“The Wasp-Keeper’s Mother” by Andi C. Buchanan

“The Wasp-Keeper’s Mother” by A.C. Buchanan

Between her paper-thin white walls, Kathleen does her make-up and decides she’s failed as a mother. The aircon, broken again, buzzes like a swarm of insects, drowning out her thoughts. She’ll get on with her day regardless of her realization, because she always gets on with things. She’ll go to work and because it’s Friday she’ll meet up with Deepa and Siobhan and she’ll order whatever the fish special is and they’ll share a bottle of wine. She won’t tell them about her failure; they wouldn’t understand. They may have an estrangement somewhere in their families, but there are no wasps, no dead children lurking wherever they walk.

Kathleen finishes with a little blusher and a smear of bright red across her lips. As she leaves, she logs another complaint about the aircon. Last time they sent an actual human, but it was quiet for barely an hour before the noise began again, an infestation of sorts, displacing her slowly from her own apartment.

She finds the elevator at the end of numbers she doesn’t think she’s been past before—eight hundred and seventy-one, eight hundred and seventy-two, eight hundred and seventy-three. The elevator exhales and crumples its way to the ground. She misses the house sometimes—the blue house in the suburbs with bedrooms for each of the children and a yard for the dog—but this is a good place for a divorced woman. Everything is automated—air quality, temperature, light cycles that mimic the day. Her groceries are brought up to her by a black and yellow drone. If she doesn’t feel like cooking, take-out can arrive the same way. It’s nice not to have to worry about maintaining a household.

She’s out in the fresh air for just a few moments before she’s ascending on the escalator and then steps neatly into an open car of the Superway as it makes its clean way through the raised tunnels that span the city. At Forksbridge she alights and crosses the platform to a Silver-line car which takes her to her workplace. On the way, she checks her plan for the weekend. There’s a slot in for visiting the grandchildren, 2 pm to 3 pm, definite start and end times. She’s grateful for that hour.

Aside from that, her weekend is empty. She’s been silk-painting scarves, and she’s reading the complete works of Shakespeare in alphabetical order because she regrets that she left school at sixteen, and perhaps she can make up lost ground this way. But—and she flinches at the realization, though fortunately passengers are bound by some unwritten rule not to notice each other—she had better go and see Daniel. She should not give up on him. Her best may not be good enough, but that doesn’t mean she should stop trying.

And so on Saturday morning she makes her way to a lot filled mostly with identical small silver cars. Electricity is too risky going so far out of the city, though, especially as Daniel doesn’t have a charging port, so despite the inevitable judgement, she picks her way through them to the line of slightly larger red cars. She syncs the controls of the first one with her phone, accepts the rate—not that she has much choice in that matter—and the steering wheel unlocks.

As she makes it out of the crowded city streets and onto the highway, Kathleen notices her daughter’s ghost in the rear-view mirror. She’s expected that—it happens most times. What she didn’t expect was how young Tamara looks. The girl on the back seat is barely five years old, the seatbelt almost sliding over her head. Kathleen wonders if she should have brought a car seat but Tamara’s normally seventeen or so when she appears. There’s no way to know in advance.

In any case, road accidents pose little risk to kids already dead.

“Hi sweetie,” Kathleen says. “We’re going to visit Daniel today. You’d like to see your big brother, right?”

Tamara nods, all smiles, her long mousy hair falling over her purple jersey. Kathleen knows and perhaps Tamara knows that she’ll disappear long before they arrive. But for now Kathleen can enjoy her daughter’s precious company, and Tamara has brought some crafts to occupy herself.

Kathleen watches her through the rear-view mirror, knowing that if she were to turn round then the seat would be empty. Tamara smears Vaseline over her face, wincing with the cold and as it gets close to her eyes. She pulls a newspaper and scissors from nowhere and cuts the paper to strips, and a bucket also from nowhere, dips the newspaper in the glue and presses strip after strip to her face, paper on paper, building up until it is at once her face and yet unrecognizable.

“Oh, you’re making a mask. What’s your mask of?” A sudden memory of Tamara insisting she simply had to go to school wearing the lion mask she made.

Tamara giggles delightedly. “It’s my DEATH mask!”

Kathleen realizes, all in a split second, that she didn’t stop at the intersection, that she’s already halfway across and there’s a truck hurtling towards her. She swerves desperately. Safety is just meters away and she doesn’t know if she can make it. There’s a screech. The truck slams to a halt. Kathleen has reached the other side of the intersection. The driver’s yelling at her. She swallows, maintains her tight grip on the steering wheel, moves on shakily. When she looks in the mirror, her daughter has gone.

Daniel’s home is worn and broken, obscured by trees. Wasps buzz and hover all around – not as many as there are at the back of the house, but more than enough to make her nervous. She beeps the horn to tell him to come and unlock the gate. The wood is old and flaking, swollen with rainstorms then dried to near desiccation many times over. Any paint there once was is long gone. The roof is rusted, patched with plastic and duct-tape. Kathleen would have loved to have a child with the ambition to renovate a house like this, to accept the hardship because they held a dream of what it could one day be. They’d have poured over plans at the dining table and she’d perhaps have lent him money as he worked through his list of tasks bit by bit, or come over on the weekend to help sand the front door or weed the overgrown garden. Other than occasional fixing of leaks in the roof, though, Daniel has shown no interest in anything besides what he keeps in his garden.

She looks at him now as he emerges through the door, key in hand, a grin on his face. He looks older than his thirty-two years, and yet his smile is boyish. His jeans are perhaps two sizes too big, and then pulled in overly tightly with a brown leather belt. His face is dirty, and his haircut uneven, but it brings her some relief that he has not turned out to resemble his father in any real way.

“Coffee?” he offers. She accepts. The coffee he makes is surprisingly good. Looking round, you’d expect a gritty bitterness, but though it’s not fancy it’s rich and warm.

Though the thick glass, Kathleen can see the wasps buzzing round the frames, the land behind, nectar-filled plants among the trees.

“I should get a suit for you, Mom,” Daniel says, following her gaze. “We could go for a walk round together. But there’s plenty you can see from here.” He points out the lemon-size nests of the solitary potter wasps, the mud cells of the daubers, the large honeycomb-patterned structures of the yellow jackets up in the trees.

Kathleen shudders as the buzzing seems to get louder, closer, but Daniel doesn’t seem to notice.

“In the spring,” he continues, “the paper wasps use their mandibles to scrape up wood fibers. I put out logs and cardboard to help them. Then they chew the fibers down and use the paper pulp to build their nests.”

“Have you thought of trying beekeeping?” Kathleen regrets the words as soon as they emerge; this is how you alienate your children, Kathleen, this is why you’re only allowed to see Josie’s kids for one hour a month, but somehow she can’t stop talking. “You could get honey that way, sell it at the… do you have markets near here?”

“There’s a market every Sunday,” he says. “And Thursday evenings in summer.” He drinks his coffee. Silence grows uncomfortably between them. Kathleen tries to find something else to say but even small talk is eluding her. Daniel checks her cup is empty and takes it to the sink.

“It’s an act of dedication,” he says eventually, his back still turned. “A calling. I know you don’t believe in religion or any of that, and I don’t either, not exactly, but there’s something in devoting yourself entirely to something that will never repay you, will even harm you. It’s an act of selflessness…”

Kathleen wants to say that everything about this is selfish. She fidgets with the strap of her purse.

Daniel continues, not looking, not noticing.

“I… when Tamara died, I didn’t want to end up like that. I loved her, you know I did, but she always wanted so much for herself. Clothes, travel, new experiences. That’s why she started using drugs and that’s why we lost her.”

“Daniel. Your sister didn’t die from drug use. You know that right? Her heart condition was congenital. She barely even used… just marijuana, and that one time we caught her with ecstasy. We talked to her about it.” How has she raised a son this naïve, this puritanical?

Daniel turns at last. He tells her that in the winter most of the wasps will die.

Kathleen drives home, returns the car to the lot. A drone brings her noodles and a bottle of soda, sweet like nectar.

Each morning it’s harder for her to find her way out of the apartment block. She knows for certain now that the building is growing because when she comes to a dead end she takes a photo of the last door. Often, when she comes to that number again, the corridor continues. She supposes it makes sense; they’re on prime land here, very central, and of course they want to maximize rental income. But she wishes they wouldn’t do it in a way that causes her so much bother.

She browses for presents for Josie’s children. She wonders if she should apologize to Josie, but she’s never quite sure what she did; is her daughter angry Kathleen left her father, or that she stayed with him for so long? Every time she tries to see the path she should have taken through that maze, she’s confronted by buts. But he never hurt the children. But it wasn’t a good environment, that anger buzzing all around. But we wouldn’t have had enough money. But Tamara cried all night. The thoughts tessellate into a wall of guilt, hexagons fitting together, each contradiction creating space for more to join the pattern.

Sometimes she wakes, within her thin white walls, to find welts on her arms or legs, tiny white centers surrounded by red. She logs a complaint with the building management, and the black and yellow drones arrive to take away her bedding to be sterilized, but the welts continue.

It’s almost a month before she next visits Daniel, and the wind is starting to bite. She dresses up warmly in her black coat and mustard scarf, but sheds them in the car, warm air firing through from the dashboard. Tamara doesn’t join her this time, and Kathleen is half disappointed, half relieved to be alone.

When she arrives she’s surprised and pleased to find a few repairs in progress, the window frames sanded. Perhaps she’ll offer to take Daniel to the store and they can pick out some paint.

He’s non-committal. He tells her about his new Chalcid wasps, their metallic blue and green bodies, and how the wasp’s stinger is actually a modified egg-laying organ.

“I’m sorry,” she says, her mouth dry, when he pauses his explanations. “About your father. That wasn’t a good environment for you to grow up in.”

He shrugs. “It was much worse for you. I’m glad you left him though.”

“I feel like I’ve lost all of you,” she says, emotion pouring through her mouth, tasting like bitter venom. “Tamara, of course, but Josie will barely see me…”

“Josie’s just a bit of a control freak. She wants everything perfect for her kids. She’ll relax a bit when they’re older.”

Kathleen shakes her head sadly. “I don’t think so. And you! You surround yourself with these terrible insects. If ever there was a symbol of keeping people away!”

“They’re not symbols, Mom. They’re wasps. You’re welcome here any time you like. And if you don’t want to be here, maybe next time we can go to a café for lunch?”

She leaves without drinking her tea. She parks the car in the line of other red cars and feels the judgement of invisible eyes, walks the two blocks home and waits for the elevator. She wonders why they didn’t have to install more as they increased the number of apartments. Surely there’s some kind of code to regulate these things.

It’s cold outside. In winter most of the wasps die. The queen builds herself a nest in a sheltered place. She survives the cold but she may not survive the predators.

He never hurt the children.

She’s tired of being stung. She’s tired of people thinking it’s her that does the stinging when the welts on her body, thicker now, prove otherwise.

The wall in front of her starts to bulge, as if someone was pressing against it. The features slowly start to form; hands and kneecaps, then nose, torso, the details of a face. The white form steps out, the wall reconstituting behind it.

“Tamara?” Kathleen asks, and the girl—perhaps ten—grins as if to say of course it’s me, who else would I be?

Even the inside of her mouth is white, but when Kathleen takes her in her arms she is soft and warm.

“Read to me?” she says. Kathleen looks at the girl’s eyes. Pure white, no pupils.

Kathleen only has a small collection of paperbacks, saved from when the children were young. She finds a story Tamara liked as a child, reads over the buzzing of the aircon unit which seems to be growing louder with each sentence.

As Kathleen reads, Tamara becomes light within her arms, fades to translucency. Kathleen swallows before the last few words, knowing that the child will go completely with them, but she forces them out.

“And she never went back to the forest again.”

Kathleen’s daughter is gone. She won’t be coming back, ghost or girl. But the queen builds herself a nest and survives the cold though others do not.

The buzzing aircon unit clatters, then is silent.

Kathleen rips out the last page of the book, shuddering at the sound. She places the end of it in her mouth and chews, the paper disintegrating into a thick pulp between her molars. She looks at the thin, white, walls around her. She chews some more. She builds and she survives the winter.

Andi C. Buchanan lives among streams and faultlines, just north of Wellington, Aotearoa, New Zealand. Winner of a Sir Julius Vogel Award for their short story “Girls Who Do Not Drown” (Apex, 2018), their fiction is also published in Fireside, Kaleidotrope, Glittership, and more. Their 2019 novella From a Shadow Grave (Paper Road Press) uses a historical murder as a launching point into narratives of multiple possible futures, deploying urban fantasy, historical fiction, time travel and more. You can find them at andicbuchanan.org or @andicbuchanan on Twitter.