I explored my fear
O Lady Mother, goddess and queen.
You who have existed from the beginning,
Alas! alas! alas!
In the galleries of our generation the creature is a fearful thing.
Alas! alas! alas! Cry chaos and shambles.
Arise, awake, leave us not unprotected on the way.
— Thus goes a hymn to the Lady Mother of the Long Walkers that bookends Song of the Rice Barge Coolie.
There was a quarter-sized stain on the sheets and a larger spreading wet patch down the front of my pajamas. I squeezed shut the offending sphincter. “Cancer.” There, I had said it out loud. Was it an enlarged prostate or the legions of hell come to deliver a joyous hi-de-ho as I slept? The pajamas got dumped into the hamper. Here in the hours of night sweats and horrors, the small hours before sunrise, my embarrassment was balanced by fear. I was an adult, a grownup, but mocking demons twisted rusty dental tools in my vitals at the sound of my voice. I felt fear. “Cancer,” I said again. And so it was.
“Death is just Nature’s way of telling you it’s time to slow down.” Who said that? Probably Johnny Carson or George Carlin. I explored my fear. And met a monster, an everyday predator, a pygmy shrew.
So I took a number. I told myself if you’re going to get cancer, prostate cancer is the one to get, most flavors take so long to kill you that you will die of something else first. Tell that to a panicked 60-year-old. So the prostate came out. But first I visited the lawyer for a will — not a bad idea even if you are only going down to the road to check the mailbox: falling pianos, vagrant drones, that stuff. A piece they missed was still in there; I still tested positive. But I was assured I was healthy. In 2002 I enjoyed several weeks of enforced leisure while being bombarded by focused-beam radiation. This was fifteen years ago. I still monitor my PSA numbers with a fierce scrutiny. Men don't talk about an infestation of their privy parts; this is why we die. If you know any men, tell them this.
My home away from home was the Ronald McDonald House in Bangor, Maine where there was an infestation of ants. Ronald McDonald called in the Orkin Man. Pending his arrival, and knowing what was in store for the McDonald House ants, I watched the ants and started writing. I had brought along a laptop and a book, Baudolino, by Umberto Eco. I read, went for the morning zapping, worked out at the Bangor YMCA, and read between naps. I picked up Brecht’s The Measures Taken at a local bookstore and started blocking out The Song of the Rice Barge Coolie. I trust that very little of the Brechtian or the Eco-esque made it into the story. If it has — well, we learn from the masters.
The scenario: warriors from the Planet Xenon have landed a battle cruiser in your dooryard. But wait... just who, exactly, is the alien invader here? Parallel universes need not be remote and anything so small as an ant is easily dismissed. An untimely swarming before the garden party? Suck ’em up with a vacuum cleaner. We shall agree to disagree then — the ants and us — as to whose house this is. Tomorrow perhaps. My relationship with the carpenter ants of rural Maine goes back almost thirty years. I trust The Song of the Rice Barge Coolie shows a proper respect for them. They were here first. As for the starry-eyed back-to-the-earthers from the megalopolitan sprawls to the south — well, I was one, and size doesn’t matter.
Ginny Levitan and her husband, Jim, are inspecting a possible retirement home. With the aid of real estate agent Barbara Casmirczak — “Call me Babs” — they buy the odd dwelling and soon discover they have an ant infestation. Later, Ginny discovers that Jim and Babs are having an affair. Ginny’s bond with reality frays with the infidelity of her husband and the arrival of a strange music that only she can hear. The singing “...like a cheap battery radio playing Armenian music in a far-off room. I just imagined it. I’ll be fine...” is a message from the Lady Mother, queen of a colony of carpenter ants. They may perhaps collaborate to solve their mutual difficulties. In an early draft there was an episode in which a pygmy shrew invaded the ant colony:
“Large, pallid bodies lay lifeless in a row. This was not the usual order of things — Housekeeping should have long since cut them up and hauled them away. The Lady Mother of the Long Walkers sang a catalog of sorrows. The kidnapped queens, her sisters, were dead; her own great bulk made escape impossible. The Lady Mother sang of her wedding flight in the world of the winds where against all reason fallen white blossoms floated upwards on a fragrant breeze.
“Strange air. Strange air. The Scourge is in the walls! sang the Icaros. The alarm was raised too late, for those who would have informed the goddess, the Mother of Us All, were dead. A pygmy shrew was in the nurseries. It ate well and quickly. White bodies squirmed, severed, at its lips.
“The pygmy shrew’s flashing teeth slashed and the Icaros lay dead in scattered parts, the slippery fluids of crushed body cavities now growing viscous, severed legs waiting for a command from a separated head. Frantic cadres with no thought but to repair the walls died as they rushed to fill the gap with their bodies. The Lady Mother sang her song of bereavement as maniples of plug-headed soldiers swarmed to the attack.
“The invader squealed in pain as the Icaros bit deep. Its saber teeth slashed, its digging talons clawed at gallery walls, causing collapses and obstructing air shafts. It had been wounded, but at great cost to the warrior caste. One larger Icaro, a vexillary, cried, ‘The eyes, the eyes,’ and a century threw itself at the shrew’s face. The smell of death hung thick in the unvented air. To the perfumed slaughter of the Long Walkers was added the hot odor of fresh blood.
“The shrew was weakening; too swollen by its feast to turn around and mad to escape, it began backing off. But too late. Now sightless, robbed of water from gorging on salty larvae and weakened by loss of blood, it died slowly and in the dark. Housekeeping scuttled and swarmed, disassembling the fallen enemy. The Lady Mother sang on unperturbed. There would be more Long Walkers, for this was in the annals. Time was of a piece; this all had happened before.”
Alas, the battle of the ants never made it into the Rice Barge Coolie. However, it is the lead-in to A Short History of Wallpaper, a chapter of Midwife in the Tire Swing.
are of course, Baudolino, Foucault’s Pendulum and The Name of the Rose among many. The Name of the Rose is a simple detective story, much in the way the US Criminal Code is about littering. The author, a professor of Semiotics at Bologna, was, about the time I moved to Maine, on Everyone Who was Anyone’s short list of writers to read or read about so as to shimmer at cocktail parties. A review of Foucault’s Pendulum was intriguing and, alone by the woodstove, I sat down with the book. Two weeks later, I got up again. The next year, I rented a video of The Name of the Rose, the book also by Eco, and thoroughly relished the film version: Sean Connery as a medieval monk, William of Baskerville. Then I had to read the book. I held a yard sale paperback for eight years, and just finished it for the second read. Starting takes time. And, in the fullness of time I would some years later take a crack at Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code — pale stuff when held up against Eco’s.
“Quintilian,” my master interrupted, “says that laughter is to be repressed in the panegyric, for the sake of dignity, but it is to be encouraged in many other cases. Pliny the Younger wrote, ‘Sometimes I laugh, I jest, I play, because I am a man.’”
“They were pagans,” Jorge replied.
— Umberto Eco, The Name Of The Rose
Next I’ll reread Foucault’s Pendulum. Like The Name of the Rose, a book to read (at least) twice. I did not feel cheated when, after 611 pages in paperback, Adso closed his memoir with, “I no longer know what it is [all] about: Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus.” There is much Latin, William of Occam, Thomas Aquinas, apologetics, and sentences that ramble on for a page or more. This was the style of the time. And in the style of my time, I have just enough Latin to translate Adso’s either/or kicker: “The pure rose has a name, but the name is all we have.” Go figure.
Ginny had been watching a line of ants struggle with the task of transporting rice from a bag of basmati down from the kitchen counter back to their nest. Her rice from her cabinet. “Crushing self-sufficiency. I like that,” said Ginny. She reached for the can of arsenic trioxide. She slammed the can of poison down on the counter, hard. The lid popped loose, sending a cloud of gray-white dust into the air. Ginny turned away, grabbed at the paper towels and moistening one, placed it against her nose. She had dropped the telephone during her scramble to the sink.
Ginny hummed tunelessly while Linda talked.
“Oh, you’re still there; I thought I heard someone breathing. That’s “The Song of the Rice Barge Coolie.” I was watching an ant cross the kitchen counter. Bertolt Brecht. I learned it in college. A theater course.”
“We did Showboat in high school, remember?”
“I thought the ant’s achievement deserved some recognition.”
Linda sang, “It’s just my Bill, an ordinary guy...”
“They work all day for a chance to work the following day. They get to eat whatever spills. They sleep under a bridge if they are lucky. Then they die.”
“Like Ol’ Man River. In Showboat.”
“Not really. The coolies will never get there. They will all die. Their children will finish the trip. Then their children will die.”
The legend and lore of radiation therapy is that my wife and I will have dinner and endless picnics on the deck after all, and not only will I attract swarms of bugs with my glow, residual radiation will either kill them or make them sterile. And we can read in bed at night without turning on the lamp. I have never felt physically better in my life. That’s why having cancer plus no prostate is such a strange territory. I make it to the gym three times a week and feel useful around the house. I still talk to my cancer, but I have not given it a name.
copyright 2020 Rob Hunter