I was following a path in the woods when the toe of my boot nearly crushed an ant. I withdrew the boot. There, paddling an inch one direction before reversing course and paddling in another, was an ordinary carpenter ant. It was plain black. It looked like the minute droppings of a slightly larger critter, except for its moving around. I was prepared to bypass the ant and continue down the path when the little monster bristled wings from its shoulders and set them whirring at light speed and rose into the air.
I deduced very rapidly that this was a flying ant. It wasn’t unusual to encounter flying ants in those parts, nor I suppose in any parts. The flying ant, in fact, is one of the most successful dry flies that a fisherman can tie onto his tippet, from Montana to Vermont to Argentina to New Zealand, so it can’t be that rare. Plus, I’m given to understand that flying ants aren’t even actually a species unto themselves. They’re simply a larval stage or whatever of ordinary ants. Like a portion of the ant eggs get smothered in nutrient-rich jelly or some other such nonsense and out come the wings.
But the commonness of wingèd ants notwithstanding, it was as if, when this small fucker flew out from under my boot, I’d never before laid eyes on such a thing. And, strangely, I was indignant about its existence. “Now what is that?” I wanted to shout at the ant as it sailed away through the forest. “How is that appropriate?”
You see, it oughtn’t happen that one organism, alike his fellows in every discernible respect, should be awarded, exclusively, a tool so miraculous as wings. It isn’t how evolution is supposed to work. The way I understand evolution, an individual of a given species is supposed to be born with some trifling aberration, glossy eyelids or something along those lines—perhaps longer feet, a narrower tongue—that in the near term provides no pronounced advantage. Only over the course of a thousand generations is the freak characteristic supposed to leverage its slight—I repeat slight—advantage, and breed its way through the species. In this way, Nature keeps her subjects feeling positive about themselves. We’re all about the same, you and I of this genus-phylum.
Not so when it comes to fucking wings that enable a creature to fly off of the ground into the sky. When that happens, it’s no longer possible for the more, shall we say, pedestrian members of the species to value themselves. I mean, just hypothetically, take coyotes. Say we’re all coyotes. We’re sniffing around for rabbits, we’re yipping at the moon. Except wait: now some of us have chainsaws for paws. Do you see what I’m saying? You wouldn’t want to be the coyote who didn’t get the chainsaw paws. You wouldn’t feel like a full coyote.
Or I don’t know, maybe this is exactly how things work. Maybe one day you’re a young man with uncountable decades stretching ahead of you, and a day later you find yourself surrounded by other young men, the truly young men. They’ve sprouted wondrous appendages, it seems, and are enjoying the use of them in a sunlight that’d once fallen on your shoulders. They’ve flown into the sky and intercepted that sunlight. You’re several years their elder, and in that sense are traveling ahead of them, but it’s as if these nimble youngsters have sailed past you, and are vanishing in the trees.
Ben Nickol’s stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Redivider, Boulevard, Fugue, CutBank, Hotel Amerika and elsewhere, and he’s the author of two books: Where the Wind Can Find It (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2015) and Adherence (Outpost19, 2016). His work has been honored by the Arkansas Arts Council and Best American Sports Writing, among other organizations. For more, visit www.bennickol.com.