The Lost Leg
The adventures of Maya the bee
Near the hole where Maya had set herself up for the summer lived a family of bark-boring beetles. Fridolin, the father, was an earnest, industrious man who wanted many children and took immense pains to bring up a large family. He had done very well: he had fifty energetic sons to fill him with pride and high hopes. Each had dug his own meandering little tunnel in the bark of the pine-tree and all were getting on and were comfortably settled.
“My wife,” Fridolin said to Maya, after they had known each other some time, “has arranged things so that none of my sons interferes with the others. They are not even acquainted; each goes his own way.”
Maya knew that human beings were none too fond of Fridolin and his people, though she herself liked him and liked his opinions and had found no reason to avoid him. In the morning before the sun arose and the woods were still asleep, she would hear his fine tapping and boring. It sounded like a delicate trickling, or as if the tree were breathing in its sleep. Later she would see the thin brown dust that he had emptied out of his corridor.
Once he came at an early hour, as he often did, to wish her good-morning and ask if she had slept well.
“Not flying to-day?” he inquired.
“No, it’s too windy.”
It was windy. The wind rushed and roared and flung the branches into a mad tumult. The leaves looked ready to fly away. After each great gust the sky would brighten, and in the pale light the trees seemed balder. The pine in which Maya and Fridolin lived shrieked with the voices of the wind as in a fury of anger and excitement.
“I worked all night,” he told Maya, “all night. But what can you do? You’ve got to do something to get somewhere. And I’m not altogether satisfied with this pine; I should have tackled a fir-tree.” He wiped his brow and smiled in self-pity.
“How are your children?” asked Maya pleasantly.
“Thank you,” said Fridolin, “thank you for your interest. But”—he hesitated—“but I don’t supervise the way I used to. Still, I have reason to believe they are all doing well.”
As he sat there, a little brown man with slightly curtailed wing-sheaths and a breastplate that looked like a head too large for its body, Maya thought he was almost comical; but she knew he was a dangerous beetle who could do immense harm to the mighty trees of the forest, and if his tribe attacked a tree in numbers then the green needles were doomed, the tree would turn sear and die. It was utterly without defenses against the little marauders who destroyed the bark and the sap-wood. And the sap-wood is necessary to the life of a tree because it carries the sap up to the very tips of the branches. There were stories of how whole forests had fallen victims to the race of boring-beetles. Maya looked at Fridolin reflectively; she was awed into solemnity at the thought of the great power these little creatures possessed and of how important they could become.
Fridolin sighed and said in a worried tone:
“Ah, life would be beautiful if there were no woodpeckers.”
“Yes, indeed, you’re right. The woodpecker gobbles up every insect he sees.”
“If it were only that,” observed Fridolin, “if it were only that he got the careless people who fool around on the outside, on the bark, I’d say, ‘Very well, a woodpecker must live too.’ But it seems all wrong that the bird should follow us right into our corridors into the remotest corners of our homes.”
“But he can’t. He’s too big, isn’t he?”
Fridolin looked at Maya with an air of grave importance, lifting his brows and shaking his head two or three times. It seemed to please him that he knew something she didn’t know.
“Too big? What difference does his size make? No, my dear, it’s not his size we are afraid of; it’s his tongue.”
Maya made big eyes.
Fridolin told her about the woodpecker’s tongue: that it was long and thin, and round as a worm, and barbed and sticky.
“He can stretch his tongue out ten times my length,” cried the bark-beetle, flourishing his arm. “You think: ‘now—now he has reached the limit, he can’t make it the tiniest bit longer.’ But no, he goes on stretching and stretching it. He pokes it deep into all the cracks and crevices of the bark, on the chance that he’ll find somebody sitting there. He even pushes it into our passageways—actually, into our corridors and chambers. Things stick to it, and that’s the way he pulls us out of our homes.”
“I am not a coward,” said Maya, “I don’t think I am, but what you say makes me creepy.”
“Oh, you’re all right,” said Fridolin, a little envious, “you with your sting are safe. A person’ll think twice before he’ll let you sting his tongue. Anybody’ll tell you that. But how about us bark-beetles? How do you think we feel? A cousin of mine got caught. We had just had a little quarrel on account of my wife. I remember every detail perfectly. My cousin was paying us a visit and hadn’t yet got used to our ways or our arrangements. All of a sudden we heard a woodpecker scratching and boring—one of the smaller species. It must have begun right at our building because as a rule we hear him beforehand and have time to run to shelter before he reaches us.
“Suddenly I heard my poor cousin scream in the dark: ‘Fridolin, I’m sticking!’ Then all I heard was a short desperate scuffle, followed by complete silence, and in a few moments the woodpecker was hammering at the house next door. My poor cousin! Her name was Agatha.”
“Feel how my heart is beating,” said Maya, in a whisper. “You oughtn’t to have told it so quickly. My goodness, the things that do happen!” And the little bee thought of her own adventures in the past and the accidents that might still happen to her.
A laugh from Fridolin interrupted her reflections. She looked up in surprise.
“See who’s coming,” he cried, “coming up the tree. Here’s the fellow for you! I tell you, he’s a—but you’ll see.”
Maya followed the direction of his gaze and saw a remarkable animal slowly climbing up the trunk. She wouldn’t have believed such a creature was possible if she had not seen it with her own eyes.
“Hadn’t we better hide?” she asked, alarm getting the better of astonishment.
“Absurd,” replied the bark-beetle, “just sit still and be polite to the gentleman. He is very learned, really, very scholarly, and what is more, kind and modest and, like most persons of his type, rather funny. See what he’s doing now!”
“Probably thinking,” observed Maya, who couldn’t get over her astonishment.
“He’s struggling against the wind,” said Fridolin, and laughed. “I hope his legs don’t get entangled.”
“Are those long threads really his legs?” asked Maya, opening her eyes wide. “I’ve never seen the like.”
Meanwhile the newcomer had drawn near, and Maya got a better view of him. He looked as though he were swinging in the air, his rotund little body hung so high on his monstrously long legs, which groped for a footing on all sides like a movable scaffolding of threads. He stepped along cautiously, feeling his way; the little brown sphere of his body rose and sank, rose and sank. His legs were so very long and thin that one alone would certainly not have been enough to support his body. He needed all at once, unquestionably. As they were jointed in the middle, they rose high in the air above him.
Maya clapped her hands together.
“Well!” she cried. “Did you ever? Would you have dreamed that such delicate legs, legs as fine as a hair, could be so nimble and useful—that one could really use them—and they’d know what to do? Fridolin, I think it’s wonderful, simply wonderful.”
“Ah, bah,” said the bark-beetle. “Don’t take things so seriously. Just laugh when you see something funny; that’s all.”
“But I don’t feel like laughing. Often we laugh at something and later find out it was just because we haven’t understood.”
By this time the stranger had joined them and was looking down at Maya from the height of his pointed triangles of legs.
“Good-morning,” he said, “a real wind-storm—a pretty strong draught, don’t you think, or—no? You are of a different opinion?” He clung to the tree as hard as he could.
Fridolin turned to hide his laughing, but little Maya replied politely that she quite agreed with him and that was why she had not gone out flying. Then she introduced herself. The stranger squinted down at her through his legs.
“Maya, of the nation of bees,” he repeated. “Delighted, really. I have heard a good deal about bees.—I myself belong to the general family of spiders, species daddy-long-legs, and my name is Hannibal.”
The word spider has an evil sound in the ears of all smaller insects, and Maya could not quite conceal her fright, especially as she was reminded of her agony in Thekla’s web. Hannibal seemed to take no notice, so Maya decided, “Well if need be I’ll fly away, and he can whistle for me; he has no wings and his web is somewhere else.”
“I am thinking,” said Hannibal, “thinking very hard.—If you will permit me, I will come a little closer. That big branch there makes a good shield against the wind.”
“Why, certainly,” said Maya, making room for him.
Fridolin said good-by and left. Maya stayed; she was eager to get at Hannibal’s personality.
“The many, many different kinds of animals there are in the world,” she thought. “Every day a fresh discovery.”
The wind had subsided some, and the sun shone through the branches. From below rose the song of a robin redbreast, filling the woods with joy. Maya could see it perched on a branch, could see its throat swell and pulse with the song as it held its little head raised up to the light.
“If only I could sing like that robin redbreast,” she said, “I’d perch on a flower and keep it up the livelong day.”
“You’d produce something lovely, you would, with your humming and buzzing.”
“The bird looks so happy.”
“You have great fancies,” said the daddy-long-legs. “Supposing every animal were to wish he could do something that nature had not fitted him to do, the world would be all topsy-turvy. Supposing a robin redbreast thought he had to have a sting—a sting above everything else—or a goat wanted to fly about gathering honey. Supposing a frog were to come along and languish for my kind of legs.”
“That isn’t just what I mean. I mean, it seems lovely to be able to make all beings as happy as the bird does with his song.—But goodness gracious!” she exclaimed suddenly. “Mr. Hannibal, you have one leg too many.”
Hannibal frowned and looked into space, vexed.
“Well, you’ve noticed it,” he said glumly. “But as a matter of fact—one leg too few, not too many.”
“Why? Do you usually have eight legs?”
“Permit me to explain. We spiders have eight legs. We need them all. Besides, eight is a more aristocratic number. One of my legs got lost. Too bad about it. However you manage, you make the best of it.”
“It must be dreadfully disagreeable to lose a leg,” Maya sympathized.
Hannibal propped his chin on his hand and arranged his legs to keep them from being easily counted.
“I’ll tell you how it happened. Of course, as usual when there’s mischief, a human being is mixed up in it. We spiders are careful and look what we’re doing, but human beings are careless, they grab you sometimes as though you were a piece of wood. Shall I tell you?”
“Oh, do please,” said Maya, settling herself comfortably. “It would be awfully interesting. You must certainly have gone through a good deal.”
“I should say so,” said Hannibal. “Now listen. We daddy-long-legs, you know, hunt by night. I was then living in a green garden-house. It was overgrown with ivy, and there were a number of broken window-panes, which made it very convenient for me to crawl in and out. The man came at dark. In one hand he carried his artificial sun, which he calls lamp, in the other hand a small bottle, under his arm some paper, and in his pocket another bottle. He put everything down on the table and began to think, because he wanted to write his thoughts on the paper.—You must certainly have come across paper in the woods or in the garden. The black on the paper is what man has excogitated—excogitated.”
“Marvelous!” cried Maya, all a-glow that she was to learn so much.
“For this purpose,” Hannibal continued, “man needs both bottles. He inserts a stick into the one and drinks out of the other. The more he drinks, the better it goes. Of course it is about us insects that he writes, everything he knows about us, and he writes strenuously, but the result is not much to boast of, because up to now man has found out very little in regard to insects. He is absolutely ignorant of our soul-life and hasn’t the least consideration for our feelings. You’ll see.”
“Don’t you think well of human beings?” asked Maya.
“Oh, yes, yes. But the loss of a leg”—the daddy-long-legs looked down slantwise—“is apt to embitter one, rather.”
“I see,” said Maya.
“One evening I was sitting on a window-frame as usual, prepared for the chase, and the man was sitting at the table, his two bottles before him, trying to produce something. It annoyed me dreadfully that a whole swarm of little flies and gnats, upon which I depend for my subsistence, had settled upon the artificial sun and were staring into it in that crude, stupid, uneducated way of theirs.”
“Well,” observed Maya, “I think I’d look at a thing like that myself.”
“Look, for all I care. But to look and to stare like an idiot are two entirely different things. Just watch once and see the silly jig they dance around a lamp. It’s nothing for them to butt their heads about twenty times. Some of them keep it up until they burn their wings. And all the time they stare and stare at the light.”
“Poor creatures! Evidently they lose their wits.”
“Then they had better stay outside on the window-frame or under the leaves. They’re safe from the lamp there, and that’s where I can catch them.—Well, on that fateful night I saw from my position on the window-frame that some gnats were lying scattered on the table beside the lamp drawing their last breath. The man did not seem to notice or care about them, so I decided to go and take them myself. That’s perfectly natural, isn’t it?”
“And yet, it was my undoing. I crept up the leg of the table, very softly, on my guard, until I could peep over the edge. The man seemed dreadfully big. I watched him working. Then, slowly, very slowly, carefully lifting one leg at a time, I crossed over to the lamp. As long as I was covered by the bottle all went well, but I had scarcely turned the corner, when the man looked up and grabbed me. He lifted me by one of my legs, dangled me in front of his huge eyes, and said: ‘See what’s here, just see what’s here.’ And he grinned—the brute!—he grinned with his whole face, as though it were a laughing matter.”
Hannibal sighed, and little Maya kept quite still. Her head was in a whirl.
“Have human beings such immense eyes?” she asked at last.
“Please think of me in the position I was in,” cried Hannibal, vexed. “Try to imagine how I felt. Who’d like to be hanging by the leg in front of eyes twenty times as big as his own body and a mouth full of gleaming teeth, each fully twice as big as himself? Well, what do you think?”
“Awful! Perfectly awful!”
“Thank the Lord, my leg broke off. There’s no telling what might have happened if my leg had not broken off. I fell to the table, and then I ran, I ran as fast as my remaining legs would take me, and hid behind the bottle. There I stood and hurled threats of violence at the man. They saved me, my threats did, the man was afraid to run after me. I saw him lay my leg on the white paper, and I watched how it wanted to escape—which it can’t do without me.”
“Was it still moving?” asked Maya, prickling at the thought.
“Yes. Our legs always do move when they’re pulled out. My leg ran, but I not being there it didn’t know where to run to, so it merely flopped about aimlessly on the same spot, and the man watched it, clutching at his nose and smiling—smiling, the heartless wretch!—at my leg’s sense of duty.”
“Impossible,” said the little bee, quite scared, “an offen leg can’t crawl.”
“An offen leg? What is an offen leg?”
“A leg that has come off,” explained Maya, staring at him. “Don’t you know? At home we children used the word offen for anything that had come off.”
“You should drop your nursery slang when you’re out in the world and in the presence of cultured people,” said Hannibal severely. “But it is true that our legs totter long after they have been torn from our bodies.”
“I can’t believe it without proof.”
“Do you think I’ll tear one of my legs off to satisfy you?” Hannibal’s tone was ugly. “I see you’re not a fit person to associate with. Nobody, I’d like you to know, nobody has ever doubted my word before.”
Maya was terribly put out. She couldn’t understand what had upset the daddy-long-legs so, or what dreadful thing she had done.
“It isn’t altogether easy to get along with strangers,” she thought. “They don’t think the way we do and don’t see that we mean no harm.” She was depressed and cast a troubled look at the spider with his long legs and soured expression.
“Really, someone ought to come and eat you up.”
Hannibal had evidently mistaken Maya’s good nature for weakness. For now something unusual happened to the little bee. Suddenly her depression passed and gave way, not to alarm or timidity, but to a calm courage. She straightened up, lifted her lovely, transparent wings, uttered her high clear buzz, and said with a gleam in her eyes:
“I am a bee, Mr. Hannibal.”
“I beg your pardon,” said he, and without saying good-by turned and ran down the tree-trunk as fast as a person can run who has seven legs.
Maya had to laugh, willy-nilly. From down below Hannibal began to scold.
“You’re bad. You threaten helpless people, you threaten them with your sting when you know they’re handicapped by a misfortune and can’t get away fast. But your hour is coming, and when you’re in a tight place you’ll think of me and be sorry.” Hannibal disappeared under the leaves of the coltsfoot on the ground. His last words had not reached the little bee.
The wind had almost died away, and the day promised to be fine. White clouds sailed aloft in a deep, deep blue, looking happy and serene like good thoughts of the Lord. Maya was cheered. She thought of the rich shaded meadows by the woods and of the sunny slopes beyond the lake. A blithe activity must have begun there by this time. In her mind she saw the slim grasses waving and the purple iris that grew in the rills at the edge of the woods. From the flower of an iris you could look across to the mysterious night of the pine-forest and catch its cool breath of melancholy. You knew that its forbidding silence, which transformed the sunshine into a reddish half-light of sleep, was the home of the fairy tale.
Maya was already flying. She had started off instinctively, in answer to the call of the meadows and their gay carpeting of flowers. It was a joy to be alive.
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