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Maia Talitz first noticed
the ants in her kitchen the day she kissed her son, Herschel, goodbye. He was
going to be a soldier. It was a strange ambition for a Jewish man. Up until a
few months before it would not have been possible. Jews were simply not
permitted to serve in the armed forces. Not that any Jews wanted to serve a
Polish prince who spent so much energy making their lives miserable. But who
can figure what goes on inside a young man’s head? Some people are born with a
longing. Some long to bake bread, some to study the holy books, some to sew,
some to plant. Herschel Talitz longed to wear a uniform and fight. A warrior
you’d have to say. Some people are born to fight.
Maia Talitz first noticed
the ants in her spotless kitchen after baking her son two loaves of raisin
bread to take with him. She wrapped the warm loaves in a checkered cloth and
put them in his pack. The little damp spots made by her tears were invisible on
the white checks but darkened the red checks the rich dark red of blood. She
squashed the first few ants with her thumb and brushed them onto the floor.
She gave her son a long
deep mother’s hug and mouthed silent prayers for his safe return. Her husband,
Mendel, embraced the boy and slapped his back the way men do when showing
affection. Herschel kissed the other children, slung his pack on his back and
just like that, he was gone—her precious boy, now a man, a warrior, gone.
Back in the kitchen there
were more ants now. A long line of them reaching from a crack in the floor half
way across the room. She swatted them with her broom and swept up their tiny
bodies. She threw the dead and injured in the trash. She heard from Herschel
once a month. He finished his basic training and was now assigned to a cavalry
regiment. He was loving the life, he was happy.
The ants continued to
plague Maia all that summer. She tried every manner of home remedy suggested by
her neighbors. She painted their entrance hole with vinegar. She made Mendel
crawl under the kitchen to see if he could find the nest. He could not. She
tried poisons from the apothecary, prayers from the rabbi’s wife, an exorcism
from the old widow everyone thought was a witch. The ants persisted.
Herschel sent her a letter
from his new posting on the Russian border. He included a photograph of a
handsome man in a dashing uniform with gold buttons and a silver sword. He
looked so proud, so fine. She kissed the photograph and set it on the sideboard
in a place of honor. In the letter Herschel spoke of camp life and maneuvers
and his companions in arms. He did not speak of danger or war or the constant
taunting he endured because of his religion.
The next letter was more
ominous, the Russians were raiding towns on the border. Armies were massing.
Words like frontier and skirmish entered Herschel’s letters. The boy sounded
happy though. This was the life he wanted. He was confident in his regiment, in
the rightness of their cause, in his own youthful strength. He hoped he would
be brave when the time came. He expected the battle would be glorious. Maia
could only worry. She began to see the ants as allies, her personal cavalry. As
long as they kept marching, Herschel would be safe. She stopped swatting them.
Instead she swept them up and threw them outside where they no doubt regrouped
and came again. She didn’t want any harm to come to them.
The ants performed their
maneuvers in Maia’s kitchen. They got into the sugar and the flour. She put the
foodstuffs into glass and metal canisters. She worked harder than ever to clean
up every crumb. Her spotless kitchen became even more spotless. The ants must
have found something to eat because their numbers did not diminish. Maia
stopped thinking of them as dirty but rather as tiny soldiers doing their duty
just like her soldier son. She found solace in their busy foraging. It gave her
a link with Herschel’s life.
In the Fall his letters
contained words like patrol and tension and enemy. War seemed likely, he wrote,
but maybe there would be some last minute diplomatic sleight of hand that would
avert it. He was not afraid. Life in the camp was hard. The nights were getting
cold. Could she send his warm things? She packed his trunk and added some fresh
baked bread. The ants gathered the crumbs and carried them away.
The morning the ants did not appear, she knew. By the time the officer knocked on their door Maia had already changed into her mourning clothes and cried. She hardly heard his story of ambush and bravery in the face of overwhelming odds.
“You should be proud of
him,” the officer said.
“We were always proud of him,” Maia said, and went to unpack.
That was a really good story! Well put together and not a word out of place.
WEll developed! I liked the shift back and forth from the ants to the letters. As to the ending? I think the mother's answer was just right.
by Michele Dutcher: Two things - 1. 1% of our population fights our wars for us. 2. Kihil Gibran wrote in Sand and Foam: A woman protested saying, "Of course it was a righteous war - my son died in that war." I thought it was significant for the officer above to say: "You should be proud of him." and the mother to say, "We were always proud of him." Great ending to a very nicely done story.
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