Among the expanse of land stood a landfill of discarded books, some split open, flat at the back of the spine, others clamped shut. Their pages were not dogeared or smudged with spaghetti sauce or weatherbeaten by the sun on a beach. Copies of 1984 and The Lord of the Flies kept company with duplicate versions of The Color Purple and The Hate U Give. Between the spirals and cascades of books, a paper nest dangled from within.
The books came every year like clockwork along with sustenance to keep the insect colonies alive. Mounds of caterpillars and aphids would squirm about the plants rich with nectar and tulips bursting with pollen. If they were lucky, these delicacies of nature would sit beautifully atop rotten carcasses of animals. The books piled higher and higher than the season before, allowing the queen a place to construct her homes.
“What does the color purple look like?” One of the queen's many daughters inquired.
The mother’s dark eyes focused on her offspring. There was always one daughter like her in every colony, inquisitive and demanding of answers, yet, since it was spring, the queen decided she’d humor the girl. The other daughters would busy themselves in the reconstruction of the ancient forest, minding their own work as they shaped their conical tapered homes from the pages of the disposed books.
“Why do you ask about the color purple, my child? There are no colors here. It’s been many springs since we’ve seen such a color or living thing aside from us.”
In the past it was easy enough to know when spring cycled through. Now there were no running brooks of water that melted in the late winter or tall trees to fly among when the leaves turned colors. The change in the weather and the man in the veiled hat with his truck full of books were the only semaphores of the vernal season.
The big-eyed offspring flitted near her mother as the vibration of her wings caused parts of the nest around them to flutter.
“It’s just a word I read while working with the others. What is purple?”
The mother’s antennae moved about as if in thought. She was a queen, afterall, and had spent most of her days producing eggs for the year. It was not within her to mull about and dwell too long on what the color purple was and why there were humans that wrote words like, “Resist much, obey little,” when there would invariably be a daughter that would challenge her.
It was no matter though in the queen’s eyes, as this daughter along with all of the others would succumb to death when the elements chilled the air leaving only her to survive. She’d entertain the girl if only for the day—because what was one day in the grand scheme of things?
The mother’s stout black body with white markings on the front of her head hovered from her duties. She’d often been mistaken for a bee, for why else would the man in the truck wear a veiled hat and suit that covered the expanse of his skin? She’d only ever injected him with the venomous fluid from her smooth salient stinger once, and it was because he’d come too close to her colony. One must always protect the nest.
“Daughter. There was a time when the land that surrounded us was thick with roots anchored into the soil beneath us in the same way that the ink upon these pages is permanent. Our paper nests had the privilege of hanging from the heights of the grand old oak trees where we constructed them to a sizable den where you and your sisters would work among one another.”
The daughter listened as if her mother were reading to her from the very pages that made up the honeycombed cells that inundated the inside of the nest by the thousands. It was one thing to have read the words herself, but it was another to hear them from the queen who knew their true meaning.
She’d thought about what it might be like to be among her sisters and not split apart in various nests burrowed inside of the written word.
“Your sisters before you would harvest wood fibers from the abundance of nature—trees, bark, and mulch. They’d work tirelessly mixing these items with their saliva until it formed into the very paper before you. These words and the books that they come from are your home.”
The daughter’s antennae lifted in awe as she’d never mixed her saliva with anything, not tree fibers nor leaves. It was the pages of the books that she and the others now used to sculpt the layers of honeycomb compartments they resided in.
“But mother, what will happen if the man in the veil continues to bring more books? We can’t possibly build nests in all of them can we?”
The mother thought about how there would always be more books and how there would most certainly always be a man in a veiled hat. For men would always protect themselves with their faces covered. She’d watched as they had destroyed her home and made the land around her so uninhabitable no one would dare broach the pile of books as hornets now made the pages their home.
“It’s all full circle really. We might not have the trees anymore, but in some way they’ve made their way back to us in the form of decorated paper fibers with prose upon them. These stories are our foundations aren’t they, mother?”
The mother led her daughter to the opening of the paper nest where they both took flight perching themselves atop a battered copy of, Of Mice and Men.
“I only ever saw purple once. It was a field of lupine. The richness of the hue was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Of course I’ve read that there were other purple flowers, like the lilac and the dahlia. Those were before my time here.”
Some pages of opened books flipped open with the force of the casual breeze. The daughter’s wings pulled in the direction of chapter five of the book below her.
“Mother, purple sounds lovely.”
The young daughter bristled her legs together anxious at being exposed to the elements that risked her safety.
“But why does he bring these books? What’s so terrible about them?”
The queen’s wings flapped their way into flight. She levitated above the mountain of books feeling ashamed of herself for lumping this daughter of hers into the other offspring. This daughter’s questions were thoughtful and filled with wonder, yet the queen was sad that the girl wouldn’t be around to see what may come next. This was the way of nature, things came and went and some survived where others did not.
“Men have found venom in the books that suspend our homes. The things that might poison one, might be worthy of safekeeping to another, and so that’s what we have done here. We’ve taken their ideas and their words and we’ve cataloged them, wrapped them tight so that you and your sisters that come after you will read them.”
The daughter drifted behind her mother allowing the tailwinds to guide her.
“Mother, are we the keepers of these books?”
The queen circled the books filled with words. Words that had been turned into ideas, and ideas that landed them all here. The ecosystem that once laid claim to the vibrant soil filled with worms, and flowers congested with saffron colored pollen was no longer. Nature maintained many secrets that allowed for the balance of the birds and the bees for centuries, but there was no preparation for what might thrive once the thicket of brittle branches and withered leaves were cleared, leaving nothing but the paper nests and piles of abandoned books filled with ideas that were kept by the hornets themselves.
“Look mother, it’s the man in the veil. He’s brought more books.”
“Come, let us get home to our paper nest of prose and wonderment.”
The queen saw her daughter back to the confines of the book lined nest where she would be protected by the words of Atwood and Morrison.
The rumbling of the truck came to a stop outside when the queen made her way past the paper opening of her vespidae library. Normally she would wait for the veiled man to dispose of all of the books and the scraps of plant food, but after her conversation with her daughter she thought today was the day she’d teach a lesson. The queen readied her stinger even though the man was nowhere near her colony. She thought that if man could ban books filled with curiosities intended to make others think and feel joy, then she could show him what true banishment felt like. The queen wasn’t one to sting repeatedly unless provoked, but today she felt otherwise. Man or animal, it did not matter.
If you go looking for venom you’ll find it.