Feather Mountain rested against a great sycamore tree in the yard of a fair family of readers, the Coopers. The family seemed nice enough, but the rumor that spread among the ants was that they were not to be trusted. In the family dwelt a boy who was prone to playing sports and stomping on them, and two girls who liked to spread blankets out and soak in the afternoon sunshine while reading.
The Coopers read constantly.
It is important to tell you, dear ones, that Feather Mountain did not just belong to the ants, but also to a family of elves – a Papa and Mama with three children (triplets, Edna, Ferris and Anna) called the Mulches. The name they chose from a book that Olivia left open near the sycamore tree after her mother called her in for dinner. Papa and Mama Mulch saw the drawings in the book and thought the caricatures resembled their family, except for the large ears that were stuck to the sides of the faces, as an afterthought. Elves, through the centuries, were known for understanding and paying attention, so Papa suggested that the pale caricature that humans had of them was actually a compliment.
The Mulch elves were very small, but lived in gorgeous symbiosis with the colony of ants on Feather Mountain, who adored them and built a special chamber for them to sleep. Each ant felt a strange responsibility for the happiness of the elves, a sentiment normally reserved only for their queen.
The Mulch children were afraid of nothing, except when Papa would remove his slippers and bear his toenails, sharp daggers that hooked forward like scythes. Papa was strangely proud of his toenails and refused to trim them.
“What should happen to us if we were attacked?” he’d reason with his wife when confronted about them. “I shall remove my shoes and slice our attackers to pieces!” Papa would simulate the motion, making the children cringe in fear and Mama shake her head.
“If you do not injure yourself first with those razors!” Mama said, sharply. She was forever trying to trim them with thorns she’d cut from the rose bush, sneaking up on Papa while he slept. She tried to use the thorns as clippers, but to no avail. The melted, like tulip leaves in her hands, nothing compared to the hardness of Papa’s toenails. They all slept in beautifully soft sandy loam that the ants used to carpet their entire subterranean structure, mostly undisturbed and certainly peaceful in the home they had.
One fine morning, while the ants were trying to circumvent the obstruction of Fiona and Olivia’s blanket, the Mulch children had a clever idea.
“Let’s make a circus to entertain the ants when they return to the colony tonight,” Ferris suggested. He was a fun-loving child, and always searching for ways to bless their hospitable friends. “For Papa and Mama have gone to the stream of water for a date and will surely be gone until sunset!”
“I’m not so sure the ants will like a circus, or even know what it is,” Anna said, thoughtfully, scratching her pretty round face. “Our ants are always working. I have never seen them delight in anything except feeding the queen or building their chambers or gathering food.”
Edna carefully pondered the idea, adjusting her purple hat so it would not cut off circulation to her brain. “Maybe if we dress up it will catch their attention. At that moment, we will be able to distract them from their desire to work!”
The Mulch children commenced to costume preparation. Ferris painted a small mustache on his clever face with a bit of coal he found near the entrance of the mountain, and used a small mushroom for a top hat. “Do I look like a ring leader?” He asked his sisters brightly. They agreed he did.
Anna found odd strips of cloth discarded near the food storage chamber and tied them with such creativity that she assembled a harlequin costume, perfect for a clown to wear. Edna dressed as a fairy, wearing transparent leaves and a daffodil flower for a skirt. Mama was sure to be happy that all the material that went into making their costumes were reused and recycled.
Upon the time that the ants normally returned to the colony, the Mulch children poised themselves at the entrance of Feather Mountain. There were no children or blankets in the yard, neither were there books left about haphazardly. The Mulch elves were happily laying in wait, costumes beautifully arranged. They were ready to surprise the ants upon their return.
“I see a line approaching off in the distance,” Anna whispered. Her face had been painted with a wide smile and when Edna looked at her, she could not help but giggle. “There’s a face for them, sister!” she said. “If you do not shock them to death you will certainly delight them.”
The ants were indeed returning, the children watched them as they passed the great stone. Suddenly, their march was interrupted by a great commotion that could only be trouble for the ants. As the Mulch children waited, they saw the mandibles of a great ant lion interrupt the line and pull the lead worker back toward him. Stunned and frightened, the children watched in horror as the ant lion pulled his prey, despite the other ants trying to pull the lead ant away from him. In the middle of the commotion, the children were surprised to see their mother and father, probably walking with the ants at the end of the day back to the mountain. Papa and Mama were watching in similar horror.
“What if that ant lion gets Papa, too?” Edna cried, starting to rush out toward them. As her siblings pulled her back into the entrance, the children all beheld the most amazing act.
Suddenly, Papa sat on the ground and removed his slippers, tossing them over his head in warrior fashion. Toenails bared, Papa bravely crab-walked toward the offending ant lion, who suddenly dropped the lead ant, seeing another mandibled creature approaching. With skill and precision, Papa lifted his feet and made a slicing motion, removing the mandibles from the mouth of the animal like a ninja.
“Did you see that?” Anna screeched.
“Shhh!” Edna whispered, frozen with fear. The children looked upon the fight in stunned delight, poised and ready to jump in if they were needed. Mama, who had collected Papa’s slippers as soon as he had cast them off, cheered her husband on. The ants were too preoccupied with re-forming their line to notice all that was happening. Instead, they marched past the children and into the chambers, hardly noticing their bright circus costumes at all.
I’m sorry to tell you, dear ones, that the ant lion did not survive the attack of Papa’s toenails. Once the mandibles of an ant lion are removed, it dies slowly, having been stripped of its defenses and its only way to harvest food. Someone has to tell you these stories truthfully, dear ones. I am afraid it is me.
What I can also tell you, with happiness, is that there was great celebration in the Mulch chamber that night. Mama brought out her fiddle and Papa danced barefoot, reenacting his ninja skills in an elaborate interpretive dance while the children clapped along. Since they were in costume already, the Mulch children performed a circus show for their parents, once Papa put his slippers back on.