Mamas, don’t let your larvae
Grow up to be ants
MEG THRASHED IN HER GOO CASE. “Get me out of here!”
“I don’t have a blade!” My fingers crept to the ukulele string around my neck. “Actually I have your blades, I mean your rings—”
“You don’t need to cut me out. When the ant dumped me here, I dropped the packet of seeds. It should be close.”
She was right. I spotted the crumpled pouch near her feet.
I inched toward it, keeping one eye on the ants. They stood together at the entrance as if hesitant to come closer. Perhaps the trail of dead ants leading to this room had given them pause.
“Nice ants,” I said. “Excellent calm ants.”
I crouched and scooped up the packet. A quick glance inside told me half a dozen seeds remained. “Now what, Meg?”
“Throw them on the goo,” Meg said.
I gestured to the geraniums bursting from her neck and armpit. “How many seeds did that?” “One.”
“Then this many will choke you to death. I’ve turned too many people I cared about into flowers, Meg. I won’t—”
“JUST DO IT!”
The ants did not like her tone. They advanced, snapping their mandibles. I shook the geranium seeds over Meg’s cocoon, then nocked my arrow. Killing one ant would do no good if the other three tore us apart, so I chose a different target. I shot the roof of the cavern, just above the ants’ heads.
It was a desperate idea, but I’d had success bringing down buildings with arrows before. In 464 BCE, I caused an earthquake that wiped out most of Sparta by hitting a fault line at the right angle. (I never liked the Spartans much.)
This time, I had less luck. The arrow embedded itself in the packed earth with a dull thunk. The ants took another step forward, acid dripping from their mouths. Behind me, Meg struggled to free herself from her cocoon, which was now covered in a shag carpet of purple flowers.
She needed more time.
Out of ideas, I tugged my Brazilian-flag handkerchief from my neck and waved it like a maniac, trying to channel my inner Paolo.
“BACK, FOUL ANTS!” I yelled. “BRASIL!”
The ants wavered—perhaps because of the bright colors, or my voice, or my sudden insane confidence. While they hesitated, cracks spread across the roof from my arrow’s impact site, and then thousands of tons of earth collapsed on top of the myrmekes.
When the dust cleared, half the room was gone, along with the ants.
I looked at my handkerchief. “I’ll be Styxed. It does have magic power. I can never tell Paolo about this or he’ll be insufferable.”
“Over here!” Meg yelled.
I turned. Another myrmeke was crawling over a pile of carcasses—apparently from a second exit I had failed to notice behind the disgusting food stores.
Before I could think what to do, Meg roared and burst from her cage, spraying geraniums in every direction. She shouted, “My rings!”
I yanked them from my neck and tossed them through the air. As soon as Meg caught them, two golden scimitars flashed into her hands.
The myrmeke barely had time to think Uh-oh before Meg charged. She sliced off his armored head. His body collapsed in a steaming heap.
Meg turned to me. Her face was a tempest of guilt, misery, and bitterness. I was afraid she might use her swords on me.
“Apollo, I…” Her voice broke.
I supposed she was still suffering from the effects of my song. She was shaken to her core. I made a mental note never again to sing so honestly when a mortal might be listening.
“It’s all right, Meg,” I said. “I should be apologizing to you. I got you into this mess.” Meg shook her head. “You don’t understand. I—”
An enraged shriek echoed through the chamber, shaking the compromised ceiling and raining clods of dirt on our heads. The tone of the scream reminded me of Hera whenever she stormed through the hallways of Olympus, yelling at me for leaving the godly toilet seat up.
“That’s the queen ant,” I guessed. “We need to leave.”
Meg pointed her sword toward the room’s only remaining exit. “But the sound came from there. We’ll be walking in her direction.”
“Exactly. So perhaps we should hold off on making amends with each other, eh? We might still get each other killed.”
We found the queen ant. Hooray.
All corridors must have led to the queen. They radiated from her chamber like spikes on a morning star. Her Majesty was three times the size of her largest soldiers—a towering mass of black chitin and barbed appendages, with diaphanous oval wings folded against her back. Her eyes were glassy swimming pools of onyx. Her abdomen was a pulsing translucent sac filled with glowing eggs. The sight of it made me regret ever inventing gel capsule medications.
Her swollen abdomen might slow her down in a fight, but she was so large, she could intercept us before we reached the nearest exit. Those mandibles would snap us in half like dried twigs.
“Meg,” I said, “how do you feel about dual-wielding scimitars against this lady?” Meg looked appalled. “She’s a mother giving birth.”
“Yes…and she’s an insect, which you hate. And her children were ripening you up for dinner.” Meg frowned. “Still…I don’t feel right about it.”
The queen hissed—a dry spraying noise. I imagined she would have already hosed us down with acid
if she weren’t worried about the long-term effects of corrosives on her larvae. Queen ants can’t be too careful these days.
“You have another idea?” I asked Meg. “Preferably one that does not involve dying?”
She pointed to a tunnel directly behind the queen’s clutch of eggs. “We need to go that way. It leads to the grove.”
“How can you be sure?”
Meg tilted her head. “Trees. It’s like…I can hear them growing.”
That reminded me of something the Muses once told me—how they could actually hear the ink drying on new pages of poetry. I suppose it made sense that a daughter of Demeter could hear the growth of plants. Also, it didn’t surprise me that the tunnel we needed was the most dangerous one to reach.
“Sing,” Meg told me. “Sing like you did before.” “I—I can’t. My voice is almost gone.”
Besides, I thought, I don’t want to risk losing you again.
I had freed Meg, so perhaps I’d fulfilled my oath to Pete the geyser god. Still, by singing and practicing archery, I had broken my oath upon the River Styx not once but twice. More singing would only make me more of a scofflaw. Whatever cosmic punishments awaited me, I did not want them to fall on Meg.
Her Majesty snapped at us—a warning shot, telling us to back off. A few feet closer and my head would have rolled in the dirt.
I burst into song—or rather, I did the best I could with the raspy voice that remained. I began to rap. I started with the rhythm boom chicka chicka. I busted out some footwork the Nine Muses and I had been working on just before the war with Gaea.
The queen arched her back. I don’t think she had expected to be rapped to today. I gave Meg a look that clearly meant Help me out!
She shook her head. Give the girl two swords and she was a maniac. Ask her to lay down a simple beat and she suddenly got stage fright.
Fine, I thought. I’ll do it by myself.
I launched into “Dance” by Nas, which I have to say was one of the most moving odes to mothers that I ever inspired an artist to write. (You’re welcome, Nas.) I took some liberties with the lyrics. I may have changed angel to brood mother and woman to insect. But the sentiment remained. I serenaded the pregnant queen, channeling my love for my own dear mother, Leto. When I sang that I could only wish to marry a woman (or insect) so fine someday, my heartbreak was real. I would never have such a partner. It was not in my destiny.
The queen’s antennae quivered. Her head seesawed back and forth. Eggs kept extruding from her abdomen, which made it difficult for me to concentrate, but I persevered.
When I was done, I dropped to one knee and held up my arms in tribute, waiting for the queen’s verdict. Either she would kill me or she would not. I was spent. I had poured everything into that song and could not rap another line.
Next to me, Meg stood very still, gripping her swords.
Her Majesty shuddered. She threw back her head and wailed—a sound more brokenhearted than angry.
She leaned down and gently nudged my chest, pushing me in the direction of the tunnel we needed. “Thank you,” I croaked. “I—I’m sorry about the ants I killed.”
The queen purred and clicked, extruding a few more eggs as if to say, Don’t worry; I can always make more.
I stroked the queen ant’s forehead. “May I call you Mama?” Her mouth frothed in a pleased sort of way.
“Apollo,” Meg urged, “let’s go before she changes her mind.”
I was not sure Mama would change her mind. I got the feeling she had accepted my fealty and adopted us into her brood. But Meg was right; we needed to hurry. Mama watched as we edged around her clutch of eggs.
We plunged into the tunnel and saw the glow of daylight above us.