At the anthill beside Uncle Joe’s fence, I inserted a straw into a termite’s tunnel. The soldier ants gripped the straw and tried to drag it inside, but I pulled it out. Dozens of soldier ants clung to it. I picked up a plumb ant, lined its big golden head on my lower molar and crushed it. Warm fluids splashed on my tongue. I chewed the head and the content of a bloated abdomen. Sliding my fingers down the straw, I pushed the ants into an empty tin of Peak milk.
“You’ve become an expert,” said Toby, my seven-year-old cousin. He and I were city kids sent to the village to experience life in the rural area. He did not know that I ran Uncle Joe’s Cleopatra’s needle over my straws as an invocation of a bumper harvest.
Toby tried to crush the head of the only soldier ant on his straw with his fingers. When its mandibles moved, he flipped the ant into his mouth. It landed on his tongue, and started cutting it with its scissors-like mandibles. Toby let out a scream that echoed in a nearby uncompleted building. He spat out the ant as bloodstained saliva dripped down his chin.
Kene, Uncle Joe’s eight-year-old son, laughed. Unlike Toby and me, he licked his straws before inserting them into the termite’s tunnel. His tin was almost full of ants.
“Kene,” Uncle Joe called, “I want you all here now.”
Uncle Joe had warned us about the dangers of scorpion’s sting at the anthill. But when he left for a village meeting, Kene said we could quickly harvest some soldier ants before he returned. He was sitting on his favorite sofa when we walked in.
“Who took Cleopatra’s needle?” Uncle Joe asked.
I glared at Toby. Toby frowned. Kene grinned.
Uncle Joe had bought the three-inch model of Cleopatra’s needle as a souvenir from Egypt in 1966. By accident, he discovered that it had the power to help students to excel in their examinations.
During examination periods, Uncle Joe ran the needle over students’ school books. Then he asked the students to soak their feet in a pan of water and study. Students who followed his instructions came out on top of their classes.
Toby and I had wished we could have access to the needle in the city so that it would help us pass our exams. Kene wished he could charge students fees for its use.
One after another, we denied taking Cleopatra’s needle. Uncle Joe shook his head. “Cleopatra’s needle will find the person who stole it,” he said. Then, he let us go.
For the rest of the day, Toby and I wondered what would happen next. Kene poured his tin full of soldier ants in a sauce pan, sprinkled it with salt and fried it. Toby and I had no appetite.
At night, Uncle Joe gave each of us a straw of the same length. He told us to hold tight to our straws while we slept because the straw of the person who stole Cleopatra’s needle would grow by an inch at night.
For the first time since we came down for the long vacation, we slept in different bedrooms. Three times at night I woke up to check if my straw had grown.
In the morning, we assembled at the living room with our straws in our armpits. Uncle Joe wrote our names on the center table and asked us to place our straws beside our names. He lined the straws up.
Kene’s straw was one inch shorter.