National Share a Story Month – Food Chain by Nicky Peacock

Food Chain

By Nicky Peacock

He wanted a relaxing day, to just melt into the overgrown grass of the reservoir’s bank like he’d died and his essence was being sucked back into Mother Nature’s belly; alas it was not meant to be. No matter how still he sat, his little amphibian mind buzzed with the constant hum of the nearby human buildings that surrounded the small man-made lump of nature he called home.

At least it was the weekend, and there were no school trips today. It was on those days he, and his neighbours, were subjected to stints of incarceration in brightly coloured buckets, and worse, forced into cartoon character backpacks never to be seen again. Yesterday had been one of those days. Three teenagers had snatched him up and, while laughing maniacally, passed him around and licked his back. All the while he was painfully aware that yet another group of kids were leaving the school system without knowing the difference between a common frog and a hallucinogenic toad.

He stretched out his long legs and tried to relax, such moments of peace were rare for him, so he felt obligated to enjoy them. All too soon he found himself wondering what it would have been like if he’d have been spawned in one of those lovely natural rivers. Maybe he should take a trip over to one, fight the homing urge? No, it was a bad idea, frogs from such waters looked down on the likes of him coming from a quick crudely made ‘reservoir’ rather than one lovingly evolved by Mother Nature. The idea left him as fast as it had appeared, although if he was truthful to himself, it had merely retreated to fight with his reason another day.

It was starting to get dark and the night dwellers that lived in the reservoir were beginning to wake. It was then he saw the human; a lone man carrying a wriggling sack over his shoulder….

The frogs were used to things being dumped in their home. Currently, it was being utilised by a scientific research centre. The last thing they had abandoned there was the Three Eyed Toad. Too large to hunt for food, the frogs had looked after him. In return, he had told them about the humans and their experiments, the strange coloured liquids that burnt, and the howling animals with greedy stares. He hadn’t lasted long in the wild; he’d simply known too much. He may not have been born of nature, but she was forgiving and didn’t judge him in death, she took him back. His body fed a flock of birds who watched the reservoir’s inhabitants with hungry vigilance.

“What’s going on Toby?” Minty scrambled up on the rock beside him and watched as the man dropped the sack on to the ground.

“Not sure, hope it’s someone like the toad, he was nice.”

“Yeah.” Minty looked away, a slimy tear dribbling down his jowl.

The man kicked the sack then looked up and around like he’d spotted a predator; he then shook his head and pulled out his car keys and started striding back toward the road where his company van was parked. They didn’t need to look at the van to tell it was from the research centre. Three Eyed Toad had warned them never to go near it, although deep in their frog bellies they had always known as much.

“Let’s go and have a look, someone might need our help,” Toby said, and then he bounced off the rock. Minty followed close behind him.

The first thing they noticed was that the bag smelt strange. It wasn’t like the unnatural smell of Three Eyed Toad or even the brightly coloured buckets that randomly became their prisons; no this was naturally unnatural.

“Don’t get too close, Minty.” Toby edged forward getting another whiff of weirdness.

It was a bag about five times the size of them, and it wriggled. Something was inside trying to get out, and Toby had the oddest sensation that whatever was in there, shouldn’t be free.

“Minty, hop onto the edge of the sack.”

“Why?”

“Just do it.”

Minty jumped onto the sack’s edge, and Toby sat on the other end. The wriggling inside got worse.

“Can’t you feel that?” Toby asked, shooting a serious look at his friend.

“Feel what? The thing in the sack, we should let it out, it might be injured after the human kicked it.”

“No. It all feels…wrong we need to…”

Suddenly the sack stopped wriggling and deflated.

“What happened?” Minty moved from his corner to investigate.

“No, Minty, stop!”

The sack was empty, whatever it was it had eaten its way out of the bottom of it. Below, the ground was alive with scuttling creatures that swarmed toward Minty with a common purpose, “Hello, what do we have here?” was all he got out before they were all over him.

“Minty!” Toby was rooted to the spot; he wanted to help his friend, he needed to, but it was like his legs had turned to frog spawn, and all he could do was watch on helplessly as Minty was devoured by the little creatures.

The creatures looked like ants, but not like any ant Toby had seen before; they had giant yellow horns that erupted from their heads, horns that must have weighed more than any ant could carry, as they dragged their heads down, making it impossible to see their eyes. They didn’t act like other ants either; frogs were their natural predators they should be swarming away from Minty, not eating him.

“What are you looking at Toby?”

Toby turned to see his friend Kewl hopping toward him.

“What the? Is that Minty?”

“Was.”

“Come on brother let’s move!” Kewl grabbed Toby and pulled him toward the rocks.

Toby looked back to see the remains of Minty’s skeleton sinking into the mud. They reached the rocks and leapt behind them.

“Where’d they come from?”

Toby shook his head, “Guess!”

“Those scumbag humans.” Kewl looked back to see the ants had stopped swarming and were just standing eerily still. There were about twenty of them, and they had all simply stopped and were now silently watching the night sky above them, their heads still labouring beneath the horns.

“We have to do something Kewl, those things eat us, and we need to kill them before they start a nest here.”

“Ok, ants for dinner then.”

“No! There’s something wrong with them, can’t you feel that?”

Kewl peered over the rocks, “Yeah, no I get it, brother, I feel it too, they’re not supposed to be here.”

Toby joined him, and they both watched the ants staring at the sky. Shadows flickered above them.

“Birds! Get down!” Kewl yelled.

Both frogs jumped back behind the rocks and watched as a group of black birds circled the ants who just stared up at the feathered death bringers with oblivious abandon. One swooped down and started pecking at the small ant army. Instantly they were all over it. The bird cawed, struggled, and then was subdued as the ants feasted on its innards and licked the blood from its feathers.

“Toby, we are in so much trouble right now!”

The frogs stared up at the other birds circling the ants. After watching their comrade roll and writhe and then succumb to the strange horned creatures, they squawked at one another and then flew off into the safe horizon.

“Whoa!” Kewl looked from the empty sky to Toby, “I’ve never seen birds fly away from a meal before.”

“Food that eats you is not exactly high on their menu choice.”

“These little guys are rattling the food chain, no wonder they don’t feel right, brother. What did the humans do to them?”

“Three Eyed Toad said that they liked infecting creatures with viruses and bacteria for their amusement.”

“That’s no virus!” Kewl motioned at the ants that were now milling around the bird carcas, having stripped it like a Christmas Turkey.

“We need to see.”

“See what?”

“What they are, they don’t act like ants, ants would be working by now, building a hill, a home, and they’re not doing anything like that,”

“Apart from eating everyone, oh, hang on, what do you mean, see? I’m not getting any closer to those horny little weirdoes than I have to,”

Toby turned and looked Kewl in one of his side eyes, “We need to get one, we won’t know what we’re dealing with till we…”

“What? Pull it apart? What are we now? The humans? Shall we make up a cage of lily pads and twigs?”

“Actually that’s not a bad idea.”

“You’ve gone insane!”

“The world’s gone insane Kewl; I’m just a frog trying to keep up.” Toby jumped behind the rocks and started pulling at twigs and yanking plants out by their roots.

Kewl watched with sticky eyes and a dry mouth. Minty was dead. Rather than admit that and move on, like move way on to the next body of water away from the horned ants and certain death, Toby was waging a one frog war. They had all grown up together, spawned at the same time in the reservoir, probably not brothers, but as they had been tadpoles shedding tails and crawling out of the goo at the same time together, they felt like family. They’d stayed here and not jumped into the horizon like the rest of them, they had braved the school trips, scientific dumps and legions of birds and for Minty to die covered in ants… Kewl felt his back leg vibrate with anger, “What do you need me to do?”

Toby looked over and nodded, “We need to build a trap.”

“Count me in, brother.”

The two frogs worked quickly, their webbed hands moulding the mud into a primitive cage, the plant life of the reservoir tied together as ropes. Now and then one of them would poke their head up from the rocks to see what the ants were doing; the answer always seemed – not much, apart from staring at the sky and of course looking weird.

Once their tasks were complete, the frogs watched the ants for a while, judging the stragglers.

“There, the one to the right, he’s furthest away from the group,” Toby motioned to the ant almost on its own.

“Good spot, brother, let’s do this.”

It’s hard to be stealthy when you’re a frog, the very act of jumping is both noisy and noticeable, especially when croaking on lift off was almost a reflex; so they both decided that a surprise grab would work best. Once in position, they nodded to one another, took deep breaths and jumped onto the ant. Toby whipped out his tongue, grabbed it, and they both jumped back behind the rocks. Once there, Toby threw the ant back up and into the mud prison. It stared at them, its foreign looking giant horns waving in the breeze coming from the two panting frogs. After gaining their breath and composure back, they checked if the other ants had noticed. They hadn’t; their interest was still captivated by the night sky.

“So what the hell are you?” Kewl asked slamming his amphibian hand onto the mud ceiling. “I’m bad cop,” he whispered to Toby.

“No you’re a frog,” Toby whispered back.

The ant had no reaction to the question but squinted at the mud prison around it.

Toby pulled on their makeshift rope and wrapped it around the ant’s horns, “Just in case you get the nibbles friend.”

“We know that you came from the lab, tell us what you know.”

It said nothing. It just stared at them, the only difference than when it had stared at the sky was that now it had a hungry glint in its eye.

“That’s so odd,” Kewl said moving closer to it, “it’s not an ant, or I think it was maybe one at one time, just not anymore,”

Toby tightened his grip on the rope, “What do you mean?”

“It has this glazed look, and I can’t hear a heartbeat.”

“Don’t be ridiculous Kewl, of course; it has a heartbeat. If it didn’t, it would have been taken by Mother Nature already,”

Kewl moved even nearer, “Maybe it’s heartbeat is just faint?”

“Don’t get any closer!” Toby felt the ant tense then suddenly it reared back. The rope constricted on its horns and swiftly pulled them off.

“Whoa!” Kewl hopped back, and both frogs watched as the ant decomposed in front of them, its body turning several shades of death, then sinking into its mud prison, leaving the yellow horns still tied to the rope.

“That ant was dead; it was the horns that were alive, they were just using its body to…”

“To what? Have a nibble at the wildlife buffet? This is wrong, brother, we’ve gotta do something, if just one of those things gets outta here, it could upset the whole food chain. What if it’s not just ants that it can use? What if…”

Toby nodded, “Ok, we need a plan.”

Kewl took a deep breath, “I miss Three Eyed Toad, he would have known what to do.”

“That’s it! You’re a genius; we need to get to that lab and talk with his friends if he would know, they’d know. They might even know what these zombie ants are.”

“Hang on there brother, that place is dangerous.”

“The lab is now only marginally more dangerous than being here, and what if those yellow horns were to attach themselves to a human? What then eh? We need to know what we’re dealing with if we’re to stop them.”

“I don’t care what they are, brother, I just what to know how to kill them.” Kewl looked off into the middle distance and puffed out his chest.

“We know how to kill them Kewl; we pull off their horns, we just need help, we can’t get them all on our own, there’s too many, they’ll swarm us.”

Deflated Kewl sighed, “I know that I was just trying to be cool.”

Toby laughed, “You are Kewl, that’s how you got your name.”

***

They hopped like it was spawning season, the wind against their drying skins, and the fear of the ants weighing heavy on their minds. They stopped briefly to tell their few frog friends about the zombie ants and ask that they keep an eye on them, but not to go too near. Although most had gathered as much upon seeing the horns and feeling the insect’s aura that declared ‘keep away’. Funny the animals got it, most of them anyway, why hadn’t the humans? Surely they would have felt that primeval kick in the gut when they had seen those things, and if they had, why release them into the wild? Three Eyed Toad was set free because he had outgrown his usefulness; what could be learnt from an extra eye? The frogs quickly found that it made his eyesight worse rather than better, his balance was terrible so moving was a constant game of gravity roulette, where would he fall next? Humans were meant to be top of the food chain; they controlled the wild, made the reservoir, could freely walk anywhere without fear of being eaten by a hundred and one other species, yet still they didn’t seem happy to leave Mother Nature to get on with it. They still had to interfere.

***

The smell of humans and chemicals was everywhere, and the smooth floors were proving painfully slippery to the frogs, but they had made their way via a sewer grate, and up through a toilet, so there was no turning back.

Their little eyes bulged at the giant furniture and flashing lights, even at night the lab didn’t rest. They hadn’t seen any humans though; Three Eyed Toad had instilled a fear so deep within them about the white coated creatures that the mission would have been instantly aborted upon one’s appearance – every frog for himself.

The door that held the animals was unmistakable in its scent, so the frogs made their way beneath the cracks and soon found themselves staring at row after row of metal cages.

“Our mud cage was better, brother.”

“These things look pretty sturdy, how did Three Eyed Toad escape again?”

“He didn’t; he got released. He said that they put a pink slip in his cage and the next day he was free.”

“The pink slips are too dangerous; they could mean get rid of for all we know. There must be another way to open the cages; we’ll find it and talk to these guys, we need help, Kewl.”

“What about the food chain? If we let something above us out, it’ll just eat us.”

Toby hopped further into the room. Eyes, pink and raw stared back at him, “Don’t worry Kewl. They’re beyond the food chain now, the humans have done things to them.”

Kewl followed him, and soon a strange whispering began to echo about the cages, voices from a hundred different tiny tongues.

“Umm, hello.” Toby stood on his hind legs so he could meet their eyes, as best he could, “I’m Toby, this is Kewl.” He gestured at his friend who rolled his eyes.

“How did you get in here?” a small voice from behind the nearest cage.

Toby hopped toward it and peered into the darkness.

Two round pink eyes greeted him then a clawed hand slowly extended from the cage, “I’m Number 335.”

Toby took the hand and carefully shook it; it belonged to a large white female rat, who, when she smiled, the frogs discovered, had no teeth,

“They took them out,” she explained, “we bit them when they grabbed at us, so they took our teeth.”

Lots of furry clawed hands then extended from the cages. Some took them quickly back in, some waved, one made an awkward ‘thumbs up’ sign.

“I’m Number324,”

“I’m Number527,”

“I am Number125,”

And the different numbers kept coming.

“Did you know the Three Eyed Toad?” Kewl asked Number335.

“No, sorry before my time I think,” she replied.

Toby stepped closer, “We need help, Number335, will you and your people help us?”

“Help with the ants?”

“Yes! What do you know of the ants?”

“They’re dead.”

“No, they’re not, they are in our reservoir, eating anyone who comes near them.”

“No, they are dead,” Number335 said, “We saw them, they were normal, they had a queen, they didn’t talk much, but they worked hard to build a home here at the Lab. Then a human came, he was meaner than the rest, he had cold eyes and a dish filled with a pale yellow powder which he threw at the ant hill. They all died. Then they got back up and started growing horns. They ate their queen. They were not ants anymore, just mindless eaters driven by the yellow powder.”

“What was the powder, sister?” Kewl asked.

“We are uncertain, but we heard the humans speak of finding it deep below the earth, somewhere called Prehistoric.”

Toby inched closer to Number335, “Can you help us, we’ll set you free, but we need to kill all the ants in our reservoir,”

“We will help you Toby and Kewl, but we do not know how to kill the ants.”

“That’s ok, we figured that bit out, we just need the manpower.”

“Manpower we cannot give, ratpower however…” she winked her pretty pink eye and smiled her toothless smile.

***

With the aid of the rats, Toby and Kewl found the switch to open the cages. They had to move quick, not every creature there was as friendly as their new thirty-two rat friends. Before they could be eaten, they all ran toward a grating that led to an extraction fan, which was fatefully broken; through that, they escaped and into the fresh night air.

“Lead us to your home, Toby,” Number 527 said and then gave the ‘thumbs’ up sign again.

“I think you should be called Thumbs from now on, brother.”

“I like that.” Thumbs grinned.

“I’d like a name too.”

“Name me.”

Kewl put his webbed hands in the air, “No worries we’ll give you all proper names.”

Toby nudged him, “Let’s do it after, ok?”

“After what?”

“The ant battle.”

“Oh, ok, brother.”

They moved with swift intent through the grass and cut across the human road; when it came to roads, the animals knew there was safety in numbers, a car was more likely to see a hoard of rats than two small lone frogs.

When they made it back to the reservoir, they found that the frogs that had stood guard in their absence had disappeared.

“Oh great, who’s watching the ants?” Kewl motioned over to the rocks and then hopped onto one, “Oh no, they’ve gone too!”

“The ants have died?” Number335 joined Kewl on the rock, “No, look they are there.” She pointed with her long nose to a mass of feathers and blood; the ants had spread out to take another victim.

“Ok, here’s the plan,” Toby motioned for them all to gather round, “Tomorrow is a school day, and if there’s a trip and the human tadpoles get hold of one of the ants, it could not just disrupt the food chain but could break it all together.”

“We’re protecting humans?” Thumbs cocked his head.

“Not humans, but Mother Nature, the natural order must be upheld, and it’s up to us to do it.”

“Tell us what we must do.” Number335 huddled closer, and the rest of the rats followed suit.

The problem was Toby didn’t know what to do; in truth, he didn’t think they’d get this far. Dying in the lab was as far as he’d thought up to, but with the army of pink eyes blinking at him and Kewl nodding heroically at a plan he had yet to hear, well he had to say something…

“Right, the plan.” He stood up on his hind legs, so he was the tallest of the group, “Ok the plan is…” and the next thing he knew he was air born clutched in the talons of a big black bird who looked down casually at him as it flew toward the sky. His friends, frozen in terror watching on.

It was now or never to form a plan, thought Toby, “Excuse me, bird.”

The bird stopped flying and hovered.

“Bird, please put me down.”

“I’m hungry.”

“I’m sure you are, but we have a problem that needs addressing, and I’m the only frog who can do it; by eating me, you could be dooming the planet to a zombie ant invasion.”

The bird narrowed its eyes, “That’s what those things are?” He nodded his beak to the squirming Horned Ants below.

“Yes.”

“They’re not natural.”

“No, they were dumped by the humans.”

“Of course, humans,” the bird spat and snorted and then almost dropped Toby.

“The ants have already eaten two birds that we know of; help us avenge your fallen friends?”

“I will not help; humans can clean up their own mess.”

Fear and dread tumbled through Toby’s tight, dry little body and he realised that he’d never again see the wonders of a dawn or the eat a fat fly, or mate and spawn in the Spring.

“Please Bird.” He stared up at it, “We are the only defence Mother Nature has.”

The bird began to carefully tumble through the sky till it was just above the rock where Kewl and the rats were still sitting, their mouths slack with the horror of Toby’s abduction.

“Suddenly I’m not so hungry little frog,” the bird said then carefully placed Toby on the rock and propelled itself back into the sky.

“Brother! Are you OK?”

“No Kewl, I’m so far from OK right now that OK had invented the time machine and zapped itself back to the age when our ancestors were twenty foot tall and roamed the earth.”

“What did you say to the bird?” Number335 put her nose on Toby and sniffed him.

“It doesn’t matter, I’ve had an evil week: back licking, science dumps, Minty killed before my very eyes, a trip through a sewer and a toilet when we could have gone straight through the air ducts, yes Kewl I noticed that! Then, to top it all off, I was a victim of a bird attack,”

“How was I supposed to know about the air ducts?”

“You knew about the sewers!”

“Frogs,” Thumbs said peeking over the rock, “the ants are finished with the bird, they’re now moving around, with… more purpose.”

“Ok, there’s no time for a plan, let’s just roll in there and start ripping horns out!”

“Yeah!” Kewl jumped onto the rock. “Come on brothers and sisters, no ant lives!”

The rats squealed and applauded so loudly that the ants heard them and started moving towards the rocks.

Then Toby got an idea, “They kill by their numbers, but there are more of us, everyone picks an ant and destroys that one before they can swarm.”

As the two armies clashed together, the battle cry of the frogs and rats was heard slicing through the still night air. Clawed paws met with yellow horns, each of the frogs pounced onto an ant and held it in place for a rat to rip into. A few of the rats were careless and eaten so quick it was like they’d sank into quicksand. The actual fighting took but a few minutes, but to the frogs and rats, it felt like hours.

By the end, the reservoir looked like a forgotten battlefield strewn with bodies like red and white confetti and defiant yellow horns that, by their continued presence mocked Mother Nature.

“What about the horns brother?”

Toby picked a pair up, “We bury them Kewl, as far down as we can so the humans can never find them again.”

“We will dig.” Number 335 rallied the other rats.

“Thank you, Num… Pink Lady.” Toby smiled at her, and Kewl started naming the other rats.

***

The story of what happened was told time and again for many moons. Sometimes it was a beaver that led the white army to victory against the Horned Ants; sometimes it was a stray dog looking to win back the love of its masters. Although the basic story remained the same, there are two truths consistently left out. One was that a lone bird circled the battlefield keeping away any skyward predators from picking off the brave soldiers. The other was that it was all down to two frogs, two little frogs that saved the world from the zombie ants.

After all, it would never have been believed, and we all have the responsibility of protecting the food chain.

 

For more about National Share a Story Month click here…