Laura Borrowdale

The Wasps

The week after I cheated on you, I put my hand into a wasps’ nest. Neither of those things were intentional. And their timing was co-incidental, although I could blame them both on that summer.

On the evening the wasp stung me, I hadn’t even greeted you yet. I had come home from work, stripped off my suit and gone into the garden immediately. It was hot. The day had been full of all the minor frustrations an office contains. We were being boiled alive that summer, and I couldn’t face the moment when we sniped at each other over who paid the bill for the wheelie bins and why wasn’t there enough milk. The temperature had made us all brittle.

When I reached into the ferns, bare hands, too hot for gloves, I felt something crumple. Underneath the new growth rising in a multitude of korus, the crackling dead leaves hung down. The dead stems were covered in black hairs like the legs of spiders, and they snapped in a way that satisfied me. There were the small sounds of the crunching and breaking of the bone-dry leaves. I reached in again for another handful. I didn’t realise it was the wasps’ epicentre.

The heat, the heat had baked us to our bed each night. You’d stripped the bed to just the top sheet and it was still too hot for us to lie next to each other at night. I wasn’t sure if it was the summer, or my guilt. And you, lying there in a slip, unaware, and my body sweating into the mattress.

And the kids were no help. The weather had them trapped inside the house just as much as if it had been raining. They were going feral; at night they slept with their hair damp and plastered down over their foreheads with perspiration, hot little arms flung sideways and their soft toys as discarded in the heat like any extra body.

The cat brought lizards into the house at night and chased them through our room so that we woke often in a panic. And one night you sat up in the bed and said, ‘Is someone there?’, but I think you were dreaming, because you went straight back to sleep without saying anything else. I lay there after you’d said that and thought about who else could have been in our room, who else I could have wanted there.

In the morning, when we lowered our legs off the bed, our feet met the cold dead tails of the lizards, discarded in a desperate attempt to escape the cat. It seemed incredible to me that the tails were so cold and clammy while everything else was glistening hot.

The heat encouraged the wasps; it was even on the news one night. You sat beside me in that tense silence we’d gotten used to and the pretty blonde anchor talked about an explosion in the wasp population.

They were coming in through the cracks of the house. Anything left open—a window, the door to the garden left banging after the children ran through it—and they nipped inside, beating their wings against the window in dull fury at finding themselves there.

You were so frightened of them, you’d leave rooms and just shut the door, vacate the space rather than deal with them. You didn’t ask me to get rid of them, you didn’t ask me anything. But I trapped them for you, putting a glass over the top, the wasps an angry yellow hurricane in the centre. When they were pinned under the glass on the window, I’d slide a piece of paper over the open mouth and shake the cup, the wasp; shake it as it bounced from one side to another. I sprayed them with fly spray til the glass was frosted and the wasp had curled in on itself, its legs curled up and twisted in on themselves.

When the wasp in the ferns stung me, its body did that same thing; it went U-shaped. I felt a sharp pain in my hand and pulled away from the ferns on instinct. The wasp was still attached, its sting buried in the heel of my hand, its terror and confusion visible, although maybe I was just projecting.

I flicked my hand, more out of panic than anything and the wasp came away. The stinger was dark and embedded in my palm, a sack of venom on the end like a dew. You’d think that if this was karma, the sting would have been worse. You’d think that it would’ve hurt more, if it really was karma. And I guess, if you’d been the one arranging this, then it would have. If you’d known about the girl, I might have woken up to a room full of wasps, rather than just lizards’ tails.

I got the sting out with tweezers, the black point reluctant to pull free but caught hard in the blades. Caught like us. By circumstance. By our children. By the heat of that summer that bore down on us. It had worn us all down by then. I couldn’t think straight. I’m not sure I was thinking at all in those weeks; just hot within and hot without. Just the sun and the smiling girl in the office corridor. And the wasps, buzzing against the glass of our bedroom window.

Maybe that’s why I never told you about the sting. I know you would have cared, would have fussed over me and tried to help. But I wasn’t sure if you would have helped because that’s what you thought you should do, or that’s what you wanted to do. And maybe I was just worried that you wouldn’t have helped at all.

 

I fucked her in an afternoon when I should have been at my desk. We went to her apartment and took off our clothes, and the sweat slicked over us, and our skin glued together. I licked the salt off her body. I pushed my fingers inside her and rubbed them wet against my lips. I felt the curves of an unfamiliar body and tried to remember what you felt like, but I couldn’t and then it was too late.

When I came home to you, I wore running shorts and a tee shirt from my old rowing crew and said I’d been at the gym. You laughed, but it felt more like a snigger, and you said, ‘What? In this heat?’ I ran a cold shower and washed her sweat off me while I heard you making dinner and shouting at the kids from down the hall. I got out, colder now, a towel wrapped around my waist, beads of water still over my shoulders and trickling down my spine.

One of the children spun into the room, their eyes rolling and their voice shrieking, high.

‘Daddy, daddy, daddy, she’s going to get me, daddy…!’

And I thought about the afternoon in a bed that wasn’t mine with my cock in the mouth of a woman who wasn’t my wife.

You called out, ‘Leave Daddy alone, he’s had a long day at work.’ The child screamed and flung herself over our bed, and you came down the hallway with intention in your face. You picked her up and hauled her out of our room, pulling the door closed behind you.

 

The day after the wasp sting, I went out and bought the kind of powder that you shake into a nest to kill the wasps.

I crouched down beside it and watched the entrance. I’d read that dying wasps let out a pheromone that call others to it, and when I squeezed the bottle, poison like talcum powder coated the wasps at the entrance. More arrived. They spun and whirled, giddy in the poison, then crawled inside. I watched, squatting on my haunches until my feet went dead.

That night we talked, about nothing, just chatted really, but we hadn’t spoken for so long, and I wasn’t sure how to begin. The heat was like a third person in the room. It felt thick and physical, like a thug who might beat me down if I said the wrong thing. And you had sad eyes, with shadows underneath them and I thought you might have been crying earlier, although it could just have been the heat, but I didn’t want to ask. I didn’t want to know.

The next day I cleared those ferns away from the dead nest. I pulled them back to get a proper look, snapping the stems, cracking the leaves. The nest was like a papery globe, like a child’s papier mache project or a lampshade from Ikea. When I pulled it down into the garden bed, it dropped and broke apart. The inside was crawling with white grubs. I hit it with the rake, the metal tines pushing through the layers of dead wasps and cardboard honey comb.

I saw you standing in the window of the house looking down at me. The light was shining on the glass so I couldn’t see your face.

I raised my hand to wave at you, but you turned away and I tried to pretend I was just shielding my eyes from the sun. I turned back to the nest and hit it till papery splinters and the black-veined wings of wasps filled the air and I couldn’t see the light any more.





Laura Borrowdale

Laura Borrowdale is a teacher and writer based in Christchurch New Zealand. Her work has been published in Turbine, Sport, and Takahe, amongst others. She is the founding editor of Aotearotica.