Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Winter 2021    poetry    all issues

Fiction Winter 2021 cover


Andrej Lišakov

Kati Iso

Devon Bohm

Sarah P. Blanchard
Playing Chess with Bulls

Brandi Sperry

Parker Fendler
Mittens and Things

L. Michael Bohigian

Elizabeth Lyvers
The House and the Sea

K. Ralph Bray
Rocket Girl

Brittany Meador
Darkside Knocking

Nick Gallup
My Son's Grandmother

Rodney Stephens

Salena Casha
When you find yourself at the bottom of the stair, think of Diderot

John Maki
Max, They

Rodney Stephens

(The Myth of Vespidae)

My grandpa was a big, bald man with nine and a half fingers. He lost the tip of his thumb when a hive of wasps ambushed him at his ranch on the outskirts of Dallas. His thumb ballooned, hives wiggled up the arm, and his very own throat tried to strangle him. They rushed him to a hospital and managed to save his life, but it cost him half a thumb, finger prints and all.

It didn’t take long for thumbs to become a unit of measurement in my family.

“I missed my sales quota ‘by the tiniest of margins,’” Mom said, pinching her thumb to her middle finger and holding it in the air. “Half a thumb shy.” Hamilton and I also put thumb to middle finger to rationalize bad grades and failed try-outs; all kinds of rejections and coming up short were transcribed into the code of thumbs.

Swarms of wasps also bedeviled my boyhood mind. I saw them hiding beneath eaves and ledges, or tucked inside thorny bushes and horse apple trees. My thumbs ached at the sight of them. My skin shivered at the thought of their sting. But I was also drawn to them and their papery nest, crafted from gobbled up wood and gooey saliva. So in science class, while my friends presented projects about scorpions and spiders, I created The Myth of Vespidae.

I put the title in the center of the board, using big, bold letters. The rows of yellow-jackets, wasps, and hornets dangled from one end to the other. I fixed them to a thick square of Styrofoam, using color-coordinated pins for each type: an abacus of reds, yellows, and oranges with a blank space between them. I studied the board, made sure the pins were even, and angled their bodies so that they were all paying homage to the titled queen. But something was missing and I knew what it was. I grabbed Mom’s Polaroid and went out back.

The rickety storage shed had always been their favorite spot and this nest was a doozy, nearly as big as a horse apple. The sun was in my eyes, but I swear there must have been twenty eggs nestled in those honeycomb cradles. A pair of wasps crawled over the nursery, so I approached slowly, crouching down a little to make myself extra-small, then I took a picture and paused to see the colored image take shape.


I had to get closer to the nest.

One wasp flew off. The other one patrolled.

I glanced around, hoping for another way. My hands were sweaty paws, but I took two more steps, aimed the camera and took a photo. I sat it on the ground, breathed in deeply, and then I took another one, before retreating to my room. I pinned the polaroids of the nest on either side of the title and nodded.

The photos had that Cracker Jack tattoo look. The colors weird, not quite right, not quite true. Not that I was an expert on tattoos. I had only seen the ones on the top side of Grandpa’s feet. Old wartime jobs, a pig on one foot and a rooster on the other. They’re all faded and blurry, but grandpa pointed out which was which, and said he got them for dropping incendiaries on Tokyo during World War II. A present from his buddies.

I didn’t talk about my grandfather or World War II in third period. Family day and social studies had come and gone, so I kept it mostly scientific. I sat the display on the chalk tray and started talking.

“These are the antennae,” I said, pointing them out with a shaky pencil. “And this is called the thorax.” I paused for a heartbeat, checking my notes, “and right here, at the tail-end of the add-boman is the stinger.” Everyone laughed, and Miss Kendrick corrected me. “Abdomen,” she said, clearing her throat. I was always messing up my bs and ds.

It was hours later, walking home from school, when I stopped feeling sorry for myself, and it dawned on me, this thing that I had done. Those strange, lifeless wasps were almost golden in death, so my heart sank into itself. I had stuck pins into their dead bodies. Jabbed it right through.

I slunk down an alleyway, sat my project on the dirt, and removed the pins. A breeze fluttered the wasps, but they didn’t crawl or wiggle. They didn’t wake up. I knew they wouldn’t. I squatted down and brushed a tiny, auburn one from head to stinger with my index finger. I was trying to be gentle. I meant it in a good way, but it didn’t matter. The body parts flaked off. The wings drifted off the thorax, and then the wind picked up and kited them away. I left the myth where it was, scrambled to my boot legs, and sprinted all the way home.

My grandfather’s ranch was no Southfork, and he was no J.R. He was famous, but only in a small way. Other vets from the war, also with roosters and pigs on their feet, knew him. They had all dropped incendiaries during the war. Some fell on German factories. Others on Japanese gardens. Most of them continued working in the incendiary hustle. But Grandpa’s focus was on meat.

His small fame was not limited to the war. Parts of his cows landed in grocery stores and restaurants all over the metroplex, from little mom and pop joints to wide-aisled mega-stores with humongous meat freezers. After the cattle were slaughtered, they weren’t called cows anymore. Now, they were steaks and hamburgers, T-bones and rib-eyes. They were cradled in a Styrofoam tray and wrapped in see through plastic. Each one had a little white label that listed the net weight, the unit price, and the total price. Nothing hidden. Decimal points and pennies printed in clear, black numbers for everyone to see. My grandfather liked to pick the package up and sniff it. Right there in the grocery store. Made a big scene out of it, too. Everyone looking.

“Go on, Enki. Give it a smell,” he shouted.

I squirmed a little, but did as I was told.

“I don’t smell a thing,” I mumbled, handing the meat back to him.

My grandfather laughed. “That’s because your nose,” he said, flicking it with his good thumb, “your nose needs more schooling, that’s all.” He pushed the shopping cart away, chuckling, and I followed. Chunks of his cows must have ended up in all those bellies, most every night. He could barely keep up with demand, and with the population booming, he must have believed that his hands would always finger clean, crisp dollar bills. How could he think otherwise?

But one day, not long after the Styrofoam wasps, my grandfather’s cattle started dying off. Every morning, he discovered a single skeleton next to the creek, and each day he’d wonder about the missing meat and the vanished hide. “They leave the bones there to mock me,” he said. He couldn’t figure out who or what was doing this to him. He didn’t have any enemies, “at least, none that would do something like that,” but he wasn’t so sure about those bearing a grudge from what he called “the checkered career” of our ancestors.

“History may not repeat itself,” he told my brother and me, “but that doesn’t keep the past from changing its clothes and making a guest appearance.”

It didn’t take long for him to decide that we needed to help him put a stop to it. “No sleeping in the house,” he announced. “We’ll sleep right down by the creek. Each man will have his own gun, and I’ll give a $20 bill to the man who first spots the poacher” he said, poking me in the ribs with that half-thumb of his.

After we pitched our tents, Hamilton and I went down to the creek for a swim. When we got down to the water, we undressed and slipped right in. It was crystal paradise with a honeysuckle breeze. Goose pimples tingled up and down my arms and legs. I stood there for a minute, thigh deep, petting the water with my fingers and letting the creek move in and around me. Then I waded in deeper, until the water was almost up to my neck. I shivered for a moment before squatting down, putting my head under water, and holding my breath for as long as I could. I never once shut my eyes: the water was that clear, that clean. Hamilton was a few feet from me. He kept diving down to the bottom of the creek looking for arrowheads. I thought about doing the same, but for now, I let my legs rise to the surface and floated on my back, listening to the concert of the creek: a symphony of chirps, chatters, and croaks.

I was studying the sky, watching shape-shifter clouds morph from wolves into eagles, when Hamilton shouted: “Enki! I found one.” He stood there belly button deep in the water looking like he’d just been baptized. His whole face smiled, and his blue eyes glowed as he showed me the most wonderful arrowhead I had ever seen. An absolute gem, tinged so red that you could see the history of blood gushing everywhere.

“There are tons of them,” he said.

I dove down, and sure enough found a few resting on the creek bed. I picked out two of them and came to the surface. Hamilton did the same.

“Arrowhead River,” I said, wishing it were true.

“Just imagine what it must have been like,” Hamilton said, “scouting around on a horse with a weapon in your hand.”

“I don’t know,” I said, looking at our row arrowheads, “looks like an awful lot of dying to me.”

As we sat around the campfire that evening, my grandfather told us about the different tribes that used to roam around these parts and figured that this must have been the site of a mighty fierce battle.

“This was a kind of no man’s land, a buffer zone, a goulash of shifting cultures. Everyone borrowing, and sometimes stealing, from everyone else. In a way, it has always been contested land. Guess it always will be,” he said.

“Mom says we’ve got Comanche blood coursing through our veins,” I said.

He nodded. “On her side of the family,” he said, “way back when.” His eyes darkened a bit and his half-thumb twitched.

“The Comanche were known as wasps because they swarmed in and stung their enemy to the quick,” he said, poking me with the point of an arrowhead.

“You been stung by a wasp, haven’t you, Enki?”

I shook my head, but he ignored me and plowed on.

“Well, it feels kind of like that to get killed by an arrow, only a whole lot worse.” He pushed the point of the arrow into the rind of a melon and held it up for our eyes to see.

“You see, when the arrow pierces your flesh, it feels just like the stinger of a wasp. Only with the arrow, it’s like the whole wasp flies right inside of you, stinging you all the way through, from one side of the body to the other. From here,” he said, indicating his chest, “to here,” he finished, pointing over his shoulder at his back.

My brother and I shivered with delight. “A full moon night like this was their favorite time to raid an enemy encampment,” he said, “so keep a sharp look out.”

When we turned in for the night, Grandpa held up a brand new bill with President Andrew Jackson’s face right in the middle and reminded us why we were here. “Anything suspicious and you wake me,” he ordered.

But who could sleep on such a night? An owl kept hooting about something or the other. Every sort of leaf, twig, and branch creaked and crinkled like a wadded-up old deed. And every once in a while, one of the cows would make its solitary sound. Eventually, I must have drifted off. I don’t know how long I slept, but I woke slowly, not to a loud noise, but to a misplaced sound that vibrated the air. Hamilton snored lightly, murmuring gibberish from time to time. I tried to go back to sleep, but the humming grew a notch louder.

I reached over for my BB gun and pointed it at the front flap for a long while.

“Hamilton,” I finally whispered. “Hamilton.” He didn’t budge, so I pulled on my boots and crept outside on my own.

Curly brown hair, scrawny, baby blue overalls, and cowhide boots. I fashioned a tough look on my face, but inside I was trembling all over.

The moon was so bright that I didn’t even need a flashlight, and there it was on the side of the creek, the nude skeleton of a cow. Its meat and skin picked clean. That humming, that buzzing grew louder and louder. It ramped up a bit. I had intended to go get my grandfather. Instead, I found myself following that song. I don’t so much remember thinking that I’d head down to the creek as finding that I was drifting down there.

The tug was irresistible. My flesh tingled and crawled from the haunting symphonic chants: “O fortune, changeable as the moon.” I felt alive and I felt bewitched. The sound seemed to be coming from the creek itself. “Come, come, my love. I implore you. I implore you.”

I didn’t see our arrowheads. They were just up and gone. The cow’s skull was stained with splotches of blood. Drops on the ground, too.

Something landed on me and I swatted it away. I edged closer to the creek, pointing my BB gun at the churning water. Then another landed on me and another and another. They’d touch down and fly off before I could hit them.

When I got to the bank, I squatted down like a catcher and tried to look beneath the surface. The daytime creek had become a smokey silhouette. It was bubbling and rumbling. The liquid harmonics rose from the water—misting in the air: “Vain, monstrous Fate, you turning wheel.” The waters swirled to a pitter-pat of feverish, drumming chants. The beat took on an edge. Then the creek belched once, sputtering smoke rings. I inched back and eyed the ripples. A minute later, it burped a second time and a cloud of wasps shot at me with a blast of steam.

The swarm swirled into a ring of fire. Their black eyes locked on to my green ones for a scalding second, before they whirled around me, brushing me with their wings and whooshing me with their song. I sank backwards, dropped my gun, and tried to scoot away, but they kept gushing towards me, tumbling all over me. I sat there by the river, wide-eyed, paralyzed with fear. My legs pulled tight into my chest. My voice wouldn’t scream. It couldn’t make a sound. The blur of bodies. Seductive, longing chants. A few wasps bounced into me, but they didn’t sting. They ricochetted off. I kept expecting them to arrow right through my chest, but they didn’t. Instead, they brushed against me. The briefest, little sprinkling and the lightest dew. Then the funnel cloud dissipated and faded into the foggy banks of the creek, and my fear transformed into wonder.

I must have passed out, because next thing I knew I was back in the tent, with Grandpa and Hamilton squatted over me. Faces real close to mine.

I told them everything. Everything I could remember. Why wouldn’t I?

“No more spooky stories for you,” Grandpa said.

“I tried to come for you, but I couldn’t.”

“Sounds like a scaredy cat dream,” my brother said, rolling his eyes.

But I wouldn’t let it go. I kept after them. Kept piling on the details, exaggerating here and there, but sticking close to the truth. It took a while, but I could see they were getting won over.

“Why didn’t they sting you?” Hamilton asked.

“Beats me.”

“I’ve known some bee charmers in my time,” said Grandpa, “so I suppose it’s possible.”

Enki, the Vespidae Charmer, I smiled. My brother and grandfather studied me up and down. Human lie detectors. They studied the skeleton baking in the morning light. Bony shadows. Weird gleams. Finally, when I saw my grandfather massaging his thumb, I knew he was persuaded.

“Stranger things have floated down the creek,” he said, handing me the $20 bill.

I doodled my way through school next week and checked out all the books on entomology. My fingers traced anatomical sketches of Vespidae until I could flawlessly reproduce them. I created a colored flip book that spanned from their emergence out of the creek to their swirling loops around my body. Lovely pages of gossamer wings with pinstripe veins. They still had stingers, but they also had ocelli and compound eyes. I seesawed from elation to doubt, and then the sky cracked open with a rumbling.

I was walking home Friday afternoon, daydreaming, when thick rain drops plopped down from above. I picked up my pace, but so did the storm. The rain morphed into pea size hail. With the backpack over my head, I took refuge beneath a horse apple tree. Zigzag lightning bolts flung from the wrath of Enlil. Thunder booms that rattled the bones. I dashed from tree to tree until I finally made it to safety.

“I’m home,” I shouted, as I opened the door. No one answered, but I heard Mom and Grandpa talking. “I told him to drop every pesticide known to man on the sons of bitches. And he told me that he had some ‘military grade stuff’ that would do the trick. Hell, I didn’t think he was going to poison the whole goddamn ranch.”

“That’s got to be illegal.”

“Damn right, but no one can find him. He disappeared. Fell off the face of the earth with all my money.”

“But why would he do such a thing?”

I stepped into the living room and they turned to me

“What happened at the ranch?” I asked. “What were you saying about pesticides?” My whole body started shaking and my teeth chattered.

“Enki, what’s wrong with you?” my mother asked.

“Pesticides? I tell you about the most incredible experience in my life and you slaughter it.”

“What the hell are you talking about, Enki? They were goddamn wasps, not floating fairies.”

I stared at him, boiling. “You have murdered something you don’t understand.” Their faces were baffled and terrified. “You have killed something beautiful and bizarre.”

Hot tears skidded down my cheeks. I turned my back on them and stormed down the hall to my bedroom. I crawled underneath the bed. The cambric was ripped and drooping, so I found myself staring up at the innards of the boxsprings: wood slabs, cobwebs, and old pieces of chewing gum. At last, my eyes lighted on a crumpled sack of Bottle Caps candy. I must have hid it there a month ago. I pulled it loose from the spring and emptied the candies into my mouth. I chewed on it a little, tasted the soda, but it didn’t taste right. Everything was kind of off. Enlil’s hailstorm still battered the roof and chipped away at the windowsill.

Rage flickered and flared. Plots of revenge. Lots of stabbing. Knives spread out into lethal fans. A thousand and one stingers. The wasp nest as torture chamber. It was getting out of hand. I started to scare myself. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, whispered the alphabet backwards from z to a, and finally managed to shelve the worst of such thoughts.

The poison must have killed them while I was playing with the fluttering pages of the flip book. I must have felt something when they died, only I couldn’t be sure. There were so many other emotions swarming in my head. Enki, the Vespidae Charmer? A lot of good that did ‘em. If I had kept my mouth shut none of this would have happened. I was to blame as much as him. I was the one who squealed. I was the one who ratted them out. I was the traitor. I guess I just didn’t think, but even so, I can’t dodge responsibility, not for this crime. All those papered-over-loyalties to species, property, race and family shattered beneath my bed.

“Enki?” Mom said, flinging up the bedsheet. “What has gotten into you? You don’t talk to your grandfather that way.” I crawled out.

“I’m sorry.”

“You don’t understand,” she said.

“I said I’m sorry.”

“That’s not going to cut it, mister. He’s ruined,” she said. “Ruined.”

Tears rolled down her cheeks, as I looked at her stupefied.

“Don’t you get it. Him being ruined means us being ruined. And here you are crying about wasps. His cattle are dead. The crop duster poisoned the ranch. The whole lot of them up and died. It’s desolation.”

We drove out to the ranch when my grandfather deemed it safe. Mom parked the station wagon on the side of the gravel road, and we stepped into light of Shamash’s fiery sun. Heat radiated from the ground. No wind. No whispered breezes; an old Western silence. Rattled stillness twisted around denuded branches. Bonfires blazed here and there.

“We have to cremate every last one of them,” my grandfather said.

We stood before the funeral pyres watching the last of the dead cows burn. Charred patches. Flame licks here and there. Horned skulls and skeleton bones scattered among the embers. The incendiary stench commingled with the rotten horse apples.

Not a wasp in sight. Not even a nest.

I drifted down to the creek. The water slogged before me in a thick, oily sheen. More syrupy than gooey. Shafts of blurriness slid along the bottom. I spotted an arrowhead above the waterline, so I bent down and pulled it from the mud. I squeezed it in my hand. The chiseled stone felt good.

“Someone must have swapped our creek for another,” Grandpa said, walking up behind me and putting his hand on my shoulder. “I’ve been up and down this godforsaken thing and it’s the same everywhere,” he said. “Look at it. You’d think the poison would be diluted by now, but the level keeps dropping. At this rate, it’ll be history before the new moon rises.”

“I guess this is what happens when myths collide,” I said.

I felt his bewildered eyes on me. My grandfather. The one who had such a way with words. The one who helped us make it to the end of the month. He was always giving me lemon drops and buffalo nickels. He may not have flown the mission, but he gave the orders.

I fingered the arrowhead, rolling it around in my palm, pressing my fingers and thumb against the sharp edges. Grandpa’s hand felt heavy on my shoulder. I gave it a quick glance, then turned back to the stream. The webspace where his thumb greets the rest of his hand. I clinched my teeth and sent my right arm swinging fast and hard, stabbing the arrowhead into his webbing. Screaming, cursing, “Enki!” I took off. I slid down the creek bank and stumbled into the shallows. I found my feet, stuffed the arrowhead in my pocket, and then tripped and splashed my way to the other side. I paused for a moment and turned back to see Mom and Hamilton rushing to my grandfather’s side.

Rodney Stephens is chair of the English department at Howard Payne University. He teaches creative writing, U.S. literature, and science fiction. His work has appeared in Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, Jelly Bucket, and Amarillo-Bay.

Dotted Line