She’d taken to entering her home through the garage door even when she wasn’t traveling by car. The nest, greyish like wet cardboard, was growing. They were taking over the underside of the gutter and she watched them work from the windows flanking the front door. It was impressive, the way their jaws worked all the time, spitting and building clusters of combs.
Her next-door neighbor, an older man from the south (Alabama or Louisiana, she could never remember which) kept telling her to exterminate. “They’ll attack you,” he would say, staring at the hanging nest. “Soon’s you disturb them in the slightest, they’ll attack you, all of ‘em together.” She knew that he was probably right, but she also knew that moving quietly, undetected, was a strength of hers.
She put a sign in her front yard. Do NOT approach front door, it read. Go around back.
They were, she would learn from dated field books of Virginia wildlife, some type of paper wasp. Hers (and this is how she thought of them by now) were a reddish color. Their wings were darker, such a deep brown that they were almost black. There were no show-offy stripes, no traffic violation yellows, as though they had evolved to anticipate fear from predators, rather than demand it.
When the wasps came, she stopped having nightmares. There was the one she’d had for decades: a stranger entered the home she grew up in without permission and followed her from room to room until she wound up in spaces she’d never seen before. The architecture in her dreams never stayed still. Hallways never converged the way they ought to. Stairs never led up or down as one would expect. In the dream she’d had for decades, she would wander and wander, trying to escape the stranger, trying to get back to the part of her house she recognized, but neither relief ever came. There was no gruesome outcome. It just went on and on. And finally, it stopped for good.
Just after Thanksgiving, she noticed that her paper wasps were thinning out. Quietly, she searched the yard for bodies, finding none. They were simply leaving her.
By the first week of December, the nest was still and silent. There were no mouths chewing up dead wood and spitting up paper walls. No life cycles for her to observe from behind the protection of windows. The nightmare was coming back in pieces: first the house from her childhood but with windows in the wrong place; then the stairs started climbing up walls and snaking down drains; then the stranger arrived.
Finally, the woman pulled the nest down from the gutter. She turned it over in her hands, sensing the life that was once contained within, discovering the single life that remained. It took mere seconds to recognize this wasp for who she was: the queen.
The woman set the nest on the mantle. The queen was in a sort of daze, preparing for a long sleep before tasked once again with birthing a colony. The woman placed a mesh colander over the nest and waited until the ground thawed.
In late March, the woman woke to the sound of humming coming from the colander and the nest beneath it. It was soothing at first, as if the queen were singing a lullaby to the eggs she was surely beginning to lay inside each comb. By the time the woman was cleaning up her breakfast dishes, the humming had changed into an angry droning. Soon, a rattling joined in with the humming, and the woman abandoned her plate and bowl in the soapy sink.
Fifty paper wasps, perhaps even a hundred, swarmed furiously around the nest, battering against the colander that trapped them. The woman found herself frozen in space as the colander tipped to the floor. The swarm moved like a cyclone, like a single gust of wind, flying straight toward her and encapsulating her in their whirl. She closed her eyes.
The first few wasps landed on her cheeks and hair and the sound of buzzing filled her head. She felt the grazing of stingers against her flesh and clenched her jaw to keep from screaming. The thought of dying from wasp stings passed wildly through her mind but she remained still, afraid to anger them further.
Then, they started to back off. She felt the whispers of air from their beating wings grow softer. The thread-like feet on her skin slipped away. She opened her eyes and realized that the entire swarm was filing, one by one, back to the nest. The queen hovered inches from her nose and the woman understood: the queen had ordered her offspring to leave the woman alone.
Wearing thick rubber kitchen gloves, the woman picked up the nest. It vibrated softly in her hands as she, following the queen’s lead, took it out back and placed it at the foot of a tall tree. Once the woman was at a safe distance, the queen returned to her offspring to direct the construction of a new nest. Her young worked quickly, fanning out in search of materials, chewing and spitting and forming new walls along the bottom of a tree branch.
The nightmare returned to the woman each night, transformed into something far less frightening. Just as the stranger entered through the front door, the queen wasp appeared, inches from her nose, guiding her to the back of the house and into a grove of trees. The queen tucked the woman into a large comb at the heart of her nest, building a cocoon around her body. The woman would rest and wake to discover that she’d shed her human form.
Her body was a reddish color, her wings darker, almost black, and her jaw worked and worked, occupied with the single responsibility of protecting her queen. She no longer moved in fear or became lost. She was fearsome. She was home.
Molly Andrea-Ryan is a poet and prose writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has recently appeared in Barren Magazine, Glassworks Magazine, and elsewhere.