It'd been two weeks since the anteater had moved in next door and already things were starting to change. At first it was hardly noticeable, like the bush on the shared patch of grass at the end of their driveways had grown all out of control. The previous neighbours had trimmed it, but evidently the anteater didn't think it was his to take care of.
If that had been it, Peter wouldn't have been bothered, but that was just the beginning.
The village Peter lived in was quiet and everyone knew each other, whether they wanted to or not. At one end of the street was the park with its swings, a football pitch and surrounding houses for local farmers. At the other end was the church, houses for the schoolchildren and their families and the vicar. Bridging the two ends were the rest. This is where Peter and his wife lived, with the anteater next-door.
The previous owners of the anteater's new house had only recently moved out. Their daughter had turned eleven and wanted to go to a secondary school in the city, which had a strict catchment area entry policy. So they left the rural life behind to seek better things. One day they were there and the next the anteater had replaced them.
When the anteater was moving his few pieces of furniture in from the van, Peter couldn't help watching through the curtains. Twice the new villager caught his eye, but Peter would be damned if some anteater was going to just turn up and pretend like he was the one who should be self-conscious. He'd lived here his entire life.
It takes everyone a while to get used to somewhere new. Peter knew it took him close to five years to admit to himself that this little village was his home, having moved almost seven miles from the village where he was born.
Peter knew it took him close to five years to admit to himself that this little village was his home, having moved almost seven miles from the village where he was born.
Waking up to the sound of different farm birds and heavier-duty lawnmowers and inconvenient distances to the post-office was hard to get used to. He could admit that. This new chap though, well, he looked as though as he'd fit in here like a hoof in sandals. There was just something about him, Peter supposed it was a look he had, or the way he carried himself. It made him mysterious. Not knowing who he lived next door to was a sort of mental torture, and it was made all the more acute by the fact that the anteater never seemed to leave. Never went anywhere. Maybe he left at the times Peter wasn't watching, then came back during those moments too, but that would take some coincidences.
Come away, his wife, Maggie, would say, pulling Peter back by the shoulders and turning the volume up so loud on the television that he got distracted and eventually fell asleep in his chair.
Every week at the church Peter and the five other husbands in the village would meet and talk about politics. They'd been doing it for years. There wasn't anything else they had in common, and they didn't even have politics in common come to think of it, but everyone can talk about politics and they had to stay sane somehow. When you're detached from the rest of the country by miles and miles of field and motorway, entertainment can come from the simplest things.
This tradition started after a village party someone decided to throw for the vicar's birthday, with music and wine in the church hall. The husbands stayed on drinking and talking. It wasn't planned, only a natural result of the high-spirited evening. It was such a success—they got so unashamedly drunk without being told they had to stop—that they decided it should become a regular thing, and so from then on they all brought a bottle, took a seat and every Sunday night put the world to rights. That is, as long as the vicar remembered to leave them a key when he didn't join in himself.
It was more a slip of the tongue—Peter often drank before going out in order to ease himself into socialising—than rudeness, but when the anteater sheepishly walked in and drew up a chair to their circle, Peter asked who had invited him. He didn't mean it to come out the way it did, which was abrupt and suspicious, though of course his motivation was cruel, and rightly so. Who did this newcomer think he was?
A friend, a farmer, piped up and said it was him who had given the invitation. It'd been two weeks, he said, it was about time the anteater got to know the benefits of this sleepy little village. The farmer then waggled a bottle of whisky and poured himself a large glass. Of course, Peter laughed, saying he would have done the same if he'd bumped into their new friend here. This is, after all, the real beating heart of the place, the back room of the church.
Popping open the bottle of wine and offering a glass to the anteater, Peter wasn't surprised to find the guest raising his claw to say no thank you. Here we go, he thought, but smiled at him and topped up his own glass.
It was an awkward evening, touching on news stories with less zest than usual and considerably less alcohol. It was only half past ten when Peter made it home, and having dropped behind the anteater on the walk back, he fumbled with his keys while listening to his neighbour lock his own door from the inside.
There were as many wives in the village as there were husbands, but more women overall. Maggie and Peter had theories as to why this was. He thought that a man was less likely to end up in a place like this, because if he was single he would likely have made more money than a woman in the same situation and anyway, men would be more likely to live in the city, wouldn't they? There were a couple of reasons why, so Peter said, because firstly, a man had to show off a little more, to get women and all that, so they wanted to live where there were people to see all the showing off, otherwise what would be the point. And secondly, a woman didn't need all the things a man needed for excitement. She was happy with a little house in the middle of nowhere. Women were humble and practical.
Maggie thought that it was because men died earlier, as a rule, and it was always likely that a place full of old couples would eventually become a place dominated by old women.
Besides, wouldn't somewhere full of lonely woman just attract the men Peter was talking about?
"What's the neighbour like then?" Maggie asked, as Peter stumbled through the door.
"Oh really? You think so?"
"Yes. In my opinion. Why? Someone else say different?"
"I just didn't get that impression."
The next day stones were being disturbed on the neighbour's driveway and the noise distracted Peter too much to read the newspaper. It wasn't a car or anyone's footsteps. It was loud enough to sound like some sort of small industrial machine. There was a crunch as the surface gravel was broken, then a scoop, then a scatter of the stones being tossed somewhere before the scooping returned.
The window offered no clues. Even the view out of the bedroom upstairs was conveniently obscured by a walnut tree. Slinking back downstairs to rest in his armchair, Peter almost entertained the thought of going outside to investigate when he heard Maggie, taking a break from her watering, call a hello over the garden wall. The churning of gravel stopped. Kneeling again on the sofa and looking out, Peter saw the humped, monolithic figure of his next-door neighbour rise above the dividing wall, his feather-duster tail shaking in the breeze, his machete claws dropping clumps of dirt and weeds.
Maggie's voice was no more than distant scatting and rather than strain himself to hear how long they chatted for, or what they chatted about, Peter instead fell asleep and woke to the smell of a roast dinner, which they ate in front of the evening soaps as the sun set.
"You know," Maggie said, "it wouldn't kill you to do some weeding once in a while."
The big news story of that week was about a group of six men that had gang-raped the son of the boss of one of Britain's top banks. It wouldn't have been such big news amongst the group of drunken husbands if it hadn't happened in the city, only thirty miles away, where the boss' son owned flats, which of course stirred the farmers and had stirred their wives into thinking the village would soon be plagued with similar problems.
It was an outrage, that couldn't be denied. In the backstreets of their own county on a Wednesday night. A Wednesday. How on earth does a thing like that happen on a Wednesday? one of the husbands said, to the acquiescent grumble of the rest of them. A Saturday night, fine. But a Wednesday?
It was an outrage, that couldn't be denied. In the backstreets of their own county on a Wednesday night. A Wednesday.
Only one of the perpetrators had been caught so far, because he'd twisted his ankle during penetration. The lesson, Peter said, was to never rape on a cobbled pavement, at which a few husbands laughed while others took uncomfortable sips of their drink. The anteater hadn't said a word, continuing his tradition from the week before, and he'd neither accepted nor brought any drink. Peter wasn't sure what was going through his neighbour's head, but no one else seemed to mind his silence. The arrested rapist had told the police that in some parts of the world, a harmless gang-rape was equivalent to going to the movies. Everyone needs a way to wind down after a long day.
"Some people will just never see the world like we see it," a farmer said. "The right and proper way."
Peter could barely see as it was. He was pissed, and so was everyone else. Apart from the anteater, that is.
On the days that he didn't get drunk with the other hobbyless men, Peter took the mile or so walk to the pub in the next village. Drinking there was ideal, because most people he knew were either too lazy or simply incapable of walking a mile, so he could guarantee some peace and quiet. The fresh air was always good for sobering up, too.
Sitting near the open fireplace, Peter warmed his feet as he sipped his ale. The pub prided itself on its original ales. This one was called Woodlouse and the image on the pump was just a pair of antennae, under shining orb eyes, poking out from under a rotting log. It tasted like smoked meat. Four pints of whatever was on offer was usually enough to kill a couple of hours and allow Peter to deliberate on life's bigger questions. Are the council going to build a wind turbine in the village? If Valerie stops selling eggs, where will they get them from? Will that anteater ever cut the bush between their two driveways?
As the third Woodlouse started to hit and turn his thoughts into looser, cloudier versions of themselves, Peter gave up his own musing and turned instead to the comfortable silence of the room. Though most of the patrons were men just as averse to socialising as he was, the landlord kept it from being entirely dead by talking to whoever was closest.
"I read earlier," he said, looking around the bar for the bundle of newspapers, "that two soldiers were killed in that hellhole. My nephew's over there, too. Could have been him. I tell you, the world's out of control. Never been any fucking thing like this, has there? And they're on their way here. They're already here."
He sipped his own beer and went on.
"You know what they do—my nephew said he'd seen this—they strap 'em to train tracks, loose bits of railway, not attached to the ground or in use or anything, and then lift these bits up with helicopters—bloody helicopters—and then drop them in this pit they make. By the time they've done a few, these poor sods are being dropped into pits of multiple railway pieces with others strapped onto 'em. They're alive, mind. Well, not by the time it's over."
"Terrible," said the man at the bar.
"Another one was that they take the bones of whoever they killed last, then use the arm bones, you know, or whatever, the long ones, and push one into the guy's mouth and another up their wherever until they meet in the middle. While the others watch. Imagine having that happen to you down an alleyway up the city. 'Cause that's what's gonna happen."
The man at the bar went to take a sip, grimaced, and then completed the action.
"He said as well that they have this zoo, where they keep weird stuff like… snakes and scorpions and things like that, and this thing that—no joke—he said burrows into people's eyes, and–"
Peter couldn't listen to it anymore. It wasn't that he was squeamish, just that he wasn't much in the mood for these kinds of thoughts before bed. Pouring the final quarter of ale down his throat, he lifted himself up and his eye caught a silver thread that connected the sleeve of his jumper to the armchair. Spider web, he thought. This place needed a dust. Catching it between his thumb and forefinger, however, it felt too thick and brittle to be a strand of web. He rubbed it between his fingers and held it up to his eye in the light. A hair. Dark grey and tough like a fishbone.
Flicking it onto the floor, he gestured a good bye hand at the landlord, who broke from his litany of torture tactics to grunt a good bye back.
A month went by and the weather soon became too cold to do any gardening. Maggie complained about being cooped up all day and never going on holidays or even going to the city anymore. She said Peter was becoming a boring old fart.
No one, not even the hardened country people in their wax jackets and thigh-length wellington boots went out in this type of cold. Not unless they had animals to feed, which they did quickly and then got the hell back inside.
"I don't want to go far," Maggie said. "Just anywhere. Anything. How about a film?"
After twenty minutes of arguing—they hadn't been to the pictures in twenty years and Peter didn't want to start again now—he agreed to drive her there and see what was on. On the way out, despite the cold wind and icy feel outside, they saw the anteater digging in the garden, his large, dry tail bent over himself, acting as a makeshift windbreaker or blanket. Peering out from underneath it, his long tongue unravelled and tasted the air. He was pulling a small tree from the ground and filling the hole back up with rocks and earth. Maggie waved, but Peter kept his eyes fixed on the road ahead and sped off.
There had been no doubt in Peter's mind that there'd be nothing he wanted to see at the cinema, and even Maggie had to admit that the selection didn't justify having come. Insisting that they make the best of it, however, she chose a film and watched while Peter slept.
On coming home, both were more agitated than when they had left, but rather than argue in the car or niggle at each other, the two of them just sat in silence, listening to the windscreen wipers scrape away the rain. Pulling into the driveway, Peter saw that their neighbour had gone inside but had left something on their front doorstep. It must have been him, because Maggie held her chest in delight and said that only the other day they'd been talking about his garden, which he'd taken pains to fill with plants from his home country. He'd left one as a present. How sweet of him.
Peter watched Maggie heave it inside and release it from its plastic bag, spilling dirt all over the carpet. Moving some photographs and an antique clock that had been his grandfather's, Peter placed the shrub on a cabinet in the hallway, and Maggie went to write a thank you note for him to go and slide under the anteater's door.
Sunday came quick because the week had been uneventful. There had not been much news in the papers, and nothing so terrible as to spend a whole evening tutting about. The husbands still got drunk though and railed again at the news that never died away. The state of the world, the peril their way of life was in, how they wished they could go back to the fifties when life was good: taxes, migration and bad television.
how they wished they could go back to the fifties when life was good: taxes, migration and bad television.
The anteater hadn't shown up, for some reason or other, and Peter felt more relaxed. Every so often someone asked where he had got to, but no one knew and after getting well and truly sozzled no one cared. At half past midnight they all went home, propping each other up until they reached their respective houses.
When Peter walked into his front room, Maggie was still up, reading a book on the sofa.
"Not in bed?"
"What do you think?"
"Had a good evening?"
"You stink of wine. You smell like a brewery."
"That would be beer then. Not wine."
She turned a page and didn't reply.
"Has the kettle boiled recently?" he said for something to say, and she shook her head. Peter went into the kitchen and while he waited for the kettle to boil he tried to shift some of the drunken fuzz in his head by opening his eyes wide and blinking hard. When he got back to the front room, Maggie had gone and before long he heard her brushing her teeth in the upstairs bathroom.
Settling into his chair, Peter forced the tea down his throat, swishing it around in his cheeks. It didn't mix well with the wine that coated the inside of his mouth, but it did go some way towards clearing his head. The next thing he knew it was morning. Sunlight was shining through the French windows. Birds trilling sliced through his unconsciousness like a drill sergeant's insults. He felt sweaty and his mouth was dry and sticky.
Before anything else, he wanted to wash himself and so staggered upstairs. Hanging his clothes over the edge of the bath, he went to turn the shower on, thinking a blast of hot water would wake him up, when he noticed a crack in the bottom of the bathtub. That hadn't been there before. He ran his fingers over it, testing to see how deep it was, and jumped when the crack moved and stuck to his hand. It wasn't a crack at all, he noticed, but a brittle spike of some sort. Like a fishbone. The fog cleared and his eyes narrowed as he realised what it was, and what the same thing had been in the pub that night. It was a tail hair from the anteater next door. Checking the seat of his trousers, he found more, of varying length and thickness. The anteater had been sat in his chair downstairs and left a wig's worth behind of himself.
Before taking time to wonder about the connotations, or to put his clothes back on, he walked to his bedroom, brandishing the hair like a detective holding a fake suicide note up to the true murderer. Peter drew in a breath, ready to shout, but saw that not only was his wife not there, but that the bed had been made, the curtains opened. The bedside clock said eleven-thirty. The day had already started.
Maggie couldn't be outside gardening in this weather, nor was she at the neighbour’s. The view from the bathroom window showed that the car was gone. What day was it? Monday. Did she have anything she usually did on Mondays? No, but then again, she liked to do the big shop on a Monday, so perhaps she had simply gone out to the supermarket. Peter placed the hair carefully on the sink edge and showered, picking it back up once he was done and taking it downstairs with him.
Even as he walked out of the front door, he wasn't quite sure what he was going to do. The air was cold still and recent flurries of snow had left the ground slippery. It was a wonder he'd made it home at all the night before without falling on the icy tarmac or catching a cold. The route to the anteater's was all gravel, though, so he stepped with confidence until he reached his neighbour's door and knocked on it, still holding the needle of hair between his fingers.
A dark figure appeared behind the frosted glass of the doorway and the anteater's claws fumbled with the key until Peter heard a click and the door opened as far as the chain would allow. A foot above Peter's eye line, the anteater's own eye, black and shiny like a marble, looked down at him. The tongue snuck out a couple of inches and crept around the doorframe. The door shut, and Peter was about to knock again when he heard the chain slide back and the door opened fully. The anteater gestured to the front room. Following him in there, Peter found a long sofa and an armchair, and took a seat on the former, assuming the anteater, like himself, preferred the comfort of his own chair. Before he had had time to think through his reason for being there, he was sitting, admiring the décor and watching the blackbirds in the anteater's garden.
The anteater sat in his chair, which was on the other side of the room to the sofa, giving away nothing with his teddy bear eyes and not making a sound. Peter thought he should perhaps explain himself, and so held up the hair.
"Look here," he said. "I have good reason to suspect you've been meeting privately with my wife, and I wanted to know what your designs on her are."
Only the tongue of his host moved. Peter hadn't been offered a drink or even greeted with a how do you do? which was rude. The silence, however, was unsettling. As the anteater's tongue reached closer to the ground, Peter held in his amazement at how long it was, and felt his own tongue growing drier. Perhaps out of thirst, or perhaps due to the dehydrating amount of alcohol he had consumed the night before and the poor night's sleep he'd had.
"Well? What do you have to say for yourself?"
The fur on the anteater's back bristled and rattled like dry grass in the wind.
"There's no use in denying it," Peter said, leaning forward as far as he could. "I found this—and a good deal more—on my chair this morning. Not to mention the fact that she's been all out of sorts."
Like a retreating tortoise head, his neighbour's tongue withdrew and as Peter was about to stand and take the fishbone hair over to him, the anteater lifted itself up and dropped forwards on all fours. He seemed bigger. Not only longer, but wider and more muscular in this position. Stretched out like this, Peter suspected the anteater was three, maybe four times heavier than himself. The animal's front claws were bent over so that it was resting on its knuckles. Its tail fanned out, and was almost as long as the anteater's body, reaching back to the armchair and hiding a great portion of it. Peter had to stop himself climbing onto the sofa as if he'd seen a mouse as the anteater lumbered across the room toward him.
Peter had to stop himself climbing onto the sofa as if he'd seen a mouse as the anteater lumbered across the room toward him.
"Now then, calm down. What are you doing?"
Still the anteater lurched forward, his thin, heavy head lolling from side to side and his tongue sliding in and out of his mouth.
"I'm warning you."
The gap between them became no more than a metre, and feeling his heart thump in his chest and panic spread through his aching body, Peter grabbed a lamp from the table next to him and brought it down on the anteater's forehead. His neighbour fell on his chin, his legs having given out underneath him, but still he continued to crawl forwards. With adrenaline still coursing through his body, Peter brought the lamp down another time, hitting the anteater between the eyes. He had pulled his feet up on the sofa now and was leaning over, lamp in hand, looking down at his neighbour, inspecting the fresh wound he had made. The fur around it turned purple and red.
There were a few seconds in which the only thing Peter could hear was the blood pumping in his ears. The anteater gurgled for a few seconds and Peter lifted his weapon, ready to strike again. Reaching his front leg forward and stabbing his claw into the carpet, the anteater managed to pull himself forwards an inch, but it was obvious, with the direction he had dragged his head and the way he was trying to throw his leg, that he was not trying to reach Peter, but trying to get around the side of the sofa. He pulled himself another half-metre or so before he had to stop. The rise and fall of his body slowed. His tongue poked out and didn't wind back in.
Noise filled the room all of a sudden. The ticking clock seemed to be firing off gun salutes, the blackbirds screeched for the help of the emergency services, the wind beat at the door, calling for anyone inside to open up or it'd batter it down. A fringe of white noise started to creep into Peter's vision. He needed water. He went to the kitchen, filled a glass and downed it in one go. Back in the front room he found the body unmoved. His mouth was still dry so he refilled his glass. Before he entered the front room again, something made him stop on the threshold.
Covering the anteater's snout in a neat line were hundreds of tiny insects, all following one another, beginning at the skirting board around the side of the sofa and ending at the smatter of blood between the anteater's eyes. Ants. They were organised things, Peter noted, waiting their turn, following the leader, turning back once they'd got their fill and marching back towards their nest around the side of the sofa. It was not a steadily moving line, however, because by the time the crowd on the anteater's forehead had busied themselves doing whatever it was they were doing at that drying patch of open skin, tens, hundreds more perhaps, had joined in at the end of the queue. Soon there were multiple queues, then no less than a plague. Within five minutes Peter's neighbour's head was unrecognisable as anything but a pulsing, baseball-bat shape of tiny bodies, all as black as their meal's eyes, which they had by now taken apart and shared amongst themselves.
Going back to the kitchen Peter opened the dishwasher. Finding it full, he left his glass on the countertop. But that seemed rude, so he rinsed it, dried it and put it back in the cupboard.
Over the garden wall, he saw that Maggie was not back yet. She often took a long time shopping, so it was no real surprise, and besides, he could do with a bit of peace and quiet for an hour or so. Sinking back into his chair, Peter realised that he was still holding the strand of hair and heaved himself back up, opened the window, and put it outside. It drifted away, disappearing in the hedgerow. Peter knew there were still a lot on the chair and his trousers, but those could be ignored for now. He'd deal with them after his nap.
Did something move? Scanning the carpet, he couldn't see anything, so thought it must just be his hangover playing its dirty tricks.
Sleepiness came and went, and more than once he jerked his head up, having nodded off in an uncomfortable position. After a heavy ten minutes of sleeping, Peter jumped up with such energy that it brought consciousness fully back to him, and after coming to his senses he became aware of an itch on his leg. Pinching a tuft of his trousers, he scratched through the material until he was satisfied. A moment later the itch was back, so he scratched it again. Soon the itch had not only grown in intensity, but was running all the way down his leg, and scratching with both hands did nothing.
Peter realised that it was not just itchy, but painful.
Lifting his trouser leg, he saw what looked like an open wound or raspberry jam. He was covered in some kind of red paste. Bending towards it, he felt his stomach lurch. A line of ants were making their way from the rim of his sock up towards his knee. The red was not a wound, or jam, but the blood of hundreds of squashed ants. The inside of his trousers were covered too.
Jumping up from his chair, Peter brushed the insects from his leg and stepped away from the army that had gathered around his feet. There was no distinct beginning or end to them, like there had been next-door. Just thousands, in groups all around the room, darting every which way. Peter took off his shoes and socks and threw them at a couple of the vague patches of ants, closed the door and retreated to the front garden. There he stood, trying to figure out where they could have come from. Out here there was no sign of the swarm within. But he could hear them, climbing over his furniture and in his shoes.
A shout came from across the road.
"All over!" their neighbour replied.
Choruses of horror were springing up all down the road. Everyone was rushing out into their gardens to check if their neighbours were similarly overrun with the plague of ants. Peter's feet were freezing on the cold grass. He just wanted to be back inside in his chair, reading the paper, sipping his tea, watching the clouds pass over his little village.
Joshua King is a British writer and graduate of New York's Adelphi MFA program. His fiction has been featured in New York's BlazeVOX magazine and Glimmer Train's top-25 list in their New Writers contest, and his nonfiction appears regularly in Texas' Newfound Journal.