I was out on a walk when I saw a dead wasp on the sidewalk. It was beautiful to me for many reasons. The easiest to explain are the physical: its wings, the muted yellow and black markings along its back, its teeth, thin legs. In the span of five seconds, I imagined a full life for the creature, and then something about that made me remember long high school days in which nothing happened.
I went home and played Wasp Nest by The National ten thousand times. I looked up wasps on the Internet. What I found wasn’t surprising. What surprised me was how much I cared. I heard a voice in the back of my head saying, “It’s a dead wasp, get over it.” But still, I couldn’t get that image out of my mind. My searching led me to Aesop’s Fables those infamous tales collected by a Phrygian slave.
Obviously, The Wasp and the Snake was the one fable out of the collection that got my attention:
A Wasp settled on the head of a Snake, and not only stung him several times, but clung obstinately to the head of his victim. Maddened with pain the Snake tried every means he could think of to get rid of the creature, but without success. At last he became desperate, and crying, “Kill you I will, even at the cost of my own life,” he laid his head with the Wasp on it under the wheel of a passing wagon, and they both perished together.
That fable got to me, so much so that I wanted to rewrite it. Since I’m not the killing type, I decided to recreate it in a manner where no one gets physically hurt. I still wanted it to be memorable, but I wanted to capture was the desperation of the Snake, not so much his act.
Arthur Rackham illustrated this edition, which is an important fact because, again, I found myself looking at pictures that I could not get out of my mind. Rackham’s lines portrayed the world as I imagined it ought to look—crabs wearing dresses, trees with faces, and the sea as a woman.
The reason I enjoyed these fables so much was that A used simple language to capture an emotion in the span of a paragraph. Not an easy thing to do. Half of my head knew that the animals were devices used to convey a moral or lesson, but the other half, the half that loved the stories, realized the truth in the idea—if this wasp could talk, what would it say? How did it fit into the world alongside of a snake? Were their places equal? Did animals believe in hierarchy the way humans do? What does justice mean to a loyal dog?
From time to time there was a line at the end of each story, a sentence that drove home the meaning. One swallow does not make summer. Union is strength. Give assistance, not advice, in a crisis. The tales were meant for all ages and all intellects. This meant snobs would call them accessible. But that is not the right word. The correct term, for me, is song because when I read them I cannot help but hear the voice of the people who lived these tales.
If I had not been looking down on my walk, I would have never seen the wasp. I would have never written that story. And that was something I wanted to capture just as much as the desperation of the snake or those endless high school days.
I don’t think I got this first draft of the story quite right, but that’s okay. That just means it’s time to keep my head down at the desk. Inspiration may seed a story, but work is what makes it grow.