Authors: Jodi Picoult,Jennifer Finney Boylan
I lug the first box down the attic stairs, hearing Asher’s voice in my head:
Why didn’t you wait? I could have carried it down for you.
Glancing through the open door of his bedroom, I roll my eyes at his unmade bed. It drives me crazy that he does not tuck in his sheets; it drives him just as crazy to do it, when he knows he’s just going to
crawl back in in a few hours. With a sigh, I put the box down and walk into Asher’s room. I yank the sheets up, straightening his covers. As I do, a book falls to the floor.
It’s a blank journal, in which Asher has sketched in colored pencil. There’s a bee, hovering above an apple blossom, so close that you can see the working mandible and the pollen caught on her legs. There’s my old truck, a 1960 powder-blue Ford that belonged to my father.
Asher has always had this softer side, I love him all the more for it. It was clear when he was little that he had artistic talent, and once I even enrolled him in a painting class, but his hockey friends found out. When he messed up doing a passing drill, one of them said he should maybe stop holding his stick like Bob Ross held a brush, and he dropped art. Now, when he draws, it’s in private. He never shows me his work. But we’ve also gotten college brochures in the mail from RISD and SCAD, and
wasn’t the one to request them.
I flip the next few pages. There is one drawing that is clearly me, although he’s captured me from behind, as I stand at the sink. I look tired, worn.
Is that what he thinks of me?
A chipmunk, eyes bright with challenge. A stone wall. A girl—Lily?—with her arm thrown over her eyes, lying on a bed of leaves, naked from the waist up.
Immediately, I drop the book like it’s burning. I press my palms against my cheeks.
It’s not like I didn’t think he was intimate with his girlfriend; but then again, it’s not like we talked about it, either. At one point, when he started high school, I proactively started buying condoms and leaving them very matter-of-factly with the usual pharmacy haul of deodorant and razor blades and shampoo. Asher loves Lily—even if he hasn’t told me this directly, I see it in the way he lights up when she sits down beside him, how he checks her seatbelt when she gets into his car.
After a minute, I mess up Asher’s sheets and comforter again. I tuck the journal under a fold of the linens, pick up the pair of socks, and close the door of the bedroom behind me.
I hoist the Christmas box into my arms again, thinking two things: that memories are so heavy; and that my son is entitled to his secrets.
BEEKEEPING IS THE
world’s second-oldest profession. The first apiarists were the ancient Egyptians. Bees were royal symbols, the tears of Re, the sun god.
In Greek mythology, Aristaeus, the god of beekeeping, was taught by nymphs to tend bees. He fell in love with Orpheus’s wife, Eurydice. When she was dodging his advances, she stepped on a snake and died. Orpheus went to hell itself to bring her back, and Eurydice’s nymph sisters punished Aristaeus by killing all his bees.
The Bible promises a land of milk and honey. The Koran says paradise has rivers of honey for those who guard against evil. Krishna, the Hindu deity, is often shown with a blue bee on his forehead. The bee itself is considered a symbol of Christ: the sting of justice and the mercy of honey, side by side.
The first voodoo dolls were molded from beeswax; an
might tell you to smear honey on a person to keep ghosts at bay; a
would make little cakes of honey, amaranth, and whiskey, which, eaten before the new moon, could show you your future.
I sometimes wonder which of my prehistoric ancestors first stuck his arm into a hole in a tree. Did he come out with a handful of honey, or a fistful of stings? Is the promise of one worth the risk of the other?
WHEN THE INSIDE
of the house is draped with its holiday jewelry, I pull on my winter boots and a parka and hike through the acreage of the property to gather evergreen boughs. This requires me to skate the edges of the fields with the few apple trees that still belong to my family. Against the frosty ground, they look insidious and witchy, their gnarled arms reaching, the wind whispering in the voice of dead leaves,
. Asher used to climb them; once, he got so
high that I had to call the fire department to pull him down, as if he were a cat. I swing my handsaw as I slip into the woods behind the orchard, twigs crunching underneath my footsteps. There are only so many trees whose feathered limbs I can reach; most are higher than I can reach on my tiptoes, but there’s satisfaction in gathering what I can. The pile of pine and spruce and fir grows, and it takes me three trips to bring it all back across the orchard fields to the porch of the farmhouse.
By the time I’ve got my raw materials—the branches and a spool of florist wire—my cheeks are flushed and bright and the tips of my ears are numb. I lay out the evergreens on the porch floor, trimming them with clippers, doubling and tripling the boughs so that they are thick. In the Christmas box I carried down earlier is a long rope of lights that I’ll weave through my garland when this step is finished; then I can affix the greenery around the frame of the front door.
I am not sure what it is that makes me think something is watching me.
All the hair stands up on the back of my neck, and I turn slowly toward the barren strawberry fields.
In the snow, they look like a swath of white cotton. This late in the year, the back of the field is wreathed in shadow. In the summertime, we get raccoons and deer going after the strawberries; from time to time there’s a coyote. When it’s nearly winter, though, the predators have mostly squirreled themselves away in their dens—
I take off at a dead run for my beehives.
Before I even reach the electric fence that surrounds them, the smell of bananas is pungent—the surest sign of bees that are pissed off. Four hives are sturdy and quiet, hunkered tight within their insulation. But the box all the way to the right has been ripped to splinters. I name all my queen bees after female divas: Adele, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Whitney, and Mariah. Taylor, Britney, Miley, Aretha, and Ariana are in the apple orchard; on other contracts I have Sia, Dionne, Cher, and Katy. The hive that has been attacked is Celine’s.
One side of the electric fence has been barreled through,
trampled. Struts of wood from the hive are scattered all over the snowy ground; hunks of Styrofoam have been clawed to shreds. I stumble over a piece of broken honeycomb with a bear print in it.
I narrow my eyes at the dark line where the field turns into forest, but the bear is already gone. The bees would have killed themselves, literally, to get rid of their attacker—stinging until it lumbered away.
It’s not the first time I have had a bear attack a hive, but it’s the latest it has ever happened in the beekeeping season.
I walk toward the brush near the edge of the field, trying to find any remaining bees that might not have frozen. A small knot seethes and drips, dark as molasses, on the bare crotch of a sugar maple. I cannot see Celine, but if the bees have absconded there is a chance she is with them.
Sometimes, in the spring, bees swarm. You might find them like this, in the bivouac stage—the temporary site before they fly off to whatever they’ve decided should be their new home.
When bees swarm in the spring, it’s because they’ve run out of space in the hive.
When bees swarm in the spring, they’re full of honey and happy and calm.
When bees swarm in the spring, you can often recapture them, and set them up in a new box, where they have enough room for their brood cells and pollen and honey.
This is not a swarm. These bees are angry and these bees are desperate.
“Stay,” I beg, and then I run back to the farmhouse as fast as I can.
It takes me three trips, each a half mile across the fields, skidding on the dusting of snow. I have to haul out a new wooden base and an empty hive from a colony that failed last year, into which I will try to divert the bees; I have to grab my bee kit from the basement, where I’ve stored it for the winter—my smoker and hive tool, some wire and a bee brush, my hat and veil and gloves. I am sweating by the time I am finished, my hands shaking and sausage-fingered from the cold. Clumsily, I grab the few frames that can be salvaged from the bear’s attack and set them into the brood box. I sew some of the newly
broken comb onto the frames with wire, hoping that the bees will be attracted back to the familiar. When the new box is set up, I walk toward the sugar maple.
The light is so low now, because dusk comes early. I see the motion of the bees more than their actual writhing outline. If Asher were here, I could have him hold the brood box directly below the branch while I scoop the bees into it, but I’m alone.
It takes several tries for me to light a curl of birch bark to ignite my smoker; there’s just enough wind to make it difficult. Finally, a red ember sparks, and I drop it into the little metal pot, onto a handful of wood shavings. Smoke pipes out of the narrow neck as I pump the bellows a few times. I give a few puffs near the bees; it dulls their senses and takes the aggressive edge off.
I pull on my hat and veil and lift the same handsaw I used on the evergreen boughs. The branch is about six inches too high for me to reach. Cursing, I lug the broken wooden base of the old frame underneath the tree and try to gingerly balance on what’s left of it. The odds are about equal that I will either manage to saw down the branch or break my ankle. I nearly sob with relief when the branch is free, and carry it slowly and gently to the new hive. I give it a sharp jerk, watching the bees rain down into the box. I do this again, praying that the queen is one of them.
If it were warmer, I’d know for sure. A few bees would gather on the landing board with their butts facing out, fanning their wings and nasonoving—spreading pheromones for strays to find their way home. That’s a sign that the hive is queenright. But it’s too cold, and so I pull out each frame, scanning the frenzy of bees. Celine, thank God, is a marked queen—I spy the green painted dot on her long narrow back and pluck her by the wings into a queen catcher, a little plastic contraption that looks like one of those butterfly clips for hair. The queen catcher will keep her safe for a couple of days while they all get used to the new home. But it also guarantees that the colony won’t abscond. Sometimes, bees just up and leave with their queen if they don’t like their circumstances. If the queen is locked up, they will not leave without her.
I let a puff of smoke roll over the top of the box, again hoping to calm the bees. I try to set the queen catcher between frames of comb, but my fingers are stiff with the cold and keep slipping. When my hand strikes the edge of the wooden box, one of the worker bees sinks her stinger into me.
” I gasp, dancing backward from the hive. A cluster of bees follows me, attracted by the scent of the attack. I cradle my palm, tears springing to my eyes.
I tear off my hat and veil, bury my face in my hands. I can take all the best precautions for this queen; I can feed the bees sugar syrup and insulate their new brood box; I can pray as hard as I want—but this colony does not have a chance of surviving the winter. They simply will not have enough time to build up the stores of honey that the bear has robbed.
And yet. I cannot just give up on them.
So I gently set the telescoping cover on the box and lift my bee kit with my good hand. In the other, I hold a snowball against the sting as a remedy. I trudge back to the farmhouse. Tomorrow, I’ll give them the kindness of extra food in a hive-top feeder and I’ll wrap the new box, but it’s hospice care. There are some trajectories you cannot change, no matter what you do.
Back home, I am so absorbed in icing my throbbing palm that I don’t notice it’s long past dinnertime, and Asher isn’t home.
THE FIRST TIME
it happened, it was over a password.
I had only just signed up for Facebook, mostly so that I could see pictures of my brother, Jordan, and his wife, Selena. Braden and I were living in a brownstone on Mass Ave while he did his Mass General fellowship in cardiac surgery. Most of our furniture had come from yard sales in the suburbs that we would drive to on weekends. One of our best finds came from an old lady who was moving to an assisted living community. She was selling an antique rolltop desk with claw-feet (I said it was a gryphon; Braden said eagle). It was clearly an antique, but someone had stripped it of its original
finish, so it wasn’t worth much, and more to the point, we could afford it. It wasn’t until we got it home that we realized it had a secret compartment—a narrow little sliver between the wooden drawers that was intended to look decorative, but pulled loose to reveal a spot where documents and papers could be hidden. I was delighted, naturally, hoping for the combination to an old safe full of gold bullion or a torrid love letter, but the only thing we found inside was a paper clip. I had pretty much forgotten about its existence when I had to choose a password for Facebook, and find a place to store it for when I inevitably forgot what I’d picked. What better place than in the secret compartment?
We had initially bought the antique desk so that Braden could study at it, but when we realized that his laptop was too deep for the space, it became decorative, tucked in an empty space at the bottom of the stairs. We kept our car keys there, and my purse, and an occasional plant I hadn’t yet murdered. Which is why I was so surprised to find Braden sitting in front of it one evening, fiddling with the hidden compartment.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
He reached inside and triumphantly pulled out the piece of paper. “Seeing what secrets you keep from me,” he said.
It was so ridiculous I laughed. “I’m an open book,” I told him, but I took the paper out of his hand.
His eyebrows raised. “What’s on there?”
“My Facebook password.”
“So,” I said, “it’s mine.”