We stripped Grandma naked and dumped her into the Pit a few hours after her death.
It should feel like personal business and mourning, but it didn’t. Nobody sobbed as we watched her wrinkled body get devoured by a surging sea of screeching black and red. The ants filled the cavities of Grandma’s mouth and nose. Then, slowly, her flesh and skin were completely consumed by millions of crawling and wiggling tiny beings. By tomorrow, the insects would pick the cold corpse clean. Sinews, eyes, hair, organs—all would be gone. The rest would soon sink to the bottom of the Pit, joining others, half-disintegrated, where the squirming larvae would feed.
Funerals and executions were noisy affairs. The ants were loud during their feast. They came alive. The horde moved—a singular body, enraptured and baptized by the scent of new blood and fresh meat. And we would be washed clean under their lovely singing—their beautiful symphony, played on thousands of scrabbling hairy legs and waving antennas, working together to pick a carcass clean.
The constant chittering was a pleasant comfort. There was a surgical, methodical rhythm to the movements of the ants as they chipped away at the soft body parts, splitting apart the seams at the spine, the neck, the stomach, unrolling the thick layer of skin to expose the fatty, bubbling tissues underneath. It was nice that Grandma was dead. Those still alive always screamed and thrashed, trying to swim out of the hungry, greedy swarms. I often looked down at them from the viewing platform just to see the white in their eyes drowned under the glossy black waves. Their anguished wails screeched like the black-and-grey buzz of a blank television screen.
My brother used to cry and cover his ears because he couldn’t stand the pleas of those desperately holding onto their worthless lives. After execution days, I often found him curled up tight under the blankets, snot and tears welling up in his nose and eyes. He tried to stop me from coming near, but his nails would dig into my biceps the moment I wrapped my arms around him under the duvet.
They’re so loud, he’d say. Why won't they stop? Why won't they stop?
He stopped crying a few years ago.
Something in him shifted after Grandpa died. He had screamed bloody murder when Dad and I tossed Grandpa’s corpse into a body bag and brought it to the Pit. That day, my brother locked his door and refused to eat. For a week, from across the hall, I could hear him snivelling late into the night, murmuring the same annoying tune Grandpa used to hum.
He had scratched me many times before, but that time, the long, deep marks he left on my forearms, neck, and face stayed for days. The scabs swelled into an angry red that still ached a little every time I looked at him.
Sometimes, a part of me wished I hadn’t broken down the door hinges of his room or that I had let him starve to death and hurled him down the Pit myself.
My brother’s gaze met mine in the reflective glass walls of the viewing platform. I glanced away first. But he stared back at me, unblinking.
He didn’t say anything. I heard his accusation anyway—heard it in the glare he flicked down to the writhing Pit beneath us, heard it in the unconscious twitch of his clenched jaw, heard it in the tight fists he shoved in his jacket pockets. You’re sick. The unspoken words loaded with venom. You’re sick if you can smile at this. You’re sick if you think Grandma deserves this. You’re sick if you think anybody deserves this. His thoughts stained his face, like the faint sticky hemolymph trail left behind when we crushed a frantically retreating ant. The twist of his lips shouldn’t have been cruel, yet it was. He had the same piercing eyes as Grandma—eyes that made me flinch, eyes that smouldered with anger and hatred.
I thought about reaching out and touching my brother’s elbow. I thought about rubbing his nape, pulling him close, smiling soothingly until his overactive mind calmed down, like I used to back when he was younger.
I didn’t, though. Not today. Not yet. I left him alone.
This wasn’t the first time he attended a funeral. Wouldn’t be the last time, either.
Soon, my brother would change. He’d have to change.
Both Grandma and Grandpa finally died—and along with them, the ants disposed of the rosy fairy tales and ideals they told my brother. There wouldn’t be any more late night stories about steaks, or veals, or sardines in aluminum cans, or aged ham wrapped in oily brown paper. There wouldn’t be any more singing about some faraway farmland dotted with cattle, where life pulsed to a singular, selfish hunger.
My brother needed to understand that the world where orchestras played mourning songs and people read eulogies to the coffins of their loved ones was already long forgotten. He had to move on. He had to get used to the sound of insects feasting on warm bodies. He had to get used to the weight of the heavy ration bags we all carried as we stepped away from the Pit.
Grandma’s eyeballs were being nibbled out of her sockets when an official stopped by with our food. The bags were still warm after he passed them to us.
“Congratulations. She fetches you enough for two weeks. Planning to have a feast when you get back?”
My parents smiled without showing their teeth. “Perhaps next time.”
They said the same thing after Grandpa went down the chute, too. Grandpa got us four weeks’ worth. Grandma was skinnier, smaller. Unfortunate, but it was a decent bargain nonetheless. The mass prisoner execution two days ago fattened out the colonies. We would get strong, plump ants instead of the frail ones we had been receiving lately.
Mom and Dad signed the paperwork. My brother lingered at the glass window a few moments longer than the rest of us, and briefly, for a split second, I recognized a familiar glint of cynicism in his eyes. It was the same dull glare that marked the beginning of Grandma’s suicidal fast.
You’d be happy throwing me down the Pit.
I felt a nest of fire ants budding in my chest.
The trek home was quiet. The street was emptying out as curfew approached. My brother marched ahead, apart from the family. I watched the dusk’s red-orange sunlight shift across his jacket as I took measured breaths—in, out, in, out.
The fire ants gnawed away at my heart, my lungs, tearing up the thin walls of my blood vessels and muscles. If I pressed my hand against the left of my rib cage, I’d feel the hollow spot the ants had dug out beating to a pulse that was no longer there.
I wondered what my brother’s eyes would look like while the ants were eating him.
The last sliver of sun was still visible above the city’s horizon by the time we got home. Our apartment complex wasn’t too far from the Pit. Its blocky silhouette stood stark against the bleeding sky.
Mom marinated and deep-fried the ants. They hissed and popped in the hot oil, clumps of them struggling desperately in the sticky flour-and-egg mixture that entombed them alive. The heat turned them golden brown, dyed the black chitin into a sleek crimson.
At the dining table, Mom and Dad discussed the jobs they had missed because of Grandma’s funeral—they would have to work overtime for the next month.
I tuned their murmurs out. In my periphery—rising through the crunching of the fried ants in my mouth, my throat, my stomach—I could hear the insects’ indistinct chatter. The restless movements of millions of them trapped underground made the concrete building tremble, resonating in my marrow.
The ants must have gotten rid of Grandma’s eyeballs by now, and they were probably tunnelling their way through her skin next.
Beside me, my brother pushed his food around with a spoon, his stomach rumbling, his lips pressed thin.
“Eat,” I said. My breath smelled like formic acid. “There’s no good in keeping someone alive if they want to die.”
His shoulders stiffened. “You saved me once,” he sneered, but the corners of his mouth were shaky, unsure.
When I lifted a portion of my ants over to his bowl, my brother stilled and glared up at me.
“Eat,” I repeated, lifting my chin. For the first time since Grandpa’s death, I managed to meet my brother’s eyes.
“I won’t save you twice.”
Without another word, he ate them all.
Eva Prescott is an industrial design student. She’s interested in exploring mundane human lives and insignificant moments of endurance through poems, though she has recently acquired morbid fascinations with stranger topics. Her first self-published poetry book, Kairosclerosis, is available on Amazon.