In the backyard and not far from the steps leading up to the deck stood an anthill. It was a modest community inhabited by common black garden ants. None of the current residents were the original builders, but they were just as industrious as their ancestors. The hill had an opening many ants wide that led down into a maze of tunnels and caverns. Some of the tunnels went deep below the earth while others lead to outposts around the backyard. Busy ants went about their days traversing these tunnels. Worker ants maintained the existing highways and byways of the anthill, while brave scouts manned the main opening and the smaller outposts. The queen went about the business of procreation with the assistance of her stud farm. She was not to be disturbed by the demands of governing the commune, so a collection of nursing ants managed the ant hill's internal affairs.
One day, when the sun was high in the sky and the last of the winter snow had melted one of the scouts at the most distant outpost from the anthill heard a loud rumble. It came from behind the shed in the corner of the backyard. The grass had grown tall so she could not see what was the cause of the racket. The noise grew louder and she became disoriented. Her senses were overwhelmed by the roar as the source that it came from approached closer to her outpost. Grass clippings and dirt flew over her head as ants below ground were yelling at her to come inside. She could not hear their cries before it was too late.
The lawnmower was a few feet away from the outpost when the whirlwind it generated threw the ant into the air. Her body spun like a pinwheel; her six legs instinctively reached out for firm ground but found none. In sporadic alternations, her view shifted from the green grass below to the bright sky above and everything in between. Then, without warning, she hit the ground with a violent thud and her world went black.
When the little ant woke up from her stupor the yard was quiet. The lawnmower had been put away and the sun was setting. She was alone in the dirt and grass clippings with no way of finding her way home. She would never see what was left of the outpost. It had been destroyed by the lawnmower. The ants that were underground shouting up to her had been sucked into the mower by the same gust of air that had thrown her to safety. The little mound itself was obliterated by the mower blade and any tunnels leading away from the outpost had collapsed under the feet of the man pushing the machine. Nothing had been left of the outpost that the little ant would be able to recognize.
To orient herself, she decided to climb to the top of one of the clipped blades of grass near her. From there she could see that she was closer to the privacy fence at the border of the yard than she was to the deck that the anthill was near. For an ant, her outpost was a day's travel from the anthill via the underground tunnels, and she was now in the furthest reaches of the yard. No scout from her colony had ever been to the part of the yard that she had been blown to. Ants leave chemical markers to help navigate their way back to their colony, but there would be none of those for her to use here.
She climbed down from the blade of grass and began her march. She knew she would not get far before nightfall, but any progress was better than staying still. Her travels were difficult as she had to work through grass clippings and ruts left by the lawnmower wheels. On occasion she would come across signs of carnage: grasshopper legs, smashed pill bugs, and a crushed bird egg, but the lawnmower had thoroughly obliterated most life that was in its path.
Now it was dark and her progress came to a halt. It's not that she couldn't see in the dark, her eyes were accustomed to dark tunnels, but the cold almost stopped her in her tracks. The early spring nights still could reach freezing temperatures, and she had to move slowly to conserve her small body's heat. She dug under a larger pile of grass clippings to insulate herself from the cold and tried to rest. However, it wasn't long before other creatures sought shelter from the night in the same clump of vegetation.
The first to come was a pill bug that closely resembled those the ant had seen smashed in the ruts. He was a young bug and paid no attention to the ant once he arrived. He rolled himself into an armored ball and quickly fell asleep. Other types of beetles came to the pile of grass as well, and it made sense to the little ant that these insects would make up most of the survivors from the lawn mower's rampage. Their denser bodies made them less likely to be sucked into the mower's blades.
The night had almost reached its coldest temperatures when a winged ant slowly dragged himself to the pile of grass clippings. The fight to move on against the cold had fatigued his body to the edge of death, but he crawled forward nonetheless. The sight of a fellow inhabitant of her colony immediately aroused the scout.
"It is warm in here! Come rest," she cried out to her winged countryman. A few of the beetles stirred from their slumber, but none paid any notice to the two ants.
"I cannot rest," said the winged ant with great effort, "I must return to my queen." He tried to fight against the cold and his exhaustion to continue, but his small body had reached its limit. He did not move after his reply and the scout could not tell if he was asleep or dead. She watched the other ant for the rest of the night.
Dawn's first light had just broken over the horizon when she saw a twitch in the other ant's wings. The air was still cold, but no longer debilitating to the two ants' small bodies. He raised his head from the dust of the earth and looked past the grass shelter. Sleep had restored his energy and he began to crawl on. The scout dug her way out of the grass. Her body was also sluggish, but she had more vigor than the winged ant and came to his side quickly.
"Are you from the colony?" she asked.
"No," he replied, "I was at outpost four when we were attacked. I fear I am all that's left of my company." The winged ant's words were heavy, and he spoke as slowly as he moved in the morning coolness.
"Can you fly?" She asked.
"I can, but not until it is warm." He shuddered his wings as he replied. They clacked against one another in protest and failed to generate any lift. "Perhaps I can get us both back to the colony when the sun is high."
The thought of flying with the winged ant energized the scout and they marched on together in the early morning coolness.
The ants were silent as they walked in line towards the familiar territory of their colony. The scout followed the winged ant and they both caught the waft of chemical trails left behind from ants that no longer existed. The chemical marker lead the two ants to the remains of outpost two; There was no above-ground mound, but the tunnel entrance appeared to be intact. The two ants rushed to the opening in the earth, and the flying ant was the first to venture underground with the scout following close behind. They were unable to travel far. Just a few inches beyond the entrance the tunnel had collapsed.
"Do you think there's anyone left?" The scout asked.
"The colony is stronger than the outposts," the winged ant replied, "they will not have fallen as easily there."
Both ants stayed underground for a few moments before returning to the daylight above. The winged ant attempted to arouse his flying apparatus and this time was successful. He achieved a few inches of flight before returning to the ground. He appeared to be a new creation when he turned to the scout. He had an electric expression upon his face and without warning flew towards her. In an instant, she had been thrust into the air for the second time in 24 hours, but this time she was happy to be free of the dirt and above the grass.
Flight was slow for the pair but far more enjoyable for the scout. The winged ant was able to orient himself towards the colony though neither ant could see it. They had to take periodic breaks and even marched again for some time. Within an hour of halting flight, the scout was able to see the steps leading up to the deck by which the colony was located. Half an hour later and she could see the colony!
The sight of home seemed to accelerate the winged ants flight like gas on a fire, and he took shorter and more infrequent breaks from the sky. It took the pair a total of three hours to reach the colony. The mound was still standing, but the air around it felt like a cemetery. They landed just at the base of the ant hill and felt nothing. The colony was once abuzz with life and business, but was now still and eerie.
"Perhaps everyone is out on patrol?" asked the scout. "Maybe they're searching for survivors from the outposts?"
"We didn't see any patrols," the winged ant answered. He had some idea of what had happened. He had seen similar colonies on his scouting missions to other backyards. "Did it really happen to his home?" he thought to himself.
"Stay here," he told the scout. The winged ant flew up to the top of the colony and went into the opening.
Inside the colony, the tunnels were intact but vacant. There was a foul odor in the air, but he continued deeper into the earth to confirm his suspicions. The stench grew in intensity the further he went. The first several caverns he entered were empty, but when he was about halfway to the queen's quarters he came upon one that was occupied. He was greeted by dozens of ants huddled together in death. Their exoskeletons were curled and withered; frozen in place like victims trapped within volcanic ash.
The winged ant backed away from the cavern and turned to where he came. There would be no need to travel further. Just like the colonies he had discovered in neighboring yards, there would only be more death further down.
He emerged from the colony and returned to the scout below. She had made a macabre discovery of her own: a scout ant similar to herself was eternally locked in her final death throw. The dead scout must have been one of the few attempting a futile attack on the man who had poisoned the colony. The winged ant came upon the scene and turned the living scout away from the sight of the dead one.
"Is the queen dead too?" she asked him as he wrapped his many arms around her body.
"The queen is dead," he answered, "long live the queen."
The winged ant took to flight. He carried his queen to safety.
This short story is a work of fiction. The normal disclaimers about all people, places, and things being imaginary apply, and any coincidences with reality are just that.