Table of Contents



Julia Coursey


After Clarice Lispector

I was complaining about the ants. My neighbor told me they hate cinnamon—she was the kind of person who cleans with vinegar not bleach. So I bought bottle after tiny bottle of cinnamon, circling my house with it, as if it were salt to keep away evil. I saw an ant approach the barrier and turn away, the rest of his line following him.
     That night, I slept peacefully, finally. The ants were gone and the kitchen was safe. Nothing would crawl on me in my sleep and I wouldn't have to clean their squashed bodies from the kitchen tile. They enraged me, these ants. I would kill them one by one. Better to keep them away altogether.
     When I awoke, I entered the kitchen with hesitation. It was impossible that something so mundane would keep the swarms at bay. That woman was the sort who rubbed crystals under her arms and knew the cycles of the moon. But there were no ants. I ate my breakfast in peace.

I was complaining about the ants. Try cinnamon, she said, so I did. And there were no ants. But there were crumbs on every surface, sometimes great stale boulders that hurt when stepped on. It's no wonder you had ants, said my neighbor, who had come over with some fresh herbs. Her apartment patio was like a witch's walled garden, with more plants than seemed possible to fit. My patio had simply one plastic adirondack chair and a line of cinnamon, slightly disturbed. I swept and swept, I mopped as if cleaning a murder scene, the smell of bleach and cinnamon clinging to me even when I left the house.

I was complaining about the ants, then the crumbs, then both. I ate all my meals over the sink, so that no crumb had a chance to escape, but still they crowded the floors. Only barbarians wear shoes at home, but it began to be necessary. Careful as I was, breaks in the cinnamon fortifications were appearing and ants poured through. Tiny cinnamon smudges appeared on my clean floors. I tried to repair the breaches as quickly as I could, but at night I could do nothing and when I awoke there seemed as many ants inside as out. I would pour out the cinnamon and put on my boots, then stomp through the house until it was littered with bodies.

The ants, the crumbs, the cinnamon. In the dark, I heard a tiny scream. The ants, I thought, the ants. I put on my boots and followed the whimpering. It seemed almost human, though there was something about the voice, a moistness and a crunch. I turned on the kitchen light and saw the swarm.
     They had him by the legs, though he used his tiny mitten hands to cling to a chair leg. Soon they would overwhelm him. He was already growing stale, a new brittleness entering his voice. Each time he tugged against them more crumbs fell away from his delicious form, each carried away by an ant. Several ants were working to dislodge one of his gumdrop buttons.
     Two more gingerbread men emerged from the cabinets, struggling to carry a cup of sugar between them. The ants got the scent of the sugar and the gingerbread men began to dump it out bit by bit, coaxing the ants away from their compatriot. When enough ants had left the gingerbread man, he shook the rest off and ran towards his comrades, who were eating cinnamon by the fistful.

I was complaining about the gingerbread man. How to get rid of them and their nocturnal giggling? Ants, my neighbor told me.




This piece emerged from a writing exercise based on Clarice Lispector's phenomenal short story ["The Fifth Story"], which consisted of rewriting the same story several times. I had recently been talking about non-lethal pest control with my partner (who loves insects), and ants' aversion to cinnamon came up. It seemed to me that this might have some unintended consequences, which are depicted here.