New Bees

Issue #134
Winter 2017-18

We bought the nylons before evening prayer at a twenty-four-hour grocery three miles away. They came folded inside paper envelopes, tawny mesh showcased under cellophane windows. We bought a dozen. They tend to rip.

Later, we disagreed about whether the envelopes could be recycled. If paper’s affixed with plastic, is it still paper? Eventually, we stripped the cellophane squares from all twelve envelopes and sorted the scraps.

Everything has a thousand uses. When nylons run, we slip our hands inside and dust shelves, polish silver, buff our leather shoes. There’s always a way to give something new life, but most people don’t realize this. Most people don’t want to know all the lives contained within disposable things.

That spring, we wanted new bees for Harriet. They hadn’t wintered well, our bees. Only a few hundred were left by the time Harriet came to the convent. She didn’t know there used to be thousands, so to her, there was a bounty. She’d go out bare-handed and give the hives some air. She’d coo and grin, watching them float. She was unlike us—we found them fearsome. Agatha was allergic to bees, and Mary Lucille was seventy-three, frail as linguini. Therese avoided pain, and I avoided anything with violent rage.

The winter survivors moved slowly. They were depressed, having witnessed the deaths of their babies and their parents, who had come to lie in piles at the bottom of the apiary.

Ours was a humble apiary. Nothing special. A dozen sheets of hanging beeswax, stored in a frame on wheels. The apiary was a wooden model, donated years ago. We kept it next to the baby Oreo-cookie cow, which we milked for butter.

We were having trouble with Harriet, it’s true. She was a novice—hadn’t been veiled, hadn’t been given a religious name. During morning prayer, she had this look of hurt. It’s not unusual. 5:20 is a painful time to be praying if you are usually dreaming then. But it was harder for Harriet than for most. She displayed none of the joy we felt, none of the love. She worried the skin under her eyes. She never had an appetite. She had a round crater on her neck where an old boyfriend had stubbed out a cigarette.

So we wanted to surprise her with new bees. Many times, all a person needs is somewhere to be and something to do. We used the parish computer and found an apiarist in Louisville. He bred honeybees and sold them in boxes of twelve thousand.

When we called him, the apiarist sounded impatient—“Yeah? Hello?”—as if pulled from pleasure by the ring of the phone.

We explained we were customers intending to buy bees. We were interested in the Carniolans—tough, resistant to mites. But we had a question. How would we get the bees out of the box? We pictured a rushing swarm. We pictured quick, vengeful enemies.

He explained that all we’d need to do is throw the box on the ground, wiggle free the lid, and pour out the bees. They’d spill from the box, he said, like oil. They wouldn’t hurt us. They were merciful creatures. They’d find the apiary on their own.

And the bees were safe to transport in a box, in the back of a car?

Yes, of course. He regularly drove with a carful of bees. “They like inertia,” he said. “Just like us.”

After he said goodbye, his phone hovered in its receiver, and we heard him whispering tender words: “Oh, darlings. You can have my waffles. Yeah.” We hung up, flushed with the hot shame of happening, uninvited, upon an intimacy not our own.

We pooled our allowances, folded the bills, and sealed them in an envelope. For the keys to the van, we went to Father Lucas in the rectory. He was watching television in blue jeans. We showed him handfuls of dead bees. We said, “Father, think of the bees. Think of the flowers.”

His patience was cursory at best. In mass, he sped through Communion, doling out wafers in rapid succession—“BodyofChristBodyofChristBodyofChrist.”

He held a curled bee in the lamplight. Its legs were kinked but its wings were out, as if it had died mid-flight.

Father Lucas looked at us: “Did you know people used to think bees came from the rotting bodies of dead cows?”

This was a passion of his: sharing unsolicited trivia. He plucked the unspent stinger from the bee’s belly and tossed it to the carpet. “Bees are a worthwhile investment,” he said, “if we care for them right. Buying new bees every year—that’s an expense we can ill afford.”

We nodded. We told him, “Harriet, the novice—she’s good with them. We trust her.”

We stood, patient. It’s best, more often than not, to say nothing rather than something.

Finally, he crossed one leg over the other and spoke: “Well, I don’t see why you can’t go and see them. But you’ve got to be careful driving.”

We smiled. We thanked him.

“One more thing,” he called. “If the van gives you any trouble, just pull off the road, call me, and wait for me to come.”

We left Harriet to sit the hotline. Every day, we heard only from Theresa, a local woman who was, on her own, raising a daughter with special needs. She asked no questions, sought no advice. She often cried. We had never met her, only knew her voice: hurried, and colored with apology.

Harriet wanted to know how to counsel Theresa: what to say and how to say it.

“Pray with her,” we said. “Listen. If you don’t know what to say, wait. Wait until you know the right words.”

She wanted to know where the four of us were going and when we would be back. We looked at her: the hunched shoulders, raw mouth. At nineteen, she was still afraid of time spent alone. She didn’t yet know that privacy was not a punishment but a gift.

We shook our heads and told her we could not tell her. We knew how to protect the truth. Many people don’t realize that honesty can work this way—that it’s possible to be candid about your candor’s limits.

The van was an old red Mercury Villager, a donation from some parishioner whose child had long ago attempted to obscure, with the liberal use of a black magic marker, the entirety of the rear window. Back when the van was brought to us, we were able to work away much of the ink, but retired our sponges after a few rounds of scrubbing, leaving a cloudy film on the glass like lacework.

The seats were matted velour and the sliding doors were trouble. They jammed in their tracks. More than once we had driven down the highway with the doors stuck halfway open. So we were prudent. Everyone climbed in and out from the front seat.

The car made no mystery of how it felt, being made to climb those hills. The whole way, it groaned with contempt. We paid no mind. Windows down, our veils trembled in the wind, and dust settled in the nooks of our ears, the bends of our elbows. We ate graham crackers straight from the sleeve and counted pale gray horses propped on the hillsides.

We’d written directions on both sides of a napkin—even the tedious steps, like Continue. Preparation is a compulsion of ours. We carry toothpicks and half a dozen sanitary pads everywhere we go. We sharpen pencils in groups of three.

The exit was an exit only and we slowed to take the turns at half speed. Ours was the only car, turning up wild dust, and there were no houses for miles, until we turned off the paved road that led to the apiarist’s house.

We thought, at first, that we’d arrived at the wrong house—we saw no beehives in the yard, no white-suited man traipsing in the bushes. Just a low house of clapboard and siding, the windows covered with sun-leeched sheets of newspaper. A dark place to be raising bees, we agreed. We checked the house number against our directions.

We slipped graham crackers into our pockets, turned off the van and climbed out, one sister at a time. The grass was frosted with so many dandelion heads we bent to stroke it. He had bushes of raspberries near the road, the fruit gone squat and hard. In the treeless yard, a low plastic pool, clotted with fallen leaves, and on the porch, a paint-stripped bike thrown on its side.

We heard them first: the drone like a quivering siren, rising and falling with no clear rhythm. And then the man opened the door and we saw them: hundreds of bees, gliding with ease around the front room. Such buoyancy they showed! They looked, diving and climbing, almost beautiful, until we remembered we were afraid.

From a metal jug the apiarist shot smoke in the air, and the bees slowed as if in obeisance. A few drifted past us through the open doorway and we jerked with fright, clutching each other’s elbows.

“I didn’t expect the clergy,” the apiarist said, seeming delighted. As he spoke, we watched a bee hover and lower itself onto his nose. “These weren’t raised to be God-fearing bees, I’m afraid.” The bee wriggled but the man’s voice remained measured. He appeared not to have noticed. He smiled then, displaying only a half-mouthful of teeth. “It’s not every day I get a visit from the brides of Christ,” he said.

The room was floored in linoleum, walled with slats of imitation wood, and empty except for a low-hanging light bulb and a white wooden beehive, uncovered. And except for the bees. They blurred the air. Crowds of them danced over the surface of the apiary. Others came to rest on the wooden frames bordering the windows, and on the apiarist’s shoulders and head. The rest were set on soaring. They approached us with interest and we shut our mouths, dug nails into forearm flesh.

The bee shimmied on the apiarist’s nostril, and then moved on. We smiled. “So, the bees, then,” we said. “We came for the Carniolans.”

He nodded and gestured for us to walk with him. We held hands and followed the man to the back of the house, where the bare hallway gave way to a wide room with a narrow yellow mattress, a brown blood spot in its center. He must have slept among these bees, dozed to their thrum.

He rifled in a dark closet. With his back turned, he couldn’t see us, frozen, trying to appear inanimate so the bees might pass us by. Mary Lucille’s tiny hands gripping mine tight.

The apiarist spun back around and assembled a cardboard box. He pulled from the windowsill a mass of bees clinging to a hunk of comb. And inch by inch, he lowered the comb, with the bees hanging on, into the cardboard box. We watched him slowly tip the box up over itself so it lay flat on a white sheet, trapping the bees inside. He propped up a corner with a two-by-four. “So they’ll tell their friends how nice it is inside the box,” he said. The bees wandered in and out, as if making up their minds. “In, oh, half an hour or so, we’ll have a good three pounds of bees in there.”

We nodded. How many bees to the pound? In the kitchen he served us bottled cola. He offered us pickle spears fingered from a wide-neck jar. One of us said no for us all.

This must be a kind of suffering, we thought, to be trapped inside with a million bees. It is terrible to be conscious of all the ways you can be hurt.

The apiarist ate his pickles with loud snaps. Through the back door a dog came panting—a rib-thin, bear-faced dog. His walk seemed to hurt him, but he delighted in the presence of water in his bowl, in the hands of the apiarist digging through his ratty fur.

“Bennie boy,” the apiarist cooed, crouching to kiss the dog’s wet nose. “That’s my Bennie.” He turned to us. “You all can pet him, if you like.”

Agatha bent to meet his face. He breathed at her, hot and hard. Bees latched to the dog’s tucked belly and greasy ears, but Bennie never whined, never stopped to swat or shake them loose. We watched him lick freely at the water, though several bees hung above the bowl. A loving thing, unafraid.

“Are you looking at his balls?” the apiarist said. We weren’t, but then we saw them and could not ignore them. Bulbous, fat. The healthiest part of him.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” the apiarist said. He scratched his nose with a wet finger. “‘Balls’ is a swear, isn’t it?”

“No, no, don’t worry,” Therese said. We all sat on the floor at Bennie’s flank and watched him breathe. He was the kind of trusting dog who seemed not to know how bad things were.

When we stood back up, we saw that bees had drowned in our cola. They looked, examined from the bottles’ mouths, to be at rest. We abandoned the soda in the sink and washed the bees down the pipes.

The apiarist sighed, watching them go. He told us how lousy things had been for him and the bees. Lately, his queens were laying fewer eggs. “One thing about queens,” he said, “they don’t like to be helped along. They like it to be their idea.”

We set our bottles on the counter—four tiny clinks.

“Say, girls,” the apiarist said. “Could you help me with something in the garage?”

We looked at each other and held hands tight.

His garage was detached from the house, with a wide square-faced pull-down door gaping a foot. We welcomed the walk in plain, beeless air. He led us in through the side door, and Bennie rushed in first. There was no car or truck, only amassed disorder. Eight feet of an artificial Christmas garland studded with imitation pinecones. Towers of thick, glossy science fiction novels. Canned beans and corn, their tops dust-fuzzed. A woodworking bench and low table saw, an upended electric keyboard, a dozen empty tissue boxes, a microwave.

We waded in. Bennie’s tail upset a pile of empty amber prescription bottles, and they went flying. The apiarist ignored the dog. He perched a foot on a rusted lawn chair and said, “Well, it beats me why a bunch of pretty girls would be interested in the clergy.”

We clutched more tightly each other’s palms. Mary Lucille spoke, her voice measured and firm. “Now. What can we do for you here?” And we looked to the apiarist for instruction.

“See, I’m having trouble with that old door. It won’t go down the whole way. And I get little critters coming in at night.”

We looked at the foot of liminal space, the threshold for escape.

“I’m sure if you’re having trouble closing it, we won’t be much use,” Mary Lucille said. “We’re not exactly brawny.”

He walked over and mock-tugged on the strap hanging from the door. “I don’t know why it won’t give! Like a stuck zipper or something.”

We thought he wouldn’t see us slipping bits of graham cracker from our pockets and letting Bennie lick them up from our hands. We thought it’d be a silent gift. But Bennie ate with such loud, excited smacks of his tongue, and the apiarist flung around and stared hard.

“We just,” Therese started. “We only wanted—”

He raised his voice then, rage swelling in his face. “You do. Not. Feed my dog. Without. My. Permission.”

“Oh, that’s enough,” Mary Lucille said, and we felt the air shift. “It was an innocent act. A cracker for a needy dog.”

He could have come at us. But instead he bent to stick his hand inside Bennie’s mouth and scrape gummy bits of cracker from the teeth and pink tongue. Bennie’s eyes went shut, and he whined from somewhere deep within. We watched the man rake the dog’s throat with one hand and hold his head with the other. Later, we’d recall seeing him flick the wet starch to the ground. On his face, there was, for a moment, tenderness. Care.

We collected ourselves, and then, while the man’s hand was between the jaws of the dog, we fled out that side door, abandoning the box of bees we had come for in the clapboard house.

We hurried the van’s engine awake and leapt the curb and started to soar. And we were all feeling good, so good—feeling useful, feeling all sorts of brave and a certain kind of lucky, the kind that comes after you circumscribe danger with your own will and good sense. The wind welcomed us to newfound speed. We smiled out the windows at fields of upright corn.

But then, a few miles out, just before the turnpike, we heard it. In the middle of the thruway, the car issued a pained squeal; then, a snap. The steering wheel went stiff—stubborn as anything. It took all the combined might of Agatha and Mary Lucille, up front, to force the wheel to the right. We parked on the shoulder, turned off the car, and, for a moment, we neither spoke nor moved.

In the glove compartment we kept a small, heavy phone. Father Lucas didn’t answer when we called, so we left a message in calm words. “Hello, Father. The van won’t steer. We’re at mile marker eighty-two. Please call us back when you have the chance.”

We sat on our hands. In our silence, we heard the whir of rushing cars. We sighed, one by one.

We called again, and when he still didn’t answer, we climbed out and went to look at the engine’s innards. We knew a thing or two about engines, the plot of bulbs and tubes. We could point to the battery and the transistor and the fuel injector. So many places for trouble to hide.

We read aloud from the manual. Checked the camshaft and the coolant. Walked circles around the vehicle. The car would start, but would not steer.

If you look long enough, there is always something to blame. The trouble was the serpentine belt—the black strap that moves the water pump. It had snapped right in half. We pulled it free, a squirming length of rubber, and tucked it in a cup holder. With a bit of glue, it would work well to seal the gap under the convent’s front door.

It was a decision made together, in silence, confirmed with glances and nods. All at once we shed our nylons and tied the feet tight to make a loop, and with tense hands we guided the nylon over the pulleys. There was slack, and we tightened it. Our fingers caught grease and soot and our foreheads went sweat-slick, but then the engine turned over and the pulleys spun and the nylon moved the disparate parts and Mary Lucille pushed the wheel and the tires did what she told them to do, and we laughed. We laughed and laughed. Amid the thick fields, along the great wide paved road, we had found a way to move.

While we were slinging hosiery through the car engine, Father Lucas called to say he was coming to save us. The voicemail was panicked, as if it was he who was in trouble.

What words had he said to us about the van, before we left? “If there’s trouble, leave the trouble for me”? “Don’t touch what you don’t understand”? No matter. Many times, the greatest mercy you can grant a man is the chance to believe himself the hero.

And so we slipped free the ring of pantyhose from the pulleys. We slackened the knots and reclaimed pairs at random. Some of us had thicker ankles, some of us darker flesh, some of us broad bellies. But it hardly mattered, the chosen mesh, because our habits hung low to cover our legs. Back in the van, we waited for Father to arrive.

Maybe it was selfish, our need to have everything fixed just right. Two weeks later, Harriet would leave, a bar of our lemon soap in her backpack and a paper bus map in her hand. She said goodbye just after prayer, having shed her habit in favor of denim. She took the red line bus to an aunt’s house in Madeira, or a cousin’s place in Kenwood; we forgot which. She promised to call us when she arrived, but she never did. We spoke her name in reverent prayer and imagined her with a new haircut, a new place to go every day. Or returning to some place she’d been before. An attic or backroom or dive bar. Somewhere familiar, but in no way safe. In time, we saw that there was no longer any faith to foster in her; she would have to create her own. The old weary bees would survive another season. They kept us stocked in clumpy wax and honey, until they, over the course of one week, perished, killed by the spray we used to eliminate dandelion weeds. It is impossible to know for sure. Everything comes with a price. Nothing in this life is without sacrifice. We found their little bodies scattered in the grass, in the fig tree and the blueberry bush. They died while seeking. They knew nothing besides their daily hums and hunts. We looked out the kitchen window and watched them flit and thought that maybe they knew fear too, and valued, above all else, control, over their work and their home and their flight.

But we didn’t know any of this that afternoon, as we waited in our tired car, singing low hymns, watching the grass take the wind. We wanted to go home to Harriet, to tell her she was important, more important than bees. We wanted to hold her hand in prayer and hear her voice in song and make her see and know her value.

We waited. We whistled. Used spit and sleeves to wipe scalp smudges from the windows.

The parish florist drove Father Lucas out to mile marker 82. Father came like royalty, waving out the window of a purple van. We saw their smiling faces among the bouquets. Lilies pressed up against the windows, ranunculi in the passenger seat, and the waxen face of our parish pastor above his crisp collar.

“Oh, my ladies,” Father said, stepping out of the van. “What did you do?”

It is our belief that the greatest grace you can grant yourself is the private knowledge of your strength. We popped the hood and let him look. He shoved his shirtsleeves high, frowned into the depths. Standing behind him, we crossed our arms. Even though we could point to the problem, knew what the van needed, we stood and let the wind upset our veils, and we waited, letting him stare at the valves and hot pistons, allowing him the time he needed to conclude whatever he would.