A Night at Gastroni's

by Sandy Cohen

Published in The Eggemoggin Reach Review, Volume II

by the Deer Isle Writers' Group and Eggemoggin Writers' Collaborative

to order, e-mail reachreview@verizon.net

It was a fancy nightclub dinner menu with an impressive wine list. The borders of cherubs and curlicues and the carefully articulated phrases, set in cursive fonts, projected a regal motif. As I was reading, mentally tasting the flavors inspired by the attractive descriptions, a large housefly alighted on the menu.

The insect, though bulky, confidently gripped the menu so that its back legs could rub each other. My attention was drawn to the iridescence of its black hairy body. The globed eyes looked like faceted rubies in my table’s candlelight, and the wings were large and transparent enough for me to notice dark pipe-like veins that plumbed them. What, I thought, was such an unsavory creature doing in this esteemed establishment.

In a moment the housefly’s wings buzzed into action. As it ascended, I could feel my menu get lighter. I saw it circle the next table, then fly on to others, not to scavenge from the other diners, but more to survey the scene. Elegantly dressed people at the tables ignored the insect, but I was fascinated as I watched this intruder make its way to the kitchen door, and, when a black-tie waiter pushed through with a tray, fly right in.

Unbelievable as it may seem, a housefly was about to change my life. It happened like this:

Several weeks later, on a summer afternoon, when the air was hot and still, I was outside reading an assigned text about the history of labor law. Despite my enthusiasm for the subject, I soon discovered that after the first chapter, which dwelt on 16th Century charters granted by kings, I was feeling drowsy. By the middle of Chapter Two, Trades, Crafts and Guilds, I was nodding off, and before I was aware of it, I fell asleep, snuggled against a broad tree and comforted in the fragrant grasses.

When I awoke, many padded claws were carrying me.

I could feel my body being transported along a dark tunnel. I struggled to sit upright; but soon realized I had no choice but to lie passively prone and await my fate. The tunnel was winding and climbing upward. Eventually, as the tunnel became wider and higher I began to see obscure ambient light. I noticed small rocks and roots embedded in the moist rough surfaces, which appeared to be passages excavated in compacted soil. The smell was earthy, but not unpleasant. It was silent.

Finally, I was brought into an open, cavernous chamber, where a single ray of light pierced the dark. In the brightest area there was an outsized russet-colored ant, with numerous smaller ants around it. I was carefully placed on my feet. This is when I realized that I was smaller than the large ant.

A few ants approached me and one gently tapped my head with its antenna. This didn’t hurt and I wasn’t afraid. These ants retreated and I was left standing alone, confused and perplexed. Then another ant came to me. It was my size, and its mouth was shaped more like leathery lips than the others, whose mouths were hard-shelled and angular. When this ant moved its lips, I could hear squeaky sounds that I thought might be words although I couldn’t recognize them. That ant retreated.

Another ant approached and held a mint leaf with a drop of amber liquid in it. The drop glistened in the beam of light. I guessed I was supposed to take the leaf and when I smelled the drop, found it to be honey. As I sipped it, most of the ants turned and dispersed in the tunnels, leaving only the large ant and a few others. I stood there bewildered, looking around.

In a few minutes, the ant with the lips came back, carrying in its front legs a book. I could read its cover, Formic to English Translation Dictionary. The ant turned pages and paused on a page, then looked at me and made squeaky sounds again. This time, I could recognize the words, “I am Crusto, translator for the Inter-Species League. I have been summoned to communicate with you. Can you understand?”

I stared at this creature in disbelief. Before I could fully appreciate what was transpiring, I heard myself reply, “Yes, I can understand. But, I certainly don’t understand! Where am I and what am I doing here?”

“You are in the main gallery of an ant colony. That is the queen. She wants me to assure you that you are safe. You will be made comfortable. Are you ready to go to a chamber that has been prepared for you?”

“Shall I bow to the queen?” I asked.

“No. The queen does not see. Please follow me.”

I walked behind Crusto, and two other ants followed me. We proceeded through narrowing tunnels, descending deeper into the colony. Crusto stepped into an oval sphere, which had a litter of cedar sawdust in one area. The attendant ants remained in the tunnel while I joined Crusto.

“This will be your chamber while you are here. I will be nearby. The two ants outside will serve you. It is now time to rest. I hope you will be comfortable. If you need anything, alert the ants and they will summon me. I will return shortly.”

“Before you depart, Crusto, I would like something to write with, a pencil and paper. I think best when I write.”

“Perhaps some wasp paper, the juice of blackberry, and a barb for a quill. I will see to it.”

Crusto tapped the head of each servant ant, and they both hurried off. I was now alone in a dark cave, and despite this uncertain situation, didn’t feel threatened. As I said, it didn’t hurt when that first ant tapped my head, and I didn’t feel afraid now.

I thought about that summer afternoon, the tree and the labor book. Were they still there? Even though that was only hours ago, it seemed so far away. How could this drastic reduction to an ant colony have happened me? I lay on the sawdust and fell asleep.

Some time later, Crusto woke me. There was a nutshell bench in the chamber, and a lattice of twigs formed into a table. On the table was a sheaf of gray knobby papers, black ink in seedpods, and several bumble bee barbs. I saw that on the wall behind the table two Monarch butterfly wings had been mounted. They added vivid colors to the otherwise dim space. I thanked Crusto for his attentions.

“How shall I address you?” Crusto asked.

“I am Rocky.” (Note to reader: That’s not my real name. I figured that being in an ant colony, where nobody knew me, I could be called anything; and I’ve always wanted to be called Rocky.)

“Well then, Rocky, I have been summoned to translate and you may accompany me if you wish. We must leave now.”

“Yes, I would love to. Can you tell me where we are going and what I should do?”

“The termites need to talk. Come.”

I gathered a barb, took a sheet of wasp paper and one pod of juice, and followed Crusto through the tunnels. The two servant ants followed. It wasn’t long before we were outside the colony. It was a warm night, fresh-smelling after the not unpleasant odors of the colony. I had to run to keep up with Crusto who raced through stalks of grass that seemed like slender trees. We came at last to a column that appeared to me as a skyscraper, but was just a balsam fir. We climbed the uneven and sometimes sticky bark and eventually came to a smooth bare hole in the trunk.

What a sight to behold!

As I caught my breath from the exertions of the climb, I saw that we were in a large open space within the trunk. A cluster of lightning bugs hung suspended from above on a long spider silk. Forming a chandelier, they collectively provided a warming luminosity of hospitality.

On the inside walls of the tree were protrusions that formed little ledges. They were like tables. At each table were gathered two or more insects. I saw honeybees at one table, waggling their abdomens in little figure eights. Three glistening beetles quietly chewed a brown fiber at another. Two gaudy green Luna moths, one caressing a pupa, crowded around a larger table on the far wall. A party of crickets was bunched together, chirping a chorus.

Everywhere were small individual lightning bugs that were like waiters, attending the animated insects at their tables.

“This is where I am to meet the termites,” said Crusto.

A lightning bug came to us and illuminated our way to a table where three menacing-looking termites were already waiting. The two servant ants that had accompanied us stayed at the entrance. I was given a tuft of soft thistledown to sit on. A lightning bug handed each of us a large sliver of mica with columns of written characters, none of which I recognized. I took it for a menu.

Crusto stood next to the largest termite who was almost transparent and had no eyes. The two others were smaller and reddish. Crusto tapped the head of the large termite and the termite tapped Crusto’s head. Crusto turned to me and said, “This is Brank, queen of her termite colony. She wishes you to be made comfortable. She will not mind if I translate to you.”

Crusto and Brank then tapped each other. The other two termites held their antennae, each of which looked like a string of pearls, to Brank’s head, so they could follow the conversation.

Again, I gazed upon the larger scene. Everywhere I looked insects were engaged in what appeared to be intimate conversations. I took a sheet of the wasp paper, opened the pod of black juice, and began to verbally sketch the scene with the bee’s barb. The insects fascinated me with their beautiful colors and variety of shapes. The eyes of the creatures at the next table, for instance, a group of fleas, were intelligent-looking, as each individual focused upon one, who apparently was the speaker. A damselfly came to us. Crusto tapped a bit. The damselfly rushed away and Crusto said to me, “I have ordered nectars and asked for the proprietor to come by. I want you to meet him.”

Soon a loud buzzing heralded an enormous hairy housefly, who landed on the mica menu, gripping it with his front legs and rubbing his rear legs, very much like the housefly I had so recently met at the fancy nightclub.

This housefly greeted the termites and Crusto with a noisy acknowledgment gesture. Turning to me he buzzed and moved his antennae. Crusto translated to me very proudly and according to some formal protocol, “Welcome to Gastroni’s! I am himself, Gastroni. Tonight we are honored to have you here with the Termite Queen. We also have many celebrities at the other tables. Gastroni’s, you know, serves the royalty of Class Insecta.” Gastroni preened his legs and waited for some adoring response.

I stopped my note taking, stood up straight, bowed at the waist and said, “I am so honored to meet you, Gastroni. This is a magnificent establishment.”

Gastroni moved his jewel-like eyes and noisily lifted himself off the menu. This gesture was exactly like my first encounter with a housefly.

Lightning bugs brought the nectars while Brank and Crusto conversed. Every now and then, one of the other termites tapped Crusto’s head and Crusto tapped back.

There came a pause. The termites sipped their nectars; Crusto did too.

I resumed writing a description of these events, which is what you are reading. I cannot adequately express the curious feelings I experienced being at Gastroni’s. It was wonderful to be so close to these creatures for whom I had never felt anything but mild dislike. Now, they seemed enchanting and I was eager to know more about them. The three termites I was looking at were especially magnetic. The mouthparts were shaped like scythes and looked fearsome, while, at the same time, they also appeared vulnerable and timid. I looked forward to having Crusto educate me about this exotic new miniature world.

“The situation is this,” said Crusto. “The termites inhabited a pier by the harbor. During a storm, it was destroyed and washed away, into the sea. Wait a moment.”

One of the red termites tapped Crusto’s head again.

“That termite said that there were many other occupants in the pier. Red worms burrowed below the water, and termites had the dry part, above. Usually they didn’t even see each other. But, with the storm and the water, everything was mixed up.”

“The pier was turning in every direction as it floated. Termites were being dunked. Some were drowned. All the termite tunnels were flooded. The termites, as well as the worms, were terrified.”

“Brank says that each of her sweet subjects felt that they were the captain. Each termite swiveled a splinter of wood as a tiller to steer the sinking pier. As the pier pitched and rolled in the storm, each individual at her station feared that she, and only she, failed her beloved queen by being a poor pilot. Brank asked me what had she done to deserve this punishment for her entire colony?”

Just then the buzzing noise and Gastroni arrived with a damselfly who delivered more nectars and a nutshell of aphids. With a loud flapping of his wings and his hairy legs dangling, Gastroni took off to another table, alighting on their mica menu.

The termites and the ant milked their respective aphids and sipped their nectars.

Soon the termites arose and crawled back to the entrance of Gastroni’s and departed. I asked Crusto what he had told them. He said in his squeaky voice, “Brank should have announced to each termite to steer their tiller (and therefore, the floating pier) in a single direction. There could only be one captain. I couldn’t tell Brank that it made no difference which direction they should point. As long as every individual pointed her tiller in the same direction, the one given by Brank, each termite would believe it was the best course. The idea that a random storm might cause such destruction is beyond Brank’s understanding. Brank just knows that the storm happened because she had done something terrible and this was the punishment. I tried to calm her by saying that everything would soon be back to normal.”

Crusto resumed tasting the nectar, then said, “I have come to believe that the whole insect world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by the mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.”

I made notes of what Crusto had just said. Crusto and I were quiet at the table, enjoying the nectars (I didn’t much care for aphids). Suddenly, the loveliest diaphanous lacewing flew over and caressed Crusto. There was much tapping.

Before I became ant-sized, I had never really appreciated insects. Now, since I could see this lacewing’s amazingly fine filigree tracery on her slender and streamlined gossamer wings, I experienced an awareness of her as wondrous and beautiful. When I closely observed this delicate, exciting individual, I felt some romantic attachment that I could not really comprehend. Her scent was overpowering and delicious to me. I just knew that I would have to see her again.

Later, on our return to the ant colony, I confessed to Crusto my infatuation with the lovely lacewing. He promised to arrange a meeting at Gastroni’s soon.

I also recalled to Crusto my experience at the nightclub when a large housefly settled on my menu there and how its back legs cleaned each other before it flew off in a similarly proprietary way.

“Oh, of course Rocky, you wouldn’t know it, but there is a Gastroni’s in every town. In fact, Gastroni’s is a franchise operation. Quite a little operator is our Gastroni.”

© Copyright, 2007, Sandy Cohen, Little Deer Isle, Maine, 04650