Stung! – Hank Kirton
September 10, 2020
The first hornet attempted some sort of ersatz insect equivalent of suicide. I kept a glass of water on the end table beside my bed. I didn’t drink the water, ever. It was a perfect little still life. I found beauty there. The water was flat and room temperature with a lens of dust on top and one morning I pried open my dream-dazzled eyes and noticed a dead hornet floating twitchless in the glass. I thought it was dead. I had a primal aversion to insects and having a small monstrosity in such close proximity to my sleeping mind would cause problems. The little beast would buzz into my dreams and infect my precious REM imagery with hostile, insectile attributes. My dreams were serious business no matter how whimsical. I learned from them, relied on them. I wouldn’t tolerate infestation. So I dipped my fingers into the water and tweezed the abomination with a naked, unprotected pinch. I felt the sting at once, in the soft pad of my thumb. The pain reached—with icepick precision—up my arm and straight to the center of my brain. I knew I wasn’t allergic to beestings. I had tested myself many times as a child. My friend Jimmy and I would sneak up on late-summer stalks of goldenrod and clap pollinating bees to death, often incurring stings in our hands. It was a test of mettle. Not once did I swell. Not once did my throat constrict. I never convulsed. But this was my first hornet sting. What sort of dangerous toxin was the little bastard packing? I looked at the glass of water. The hornet now floated below the elliptic horizon line. Sure, now it was dead, after it killed me. The pain in my thumb continued its pulsing electric climb straight to my brain. Pain as metronome. I felt sleepy, lobotomized. I returned my head to the soft muffle of my pillow and closed my eyes. Spreading, melting warmth gathered behind my jittering eyelids and galaxies were born. My eyes met the center of a spiral galaxy and greasy tears trickled from my vision like clarified butter. My cells merged with the stars. My molecules exploded and then recombined into strange, inadequate planets where various morose species of mushroom dominated vast plains of gray mud and gutless wonder. I felt the queasy rapture of the infinite as I swallowed the universe, breaking down its matter and energy into microscopic organelles that powered the whole thing. There was no death in this astonishing realm. There was no time. Everything was a single limitless stream…
And I had a shitty little hornet to thank for this boggling insight.
Remembering the hornet forced open my eyes and I was back in my bedroom, now saddled with a mystical hangover. I could feel my mitochondria pumping, still producing vast inhabited planets. A glowing singularity circled my head like a corona orbiting a black hole and blank dead spots bubbled through my semi-conscious mind. I forgot thoughts. What was I just thinking about? I couldn’t remember my think. Language had turned into ungraspable wisps of steam. Was this what an aneurysm felt like? A stroke? What had that evil little insect stabbed into my system? I looked at my thumb. It was slightly swollen and I could make out a tiny black speck. The stinger was still under my skin. I recalled my mom soothing my wounds with vinegar, which neutralized the venom but why bother? I felt no pain, just a dull throbbing. The dizzying effects of the sting were wearing off. Words were returning. The universe had moved back behind the sky and I was once again bound by stable equations. I just wanted this alien thing out of my body.
I groped my way out of bed and stood on shaky, unsteady legs. The world wobbled. I went to my desk and found a pushpin, grabbed my magnifying glass. I enjoyed seeing how things looked under the scrutiny of extended perceptions. I owned binoculars, a telescope and a microscope. I liked looking at stuff. Making the small large and the distant close. But what I discovered under the glass was astonishing. The stinger was there, a tiny black fleck like a sliver of wood, but in the center of the particle was a perfectly-formed, linear 1D barcode. I could read the 12-digit UPC number: 700633411200. I felt my world warp and contract. The dizziness returned. Questions poured through me like piss through an hourglass. Reality was up for grabs. Nothing was certain anymore. I needed to do something.
But first I had to remove the stinger. I felt like some otherworldly insect cabal had marked me as inventory. The Number of the Beast carried in a hornet sting. I used the point of the pushpin to loosen and dislodge the stinger. One piece of equipment I didn’t own was an eyepiece magnifier, like jewelers wear. I could’ve used one. I’d intended to keep the stinger as evidence but it toppled away from me and disappeared in a ghostly plummet, lost to the rough, impossible terrain of the wooden floor. I decided hunting for it would be pointless. It was too tiny to find. I sort of wondered if it had existed at all.
My next thought exploded in my head, fully formed and intimidating: I needed another hornet sting! It was up to me to gather new proof (proof of what I didn’t know, but it seemed important).
And I knew where to collect additional stings. There was a hornet’s nest behind the gable vent at the peak of the house. I had a ladder in the garage. I got dressed in my slovenly Sunday attire and set to work, excited by my uncanny discovery. I had a mission. A mystery to solve.
I leaned the ladder against the house and looked up. The vent was a small triangle of wooden slats. I could see a few hornets flying around like miniature black helicopters. All I had to do was climb up and offer them my hands. They would do the rest. The pain would be negligible. I was, however, worried about the intoxicating side effects of the venom. I didn’t want to fall. I wanted the barcodes but didn’t want to lose consciousness again (although becoming the center of the universe again was intriguing). The boundless beckoned yet. I could still feel a dizzy sizzling in my cells and the ineffable reach of the cosmos. I wanted to return to that place. I started up the ladder.
Hornets are ruthless. Predatory. They eat bees. People have died. A single nest can accommodate thousands of angry organized insects. They don’t die when they sting you, they just keep stinging. They don’t usually lose their stingers, but obviously these hornets were different. They react to interlopers and don’t take any shit. You’d have to be crazy to mess with them…
When I got to the top of the ladder I placed my left hand on the slats and waited.
I waited for about five minutes, and then, as soon as I acknowledged my boredom and impatience, a hornet stung my neck. I acted reflexively, swatting it away. Another stung my hand as another landed on my cheek. My last thought was, I’m under attack!
And then I fell.
I remembered a soft, slow-motion tumble through space as I was swallowed by the void.
It was all in the brain. All in the brain. The brain.
I awoke to the smell of oranges, back in my bed. I couldn’t remember how I’d gotten there. The neurotransmitters in my soft gray brain sent random thoughts and vivid memories traveling through my body, emitting from my system as celestial semen. I realized I was wet in other ways as well. I’d pissed the bed and my face was bleeding, my pillow soaked with a rust-colored Rorschach. I felt mystically sick again. Like I could vomit the whole sour solar system. Like a miniscule vacuole disgorging time and space. I realized that my inner monologue—language itself—had dissolved into gibberish. I was thinking with a strange new vocabulary I didn’t understand. I did not fear this incomprehensible development; on the contrary, I felt centered. Like I was witnessing a universal truth for the first time. I was thinking in tongues.
Meanwhile, the stings I’d collected began to hurt, pulsing like an industrial dirge in my neck, my hand, my cheek. I rolled over, worried about broken bones. I stretched, testing my skeleton. I appeared to be relatively intact. I could move my limbs. Losing consciousness must have protected me from the fall like a Hollywood stuntman who knows to relax into a hard landing.
I pushed myself out of bed, grabbed the magnifying glass, and stumbled into the bathroom.
The mirror shocked me with a stranger’s face. My reflection was a wreck of unholy ruin. Half my face was purple, bordered by a sickly yellow. I smiled at myself, checking for broken teeth. They were all intact. My nose was not so lucky. It was swollen and crusted with blood. I had a shiner. But none of that mattered. I raised the magnifying glass and squinted at the hornet sting on the back of my hand.
The number on the barcode was: 775001204999. The stinger in my cheek: 795004405000. I couldn’t read the number on the side of my neck—it was too far away and turning my head was painful.
I returned to the bedroom to dig out the stingers with the pushpin. I sat at my desk. The windows flooded the room with bright particles of sunlight. I had farted that sun. I wondered what day it was. I had lost track. Time felt like an illusion. My furniture was absurd.
I began to dig out the stingers. I was rough with myself, like a drunken surgeon. I just wanted the stingers OUT. I dug the first one free by tearing a hole in my hand. Droplets of blood spattered my desk calendar. I gently placed the stinger on a sheet of copy paper. Then I placed a hand-mirror on my desk and tore into my cheek, squeezing out fresh blood along with the stinger. There. I had two hornet stingers with microscopic barcodes sitting on my desk. Now what? Notify the media? Call my congressman? Robert Ripley?
Was all this really happening?
The third stinger was still embedded in my neck and it would have to remain there. My hand and my cheek wouldn’t stop bleeding. I felt a rushing wave of nausea and lurched back to my wet bed. I collapsed and fell through space. Celestial sounds—the soothing music of orbiting spheres—entered me as a vaporous taste, filling me with a warm dream.
There was a knock on my door. My bowels turned to slush.
Another knock, different this time. The first knock had been a brief series of ball-of-the-fist thuds; the second, sharp hard-knuckle raps. I was about to yell a question before I remembered that I had lost the power of language. My thoughts were like empty word balloons in an unfunny, poorly-drawn comic.
There was a third knock. This one sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before—a sound felt more than heard. I was afraid of whatever was on the other side of that sound.
And yet I pulled my body off the bed and stumbled into the next room. My joints creaked and popped like buckling branches. I opened the door.
I was at a loss as to what I was looking at. There were two… entities hovering in my doorway. If I’d been able to grasp the word synesthesia, I might have thought it. I saw them as music. They gave off an energy that tasted like orange and after a few seconds I realized the orange taste was their way of communicating. I nodded and waved them into the room. My fear had dissipated.
They were sexless, amorphous yet vaguely humanoid. They blurred into the air as if obscured by a foggy dimension trying to coalesce in my personal space/time. The intense taste of orange hit me again with an instruction and I turned to display the stinger in my neck. One of them lifted a scanner that looked like a jellyfish and read the barcode. A beep like a cobweb. The other entity floated like smoke to my desk where it scanned the two stingers I had removed. The taste of orange once again flooded my palate.
They had ordered me back to bed. The word BED appeared in my mind, bright as neon. I was returning to normal. Sort of.
I felt changed. I felt as if I’d just been released from solitary confinement. Or undergone a reverse lobotomy.
The entities had vanished. I returned to my damp bed as the orange flavor faded and my thoughts were once again limited by the blunt, inadequate structures of language. My old vocabulary ran through my mind as tangled chatter.
I had been counted, catalogued, labeled and injected with nectar and I now considered the hornet stings to be a welcome gift. They were doorways, venomous channels of cosmic significance. Or the absence of significance.
I fell into a long night of small, uncomfortable dreams.
I did not appear in any of them.