They sat down for dinner at the kitchen table. They were known in the neighborhood as the family with three kids under the age of four. “Where is she?” snapped Doreen. Her husband said nothing and continued to take huge slurping bites of chicken and dumplings Noreen had made in the slow-cooker. She followed directions to a “T” sharing recipes with her girlfriends, who she talked to day and night on her blue iPhone.
Tow-haired little Danny turned around in his high chair and shouted “Dina! Come here or you’ll get punished. Mama will take your gold fish away from you.”
“I’m the mother here,” Doreen snapped. She tapped her husband on his arm.
“Go find her,” she said.
Taking a last slurp, he looked outside at their large property, with its many trees, the leaves changing now into fall colors, bird houses swaying on tree limbs with sparrows and chickadees settling down for the evening.
“Doreen,” he laughed. “The chickadee family is watching ‘Jeopardy.’”
“Get up now, Eddie,” she demanded, “and find the little brat.”
Eddie, who adored his wife, had no idea she had no sense of humor.
He seemed to hear Dina upstairs in her bedroom. She was a curious child, who wanted to know answers to everything. “Why does my bedroom look purple when it gets dark?” or “How do the goldfish poop and pee?”
He bounded up the carpeted stairway and burst into his little girl’s room. “Boo!” he shouted. Dina paid no attention. She was holding a doll, the size of a stapler, and speaking to it in gibberish.
At four, she was the oldest, each child’s name beginning with “D,” as in Doreen.
He took a seat on the carpet, right in front of her.
“Sweetie,” he asked. “If you speak in gibberish, how can your dolly possibly understand you?”
She finally looked up. Her huge blue eyes registered on his face. “Oh, Sally is very smart,” she said, with tiniest of a lisp. He, too, had lisped as a kid, but speech therapy had taken care of that. He remembered how his late mother was so proud of him.
“We’ve got chicken and dumplings for dinner,” he said. “One of your favorites!”
“Oh, all right,” she said, putting Sally on the carpet. “But ants don’t like it.”
“Who? Aunt Carol or Aunt Evie?”
“No, silly!” she said standing up. “My friends, the ants. They live in the backyard.”
He shook his head and thought, strange little creature.
That night, as she often did, Dina took a tiny flashlight she kept near the goldfish bowl and tiptoed down the stairs. Her mom was always the first to fall asleep. Her dad often read in bed with a tiny light over his book. Her flannel nightgown should be warm enough and she put on her boots as it was always muddy in the far backyard.
She slipped on a warm pink jacket – her favorite color, the color of her bedroom – and let herself out through the basement door, closing it softly behind her. She shivered a moment and looked up at the nearly full moon and all those stars. A red one blinked on and off. An airplane. “Mom-Mom” would be coming soon to Philadelphia on the airplane from Florida.
She looked behind her at the windows of the house. Everything was dark except for her parents’ bedroom. Dada must still be reading one of those war books he liked.
She tromped through the wet yard. Looked like Bud next door was fast asleep, but maybe not. His dog, Buster, a fluffy dog who loved children, gave a low growl from the front yard.
Eddie had come downstairs and was following his daughter at a safe distance. Enough about this crazy stuff. Would they have to bring Dina to a child psychologist?
She never liked to surprise the ants. They lived near the railroad tracks. As she drew closer and closer, she saw them, tiny little creatures, no bigger than an M&M, though slender as a piece of thread. At last she could hear them, speaking in their strange language it had taken her awhile to learn. They had recognized her and told one another in excited squeals.
She waved her hand. “I’ve brought you something new,” she said and tossed a handful of honey-nut Cheerios right in the middle of them. With great squeals, they devoured the cereal and gave her mighty thanks.
Then, in a more subdued language, they gave her the sad news. Their third baby was eaten by a spider.
Dina’s first thought was the song they sang in pre-school, “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider ran up the spider web.”
She felt very sad. She had known the ant family for nearly a year, though she was unaware of time. She bowed very low and put her hands in the namaste position below her chin. Her mom had taken her to children’s yoga, so she knew that pose.
Soon their squeaking began again at a frantic pace. “Your dad is behind a tree,” they said.
Dina spun around. There he was. She could see his balding head shining in the moonlight.
“Dada,” she said as she ran toward him and grabbed his hands. “You mustn’t tell Mama. Please! Do you promise?”
He scratched his head and moved closer to the ants.
All he could do was stare.
He never told. When Dina grew up and went to the university, she still visited her ant friends. Dozens of new generations had hatched in the colony below the soil.
Should she tell them, she wondered, what she’d learned in school. Why not? They could pass it on to their kids.
“Your Latin name is sius niger.”
Their high-pitched squeals echoed off the pine trees.
Dina, after all, was now called The Ant Lady in college since she was studying to be a myrmecologist. Of course, she and Dada didn’t dare mention her nickname to Mama. Their colony was safe.
Ruth Deming a psychotherapist, has had her work published in lit mags including The Legendary, Literary Yard, Mad Swirl and Writing Disorder. She lives in Willow Grove, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia. She runs New Directions Support Group for people with depression, bipolar disorder and their loved ones. Her blog is http://www.ruthzdeming.blogspot.com/