“Get up!” My husband is shaking me. “Get out of bed!”
Sleep clings to me in the ragged darkness of the thatch-roofed hut. He yelps and aims a flashlight at his foot. He spies a fearsome ant gripping his instep and flings the creature aside. A mass surges by the outskirts of the beam. We are under attack.
He scrambles over me, lights the kerosene lamp, and drags me off the bed. We huddle on an island of earthen floor as living rivulets stream around us. Ants flow in sheets across the mattress.
True to their name, army ants loot and ransack as they march across tropical landscapes. Academic accounts of nomadic ants fascinated me long before my first forestry job brought me to this rural village in post-Noriega Panama. In practice, however, I find the assault repulsive. Army ants are equal-opportunity raiders of village and jungle alike. From an ant’s perspective, our traditional rancho of sticks and bark, one of a cluster of equally organic dwellings ringed by scrub, is just another place to search for prey.
We escape to the kitchen, where we try to move the troops along. Smashing a few here and there provides a brief, if false, sense of empowerment. We soon resort to heavier artillery. I spray a concentrated repellent along a formation as it snakes across a shelf. This intervention stuns the ants momentarily, but they shift their column a few inches and persevere.
Our next strategy is even more desperate. Selecting the densest throng, we douse the dirt floor with kerosene and drop a match. A gratifying sizzle ensues as the blaze chars dozens of individuals, but we quickly abandon this tactic. We live, after all, in a structure made of kindling.
In the end, our counterattacks cause only slight confusion among the ranks. Corpse removal prolongs the siege. We relax a little as we emerge from our sleep-fog and remember how these insects operate. They will move on, with or without our sniping. Our best option is to wait them out, leave them to their plunder.
We retreat to a bench and watch sleepily. Each individual fills a role; none is entirely self-sufficient. Warriors defend the colony, menacing pincers ready for action. Nannies cradle larvae, functioning as mobile nurseries. Laborers shoulder the spoils gathered on the journey. Managers use their bossy pheromones to keep the others in line. The intruders carry off all manner of vermin: maggots, cockroaches, spiders and assorted other unidentifiable organisms.
Still drowsy, my house occupied by a foreign army, I imagine that night in 1989, when United States marines attacked Panama City to oust General Manuel Noriega. I slap each cheek. Did I really just liken the insects in my kitchen to the U.S. invasion of Panama? As if our present circumstances bear any resemblance to a military action with thousands of casualties.
Activity subsides in the kitchen after a couple hours, and we peer into the bedroom. The last of the glossy hordes recedes, coursing from chair to desktop, wall-post to ceiling. They pour through a few crevices and disappear.
Sunrise finds us dazed, sleep-deprived. Reaching for my shoe, I find a loathsome backwater of soldiers circling angrily inside it. I toss the stragglers into the yard. They have lost direction and will perish without their colony. I can only hope my husband and I, two gringos isolated from friends and family in the U.S., will fare better.
A neighbor shuffles by.
“Hormigas?” he asks. We nod. He grins.
“Thought so. I saw your light on last night. They can be muy bravo, no?” We nod again, tongue-tied as he walks on.
Meredith Cornett’s creative nonfiction has appeared in Dust and Fire and Lost Magazine. She is working on a memoir about her years living in a subsistence farming community in the Republic of Panama. An ecologist, she directs The Nature Conservancy’s conservation science program in Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota.