Jean Grave, The Adventures of Nono — Chapter III

[continued from Chapter II]

The reflections of our little friend were not cheerful: In what country was he? Would he find something to eat? Was he doomed to die of hunger, or, like a new Robinson Crusoe, would he be forced to make the best of his life, far from every companion?
Robinson, in his shipwreck, had been able to save weapons, tools, and provisions. He had landed on an island stocked with game and edible fruits. In his walk Nono had seen nothing edible, apart from some little birds. As for weapons or tools, he possessed on a little stick, incapable of felling trees, sawing planks, or catching a blackbird in flight.
And he always returned to the starting point of his thoughts: Why was he there all alone? Where were his parents, his brothers, and his sister? Certainly, there was something incomprehensible about his situation.
Completely absorbed in his reflections, Nono perceived nothing of what was going on around him, when he was struck by a loud and prolonger buzzing, produced by a bee that was hovering around him, in order to attract his attention.
And—a new surprisefor Nono—this buzzing, which was at first confused and indistinct,gradually took the form of language and became intelligible.
“Calm yourself,” he seemed to hear it say, “we will not abandon you. Come with my sisters. Come that I may present you to our mother, and we will ease your distress.”
And raised his head, Nono recognized his protégée, which made some signs, which this time he understood immediately. The bee indicated that he should rise and follow it.
He obeyed immediately, rose and followed his guide, who directed him towards the tree which housed the hive. But as they approached it, the old trunk lost its shape; its contours softened, its appearance was transformed, and when Nono had taken only a few steps, there appeared before him a magnificent palace, situated on a large terrace which one reached by a wide staircase with marble banisters.
An elegant colonnade, forming the vestibule, surrounded the monument, where the crowd of noisy, bustling bees thronged, some occupying themselves with airing the various parts of the palace, and others with transporting the spoils that they had brought from the fields; still others worked to restore the walls of the palace, fashioning the rooms according to the needs to which they were destined.
But stranger still, these bees were no longer simple insects: s the trunk was transformed into a palace, the bees also grew, transformed into human beings, though still recalling their original form, preserving the diaphanous wings that allowed them to flit through space.
The bee that led Nonounderwent the same transformation. And with her fluttering beside him, Nono climbed the steps of the monumental staircase. They arrived before a lady seated in the vestibule in a magnificent high-backed chair. Around her bustled the mass of bees that were not called to other labors, bringing him cushions on which to prop himself, some excellent, fragrant food, and sweet-smelling drink.
Her face was marked with a very great gentleness. She gazed at Nono with an expression full of kindness, gesturing for him to approach.
And as Nono did not dare come closer:
“Do I scare you, my child?” she said in a suave et melodious voice.
Nono had heard from his father that the kings, queens, emperors and empresses were made of the same stuff as other mortals, and differed from them only in costume; but at school he learned so much of their acts and their power, attributing to them so much influence on events, on the destinies of the nations, that he could not imagine that they were not made of some superior essence. And as he had also heard that the bees were governed by a queen, he did not doubt for a single instant that he was face to face with that redoubtable person.
“Oh! no, Madame Queen,”he hastened to answer.
“Who told you that I was queen?”asked the lady, smiling.
“Oh! Madame, it shows,” said the child, growing bolder.
“Ah! And what signs have you see?”
“Because I see all the other bees rush around you and serve you, and because of the golden crown you have on your head.”
“Child! Come now!,” said the lady, laughing out loud this time. “This is my hair that you take for a crown. As for the bees that you see so eager to serve me, they are, you must understand, neither slaves, nor ladies of the court, nor servants. They are devoted daughters who take care of their mother, whom they love.”
Nono, quite abashed, rememberedthe bee which had led him had indeed spoken of “our mother”, and as he saw her standing besidehim with a mockingsmile, he became as red as a peony. But he foundthe strength to say, to excuse himself,that it was at school that he had heard that the bees were governed by a queen.
“My child” said the lady, “becoming serious again, while continuing to smile good-naturedly, your teacher is ignorant. He talks about things he doesn’t know. While studying our hives, humans have judged our custom according to their own.
The first who was able to penetrate the secrets of our life, seeing the bees take special care of one of their number,striving to spare her any further work and fatigue, concluded that this one was a privileged figure, as useless as a king, that the others owed her obedience, and that it was her will that ruled the hive. They published that. It was too similar to what happens among you, for them not to have accepted it as truth. The partisans of authority took it as an argument in their favor, and it continued to be taught in school that the bees were ruled by a queen.
However, that is not have it is among us. Each of us fulfills the function inherent in their nature, but there is no queen, and there is no duty imposed. Some make honey, and others care for the young. If the needs of the hive demand it, some of the inhabitants can even change functions, but without anyone ordering it, only because they feel that it is the general good that demands us.
As for me, I am not a queen, but simply a mother, responsible for providing the eggs which will create workers for our Republic, futures mothers for new swarms; and if the other bees pamper, care for, and indulge me, it is simply because I accomplish a work that they cannot do, having no sex, and that its accomplishment prevents me from concerning myself with any other chore. I admit that I am a Mother Gigogne, but we know no queens here.”
Nono listened, dumbfounded, to this little lesson in natural history, which overturned all his acquired notions. But deep down, as he was a bit mischievous, and held a slight grudge against his teacher, who had sometimes reprimanded or punished him without good cause, he formulated the intention of catching him red-handed, in his turn, in his ignorance, when it came time to speak of royalty among the bees. And a naughty smile passed across the corners of his lips.
“Behave, imp,” said the mother bee, and patting his cheek, she continued: “Remember the good and evil done to you, but never be unjust.”
“But I’m keeping you here, making speeches that doubtless seem very tiresome to you, and your friend reminds me that you are very hungry, and I have very little time to myself, so I must return tomy work. Sit at that table, which my daughters have set for you, and satisfy your appetite.
Indeed, the emotions that Nono felt had at first made him forget his hunger, but for some moments, his hungry eyes could not tear themselves from a table that a group of bees had stocked with honeycombs set on fig leaves, exciting the appetite of our hungry young man with their sweet perfume, which tickled his nostrils.
Without making her repeat herself, he sat down and tasted thehoney. In a wax cup molded for him, the bees had distilled the sweet nectar they collect from the calyx of flowers. Nonowas rapt, andfeasted with delight.
He had already largely finished the honey and drawn from the cup. His hunger had died down a bit, and he no longer found so much pleasure in eating the honey, or drinking the nectar, beginning to find them too sweet.
In the hive, the bees had disappeared, without him noticing it, his attention being drawn at that moment by a swarming which came from the woods across from him. It sparkled in the sun, with glints of gold. And it advanced towards Nono who was very intrigued, being unable to distinguish anything.
As it continued to advance, he eventually sorted out a swarm of beings. Haunted by his reading, he did not doubt for a single instant that it was an army of marching knights. He even already some distinctly some warriors in golden cuirasses, helmets topped with horns and crests, the reflections from their emerald bucklers shining in the sun. it was only because they were far away that they seemed so small.
But when they came closer, Nono had to admit that he had been, once again, led astray by his imagination. He had before him some simple golden beetles.
And as they advanced, he saw them stand up on their feet, no longer seeing anything but their all-black bellies. Farewell to the brilliant warriors, fine cuirasses, sparkling bucklers! Standing on their feet, they grew and grew, until they became as large as penny dolls, but, cruel deception, it seemed to Nono that it was a crowd of Lilliputian undertakers in front of him.
A dozen of them marched two by two, carrying on each shoulder a twig, cut from the surrounding undergrowth, forming a litter on which rested a large une large paulownia leaf, which they had gathered at the edges, attaching them with thorns to form a sort of basket. Some of these baskets were full of fragrant, succulent strawberries from the forest, and others containing raspberries with a more acidic scent.
Behind each litter walkeda group of beetles from which others detached themselves from time to time, to relieve the tired porters.
They all came in a procession towards Nono, seated on the tree trunk into which his chair had been transformed. The table had disappeared.
When the procession arrived before him, the beetles ranged themselves in a semicircle, the holders of stretchers slightly ahead.
One of them broke away from the group and climbed on Nono’s knee. Once there, it gave a salute, rising up on its two front paws, with the back paws in the air, and, and with its hind legs, vigorously rubbing its elytra, made a sound which was hardly harmonious, but Nono enjoyed very much, for here is what he thought he heard:
 “Young child, I am the one you rescued when I was in danger. Without realizing it, you’ve practiced the great law ofuniversal solidarity, which decreesthat all beings help one another. We cannot, like the bees, give you a treat, fruit of our labor, but here are some excellentstrawberries and raspberries, pickedfor you. I hope that they will please you, and complement the rustic meal offered by our sisters.”
And at a signal, the porters came and laid their burdens at the feet of the one for whom they were destined.
But before going on, a see a smile of disbelief pass over the lips of my young readers; I hear them murmur that my orator has chosen an odd position to give his speech. You do not see your schoolmaster delivering his lesson walking on his hands, or your headmaster, at the distribution of the prizes, giving his rant standing on his head, with his feet in the air.
But, my dear children, the mother bee has taught us, we must never judge things solely by our own standards, and believe that what we do must serve as a rule for the universe. And if many of our speakers, political or otherwise, were forced to make their harangues thus, perhaps it would make some ideas descend into their heads, that their clumsiness doubtless prevents from showing there when standing up, their speech is so empty and hollow.
At the sight of these appetizing fruits, Nono sfelt his mouth water. But he had begun to learn, and he realized that, before sitting down like a glutton, he should thank the beetles for their generous gift.
“Mr. Beetle, you and your comrades are really too kind, and I am delighted with your present; it is with great pleasure that I will eat these strawberries which seem to me to be excellent. But, in truth, I do not deserve so much, you exaggerate the service that I have done you. You were aught in a tangle of branches, seeing you in trouble, I freed you without any trouble to myself. You see that the action was nothing very meritorious, and I am ashamed to be so undeserving of your praise.”
“Oh!” said the beetle, “if we measure service by the trouble it costs, yours is of minimal importance. But since it is my life that I owe, it is worthy of my consideration. But a service is not measured that way. What is important is the manner in which it is given, the spontaneity and good grace that accompanies it.
“So take these fruits with as good as heart as we offer it to you, and you will please us.”
And the beetle, waving its antennae it the form of a salute, prepared to descend from the podium that it had chosen.
“In that case, thank you,” said Nono, “you see, I ask permission.”
And the beetle having left his knee, Nono stooped, took up one of the baskets, and having quickly devoured its contents in two bits, took up a second.
The beetles, seeing him eating, returned to their insect forms and took off towards the woods.
And Nono, who watched them go, felt a little pang, thinking that we would still find himself alone. He saw them disappear beneath the foliage. It seemed to him like they were old friends who left him.
[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]
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Independent scholar, translator and archivist.