When I was a boy, no older than my son is now, I had a fascination with bugs. Our property was a decent five acres, so you can imagine the fun I had with all that land. I would embark on safari expeditions, mapping the harsh wilderness with my faithful partner Bono as accomplice. We would admire the graceful art of the water gliders from the safety of our dock, watching them skate across the pond’s surface with such fluid and serene movements that I would often have to remind myself to release the breath I had been holding. We played audience to the antics of the dragonflies as they chased one another through the reeds, like tiny fighter planes in a secret war, and we followed the progress of armies of ants as they carried their hard-earned bounty back to their queen. Bono was ever patient, although not so much observant. But when I glimpsed through the keyhole into that world of wonders, it didn’t matter. I wasn’t with dear Bono anymore; I was with the ants, the pill bugs, the centipedes, the butterflies. Gone was the big world, the world of big decisions and big problems and big arguments and big pain. I was free.
Back when things were better and we still had visitors, our relatives and family friends would stop by to visit my parents, and they would sit on the back porch and sip their iced drinks and laugh as they swore up and down that I would grow up to be an entomologist. Just you wait and see, they would tell my parents. The kid has it in him. And they would smile good-naturedly and nod along politely, sharing secret glances with one another whenever the guest wasn’t looking. But they were all wrong. What they failed to realize was that my fascination, my obsession even, wasn’t fuelled by a love of science or learning. It was never about that for me. The love stopped at the creatures themselves and went no further. I admired them, respected them, was even a little jealous of them. But I never wanted to study them.
Of all the creatures in our garden, I had two favourites. The first was a spider. He (or she; I never could tell) was set up in the lower branches of one of the trees on our property, perfectly placed in my line of sight. At sunset after a rainy day I would race outside to see the web, partly out of concern for the spider in the wake of the storm, but mostly for what always came next. The web would always be intact, a wonder in itself, but what stole my breath away every time was far more abstract in its appeal. The web would have collected water droplets from the rain, still sturdy as ever under their weight, and as the sun began to set it would align perfectly with the web. The droplets would catch the light and reflect it, like tiny ornamental lightbulbs, decorating the strands of silver with flecks of gold. It was one of the most beautiful images I remember from my childhood, indeed even after all these years there are few sights I’ve seen that rival it. The spider, who I had never had a reason or right to name, would sit in the centre of the web, completely still, as far as I could tell indifferent to my presence. Sometimes I liked to imagine that he too was admiring the sunset.
On some days I would catch crickets or grasshoppers, a fly if I was lucky. I would run as fast as I could to the web, and upon arrival quickly confirm the spider was still there (it always was) before carefully releasing the captured insect straight into the trap and watching the show unfold. The bug would immediately start to struggle, effectively entangling itself more and more in the web. With hungry eyes I would follow the strands up to the centre, where the spider sat, immobile, unreadable. I watched as he registered the movement, the disturbance. Even before he moved, even before he gave any indication that he had noticed, I would know when he had. And then he was off, dancing from strand to strand, completely unaffected by his own lethal trap. He would ensnare the insect, turning it on the spot and covering it in more and more of his webbing until the prey was completely mummified. I can’t remember where I first heard it, but whenever I participated in this ritual a quote would always come to mind: “Normal is an illusion. What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly.” I’d always found comfort in that thought, and it became my mantra. Whenever I found myself trying too hard to understand the motives behind other people’s actions, I would simply repeat the quote in my head until I felt better.
I found my second favourite quite by chance one hot summer day. I had been laying on the dock in my usual spot, trailing my fingers just beneath the water’s surface and watching the water skaters as they darted out of the way. They would never stray too far though, out of what I liked to think was curiosity. I had been moping around for the majority of the day, the heat too intense for expeditions, or demanding physical activities of any kind. I might have been inside, but there was a different kind of heat going on in there, and the house had thin walls. I decided to go and visit my spider (who of course was not “mine” in any possessive form of the word, as much as I might have liked to think otherwise), so I got to my feet, ignoring the pins and needles from being immobile for so long. I started down the dock back to land, and that was when I saw it. Sleek, graceful, quiet, dangerous. I had never seen its kind before but I could immediately tell it was dangerous. I had seen a stinger before, and this creature definitely had one of the most impressive stingers I had ever seen, not to mention a size only paralleled by a handful of the insects inhabiting the garden, my spider among them. With a dark red exoskeleton, long, powerful wings, and an abdomen striped with orange, the creature was like the insect world’s equivalent of a stealth jet. It flew by without a sound, seeming to part the air around it. My breath literally caught in my throat. It flew over water and made its way to land. I watched it fade into the distance, and then, just as it had almost completely disappeared from view, I snapped from my reverie and chased after it, keeping a safe distance. The creature did not subscribe to any of the antics that flies often incorporate into their flight paths, zigzagging through the air as though afraid they were being followed. It was more like a dragonfly, but even they could be playful when they wanted. This thing was all business. I could almost feel the seriousness radiating off of it.
I followed it all the way home, which just so happened to be my own. He (again, assuming) landed on the side of our house next to where our hose was connected and wound up, and then, pausing for just a moment, ducked beneath the siding. I waited, cautiously, to see if he would return, and when he didn’t I walked over to the spot where he had gone under and peered into the gap. It was too dark to see anything, but I could feel it. Looking down at me from in the darkness. It gave me the chills, but it also gave me a weird sense of exhilaration. I quickly moved my head, feeling like something (or more than one somethings) would drop down onto my head and commence stinging. The heat forgotten, I sat down on the ground, crossed my legs, and waited. Eventually he came out again. I know it’s possible it was just another one of his kind, considering they all pretty much looked the same to us, but although I can’t explain it, somehow I knew it was him. The same one I had followed home. He crawled out of the spot, and then, again with the pause, took off into the air. I watched him go, but this time I didn’t bother following. Instead I stayed by the home. When he finally came back it was with a tiny caterpillar in his mandibles. He took it inside.
Over the next few days of watching their home I counted three individuals. The first one, who seemed to be the biggest, a second one who had more yellow than the other two, and a third, who was the darkest. I looked them up in one of the many insect books I had gotten from the distant relatives who were convinced I would be an entomologist when I grew up, and decided they were paper wasps. They mostly ignored me, but I never forgot what had happened that first day. Because when the wasp paused just before going into his home, I was sure he had looked right at me.
My mother would often have me water the plants in the flowerbed, a chore I had no problems with. I actually enjoyed it, to be honest. It gave me a chance to watch the bees, another one of my favourites. The honey bees were nice, but I’d always had a soft spot for the big, fuzzy bumble bees. Even their name was cute. Bumble. Like a cute, clumsy little bear. That’s what they’d always reminded me of. A cute little bear. The way they zipped around from flower to flower, so dutifully, was as amusing as it was sad. Busy bees.
The problem, which I only became aware of the next time she asked me to do it, was that to water the plants I had to get to the hose. And the hose was on the side of the house. Next to the wasps’ home. I may not have been an entomologist then but I had known a thing or two about wasps, and I knew they were as aggressive as they were protective. While I liked them quite a bit, I wasn’t exactly eager to put myself in a position that would end up getting me stung. My only alternative though was to tell my mother about them, something that would inevitably lead to their deaths. I would sooner have gotten stung than have them killed. After all, what were their lives compared to a little pain? Okay, maybe a lot of pain, but my argument still stood. So, I risked it.
I made my way over, approaching slowly and cautiously for all the good it would do me. There was no sign of the trio, but I knew that if they were home it wouldn’t be long before they sensed the disturbance and came pouring out. I reached the hose and began to unravel it, surprised I hadn’t been visited yet. Just when I began to think something was wrong, the first dark red head peeked out from beneath the sliding. This time I knew he was looking at me. And it might have just been the fear, but at the time I was sure that if he had had eyebrows they would have been bent in the middle. So I did the only sensible thing. I started to talk to him.
I told him that it was alright, that I wasn’t there to disturb them. Then I thought that was pretty stupid, because clearly I was disturbing them, otherwise he wouldn’t have bothered to come out. So I told him I didn’t mean to disturb them, that I was actually trying very hard not to bother them, admittedly for both of our sakes. I can’t remember everything I said, but I’m pretty sure at one point I bargained with him, even tried reasoning with him. I think I said something about how if I got stung my mother would raise hell and we’d both be in for it, although of course only one of us would lose their lives over it. I’m pretty sure I was adamant on it not being a threat, that I was sincerely warning him for his own good. And all the while, as my young imaginative brain spouted the most sensible of reasoning to an insect, said insect just sat there, watching me with those dark, emotionless eyes.
I’m sure this is the part where you expect one of two things. One being the insect flies out and lands on my shoulder and then I grow up to be the wasp-whisperer, touring the world as I teach people about the secret life of wasps, and how intelligent they are and how much we share in common and the bond that unites us all, and it ends with me on my deathbed, my trusty faithful pet wasp laying on my lap, with me until the end. Enter sap story moral about how animals have souls too etcetera.
The second is the wasp calls its friends out and they all sting me and I grow up to be a cynical old bastard who works for a pest control company. Cue realist’s dream come true.
Neither of those things happened that day. The wasp just… sat there, watching me, until I had run out of arguments for why it shouldn’t attack me. And then, when I was done, and I just stood there awaiting its verdict, still nothing happened. So, wary, still not sure I had convinced him, I took the end of the hose in my hand, turned it on, and left, only taking my eyes off of his own when they were out of sight. And when I had finished watering the plants and I went to put the hose back, the same thing happened. He peeked his head out, watched me watch him as I worked to wrap the hose, and did nothing more.
Our relationship, if it can be said we had one, continued on like this for several months. On some days it would be a different wasp who watched me, and sometimes whoever it was would fly out and hover in the air beside me. I ran away the first time this happened, but when I looked over my shoulder there was no one following me. So I returned, knowing if I didn’t water the plants my mother would have my hide. The wasp flew out again, but this time I didn’t run, and the wasp didn’t chase. It just stayed there, circling the area, watching me. I went about my business, stealing the occasional glance back over my shoulder to make sure I wasn’t being ambushed, but nothing happened. Nothing more than that ever happened.
Take what you want from this story; that maybe the wasps really did listen to my arguments and find them within reason, or perhaps that they simply didn’t find me threatening. Maybe there was something deeper than that, that maybe they sensed something in me that they didn’t sense often. Or maybe not. Maybe we don’t live in a world with reasonable wasps, or spiders that enjoy sunsets as much as I do, or bees that work hard for any reason other than it’s in their nature to do so. Maybe all that is just a product of a child’s imaginative mind. But I like to think differently.
One final note: one day I went to get the hose, and there was no wasp there standing guard. And there was none there the next, or the next. It got to the point where I would spend hours outside their home, waiting, watching, hoping. Sometimes I like to think that they had grown so accustomed to me that they had deemed me no threat, that I had achieved their approval, and decided they no longer needed to watch me for trouble. Or maybe they had accepted my presence as just another part of their home. My alternate favoured fantasy, the one tinged with sadness, was that they came to realize that they couldn’t live there anymore, that it was too great a risk should my mother ever decide to water the garden herself and approach the hose, and upon finding the wasps, proceed to kill them. I sometimes like to imagine the two smaller wasps with their things in hand, flying off for the last time. I like to imagine the third one, the bigger one, the first one I saw, staying behind for a while, watching to see if I might come running around the corner one last time, to come and water the plants. I like to imagine him sitting there, waiting, his brothers calling for him to get a move on, and then, finally, when he can’t wait any longer, flying off to join the others in the clear blue sky, off in search of a new home. I know that what most likely happened was that one day my mother actually did happen to go to the hose, or in any event found out about the wasps one way or another. I never did ask her about it though. Not only because of the trouble I’d have gotten in, but also because I wanted to keep that last shred of hope alive, that last possibility intact. And in the end, don’t we all lie to ourselves one way or another?
My boy is in the garden now; I can see him through the study’s window. He’s watching something in the grass, down on his hands and knees, face pressed to the earth. I think I’ll go join him soon. Who knows? Maybe he’s found a descendant of one of my old friends.
You can read the fiction analysis of this story here.