It’s a hot summer day and Caro’s in the garden with her five-year-old. There are bees at work on the carpet of capeweed across the lawn, and she’s raising her head and taking a breath to tell her daughter to go put on her shoes so she doesn’t step on any. It’s in that very moment. The shrill, boiling-water-pitch scream of her child, stunned and shaking, dancing on the spot with her face bright red, and Caro feels a jolt of hot pain flash across her face and scalp as though she’s the one who’s been stung, an electric shock across her forehead, even as she drops the spade and is running fast across the capeweed, to scoop up her sweaty and shrieking daughter, saying where where where?
Another wincing jolt as she realises it was a wasp, not a bee. Her child’s arms wrap around her like she’s drowning and is going to pull Caro down, and the place on her leg is looking white rather than red, but no bee sting to pull out, just the hot-needle fire of a European wasp’s wicked little curved abdomen, and Caro tugs off her daughter’s dress as she hurries inside, holding her heavy and keening, thrashing.
From somewhere a long way away, inside, she briefly remembers her own mother, who could not abide screaming, gripping her by the shoulders when she was small, saying, Stop that ridiculous noise, just stop it.
As she jogs into the bathroom to press the bathtub plug into place and turn on the cold tap, her free hand cradling her daughter’s head, then out again, back to the kitchen for vinegar in the pantry, and an icepack out of the freezer, she’s talking calmly. She can hear herself. Talking over the wailing, letting it spend itself, saying, I know, I know, it hurts so much doesn’t it? Talking about how it was nobody’s fault but she’d make it better in a sec, lowering her daughter into the bath and smelling the sharp clean scent of vinegar, rising again to rummage in the bathroom cupboard for the anaesthetic skin balm, cotton balls, the calamine lotion, maybe even an antihistamine.
There comes a moment when they both fall silent as her daughter takes a long shuddering breath, and that’s when the memory drops into Caro’s consciousness, perfect as a drop of water off a stalactite. Down it smashes, tiny but insistent, into a little pool of something calcified and secret.
“I got stung by a wasp when I was about four years old,” she says to her daughter. “It really hurts, doesn’t it?” She pours some fresh vinegar out of a cup onto her daughter’s leg, which is red now, the area starting to react around the invisible sting. “My mum and dad – you remember Granny and Grandpa? – they didn’t know what was making me scream so much.”
“It had crawled inside my dress. They couldn’t see it.”
Caro sees that dress now, suddenly and vividly. Out it comes from some old, buried archive, stored in some mental cave. Invisible hands hold it up to her and give it a quick businesslike shake to make it fall from its folds. Blue homemade sundress with a wide waistband. Cotton seam chafing under her arms.
She blinks. She recalls her own helpless, wild, twisting reaction to the flashing stabs of pain as her parents hurried from inside, distracted by her screams.
Distracted and, well, worried – obviously. They would have been so worried. But as the minutes passed and she’d been unable to speak, just scream and stagger around, they’d become exasperated. Her mother had leaned down over her, starting to scold her, her father, who liked quick resolutions and not noisy outbursts, telling her to stop making a fuss about whatever it was, had she done something naughty, had she cut herself or burned herself, had she touched something hot, and her shaking her head no no no until finally the wasp crawled out. They’d realised then.
Caro stirs the cool bathwater with her hand. It had been calamine lotion back then too, her mother standing her in the middle of the living room and slapping it all over her body where the stings were coming up in fiery red hives.
Her parents. She perfectly remembers the look they’d exchanged with each other, their brusque concurrence to not bother calling the doctor.
She remembers nausea, too, and her mother telling her she’d made herself sick from crying so much. Yes, the futility of crying. It was brave to stop crying, to get yourself under control. To try to cram your stung and swollen thumb into your mouth for comfort. Maybe she’d been three, not four.
She reaches for the icepack now, wraps it in a face washer and presses it to her daughter’s leg.
“Did your mummy give you a big cuddle too?” asks her daughter. Caro nods, holding the icepack to the redness.
“Of course!” she says. And weeps a tear, 30 years too late. She takes the icepack away and sees the single tear splash onto the raised red welt. She is not one for drama and pathos and never has been, not since she was about three, but there’s a fairytale, she’s sure there is, about ministration and the power of tears, and even if there isn’t and there is still nobody to comfort her, look: the beautiful unscarred skin is whole, the hurt already dissipating on her own child’s soothed flesh.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 18, 2021 as "Sting".
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