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Me v. the ants Add to ...

I am at war. Somewhere in my Dutch-clean kitchen, a colony of ants is busy. They are well hidden but evidence of their relentless foray is driving me to distraction.

After a camping trip, I heard a strange sound where I store my sugar. Like tiny claws. A mouse? No, too rhythmic. I emptied the lower shelf. Nothing. Then, from upon a chair, I peered at a scene of devastation. The unopened brown sugar bag was pierced through, its contents forming what looked like a miniature sandcastle such as the ones the grandchildren and I had enjoyed making all week. Inside the bag, a throng of black ants swirled drunkenly and ecstatically.

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I stood for a moment, my mouth open. I felt as I had 20 years ago, in that terrible Year-Of-The-Lice, when my children kept coming home infested. I recalled the fruit basket earlier purchased at a roadside stand. It had stood on my counter until the bottom layer revealed a peach crawling with ants. Some must have immigrated.

I raced the bag outside and sprayed it with repellent. Within the cupboards, the sound continued. Cautiously, I uncurled the white sugar and saw the same riotous dance of the ants. Even the box of artificial sweetener was filled with the happy little critters.

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I gave a fleeting thought to Horton, who saved an entire colony of creatures because he had heard their tiny sound. Well I was no Horton. Into the garbage can with them and out with the spray.

Some days later, we took another trip. Satisfied all was spotless, I encased the sugar in impenetrable containers and put bread and butter into the fridge. I strategically positioned traps, the kind with the holes punched out where the ants crawl in for the sweet syrup, only it's laced with poison they unknowingly transport to their home base. In no time at all, the product promised, the entire colony would be infected. Here and there along the counter, I dribbled ant poison, warning my husband and son that this was not maple syrup should they feel inclined to lick it up. I was sure I had secured the perimeter of our home.

It was late when we returned. I was exhausted. But I did notice an ant crawling behind the taps and that, shortly, he was followed by another. I snatched a paper towel, shook them into the sink and washed them away. A moment later, two others ventured along. These I squashed with a forefinger. I emptied the cooler and left it open, intending to clean the spills and crumbs inside the next day.

Before my morning coffee, I saw streams of ants brazenly moving from toaster to microwave. With a sinking feeling I checked the cooler. Masses of black ants scurried in every direction.

I grabbed the insect spray and squirted wildly.

"What are you doing?" my son asked.

"Bombing them," I replied.

"But that's the cooler we eat from Mom."

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This was war. With clenched teeth I recalled the advice of my father, a Second World War resistance fighter in the Netherlands. "Never panic. Assess the situation. Act wisely."

First I needed coffee. I had to dump the contents of the sugar pot down the sink, it was so blackly alive with the vermin. An ant crawled from under the coffee pot as if it had not a care in the world. Outraged, I grabbed it and stuck its snout into the thick ant poison, watching it lurch to wherever it had come from. Then, I squirted a line of poison across what seemed to be the main route. To a man, they marched around the poisonous barrier. "Cunning little creatures," I thought.

The Carl Stephenson story Leiningen Versus the Ants , which I had often read to seventh graders, described how the ants sacrificially connected leaves and bodies to bridge the watery moat the planter had designed to stop them.

"They are a disciplined opponent and insistent," I said to myself. "But they do not know me. I never give up."

For some time I did reconnaissance. Each squadron marched to beneath the toaster, revelling in its crumbs. My washcloth swept them to where the hot water tap disposed of them.

A double file of ants marched to and from a corner spot behind the overhead cupboard. "I have found the entrance to their lair," I triumphed. I set a trap.

It was strange. At every turn they avoided it. They began to emerge from various places under the overhead cupboards. What's more, they froze when they saw me nearby. We stood, contemplating each other, irreconcilable enemies. Was there a warning carried back to the colony by those who had narrowly escaped my hand? "Watch out for the giant with the swatting action?"

Each time I moved back, they advanced. I had to take desperate measures. I repositioned the microwave and squirted a line of sticky poison across any possible point of entry. It dribbled down my wall in streaks and formed an ugly brown pool. I waited.

They had no recourse. They crossed the line I had squirted and, locating no breadcrumbs or sugar, gave up and moved toward the poison pool. I watched with a fair bit of satisfaction as they swam in it. "Go ahead," I said under my breath. "Call your comrades. Enjoy yourselves."

It takes seven days for the stuff to work. I have faith that, this time, I will prevail. I will have won. They will have lost. Though basically a pacifist, I cannot say I am at all sorry for their impending demise. Tonight, as Leiningen did, I will sleep the sleep of the victor.

Annita Maat lives in Oakville, Ont.

Illustration by Henrik Drescher.

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