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Among the Antpeople
|by Anuradha Kumar|
For most times, Abhay was a happy-go-lucky boy, enjoying the games he played with his friends at school and in the park every evening. But he hated the nights and the time it came for him to sleep. It was the four-poster bed, the fairies at its four corners who always seemed to be grinning mischievously at him, that scared him much. But what absolutely terrified him was the huge cave that lay under the bed.
It was stored with all kinds of weird goods, huge brass vessels, doughty steel trunks, a harmonium with most keys missing and some old toys that everyone had outgrown. Several times, Abhay had peered under the bed, and stared at its glum interiors and everything seemed silent. But at nights, he would cower into his pillow, wished somehow that the bulb that shone in the corridor would somehow flicker more brightly, but of course it never did, its light waned at times as the moths circled around it, while under the bed, strange things happened.
He could hear shuffling feet, the twang of music, much whistling, shouting and stomping of feet. And he knew that there were things there that came alive, when the world around slept. Sometimes, the music was so gentle that it would gently beguile him to sleep.
One night he was more tired, because he had played a hard game of football that evening. But still he looked towards the bed with that old mixture of dread and trepidation. He tucked himself in and pushed his head even deeper into the pillow. His arms searched for the bolster, but it was somewhere away towards the edge of the bed. He reached out and then fell flat on his face. Abhay felt himself being dragged forward with a big clawed hand and then he found himself in a finely meshed fishing net and he was then moving slowly down and down deep into the hollow recesses of the bed.
He seemed to float through the sky through the white cauliflower clouds cradled in his fishing net. Then he felt himself descending serenely to the ground. He glanced around and took in flashing glimpses of high church spires, graceful buildings, their illumined windows blinking back at him, and then another sound intervened. It was at first a faint hum, then it rose gradually to a crescendo, until he was sure that it was the roar of an excited crowd; a similar sound he had heard at football matches.
Abhay looked down and he saw a sea of awe-struck faces looking up at him; their jaws agape and their necks arched back as they took in the strange apparition floating towards them. Abhay's net gently strung itself around a tall tree, so he didn't have to worry about a hard landing. But he hurriedly shook himself free, and found himself draped with orange petals, that gave off a distinct fragrance. He was sure that the smell could be discerned from afar, because in a twinkling he was surrounded by people, very unlike those he had ever known.
They were as tall as he was, but were more like giant ants, with their lithe, pencil-reed bodies, and faces split apart in a perpetual grin. They wriggled in their long colorful skirts and wagged their fingers at him. Then before he had a chance to say anything, they all began cheeping excitedly. Then he was picked up by four strongly muscled antpeople and carried towards a brick red door. Through the door, down a narrow, glow-worm lit passage they went, the ant-people singing a cheery tune, as they hopped along, Abhay high on their shoulders.
Soon they reached a high domed hall, where more of the antpeople were gathered. The hall was ablaze with light and old petals and butterfly wings draped its walls. At the center, under a huge chandelier, was an elaborately sequined swing made of bamboo twine, in which sat an elegantly attired lady-ant, with an extremely bored look on her face. She was obviously the queen, for his bearers let him down with a thump and then proceeded to salute her, by bending low and kissing the ground at her feet.
The queen stretched and asked, " Is this the spy the bugs have sent us?" There was no reply as the hall fell silent. But they all kept looking at him, expressionlessly from over their long antenna. At long last, Abhay squeaked out a reply, " No, Your Highness, your Highness... he began, and he saw the queen look suddenly pleased by the greeting, " I belong to the land above, and I myself do not know how I came to be among you...but I really mean no harm."
The queen waved a hand airily, dismissing his last words. She asked," Now that you are here, what can you do for us?"
Abhay thought hard. There was nothing he thought they would wish to learn from him. Finally, he said, " I can play football" " There was a roar of laughter. The entire hall rumbled and shook for a long while as the laughter traveled in waves through the entire audience. After it had subsided, and the queen had finished wiping her tears away, she said, ' Laddie, football is for those nitwits like the snooty lizards who live with you above. They dart around, uselessly chasing the ball with their stumpy legs. Our long sharp antennae and natural agility make us masters of basket-the-ball, volleyball and boxing. There's nothing more you can do there." "Nothing, nothing," said the others shaking their heads sadly.
Then an old man with a long beard that grew out of his spectacles said, "Maybe he could help with the spider men?" Then they again all looked at him in silence. The queen nodded and the old man went on," The Spider men live on the hills yonder. They spin fine webs that trap the sun and the warmth. We thus have to live our lives in this darkness.... Sometimes, we venture out and capture a few glowworms.... But we long to escape into the world above, searching once again for sugar crumbs as our ancestors did."
There was a long silence after this, interspersed with a few deep sniffles. Abhay looked down, lost in thought for several seconds. Then an idea struck him. "I can help you make aeroplanes, that will take you out of the web and set you free."
When he saw puzzled looks and a few giggles around him, he explained, "I can make planes out of paper. Big ones, small ones... that fly through the air quite fast and easily. They can easily fly past the webs, and take you wherever you want to go."
The ant-people were much excited. but where would they find paper? Abhay volunteered to fetch some from his notebooks, but the ants stamped their feet and said they had lots to spare. A wasps' colony had just moved on and their paper nests still stood by, hanging from the ferns and the moss bushes.
An ant procession hurriedly organized itself and they marched in admirable precision towards the abandoned colony, on the hillsides. It was after some while, when he had finished dining with the queen, who was still suspicious for she kept looking askance at him through the fine monocle that she wore when she ate, that Abhay finally set to work crafting aeroplanes out of paper. The paper had an almost gossamer quality about it, and no sooner had he finished one, then it rose of its own accord drawing a tumultuous cheer from the on looking ants.
After he had made some, Abhay became more adventurous. Picking up tiny rose thorns, he stuck petals, leaves, blades of grass onto the planes so that each would have its distinct identity. Towards the end, he showed them how to fly them - you had to blow in a lot of air from the rear, so that the plane would acquire sufficient lift and begin its take off.
The antpeople were excited and quite a large number of them made experimental test flights. That night there was a big celebration, with Abhay as the guest of honor. The queen tapped him on the shoulder and announced that the antpeople would honor him by erecting a statue of sugar crumbs right in the middle of the hall.
Soon they readied themselves to begin their great flight above. For a few hours there was a frenzy of activity as old ants, young ants, father ants, mother ants and even kid ants, scurried to and fro, packing up and gathering their possessions together. The bearded old ant, meanwhile was busy at work, poring over reams of paper, quill in hand. Drawing nearer for a closer look Abhay realized that he was making up lists of who would travel in which plane. He saw too that he would be on the last one, and would be all alone. But the old one asked him not to worry. They wanted him to draw up the rear in case the nasty spider men span something more devious.
Finally, in the utmost secrecy, the antpeople clambered aboard, some holding aloft strange weapons like thorns, clubs with buds attached to them and discarded needles. Some had to be given a helping hand. Abhay puffed in the air, and soon the planes were flying easily and effortlessly up, the antpeople dancing their own merry jig as they approached the webbed clouds.
The planes nosed through the fine mesh of web clouds, the spidermen could do nothing but look on, their arms fluttering helplessly. Soon as Abhay looked on, the planes had vanished through the clouds until there were a mere speck in the horizon.
Abhay then hurriedly moved into his own waiting aircraft. He was excited for he had always wanted to fly his own plane. In no time, he was aloft and following his ant friends up on their journey through the clouds. His plane took some time to be air-borne but Abhay was not worried. Whistling a familiar tune, he knew he would soon catch up with the others.
He must have dozed off, for when he suddenly looked up again there were black clouds looming all around him. They continued appearing from all directions and were soon hovering around Abhay and his plane. His small plane tried desperately to nose it sway through the thick cloud blanket, but the clouds kept pushing it back. Then Abhay felt the first raindrops touch his face. He tried to brush them away, but the drops grew bigger and bigger and soon his plane was floundering. Abhay knew that he must escape, but the thick curtain of water that had formed once the rain had begun pouring steadily, made it difficult.
But he knew he must. So he clambered onto the plane's wings and jumped. It was a big leap, and Abhay found himself falling, falling at a dizzy speed. Soon he saw himself falling to the hard, ground and stretched out his hands to break his fall. He landed with a great thud and found himself back in his own bed.
He got up hurriedly and wiped the water away. His grandmother was standing by, a smile on her face, "you were sleeping so soundly, I had to wake you up. Come now, its time for school."
That day was like any other. Abhay saw the ants again marching in their old lines carrying aloft a huge old cricket and knew his friends were safe now. When he returned home, he saw several things happening. Old stuff was lying around in the yard, and he could hear the hard thwack of mops and brooms being used. Then his grandmother saw him and came rushing out, "You are back early. I thought I would get some cleaning done...you know there were so many cob webs under your bed, and that centuries old stuff, that was lying there...well, I managed to finally clear up everything. Now hurry up."
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