Dolores' mouth was clean. She brushed her teeth some six times a day; flossed one by one, two by one, up, down, around. Every day the interdental brush probed into hard corners. Diligent rinses and ablutions. A clean mouth. "Wash your mouth out, girl!" She heard the voice of her cross-eyed aunt, skirt tied up like a pair of knickerbockers. "Your mouth is your calling card," she would say over and over. "Did my mother die because her mouth got dirty?" Dolores asked her dolls in silence. And she washed out her dolls' mouths, brushing, breaking their tiny celluloid teeth. A most beautiful word! Cel—lu—loid! She wished her name were Celluloid. That is why, when the boy fondled her breasts and whispered in her ear: "Is your name really Celluloid?" she answered, melting, "Yes, it is Celluloid—nickname Dolores." She didn't see the boy again and wondered if he had disliked her budding celluloids. After old black Celu died as he did and Dolores had heard about Lloyd Air Brazil and all the planes they had lost, she thought it better to bury the name once and for all. But she kept the clean teeth. Clean mouth.
"For some time now, Doctor, I've been dreaming my mouth is full of ants. What does it mean?"
"You've never been married."
"But what's marriage got to do with a mouth full of ants?"
"Then you're diabetic, eating too many sweets."
"But I told you, sir, I don't eat sweets or meat."
"That's why your dreams are strange. I mean why would a lass of fifty go without sweets or meat when she doesn't have to?"
"It's good for your health, Doctor. I read it in a magazine."
"It's good if your head's good."
"Isn't my head good?"
"Well. Could be better."
She left the doctor's in a huff. What did she expect? A house doctor, in this armpit of the world. Got his degree years ago. A country bumpkin—that's what you get. How could he ever appreciate her complaints and dreams about ants? He'd heard it all so often, he'd lost interest.
"I don't want any sweets in this house, not even for visitors or taking medicine. Visitors can have coffee, and that's it! I don't want biscuits, nothing that attracts ants. Got that, Aurora?"
From then on her dreams became more frequent. Her mouth crammed with ants dropping pieces of teeth in the cracks between the floorboards. They bit her lips with their tiny celluloid saws with little spaces between them like the dolls' teeth. They made highways from her mouth to the ground, from the ground to her mouth. And they laughed out loud with their ant laughter. They smacked their lips, grinding their teeth, crunching, crunching and they really did sound like toy saws. Dolores would awake in a sticky sweat and head for the shower; she brushed her teeth over and over in the middle of the night.
The following day she would get up late, open the windows and search high and low for the ants. Nothing. She would call the maids, no ants in sight, not a trace.
Dolores sent for holy water and Father Rômulo came to sprinkle it in the corners, the spaces in the cupboards, the pantry, the cracks in the shelves.
Dolores slept well, and went for several days without dreaming. No mouth, no ants, no tiny celluloid teeth clattering, clattering.
Then suddenly they were back, gnawing and laughing aloud. In all colors and shapes. Queen ants swinging their backsides wantonly. Fire ants framing the pictures in perfect single file, stinger ants girding the windows and doors, on the walls, hanging from the chandeliers, circling the sitting room furniture. Winged ants climbed onto the tables, one by one, in a rhythmic march, just like little soldiers. Dolores let holler and the house filled with people. The town stirred up like an anthill.
"She needs a good wallop."
"Come on Zé, be fair, it's solitude that's driving her potty."
"Rubbish! It's idleness, that's what it is."
"Well that may be, but she's your sister. You should feel sorry for her. Let's have her stay with us."
"No way. Why didn't she get married, have a house of her own? Women are supposed to get married, Doll."
And that was that. The gathering of people made no difference.
Dolores quiet, obsessing. Things took a turn for the worse overnight. Now the boys would come along laughing and her mouth would suddenly swell with ants.
"Hey, you, get out of here! You just want to feel my celluloid breasts and then you're going to marry big-city girls. Get out of here, now!"
The boys would run off, but came back holding enormous ants and they grew until they were as tall as the rooftops.
Dolores would wake up and wet her head in the shower or under the tap, crying, and would go and brush her teeth. Sleep never came. The next day, eyes dragging, sunken, dry, she would get up late, mute. Tea with toast and she would brush her teeth and send for her brothers and sisters, but no one ever came. When they did come, they barely listened while she relayed her fears, and left, annoyed, slamming the door behind them.
Dolores began visiting her neighbors' houses, inquiring after the ants.
"No, Dona Dolores, we haven't had any round here. Just look at the rosebushes; they're intact. Let's have a look at the sweets in the pantry, no, everything's clean, no ants here. I think you must be imagining things."
Dolores decided to have the house washed down with alcohol, then kerosene. She took to sleeping during the day to avoid the nightly siege. But they always came. Swaying or sassy and they devoured everything and came out of the noses of the portraits on the walls, going in through their ears and mouths. Sometimes they marched up Dolores' arms and legs, laughing and grinding their celluloid teeth. The eyes of the dolls decorating the shelves were sucked dry by the ants, one by one.
Everything repeated everything and there were more bouts of insomnia and hollering.
One sunny morning, she plucked up the courage and paid a visit to the Fire Brigade. Happy to help, they came out, had a thorough look around, and checked all around the outside of the house. "It's in your head, Madame, I think you're seeing things. Everything's shipshape; there's no ants here."
This time Dolores declared war. She placed the legs of her bed in four kerosene tins full of water. "Let them try now, they're going to get what's coming to them! Ha, ha! There'll be so many dead ants, no one'll believe it." But she only had a few days of peace. Day and night, little by little, they slowly returned, quickening their march, marching, marching, munching, munching, cutting Dolores' golden hair (she wondered if it was to make nests with) and soon, soon it was as if her mouth, nose and ears were coated in sugar.
"Zé, come on, let's take your sister to a bigger town for treatment. After all, it's you that's responsible for her, poor thing!"
"Nonsense. This is what happens to women who don't work or marry. Women need husbands and children to look after, otherwise they flip, each in their own way."
Dolores' sister-in-law gave up, tired of asking her husband to help. Poor Dolores, by the looks of things she was stuck with the ants.
The silence was enormous that day in the big old house and by mid-afternoon Dona Felisbina was itching to see what had happened—it was anything but normal. The doors were still shut from the night before, everything mute and in its place.
She went in on tiptoe until she reached Dolores' room and was greeted by a sorry scene.
Dolores was not breathing; she lay there motionless, milk-white, naked, but crawling with ants of all colors and sizes in a flurry of movement like the end of the world. Their noise was immense; an insane coming and going.
Open-mouthed dolls with celluloid teeth surrounded her bed. Many dolls of all sizes, sitting, forming a garland around the bed. And Dolores laughed her smile of solitude, mouth clean and sweet smelling, but from it dangled a filament—a thread of tiny ants—trailing under the covers, across the floor, out the window. A fine thread of teensy smiling ants, the smallest of all.
Translation of "As Formigas." From A Friagem (São Paolo: Global Editora, 2002). By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2007 by Alison Entrekin. All rights reserved.