Knoxville

Scarlett Peterson

The second week in May I share a cabin with a wasp. Its nest hangs in the left upper corner of the door, just outside of my comfort. She guards the small nest, dotes on it. No matter the time of day I see her clutching it, her small body shoved into the corner. I wonder what an entomologist would say about her behavior—if this small beast is to be affectionate with her young once they emerge. 

There’s wasp and hornet spray on the shelf, though I have no intention of using it. I pass her a dozen times a day—trips to the outhouse, small hikes up this Tennessee mountain, evening treks to the farmhouse to shower and make a hot dinner. 

The corner her nest inhabits is close to the wood burning stove. Though it’s May, it’s unseasonably cool, dropping to the mid-40’s in the evenings, so I keep the stove going during the day, and in the evening before I sleep. It’s a small cabin, a dry cabin, and I’m here to write about my own mother, my absent father. 

Each swing of the door I wonder if I’m frightening the wasp, the wood of it swinging open and shut, open and shut so near to her eggs. The back door, a sliding panel of wood, a barn door leading to the balcony, might have been a safer corner to lay in, though it’s possible the cabin was vacant when she first landed, first began mixing her saliva with wood fibers to build their little cradles. I’ve probably burned the logs she used, the stack of kindling dwindling each day asI/Me/Myburn more than was expected of me.

The nest is small, only thirteen holes, thus only so many larvae. All of these from one mother, something we’d call a large family if they were humans. 

When I read that the larvae are fed pieces of chewed caterpillars, I begin to worry for the swallowtail caterpillar in the outhouse, the slow-moving slip of it having moved from the door to the wall to the floor over the course of the last few days. This caterpillar not yet a mother, I consider its path, the chrysalis soon to come, the wings that might emerge if it survives.

There’s no butterfly insecticide in the cabin. It doesn’t exist. This little silken body not something that we ascribe risk to, its inching along the wooden wall something to be excited for. My lover is afraid of butterflies, the beauty of their wings not enough to keep her from ducking out of one’s path.

On the mountain, I am the minority. In the night I hear wild  turkeys scratching the leaves outside of the cabin, their beaks plucking up whatever bugs don’t make their way to safety, to the cabin where I’m trying to sleep. One walked by in the afternoon, stopped to stare at me through the window, its head turning odd angles, not unlike the dog waiting with my lover at home. You’re not a risk, it decides, either because of the walls or because it’s familiar with the cabin, knows no rifles have emerged from its walls. I hear the turkey calls in the evening, the loud sounds we play when roasting the birds for holidays.  These gray-black winged beasts, small dinosaurs saving me from ticks.

There are skunks here too, little creatures shuffling delicately through the grass. I watched one at the water’s  edge, the first wild skunk I’d seen. It plodded slowly along, sniffing and scratching, perhaps feeding on things I couldn’t make out from the distance.

As I look at these small things, find them wandering near me on hikes, I consider my father’s stint as a Buddhist, the one tennant I remember from grade school being “do no harm,” a concept I remember as wildly outside of the scope of typical human violence. Kill nothing, I remember learning, not even the fly. 

In the night only one bug remains in the cabin. A moth, gray and thick-bodied, perches on the window while I read. Once the light is out, my body half cloaked in blankets, I feel it fly near the exposed skin of my back, its wings moving fast enough to sound like a small fan, creating a breeze I can feel each time it passes me by. The cabin is hot, the wood burning quickly in the stove—the breeze is welcome, small as it is.

I like to think that I see God in these small things—the wasps, the caterpillar, the turkey, the skunk, even the coyotes calling in the late night, their barks pleading, desperate to be heard. I know they’re predators, keep from venturing to the outhouse in the dark, lock my door as though to keep them out. They are responsible for deaths on the farm, though I don’t know if it was sheep, chicken, or ducks. I assume sheep, the two Great Pyraneese, new additions to the farm, penned with the sheep as evidence. 

The sheep bay at me as I pass by, hoping for food. The chickens and ducks come running, including the two that have evaded the pen somehow, wandering the yards behind the farm at will. I forget to bring them anything for days. I’m the most familiar with chickens, my grandparents having built a coop, raised a few dozen from hatchlings on their farm while I was in college. One hen remains, the last left after a slew of hawk and fox attacks, some even stolen by raccoons. She’s buff, scratches at the soil near their door, still waiting for scraps.

On a farm, in a mountain cabin, salvation seems abstract. A given that God is somewhere, everywhere. I thanked God for the little rain on the trip up, for my safety as I took a curve too quickly, my heart palpitating at the risk. 

When the sun shines on the balcony I see two blue-tailed five-banded skinks following it, bathing their slender bodies in its rays. They see me watching them, unafraid like the turkey, skittering only when the sun moves. We have the same species back home. One scaled the fence last week as I planted tomatoes I’d grown from seed, watched as I tore up weeds. I’ve saved them from the neighborhood cats, tails ripped off or dropped from fear, bodies marred by little teeth. Two mated under our AC unit last summer, thumping and running as We gardened,  basking in the water I spilled for them.

The cabin doesn’t maintain a pleasant temperature—it’s too cold if left alone, too warm with a good fire going. I opt for the fire, though it dries my skin and mouth as it burns, the kettle boiling atop not enough to compensate for the dry air. Still, I feel lucky. I feel capable. This the fourth fire I’ve built in a few short days, burning strong thanks to the old drafts of poems I’ve wadded under the stack of logs. 

I count the edible species of plants—wild blackberries, water plantains, dandelions, violets, some variety of feverfew, as I hike. There are nuts too, some sort of hickory nut that reminds me of my elementary years, the bricks I’d use to break through the tough shells, to pull out the tender bits of nut on the playground. Once, not thinking of consequence, I tossed a brick at my third grade boyfriend’s head, missing by a foot or so. Years went by before I realized the severity of that decision, the violence I’d been capable of. Those the years after my father. 

His habit of finding new religions every few years—conservative Christianity before I was born, Buddhism when I was in high school, some new religion now, one where he references the great creator on a LinkedIn post after trying to contact me again—reminds me that he’s seeking absolution. It is difficult to live having hurt the ones I love. 

When he tries, again, to tell my mother that I’m lying, I wonder if he believes what he’s saying. It’s possible that his own traumas have caused great gaps in his memory, that those gaps hold my hardest moments, moments he no longer has access to. 

In college, I wanted to watch a reckoning, to see people pay for the things they’d done. Not my father, but anyone capable of violence. I shared post after post about offenders, wished them suffering, pain equal to what they’d caused. Now, I wonder how we got here, to this culture of violence. The mass shootings no surprise, the rape cases with brief sentences no surprise. When I think of my father, I know someone hurt him first, though I don’t know who, and I know it’s likely that someone hurt them too. The origin of this violence is not one that I can find, the bygone generations buried or burned, no narrative of their suffering and the sufferings they caused left behind.

What I want is to be someone who lets the wasps nest, considers the caterpillars, watches the turkeys walk curiously by. What I want is to be at the end of that line.

Scarlett Peterson

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

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