It was a strange request: just a single drop of water. I eat my churros in the park that’s near the room I’m staying in, but the bundle is more than I can eat on my own, so I usually offer one to the man who is always there, occasionally selling miscellaneous items like watch bands or ties. Maybe that’s why he was comfortable approaching me and asking for this small favor.
There is a hornet—an avispón—the vendor said in Spanish, gesturing deeper into the park, and it isn’t doing well. I think I can help it.
I was so taken aback by the modesty of his request that it took a moment before I responded si. I said, here, take the whole bottle, but he said he didn’t need that much. Come with me.
I followed him to the stretch of concrete pathway where the hornet was, filled with purpose for the first time in weeks. It had crawled right to the edge, as though it had forgotten how to fly or was no longer able. The vendor delicately slid a leaf below the hornet and lifted it onto the grass, then poured the drop of water for it to drink.
My Spanish is not fluent and I must have misunderstood what he said next. I thought he said that he had once been a hornet, perhaps in a past life. Or maybe it was that this hornet reminded him of another he’d known.
We watched over the small creature, its yellow body banded with irregular black stripes. The vendor said that hornets are often misunderstood. Considered aggressive, they are actually quite shy. Their stingers are powerful, but they use them only when in peril, the last defense of a dense, vulnerable community. Really, he said, they were noble guardians.
I lost the thread for a minute as he digressed, then understood again. People are not as close as they once were, I thought he said.
I had heard residents yell at him to leave the park, calling him a loiterer. A dangerous person. But when he didn’t have something to sell, he mostly just picked up trash. He ran to retrieve the ball when someone kicked it too far and brought it back. I’d seen him give tourists directions. But many people kept their distance. His hair was long and wild. He walked through the fountain as a makeshift shower. He slept on one of the benches that lined the winding walkways.
I didn’t want to risk offending him with the absurd question that was on my mind: you were once an avispón? So I listened. He used to operate a small tortilla press on the outskirts of the city. The hours were long but being part of something was a feeling he had never forgotten. In a tiny shop, there were few secrets between co-workers.
Closeness brings closeness, he said.
He would think up a poem each day to delight them. He showed me a fountain pen he’d found recently, though it had no ink. Together, we admired the artistry of the hornet’s wings. They were like engravings in glass.
I had gone abroad to leave my own life for a while, but little had happened. I had met no one. The people were warm but I found it difficult to connect. I told the vendor about myself. That I was a chess teacher but my school’s budget had been cut. I told him I missed my students. He said I should bring a board sometime, he knew how to play.
I remembered something. In the absence of much human contact, I read the local newspaper each day, and there had been something about a new ordinance. In this wealthy part of the city, spikes would be installed on some benches to prevent anyone from sleeping there. I told him this, concerned.
Where will you sleep? I asked him.
There are other parks, he said, shrugging.
When there wasn’t anything left to say, we knelt down to observe the hornet again. It had only just started to move toward the water, lifting and dragging its abdomen over the leaf. Even though I was supposed to call a friend from home soon, something prevented me from leaving. I summoned the courage to ask if he’d write me a poem. He grinned, nodded. I felt my pockets for a pen but they were empty. Todo bien, he said, clearing his throat.
Two avispón buzz through a park, I believe he began.
Perhaps they’ve known each other longer than this moment.
Perhaps they have wings.
Perhaps they are just men.
Either way, they must try again to fly.
Jason Schwartzman’s first book, NO ONE YOU KNOW, is forthcoming from Outpost19 in May 2021. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Narratively, The Rumpus, Hobart, River Teeth, Nowhere Magazine, Human Parts, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, Hippocampus Magazine, and elsewhere. You can find him on Twitter @jdschwartzman or more of his writing on jdschwartzman.com.