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The Ants by Mark Russo

          The foliage, dense and green was sweating beneath the morning sun. The two men could hear beads of water falling onto the road. It was a dirt road, wet, the color of mocha. The tires of the jeep snuggled into two parallel furrows that led to Uaxactun. Once in a while, the differential thudded against the raised mud surface. When that happened the passenger gripped the top rim of the windshield with one hand and grabbed at the air with the other. Ahead, a man in denim pants and white shirt, both splattered with brown spots, walked alongside a donkey. He burrowed his rubber huaraches into the road at each step, then struggled to lift them as if trying to break suction cups from glass.

          The man rhythmically tapped the animal's rump with a long twig. Mounted on the donkey were two round canvas bales that rocked from side to side as it lumbered along. The man walked head down. He didn't look at the animal. He didn't turn to look at the jeep.

           After a while, the man stopped. The jeep stopped. The man took a machete from his belt, cut off some low hanging limbs, then shoved the branches into one of the canvas bags. He removed his hat, wiped his forehead with his sleeve and continued on.

 

            "He's pretty good with that machete," said the passenger.

 

            "Yeah, great for cutting firewood, killing armadillos.  Some even say, for taking care of government soldiers," said the guide and turned over the engine.

 

            "Shit, we're stuck."

 

            The guide got out of the jeep and got two pieces of pressboard from the back. He slipped them under the front tires, got back into the jeep and pressed down on the accelerator. The vehicle lurched forward and followed the man and donkey.

 

            "While we were stopped, did you hear a rustling sound? High pitched, loud, from somewhere in the jungle. The engine's drowned it out now," said the passenger.

 

            "Ants," the guide said.

 

            "Ants?"

 

            "Army ants. Tens of thousands of them. They're everywhere. They don't stop eating."

 

            "We called them 'communist ants' in Viet Nam. Little, red and mean," said the passenger.

 

            The canopy was starting to glisten with a plastic sheen of green. Below, everything but the mud was shaded in peacock blue. Everywhere, the jungle was belching the barks of howler monkeys.

          The trip from Tikal to Uaxactun is an hour's drive, almost three hours on foot. About halfway, the man and his donkey veered to the right, over an embankment and disappeared. The guide shifted gears.

          Entering the village was like coming out of a tunnel into an open field with small huts scattered about: squat cylinders capped with thatched cones. They reminded the passenger of the nón lá hats worn by Vietnamese rice farmers. In the center was a lozenge-shaped hut. The guide pointed to the hut.

 

            "Hungry?"

 

            "Yeah, starved."

 

            "The best venison tacos around."

 

            As the travelers started to enter the restaurant, a couple of rust colored raccoon-like animals scampered out, pointed snouts to the ground, hind ends raised high and striped tails even higher. Inside the restaurant, two women slapped tortillas against the palms of their hands, then tossed them into a shallow metal bowl steaming on a grate above a fire. A portrait of Che Guevara hung on the wall.

 

            The guide leaned over the counter.

 

            "Dos venados con chiles y cebollas."

 

            The travelers went into the next room and sat at one of the picnic tables.

 

            "Where is everyone?" the passenger asked.

 

            "The men are scoring trees for gum. They'll be gone for a month or so. The women are tending their corn plots."

 

          "Who protects the women?"

 

          The guide pointed to the machete that creased the cook's skirt.

         

          The door to a coca-cola machine was wide-open, a wicker basket below it. On a piece of bark attached to the basket was handwritten the number five followed by "centavos." A spider monkey leapt down from the top of the vending machine. The passenger jumped up and clenched the air with his right hand but there was nothing there. The monkey flung its arms and legs about like ropes and screeched like a crow.

          At another table were two German-speaking women, maybe in their late twenties. They were arranging plastic containers of medicines and tubes of antibiotic salve on the top of the table. There was a sign behind the medical supplies that listed, in Mayan and Spanish, the types of medicines available, their uses and a phone number.

 

          "Red Cross?"

 

          "Anti-fascists, doing outreach."

 

          The travelers got up to leave. The plan was a two-day exploration of Mayan ruins. Two young girls, pre-teens, met them at the door. They shoved three faceless dolls in the passenger's face. The dolls were made of corn husks.

 

          "Cinco quetzales," one of them said.

 

          "Muñecas quitapenas, worry dolls. They're better than confession," the guide said.

 

          "Sixty-five cents is a steal," said the passenger. He gave the girl a five quetzal note.

 

           The travelers grabbed their backpacks, locked the jeep and started up a dirt path into the jungle. A miniature dinosaur crossed in front of them, swished its spiny tail and scurried into the underbrush.

 

          "There's that rustling noise," said the passenger.

 

          "If we come across them, just stand still, let them go by. They can't see you. They won't stop if you don't bother them."

 

          After a short distance, they came upon a three-tiered stone pyramid. From the top of the pyramid, they looked over the jungle canopy of El Petén.

 

          "Do the raccoons eat them?" asked the passenger.

 

          "The ants?"

 

          "Yes, the ants."

 

          "There are too many of them."

 

          "Here are some, right here." said the passenger

 

          He ground them into the dirt with his boot.

 

          In the distance, a massive white monolith pierced the green carpet of the jungle. It towered above the valley like a tombstone.

 

          "El Mirador," said the guide, "the sentinel of the lost city."

Mark Russo, born on January 1, 1950, in Queens, New York City, New York. As a student of the University of Cincinnati, he focused on the Greek, Latin, German, and French languages and World Literature. After running the family business for 20 years, he entered the University of Maine School of Law;  graduated; and was accepted to the Bar in 2002. He practiced Immigration Law in the State of Maine for over 18 years.