by Sophia Harvey
“You cannot live a thousand years without learning something about architecture,” Royon began.
Because there was not much else to do in their waxy cell, all surviving twelve of them were gathered around Royon’s armored body, listening to the history of the citadel. They used dehydrated corpses as morbid furniture. Practicality-over-emotion was their fashion.
“It was summer, and the sieges were hitting colonies left and right. It was chaos. Families were getting broken up. Only a few of us remained from my region so we banded together. We walked miles and miles. The others were weak and many of them fell behind, but we soldiered on. The grass towered above our heads and the dirt was wet and hard to manage. Mud covered our bodies and we were sore. The war of beasts continued then – as it does now – and we were constantly ducking low flying animals. Danger was rampant.”
The speckled young ones sat attentively while their fathers paid little attention to the tale, growing ever more aware of the inevitable. They pulled their sons closer but were shoved away. Prickly responses to a universal paternal instinct. They didn’t blame the boys; they were only trying to listen.
“Weather was no more consistent in those days than it is now, my friends, and we endured all of it. For weeks it was hot with liquid air and then the skies would darken and open up. Raindrops would fall that were three times the size of any of you.”
Royon blinked his old sable eyes and looked around dramatically.
“We would hide in mountainous rock walls and sleep on the moss that sometimes makes its way inside. One day when there were about four of us left, we came upon something we’d never witnessed in our lives. It was a surface that was hard to the touch and immovable no matter how hard any of us tried. Even Chro, who was the strongest of the group – famous for lifting thirty times his own weight, could not make it budge. Perhaps we could have moved it if we had been able to get a hold of it, it was a strange material that was red hot. Hotter than any rock gets from sitting in the sun. It stretched for half a days walk and we had no choice but to cross it. The sun radiated and had sucked up any of the previous day’s moisture. It was a rough, unforgiving texture that fought back for every step we took. We had not been long on the trek before the others started to lag. The lift of each leg took enormous motivation and it felt as if we were moving through sand. Farrow and Lon clung to each other for support and Chro went back to help them. I knew that a fast pace was necessary.
I had not mentioned it to anyone, but while the others were distracted, I had seen the passing of a giant beast. It rumbled and growled more than any I’d ever seen and it emitted a horrible steam the color of burnt wood. They heard its grumble asked, but I kept the terrible secret close. We were too exposed. The war pounded on, and there were no exceptions in location.
We lost Lon that day and Farrow was broken. They were brothers and he had never gotten close to anyone else, and never dared to again. He limped alone behind Chro and me, gathering his thoughts into a mess of hatred. I can’t tell you that the hatred didn’t come in handy, but it’s always a pity to see someone go that way. By the time we crossed the molten surface, he’d hardened. He hardly spoke, and when he did, there was a wise and bitter cadence to his voice. He’d seen just about enough of the world – or so he thought. You couldn’t blame him; Chro and I both knew what it was like to lose family. God, we’d lost everything one can lose. But we knew we had to keep it together.
We came upon an old oak, and we thought to explore the roots for a place to weather the night. The three of us ventured cautiously, acutely aware of the possibility of lurking enemies. Instead, we came upon a sad but beautiful sight. I still remember it to this day, boys, clear as the night sky. It was a red queen and two of her attendants, she was injured and they were hiding her from the elements. They started when we approached, but the queen could not move and her men were fiercely loyal. It was in their blood.
Back then, mixture was unheard of, and it was immediately assumed to be a hostile situation.”
A rumble of giggles erupted in the silence and was sent echoing about the chamber. What Royon had just said seemed like an absolute absurdity to the young ones. Of course, they hadn’t lived back then.
“One of the guards spoke first, in his official military diction, ‘State your purpose, men.’
Chro and I clawed for words, but Farrow stepped forward.
‘We mean no harm, we are looking for shelter and food, not war.’ And then, gesturing to the queen, ‘milady, what has happened to your leg?’
‘It was stepped on in the stampede, the workers charged and abandoned the compound. They swarmed and crawled over me like panicked slugs. It was disgusting.’
Her voice was low but clear, like a bell ringing from inside a pile of ash. She was a beautiful creature, towering yet delicate. Powerful and awe-inspiring. Her crimson coating made her all the more elegant and mysterious to us. It was my time to speak and I stepped forward with my knowledge of wrapping and straightening. I was so sure of myself back then, the naïve child that I was. I was tricked by my own strength. We did what we could to soothe her pain. I think we all fell in love with her that night, just as the attendants had, and her people before that.
The desperate times allowed for a forbidden love, and we set out together at sunrise. Soon we reached a stream – yes, our stream – and we stopped. Queen Fée could not go much farther. She was regal and proud, but the anguish was compounded in her eyes. The moss was supple and we lay her down in it. The animals seemed friendly. The air was clean and refreshing, it washed our lungs of the dusty residue of our journey. It was already a rocky metropolis with infinite resources. We knew that we were home.
We started digging right away. Going deeper and deeper. Fée sat under the lip of a rock, basking in the shade like a lady should. She fatigued more easily now that she was carrying our children.
Once underground, we started to build our palace. We constructed long, weaving highways that interconnected and spanned the length of the largest city you’ve ever seen. They branched and they branched again. We needed room. Lifting and carrying piles and piles of dirt for days was not our punishment, but our motivation. It gave us a sense of purpose. Workers with an end instead of aimless vagabonds. We built a dewy city under a hill. The rooms were pocketed and layered. They swirled like snail shells and they stacked like honeycombs. Everything was perfect, and we could keep adding for the rest of our lives.
Fée fell in love with it immediately. We moved her into her chambers at the heart of it all and started populating post-haste. It was our paradise. Hundreds of years passed and the only ones that remained of our founding group were the Queen and me. Her attendants began working with the rest of us, but they were never meant for such labor and soon withered away. Farrow, I think, died of heartbreak later that year. Chro and I stayed for centuries in the Queen’s layer, creating our city in the daytime and falling in love every night. He was killed in another epidemic of raids nearly thirty years ago when he was helping a neighboring colony. The heart in him. I will never forget such an enormous heart.
I can tell you though, boys. I’ve never in my lifetime experienced an attack such as the one on our township, but I have a funny feeling that we’re all going to be quite safe.”
* * *
Earlier that day, an eleven year old boy had been left home alone. He had grown bored of cartoons and decided to catch frogs in the stream behind his house. He hadn’t visited it since last summer and thought that it was high time he went exploring. So, running down the hill at full speed, legs flying out from under him, young Christopher crashed into the underbrush like a herd of elephants.
Upon arrival, he noticed a change in the familiar scenery. It was an odd sight to see an anthill in the middle of a moss patch. When he came closer, squatting down to examine it, he saw three of the strangest looking ants he’d ever seen. They were spotted red and black all over.
Being a bright child who often had ideas, the boy began to develop a plan. Christopher’s ideas were far beyond the normal scope of a child, and therefore gave him far more pleasure than those of a boy with a regular imagination. Scampering back up the hill and straight to his parents’ room, Christopher snatched the immense white candle off of the bureau and brought it downstairs to the kitchen. Placing it in a frying pan on the stove, he melted down the candle at a surprising rate.
Returning now to the spot of the curious anthill, Christopher poured the hot wax into the tiny hole with precision and accuracy. He was penetrating the mystery of those silly little mounds and he was giddy about it.
Once the wax was poured, the boy knew he had to wait for it to set. Putting the pan down beside him, he leaned back into the cool moss. His crossed legs were bared by shorts and his exposed knees had become irreversibly scarred over the years. It was quiet, save for the soft bubble of the stream, and Christopher smiled a little smile of self-satisfaction. He was not a boy who liked people all that much; he was much more fascinated by nature. Nature didn’t talk or argue, it just was, and he liked that about it. This particular spot was especially calming. It had just the right amount of light and water, and the animals seemed friendly.
One of the bizarre speckled ants crawled up his leg and he squashed it absently with his pudgy little thumb.
As soon as the sun began to wane, the boy lost patience and started digging. He felt no need for implements other than his fingers and dirt caked nails. Soon what he uncovered was a wax web that went for at least a foot in any direction. It was delicate in some places where the tunnels had been thin, and sturdy in others where the highways must have run through. Many of the ants had scattered at the bottom where the wax wouldn’t reach and many others were caught in the arteries of his sculpture, frozen mid-pace like photographs of running horses.
He carried it carefully up to the house and there he sat for hours after, examining every inch of the miniature city stuck in time. Parents and siblings came and went, but Christopher brushed their questions aside. He was too busy watching his creation.
At the very heart of it, in an air bubble, he swore he could see twelve surviving ants sitting in a perfect circle, almost as if they were listening to a story.