Helena Pantsis

White Ants

The pest controller and I stood contemplating the house; not because it’d changed, because it hadn’t, except in its familiarity. We knew it inside out, him better than me now—he knew the place to its very core, to the bones.

We’d left the bottles in the sink, filled now with fire ants, and spiders crouched in the corners, intricate webs weaved from awnings to eaves; you could see them dancing in the curtains of the open windows, killed from the poison drifting out. The place was left to air, and we watched it, arms crossed and heads tilted in silent waiting. Our noses were filled with the smell of crushed black ants, acidic, something like bad Chardonnay.

Can you smell that?” I asked, but the man just shook his head.

Your nose gets used to poisons in this job. Numb to the smells now,” he said.

When he first arrived he suggested we burn the whole place down, tear the wood apart for good. I couldn’t bear the thought of tearing down this home. The wounds would’ve been bearable if not for the termites: Coptotermes, native creatures. Guilt rose like goosebumps on my skin, feeling partially bad for killing the things that’d been here before.

No such thing as a clean termite,” the pest controller had said, by which I think he meant that only one of us could have this home.

The infiltrators would have to go. I thought of the termites laying their eggs inside the wooden legs of our chairs, pulling the weight from beneath us as we ate, chewing on wet turpentine. The pest controller knew how pests breathed while being hunted, how to find the silent feast inside these walls, once home, on the land we’d conceived the infant with my mother’s name. I was reminded of the child who took over this body and this home, splitting me like a mango, scored and soft. Friends and relatives left flowers at my body like a steeple when the pregnancy was announced, a welcome home to the baby in my womb like they’d given when we moved into our house.


I knew of the creatures when I felt the itching in the depth of my ungroomed pubic hairs; one had confused my body for a solid wall. I reached down, scratching, scrounging up blood and the soon-to-be corpse of a small, brown insect, legs still kicking. I crushed it so its body split in two, nail piercing through it cleanly. I showed my husband.

 “Huh,” he said, “ticks?”

He watched as I stripped down in our bathroom, him following suit so we stood bare on the cold tile floor. He pinched the length of my skin, staring down between my hairs so I could feel his breath, warm on my crotch. Every patch of me was mapped, my lover staring close to distinguish the moles from the insects, an act so intimate it could be done by this man alone.

The baby started to cry from down the hall, a rupturing scream intended to wake the slumbering house. And it would have, if we hadn’t been awake already. My milk started to flow, swelling my breasts and weighing me down in my husband’s arms. My body moved like a somnambulist, separate from me, searching for the child to hold to my bosom. I often woke in the night with a sudden urge to check on the almost human thing; always ready to feed, or comfort, or carry.


I could feel the insects moving in, despite our distance from the two-storey house, scuttling under thin layers of flesh, finding home by the insides of our thighs, the veins of our necks, the open canals of our nostrils. I scratched at the scabbed skin of calloused outer muscle, water-wrinkled hands trying to separate my flesh from my bones. The pest controller watched me, resisting the urge to reach into his own hair, to rip at his scalp.

Could they still be on me?” I asked.

The man shrugged.

Shouldn’t be. Depends on how clean you are.”

I had bathed thoroughly, in boiling hot water—nothing could’ve survived the scalding atmosphere that became me. I had reddened from the water, so hot I had to resist screaming to hold myself under the heavy downpour of heat and fog. I bathed through the crying, and the calling, and the pounds against the locked bathroom door. Still something was eating at me, I could feel it, gnawing, chewing, feasting, consuming the thin bone of me from within.

Gradations of brown and green wild grasses spanned the land between us and the front door, and I stood watching, pretending my family home was just a house. When we first moved into this home we noticed the uneven floorboards, slanted like we were on the deck of a ship, the peeling marble and the bubbled linoleum. We made repairs, made the place our own, screwing tight the hinges on the door jambs and oiling the windows so they shut without creaking. We painted the walls and wallpapered the bedrooms. My husband fixed the shelves and I filled them, turning the strange into something our own. We didn’t know how to share the place with strangers, with insects forced to squeeze into the cracks of the unfilled drywall and wait us out or sleep inside our wardrobes.

You don’t have to wait out here,” the pest controller had told me when he pulled up to find me standing and watching across the way.

Something like a confession welled up in my throat.

I’d like to,” I said, and he shrugged, moving instead to stand alongside me.

I counted the days, counted the deaths, yearning to return home. We were staying at my mother-in-law’s, and every night was pain, my body quivering and full of the inevitable mourning of something we never quite got right. I missed the gentle sound of forks clinking against plates and ice dropping heavy into glasses; all I was now was a means to an end. The baby wants. The baby needs. But my body could only yield so much. Some nights I’d stop the car on the hill over from the house just to escape, telling everyone I was due for an appointment, when really all I did was watch.

I didn’t have to ask the pest controller why he stayed beside me, what lured him to watch the place in which his atrocities were committed, the violence he lived with day in and day out. We stared at the house because we felt the death. We could smell it, could hear it still. In the darkness shrouding over us, night falling like a wilting curtain or a half-eaten sheet, the moths ate the moonlight, fluttering like delicate lampshades over the land of war, chanting in their coarse shuttering manifestos of love. We were no gods, but no insects either.

I noticed a moth slip inside the house. It floated, beating at the windows, trying to find the gap through which it had entered, slowly ingesting the wafting poison. I thought it would probably be the last space it’d ever know. And I envied it, wanting nothing more than to rest for good inside the house that was my home.

Helena Pantsis

Helena Pantsis (she/they) is a writer and bad artist from Naarm, Australia. A full-time student of creative writing, they have a fond appreciation for the gritty, the dark, and the experimental. Her works are published in Overland, Island, Going Down Swinging, and Meanjin. More can be found at hlnpnts.com.