bout the same time I was subjected to my parents’ lectures about the difference between right and wrong I noticed we had a hornet’s nest in the back yard. Sometime in early spring a humming came to a stubby elm above the forsythia bushes. One by one, the tanned saucers landed. Scouts maybe. After that came the careful building of a cone-shaped temple, like a bubble of ash shocked to life. Within a month a corner of the garden’s green hair concealed a launch pad.
At first I paid little attention to the hornets. I was busy stealing pens and toy soldiers from the local drugstore. I was so scared by the boldness of my own larceny that I immediately buried the stash in the back yard, near the Queen Elizabeth roses my mother had planted and groomed like surrogate children. I had a spot for the pens (shallow) and another for the soldiers (deeper). Sometimes, nervous, I buried the stolen goods in the wrong places.
One day, while cleaning the dirt off a scowling Napoleonic trooper, several hornets buzzed me. I swatted them off but they came back again. One landed a few feet away and I saw the alien cackle of its curled brown abdomen, the wrong geometry of flying mucous.
Neither of my parents knew much about hornets so I looked them up in the encyclopedia. The entry flattered their ferocity. The white-brown waspy kind, said the entry in intricate words, was by far the most hostile. Stolen miniature troopers were the least of my problems.
Every time I went to my burial grounds, several hornets dogged me, appraising my proximity to the nest. I took to running back and forth from the screen door to my secret spots and back, my eyes half-closed.
In May, the nest outgrew its early caution circumference and began to bulge. The collective buzz grew arrogant, a hissing lisp the warming breezes adopted as speech.
The hornets were honing in on my happy trafficking. I decided on countermeasures. I put pebbles and small stones into a rusty bucket and practiced my pitching and tossing in the alley. My supple wrists learned to make things skim.
The first phase of my assault consisted of lobbing pebbles from the upper windows of my house so that they’d land near the nest. I wanted to gauge the response. The livid hornets swarmed and retreated. Some skimmed along the windows panes, quivering bits of rage unable to make their point. I laughed.
In mid-May, Mr. Peebles, the manager of the drug store, came to the house at around 6 p.m. Mr. Peebles was a thin man who spoke with a slight drawl and walked with a limp, probably a club foot, said my father. I thought the man had a club in his foot.
Mr. Peebles wanted a word with my father and mother, after which I was summoned. Toy soldiers were missing, so was candy; he’d been sent to reckon with me. I denied it and wept. My father’s nostrils flared the way they did when lying got to him. Soon, I was in the garden digging up soldiers with Mr. Peebles and my father watching. The hornets did nothing.
The humiliation complete, I was dispatched to my room, where I sought solace among plastic fighter planes and battleships. I knew the form my revenge would take. I knew also why the hornets hadn’t stirred when we dug for the soldiers. They were complicit.
Avenging mockery can start wars. I set up shop behind the screen door with my bucket of ammunition. I threw and retreated. My first stones missed, causing the hornets to stir but little more. I needed to get closer. I put several larger stones in my palms and crept down the concrete stairs near the screen. The first direct hit generated a shrapnel of wings. They came for me and I laughed behind the screen. When they retreated I came out and fired again, and again.
Sobbing with baiting pleasure, I ventured further out, stones in both hands. The hornets screamed upward into the sky, belly-dancing into a vortex. I was winning.
My biggest stone yet, a piece of blood-like brick, struck the bottom of the nest, the entry port, tufting the lower portion into smithereens.
Now the hornets came for me, by the tens, by the dozens.
The kitchen door had a simple hook lock. Amid my strategic scheming I hadn’t noticed my mother’s presence in the kitchen. She was humming.
Look up hornets these days in the age of quick knowing and you’ll find these lines: “Hornets, like many social wasps, can mobilize the entire nest to sting in defense: this is highly dangerous to humans. It is not advisable to kill a hornet anywhere near a nest.” You’ll also find the brio-rich Schmidt Sting Pain Index: “Like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut.”
The hornets of my youth knew all about timing. They may even have been the insect agents of right and wrong. In any event, the screen door was locked. And for weeks their alienness found a hive in me, my fevered, honeycombed eyes making me one of them.
Lest I think of stealing again.