The Ant Queen and Old Man (a fairy tale)
(Ed Note: My Muse is speaking to me in the language of fairy tales lately. I'm just trying to go with it.)
Arthur Rackham. Picture from here.
Arthur Rackham. Picture from here.
Come, sit here by me, and I will tell you a tale about a land just adjacent to your own, where there loomed a stern, imposing mountain far above a tiny village by a lake. The mountain could be viewed from every window in the hamlet, from every angle of the town. The people in the village liked to gather and watch the peak of the mountains fray the clouds that swirled around it, so that it looked like an old man’s hair, and to notice when the snow drifts piled just so to look like an old man’s beard. So, the mountain came to be known as the Old Man, and the people respected its stern, serious face as a fact in their lives.
Until it came to be known, as these things always are, that no one had ever climbed to the top of the Old Man. It was always the last dare, the one that won the contest, the one that no one would ever undertake.
But one day, a group of young people was playing in the lake on a hot summer day. They thought longingly of how much cooler it would be a little further up the mountain. And of course, in the back of their minds, they thought about how proud everyone would be of them if they were the first people to see the village from the very top.
“We don’t have to climb all the way up,” they reasoned with each other. “We can just go up a little way, just until the point where it starts to get snowy and cool. We’ll surely be home for dinner.”
But one girl shook her head. “It’s awfully high up there, and I’ve heard that the sun doesn’t reach all the way. So it will be dark too. What if we get lost?”
The other boys and girls laughed at her worries. “What harm could come to us, going just a ways up? An hour, maybe two, at the most. What could happen?”
And after that fateful question (as its always fateful in stories), they linked arms and began their climb up, up, up the Old Man. Even the young girl who had hesitated was caught up in the excitement of the group, and told herself that as long as they stayed together and stayed on their proclaimed course, the outing would be nothing more than a pleasant way to add excitement to their day.
Before long, they had trudged for hours, ensnaring themselves deep in a dark forest, where the tree branches clustered so thickly near the sky that they quite blocked out the sun.
“We should go back.” The girl pointed out. The other youths, nodded, frightened now, but soon everyone discovered that they didn’t know the path back to the village. The blackness all around them blotted out light, and they all grew confused. The wind rattled the branches like bones, and shrieked the terror that was growing within their hearts.
No one could say when it happened, but finally, one by one, they all started to drop into a deep sleep from exhaustion, separated from each other by sleep.
This is what the girl dreamt.
She was alone now, trying without success to retrace her steps. But all of her knowledge had deserted her, and the ground kept shifting beneath her feet, stabbing them with tiny pebbles and errant thorns.
Some small birds sidled up to her and said, “We can carry you, for a time, if you give us what we desire.”
“We want your hair, to line our nests.”
And without a word, she nodded and the birds pulled her hair out strand by strand. Then they carried her for a few steps, and flew away laughing with their bounty.
Then a tree spoke to her. “If you give me what I desire, I can feed you, and then throw you to a tree several miles away.”
Again, the girl said, “Anything.”
“Give me your teeth, to plow into the ground and feed my seedlings.”
And so the girl nodded and the tree took her teeth. It threw her an apple, which she could barely gum, but which she took gratefully, mouthing it until it released its juice to her, and gave her strength. The tree kept its word to her, and threw her several miles, until she landed with a thump in a little clearing.
A group of ants approached her and said, “Give us what we want, and we’ll make sure that you can be saved.”
“Give us your breasts and your feet, for our Queen grows old and she desires to feel like a young mortal girl for a time.”
The girl hesitated for the first time, frightened at the request. But something about the ants inspired trust, and slowly, she nodded. The ants got to work, and nibbled off her body organs, until our girl felt herself grow weak and fainted.
When she came back to consciousness, she thought, in real despair. “I’m going to freeze to death. I can’t go on.” But still, she crawled now, over brambles and through mud, over a land that seemed to be one long shadow.
Unfortunately, soon she wrenched her knee so painfully that she gave one sharp cry. She pulled her tattered cloak around her and lay face down on the ground, unable to move.
No one knows how long she lay like this. Eventually, however, she saw a pair of dainty feet in her vision. Achingly, she moved her head up and saw a genial, pudgy little old lady smiling kindly down at her.
“My dear! You look terrible. I’ll have to get you to my cottage.”
“But…I have no feet to walk. I can’t move. I’m stuck.”
“Nonsense.” Said the old lady briskly. “I’ll carry you.” And without another word, the old lady picked the girl up and slung her over her shoulders as though she were nothing but a scarf carried in the wind. Briefly, the girl wondered how the old lady was able to call upon such strength, but then her weakness overpowered again and the girl fainted.
When she awoke, she sat in a warm cozy cottage, with red walls covered with paintings of women which moved and swayed to music only they could hear. A fire danced too, in a golden grate. And the old woman hummed to herself as she stirred something in an enormous pot on a stove.
The girl felt her stomach rumble, so loudly it caught the old lady’s attention from across the room.
“Goodness, dearie! You’ve slept a long time! Quickly, sit and eat some of this good soup.”
The girl pulled herself to the table and climbed into a chair. Quick as a wink, the old lady ladled some soup into a enormous bowl and placed it in front of the girl.
It was a strange looking stew, with seaweed that looked like hair, and white corn that looked like teeth, chicken’s feet and dumplings. Still, the girl was starving and she started to eat as fast as her gums could move. In between bites, the little old lady began to ask her questions, most of which the girl answered with her mouth full of food.
“So…what are you doing here?”
“Grum, um, looking for that Old Man.” The girl swallowed, and began again. “We just wanted to see what it would be like on the mountain. We call it the Old Man, because of, well…we just do. And we were just curious.”
“Well, curiosity is a good thing. Most of the time.”
The girl finished her bowl of stew and sat, expectantly, waiting for something to happen. For she had already divined that this was no ordinary old lady, and the ingredients of the stew? Well, they HAD to mean something. She touched her head a few times, and the nubs were her feet had been, and the inside of her mouth. The old lady watched her, and said nothing.
Suddenly, the girl was gripped with a profound grief and regret, as wide as the world and as deep as the blackest sea. “Oh, they’re gone forever! My friends! My body! Oh, I wish I were dead!”
To this, the old lady merely smiled. “There we go! Now we’re back to life. Now, we can start the work.”
“The…work?” The girl blew her nose with a funereal air, and waited.
“Oh, you thought the soup would fix everything! This is no fairy tale, dearie.” The old lady laughed. “You certainly have a great deal to learn. No.” She continued, briskly, “That was just to give you the strength to go forth and get back what is yours. You need to find the birds, the tree, and the ants who took your things.”
“One thing at a time. We’ll worry about the OTHER things, later.”
And with that, the girl found herself back in the clearing, alone, with a very full belly and a pair of wooden feet. Gingerly, she stepped down on them, wincing in pain. But before long, they grew comfortable and she was grateful, as her walk back was very long indeed.
But in due course, she found the tree again—with the birds nesting in a home of her hair, and an anthill burrowing below the roots. And she was very afraid, but remembered her stew and the little old lady and shouted, “Tree! Birds! Ants! I come back to claim what is mine!”
Silence, then a small, disturbed twittering. “But…you gave them to us!”
“I know their value now. And they can never really belong to you.”
“What will you give us in return?” Asked the wily birds.
“Well…if you give me the upper part of my hair, the hair with the roots, I’ll be happy to give you the lower.” For she needed the living hair to return to her.
Without ado, the birds dumped the hair back on her head, and it grew firm and fast.
“What will you give me in return?” asked the solemn tree.
“Teeth don’t help anything grow but me. But…” She cast about, looking for inspiration. “Look at all of this lovely dirt, and dead leaves! I’ll put together a mulch for you in a trice.” She created such a potent, magical mulch of mud and leaves and excrement that the tree sighed in happy relief.
And her teeth rose back through the black dirt, so that she could scoop them up.
The ants watched her and said nothing. Then the queen said, “You’ll have to do better than THAT for us. You won’t convince me.”
Again, the girl looked inside for inspiration. In a moment, she smiled and said, “Can’t we share? If I swallow you, we’ll both have the experience of being in a young maiden’s body, no? Wouldn’t a complete body be better than just having breasts and feet?”
The ant queen smiled and crawled up into the girl’s mouth. “I can see, I can see through her eyes!” she said as a joyous farewell to her ant colony. “Be good to your next queen!” The ants waved their little legs and cheered.
Triumphant, the girl returned to the little old lady, now whole again.
“I did as you said, and here I am! But…I still grieve for my friends.”
“That’s because you aren’t done.” Replied the old lady, and pulled the girl into a room full of mirrors. A breeze ruffled both of their hair, and the girl could see that they BOTH had replicas of the Old Man mountain in the backs of their heads.
The old lady grinned. “What you search for is always closer than you think. Now we must dance with him.”
Then they held hands and spun around so that it was impossible to see where one ended and one began The reflections in the mirrors showed one girl, spinning madly, surrounded by the images of all of her beloved friends, spinning as well.
With a dizzy thud, the girl woke up and saw her friends sleeping huddled close by. Gleefully, she woke them up and said, “I know I can find the way home now!”
What was dream and what reality? Who can say?
But for the rest of their lives, those youths smiled at the mountain, and whispered their secrets to it for safekeeping.
And the girl never stepped on any ants.