Content Warning: Insects
The West leg was done — well, technically it had been done for months, years even (Harvey wasn’t sure; he hadn’t made a point to ask the old landowner, and the old landowner hadn’t kept good records anyway) but now, at least, the map of the West leg was done — and after a few finishing marks on the paper he could fold it up and get back to the surface and the sunlight and the sky and the birds, and all those other things that other people enjoy when they have loved ones and aspirations and brilliant shining futures to bask in.
You know, all those things.
As if into a quiver, Harvey slipped the notebook into the pack on his back, a dirty little thing he never bothered to take off because it weighed so little. He scrutinized the lantern he’d been sitting under, lifting himself off his knee. It became eye-level as he stood, and that meant something because he wasn’t very tall. Should he put it out? He glanced. The walls were tight and round, a hollow worm that pressed Harvey and his steed together inside itself — but a dirt tunnel wasn’t likely to catch fire, no matter how cramped.
Leaving it be, he turned awkwardly and heaved himself onto 115, whose dark carapace glittered in the firelight, smooth and black. The steed was massive, easily two feet taller than himself, even if you didn’t count the antennae — still, her middle parts were quite slender, and in fact Harvey’s hands could easily wrap around them and still find it in themselves to clasp together on the other side. Mounting 115 in this way, he took a moment to lie there, chin pressed to the crack between her head and her thorax, her back firm against his chest like a big, hard ball. 115 responded minimally, like any steed that had been properly tamed; she twitched, collected her legs beneath herself. Harvey’s head brushed the ceiling, and he watched soft soil slide cleanly off her head as it fell.
He raised his left leg, preparing for a kick, then paused. Well sure, the tunnel may look completely barren, but there could still very well be some invisible fire hazard, and then all at once this whole colony would go down, along with his investment and what remained of his life — and it was simply difficult to justify exchanging all that for some light. It would be the pheromones that do him in — yeah, probably that. Did his ants make any flammable pheromones?
He had no idea. Probably? He still didn’t know jack shit about farming.
Harvey stretched to pinch out the lantern nailed into the dirt wall, left fingertips pressing against 115 for support, and with just a flick of pain everything went dark.
Regrouping against 115’s back, he gave her a small kick to the abdomen. At once she was off, six knees shifting blindly around him as they clicked their way through the dark, a gentle bumping rhythm against his chest. She’d find her way back to the house much quicker in the dark than he ever could if he were leading her by sight.
Each time the ride back was longer, and thus more likely to include some three-foot-long antennae brushing unexpectedly against him in the dark, a nameless ant soldier headed the other way, headed deeper into the nest to tend some larva or mealybug. The first time it happened he’d screamed, his skin crawling for days after. By now he’d come to treat it like a whale sighting.
Today he had counted nearly ten encounters by the time the weak late-evening light began to fill the tunnel: a spiritless, underwater sort of blue. 115 carried him faithfully towards the surface, and Harvey’s knuckles strained as they approached verticality, breathless when they finally broke through, where he at once found himself perched atop the anthill (and, of course, still atop an ant), privy to a panoramic sort of view of the farm, and the edges of woodland by which it was penned in. It was that typical Midwest landscape he’d seen over and over again growing up, back when he used to scoff and imagine some grand, important future was waiting out there for him. But now the sight hummed with promise: it was an elegant idea, agriculture, to create life and bounty out of plain dirt, and so here he would build a life for himself out of his own rock bottom. And becoming relegated to this humblest of jobs would surely be unexpectedly freeing, and meaningful, or something like that. As if to assure him of his boundless potential here, the farm bore no fences, and in fact even in the dim light Harvey could make out a great number of bulbous shapes dotting the vegetable pasture: night sentries guarding their colony, unaware as they were that the whole business was of course under Harvey’s protection now.
Within a short time 115 was settled back into her wooden stable, her saddle — (scarab leather, a fine piece of craftsmanship the old farmer had left) — hanging peacefully from the wall. He poured her a trough of honeydew from a plastic, dust-laden jug, then slipped away, stalking through the few acres of field and into the farmhouse.
There the first thing he saw was Mouse, sitting at the table as usual — hands neatly folded in waiting, as if this was meant to negate their rudely leaning over the dishes to sniff at the stiff, ruddy vegetables piled at the edge. They shot up straight as he palmed open the door.
“Harvey, you’re here, thank ga-Jeezus!” Mouse gave an arduous roll of the eyes before launching their hand forwards. Harvey thought suddenly of his childhood self, and a morning spent madly pocketing clamshells at the beach because he’d had the impression that the high tide would rush in in an instant and wash it all away — such was the urgency with which Mouse had begun shoving every manner of foodstuffs into their face.
Distracted for a moment, he watched the scraps drip onto Mouse’s still-empty platter. “Where’s your dad?” he asked at last.
“Mmmf?” asked Mouse. A swallow, then: “He’s looking for you. Where’s Wufty?”
“In the stables,” he said dismissively. “Why? Where is he looking?” But they’d already continued eating, and by the time they’d wiped their mouth to speak — with another eyeroll, no less — the sound of Brandt’s work boots beat them to the punch.
“You walked right by me out there, guy!” said Brandt. His dark eyes gave a crinkle, his hand a playful shove.
“Oh,” said Harvey, “Yeah, I didn’t realize, I guess.” He stared for a moment, then shuffled into the chair across from Mouse. Harvey’s cousin was a much larger man, though he was twice as Asian. He had an impressively level head, which was kept barely hidden under hair cut fur-short, just like his kid’s. Harvey himself sported something much more untamed — and on top of that, a single uncut lock on the side which he found quite unseemly, but nonetheless left long so that he could braid and unbraid it in times of disquiet, which happened to be a great majority of the time. He found himself, in fact, beginning to pull the braid free at this very moment, while Brandt made his way to the head of the table.
Presently Mouse was staring at him, with the shamelessness of the young child that they were, albeit having otherwise resumed their impression of a patient houseguest. Harvey eyed them, then spoke to Brandt: “You didn’t have to wait for me to start eating, you know.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it.” Brandt waved him off. “…Mouse, if you keep rolling your eyes, they’ll get stuck up there.”
“I wanna play with Wufty,” they pouted.
Brandt cleared his throat. “You were working on the map?”
“Oh, no,” Harvey answered, trying not to glance awkwardly at the child. He looked instead at the main dish — a pale white casserole of mealybug, slathered with thick honeydew-cheese — then back at his cousin, as if asking permission. Brandt gave a deeply invested nod. “Haven’t added it to the final map yet,” Harvey explained hastily as he scooped. “I just got back late, from drafting the end of the West leg.” Then he carefully put down the platter and pulled his notebook from his pack, brandishing the latest page. “I finished it, actually!”
“Show me!” From his right, Mouse reached out a grabbing hand, and Brandt instantly blocked it, and this was apparently the last straw because Mouse started to huff and hop and, announcing much more than asking, shouted, “May I please be excused from the table!” and the two men watched as they vanished stompingly into the back hall.
“Sorry,” said Harvey.
“That girl,” sighed Brandt, and he rolled his eyes just then. Heavily, he leaned forward. “So the first two legs of the tunnel are done. That’s an excellent pace, really — but, you know, it’s been a few weeks, and here I think —”
“I’ve got a real house and a wife back in the city, and I don’t want Mouse to be growing up without that.”
“Wait, wait, I can’t run this place alone yet,” Harvey begged, and dear God, this was it, this would do him in, his genuine last hope at redemption slipping. Idly he registered his left hand beginning to thread the one long lock back into a braid (an impressive feat of dexterity that, as one might expect, never seemed to impress anyone). “I haven’t got a produce license yet,” he pointed out, “or the deed.”
Brandt shook his head. “Look, don’t worry so much —”
“Do you need me to map faster? I don’t know if I can, but —”
Brandt put up his hands like he was being rushed: “If you can’t do it, you can’t do it, guy. I said don’t worry. I’m not leaving just yet.” And then he turned his head, pursing his lips towards the hall. “I’m just worried.”
Harvey waited a moment, but Brandt didn’t move or go on, and he wasn’t quite sure what to do with that so he decided just to sit silently and pull out his newly-formed braid.
Because if Brandt really was going back to Columbus, there was nothing he could do about it. The reality was that there wasn’t a single thing in the world that he would feel comfortable asking of Brandt, because in the end Harvey was just some low-life cousin he’d barely met before, and Brandt was a (probable) fallen angel who somehow would agree to sell his (dead!) parent’s ant farm to him, some low-life cousin, at a family-fucking-discount! And he could hardly blame the man for wanting a map made first, because God only knew how long and valuable the estate might actually be when you looked under the surface, and of course the property couldn’t change hands without a thousand lobbying real estate agents getting to know the going rate — and that was some bullshit, but what could Brandt do about it? Nothing, apparently. It wasn’t Brandt’s job, anyway, to save him from the brutal and inevitable failure that he’d surely meet by the end of the year if he tried to take over the farm right now. But hey, at least then he could still see Brandt in the city, maybe pay him a visit after a long day of begging in the streets!
The braid existed again, and then it didn’t, twisting in and out like a plan that just keeps falling apart.
By the time Harvey had excused himself, and walked back through the night to the little shack he lived in, and set down his pack, and washed off the CHC, and pulled off his shirt and pulled off his binder and gotten into bed and cleared his mind to make room for the incoming suffering of tomorrow and such, he had not turned on the light even one single time. Had he decided to do so before this very moment, when the bulb finally clicked on, he would have realized almost an hour sooner that his entire living area had been defaced with finger paints. Down to the floorboards.
It was the sort of horrifying thing that would have warranted a scream — except he had come to know at this point that screaming would do little more than amplify the horror to completely overwhelming levels, so instead he just traveled around the room, paying visits to poorly rendered visages of Brandt (who was purple), and snails (green), and the life cycle of a butterfly and the outline of the state of Ohio (things that were probably being taught in elementary school right about now) and one of Harvey himself, of course, and of mice (blue), and spiders eating mice (as they were wont to do); and then there was just this one — just this one truly bizarre and disturbing scene, and Harvey couldn’t take his eyes off it once he’d found it on the floor beneath his bed because it went like this: there were two horses — or he thought they were horses; it’d been a long time since he’d been a little kid and thought all those extinct animals like mammoths and wolves and sheep and, and well horses, were so cool, but he traced one with a finger and thought, they sure look like horses to him — and one of the horses was labeled “Wufty,” and Wufty and its horse friend were crying out, or perhaps they were eating, and between them was a heart (a Valentine’s heart, not an accurate one, though he wouldn’t have been surprised if Mouse were learning about the heart right now too) and the heart was broken and it was bleeding out (red).
This was clearly a pivotal section of the piece, because it explained why the thick wiggly lines connecting all these silly little pictures together were, uniformly, a deep red, and that was because the red paint was all flowing out from, and leading to, the heart.
Kind of clever!
Of course, Brandt apologized profusely about this the next morning, and Harvey found it in him to brush it off, because before Brandt knew it, he pointed out, Harvey would finish the map and Brandt would sell him the farm, and Harvey would move into the farmhouse and nobody would ever really worry about those funny little drawings after that anyway.
Naturally, none of this changed the fact that Harvey would have to live with those grotesque figures hanging all around him in the meantime, but he couldn’t really bring himself to be angry knowing that Mouse had drawn them; Mouse, after all, was sort of cute, and so was their insistence on giving 115 a proper name, though “Wufty” did at times make them sound much more childish than they already were. And more importantly, though he hadn’t known them long, the way Mouse picked their hair and clothes and interests and everything else just had him privately convinced that the two of them were alike in one very important regard — and that’s why he really cut Mouse some slack, why he just never quite brought himself to say “she” out loud, even to Brandt (or to Mouse, who had never actually commented on anything of the sort).
And that’s also why it would be sad to see Mouse move away, even if they made a point to chase Harvey and 115 all the way to the edge of the anthill each morning he left, cooing in their most obnoxious octave, and he had to gently fight them away with the shaft of the riding crop almost every time.
Especially right now.
“Please go away,” Harvey said, delivering to their shoulder the softest prod he could manage.
“Nooo!” Mouse was crouched on all fours at the base, raising a hand like they were about to try clambering up the loose rocks. “I wanna come!”
Harvey retired the crop dubiously. “You’re supposed to be grounded,” he pointed out. He considered mentioning the danger, the fact that they hadn’t bathed in the colony’s extract, the CHC, like he had; that any soldier out there who smelled Mouse’s human scent might tear them apart, or worse. But that wasn’t something you told a little kid, he thought. It was strange, looking down at them from this height, and he wondered if Brandt always lived like this.
They frowned. “If you let me pet Wufty, I promise I’ll go back inside, I promise,” said Mouse, and Harvey agreed, and so they reached out and to give 115 a big hug, which was a funny thing to see because the ant’s head was so large that Mouse’s arms were basically flat against the surface, and their blouse melted into the big thick cracks where the number had been branded on. Several seconds passed.
“Goodbye now,” he said pointedly.
“Goodbye, Mr. Harvey,” answered Mouse, and they skittered all the way back through the vegetable patches and the lawn and disappeared into the farmhouse, looking quite as small as their namesake.
Mouse was, of course, not really named Mouse. Undoubtedly, they had some secret tên Việt just like Harvey did (and Brandt, too, in all likelihood), but his cousin clearly didn’t consider him close enough to know just what exactly that name was. Which he guessed, was fair, given that neither of them knew his, either. He imagined Mouse calling him Mr. Tâm, assessing the sound. But no, he was pretty certain that the “Mr.” was the problem here. Regardless, he forced himself to stop pondering as he arrived, lantern and notebook in hand, to the first side tunnel he intended to document today. It turned out to be, in fact, an unbelievable test of willpower, which forced him to turn right and right and right and right, tighter and tighter until he finally lost track on the map. Except just when he thought he really ought to make 115 back up and start over from the main path, they hit a dead end, which was at once incredibly relieving and incredibly frustrating since it meant this entire arm of the tunnel was completely useless. Meanwhile there were dozens, maybe hundreds, thousands of other tunnels out there — fuck if he knew! — and he still had to map them all as soon as humanly possible, or everything would fall apart.
With a sigh, he erased the progress and drew in the little spiral that he was pretty sure this tunnel actually looked like. Piece of shit.
It was only when he got back home and cross-referenced this with a map of the tunnels higher up in the soil — because even after fulfilling a few other tunnels, he couldn’t stop wondering why the hell this spiral existed — that he realized the dead end probably split into these two other paths, which were on the higher level; he had forgotten to look harder at the dead end, and if he had he would have noticed that the tunnel continued upwards, and into the rest of the system.
Could you really blame him, though? It was just a silly shape for a tunnel, objectively! Meters and meters of swirling, and then two dinky little chutes coming out, like antennae. Maybe the ants were drawing themselves, he thought with a laugh. He reclined back onto his bed. But then, it really looked much more like a snail.
Suddenly he stood, and pressed his map to the vandalized wall with a frown.
There had come to be a moment, every time Harvey and 115 returned to the surface, where he felt a little disappointment, because there wouldn’t be another ant brushing against him in the dark of the return tunnel, and his record (up to 36, as of yesterday) wouldn’t go any higher for the day, even if the feeling of any encounter itself was just objectively unsettling.
This morning, though he hadn’t even been underground yet, he felt quite the same, leaving the stables without a single attempt by Mouse to follow him. He had been preparing to enter the South leg — the final leg, but probably the longest yet — for the first time, and in turn preparing to fight off his little relative. But indeed, they were nowhere in sight; he felt as though he had lost his shadow. In fact, this had him so concerned — or was it unnerved? — that he rode his ant all the way over to the farmhouse to ask his cousin. There he halted 115 at the base of the front steps, momentarily disoriented to see Brandt step out on eye level with him. Brandt seemed caught off guard, too, since he’d opened the door already looking down and had to quickly recalibrate.
“How’s it going, guy?” asked Brandt.
“Good,” he answered automatically. With a finger he split his hairlock into three parts. “No, wait, actually, have you seen Mouse?”
Brandt’s face betrayed a bit of mild surprise. “Figured she was off bothering you still.”
Harvey shook his head.
Their search of the farmhouse was fruitless, as were the stables and Harvey’s shack — almost thankfully, because he wasn’t sure he could take another fingerpaint incident. Ultimately, as Brandt emerged from inside the shack, he just looked up with hardened eyes and admitted that the best place to look now was probably the colony.
“So you go now,” he said.
“Just me?” Harvey blurted, leaning down from 115. “Are you not coming? Isn’t — ”
“You can’t navigate an ant farm without an ant, guy,” Brandt cut in, “or CHC.” And Harvey tried not to think too much about the implications of that. “I’ll look for a saddle and catch up on a soldier. You just go as quick as possible.”
Now, here, without a light of any form, Harvey could only lie clutching 115, head rocking against her own rocking head, as his body somehow told him that they were slowly sinking downwards. The path felt straight — incredibly straight for how he remembered in his maps, but for all he knew they’d been turning all this time and he just couldn’t feel it.
After a great amount of hesitation, he started to call out. “Mouse,” he whispered. “Mouse!”
115 seemed to be walking with some purpose of her own, brisk as ever, but Harvey didn’t stop her. There was nothing to tell him which paths were coming up, much less which one might lead him to Mouse. He tightened his grip as 115 stumbled upon a downwards path; she swung until they were walking vertically, straight down.
“Mouse!” he yelled. His ears strained, but there wasn’t much to hear aside from shuffling. Dear lord, this was it, this was going to do him in; even if he did find Mouse in the next three seconds Brandt was sure as hell going to move, and Harvey was going to lose the ant farm, his literal last hope for respectable employment, because fuck him for not finishing the map yet, except it really was nobody’s fault because Brandt shouldn’t endanger his family just for Harvey, who was just some low-life cousin, so still fuck him. Not that any of that mattered, though, and in fact also fuck him for even thinking about his job right now because it was becoming increasingly obvious to him at the moment, increasingly obvious that Mouse was fucking dead! Fucking dead forever, and he was next.
After Harvey had had the snail epiphany, a lot of things had started making a lot of sense.
The red line trailing off of Mouse’s snail drawing: when the map was held up to it, it happened to align perfectly with the main tunnel leading up to the “snail spiral” (as he now thought of it). On the edge of the hardwood floor, the child had drawn a mouse — that probably was connected to the chamber where the ants kept their mealybugs, their white livestock that Brandt’s parents had been culling for meat and honeydew, like Harvey intended to do for a living. And he connected this only because the red lines around another drawing — the spider eating a mouse — happened to align quite well with the tunnels around the queen ant’s chamber, where the soldiers fed her mealybugs. And, nearby, according to the maps, there was even a chamber that loosely resembled the state of Ohio.
All of this to say that the South leg of the colony, according to the omen, would lead him right underneath his own bed, to the horses eating the heart, which would be just the first in a sprawling, complex tunnel system that, even if he were to survive, would take months of exploration. But that was besides the point: it was the horses, and the heart. Horses, Harvey had learned, used to be ridden like ants. And the heart? Oh, the heart, you ask?
That was him: Tâm. Heart. That was how he picked his name, after all.
Suffice to say, as 115 carried him ever downwards, he knew that Mouse was already dead. Harvey had been killing the ant’s pets, and the ants, clearly, intended to do the same. Wufty was in on it, of course, carrying him to that distant chamber where she and the other ants would devour him, wipe his blood across the infinite corridors of the colony.
Wordlessly, she began to slow to a trot — well of course wordlessly; it wasn’t as if she could speak — until eventually she had ceased moving whatsoever. Harvey could hear the creaking of her questing antennae, a churning kind of sound he’d never noticed before. He froze. 115’s jaws had been shaved when she was tamed for riding, but there was no doubt that something, somewhere on or inside her, still possessed killing power. Maybe the spurs of her legs would be able to pierce him. Perhaps it’d be a sort of poison she’d secrete from the joints.
“Harvey,” said Mouse.
He didn’t say anything, was amazed to find that his body was cooperating in his sudden bid for a kind of silence that extended past the realm of human capability, until he swore that even his heart stopped for several seconds. It was only when the plucky little fingers hit his cheek that he sounded, a scream tearing its way from his throat, so violently that he couldn’t find his own voice inside it. 115 bucked beneath him — hard. He felt his back hit solid earth, then his front, as he flew against the tunnel walls. Then brief footsteps. He waited, waited for the red to start spilling out of him like the horse and the heart.
“Hi,” said Mouse. “Did you fall over?”
Harvey managed to whimper, though at the moment he had been trying to speak.
“Thank ga-Jeezus you’re here,” said Mouse, their voice a little closer now.
“Are you alive?” he whispered.
There was a pause, and Harvey imagined them rolling their eyes before they spoke. “It’s too dark in here. Come help me. I swear, this tunnel is so boring, it was just a straight, straight line.” He gathered himself to his hands and knees as they went on. “Your job must be really easy.”
“Is that right?” he asked, inching towards them. The ground, at least, was only gently sloped here.
“Yes. There better be something really, really cool at the end.” They paused as he put a hand on their back. “What?”
“Nothing. Just trying to find you.”
“But I was right in front of you.”
He felt a flicker of anger somewhere in the numbness of, well, somewhere in his chest. And he almost let it go, focusing on the path forward — but then he didn’t. “No, you weren’t. You were down in the tunnels, when you should have been safe at home. With your father, who loves you very much.” His voice shook, more out of a simple weakness than anything else. Why was he saying this now? Hurting people, even when the two of them were surely about to die?
But Mouse just blew a raspberry. “Hey, I love Daddy very much, too,” they said, “that’s why I’m in the tunnels. I wanna be like him and be tough and go in the tunnels!”
At that moment Harvey’s hand hit a pebble in the dirt, a hard one, but he hardly minded. He would meet far worse than that where he was headed, down in the twisting labyrinth the drawings foretold. Wouldn’t he? “What do you mean? You want to be like Brandt?” He hesitated, then went on, because he could see where this was going. “Do you want to be a boy, Mouse?”
“What?” There was a pause; he prepared to explain. But Mouse went on: “No way. Boys are weird.”
Harvey stumbled for a second, staring into the blindness ahead, his own mind feeling just as black and hollow. At his silence, Mouse added, “No offense, Mr. Harvey.” And when that failed to evoke a response, Mouse seemed to give up on the conversation altogether.
It was for less than a minute that the two of them managed to crawl in silence, Harvey calculating his next words all the while, before his head hit something hard. The two listened as the ant soldier rattled up the side of the wall and away down the ceiling, its joints echoing briefly behind them.
Harvey could hear Mouse’s hand kneading the dirt, impatiently waiting to move on. But in their next step, their faces hit soil.
Harvey stood up unevenly and pressed his hands forward, blind. They were met with hard rock. Numbly recounting the map in his mind, he tried to remember where they were meant to be right now. Wasn’t this one supposed to be the pit full of his own blood? Or was it the second queen’s nest? The sprawling maze of unmappable tunnels should have started by now, but the entrance wasn’t here. He stepped to the left and hit dirt; he stepped to the right, and hit dirt. He stretched up, but his hands couldn’t reach the tunnel ceiling.
Harvey crouched. “Get on my shoulders,” he told Mouse, and after some false starts and dubious maneuvering Harvey began to rise, and Mouse yelped and said that she had just hit more dirt and this stupid tunnel was so boring and she wanted to just go back home and by God, Harvey had never been happier to hit a dead end in his entire life.