Midwife in the Tire Swing

Chapter 27—A Short History of Wallpaper

Thundering and a furious digging distracted the queen at her egg-laying. The Lady Mother halted the song of her wedding flight where against all reason fallen white blossoms floated upwards on a fragrant breeze. In the passageways there arose an alarm, “Strange air, strange air.” Frantic cadres with no thought but to repair the breach in the gallery walls died as Housekeeping rushed to fill the gap with their bodies. The alarm was raised late for those who would have told her were dead. A mammal with a voracious taste for larvae was in the galleries. The Queen calmly switched over to her song of bereavement as maniples of plug-headed soldiers swarmed to the attack.

The pygmy shrew ate well and quickly as it fought off the ants. White bodies squirmed, severed, at its lips. The invader squealed with rage and pain as soldiers bit deep. Its teeth slashed; its digging talons clawed at gallery walls, causing collapses and obstructing the air shafts. It had been wounded but at great cost to the warrior caste. The soldiers lay dead and in scattered parts, the slippery fluids of crushed body cavities now growing viscous. It was hard for arriving maniples to wade through the sticky blood of fallen comrades. A vexillary cried, “The eyes, the eyes,” and his century threw itself at the pygmy shrew’s face.

The shrew’s flashing teeth slashed again and again, and a thousand soldiers lay dead and twitching, severed legs waiting for a command from a separated head. A sweet odor made the unvented air thick with the collective death of the first maniple.

To the perfumed slaughter was added the hot odor of fresh blood. The shrew was weakening. An open wound and Housekeeping was to the fore, scissoring away gobbets of flesh. The shrew, too swollen by its feast to turn around and too mad to escape, began backing off. It was too late. Now sightless, robbed of water from gorging on salty larvae and weakened by dehydration, it died slowly and in the dark. Housekeeping scuttled and swarmed, disassembling the fallen enemy.

From above an acid wetness, a human was peeing on the anthill. The summer people were back.

*  *  *

The Long Walkers, ancestors of the human strain that would discover wallpaper at a future date, trekked east with travois and sledge, following the retreating ice face. Children following, the women struggled at their sledges, bent against tumplines that dug into their foreheads. These humans of high cheekbones and a tightly knotted genotype stayed for a summer and moved on; the ants made do with their leavings. As the arctic winter returned, the midden heaps of the Long Walkers, who never acknowledged that the ants were there before them, were consumed.

That the Long Walkers could have found their way back each year was puzzling to the ants. It was also observed that the Walkers were not urinating at all times, thus creating a scent trail. Perhaps they had nothing to say. This was peculiar; the ants navigated by scent and the greater world outside their colony was cloaked in mystery. With time and misinterpretation the carpenter ants jumped to lethal conclusions. Millions died on a chance jump of logic caused by a corrupted scent sign painted on a gallery wall. The elements of collective thought did not spring electrically from neuron to neuron thence to be transformed into speech, but had to be carried by mandible, pincer and claw.

What the ants chose to remember they redistributed on the walls, ceilings, and galleries springy with honeydew, painting with pheromones and exudations. They sang, but as with the scent-painting the swarm’s ululations rang ever fainter with the passage of the hours, years, millennia so that, while the community of ants forgot slowly, it did forget. They wisely ignored the doings of the humans until one day a new model of mankind unpacked their kit and set up housekeeping among the Long Walkers. The new folk dreamed in color—the Long Walkers in sepiatone and shades of gray. The new folk had not yet discovered wallpaper, not having the technology of walls. These stationary men perplexed the ants—and the termites, their cousins—as they all looked alike to an arthropod. The new women once sang as they pulled on their sledges and followed the caribou that cropped close at lichen and one year did not move on but burrowed into the banks of a glacial rivulet and waited for spring when they sang and worked their vegetable patches. Theirs was a full life, but they could not know this. The ants tolerated the newcomers and besides, they were here first, so there. Eons later, alternating generations of wood-tunneling ants would weaken a beam in a barn, causing the fall of a New England farm boy who would drop thirty feet to a dirt floor.

Meanwhile, mankind was discovering wallpaper, for with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, tin and amber would not be in as great demand. Craftsfolk turned their skills to the requirements of the conquerors. Made with arsenic, the bright Paris green color was a favorite with Victorian wallpaper designers. As well as creating health problems for the ants, termites, powder post beetles and workers in wallpaper factories, the much admired green dyes emitted deadly dust. Workers suffered from skin lesions known as arsenic pock, which caused great discomfort and death.

Thanks to becoming stuck to the plaster of perpetually damp Victorian houses with wet wheat paste, the coveted wallpapers killed, not alone, but by association. Wallpaper emitted arsenic when acted upon by a common household fungus. The dye was also used in sheep dips, children’s toys, confectionary and cake decorations, and as a highly effective poison for rats, voles and mice whose tunnels the ants favored for wintering-over. The ants felt someone should know this.

“Hello,” said an ant.

“Yeah sure. Bye, gotta go,” said a mouse, too busy to be bothered. Wallpaper however, had the time. And the ants had learned to love their arsenic.

A lethal Regency relic, the glistening emerald wallpaper of leafy vines and lusty pastoral gods in America’s middle-class parlors and Turkish seraglios alike killed undeterred into the 20th century when its use was curtailed in time to save the lungs of one Lucy Hobart, but not cushion his fall from a beam in his father’s barn. Glued to the walls, flocked shepherdesses went about their murderous business in bosky nouveau dells.

Thus, in the days before proper time, a mouse was met, then a child, by surviving cadres of the ants who once ruled the world. The child and the ants would pursue their separate destinies. This is the last we shall hear of ants in this story for many of them carelessly ate the wallpaper paste.

*  *  *

“Blessed art thou among women,” said the image in the mirror.

“Sure thing smooth talker,” said Samantha.

“Wanna discuss comprehensive coverage?” the mirror asked hopefully. It was Harry Collier, the claims adjuster from Valley Cooperative. “And thanks for getting me out of that car. You slip away for a tête-à-tête?” The medicine cabinet had lain for many months, swaddled in a nest of airline blankets in the trunk compartment of Samantha’s Dodge Neon. She felt it might be important at some future time. As mother and child stuffed the little car with an allowable minimum of food, clothes and artifacts of early childhood education, they pondered, then chucked the spare tire to make room for Harry Collier and his magic mirror, ripped from the wall of her Los Angeles bathroom.

“I am writing a children’s book. To bring me and DazL closer together.”

“Closer? Children’s book? You write a couple of hundred words and spread them out over forty pages, then hire an award-winning illustrator to fill in the gaps. Easy. Hey, the kid is barely a toddler. How much bonding can a new mom stand?”

“Precious little, as it turns out. I hated him at first sight. But then, I was prepared. I heard there was this post-partum revulsion. I’m supposed to be trying to kill the kid.”

“Society frowns upon infanticide. And he—the miraculous child—likewise objects. Not unnatural. He’s keeping an eye on you for any hostile move. If so—Blooie! Got it? The Prince of Peace is back and He’s packing some serious heat this time.”

“Fire, not flood. Next time. It’s in the Bible. I’ve got insurance coverage for that, right?” Samantha wiped the steam away from the medicine chest mirror and, making sure Harry the claims adjuster was still in there, dropped her yellow terry robe and followed it to the floor, executing a delicate cross-legged spiral.

“I would be derelict if I did not recommend our comprehensive homeowner’s policy. Personal indemnity for any accidental damage to bystanders, onlookers... You are nude. Naked,” said Harry.

“You are peeking,” said Samantha.

“True. You got me there. I guess that means this is one of those Scheherazade moments, then. You will read me a story-within-a-story in a futile attempt to defer whatever judgment the Overlord has prepared for you.”

“Which would be you?”

“Hardly. I am a figment of your imagination. You are hallucinating; I am only a dollop of condensation on your bathroom mirror. You must think carefully about any karma-changing advice you feel I give to you. Not to worry, this is the usual state for a virgin mother of the blessed child.”

“‘A ‘virgin mother.’ There have been others?”

“Well, duh!” said the figment in the mirror. “Tell me your story.”

Samantha Cherry Hobart’s story had deteriorated into cut-rate pornography of late. “No wilder than anyone else’s. Just cheaper,” she said to the medicine cabinet mirror. “Bizarre is all, not counting you. And second-feature grainy. I’m OK.” She checked inside, behind the mirror, just in case. Nope. No OxyContin had arrived since she last checked. You couldn’t tell; it never hurt to take a look.

*  *  *

“Should I book a flight on an airline that might go bankrupt?” Samantha once asks Lucy Hobart. “You were a flyer.”

“Depends. If it’s in mid-air I’d say not.”


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