Guts and Glory
by William Gensburger [First appeared Books ‘N Pieces Magazine, July 2017]
“A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.” ~ Napoleon Bonaparte
I watch the wasp flit around the back yard, checking out the nooks and crannies to be found under the overhang before zipping off. Like a fighter jet coming on for carrier landing, it flies, a yellow blur with its carriage hanging low, dark stinger, black as ink, like the hook of a fighter that grabs the deck wire stopping it from going off the edge of the carrier. This fighter won’t be stopped.
Back again it passes my head, menacing because I have been taught that it is territorial and does not care about mine. As spring slipped into summer heat and the onslaught of the wasps proved insurmountable, I was beginning to feel like the lone soldier holding the post after the platoon bugged out, always on the lookout for the attack that would be aimed my way, but never knowing where it would come from.
I fixated on its zigs and zags, my improvised weapon fully loaded, oozing excess toxins out of the nozzles that I had adapted for this hunt. I caught it in the gun sights, lightly moving, trying for that Mister Miyagi ballet of movements that would allow me to zen in on the kill; the thing had to land sometime.
Pulling hard on its ailerons it suddenly snapped upward in an illegitimate movement from Top Gun – you know the one where crazy Tom Cruise pulls on the speed flaps and goes from hunted to hunter in under a second. The wasp should be screaming its own kudos by now, I consider, as it zips past my head for a return maneuver, testing out my reflexes. I am reeling from the disorientation of tracking it around the trim and focusing in through bad prescription glasses that leaves me wobbly as I snap around. “I am human, bug,” I hiss at it.
And then it stops dead, flattened on an empty and open space of stucco wall for some stupid reason that only wasps understand. Does it know that I know? It waits and I zoom in for the shot that will end it all. My heart is pounding. I can taste the adrenalin priming my instincts for fight or flight. Perhaps both.
Careful. Careful. I ignore the ooze falling onto my open toed flip-flops. It is a toxic vinegar, baking powder, salt, creation of my own design; I am ready to kill it without affecting my children’s health, my wife’s flowers or the daycare kids as they cascade outside to destroy the backyard later in the day.
The enemy waits, wings flat, no movement at all, and I aim, pump, load, pump, load, pump, load – trained for hours with this lightweight weapon of mass destruction that my kid loves. I can feel the pressure is now primed in the gun barrel, and that it could not eject any faster or any stronger than at this moment.
This is the moment.
I also know that after I pull the trigger I will need to keep holding it as I rapid-pump this baby to spurt its lethal contents out until the territorial terrorist is soaked and down on the ground where my shoe will formally finish it off.
Across the street my neighbor uses a power hose, shooting directly at the spots where the wasps land and, like me, missing. Even when a direct hit takes place, the water does nothing. A few wing vibrations and they are good for flight again, conspiring to track the source of attack. You have to keep moving, never standing stationary, so as to escape detection. They can tell where the shooter is. They can target and lock on while executing a multi-g lift and turn.
“Any luck?” the neighbor yells out. He’s a lump of a man, profusely sweating despite doing nothing more than holding a hose.
“Almost,” I tell him. “I have one pinned down.”
“Good luck,” he says, wiping the sweat from his face with his fat hands. I turn away.
I’m ready. I suck in one final breath and pull the trigger, watch as a strong jet of foamy fluid shoots at my prey, missing by less than one wasp hair – an eternity of a distance – that allows the thing to launch off the wall at hypersonic speed toward its attacker. I dodge, flail, stinky fluid shooting off in all directions and splashing on my head as I trip my way backwards to safety.
I push forward again, pumping even more furiously, vile vinegary foam firing like laser beams, then cutting out in spurts as I wave it around for maximum coverage, missing at every shot. My arm hurts from the repetitive motion.
The wasp detours like Tom Cruise in pursuit, aiming at me, determined to make a kill of its own. I back up a few more steps, still furiously pumping away, the wasp dodging each barrage. I am running low on toxin, knowing that one false move and the wasp will be upon me seeking vengeance for the hives I have already obliterated from my yard and overhangs; seeking vengeance like a Jihad in progress in revenge of its brethren lost in the battle.
It does not look promising for me and yet I am unable to give up. I’ve come too far, too embroiled in this war to surrender what little territory I have left. At the worst, I could always swing the weapon like a bat, I remind myself. I need a backup plan with just a few squirts left.
Finally, one of the squirts smacks the thing square on, and I can see it coated in my homemade ooze. It falters, tries to shake off the goo, forcing itself to fly at me, but fails as gravity drags it to the ground by my feet. I expect to hear the sound of dying engines in its death spiral, but the end is silent and it smacks head first into the concrete by my flip-flop. Without hesitation I raise my foot and smear it across the ground.
“Game over. You – are – done.” I let the weapon fall to my side, still in my grasp.
“Well done, you got it,” the neighbor says peering over our common fence. “I’ve yet to make my first kill.”
“You will,” I mutter. “It takes training. You have to think like the enemy or you’ll never survive.” But I already know he will never survive. Despite my exhaustion, he is too out of shape for such a fight.
Out of breath, now, and out of ammunition, I stand limp, my pumping arm throbbing at the joints, despite the victory at hand. I look down at the remnants of wasp and know that I have succeeded. But at what cost? One enemy out of millions that will spend their lives in this war.
From the corner of my eye I see another figure flip by, and then another, their bodies hanging low as they scout my house in unison for a landing spot. Then even more of them as the first morning rays of the sun splinter over the backyard fence. From the light I see more closing in, just a few of the million wasps that will sooner or later succeed in making a hive that I will fail to find despite all the technology at my disposal, and all the effort at their destruction.
A sudden blast of water from the neighbor’s hose scatters their formation as they take shelter away from the spray. I stare at him and begin to wonder whether he started this war with his amateur weapon used carelessly at the hives infesting his home. Did he send them all my way? Is this how I became embroiled in this war?
I think back to when it began but cannot remember the day when I first started; it seemed as though I have always been fighting this fight.
Will I be defeated by a numbers game played by an enemy that cares little of my race, beliefs or even my right to exist? And is the neighbor an agent, enhancing the wasp squadron’s ability to infiltrate my home? After all, every crevice in my home is ripe for insertion; every opening, every eave a prime location. And all it took was a neighbor with a hose and a penchant for starting a war that I was determined to finish but couldn’t.
“We should team up,” the neighbor suggests. “We might be able to kill more of them.”
I look at him incredulously. “You idiot,” I want to say to him. You created this mess. Somewhere there is a queen and a super-hive and you have no idea the destruction that will follow. I hoped that it was in his house and not my own; but there was no way I could know. Regardless, I would not join forces with him.
In the distance, through the stilled Spring air I could just barely detect the fervent buzzing of a million gossamer wings vibrating furiously; wasp engines readying for the day’s mission. The kill was just the dress rehearsal; the scout party, if you will. The mother ship was coming in and there was no stopping it.
Perhaps my time was at hand. I had fought the good fight, done more than I needed, faced the enemy squarely, and, for a time, prevailed.
I dropped onto the nearest deck chair in defeat, allowed the weapon to slip from my hand and onto the floor in the hope that the encroaching force would not make an association with me and pass me by. It was a long shot, I knew, and I waited like a real man would wait, feigning sleep, as the buzzing toward me grew louder and louder until I was engulfed.
Cover image © 2013 Eti Swinford