Jane’s in a bar. She’s sitting on a barstool. Her feet are dangling far above the floor. She sips on a Shirley Temple. She uses a crazy straw. Nobody troubles her. Not even when they’re drunk. Not even when they fight. She’s Jane. She’s untouchable. She’s a half ton of trouble in a fifty-pound glass.
“Psst, ” says the guy. Oscar’s his name. He whispers to Jane like he’s got a watch to sell. “Psst. Jane. There’s an awa in town. You’ve got to find it. You must check it out.”
“An awa?” Jane asks. Her right ear feels funny. It can’t twitch. It can’t swivel. But it wants to right now. It wants to twitch. It wants to turn towards him. It wants to hear what Oscar might say.
“An ‘ant without antennae’.” Oscar grins. It’s a gritty sort of grin. “Haven’t you heard the word?”
“Never, ” Jane says. She hops down from the stool. She looks bold. She looks stern. She thrusts out an arm. “It’s a mystery — but it won’t elude me! Tell me, Oscar, what an awa might be.”
“I don’t know much,” Oscar says, muttering. “It’s an ant. That’s the truth. It’s got no antennae. It’s an ant and it’s got no antennae at all. It’s in town. No one knows what grim business’s its mission. It’s an ant. It’s determined. But no one knows why. There’s a veil of mystery over the awa. It’s not a thing that we humans can know. But it walks with a smirk and there’s trouble at its heels. That ant can’t be good.”
Jane is a girl with a practical expression. “If it has no antennae,” Jane says, and she’s frowning, “the awa in question can’t communicate at all. If it’s mute, and it’s solemn, then it can’t share its mission — just trudge along waiting until someone’s foot falls.”
Oscar lowers his voice. It’s touched by his wonder. It’s like magic from a drink is clogging his tongue. “It doesn’t need headgear,” he murmurs. “It talks using words like you and I might.”
“I’m trouble,” Jane says. She thinks, deep and solemn. “Logically, I should be at this ant’s heels.”
“I cannot dispute that,” Oscar says smugly. He snickers with evil. He smiles with glee. He wants her to find it. He wants her to find the ant. He plans to follow and do evil things then.
Jane heads into the city. It’s dark and it’s sparkly. It’s a dark sparkly city and it’s full of things. She picks one thing at random. It’s a cabbie, it happens. “Take me to the awa.” Then she gets in the cab. The cab’s engine rumbles. It screeches off down the street. Water splashes on Oscar. He calls a cab of his own.
Jane pulls up by the sidewalk. By the sidewalk, she sees an ant. The ant has no antennae. It trudges along.
“A marvel,” Jane breathes. In her pockets she fumbles. She passes the cabbie a few random things. She’s got bird’s nest and mirrors, earwax and string, a shiny bead, silver, and a three-sided ring.
“I would prefer money,” the cabbie informs her.
“Wouldn’t we all!” Jane’s a cynic tonight.
Jane tips the cabbie. She gives him a random thing. It’s not what he wants, but it’s pretty enough. Then she gets out. She stands right behind the ant. A few minutes pass. Then the ant turns its head.
“Pardon,” the ant says. Its voice is crisp and clear. “I cannot help noticing there’s a girl at my heels.”
“That’s ’cause I’m trouble,” Jane quickly explains.
The ant looks at her blankly. It has no expression. Ants use antennae for that kind of thing.
“Also, I’m curious.”
“Ah,” says the ant. “You want to hear my story.”
“Yes,” Jane summarizes.
The ant turns and trudges on. In a while, Jane takes a step. The ant trudges on. Jane takes another step. This process continues until the ant speaks.
“I lost my antennae a long time ago. It happens sometimes, if you’re an ant. It’s hard for an ant, to have no antennae. It’s really hard. It’s not a thing I could bear.”
“Ah,” Jane breathes. “I understand.”
“For three months,” the ant says, “I lay under a leaf. I hoped that I’d find myself wasting away. But I always found water in the dew of the morning. My friends regurgitated food into my mouth. The leaf gave me shelter. The wind sang me poetry. With one thing and another, I survived those three months.”
“I can sing poetry,” Jane boldly declares. She skips forward, hopscotch, ten great long strides. “One! Two! Three! Four! God don’t love you any more! Five, six, seven, eight! Now that love has turned to hate! Seven, eight, nine, ten! Hate comes round to love again!”
Jane looks embarrassed. She’s skipped far past the ant. The ant is trudging nine full steps back. Jane hurries around and stands behind it again.
“Anyway,” the ant says, “so the first month, I thought that if I ever got up again, I should kill everything in the world, as the price of my misery. And in the second month, I thought that maybe I should cut off everyone’s antennae, and just leave them alive, to suffer like me. But in the third month, I thought, if I ever get up again, I should try bringing happiness to everyone in the world. And then I got up; so I set to my task.”
“I tried bringing happiness to everyone in the world once,” Jane says. “It didn’t really work out very well.”
“Why not?” asks the ant. Its voice is rich bittersweet. It sounds conflicted. It still trudges on.
“People are weird,” Jane summarizes.
“Ah,” the ant says. In a while, Jane takes a step. “So,” says the ant, “I started to travel. I’d travel the world, I promised myself. I’d cross every inch of the land and the seas; and the sky, when I could; and the stars, when they’d have me. Each step I take, I carve out my trail. I make things better. I make them cleaner. I make them purer. I make them brighter. I make them more. That’s my mission. It’s what I’m for. I will carve truth from this cold grey world of ours. And that’s what I’ve done for the past seven years.”
“Wow,” Jane says, thoughtful. “How far have you traveled?”
“A few cities,” the ant says. “Back and forth. Back and forth. Leaving a little trail behind me.”
Jane examines the ant’s trail. It’s shiny. It’s a little sweet. It’s making things better. It’s making them clean.
“Just a few cities?” she asks, disappointed.
“It’s not very easy, you know, for an ant.”
“Ah,” Jane says, wisely. “I suppose that that’s true.”
Jane crouches low. She eyes the trail more carefully. It’s a strange little marker on the cold city ground. It’s got an ant’s trail. That’s not a great thing. But it’s got beauty too. She can see it right there. It’s tainting the street, under the trail. The street is itself again, where the ant’s passed. It’s true and it’s real. It’s pretty. It’s neat. It’s grimy and sticky. It knows it’s a street.
“You’re pretty good at this,” Jane says.
“I’m an awa,” the ant says. “It’s what I do.”
Jane spins in a circle, three times left, three times right. “There’s a guy. He’s named Oscar. He’ll follow me here.”
“He’s a squisher, then,” the ant says. It shrugs at her quietly. “He wants to squish me and end my long trail.”
“Why?” Jane asks.
The ant shrugs again. “You said ‘People are weird.'”
“So what are you going to do?”
“He’ll step on me,” the ant says. “And make his shoe clean and bright; and I’ll be alive; and I’ll heal in good time. And then I’ll come back and take up the road again.” The ant trudges on for a minute and change. “Ants keep their deaths in our antennae, you know. An ant without antennae can’t really die.”
Jane’s eyes grow wide. “Really? You’ll never die? There must be a lot of you awas in the world.”
“A few dozen,” the ant says.
“All working for happiness?”
“No,” the ant says. “Though I wish that were true. Some work for joy and some strive for sorrow; some seek out love, and some commit horrors. We change the world slowly. We’re awas. It’s what we do. We change the world very, very, very slowly.”
Jane skips off. She’s done with the awa. She finds a pedestrian. She colors his shadow in.
Oscar’s cab pulls up on the street beside the ant. Oscar gets out. He gives the awa a grin. The ant smiles back, as much as an awa can. The two take their places, and things happen then.