THE WASPS AND THE QUEEN
by Sarah Van Name
In the back of the house Sherry and Miranda were playing in the plastic swimming pool. It was blue on the inside. The plastic made the water seem blue.
Sherry stepped out of the pool, shards of grass and flecks of black dirt clinging to her feet. Her knees were brown and red with unhealed scrapes, and her hair hung wet from her head. Over the course of the summer, it had faded from white-blonde to green, a color like the sky when a tornado is approaching. The heat of the sun had warmed her shoulders to fever pitch and now set about drying the damp parts of her body: a hip here, a hand there, the bread dough curves of her calves. It was a warm August day and the third straight month of mornings spent playing with her sister.
“You look like a mermaid,” Miranda said from her cross-legged place inside the pool. Her skinny body folded in upon itself like a paper fan. Her eyes were slits, catlike in the sun.
“I am a mermaid,” Sherry said after a pause. “My name is Queen Esmeralda, the mermaid. And you are my subject!” She ran to the side of the house where they had laid out their treasures from the beach the month before. The things lay scattered beside their mother’s tools and gardening gloves. She grabbed two shells and clutched them to the two sides of her chest, elbows thrust out proudly. “You’re my mermaid servant. That means you have to bring me my crown.” She held the pose, squinting into the sun and perfectly still, while ants crawled over her ankles. Then she turned to Miranda.
Miranda hugged her knees tighter. Goosebumps rose like pinpricks on her skin, pale peach against the wet oak of her hair.
“No, I don’t want to,” she said. “I like being in the pool.”
“You’re a servant mermaid. I’m the mermaid queen. So you have to get me my crown.” Sherry tried to shove the shells into the top of her bathing suit. One of them scratched her chest, leaving an angry line. She frowned and returned to clasping the shells against her.
“No,” Miranda said.
“You have to, Miranda,” Sherry said. “Those are the rules.”
“What game are we playing?”
“The mermaid game,” Sherry insisted, pushing her elbows out further. “You’re my servant. So you have to get out of the pool and get me my crown.”
Miranda sighed. Slowly, limb by limb, she began to stretch out in the pool. The thin lines of her legs wobbled and leapt in the blue.
“I’m a mermaid, though?” she asked.
“Yeah, obviously, you’re just not important.”
“As long as I can be a mermaid, I guess,” Miranda said, and she stood up. Droplets of lukewarm water scattered off her as if she were a dog emerging from the ocean. She raised one foot to step out. The water rocked. “Wait, though,” she said. “How can we walk on land if we’re mermaids? If I’m a mermaid won’t I die once I get out of the water?”
Sherry stood still for a moment, shells clutched to her chest, elbows flagging. She always got caught in this trap, of having to break the rules after she’d made them. Usually Miranda didn’t realize the trick. Sherry thought she wouldn’t get it this time either. “No, it’s okay,” she improvised. “Because I’m the mermaid queen so I can walk on land. And even though you’re not as good a mermaid as me I can give you the power to walk on land too. So you can do that,” she declared. “But don’t get any ideas.”
“Okay,” Miranda said, and stepped cautiously out of the pool. “I guess that makes sense.” She held her breath until both feet touched the earth. “Where’s your crown again? Didn’t you leave it in the kitchen? Mama won’t let me come into the house if I’m wet.”
“Not my plastic crown,” Sherry snapped. She was stalking around the yard now, lifting one muddy foot after another, toes pointed as if she were at gymnastics practice.
“No?” Miranda stood, dripping.
“Mermaids don’t have plastic crowns. Do you think there’s plastic in the ocean? There’s not.”
Among the beach treasures were a dilapidated Sprite bottle and a collection of thin sea glass that looked very much like plastic. Sherry caught sight of them and hoped Miranda wouldn’t say anything. She walked round and round in widening circles. She stepped over stones and sharp sticks with ease. She left tracks in the mud.
“I don’t think we have any other crowns around.”
“I guess you have to make one for me, then.”
“Be quiet, subject!”
Miranda turned her back on the shallow pool, now leaking its contents into a wide black puddle, and on Sherry and her endless circles. She crossed her arms. Sherry, stalking around the yard, watched her standing there shivering and looking into the woods. The leaves were apple-green and thick, made golden by sunlight. The trees stood tall and thin. Plump-bellied squirrels and bluebirds shuffled and fluttered from place to place. Beyond the border of the yard, steps and steps beyond, the ground sank into a creek and then rose up again.
On the ground, forcing their way up through the pine needles and damp dead leaves, patches of wildflowers sometimes grew. A clump of pale pink was visible twenty feet in. It looked as if a princess had dropped her handkerchief. Rounding the tree at the edge of the yard, Sherry reached out one chubby arm and pointed.
“I want a flower crown, Miranda.”
“Okay,” Miranda said. “With those pink flowers there?”
“Obviously,” Sherry replied with an exaggerated roll of her eyes. Miranda took one baby step into the woods.
A year ago, while exploring, Sherry and Miranda had found a face in the ground. Sherry had walked too far into the neighbors’ section of the woods, and despite Miranda’s warnings, kept walking. Miranda was always whining about the rules. Sherry told Miranda she was looking for interesting rocks, or shells to prove that the creek had once been part of the ocean. They were learning in science class that all the water in the world was the same. Miranda was too little to know things like that.
Sherry had been walking, looking at the ground, when suddenly she shrieked and Miranda ran to her. When she reached her sister, Miranda, too, yelped and leapt back. Beneath their feet was unmistakably the face of a child. Pool-blue eyes, blood-red lips, pointed nose, porcelain skin. Sherry edged closer while Miranda backed away.
“Miranda, stop being stupid,” Sherry said, as if the idea of being scared, as she had been moments ago, was ludicrous. “It’s nothing. It’s not real.” Crouching, she lifted the face from the ground and pulled. It came loose in a reluctant squelch. The skin really was porcelain. She had picked up a doll, hard-headed, soft-bodied. All of the stuffing was gone from the body. The hair, too, was gone, eaten away by monsters or overzealous future stylists. Sherry held the thing high in the air like a triumph: a bald head with an empty child-shaped sack for a body.
“See?” Sherry said to her sister. “You were just being a baby.”
The porcelain hands hung lifeless and dirty from the flattened cloth arms. The eyelids lolled half open.
Sherry wanted to give it back to the neighbor girls, but Miranda cried and moaned, saying they would be mad. “Put it back in the ground, Sherry, put it back,” she shouted. Sherry shook the doll in Miranda’s face and lifted up the limp arms so they waved like a ghost’s. In the end, though, she agreed, and they hid the thing away underneath the forest dirt. Secretly, Sherry hated when the neighbor girls wouldn’t play with her, and she didn’t want to risk their anger. Now, walking around the yard, she wished the neighbor girls would come over so they could play a more interesting game.
“Miranda, hurry up,” Sherry yelled over her shoulder.
Miranda screamed. Sherry turned and saw her shoot out of the woods in a frantic sprint. Tiny buzzing creatures surrounded her, swarming around her legs and hips. Sherry jumped to the side and Miranda ran, screeching, up to the driveway, where their mother had come out of the house.
Before Sherry could do anything, their mother had scooped up Miranda, folded again in contortions of pain, to bring her into the house. Sherry stood alone in the silent yard, shells at her side. The pool-puddle slid around her feet and trickled in rivulets down to the woods. She dropped one shell to slap a fat mosquito on her arm, leaving a splotch of blood and thready black legs. Then she went to the living room window and pressed her face against the dirty glass.
Inside, their mother had placed Miranda on the couch and encased her legs in ice packs and bags of frozen peas. One by one, her mother checked the swollen bumps to make sure the stingers were out. She turned the television on. They were not usually allowed to watch television in the afternoon. Miranda moved her hands back and forth over her legs as if touching the air above the skin might heal the skin itself, and she cried and cried and cried.
Sherry went back to the side yard. She bit her lip. She set both of the shells back in the space reserved for their treasure. She looked toward the area where the nest had been disturbed, but it didn’t seem any different from before. A last lazy wasp wobbled in the air near her, and she ran away, back to the living room window.
From outside, Sherry watched their mother braid Miranda’s hair while cartoons played on the TV. Miranda sniffled and rubbed her watery eyes with a handkerchief. The bags of vegetables and ice were draped over her bony legs from ankle to hip. When she shifted, a few of them fell off, and Sherry saw her skin, bright red and swollen. Miranda started sobbing again at the sight, and her mother shushed her, cradling her head with one hand, replacing the ice bags with the other.
It was noon. Sherry sat down underneath the window; she could not find shade outside. Sweat beaded on her forehead. She wondered if Miranda might get ice cream that night because of the stings, but then another screech of pain came from inside and she shuddered. She rested her back against the wall, biting her nails ’til they bled, and tried in vain to imagine the kind of wound that could inflict that kind of pain, that could make a person cry for so loud and so long.
Sarah Van Name is a recent graduate of Duke University, where she majored in Literature and wrote short stories, poetry, and documentary pieces. She currently works as a marketing writer in Durham, North Carolina, where she is continuing to write fiction in the hope of compiling a collection of short stories.
Image: “Abandoned Doll” by Eoin Flood on Flickr