Maya, drowsy with the noonday heat, flew leisurely past the glare on the bushes in the garden, into the cool, broad-leaved shelter of a great chestnut-tree.
On the trodden sward in the shade under the tree stood chairs and tables, evidently for an out-door meal. A short distance away gleamed the red-tiled roof of a peasant’s cottage, with thin blue columns of smoke curling up from the chimneys.
Now at last, thought Maya, she was bound to see a human being. Had she not reached the very heart of his realm? The tree must be his property, and the curious wooden contrivances in the shade below must belong to his hive.
Something buzzed; a fly alighted on the leaf beside her. It ran up and down the green veining in little jerks. You couldn’t see its legs move, and it seemed to be sliding about excitedly. Then it flew from one finger of the broad leaf to another, but so quickly and unexpectedly that you might have thought it hadn’t flown but hopped. Evidently it was looking for the most comfortable place on the leaf. Every now and then, in the suddennest way, it would swing itself up in the air a short space and buzz vehemently, as though something dreadfully untoward had occurred, or as though it were animated by some tremendous purpose. Then it would drop back to the leaf, as if nothing had happened, and resume its jerky racing up and down. Lastly, it would sit quite still, like a rigid image.
Maya watched its antics in the sunshine, then approached it and said politely:
“How do you do? Welcome to my leaf. You are a fly, are you not?”
“What else do you take me for?” said the little one. “My name is Puck. I am very busy. Do you want to drive me away?”
“Why, not at all. I am glad to make your acquaintance.”
“I believe you,” was all Puck said, and with that he tried to pull his head off.
“Mercy!” cried Maya.
“I must do this. You don’t understand. It’s something you know nothing about,” Puck rejoined calmly, and slid his legs over his wings till they curved round the tip of his body. “I’m more than a fly,” he added with some pride. “I’m a housefly. I flew out here for the fresh air.”
“How interesting!” exclaimed Maya gleefully. “Then you must know all about human beings.”
“As well as the pockets of my trousers,” Puck threw out disdainfully. “I sit on them every day. Didn’t you know that? I thought you bees were so clever. You pretend to be at any rate.”
“My name is Maya,” said the little bee rather shyly. Where the other insects got their self-assurance, to say nothing of their insolence, she couldn’t understand.
“Thanks for the information. Whatever your name, you’re a simpleton.”
Puck sat there tilted like a cannon in position to be fired off, his head and breast thrust upward, the hind tip of his body resting on the leaf. Suddenly he ducked his head and squatted down, so that he looked as if he had no legs.
“You’ve got to watch out and be careful,” he said. “That’s the most important thing of all.”
But an angry wave of resentment was surging in little Maya. The insult Puck had offered her was too much. Without really knowing what made her do it, she pounced on him quick as lightning, caught him by the collar and held him tight.
“I will teach you to be polite to a bee,” she cried.
Puck set up an awful howl.
“Don’t sting me,” he screamed. “It’s the only thing you can do, but it’s killing. Please remove the back of your body. That’s where your sting is. And let me go, please let me go, if you possibly can. I’ll do anything you say. Can’t you understand a joke, a mere joke? Everybody knows that you bees are the most respected of all insects, and the most powerful, and the most numerous. Only don’t kill me, please don’t. There won’t be any bringing me back to life. Good God! No one appreciates my humor!”
“Very well,” said Maya with a touch of contempt in her heart, “I’ll let you live on condition that you tell me everything you know about human beings.”
“Gladly,” cried Puck. “I’d have told you anyhow. But please let me go now.”
Maya released him. She had stopped caring. Her respect for the fly and any confidence she might have had in him were gone. Of what value could the experiences of so low, so vulgar a creature be to serious-minded people? She would have to find out about human beings for herself.
The lesson, however, had not been wasted. Puck was much more endurable now. Scolding and growling he set himself to rights. He smoothed down his feelers and wings and the minute hairs on his black body—which were fearfully rumpled; for the girl-bee had laid on good and hard—and concluded the operation by running his proboscis in and out several times—something new to Maya.
“Out of joint, completely out of joint!” he muttered in a pained tone. “Comes of your excited way of doing things. Look. See for yourself. The sucking-disk at the end of my proboscis looks like a twisted pewter plate.”
“Have you a sucking-disk?” asked Maya.
“Goodness gracious, of course!—Now tell me. What do you want to know about human beings?—Never mind about my proboscis being out of joint. It’ll be all right.—I think I had best tell you a few things from my own life. You see, I grew up among human beings, so you’ll hear just what you want to know.”
“You grew up among human beings?”
“Of course. It was in the corner of their room that my mother laid the egg from which I came. I made my first attempts to walk on their window-shades, and I tested the strength of my wings by flying from Schiller to Goethe.”
“What are Schiller and Goethe?”
“Statues,” explained Puck, very superior, “statues of two men who seem to have distinguished themselves. They stand under the mirror, one on the right hand and one on the left hand, and nobody pays any attention to them.”
“What’s a mirror? And why do the statues stand under the mirror?”
“A mirror is good for seeing your belly when you crawl on it. It’s very amusing. When human beings go up to a mirror, they either put their hands up to their hair, or pull at their beards. When they are alone, they smile into the mirror, but if somebody else is in the room they look very serious. What the purpose of it is, I could never make out. Seems to be some useless game of theirs. I myself, when I was still a child, suffered a good deal from the mirror. I’d fly into it and of course be thrown back violently.”
Maya plied Puck with more questions about the mirror, which he found very difficult to answer.
“Here,” he said at last, “you’ve certainly flown over the smooth surface of water, haven’t you? Well, a mirror is something like it, only hard and upright.”
The little fly, seeing that Maya listened most respectfully and attentively to the tale of his experiences, became a good deal pleasanter in his manners. And as for Maya’s opinion of Puck, although she didn’t believe everything he told her, still she was sorry she had thought so slightingly of him earlier in their meeting.
“Often people are far more sensible than we take them to be at first,” she told herself.
Puck went on with his story.
“It took a long time for me to get to understand their language. Now at last I know what they want. It isn’t much, because they usually say the same thing every day.”
“I can scarcely believe it,” said Maya. “Why, they have so many interests, and think so many things, and do so many things. Cassandra told me that they build cities so big that you can’t fly round them in one day, towers as high as the nuptial flight of our queen, houses that float on the water, and houses that glide across the country on two narrow silver paths and go faster than birds.”
“Wait a moment!” said Puck energetically. “Who is Cassandra? Who is she, if I may make so bold as to ask? Well?”
“Oh, she was my teacher.”
“Teacher!” repeated Puck contemptuously. “Probably also a bee. Who but a bee would overestimate human beings like that? Your Miss Cassandra, or whatever her name is, doesn’t know her history. Those cities and towers and other human devices you speak of are none of them any good to us. Who would take such an impractical view of the world as you do? If you don’t accept the premise that the earth is dominated by the flies, that the flies are the most widespread and most important race on earth, you’ll scarcely get a real knowledge of the world.”
Puck took a few excited zigzag turns on the leaf and pulled at his head, to Maya’s intense concern. However, the little bee had observed by this time that there wasn’t much sense to be got out of his head any way.
“Do you know how you can tell I am right?” asked Puck, rubbing his hands together as if to tie them in a knot. “Count the number of people and the number of flies in any room. The result will surprise you.”
“You may be right. But that’s not the point.”
“Do you think I was born this year?” Puck demanded all of a sudden.
“I don’t know.”
“I passed through a winter,” Puck announced, all pride. “My experiences date back to the ice age. In a sense they take me through the ice age. That’s why I’m here—I’m here to recuperate.”
“Whatever else you may be, you certainly are spunky,” remarked Maya.
“I should say so,” exclaimed Puck, and made an airy leap out into the sunshine. “The flies are the boldest race in creation. We never run away unless it is better to run away, and then we always come back.—Have you ever sat on a human being?”
“No,” said Maya, looking at the fly distrustfully out of the corner of her eye. She still didn’t know quite what to make of him. “No, I’m not interested in sitting on human beings.”
“Ah, dear child, that’s because you don’t know what it is. If ever you had seen the fun I have with the man at home, you’d turn green with envy. I’ll tell you.—In my room there lives an elderly man who cherishes the color of his nose by means of a peculiar drink, which he keeps hidden in the corner cupboard. It has a sweet, intoxicating smell. When he goes to get it he smiles, and his eyes grow small. He takes a little glass, and he looks up to the ceiling while he drinks, to see if I am there. I nod down to him, and he passes his hand over his forehead, nose and mouth to show me where I am to sit later on. Then he blinks, and opens his mouth as wide as he can, and pulls down the shade to keep the afternoon sun from bothering us. Finally he lays himself down on a something called a sofa, and in a short while begins to make dull snuffling sounds. I suppose he thinks the sounds are beautiful. We’ll talk about them some other time. They are man’s slumber song. For me they are the sign that I am to come down. The first thing I do is to take my portion from the glass, which he left for me. There’s something tremendously stimulating about a drop like that. I understand human beings. Then I fly over and take my place on the forehead of the sleeping man. The forehead lies between the nose and the hair and serves for thinking. You can tell it does from the long furrows that go from right to left. They must move whenever a man thinks if something worth while is to result from his thinking. The forehead also shows if human beings are annoyed. But then the folds run up and down, and a round cavity forms over the nose. As soon as I settle on his forehead and begin to run to and fro in the furrows, the man makes a snatch in the air with his hands. He thinks I’m somewhere in the air. That’s because I’m sitting on his think-furrows, and he can’t work out so quickly where I really am. At last he does. He mutters and jabs at me. Now then, Miss Maya, or whatever your name is, now then, you’ve got to have your wits about you. I see the hand coming, but I wait until the last moment, then I fly nimbly to one side, sit down, and watch him feel to see if I am still there.—We kept the game up often for a full half hour. You have no idea what a lot of endurance the man has. Finally he jumps up and pours out a string of words which show how ungrateful he is. Well, what of it? A noble soul seeks no reward. I’m already up on the ceiling listening to his ungrateful outburst.”
“I can’t say I particularly like it,” observed Maya. “Isn’t it rather useless?”
“Do you expect me to erect a honeycomb on his nose?” exclaimed Puck. “You have no sense of humor, dear girl. What do you do that’s useful?”
Little Maya went red all over, but quickly collected herself to hide her embarrassment from Puck.
“The time is coming,” she flashed, “when I shall do something big and splendid, and good and useful too. But first I want to see what is going on in the world. Deep down in my heart I feel that the time is coming.”
As Maya spoke she felt a hot tide of hope and enthusiasm flood her being.
Puck seemed not to realize how serious she was, and how deeply stirred. He zigzagged about in his flurried way for a while, then asked:
“You don’t happen to have any honey with you, do you, my dear?”
“I’m so sorry,” replied Maya. “I’d gladly let you have some, especially after you’ve entertained me so pleasantly, but I really haven’t got any with me.—May I ask you one more question?”
“Shoot,” said Puck. “I’ll answer, I’ll always answer.”
“I’d like to know how I could get into a human being’s house.”
“Fly in,” said Puck sagaciously.
“But how, without running into danger?”
“Wait until a window is opened. But be sure to find the way out again. Once you’re inside, if you can’t find the window, the best thing to do is to fly toward the light. You’ll always find plenty of windows in every house. You need only notice where the sun shines through. Are you going already?”
“Yes,” replied Maya, holding out her hand. “I have some things to attend to. Good-by. I hope you quite recover from the effects of the ice age.”
And with her fine confident buzz that yet sounded slightly anxious, little Maya raised her gleaming wings and flew out into the sunshine across to the flowery meadows to cull a little nourishment.
Puck looked after her, and carefully meditated what might still be said. Then he observed thoughtfully:
“Well, now. Well, well.—Why not?”
Notes: This book follows the adventures of a little bee.
Author: Waldemar Bonsels
Translators: Book - Adele Szold Seltzer, Poems - Arthur Guiterman
Publisher: Thomas Seltzer, New York