Fiction / December 2017 (Issue 38: Writing Hong Kong)

The Transubstantiation of the Ants

by Xu Xi


A lone photographer captured the funnel of winged beauties. Thousands of nymphalids, a colour tornado, ascending up and out to sea, away from Hong Kong towards Bermuda. He, the photographer, was in a helicopter early that morning, too early, when only the moon lit the sky. The previous night's downpour had cleared the air, and in that moment, a visual image to be recalled on his deathbed.


Months earlier, the white-yellow ants had begun planning their migration, preparing themselves for the eve of the great escape.

"But we have no blood!" the queen exclaimed, not for the first time. The colony's workers scurried food towards her, trying to calm their over-excitable monarch. Nearby, a black and blue butterfly hovered over a dead rat, blood oozing from its neck where a dog had bitten deep and hard before flinging it away.

"She looks like she's going to a ball," whispered Gala, a young ant, as she gazed, fascinated, at the blood and butterfly.

"How do you know it's a girl?" her best friend Cripps Pink whispered back.

"Because she must be."

That night, Prince Consortium the winged drone stood proudly by his queen, as Sir Morphinae, the oldest flying ant, repeated the story that excited the younger ants.

"Our little colony was born in Hong Kong on a flap year, June 31, 1841. Unlike the Gregorian calendar, our calendar flaps instead of leaps, and is ruled by the breezes of butterfly wings. Our first queen was cursed at birth, having fallen into a pool of blood of a dying wild boar. This kept her in a state of permanent lethargy. Legend is that she considered herself more than an ant, and thought herself a blooded creature which ants of course are not. As long as she lived, Queen Nymphiadiant insisted on being constantly pregnant to prove that she would eventually give birth to a superior species. All the winged drones sacrificed themselves to her stubborn quest. In time, the colony shrunk, and our ancestors mated with other colonies to survive and we evolved into this white-yellow species of today. For over a century, our first queen was considered mad."

And here all the youngest ants piped up in unison. "Until, until, the birth of The Fragrant White Bauhinia, our Daddy Dwarf Tree!"

"And," said Gala, the most precocious, "the wild boars returned to the hills of the New Territories!"

Cripps Pink nudged her friend, trying to calm her down.

Gala was undaunted. "Please Sir Morphinae, isn't it almost time?  We are at flap year again now at last, aren't we?"

Sir Morphinae smiled. "Yes, Gala, indeed we are, but you're getting ahead of things. What do we always say about our Grand Narrative?"

Once again, the youngest ants chorused their response. "After the beginning and before the end, there must be a strong core, the well-constructed middle!"

Their nervous queen finally interrupted. "Enough, it's almost midnight."

Despite the downpour earlier that evening, hope in the colony was palpable. All gathered on the branches of their Daddy Dwarf Bauhinia, waiting. As foretold, it was in full bloom and the scent intoxicated. A sharpened branch, fashioned after years of patient work by the colony, stood in wait. Soon the wild boar would arrive, and the prophecy would come to pass.

At the first stroke of midnight, a distant rumbling. It got louder at the second stroke. By the third stroke, Sir Morphinae breathed a sigh of relief. Here it was, the mad racing boar to free them forever, to revise the history of Queen Nymphiadiant's madness.

In the distance, the night sky was aflame as the British departed the city of Hong Kong.

The boar somersaulted in the air and splat! Impaled on the sharpened branch. His blood oozed. The colony swarmed towards the viscous crimson, plunged in and drank.

Gala shrieked first. "It's happening!" The ants watched amazed as her wings burst forth and up she whirled in a frenetic dance. Soon all the other girl ants had transformed, and the winged drones came for them, swooping down in ecstasy to mate to their death. There was no one to witness this fluttering frenzy in the fragrance of Bauhina. Han purple, red-violet, electric purple. Banana, lemon, bumblebee. Greens, oranges, midnight blues. All the colours that had never graced these white-yellow beings.

And then they flew off, this panoply of transubstantiated butterflies, having bathed in and drunk their fill of boar's blood. They left Hong Kong forever and headed to their new garden, verdant in Bermuda.

Only one photograph, shot just before dawn on June 31, 1997, was evidence of their glorious migration.



Author's Note:

"The Transubstantiation of the Ants”, published for the first time here, was written for David Clarke's project, an art installation titled “June 31, 1997” which was exhibited at Videotage in July this year.  In that project, this imaginary day is brought to life through creative works in the exhibit curated by Clarke.  Read some press coverage on that installaion here.


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