Thursday, September 18, 2008

Ant and Grasshoper: a Modern Fable

Ant lived in a sunny little meadow. All through the summer, he worked dawn to dusk, sawing twigs and cutting leaves, building for himself a modest but sturdy house. What little spare time he had he spent constructing furniture sets, which he sold to the other bugs in the meadow for a few scraps of food, which he then put into storage. Ant’s work was humble, but it was honest. His family – his father, his grandfather, and his 17,000 uncles – had done the same kind of work as far back as anyone could remember.

Next door to Ant lived Grasshopper. Ant did not understand exactly what Grasshopper did all day; she seemed to spend most of her time chatting with visitors lounging in her leaf hammocks (which Ant had made for her, and on which she still owed several delinquent payments). Ant had once heard her offering her visitor some “great returns on sapling-backed securities!”, but his head hurt when he tried to understand these words. Mostly Ant noticed that Grasshopper had lots of fancy stuff.

One night Ant returned home exhausted, after a long day cutting shards of leaf in the forest, and had barely climbed into bed when a shrieking calamity rattled his walls. He rushed out the front door and immediately noticed a five-piece cicada band in full swing outside Grasshopper’s house. Her yard was full of partygoers, bugs of all shapes and sizes, some of whom were plainly not from the sunny meadow. Grasshopper, seeing him staring, leapt over to the twig fence between their yards.

“Hey Ant!” she chirped. “Come on over! I had some nectar flown in from the hive upstream. It’s absolutely vintage. Come meet some of my clients!”

Ant shook his head. “I’m sorry, I need to sleep. I have a lot of work to do tomorrow.”

Grasshopper looked confused, but didn’t press him. “Okay then,” she offered, “good luck with that.”

She gathered her legs to leap away, but suddenly Ant stopped her. “Wait, Grasshopper,” he said. “Can you… would you mind… can you tell me just what it is that you do? I mean, I’m sorry, I know it’s a rude question… but I just can’t figure out how you know all these bugs, and what it is you do for them, you know?”

“Oh, no, of course,” laughed Grasshopper. “It’s not a rude question. To some people all this looks like magic! No, you see, Ant, I offer financial products to investors. I lend leaves and twigs to other bugs for their projects, and they promise to pay me back a little extra later on.”

“Where do you get the leaves and twigs?” Ant asked, still not getting it.

“Oh, well, other bugs lend those to me, because I promise to give them back even more later. You see, Ant, you might say that I bundle together all the twig-and-leaf loans and sell those loans to bugs who have some extra green lying around. I’ve even got a few big institutional investors on board now, like the Termite Union Pension Fund, and the Hive University Capital Campaign.”

“But,” worried Ant, feeling stupid, “what is it that you do?”

“Do?” Grasshopper said, her eyes already back on the party. “I already told you. I bundle the loans and I sell them… and I keep a little for myself.” She winked, nodding her head slightly toward the new palm frond speedboat sitting in her driveway. Then she hopped away, back to a group of giggling mayflies staggering around the nectar pot.


Fall came to the sunny little meadow, and Ant worked even harder to complete a dining room set on order for the Cricket family down the road. But he often found his peaceful work interrupted by shouts from Grasshopper’s yard, as she paced about screaming into her mobile phone. Ant didn’t understand most of it, of course, but it was obvious that she was not happy.

One morning she spent at least three hours arguing with some unseen bug. “Just what are you telling me, Moth?” she growled. “You said I’d have three percent back on the principal by season’s end! You said Old Stump Condos was a sure thing! And you haven’t sold half of the units you’ve bothered to get ready for the market. What the hell are you trying to do to me?”

Ant waited until Grasshopper’s house had been quiet for some time before knocking on the front door. She appeared after a few minutes, compound eyes bloodshot and antennae drooping. “Oh, you,” she sighed. “What do you want?”

Ant stammered slightly. “It’s just… I mean… well, would you happen to have some of the twigs you owe for the hammocks? I’m just trying to balance my accounts before the winter, and you know…”

Grasshopper was looking over him, not at him. “Hammocks? What the hell are you talking about? I owe twenty thou- to Butterfly. The Hive hired Mosquito and Tick, LLP, to go after my assets. You don’t even want to know what the Termite Union has threatened to do to me. And you’re here with something about fucking hammocks?!” She slammed the door before he had time to scuttle out of the way.


At the first frost, Ant began bringing the remainder of his leaf stockpiles into his shed. With each trip by the twig fence, he watched the toys and trinkets in Grasshopper’s yard disappearing, dragged away by wasps from the collections agency. One morning he found the leaf hammocks crumpled in a pile on his front step. Ant had not seen his neighbor for weeks, but he’d heard a rumor that she spent a lot of time at a seedy nectar joint down in the old stump roots.

Ant had worked away most of the afternoon, performing some final winter preparations on his house, when loud thumps echoed from the front door. He opened it to find two enormous beetles looking down on him. One flashed a badge while the other began to read from a crumpled leaf in his left forelimb.

“By order of the Sunny Valley Economic Authority, all landowners are hereby required to lend a minimum of one-third of annual twig-and-leaf income to Grasshopper, effective immediately. Agents of the Authority have license to confiscate said income in the event of noncompliance.” Beetle Number One pronounced this without stopping to breathe or blink.

“But.. -” sputtered Ant, his mandibles agape. “A loan? She’ll never be able to pay it back!”

Beetle Number Two, the (slightly) smaller one, shrugged. “Whatever. Open the shed.”

For the first time in his entire life, Ant thought that maybe, perhaps, the authorities might be getting it wrong. “But I worked so hard all year. I earned all of this. I didn’t take any silly risks! This isn’t – this isn’t fair!”

Beetle Number Two made a face as if someone had just asked what was really so bad about spiders. “Are you a moron?” he inquired, apparently rhetorically. “This is nothing about ‘fair’. At least a half dozen downmeadow leaf banks bought major bundled loans from Grasshopper. Do you want to see thousands of bugs lose their accounts overnight? Should the twig industry just close up shop? Here’s ‘fair’ for you, idiot: Grasshopper is just too big to fail. Now open the fucking shed.”


It was a hard, long winter that year, but the sunny little meadow made it through, just as it always did. On a gorgeous spring morning Ant emerged from his house, feeling a little bit hungry, but otherwise ready to start on a new season’s labors. This year, he decided, he would start building rocking chairs.

But Ant had barely passed the twig fence before discovering an incredible sight. There was Grasshopper, sitting in her front yard with a small cadre of aphids. As he drew closer he heard Grasshopper wrapping up an important discussion. “Right, good,” she declared. “So ten-per on the first yield, twenty-per on the second. I’ll float the interest for two months, but after that it goes compound. Agreed?” The aphids nodded their tiny heads in unison.

“Hey, Ant!” Grasshopper said, turning to him. “Come join us, come have some sprouts – they’re fresh from the ground!”

Ant immediately thought that the sprouts could have grown into large, rich plants if they’d been left alone. He thought about all the climbing he needed to do today, seeing as how only the higher leaves would have appeared this early in the season. “I’m sorry,” he explained, “work…”

Grasshopper looked hurt. “Oh, come on Ant, you can spare a few minutes.”

Ant thought about the long climb up the tree trunk. He thought about his empty shed. He thought about the way Beetle Number One had shoved him out of the way after he unlocked the door. Then Ant sat down with Grasshopper and her aphid guests.

“Awesome,” said Grasshopper. “Have some sprouts!” The sprouts were indeed fresh and juicy, straight out of the ground. “Oh, hey, Ant, I have an opportunity for you, courtesy of these fine aphid folks. Now did you know that potato buds are edible? And tasty too! We’re going to open up a whole patch…”

Several hours later, the business meeting had morphed into a minor but persistent party. Nectar appeared from somewhere; the aphids were dancing with some lice. Grasshopper sat at the center of it all, trading gossip and jokes with bugs of every shape, size, and degree of fiscal solvency.

Ant felt slightly giddy, for he’d had just a little nectar. So he didn’t notice Grasshopper approaching until she stood right beside him, looking back over the swaying party.

“Hey Ant,” Grasshopper started. “You know, I think it’s great that you’re loosening up a bit, really.” She looked away for a moment, then kept her eyes on the ground. “But, well, if you’re here with us, well, who is out harvesting the twigs and leaves?”

Ant thought for a moment, glancing up into the shiny spring sun’s warm effluence. “I don’t know,” he shrugged. “Someone else.”

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