(Found in an email, March, 2003)
An Ant and a Toothpick
Pulling into the graveyard off of the winding two-lane road, the lake to the east seems to quiet down and lay still, almost as if it realizes the gravity of its purpose. The entrance gate is strong and pristine yet like everything the core, and weight bears down on the edges, bending down on itself. Both sides of the gates are open, the right a little further tucked into the gravel than the left, angling down almost to a bow to the survivors that pass it daily. Two cement man-made stones one larger than the other sit heavy on the right side of the drive. Faded etchings of a memoriam and name of whomever it was that bought this land and decided to make it the final resting place for those we have lost. I'm not moved by that thought,but rather curious as to what it might have felt like knowing what this would be, creating it. A place to bury the dead.
I can hear the tires of my car, the windows are down so the sound of gravel turning under rubber is enunciated, prominent and slow. No one drives fast in cemeteries, so the melodic sound of earth turning under weight and rocks sporadically hitting the wheel base and other rocks sounds like a musical against the silence and the wind. The limbs of the trees rubbing against leaves creating a bustling sound that is eerily similar to the noise of feet walking on autumn leaves in fall..funny how the seasons replicate and differentiate in such miraculous simplicity.
Getting out of the car, I feel like an animal after a brawl. Heavy, tired, a bit defeated but grateful not to be dead. I tune in to everything. Walking on the foot path, my feet feel as if they are not attached to my body, instead they are carrying my weight like a transporter. I see my father’s tombstone a head. I haven’t been here since the Christmas after he died. I don’t know how, but I recognized it immediately. Nothing about it stands out more than the others, it’s the same drab glossed marble. I just remembered.
The dirt around the base of it seems cold but as I sit on the grass facing it, I feel that the ground is warm on the backs of my thighs. I reach for the dirt, to feel it, smell the scent of doo-doo bugs, and worms, the life that feeds from it, and I see an anthill. Its huge. I stare in awe at how busy they all look, marching black slender bodies lined up like an army into the hole on the top of the hill. So militant, so fast. Below the heap of dirt and little twigs are the sporadic ants, like merchants or scavengers racing around in different directions, holding different elements that all seem equally important. I get stuck watching a smaller ant, I decide she is female, she is thin, but strong looking. They all look strong, why are humans and pet’s of humans the only animals to get fat? I re-focus on the female ant with a broken toothpick. I think to myself how smart she was, to be innovative. Will the other ants recognize her ability to accept new things? Or instead will they punish her for not sticking to the routine twig, leaf or dirt pellet. She is struggling with it, trying to get the tiny piece of wood up above her head. A stray splintered piece is stuck into some moist soil, her weight is unable to free it from its wedge, and she is persistent. Not stopping, she has attacked the project from the front, the sides, using her hind legs, each time she takes a break, before attempting the next angle, she walks around it, trying to assess her progress and re-think her approach. I am moved, I can FEEL her struggle, her frustration. If ants could sweat she is dripping by now, probably noticing all the other ants that saw her attempt to bring this stupid baby, I mean stick, into the village, and since she has shown interest, she can’t now back out, or give up, she would look like a failure…but she wont stop!
I feel my eyes welling up. I want her to give up, to turn around and tell all the other ants, easily carrying their contribution to the ant-society without any obstacles, looking down at her inability, thus making her push harder for something she really doesn’t want, or care about. The wind picks up and loosens the toothpick, she backs into it again, her little legs pushing so hard, they look as though they will brake. Instead, they push so hard with her weight that they ascend up the narrow vertical shaft. Why doesn’t she stop trying? I’m completely sobbing at this point. I reach over to grab it out of the dirt for her, to assist so she can have what she wants, so she can contribute too. And then I stop cold. My tears stop, turning into soft hiccup-like sounds. I’m careful to be quiet so as not to disturb her or be noticed. I think: Maybe she doesn’t really want the stick? Maybe she is just trying to do what she thinks she should, and now that everyone knows she’s been trying, she feels she has to succeed? What if my help actually traps her in a life of something she never wanted, she will get deemed the great tooth-pick provider and the village will hold her up to an expectation she will try the rest of her life to fulfill…even if it isn’t who she is a all?
Just as I lean forward to grab the god-forsaken mini-splinter and toss it as far as I can, she stops.
She does one more circle of it, and turns her body in micro movements, and starts to walk away. Away from the tooth-pick, away from the mound, she cuts through a line of diligently working ants. She walks right over their heads swaying and bobbing off balance, reaches the other side of ant bodies in formation, and keeps walking. I stand up walk-jogging in a hunched posture, as if trying to stay incognito, mesmerized by her ability to accept failure, to move on, to walk away from it all. She disappears into the forest lining the graveyard, and suddenly I have forgotten what brought me here.
Was it to talk to dad about losing the baby? Or to follow in the custom of remembering loss every time a fresh hole is carved? I’m not sad. I’m not angry at Jack. I should be sad, but I’m not. I run back to my dad’s grave. Smile, bend over and kiss it, and like an ant I walk away.