It took me a while to notice the ants. Unpacking my spongebag in the bathroom, I thought I saw the brown shagpile carpet ripple like a cornfield in a wind. Looking closer, I saw a colony of ants the size of wasps on some kind of jungle exercise in the wooly undergrowth. When I flushed the cistern, a hundred or so ant-marines tumbled into the toilet bowl from their positions under the rim.

I drove the Spirit back into town, a mile away, and consulted my new friend William, the pharmacist.

"They black ants? Or are they a kind of reddy-brown?"

"Black, I think."

"I hope it's black ants you got out there. If they're a brown ant, it could be you got fire ants in your place. Then you got problems." He was searching round among his poisons. "Friend of mine, he had fire ants once...he just went out into his backyard one morning...end of the day, his daughter came home, found him laying there dayud. Fire ants. Yes --- he was killed by the fire ants," he said with a soft twinkle. "That was a misfortunate man."

I found it hard to control the trembling of my forefinger and thumb.

William nodded and smiled; he looked significantly pleased by what I'd shown him.

"Oh yes, we do get them real big around here..."

Before I left the store with two bottles of sweet antbane, he asked me if I knew about brown recluse spiders. They were worse than fire ants, far worse. There was probably a brown recluse somewhere out at my place; most people had them, without knowing. They were no bigger than William's thumbnail. They didn't spin give-away webs. They just hid and waited to get you. If you left a pair of boots in a closet, a brown recluse might well take up residence in a toe. If there was some rotten wood on your porch, or up in the rafters.... The brown recluse was the duke of the dark corners of Alabama. William knew a lot of people who had died, or been permanently paralyzed, after being bitten by a brown recluse.

"Why the Reverend Billy Graham --- he was bitten by a brown recluse. He got treatment, but that's why he still walks so stiff. That was a brown recluse spider."

Back at my cabin, I moved as cautiously as if I was burgling it, examining each patch of carpet before I dared to plant a foot there. But there was no question: my ants were coal-black; not deadly, just a nuisance to be got rid of. Following the instructions on the bottle, I booby-trapped the house with half-inch rectangles of white card, then shook out on each card a couple of drops of the poisonous clear syrup. Within a quarter of an hour, the ants were assembled around the cards like so many guests at an all-male, black-tie dinner. I watched over them with an odd, hostly feeling of benevolence.

As they rose from their banquet to return to headquarters, the ants blundered away from the table, limped, staggered, fell to their knees. Their legs kept on waving feebly long after their thoraxes hit the deck. Quietly cheered by the slaughter, I poured myself a finger of Scotch and went out to sit in my rocker on the porch and admire the scenery.

Whisky in hand, I walked down to my boat-house. As my foot touched the pier, it triggered off a series of belly-flop splashes, making me spill my drink. A fallen beech tree, its bark stripped bare, lay out along the water, and turtles were tumbling in from their perches on its trunk. They came in all sizes, from babies the size of silver dollars to grownups as big as soup-tureens. They crashed into the lake like a row of falling bricks. I was glad they were shy: a snapping turtle could amputate a whole hand of fingers with a bite, or take a clean half-moon of flesh from your calf, if you were caught at close quarters with it.

My forehead snagged a cobweb, slung between the boat-house and the corrugated iron canopy over the pier. As I flinched away, my glass followed the turtles into the lake.

--- Jonathan Raban


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