I've just come downstairs from killing three hornets that had invaded the sanctity of the Marital Bedroom. Nasty, big brutes they were. They'd come in, as far as we could surmise, through the gap between open window-sashes, attracted by the soft bulbs with which we light our way to bed. This is their time of year to howl, as the first signs of autumn begin to show themselves. They died nobly, their jerking antennae warning me that I have an eventful early morning ahead of me tomorrow, up on a ladder looking for a nest to spray with deadly chemicals with names as long as your arm. The tree-hugger in me resists the wifely mandate to similarly soak wasps' nests on our soffets and eaves; as long as we leave each other alone I'm willing to coexist peacefully. But not hornets. They die.
I was reminded of a lovely late-spring weekend afternoon in 2000. Our puppies, acquired from the Animal Shelter the autumn previous, had grown to near full size, and they demanded vigorous daily exercise. From our old house in Reston it was a pretty walk to parkland surrounding a branch of Difficult Run, and this afternoon I had roused Betty, then eight, and Freddie, six, to accompany me for a ramble. We let the pups off the leash in the woods, to let them really stretch their legs and splash in the creek.
After a wade and a wet, laughter-filled romp, we whistled up the pups and began to head for home. On the steep draw up from the stream, I felt a sharp sting on my skin, and then another. The air was suddenly filled with angry swarming yellowjackets. One of the dogs had upset a ground-wasps' nest, and they were letting their displeasure be known.
Our dogs are an odd pair. Littermates, the offspring of a stray German Wirehaired Pointer who loved not wisely but too well, they are an interesting study in genetics. Ring Ting Ting, the bitch, has her mother's thick, wiry coat, which sheds water and is amazingly resistant to stinging insects. Brown Fang, on the other hand, has his bar-sinister father's short, smooth coat, which is lovely and sleek but which doesn't afford him the protection his sister enjoys. At the wasps' attack, his vulnerability was immediately apparent, while his sister was blissfully oblivious. He yelped and started pitiably -- which behavior, I noted with a fatherly concern, was soon to be replicated by my own human offspring if I didn't do something right perky.
Brilliantly, with the sort of instinctual élan that so marks the human male, I found my voice.
"Jesus Christ, what is this? Killer bees?"
I believe it was Mr. Kipling who had some picquant words about "Keeping your head when all about you/Are losing theirs," and I can't help but imagine Old White Man's Burden gazing sadly into his gin-and-tonic, chopfallen at my lexicological skill at that critical moment. Why exactly I saw the need, in that moment of panic, to evoke killer bees to my wee tots, whose experience was entirely innocent of the term, is a matter for the psychological profession.
I only know that the expression meant one thing to me, and entirely another to the kiddies, who could only interpret my words painfully, searingly literally: Bees that kill.
As we jogged along the forest path, removing ourselves from the wasps' sphere of influence, poor Brown Fang's yelps lessening with each step, Freddie, his voice shaky and obviously badly frightened, asked me, "Dad? What are killer bees?"
It became immediately apparent to me how miserably I had just failed as a father. A single, stupid, unconsidered outburst had given my children an utterly unnecessary glimpse at their own mortality -- an unforgivably brainless moment of unthinking babble that had scared them beyond adult imagining. I was so, so sorry.
And I said so. I explained about Africanized honeybees that infest the American South, about how when they swarm on a body they can actually kill but that their reputation was greatly sensationalized. I tried to reassure them that they did not exist in our part of the country, that we'd been attacked by a perfectly ordinary swarm of yellowjackets disturbed by the dogs, that my outburst had been a stupid, stupid joke. How do you explain to children about hyperbole that arises from momentary panic?
Safe again, we made our way back to the house. It occurred to me to check the children's clothes for any remaining outliers. I raised Betty's t-shirt -- and found, to my horror, that one of the little buggers had taken up residence in her bellybutton. Calmly, I said, "Hold still, sweetie," and with a deft flick of the thumb and forefinger I sent it packing.
We had some great stories to tell Mom.