Benjamin Lee (University of Technology, Sydney, Australia)
We haven’t seen each other in thirty years. His letter sits on the seat as I drive. Come back, Sarah Tong. Time to burn. It’s his handwriting, it doesn’t sound like him at all. It says he’s here near our gate. I’m between Wilcannia and Broken Hill. The paved road ended some time ago. I pass some cows in repose, ruminating in the blood red dust and a troop of kangaroos following a fence. The place looks beautiful, but the locals tell me there are rumours of fire ants here. I hope Toby turns up, that I’m not dreaming, or crazy. I want to know that he’s okay, and maybe then I’ll know I’m okay.
A left turn through the gate to where the plantation trees used to be. All that’s left is charred trunks. I can hardly recognise it, but this is the place. The wind kicks up a cloud of dirt and I shield my eyes. A form emerges from the red dust and my hopes rise, but it’s not him. I get out of the car and look up at a mound of dirt, two metres tall. I half think Toby’s behind it, ready to poke out his head, but there’s nothing, only the flat stone beyond and the depression which was once a lake. My heart sinks. Where is he?
Ants skitter along the ground, scenting their trails, following their pheromones. Fire ants, or solenopsis invicta, an invasive species. They found some in Port Botany several years ago. Not the ants you want on your land. The ants are climbing up my legs. The venom is vicious to most, though rarely fatal, and my first instinct is to swat them off. A normal person would. But then Toby and I were never normal. I let them climb. Maybe they can give me answers.
It was ’87. I was the odd one out until Toby came along; then there were two of us Asians. The first time I saw Toby was with the ants. It was the end of lunch. It was a terrible day and I was ready to explode. I’d run out the back of the school near the canteen and the big skip bins, the space where I could hide from people. He was small, spindly, a light green jade around his neck, just like the one I’d lost, unruly hair that changed with the weather, like antennae charged with static.
He was crouching, his left arm touching the ground, black and glistening with motion, and he already had that bruise on the side of his temple. He jumped at the sight of me, his face pale. I noticed the arm, festive with black ants. I shrugged, then put my finger to my lips. He smiled and visibly relaxed. He moved over to a nearby tree, placed his fingertips on the bark, and the blackness drained away from his arm to the tree. I looked on, fascinated. I wanted to ask him about it, of course, but then the bell rang and we had to go. The sight of that arm never left me.
On the way home from school I saw Toby again, lying by the side of the road half-beaten to death. Who did this? I helped him to his feet, poured my water over his grazes. He said some guys had punched him up and ripped his shirt open, scattering the buttons. I walked him home at a donkey’s pace, and we got talking.
Toby told me that this was his first day at school in Australia. During recess someone had poured hot water down a slope, down to where he was sitting and scalded his behind. They’d fired a tennis ball at his head, causing the bruise, and then the guys after school. He said I was something of an angel to him, and I blushed. I told him he had to fight those guys off next time. I offered to teach him some of my basic Wing Chun, but the idea of martial arts didn’t interest him. He told me it was all about territory with those guys, and it wasn’t worth it to play that game.
We reached a gate and walked through it. He took me through to his world, and it took my breath away. A tree plantation surrounding a lake, and by the lake a single flat rock. As he approached, ants on a lump of dead wood poured towards him and covered him head to foot. He told me they were black house ants, ochetellus glaber, a native species. I asked him if they were pests. He gave me this look, like he didn’t understand the word, but he said that they were okay, not the kind that need to be killed.
So there are some that need to be killed? I said.
There’s a time for everything, said Toby.
He spent a few minutes with them, then turned around. They retreated like a shadow to the wood.
What did you do when they were on you? I said.
We talked, said Toby. I opened myself to them, and they to me. We learned from each other, lived in each other. Sometimes we became each other.
I didn’t know what he was talking about, but I liked the idea.
It would be a rough year for Toby, worse than for me because he didn’t believe in fighting. He would tell me about the punch-ups, pranks, peggings, rocks in the face, dead rats in the pants. For me it was a whisper here, a cold shoulder there. My pencil case slashed, my bag bottom cut open. I never saw who did it, but I’m sure it was the Bitch Gang, a group of girls in my year. I heard Vika, their leader, had a hunting knife she liked to use. The worst was losing friends. I started Year 7 with about fifteen. By the time I met Toby in the next year I was down to five, and within weeks I had no-one left except Toby.
We sat on that large flat rock in his secret place, circled by trees, the ants before us crisscrossing the ground, carrying larvae, insects and grains of dirt. I was telling him about the latest fights I’d had with the Bitch Gang when Toby took my hand away, gave me this look.
You’ve got a bad temper, Sarah Tong. Why do you fight? he said.
To win. To stop losing.
To conquer? To take?
No, not like that, I said. Maybe I do feel like that sometimes.
But it’s not what you really want, said Toby.
Maybe I just want to draw a line somewhere, to stay myself.
That’s where we’re different, he said. For me there’s no line. For me there’s only changing and being changed.
Toby, when there’s no line, what do you become?
Come on, let me show you something.
I followed him to the lump of wood. I watched him call the ants to him, and in the setting sun he looked different, like he was no longer a guy with ants all over him, but a bunch of ants in the shape of a guy. When the ants left him, I saw his tears. It was their gift, he said, to take his pain, and to give their wisdom. I asked him what they got in return. Toby looked at me, then took my hands in his, looked at the calluses starting to form.
Put your hand there, he said, and I did. Out came the ants. Now close your eyes. Do you feel them? I felt ants going up my arm, felt the fire, and the itch on my skin dissipated. I opened my eyes. The ants were writhing on the ground. I felt his disappointment.
We still have time, said Toby. We’ll try again, you’ll get better.
We met like that for the rest of that year, in the quiet place. I got better at talking to the ants. Sometimes I hurt them, and Toby had to step in, but over the months they began to trust me. I started to feel their thoughts. It was so strong, millions of voices all in a kind of disjointed rhythm, the assurance of white noise to the ears, and then with time it coalesced into a soft, clear hum, like a second skin. I started to understand them well.
I kept getting bullied, that didn’t change. Year 7 was full of lost battles, but at least Toby was there to listen, to cheer me up. Vika and the others came at me with names, stares and threats, but I shared things with Toby, and the ants, and I’d feel okay for a while. Those were the best days of my life. I thought they would go on forever.
It was the last week of school, a time I would always remember. The sun was low in the sky. We walked through the woods. At the edge of the trees he took my hands in his again, his face tired in the setting sun.
Your calluses are fading. That’s good.
Are you alright, Toby?
I’m fine. And so are you. Goodbye, Sarah. I’ll always be here.
He hugged me, something he’d never done before. Then he waved, ran back into the trees and disappeared.
The next day I didn’t see Toby. That was odd. I asked the teachers about him, but they had no idea who he was. How could they not know about the only Asian guy in the school? I talked to the principal, but she told me there was no such person. Lunchtime had never gone so slowly. After school I ran down to the gate, through the trees to the rock and the lake, but no-one was there. I called out for Toby for a long, long time. Then I fell on the flat stone and cried for a while. I’d lost my only friend. I was alone.
Those memories, like ghosts that never leave. I lie down on the ground. It’s hot, dusty, and the grit and the wind bore like rude fingers through my hair and in my eyes. The ground is scattered with wood fragments. The ants are moving over me, the tickle of their tiny legs irritating my skin like an itch. This is how Toby talked to the ants, how he taught me, but this is different. These are fire ants.
A flare of pain on my elbow, a bite, then the solenopsin venom breaks through my skin, causing ugly ruptures, but the body copes, and the pain surprisingly subsides. Time passes. More bites, more stings, but one by one my body absorbs them, one by one the ants sense my message. A truce is established. I get up. The ants drop off me like sand, and move towards the mound.
They direct me to a place on the gigantic red formation, and I produce a penknife. I push the blade in slowly. The fire ants protest, their hive mind burning with rage. I widen the hole, slicing down, reach in and pull on what I find. Out comes a jade with a hole in the centre on a leather thong, Toby’s bik disk. The vertical slot I’ve made swirls with angry ants, but soon the soil refills and seals before my eyes, like a wound becoming a scab. When it’s done the fire ants disperse back to their normal tasks, appeased. I dust off the jade and turn it over in my hands. What does this mean? Where has he gone? My eyes shimmer with tears. My cry goes out to the colony, but the ants don’t care.
The dust whips around. I return to the car, despondent. I’m tired, so tired. I look at my hands, and in them, the jade disk. Mum told me it symbolised the sky, or life, or death, something of the life beyond, but she was never sure. I look at the letter again. Come back. Time to burn. An old feeling returns, a question about Toby, about this letter that seemed so real up to now. I get a pen and a fresh notepad and close my eyes, think of Toby, and write. I open my eyes again, the letter in one hand, the notepad in the other, and my breath catches. The handwriting’s all the same.
I close the gate for the last time, the jade disk cool against my neck, and fall to my knees. A hollow opens up inside, and I cry. I grieve for a friend who never was, but who I owe my survival. The minutes pass. A tickling sensation travels across my skin, and instinctively I let go. I picture the flow of shiny, black ants up my arm, and an old calm returns. His strength is mine. I get up. I fire up the engine and drive, back along the dirt track, back to the main road, to life.
Benjamin Lee is an Australian-born Chinese writer of short stories and creative non-fiction pieces, focusing on life experiences between Hong Kong and Australia, and cultural family history. He has been published in the UTS Writers’ Anthology, “Infinite Threads.” Currently he is studying for a Masters in Creative Writing at University of Technology Sydney (UTS).