My sister, Melissa, decided to take up beekeeping in May 2020, saying it was as good a pandemic-hobby as any, but it wasn’t.
“Have you forgotten that you’re allergic to bees?” I asked over dinner at her and her wife’s house. We were a bubble of three since Diane’s parents were dead and mine and Melissa’s lived in another state. “If you want honey, just buy it at the farmer’s market like all the other nuts who think it’ll cure their allergies.”
But Melissa had always had a perverse desire to do things the hardest way possible.
“Let’s tear up the back lawn,” she said. “Make it a lavender field. The honey will taste so sweet.”
“That lawn,” said Diane, sounding disgruntled, glaring out the patio doors toward their expansive yard.
“Your lawn is nearly an acre,” I said, thinking it was a point against the plan.
“Exactly,” said Melissa, turning to Diane with a smile. “No more mowing. No more wasted time.”
During the warm months, Diane spent every Saturday mowing and every Sunday complaining about mowing. Not to mention the dandelion control.
“I’ll admit, your plan scares me,” Diane said to Melissa, “but I want you to be happy.”
“Happy? Do you want her dead? You can’t do this to me.”
Melissa had nearly died after her last sting forty years ago at the age of thirteen. I was ten. Her face stretched out like a red party balloon. Her throat swelled shut, tight as a knot.
Melissa now looked at me with an expression of mingled compassion and determination. “I’ve been afraid of bees my whole life,” she said. “I don’t want to live in fear anymore.”
What could I say to that? The truth? That I’d rather she be miserable and alive? We’d been living in perplexed terror since the pandemic started, two months that seemed like an eternity, having no clue of the true eternity that stretched before us like a lawn sown across the event-horizon of a black hole. Everyone was already praying for the day when vaccines might be ready, when we would be free of this plague. Melissa’s seemed a semi-sane goal in context. But it wasn’t.
“Why don’t you conquer your fear of needles instead?” I suggested. “Way more useful.”
But she shook her head. “First one with the most intense pandemic-hobby wins.”
“I didn’t realize it was a competition.”
We were each outfitted with an EpiPen to carry on our persons at all times. Melissa researched bees. Diane purchased hundreds of lavender plants and scheduled their delivery. If my boy was alive, I could have enlisted his help, but instead I asked my ex-husband, who had a landscaping business, for the use of an old, rusty backhoe loader I knew he rarely used because it had once fallen on one of his employees, plus one lesson.
Trained up, grinning for the first time in months, Diane climbed into the cockpit, tore up the sod, and dropped the green clumps in the bed of a truck we’d rented. We made seven trips to the dump in two days. By then Diane was a pro with the knobs. Melissa and I were the ground crew. We measured the dirt yard and chalked out a grid. Kyle would have loved it. He’d played right field in little league. We’d signed him up because we were afraid he didn’t have any friends, but he was always more interested in the field than his teammates or the game. In the backhoe, Diane dug holes everywhere ‘x’ marked the spot. Then the lavender arrived. I was in charge of extracting the plants from their plastic containers without damaging the roots. Diane positioned them in their holes and held them upright while Melissa shoveled the excavated soil around the base. A few local bees were already inspecting our inventory.
“If you have a death wish,” I said as we worked, beads of sweat sliding down my face, dust caking my bare arms and legs, “why don’t you just go maskless in public?”
Tapping down the soil with the rounded blade of the shovel, Melissa wore not a tank top and shorts, but a mosquito net over a Chicago Cubs cap, a long-sleeved flannel shirt, leather gloves, jeans, and hiking boots. “That’s exactly my point. I want to live, but I’m not really alive if I’m living in constant fear.”
“Then who is alive?” I yanked out a lavender from its pot with too much force, damaging the roots. “No one. Not me.”
Under her netting, Melissa gave me her most annoying compassionate-big-sister face as Diane piped in: “But aren’t we hard-wired to be afraid? To keep us alive? Isn’t that the point of fear?”
Melissa shook her head. “Not like this. Not like me.”
“As if you have a monopoly,” I said, handing Diane the plant.
“It’s not a competition,” said Melissa.
Diane took it and positioned it into its hole. “But you don’t seem afraid of the bees.”
“Yeah, well.” Melissa laughed nervously, taking a step back from one that had just entered our area. “I’m acting as if I’m brave.”
“You don’t have to make it so hard for yourself,” Diane said. “There is this thing called the pharmaceutical industry. Way easier than beekeeping.”
“Exactly,” I said. “That.” Not that it’d helped me. No pill can grow back flesh hacked away from your heart.
Melissa shoveled the soil around the plant and tapped it down. “I hate side effects and we’ve already dug up the lawn. Next hole.”
Within a week, the chalk lines were smeared into the dirt, the backhoe returned to my ex, the lavender planted. Three extras that exceeded our plotted holes were stored near the side of the house, but the field made an impressive sight. Row upon meticulously measured row of bushy, silvery-green lavender with their long, thin stems tipped with purple flowers stretching up to the sun. Then the beekeeping starter kit Melissa had ordered arrived. Diane and I offered to help with setup, but she insisted on doing everything herself.
“It’s important to befriend your fear,” she said after donning the white beekeeping suit, moving slowly like an astronaut in zero-gravity as she positioned the hive box in the backfield, within view of the kitchen window but away from the patio. The starter bees were buzzing all around her. Diane and I were standing at a short distance, supervising, terrified. “And the bees will learn not to fear me, and that will keep me safe.”
“The bees don’t give a shit who you are,” I said. “They never will.” Seeing her in her bee suit made me unaccountably angry. My hand kept jerking toward the EpiPen in my pocket like a nervous tic.
Melissa looked over at me through the dark gauze of her veil. “That’s where faith comes in,” she said, which was stupid because our parents had only been vaguely Unitarian.
But Diane was curious. “What do you have faith in?”
“I have faith that I don’t need to know the outcome of every situation in order to be safe.”
“That makes no sense at all!” I was practically yelling at her. “You are not safe. None of us are.”
“Then I guess bravery is a bit nonsensical.”
She was obviously insane. Maybe it was pandemic induced. Bees were crawling all over her baggy white suit. In my mind, I rehearsed again and again the plunging of the needle into the meat of her thigh through the fabric. I would not hesitate. I would be fearless. I would stab her as hard as I could. Maybe even harder than was strictly necessary.
But after a week or so, it seemed that maybe she had it right. She accustomed herself to the bees, and they to her. She put safety first as she learned how to caretake her would-be assassins, inspecting the hive each day after lunch when most of the bees were out foraging. I visited early in the evenings when she was not on beekeeping duty. Sitting on the patio I would close my eyes, fill my lungs with the scent of lavender and earth, and fail to relax. If the time was right, I could hear the highway in the sky when all the bees zoomed through the yard, making a beeline to their hive, to their queen.
One evening, Melissa was near a back corner of the house, away from the hive, digging in some stubborn patch of dirt where she wanted to plant the extra lavenders as ornamentals. She was hacking with the shovel through old roots in the earth. The humidity was oppressive. She wore a t-shirt, shorts, and sandals.
After seeing the expression on my face where I stood on the patio watching her, she called out, “Don’t worry! The boys are already in bed!”
That’s what she called the drones. Her boys. She’d grown self-confident and fearless.
“You have a fucking death wish,” I yelled, then marched inside to help Diane with dinner, grabbed a knife, and began assaulting the vegetables. Diane and I discussed the pandemic, the numbers, the protests, and our constant bewilderment and grief. Our conversation was punctuated with my chopping and the remote staccato of Melissa’s shovel hitting earth, mingled with her frustrated outbursts of “Ohcomeon!” I refused to look in her direction.
Diane poured us lavender-infused lemonade. I set the patio table. The glasses began sweating immediately. I had just gone back inside to bring out the salad when I heard the scream. Diane yelled out “Melissa?!” with that singular tone of voice that embodies one’s deepest fear: to lose the one human that matters most to you on this earth.
Pulling my EpiPen from my pocket, I sprinted out the door. But it wasn’t a bee sting. The dirt near her was nearly muddy with blood. Bright red, thick, smeared all over her left foot. She was sitting on the ground, holding her left leg up in the air. It was bleeding all down her shin, over her knee, dripping on her clothes. The shovel was beside her, the blade red, dirt clumps stuck to it. The air smelled weirdly metallic and sweet.
“Look!” she said, half groaning, half screaming. “I think I lost my toes!”
Diane dropped to her hands and knees and started searching like a dog hunting for a bone.
I whipped off my shirt and tied it around her foot, sandal and all. The rubber sole was partially broken, floppy.
“When was your last tetanus shot?!” I held the shirt bundle against my thigh as it turned wet and red.
Her tan face was ashen under the streaks of dust and sweat. “I hate needles,” she groaned.
“Found them!” said Diane, holding up a dirty clump of bloody flesh in one hand.
Outside the hospital, a man met us looking like an astronaut in his face shield and protective gear. I imagined Covid germs swarming all over him like bees. He told us to keep the car windows rolled up. Put on your masks. Yelled questions through the glass. Diane yelled back. Held up the clump of flesh. He ran back inside. Returned a minute later with a wheelchair. Helped Melissa out from the back seat.
“Go home,” he said, rolling her toward the emergency room doors.
It was like depositing her at the morgue.
I shouted, “She needs a tetanus shot!”
She turned her head to look at us over her shoulder. The whites of her eyes above her black mask. Then she was gone.
The last time I’d visited the emergency room had been three years ago with my husband and Ryan. The baseball had made a beeline for his neck. He was just a kid, distracted by something, maybe a bee on a dandelion in the backfield. He never saw it coming. None of us did.
Diane and I drove home in silence. Without my asking, without her offering, I crashed on their couch, but hardly slept. I kept seeing the whites of Melissa’s eyes. I tried praying to a Unitarian god-type thing, which wasn’t nearly as comforting as I imagined the other more definitive brands were, but that night I called upon the assistance of this nondenominational energy that surely didn’t hear us, let alone act on our behalf. I prayed for Melissa and for the nurses and the doctors and for everyone else in that hospital and everyone in every hospital and everyone who couldn’t get to a hospital and everyone who had ever lost someone. I prayed for everyone on the planet. No one was safe. Ever.
The next morning, I woke up hearing Diane opening and closing cabinets in the kitchen. Despite my prayers, I had not spent the night trusting that Melissa would leave the hospital whole and healthy with her amputated toes miraculously reattached. No. My head had been filled with fantasy phone calls from doctors telling us she’d died from blood loss. She’d died from a staph infection. She’d died of tetanus. She’d died of Covid. She died over and over in my mind. I’d planned ten funerals. I’d written her eulogy. I’d become outraged at the exorbitant rate for obituaries. I’d been railing against some imaginary newspaper employee about how immoral it was to take advantage of the pandemic to jack up their per-word rates when I smelled the coffee.
We were on our second cups, waiting.
“No news is good news, right?” said Diane.
I didn’t respond. I was still wearing yesterday’s blood-smeared shorts and bra.
Out in the backfield, the lavender stretched out in neat rows. Bees lifted and landed from flower to flower. Some distant part of my brain registered that it was lovely, but I felt only cold.
“Those bees don’t know how lucky they are,” said Diane cupping her hands around her mug as if it wasn’t already 78 degrees, but winter, her hands frostbitten. Her shoulders were hunched forward as if she were trying to protect something fragile and damaged inside her chest that had a slim chance of survival if only she were very, very, careful.
I stared outside. “Privileged as fuck pandemic bees.”
“We’ve been afraid of the wrong thing this whole time.”
I took a deep breath and let it go. “Story of my life.”
“Such a waste of time.”
Then her phone rang.
Melissa wasn’t dead. She was ready to go home. After the great rush of relief that made my skeleton feel strangely loose and jangly, we grabbed two masks and beelined to our queen. But my gratitude for one answered prayer was quickly forgotten, replaced by a new fear.
Please, I prayed. Let her not have the plague.
Melissa came home with her gray, wrinkled toes floating in a plastic jar filled with some preserving fluid. She had crutches. It would take time to regain her balance.
“Two and a half toes go completely unappreciated,” she said. “It’s only when something’s gone that you realize how grateful you should have been all along.”
A few days passed. Diane changed her bandages and watched her foot for signs of infection. I took her temperature and watched for signs of Covid. I wore a mask and I left the room whenever she happened to cough, returning with tea sweetened with honey I’d bought at the farmer’s market.
Please, I prayed. Let it be allergies.
Two weeks after the accident, when she could whiz around on crutches and hobble about without them, when she was clear of tetanus and Covid, when all my fulfilled prayers had been forgotten, she conducted a ceremony in the backyard. It was late afternoon, the light slanting through the tips of the lavender, casting long summer shadows toward the house. She wore her beekeeping suit as if it were ritual garb. Her boys were making a beeline to their hive. We stood around the same hole in the ground where she’d hacked away at the roots. It was difficult to see where her blood had spilled. The earth has a wide open throat. It had already swallowed her sacrifice.
Her weight primarily on her right leg, in one hand she held a bunch of lavender stems bound together with twine, in the other, her dearly departed. “We gather here today to reunite my flesh with the earth,” she said. “My toes will feed the flowers. The flowers will feed the bees. The bees will feed me and my family. And somehow, someday, my toes will grow back somewhere inside of me, inside of us. Nothing is ever truly lost. Only transformed.”
One bee had landed on her hat and was crawling across her veil, two inches from her nose. Had she named them, too? Was this one Ryan?
She lowered herself to her knees and placed the mottled toes in the shallow grave. Broken roots reached out to them like welcoming bones. She laid her bouquet over them, then nodded to Diane who set the last three lavenders in the hole. Hot tears slid down my face as I shoveled in dirt.
The burial completed, clinging to Diane for support, Melissa rose to her feet. Brown earth speckled the knees of her white beekeeping suit. “Blessed be,” she said to end the ritual, then looked up and saw my face through her veil. “I never knew you were so attached to my toes?”
My throat swelled shut. I could barely breathe. “I can’t bear to live without them,” I whispered. “I’m not brave, like you.”
She stretched out a hand and I moved to her side. “It’s not a competition,” she said, placing her hand around my waist. We stood there, all three, leaning into each other for support. Though, with all that had been lost, maybe we were two and a half.
Julie Jones earned her MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her stories have appeared in the Chicago Quarterly Review, Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, Cincinnati Review: miCRo, and Burningword Literary Journal, among others. Her work has been nominated for Best Microfiction 2020 and Best of Net 2020. She writes early mornings before attending to her duties as a federal court law librarian. You can find her at juliemjones.com.