Telling the Bees
Originally published in Prairie Schooner
One day in eighth grade, I was entrusted with an envelope for our nurse, Ms. Emerson. She was young and blonde and shaped like a Coke-bottle, with glasses that she peered over and tight skirts that hugged her thighs. I was ecstatic to be appointed delivery boy, both to see Ms. Emerson and to get out of class for a few minutes. I handed over the envelope and looked at the necklace that rested just above her cleavage while she read the note. The charm was a tiny, gold shamrock.
“Owen,” she said.
I looked up.
“Would you come with me, please?”
I followed her to the dimly lit sick room, where vinyl-covered beds separated by peach curtains were lined up against a wall. We were alone.
“Have a seat,” she said, so I did. She smoothed her skirt and left her hands splayed over her hips. “I want you to know that we care about you, Owen. But I need to tell you something that I would want someone to tell me if they noticed it.” She hesitated. “How often do you shower?”
I paused, horrified. “Every day.” Though to be frank, I do remember sleeping in and running a comb through my hair on occasion.
“And deodorant. Has your mom or dad bought you any?”
I shook my head no.
“Your clothing has a bit of an odor.” Ms. Emerson turned and began rummaging through a drawer. There was a slit in the back of her skirt. She pulled out a miniature stick of deodorant, the kind you get in the travel section of the drug store.
“Sorry,” I said. I took it from her and tucked it into my sweatshirt pocket.
In retrospect, I realize the envelope I carried was a message written by my homeroom teacher, asking Ms. Emerson to address my smell. It was ninety-degrees out, and there was no air conditioning at Polk Middle School. I’m sure I was ripe. I knew my house smelled. I noticed it when I walked inside, but had never imagined that it followed me everywhere I went.
That weekend, the last weekend before the last week of middle school, I cleaned my room, tossing garbage bags full of clothing that didn’t fit and toys that I didn’t play with. Dust came off the ceiling fan in mossy sheets. I took a box-cutter to the carpet and carried it out piece by piece, revealing old linoleum beneath.
I thought I might get some flack for destroying the carpet, but my mother didn’t mind. She was sitting in her anti-gravity chair with her feet up, one of our three cats balanced behind her head. The chair, which was made of strong fabric attached to a metal frame with bungee cords, was the only thing that gave her relief from her chronic back pain. I dragged a hunk of carpet past her.
“Redecorating?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Cleaning.”
“Good job, Owen,” she said. “Want some help?”
“No, thanks.” I knew she couldn’t lift anything. She couldn’t bend over the washing machine and reach inside to take out the wet laundry. She couldn’t dump fresh kitty litter into the cat box. She had a metal rod in her spine.
When I was finished, the room smelled like Lysol.
The last week of school passed slowly. I successfully avoided Ms. Emerson, and stayed as far away from other students as I could. I ate lunch in a classroom and waited until everyone else had gotten their books before going to my locker, making me consistently late for class. I devoted my energy to keeping people a minimum distance from my deodorant-masked stench and counting the minutes until summer. In high school, I would be a new person.
After the bus ride home on the last day of school, I saw our neighbor, Mr. Fay, sitting at his backyard picnic table. I left my backpack on the stoop and crossed the lawn toward him. A sparkling, white hive was nestled by the trees at the back of his property. The table was a few yards away, close enough to hear the bees moving around, but far enough not to disturb them. Mr. Fay would sit and read the morning paper while listening to them hum. In the afternoons, he would read books about World War II, beekeeping, and gardening, his three passions. When it was raining he sat at his kitchen table, which had a view of the hive. His wife was long dead.
As I approached, I noticed that he had a stack of three library books, though none were open.
“Hi Mr. Fay.” I sat on the bench across from him.
Mr. Fay looked at me with a strange, blank expression. His face was densely lined. I had no idea how old he was, but he had to be over seventy. A muscle above his left eye began to twitch. His forehead was red.
“Do you have a sunburn?” I asked.
Mr. Fay reached up and ran his fingers across the top of his scalp, as if he’d forgotten most of his hair had fallen out. “I have…” He thought a moment. “I have…”
The steady hum of the bees seemed to grow louder.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
Mr. Fay’s expression was confused. He stared intently into my eyes. “Benjamin?”
“No, Owen. Remember?”
He smiled an odd, half-smile.
I ran into the house and dialed 911.
I remember the ambulance driver. It was a woman, which surprised me. She was young, like Ms. Emerson. She asked me if I was a relative and I said no. They put Mr. Fay on a gurney and took him away while the neighbors watched.
For a couple of days I was the subject of persistent questioning by neighbors. My mother wasn’t very social and didn’t like people coming into the house, so I would talk to them on the front porch. Mrs. Fields, who was unfortunately not an heir to the cookie empire, came by that afternoon and had me talk through the entire experience. I’d known her my whole life, and remembered her handing me my first library card. She nodded and said, “stroke”.
We heard nothing for several days.
I began to worry about the bees.
I’d only been inside Mr. Fay’s house once before when I helped him carry a smoker into the pantry, which he had converted into a beekeeping storage room. I worked up my nerve and strode across the lawn to his back door. The houses in our neighborhood were small, with just enough space between them for a driveway and a narrow strip of grass. My bedroom window was thirty feet from Mr. Fay’s patio.
I dug out the spare key from its hiding spot in the flowerpot soil. The lock opened easily. Inside, where I expected eerie silence, a radio was blasting. I followed the source of the noise upstairs to Mr. Fay’s bedroom. I tried in vain to identify the correct button to turn off his alarm clock, but ended up unplugging it from the wall. The room was stuffy and the bed unmade. It was summer, after all, and the house didn’t have air conditioning.
I went back downstairs and opened the refrigerator. I checked the expiration date on the milk and poured it down the drain. My mother was always leaving spoiled milk in the fridge.
When Mr. Fay came home, I wanted to make sure he didn’t drink it by mistake.
The pantry was a large, walk-in closet with floor to ceiling shelves on three sides. I pulled a string overhead. Honey glistened in the light, a surprising range of color from deep amber to translucent yellow, each jar labeled with a year. Three metal smokers were lined up on the floor, two stainless steel and one copper, each with its own bellows attached to the side. Two beekeeping suits with netting hung from the back of the door. Extra frames, on which bees built comb, were stacked on a lower shelf. To my left was a veritable beekeeping library. There were at least thirty books on every aspect of bee entomology, beekeeping techniques, and varieties of honey. Every volume of The Farmer’s Almanac since 1968 was arranged in chronological order. And then I found what I was looking for: Mr. Fay’s beekeeping journal. It was a leather-bound book, about 3/4 full of daily observations notating the weather and care of the hive. The first date in the book was May 13th, 1988, seven years earlier. I took the journal and two books on beekeeping that looked the most basic, and put them on the kitchen table to bring home later and study. But I knew that I had to get a look at the bees myself.
The white beekeeping suit was far too big for me; in truth, I could have passed for a sixth-grader. The crotch hung to my knees, and I had to roll up the sleeves and pant legs so many times I had thick rings of fabric around my ankles and wrists. I wasn’t sure how to get the smoker going, so I decided not to use one. I hoped my mother wouldn’t see me. The hive, about four-feet high, was made up of wooden boxes painted white and stacked. There were handles on each side and on top was a wooden lid that fitted snugly. I grasped it with my gloved hands and pulled. It didn’t come off. I tried once more with all my strength, and it popped off with such force that I stumbled backward. I turned the lid over in my hands. The underside was covered in sticky comb. A single, bewildered bee remained. I sat and rested the lid in my lap. I took off one of my gloves and ran my index finger through the honey. I licked it. Then the bee landed on my finger and stung.
A man’s voice startled me. “What are you doing?” I turned and saw him standing just outside Mr. Fay’s open back door. He strode toward me. The man’s legs were chicken-skinny and hairy.
“I said, what are you doing?”
“Who are you?” I asked.
“I’m Mr. Fay.”
I brought my finger close to my face to search for the stinger. “No, you’re not.”
“I’m Mr. Fay’s son.”
I set the hive cover aside, stood, and extended my hand. “I’m Owen. I live next door. Mr. Fay asked me to take care of his bees.”
“Oh yeah? Is that safe?”
“Russian honeybees are docile.”
“Looks like you got stung, there.”
“That was my fault. I took off my glove. Did you visit Mr. Fay?” I asked. “How’s he doing?”
“They don’t really know yet.”
“He was acting pretty weird the other day.”
“You’re the kid that found him, aren’t you?”
Mr. Fay Jr. had deep-set eyes. His bottom lids were purplish half-moons. “Thank you for calling for help.”
“No sweat.” I picked up the lid and carefully returned it to the hive. Beyond Mr. Fay Jr., standing on the patio, was a teenage girl. She wore an oversized, plaid shirt open at the front with a body-hugging undershirt beneath it. Her blue Doc Martens were decorated with clouds. Her face was partially obscured by hair; it had a red tint to it, like she’d dyed it with Manic Panic from Hot Topic and most of it had washed out.
“Marissa,” Mr. Fay Jr. called to her. “This is Owen, the beekeeper.”
Marissa ignored him. “Can I order a pizza?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Just make sure they take credit cards.”
She disappeared into the house.
That night, I stayed up late reading about honeybees with my stung finger on an ice pack. I learned about queens and drones and workers. I learned about harvesting honey and how to light the all-important smoker. I thought about Marissa and Mr. Fay Jr. sleeping in the house that had been dark for days, and Mr. Fay in the hospital without his bees.
It was easier to access the mite trap located at the base of the hive than it had been to remove the lid. It was marked neatly in Mr. Fay’s journal that it needed to be checked and the bait replaced. The schedule for the entire season had already been laid out.
“Watcha doing?” Marissa asked from behind me.
I was startled. “Never sneak up on someone who is working with dangerous animals.”
“They’re not animals. They’re insects.”
The trap was empty, luckily. No mites, and thus no danger to the hive. “They’re not just insects. They’re smart.”
“Being an insect doesn’t mean they’re not smart.” Marissa picked up the smoker from the picnic bench where I had left it after an unsuccessful attempt to light it. She had the smoker pouring forth billowing clouds of gray within five minutes. She expertly swept the smoke over the hive and the bees slowed. They stood in place and shook as if with pleasure.
The smoke allowed their little bee brains to relax, to stop driving them forward.
“It’s all about confidence,” Marissa said. “If you’re confident, they’ll trust that you know what you’re doing and they won’t get nervous.”
I chipped the comb off of the lid. If left to their own devices, the bees would cement it shut. “You know a lot about bees?” I asked.
“Some,” Marissa said. “My grandfather taught me.”
“He asked me to take care of them,” I said.
Marissa stopped moving the smoker and looked at me. “Really?”
“Yeah,” I said. “He called me yesterday.”
“No he didn’t.”
I paused. “He did.”
“He had a stroke, Owen. He can’t even talk.”
The smoke began to slow. I finished cleaning the lid and replaced it. A bee flew to the entrance and crawled inside.
“Want a root beer?” Marissa asked.
I stripped off my bee-gear and hung it carefully inside the pantry. I was covered in sweat.
I wiped the suit over my neck and made a mental note to keep my arms by my sides so Marissa wouldn’t see the sweat stains. When I came out, she handed me a bottle. It had been a long time since I had root beer. My mother didn’t buy soda.
“What grade are you in?”
“Going into ninth. You?”
I took a sip, careful to keep my distance so she wouldn’t notice the smell.
“I’m from Connecticut,” she said. “Stamford. It’s a big city.”
“I’ve been to Connecticut.”
Marissa flopped into one of the kitchen chairs. The seats were padded and covered in a plastic, flowered material. “Massachusetts is so boring.”
I shrugged and sat across from her.
“We’re staying here to ‘coordinate his care’. My dad doesn’t trust hospitals. He’s a lawyer.”
“So you get a vacation.”
“This isn’t much of a vacation. Anyway, he said it’s only for a week or two. He wanted to bring my grandpa down to Connecticut to a different hospital but the doctors said he’s too sick for the ambulance ride. My dad wanted to leave me with our neighbor but I threw a fit so he had to take me.”
“Is your mom here, too?” I asked.
Marissa set the bottle on the table. “She’s dead.”
“Sorry,” I said. “I have a deadbeat-dad.”
“That sucks. Hey, you want to look around?” Marissa stood and didn’t wait for me to answer.
She took her root beer with her into the dining room. I followed.
She began opening drawers, inspecting their contents and leaving them in disarray. She found a ceramic Easter bunny with an empty, pink basket wedged between his knees. She kissed him on the nose. I tentatively picked up a creamer that was displayed on the sideboard and then set it back precisely to mask the circle of dustless silver tray it left behind. Marissa’s root beer left a wet ring on the table. I wiped it with my sleeve and followed her upstairs.
“Here’s my room,” she said, gesturing toward a guest bedroom. The bed was unmade and a suitcase lay open on the floor, its contents strewn about as if it had burst. “Want to see what I found?” Marissa leaned into the closet and dragged a heavy box out. She opened the cardboard flaps. Inside was a collection of Boy Scout memorabilia – field guides, badges, kerchiefs and khaki shirts.
“Were these your dad’s?”
“I don’t think so,” Marissa said. “They seem too old. I think there were my grandpa’s.”
I picked up one of the books and flipped to the copyright page: 1972. I pointed to it. “Your dad’s.”
She stood, leaving the box open on the floor, and walked into Mr. Fay’s bedroom. His alarm clock was still unplugged, the cord curling out from beneath the nightstand. Marissa crossed the room confidently and began to open the drawers of his bureau.
“Wait,” I said.
She turned to look at me. Her expression was bored.
I hesitated. “Mrs. Fields across the street has a pool. She always lets me use it. Want to go swimming?”
“I don’t have a suit.”
“That’s okay. You can wear shorts and a t-shirt.”
Marissa paused. “Okay.”
She met me in the driveway after I ran home to change and she found an outfit that she didn’t mind getting wet – tiny orange shorts and one of her dad’s Gold’s Gym t-shirts. We padded across the dead-end street with bath towels draped over our shoulders. Mrs. Fields didn’t let me use her pool whenever I wanted, but I knew that she worked at the library and never came home on weekdays until four o’clock. I unlatched the gate as confidently as I could, and we circled around the back of her house to the kidney-shaped oasis. We left our towels in a heap on the concrete. I jumped and Marissa waded. She didn’t want to get her hair wet, so she’d tied it back in a ponytail. For the first time, I could really see her face. She looked younger this way. She looked unsure.
The shallow end was Marissa’s domain, the deep end mine. I floated for awhile, and then began to swim back and forth underwater, kicking off the sides of the pool like a missile. It was easy to make it from one side to the other without coming up for breath. Marissa stood. The water had crept up her t-shirt to her breasts. I tried not to stare. She kept her palms flat on the surface, as if they were resting on a table. When I got to the edge of the pool, I slung my bent arms behind me on the cement so my forearms were holding me up, my bottom half thankfully still in the water. I looked at her. And as soon as I did, she disappeared under the surface. Her feet emerged, her toes pointed like a gymnast, her legs pressed together. It was a spectacular handstand. She separated her glistening legs in a split and brought them back together again, scissor-kicking. She looked like a synchronized swimmer. She held it for what seemed like ages. Finally, her head emerged.
“That was awesome,” I said.
“Thanks.” The water around her was tinted pink. Her hair dye was running.
We swam until our fingers and toes were prunes. I watched her shimmering skin, yearning to reach out and touch it. We swam the next day, too. And the next. But on the fourth, I saw Marissa walking down the street with Daniel Smith, who was heading to BC in the fall. He lived three houses down the block. I didn’t hear from her for a while after that.
On the fourth of July, a week after Marissa and Mr. Fay Jr. arrived, I was in their yard checking on the bees. I could hear them fighting inside through open windows.
Marissa screamed, “I’m going uptown! There’s nothing you can do about it!”
“Oh, yes there is. You’re going back to Stamford.”
“No, I’m not. I’ll go on a hunger strike.”
“A college kid is way too old for you. Your mother would have a fit.”
“No way. No way. You cannot bring her into this.”
It went on for a while. I sat at the picnic table facing away from the house and stared at the hive. If I pressed my hand to the top I could feel their warmth. It was getting dark. I wondered how Mr. Fay was doing. I swatted a mosquito.
Marissa plopped down beside me, her hair now streaked with blue. She took a Swiss army knife out of her pocket and began fiddling with each of the tools.
“Where’d you get that?” I asked.
“The boy scout box,” she mumbled. Marissa unsheathed the knife and started carving an “M”
into the table.
The fireworks began to explode. We couldn’t see them because of the trees, but the high school was close enough that we could hear each one distinctly.
“Don’t you go?” Marissa asked.
“Not this year,” I said.
Marissa rolled up her plaid shirtsleeves and worked intently.
I pulled a box of sparklers and a lighter out of my back pocket. I’d found them in a kitchen drawer. Marissa didn’t notice what I was doing until white sparks began to erupt. Her eyes got wide.
“No way! Gimme one.”
I handed her my sparkler. Marissa made figure eights and spirals, drawing designs in the air. I lit another and handed it to her. She stood on the table in her Doc Martens and spun. We quickly burned through the box of twelve. She sat down next to me. It was too dark for her to finish carving her name.
“Wanna go swimming?” she asked.
I looked across the street. Mrs. Fields’ light was on.
“I don’t know if Mrs. Fields will let us.”
I could tell Marissa had figured out we weren’t allowed over there. “We can be quiet.”
I hesitated. What did I have to lose?
Marissa changed into a bathing suit that she must have purchased in the past few days. It made me feel like she hadn’t deserted me. It was a one-piece, navy blue with white straps, and one step away from naked. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She pulled at the leg holes and adjusted her suit. We glided into the water, quiet, submerging – Marissa, then me. I liked to suspend myself under the low diving board, my arms extended over my head, watching her. We listened to the fireworks, to the grand finale. We didn’t get caught.
That night, I found my mother asleep in the living room with the television on. She’d been watching the fireworks broadcast from the esplanade but they were over, and the eleven o’clock news was on. I’d been working on the house since school got out: vacuuming, dusting, putting things in boxes or the trash. I knew she noticed, but she didn’t say anything after her remark about the carpet. I think she wished she could help. I turned off the television and gently woke her. I helped her to her feet and she shuffled to her bedroom. Some days were better than others.
On July fifth, when I approached the hive, I didn’t notice the steady humming. I lifted the lid. Inside, the comb was beautiful. Every hexagon was a perfect vessel, sealed and filled with a tiny, precious dollop of honey. But only a few, sickly drones were left. I panicked. I knocked on the door, but Marissa and Mr. Fay Jr. were gone. I used the spare key to get in and then threw myself into the pantry and frantically flipped through the books, looking for information about disappearing bees. I was on the edge of tears. My bees – Mr. Fay’s bees – were gone.
I found the information I was searching for. When the hive becomes overfull, bees swarm, looking for a new home. If you can find them and trap them, it is possible to get them to return to the hive. There was a picture of a beekeeper, all in white, holding a box over a tree branch covered in a mass of insects. I ran up to Marissa’s room and emptied the Boy Scout box. Her pillow was streaked with dye. I zipped myself into a suit. I ran outside and up and down the street, the box bouncing against my thigh as I ran. I checked the trees, under decks, along the roofline of houses. I wanted to call out “bees!” like someone might when looking for a lost dog.
I returned to the picnic table, defeated. I had sweated through the suit. I took off the headpiece and set it on the bench beside me. The tears began to roll down my cheeks. And then I heard it: a soft humming. I stood carefully and began to walk toward the birch trees behind Mr. Fay’s house.
“There you are,” I said aloud.
They were too high for me to reach, so I ran to my garage where I knew an ancient ladder was wedged into the rafters. I climbed on a stack of plastic tubs, likely full of Christmas decorations we hadn’t used in years, and managed to haul it outside. It dragged as I ran, one of its legs ripping up turf.
I set up the ladder below the hive. The dirt was not level, so it was unsteady. I scoured the ground for a rock that I used to wedge beneath the leg. I shook it and judged it sturdy enough. With the Boy Scout box in hand, I climbed the ladder.
The bees were inches from my face. They crawled over and around each other, a living, vibrating mass of wings and eyes and stingers. They must have been thirty-deep. The branch bowed with their weight, or maybe I imagined it. Their hum was louder than I had ever heard it.
I tentatively lifted the box, trying to project confidence as Marissa had told me. The bees were in the box, now, but still attached to the branch. I didn’t know how to make them drop in. I stood there for a moment, arms outstretched, thinking. I balanced the box in one hand and then reached forward and grasped a bee-free part of the limb. I shook it gently. I checked the box. A few bees had dropped and were inside. I shook the limb again, harder this time. More fell. I shook it forcefully, and I felt the ladder shift beneath me. And suddenly, I was in the dirt, with the wind knocked out of me. I coughed and curled up. The box was on its side. A cluster of bees crawled over its surface. I took a breath.
The first bee stung my neck, just below my ear. Then another stung my hand. I’d forgotten to wear the gloves. I sat up. They were swarming around my head. I’d carelessly left the headpiece back at the picnic table. I stood and ran, the bees following me. I was stung a fifth, sixth, seventh time. I crossed the yard, the street, Mrs. Fields’ yard, though her gate and across the cement. I launched myself into the air, suspended above the water’s surface for a moment, insects crawling over my suit, and then I crashed into the blue. I sunk to the bottom. I looked up through the water, the chlorine stinging my eyes, the white fabric billowing around me. A cluster of bees floated on the surface above.
I draped the suit on the deck railing to dry and lay on the picnic table. My legs hung off one end, my feet bare as my only pair of sneakers dried. I draped one forearm across my eyes to block out the sun. I had failed.
The stings totaled eleven. Most were on my neck, face, and hands, the body parts I stupidly left uncovered. The pain was deserved. And because of me, those eleven bees had died. I worried about the rest of them, too. What if they didn’t find a new home? Did they remember how to build a natural hive after living in a man-made one for so long?
Suddenly, I felt the bench shift beneath me. Marissa sat down.
“Hey,” I said.
“You’re all wet.”
“Yeah. Where have you been?”
“The hospital,” she said. “He died.”
“Mr. Fay?” I sat up.
“Yeah.” Marissa ran her hand through her hair. The blue had been washed out by our swim the night before. Now, it was all brown. She wasn’t wearing any eyeliner.
I looked at the empty hive, and then back at Marissa. “I’m sorry.”
I slid off the table and sat next to her. Marissa took out her Swiss army knife and began working on her name again. I watched her form the A-R-I-S-S-A, slowly chipping away at the wood. Then she carved my name: O-W-E-N.
I could hear Mr. Fay Jr. making phone calls in the house.
“The bees are gone,” I said.
Marissa put down the knife. “Really?”
She looked at my face. “You got stung.”
I held out my hands to show her.
“Does it hurt?”
Marissa walked over to the hive. I followed. She removed the lid and we looked in together.
Miraculously, dozens of bees crawled over the frames. I stared in disbelief.
“They must have swarmed,” she said. “The hive splits. Some of them follow a new queen, and the rest stay with the old one.”
“Are there enough to survive?”
“Probably,” she said. “This happened to Grandpa once before. He told me about it.” Marissa replaced the lid. “Better leave them alone. They’re probably traumatized.”
After she left, I resolved to take care of them. I would harvest the honey.
We sat back on the bench. Marissa leaned in and gently touched my neck. “There’s still a stinger here. Don’t move.”
I froze while she used her blue fingernail to scrape it out of my skin.
I was feeling bold. “How do I smell?” I asked.
Marissa looked at me for a minute, and then she pressed her nose to my hair. She breathed in. I was surprised when she didn’t immediately lurch back in horror. She rested her cheek on my shoulder and breathed in again. “Like something good,” she said.
Marissa nodded. “Smell me.”
I tentatively lifted a chunk of her hair in my palm. Chlorine, and something else.