"Will someone kill these goddamned hornets!?" cried Aunt Germaine, voice thundered over the lake like a summer storm, batting at insects that flew about her face with a log- sized arm. Father kept tuned to the burgers sizzling on the grill and Tina fiddled with her scuba gear, but Aunt Germaine's command reverberated in nine-year-old Jay's ear as he sat, squatting by Aunt's Germaine's spread legs on the cottage deck.
With this shriek, Jay knighted himself Protector and took guard beside his aunt holding aloft a flaccid fly swatter and watched as three yellow jackets curved a merry-go-round in air above Aunt Germaine's dimpled elbow. Attracted by her sweat pooling in her shirt, thought Jay, or the faint sweet odour she gave off.
"Do you want cheese on your burger, Tina?" Father asked in his nasal voice.
"Only if it's the cheddar you got at the Ontario store," quipped Tina, not looking up as she tightened her flippers.
"You bet," said Father.
Jay watches as one hornet disengages itself from the trance of Aunt Germaine's sweat to follow a route to his freckled nose. Now was his chance to show Aunt Germaine that he wasn't another wiry Morrison boy. Yes, he had heard her last night, muttering to the hearth's fire: Yes, he took after his mother, didn't he? A "delicate" boy. And maybe, perhaps, snorted Nancy boy into her mug of gin. Jay couldn't be sure. He was crouched on the landing and his memory was flooded with images of pretty Mira Morrison, copper curls and soft skin, saying goodbye to him, saying goodbye to his tight-lipped Father.
The hornet circled Jay's head making a faint buzz sound. At this close distance its black and yellow jacket resembled soft fur. Jay thought briefly of caressing it but it flew out of reach in its quizzical dance. Jay waited, amazed at its languid speed, as it considering the humans it circled in its quest for - Jay guessed - honey, sweets? In the process mistaking human flesh for a morsel of cake, landing on skin softened by hairs, its many legs like shiny black wire, pricking the flesh with its needle. Yes, he had to protect them - docile Father, snippy Tina, even nasty Aunt Germaine from this threat.
And as the hornet spiralled down to hover by his bare feet, Jay made his decision.
Splat! A quick death sandwiched by rubber. When he released the swatter, the dying body slip freefall through cracks of the deck to bury itself into the bed of pine needles below. Aunt Germaine raised a surprised eyebrow but was interrupted.
"You know I want two burgers, Max, with cheese naturally."
"But, Dr. Felton said ..."
"Cheese, Max, surely will not be the death of me." And with a harrump turned to spy Jay who was chanting, "One down, two to go" and the second hornet, as if sensing the disappearance of its friend, roamed along the surface of the deck with centimetre-wide cracks running its length.
"Cheese, please," said Jay, not looking up.
"Uh. We might not have enough, son. Two burgers or one?" But, to himself, hissed, Germaine probably got into it last night. His son was thinking the same and disappointed muttered, "One, please." Then Jay's eyes alighted on the second curious hornet now flying to and fro him and the table like a ball attached to a paddle.
"You got to feed this boy more, Max." Aunt Germaine intoned. "Put on a second burger for him."
But Jay ignored his beastly aunt - Frog Queen, Tina called her behind her back - his eyes following the second hornet instead. It flew so close to his feet and in one moment, wondering if its spindly black legs would prick his skin or make a soft landing and before he could decide if he'd want to know what that felt like, the hornet had landed on the skin of his big toe.
The sensation was light, kind of like ants scurrying along your skin, thought Jay. And for a moment the hornet was an innocuous ant, its movements tickling his skin slightly.
"Did you hear me, Max?" bolstered Aunt Germaine.
Shut up! thought Jay. His heart beat faster and the hornet, feeling it, gripped his toe with front legs and arched its stinger to penetrate Jay's flesh. Jay ripped his foot away, smashing the swatter into it again and again and as it lay on the deck, twitching, he brushed it into the cracks to meet the same fate as its friend.
Tina glanced at Jay with disgust but Aunt Germaine chortled. "He's doing a fine job," she clucked, holding her burger, laden with cheese.
"Good job, Jay," Father intoned, handing his son a burger, garnished with a dollop of ketchup.
But Jay's eyes were fixed in the crack watching the hornet that had not yet fallen, but remained sandwiched between the wood slats. With a flick of the squatter, the bug dropped. Jay ripped into his burger, strangely famished, wondering where the third hornet was. It was just there.
Tina's lips curled in mock. "You know, you could just drown them instead of pulverizing them to death. That's what they do at the Oak. We just put out a bowl of beer. They're attracted to it. They drink and drown."
"They also like honey," offered Father, sitting down for his dinner. "Fresh honey. Pour some in a bowl and they'll go to it. You don't have to kill them." But Tina, like her aunt, rarely listened to Father.
"Drown the buggers! Aha. Good solution, my dear," said Aunt Germaine. "I'll offer my cup."
And held up the transparent glass before setting it down. "Ah, I used to collect bugs every summer. Only the dead ones - pah! With Old Ern."
Father didn't respond to hearing his dead father's name. He attempted to absorb himself in the view of the lake while masticating his cheese-less burger.
Aunt Germaine sighed, dipping into a memory. "Me and Ern, we'd collect all the bees, the nasty yeller jackets and we'd bury them in a glass jar under the cottage. We'd make sure most of them were dead but oh, they scared me and Ern something fierce. Yup. Your father was a good man, Maxwell."
"I'll get the beer," sighed Tina and returned with a Blue, pouring it into the pink cup and setting it by her brother's feet, sat back in wait. The women and Jay watched, intense and nervous.
It took a minute for the cavalry to come - a swarm of five, then six, then ten wasps. As if the third one had told the others about their allies fallen in combat and Jay scrunched his body into the wall, trying to become the wall as the pack came, their bodies making frantic zigzags illustrating their new anger, led by a sleek hornet with a fat thorax seemingly attached by a thread - their queen.
"Just stay by the wall," Tina said, a note of panic in her voice that she would later deny. And Jay thought of planks of wood. How they were shaped, how they acted and tried with his might to best resemble a slat of cottage wall. Tina was right. They headed for the beer in the pink cup, one by one, taking turns at drinking a drop.
"It isn't working," Jay said.
"You'll have to force it," frowned Tina.
"What do you mean?" asked Jay.
"DROWN them for Laud's sake. Drown them!" screamed Aunt Germaine.
I'm not a Nancy Boy, chanted Jay and when one wasp drop in for its bead of beer, he clamped a thin palm over the opening, shook the glass so the beer coated the wasp's wings so it couldn't fly and set the glass down to watch the wasp spin in a curled fetal pose, twitching in death throes in alcohol.
"Don't worry," said Tina as Jay examined the twitching which seems to last minutes. "The alcohol numbs them. At least," she laughs. "That's what they say at work."
Jay repeated this motion. He had lost his fear in the mechanism of his actions. Like licking stamps to adhere to 50 envelopes. In the end, seven bugs lay dead in the pink cup. The deck was clear of all visible flying creatures. There was no sign of the majestic queen; not in dead in the cup, nor in the sky. Aunt Germaine was nodding off. He couldn't even present his twitching cache for approval.
Father intervened and took the glass out of Jay's trembling hands. "Do you want to go for an evening swim, son?"
Jay shook his head. The truth was, he didn't much feel like being outside and when Father and Tina returned from their swim and scuba, they found Jay, back against the couch frame, reading a frayed copy of Isaac Asimov's great stories. He didn't move from there even when Tina and Father began roasting marshmallows on the open fire.
"It must be a good story," thought Father and smiled at the memory of reading through.
But Jay wasn't thinking of rocket ships landing on Mars or planet surfaces made of sand. The queen hornet was in his mind's eyes, she with her black wings like transparent robes, her head so large you could see the definition of her thousand-mirrored black eyes. Jay read in wait. Will she return with reinforcements?
The queen was still on his mind tucked into bed in faintly mildewed sheets. The faint snores of Aunt Germaine down the hall. His father in the bunk bed on top since Aunt Germaine took up the one and only queen-size and Tina slept in the small bedroom.
And he wasn't at all surprised when after midnight he heard the thick buzz wafting through the air. She had returned and in the soft moon glare, Jay caught her flying under the frame of the upper bunk, slipping in and out of moonlight, swooping down to Jay's alien human face, robe wings gliding his cheeks with butterfly kisses.
He should have felt terrified but had he panicked and slapped her, he would've just embedded her stinger into his face. No, the queen clicked, I have only come back for my dead, and with this, she flew between the cracks of the slightly open bedroom door, into the hall.
Jay remained where he lay and a few moments later, the queen returned, sweeping his cheeks, beckoning, then exiting the room.
After this happened thrice, Jay swung his legs out of bed. His Father's deep, slow breathing continued. Jay dared walk on the throw carpet, careful not to creak the floorboards underneath. His thin frame fit through the doorframe and emerged in the square hallway where he lost sight of the queen. Instead, he heard Aunt Germaine's droning snore in the bedroom across. She never closed her door - in case of fire, she said. In the light above his head, Jay saw the queen. She slipped through the crack leading to Aunt Germaine's room.
No way, thought Jay. But again the queen would have none of it. She swooped in and out, encircling Jay in tight circles as if she were tying him up with rope and seeing as he had come halfway, he decided to push open the door.
Aunt Germaine slept heavily under the sprawl of the throw. Her voluminous snores sounded like a swarm of bees buzzing over spilt honey. The queen hornet spun figure 8's in front of Jay each time moving closer to Aunt Germaine. Her doughy face was almost beautific in the moonlight and Jay could see the hint of a girlish smile. Jay realized she wasn't snoring at all. The buzzing came from under the bed where the queen hornet was flying in tight spirals now. Curiosity had led him this far. Jay lifted the skirt of the bed.
Amidst the rolls of dust bunnies sat a large plastic jar shaped like a teddy bear. Jay recognized it as one of those supersave jars at the supermarket that housed peanut butter but tonight it housed eyes -- the shiny, black, beady eyes of a hundred hornets or more, trapped in teaming mass in the plastic belly of a hollow cartoon bear. Maybe a thousand hornets, climbing over their brethren, buzzing supplanting screaming, thrusting against their prison with magnified anger.
The sight transfixed Jay whose wet bowels had sunk to his knees and stared helplessly as the queen hornet danced in front of his nose, imploring him to open the prison. Jay looked on the peaceful face of his aunt and back. He didn't move but watched the team of hornets pushing. The plastic lid was buckling upwards with the force, the imprints of wasps pushed through the lid as live hornets climbed over their dead. The angry mass would soon be out. The queen danced in front of Jay's nose.
"But she made me kill..." he whispered.
The queen danced with glee and the lid strained once more, lifting that extra half-inch to let the swarms loose into the air of the cottage, beating the air with screams of freedom in their quest for fresh honey.
About the author:
Although from Canada, Nichole McGill has never had a family cottage "up north". A writer of many media, her collection of short stories (13 Cautionary Tales) was published by Toronto's Gutter Press and a short film that she wrote (The Waiting Room) recently made the film festival rounds in Montreal and Berlin. She runs the durtygurls reading series and is presenting beavering away at new work.