Watching Ants

Detention-life was tasteless and all detainees felt lonely in this small world, especially once there was no handwork to do. The materials we normally used for our work hadn’t arrived and no one knew how to kill their time. So it was that one morning in March 2002, some of us were playing cards, while others read some outdated newspapers and magazines.

With a few of the more intellectual inmates, I talked about an incident that had happened at Linshui airport in Hainan province one year ago. A Chinese warplane and an American plane had crashed into each other. One of the inmates had worked at the airport as an air force mechanic two decades ago.

Suddenly people started shouting. They’d seen a mouse and immediately began trying to seize it. A few minutes later the mouse was caught and then was hung downward by a string on the steel line, which we ordinarily used to hang our damp clothing to dry. It still struggled, squeaking floundering tones, “ji, ji, ji.”
“I’ll beat you dead! Beat you dead! The police beat me as brutally as I’ll beat you,” one young man yelled waving a short plastic stick in his distorted hand.

Others started yelling and the mouse soon died from the savage beating by detainees, who found revenge in their rage at the way they had been treated themselves. The inmates began talking noisily about police torture previously undergone by them.

I was not interested in their conversation, having heard it all too often before. Alone, I stepped aside and sat down on the cement edge of the cistern. I watched a swarm of ants climbing hastily along the top of the wall, down from the gutter to the water pool.

According to a Chinese folk proverb, it will soon rain when ants leave their home. Indeed, it had felt humid earlier that morning, and clouds were gathering in the dark sky.

The ants ran desperately along the bumpy surface of the white wall that was discolored slightly black by the wind and the rain. They looked like a curved thread swinging in the wind.

Some were like army commandos carrying light weapons, while other foragers transported heavy loads, moving so slowly that I became impatient. Some behaved like they were weak or sick supporting each other as they moved forward. Others nuzzled each other like mothers and their offspring. Several looked to be commanders, firmly and calmly directing and encouraging their columns, sometimes moving up like a rocket and sometimes down like a parachutist. After about a half an hour, they had all vanished from the wall’s surface.

Why were ants so wise? How did they know to run away before the rain came? If I had done like them to escape before the rain fell, I might have managed to keep out of trouble. Where would I be today? Maybe I’d be in a nice place, citing a poem by the famous poet Li Bai in the Tang dynasty “but my light boat has already passed ten thousand mountains.”

“Come on, get to work, there’s no relief from work, hurry up,” the production head shouted like a madman. As the raw materials finally arrived, detainees flocked back into the inner room and the chatter grew silent.

The rainstorm brought a blast of rumble. The lightning and thunder sparked an impression of southern China testy spring weather. The countless and dense raindrops before the barred window fuzzed up my sight, penetrating my afflicted memory, ripping through my heart. I wished to rush into the heavy rain outside and take a bath to clean my dark spots sprayed by the corrupt politics-safety police! Swallows hovered in the sky, struggling against the wind and rain. What a nice scene!

Sitting by the door, watching the rain, I suddenly felt anxious. Where did the ants hide? Did rain hit them? After a short thinking, I looked back at my fellow inmates doing work, and found one of them, named Zai Kaihong, whom we also called Sichuan (because he was born in Sichuan province in China), was snoozing. He had not been allowed sleep for five days due to his failure to finish the quota allocated by the jail authorities.

“Stand up!” the production head gave a heavy fist on his face, and kicked Sichuan as heavily as the rain was falling outside. The only thing left to do was to cover his head with his hands, like a straw man he had no choice. I finally was able to persuade the brutal production head to stop because of my somewhat respected status in the room.

“Zai Kaihong, take your work and, go to Education-through-Labor camp!” a jail warden yelled loud as the door to an outside room opened. Education-through-Labor required no judicial sentence and could be directly decided by police, its term varying from six months to three years. Jinriksha man fortunately got a savage but short sentence! He had been charged of helping to steal and carry the loot. Within a moment, he vanished out of our sight.

The rain stopped and the sun began to shine as dark clouds drifted far away. I walked out of the inner room into the foreyard, looking up at the sky and down at the wet ground. Then I came to the pool. Oh, what a beautiful sight! The wall near the pool was full of ants rambling like night comets.

Some wandered backwards and forwards like happy ramblers, some dotted about like sight-seers, occasionally lingering curiously over the rippling water in the cistern. Some ran about like naughty children playing hide-and-seek, chasing after one another, some were like delegates attending a conference, whispering about their big move only an hour earlier. Some were like explorers probing everything around them with their long, erect antenna and some behaved like they were homeless, just drifting around.

They all enjoyed their freedom and made the most of it. They seemed happier than we detainees! To them, there were no iron bars, no torture, no political persecution, no exploitation and no limitation of speech.

I wondered why the ants were staying in our cell and so I decided to find out where they got their food. Kneeling down and crawling along their path, I finally found out where they came from and went to. My god, they were carrying food from my own biscuit box through a little hole in the corner. One biscuit had a big hole at the bottom.

The ants paid no attention to me so there was no point in being angry. The ants continued their robbery like a scene from “Down with the landlords! Share their fields and lands! Open their rice-bases!” as portrayed by the Communist Party a few decades ago.

I didn’t beat the ants up, considering they were part of a long food chain in nature. Like corrupt officials in today’s society, the big eat the small, and the small eat the weak, without mention of the ant world. I was eaten early to leave only thin bone, and we all were ants in sight of the rulers, just some small and light lives.

We detainees worked hard every day and night, making money for the jail administrator from a bloody product such as plastic flowers and Christmas-gifts tagged with USD prices exported to the USA, Canada etc. Thinking here, I felt somewhat consoled, “ants, you enjoy yourselves well!”

Dusk slowly fell and the sky was full of colored clouds reflecting the dying sun. A lonely bird passed briskly over our jail as it hurried home, crying delightfully. The TV melodiously played the saxophone music of Going Home, which educated detainees to miss their family.

“How are you, my wife and daughter?” I recited in my mind. Late after dinner I routinely lingered around foreyard, come-and-go, without end. A gloomy light left my ghostly shadow on flecked wall, making me feel woeful.

Only a crying cricket in a split of the wall appeared vigorous, expressing its song of appraising life. At this time only one single ant was wandering around like a wild ghost, maybe it had lost its way home, and maybe it hoped to live a clean life away from the other blackened ants. I would guide you home if you were lost! However, I myself have stayed in this small hutch for so long now that I might have forgotten my own way home. I would stay a moment together with you if you would only prove your clearance! However I have been blackened and lost my freedom to go out.

Good night, ants! I will see you tomorrow.

March 6th, 2005 by