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A Rustle in the Grass
High up on a branch of a young larch tree a lone worker-ant was scurrying nervously about in the pale spring sunshine. He was a diminutive, somewhat undernourished creature, and he was investigating the corners and crevices of the bark surface with urgent intensity as if his task was a momentous one and he was unaccustomed to being entrusted with such responsibility. He was oblivious to the delicate glories of the erupting season which were manifesting themselves in a quivering display of green and silver all around. He was a part of that transformation; his energy was part of the universal energy; it was the natural way of things.
He was running along the outside ridge of a deep cranny which particularly seemed to interest him when he suddenly halted and stood with one foreleg frozen in mid-air, his feelers anxiously wavering this way and that. Yes there it was again! The sensitive olfactory organs on his antennae had received the faintest waft of a strange, disturbing scent, borne on the frivolous breeze. He stayed, motionless, only the tips of his antennae quivering. Then a little jerk brought his head round, as his other senses too picked up signals which helped to focus his attention: a delicate vibration transmitted from the undergrowth far beneath; a subtle alteration in the sound pattern of the surrounding habitat. He peered anxiously down towards the small, grass-covered mound that was his home, standing a little way off from the forest edge, near the bank of a narrow stream. His limited vision could only just make out the vague outline of the hump standing alongside the silver glimmer and swirl of the running water, but as far as he could tell nothing seemed to be amiss there. He waited in an agony of expectancy, as if knowing that the cause of his anxiety must reveal itself in a moment.
When it did so, it came with a terrifying positiveness. The signals suddenly increased tenfold — as if whatever was causing them had, at a sign, thrown caution to the winds and was no longer trying to conceal its identity. The ground trembled with the impact of running feet, the strange scent pervaded the air in cloying wafts, the grasses shivered with the impact of powerful bodies. The little ant peered down at the undergrowth's edge beneath him, as from it, in their hundreds, broke wave after wave of huge, reddish-coloured soldier-ants. With ferocious speed they swept over the grassland towards the mound, crushing to death with callous ease the few worker-ants caught out in the open in their path. On reaching the mound they swept over and into it in a merciless tide. The small community stood no chance. In less time than it took the sun to pass across one of the larch fronds above the watching ant's head it was all over. The red horde, at ease now and satiated, leisurely vacated the ravaged mound and disappeared back into the forest, bearing the spoils of victory with them, and leaving no apparent sign of their coming except for the strange, lingering scent, and the few forlorn, stripped corpses scattered amongst the grass stems.
The chance survivor remained motionless, frozen into a state of shocked paralysis, until the Lord of the Stars spread his great wings across the face of the day, drawing the comfort and protection of his darkness over the scene. Then, slowly, dazedly, the ant turned and descended the tree, hesitated a moment at its base, and then turned his back on what was left of his home and set off along the river bank.CHAPTER 2
Winter had been, bringing with it the strange, numbed mystery of the Long Sleep – a sort of half sleep really, in which the mind floated trance-like, free from the semi-inert body, into previously unsuspected realms and dimensions. And with the Long Sleep had come his dreams — even more intense than those of his normal resting hours. As if knowing he could not escape, he met them, gave himself up to their embrace, relinquished his young soul to their whim for the duration of those long, frozen months. And this time they invariably took the same form. He was climbing. Climbing up the side of a gigantic hill. He knew not why, yet for some reason he had to reach the top. With fearful step and uncertain purpose he clung to the glowering rock, mounted the looming slope, braved the dizzying height — until at last, trembling and exhausted, he attained the summit and stood with the clouds sailing above his head and the world a distant, diminutive plateau beneath his feet.
And he called breathless into the wind: 'I have come. I have arrived. I am here!'
And, as he had known it would, the Voice echoed back from the clouds: 'I see you.'
And he called again: 'What then is your will? Why have I come? What is my purpose?'
And the Voice answered: 'Your purpose? You wish to know your purpose?'
Yes,' he shouted, 'what is my purpose?'
And the clouds foamed and swirled above him and the Voice murmured from their depths: 'You will wander the world and ?nd it full of mysteries; you will labour at your tasks and ?nd them never completed; you will confront your enemies and ?nd them not who you thought they were; you will laugh with your friends and ?nd they are weeping; you will go on your journeys and never come where you meant to come; you will seek your peace and ?nd only more endeavours. And at the last, in the midst of the greatest endeavour of all, you may ?nd your purpose.'
The clouds rolled on and the Voice was silent. The dream faded — but only for a while.CHAPTER 3
Gradually, groggily, reluctantly Old Five Legs allowed himself to become aware of the subtle change in temperature and the increased activity taking place in the darkness all around him. After almost five months of comfortable semi-torpor neither his mind nor his body were willing to accept that once again reality had returned; that such things as light and darkness, hunger and thirst, warmth and cold still existed; that life was a positive, demanding thing which had to be actively challenged, not merely floated through on an undulating tide of half-consciousness.
With all the caution and leisureliness of age he waited until he felt the moment was right. Then, gingerly, he stretched his rheumaticky limbs, staggered painfully to his feet, congratulated himself with his habitual surprise at having survived yet another Long Sleep, and tottered in a drunken fashion towards the Great Outside.
As he eased his large bulk somewhat irritably up the passage amongst scurrying hordes of younger worker-ants, he realized that the great colony had been coming to life for some time and that the initial eager burst of early springtime activity was in full flood. He was jostled and buffeted in the narrow tunnel, and several times exclaimed: 'Watch where you're going! Out of my way!' kicking out tetchily with one or other of his five remaining limbs. This usually had the desired effect, at least temporarily, and the urgent stream of insects would hold back for a moment out of respect; but then the general excitement would take hold again and he was swept along with the tide, onwards and upwards through the darkness.
Then, gradually at first, a pale light filtered through from ahead, illuminating the bobbing heads and hurrying bodies around him. It grew brighter and brighter, cruelly assaulting his unaccustomed eyes, while at the same time quickening his sense of anticipation – until suddenly he rounded a bend and it flared with direct, dazzling power all around. The floor of the passageway levelled out and broadened, the walls fell away, and Five Legs emerged, breathless and blinded, into the astonishing blaze of the morning sunshine.
He stood there at the threshold of the tunnel for a few moments, his senses readjusting themselves, his eyes peering painfully into the magical light, his antennae exploring the air for the myriad passing clues to the conditions and circumstances of the familiar surroundings.
He had emerged perhaps two-thirds of the way up the flank of the big mound, which stood in tranquil isolation beneath the overhanging branches of a beech tree, near the edge of a secluded forest clearing. Beneath him, on the well-trodden runs down the grassy sides of the mound and across the open country of the clearing, steady streams of insects were radiating out in exploratory lines. The lean, winter-deprived bodies of his own worker caste contrasted with the more powerful, scattered figures of soldierants, who strode about with a leisurely, authoritative gait as they organized operations and issued directions, all the time keeping a wary lookout for danger.
As Five Legs stood by his tunnel mouth, absolved by reason of his age and authority from the general urgency, many of the passing ants recognized him, touching feelers by way of greeting, or calling out as they went: 'Salutations, Five Legs,' or, 'Greetings, old one – glad to see you're still with us!' to which he would reply with a nod of the head or a wry chuckle. Even many of the soldiers acknowledged him and moderated their normally superior demeanour as they passed.
Then another voice addressed him from behind in more familiar tones. 'Come on, move yourself, you lazy brute – you can't stand there sunning yourself all day.'
Five Legs felt a thrill of happy recognition and turned, extending his feelers to a wiry little ant, perhaps four summers old, who was approaching. He chuckled as their antennae embraced. 'Well, well, Never-Rest, trust you to be up and about already.'
'I've been out since sun-up,' replied the other. 'Scouted about a bit, having a look at things, pretending to be busy.'
'Only pretending?' twinkled Five Legs.
'Well, I did help to bring in a moth carcass that one of the foraging parties had found.' With a hint of wry sufferance he added, 'They've taken it for the Royal Quarters of course. How are you, old friend?'
'Still here, still here. And not so bad either.' Five Legs resumed his gaze round the broad grassy space that was the colony's main territory. His hazy vision took in the mighty shadow of the forest edge on the far side, a short march away, rested for a moment on the familiar mass of the gorse clump to one side nearby, and moved on to the silvery green movement of the stream behind, which formed a boundary round one-third of the clearing. His reattuned senses told him that, miraculously, here too everything appeared to have survived the dark months unchanged and was trembling with newly awakened life. The enchantment of the spot touched his ancient heart once again, its spell as potent as ever.
'Wonderful,' he murmured, 'to see the sun again. The old place doesn't seem too much the worse for wear.
'No,' said Never-Rest, 'not too much damage. A few new rain gullies around, one or two branches down and a couple of trails blocked. And one of the early scouting parties has reported an oak tree fallen on the sundown side, which should provide some interesting foraging. Otherwise all much the same.'
'Good, good,' replied Five Legs. His antennae quivered in the breeze. 'And the scent of spring in the air. It's almost enough to make one feel young again.'
'Well, make the most of it while you can,' said the other with a hint of sourness. 'I'm told more worker-ants than usual have failed to survive the Long Sleep this time. It was a cold one. We'll have a lot of organizing to do to get everything ready before the new brood appears.' He nodded back towards the face of the mound behind him. 'And no doubt we'll be expected to have it all done in double-quick time, so we can then embark on some grandiose new design or other the Council have dreamt up.'
Five Legs declined to comment. He merely nodded and paused for a moment longer before gathering himself to make the steep descent down the hard-beaten earth of the run, which dropped beneath them through the grass stems. But just as he was about to join the busy stream of insects on the path he hesitated, with Never-Rest at his side. A strange murmuring had reached them, welling up from inside the mound. It grew and swelled, carried by the ants who were emerging from the many tunnel mouths; it spread like a ripple, a whispering, muttering, wailing tide, passed on from ant to ant: 'Thunderer is dead! Thunderer is dead!
Down the runs and along the trails radiating out across the surrounding land ran the murmur: Thunderer is dead! Thunderer is dead!
Along the river bank and into the forest; up the tree-trunks and through the undergrowth it travelled, until the very wind itself seemed to carry the whisper and the clouds unrolled themselves in awe at the stupendous news: 'Thunderer is dead!'
Five Legs stood in numbed disbelief. Was it possible? Dead? The great leader of the colony; the mighty figurehead who commanded such unquestioning respect; who, through sheer breadth of vision and force of personality, had held his position of unchallenged supremacy for as long as any ant could remember? His still half-awakened brain could not quite grasp the enormity of the news.
At his side Never-Rest was standing rooted to the spot, muttering, 'I can't believe it. I can't believe it,' over and over again in an idiotic trance-like repetition. And indeed it was hard to accept. Thunderer had been the guiding-star of the colony's lifestyle, had dominated the Council's decisions, had loomed like some all-seeing parent figure, intimidating yet comforting, over the existence of every ant for so long that it seemed impossible that his gigantic energy could have been quelled for ever. It should not have been really surprising of course. He was older than anyone except the Queen of Queens could conceive, and to pass quietly through the Long Sleep into the ultimate mystery of the Final Sleep was a fitting way for that great character to go. Somehow, however, he had appeared inviolate in his autocratic authority, immortal in his stern wisdom, and without him it seemed illogically as if the entire organization of the community's social structure might crumble into anarchy and disarray.
Five Legs pulled himself together and looked around him. On all sides and far below on the ?at grassland the ants everywhere had frozen into a tableau of shocked disbelief at the terrible news. Then, gradually, they began to come to life again, to wander about in a state of dazed uncertainty, to mingle together in small whispering groups. Without any ?xed sense of what he was going to do, Five Legs turned vaguely back towards the tunnel's entrance. At that moment however, a thin, wizened old ant emerged and came bustling up to them with a great air of urgency and agitation.
'Five Legs, there you are! I've been looking all over for you. Have you heard the news? It's true, you know. They've only just passed it up from the Council's quarters. He never awoke from the Long Sleep. The Queen of Queens has been told and the Council are gathering now to decide what to do. Word has gone out to find Black Sting and inform him. He's out there scouting somewhere.' He waved an antenna towards the forest. His pointed, beady-eyed head was bobbing up and down, his feet shuffling to and fro, and his feelers shaking frantically with the excitement of it all. 'We must meet too. We must get all the old ones together. We must send a deputation to the Council meeting. We'll really have to fight for ourselves now; the whole system could change!' On he rattled in breathless near panic as Five Legs nodded with calm toleration.
'Yes, Wind-Blow, we'll meet, we'll meet. Calm down or you'll have a seizure. Call everyone together.' And he turned away and looked up to where the sun had now risen high up over the forest edge and was shining down, unchanging, unmoved, implacable.
'You see?' it seemed to be saying. 'Nothing remains the same, except me. There is no permanence upon the earth. Only the need to start afresh – again, and again, and again.'
Five Legs turned about and went below.