"I Hope You Can Help Me Take Care of These Ants in the City"

Read an excerpt from writer Can Xue's strange and beautiful new work of fiction, featured in isolarii's latest pocket-sized publication.

by Can Xue
Feb 12 2021, 1:45pm

Each book arrives in the mail inside a wax-paper packet. They’re the size of a deck of cards, with a summary (as would normally be present on the back of a standard-size book’s jacket) printed on the slightly larger shipping envelope. Edited by India Ennenga and Sebastian Clark, isolarii is a subscription-model publication of portable books, tome-like in concept but iPhone-like in stature. (Indeed, the project was partly inspired by Clark’s experience of reading a Hanuman book by Eileen Myles while working at a smartphone factory in Dongguan, China in 2014.) Named for the Venetian Renaissance-era making of isolarii, which literally means “island books,” the publishers posit the series as a form of “mapping,” connecting writers and thinkers across disciplines and continents connected by a new humanism; who, Ennenga says, “understand [that] the way we write about the Earth really determines how we inhibit it.” They were inspired to create something of a counter to the alternative worldview brought forth by Stewart Brand’s 1970s publication Whole Earth Catalog: “Instead of thinking about the world as this complete blue marble, we were really interested in the pockets—the tiny islands that exist all around the world and are fragmented—and how we can bring those together” in a archipelagic, rather than hierarchical, sense.

Below is an excerpt from isolarii Volume 3, titled Purple Perilla: a new work of fiction by the Chinese avant-garde writer Can Xue. A digital foreword in the form of a piece of music by Warren Ellis of the Bad Seeds—serving as both an introduction to and soundtrack for the book—will go live on isolarii’s site on Monday, February 15. —Eileen Cartter


Like a tattered rag, Grandpa Wu was lying on a recliner. Lin Mai was startled; he thought the old man couldn’t live much longer. When he looked around, the young boy was nowhere in sight. 

“Lin Mai, look under this tree. There’s another ants’ nest here.”

He smiled. His smile looked worse than crying.

Lin Mai had already noticed the ants’ nest. It rose like a huge loaf of bread from a spot next to the roots; some worker ants were going back and forth nearby. They were also mountain ants, the kind with red showing on their heads. 

“Lin Mai, I don’t have much time left; I can’t take you back to see the mountains. Actually, I myself would really like to go, but who would carry me up there? No one. Can you promise me something?” 

“What is it? Please tell me, Grandpa Wu.”

“I hope you can help me take care of these ants in the city.”

“Of course. I promise. But how do I take care of them?”

“Altogether, there are six ants’ nests; the other four are located behind the kitchen of your school. These ants came down from the mountain only because of me; they don’t remember how to go back because so many years have passed. That year, the sun was so hot, and there were frequent mudslides … Lin Mai, you don’t have to do anything; you just have to remember these ants’ nests, and when you have time, go to visit them. You’ve got my smell, and so they’ll think you’re me.” 

Lin Mai wanted to ask more questions, but the old man waved him off. 

Lin Mai was perturbed as he walked away. He hesitated a little at the school’s gate, and then he entered. No one was in the schoolyard. He reached the grove behind the large kitchen. Oh! The scene before him shocked him! Under the blossoming silk tree, the four ants’ nests that weren’t far away from each other had all been smashed. The ants’ brilliant white eggs were also exposed in the soil. Aside from a few injured working ants toddling around, most of the ants had disappeared. Lin Mai was almost in tears. He squatted on the ground, dumbfounded. Tense, he wondered if there was an underground escape tunnel. Perhaps there was—it had been so many years. 

The cook came over. He had a broad face, and always looked dejected. 

“The ants forage for food in the canteen and spread germs. Our supervisors have issued instructions … ”

“How could … this was a disgraceful slaughter!” Lin Mai raised his voice.

“Don’t despair, son. These are mountain ants. I’ve seen … ”

“What have you seen?” Lin Mai asked eagerly.

“Nothing. I haven’t seen anything. I can’t see well because I’m old. Sometimes I see phantoms.”

With that disappointing reply, the cook returned to the kitchen.

Lin Mai remembered what Grandpa Wu had said about the large amusement park under the ants’ nest, and he felt hopeful. Was this what the cook had been about to tell him just now? Lin Mai found a shovel in the shed behind the kitchen. He dug down next to an ants’ nest, easily pushing the soft earth aside. At the base of the nest appeared four holes as large as goose eggs. Lin Mai put the shovel down, squatted on the muddy earth, and peered into one hole. He fainted away on the ground. When he came to, the sky was dark. It was going to rain, and he heard forlorn weeping in the distance. When he clambered up and looked at the ants’ nest again, the holes had disappeared.

They had disappeared. Did this mean that the road home was blocked? 

Lin Mai saw two ants with broken legs standing on a small stone. He reached out to touch them. But they were stiff and had turned into specimens. Even so, the antennae on their heads could still move. How extraordinary! Lin Mai moved this small stone with the two ants on it to a concealed place in the brush. He thought they were still alive. 

He felt heavyhearted on the way home, because he thought he had failed Old Grandpa Wu.

“You’ve learned something today, haven’t you, Lin Mai?”

It was his dad. Dad had come home from buying groceries. “Unh.” He answered vaguely. He thought for a moment and then said, “Dad, do you really want to become a beggar like Grandpa Wu?”

“Yes. Do you want your dad to be happy? If you do, then you’ll approve of this.”

“Let me think about it,” Lin Mai said.

But Lin Mai was wondering: was Grandpa Wu a happy person? Grandpa Wu had said that Lin Mai smelled like him. Then, could he—Lin Mai—become happy? If he could, then why did he have no premonition of it? Not only that, but he sensed faintly that a major disaster was going to strike.

“Dad, the ants’ nests at school have been smashed.”

“That’s just on the surface. Don’t be too concerned.”

Lin Mai thought his dad was optimistic. But this wasn’t the way he usually was.

That evening, Lin Mai told his mother he hoped to go to Ash Mountain someday.

“I’m sure you’ll go often in the future,” his mother said loudly.

Lin Mai looked at his mother in astonishment, as though he didn’t know her. Then he heard his dad laughing.

“Today you learned a lot out there.” Dad said, “Children today shouldn’t be underestimated.”

Lin Mai thought the two of them were echoing each other, speaking of something that was going to happen. What was going to happen? Was it related to the ants’ nests? And related to Grandpa Wu? 

Because he’d been so excited during the day, Lin Mai couldn’t fall asleep. At one in the morning, he climbed up to the third floor again. The door to the study was closed; inside, people were talking loudly. Lin Mai pressed his ear against the door and listened closely: he heard Grandpa Wu talking with his dad. Grandpa Wu’s voice was loud and clear; he didn’t seem sick at all. What was this all about? Lin Mai rushed down the stairs and went back to bed. 

He closed his eyes tightly and finally fell asleep. But later on, he was awakened once: to his surprise, Grandpa Wu was singing mountain ballads with his dad. Lin Mai had never known that his dad had such a great voice. The two men were throwing themselves into the singing. Lin Mai thought, this melodious sound must be reaching Ash Mountain. It seemed that Grandpa Wu had been close friends with his dad for years, so why had he never come to the house before? The singing stopped, and the mansion fell silent. Lin Mai sensed that the expected occurrence was approaching. 

But nothing happened.

Can Xue