The wasp’s quick, menacing, unpredictable stab. I am crouched beside the tire of a pickup truck in Tennessee, my fists balled around my already burning ears. It’s a Saturday in the summer. On the tailgate, my grandfather, my uncle, and their crew of posthole diggers and concrete pourers have knocked off working for long enough to eat lunch: leftover biscuits, sliced tomatoes, boiled eggs.
I am nine years old, soon to be ten. When people ask me what I want to be when I grow up, I say “country singer,” I say “Braves center fielder,” but what I think I want to be is one of these men. I want to be tough like them, steady-handed. The truth is I’m not sure I could be even if I tried. What I am is in thrall to them, which is to say afraid of making a fool of myself in front of them. At the moment, though, I am more afraid of the wasp.
What kind of meanness is a wasp? Even for flying bugs with stingers, of which there are legions in the hills north of Nashville, wasps seem severe. Sure, a bee can sting you, make you swell, but bees make honey, and besides, a bee will sting you just the once. Their lives tied to their weapon, they strike as a last stand, then leave their weapons behind as if offering concessions. Wasps show no such restraint. They are indiscriminate. They don’t carry a weapon, they are the weapon, knives gone airborne, anger on wings.
By wasp, of course, I mean Polistes carolina, the red paper wasp. Called “paper” because their nests are papier-mâché globes of chewed-up leaves and tree bark. Called “red” for their color, though red doesn’t quite nail it. Reddish-brown is closer, the color of corroded metal, perfect camo for sneak attacks on kids taking cover behind rusty bumpers and wheel wells. But red, red is the color they inspire. Red, that bright shade of hot fear.
I see wasps everywhere. See their great nests in high branches and hanging like cursed piñatas from the rafters in the barn. I watch them chewing through porch screens and crawling along the dusty dashes of cars. Even when I can’t see them, I sense them—I know they’re there. Later, I will read how James Baldwin learned from reading certain passages in Dickens that literature, even the best literature we have, isn’t always to be trusted, and I will come to feel similarly about Romantic poetry, generally, and about Wordsworth, in particular, who in all of the many gorgeous lines he wrote about trees and fields and wildflowers waving in the sun, never once, to my knowledge, mentions wasps.
People will tell me wasps aren’t aggressive. They’ll swear that hornets, yellow jackets, and dirt daubers are more irritable. They’ll say wasps “won’t bother you if you don’t bother them,” but I don’t believe them any more than I believe Wordsworth. A couple of years prior, I’d been stung while on a class trip, and I hadn’t bothered the wasp in the slightest. I hadn’t even seen it coming. One moment I was laughing with friends, the next I was writhing in the grass. The attack felt personal, and, indeed, it was personal, for the wasp had stung me, of all places, on my left ear.
Sting aside, my ears were already a source of anxiety. Too large for my head, too large for any head really, they were liable, at any moment, to flush a purple shade of crimson. From what I could gather, I’d inherited them from Homer, my grandmother’s father. A coal miner in West Virginia, he died long before I was born, but I’d startled to my likeness in black-and-white pictures of him from the forties and fifties. The framed one in my grandparents’ back bedroom might as well have been a mirror. Like Homer’s, my ears had something of the gramophone about them. It was as if in the womb, in an attempt to make out the music and muffled voices on the other side of our mothers’ stomachs, we’d cupped our ears with such frequency and force that they’d set that way, all agog, on the sides of our heads.
Naturally, my ears were a target for older kids’ flicks and finger thumps, but no thump had ever made them throb like the wasp. My eyes flooded with tears before I had the chance to stop them. One of the mothers who’d accompanied us on the trip came to my aid. She said she had a remedy. She reached into her purse and pulled out a bottled water and a pack of Virginia Slims. She sliced open one of the smokes with her fingernail, sprinkled water on the tobacco, and pressed the brown mash against my ear. The makeshift compress did relieve the burning, but when I returned to my friends, they eyed me with alarm. In the bathroom mirror, I saw why. My ear had taken on new dimensions. It wasn’t an ear at all. It was a purple circus balloon blown up and twisted into an ear shape. It was hideous, that’s what it was, and it stayed so for the length of the bus ride back to school.
But as much as the sting had hurt and humiliated me, it was the times I’d narrowly escaped getting stung that haunted me most. On the hill above my parents’ place, there was a ruin of a burned-down mansion. The owners, the story went, had torched the pile on purpose, hoping to collect on the insurance. You could glean something of the house’s former glory from the charred remains. Stone walls, crumbling in places, still surrounded much of the plot. Not only was the steep driveway paved, it was covered with a gabled roof, a flourish that proved doubly strategic, shielding the driveway from snow and ice in the winter while also barring fire trucks from the flames.
On the far side of the property, overlooking a series of smaller hills, there was a swimming pool, which must have been heaven on earth in the summer, a middle finger thrown at the Southern sun. A ragged tree grew up through the liner now. From the diving board, which creaked when you stepped on it but wasn’t going anywhere, you could get hold of a branch and climb inside. What kind of tree was it? Not any kind you wanted in your yard. The leaves were coarse, pockmarked. You itched at the slightest brush of the bark. It seemed less like a tree than a hex in tree form, as if the land had rendered judgment for the arson by driving a stake into the pool’s heart.
In any case, I was up in that tree one afternoon when on the branch in front of me a little pod opened and out of the husk, as if birthed into being at that very moment, a red paper wasp bloomed buzzing. I lost my mind. I swatted and flailed and tumbled into the pool bed, which was full of broken beer bottles, old pornos, love roses, twigs. Cut up and frantic, my sweaty arms crosshatched in blood, I high-stepped through the muck, making for the rusted ladder. Still the wasp persisted. I swatted and swatted at it and then I swatted at the specter of it until I arrived back at home. Somehow I had escaped, but escape couldn’t have felt any more futile. The wasp would be back. Maybe not that wasp, but some wasp would.
And now it’s here, huge as ever, trigger happy, hounding the truck. It’s hovering over the truck bed, its stinger and legs suspended as if gathering intel on who to attack first and who next and how many times and when. How no one else seems to notice, how the workers go right on eating and talking around the tailgate, beggars belief. For all I know, in a moment, the wasp will land in my hair, crawl down my neck. I’ll look down, my crossed eyes sliding into focus, and see the wasp on the tip of my nose. I’ll feel it before I see it, and it will be too late.
I close my eyes and see nothing but red. I brace for the sting, the one that will lay me bare in front of my heroes. But, suddenly, through my half-covered ears, I hear something unexpected: silence. All at once, the men on the tailgate have gone rock quiet. The whole world, it seems to me, is standing still. Cautious yet curious, keeping one eye out for the wasp, I make my slow way around the truck to where the workers are circled up now, frozen.
There’s an edge in the air I don’t understand, a strange mix of nerves and mistrust and wonder. Has somebody been stung? I shoulder my way between my grandfather and my uncle, who moves his cigarette to his mouth and stands me in front of him. He bends down, motions forward. “Look a-there,” he says. “Son, you won’t believe.”
In the middle of the circle stands a man named Fred. He’s a mechanic, a carpenter. He sometimes sleeps in my uncle’s barn. The year before, he had nearly lost a leg when the electric augur with which he’d been digging holes for a new fencerow had caught on his blue jeans and pulled him inside. He’s shirtless now, sweating. His ball cap is pushed way back on his head, and between his thumb and middle finger, he’s holding the wasp.
Has he pulled it out of the air? Charmed it like a snake? I step closer. The wasp is straining against his fingers. I can see the wings flexing, the stinger probing air and skin. The wasp wants to kill Fred, wants to kill all of us, but—I see now why the others are marveling—it can’t get its stinger into Fred’s hand. It prods again and again but can’t find purchase. Calloused over from work, from the tools and the heat and the decades of roughness, his hands are impenetrable. The wasp might as well be trying to sting a stone wall.
In years to come, I will know worse pain than wasp stings, know deeper humiliation, far greater fear. I will know that the pain I feel is as nothing compared to the pain of others. Wasps, never pleasant, will nonetheless become part of the shit of life one accepts as a given, so much so that their absence in Wordsworth, let alone in all those songs about summer, will make a kind of sense. To keep going you do have to ignore a lot.
At this moment, though, with the wasp between his fingers, before it falls to the grass and he finishes it off with his boot, Fred might as well be holding sickness or poverty or war—just the worst thing you can think of—maybe sorrow, maybe death itself. And if a red paper wasp, a danger once so formidable, can be made to look this powerless, this small, then who’s to say there’s not a day coming when all those other devils lose their sting, too?
Drew Bratcher was born in Nashville. He received his M.F.A. from the University of Iowa. He lives in Chicagoland.