Protected Contact
  Seven Stories by Julie Stielstra
  1  Protected Contact
2  Posthumous
3  Little Deaths
4  Begin with Lilies
5  I Never Saw the Sea
6  The Heron
7  Requeening
  About the Author  |  echapbook.com  |  November 2017 Fiction Issue
 

Requeening

When Raymond walked out to the shed for the weedwhacker, the bees were going crazy.

The hive had been one of Jessie’s last enthusiasms before she left. The bees normally just came and went, purposeful and orderly, tucking themselves in and out of the tiny entrance hole (guarded by sentries, Jess had explained, so strange bees could not get in).

But this was a whirlwind. They poured out like soccer fans whose side had lost. They roared and dripped off the face of the hive. Bee-bullets whistled through his hair. Raymond huddled back against the shed wall and imagined being stung to death.

But the bees paid no attention to him. They billowed along the mangy treeline of cedars and cottonwoods. He watched them teeming in the branches, moving east along the back boundary of his five acres of prairie.

What was the matter with them? Were they leaving? Should he do something? Maybe he should call Jess. Not that she’d pick up.

Jess had lost interest in them months before she left. When she showed up in a rental truck with two guys from work and they started loading furniture, the bees didn’t exactly come up. She’d sworn there wasn’t anyone else, but Raymond thought — from the way she and the tall one called Chris spoke without looking at each other — that if she and Chris hadn’t been in bed yet, they would be soon. The short hefty one called Joe at least had the decency to shake Raymond’s hand as they left, muttering, “Sorry about this, man.” She took their queen-sized bed, the new couch and the dining room set, which she probably felt entitled to because she’d insisted on buying them. And the good, matching dishes and the expensive set of pots and pans he’d bought her for Christmas.

Actually, after a couple of weeks, it wasn’t so bad. It was even kind of a relief, not to worry about pissing her off every minute of the day, to be able to sit in his old recliner and watch a ballgame without her sighing and clashing things in the kitchen because he’d left them in the sink. He went back to sleeping in the old iron bed his folks had slept in for fifty years, and scraping scrambled eggs and Teflon flakes out of the skillet from Woolworth’s. The hell with it. He’d lived alone before, and he’d do it again. The bees minded their own business and didn’t seem to need anything from him. Until now. But he had no idea what to do. He suspected Jess wouldn’t either. But a pest control guy might.

He hesitated. He didn’t want to kill them or anything. But maybe they’d know what a bee-storm was about.

“Sounds like you got a swarm, is all,” said the woman who answered the phone. “Bees do that sometimes. Have they landed anywhere you can see?”

Raymond walked along the treeline, phone in hand. Some bees were still swirling, but more thinly stretched along the trees. He walked, peering up, and then he saw them.

“Wow,” he said. “Look at that! Like a basketball! This big moving ball made of bees!” The woman laughed.

“Yep, that’s your swarm,” she said. “You know what, call Sister Jeanne. She’s at the convent farm just east of you on 56. They keep bees, and I bet she can help you out.”

Sister Jeanne was brisk. She asked if he had a second hive, so they could catch the swarm and put it in there.

“Sorry, no. This was my… my ex-girlfriend’s thing. They’ve just kind of fended for themselves. Why are they doing this, anyway?”

“Sometimes they’re crowded, too many bees for the food available. Sometimes the queen is getting old, so they decide they need a new one, and the old one takes her retinue and leaves. Sometimes she just feels like leaving, and they go. Look, do you want me to just come take them? I’ve got room and we can see how they do.”

“Well, yeah, sure. If they don’t want to be here any more, you might as well.” Nuns would take better care of them than he could.

Half an hour later, a Subaru wagon oxidized to the color of an old beet pulled into the driveway. Raymond waited to see what would get out: billowing robes? Flying white headdress? Instead, a tiny woman in jeans with hair like dandelion fluff, olive green eyes and a face of chamois — creased and velvety. She had to be eighty. She offered a knobbed hand, which he shook carefully. She pulled a big cardboard box, a roll of packing tape and a bedsheet out of the back of the wagon and said, “So, where are these ladies?”

“In a cottonwood over there.” He pointed.

“How high up?”

“Oh, ten, twelve feet, maybe?”

“Have you got a ladder?”

“I do electrical work,” he said. “One thing I got, is ladders. Um, are you going up?”

“Ladders aren’t such a great idea for me these days,” she said. “You okay with going up? I’ll tell you what to do. Got a bee hat?”

Oh hell. Jess had one, a helmet with this veil… God knows where that was.

“No worries. St Benedict provides,” she said. Out of the box came a widebrimmed hat and mesh netting. “Patron saint of beekeepers,” she explained. “You’ll want gloves.”

“We can drive my truck over to them,” he said. “I’ll get the ladder.”

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He backed up the truck so the bed was below the swarm. Sister Jeanne spread the sheet in the bed, then set the open box on top of it. Raymond went up the ladder, peering through the veil and pretending he was fine with this.

“What good bees!” said Sister Jeanne from the ground. “They’re all in one nice clump. Can you bend it down a little, over the box? Now, give it a good shake!”

Good God, shake it? He was going to die. He shook it. A chunk of bees thumped into the box. He shook it again, a good yank, and most of the rest of them fell. He watched, amazed, as the stragglers and flyers around the tree began to head down into the box on their own. He lopped off the branch, came down the ladder and placed it and its remaining occupants in the box.

“Now what?”

“We leave them here a while. The queen should be in the box, and the rest of them will join her. Then we’ll wrap the box up in the sheet and take it over to our place.”

“Why didn’t they sting me? I mean, there I am, up there shaking them and cutting them down. I’d sting.”

“Bees sting to defend their home, and a swarm doesn’t have one. It’s just deciding where to go. Let’s go look at what’s left of your hive.”

The hive had quieted. He heaved the top box off, then one by one, slid the frames up and out of the lower one.

“Ah, look there,” she said. She pointed to several rugged thumbs of comb, like lumpy peanuts in the shell, hanging off the lower edge of the frame. “Queen cells!” Raymond squinted at them through a layer of bees rippling over the frame.

“Your bees are trying to raise up a new queen,” she said. “Those are baby queens in there.”

“Princesses?” suggested Raymond. She laughed.

“Why not? If you’re lucky, one of them will hatch out, grow up and take over. If not, then you need to get a new one or the hive won’t make it. Looks like you’ve got quite a lot of baby drones too.” She showed him the cells capped off like snub-nosed bullets.

“I remember now — Jess told me it was bad to have too many drones. She said they don’t go look for honey, so they weren’t much good for anything… she’d kill them.”

“I figure the bees know what they’re doing,” said Sister Jeanne. “Maybe they need a critical mass of bees to survive. And drones can move: they can move from hive to hive, and they are let in. Helps spread the genes around. I’m rather fond of the drones, myself. Leave them be. You can close it up now. Give them some time, and we’ll see if your hive sets up its own queen.”

“An elected queen?” said Raymond.

“Maybe like a prioress in a convent, then,” she said. “The sisters select their own from among their number.”

“Okay, sisters,” said Raymond. He fitted the lid back on the hive and peeled off the helmet and veil.

They walked back out to the truck under the cottonwood. A handful of bees swung here and there, but the box was seething quietly. They wrapped it up, taped it down, and Raymond followed the Subaru in a plume of gravel-road dust.

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The driveway was a two-track lane, curving back toward a shelterbelt. The stripe of switchgrass and bluestem up the middle stroked and tickled the belly of his truck. Song and lark sparrows wheezed and jingled and a cluster of speckled chickens muttered and scattered when he slammed the truck door. A wall-eyed blue heeler dog emerged from the shade of the porch, pointed its grizzled snout at Raymond and said, “Wuf.”

“Thank you, Dave,” said Sister Jeanne loudly. The dog waved his tail, left right left, then sank back down, dropping his elbows to the floorboards with a thud. “He’s almost sixteen and blind,” she said. “We’ve thought of getting a new pup, but it would hurt his feelings.”

It would not have occurred to Raymond that a dog could have its feelings hurt. He cradled the vibrating box of bees in his arms. “Come on,” she said, “this way.”

In a storage room in the dim barn, Sister Jeanne groped at a light switch sheathed in duct tape and grumbled, “I never remember that switch doesn’t work any more.” She yanked the string on the bare bulb strung overhead on an extension cord. The light blinked and flared reluctantly. A few hive boxes and extra frames were stacked against the wall; warm brown dust shadowed the folds of yellowing overalls hung on hooks. They went out the back barn door into the bee yard. The sun was lowering now, spreading yellow and purple across the sky.

The nuns had four square box hives like Raymond’s, and two more that looked like coffins set on trestles.

“Top bar hives,” Sister Jeanne said, lifting off the lid. “We thought we’d try these. Shall we see if your bees will like one? It’s getting to be bedtime for them now.” They unwrapped the box, and Raymond boldly dumped them into the top of the open hive, whacking the box once or twice. Sister Jeanne swept them onto the top bars with a soft brush, and they vanished obediently down through the gaps. Raymond replaced the lid and stood back, suddenly feeling a little sad that his bees — Jess’s bees — were now someone else’s. Not that anyone owned bees, really.

Sister Jeanne stood with her gloved hands on the lid of the hive.

“May I say a little blessing over your bees?” she asked.

“Sure,” he said. He hung back, head bowed.

“O Lord, God almighty, who hast created heaven and earth and every animal existing over them, may thy holy blessing descend upon these bees and these hives, so that they may multiply, be fruitful and be preserved from all ills and that the fruits coming forth from them may be distributed for thy praise and that of thy Son and the holy Spirit and of the most blessed Virgin Mary. Amen.” She looked up at him and grinned. “I leave out the part about them being put here for the use of men.” Raymond didn’t know what the protocol was here and wondered if he should say amen, but just said thank you.

“You come on back and see them any time you want,” said Sister Jeanne. “We won’t get honey from them this summer, but maybe next year. In the meantime, I’ll give you some of ours.”

The honey was great on vanilla ice cream. It was pretty good in his coffee too.

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He drove up the lane — freshly mowed — a couple weeks later with ladders, tools, and a spool of Romex in the truck. He replaced the switch and the overhead light fixture in the barn. Sister Jeanne clapped her hands in glee over the wall switch. Then he ran some conduit and a row of sockets so they could plug their chick incubators all in their own sockets instead of cramming them all into an old surge protector. Sister Jeanne showed him the new comb his bees had built, graceful catenary curtains that seemed to hang weightless off the top bars. He met Sister Kate and Sister Jenny, and helped Anne, the young woman who lived in a cottage behind the trees, wrench the oil filter off the John Deere. (“I hate this damn tractor,” she confided. “Nothing ever works the first time.”) Afterward, they all sat on the porch drinking dark ale, setting the bottles on the empty cable spool between the deck chairs. The old dog butted his head beneath Raymond’s hand till he fell absently to petting him. The dog sighed and leaned. He went home with a bulging Ziploc bag of fresh peas.

“Freeze them and use them for an ice pack if you don’t like peas,” Sister Jeanne told him. He ate them raw by the handful. And a tiny drizzle of honey made them taste even better when they were boiled.

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A brown thrasher strutted and plucked in the grass under the beehive, picking up dead bees. Thrashers were usually pretty shy birds, Raymond thought. It smelled funny near the hive — maybe it was the sudden hot spell. When he opened it up, the smell was worse: stuffy and rancid. A few bees trailed here and there, but it was too quiet. He called Sister Jeanne, who arrived more quickly than he had expected.

As he held the frame, she dipped a matchstick into a dark cell in the comb, and pulled out a slimy, sticky little string.

“Oh, Raymond,” she said. “You’ve got foulbrood.”

What the hell? Sounded like something from a horror movie.

“It’s bad, Raymond. It’s a bacteria that gets into the hive and kills all the larvae. That’s the smell — the dead larvae.”

“Can we treat it?” She shook her head.

“Bees only live a few weeks. If the larvae all die, there’s no new bees and the whole colony will die. I’m so sorry.”

“So in a couple weeks, they’ll all be dead?”

“Yes. But the thing is, this is infectious. The bees all have this stuff on them now. If they fly off, they’ll infect other colonies, other hives. And as your bees die, other bees will come in and steal the honey, and they’ll pick it up too. The state even requires it… you have to destroy the hive. Burn it.”

“With the bees inside?” Raymond felt a little sick.

“We’ll have to kill them first. Have you got a can of gasoline?”

He did as she said. He plugged the entrance hole with a screwed up wad of rag. He opened up the hive, hoisted the red plastic jug and poured a quart or more down through the frames. The reeking stream washed a few strugglers off the top. Then he clapped the lid back on and went to get a shovel, the hose and a lawn chair.

As Raymond dug and scraped out a pit in the dirt in the little west field, he thought about the gasoline streaming through the honeycomb, melting and scalding and choking his bees. Then he loaded the wet and stinking hive into the wheelbarrow and trundled it out to the pit.

“Don’t put the whole thing in at once,” Sister Jeanne said. “It’ll burn hotter than hell.”

As dark fell, they sat nearby. The fire cracked and spat and snarled, honey and beeswax flared and scorched. Raymond sat on an upturned bucket, elbows on his knees, hands and head hanging. Something light and brittle touched his shoulder and stayed there, patting, patting.

“There is an old tradition that when a beekeeper dies, someone must go and tell the bees, or they will feel abandoned and fly away,” Sister Jeanne said softly in the dark. “I don’t know what you say to a beekeeper whose bees have died.”

“They weren’t mine, anyway,” he said.

“Rest in peace, bees,” she said. “May flights of angels sing you to your rest.”

“Is that a saint’s blessing too?”

“No,” she chuckled. “Shakespeare. Pretty near as good.” He tipped his head back and watched the sweetened sparks spiraling up into the sky. It was a strange thing to think, but he felt he could say it to her: “Maybe those sparks are the souls of the bees.” He saw her turn her face toward him in the firelight, and after a moment she said, “May be.”

He walked her to her Subaru. He hosed and watered the fire till it was just a dark muddy splotch in the dirt. Back in the house, he thought of calling Jess. Instead, he texted her: “Bees got foulbrood. Had to kill them and burn everything.” There was no reply. He had thought she might at least be sorry.

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Maybe a month later he got a voicemail.

“Raymond. This is Sister Jeanne calling. Listen, we’re having a little gathering on Saturday, a cookout. Would you come? To be honest, we’ve got a batch of new hive kits and could use some help putting them together, if you’d be willing. But we’ll feed you! Just come around four… God bless. Bye!”

Dave the dog butted him in the knees when he got out of his truck. He swung his toolbox out of the back and headed through the barn to the bee yard, where Sister Jeanne and Sister Kate and Anne were slicing open the flat packs of hive pieces.

“Hello! The help has arrived!” cried Sister Jeanne.

“Did you move your other hives?” he said, gazing around the empty yard.

She faltered and took his hand.

“We lost them, Raymond,” she said. “We got the foulbrood too.”

“Oh, shit… All of them?”

She nodded. “We couldn’t take the chance.”

“My bees… they had it first. Did my swarm bring it in? And kill all yours too?”

She shrugged.

“Could be. Could be ours picked it up the same way yours did, who knows.”
“Oh, God, I’m sorry! All your bees gone…”

“Raymond, don’t worry. It’s not your fault. We didn’t know.”

He wanted to get back in his truck and go.

“Help us build the new ones. I ordered an extra one, a top bar, in case you want to try again. Annie, get this man a beer, would you?” Anne pulled a brown bottle from the cooler in the shade and handed it to him. Sister Jeanne took hold of Raymond by both elbows and looked up into his face. Then she laughed a little and said carefully, “Drones are always welcome here.”

He laughed and opened the beer and the toolbox.

     
  © Julie Stielstra, 2017

    

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