“I don’t get this,”she says to her father about the station promo playing on the muted TV.
Daddy blinks—at the screen, not her.
They’ve been waiting for the local weather report, or at least she has. There’s no telling what’s on his mind. He’s in his favorite chair, and she’s pushing her luck on the chintz loveseat no one’s supposed to sit on except to delicately perch, as per Mother. (It’s still firm and shiny like a showroom piece, which is Mother’s preference.)
She’s trying to make polite conversation with her father while they wait to be shooed, bossed, or otherwise put to work in service of The Wedding, caps audible. The early light through the window is honey-gold, like it always is in this rosy little room this time of year.
“What don’t you get, my dear?” she supplies for him when Daddy glances up but doesn’t speak. It’s harder for her mouth to form the words than it should be.
She notices sweat slicking his brow line, and remembers how even at dawn this little room just roasts this time of year. She realizes sweat has beaded her forehead, too, under the fur of which there’s now a little more.
“See,” she says, gesturing at the smiling blonde on the screen, “they have the girl—I think she’s the weather gal?—holding up a smartphone and telling us how great their app is. You know what an app is, Dad?”
Not that she expects a back-and-forth. She feels guilty about visiting so rarely even though Mother and Cal have described Daddy’s decline.
“But then when they cut to the close-up of the phone app, the hand holding the phone is a man’s: Big thick fingers and hairy knuckles. So you only ever see her face and those gorilla mitts. Implication: those are her man hands. Why didn’t someone notice that when they edited the promo?”
Daddy makes a funny noise in his throat and widens his eyes in alarm. His eyebrows like two white stoats slink upward.
“Oh, Dad, don’t worry. It’s funny is all. Like if I had hands like yours. Or you had hands like mine.” She holds up her hands, rotating them front to back like a model. “Silly, see?”
This doesn’t help. She wishes she hadn’t tried to draw him out. He’s showing signs of agitation, and it’s not as if he was such scintillating company even when he still had all his marbles. She sighs. It’s understood that today has to be one of his good ones, given the occasion, but no one can say how that’s to be achieved, exactly, beyond hoping.
If he remains docile, though, the gradual loss of his mind has smoothed his already handsome brow, which will make for some terrific wedding photos. (Unfair when he’d be judged least for a failure on that.) Haircut’s on but nobody’s home. Assuming, too, he doesn’t forget the guests and the cameras, shed his suit on the lawn. Assuming Mother doesn’t forget her famous company manners. Assuming Cal doesn’t forget she’s happy and start crying. Assuming the prodigal sister remains presentable, which is very much in question; she can feel something welling up, ready to pop like a boil. This is not hyperbole.
She hopes to miss the quarrel over how to purge those who don’t live up to photogenic standard from the wedding album, and other tribulations so very relatable. She hopes to be on a plane by then. The argument will smell like hairspray and white wine and sulfur.
Mother insists everyone always said what an attractive quartet the family was, and there’s a stair wall lined with years of family portraits to bear this out. And now Cal and her groom will have children of their own, probably immediately, and they’ll be beautiful, of course, because Calliope won’t have it otherwise, and somehow that’ll settle it, because her life is a fairytale, so she can’t conceive otherwise. It’s not her fault.
And will these cherubs have the family’s standard gray eyes, or Calliope’s medium blue? What color are Charlie’s eyes? She’s only met him a handful of times, and his handsomeness exists whole-cloth to her, not in details she can recount. It’s more a knowledge, like the sky is blue: Cal’s fiancé is handsome.
Eyes on the TV and not Daddy, she finds herself still babbling about those TV anchor’s mismatched mitts. “Maybe she’s a prima donna,” she muses, “and they wanted to make her look foolish.”
“Stop confusing him,” commands a voice that even in annoyance is smooth-polished maple wood. This is Mother’s stealth entrance into the little sitting room.
“Only making conversation.” She isn’t sure why she tries when she’s so bad at it. Calliope is much better at handling their father, now that he needs handling. It’s not like Cal was always his favorite and there’s some residual, decontextualized preference; all their lives Daddy seemed to hold a roughly equal genial indifference to both his daughters. But Calliope’s getting ready, so it falls to the less-qualified daughter to watch him.
Mother rolls her eyes. “He’s having a bad enough day already. Thinks today’s his uncle’s funeral. And your sister’s already beside herself, of course.” It’s clear Mother means about the bees, though she’s the one who’s been in a tizzy. “Breakfast is ready.”
“I have to finish the words,” Daddy pipes up suddenly. “The speech to give.” Then he shouts, “The eulogy!” and rubs his hands back and forth along the thighs of his trousers.
“After we eat,” his wife says firmly, reaching out to hold his chin in her hand for a moment of sustained eye contact.
Mother leaves without waiting to see if the two of them follow; she assumes they will, and she’s correct. The not-getting-married-today daughter stands and offers her father an arm, but he waves her off irritably and practically leaps from the chair with no trouble. He pauses to shoot his cuffs, like he’s headed someplace where impressions matter. She remembers to turn the television off, knowing how Mother feels about such things.
There’s an extra charge of nervous electricity in the air, as there always is before a hundred people converge on a place. She can’t understand why Cal chose to have her wedding here—beautiful as their parents’ home is, with the view of the valley and the aspen grove and Mother’s garden—when she could’ve just booked a venue and let someone else worry about infestations and spots on the lawn and where to put the tables and chairs and the tulle-draped arch where the officiant will bind Charlie and Calliope foreverandever in the eyes of God, or at least for an agreed-upon time in the eyes of the state.
The visiting daughter hasn’t seen the nuclear family for some time before this wedding weekend, but somehow the four of them have fallen again into established rhythms and old patterns. Daddy and Mother are the monoliths again, and the sisters are co-conspirators and semi-rivals again, and these things had ceased to be true before this time-travel interlude and will evaporate again once she’s gone and Cal’s off on her honeymoon.
The course of her life has advanced apart from this airless pocket. Neither her parents nor her sister know she was married—fleetingly—and bereaved. If “bereaved” is the word for a sort of wistful serendipity. She never mentioned either when they happened, and now several years have passed and it seems like a scene excised from someone else’s script anyway.
She emailed Cal a couple pictures of Levi and her at the beginning of things, snapshots and vacation pics and arm-in-arm at other people’s celebrations. And she mentioned him occasionally during infrequent duty calls to the homestead. Mother referred to him as “your fellow” if she ever referred to him and never probed, so it was easy to let it drop once he phased himself out.
Unlike Daddy, she finds the short walk to the dining room taxing. The floors are slick and her balance is off and her feet hurt, having become quite narrow as her toes fuse and grow hard. She’s afraid to say anything at this eleventh hour, but her wedding shoes for sure don’t fit anymore. Not with these hooves she’s sporting. Calliope will defecate bricks if things keep up this way.
Daddy’s mind, then the termites, the gophers, the bees, and now this. The headline in Cal’s head will read “Awful Sister Is Last Straw,” though maybe that’s not fair to Cal. She was reasonable enough before the wedding warp-sped away with her equanimity. Maybe it’ll be “Universe Ruins Calliope’s Big Day” instead. The patch of coarse white fur that’s been creeping over her stomach itches, but she resists the urge to scratch.
A thick perfume finds her from the formal living room. The wedding flowers fill it because they can’t be put outside until the bees are gone. Her stomach rumbles as she toddles past to the breakfast table.
“Egg?” Mother hovers a shallow spoon over her plate with an expectant look. “Daddy,” she says, “pass her the toast.”
“Egg, yes, thank you.” She treats her mother as politely as waitstaff, which is all the woman ever wanted when the girls were growing up. Not help, just: respect. Hard-won when your kids know your weak spot.
Water under the bridge, she thinks, feeling out of context and free. She shed this place like a snake skin when she left for college and never really came back. It’s no longer a part of her but a remnant, like a neat scar.
Her fingers ache and stiffen, but she forces them clumsily around the fork and refuses to look.
Ignores the tiny
darn, there’s more
that pops into her head.
She stabs the yolk of the poached egg and watches it run over her toast. She glances up to see Mother watching Daddy eat. Mother has the sugar bowl in both hands, clamping the lid down with one and cradling the bottom in the other, and gives it one deliberate, emphatic shake. She doesn’t even know she’s doing it, so ingrained is the gesture. Does anyone else give their sugar bowl such a violent jostle before dishing out a spoonful? Does anyone else dread clumping crystals as Mother does?
“Today is going well,” Mother says, in the middle of an imaginary conversation with no one in particular. Shake. “Considering. I think it’s going to be a beautiful day. Have you heard from Charlie?” she asks Calliope, who’s just slipped wordlessly into her chair at the table.
“Don’t,” Cal says. She helps herself to a grapefruit half and takes the sugar bowl right out of Mother’s hands. “I’m this close to losing it,” she says, but she looks showroom-fresh as always, rested and subtly tanned. She snaps at her sister, “Are you going to shave your legs?”
“I hadn’t thought about it,” the hairy-legged sister fibs, startled by Cal’s prescience. Her nostrils flare, and several more interesting smells hit her at once.
Passing Cal a piece of toast Cal won’t eat, Mother says, “Once we get the bees sorted, everything will be perfect,” and receives a snort in response.
The daughter who’s already eaten her toast thinks about all the exterminations deemed necessary this week. She says, “This place is turning into a slaughterhouse.”
“Oh, come on.” Cal rolls her eyes.
“Please,” Mother says.
“Bees, bugs, rodents,” she ticks off a sluggish tongue. “Hey, remember the rabbits? When Cal and I were small?”
Mother acts like she doesn’t. The daughter who remembers can still see the ravaging their mother’s vegetables took that year, and their mother’s tearful rage at every ruined plant, and the un-cute reality that in no way resembled a Peter Rabbit storybook.
(“You like your tomatoes and raspberries and spring peas, or do you prefer those damn bunnies?” Daddy asked rhetorically as he tried to remember which shelf held the box of birdshot. The sisters had ultimately preferred the tomatoes; the rabbits were mangy, flea-bitten, angry little thieves. They felt the blood on their hands, even so.)
Thinking of rabbits makes her flanks itch, and she scratches and scratches until Cal snaps at her to stop. Her ears twitch at the talking and dishes clanking and feet on floorboards. Were they always so loud?
Calliope isn’t diverted from her sister’s appearance. “Have your eyes always been so brown?”
“What a question!” their mother answers for her.
But Cal has more. “Can’t you do something about your ears?”
She’s tried for several days to explain her growing trouble, but each time she’s accused of being dramatic. There’s no point in trying again. She blinks, abashed.
“I’ve always admired your ears, Anna,” Daddy says to the daughter with the unacceptable ears. He winks. “You’re far too pretty for a funeral.”
Anna is his wife’s younger sister, and aunt and niece do—or did—look alike, more than the mother and daughter, people have said.
“Nestor, that’s your daughter, not Anna.” Mother’s eyes shine as she explains, “Your other daughter, Calliope, is getting married today.”
“Oh.” It’s obvious he’s confused. He goes back to dismembering his grapefruit. Then he asks, “Then who are we burying?”
“We’re not burying anyone!” That’s the good pepper from Mother. “The aviarist should be here by now,” she says, calm once more, changing the subject.
Is Cal bringing in doves? But no; uncontrollable cloacae are not her sister’s wedding style. “Apiarist?” she asks. “You mean a beekeeper?”
“Obviously that’s what I meant.” Mother looks at her wristwatch, because she still wears a wristwatch, a delicate rose gold thing her own mother gave her for her eighteenth birthday. “Where is he?”
They’re cutting it close with the wedding ceremony set for four, but the bees are a last-minute problem discovered only yesterday.
On cue, there’s a knock at the kitchen door. They all jump except Daddy. Mother pushes back from the table to go answer it, detonating a cryptic sigh that could be relief or annoyance or gas.
They hear voices from the kitchen, and Mother comes back with the bee guy, who’s still wearing a backpack and a repurposed tool belt and a battered straw hat he hasn’t removed indoors as a gentleman does. His face is so tanned, the recently brown-eyed daughter thinks, it’s age-indeterminate. She wonders what further bag of tricks he might’ve left outside.
Cal offers him coffee, and Daddy kicks out a chair from the table. The bee guy declines both with a headshake and a smile.
Mother, however, cuts to the chase. “How long will it take to kill the bees? We have a lot of setting up to do yet, and they’re very aggressive.” Said with palpable disapproval.
“I don’t kill them!” the bee guy exclaims with equally palpable disapproval. “I lure them away. I’m the Pied Piper.” Maybe to soften his lecturing vibe, he winks at the daughter who’s trying not to scratch her fuzzed legs. She’s a wink magnet today.
Mother’s right about the bees being aggressive, though; they look like harmless little honeybees, but they’re territorial and suicidal and mean as wasps.
But who isn’t? she thinks.
“Let’s get to it,” Mother says. Gesturing at the remains of breakfast, she says to the daughter not getting married, “Be a darling and clear this?”
“But my hands.” She holds them up to illustrate how suddenly inadequate she’s become.
Irritated, Mother rolls her eyes.
The bee guy follows Mother out the back door to see the fiends threatening to muck up Calliope’s wedding. Daddy trails. Cal mumbles something about the caterer and heads toward the front door while she taps out urgent messages on her phone.
For the moment, the house is quiet. She’s alone.
She doesn’t mean to wind up in the formal living room with all those flowers, but she does. They’re beautiful. They’re irresistible, like a pastry or a drug or a kiss.
Before she knows it, several of the flowers are destroyed or disappeared—eaten halfway down the stem, even the roses. Cherry blossoms right off the branch. Hydrangea puffs emptied, their tiny dismembered bits littering the carpet.
Golly, she thinks.
How much money just went into her stomach, she thinks.
Would it matter, she thinks, if she ate just a few more of the columbines. A buttercup or two. Consider the name, buttercup: It’s delectable.
And then she thinks, no one saw me.
But the damage is done, there’ll be no hiding it. And they’ll know it was her. Daddy might have taken the fall, except he’s hovering around the Congress of the Bees.
She doesn’t want to be here when Cal discovers the damage to her wedding regalia, so she makes her sly, laborious way out the back.
It’s a thick, sun-kissed morning that feels vibrant green, contrasting with the (guilt-perfumed and watchful) fever-yellow rooms inside. She gulps a lungful of heat and new-mown grass. She knows the property with her eyes closed, so ingrained are its paths and corners and plots and hollows.
Maybe it’s the occasion, but she recalls viscerally Levi’s handsomeness. She figures in retrospect it’s why, succumbing to impulse, she married him. She never did get around to dragging him to the old homestead. They both traveled for work, excuse enough, and figured they’d get around to it “down the road.” She can’t remember where his folks live, or whether they knew of the marriage; he never introduced her to his people, either. She can’t remember if she contacted them after Levi’s desertion, or if maybe some bureaucratic mechanism did the job.
He had a decent career photographing far-flung locales for various travel glossies. Mountains and rivers and skies and reefs and suns risings and suns setting—nature fetishized, tamed. The descriptor of his work that comes to her mind is efficient. She’d flown to the island to meet up with him on what turned out to be his last shoot. There was a new-moon night and a stunning comet, then innuendo and superstition and Levi gone. She was left with exotic flora and an empty tent. And she was relieved, in a way. After a couple months they both wanted out, in a low-grade fashion, though not badly enough to do anything about it. His disappearance had made the back pages here and there, but there wasn’t much of a story in “man swims, drowns.” Not if you weren’t famous.
“Humans are background in my spreads,” he informed her when they met: decorative, inoffensive, anonymous set-dressing. His pet project—the pictures that meant something to him—was livelier. His career was a pet project, but Levi nevertheless had another nestled inside it. The first time she went home with him, he showed her a portfolio of faces: stark and unlovely grimaces and sneers and snarls, scowls and frowns.
These are very convincing, she said, tracing finger over one woman’s arched upper lip, the tip of one protruding tooth.
They should be, he said. He closed the book in her hands and slid it out of her grip. Gently, decisively, like he did everything. The whole interlude should’ve annoyed her silly, but it didn’t. He was so very handsome.
Instead she asked, “How do you make them angry?”
He wouldn’t tell. Trade secret, he said. “Maybe I’ll do you one day.” It had been a tease, but also a challenge.
She doubted it. She was sure there was nothing in her to be mined, though she decided to let him discover that for himself.
But they ran out of time. After the second day on location wrapped, he went night swimming on his own, bravura that was really just showing off. She’s sure she tried to talk him out of it. And afterwards, well. That comet—while beautiful—was just a comet. Everyone there wanted so much for it to mean something, to be linked, to signify hidden depths, because they couldn’t conceive of Levi being gone for no cosmic reason at all.
The crew called in the disappearance, wrangled the report and supplied what details there were. She didn’t have to do anything.
“You’ve been touched by otherworld,” the lead producer told her through fat, angry tears, spitting otherworld like it was a known enemy who’d bested her before. The lead producer had worked with Levi many times, and clearly loved him.
She didn’t know what to say to otherworld, so she mumbled, “Thank you,” feeling inane. Her ankles were constellated with sand-flea bites.
Sometimes she likes to think Levi and his pet producer had manufactured his death so they could run off together. A romantic picture, even with herself omitted.
She’s tried to be comforted by the egalitarian, indifferent ways life might be hard or unfair.
It’s a long walk down to the trees, backwards through the arch and the lane between white folding chairs. She finds Mother and the bee guy watching a sluggish mound through a column of smoke rising from an apparatus that looks like a cross between an accordion and a coffee urn, with an old wheelbarrow for its base. Mother looks up as she approaches, and she appears to have been stung under one eye, the swelling creating a jaunty twinkle that’s very misleading.
The daughter who’s feeling sorry for the bees watches the smoke, feeling as disoriented as the insects. A few of the more stalwart bees mill around, but the bee guy, with a fistful of long juniper sprigs and an aluminum pie plate, ignores them.
The swarm swirls in its own pattern without really dispersing. Their electric hum swells. When the wind changes, the bees reform on the lilac branch and hunker down. Mother takes an unsteady step back, and who could blame her.
“Don’t you just … kidnap the queen?” Mother says loudly to the bee guy, who ignores her and watches the smoke. “This isn’t working.”
“Par for the course!” Cal calls, marching toward them with a denuded stem held between her thumb and forefinger like it’s something rotten. She pins her sister with an opaque look.
The sister who ate the flower averts her gaze.
Mother, oblivious, says, “We’ve never had trouble with honey bees before,” and it’s also obvious that she wants the bee guy to feel he has some culpability in this.
“So I’ll have wedding bees,” Cal says with a bark of laughter. “Maybe they can replace the massacre inside.”
“What?” Mother snaps into focus.
Daddy’s drawn to the action now, too, armed with the old .22 he used on the garden-pilfering bunnies and a few seasons of corn-picking pheasants and the squirrels who dig at the daffodil and tulip bulbs every single fall.
He announces, “We sure do have a pest problem.” He’s very chipper about it, though.
“Are you going to shoot them?” Cal asks with a wry motion toward the smoky cloud of bees—which seems a dangerous gesture with Mother and the bee guy in there, too.
“Pert,” their father reprimands, not Cal but the daughter who hasn’t spoken.
Why not, the silent daughter thinks. Pert. It’s an epithet he’s always loved, and that love, unlike the love he felt for his family, has lasted as his brain becomes a soft cheese. She’s pert like the two-in-one shampoo/conditioner. Though that’s not what he means.
“Come closer,” he murmurs to her, and she allows him to scratch her ears before tottering backwards out of reach.
“Was it you?” Cal asks her sister, holding up a bent and stripped tea-rose stem like a visual aid. She’s calm, but in this moment Levi would’ve had a perfect subject. “Did you wreck my flowers?”
“Oh, darling, you didn’t,” Mother moans, glancing from the accused to the flower and back. Now two perfect subjects. “How could you be so mean?”
She finds her mouth has been slyly reconstructing. She wants to speak, but her tongue and teeth and palate refuse to form the words I didn’t mean to.
“This day has to be perfect,” Daddy says, recalling something correctly for once, though he’s matter-of-fact rather than angry. “You should run off now, little thing,” he then advises the daughter whose velvety ears he’s just scratched, examining the gun as if he’s just remembered it. “It’s a shame to kill something so pretty, but.” He doesn’t say the words that come after “but.”
“Is that even licensed?” Mother asks in a hushed voice, looked around as if someone with a citation book might be hiding in the azaleas, ready to spring. “Aren’t there seasons for these things?”
“I don’t need a license, dammit, this is my property.”
“Nes …” wheedles Mother.
“My property to defend!” he bellows, no doubt channeling some earlier memory. Or a movie he once saw.
“Dad, no!” shouts Calliope, looking ferocious and fed up—more wedding jitters, no doubt.
The daughter who’s rapidly changing doesn’t stay to hear the tribunal’s final decision on whether it’s necessary to shoot flower-eating vermin. She doesn’t stay to tell them season and license aren’t really the point, afraid they’ll disregard the information as biased and therefore suspect. She thinks Calliope’s on her side, but she’s taking no chances.
These scattered thoughts sprint with her into the trees as her limbs figure out how to move in accord again. She slows up and stops in the dark canopy once she realizes no one’s behind her. The pain of adrenaline dump is crippling, and she doesn’t know if that’s more human or deer.
Like her hearing and sense of smell, her eyesight is sharper now. Statue-still she watches from the airless green until Daddy wanders off, probably forgetting who he meant to shoot and why. Her emerging angles and the low branches and brambles plucked her clothes to tatters, strip by strip, bright bits of cloth that birds and squirrels will use to build their nests. She remembers that Mother once had Daddy poison the silly little robins who built their nest over the kitchen door.
Mother and Calliope haven’t followed Daddy, but have gone back instead to watching the bee guy’s smoke fail to lull the bees enough for him to convey them far from this all-important event. The bee guy doesn’t care at all about the bees right now, though; he only has eyes for the dotty fellow with the gun.
She doesn’t move for fear of giving herself away. She perks up her ears, listening for clues as to their intentions, but her family’s still talking about the bees. The bee guy, it seems to the daughter who’s hiding, looks ready to bolt, too, a sudden move that might not be smart.
She feels like a worn-in deer, no freshly minted doe. (Thought in Mother’s voice.) Here fleas, there mats, gashes from branches, and—could it be?—a tick. She wonders if she can give the tick to Calliope, then feels like a beast for thinking it. Calliope doesn’t deserve a deer tick. She deserves pretty flowers and decent weather and nicer bees.
Mother, fed up with his ineffectuality and aware that time’s dwindling away, demands of the bee guy, “Do have a professional certification?” and before he can answer, “You really don’t kill them?”
He looks horrified, it seems to the daughter who watches from the trees, and then his mouth stretches into a thin line. “No, no, ma’am. I’m not an exterminator.”
“Then we’re done here,” Mother snaps. She takes Cal’s arm, saying, “I have some pest poisons in the barn. Where did your father get to?”
“God knows,” Cal mutters. “We’d better find him. I wish I’d known before we planned all this.” She doesn’t say what she wishes she’d known.
Mother makes no reply, but even from the trees it’s obvious she’s close to tears again. She notices the bee guy still standing there. “Gather your equipment and leave. Send me your bill.”
Which doesn’t seem altogether on the up-and-up to the daughter who’s watching, or to the bee guy. He doesn’t move, like he’s thinking of how to explain something. She’d like to beckon him into the trees, tell him not to waste his words, but she’s afraid to move, with Daddy still tramping around with that .22.
She hopes suddenly that Cal never wishes Charlie would disappear and he doesn’t, or wishes he wouldn’t disappear and he does. If she could figure out how, she’d make it her wedding toast. She tried to express something like it during the first night of her visit, during unpracticed sister-bonding over drinks (like you see in fiction, but awkward in real life), the sweet spot of Calliope’s “I’m getting married!” euphoria and before the final-stretch wedding insanity. But she couldn’t make Cal understand. Partly because they were both sloshed, and partly because Cal didn’t know about Levi.
Her neck hurts, and words like growth and sore and protuberance scroll through her brain as it swells. Her fingers are hard and stiff and unrecognizable. She bends and scratches her flank against a tree to calm the itch from the tick bite.
Maybe catching the shake of the leaves, Cal’s gaze comes her way, and it’s hard to say if their eyes really lock, or if Cal’s just scanning her direction. Calliope’s face is raked by sunlight and so impossible to read.
“Do I have to do everything myself?” Daddy hollers from nearby, loud enough to send a wave of finches out of the dogwoods. He probably doesn’t realize the sentiment historically belongs not to him but to Mother.
The daughter whose heart is growing feral feels the organ’s beat pause, then surge.
Cal sprints over the grass to head off their father, who stalks forward brandishing that old cannon.
He fires a shot into the air, accidentally or on purpose, it’s impossible to tell. This is just what’s needed to unfreeze the bee guy, who runs into the trees without bothering with his equipment or his budding argument with Mother.
“Daddy!” Cal admonishes, one hand on the old man’s shoulder, the other pushing the barrel up. She calls over her shoulder, “For hell’s sake, Mom, why haven’t you gotten rid of this thing? Take it and put it somewhere out of the way! What if Charlie shows up in the middle of all this nonsense?”
Mother, brittle to cracking, accepts the gun and heads toward the pasture like the thing is a live snake.
So engrossed is the watching daughter, she misses her brain’s frantic signals warning her to attend to the crashing approach upon her hiding spot.
It’s the bee guy, surprised but pleased. “Don’t bolt. I never hurt a woman,” he says, panting in exertion and fear but still a friend of nature, “or a deer, either. We can go together, quiet, look out for each other?”
“I can’t, I’m the maid of honor,” she says, though she’s not sure that’s true anymore.
He just looks at her. Maybe she didn’t say the words, maybe they only flow so easily anymore in her mind. How long that will last, she can’t guess. He mutters, “These Craigslist jobs never work out—”
She can’t tell if this is an attempt at (gallows?) humor. Like Mother, she wonders if he really knows about bees.
A crash and a bang and shouts, still close.
Maybe she can leave after all. They move, as noiselessly as a bee wrangler and a woman-who’s-not-quite-yet-a-deer-but-getting-there-she-fears can move. Her mind still feels like hers, but she isn’t optimistic. She isn’t much worried, either, which might be an upside.
The bee guy doesn’t seem to mind her abnormality, or lack of stimulating conversation. Her mouth won’t really let her talk at all now, but the bee guy seems happy enough to provide her side along with his.
“I’m going through a change, too,” he says, as if they were already discussing it.
There’s an implied conversation, she thinks, so maybe it’s not so highhanded. Handed. Calliope’s shorthanded without her, though the aunts and cousins should be arriving soon, so maybe not. Maybe they can knead Daddy into something presentable, for Cal’s sake. Underhanded. Maybe they can just sedate him, and Cal can walk him down the aisle. She’s becoming unhanded.
“I believe reality holds endless vicissitudes—you’re surprised a humble apiarist uses this word?—vicissitudes we rarely notice, because we’re engrossed in our own.” He doesn’t explain what change has hold of him. Instead he says, “The bees are changing, too. You see how angry they are? They don’t have our human adaptability.” He winks at her for the second time since they met. “And now they’re out of balance.”
She wants to believe him, that what’s happening to her—well, these things happen. Everyone’s out of balance, you’re not special. It doesn’t matter. He has green eyes, the whites a bit jaundiced to make them almost amber, not unlike a deer’s. Whatever else, their needs dovetail perfectly in this moment.
(And Levi? Did their needs simply split like a branch or a road?)
The bee guy reaches into his pocket, and she stiffens with the new wariness that’s part of her remodeling. He holds a little fluty pipe the way a woman holds a cigarette.
He says, “I want to know what has the bees so unbalanced. I want to talk to them, before the lady finds her insecticides.” And though she’s made no reply, he demands, “You don’t think they’ll talk with me?” He shows her the maker’s mark on the instrument, a slender and florid etching, and she makes out the words: honeysuckle tone.
She wishes she could tell him she’s suspended all judgements and beliefs at this time.
He puts the pipe to his lips and blows. Despite his apparent effort, she hears nothing from the instrument. After some time, she becomes aware of the swarm nearby, a faint hum that surges to a crescendo as the bees get closer.
He stops blowing. “You see. I told them to follow us.” She looks a question at him, which he seems to understand. “To safety.”
Safety? What does he think that word means? She wants to correct him, tell him there is no safety, no us—just movement and temporary dovetailing. But the limits of their unspoken communication have been reached.
They’re almost at the break where the highway cuts the trees, just a few yards from the long drive that leads up to the house. A convoy of caterer’s vans is just now turning one by one up the road. She and the bee guy stop well back in unspoken accord, to avoid being seen. Maybe all that nice food, she thinks, will make up for the wrecked florals and the uninvited insects and Daddy’s premature sundowning and the MIA maid of honor whose hooves won’t fit into her dyed-to-match wedding shoes anyway.
She looks back up the rise, and above the trees there’s a trickle of smoke, sooty and not so festive, the last of the smoke from the bee guy’s accordion-coffeepot apparatus. She hopes he returns for his tools, maybe steals them back in the night. Mother will stow them somewhere hard to find so they don’t mar the weddingscape.
Maybe Levi didn’t mean to leave, didn’t want to leave. Maybe the comet was otherworld; maybe he went through his own unexpected transformation and left as the comet they all saw, no chance to explain or say goodbye.
“The coast is clear,” the bee guy murmurs like the lead in a mediocre detective film. “We can cross now, before more cars come.” He puts the pipe to his mouth and resumes his soundless siren song. The swarm’s hum swells again, or maybe she’s imagining it.
She tries and fails to worry about where they’re going and what’s next, how complete her change will be, how permanent. She wishes she’d eaten all of the flowers while she had the chance. They sprint across the wide lanes of pavement, and back into the trees on the other side. She easily beats the bee guy across. She assumes the bees are following, though she doesn’t know what their plans are, either.
All phenomena are explainable, she thinks, breaking trail for both herself and the bee guy through low branches and thick undergrowth. When we don’t know enough about something unusual to comprehend it, to name it, we decide it’s reality, not us, that won’t bend. And then maybe we shoot it, or maybe we run away. This moment is a vivid reminder, though, that explainable and explained sometimes run in close parallel without curving to intersect.
A shot report echoes at the backs of the deer-woman who runs away and the want-ad apiarist who runs with her. Was Mother’s confiscation across the pasture not far enough, or is this something else? There’s another report, then another, but the last is a distant and retreating boom.
Sara Beitia lives and writes in the Gem State, which is really the “Famous Potatoes” state like it says on the license plates. Her first novel was selected for YALSA’s 2011 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults list. Find her online at www.sarabeitia.com (you may have to brush asides some cobwebs).
Published March 2018, Shimmer #42, 6100 words