The Chamber Bee – Maev Barba

There was a legend that one hundred years ago our population was cut in half when a cloud of creatures descended from the sky, set down upon our village, and drove our people into madness. It was a story told to children. “The Night of the Swarmed Eclipse.” “The Millions that Devoured Hundreds.” “The Legend of the Chamber Bee.” It was all a myth, and yet we preserved its stories in our tavern records more than a hundred years after.
These are only two of the common questions which tear at the chamber bee’s credibility:
-Why would a species of bee be drawn to a community which faces constant heavy wind and rain, and which has no flowering plants?
-Is there any other species of bee which hibernates for a hundred years?
The more generous interpreters of these ‘scientific’ papers, chalk it up to ‘observational error.’
Consider, they argue, Marco Polo’s disappointment in the unicorn, the half-buffalo, half-elephant. (Was it not a rhinoceros?) Or consider the Arthurian Questing Beast, an animal with the head and neck of a serpent, the body of a leopard, and the haunches of a lion. (A giraffe?)
Over many nights and pints at our village tavern, Bartleby and I have leafed through all the chamber bee records. The records include anatomical description, graphic representation, and even a physical specimen kept under a glass.
The specimen, which is black with faint orange stripes, is the size of Bartleby’s thumb. It has a large stinger, but its mandibles, half the length of its body, are truly amazing. Looking closely, it appears to be not a single species, but several species glued together.
“I ask you Bartleby,” I said to him. “Where are the wildflowers now?”
“Curious,” he said, holding the specimen in the light.
“What flower blooms but once in a hundred years, Bartleby? We do not have flowers. We are a coastal town.”
“Yes. It is odd,” he said. Bartleby took a looking glass from his pocket and turned the bee over with tweezers.
“We catch fish and weave baskets. There are no bees amidst our violent winds and waves!” I had worked myself into a fervor. “There is nothing which supports it. The chamber bee is a child’s tale and nothing else.”
“Hmm,” said Bartleby.
I sat into the comfortable chair by the fire and took to turning through old newspaper records. More crimes surfaced in the two weeks following on that single day than have been committed in the totality of the hundred years since. Rises in assault, in delinquency, in endangerment, in damages to property. On the day itself, the entire wheat crop, the same land in which we plant now, was burned to the ground. Children were found in closets, welted and crying. Pregnant women drowned, swimming for their lives. But perhaps most famously, there was the case of Enoch Perkins and Felicity Dodson.
A half-century after the alleged chamber-bee invasion, and therefore roughly a half-century before today, Enoch Perkins elected to take a small boat to the hidden cove where the chamber bees slept. Perkins, a man fascinated by beetles, claimed the presence now of some or other beetle proved the sometime presence of the bee. No one wished to accompany him on his terrible journey. Truly, our sea is violent, and the journey would certainly be deadly. The only person who eventually agreed to the journey was Perkins’ own fiancé, Felicity Dodson, and there began the crime.
Perkins, Dodson, and the pieces of their boat washed ashore together. Perkins suffered from severe hypothermia and Dodson had drowned. Perkins, wrapped into a blanket and unable to bend his limbs, yet unaware of his wife-to-be’s demise, claimed that they had indeed found it, that there really was a golden chamber. There are a few alive today who witnessed it all unfold as children.
The faint hope for the chamber bee persisted, for Eliab Watt agreed to meet with me. All through the interview, he ran his fingers through his white beard, yellowing from tobacco, staring forward, his teeth sharp, his eyes and the long scar from his forehead to his neck glowed a bright pink like the eyes of a rabbit. “They died, you know,” he said.
I have shaken him down, time to time, purchased him drinks, and lured him back to attention as he drifted away.
“Dodson wouldn’t leave,” Watt said. “She ate something, something she found in the chamber. Perkins dragged her out of the cave and into the boat. When the ship broke apart, he had to swim her in. When we pulled them out of the waves, we saw– we saw her–.”
“Yes, Watt. What. What did you see? Her what?”
“Her lips were full of honey.”
Perkins’ own statement before surgery:
“I searched for her with the light of my torch. When finally I found her, her arm was gone. It was just a stump, like it had melted into the wall. She tugged her shoulder back, yanking it, trying to free it, and unstuck a leak which came bubbling out. She would not leave the wall, because of its warmth. Her eyes were lifeless like she wasn’t my wife at all.”
Up to his death, Perkins hallucinated loud buzzing.
“What they’ve got to do,” said Watt, “is burn every last stalk of wheat. Snuff out the flowers. Nip them all out. Don’t you understand?” Watt became increasingly crazed. “They come for the wildflowers. Do you understand?” His scar became enflamed. He began to cough and I helped him to sit down. I had once seen him worked up so much he needed to be restrained to the ground by the blacksmith and the horse breeder. I declined to push him any further.
Besides, there was scarcely more to the Perkins case. He was confessing as the surgeon prepared him for triple frostbite amputation, muttering then screaming, in fever, about loud, inescapable buzzing. He died from infection.
For fifty years, no one dared go in search of the chamber again. The tales of a wife-killer lend no credibility to a legend inherently questionable.
No, no one since Enoch Perkins has been brave enough or stupid enough to ferry boat in search of honey.
That is, until today.
For there were two distinct phenomena which rationalized the irrational journey.
The first was the sudden proliferation of flowers. Flowers we had never seen near our village had suddenly spread like wildfire, yellows and reds and purples, blooming and overtaking our wheat. Could these be the hundred-year flowers of legend?
The second then was even more impossible. The sighting of any flying creature, which is neither gull nor flea, is viewed with suspicion or discounted as hallucination.
In our little gray coastal town, we do not have flowers, we do not have grubs, we do not have pollen, and we do not have patience for blatant lies about any foreign phenomena. Our wind is like torture to a non-sea bird. When once a dead horse lay on the beach for three days, we attracted a buzzard. The buzzard, attempting to fly forward, hovered above our church tower for an hour and a half. Unable to properly circle or descend, until it finally turned around and flew back to the desert.
Then, let it be no overstatement when I say that the blacksmith dropped his hammer, the mother her babe, the doctor his scalpel, and the suitor his wine, when a small orange and yellow winged creature flew into our village. The dogs in particular were driven mad by curiosity. They flew from their yards and jumped as high as they could. The bee, unperturbed, buzzed through the open chapel door and onto the bride’s bouquet. Pastor Brown trapped the bee in a small glass jar, and the entire procession made for the tavern where all our records of the chamber bee still lie.
The pastor asked as to Bartleby, who lived in a garret room above the tavern. Bartleby took his special eyeglass to the bee. He compared the hundred-year specimen side by side with the pastor’s bee (flying and plinking the sides of its glass). Bartleby, glassmaker and our local man of horn, inspected both bees most thoroughly.
“Very interesting,” he said. “And you say it just flew in? Did it not come in off a cart, or a boat, or new livestock?”
“We have had no traders,” said the groom. “Not for months.”
“Impossible,” said Bartleby, and he switched out his glass, one twice as thick which magnified the bees ten times. “Impossible.” He gazed ever closer, ever closer until finally he uttered something which no one could believe. “Identical,” he said.
In sudden commotion in which almost broke a fight, the bearded men helped Lady Jane onto a table. “Whosoever of ye can deny the chamber bee,” she began. “Come now, come forward, and tell me you have unloaded ye greedy hopes that hidden along our ocean cliffs an ancient chamber of honey exists, an ancient honey unparalleled taste worth its weight in gold. Whosoever of ye denies it, come now, come forward. Look me in the eye.” No one came forward. Lady Jane had only one eye, and it was she who strangled the buzzard’s horse.
We had a boat within the hour.
A small crew, we took no wives. It was only I, Bartleby and Lady Jane who took to aboninable sea. We loaded the dingy with shovels, rope, and six-dozen sixteen-ounce jars in a small palette for storing and delivering possible honey, which rattled as we pushed the boat into the ocean. The village disappeared behind us as we slid into the ocean. The villagers wished us well, yet seemed to whisper something.
Lady Jane sat at the front and held her lantern straight out. She chewed tobacco and cursed into the ocean froth. She kept always one eye closed, she said, because she believed in the tripartite division of the soul and claimed one’s peripheral vision was much like the wild and unrestrained horse, yanking and pulling and getting you nowhere. “The second eye is always a liar,” she said. She spat tobacco in long large wallops.
“Forward,” she said. “Forward.” Bartleby and I paddled.
Waves pummeled us, bruised us, beat us and threatened every seam of our boat. Still, we churned forward mechanically, frantically, unstoppably into the white powdered wave of enormous black death. All that brought us back into our own freezing salt-soaked bodies of flesh was the forward plowing gaze of Lady Jane. A forward stare so imperturbable, it kept our shabby boat of boards from bursting.
Finally, we collided with the glowering mouth of the high cave.
Our boat bucked in the waves like an untamable animal. Lady Jane, hesitating at nothing, stepped through the crashing waves and into the cave.
I aided Bartleby in unloading our boat. Lady Jane had already vanished into the darkness.
Bartleby was shivering. “Do- d- do- you think that we can even get back?” he said. He stood pointing at our rollicking boat.
The waves would beat us as we left. I pictured a farmer booting a weasel to death for stealing his eggs. “We’ll be fine,” I said.
I lit my own torch and held it toward the darkness. No sign of Lady Jane, but I did see something interesting on the wall of the cave. Thrilled that it might be the writings of some ancient people, some ancient tribe of the bees, I held my torch closer. Illuminated in light were the crudely carved words, “Enoch Perkins + Felicity Dodson.”
But there was a depth in the shadows that played with you. I imagined some presence. I thought Bartleby had brushed by me. When I turned to look he was still by the boat.
“You startled me, Bartleby,” said I, but Bartleby shrugged. We took our lanterns into the darkness.
Our footsteps echoed through the cave as we looked for Lady Jane. For a long walk, we saw no light. We went so far into the cave until the crash of waves had become a whisper. When finally we found her, we saw only her bottom half like something had eaten her and left only legs, the lantern at her feet.
We came closer and saw her full body illuminated by our own light. She was in a strange position. We asked to her condition, but she did not respond. Her arm was in the wall up to her shoulder. She braced herself with her other hand flat against a solid part of the wall. As she pulled her hand from the wall, a plug liquid dropped out and pooled around her feet. She examined her glistening hand in the lantern light.
“The jars,” she said.
Bartleby and I held our own lantern between us and stared. It was too much like the old story. Enoch Perkins. The murdered wife.
“Our one agreement,” said Bartleby.
Lady Jane’s swollen lips glistened like ruby.
“The one agreement,” he said more confidently. “We cannot eat anything from the walls. Not until–”
“The jars,” she growled.
Bartleby and I returned to the boat and removed the palettes of jars. “It is all the same,” said Bartleby. He handed me a palette. “It is all happening the same.”
I didn’t understand. He backed me to the wall. “We are not supposed to eat anything we have yet to observe.”
“Is there a problem?” Lady Jane called from the darkness.
Bartleby let me go. “We’ll be right there,” he said.
We took the palettes and returned to Lady Jane and began shoveling out the sparkling honey from the walls. The jars, perhaps due to our speed and removal of the contents from the walls, became warm to the touch.
It was so cold in the cave. I put my body closer to the wall. I experienced something strange and uncomfortable. A kind of noise. An internal noise. A pitchless noise. I pushed at the temples in my head. It was as if a black orb had lodged into my brain and begun expanding, pushing all else to the edge of my skull.
Dizzy, I clutched at the cave wall for support. My hand began to sink into it. It was so warm I wanted to sink in completely. Then I saw something again. “Hello?” I said. I looked around, my arm deep in the wall and my lantern only a small circle of light. “Bartleby, is that you?” Again, I sensed movement. “No,” I said. “Help. Bartleby.” I flexed my hand which I had in the wall, in the honey, in the warmth. “Help me.” I spread my fingers, suspended in the fluid, and then, as if reaching out from somewhere deep inside the wall, five fingers touched mine. I screamed. I braced the wall. I pulled at my arm until it came free and I fell back.
I fell into a puddle and fled backward from the wall until I backed into flesh, a pair of legs. I braced myself. It towered above me. “Are you cold?” it said. It was Lady Jane.
“I’m fine,” I said. My teeth were clacking and I felt almost feverish.
“Take this,” said Lady Jane. She handed me her full jar of honey and began removing her coat.
“There’s something in the wall,” I started to say.
She ignored me completely. She put her coat on my shoulders and nodded toward the boat. “Start loading.”
We had already filled three pallets of jars. Lady Jane and I passed all 96 full jars of eerie white honey down to Bartleby into the boat and then followed in after it.
As Lady Jane worked at the ropes, I went to Bartleby. “I saw something,” I whispered. He was lashing the palette of honey to the boat. “There was something in there,” I said. He gathered his oar. “There’s something in the walls,” I said. “Something else, something other than honey, something–” Bartleby examined a jar and tightened its lid.
No, I was delirious from the cold. I had hallucinated the hand. I–
A shattering pain hit my spine. It moved into my head and I fell in the boat, bracing myself on the edge. It was the sound again. It grew as heavy as an enormous weight. But then Bartleby covered his ears and Lady Jane bent in pain. We stared at the cave. Then, manifesting itself in our physical world so as to be undeniable, the sound trembled the rocks and the cave.
“Get down!” said Lady Jane.
The cave roared and we dove to the floor of the boat as a storm of black-winged creatures exploded from the cave. It was so loud I thought they were burrowing into my ear canals. I jammed my fingers into my ears. The buzzing. The buzzing.
Then soon, the ground was still, and our little boat rocked gently in the ocean.
“What was that?” I said.
“Paddle,” said Lady Jane. She threw the paddle at me, and Bartleby and I began turning the boat. Waves continued to hound us. I looked into the sky and found the creatures had formed, like many flocks of evil starlings, into a great cloud which mottled the sky. My hands were streaked red and yellow with the bodies of bees. I had crushed them all over my body, some of them still dying on my arms and legs. The great cloud in the sky began descending into the village. I held my hands aloft in fear and nearly lost the oar.
Lady Jane sat facing me and Bartleby. She turned inward, and she was wiping at her fingers, dipping them into the ocean, and scouring them with her fingernails. I thought perhaps she had gone mad, then I felt the pitch, the stickiness, rubbing into my own hands as I rowed.
Bartleby stared forward and paddled as robotically as before.
The white waves did not relent. I assumed they could not possibly get worse, but one giant swell began to rise directly before us. I thought it our end as it rose like a serpent white and horrible from the depths of the ocean. But it was not water at all. It was smoke.
“Do you see that!” I called.
I pulled on Bartleby. Our dinghy fitfully tossed. We stared at so much rising smoke it could be only our entire village. “What in god’s name are they doing?” said Bartleby.
Lady Jane looked over her shoulder. “The wildflowers,” she said.
She was right. As we drew closer, I could see the fire was far beyond our houses, and rose from the wheat.
I imagined everyone in our village–Watt, the blacksmith, the horse breeder, and our countless, countless children all awaiting the honey–holding hands in a long line to watch the wildflowers burn. And then, pressing down, the impending black deafening cloud.
“They’ll burn out the bees,” muttered Bartleby. “They’ll burn away the flowers and scare the bees away.” But as he spoke, the swarm of bees was already descending, completely unperturbed by any smoke.
“Without the wildflowers,” I called from our plight in the waves. Bartleby glared. Lady Jane turned up blood stained eyes. “Without nectar.” I shuddered. “What will they eat?”
Our entire village began to scream.

Dr. Maev Barba attended the Puget Sound Writer’s Conference in 2018. She is a PNW native and a great lover of books. She used to sell books door-to-door. A doctor of astronomy, Barba looks into space and considers neither the small as too little, nor the large as too great, for the lover of stars knows there is no limit to dimension.

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