The Trailhead Queen was dead. At first, there was no overt sign that her long life was ending: no fever, no spasm, no farewells. She simply sat on the floor of the royal chamber and died.
E. O. Wilson, the Pelegrino University Research Professor Emeritus at Harvard, begins his gripping short story with this forlorn account of the death of the Trailhead Queen, who, by the way, is an ant. No, she’s not your momma’s sister. She’s an insect, and before her death she had been the noble head of a teeming and successful colony for nearly twenty years. Wilson’s short story, “Trailhead,” is a beautiful tale of life, death, prosperity, poverty, war and peace. Beginning with the nuptial flight of the future Queen of the Trailhead Colony, Wilson takes us through the ups and down of life in colony–reeling off a list of details that only a research professor could know while at the same time exercising the emotional precision of the best practitioners of the short story genre.
There are many strengths to this story, but the one I’d like to highlight is the narration. The narrator is the old fashioned third person omniscient type. Wilson wisely avoids the first person in this case; after all, ask any kid with a magnifying glass, and she will tell you that ants are meant to be viewed from an omniscient, even omnipotent, vantage. Humans are so much bigger than ants, there is really no other perspective from which to think about them. Wilson’s narrator, though omniscient, has all of the warmth of a loving God looking down on his creation while exercising the precision of a scientist. For example, the narrator describes what happens to the male ant after mating with the female who will become the Trailhead Queen:
He had no chance at all of survival. A delicate creature, he could not find food, or feed himself if he stumbled across some. He would die by dehydration, or crushed in the beak of a bird, or chopped into pieces by the jaws of an enemy ant, or, less quickly, pierced by the bloodsucking proboscis of an assassin bug.
Whoa. If there is such a thing as an assassin bug, and Wilson would know, then the woods just got a heckuva lot scarier. Notice how all of the details are present; we learn the fate of male ants who mate. Notice, too, the way the narrator uses words like “delicate” and “stumbled” to convey a sense of helplessness on the part of the male, and a feeling of sympathy in the reader. Wilson continues in this fashion and the result is a lesson in entomology and an exploration of human emotions in response to a great story.