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The Watchers

He did not know why he had agreed to marry her. For a long time he thought it was because she would hum at everything she did. She hummed while cooking. She hummed while cleaning and sewing. She hummed when she raked leaves and shoveled dirt and chopped firewood. She even hummed, or so he thought he heard over his own grunting, on the few occasions when they had consummated their union. Her humming was an intoxicating low rumble, a contralto line that lingered in the room even after she had left it. He remembered the first time he had heard her. They had been to a funeral service for the local baker, he with his mother and she alone, for all of her relatives had died when she was young. He had known this, of course, but it never really struck him until he saw her alone at the wake. How many other services had she attended as a girl for her family? She wore a grey smock and a thick wool coat, the color of new potatoes. While the other mourners stood silent with their heads bowed, clutching handkerchiefs or wordlessly mouthing prayers, she rocked gently, pushing her weight from one foot to the other and hummed a low, idle tune. But no one minded. No one thought her rude or obscene, though, for some reason, he feared they might. He could imagine an old, dour woman spitting on her, the thick mucus sticking to the wool, and calling her names for dancing and singing at the funerary rites. But no one seemed to even notice her. She was as much a part of the scene as a catbird in the tree or a period at the end of a sentence. Why, then, he had wondered, had he noticed her?

He never could answer this question. So many questions about her he could not answer. Or the answers changed as the years went on. But wasn’t that part of every marriage? He could not know. He only knew the conditions and terms of his own. He thought about this as he sat in front of a beehive in the middle of the night, a cheerless moon gaping at him and his chapped hands and lips. It was beginning to get cold at night. He would need to wear gloves and a hat for his nightly ritual. She would provide these for him. She always did. Wasn’t that enough?

The old men in the village would say, “Every man needs only a warm bed and a warm belly. And lucky is he who has someone to provide these for him.” Hadn’t she always kept him comfortable?

The older women in the village would smile at him on his way out of town each night as they sat balling up yarn or braiding rags of stained shirts and threadbare pants into rugs. “A good one, that one,” they’d nod his way. “A man of his word is more valuable than next year’s seeds.” He wondered if he was just that. Had he kept his word, and what exactly had he said? He tried to remember.

After the funeral of the baker, he had left his mother chatting with the widow and followed the distant hum through the cemetery. He had to almost run to keep up with her loping pace. Breathless, he finally drew up the courage to address her, despite the fact that she was still twenty yards or so ahead of him.

“Why do you hum so for a funeral?” he asked, realizing halfway through the accusatory tone of his question.

She stopped under a bough of a great elm and turned toward him, placing her hand on the trunk as if needing to rest a moment. Her hip jutted out as her upper body seemed to fold into the tree and he was struck by how singular she was: an oak in the middle of a corn field, a burning bush in the middle of a green forest.

“Does it bother you?” she asked, wiping her brow with the back of her sleeve.

The man shifted his weight between his feet and removed his hat. “No,” he said slowly, unsure of how to phrase his response. He felt as though her eyes were boring into him and he was not sure if he could stand under their gaze. “It does not bother me. I have never heard someone hum at a funeral before. Sing, yes, but not hum.”

“Well,” she said, patting the elm with the palm of her hand as if it were an obedient dog that should run along now. “Now you have.” And she turned and strode away.

Leaping awkwardly at the sight of her back, the man stumbled forward, stammering. “Were, were you good friends with the baker?” He said, trying to interest her enough so she would stop again.

“No,” she replied over her shoulder, her pace slowing, but constant.

“Why were you here then?” he asked bluntly, shocked by his own rudeness.

Stopping, she turned again. Her hazel eyes were narrow, too narrow for him to see the golden circle around her pupil.

“Is it a crime to pay one’s respects for the dead? Has some law passed that I do not know about?”

“No, of course not, but…” he tried to explain.

“Then why do you ask me these questions?” her voice remained even and level despite the clear anger. She stood in the cemetery, backlit, and seemed to vibrate with annoyance.

“I… I have not seen you in town since we were both much younger. When, when your family…Your humming, it, it reminded me of something, made me notice you today. At the funeral. I only wanted to say, I suppose, that I would like to hear more.”

At this she had simply nodded and gestured that he should follow her.

She had led him to the beehive that day. It was quiet, he thought to himself, quieter than it had ever been since. The beehive was located in a grove of myrtle by a pond a few miles from town. It was a large willow trunk with a plain board roof that had long ago warped with age. Her grandfather had probably built it, he surmised. The roof, the man saw, could be removed so the honey could be extracted from the hollow stump, where the bees nested. There must be more sophisticated systems out there in the world, he presumed, but this ancient design was clean and simple, easy for him to understand. For he knew nothing about bees.

“I have told the bees of the passing of the baker,” she began to explain as if to herself. “He was a good man, who bought our honey faithfully for the past thirty years. My grandfather always spoke highly of him.” She let her hand carefully rest on the wooden roof of the house-like hive. “They must be saddened at the news and are keeping to themselves today.”

He wanted to ask her many questions: did she always speak to the bees? How long had she tended them? When did she take over her family’s farm? He tried to remember the local gossip about her family. Like many in the farming village, her grandparents were a stoic couple, who never complained, but always worked and strove for the betterment of their small home—and that included the bees. At some point that fateful day, she would explain how the two of them would each take a turn, watching the bees, keeping them company—for bees, it was told, were a social, communicative sort that bonded with their keepers. So the grandmother would sit with them all day while the husband slept and at evening they would switch and he would guard the bees at night—blanketing the hive in the cold, marveling at the way the summer moonlight illuminated the veins on their paper wings. And when the grandfather would come home, he would be amazed at all the grandmother had accomplished at home in his absence: tomatoes and peaches canned and stored for winter, thick wool blankets washed and folded, a roast with root vegetables simmering, filling their home with an earthy aroma that melted any bitterness as he walked in from the night’s work of watching the bees. She had told him all of this in her measured way—but even now he had trouble remembering their conversation. What exactly had she said? What did he surmise or know from the gossip in town? Yet he could remember every detail, every point of her story—but how had she said it? Her family, including her grandparents, had died when she was young, he knew this without question. But she had not explained how and he had never asked her. Some of the older men in town had said it was an accident, a queer twist of fate that miraculously spared her. The women clucked their tongues at the loss and shook their heads in silence, eyes pinched closed as if warding off the gruesome memory.

Younger boys, who had nothing better to do than spin tales, had said his wife was a witch who had killed her whole family when they discovered her mystical secret and tried to kill her. The boys, awkwardly spitting tobacco juice so it would run down their hairless chins, had predicted that she would one day kill the whole town if they weren’t careful. He understood why they would think this. In the years after her family had passed on, she had become reclusive, despite her young age of twelve, probably out of sheer necessity to keep the farm and the bees alive and thriving. She had to do all the work of three men and four women herself now alone—there could be no time for socializing, for dances, for idle conversation after church or while paying a bill at the dry goods store. She had lived that way for ten years before the baker’s death, before he heard her in the cemetery.

“Probably why she hums to herself so much, trying to fill the quiet any way she can,” he spoke the realization aloud, as if sharing it with the bees.

Still. He was not sure what had inspired him so that moment to ask her to marry him: whether it was the nostalgia of her hard-working ancestors, or the solitude of the beehive that day, or the way her eyes seemed to change hue when she hummed. Whatever the reason, he had placed his hand on top of hers on the cold wooden hive and asked if she would accept him, though he had nothing to give her. Although he did not want to admit it to himself, the man, he knew, was lame. He could not walk steadfast behind an ox-drawn plow, or carry milk and eggs from town to town, or even stand tall at a printer’s press in the village. His profession thus far had been that of a misfit, a wretch, that kindly, pious folk took pity on. They would not insult him with charity, but gave him odd jobs like counting chickens after a fox attacked a local coop, or sorting buttons at the seamstress shop, or alphabetizing all the letters for the newspaper office after a small earthquake rocked and jumbled their sleepy town a few years back.

“You must follow in the way of my people,” she said without looking up at him.

“What would I do?” he asked. He had heard of folks who tended to bees, of course, but it never occurred to him to ask what exactly they did. Would he have to count the bees? Keep track of how many flew out to find pollen and how many remained to work and create and produce the honey? Or to defend their queen? And how did they make honey anyway? The more the man thought, the more worried he had become. Could he do this? The woman smiled gently at his wide eyes. “You must befriend the bees,” she spoke simply, clearly, her voice smooth and unwavering. “We must tend to the bees in shifts, for bees will learn to trust their keeper and remain true to you with time.”

“But we will never see each other if you are with the bees during the day and I care for them at night,” he had protested, drawing back to confront her with his logic.

“If you are with our bees, then you are near to me,” she only replied quietly, her eyes fixed ahead.

“But how much tending do bees really need? Aren’t they wild creatures who take care of themselves? Shouldn’t we simply harvest it and let the bees alone? How much money could we make at the market for their honey?” he asked, still unsure of his future bee-keeping duties.

“Our honey,” she corrected him.

At this he squeezed her hand gently and felt the sticky residue of honey on her skin.

And so it was done.

They had returned to the cemetery that day and met with the reverend who had performed the funerary rites earlier in the morning. His mother had to be called for at their home for she had given up on waiting for her son’s return. She was delighted at the prospect of his marriage and kissed his forehead three time for luck. He could not remember what she had given his bride or if they had even smiled at one another that day. Had she even said her vows? He could not remember. He could only remember the sweet smell of her when they embraced on the sunless day in the cemetery. And the first of many long walks back to the bees.

The men in the village would approve the match: a hard-working girl with a duty-bound man. “One with direction and one with blind strength, that is what is needed for the plow.”

The women in the village would cry for their meager living and rip geranium leaves, throwing them off their porches in the direction of the new couple to soak up any evil lurking in their path.

After the first six months of their marriage, the old women in town had said, “You must be patient. The heavens reward those who wait.” After a year of marriage, the old men in town had presented him with a small jug of cider and a sack of eggs with a nod and handshakes all around.

Embarrassed, he had taken the fertility gifts to the beehive and drank his shame away. The next year the old women handed him a special herbal tea that they must both drink before the deed and after. “A baby is always made with this,” they had promised with a reassuring squeeze of his hand.

He had taken the tea home and handed it to his wife. She only laughed at the old women’s impertinence.

He had wanted to ask why, why she wasn’t with child, to accuse her of some treachery. But seeing her there, smelling the tea and boiling a pot of water, humming quietly, he knew it was not her fault. He had taken the tea from her and kissed her and waited for her kiss back. And when it came, they sunk to the floor, the tea leaves scattered beneath them. And when he was done, he returned to the bees, hoping to soon tell them that their keeper would be a father. But weeks passed, and he could not tell them any such news.

When five years passed without any new bundles in their home, the man gave up hope. The children in town, overhearing the disapproving tone in their parents’ gossip, called the woman unnatural, the man a gelding. Another five years passed and no one bothered to say anything about it anymore.

She, for all the gossip and all the jeers, did not seem bothered at all.

But he, he could not still his brain.

And in the starry solitude of his nightly task, he would ask the bees for their advice. Should he continue to try? Continue to sleep with her despite the uselessness of the act? Should he even want a child? Could he care for one? He longed for a baby of their own, a child to raise and teach and prove his usefulness to the town—something tangible to contribute. They had been together for ten years with no luck. He tried to remember his own father, a dim, vague memory of a burly man with a mustache who never came in from the rain and died at the bottom of a mine. Could he provide for a child? Was he providing for his wife? These questions skittered along the pool of his mind, casting ever-widening fears and dreads that sent waves of panic through him.

And the bees, tucked in their hive, would murmur and hum, soothing his fractaled mind.

He sat with his knees bent in front of him, arms hugging his legs, as he pondered his wife. She was a good wife, really. And most men that he knew would covet aspects of his life: solitude, the comforts of home without the wifely needling, the griping, as they would say. As he was never home and awake when she, too, was also home. They each took shifts caring for and watching over the bees. Or at least, that’s what they agreed to. For his part, he knew very little about bees and honey and apiaries. And so he did not so much as do anything during his long shift in front of the bees. Sometimes he would take a sweeping walk around the hive, lapping them in ever-widening circles until he could no longer hear their great din and he would worry, quickening his pace back to them. He did not know why it was so important that he remain there, close by, but whenever he strayed too far, he was seized with a dread of the bees, of his wife’s silent disappointment, of failure, of the creeping feeling of death that would seize his legs. Other days he would bring a scrap of paper that had a few lines scrawled on it. In the evenings when twilight’s dim glow still emitted light if not heat, he would sit with his paper and try to read. He would sit cross-legged, his back bowed, drooping over the sheet in his lap, studying the letters, trying to make sense of them. Now and then a bee, legs swollen with pollen would land on the paper. He would, at first, tense in fear and slowly rear back from the text, but then, once he realized the bee would not harm him, he followed it with his eyes as it strolled across the line, guiding him from one word to the next. His eyes focused on the bee and then on the inky smudge beneath its hairy feet. Peering through its papery wings, he was able to focus and discern each letter and then each word.

Once, on a particularly muggy evening, he had nodded off, his beard thick with sweat. And when he awoke, groggy and burdened by the air itself, he discovered a small creature on his knee. A white squirrel with black glassy eyes and fine thread-like whiskers sat staring at him. Its nose twitched as if smelling the salty-sweet patina of stale beer and sweat on his face. He watched the little animal, paws bent at its chest like an old man lazily rubbing his belly before yawning for bed. He admired the lithe fingers with thin, harsh claws protruding from its fur. He wondered what it would be like to touch it. He wanted to reach out his finger to the squirrel, a gentle, friendly gesture. Like giving your hand to a baby to squeeze in its fist and kick its legs in wide-eyed excitement. Would this squirrel, who squatted so attentively on his knee as he sat on the soft earth before the beehive, would she take his finger in her two paws, cradling it in her claws or touching his skin with the soft pads of its palm? As the squirrel’s nose twitched, its whiskers springing up and down with each wrinkle, the man held his breath and thought about his wife. For a moment, he could not really picture her. She was a blur in his mind as he gazed at the pale squirrel and shivered. The convulsion of his body jolted the squirrel and it leapt off his knee and darted a few yards away before turning back. At first, the man thought he had befriended the creature and it was looking back at him, for confirmation, for recognition, to reassure him. But as he sat there staring, he realized that the squirrel was not looking at him, but at the beehive beyond him. Its usual gentle hum had multiplied and amplified to a drone and then a roar as thousands of bees emerged.

He had seen swarms of locusts in his youth dive and arch and skip one field only to land and ravage a neighboring plot. He had seen flocks of starlings drip across a sky, folding on a wing as though a single bird. But he had never, until then, and not since, seen a swarm of bees. It had not even occurred to him that this was something he should fear. And fear, despite the moon-eclipsing wall of bees that roiled before him, was not what he felt. Awe surged within him as the swarm swept to bend forward to inspect him and then, in a fluid, wave-like motion, seized upon the unsuspecting animal. In a moment the white squirrel was lost in a funnel of howling bees and when the swarm quieted a moment later, and, exhausted, returned to the hive for the night, the little animal was gone.

He sat, transfixed, staring at the spot in the grass where she had been, as if trying to will the small white being back into existence. For a brief moment he wondered if the bees had somehow magically whisked the squirrel into the hive with them for safekeeping. But the childish hope quickly faded and he realized it was dead. Tears rimmed his eyes as he felt a barely perceptible weight gently press on his knee. He gasped, hoping to see the wondrous squirrel greeting him, but was mortified to see a single bee perched on the stiff wool of his pants. He wanted to strike at it, to swat it away from him, to crush it in his palm and feel its life juices trickle down his wrist. But he did not move. He could not move thinking of the natural force tucked away in the hive just beyond his reach. The single bee squatted there, its wings pressed back taut against its body. He could feel each of its legs, thin wisps of muscle, begin to give way as the bee slowly crawled up his leg. It moved methodically, each leg stepping in syncopated intervals, up his thigh and past his waist to his belly. Mesmerized by the bee, he sat, his legs tensed, his breath caught in the back of his throat. The sensation of the bee’s tiny limbs, its hairy feet and piercing claws gingerly splaying across his stomach, overwhelmed him. He could feel the bee’s antennae pressing, searching, feeling out for the right spot, tasting the soft flesh of his belly through his flannel shirt. His body arched as the bee pressed forward, its thorax expanding with each breath. He could feel the tension, the exquisite hunger of the bee as it suddenly stopped just above his navel. It stared at him, a subtle hum pushing forth from its vibrating body, as its barbed stinger sprung forth and into his belly. He had never been stung by a bee before and at first he did not feel pain. Wonderment overwhelmed his senses as he tried to understand what had just happened. He threw his head back as the pain washed over him, the venom releasing into his blood. A roar of noise crashed into his ears; the hive groaning before him, buzzing frantically as the single bee, in a life-taking motion, ripped itself away from the man, its stinger and more left behind on his belly. It collapsed to the ground, shrinking under its wings, its legs kicking aimlessly in the air. With its last shudder, the hive quieted, stilled, and went silent. He, rubbing his stomach as if wiping away the wound, sat staring at the hive, his other hand protectively cupping the body of the dead bee.

He never spoke to his wife about his nights with the bees. Nor did she tell him what happened during her daily watchings.

He was surprised when he first noticed that her stomach was engorged. He had not noticed the subtler, more nuanced signs of her pregnancy: the gentle bowing of her hips, the nesting instinct that made her organize their home evenly, meticulously. As she stood before him, bending over to add wood to the fire, he tried to remember the last time they had been together. But the days and weeks and months of the same routine, the same restless watching in the dark, blurred in his mind and he could not remember.

“How long?” he asked, his voice a mixture of apprehension and joy. For so long they had wanted a baby, wanted something else in their lives to love. But now? Wasn’t it too late? Wasn’t he too old? He thought about the squirrel from the summer. He could not protect it. How was he supposed to protect a child?

“In the spring,” she replied, wiping soot and sap from her hands with a cloth.

“How will our life change?” he asked quietly. It was an odd question, he knew, but a pertinent one. Would they continue their rotations? Would she still be able to watch the bees, or would he have to take over her chores? He imagined, some warm spring day in the future, when their son might accompany her to the hive: mother and child cutting through the bright pink branches of the myrtle grove, the bees heavy and sated with pollen. It made him warm to think about, but there was much to do before then.

She did not seem perturbed by the question, but tugged on her coat, which could just barely button, and smoothed the wool over her belly. “We will see,” she said, and walked out the door to the bees.

He slept fitfully that day, his mind awash with questions. And when he returned that night to the bees, they were quieter, stiller, as though deep in their own thoughts.

“What should I do?” he asked aloud, his breath forming in front of him in the cold.

But the bees would not answer him.

Once, upon his return home, he discovered a pair of horns propped up against his doorstep. Angrily he grabbed the horns, a thin layer of ice cracking under his grasp. He wanted to shout, to rail against his meddling neighbors, to scream into their judging faces. But he did not. Instead he simply flung the discarded deer antlers into the woods and walked inside.

But the anger that he would not let out, would not set free, burrowed its way into their home, like a rodent, like a parasite. He did not speak to her for the rest of the winter. He did not want to believe that the child was not his, but how could it be? For ten years they had been married, had occasionally laid together, with no child. How could he believe, without question, without apprehension, that the thing growing in her was fully his? Their child? There was no such thing. Even the town knew that apparently. He considered leaving, leaving her, leaving their bees, leaving the pending baby. But what would he do instead? He could not work. He knew no life other than this: the nocturnal watching of bees. And so he remained, fulfilling his promise in body only. He would return to the bees and sit there silent, staring, willing the hours to quicken their excruciatingly slow pace to no avail. He had grown tired of the bees, of his nightly routine, the emptiness of it. But still he remained.

And the bees grew listless, withdrawn. Their hive was cold to touch and in the snow-filled skies, no bees emerged.

One still, frozen evening, when he sat in the hollowed-out trench of snow to escape the fierce wind that whipped through trees and froze birds shivering on the limbs, he began to drift to sleep only to be awakened by a gentle hum. In his dreaming mind, he thought his wife, heavy with child and her thick winter coat, had come to visit him for the first time. She laid down next to him in the ice-crested depression, her cold nose pressing sharply into his neck, a chilling sensation that jolted him awake. He felt at his neck, a hum still spiraling in his ear, to discover a single bee. Carefully, he removed it, examining it in the palm of his hand. He wondered why it would escape from its warm hive into the frigid night. Was it lonely? Did it need his company? Was it afraid of the dark, of winter, of dying? Was this what it would be like to be a father and hold a frightened child in his arms after a nightmare? He watched its thin wings trying desperately to beat back the wind, to stay secure in his hand. And then he thought of the bee on his chest, the swarm. He thought of the albino squirrel, wondrous and consumed by the bees.

Almost impulsively, he balled up fingers into a fist, crushing the bee before it could sting him. He opened his fist and wiped the smeared bee remains on his pant leg before rolling over to sleep once more.

One day in the spring, he returned home, his boots crunching through the frost-covered grass. He heard a robin singing above him as he walked, and smiled. His son would be born soon, he realized. Someday he would teach him bird songs, the phases of the moon. He smiled again at this thought and walked into the quiet house.

His stomach emptied when he saw the baby on the floor, swollen and pale, the color of lime on a field on a grey November day. It did not occur to him to try to save the child for he knew he was gone before he could cross the room. As he drew closer, he noticed its eyes were caked in a thick smear of honey. Something she must have learned from her mother, he thought. A way to lock in its soul, perhaps.

How do we learn these acts, these rites that tie us from this life to the many before, he wondered. He could remember nothing from his father, no specific lesson or chore, and yet his mother had told him he held his fork the same way, he sniffed the air after a thunderstorm the same way, a look, a gesture, all the same. Who had she learned from, he wanted to know. She was alone for so long. Perhaps, he thought, there are simply some things women know instinctively, by feel at the first kick, the first blood, the first wave of labor. Had the baby cried, he wondered. Had it suffered? Had she?

He sank down over the little swollen bundle and rocked it in his arms. Its skin felt cold and rubbery like a bald tire against his face.

Thinking perhaps she had returned to the beehive, he hurried there, his bum leg aching with the exertion. But when he pushed back the myrtle branches, just beginning to leaf into a vibrant green, he saw and heard no bees.

How had she done it? How had she convinced the bees to follow her? He tried imagining her as a bee general, standing in front of the bees humming to them a rallying cry, ordering them to march behind her over the hills until they could find a new home. But this militant woman was not his wife. Perhaps not a soldier, but a sorceress, captivating the bees to follow her and leave their ancestral hive behind. He imagined her playing a pan-pipe made of honeycomb, thick globs of wax sticking to her upper lip. She would be beautiful in the lurid power, a force beyond recognition. This too, he realized, with a sigh, was not his wife. In the silence of the empty hive before him, he stooped in the realization that he did not really know her.

Some men in the village told him that bees will migrate when the vegetation is poor. “We had a hard winter and a late frost. There will be nothing for them to pollinate here.”

Some women in the village told him that bees have very special bonds with their keepers, like that of a child to her parent. “They followed their ma,” they say. “Let her have them, the poor dear. It’s hard for a woman to lose her babe. She needs the bees,” they said.

He sat staring at the hive wishing it would hum to life with the twitching energy of the bees. Or if they could not return, he thought, he wished that he might break apart into a million restless bees and swarm the world in search of her, humming her name into the wind.

A bit about the author:

Shelly Jones is an Assistant Professor of English at SUNY Delhi, where she teaches classes in mythology, literature, and writing. She received her PhD in Comparative Literature from SUNY Binghamton. Outside of academia, she is an active nerd who enjoys board games, Dungeons and Dragons, being outdoorsy, and knitting. Visit author page