Liliana Williams is a Speech Language Pathologist who works with children on the autism spectrum and other disabilities. She loves her work. Liliana and her husband and three children moved to Palo Alto from Hawaii in 1995. Liliana has been writing stories since childhood. She was born in France and has lived in many places including Asia and England. She has a lot of stories in her head and enjoys getting into the flow and ignoring everything around her while she writes. She enjoys creating mosaics and volunteers as a literacy tutor for children and adults.
Childhood is full of wondering. How does the world work and do other people wonder about the same things I do? Or am I strange? When my children were young I could see they observed and wondered a lot too. That made me happy. Being curious and having an active imagination leads to creativity. My students with autism, whether verbal or non-verbal, are keen observers. I know they wonder about many things. Maybe that's why we get along so well. Wonder Girl is partly a memoir. I did build ant Heavens and I enjoyed writing this story.
One summer, when I was a little girl, I spent hours creating Heavens for dead ants. I built my Heavens using egg cartons, cotton balls and a gooseneck lamp. It was a brilliant invention. I'll describe that process more in a minute. But first, the back story.
My inspiration to create ant Heavens came from reading the weekly Sunday school magazine distributed to all children attending the Milk and Honey Sunday School for Tots and Tweens--and Everyone in Between. At nine-years of age it annoyed me to be among the "in betweens," but I went along with it because I had no choice. Nine-year olds rarely have choices.
The Sunday school magazine had delightfully glossy pages and was illustrated in vibrant color. It contained stories of Good and Evil. I would flip quickly past the depictions of hell because the pictures were so horrifying, then flip back, unable to resist. Furious, scarlet flames licked the legs of miserable sinners as they descended to hell. The sinners' heads hung in shame and their faces were twisted in fear. They wore dirty, tattered clothes like they'd been chased through a thorny forest and tackled to the ground before capture. Weirdly muscular red devils with stubby horns and curved tails used long forks to prod the sinners along the fiery path to hell. The devils grinned maniacally and many had goat beards. Some devils had black holes for eyes and some had dark red eyeballs. I could barely stand to look at them because eyes should look like eyes, but most of all I wondered: why two kinds of eyes? Was there a Head Devil whose job was to plunge his hot fork into new devils' eyes and shout, "Black eyes for you! Red eyes for you!" Also, why did devils grow pointy beards but never mustaches? Did they singe off the hair of their mustaches every morning with a swipe of their hot forks?
I kept these questions to myself as no one else seemed to wonder about these details but me.
In delightful contrast was Heaven. I could gaze at those peaceful pictures for hours. Heaven was pictured as a safe and happy place. Men, women and children wandered about with relaxed faces and serene smiles. They beamed with happiness and good health. Everyone wore flowing ivory robes, except the babies, who were naked. Golden rays of light shone through fluffy white clouds. There was an occasional lamb, and a hint of pearly gates in the distance with clouds for stairs. One thing baffled me though. Did people in Heaven really stroll around barefoot on those fluffy clouds without wondering why they didn't plummet straight through them and crash back down to earth? How could they be so unaware of this potential disaster? Perhaps when people were admitted to Heaven they were assured that some type of "Heavenly magic" would keep them safe from free-falling? It was the only explanation that made sense. As much as I loved gazing at these happy people, with their soft, bare feet supported (only) by clouds, if I stared at them for too long I'd develop a bout of acrophobic vertigo so nauseating that I would need to avert my eyes and look at the lambs instead. Yes, the lambs could also fall to earth, but they weren't as heavy and I didn't know anything about the pain tolerance of lambs, so I cared less about them. Maybe all that wool would cushion their fall, and they would merely bounce, whereas people would splatter and legs would be broken.
To be honest all of this could get very stressful. But again, they were my anxieties, and because none of my friends seemed to voice them too, I kept them to myself.
Back to my creation of ant Heavens-- as I said earlier my genius idea was inspired by the beautiful descriptions of Heaven above. But first you may be wondering-- why ants? Why not create Heavens for cute ladybugs or little spiders? Well, I chose ants because I loved ants. In many ways I felt like one. Ants were tiny, insignificant and often trodden on (I was very small for my age and sometimes trodden on.) Also, ants loved sugar (again, like me) and they were always busy and hardworking-- traits I admired and hoped to develop myself one day. Ants deserved to go to Heaven and I wanted to make that happen.
I will now describe how I created my ant Heavens. First, I snagged an egg carton from the recycling without anyone noticing, (my idea would have been hard to explain to my parents, and I didn't want to lie and say it was for a school project about poultry. Liars go to hell.) Next, I grabbed a fistful of cotton balls from the overflowing bag under Mom's bathroom sink. Then, I headed to the kitchen to paw through our junk drawer for a safety pin. I found a lot of safety pins in there. Why were there so many?
I rushed back to my room, locked the door and spread my supplies on the floor. I opened the egg carton and saw that some egg white had leaked into a few of the compartments and dried into a clear gluey crust. I hadn't expected that and felt a bit grossed out. I tried to scrape it off with my fingernail but it was really stuck on there. I sniffed the carton, then sniffed it again. I didn't love the smell, but decided the dead ants wouldn't mind. Maybe People Heaven had a smell too. I began to wonder what Heaven could possibly smell like up there amongst the clouds, then I got annoyed that my wondering was distracting me and got back to work.
I pushed 2 cotton balls snugly into the bottom of each of the twelve egg compartments. Then I closed the carton and, using the open safety pin, I poked several holes through the top of each dome, (no, not "so the ants could breathe." I wasn't an idiot), and closed the carton. Then I grabbed my Dora the Explorer gooseneck lamp from my bedside table (did geese really have such bendy necks?) and twisted the neck this way and that until the bulb pointed directly above the pinholes. I flipped the lamp on and smiled as I imagined the rays of light shining down on the little ants. My creation was perfect. Twelve fluffy paradises with a slight aroma of egg white awaited twelve tiny corpses. I shuddered. Corpse was such an ugly word. Tiny bodies sounded better. My Ant Heaven was open for business at last!
I knew where to find dead ants. My mother, the murderess, regularly poisoned them with those round, black ant traps she put in the corners of the kitchen and bathroom. If I got to the traps before the live ants carted their dead kin away--or mom swept them up--I could still find some bodies scattered near the trap. I knew how the ant traps worked from sitting on the toilet until my butt was numb—observing the process. First, a trail of ants would approach the trap and begin milling about in a wary but hungry way. A few ants would eventually enter the trap while others scuttled around frantically as if shouting, "No! Don't do it! It's a trap!" The poisoned ants would emerge from the trap, looking sick, and I knew that death was near. I'd stay in the bathroom feeling mournful until Mom banged angrily on the door and yelled at me to hurry up-- what the heck was I doing in there?
I waited until the coast was clear, dashed into the bathroom and squatted by the ant trap. Sure enough there was a cluster of little dried bodies (the trap was very close to the heating vent.) I tore off a couple sheets of toilet paper and rummaged through Mom's makeup drawer for tweezers. Careful not to damage the ants I plucked twelve bodies off the floor and placed them on the paper. I made a mental note to toss the tweezers back into Mom's drawer later --she was fussy about sharing her things-- and walked briskly back to my room.
It's hard to describe the feeling that came over me after I carefully placed those twelve ants on their puffy clouds, closed Heaven's roof and switched on the rays of holy light. Was it a wave of Spiritual Power? A surge of Divine Omnipotence? Was this how the Pope felt on a daily basis? All I know is that I liked it. For the first time in my life I mattered.
That evening I could hardly concentrate on my homework. I kept glancing at the carton, wondering if my ants felt happy and serene in their Heaven. Were they wearing tiny ivory robes? Were they were strolling happily around on their clouds? No, I did not peek into the carton to try to ‘catch' them strolling-- that would have been rude.
A week after building my ant Heaven I became restless. I longed to feel that rare and powerful feeling again, so I decided to repeat my Papal Enterprise. I snagged another egg carton (my family eats a lot of eggs), a fistful of cotton balls and the safety pin and readied another ant Heaven. Then I dashed to the bathroom and crouched by the trap. No ants! The murderess must have cleaned them all up. I picked up the trap, turned it sideways and tapped it against the floor, hoping to release a few bodies--but nothing. I left the bathroom and checked the kitchen trap --no ants there either. The letdown was harsh. I felt useless. Like a Pope with no Purpose. A Savior with no Savee. A nobody.
I returned to my room and tried to forget about my mission, but I could not. I tried to distract myself with other projects but it was futile—I'd become obsessed. An idea began to brew in my head, too terrible to contemplate, but nevertheless I contemplated it. I sighed heavily and dug into my backpack for one of the strawberry Starbursts I'd stashed in there for emergencies. I left the house and wandered down the street to an empty lot. It was overgrown with weeds and smelled like trash. I stood quietly under a tree for a moment—feeling mired in conflict. I popped the Starburst in my mouth and chewed it a few times, enjoying the sweetness, then took the sticky wad out of my mouth and placed it on the ground. I squatted next to the candy and waited --for a long time. It seemed like hours. No one from home came out to look for me, which for once felt okay.
Sure enough my little friends begun to emerge from a pile of dirt to check out the sticky clump. At first two or three ants approached and sniffed at the candy with their antennae. Those ants relayed the message to their friends and soon a stream of ants began to march towards the candy. Success! I watched as the trail grew thicker...
You might not want to read the rest of this. I'm not proud of what I did next...but it was necessary.
I stood up, and before I could change my mind I put my foot down firmly on the trail of ants. I did this twice --to make sure.
I tried to be merciful--I didn't stamp on them like a maniac, nor did I scrape my shoe over them like a sadist. I merely put out their light. I pulled a tissue & Mom's tweezers from my pocket and made my selection. The living ants rushed around, looking fretful and no longer hungry. They knew something tragic had just occurred. With a twinge of sympathy I turned away and went back into the house.
I built ten more sets of ant Heavens over the next few weeks. To keep up with carton supply I was obliged to rummage through our neighbor's yucky recycling. I also needed to repeat the Starburst process—which oddly became easier each time. Every day I had to rotate the goose neck lamp between the Heavens to make sure each had their share of holy light—that was a little tiresome-- but I did it happily. The initial euphoria that swept through me the first time I created the Heavens never diminished.
One terrible day I came back from school to find that all my ant Heavens had vanished. The Dora lamp was switched off and back on my bedside table. A small jar containing ants awaiting entry to Heaven was gone. I stood in my room feeling numb until my parents called me into the living room. I stared at my feet as told me they were "very disturbed" by what they had found. Dead insects, sticky cartons, cotton balls and a boiling hot lamp—they were disgusted by it all. "What were you thinking?" they shouted. "What is the matter with you?"
"That's where all my cotton balls disappeared to!" Mom snapped. "And my tweezers. You little thief!"
Thief! I shuddered at the thought of hot flames licking at my legs. Would the red-eyed devils or black eye-hole devils poke me towards hell, I wondered.
My parents demanded an explanation, but I knew that none that would suffice—so I stayed silent. My ant Heavens, my beautiful creations, would remain "that disgusting thing" I had done. Like all children I absorbed this disappointment--and all the ones to follow--and moved on with my life. And I never stopped wondering how it all works: Good. Evil. And everything in between.