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I stepped aside

Mike Hillman

I looked at the clock and wondered how they were doing.

I wanted to go out and check on them, but thought better of it. Daylight would be coming soon, and I could check then. The less I disturbed them, the better their chances were I told myself.

They were only ants, but they didn’t ask for what had happened to them, and I felt guilty that I was the cause.

The day had started like almost any other day. With the daily chores done and my rides over with, I turned my attention to the long list of projects that had been waiting. At the top was breaking up the old cross-county ramp jump.

Built out of old oak boards, it was sixteen feet in width, five feet in depth, and three and a half feet at its maximum high. While it was a great jump, it was an unsafe to jump. The one-inch think boards that made up the ramp would never have supported a horse, had it made the mistake of putting its feet upon it. Fortunately, none had.

Fifteen years of weathering made it only more unsafe, but every year I jumped it, holding my breath that my horse would clear it. It should have been taken down years ago. It was going to come down today.

After gathering all the necessary tools, I rounded up the dogs and headed out to the field in the truck. The horses had already pretty well destroyed the left hand side of the jump. It only took a few whacks from a sledge hammer to bring down what remained of the left-hand side.

After throwing the remains into the truck, I began to take apart the right-hand side of the jump. It surrendered too easily to the blows of the sledge hammer. It was then that I discover the ants.

The ants had found the wooden jump to be a perfect home. Isolated from day to day disturbances, and surrounded by plenty of foraging, they had everything they needed. Food, water, shelter, and most of all, time to build a colony. Over the years they had slowly eaten into and up the board that made the base of the jump.

While the colony was large, the ants were not. While they ants had managed to build a series of tunnels throughout the board, the tunnels caused no structural damage. Unlike mankind, the ants had figured out how to live with their environment without destroying it.

As I picked up the board, my eye caught the frightened flurry of thousands of ants. I stopped what I was doing and gently placed the board back on the ground.

I wondered what the ants thought. For generations upon generations they had gone about their lives without disturbance. But today, their existence as they knew it came to an end.

My mind raced back to a scene in an old science fiction movie. The characters were discussing the nature of an advanced alien race that had just been discovered. In questioning how believable it was, a comment was made that for a race so advanced, man would appear as ants appear to us—an inferior pest not even worth of a side-step to avoid killing.

The scene was being replayed out for me, but this time I was the advanced alien race and the question of whether to step out of the way and let the ants live or not was before me.

It would have been easy to bang the board against the ground and knock the ants out. Had they been termites, I would have killed them on the spot. But they weren’t. They were simple little ants, and they had done no harm to anyone.

I stepped aside.

When all the rest of the jump was safely in the bed of the truck, I gently picked the board back up and carried it to the hedge row at the bottom of the field. The colony would be safe there. The hedge row was full of thickets, dead limbs, and old rotted fence posts. I picked a sunny spot where the ants would get plenty of warm sunlight and laid the board back down in its original position.

The ants scurried about, but I knew they would be safe there and headed back to the truck, feeling good about what I had done.

It was near sundown before I got around to unloading the truck. Now nothing more then a pile of scrap wood, I grabbed my circular saw and began to cut the boards up into burnable lengths.

I was in a hurry. The sun was setting, and I wanted to wrap up this project. The last thing I needed was to discover I hadn’t safely transported all the ants to their new home.

As I turned over one of the last boards to be cut, the saw the mass of ants that had sought safety under it. In the short few hours the truck had sat in my driveway, they had managed to draw themselves together once again in a secure and sheltered spot.

They formed almost a perfect circular pattern in the center of the board, as if they had come together to discuss what to do next. There were thousands of them.

It was getting late, and the sun was setting. As I watched, the ants were once again scattering about the bed of the truck. If I rushed, I could still take those that remained on the board to the bottom of the field, but what about the others? What had they done wrong to be left behind?

Once again, I stepped aside. I chose to wait.

They had managed to assemble themselves together in just four hours; an evening undisturbed would hopefully bring them together again, plus give those stragglers yet to find the main body time to find it. So one again I gently placed the board back into its original position and ended the night hoping for the best.

It was three in the morning when I awoke the first time. I had a lot on my mind, but the ants soon occupied my thoughts. So often we rush through life not noticing the little things, the things that make life worth living.

I thought about the ants. How they spend their lives working for the greater good of their colony: their ceaseless work ethic. Their life was so simple. There was not great question to be answered: no undiscovered truth to be found. There were no petty fights over who was more handsome, smarter, richer, or more popular. All that mattered was the survival of the colony. And for that, they depended upon each other.

I found myself envying them. I wasn’t about to give up my warm bed for their cold board. But their simplicity and their acceptance of their role in nature’s great plain made me appreciate them.

Dawn finally came. With the sun peaking over the horizon, I slipped outside and made my way to the bed of the truck. I gingerly tilted the board and looked under it. A smile came to my face. "Good boys" I thought.

Over the night, the ants had done as I had hoped. During the night, the mass of ant refugees had grown to twice the size as before. Without the protection of their colony, the ants had huddled together for warmth. Still groggy from the chill air, they ignored the movement of the board.

I carried the board like a proud cook would carry a prized Turkey just taken from an oven. Passing dazed horses, I headed towards the bottom of the field where I had placed the board with the main colony body the afternoon before.

The board had no sooner touched the ground when ants from the main colony descended upon it. As the first scouts of the colony reached the refugee ants, a visible shudder went thorough their mass, as if to say, we’re saved! The nightmare is over!

As I watched, the two groups quickly intermingled, and soon they were one.

They had no way of thanking me, but no thanks were expected. It was I who had caused them their grief, so it was only fitting that I put it right.

As I walked back toward the house, I found myself thinking: nothing I do today is going to compare in importance to my act of benevolence for the ants.

For one brief moment I was truly the advanced alien race, and I had chosen to step aside.

I felt good. The early morning sun on my face made the feeling even better.

Read other stories by Michael Hillman