‘Sir Bear teach me. I am a customer of death coming and would give you a pot of honey and my house on the Western hills to know what you know.” From Upstream by Mary Oliver
There was a spider named Bob who made his home in the centre window of our ship’s navigation deck. His web proved a bountiful location though subject to the vagaries of the wind. Often there would be a surplus of food neatly wound-up and stored away for a time when the pickings were slim. Some days when the light caught the strands of his home in a certain way the wondrous mathematical order which exists within nature would become apparent. Other days, after particularly bad weather his home might appear in tatters and then I could spend a four-hour watch marvelling at his industry as he dutifully rebuilt. One morning, as I steered the ship down the Detroit River, something quick and black dove down from above and struck Bob.
‘Holy Shit’, the captain said, ‘did you see that?’
I had. It was a digger wasp. It drove its cutlass-like stinger into Bob repeatedly, then sucked out his inner goo and left his desiccated remains dangling from a filament of web. Poor Bob.
Last year walking a city sidewalk I came across a dragonfly and a wasp locked in a tousle. Each time the wasp stuck the dragonfly its abdomen would crease up, double almost in two in mortal pain, just like you or I would at the end of an assailant’s blade. I was struck by the tenacity with which the dragonfly (to me an elegant and noble creature) fought.
Wasps are bastards. There’s no other way to say it. When I was very young, I jumped from a fence in our backyard and a wasp managed to find its way under my eyelid. I howled. It was dusk and my parents had people over sitting around the patio table. I clawed my face and was rendered non-verbal with agony and nobody could figure what was wrong with me until my mother dragged me inside and into the bathroom where she turned my face up to the light and saw. She quickly plucked the offending creature out. Within an hour my eye was swollen shut and soon my arm pit swelled up with a baseball like lump (apparently there is a gland that links the eye and the armpit). For a week I walked around Cyclopsed, my eye grotesquely lumpen, weeping and shut, my right arm out 90degrees akimbo, for a brief time, a very sullen and sad approximation of the human form.
Since that evening long ago I have had an irrational fear of wasps. It has eased some with age. On a good day, when my nerves are even and anxiety levels are reasonable, I will just seize up when one enters my vicinity. On a bad day, I will bolt, and I’ll run over your daughter if she gets in my way. I am not proud of this but I have a very healthy awareness of my limitations and I don’t need to posture or strut and say things I’m not, so there it is, I’m scared of wasps. Some people are afraid of snakes. Not me. I will pick up a snake and I will kiss it on the god damn mouth.
It is here, the season for wasps. As I skateboard down to the St. Lawrence Market today to see friends, I am aware they are all around. I am nervous that those I’m meeting will suggest we sit outside to eat lunch which leaves me open to attack. This is how one who is scared of wasps will think and it makes me aware of those more vulnerable than me, stone-cold scared of an invisible bug that could flatten them, and if my wearing a mask eases their fears, then that is a very small and easy penance for me to pay.
In times of stress in my life I will have wasp dreams in which one will come to me and it will land on my person and I will be frozen with terror. I have been having them lately. I wake up gasping for breath. On this continent we are right now bookended by catastrophe. Wildfires rage to the west and hurricanes and floods harry the east and in between such turmoil and such anger. Is it any wonder I have these dreams?
For me, delays in Thunder Bay have meant that my crew change has been postponed by a few days, so though the sword of Damocles still dangles, the thread has gained a few fibres. These are gift days. Bonus days. The city almost seems as normal but there is talk of things tightening up again. I am worried for this. Everyone is.
My sea bag is packed, it waits, pregnant by the door. When I return the seasons will have changed and I will be wearing more layers. The leaves will be gone and with them the wasps and my worries of them for another year.
At the best of times we are being bear-hugged by oblivion, all of us, every living thing. Let us hope for some good news soon, to help ease us on our way.