It must have been late February when the ants first arrived, though I can’t be sure. They slipped into our house the way ants always do: silently, easily, without notice. Even after I caught sight of a few—a pair perched on the lip of the sink one morning, another swept into the dustpan along with bits of construction paper and spilled raisins at the end of a day—I paid them scant attention.
Now, when I think back to those weeks in an attempt to pinpoint the ants’ arrival, I can recall surprisingly little, only that the days were ordinary, made up of everyday moments that seemed, at the time, entirely unremarkable: Lingering at preschool drop-off to watch my daughter join hands with her teacher. Sharing a park bench with strangers. Squeezing eight chairs around a table meant for six to eat dinner shoulder to shoulder with friends.
It’s not until a few weeks later that my memory sharpens.
On this mid-March morning I wake before sunrise, switch on a lamp, and find, crossing the fir planks of the living-room floor, a thick trail of ants. They’re not the usual tiny ants that arrive every year when the weather warms, but some kind of carpenter ants I’ve never seen in my house before, with big sturdy bodies more than half an inch long. Head, abdomen, thorax: a row of three black beads strung together.
I watch them for a moment—each one moving with that particular ant industriousness, that nose-to-the-grindstone fervor, as if they’ve no idea how small they really are—and then follow their path up a wall and onto the kitchen counter, where I find an apple pocked with holes. Inside the tunnels ants hunch in pairs, working their jaws over the flesh. I lift the apple by the stem and rinse it under a stream of water, but the ants cling to the fruit, refusing to be washed away. Only after I give up, turn the water off and set the apple down, do they release their grip, and, all at once, as if part a single body, crawl swiftly out of their crevices, back across the counter, and down the wall.
By the time the sun rises, the line of ants has vanished and schools have been officially shut down. My daughter’s preschool teacher sends an email suggesting thoughtful ways to discuss the changes with our children without causing too much alarm. We might consider describing the closures as town-wide “rest days,” she offers. And so, though soon enough my daughter will learn the words “quarantine” and “lockdown” and “shelter-in-place,” it is this term—the rest days—that I use when I explain why school is canceled, why we can’t go to the library, why she won’t have a birthday party with her friends this year.
The ants seem to be nocturnal; all but a few lingering insects disappear in the daytime. These wandering creatures unfailingly end up in the hands of my eighteen-month-old son. He follows the ants around the house, getting down on all fours to peer at their shiny bodies. He doesn’t yet speak many words. Among his repertoire are “Gaga” (grandfather), “Nana” (grandmother), and “baby” (anything small). Baby! He shrieks when he spots an ant making its way across the living-room floor. He lays on his belly and squirms after it, working his chubby fingers around its body until he manages to pick it up. Then, with the ant cupped in his palm, he rocks it back and forth, making shushing sounds as if lulling it to sleep. When the ant drops through his fingers or scurries up his arm, he searches frantically, calling out, Where baby? Where baby?
“They’re not babies!” my daughter shouts when she’s in a sour mood. Other times, she looks at me, makes an “aww” face and whispers, “He thinks they’re babies just because they’re small.”
“Are ants the smallest creatures?”
“No,” I tell my daughter.
“Then what are?”
I’m not sure, so we look it up. A virus, it turns out, is the smallest creature.
“Like the crona-virus?” she says.
“Yes, like that.”
“The crona-virus is smaller than an ant?”
I nod and she looks at me with raised eyebrows, as if putting together the pieces of a riddle, as if she knows there’s a joke somewhere in there but can’t quite figure it out. After a moment, she shrugs, turns back to her drawing.
Only my parents come for dinner the evening my daughter turns five. Stay-at-home orders have not yet begun in our town—Corvallis, Oregon—but large gatherings are prohibited and no one seems to feel much like celebrating anyway. We eat apple pie and whipped cream, double dipping our spoons into the cream, sitting shoulder to shoulder, the children climbing from lap to lap. My parents have just sold their house in California and moved north to a house a mile from ours. And so, when we say goodbye that evening, it is with a new lightness borne by the knowledge that they are not traveling 600 miles back home, but only the short bike ride across town. I hug them goodbye without paying much attention.
In truth, I can’t quite be sure if I even hugged them at all, that night. I might have been in the kitchen doing dishes, might have not thought it worth drying my hands and simply waved from afar. See you, I might have called. I might have called over my shoulder, without even turning to look.
A few days later, my parents and I agree it’s time to stop visiting. The previous week this would have seemed absurd—keeping my kids away from their own grandparents—but now it seems absurd that we had been doing otherwise. Everyone tries to make light of it, to laugh at the irony of finally being in close physical proximity only to resume FaceTime relations. But the days stretch on and it no longer seems particularly laughable.
I often wonder what my son thinks. Does he wonder why no friends or family come inside our house anymore, why we never leave, why, with the exception of his father and me, nobody ever picks him up, or tickles his tummy, or kisses his cheeks? Does he remember a time when things were different? How far back can he recall?
Every few days, always at an unexpected moment—while eating oatmeal one morning, while digging for worms in a heap of compost another—he stops to look up at me or to tug on my hand. Where’s Gaga? Where’s Nana? He asks.
There’re at home, I tell him.
Every few weeks my dad briefly breaches our distancing plan in order to roast coffee in my garage. We plan his visit to align with my son’s nap so that my daughter—who by now understands the rules of social distancing and can deftly map out a span of six feet even though she doesn’t yet understand what a “foot” is—can stand at the threshold of garage door to chat with her grandfather while he roasts. When he’s done, if the baby is still asleep, the two of them sit at opposite ends of a canoe in our backyard, the long stretch of the boat’s belly between them.
One afternoon, while I’m in the kitchen washing dishes, listening to the chatter of my daughter and my father outside, my son wakes unexpectedly. I go to his room to find him standing in his crib, clutching the windowsill and looking out at his grandfather’s car in the driveway. It had not occurred to me that he might recognize it, but he begins to tap excitedly on the window, calling, “Gaga! Gaga.” I pull the curtain closed and carry him to the kitchen, offering a chunk of dried mango in hopes that he will forget about the car. He gnaws happily on the fruit, and I turn back to the dishes.
Then, through the open door, drifts the sound of laughter, his sister’s bubbling giggle, and the low chuckle of his grandfather. My son freezes, looks at me, and then turns and runs for the door. I let him toddle out into the yard, waving his arms and exclaiming incoherent words of glee, but before he gets too close, I swoop him up. My father plays peek-a-boo with the baby from afar, and he giggles and squeals, but after a few moments of this, of course, he wants to get down from my arms and climb into his grandfather’s. When I don’t let him, he kicks and wails until his grandfather gets into his car and shuts the door. Through the window, my dad waves, trying painfully unsuccessfully, to offer a reassuring smile as if everything is completely normal. Only when the car begins to move does my son stop struggling against my grasp. His eyes, wet and wide with a kind of stunned resignation, remain on his grandfather. The car idles for another moment, then rolls backwards down the driveway and out of sight.
My daughter is an eavesdropper, insatiably hungry for scraps of adult conversation. Everything my partner and I say within her earshot, I can safely assume, will be heard, mulled over, asked about later. So when Ryan returns from work in the evenings, though I am dying to ask, What did you see out there? How was the grocery store visit, were the shelves empty? What’s it like downtown, is everyone masked? Gloved? Did you read about the meatpacking plant? The migrants stuck with nowhere to go? I refrain. I don’t want to overwhelm my daughter’s five-year-old mind with dire images. Instead, I talk about the reports of the sudden drop in air pollution, of the Himalayas appearing along the skyline in places where, for decades before, there had been only haze. I talk of the humpback whales embarking on their annual migration into the quietest waters of their lives, of birdsong lilting through the traffic-less streets of Los Angeles, New York, London, New Delhi.
One day, I’m talking about masks. They are not yet required, but people are starting to wear them anyway. “It would just feel so weird,” I say to Ryan, “I don’t know if I could do it.” I glance at my daughter. She’s stopped chewing and is watching me closely, so I make my voice light, “I’ve just never worn a mask to the grocery store before. Have you?” She turns back to her plate for a moment, considers the question.
“No,” she says, swallowing. “But I’m not scared.”
A friend and I have agreed to a weekly trade: two loaves of bread for two dozen eggs. On the morning of the first swap, car tires crunch across our gravel driveway and my daughter jumps up and runs outside. I follow, my son in one arm and the bag of bread in the other. K meets me in the yard and we trade goods. Her kids—my daughter’s best friends—are in the car, and I can see my daughter jumping wildly up and down near the rear window to catch a glimpse of them inside.
“I’m sorry we can’t stay,” K says. “We have to get back home to start dinner.”
“Us too.” I tell her because it’s true, and because I would say anything to avoid admitting that I’m afraid to let our children’s bodies get close.
I walk K back to her car. When she gets into the driver’s seat and closes the door my daughter stops jumping, grows quiet, and comes to stand by my side. All the exuberance of a minute ago vanishes as she realizes there will be no playing this day. K and I chat through open windows for a few more minutes. I don’t ask the questions most on my mind: Are our kids learning to fear touch, to fear other people? When can we have dinner together? How long can this go on? Instead, we talk about how our gardens are coming along, new bedtime routines.
“I’ve been singing them to sleep,” K tells me, “‘Blackbird’ lately.”
She sighs, reaches for her seatbelt, and asks her kids to buckle up. My daughter’s fingers are tight around my hand, and I look down to see she is making the face she makes when she is trying not to cry.
K starts to roll up her window when her daughter shouts from the back seat, “Wait!” she says, and looks to me. “We can sing it for you, let’s sing it!” The girl nudges her brother, who looks up at her warily. It’s obvious she’s scrambling to buy more time, but K and I are eager to oblige. The child hoists her torso out the back window to sit on the frame and the boy stands on the seat, cranes his neck up to look at his sister.
“Blackbird singin’ in the dead of night.” The girl begins. Her voice falters, squeaks. A breeze swirls through the maple branches overhead, then passes, and the leaves fall still. She takes a breath, nudges her brother, and they start again in unison.
This time their voices are steady, each emboldened by the other. My own children go stock-still and silent, mesmerized by the synchrony of the siblings’ words. No cars pass on the street. No planes overhead. The singers’ brows are lifted in concentration, cheeks flushed, eyes locked on the faces of their friends. “All your li-ife.” They croon, their froggy voices rising boldly up into all that quiet, “you were only waiting for this moment to arise.”
After our friends drive off, my daughter keeps her gaze on the empty street, “How much longer until the rest days are over?”
“A little while,” I tell her.
“No,” she says, “I’m not waiting any longer!” She is shouting now. “I’m going with them. I’m going to school. Right now.” She stomps toward the street, reaching the mailbox before crumbling into a fit of crying. I leave my son on the porch swing, lift her flailing body, carry her up the steps. The three of us rock back and forth for a long time, until my daughter is no longer screaming, until her limbs go limp.
When she has collected herself enough to speak, she asks, “Can we put on that song about the bird?” Inside, I search my phone, find the song, and press play. My kids stare up at the speakers. After a moment, recorded bird chirps flood the kitchen, then those familiar opening chords.
When the singing starts, my son begins to spin in circles, tilting his head back and forth. My daughter remains still, holding her breath as if listening to a secret. When the song ends, she says, “Again please.” This time, she joins her brother, twirling around the kitchen flapping her arms in bird-ballet motions. We listen to the song on repeat, spinning circles around the kitchen until my kids, too, know all the words.
I don’t think much, not on this day, about the genesis of “Blackbird.” Recorded in 1968 amid massive protests following the assassination of Martin Luther King, the song, Paul McCartney has said, was written about the struggle for civil rights. It won’t be until many weeks later, after the racial disparity of COVID-19’s toll surfaces, after Breonna Taylor is killed, after Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd are killed, after the song has become a constant presence in my home, that I’ll hear my daughter singing the chorus one afternoon and remember the song’s origins. I’ll listen to the words in her five-year-old voice and a chill will settle over me, like the feeling you get when, having believed yourself alone—in an empty room or a quiet sidewalk—you notice, suddenly, that someone else is there. That someone had been there, in fact, all along.
“Mama! Come look!”
I find my daughter on her hands and knees behind the couch. In front of her, two ants are moving slowly across the floor.
“It’s just like in the book! Remember?”
I peer closer to see one ant is dead, the other carrying its body, and recall the illustrated children’s book about insects we’d once borrowed from the library. Ants, we’d read, like their better-loved cousins the honeybees, care for their dead, deploying “undertaker ants” to handle the bodies.
“Where will she take it? Why?” My daughter unfurls a quick string of questions, and, after a failed attempt to answer, I suggest we look it up.
“But we don’t have the book anymore,” she says.
“We’ll use the Internet.” I offer, and get my phone to look it up, clicking and scrolling until I find an appropriate answer. My daughter puts her face close to the screen, copies my finger movements and I cringe, try to brush aside my discomfort at how quarantine has so swiftly eroded my commitment to keeping screens out of my kids’ early childhood.
“Here,” I say, and pull the phone out of reach to read what I’ve found.
Some ants, I paraphrase, bury their dead, others dispose of them in a pile far away from the colony, and others put them in a special chamber of their nest.
“Whoa,” my daughter says. “What else?”
“‘These insects,’” I read from a National Geographic article, “reap many benefits from group living, as they work together to gather food, care for their queen, and defend their nest. But the situation also puts them at risk of being hit by disease epidemics: If one individual in the colony comes down with an illness, the blight can spread rapidly. This places a premium on good hygiene.’”
My daughter and I look at one another for a moment. Her eyebrows are lifted, mouth partly opened—a look of puzzled awe that I imagine resembles the one on my own face. I wait for her to speak, to mention the echo of our own human lives in this tale of ants. But she says nothing. Instead, she turns back on her tummy, scoots closer to the ants, and watches them move slowly across the floor. At the crack between floorboards, the living ant falters and the dead one falls from its grasp. My daughter sucks in her breath, leans closer. The ant wiggles its antennae finger-like over the dead body, then lifts it up again and trudges on. I hear my daughter’s breath release, hear her whisper, “You can do it little guy, it’s not too much further.”
The morning is murky with fog, and I can’t stand the thought of another long day at home inside this haze so I suggest a bike ride. My daughter jumps up immediately. I tell her we won’t be stopping anywhere, she won’t be able to get out of the bike trailer, we’ll just be riding around to get some air, see what we see. “I know, I know,” she says, already putting on her jacket and tugging at the door.
It’s been a month since I left our street, and I feel exhilarated as soon as the house is out of sight. The kids are snug in the trailer behind me, a blanket over their legs, and a cup of raisins on their lap. At a traffic light I stop, wait for it to turn green so I can cross the highway and merge onto the bike path leading to downtown. Traffic is thin, and the light changes quickly. I pedal on, past the empty parking lots, where a blinking sign shouts: STAY HOME, STAY HEALTHY. Just before we reach the bridge that will carry us over the river and into downtown, we pass a homeless shelter. Tents surround the building, set up one after the next across the grassy stretch between the highway and the river. From the bridge, I look east, toward the Cascades. But today I can see only the river, a swath of steel-gray water beneath the fog. On the highway overpass, a poster duct-taped to the concrete reads “Capitalism is a Pyramid Scheme.” Beneath it, a more straightforward message is spray-painted in bright blue: “Fuck you.” We pass the dog park, the skate park, the children’s climbing structure, all webbed in with caution tape. A few other people are riding bikes or walking along the riverfront path. The man who plays saxophone is not sitting on his usual bench. No one sits on any bench. All the businesses are shuttered. Signs hang from windows: FREE DELIVERY! ORDER ONLINE! CLOSED! It is all exactly as I expected, exactly as I’d read it would be. Still, I ride through town stunned anew by each block.
“Why is it called the dead of night?”
We’re walking down our street, I’m pushing my son in the stroller hoping he’ll fall asleep and my daughter is skipping at my side humming “Blackbird.”
“Maybe,” she says before I can answer, “it’s because it’s so quiet and so dark that it’s almost like everything is dead, even though everything’s really only just resting?”
I nod. “I think you are right.”
“I know,” she says, and skips off ahead. I watch her jump over a puddle, stoop to pluck up a pebble from the road. A light rain starts to fall, and I scan the sky for a sign of what’s to come. Behind us, dark clouds spread low. To the south, the sky is brighter, and far off, a strip of blue. But I can’t tell which way things are moving. Overhead, three turkey vultures circle.
The kids and I are in the garden when our neighbor rides up on her bike. She’s in her early twenties, works the register at the grocery store where we shop—in the days when I used to take the kids to the store—and is adored by both my children. I wave and we exchange the usual How-Are-Yous. She says hi to my daughter and then rides close to the edge of our yard, holds one hand out, and says, “Can I get a high five?” Her smile is warm, a young person’s easy grin, and it’s clear the whole social distancing thing has simply slipped her mind. My daughter beams, takes a step toward her, then stops abruptly and turns to look at me over her shoulder. She doesn’t say anything, but I can see by her face that she’s asking me what to do, should she go on, should she touch the woman’s hand? The bike nears, slows, wobbles. A bare hand, outstretched.
At last, I give my daughter a quick nod, mouth, “It’s ok.”
She leaps forward, thrusts her own hand out. Slap.
Afterward, we go straight to the sink to scrub. My daughter follows me inside holding her arm outstretched in front of her as if it is a piece of long-rotten fruit she is carrying, and not her own hand.
Every day my daughter asks when it will be a school day again, when can she see another kid? She asks what I think her classmates are doing, her teacher. I tell her they are probably thinking of her and this makes her smile. But each day her questions grow. “Where’s China?” she asks one day. “What’s a ventilator?” One afternoon she plods over to me with a news magazine in hand. “Mama!” she says, “I found a really cute picture!” The magazine is folded open to a photo of a mother sitting on a couch, eyes cast forlornly out a window, a toddler snuggled into her chest. “It’s just like you and me!” She points to the caption and demands I tell her what it says. It’s a photo of mother and daughter in Jordan on the second day of mandated isolation, I tell her. “What’s Jordan?” She asks. We get out the globe and trace our fingertips across the textured surface. Then I find a flashlight and a tennis ball and try to recreate the solar system, try to explain the words like planet, and worldwide, and pandemic. “Everywhere on Earth,” I hear myself say, “People are having rest days, just like us. So even though it feels pretty lonely, we’re actually all working together. It’s like a big group project. The biggest group project.”
She watches me closely as I say all this, but I can’t quite discern what she’s thinking. Then she turns back to the photo, traces her fingers over the little girl’s messy hair for a moment before running back across the room to whatever she’d been doing before.
That night, after the kids have fallen asleep, I tidy up the mess of papers littered around my daughter’s desk. Watercolor paintings, paper snowflakes, bits of yarn. There, tucked halfway into the pages of her drawing book, I find the photo torn from the magazine. I slip it out and peer closely at the image. The mother’s eyes are dark, like mine, and worried. I try to think into the future, into a time when the girl in this photo and my own are both adults. But I can’t seem to look past the tangle of the present, my thoughts spinning in the slush of so many irreconcilable facts—mobile morgues lined up in hospital parking lots, fossil-fuel consumption reaching an unprecedented low, stampedes among crowds of jobless people desperate for food, air clear enough to ward off thousands of would-be deaths by pollution, spikes in domestic abuse, coyotes wandering the beaches of San Francisco, a five-year-old scrubbing furiously at her own hand to rid it of any residue of another person.
I press smooth the wrinkled magazine page, then tuck it back inside my daughter’s book. Crossing the room to switch off the lamp, I see the ants. Emerging once again into the dark of night, they march steadily across the floor.
After a week of rain, the sun comes out and my daughter and I spread a blanket in the backyard while my son naps. We lay on our backs and stare up through the tangle of walnut branches overhead to gaze at a sky so bright and blue we have to squint to look at it.
“Mama,” she asks. “What do you think she’s waiting for?”
“The blackbird. You know, with the broken wings? In the song?” She rolls over, begins plucking daisies from the grass and arranging them in a circle on the blanket.
I think for a minute, hum the lyric in my head. “For the moment to arise, I guess.”
“I know that,” she says. “I mean, what do you think she’s waiting to do, once the waiting is all over? What will she do?
“Hm,” I say, “I see.”
It occurs to me that my children likely won’t remember life before COVID-19. Whatever world lies ahead will be their native world, their only world. If my daughter remembers anything, it will be the waiting. The long wait of the rest days, which, to her five-year-old sense of time, have become infinite. “How many years have we been doing this?” she asks. “How old was I when we started?” But the question she asks most often is still When will this end? When will friends come over, when will parks open, when will we toss our face masks into the dress-up bin with Halloween costumes from years past, when can she hug her grandparents? And though I can’t offer her an answer—can’t tell her when it will end or what kind of world we will emerge into once it’s over—I take some comfort in the fact that she hasn’t stopped asking.
I look up into the walnut branches over her, each ending in a little fist of leaves ready to unfurl. “I don’t know,” I tell my daughter at last. She says nothing, takes a daisy between her fingers and begins to pluck off the petals one by one.
It’s still dark one late-April morning, six weeks into quarantine, when Ryan suggests it’s time to do something about the ants. “If they’re living in the walls, they’ll damage the framing.” We’re drinking coffee and watching the insects chart a path across the middle of the living room.
I nod, point to a gap underneath a baseboard, a dark space I’ve noticed them emerge from in the evenings. “Maybe we could seal that off?” We watch the gap, and sure enough the ants slink under, one after another, and disappear.
After the sun comes up and most of the ants vanish, Ryan gathers some tools and begins to pry loose the baseboard to check for signs of an infestation.
“Signs of an infection?” my daughter asks, squatting down beside her father.
“Infestation,” I correct her.
Ryan pulls the baseboard away and I half expect to see the sheetrock behind it vanished, the studs whittled away, a flood of ants spilling out. But there’s nothing unusual there. Ryan pokes around outside, in the crawl space, the basement. He finds nothing, shrugs, and puts the baseboards back in place. Then, with both kids crouched close by to watch, he squeezes a thick ribbon of caulk along the edge of the floor to seal up the gap, so that the once-dark space is replaced by a clean white strip.
After that, there are no more mornings of waking to the countertop scurrying with fat ant bodies, no more lines across the floor. I stop putting the fruit in the fridge at night. Still, a few ants mill about inside, a couple tracing the baseboards, another hunched over a smashed raisin under the couch. One afternoon I watch a lone ant march back and forth along the line of caulk, its antennae moving steadily this way and that, sweeping the surface as if in search of the old passage, a way home.