The Hornets of White Mountain – A.B. Cabdriver

My grandmother was the first of us taken by hornets. Rumors had warned us, posters had warned us, even our own TVs: “They can chase a person a quarter of a mile,” “They kill 1,000 people a year,” “They have killed horses,” “They have killed elephants,” “Any given attacker will sting its victim a dozen times.”
My grandmother, tactically aggressive, threw old fish under her neighbors’ houses, attracting rats, cats, vermin, and eventually bees, wasps, and hornets.
My grandmother did not send, but expected birthday letters. When my father forgot, we received a threat in the mail, our power went out, then our dog went missing. People called her ‘the executioner’ because she seemed to know when you would die. Blackbirds gathered around her chimney. She threw nuts out her window at people. To little children, still learning to walk, my grandmother whispered, “I’ll see you in hell.”
Still, it was terrible what happened to my grandmother. Nightmarish. Her neighbors said of it, ‘awful.’ On Sunday, she was out throwing weeds over her fence (and into her neighbor’s yard). She had a habit of sleepwalking, and deprived of sleep, she was routinely distracted. I don’t think she even noticed the buzzing from the ground.
“It was like a genie from a spout,” said her neighbor in the beige house. “It caught like a gasoline fire—woomp.”
As her screaming grew, neighbors rushed to their windows and sliding-glass doors. What at first appeared to be smoke, was a swarm of angry hornets. They said she screamed for help. But you can’t help them if it has already started. “They have killed horses,” “They have killed elephants,” “They kill 1,000 people a year.”
She was found in her neighbor’s yard, swollen beyond recognition. Neighbors arriving home from the grocery store mistook her for a young girl playing in a pile of apples, but she was an old woman covered in welts.
This is not, however, a story about my grandmother, but a story about my attempt at murdering my father.
He took advantage of the bees, my father. He talked of the hornets incessantly.
A council cop, he became an assistant to officers of the national government who were officially handling the hornets. The county police only put up signs and did whatever the national authority-men told them to do. My father knew everything about the bees, and yet he scarcely ever saw them. Overnight, he had become an errand boy, powerless and small.
Emasculated by the national government, my father took his frustrations out on me. He buzzed behind me while I did my homework. He wore pleated pants and no shirt and stirred his finger in iced tea. Anytime I was slow on a math problem, he plucked out a jagged one to sting against my shoulder. “You can’t find the surface area?” He buzzed and shifted his feet. “Don’t multiply that.”
But I too took advantage of the bees. I considered them constantly.
We were riding our bikes home from school when we found three hornets writhing on the ground. We parked our bikes and squatted around to watch them die.
Two of them quickly transitioned to merely twitching their legs, but one still fought for life violently. Its upper half lashed back and forth, as if trying to fly away from its own stinger. Its wings were broken, its abdomen crushed. My cousin L threw a rock at it from about ten feet away. It bounced over the bodies. I joined her and sent a rock through the lively one’s broken wing so the whole body rolled over and began to detach. L’s little brother Cameron drew a giant bee in the dirt.
When we were sure they were harmless, L and I got close.
“Where is its poison?” I said.
L pushed one over with a pencil. It rolled over itself like a worm. “Here,” she said, indicating the stinger. “You can extract it. Cut it here.”
Its stinger was as big as my fingernail. She pierced the bee with the tip of her pencil, and then shook the bee off into a jelly-stained ziploc.
We examined the ziploc. She held it up in the sun.
“What do I do?” I said.
L shrugged. “Crush it up. Don’t touch the stinger. You know. But then,” she paused, she considered. “How do you make him eat it?”
“Easy,” I said. I smiled. “I’ll pour its poison in his tea.”
L gave me the ziploc and we shook hands, then she helped Cameron onto his bike, and they pedaled their way down the old road.
When I arrived home, our door was ajar, and my father was cursing inside.
“You’re home already,” I said.
He nodded. He leaned on the counter and opened a can of green tea.
“The government told us we were unnecessary today,” he said. “My district is infested. Not a single house isn’t infested with bees. The government men sent us home.”
“So, you’ll be home for a while I guess,” I said.
“I guess,” he said. He set his can on the counter, clearly empty already from its sound.
I came into the kitchen and gathered some ice into a glass. I took a new can of tea and turned my back to him. Betting he could not see past my overstuffed backpack, I slipped the ziploc from my uniform and began rolling the edge of the tea can over the bee. I would kill him. The sweetness of this fact coursed through my body. I could hardly control myself. I stifled my laughter through feigning a cough.
“Don’t cough into my tea,” he said.
I dropped an ice cube.
“Don’t spill any ice,” he said. “Try to be more careful. By the way, what is your homework tonight?”
When the hornet was pulpy enough to pass as undissolved matcha, I shook the opened ziploc into a little mouth and shook its contents into the glass of ice. I slipped the ziploc back in my uniform. I opened the can and swirled in the tea.
“We found three hornets in the road today,” I said. I turned around. I held out a beautiful glass of iced tea.
“Where was that?” he said. He took the glass. He did not examine it.
“On the old road.”
“By your cousin’s. I know. Your uncle called me on the phone.” He took an enormous and sudden mouth full of tea, swallowing some ice.
My face felt so hot. I wanted to light off a firework.
My father stirred the rest of the ice with his finger. “You three are fond of,” he took another impulsive sip and began chewing on ice, “torturing creatures.” He shoved his hand in the glass and wiggled his fingers around inside.
“I came straight home,” I said.
He looked at the clock on the stove. “Did you walk slow?” He pulled his hand out of the glass. “Those hornets you found in the road.” He squinted at his fingers. “They were just fat wasps.”
I saw what he was holding. It was the stinger, the mushed back end of the bee, and one spindly leg. He popped it in his mouth and chewed like ice.
“It’s nothing but a yellow jacket. The hornets hate other bees, so they murder them too. They destroy whole hives. One hornet can destroy a whole hive on its own. Honeybees can swarm a yellow jacket, but the hornet will systematically take out every last honey bee, unstoppable.”
He continued to talk at me while I got out my homework, then came to stand behind me with a reed of silver grass as wide as a pencil.
I hated L and Cam. Why had they ratted me out? But then I shivered when I thought of my uncle, for he too took advantage of the bees.
My uncle possessed an enormous sack that at one time might have carried gourds. He flapped it out over the table and covered up our assignments. It was so big it fell from the table to the floor.
“I will show you the hive,” he would say, pointing to a stain on the sack as if it were an X on a map. “I will take you to the hive. To the land of honey!” He was always shirtless and drunk. He compulsively smoked and bid us look in the sack. “There is a swarm of bees. There is a kingdom of bees!” We did what we could to avoid him.
My uncle was not obsessed with grades like my father. In fact, he seemed to have no motivation at all. We could never find why he would do it, except that he seemed to believe it was all really happening. He would carry them through the house, shouting, “Bees. Bees! Bees,” wandering through the dark corridors into the night.
“It’s like waking up in a dream,” L told me at school. “I immediately know what’s happening, but Cameron doesn’t. He thinks it’s real too. He screams and tries to jump out of the sack.”
She showed me her arm. It was scratched and bruised because of Cameron.
“He runs through the house with us in the sack over his back, bumping into the walls like he was carrying nothing other than a sack full of pumpkins. When we finally get out of the bag, he’s always already on the ground, rolling and screaming that he’s been attacked by bees. The strange thing is though. Every time he really does have red marks all over his body.”
The days my L and Cameron came to school crazed-looking, twitching, and compulsively checking their skin and under the seams in their clothes, I knew they’d spent the night in the hive. Sometimes they came to school. Sometimes they didn’t. It was the same for all of us. Other kids would suddenly stop coming to school for fear of bees, or because a family member had been killed by bees. The same thing happened to teachers too. They never came back, and their students were shuffled elsewhere.
To keep away the bees, they kept a stringent window-to-door policy. We did not line up but kept scattered outside the school window. One at a time, we stood before the window, turned around, and lifted our arms or peeled back our shirt collars or backpack straps as directed by the inspector behind the window. If you were clear of bees, you were permitted in through the door.
Inside, we covered our eyes and our teachers dusted us with diatomaceous earth. Every morning, we had to readjust to the sinister buzz of the one ceiling light, as we opened our small hand-stapled textbooks.
Whenever they did come to school, I always sat with my cousins at lunch. We sat on our knees at the window and nibbled sandwiches as we stared into the abyss our worlds had become since the bees.
L and I spoke quietly over our bread. I shared with her new creative means of killing my father—say cockroach poison in his coffee, or pipe cleaner while his mouth yawned open in sleep. But L was skeptical of it all. “He’ll smell it in his coffee,” or, “Does he close his eyes when he sleeps?” Elevated by the national government making his authority extraneous overnight, my father was in a constant state of paranoia. L was my voice of reason. Through her I learned to wait, bide my time, find the perfect opportunity, just like we thought the hornets had been.
The morning after the yellow jackets, L and Cam weren’t at school. I sat at the window by myself and ate a honey sandwich, my mind flowing with the midnight dreams of what I might do to my father. Unrestrained, I clenched my hands and laughed to myself. The others stared. I could not control the thrill of my screaming father. The life, the life, how it would drain from him as he writhed and foamed. The badger in the mouth of a dog! And I would be that dog, thrashing the life–
And then I realized, life was where I’d gone wrong. All along, it should have been a live bee. This was obvious. What is a stinger without any thrust? It is a limp and unwounding object. The yellowjackets in the road had been a divine sign, a sign from the hornets themselves. This time I would not wait for them to come into my territory but go instead swiftly to theirs.
There was no room for error.
I needed a trap.
I built it out of wood and mesh and tied a thirty-yard piece of twine to the outside of the door. When a bee came in, I could yank the string and slam the door shut.
I rode my bike to my grandmother’s, the trap bouncing from my handlebars. On the way there I saw houses deserted and plastered in great yellow and black warning signs and crawling with government beekeepers. They wore bright yellow suits of a very thick artificial material, a plastic- or a rubber-based fabric with high hoods that did not have a mesh veil in front of the face, but a clear plastic sheet. They were a cross between nuclear hazmat and beekeeper suits, only they had no sense of the quaintness of beekeeping, only the emergency of men in a nuclear spill.
Three of them were approaching a parked car with bee-smokers. There was a body in the driver’s seat.
I pulled my bike up to my grandmother’s and left it haphazardly in her grass. The beekeepers didn’t want any civilians in quarantined zones. Once quarantined, they were evacuated quickly–bicycles were abandoned, lawnmowers left, whole bags of groceries dropped to the floor and never picked up.
My grandma’s trash cans were as usual clean and pristine. Her neighbor’s cans, however, were riddled with little dead bee bodies and huge pink slabs of old rotting fish. I fished one out, shook off the dead bees, and slipped it into the trap.
I took the fish and the trap and opened the side gate and I tread carefully over my grandmother’s back lawn, avoiding the nest my grandmother had disturbed which was almost precisely in the middle of her backyard. It was a mound of gray dirt. There was no movement at all. Still, there must be some hornets left alive somewhere. I began pacing the lawn back and forth. Still, I avoided the nest my grandmother had disturbed. Then jumping up and down in places on the lawn.
Finally, I saw there was a beehive in the tree branch which reached over from her neighbor’s tree and dropped nuts into my grandmother’s yard.
I set the box underneath and stood near the gate with the cord. As soon as I disturbed the nest, they would go crazy. Surely, they would come over in a minute. After waiting some time, they still hadn’t shown up. I found a rock and aimed it at the hive. The first I threw sailed over the branch. The hornets sat there, their antennae shifting. I threw it and knocked into the branch. One of the hornets lifted up, circled the branch and set down again.
I could hear L’s voice, telling me to aim higher. Throw it harder.
I took one last rock and disturbed the bees so they flew throughout the yard. Eventually, it took to the salmon in the trap. I slammed the door shut and began drawing it back in toward me. There was no mistaking it. It was three times the size of the yellow jacket. This was definitely a hornet. I took the trap with me and got on my bike.
When I got home, the door was ajar again. It seemed the national police had still not called my father back in for work. He was sitting at the table, not drinking his habitual canned iced tea, but beer instead. My uncle’s bag was on the table.
The hornet buzzed wildly in the trap.
“I know that sound,” my father said. “That’s the real deal. Go ahead. Release it. I know that’s why you’re here.” His eyes were red like he hadn’t slept. He rubbed them.
“Why are you home so early?” I asked.
“I was of no use in the fight against the bees,” he said. “In any situation. Even in my own brother’s house.” He slapped his hand on his brother’s old cigarettes, took one out and lit it.
“Why do you have that sack?”
“Why do you think?” he said. He held up his beer. “Just you and me. Come on. Let’s see who’s next.” He moved so much he seemed manic. He exhaled a thick stream of smoke from his nose and when the hornet buzzed inside its trap, my father reached for it. “You gonna open it or what?”
I ran from him. I took the trap and ran, the hornet ratting loudly inside. I ran to my bike and rode as fast as I could to my cousin’s house.
They weren’t at school today, but that was normal. It didn’t mean anything. Kids stopped coming to school all the time, for all sorts of reasons. Maybe they were sick. Maybe it was a family vacation. Maybe my uncle was sick.
But when I arrived at their house, it was so full of bee smoke, it looked as if it were on fire.
Three beekeepers in giant yellow suits, stood at the open garage, which was obscured completely by smoke. They looked reluctant, like three rescue workers at the mouth of a mine where the rescue was too late.

Long Beach (Washington, not California) native, Cabdriver takes inspiration from the wildlife around him, the wildlife far below him when he’s out in his boat, and the wildlife he used to see as a child during his short visits to the Oregon Zoo. Cabdriver has been a writer-in-residence at the Sou’wester on fifteen separate occasions. And still nobody remembers him!

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