Devil’s Lake

Spring 2013 Issue

Keith Rebec: Cover That Boy with a Yellow Jacket


In autumn, when the deciduous leaves begin to change, yellow jacket queens seek males for copulation, shortly before the males’ exoskeletons become brittle husks and crumble midair and the fragments of their shells drift like ash; the queens crawl into wood piles or the holes of lawnmower mufflers—where they tuck their stingers underneath themselves and sleep through winter—and dream, perhaps, of the syrup in the grooves of an Orange Crush can or the tender skin of the child who clutches it.


Before the yellow jackets’ maggoty larvae hatch come spring, they feed on the silk cocoons of monarch butterflies provided by queens until wings grow, until they can float on their own, until the sterile workers or the queens determine the young are able to work long hours and push them from the nest: to forage, to build, to defend, to die.

Taking Flight

I’m six and following a group of eight year olds along a dirt track, a two-lane trail of loam that leads to other seasonal cabins in northern Michigan. We’re getting farther and farther from my friend’s house, heading towards two small cabins in a field a mile away. It’s midafternoon and chickadees frolic amongst honeysuckle branches, and all I can think of is whether or not the other kids will like me—will one of the boys hit me in the eye, and what will be on today’s original Dr. Who?

Before I can grab the ledge underneath a cabin window—where three older boys already hang, their fingers pinching the warped wood—and peek, I step into a hole and fall. Sharp needles immediately cut into my neck, my ears, my back, and when I reach to investigate, the pain hits my arms, my hands. The crunchy shells are stuck in the flesh behind my ears, and as I move my hand along my neck they squash and pop and slip as a ball of wetness into my shirt. Now, the other kids are running and cussing and I’m trying to catch up but can’t and the pain hurts like a branch lashing—the swarm keeps attacking me, circling me—and I’m just not fast enough to get away.

When I finally make it back to my friend’s, after giving up and taking the assault, the other kids are inside watching from the window. All of them have Push Pops going in and out of their mouths and their lips are orange. My friend’s mother rushes out and helps me inside. Are you okay? she asks.

I’m crying, and she pulls my shirt off. The welts are scattered across my neck and back, in my ears and mouth and armpits. They are everywhere, she says, and counts them, twenty-six in all, some with the stinger protruding from skin, some with the snotty guts attached. One of the dead falls from my shirt—Vespula maculifrons—the yellow jacket. Ouch, she says, and stomps it—begins dipping soft fingers into a clay bowl and dabbing each bump with baking soda and water. We wait. The paste itches, tingles. The other children smirk, head back outside. She whispers into my ear, The poison will be gone soon, and helps me onto the couch. She turns on Dr. Who. It’s a rerun.


Entomologists say yellow jackets are peaceful creatures. That they don’t attack unless provoked. That the stingers are only used for self-defense. It’s the mandibles that one should watch for, the delicate jaws, which tear meat from a horse’s back or bite into unsuspecting vacationers at picnics or lay claim to a child’s ear. And it’s the yellow jacket family, i.e., the wasp (Vespula vulgaris), that are one of the most dangerous species in the United States and kill more people each year than other creatures such as venomous snakes.

Paper Homes

When a colony of five thousand is disturbed, whether on accident or purpose, defenders slip from a fibrous nest in battalions. These armies are guided by sight and smell and circle for movement before engaging in a relentless attack. And when bothered—kicked, killed, or crushed—these creatures release an alarm pheromone that smells like ripe bananas, signaling the colony to join the onset. So don’t sling rocks at boxcars or wander aimlessly through an oak thicket while eating a banana; the artificial scent could get you coated from the ankles up with crawling and stinging yellow jackets.


It’s the bottom of the ninth and Charlie’s at bat. There are three of us—we are in town and in Charlie’s yard—and we know better than to play ball while in town and in someone’s yard since Dave broke a window last year, but here we are anyway. It’s our thing; this game, that’s not really an organized game, where Dave’s on the mound—a warped Frisbee—turning the ball in his hand, preparing for a pitch, and the batter’s allowed to crush a few before it’s someone else’s turn.

It’s eighty-five degrees and Charlie’s dog, a beagle, is on a short chain a few yards from us and never quits baying whenever we’re outside. Woo, woo, woo, and the rattle of dog tags. Meanwhile, Dave’s still on the mound, preparing for the same pitch, when he says, What’s that?

The Louisville Slugger in Charlie’s hands goes limp, and he turns his head skyward toward the thing Dave’s pointing at.

Damn, Charlie says, and squints. We move closer and rub elbows, huddle underneath the nest. The gray mass hangs inside the nook at the peak of the house like a Japanese paper lantern; it’s the size of a basketball. Wasps scoot in and out. A handful clings to the outside.

Dave chucks a fastball at the nest. The ball lodges in the side—the white leather and red threads still visible—and the mass swings.

Before I can cuss, bees pour from the mouth of the nest. We run across the street, watch as swarms descend and tear into the closest living thing: the beagle. The chain clatters and the dog trots in circles, steady at first. The dog’s pace heats up, and, in an effort to escape, it bolts, gets strangled, tumbles. The bees cover its spotted hide, getting at its rear-end, at its neck and ears, at its eyes, the belly, and the dog bites and chews the yellow jackets as best it can, coughs clumps of them into the dust. The wasps’ yellow, regurgitated bodies are bound by saliva and with the half-digested puppy chow, form mounds along the scalped earth like piles of feces. Then the beagle howls and cries like a worn alternator belt and repeats the whole biting, whining charade all over again.

We’re across the street, waiting for a break in the assault or some kind of miracle, when Charlie says he’s fucked and takes a swing at Dave. They grapple and fall, roll around on the gravel, their white T-shirts smudged like the spots on the dog’s pelt. I want to run but don’t and stay to see how the beagle will fare. Perhaps, if the dog survives, it won’t bark as much. After ten minutes of holding its own, the dog crawls into the doghouse, pants, gags. The yellow jackets continue to circle and guard the nest where the baseball’s lodged, and hundreds of others still land or bang at the face of the doghouse.

As boys, we sort of feel ashamed; we slink by, leave the dog to die, head into the house—eat strawberry wafers and sip Cokes without speaking.


According to an entomologist, yellow jackets may reach a top flight speed of ten miles per hour, and, by nature, will attack until a threat subsides, until a danger no longer exists. And sometimes, during an attack, the escapee must find a closed dwelling or sprint, several hundred feet or more, to reach safety.

One should also be aware that water could possibly work as a safety net; however, while any body of water suitable to bathe a toddler would provide supple opportunity for escape, a lumberjack, trying to evade an onset, dove from a single truss bridge in Oregon—plummeted seventy-seven feet—and split his skull on a rock and died in an inch of water.


It’s the summer before eighth grade and Steve’s twenty feet up with a roofer’s hatchet, sinking spikes into wooden planks along the outer bark of a Hemlock tree. We’re in the process of renovating a tree fort to accommodate our drinking and smoking habits—a hacienda away from my parents’ watchful eye at our house trailer on Deer Lake Road.

The woods here are damp and cool, and I’m on the ground supervising this shit, smoking Viceroys, handing up boards and nails when needed.

Steve, however, is swinging the hatchet nonstop, using his shoulder as a rag to mop the sweat, and he’s cussing, getting closer to having the vertical steps completed, when he sinks the hatchet into a tree notch, begins waving like a sailor’s wife. It doesn’t take long to realize he isn’t waving when a swarm of yellow jackets funnel from the tree and explode about us.

I drop the box of nails after two wasps get me on the neck and run forty yards, stop, wait, as Steve works his way down. When he reaches the ground he doesn’t run; rather, he stands still, like a street performer, with a cloud of yellow around his head.

At this point I have no idea why he hasn’t followed, so I jog back towards the fort. He’s standing in the same spot, alongside the Hemlock, with arms stretched; the yellow jackets bomb his head, clumps of the striped bodies are stuck to his face, his arms, crawling. “Come on, man. Jesus Christ,” I yell, but he doesn’t move. The wasps begin circling me, so I bolt for the house, save my own ass.

I stand in the driveway kicking stones but still no Steve. I struggle to understand why he hasn’t shown; perhaps, he knows something I don’t, or, perhaps, it’s some tactic or defense mechanism to outsmart the onslaught. Hell, maybe he scooted out the back forty and made it home already.

After about fifteen minutes he emerges from the woods, moving slow and stiff, like he’d shit himself. I meet him halfway between our front door and the woods. His face, everything from the waist up, is red, swelling.

Why the fuck didn’t you run, man? I ask, and place a hand on his shoulder, help him toward the trailer.

The welts cover his face; they look like eggs under the skin, and his lips and eyes are swollen as if he’d been on the losing end of an afterschool brawl.

I ain’t sure, he says, and stoops, places both hands on his belly, pushes as if it might force the poison out. My daddy always said not to.

a photo of the author, Keith Rebec KEITH REBEC resides in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He’s a graduate student working on an MA in Writing at Northern Michigan University. His work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Shenandoah, The Portland Review, Monkeybicycle, apt, and Underground Voices, among others. He’s the managing editor for the literary magazine Pithead Chapel, and you can learn more about him at More from this issue >