She Who Meddles

I saw her from about a block away. She was hard to miss, squatting by the sidewalk and leaned forward over something interesting on the ground. I want to describe the way she dressed as "grungy" -- black tank top, covered over with a thoroughly-beaten hoodie that would have matched the shirt, had the thing not been at least fifteen years old and faded into some nether-shade too dark to be grey, yet too desaturated to call black. A well-worn denim skort over a pair of tights striped black and blue added to the impression that she was simply a teenager dressing anachronistically the name of some musical scene. The image was a bit marred by heavy, tan leather work boots, and the pair of reading glasses balanced precariously at the tip of her nose. Her short, chaotic brown hair completed the look. As soon as I got close, she motioned me over without actually looking up from whatever it was that fascinated her at the edge of the lawn. I paused a moment, not quite sure whether to ignore the gesture (I'm prone to misunderstanding people) or simply assume I'd read it correctly and go investigate. I was just about to walk on when she said "Yes, you -- come check this out." Well there you go, I thought, swallowing nervously as I approached. She radiated tangible interest, motioning me over and pointing at what turned out to be a swarm of ants below. I'm not an entomologist or anything -- I never completed a degree, although I do love biology and animals in general. However, I happen to be a bit of a backyard naturist, and I recognized the little reddish-black creatures as harvester ants. The swarm was thick, obscuring the ground beneath them. I've seen it more times than I can remember during late summer, but never really understood why they did it. Most people would probably wonder why in the hell a stranger had called them over to view it, I suppose, but I'm kind of used to that sort of thing. "That is neat," I said. I squatted down next to her. "I wonder why they do it." As if in reply, she stuck her tongue out the side of her mouth, adopting a look of intense concentration. Her liquid eyes, vividly alert and dark brown, did not move from the ants. Shifting her weight slightly, she produced a short, stubby stick, and started poking at the swarm. At her touch, the ants flowed away from the area of impact, clearing little circles in the living carpet. In the middle of each, a few crushed, twitching insect bodies remained. I found it unnecessary and a bit heartless, while at the same time being utterly enraptured by the patterns of the ants' movements. She sucked in through her teeth. "Look at that," she said, pointing at the circles clearing where she'd poked. From above, like this, the individual ants were lost in the focus and what I saw was a series of wave fronts propagating outward in response to the touch. As the ants who'd been closest to the disturbance cleared out, and the ones who'd simply followed their panicked response calmed and slowed, the wave front began to dissipate. A few heartbeats, and soon individual members of the swarm were exploring the evacuated area, stumbling upon their fallen comrades, and summoning help with chemical calls for assistance. A few beats more, the areas were alive with activity again. Soon they disappeared back into the swarm. "It's...pretty." I said. I didn't know how else to react. "Kind of cruel to the poor ants, though, killing and scaring them for our entertainment. This time she did look at me, pushing the glasses up her nose and fixing me with her gaze. "I...guess." She didn't seem troubled, or to feel accused. She almost seemed...studious. Attentive. Focused. "I won't pretend they didn't suffer or anything. But...suffering's not necessarily bad." "Well, maybe not objectively, but..." "Maybe not at all," she insisted. "It's just a neurological response, like any other. It hurts, and of course no living thing wants to die. Programmed to avoid it, negative reinforcement to prevent foreseeable causes of death. You fight it with every cell of your body until entropy finally does its thing." She looked down for a moment. "'s not a kind world." "I guess not," I replied. It still seemed like pointless indulgence to me, and apparently my face suggested I thought so because she went on. "You know, hurting something for entertainment isn't any more pointless than doing it for food, or for self-preservation. Or to defend someone else. Hurt can happen for almost any reason. Cruelty is just pain, for pain's sake." She looked away. "I don't do what I do because of the pain. I'm just...fascinated by..." She shut her eyes, shook her hand. Looking for the word. "The response?", I suggested cautiously. With that, her eyes shone brightly and she threw her head back with a cackle. "Yes! Exactly." Toppling over backward, she rolled around on the ground, hugging herself. "You got it, finally." Suddenly she jumped to her feet and, before I could react, touched my nose with a single fingertip. "You're fun. Thanks for keeping me entertained." And then she dashed around the corner, leaving me speechless and alone in the fading afternoon, with a swarm of ants at my feet and far too many questions in my mind.