On the weekends, my mother hand-washed our clothes at the river. Bending over and slapping the clothes into the water, she would occasionally look up to see us flap around. We children teased the slippery current with our bodies, playing with other children as their mothers sliced the water with heavy clothes as well.
At dusk, when our bodies were shriveled and pale, it was time to go. We each carried a bucket of damp clothes up the river bank. The buckets weighed us down as we trudged up, up; passing the duende tree, the spirit tree. My mother halted at the top of the bank, caging us behind her with her legs and arms. The bucket handles slid out of her grip. We peeked around her flowing skirt and saw ants—everywhere.
Red ants, fire ants, army ants marched tiny streets into the ground. They looked like black and red jelly beans come to life; some were bigger than I knew ants could be. Like an army, they defended their territory and spread out over the walk way toward the clothes line, our home, and the rest of the village. Some of the other women went back down to the river with their scurrying children; others stayed and watched the site. The red swarm covered the ground like bubbling grease in a frying pan, their red specks trembled in unison.
My mother carried my baby sister on her hip and the three of us older children hop-scotched around the swarm and thankfully did not encounter a single bite. We hurried into our home, relieved. But when the darkness adjusted we saw tiny specks on the walls, moving. Our insides crawled.
The walls and ceiling were covered, completely. The ants carried bats, spiders, and scorpions out of the screen-less windows. Some of the ants had silvery wings and flew with their prey dangling beneath them. Some of their victims squirmed and struggled as they were nipped to death. My mother, who was holding my baby sister, ordered us to sit in the middle of the bed. The mosquito net would protect us she said.
She grabbed the Quran and her tongue curled with Arabic sounds. We scooted close around her, making a semicircle. “Ma, are the ants gonna eat us?”
We tried to ignore the wiggling cloud of insects that surrounded us. My mother opened the Holy book and recited: “In the name of Allah the Beneficent, the Merciful. Surah Al-Naml. The story of the Ants.” Her Arabic tongue spoke to the air and we gazed at her mahogany colored skin until, suddenly, we were the only living beings in the room.
They had quietly departed, just as they had entered; my mother had spoken to the ants in prayer, and they listened to her plea.