Small Lives

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
September/October 2003

By Travis Royce, Illustrated hy Anthony Pape-Calabrese

I gaze from the gray wooden bench in my neighbor’s backyard as the water from the hose quietly flows out onto the budding tomato plants. I watch the plants and rest easy, knowing the hose is taking care of the plants, and there is nothing more I can do. The roots and soil soak up the water almost as fast as I can make it flow. And so I sit with a blank stare, for there is nothing to do but watch the excess water drip to the ground. The drips from the hose become puddles, and soon the puddles seem to become rivers on the brown-tiled ground.

I see a farm of these red-brown ants, scurrying along around their home. What will happen when the water reaches the farm? Will they survive? The ants’ small, lithe bodies work rapidly at what they are doing, smelling the inevitable. They all run away from the water, which is rapidly closing in. They all rush back to their farm, their home, their creation. They spend their whole lives working together to create, make better things, and now they are looking at the end of it all straight in the eye. I take a moment and wonder if this is a reflection of the world. Is this how it really is? I keep watching as the water first attacks and then surrounds two ants. They twist and turn, struggling to stay afloat as the water closes in on them, getting deeper and deeper. I know if I do nothing, refrain from saving them, the guilt will lay heavy on my heart for years to come. Finally the guilt takes over, and I rush to my knees, water soaking my shorts. I try to get these two to come on my finger, but they will not. They refuse to let me save them. The water closes in on them, and soon overwhelms them as I lay helpless. Only then do they decide to climb onto my dirt-covered finger. It almost took them until death to trust one such as me.

Small Lives boy watering the plants

It stuns me how much these little lives mean to me

I check to see if they are alive, and both can move fine. I set them a step above the water, so they may be able to escape. Then I go for more. I see the bodies of them, floating in the water, certainly dead. If I were religious I would pray for them. But now I write for them instead.

I spot one moving in the water. I lay down my finger and scoop, hoping to save one of these poor tiny creatures. Almost magically, one is there, atop my finger, alive. I set it down with the others and scavenge for more, but there are none. All were swept away by the water. How much I wish I could turn off the hose, turn off this machine of death, but I cannot. I have a job to do, and no matter how many lives at stake, how much guilt fills my soul, I cannot turn off the hose. I must complete my job.

It stuns me how much these little lives mean to me. When I was a small child, I would make a sport of killing them. I would make a fort of rocks, and whoever tried to breach the walls would meet their doom. Now, I cannot hurt a bug. I can’t even hurt the mosquitoes that pester me and drive me crazy I catch them in my hand, proclaim them dead to my audience, and secretly set them free outside.

It is empathy that drives me, what it would be like to be hated and small, with no self-defense. The spiders I hated as a small child I now smile at, talk to. I call myself crazy for doing so, but it helps me fight the small fear I still have for them. How much these small lives mean to me, I cannot tell you. But just watch them, try to understand, and you will see how much those small lives affect you.

Small Lives Travis Royce

Travis Royce, 13
Portland, Oregon

Small Lives Anthony Pape-Calabrese

Anthony Pape-Calabrese, 11
Chevy Chase, Maryland

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