By Terri Coffman
AUTHOR’S NOTE: INVASION! is based on a true story. The experience with these ants when I was 11 years old, growing up in the Belizean jungle with my younger sister, is forever etched in my memory.
Toni looked up as a flock of parrots noisily made their way to their nests for the night. Around their small house, the jungle was like a dark wall. A shiver ran up her spine.
"Hurry up, Emily," she called. "It's almost dark. We need to get inside."
Screams of pain and fright pierced the twilight.
"Emily!" Toni raced to her little sister, who had been feeding the chickens behind the barn.
"They're biting me! Get 'em off! Toni! Help!"
Toni began stripping off Emily’s clothes. Ants, big, black, and biting were embedding themselves in her skin. She tugged and pulled and smashed the last ant into the ground with her foot.
"Come on!" She grabbed the howling, naked child, and half pulled and half dragged her towards the house. "We have to put something on those bites."
One thing Toni had learned while living in Belize was that bacteria grows quickly in the jungle. Wounds, even minor ones, can become seriously infected within hours if left unattended.
"But - my clothes!" Emily sobbed.
"Forget it! They're history. Now, come on!"
"Toni, it feels like I've been stung by bees! I'm bleeding, too." Emily swiped at her arms and legs dotted with bright specks of blood. "What kind of ants make you bleed?"
"Those kind ... look!" Toni pointed.
To the left, for as far as they could see, the ground was covered in black swarming mounds, massive and moving. The earth seemed to rise and fall under the horrifying procession of ants. But they were not ordinary ants. Army ants!
"What are we going to do?" Emily's voice was barely above a whisper.
Toni stood trembling, transfixed by the dark mass overtaking the small mango tree orchard. She couldn’t even see the flower beds already buried under a horrifying blanket of ants. If only her parents were home! They were Peace Corps medics and had been called to a neighboring village that morning to help with a malaria outbreak.
Her heart seemed to pound about in her body. Her thoughts raced wildly. She couldn’t let panic overtake her. She couldn’t fall apart. She had to try to stay calm so she could think straight. What was it her dad told her about army ants? He called them the jungle's deadliest enemy - Nature's terminator. She shuddered violently. Almost one-third of an inch long, they have gigantic sword-sharp jaws. They can easily rip and tear apart any living creature unlucky enough to get caught in their path. Humans were no exception. Huge legions, numbering in the millions, would sometimes join together in massive food hunts. When they were through pillaging, they would form smaller groups and disappear into the jungle. Nothing short of fire stops them, he warned. Toni began trembling as the horrorifying reality hit her. Living in a thatched roof house, they couldn't use fire. So, like the animals, escape would be their only hope as well.
They had to act fast!
"First, we have to release the animals! Let's go!"
"But, I'm naked!"
"The animals don't care!"
Feathers flew as noisy chickens darted in and out, making their escape around the small stampede of frightened cows and bolting horses’ hooves. At least the animals would be safe. But what about them? It was almost nightfall. They would be at the mercy of the darkness and the ants. The ants were only a few hundred feet north of the house. To heck with the dark, Toni thought, we can outrun them, if we leave now.
She dragged Emily through the front door into the kitchen to the first aid box. Emily winced and squirmed as Toni dabbed iodine on the wounds.
"Now," Toni commanded, snapping the box shut, "hurry and get dressed while I pack a bag. We have to leave while there's still time."
But there was no time left. Through the windows, Toni saw the front and sides of the house already teeming with ants. They were pouring through cracks and crevices. They were tumbling through the windows that she hadn’t gotten closed in time. They were crawling up the walls and invading the thatching. Her mind reeled as she swung around, desperately looking for an escape. They could try for the back, cut through the vegetable garden, and head for the river and ...
An ear-piercing screams shot through her like a knife, causing her to drop the overnight bag, spilling its contents.
"They're coming in from the back! We're trapped! I want Mama!"
Toni’s arm shot out in time to stop her sister's hysterical flight through the front door into the throng of ants. She held on firmly as Emily, screaming and crying, tried to break free. "Let me go! We have to run! We have to find Mama and Daddy!"
Almost of its own accord, her hand struck her face, once, twice. The sound of contact brought Emily out of her hysteria. She collapsed at Toni's feet, sobbing.
"I'm scared," she whimpered. "Make them go away!"
She knelt down and tenderly pulled her little sister to her, wiping at her tears. "I know you're scared, honey. I'm am, too. But we have to stay together."
Emily clung to her tightly. "What's going to happen to us?"
Toni swallowed hard before answering as calmly as she could. "I don't know. All we can do now is wait - and pray. Maybe they’ll find everything they need outside and in the leaves of the house."
Within minutes, the interior walls were laced with black. Terrified, Toni and Emily stayed as far away from each of the walls as possible. They clung together in the middle of the room, and waited for the inevitable. The light from the windows had faded. Lit only by a kerosene lamp inside, the ants cast nightmarish shadows while foraging in deadly silence. The only sound came from the thatched roof. Its dry leaves rustled and cracked ominously under the weight of the intruding horde.
Please, don't let it cave in! Toni prayed, imagining her own epitaph: Antoinnette Blythestone, age 13, eaten by ants.
A few ants fell close to their feet. Emily screamed. "They're falling down! They're gonna get us!" Once again, she tried to twist free of Toni's tight hold.
"No, they're not! They just lost their hold!" Toni struggled frantically to restrain her little sister. "You can't get out! Emily, be still!"
This time, she wouldn't listen. She fought and struggled so wildly, Toni was beginning to lose her grip. She twisted around and threw one leg over the child's chest and pushed her back, pinning her to the ground. Exhausted, Emily gave up the struggle and sat scrunched tightly with her head against Toni’s shoulder.
Hours passed. Then, as quickly and mysteriously as they appeared, the ants suddenly began to retreat. Organizing themselves in neat, foot-wide columns, they filed systematically out of the house and back into the jungle, leaving no sign of their frightening invasion.
With the last flicker of the lamplight, night gave way to dawn. Toni and Emily awoke from a fitful sleep on the floor, to the sound of a thousand birds singing their praises to the morning. Bright sunshine poured in as both girls swung open windows and doors. The whole jungle seemed to be fresh and alive again. The animals had returned and were calmly grazing through the remnants of the orchard and vegetable garden. It made last night seem almost like a bad dream.
“We made it! We made it!” Emily sang happily, dancing around like a ballerina. “Do you think Mommy and Daddy will be home soon?”
“I think so.”
Toni’s smile was one of self-satisfaction. Yes, she thought, watching her little sister with renewed affection. It’s great to be alive!