Lions and Hornets
Updated: Mar 3, 2021
By Billie Forester
Of course, I remember it. That was the last day I played outside barefoot.
He was a slow runner and it would have been easy to catch him. But I didn’t really want to because he would be sad, and might even cry, and then I would get frustrated and yell. There was no fun in that game. Playdates with this boy were stressful. Yet he always seemed glad to see me, and I guess I was always glad to see him.
This time we were playing tag. It was his mom’s idea. She suggested it a lot. I think she liked this game because it got us out of the tiny house and let her lounge on the back porch with a glass of wine and a book. She probably didn’t get to read too often; he was kinda a handful.
“Play nice!” She called out, glancing up worriedly. “And put on some shoes—the both of you!”
I watched him jog over to the porch and pull on his sneakers. He took everything adults said as law. Me, not so much. My teachers said that I had a problem with thinking I was above the rules. But that wasn’t the full truth. I thought everyone was above the rules. I thought rules were stupid, nothing more than a suggestion I probably wasn’t going to take. I lived by one rule and that was Be Nice. Adults were always making up new dumb rules to get kids to act like adults, but we weren’t adults, and even when we followed their rules, they still didn’t treat us like adults. I looked down at my bare feet. I never wore shoes. I wasn’t gonna start.
After his feet were safely velcroed tight within the confines of his Skechers, we returned to our slow chase. Eventually I noticed he was getting tired so I threw myself down on the ground.
“Forfeit!” I called out in his direction. “I give up!”
Creeping out from behind a tree he knelt down on the threadbare carpet of patchy grass and old leaves.
“I’m too tired,” I panted. “You win.”
“You’re not tired,” he said. “You’re not even out of breath.”
“That’s ‘cause I died from exhaustion. I’m not breathing at all anymore. See?” I shut my eyes and lolled out my tongue to show him just how unalive I was.
“Stop that.” His eyes began getting wide and panicky, and he frowned, turning his head away from me as his hands frantically brushed imaginary dirt off of his pants. No no no! I thought, please don’t freak out … please, god, don’t let him freak out.
“You won, okay?” The surrender came out of my mouth sounding more like an exasperated plea. It sat in the silence between us, hanging there in the humid green air before drifting away like one of those balloons they always gave me at the grocery store. I never asked for those balloons, and I didn’t really like holding onto them, but for some reason I was always sad to see them go.
He didn’t notice how my words sat in the silence, or how slowly they floated away through the green air, and after a few moments his eyes and his hands calmed down.
“Okay,” He said.
Thank god, I thought.
He sprawled out next to me, six days older and six inches shorter, looking up at the flickering sunlight and fast moving clouds above us. Quiet. He was the only person I could sit quiet with, not feeling like I had to say or do anything. We laid there on the ground for a while, just looking up at the treetops. Back then the ten or so trees in his backyard seemed like a forest—thick enough to get lost in.
I can’t remember what season it was, just that it was cool enough to appreciate the inconsistent glow of the sun on my shoulders. It was one of those indecisive Minnesota days when the clouds rolled past the sun quickly, as if a mischievous angel in heaven was flicking the lights off and on and off and on.
“What if we played that game where you’re a princess warrior and I’m your lion and we fight off the warriors from the other evil kingdom?” He liked games with bad guys and good guys, games that were black and white. We could be playing house and he would still figure out a way to work in bad guys.
“No, let’s play the game where we’re spies and we’re trying to take down the president.”
Well, I actually said “leth play the game where we’re thpies.” My lisp got worse when I was thinking really hard or excited or nervous or just trying to figure something out in my head. My grandma said I needed to “keep my snake in its cage.” She meant that my tongue slid past my teeth when I talked, that sneaky snake.
He agreed, as long as he could still be a lion.
We will arrive at the White House disguised as a traveling circus sent to entertain the President and I will waltz in wearing my beautiful glittery leotard and parade down the hall with you (my partner the tamed lion) when out of the corner of my eye I will spot the President, and with a wave of my baton you, my magnificent lion, will stand up on your hind legs and break free of your chain and roar so loud all the guests will all scream and run around like little children with the lights turned off and in the confusion I will slip past security and drop a special slow working poison into the President's glass, and then we’ll go back to our show, starring my amazing acrobatics and singing and you, my performance partner the beautiful, incredible, world famous lion.
“What do you think?”
“It seems like a good plan to me,” he said. “I like the part where I scare all the fancy important adults.”
“I feel bad, though. Maybe we shouldn’t kill the president.” I sat back down. “I mean he is a big fat dummy, but doesn’t he have kids?”
He stood up formally, like he was giving a speech on the TV.
“Our president is a disgrace to this country, and an idiot. He has flushed the economy down the toilet, and killed thousands of innocent people in his pointless wars. He is nothing but a criminal and should be treated as such.” Then he sat down to signal the end of his address.
By the end of his speech I was writhing with giggles. Making fun of the president was our favorite pastime. Plus, any mention of the word toilet sent me into fits.
“That’s what my daddy said,” he added after we sobered up. We were at the age when anything our fathers told us was just as well the divine word of god. “Yeah, but even so, it doesn’t seem right to kill him ...” We sat there in silence for a moment, contemplating the morality of killing the president.
“I got it!” I yelled. “We put a truth potion in his glass, and then, when he goes to give his speech later that night, he’ll have to tell the whole country what a big idiot he is and that he is a bad president, and the truth potion could be permanent so that for the rest of his life he could never lie to anyone ever again!”
I really could talk when I got worked up like that. Especially if I was talking about politics. My daddy also got worked up like that when he talked about politics, but he had learned to take breaths between his sentences, and to keep his snake in its toothy cage. I needed to work on that. Sometimes, it felt like my tongue couldn’t keep up with my head and the two would get out of sync with each other, like an old movie where the words don’t line up with the actor’s mouth. By the time my mouth started saying something, my head would have forgotten what it wanted to say and moved on to something else, and then everything would get all jumbled up and my mouth would get lazy and that stupid snake would somehow escape.
He liked my new plan, and he didn’t mind that I forgot to say some of the words or that my s’s turned into th’s. He was just happy that we beat the evil president, and that he got to be a lion. I guess I didn’t mind that he needed a villain in every story, or that he always followed the rules, or that he always took me seriously when I was being sarcastic. I was just happy I had someone who listened to my stories, someone who knew how to fill in the gaps in my words, someone who understood me through the gap in my teeth.
Our plans went smoothly all afternoon; we managed to give the president the truth serum, his roars drew a standing ovation from the audience, and I even landed a perfect cartwheel during my performance.
The clouds had stopped rolling above our heads and were beginning to gather. I was doing my grand-finale tightrope act when I stepped on something sharp and hot. All of a sudden I was falling off of my tightrope and out of the White House and out of my glittery leotard, landing hard on the forest floor in my hand-me-down shirt and overalls, clutching a tiny foot swollen with a hornet’s stinger. It took a moment for the venom to seep in, to really feel the poisonous, terrible little stinger, but once I felt it, it was mighty and red hot. I opened my mouth in shock and that’s when the rain came.
He stood there helpless for a few seconds, staring wide-eyed at his injured friend, his glimmering acrobatic spy, his fallen princess warrior. Then the tears began to fall and mix with the rain on his face and he blinked fast and went bounding off into the woods, running straight into the trees, his arms close to his chest, his lips pinched into a thin wobbly line, his eyes drawn inwards and his ears shut tight. His flight brought up a panic within me—a sudden fear of the end of our game, of becoming just a little girl in hand-me-downs again, of the oncoming chastisement of failing to play nicely, of abandonment by my cowardly lion. But if he was the flight, I was the fight, so I screamed a war cry against my throbbing foot and limped my way off the battlegrounds, and into the nice, dry, clean linoleum kitchen. Outside the window the rain puddled on the glass in buckets. I realize now it must’ve been spring; rain like that only came to Minnesota in the spring.
I looked out into his backyard and saw nothing but a grey knot of clouds that looked how my stomach felt, pouring over an endless forest through which my cowardly lion fled.
Today, you asked me if I remembered that playdate.
I remember tweezers and neosporin, Star Wars band-aids and ice, green seedless grapes and peanut butter and jelly with the crust cut off. I remember yelling and phone calls and the terrifying realization that adults get scared too. I remember a lady from down the street came to the door. You stood shivering behind her. Water dripped off of your hair and your shaky hands and your tappy toes and your thin lips that you pressed together tight and you stood there in the puddle like it was a lake and you were a fish. You didn’t hug me back and you didn’t say anything else, but I hugged your wet arms anyways and I asked you if you were okay even though I knew there was no response coming.
I hope you knew that I didn’t need a response or a hug. You knew I was just a little girl with a lisp and a hornet stinger in my foot and I knew you were just a scared little boy and not my magnificent lion. I couldn’t protect you from the secret service or an evil witch queen or even the rain, and you couldn’t protect my bare feet. But you could roar loud enough to drown out the buzzing of hornets that rang in my ears, and I could hug you tight enough to make your shaky hands and tappy feet still for at least a moment.