The sticky July sun beats down on a little red brick house surrounded by Michigan weed fields. The world makes its own music: a shimmering chorus of crickets and cicadas, rich with random calls of mourning doves under the rustling canopy of a giant elm, and the low hum of hornets in their grey paper house.
Big sister is on the front stoop. Six years old, she’s scowling and stripping ears of corn like they owe her money. I am helping. The ear is as long as my forearm, too fat for me to hold. She rips it from me, finishes the job with all the disdain that her three years seniority allows, and disappears into the house, slamming the screen door behind her.
Instantly the music changes.
A high-pitched urgency drowns out all other sounds. A writhing black mass foams out of the grey paper cone under the eaves; a cloud of evil. Frantic, terrified, defenseless, I run. Around the corner, up the dirt drive, toward the back gate in little red t-straps that have never been tested for speed, I run. To the back door, where Mama is, I run. I am almost there.
Something lands on my eye; a black, leggy, white-eyed devil-fly on a mission. I feel the burning shock as its barbed weapon pierces the inside corner and plunges in, shattering all my earlier understandings of pain. I clutch and bat and still, I run. Somehow I get through the back door to Mama, to safety. The screen door slams behind me.
In the steamy-close air of the kitchen, Mama sighs heavily. She sets down her paring knife, wipes her hands on the damp kitchen towel, and crosses the floor to me. Her cold fingers carry the dusty scent of raw potato, mixed with the faint pink fragrance of dish soap. Tsking and sighing once more at my tearful attempts to explain, she looks but sees nothing, hears but does not believe me. She sends me to lie down in the darkened front room, alone. So I go.
I walk across the creaky wooden floor, climb onto the big green sofa, and lay my head on a small, round throw pillow with a hard, round button in the center. The button catches and pulls on my hair if I move, so I lie very still. There is no sound but the low, rhythmic whirr and clank of the oscillating fan. It seems to move the heavy air not at all. But I am cold, my skin clammy and goose-bumped. My eye throbs and burns. I am stung to the core.
The dim light behind the shaded windows gradually fades to dusk. Finally, Daddy comes home. I hear him talking with Mama in the kitchen. He asks for me, by name. Mama tells him where I am, and why. I hear his footsteps as he crosses the darkened room. I sense him standing over me, but my eyes are too heavy to open. I feel his hand on my cheek, warm and gentle. Then I hear his voice, raised in alarm, calling Mama. He turns on the tall, brass reading lamp and calls Mama again to come and see the swollen purple lump that hides my left eye.
“Oh,” Mama says lightly, “I guess she did get stung.”
But Daddy’s voice is heavy. “I should’ve taken care of that nest last week.”
Steps are taken. I am given an orange baby aspirin to chew for my pounding head. A cold baking soda compress is laid painfully on my eye. Daddy covers me with a warm blanket and I fall asleep. The next day, the grey paper house is destroyed, gone. The bald-faced hornets are all dead. Daddy killed them.
On the windowsill, on the landing of the stairs to my room, a black, leggy, white-eyed corpse lies curled. I fuss to Mama about it, but she won’t take it away. I’m silly to be scared, she says. It’s dead, and dead things can’t hurt me, she says. I do not believe her. I cannot get past it.