22 pages 44 minutes read

Carl Stephenson

Leiningen Versus the Ants

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1938

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Summary: “Leiningen Versus the Ants”

Viennese author Carl Stephenson (1893-after 1960) published “Leiningen Versus the Ants” in the December 1938 issue of Esquire magazine. Stephenson, who often wrote under the pseudonym “Stefan Sorel,” translated the story into English himself. Stephenson wrote and edited prose from 1954-1967, verifying that he likely died sometime in the 1960s. His death date is often confused with that of the American historian and leading medieval scholar, Carl Stephenson.

The story opens with Leiningen, a plantation owner in Brazil, talking to the District Commissioner, who is warning the planter to leave before a troupe of flesh-eating ants—“[t]en miles long, two miles wide” (Paragraph 3)—descends and eats him alive. Leiningen refuses, arguing that he’s no “old woman” and will simply “use [his] intelligence” (Paragraph 4) to fend off the hungry horde of ants. He also believes that he’s lived in Brazil long enough to know how to defend himself, his 400 workers, and his plantation against the fearsome insects.

That evening, Leiningen gathers his plantation workers and tells them that the ants will soon arrive. The workers—all of whom are indigenous people—listen calmly, “unafraid” and “alert” (Paragraph 10). They are confident in their boss’s wisdom. The ants arrive the next afternoon. The horses first sense the insects’ arrival, becoming “scarcely controllable now in stall or under rider” (Paragraph 11). Then “a stampede of animals” (Paragraph 12), big and small, rushes from the jungle—stags, lizards, jaguars, cattle, and monkeys—to escape the oncoming ants. The animals run along the riverbank and then disappear.

Leiningen, however, has prepared for the ants by constructing a “water-filled ditch” (Paragraph 14) in the shape of a horseshoe. The ditch empties into the river. He’s also built a dam, which allows him to reroute water from the river into the 12-foot ditch. Leiningen plans to open the dam, allowing river water to flood around the plantation. This would create a kind of moat, supposedly making it impossible for the ants to reach him and the workers. For further protection, Leiningen cuts the branches of large tamarind trees that hang over the ditch, making it so that the ants cannot use the branches as a bridge to the moat. He then ferries women, children, and cattle to safety across the river on rafts. Lastly, he inspects “a smaller ditch lined with concrete” (Paragraph 18), which receives petrol from three large tanks. If the ants somehow get across the water, they would also have to get past the petrol, which would kill them.

Leiningen orders some workers to line up along the water ditch to keep a look-out. Meanwhile, he rests in his hammock, puffing on a pipe. A worker alerts him that the ants are some distance to the south. Leiningen rises, mounts his horse, and rides south. Over the hills, he spies “a darkening hem” (Paragraph 21), going from east to west for 20-square miles. The natives watch, increasingly uncertain about Leiningen’s ability to defeat the ants. They spy “thousands of millions of voracious jaws” (Paragraph 23). The ants get closer to the water ditch. Then, two flanking sides of the advancing ant army “[detach] themselves from the main body and [march] down the eastern and western sides of the ditch” (Paragraph 25). Both Leiningen and the natives sense that the ants, as primitive as they are, are thinking about how best to reach them and gnaw at their flesh.

At four o’clock that afternoon, the flanking armies of ants reach the ends of the ditch that run into the river and are unable to find a way over. They decide to cross the water. The ants that die in the river become “steppingstones” (Paragraph 30) for those that can still crawl across. Leiningen orders a couple of his workers to dam the river “more strongly” (Paragraph 31) so that more water will flow through the ditch faster.

The ants are now halfway across the ditch. The natives try to defend themselves by using their spades to throw clumps of dirt at the oncoming ants. They also turn on the petrol sprinklers, normally used to deter crop-eating pests. The clumps of earth are actually helpful to the ants, allowing them to get across the water. One of the workers tries to hit a group of ants with his spade, but the ants are too quick for him: They scurry up the handle, then onto his arms, where they immediately bite into his flesh and inject him with venom. He screams and jumps around in pain and fright. Leiningen orders him to dump his arms into the petrol. He obeys, but some ants hang on to his arms, requiring another worker to “squash and detach each separate insect” (Paragraph 40). The Indian medicine man then gives the worker a drink that is supposed to reduce the effect of the venom.

The water in the ditch rises. The workers sense victory. With a yell, they throw more clods of dirt at the ants. The ants retreat, going back up the sloping riverbank. The workers kill every ant that reaches the riverbank. On the opposite bank, however, another army of ants watches and waits.

Dusk arrives. Then, darkness descends in the jungle. The humans figure that the ants will be inactive until dawn. Meanwhile, they open the dam wider, allowing more water to flow into the ditch. Leiningen suspects that the ants are preparing “another surprise attack” (Paragraph 50). He orders some of his workers to keep watch along the riverbank overnight and to shine light constantly over the water. Leiningen eats his dinner and goes to sleep, unworried about the ants.

At dawn, Leiningen feels refreshed. He mounts his horse and rides along the water ditch. On the ants’ western front, he observes that they are chewing the stalks of the vines on the liana plants. He knows that they’re doing this to provide food for the rest of the army. They then use the leaves to create rafts on which they can ferry themselves across the ditch. Several ants ride on a single leaf. Leiningen rides back to his camp and orders his men to bring gas pumps and spades to the southwestern front.

As he rides along, Leiningen sees a pampas stag, covered in ants, keel over. He shoots the shuddering creature to end its misery. He then takes out his watch. He records that it took the ants six minutes to eat the stag. Leiningen rides off. He no longer considers this match against the ants one of simple sport: It’s now a matter of life or death.

The ants have sent more leaves floating across the ditch. Leiningen orders the worker controlling the dam to diminish the amount of water in the ditch “to vanishing point” (Paragraph 64), then to pump the river water back inside. Leiningen tells the worker to repeat this action until ordered to stop. At first, this tactic successfully washes away both leaves and ants. Suddenly, another worker rushes up to Leiningen, alerting him that the ants who were waiting beyond the forest have successfully advanced. The other army of ants scurries across the ditch, while Leiningen contemplates the inevitable destruction of his plantation. He fires “three revolver shots into the air,” signaling his men to retreat to the “inner moat” (Paragraph 69) filled with petrol. He then rides two miles away to his ranch house. Several of Leiningen’s workers enter the house, where Leiningen seeks to rally their support. Those who will not assist him, he says, can take their last pay and catch a raft across the river. The workers dutifully stay put. For their loyalty, Leiningen promises them “higher wages” (Paragraph 73) after the war ends.

The ants reach the inner moat of petrol, but they’re disinterested in crossing. Besides, they can now reach the plantation, where they eat and destroy the crops. The next morning, Leiningen awakens and stands on the roof of his house. From that vantage point, he sees “a black, glittering multitude” (Paragraph 77). Only the river creates a border between the ants and the ranch, but they are still managing to cross. The ants, contrary to their own expectations, aren’t sated by eating up the plantation. They now want to devour the workers, the horses, and the “bursting granaries” (Paragraph 79). They create a bridge across the inner moat, using twigs, “shreds of bark,” and “dried leaves” (Paragraph 80).

Leiningen watches the ants, but he makes no move. The workers, too, remain still, awaiting a sign from Leiningen to act. The ants now climb up the concrete wall of the inner moat, toward the workers. Leiningen orders his men to retreat from the ditch. He drops a stone into the petrol. He then drops a match inside of the hole that the rock forms, creating an inferno. He does this repeatedly, but the fires do not cause the ants to retreat. Instead, they march forward. Leiningen gets nervous. He begins to wonder if something is blocking the flow of petrol from the third petrol tank. He remembers that there are fire engines in the outhouse. He has workers connect their pumps to the tanks and hose the ants down with petrol. This works only momentarily. The workers, too, are now in a panic. A few drop to their knees and pray. Others fire revolvers at the oncoming ants. Two men attempt to escape to rafts on the river, but the ants reach them first and quickly cover their bodies. The men jump into the river, only to become prey to alligators and piranhas.

Suddenly, Leiningen gets an idea. He decides “to dam the great river completely” (Paragraph 96), inundating the plantation. One of his workers, however, would have to get to the dam to accomplish this. Leiningen figures that none of his workers would take the risk, nor should they; he resolves to make the dash himself. He announces his decision and tells his workers to “set fire to the petrol” (Paragraph 103) as soon as he gets across the ditch.

Leiningen puts on thigh-high leather boots and “[stuffs] the spaces between his breeches and boots” (Paragraph 104) so that no ant can enter. He covers his hands and puts mosquito goggles over his eyes. Finally, he “[plugs] his nostrils and ears” with cotton; then, he “[drenches] his clothes with petrol” (Paragraph 104). Before he departs, the medicine man gives him a salve. The salve’s scent, the medicine man asserts, is “intolerable to ants” (Paragraph 105). He smears Leiningen’s face and clothing with the concoction. Leiningen then drinks the anti-venom brew that the medicine man previously prepared for the bitten worker.

Leiningen crosses “the northwest corner of the trench” (Paragraph 106). The ants are again climbing up the banks of the inner ditch, despite the flaming petrol. Leiningen runs. He feels ants on his face and some under his clothing. He gets closer to the weir, where he can get control of the dam. He reaches the weir and seizes the wheel to open the dam. Just then, ants “[flow] over his hands, arms, and shoulders” (Paragraph 109). They then cover his face. Leiningen concentrates on keeping his mouth closed. He turns the wheel. Water flows and, in minutes, floods the plantation. He lets go of the wheel. Now that he has accomplished his task, he feels the sting from the ants’ bites all over his body. He thinks about plunging into the river for relief, but he remembers the crocodiles and piranhas. Instead, he starts back toward his ranch, knocking away and squishing ants. One ant manages to bite him just beneath his eye, nearly blinding him. The medicine man’s brew doesn’t weaken the venom. Leiningen begins to panic, thinking that he’s going to die. Suddenly, he has a vision of the pampas stag. Remembering how the ants consumed the large creature, Leiningen rallies his senses and staggers forward. He then leaps through the ring of fire that separates the ants from his men.

Leiningen reaches the other side of the ditch, and his workers carry him into the ranch house. When the flames die down, the men see that the ants have disappeared into “an extensive vista of water” (Paragraph 118). Those that aren’t caught in the flood, which soon carries them away into the river, are held off by the wall of flames in the inner moat. The water then rises and puts out the flames. Some ants still try to reach dry land, but they are repelled by “streams of petrol” (Paragraph 121), which carry them to the flood water.

Leiningen rests in his bed. The workers have salved and bandaged his wounded body. The old man who bandages Leiningen tells him that the ants are now gone—“[t]o hell” (Paragraph 123). The old man holds out “a gourd” (Paragraph 123) from which Leiningen drinks a sleeping potion. Leiningen murmurs that he promised his men that he’d be back. He then smiles, closes his eyes, and sleeps.