My stepfather zipped my lime-green vest to the dock handrail where I left it while running barefoot in the muck below. Seven, rain-drenched, digging at my braces with my tongue, I tried to loosen the zipper down. I soon found that it was stuck and abandoned the vest for the handle of my plastic bucket of water and freshly dug clams. Later, a raccoon ate the clams on the house deck one by one with dexterous baby-fingers while Shasta, the retriever, barked and smudged her nose all over the glass door. The raccoon picked each blue-grey clam up, pried it open, and slurped it down while looking into our eyes.
My ducks are missing feathers. Their naked bellies remind me of greasy skin exposed for a slice of butter. A chef’s pinch of herbs. I gobble-quack at them so they know I’m coming and call to my daughter, asking her to drag over fresh bedding and the old grill so I can scoop out spent ashes and sprinkle them in the coop to deter the mites. Dandelion and Madeline waddle the yard, consulting one another with complaints. My daughter runs over in flip-flops and opens the grill to scoop out ash. Instead she finds four yellow jackets building their papery castle.
“Let’s kill them,” she says.
“They’re beautiful,” I say.
“No. They’ll sting you when you’re sitting there. For no reason.”
I have heard this story many times. Her stepmother minding her own business when a wasp stung her for no reason. I return to shoveling the coop while my daughter skips around, talking to me, inspecting grass and dandelions and looking at the sky.
“They don’t do anything” she yells.
“What?” I yell over my shoulder. “They’re beautiful! Look at what they’re doing. Building a home for the queen.”
“They won’t bite.”
“They don’t bite. They sting. For no reason!”
“So what?” I say, snapping my t, while taking a wood panel out of the coop and hosing it off. “So what if we get stung?”
I admire yellow jackets. Feet moving rhythmically. Musically. Focused. Feeding babies with insect meat. I wonder if we are bonded species. Me as one. Them as them. Colonies and swarms. Organized. We have met before.
I was four. My mother and father together. Me in patterned culottes and a red shirt with white hems and little pearly buttons—details I recall—wandering along a dead grey-brown hillside near a stream. Shasta beside me.
Abruptly, memory shifts to my body resting against fine grit on cool porcelain. A baking soda bath. Raised bumps on my arms and legs that look like volcanoes. Bits of skin hang off the top of each one, exposing a red lava middle. A doctor friend, a kind man. Tall with a mustache and a soft voice talked with my parents outside the door.
My mother later tells me Shasta stepped on a hive. My father scooped me up. We drove through dormant autumn hills to see the doctor.
After that I carried a self-injecting needle tube. My mother’s mantra, Always remember your bee-sting kit, echoing, a sing-song in my brain. I wore an allergy bracelet locked on my arm with a snake-y red symbol. A defect. A miniature steel handcuff.
My mother searched for an antidote until she found an experimental program with regular injections of anti-venom. I watched intently every time a pasty medical student pulled the needle from a package, sucked liquid from a glass container, flicked it, stabbed my arm, returned some blood, and pressed down.
“How can you watch?” my mother would ask. Every single time.
Eighteen years later I met a wasp again. South America with another twenty-year-old, blue-eyed blonde who winked at our jungle tour guide, obtaining an invitation to an indigenous wedding. We hiked through deep slippery mud over winding roots and under flowers and foliage in too-short dresses, with wooden beads dangling down. Arriving at the clearing, we encountered steaming pots covered in banana leaves where women stirred and checked cooked monkeys, bent grotesquely into fetal position as though they were asleep. We sat in a circle on logs with banana leaf placemats and swallowed fermented drinks out of a gourd passed along. An old woman walked around the circle distributing small servings of dinner. I picked up a piece of meat and found that it was the thumb of a small monkey and the whirled print looked just like mine. I moved the food around a little and adjusted my stance to keep my short dress from sliding up my legs. It didn’t protect me from the wasp on my thigh. A burning sting intensified and swelled into a baseball. I hadn’t remembered my bee sting kit. I sat on the log looking around at the people laughing and talking, smoking and sharing their food. Would my tongue swell? Would my breath cease? I’m only a primate. I could die in the jungle like our dinner. I watched as my leg grew redder. I could hear Quechua conversations and laughter through my anxiety as I monitored the sting. My friend danced and laughed, imagining her glinting smile to be the light of the party. The sun went down and the swelling slowed and stopped just as the sounds of the jungle rose up around us.
We are preparing for the Fourth of July BBQ. In the front yard, a handsome neighbor tells me he killed the disruptive groundhog who had been carefully interrupting our mowed lawns with piles of fresh dirt.
“I stuck a hose in one side of the hole, washed it out, and shot it,” he grins and tilts back a can of beer.
“Why didn’t you relocate her?” I ask.
“Groundhogs are worthless.”
I go to retrieve the grill. More wasps gather. Maybe I should remove them so they don’t sting my daughter. Protect my family. Plug the holes with a glue gun. Light a fire. Put a bag over them. Burn them with the blow torch I use for perfect strawberry crème brûlée. Later, a storm floods out the party and the grill fills with water. I’m certain the queen will drown but when the rain subsides there they are. Building. Focused. I leave them to their work and go inside.
Lisa J Hardy is a medical anthropologist living in northern Arizona with her daughter and their dogs, chickens, and ducks. Her creative work appears or is forthcoming in Riggwelter and Writer’s Resist.