The Type of Bite that Stings

 

When the beehive fell onto our front porch, I told Cecily not to look at it. She asked why, and I replied because I said so, and then she looked out the door window anyway and said, “It’s a broken home, just like ours.”

I don’t know why Cecily thought our home was broken. Our plumbing works, although sometimes the toilet upstairs only flushes if you hold down the handle for one whole minute, and the third stair up to the attic creaks so loudly you can hear it from outside. Sometimes our gutters get swamped with leaves and don’t drain the water from the roof, but other than that our house is clean and charming and looks like it could be catalogued on the front of Woman’s Weekly, just like Mom always likes it to be. She obsesses over every detail, makes sure the pillows are fluffed and the couch cushions turned over every week. Cecily says that’s because she wants to impress the ladies from the Church Women’s Literature Club, but I think all the cleaning is because Mom listened when I listed the health benefits of weekly dusting and cushion-flipping. Cecily insists otherwise, but Cecily is also fifteen, and that means everything is shitty and nothing makes sense to her anymore except her obsession with Terry Jacks.

So I was patient when I said to Cecily, “But our plumbing works.”

“It’s an expression,” Cecily snapped. “God, you don’t get anything, Ruby.”

“I get lots of things,” I countered. Because I did. I knew exactly how many paces it took to walk from my room to hers. I spent one whole day walking back and forth, stepping one foot right against the other, toes brushing heels. I knew exactly how many chocolate chips went into my pancakes every morning, got up ten minutes early just to pick ten— a nice, even number— out for Mom to drop into the batter. I also knew that the only broken thing in our house was the upstairs toilet.

I didn’t tell Cecily, but I kept worrying all day. Not about the plumbing. I worried about the bees in their hive. I closed my eyes and imagined them, small black and yellow bodies with big, beady obsidian eyes, skulls the size of my pupil in the bright Tennessee sun during what the weatherman was calling the hottest heat wave of 1974, their small heads dizzy with wonders of why their home was suddenly on the ground instead of hovering seven feet above it.

I worried about the bees that had already left the hive in search of a flower field, if flowers were even still blooming in this dry heat. I thought of them flying back, pollen sacs bulging from spindly black legs, only to find their home was destroyed. Would the queen bee let the workers take off for a day? I thought of myself coming back from school, my backpack filled to the brim with homework and books, only to stop at a house suddenly destroyed. Would I still have to do my homework if I didn’t have a desk to write on? Would I still have to work out long division on my math sheet and hand it in tomorrow morning if I didn’t have a bed to sleep in?

I worried about all of this throughout the entire day, all while frequently checking on the hive on our front porch. I overheard Mom telling Dad that he had to do something about it when he got back from his business trip. I think she said something about matches and fire, and when I told Cecily that night that Mom wanted to burn the hive, she just shrugged.

“But that’s their home,” I said.

“They’ll build another one,” Cecily told me. She had plastic rollers in her hair and still had the smudges of eyeliner along her waterline. She stared at the stacks of books in my small hands, so tall it reached up all the way to my collarbone. All of them were old and outdated and all of them had ‘bee’ written somewhere on the spine and cover. I was already halfway through one of them.

“Mom told Dad to do it once he’s back,” I said to Cecily. “What if he gets stung? He’s allergic to bees.”

“Dad deserves it.” Cecily cut out the face of one of the girls pictured in her magazine and put it in a pile of other faces. “He’s sleeping with Aunt Laurie, you know.”

I did know that. I was the one who told Cecily after I looked out my bedroom window and saw Auntie Laurie guiding Dad’s hand up the skirt of her dress after Thanksgiving last year. I don’t think he meant for it to happen, though, because he pulled his hand away and stumbled back so fast that he kicked over the empty milk crate Mom set outside for the milkman. He opened her car door and Auntie Laurie slammed it so hard that the whole car shook before she drove off in a hurry, tires squealing like baby piglets.

“But he’ll die,” I said. “And the bees haven’t done anything.” I read that in one of the books, the one I was already halfway through. Bees only sting when provoked. There was more, and suddenly, I felt the inexplicable urge to tell Cecily everything I knew. I wanted to show her all that I had read, already, in only one afternoon. I wanted her to see how I absorbed words and chapters until my brain was heavy in my head, pulsing with a headache, my skull feeling as if it was being split at the seams.

But I knew she wouldn’t get it. Weird, she’d say. You’re weird, Ruby. They’re just bees. But this happened sometimes. The fixations, the obsessions, and I could never explain why certain things grabbed my interest like a fly getting caught in the sticky paper Dad hangs from the porch during Fourth of July barbecues. All I knew was that the bees wanted nothing to do with me, but I wanted everything to do with them.

“He can’t destroy the hive,” I said again. “He’ll die.”

He’ll die. He’ll die. Suddenly, I couldn’t think past that idea. My mind latched onto the words like fingers scrabbling onto rock, the consequences of the hive being destroyed and our father being stung as terrifying as the hard ground beneath a cliff’s edge.

Cecily cut out the eyes the girl she clipped out of last month’s issue of Tiger Beat Magazine, the subscription that she begged Mom for last birthday. She cut slowly and carefully until she had a perfect mask of Ali MacGraw, smiling with snow-white teeth. She held the cut-up face in front of her head, stared at me through the empty eye-holes, and said, “There are worse things that have happened in the world, Ruby.”

§

Scientists say that bees speak through movement. This language is especially prominent when the worker bee needs to tell her fellow flower-finders where a good source of pollen is. They give these directions by dancing.

It’s called the waggle dance, and it’s when a worker bee will scramble along the bottom of the hive, making figure eights over and over while wiggling her body to show other worker bees just how far away the flowers are. The more she wiggles her bottom, the farther away it is. It’s more complex than that, of course, but that isn’t really the point. The point is that bees speak to each other through dancing, and that means that every conversation is a party, fun and filled with the music that comes from their buzzing little fuzzy bodies.

I think of the waggle dance when Uncle Roy comes over because Uncle Roy dances like a bee dances; steps a lot in the same pattern and gyrates his hips in a way that might have been cool in the sixties but is just uncomfortable to look at now. He isn’t really our uncle. He was Dad’s best friend in college and has been coming down from Indiana to visit over every few months or so ever since Cecily turned twelve. I remember the first time he visited. It was Dad’s birthday and I was three days away from turning seven, made up of clumsy limbs and spindly legs, hair that remained always in two stubby pigtails that stuck up on the sides of my head like animal ears. You’re like a monkey, kid, Uncle Roy said when he first saw me, laughing as I jumped up and swung from his arm. Dad pulled me down right away, apologizing and squeezing my wrist so tight I thought my fingers would pop off like little Ruby-finger fireworks. Don’t worry about it, Uncle Roy said, That’s why I’m here, right?

It was why he was there. Mom and Dad were leaving after the weekend and Uncle Roy was the only thing close enough to family to watch us. I was supposed to be extra nice to him because he drove four hours to get here, even took a day off from work to see us. That night, Uncle Roy spent the whole time playing and and bought us popsicles, red and sticky around our mouths and dripping down our knuckles and fingers. I remember Cecily smiled at him with pink-stained teeth and he smiled back, wide as a lion. Mom and Dad left that night, and it was just us three. It was a week full of zoo trips and mini-golf, of ice cream and scary movies, of popcorn that got stuck in the crevices between my teeth. I was the only one who said goodbye to him when he left. Cecily was up in her room, silent and tired.

“I’ll visit soon, Rob,” he promised Dad. And he did. He came for school concerts, for family barbeques, sometimes for no reason at all. Mom said it was okay because Uncle Roy got lonely, all up in Indiana by himself with no wife and no kids, and that we should feel bad for him.

Now, he comes to look at the  hive because apparently his friend back in Ohio is getting into beekeeping, and thinks he needs a new queen bee.

“When the queen dies, the whole hive collapses,” he says to Cecily, leaning over to talk right in her face, and his breath must smell really bad because Cecily looks weird, hands clenched at her sides like if she could scratch her skin off, she might.

I want to tell Uncle Roy that there isn’t any need for a new queen bee because bees will start to mature certain larvae when they think their queen is going to die, and there’s no point in searching for a replacement queen when they can just raise their own with no help at all. I want to tell him to bring his friends some books from the library for him to learn, like I did. But Mom tells Cecily to show Uncle Roy where he’ll sleep before I can even open my mouth, and even though the guest bedroom is right upstairs and Uncle Roy has been to our house many times before, he doesn’t come down for 20 minutes. Cecily doesn’t come down at all, even when I call her down for dinner, which is steamed broccoli and buttered pasta— her favorite.

As I eat, Uncle Roy talks about how the Judiciary Committee is going to be releasing evidence on the Watergate scandal. He calls the Republicans bad words. He talks loud, mouth open so wide I can see the bits of food stuck in the crevices of his teeth. I remember how Cecily once told me she doesn’t like Uncle Roy because he has slimy hands like a snake’s tail and never cuts his nails and that they hurt real bad when they scratch and his teeth feel like the sting of a rabbit that pours venom into her soul.

“Rabbits don’t sting,” I corrected. “They bite.”

“But bites can sting,” Cecily said as if that made her right. She was picking at her cuticles and there was blood under her nails and a bruise near her armpit. She sniffed and told me, “You’re just lucky you’re ugly like a boy, Ruby.”

I look at Uncle Roy’s hands, and he sees me staring and smiles.

When I go upstairs, Cecily is in my room. She’s naked and lying on my bed with no covers on. I stand in the doorway for a second and stare at her. It’s like Cecily took all the pretty in the world— all the summer dandelions and monarch butterflies and magazine models— and swallowed them all whole. That’s how pretty she is. Her skin is glimmering from how the moon shines through my window, her stomach dipping with each exhale, her arms crossed over her chest as if she’s laying in her coffin.

“Why didn’t you want me to look at the hive when it fell?” Cecily asks me suddenly. It scares me because

I thought she was sleeping.

I don’t say anything because I don’t know why I didn’t want Cecily to see the beehive. Maybe I just wanted something to myself. Maybe I thought she would ruin it and tell me bees were stupid anyways so there was no point in being upset over a fallen hive. Or maybe I wanted to protect her from it because Auntie Laurie kept trying to sleep with Dad and Uncle Roy stared at Cecily for too long and I was just ten years old and didn’t know what else to do but not tell her about another broken thing.

I close my door and take my favorite shirt, the bright yellow one Dad got me, with the old man walking across the words ‘Keep on Trucking.” Even though Cecily always said it was a stupid shirt for a stupid comic, she says nothing now, even when she sees the design. I dress her like a doll, slide her arms through the sleeves and pull the fabric over her chest and sit on her shins until she finally moves and lets me lie down beside her in my bed. Every part of me touches her, my shoulder to her shoulder and my elbow to her elbow and my heel to her calf. I fold my arms just like she does, and stare at my ceiling and imagine I’m looking up at my coffin being buried alive.

“Hold your breath, Ruby,” Cecily instructs after a minute. Her voice sounds like an old cricket outside a window, barely making any noise. “You can hear the bees.”

She’s right. There’s a hum in the air, like the sound of the neighbor’s air conditioning, or the soft thrum of the engine of the really expensive foreign cars that Roy says are putting American cars out of business, so subtle you feel it more than you hear it. It rings around me like a big sound cocoon, vibrating against my cheeks and pushing through my skin so it can brush against my ribs and settle in my heart. I wonder if the bees are gathered together in a little bee meeting, all asking the queen how they can move their hive before Uncle Roy gets his snake-tail hands on it. Or maybe they’re singing together in mourning of the home they lost. “What do you think they’re saying?” I finally ask when I can’t hold my breath for any longer.

Cecily doesn’t answer, which I guess I deserve because I didn’t tell her about my reasons for wanting to hide the beehive from her. Instead, she turns on her side and looks at me with her nose pressing into my cheek and says, “There’s something I need to tell you.”

§

Cecily told me that his fingers curled up inside her like a worm. I pictured all the worms that I put in our flower pots and wondered if the flowers felt the same way that Cecily did. She said it hurt real bad, like a stapler putting metal into her skin over and over again, and that after a while she felt her body get numb and her mind started to float like the bees do. Her spirit latched free from her body and she drifted out the window to the beehive and all the bees crowded around her ghost, like she was a fully pollinated flower, only they didn’t rip her to shreds and taste her and feed on her and leave her all shriveled up to die.

Bees are gracious and caring creatures, and Cecily said that they know what it’s like to have something so precious stolen over and over again. All they do their whole lives is make honey only to have it taken from them so we can mix it in our tea and spread it over our toast. That’s why they saw her hurt and recognized her misery as fast as they’d recognize a flower. They sang to her while she watched her body be violated, and whenever she felt like throwing up and choking on her own vomit so she could die, they walked over her eyes with needle-thin legs and cooled her with the wind from their wings. Cecily said that their wings felt like plastic feathers and were as warm as the sidewalk on a hot day. They carried her on their fuzzy yellow-striped backs and showed her the broken honeycombs and the starved larvae and the dying queen, still and resting. Cecily told me that the bees know they’re going to die and they’re okay with it. But they still have some things to do first.

Cecily whispered, “They say that death feels like honey. Warm and thick and sticky.”

I squeezed my shoulders tight and felt a lump grow in my throat and took a deep, shaky breath before I held it again and kept listening. I started to hum along with the bees. They sang a song of despair and I imagined they were listening to Cecily, too, and that they were trying to fly up to my room to cradle her soul again. The sound filled my bedroom and made my ears ring and I closed my eyes and felt warm tears slip down my cheeks and into my ears and onto my pillow. I thought back to the kitchen this morning, my mouth open and waiting, words teetering over the edge of my lips. I felt too hot and sticky with salt and secrets. Cecily’s words weighed down heavy on my chest, but it was what I knew about the bees that hurt most of all. Roy would be looking for a new queen tomorrow, and I wouldn’t tell him that he needn’t have come here in the first place. I would let his greedy, snake-tail hands plunge into decaying honey and when he came inside later that evening, knuckles swollen red with stingers and toxin, I would feel a sense of shameful pride.

That was what I was going to do. But for now, I turned to Cecily and pressed my finger into her cheek, right on top of a tear that was trying to roll down to her chin. Her skin beneath the pad of my finger felt hot and wet and soft, and I never realized how Cecily still had that child-like puff in her face until now.

“That’s why no one comes back alive, Ruby,” Cecily said, holding my hand so it cupped the side of her face. “It’s so sweet that no one even wants to wake up.”

§

The next day I open my eyes to see a bee resting on my nose. I know it’s a girl because only the females leave the hive, while the males remain and mate with the queen all day long. I wonder if this is her first time seeing a human. I wonder if she will go back to her bee friends and tell them how my skin felt and how my nose was warm and tingling. It makes me happy to know that in the bee world, the women are the heroes and rulers. The queen sits in her hive on her throne made of honey and beeswax and sends out all her warrior women to guard her kingdom and all her scavenger women to venture out into the treacherous world all alone. And when they come back they all party and dance with each other and they share secrets, telling each other who tried to attack the hive and where the best flowers are and describing all the silly humans that they passed by. They’ll dance and dance and tell each other stories, and while they feast on honey, the boys look on and realize that all they have to look forward to is sex; they’ll never know what the outside of the hive looks like, what wind feels against their wings and what colors the flowers are.

But then I remember all the bees that are stepped on and smacked against windows with newspapers and squirted with water guns until they drown and I remember that in any world, a female has to fight to survive, whether she’s a bee and lives for ten precious weeks or a human and dies in her sleep at the age of 72. Nature doesn’t let anyone get by easily, especially not a girl.

I blow gently and the bee flies away, wings tickling the tip of my nose, and before I leave my room I open my window and push out the screen, hoping that she gets back home before she’s hit by a newspaper or a shoe.

When I tell Mom about the worker bees, she asks if I want to become a beekeeper. “You can stay with Uncle Roy for a week in Ohio so he can introduce you to his friend,” she suggests while she washes the dishes. I want to say yes because I know I would very much like to meet a real-life beekeeper, but then I remember Cecily and everything she told me last night and I get a spinning feeling in my stomach that makes me nauseous, and I tell her that I’d rather stay home and watch television. She frowns and those wrinkles she hates appear between her eyebrows, creasing her skin like crumpled paper.

Then there’s a scream from the other side of our house near the porch, loud and crackly like radio static. Mom drops the dishes in the sink with an echoing clunk and runs around the kitchen table to the front sitting room, and I follow her. Cecily walks down the steps slowly like a cat, her eyes big and wide as she says, “They’re stinging him.”

Uncle Roy crawls through the front door with a hundred thousand bees kissing his face. I read once that a bee swarm is what happens when a bunch of independent hunters and the queen decide to abandon their hive and find a place to make a new home. They leave and hover in the air like a ball of sound, the queen leading all her women to a fresh, better place. That’s what it looks like is happening now, except Uncle Roy must have tried to capture the queen before they got away.

He was right when he said that bees need a queen to lead the hive. Otherwise, they go crazy and forget how to do their jobs. She is the mother, gently reminding them of their responsibilities while she gives them more sisters to assist with the hive. The bees mist know what will happen if their queen is taken because they attack and attack and attack.

Uncle Roy is on the floor screaming a muffled whine and I watch and wonder if they sting his tongue and crawl down his throat and spit their venom through his veins. Cecily said it felt like that, and I think it’s only fair if he knows what it’s like to be stuck, frozen, while things you don’t want touch you and crawl through you and only leave behind stickiness and fear. Maybe all of the bees are crawling into his ears and screaming their warrior songs and blaming him for all their lost honey and our broken home. Or maybe they’re telling him what they told Cecily about how death is like a warmth you can never get too tired of. Although I don’t like the thought of Uncle Roy feeling a warm, honey-like death, I know females are complex and hard to understand and try to make the pain better because it hurts to harm others, no matter how much you think it doesn’t.

I think Uncle Roy cries, but the bees buzz too loudly for me to be sure and Mom screams into the telephone for an ambulance so much my ears start to ring— I want to tell her that screaming won’t make them come any faster— and then there’s a sound that is like a gurgle and a choke, and then nothing. I feel bad thinking it, but I wish he stayed alive longer. Often, the people who make us suffer  most are the ones who deserve an eternity of bee stings as hard and painful as rabbit bites, and even more often, that’s not what they get. They get three minutes of buzzing in their ears and then a soft, empty silence.

There is not only one dead body on my front porch. I kneel down and see little bee bodies, their lower abdomens gone and ripped up, connected to the stingers that are embedded in Uncle Roy’s face. Rarely does it take a warrior’s death to make the world a better place, but I look at the wooden floorboards and count 67 bee corpses, and I think that maybe the world is 67 times better now, with Uncle Roy dead.

The rest of the day is a haze of police sirens and tall, fat men with tan uniforms and shiny badges and cowboy hats asking me questions and Mom crying in the corner, blowing her nose into a silk handkerchief. They don’t ask Cecily anything because she lies and says she was sleeping when it happened, and they let her sit by the window overlooking the porch as a woman covers Uncle Roy with a light blue tarp, hiding him from the Tennessee sun. I tell every police officer that I didn’t know if Uncle Roy was allergic to bees but I was pretty sure that 67 bee stings could kill anybody. They ask me how I know he was stung 67 times and I talk about how I counted the bee corpses right after he died. Then I ask them if they know that the reason bees die after they sting someone is because they have to rip apart their organs and digestive intestines in the process of leaving their stinger behind, and they just frown.

I sit with Cecily after they leave and we are all alone. Mom went with the police officers to fill out paperwork and whatever other forms a dead person needs someone to sign so that their soul can be released. Outside, the bees sing, uninterrupted and unbothered by the chaos on our front porch and the dead man who once lay atop it.

“Do you think they’ll show his body for the wake?” I ask her. Dad says that when someone has an allergic reaction their whole body puffs up like party balloons, and their limbs get filled with pus and spoiled blood and all other gross stuff. I think that 67 times of an allergic reaction is enough to make a person pop like a blister.

Cecily shrugs. “I don’t think so,” she says to me. “It would be too disturbing. He probably looks lumpy, like spit-out gum.”

I nod and something buzzes in my ear. I look down. On my shoulder, a lone bee crawls, its legs getting stuck on the pulls of my cotton shirt. I let it crawl on my finger and then give it to Cecily, who cups its little body in her palm and holds it up to her ear. I think the bee says something to her because she starts to cry and I lean over her to open the window. Slowly, like she’s cupping her very own beating heart, she holds out her hand. The bee skips around Cecily’s hand in fast, little steps, her body moving so fast it’s vibrating in a blur, and I want to think that she’s telling us where to find her next. It looks far away, up and down, all the way from Cecily’s veiny wrist to the knuckle of her thumb, but bees are small and delicate, and a few human steps might be a hundred miles to them.

“I’m sorry,” I tell Cecily.

The bee lifts into the air and out the window, and from upstairs, another bee joins her. They kiss, plump, hairy bodies bumping into each other, and then they fly away. Cecily leans her head on my shoulder while she sobs silently, and wisps of her muddy brown hair stick to my lips and chin as we watch the bees go.

 


[Author photo Magdalena Deniz]

Magdalena Deniz is a student at Northern Highlands Regional High School in Northern New Jersey. She spends her time spinning in color guard, singing, napping on her best friend’s couch, and reading. This is her first published story. She would like to thank her parents for paying her library late fees, Taylor for the buried seashells and 4 am alarms that bark, and anyone she has ever met for the little pieces of strangers and friends that can be found in all of her stories. Most importantly, she would like to express her immense gratitude to her English teacher, Mrs. Walsh, for the early morning talks, weekend emails, in-depth Harry Potter discussions and fanfiction assignments, and, of course, the never-ending encouragement.