My Father’s Orders
In those days I did my father’s bidding. I would leave my bed at six o’clock every morning, tiptoe past his door so as not to disturb his slumber, then set to work as quietly as possible among the foul tankards, glasses, plates, knives, gobs of tobacco, broken pipe-stems and other signs of interrupted pleasure that awaited me in the taproom below. Only after an hour or so—when everything had been made straight and the air was fresh again—could my father be trusted to appear, cursing me for having made such an intolerable racket.
“Good Lord, boy” was his reliable greeting. “Must you dole out headaches to the entire county?” He did not look in my direction as he asked this, but slouched from the doorway to a freshly wiped table, and collapsed there with both hands pressed to his temples. What followed was also always the same: I must look sharp and fetch him a reviving shot of grog, then cook some rashers of bacon and present them to him with a good thick slice of brown bread.
My father gulped his rum without so much as blinking, and chewed his meal in silence. I see him now as clearly as I did then—almost forty years distant. The flushed face, the tuft of sandy hair, the red-rimmed eyes—and melancholy engulfing him as palpably as smoke surrounds a fire. At the time I thought he must be annoyed by the world in general and me in particular. Now I suppose he was chiefly frustrated with himself. His life had begun with adventure and excitement, but was ending in the banality of repetition. His consolation—which might even have been a positive pleasure—was to finish his breakfast by issuing me with instructions he thought might keep me as unhappy as he felt himself.
On the day my story begins, which is early in the month of July in the year 1802, my orders were to find the nest of wasps he thought must be in our vicinity, then destroy it so our customers would not suffer any more annoyance from them. When this was done, I must return to the taproom, prepare food and drink for the day ahead, and make myself ready to serve. I did not in fact object to the first of these tasks, since it gave me the chance to keep my own company, which was my preference at that time of my life. I need not say how I regarded the prospect of further chores in the taproom.
Because it was not my habit to entertain my father by allowing him to see what did and did not please me, I set about my business in silence. This meant nodding to show I understood what was required, then turning to one of the several barrels that stood nearby, pouring a drop of best beer into a tankard, and taking this tankard outside to the bench that ran along the front of our home, where it faced the river. Here I sat down and waited for our enemies to find me.
It was a fine morning, with mist already burning off the banks and creeks, and the whole panorama of our neighborhood looking very delightful. Beyond the river, which at this point downstream from Greenwich was at least thirty yards wide, olive-colored marshland faded into lilac where it reached the horizon. On the Thames itself, the work of the day was just beginning. Large merchant ships starting their journeys across the globe, stout little coal barges, ferries collecting men for work, humble skiffs and wherries were all gliding as smoothly as beetles along the outgoing tide. Although I had seen just such a procession every day of my life at home, I still found it a marvelous sight. Equally welcome was the thought that none of the sailors on these vessels, nor the fishermen tramping along the towpath, nor the bargees with their jingling horses, would acknowledge my existence with more than a simple greeting, or interrupt my concentration on my task—which, as I say, was merely to wait.
When the sun and breeze, combining with a drowsy scent from the emerging mudbanks, had almost wafted me back to sleep again, I had my wish. A large and inquisitive wasp (or jasper, as we called them along the estuary) hovered cautiously above my tankard, then clung to the lip, then dropped into its depths with a shy circling movement until it was almost touching the nectar I had provided. At this point I clapped my hand over the mouth of the tankard and swirled its contents vigorously, to create a sort of tidal wave.
When I had kept everything turbulent for a moment or two, like a tyrant terrifying one of his subjects, I removed my hand and carefully tipped the liquid onto the surface of the bench beside me. The jasper was by now half-drowned and half-drunk, its legs incapable of movement and its wings making the feeblest shudders. This was the incapacity I wanted, because it allowed me to delve into my pocket and find the length of bright red cotton I had brought with me, then to tie it around the waist of my prisoner. I did this very gently, so that I did not by accident turn myself into an executioner.
After this I continued to sit in the sun for as long as it took the jasper to recover his wits and his ability to fly. I had meant to rely on the breeze to accelerate this process, but when I heard my father clumping around his bedroom above me, I added my own breath to the warming; I did not want a second conversation with him, because I knew it would result in my receiving further orders to fetch this and carry that. I need not have worried. In the same moment that I heard his window shutters folding back, and started to imagine my father squaring his shoulders so that he could shout down to me, Mr. Wasp tottered off from our bench.
The best he could manage was a low, stumbling sort of flight, which I thought might take him across the river—in which case I would have lost him. But he soon discovered his compass and set off toward the marshes, congratulating himself no doubt on a miraculous deliverance, and steadily gaining height. I ran quickly after, keeping my eyes fixed on the vivid thread that made him visible, and feeling relieved that he did not find it an inconvenience. Once my home and the river had fallen behind us, and the outhouses where my father kept his puncheons, and the orchard where we grew apples for cider, we came to open country.
To a stranger, the marshes would have seemed nothing more than wilderness—a bogland crossed with so many small streams tending toward the Thames that from above it must have resembled the glaze on a pot. Everything was the same cracked green, or green-blue, or green-brown. There were no tall trees, only a few bare trunks the wind had twisted into shapes of agony, and no flowers that a gentleman or lady would recognize.
To me the place was a paradise, where I was the connoisseur of every mood and aspect. I relished its tall skies and wide view of the approaching weather. I loved its myriad different kinds of grass and herb. I kept records of every variety of goose and duck that visited in springtime and left again in the autumn. I especially enjoyed its congregation of English birds—the wrens and linnets, the finches and thrushes, the blackbirds and starlings, the lapwings and kestrels—that stayed regardless of the season. When the tide was full, and the gullies brimmed with water, and the earth became too spongy for me to walk across it, I was like Adam expelled from his garden. When the current turned and the land became more nearly solid again, I was restored to my heart’s desire.
Meandering was always my greatest pleasure—which I was not able to enjoy on this particular day, with my captive leading me forward. While he flew straight, I jinked and tacked, crossed and returned, leaped and veered, in order to keep up with him. And because I was expert in this, and knew the place intimately, I still had him clearly in sight when he reached his destination. This was one of the stunted trees I have mentioned—an ash that grew in a distant part of the marsh, and had been bent by storms into the shape of the letter C. As soon as this curiosity came into view, I knew where my friend was heading; even from as far away as fifty yards I could see the nest dangling like a jewel from an ear.
A jewel, that is, made of paste or paper and molded into a long oval. For that is how jaspers manufacture their nests—by chewing tiny portions of wood and mixing them with their saliva until they have made a cone; within this cone they protect their hive and their queen especially, who lays her eggs at every level. It is remarkable: creatures that appear confused to the human eye, and are always buzzing in different directions, or no direction at all, are in fact very well organized and disciplined. Every individual has a part to play in the creation of their society and performs it by instinct.
As I drew closer to the nest, I began to admire it so much I wondered whether I might return to my father and tell him I had obeyed his orders without in fact having done so. I knew he would never search for the thing himself: it lay in a part of the marsh that felt remote even to me. I also knew I would then have to live with the lie, which I would not enjoy, while the wasps themselves would continue to pester us.
These two reasons might have been enough to make me stick to my task. In truth, there was a third that felt even more compelling—albeit one I hesitate to admit, because it appears to contradict everything I have said so far about my likes and dislikes. This was my desire to destroy the nest. It intrigued me. I was fascinated by it. But my interest had quickly become a longing for possession—and since possession was impossible, destruction was the only alternative.
I therefore began to gather every fragment of flotsam or small stick the sun had dried, so that by the time I stood beside the ash tree at last my arms were filled with a bundle the size of a haycock. I placed this on the ground beneath the nest, then stood back to fix the scene in my memory. The tree itself was very smooth, as if the wind had caressed it for such a long time, and so admiringly, the bark had turned into marble. The nest—around which a dozen or so jaspers were bobbing and floating, all quite oblivious of me—was about a foot from top to bottom, and swollen in the middle. It was pale as vellum, with little ridges and bumps here and there; these I took to be the individual deposits, brought by each wasp as he worked.
When I had stared for long enough to feel I would never forget, I knelt down, pulled a tinderbox from my pocket, and set fire to the material I had collected. Flames rose very quickly, releasing a sweet smell of sap, and within a minute the whole nest was cupped in a kind of burning hand. I expected the inhabitants to fly out, and thought they might even attack me since I was their destroyer. But no such thing took place. The wasps outside the nest simply flew away—they appeared not to care what was happening. Those within the nest, which must have been many hundred, chose to stay with their queen and to die with her. I heard the bodies of several explode with a strange high note, like the whine of a gnat; the rest suffocated in smoke without making any sound.
After no more than two or three minutes, I felt sure my job was done; I knocked the nest down, so that it fell into the ashes of my fire and broke apart. The comb inside was dark brown and wonderfully dainty, with every section containing a wrinkled grub; the queen—who was almost as big as my thumb—lay at the center surrounded by her dead warriors. They made a noble sight, and filled me with such great curiosity, I did not notice how nearly I had scorched myself by kneeling among the wreckage and poring over them.
Eventually, I stood up and faced toward home, knowing my father would soon be expecting my return. After a moment, however, I decided to please myself, not him, and changed my direction. I walked further into the marshes, jumping across the creeks and striding this way and that to avoid the larger gullies, until I had quite lost my way. There, in the deepest solitude of green and blue, I fell to thinking about my life.
Excerpted from Silver by Andrew Motion. Copyright © 2012 by Andrew Motion. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.