A Land of Milk and Honey

Story by Jabril Faraj
Illustration by Rashid Faraj
Dedicated to: my mother, who deserves more than anyone could ever give her. Your goodness, generosity and love have taught me so much. If I can give half as much as you, my life will have been worth living.

Joshua stared up past the long blades of grass, methodically stroking his antennae. The infinite blue sky transformed before his eyes to the restless hues of sunset as he sat still, unmoving, on the dry, cracked ground. This place at the edge of The Hill was his and his alone. Countless times he’d come to stare toward the horizon, hoping, dreaming. There, seated on that small wooden seat, the world was before him.

For as long as Joshua could remember, this is all he had known. Born in a colony near the sidewalk, Joshua’s parents made the journey to The Hill when he was only a small larva. This great city, within the confines of the gate, had been a bastion of abundance for seasons upon seasons, since long ago. But the days of plenty had passed.

Joshua tried to imagine the pond he often envisioned during these afternoon daydreams – what it looked and smelled like – hoping that some day he might see its clear water and sunlit banks. To many, it was nothing more than a legend, a myth, but to Joshua it was more. Since he was young, his parents had told him tales of a place unencumbered by autocracy – a place where duty was only to oneself – where one could start over simply, make one’s own way. Joshua focused his mind until he could actually see the tall grass, smell the sweet lilies, taste the cold, crystal water.

Finally, fighting the urge to stay, Joshua tore his eyes from the horizon as the day became but a sliver of light between the impending darkness. Rising from the twig where he had been sitting, Joshua gathered his thoughts and turned back toward the metropolis. As he made his way back, he could see the smaller hills that surrounded the pinnacle. Signs of prosperity from times past, they were permanent sores on what had once been a beautiful face.

The Great Scarcity had taken its toll. Since Joshua was four seasons old, The Hill had gleaned no bounty from the massive structure — home to the giants — that had, in a better time, provided so generously. The guardian of the nearby residence had become more vigilant and, over the course of fourteen seasons since, made sure that not one of the colony’s scouts returned.

As Joshua reached the first clear wall – three of the massive portals allowed a glimpse of the interior they could no longer reach – he saw the guardian’s feline form sauntering back and forth inside the pane. The creature stopped. As it surveyed what was left of the former paradise, the beast locked its stare in Joshua’s direction, unmoving. Joshua stopped. As he watched the piercing eyes move slowly over the space in which he stood, Joshua’s pulse quickened. His limbs were frozen with fear despite the knowledge that the beast could do him no harm.

Its savage eyes finally moved on and Joshua, who had neglected to notice his failure to breathe, gave a sigh of relief. Only now daring to taunt the predator from his place of fragile safety Joshua muttered under his breath, “Yeah. Go on, get outta here.”

Her intimidating stare wasn’t one he would easily forget. Joshua would not admit it but he secretly hoped he would never come face to face with this creature to whom killing apparently came so easily. Truly a harbinger of death, the beast had taken many from the colony – many whom Joshua had known well. Sometimes, he wondered what had happened to them. Most of the time, he tried not to think about it.

Standing at the foot of The Hill, Joshua looked up the steep incline of its outer wall. Walking with purpose, his recent encounter prodding him on, Joshua scaled the mound and entered through the opening into the fortified enclosure. He descended past the rows and rows of living-holes carved into the thick exterior wall. The homes were still intact but most were homes no more. Now, they served only as reminders of a better time. The darkness was illuminating, the silence deafening.

Approaching the main level, Joshua began to feel the hum of activity — his destination was near. Now directly before him, the largest dwelling, an igloo-like structure protruding from the back wall on the main level, signaled the end of the gauntlet that had led to its door. This was the home of Nebu, the colony’s eldest leader. Many seasons ago, Nebu had been part of the group that led the colony to this place, far before Joshua had taken his first breath. Back then she was not much older than he was now; Nebu’s passion and vision had been invaluable, though many in the group were older and wiser. In many ways, she had enabled the expedition’s success and, in doing so, begun to stake a claim to the position she now held. But age spares none and the once-vibrant youth eventually acquiesced to the jaded pessimism of the elders she had once disdained.

Joshua reached the path that led to the mansion’s entrance but instead of approaching the front dashed to his right, tiptoeing around the side of the home-space. Keeping to the shadows cast by the bridges above, he navigated his way to the back corner of the structure.

Peering up from under a particularly large overhang, he clicked his pincers twice, paused, and twice again. Straining his eyes toward the dark window above, he spotted two antennae, then two eyes. It was Ruth, Nebu’s daughter. She climbed up onto the pane’s ledge and balanced for a moment before deftly leaping out toward the overhang’s edge. Joshua held his breath as he watched her glide through the air, fully extended. She reached with both front legs for the ledge, grabbing at the small butress before her. As he always did, Joshua let out a sigh as she slid safely, silently to his side.

Hand in hand, they dodged their way along the wall to one of the emergency tunnels. The way was predictably empty and they tasted the night air in a matter of minutes. Farther and farther outside of the colony’s safety they ran, outside its grasp. After a brisk run, they reached the familiar trellis. Clutching onto each other, they paused for breath before beginning their ascent.

They scaled the wall of wood and weed, well-accustomed to the way. Ruth led, as always, with Joshua bringing up the back. As usual, the climb didn’t end without a touch of worry – a slip, a moment of uncertainty. But, without fail, they would continue, pressing on to the ledge ahead.

They eventually reached the small splinter, bent outward over The Hill and the surrounding woods, nothing but air between these two and fate. From this seldom-seen perspective the sun, still a sliver on the horizon, beckoned to them over the expanse. For Joshua, it provided a path to possibility and the pond. As the ancient proverb went:

In the twilight of day, toward the sun you alight;
Walk with truth in your heart and your feet shall not stray.
May the path be your own, may it ever be straight;
Keep your eyes forward, up — you will not miss the way.

Joshua’s parents had spoken this poem several times. The seeds of hope were so a part of his bedtime stories, planted at a young age; he hadn’t forgotten.

Since that ill-fated day many seasons ago, not one of the scout patrols had set foot back in the colony. Despite this, Nebu persisted in sending squad after squad in hope of a different result. But many resented the stubborn pride. They plodded on, always moving forward, as they were forced to watch their loved ones walk into the jaws of inevitable death. Even Joshua’s parents had been called upon, though they were but gatherers, not experienced in violence. His father had left five seasons ago, his mother two seasons after that. But loss had its advantages. Joshua was older than his years. The last two years had felt like four, the last five like fifteen.

With the care that comes with experience, Joshua and Ruth lowered themselves onto the withered plank. Joshua peered into the dark sky as he slid his hand over hers.

“It’s funny,” he started, pausing.

“What?” Ruth looked up.

Joshua stared into the black.

His eyes were trained ahead. “I know there are trees, I know there are stones and water and grass in front of me.”

He turned; their eyes locked. “But, I can’t see any of it — it’s all hidden.”

Once again, his eyes returned to the abyss before them. He examined what he could see: the shacks, the withered roofs of a colony once overflowing but no more.

“There’s nothing here for me.” Joshua hung his head, tearing his eyes from the empty town below.

Ruth looked up. “I’m here,” she whispered.

“Mmm hmm,” Joshua stared at the splinters of wood under Ruth’s hand, counting them one by one. “But what else is there? What do we have to look forward to?”

Ruth turned her body to Joshua, her chest almost touching his shoulder. “We’ll get through eventually, we’ll find another way in,” she said, still whispering.

Joshua lifted his eyes. “Do you really believe that?” He extended his hand and caressed her cheek; Ruth’s furrowed brow relaxed.

Nebu continued to tow the line of determination but even her influence was starting to wane. He could see it in the eyes of neighbors passing each other in the street, he could see it in the empty homes, he could see it in Ruth’s silence — not much hope remained.

“What if we just…left?” Joshua averted his gaze.

Ruth’s eyes widened. “But…where would we go?”

Joshua looked back out, over the nothingness before them. The sun was making its last wink. “What about the Pond? We’ve heard about it for ages, we’ve talked about it – why just talk? What if we actually found it? We could make a life, there; a life for us, for our children, for our children’s children.”

“Could we?” The promise of possibility tempered Ruth’s doubt.

“We could.” Joshua grasped for her hand, holding it tightly. “It’s not going to be the same…but it’ll be simple and we’ll be happy.”

As the sun descended, their eyes locked once more. They plotted their departure in whispers and looks, resolving to leave in seven sun-cycles; they would tell no one. The young couple descended from their trellis of solace and returned to Ruth’s window where Joshua bid her good night.

Joshua quickly and quietly made his way back to the worn-down shack he called home. Outside the Hill, he felt the fleeting touch of freedom. The fresh air and the moonlight’s touch made the young ant smile.

A withered leaf, now barely hanging from its hinges, opened easily to Joshua’s push as he entered the hut. The small, square room held only a roughly fashioned bed of brush and sticks against the far wall. He covered the few steps over the dirt floor and sat heavily. A sliver of fear, a trace of doubt threatened Joshua’s sureness but after a moment he brushed it aside, laid down and closed his eyes, ready for tomorrow to come.

The days leading up to their departure labored by. Joshua had never liked waiting. He could feel his anticipation growing with every passing cycle. He and Ruth met nightly to make plans and affirm their commitment. Though Ruth’s resolve was still strong, Joshua could see that the days went more quickly for her. He could see she worried. She worried for her mother — what she would think, how she would be when they left and that she was suspicious of their plans. She worried for her friends and, though she would not speak of it, he could see in her eyes a question. All he could do was hope.

Six times, the sun came and went. Six times, the moon bid them adieu until, finally, the night of the lovers’ leaving had come. This rendezvous would be riskier than the rest. Ruth would have to make her way to Joshua’s alone, through the colony and past her mother’s ever-constant eye. His mind was heavy with apprehension but Joshua told himself she would be alright. It would be easier this way, she’d said. Once her mind had been made up he knew better than to argue. So, he waited.

As the minutes disappeared, he could no longer keep himself still. He paced the room — he was free but felt like a prisoner. He paced faster. Finally, Joshua snatched the small pack he’d prepared; he was out the door in seconds. Unafraid, he raced through the empty huts toward the Hill – all he could think of was her.

Joshua climbed the incline, unphased by the coming and going of the gatherers. He climbed inside and ran down the spiral platform, into the depths, not knowing what awaited. As he drew closer, the crowd came into view. Before the door stood Nebu. With Ruth by her side, the queen addressed the crowd. Even from a distance, her booming voice reached Joshua’s ears.

“…take my lovely daughter as an example!” She implored the audience, one hand above her head, the other resting on her daughter’s shoulder.

Joshua slowly made his way through the mob as she continued. “THIS is the product of deception and manipulation I’ve warned you all about. My daughter – my own, innocent daughter – has had her mind poisoned by one in our ranks who would seek to destroy everything we have fought for. He would lead our sons and daughters — the only future we have — to certain death outside the safety of—”

Breaking the barrier of the swarm, Joshua stepped forward, interrupting. “WHAT safety?”

Nebu glared at him. Though his boldness was surprising, she kept her composure. Taking hold of the silence, Joshua stepped forward again.

“WHAT safety?” he repeated. “There is no more safety. And where we once had plenty, I see hunger and loss. I’ve seen tears – tears from the people you claim to be protecting, tears from the daughter you say you love – tears shed by parents, children and friends, their loved ones sent to certain death.”

Joshua, standing between the queen and the crowd, turned to face the growing throng.

“But where, I ask you, is your plenty? She speaks of safety and a future. But what about you? Does she hear your soul cry out as you struggle to feed your children? Or have your pleas fell on deaf ears?”

Nebu rose to her full stature. “Everyone has had to make sacrifices for the good of the colony.”

“She lies.” Joshua turned and pointed at the elder. “What sacrifices has she made?”

“I am no stranger to adversity. I know sorrow and heartache.” Joshua came closer to the collection of mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. “I lost both of my parents. Why? Because of fear, because of unwavering adherence to a faulty ideal.”

Joshua began to walk up and down the length of the crowd. “Emmet, I know you’ve had scarcely enough to feed your four children for some time.”

The man looked at Joshua, lips pursed, brow furrowed, tears welling in his eyes. “There are many nights I’ve gone hungry.”

Joshua turned to his left. “And you, Mira,” he said, addressing an older female near the back. “You’ve lost many of your sons to the mandated patrols.”

She nodded, sobbing.

“This is what passes for ‘plenty’, here.” Joshua raised his voice so all could hear. “I tell you the truth when I say: what is good for you is good for the colony.

I offer a new ideal, an opportunity. I won’t peddle in lies and illusion – it won’t be easy. But we will determine our own path. We will rely on our knowledge and commitment to each other. We’ll carve out a home for ourselves.”

“We all have a choice.” Joshua glanced back at Nebu. “I am leaving. And, if you so desire, I invite you to come with me.”

Ruth tried to shake off her mother’s hand but Nebu stood firmly, tightening her grip.

“You would believe what he says?” She accused the crowd. “You forget the prosperity we have had, the prosperity that I have given you.” She released Ruth. “If you must, then go…but there will no longer be a place here for you. If you go, go with that knowledge: that you have betrayed your colony and yourselves.”

Ruth, free of her mother’s hold, ran to Joshua, grasping his hand. They stood side by side. Slowly at first, others came to join them – a third of those gathered, in all. Joshua looked over the crowd. Ruth glanced toward her mother, whose glare was unwavering.

Before leaving, he addressed the group once more. “If you should change your mind, you will always be welcome. Just follow the setting sun and you’ll find us.”

Then, without hesitation, Joshua turned. The throng followed and, side by side, they began their journey into the unknown.

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