Picture Credits: Prabir-Kashyap

ants, dream, human psyche, love, marrriage, relationships, subconcious

The Ant-Man Part 2

Original by Ban Yu, Translated by Tony Hao , November 8, 2023

Picture Credits: Prabir-Kashyap

Read The Ant Man Part 1 here

Before I went to bed, I stopped in front of one box and observed the ants through the plastic film. They marched in hurried steps, as if they were piles of scattered letters, looking for the right companions, trying to form words, assemble sentences, and eventually weave a story. I added a few drops of water into the box and thought about my wife’s story – the water shield from heaven could have divided the box into two separate realms. After that, I closed the doors and the windows, turned off the lights, and lay down on my bed. But I could not fall asleep – the sound of the ants’ movements emanated from the boxes, the quiet rustling sound, faint yet intense, cascading through the dark. I found myself contemplating the dragon in my wife’s story, leaping from the ocean, glaring at the crowd. These thoughts filled me with anxiety, but I could not summon my body out of bed. All I could do was pray for the ants not to escape the boxes.

I had a terrible sleep. I was frequently awakened by a persistent burning smell, as if I was trapped in a nightfall that had caught fire. The next morning, I got up right after daybreak and immediately headed to the boxes. The ants appeared to be asleep. I carefully lifted open a corner of the plastic film, picked up one ant, and placed it on my arm. Dazzled by the morning light, it walked a few quick steps, took a break, and continued to stagger ahead, as if it were hiking through steep mountains, taking frequent breaks to orient itself against the strong wind.

I could not stop agonizing about the ants during the day. All I could do was cluelessly pace around the boxes. The nights were no better, as if the ants were marching on my nerves – they had gathered in regiments and tunneled through my flesh, on their way to occupy the chambers of my heart.

My mind could not focus on anything for the rest of the day. Perhaps I had forgotten how to see the world without linking everything to the ants. It was not just about the money – what if there was a theft, a fire, a plague, or simply a hole in a box from which the ants would escape and multiply beyond our control? All these scenarios would be disastrous for my wife and me. I could not stop agonizing about the ants during the day. All I could do was cluelessly pace around the boxes. The nights were no better, as if the ants were marching on my nerves – they had gathered in regiments and tunneled through my flesh, on their way to occupy the chambers of my heart.

My remedy for anxiety was knowledge. I buried myself in books I could find, trying to teach myself how to be the best ant caregiver. I was so invested that I lost track of time – until two days later, when I suddenly remembered that my wife had yet to return home. I gave her a call, and she told me not to worry, the trip had been delayed due to unforeseen circumstances. I hung up and felt disheartened. I desperately wanted to see her. I wanted to tell her what I had learned about ants, as well as my sorrow and pain. Another day and a half flew by, but my wife still had not returned. This time, she did not even pick up my calls. I started to panic and thought about contacting her travel agency, but I quickly abandoned the idea. I realized that perhaps the ants needed me more – or maybe, I was the one who needed the ants.

I continued looking after the ants and sending text messages to my wife. She finally returned my call late in the evening, speaking in a low voice. Wind was howling in the background, our call kept dropping. There was a hint of apathy in her voice, I had no clue where she had gone. She said there had been more problems, and they were trapped on the road. She assured me that she would be back soon.

That was a relief. I tried to redirect my attention to the novel, but to no avail. My work had become less and less familiar to me – I flipped through the first few pages and, for a moment, could not even recognize my own words. It was past midnight, I left my desk to inspect my room. And that was when I finally discovered that the burnt smell had been coming from my novel. To be exact, the small came from this paragraph: “The paper had caught fire, the flame eagerly licking the air. He tossed the paper into the sea, but the fire continued to burn. It floated on top of the water and nibbled on the paper until its last crumb, leaving behind a trail of sparks that twinkled on the surface of the sea.” I read this passage over and over, then decided to cross it off the page.

A week had passed, but my wife still had not returned. She kept assuring me not to worry, — The trip has been a nightmare, and we’ve been held back by so many accidents. But everything will be over soon. She said she was near home, and that she missed me, and the ants as well. After I hung up, I stood in front of the window and searched for her on the street, but I spotted nobody. I began to suspect whether it was possible that, the ants were the culprits who had stretched the scale of time to an infinity. I tried to trace their paths on the floor, hoping to understand their existence. One ant marched a few laps in the room, crawled up the wall, reached my desk, and mounded my manuscript, the manuscript of my novel.

I pinched it with my fingers and put it on my palm – before I could finish the novel, I did not want anyone to read it, ants included. But I would be willing to discuss my work, if the ant was interested. I put the ant back in its box, sat down on the couch, cleared my throat, and took a deep breath. I raised my voice and began telling the story about a missing woman. The ants began rustling in the boxes, occasionally bumping into the cardboard walls. The sound they made was sometimes pensive and other times passionate, as if they were engaging in a conversation with me.

I said, My friend, it’s already late at night, but neither of us can fall asleep, so let me tell you a story. You probably don’t know that I was a high school dropout. I had terrible grades, and my family was poor, so I had no choice but to leave school early and enter the real world. I always kept a pocket knife with me – you know the type of folding knife that opens with a spring? You hold it backward and hide it in your sleeve. And when you need it, you rotate it half a circle, lock the blade with your thumb, stab at an angle, and quickly pull back the blade. Back then, I was known to be reckless. I had quick reflexes, I stabbed hard and never worried about the consequences. My first job was in the logistics industry, I made some good cash, but I wasn’t satisfied. I was too young, all I wanted was more. I didn’t understand that more could be less. Anyway, I got to know a veteran of the industry, I looked up to him like an older brother. He took me under his wings and let me help out with his business. 

On the other side of the cardboards, the ants marched on in firm and synchronized steps, like soldiers trekking through a marshland. Outside the window, the night was like a deep river. Its darkness oozed in every direction and trickled in thin streams. Soon, a sound from the boxes began to respond, as if someone was talking to me, Didn’t know you were like that

I said, I don’t always remember it either. It felt like something from my previous life. But let me continue. My brother was quite somebody. His name alone had allowed him to build a big business, with a handful of restaurants and nightclubs. I worked for him, so I got paid well and people respected me. It was the best time of my life. I used to be quite jealous of him, but looking back from now, I knew that his life wasn’t as glamorous as it seemed. Think about it: every morning, you wake up, look around, only to find a dozen people whose lives depend on you, and nobody you can depend on – wouldn’t you feel lonely? That was his life, it was tough. Anyway, enough about this topic. I had a girlfriend back then, it wasn’t the best time for us to date, but we really loved each other. We talked about everything, we always had fun when we were together. I’ve yet to have another girlfriend like her. 

The ants asked, Why was it not the best time to date? 

I said, Great question. This girlfriend of mine, she was also one of my brother’s many lovers. They’d met in a nightclub, she said that she was a poor student. Who would’ve believed that? But my friend, I believed everything she said. The ants said, Quite bold of you. I said, Maybe it wasn’t a problem at all, my brother never held grudges. Perhaps I was the problem, I couldn’t get over the fact that she was his woman. When we first started seeing each other, we tried our best to hide it. But she got pregnant six months later. When we both found out, she asked me to move to a new city with her. She wanted to marry me and start a new life. 

The ants asked, You said yes? I said, My friend, I was only twenty, I’d never thought about anything like that. And I didn’t want to give up my future just for this woman. I thought about it for a few days. In the end, I made up an excuse and lied to her that my brother had caught wind of our thing. I told her that we should break up. 

The ants asked, She believed you? I responded, Of course not. But at least she knew what I wanted. She was devastated. She had a breakdown, we had a big fight, and she asked me to go get rid of the baby with her. I was relieved. By the way, there’s one more thing I should add: she was a full decade older than I was. 

The ants said, Dated a woman like this. Must be memorable. 

I said, Of course. But everything went wrong the night before the abortion.

Read the final part of this series!

Original by Ban Yu, Translated by Tony Hao

Original by Ban Yu, Translated by Tony Hao

Ban Yu (b. 1986) is a Chinese fiction writer from Shenyang, the biggest city in Northeastern China. A former editor and music critic, Ban began writing fiction about Shenyang’s factory district in 2016 and gained national fame in 2018 for his debut fiction anthology Winter Swimming (冬泳, Dong Yong). Author of three fiction anthologies, his works have appeared in China’s most prestigious literary journals, including October, Harvest, and Selected Fiction. His story “Free and Easy Wandering” (逍遥游, Xiao Yao You) was ranked by Harvest as China’s best short story of 2018, and it was adapted into Carefree Days, a feature film selected for the 2023 San Sebastian Film Festival and the 2023 Athens International Film Festival.

Translated by Tony Hao
Tony Hao is a freelance literary translator and writer based in Connecticut. He recently graduated from Yale, where he majored in English and also studied literary translation, jouranlism, and fiction writing. His literary translation of Northeastern Chinese writer Ban Yu’s short story is forthcoming in Crayon, sister magazine of British publication Litro. He translates from Mandarin to English, and he is currently translating an anthology of Ban’s fiction. His short story has been awarded Yale’s Elmore Willets Prize, for the best work of student fiction. Born and raised in Beijing, he is interested in translating — and writing — fiction and nonfiction about the Chinese-speaking world and its intersections with America.

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