How the Ant Made a Bargain
by Karawynn Long

[cover: Enchanted Forests] "How the Ant Made a Bargain" is a pastiche of and an homage to Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories, a collection of about a dozen original folktales published in 1902. I more or less missed reading the Just So Stories as a kid, though I had a passing acquaintance with "The Elephant's Child." The rest of them I discovered while taking a class in Children's Literature in college.

Since the copyright on the Just So Stories expired in 1977, I was amazed to discover that none of them are among the public-domain works available on the Web. So I've made a project of transcribing some of them, choosing suitable illustrations, and putting them into HTML format. The first of these stories, "How the Leopard Got His Spots," is complete and available on its own page. I encourage you to read it, and particularly to show it to any children of your acquaintance.


"How the Ant Made a Bargain" grew, like "Discovering Water," out of extensive research on rainforest flora and fauna. All of the plants and animals mentioned are genuine inhabitants of rainforests around the world, and the behaviors they exhibit in my story (well, except for talking) are genuine. My favorite sources were The Rainforests: A Celebration, a coffee-table-sized book with page after page of stunning photographs and fascinating captions, and the National Geographic video Rain Forest. Information about rainforest animals, including ants, can be found in the Kids' Corner of the Rainforest Action Network.

"How the Ant Made a Bargain" received an Honorable Mention in The Year's Best Science Fiction, Thirteenth Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois.

I'm not ready to put the entire story on the Web right now, primarily because I hope to someday get it reprinted as a children's picture book, and I'm not sure what having the whole thing publicly available would do to the reprint rights. However, here is an excerpt from the beginning:

* * *

Now I shall tell you a story of the hot and humid days at the beginning of the world, when the Queen of all the Ants lived in the dark damp bottom of the forest with her many daughters.
     The Queen was a very wise Ant, for she knew many secrets, and was a little bit magic besides. All the same she was often bored, for her Principal Occupation was egglaying, and if you have ever tried laying eggs, Best Beloved, you will have discovered that it is a tedious task, rather like washing dishes. But without eggs there soon would be no daughter Ants to burrow and build and forage and fight, so she tried to make the best of things by thinking up new and interesting ideas.
     One uncomfortably stuffy day the Queen noticed that some of her daughters were 'sclusively strong and fierce, and these she instructed to become soldiers and guard the colony from harm. For the Tamandua and the Pangolin and the Angwantibo all thought Ants were 'specially tasty delicacies, and would eat them right up whenever they could.
     Then the Queen noticed that some of her daughters were 'sclusively sturdy and industrious, and these she instructed to become workers and gather new foods for the colony. For the Calliandra and the Heliconia and the Banisteriopsis all had an unfathomable preference for not being eaten, and so grew thick and tough and tasted of noxious toxins.
     And in this way the Queen Ant invented Specialization (which is, Best Beloved, only a fancy way of saying that different people do different things). And the Queen laid eggs and thought wise thoughts in her nest in the dark damp bottom of the forest, while her specialized colony grew prosperous and large.
     One indisputably humid day the Queen called her strongest, fiercest soldier daughter to her and said, "The sun is high and it is time you made your own way in the world. But first I will give you one magic and tell you one secret."
     And the fierce soldier daughter replied, "O my Mother and O my Queen, I am angry that the Tamandua and the Pangolin and the Angwantibo all think that we are 'specially tasty delicacies, and will eat us right up whenever they can. I should like to lead a platoon of ants, all as fierce as ever could be, so that I and my daughters will never fear being eaten."
     "Then so you shall," said the Queen, and she touched the soldier daughter with her antennae. And the fierce soldier daughter grew a gigantic stinger that she could move in and out like a needle. "Now you will be Army Ant," said the Queen, "and your fierce daughters may march right under the noses of the Tamandua and the Pangolin and the Angwantibo, and even eat them right up if they don't move quickly out of your way."
     "O my Mother and O my Queen, that would be most gratifying, but however shall we build a nest if we are continually marching?"
     "That is the secret I shall tell you," replied the Queen. And she told Army Ant how her daughters could hook themselves together by the ends of their spindly legs and so make a nest out of their own bodies wherever they happened to be. And Army Ant went away satisfied to make her own way in the world.
     And the Queen laid eggs and thought wise thoughts in her nest in the dark damp bottom of the forest, while her specialized colony grew prosperous and large.
     One particularly sticky day the Queen called her sturdiest, most industrious worker daughter to her and said, "The sun is high and it is time you made your own way in the world. But first I will give you one magic and tell you one secret."
     And the industrious worker daughter replied, "O my Mother and O my Queen, I am frustrated that the Calliandra and the Heliconia and the Banisteriopsis all have an unfathomable preference for not being eaten, and so grow thick and tough and taste of noxious toxins. I should like to direct a plantation of ants, all as industrious as ever could be, so that I and my daughters will never worry about being hungry."
     "Then so you shall," said the Queen, and she touched the worker daughter with her antennae. And the industrious worker daughter grew enormous jaws that she could open and shut like scissors. "Now you will be Leaf-Cutter Ant," said the Queen, "and your industrious daughters may cut the leaves of the Calliandra and the Heliconia and the Banisteriopsis, and carry them away over their heads and down into the ground."
     "O my Mother and O my Queen, that would be most gratifying, but however can we digest them when they taste of noxious toxins?"
     "That is the secret I shall tell you," replied the Queen. And she told Leaf-Cutter Ant how her daughters could chew the leaves up and place a drop of spittle on them to cultivate a delicious fungus. And Leaf-Cutter Ant went away satisfied to make her own way in the world.
     And the Queen laid eggs and thought wise thoughts in her nest in the dark damp bottom of the forest, while her specialized colony grew prosperous and large.
     One utterly muggy day a third daughter Ant approached the Queen. She was neither the strongest, nor the sturdiest, nor the fiercest, nor the most industrious, and indeed the Queen could not remember her particularly out of the thousands of daughters she had engendered since the beginning of the world. But you should know, Best Beloved, that this Ant was most scintillating clever. "The sun is high," said the daughter Ant, "and I would like to make my own way in the world."
     "Very well," said the Queen, "I will give you one magic and tell you one secret, for that is only fair, but I warn you that I've already given the most valuable magics and told the most useful secrets to your sisters Army Ant and Leaf-Cutter Ant."
     "As you say," said the clever Ant with a shrug of her antennae. "But they do not have the ability to converse with all the plants and animals of the forest, and that is the magic I would like."
     "Then you shall have it," said the Queen, and she touched the daughter Ant with her antennae. If you had been watching most spectacularly close, Best Beloved, you would have seen nothing happen to the Ant at all. Only the Ant herself could tell the difference, for suddenly she could comprehend what the birds and bugs and bushes were saying to each other, all above and around and beside and beneath her.
     "Now I will tell you a secret," said the Queen, but the daughter Ant didn't let her.
     "I can find my own secret," said the Ant, for she knew very well that she was scintillating clever, and this made her more than a little proud. "And choose my own name, too," she added, and went away satisfied to make her own way in the world ...

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