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Eleanor Coombe: Author
About Eleanor Coombe
Eleanor Coombe grew up in the Tasmanian wilderness where she developed a love of the environment. Eleanor has written more than forty books, published by Landsdowne Press, Lothian Books, Pan MacMillan and Funtastic
The Faraway Fairies series made the Australian list of Books Alive, the top 50 books you can’t put down, sponsored by the Australian Government. She also writes under the pseudonym of Dan Jerris. Her best selling children series, Dragon Blood Pirates, has been translated into Spanish, Portuguese and Turkish. Her Arky Steele books have been translated into French and Turkish.
Eleanor was awarded a Distinguished Alumni Award for her work as the author of many successful children’s books by Canberra University. In 2015 Eleanor was chosen as the Premier of Tasmania's reading ambassador.
Black Ant Summer. A short story.
This is a story set in the Tasmanian bush about the fight for survival with one of the world's most deadly ants, the Jack Jumper. The Jack Jumper kills more people in Australia than sharks or other deadly animals. This story appears in the book, All Kinds of Death, by Eleanor Coombe.
Black Ant Summer
Down in the bottom of our bush block was an old gum tree. Its huge branches cast patterned shade onto the boulders and cracked earth around it. Under the base of the tree, half hidden by long tapers of fallen bark, was a fat ants' nest. Fat ants are black and they build big shaggy nests. The ants seemed to know when it was going to rain, even before we did, and they would run everywhere collecting sticks to make their nest higher. Before winter came, they took their eggs out of the nest and climbed up the gum tree.
I liked to sit under the tree and feed them crumbs from my sandwiches. I'd grind up the crusts and watch the ants, big and round as they were, struggle off with their booty to the queen. I showed the ants to my brother and he pointed at them with his pudgy hand and asked, ‘Where dem goin'?’
‘They're going to the queen who gives them a prize for finding so much food,’ I said.
Scotty and I would watch the fat ants for hours. It was our kingdom and we played God - lifting them, confusing them, opening their nests and peering inside. Big, fat ants don't bite.
When Mum and Dad fought we'd scuttle down to the tree and lose ourselves in ant-land, oblivious to the screams and roars from the house a hundred metres away. Mum would come and collect us when dinner time came and we'd all eat in silence. Mum, grim-faced and red-eyed, and Dad angry and fierce. I'd spoon the food into my mouth, hoping I was eating correctly incase Dad growled. His voice would cut the air and I'd jump in fear. Scotty's eyes would get bigger and his lip would tremble, but he didn't cry. He wasn't a crybaby.
Down the road lived two big boys, Billy and Grant. They lived about a kilometre away and caught the grocery bus to school with me. On the bus they would tease me and try to make me cry. I was glad when the summer holidays started and I didn't have to catch the bus.
When Dad went away on work, Scotty and I would play down the back of the hill near the creek. Sometimes Billy and Grant would find us there. They would sneak up and try to frighten us. Sometimes they would push me around and dare us to do things, like climb to the top of a tree or hold onto an ugly bug. If we were too scared to do what they dared they'd call us `cry-babies' and `mummy's dummies' and hit and punch us.
Beside the creek was a black ants' nest. These ants built flat nests of pebbles. They had thin, wasp-like bodies and orange nippers. When you annoyed them, they hopped in fury and they could bite painfully. We called them Jack Jumpers.
If you disturbed the nest, they'd swarm angrily out of their holes and line up in battalions to fight. A Jacky stung Billy one day when he was teasing us. He stood too near the nest while he was trying to put grass seeds in my hair. He hopped and screamed like a sissy as he slapped at the bite on his leg. Seeing his face all screwed up in pain made me feel brave.
‘You're a cry-baby!’ I said.
‘You'd cry if you were bitten,’ he howled.
Without thinking clearly what I had in mind, I picked up a stick and beat the Jack Jumpers' nest until hundreds of angry hopping ants swarmed to the surface.
‘Bet you're too scared to do this!’ I said, as I took off my shoes and leapt in amongst them barefoot. They swarmed over my feet but I never moved.
‘Do that then!’ I dared.
They watched in horror. ‘No, we aren't stupid.’
‘They'll bite. You'll get bitten. Then you'll scream, you sooky,’ Billy yelled.
‘You stand in the Jackies' nest. Go on. If you can't do this, then don't tease us. You do it. I dare you!’
Billy couldn't stand the fact I dared him. He took his shoes off and moved forward. The ants moved towards the sounds of his steps, hopping furiously. Still in pain from the bite he moved slowly. His eyes flicked in horror at the sight of the advancing ants. Grant shrieked, ‘Watch out!’ grabbed Billy by the arm, and they fled in terror. I hopped away from the nest without being bitten. Grant and Billy left us alone after that and Scotty and I played down by the creek in peace.
When Dad returned from his haulage job we played there more often. We couldn't hear him fighting with Mum down in the leafy shade. He went into town some days and didn't come back till evening. One afternoon we came in early from playing. Dad's truck stood in the drive, huge and threatening. I didn't want to go in so I led Scotty back to the creek.
‘We'll play for a bit more,’ I told him. ‘Dad's home.’
‘He fightin' wiv Mum again?’
‘No, but let's wait and look for tadpoles.’
We sat by the creek and peered into the water, watching the squirming pond life until Scotty began to cry. He held up his hand.
‘Dem bludy Jackies done bit me,’ he said. Sure enough, I saw one of those mean black ants jumping away from him.
‘Stick your hand in the water. You'll feel better soon.’ He kept crying. I ignored him because I didn't want to take him home. He kept on crying and holding up his hand, so after some time I looked at it. His hand was swollen and his fingers looked like sausages. Worse still, I realised his face had puffed up and I could barely see his eyes. Big lumps were beginning to appear all over his forehead and his hair was sticking up in crazy angles. I picked him up and carried him home.
Mum and Dad were having coffee. ‘Jackies bit him!’ I screamed. ‘He's all swolled up.’ Scotty whimpered in my arms. Dad and Mum looked at him, and Dad took him in his arms and raced to the truck. We drove twenty-five kilometres to the hospital in town. The doctor said Scotty had an allergy and if he was bitten again he might die.
He did get bitten again, a week later, down by the fat ant tree. He was bitten on the leg. Luckily Dad was still home and he took Scotty to hospital. Scott had to have a pipe put down his throat because he couldn't breathe.
While Scott was in hospital Dad went off in the truck carting wool inter-state on a big haulage job, and Mum ordered some poison and some wire from the shops. Mr Martin the grocery bus driver delivered it. The next day, Mum fenced around the back of the house so we couldn't go down to the creek. Then she pulled a big bucket out from under the house and mixed the poison in it. She poured poison on the ants and killed them all. Even the little ones. She killed my fat ants. They came down out of the tree and climbed out of the nest. Their little bodies curled up and they died in their hundreds all over the ground. It did no good to tell Mum that only the skinny mean black ants hurt Scotty.
When Scotty came home the weather became really hot. The summer sun heated up the yard. We couldn't go to the creek to cool off. We were bored so we just sat around or played cowboys under a sheet on the clothes-line.
The fire bell rang one hot day and we could hear it ring and ring, warning us. Fire trucks, all shiny and red, went on up the mountain road past our place. We could see smoke. A strong wind came up and Mum packed a suitcase. In the afternoon we were evacuated. The fire jumped the road and came down the hill. I could see the flames in the tree tops. The fireman picked us up in his truck and took us to town. He rang the truck's siren for us. It was great fun.
We had to stay at Gran's because we couldn't go home. The burnt trees had fallen across the road blocking it.
When Dad came back from delivering his load, the road had been cleared, so he took us home with him. Our house was safe but the fire had burnt the tank stand. All our water tanks had fallen so we didn't have any water. Dad was furious. He went round cursing the fire and Mum and me. He thought we should have stayed home and kept the fire off with the garden hose and wet bags. He left us tidying up while he drove into town and brought back his friends. They made a new stand and they rolled the empty tank back onto it. The next day we bought some water from a water carrier.
The trees in the yard were all burnt, but the fire brought the ants back. It was weird, there were ants everywhere. There was a dead possum in the backyard and ants were all over it, crawling in and out of its eyes and mouth. There were fat ants crawling over the trees and sugar ants in their thousands around the house.
Mum made Scotty stay inside. He wasn't allowed out. Her fear of the ants made my father angry with her, and they had a huge fight. Scotty and I couldn't run off to the fat ant tree or the creek. We had to sit there and listen to them fighting and yelling. Mum said, ‘Jack he can't go out. He'll die if he's bitten’.
Dad said, ‘He may as bloody well be dead. If he can't go outside he'll turn into a freak, a real wimp, if he's molly-coddled’.
‘I want to take the kids back to the city. I'll live with Gran.’
‘I'd rather shoot him before I see him bought up with your mother fussin' and fussin' over him. You'll turn him into a poof.’
‘Maybe we could sell the house and move down there?’
‘You know I can't afford a house down there. You know this is all I can pay for!’
‘I'm not staying here, worrying all the time when you're away,’ My mother shouted at him. ‘You don't care about him. I'm taking them!’ Dad hit her then. He hit her hard on the face.
‘Don't be stupid. We are staying! I'm taking Scott outside and he's going to help me cut down that tree that's burnt and dangerous.’ Dad pulled Scotty outside and left Mum sobbing beside the sink. I felt all cold inside and my throat had closed off so I couldn't speak. Eventually, I put my arm around Mum. ‘Scotty 'll be OK,’ I said.
Mum hugged me and began to cry louder. I could see Scotty through the window, sitting straight-backed and small on a boulder behind Dad, as Dad sawed angrily into the tree. Mum peeled potatoes into the sink and cried quietly. I stood watching Mum, and then watching Dad, holding my breath and trying not to cry.
The fat ant tree shook and shivered and eventually it made a screaming sound as it fell to the earth. I began to cry. It had been my tree, and my place, and now it was gone.
Dad wiped his hands on his jeans and turned around. Then I saw Scotty slump over. He fell sideways off the rock. Dad ran to him and pulled him into his arms. He ran to the house and screamed for Mum and once again we ran to the truck. I saw his little hand hanging down, nail bitten and boy-busy with dirt, swollen and white-lumped.
Afterwards, the doctor said he'd been bitten three times on the chest. A Jacky must have fallen from the tree as Dad chopped at it. Scotty hadn't been a crybaby. Maybe he hadn't wanted Dad to shoot him, or perhaps he thought if he got bitten again Mum would leave, so he hadn't said a word. He'd just sat as I saw him, straight-backed and brave.
I'm at Gran's now. She has tiny, tiny sugar ants in her backyard. I go to school down the road and there are blue bells in her garden in spring.
Faraway Fairies. Eleanor Coombe. 12 books for ages 7 to 12
A delightful series of fairy stories.
My 13th and final book in the series, The Faraway Fairies.
Me reading from my book, The Final Adventure, the 13th book in the Faraway Fairy series.
© 2012 also known as Dan Jerris, who writes pirate stories for boys.