for their meals.

Wizzy and Busy felt no inclination for hard work. They were very different from ordinary ants in that respect. It was the ultimate reason why they ended up leaving the ant colony. They were constantly at odds with the supervisor, and got fed up with being reprimanded all the time. There had to be more convenient ways to make a living.

After a particularly sumptuous meal they fell asleep right on one of the tanks one day. The air was a bit stuffy when they woke up, but filled with the smell of their favorite food. Wizzy and Busy didn’t worry too much as long as there was enough to eat. They ate and slept and ate and slept. The ground was always shaking a little, sometimes less, sometimes more. In the end, they understood that they were on a ship.

Sometimes they heard noises from the people who worked on board the ship. One day the door to the storage room opened. A beam of light penetrated the darkness and focused on the tanks. Tiny as they were, Wizzy and Busy weren’t afraid of being detected.
“They’ve got to go,” said a voice.
They looked at each other in surprise.
“They’re not talking about us, are they?” whispered Busy.
“Don’t worry, they can’t find us, and if they do, we’ll just disappear in a crack in the floor.”

To be on the safe side, they went to sleep a little further away from the tanks this time. When they awoke the tanks were gone. Soon, the door opened again and the storage room was cleaned thoroughly. They barely escaped, before a strong gush of water swept across the floor.

Food supplies were scarce for the remainder of the trip. They fed themselves from the leftovers that went in the trashcan in the kitchen. The sailors were always hungry and little food was thrown away. Wizzy and Busy survived on potato peels and longed for the sweet syrup.
“I wonder what that was,” said Busy.
“I have no idea,” Wizzy replied, “but I think it has helped us to understand the language of humans. At least we’ll be able to find out what’s up.”

In the port of Hamburg, they landed on a garbage truck, together with the contents of the trashcan. The truck drove through the city, collecting trash. The two ants climbed the tailgate, so they could see where they were going. Following some spontaneous intuition they get off at the Main Railroad Station.

Hamburg Central Station

It proved to be a good choice. They set up their headquarters by a bakery. When they weren’t in the mood for sweets there were plenty of other choices. Over time, they made a map of the different cafes, restaurants and food stands. You didn’t even have to walk. You could always hitch a ride on a luggage cart or a suitcase. Getting on and off at the right moment was the only thing that required a little practice.

They didn’t bother to make the acquaintance of the local ants. Watching people and listening to their stories was a much more interesting pastime. The hustle and bustle during rush hour always reminded them of their ant colony back in Valparaiso, but they never got homesick. From their safe outlook on the roof of the bakery they observed the mayhem and wondered why everybody was in such a hurry. Observing was fun, though, as long as they weren’t in the middle of it and in danger of being run over.

Food, sleep and entertainment seemed guaranteed, until the administration decided to intensify efforts for cleanliness and hygiene on the premises. That resolution was followed by the ants’ first encounter with the sweeper. At least it made a lot of noise, so that they had a chance to get away in time. The chemicals applied by pest control were more treacherous. They came silently, during the night, when everything was quiet. One squirt was enough to extinguish the entire ant population by the big trashcan in the main hall.

“That’s no fun any more,” said Busy. “We haven’t had a proper night’s sleep for an entire week.”
“I wonder whether it’s going to continue like this, or whether it’s only a PHASE that will wind down after a while.” He proudly emphasized the word “phase.” He had just picked it up from a conversation between two gentlemen in business suits, and he had the feeling it suited the situation.
“Phase or no phase, if we’re squished before it’s over the ability to name the PHENOMENON will be useless to us,” said Busy. Like Wizzy, he was eager to extend his vocabulary. Both ants realized that mental effort suited them much better than physical work.
“Where to go, that’s the question,” said Busy. The sound of the approaching sweeper made them panic and sent them running down the stairs to platform 3 without cover. They found shelter under a bench, close to the trash can.

Hamburg Central Station

“Vacation, finally, Thank heavens,” said the voice of a woman. “I’m ready for the island.” The woman looked tired, but there was a tinge of relief in her voice, and she was beaming when she said the word “island.”
“Island, what’s that?” asked Busy.
“I have no idea,” replied Wizzy. “Why don’t we go and find out.” He was chewing on a crumb that had come off a roll and fallen on the floor.
“Yuk, traces of mustard,” he complained, making a face. “I can’t stand it, why don’t they serve hot dogs with jam.”
“Wrong place, my friend,” said Busy, “let’s go and find a bakery.”
“I wonder whether they have one on the island,” said Wizzy. “Let’s go and investigate.”

Shortly afterwards the train to Puttgarden arrived at the platform. Quickly, the two ants crawled into the bag that was standing on the floor next to the woman’s luggage. It was a good choice. The bag contained the food for the trip, so Wizzy and Busy were traveling in the first class dining car, so to say. Immediately, Wizzy got to work on the wrapper of a cereal bar, eager to neutralize the taste of mustard. Busy hid behind an apple that lay on top and followed the conversation of the travelers.

“Three weeks on the island,” the woman said to her travel companion, “we don’t have to go anywhere where we don’t want to be, no rush; we’ll sleep in every morning, eat well, sit on the beach and look at the ocean. It’s going to be pure heaven.”

Beach on the island of Fehmarn

“Sounds good,” said Busy to Wizzy, who was at the bottom of the bag. “Are you almost through?”
“Just a sec, yes, I’m though. Hmm, delicious, very similar taste the syrup we had on the ship. Why don’t you join me and get some as well.”
Busy started to crawl towards the bottom, not a minute too early, for the woman had just reached for the apple.  Fortunately the travelers weren’t very hungry, so they reached Puttgarden without further unsettling incidents.

            “Everybody get off the train who doesn’t want to go on board the ship,” said the conductor. The ants had no inclination to board another ship. Who knew, they might end up back in Valparaiso, with their former ant colony.
They were lucky. The bag started to move. The two travelers were getting off the train.

“I suggest we stay where we are and see what happens,” said Wizzy. The two travelers hailed a cab that took them to their holiday flat. They put down their luggage and left. The front door fell shut and all was quiet.
Wizzy and Busy disembarked from the bag and looked around.
“Smells good here,” said Wizzy.
“You’re right,” Busy confirmed, “but the smell is coming from outside.
“Let’s go and find out where it comes from,” said Wizzy.

There was a crack between the front door and the floor. They crawled through and out into the hallway. They followed the wall, descended the stairs and found themselves in another hallway, in front of a glass door. Busy inspected the bottom. “Tight,” he stated.

“Just wait, I’ll figure it out,” said Wizzy.  He began to crawl up the glass, until he reached the inscription on top that said “Sunshine Café and Bakery.” Wizzy traced the signs.
“We’re in the right place,” he said after joining Busy down on the floor again. “All we need to do is find a way to get in.”

They began to run down the hallway until they came to a door that was leaning open. The scent that attracted them upstairs became more intense. They had reached the bakery.

They had never seen anything like it. Pound cakes, and fancy cakes glazed with different icings, chocolate and vanilla. Busy discovered his love for butter cream, while Wizzy indulged in roasted almonds.
“I haven’t eaten this well since the crossing,” he exclaimed. “You can say that,” Busy agreed, “and once you’ve digested the roasted almonds you must try the chocolate butter cream.”
“This is paradise,” they both said in unison.

“Just don’t get caught,” said a thin, frightened voice. It came out of nowhere and didn’t sound human. They looked around in surprise. A small black ant was sitting on the floor under the table.
“And who are you?” asked Wizzy, and Busy added: ”Do you live here?”
“I’m Clarinda, from the ant colony by the bakery,” said the ant.
“There are a lot of good things here, but life is dangerous. Our Queen just perished. She loved almond crescents, just like you, but then she became too daring, and they just brushed her off the table and squished her on the floor. I can still hear the crunch, when the baker’s heavy shoe came down and crushed her.”

Clarinda sniffled, and wiped away a tear. “We’ve been without a leader ever since, and we have no idea what to do. We barely dare enter the bakery. Who are you? I’ve never seen you before. You’re not from here, are you?”
Wizzy and Busy introduced themselves and presented a short account of their adventures.

“Follow me, I’ll take you to meet the others,” said Clarinda. Wizzy and Busy looked at each other. They weren’t too thrilled about joining another ant colony. In spite of the dangers they had become accustomed to human language and thinking, and felt more comfortable with it than with their fellow ants.

Finally, Wizzy said: “Listen, Busy, let’s take a look at the situation. We’ve crossed the ocean, and we have lived at Hamburg Central Station. We’ve risked our lives more than once, and we’ve survived. “
“You’re right,” Busy conceded. “They don’t know what to do without their queen anyway. We’ll get out of there if we don’t like it.”
“Who knows, maybe we can even be of use,” said Busy.

They followed Clarinda to the anthill in a remote corner of the yard. Wizzy and Busy could barely squeeze through the entrance. They had grown in body as well as spirit since their departure from Valparaiso.

The island ants had been living in their anthill for generations. The bakery provided a steady supply of delicacies, but salvaging them you risked your life every time.
“It’s absurd, really,” said Wizzy. “There is more than enough sugar and chocolate for all of us. We don’t need that much, we’re quite modest, actually.”

They decided to stay and observe the situation. The island ants were very hospitable, and grateful that someone paid attention to their story. They had never heard of anyone travelling the world. They didn’t even know that there was a world on the other side of the ocean that surrounded theirs.

Wizzy and Busy spent the following day in the bakery, well hidden, and escorted by local ants. Following Wizzy’s suggestion, sentries were put up between the anthill and the bakery, ready to report any danger that might appear. In spite of that, Wizzy and Busy exercised great caution, watching from their outlook on the edge of the air vent under the ceiling. They were able to observe the entire bakery.

They noticed that things kept falling on the floor; flour, sugar, a roasted almond rolled from the table every now and then. On these occasions, Busy had a hard time keeping Wizzy from making a dash for his favorite sweet. From time to time the floor would be swept, and all the goodies were thrown in the trash.
“What a waste,” Busy said, sounding annoyed.

Shortly after lunch break the apprentice spilled a ten-pound bag of sugar. “What a mess,” yelled the baker, “get a broom and sweep it up on the double!” The boy’s shoes made crunching sounds as he went to fetch it from the cabinet where cleaning supplies were stored, and Busy couldn’t help thinking of the poor queen of the ants.

In the evening, Wizzy and Busy sat quietly in the dark yard by the anthill, lost in thought.
“I’ve got an idea, “ Wizzy said suddenly.
“Let’s hear it,” demanded Busy.
“It’s very simple,” said Wizzy, “all you need is a cleaning crew.”
“You’re nuts,” objected Busy, ”I thought you weren’t crazy about working any more. Me neither, by the way.”
 “That hasn’t changed,” Wizzy explained. “The others can work, actually, they like to do that. We organize, negotiate, and make the connections to the humans.”

They proposed the following contract between the ants and the bakery to a committee of selected ants:

§1 We, the Island Ants from the big anthill in the back yard of the Sunshine Bakery, commit to quickly and thoroughly removing any spills in the bakery at regular intervals.
§2 Special forces can be provided promptly in case of major mishaps.
§3 We guarantee that clean supplies and reserves will be left uncontaminated.
§4 In return, the humans guarantee the ants free access to the bakery, and provide for their safety and protection

The members of the committee looked at each other with bewilderment. “Not a bad idea,” they decided at last, “but cooperate with humans? They reach for a fly swatter the moment they catch sight of one of us. And how are you going to explain the plan to them in the first place?”
“Just wait and see,” said Wizzy. “ Trust me, I’ve figured it all out. To begin with, I need a couple of you to do some work.”
To himself, he mumbled:
“And then I’ll need a couple of courageous ants, but that’s for later.”
I wonder what he’s up to, thought Buzy.

Even he didn’t know that Wizzy hadn’t only filled his tummy during those long hours at Hamburg Central Station; he had also learnt to read on the side.
            The tanks that were submerged in the ocean during the crossing contained the leftovers of a failed attempt to produce a particularly potent insecticide. Scientists observed during the first stage of the experiment that the insects were left unharmed on contact with the concoction. In the time that followed, the insects exhibited signs of extraordinary intelligence.

            In the course of the night the ants laid traces in the sand of the parking lot behind the bakery. When morning came, Wizzy said:
            “Now I need a couple of courageous ants who run along the traces so people can see them in the sand.”
            Wizzy and Busy made the start. Hesitant at first, then more and more determined, the other ants joined them, so that the trances became clearly visible in the light sand.
            “That way, we’ll at least perish together,” sighed Clarinda, who was the last to join the crowd.

            At the same time, Professor Dr Crawl and his wife were waiting for their breakfast in the café. They live in Hamburg, and spend every summer on the island of Fehmarn. Dr Crawl tells everyone how much he enjoys his annual vacation, and how the fresh air and the calm help him refuel from the demands and challenges of his research. This must be true; Dr Crawl is one of the most successful scientists at Hamburg University.

            “It’s so quiet here,” said Mrs Crawl at last. “I wonder if they’ve forgotten about us. That’s never happened before.”
            “Something must be wrong,” her husband agreed at last. “Let’s go and check this out.”

They took a glance at the bakery and the shop.“There’s no one here,” he said. “I wonder where everybody went.”
Suddenly, his wife cried: “Look the back door is open.”
They went outside, and joined the small group of people who had gathered in the parking lot and watched the ants in amazement.
“Stop, hold it, don’t touch,” exclaimed Prof Crawl, when he saw the unique formation of ants. “Mathilde, go get the camera.” Then he murmured: “This is phenomenal, absolutely astonishing, unheard of! A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to gain revolutionary insights regarding the intelligence of formicidae (ants)”

Wizzy realized that his chance had come. He crawled onto a piece of paper that the ants had salvaged from the waste basked during the night. Supported by Busy, who had previously been instructed, both ants began to outline figures on the paper.
            “I hope he gets it soon,” Buzzy said to Wizzy, “you’re asking a lot on an empty stomach.
            “Shut up, keep going,” replied Wizzy, whose knees were trembling.
            “Good heavens, they’re writing,” exclaimed Prof. Crawl, who was watching them intently. “A pen, please, doesn’t anybody have a pen?”

The sales assistant ran to the shop and returned with a pen. With diligence and caution, the professor traced the ants’ ways with the pen. The baker and his wife shook their heads in disbelief, as the contract appeared on the page, one letter at a time.
“Paper, white, please,” requested Dr Crawl, as the trash paper was filling up.
            The baker, who realized that he was no longer in control of the situation, ran to the office.

“This is sensational,” said Dr Crawl, when he finally got up and brushed the sand off his pants. “You have to accept, man. You have no choice, this is a scientific experiment of the highest priority.” 
“PRIORITY,” said Wizzy to Busy “here’s another term for the dictionary. Remember that, and starting tomorrow, I’ll teach you to write.”
Busy wasn’t sure what to think of that, but as long as he was able to fill his tummy without considerable physical effort, anything was fine with him. 

And so it happened. The contract was approved and signed. The professor’s institute at the university sponsored the project and undertook the evaluation. In order to avoid complaints by tourists who have objections against insects in general, and ants in particular, it was agreed to keep the experiment confidential for the time being.

First results are promising. Ants and humans coexist peacefully and work hand in hand. The employees enjoy leaving the bakery for a five-minute coffee-break at the expense of Hamburg University once an hour, while the ants take care of the clean up. Soon, more ants had to be hired, and a large population lives off the spills from the bakery these days. 

Wizzy became king of the ants, but he is not very interested in ruling over his subjects.  He prefers to develop new schemes of organization in cooperation with Professor Crawl. Busy is Wizzy’s substitute, and supervises their practical implementation.
And in this way, a grand experiment started on a small island. Who knows, it may find followers all over the world eventually.

Written in Central Park, at my favorite place by the lake, on the island of Manhattan, August 5, 2013


  1. Great fun Birgit! Thanks! And congratulations!

    1. Thanks, Bob, so glad you enjoyed it.