Baking beneath the hazy Bangkok sun, my knobbly-kneed six-year-old self was busy slaying dragons.
Alone within the fenced confines of my front yard, I scarcely noticed cars passing on the cracked street, Swedish-speaking neighbors walking their panting dogs, or erranders bicycling by, plastic bags swinging from handlebars, chains chattering. My whimsy-world within the cement-and-iron fence was grassy, lush with jungle plants. The muggy air steamed in the afternoon heat. Knotted powerlines hummed overhead, and the white walls, red tiles, and sliding glass windows of the corner house at the yard’s center all dazzled with reflected sunlight.
The grown-ups could keep their air-con kingdom, until dinner time, at least. My realm smelled of smog and rust and jungle flowers; my bare knees were grass-stained, my fingernails caked with dirt. I was bellowing every children’s-movie song I knew.
So it was that I prowled back and forth beside the fence, swinging sticks at imagined monsters and muttering snatches of story to myself, and so it was that I espied the gecko.
I should say, rather, that I espied the ants.
Perhaps a foot beyond my swinging iron gate, a mass of black crazy ants had gathered on a patch of sidewalk, swarming over each other in a chaotic knot. I drew closer, peering through the gate’s iron bars. In the center of this riot lay a common house gecko.
Geckoes were my friends: several living in our home had names of their own, beloved because they ate mosquitoes and other insects, and because their haphazard conversational clicking warmed the house’s nocturnal soundscape. Ants, on the other hand, were my enemies: treat-thieves, snack-spoilers, candy-blighters at best; biter-stinger-itchers at the worst.
But almost as soon as I saw the gecko, I knew he was beyond feeling. The tiny ribcage was static where it should have pulsed with each rapid breath. The flesh had the stale look I’d seen on toads flattened in the street. The eyes were sunken, blank, and milky.
I couldn’t even blame the ants for the death. Black crazy ants are snack-spoilers, not stingers. Death had come, and then the ants—not the other way around. Perhaps the sun, I thought. The heat. I leaned closer, then snatched my hand away from the sun-scorched iron gate.
I was not allowed beyond the gate. But I needed a closer look. I eased the gate open—pausing, breath held, at its grating squawk—and squatted with a heel on either side of the rust-stain line across the sidewalk, eyes fixed on the ants, and on the gecko, horror settling into something ticklish and queer.
The damp sun was heavy across my shoulders, dragon-slaying stick still cradled in my fingers.
Ants surged from cracks in the sidewalk, each taking such circuitous paths towards the gecko that they were beyond counting. At first, the turmoil was so wild that I could make no sense of it. Yet order bloomed from disorder. I watched, still and quiet, as ants vanished into the gecko’s open mouth, and as others emerged, heavy-laden. I thought of Lefty, the gecko native to our kitchen countertop, who lurked beside the microwave eating crazy ants one-by-one as they headed, single-minded, for the dinner dishes by the sink. Ants entered Lefty’s open mouth, but they never emerged. Lefty only licked his face and devoured more.
Sometimes I saw spasms in the gecko’s ribs and thought with fresh horror that I’d been wrong; he was not dead—but then I realized it was ants, and wondered how many ants, in all, had gone inside the gecko, and how many yet would come.
I didn’t see mandibles tearing, yet somehow gaps appeared in the gecko-flesh where they hadn’t been before, white bone visible at the tip of the tail, at the elbows, the ankles, the snout. I didn’t trust my memory—had the ants really worked so fast, or had I only just noticed skeleton exposed where it always had been? Were the gaps growing, or was I merely paying better attention?
None of the ants seemed to be carrying gore—no heart, no spleen, no eyeballs here. The scene was bloodless. Each ant’s load was minuscule, compact, and monochrome-pale. If I had seen these ants sans gecko, I would have noticed their prizes and thought, simply, Food. It could have been rice. It could have been fruit. It could have been anything.
And was that not all it was? Food?
Not, perhaps, to the gecko. But the gecko was dead. To the living gecko, ants themselves had been nothing more than food. Now the gecko’s ending meant a feastday for the ants.
I watched several ants stagger away with a piece of gecko, easing their burden through a sidewalk crack. More ants came; more ants trooped away; in and out of the gecko’s mouth; over and around the gecko’s thin dry limbs. I thought I’d be annoyed, if I were an ant, and my fellow ants kept stepping on me to get where they were going.
I imagined the scene in the ant colony. No cookie crumbs tonight; no sugar clumps; no stolen rose apple hunks—no! Tonight we feast on gecko!
The brow-bone of the gecko’s skull emerged. An arm. The ribs. And still the ants came, dismantling the gecko like a Lego-castle, each piece unrecognizable for what it once was, broken down into nothing but possibility.
My legs began to ache, sweat pooling in my kneepits. Flyaway hairs clung to my cheeks. My neck was hot, and sore from looking down. The glass sliding front door rasped open.
“Crystal! You’re supposed to stay in the yard!”
“I’m in the yard!” I said, jumping up and pointing at my feet, one of them still on the right side of the rust-stain line.
“With the gate closed!” my mother said. “Now drop that stick and come inside. Dinner’s ready.”
I tossed the dragon-slaying stick aside and followed her in.
Did you ever stumble upon a similar scene as a child? What was your response? Let us know in the comments!