Bees, Late Summer Afternoon

Bees

She sat and sat and sat. This time, it was a good thing, because she’d actually gotten up out of the the chair by the door and was now sitting outside. Also in a chair by the door, but outside, in a big red Adirondack rocking chair, on a hot afternoon in late summer. Still contemplating absolutely nothing. Not her life, the wrong turns, the many errors of her ways, the what-ifs and the what-if-nots. None of that, no. Contemplating exactly nothing. Losing herself in the nothing, the sameness of sitting day after day paralyzed by indecision, doubt, fear. Looking back on it so very many years later, she saw that she’d actually been experiencing a very advanced form of meditation, a state that she now tried to get to again, never quite succeeding for more than an instant before reality started tugging her back. She remembers it as a period of no-thought, no-self, no-being, just-being. A period of simply being, in a chair, for hours and hours every day, for days and days on end. Ten days. A ten-day at-home meditation retreat, if you will. Years and years before she knew anything about meditation. Mouths of babes and all that. Innocent lamb.

So here’s the thing: sitting like this, outside, in the heat of a late summer afternoon – that time of year when you can taste fall in the air, before the first frost but when the late afternoon breeze already carries a promise of cool evenings and mornings, a hint of the cold, dark months to come, a kiss of hot sunlight surrounded by ice and snow and – her mind was getting away from her now. She drew it back to the moment, this moment of watching the bees, the ones in the sedum flowers at her feet just over the edge of the porch, drunk on nectar, bumbling their way from blossom to blossom, waggling pollen-covered butts as they probed ever-so-delicately the soft, liquid heart of each bloom. This moment of hearing the gentle buzzing of thousands and thousands of honeybees working the marijuana flowers in the distant oat field, those towering eight-foot-tall bright green plants that were no longer hidden among the oats they were interplanted with, oats that, despite the super-fertilization they’d received along with the pot plants, were still a good four feet shorter and, god help us, golden, dwarfed by the lush fullness of the weed. Forty years later, she still doesn’t understand how they got away with it. The Mounties had helicopters, which flew over those fields – everybody’s fields – actually looking for pot. Not once, but all the time. How had they missed this field? This continues to mystify her.

That was the year she’d left for good, though, so she never did see that harvest.

But this moment, this moment of buzzing in those marijuana plants, this peaceful moment of no-self. As she sat, and sat and sat and sat, she noticed something a bit odd. She sat up and took notice. She sat up straighter and peered into the near distance, puzzled. And as she peered, her perspective shifted and it suddenly all made sense. What she had taken for a merely unusual level of enthusiasm in working those marijuana flowers was in fact an actual fucking SWARM, oh my god, they were fucking swarming right under her nose, as in, tens of thousands of bees, maybe hundreds of thousands, as in, a huge dark cloud of worker bees following their banished queen to a new, as-yet-undecided location. Oh, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, SHIT, this can’t be happening! She was on her feet before she knew it, yelling at the top of her lungs as she flew down the driveway in the direction of the swarm: “The bees! The bees are swarming! Down the driveway! Bring a box! I’m following them!” No need for quiet or stealth at this point, the bees being far too busy looking for a place to land to bother with stinging anyone. The only thing needed right now was to keep following them until they landed – which wasn’t so hard right now, the swarm being a big thing, probably a good three feet in diameter with probably a six-foot trailing edge of stragglers like the tail of some landfallen comet. She was gaining on them now, so she slowed up and watched, watched and prayed, prayed that they wouldn’t take it into their little bee brains to just fly off into the woods where they’d be lost forever, praying that she’d in fact noticed the beginning of the swarm and not the end, so they’d just be looking for a spot where they could hang out and wait for the scouts to return with their reports about potential new living quarters. She stopped and held her breath as she watched the swarm swoop and dive as a single organism, just like in a cartoon, watched as, miraculously, they settled, not 40 feet up one of the mature spruces lining the driveway, not on Ken and Anna’s roof where the driveway met the stream, but on a patch of flowering thistles and mullein in the ditch running alongside the driveway. She let out her breath in relief, still panting a little from her mad dash from the house.

By this time Chris had started up the old green 1959 GMC half-ton that they were still driving, the miracle truck that had brought them all the way from Ontario with a hole the size of a dime in one of the pistons, burning more oil than gasoline (how hard could it possibly be? he’d said, right before he took apart the 15-year-old engine and spread the parts out on the floor of the old barn, under which one day they’d find a motherlode stash of vanilla extract bottles, from the boys drinking in the barn to hide it from the wives, right before he took it all apart, piece by piece, before he discovered that no, it really, really couldn’t run on only 5 pistons and yes, it really did take 6 weeks to get a new one, 6 weeks during which they had no vehicle and relied heavily, solely, on the kindness of their new neighbours, borrowing cars and hitching rides to get the many necessities they’d be needing for their first winter – a wood stove, the ducting for it, and the wood to go in it from the sawmill because they couldn’t afford the 10 cords of dried hardwood they’d need to do it right; a giant canning kettle and dozens of jars for all the tomatoes – the one and only time she ever canned tomatoes, after that first time she couldn’t stand the smell of stewing tomatoes, and don’t even get her started on the smell of potatoes cooking in their skins, which they used to make for the pigs when the barn was so, so very cold in the winter, before they got more cows to warm it up, and the sows needed something warm in them so they’d stay healthy enough to produce lots and lots of little baby pigs, tiny pink footballs with feet, with tiny sharp teeth that had to be trimmed so they wouldn’t cut up the sow’s udders, and tiny sharp hooves clattering around the barnyard when they were big enough to let out for a run but not big enough to be sold for “finishing,” the most fun thing there was on the whole fucking farm.)

But the truck. Yes, by this time the old truck had arrived, wheezing but still running, carrying a couple of white hive boxes filled with empty frames of beeswax, which she’d help hammer together over the long, cold winters, now a made-to-order, very attractive new home for all those renegade bees following their queen. By this time, Chris had carefully set one of these hive boxes on the driveway right above where the swarm was now buzzing excitedly with the news of the various homes the scouts had already found. If you got it just right, if luck was on your side and you put the box out before the swarm actually decided on a permanent new location and took off again, they could be persuaded to accept a new hive box as the best new home they could hope for, far less work than actually having to create miles and miles of new honeycomb in the wild. Chris came around from the back of the truck now with the smoker lit and approached the swarm, gently blowing smoke over the bees to calm them. She watched in fascination as the frantic buzzing slowed, turning into something more like a contented purring.

And then, miraculously, a few bees made their way into the box. And back out again to rejoin the swarm. She could see them begin to dance on the outside of the ball of bees. I wish I could speak Bee Dance, she thought, I wish I could understand if they’re telling them to go into the hive. She found herself holding her breath again until, miraculously, a few more bees detached themselves from the swarm and headed for the box, and then a few more and a few more, until there was a thin stream of bees flying into the box. Chris quickly pulled a second box off the truck bed and set it down beside the first, then took the first box, still filling up with a now-steady stream of drowsy bees, and put it on top of the second. That should do it, she thought.

Later, he would transfer the whole lot of them back onto the truck, later, when the sun went down and all the bees were safely inside for the night. Later, he’d find a new spot for them, near the original hives lining the perimeter of the oat field but far enough away that they wouldn’t swarm again, not this season. Later, he’d think of a way to make it her fault that they’d swarmed at all. Later, she’d settle back into the chair by the door, transparent and delicate as an orchid flower in sunlight, easily torn, easily bruised, reaching reaching always reaching for a light she couldn’t see.
Later, all of that would happen.

But right now, it was just the two of them and fifty thousand bees, suspended in the honeyed light of a late summer afternoon, watching, just watching.

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