191. The Story of the Ants

Tin pail hauled from
Holding tank to house.
First they drank, with
Dipper, or a cup.
With left-over,
They’d wash faces, plates.
It was poured then
Into laundry tubs,
Afterwards brought
In to mop the floor,
Then to rinse scrub
Brushes and slop jars.

Riah mopped.
Louise sat
Dejected, with a cold,
Her tongue dry,
Her nose red and raw.
She rubbed eyes, two
Black mascara smears.
These days make-up
Melted in the case.
Louise, soaked from
Armpits to her hips,
Peered out through
A haze of body heat.
“Tell you of that
Time I nearly drowned?”
“Yes,” said Riah,
Shortly. Louise
Fanned herself.
Flies buzzed
Indolent, and grazed her
Neck. Louise
Cursed. “Ever
Tell you of
The Mardi Gras parade?”
“Yes.”
Louise breathed
Exasperated sighs.
She fanned faster,
Thinking:
That damn clock ticks
Slower every second.

The mop water,
Steaming, rancid,
Gray: persisting, Riah
Labored on each
Inch of floor.
“Christ’s
Sake!” –Louise
Exploded–“Christ! Once
In your life, you
Do it! Ain’t you
Got no yarns to
Spin? I got to
Do the telling,
Every God-damn time! Lord!
Always have to
Be the circus here! Be
Harpo, Chico,
Zeppo, rolled in one!
Don’t get paid none,
Either. Riah–”
Clasping hands
Together, Louise begged:
“You must have one story.
One joke. Please!
For a poor hot
Woman who’s bored stiff,
Ready to shoot
BB’s at the trees!”

“You know them all”:
Riah, hesitant.
“Stories?
No, I don’t! I
Promise you, I don’t!
Haven’t you learned
Nothing? Come on, give!”
Riah pondered.
Her mop darted
Under legs of chairs.
Bending, wringing,
Riah asked at last:
“Ever hear
The story of the ants?”
“Ants?” Louise asked.
Her heart sank–
Ant And The Grasshopper?–
“Ants? Why, no! And
Just this morning, I was
Thinking, gee, wish I could
Hear some insect news!
I’m fresh out.”

Riah, biting
Her own lip, still
Mopped. “Well….”
She seemed at
A loss. Louise prompted:
“There’s this ant….”
“No. There was this
Woman….” Here
Louise perked up.
Riah: “There’s this
Woman. And she
Lived alone. Or–
No, she had a family..”
Louise was
Ecstatic: “Never
Heard it!”
“And one day…
One day she was–
Sitting at the table.”
Riah, telling tales!–
Louise thought she
Might die of
Suspense. What would
The moral of this girlish
Fable be?
“Table,” Louise nudged, “uh-huh.”
“Yes. And she–
Well, she does like
This.” Slow,
Deliberately,
Riah raised her hand. She
Scratched her temple
Gravely.
Louise, avid: “Hmm.”

“Well,” Riah said,
“Of course, no one
Noticed.”
“Sure.”
“But then–”
Riah’s hand crept
Back up to her face.
“Soon, she started
Scratching all the time.
Scratching.
Scratching.”
“The same place?”
“Same place.”
“Wasn’t cooties?”
“No. The same place,
Scratched at breakfast.
Scratched while she got
Dressed.
Right hand held kids
While the left hand
Scratched.
Cooked one-handed,
So that she could
Scratch. At night
She’d wake up and
Lie there and just
Scratch.”

“Husband?”–Louise
Scratched her neck–“What
Did he say?”
“Husband said–”
Riah strained, recalling–
“Said, ‘What’s wrong?'”
Louise, now on
Pins and needles:
“And then what
Did she say?” Riah
Paused for thought.
‘”She said: ‘Don’t you
Hear?
I told you: it
Itches!
Right here by my
Hair! It started
Mild, but now it’s
Deeper every day.
Can’t think straight!
Here along my
Face this minute,
Itches! Nothing
To you, but something, yes,
To me!’
Even as she
Talked to him, she
Scratched.”
“And then?”
“Took her to
The doctor. He said,
‘Nothing’s wrong with
You!’ Gave her some
Skin cream.”
“But it didn’t–”
“No.”

Riah’s nails were
Raking down her face,
Leaving faint pink
Tracks. Migrant women
Louise had seen, waited
So. Riah:
“So guess then
What she did.”
Louise leaned in:
“What?”
Riah stretched her
Fingers toward
Louise. “Grew her
Fingernails!
They grew longer,
Little every day.
Till they’re yellow,
Gnarly, curling
Round”: gazing
At her hands.
“Thick as toenails,
So she could scratch
Better–
Scratch, and laugh for
Pleasure till she
Bled.”

Leaning on her
Mopstick, Riah
Paused. Louise
Gripped her chair.
“And around her,
All the house fell
Down. She couldn’t
Cook or eat.
Had to scratch.
Didn’t know her
Husband, or her
Kids. Only
Itching.” Bo is
Out of town now,
Louise thought.
“Only itching.”
Somber now, Louise could
Foresee: “And so–
They called the asylum.”
Yes. That’s right.
Dragged to the asylum.
And what’s worse–”
Painfully, she pulled
Mop-stiffened hands
Down to her sides:
“Made her wear
Straitjacket. So she
Couldn’t touch.
‘Let me go! Please
Scratch it! Scratch it!’
Screaming, ‘Please!’
Then she did go
Mad. Thrashing
On the ground,
She smashed in her
Head.
She died.”

Suffocating,
Louise drew one
Breath. “That
The end?”
Riah gripped her
Mop. “No,” a near-
Whisper.
“When she’s dead,
They hauled off her
Corpse. So they could
Cut, you know, and peer.”
Louise squirmed. She
Hugged herself more
Tight: “Well?
What’d they find?”
Riah said,
“When the doctors
Sliced into her head–they found
Nest of red ants
Deep inside her
Ear.”

The clock trilled out
Rapid, panting
Ticks. Suds
In the pail of
Water had sunk down.
Louise sighed. Slumped
In her chair.
Riah stood:
“Stories, that one’s
Only one I
Know.”

Louise, feeling
Guilty–and quite ill–
Wished she was
Outside.
But she felt
Obliged: “Well–that’s
Plenty. That’ll
Do. Didn’t
Know you had it
In you,”
She replied.

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One Response to “191. The Story of the Ants”

  1. Catherine Says:

    The way this poem moves and sustains the suspense of Riah’s ant story is exquisite and very seductive. The last comment by Louise gave me goosebumps.

    Catherine
    http://www.poetryisabitofsanity.blogspot.com

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