Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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A Thousand Wings

by Joel Doonan

“If you truly love something,” she said, holding a small orange flower to the sun to let light filter through, "nature will find a way to give back. And it may not be in a way that you expect.”

They looked together at how the petals were illuminated like colored glass against the morning sky.

Jonathon enjoyed spending time with this grandmother, helping tend the small garden that she had created over many years. It was a place that was home to flowers and bees, and a waystation for numerous species of passing butterflies.

He was an odd child in certain respects; simple in thought, slow in action, and often introspective and quiet. She had taught him to appreciate all things of natural beauty—taught him the different names of many varieties of plants and insects to help keep his mind more directed and focused. She also showed him that even the smallest of living things had a greater purpose, and all was worth caring for.

The boy had been living with his grandmother for the past three years, bedding down each night in a small space to one side of her sewing room.

On the walls opposite the room's single window were numerous images cut from natural history magazines, collected over many years, and a small shelf with a framed document displaying her degree in entomology. There were photos of tall trees with ferns and mosses, swift small rivers lined with rounded stones, and many types of colorful insects. Along with images of butterflies, bees and beetles, there were numerous types of wasps.

“Our garden friends,” she often called them, “The protectors and pollinators of flowers.”

He marveled at the colors and shapes of the many insects and the perfect, graceful forms of different varieties of bees.

On daily walks, whenever he could, Jonathon rescued many small creatures from ponds or water filled buckets, and also from sidewalks and handrails where they faced near certain peril. With fingers or sticks he offered each one a safe escape and in his mind he had become the guardian of insects large and small. And with every act of kindness he took a moment to notice the streamlined shapes and iridescent colors, and he would say to each one, “I love you”, before they sailed off to continue their important life's work.

Benny McHenry Washburn was a big, round, boy with a long name. A fellow student at Pioneer Middle School, his reputation as a bully was shared in hushed comments around hallway lockers and lunchroom tables.

Possibly the result of a poor self-image and the frequent condescending comments of overbearing siblings, he acted out his aggression toward those he saw as less fortunate and powerless. Jonathon fully fit within both of these categories in Benny's eyes, and he spared few opportunities to express his dominance.

There was a trail sometimes used by local kids that led toward the small neighborhood of modest older homes where Jonathon lived, one that crossed a sagging barbed-wire fence and continued through a portion of abandoned pastureland. It was an easy way to get to and from school and the trail wound past an old barn, one that leaned precariously to one side and looked as though it might collapse at any moment. It was missing enough of its roofing that sunlight filtered through to brighten the dusty relics of 1950s farming, and was also a place where many insects found undisturbed housing.

It was at this same barn, a little less than a month ago, that Jonathon performed a service to the natural world that most likely, not a single other individual had ever attempted.

A wasp nest lay on the ground beneath a corner of the roof overhang and a few large red wasps were still attempting to care for their unhatched brood. Jonathon noticed how the nest had recently fallen and could see the remains of the single stem of wood pulp left from its former attachment point at the barn's eve.

"Polistes Rubiginosus—formally known as Polistes Perplexus", he said softly as he crouched low to examine.

It would be a dangerous and daunting proposition, but as moments passed he became ever more determined to try. From his school bag he found a pencil and a small tube of craft glue. Slowly and carefully he inserted the pencil into an empty cell to use as a secure holding point, then applied a small amount of glue to the remaining stem support. Standing and reaching as high as he could, he was able to hold the nest in its original position long enough for the glue to set, even as wasps circled. He removed the pencil and backed away as more returned.

It was along this same trail, and at the same corner of the old barn, were Benny McHenry Washburn crossed Jonathon's path on his daily walk home from school. The look in Benny's eyes showed little but disdain, and a determination to fully express his aggression. He shoved Jonathon to the ground.

But before he could kick and knock grass and dirt into his Jonathon's face, a single wasp delivered a painful sting to the side of Benny's neck. “Damn bugs” he said, squashing it against a spot that was quickly turning red.

Benny swung his leg and landed a foot against Jonathon's side. Almost immediately came another sting, and then another. This time near his left eye and on his lower arm.

More wasps arrived, and then a few bees joined in as well. Benny swatted the air and flailed his arms to little avail. He quickly gave up the assault and ran toward the fence and safely of home, a visible cloud of stinging insects close behind.

Jonathon stood up and gathered his school work. He brushed grass and dirt from his pants. Now a mass of wasps began to gather in front of him as well; but instead of running for home he stood still and watched. Gradually the cluster grew larger, more dense, and perhaps it was only in Jonathon's imagination, but he began to see the image of a large face formed from the constant moving flurry of insects.

Darker, dense areas marked points where eyes might have been, and small bulges formed a rudimentary pair of ears. Then a small area in the center began to thin, an opening that could have served as a mouth. It was an open space that allowed Jonathon to see clearly through to the other side of the swarm.

Sound began to softly emerge through the center opening, like dozens of wind-blown whispers at once. It was like the music of wind through dry grass or autumn leaves—a breathy sound formed from the whirring of a thousand wings.

Jonathon watched intently and listened closely.

Slowly a few discernible words began to emerge through the whirring of wing-beats, and then Jonathon clearly heard, “we... also... love... you.”

 That evening, clouds began to appear along the northwestern horizon, and as night approached, rain began to fall.

A cold front blew in from the Canadian north, and with it came sleet and wind. The old barn that had stood for many years, finally collapsed into a pile of weathered boards, nails, and rusted tin.

The next day at school, Jonathon and Benny crossed paths in a hallway. One of Benny's eyes was swollen, and the side of his neck was red as he stepped to the far side without glancing Jonathon's way.

As the remaining year unfolded, Benny never pestered Jonathon, or anyone else, much again.


2022 Joel Doonan

Bio: Joel Doonan owns and operates a small signs and graphics business in central Texas. A writer since early childhood, his early formative years were spent in the Amazon basin area of eastern Peru. In his short stories and other writing, he often borrows from personal experience as he works to tell stories that impart insight and fresh perspectives.
Previous short stories published by Aphelion Webzine include: Tin Indian, Jesus of the West, The Wind tree, and others.

E-mail: Joel Doonan

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