For a few days our slaves, digging deep in the cellars of our anthill to enlarge them, had encountered a pile of bizarre matters. It was like a mass of thick tissue; if it had been made of silk, wool or linen, we would have made use of it by shredding it and eating it; but it was obviously composed of a fiber foreign to our country, very hard, and having a devilish taste.
In the presence of this mass, all the slaves took counsel. Nobody knew what it could be. It is true that all were very young and lacked experience; also, when one of the strongest heads of Polyergues asked if this particular layer of matter was not found in all the anthills, no one could answer him with certainty, and it was decided, at once, that a safe and of great intelligence ant would be detached to inquire about this.
I was chosen, and I think we could not choose better. One of my brothers was added to me as an aide, and that is how I had just returned from an expedition and had to start another. In the meantime, it was decided that the pieces of fabric hindering the underground work would be cut out, worn outside and discarded to the useless residues.
Thus was done, notwithstanding the repugnance which the slaves felt in cutting this matter which possessed a horrible taste. But what can the courage, the patience and the abnegation of good citizens do!
So we traveled together, my brother and I, passing with care, as close as possible, anthills of the canton; but not close enough, however, to motivate attacks and assaults of the colonies, which are not always in a good mood.
While talking, we crossed a large sandy plain, absolutely naked. Above our heads, at enormous heights, lay the thick branches of several trees which for many years had prevented the water of the sky from falling on the ground and hardening it. So, sinking to the knee in this ash-like land, and we were weary with fatigue.
We were advancing with courage, however, because we had to get out of this bad situation, and we headed for a place that seemed free and whose surroundings were barred by steep hills, colossal roots and interwoven grasses.
“Look,” I said to my brother, “it looks like a parade in the Black Mountains!”
”It is true! Fortunately, the ground is smooth as far as the eye can see.”
As soon as my brother had finished these words, we arrived at the parade; but there, an unexpected spectacle was reserved for us. Instead of continuing as far as the eye could see, like a carpet of ashes, as we supposed, the ground suddenly plunged into an immense funnel … Nothing but abrupt, slippery walls, of a rather uncomfortable aspect. ..
We stopped at the edge, holding back with great difficulty, the terrain was so bad …
”What are we going to do?” my brother tells me. ”We cannot go down into this funnel; besides the ground is impracticable for the descent, we would find it even worse for the ride.”
”Let’s look for a passage between the precipice and the rock …”
”Ok! You, stay there and wait for me …”
The unfortunate man left with all the necessary circumspection on this difficult occasion. Everything went well first; the ground was more compact than had been supposed at first glance, and I was about to follow him; but having arrived at about half-way, that is to say, at the narrowest point, his foot strikes a grain of land which rolls rapidly in the depths of the abyss. O prodigy! O terror! Suddenly, the bottom of the precipice seems to come alive; an eruption of ash and sand rises, falling on my brave companion like a hurried downpour …
I myself get some splashes and I retrograde under their impression; but my brother, blinded, terrified, bruised by these materials that rain on his head, hesitates, staggers … He makes frightening efforts to restrain himself … then he rolls among the stones and the sand to the bottom of the volcano…
Horror! … At the bottom, in the abyss, I see two enormous sharp pointed pincers, coming out of the sand, opening and seizing my unfortunate brother, splitting, breaking and cutting him, sucking his blood in the blink of an eye and rejecting its empty shell outside …
A horrible memory comes back to the thought of the stories told at the vigil when I was small … – the antlion !!!
It was he, indeed, who was finishing devouring my poor brother.
It was for me to escape him as soon as possible. Although I knew that he was not angry, I instinctively feared him as much as he deserved to be, and I immediately tried to get out of the danger in which I was. Moving away was not easy, as deep as I was in the moving sand.
Nevertheless I acted with caution, crawled backwards, and, in spite of the projectiles he sent me, I was able to gain a less dangerous ground, and my flight could accelerate.
As I walked away, I saw at the foot of a shrub the corpse of an unfortunate ant, a victim like my poor brother of the terrible animal.
I admit it, I went right back to the anthill, as much to take a rest I needed as to protect my brothers from the dangers of the parade that I had recognized. There I took information about our terrible enemy.
All that I had heard of it so far had seemed so incredible to me, that I had attached to it only a very secondary interest, as in the tales of good women; but now!…
Now one of my companions asserted to me that she had seen, from the top of a blade of grass, the antlion metamorphose into a sort of dragonfly, of great elegance of form, and endowed with transparent gauze on which she left through the airs … The antlion had wrapped itself in a rounded cocoon at the bottom of its hole. Suddenly, he cut a hole on the side and left his body halfway through this opening. The skin of the chrysalis then split, and the perfect insect came out. No sooner had he made his first aspiration of air, than his abdomen, which had formerly been short to enter the cocoon, stretched out, swelled, and lengthened at least three or four times its length. Her antennae unfolded by themselves, like the wings … My companion saw all this full of astonishment and without daring to move.
The antlion is primarily carnivorous. He has dedicated to us a hate to death, as well as to the other agile insects, while he is a legless! So he is absolutely incapable of nobly hunting his prey like us: he needs a cowardly ambush! Where is he hiding, if not in the sand, to bury his ugly body that looks like a hideous garden spider! So weak are his legs, that he can hardly walk, he crawls …
I learned so many peculiarities about the monster, and I came to familiarize myself with the idea of seeing him again: I was hardly even afraid of him; so I resolved to return to the plain of the sands, to make a detour by following the tops of the wooded hills, and to place myself near enough from above to observe it safely and without danger.
I left, therefore, despite the remonstrances of my companions; my resolute and adventurous character was already drawing. Alas! Where was he to take me? But no one can flee his destiny! …
My project was good; I confess that the difficulties were great to put it into execution, because the roads were in no way frayed on the mountains, and I ran many dangers through these virgin forests. However valiant heart nothing impossible … is my motto. From the top of a rock, I looked for the theater of the fatal event which had ended the life of my brother …
More funnel! In its place, a complete upheaval: lands crumbled, a chaos in miniature … My noble brother had struggled to the end, causing the sand to fall under his feet, attaching himself to every roughness … The antlion has abandoned a work so compromised, and deferring his ambush a little further in the same defile, was digging his funnel. I saw him working, and each time he pushed back the earth in the old hole, which was thus roughly crammed, little by little, so as not to interrupt the path of arrival by that side.
The antlion then began, before me, to trace its funnel. He first flattens his abdomen like a plow; then, creeping backwards in a circular direction, he traced a shallow trench, but which marked a circle at least five centimeters in diameter. How does he manage to draw this furrow in a regular circle, groping, since he walks backwards? … It’s a real miracle … Once the first circle is done, the others are nothing; it’s like the plowman following his first furrow. Still, the frightful beast takes a second circle inside the first, always chasing the sand with his head and throwing it out of the limit of his trench.
I was amazed, and I remained attentive and motionless, attending these new maneuvers for me, and wondering who could have said to the first antlion: You will do like that! During this time, the work advanced; the circles, smaller and smaller, became deeper, the sand went in sheaf beyond the limits, and all of a sudden I saw the antlion hide in the bottom of the hole, in the sand, and remain motionless. That’s why we had not seen anything suspicious as we approached the trap where my poor brother had died!
However, if we had been less inexperienced, we would have looked at it with more care, and we would have seen, at the bottom, the sharp points of the wide open mandibles of the beast!
I had lost a lot of time watching, so I hurried to our antlion. Unfortunately, the road was long and was evening when I discovered the ridge; at the same moment, a sinister croaking rose in the air, and a bird flew in the direction of our nest …
It was the woodpecker who was singing his marauding gaze at the tree hole where he was going to spend the night. At the same moment, one of my comrades, coming out from under a dry sheet and blocking my way, told me that during my absence, the woodpecker had come boldly to attack the anthill, to upset some outposts to introduce into the avenues his filthy tongue, laden with gooey slime, on which he picks up the unfortunate ants he touches, then, withdrawing everything in his beak, swallows them …
I confess that I do not understand yet how this bird can lodge in its beak a tongue as long as its body. However, by dint of informing me, I found an old, very old ant, who assured me that she had eaten long ago a woodpecker killed by a hunter who had afterwards scorned such a fine game. Now the old woman told me that she had eaten her head and that she had seen, inside the bony box, the tongue of the bird that was wrapped around it, all around, like thread in a box.
I want to believe it, but I have not seen!