“We have to go see the bees — let’s go right now,” Diana was insistent.
“I have seen the bees,” Lynn said. She managed not to add that once was enough.
Diana was the type of hostess who couldn’t relax even when there was nothing left to do, also a naturalist manqué who thought bees were incredibly interesting. On Lynn’s last visit before the pandemic Diana had shown off a group of six or seven white boxes set in the field behind the house. There wasn’t much to see. This morning, she was a frantic anxious wife who wanted nothing more than to have ten minutes when she felt life was the way it used to be.
Lynn, visiting from up north, was sick of it. She had only been there for two days but she was already irritated. Sad too. She’d known her brother was in trouble, but this? Why were they living in this godforsaken place anyway? The morning was getting hot, not yet nine o’clock and the thermometer at the kitchen window read 93 degrees.
Diana and Lynn’s brother Charlie were participants in some nationwide project designed to meet the bee crisis. They had agreed to establish hives, which were then transported to places hit hard by the threat of bee extinction: Ontario, Napa Valley. Save the bees, Lynn guessed that was the goal, but someone must be making money. All that honey? Last visit, Diana’s tour had included the gift shop at a farm a couple of miles away on Manatee Lane. Bee products galore.
I want to go home right now, Lynn said to herself as she poured her coffee. For weeks before the trip she had been talking to herself and her partner, saying she did not want to make the trip. “But I will go — he’s my brother, of course I’ll go.” She knew Charlie might really be slipping away, not his body, or at least that wasn’t the hard part. It was his mind, his steel trap mind.
Charlie was older by almost ten years, that fierce mind a little scary when she was young but exciting even so. His mind was constantly in motion, scanning and sorting and judging, impatient. His temper was quick too, the snap could be terrifying, yet he was always showing her how to think about the big world. His work had been consuming until retirement left him at loose ends, more than slightly depressed. He would sit on the porch and read three daily newspapers, then turn to a fat history book. Lynn had learned how to move cautiously around that mind, watchful, gauging it, careful not to trigger the spring on the trap.
“I’ll go, I know it’s time, something’s wrong. I have to see him and that wife of his,” Lynn had announced to her partner. Charlie and Diana, his wife, had married when Lynn was still a child. Lynn thought of her sister-in-law as a piece of furniture, perhaps a wing chair, well worn and familiar in the living room of her life.
Now, standing in the kitchen, Lynn turned to Diana, “Okay, we’ll go see the bees, but do we have to go right this minute?” She had barely started her second cup of coffee. They all piled into Diana’s car. Charlie didn’t drive his truck anymore, the big black 4×4 he’d gotten when he crashed the pickup. Really, he didn’t drive at all; he had gotten confused several times since they arrived, seeming unsure of where he was. Being way out in the country? All by themselves and so remote? This couldn’t be good for him. How would he manage? But they chose this damn place, Lynn told herself. So now they were stuck.
The car struggled, not designed for ruts like these. The sandy dirt was soft as deep powder, the resident tortoise dug treacherous hidden tunnels every evening, palmetto fronds crunched under the wheels. Before they had left the nearest field, the one with the fetid pond and the cattle, silly looking cows with white egrets riding on their backs, the car stopped.
Something was stretched out in the tall grass between them and the dark oily water. It looked like a piece of rotting timber, or a strip of an old tractor tire. But these two would never leave discarded stuff lying around like that, “Alligator!” Lynn’s friend said from the backseat. This is such a weird place: the words kept repeating in Lynn’s head. The mantra had started on their first day. The driveway was over a mile long, a dirt track edged with wild tangled undergrowth that seemed to creep and slither, springing into the roadbed overnight.
Who was cutting the jungle back now? Lynn knew Charlie couldn’t do it. Aging in place sounded like a good idea, but no one should be aging here. Charlie didn’t have anyone to talk to either; when he couldn’t remember a news story he had just read Diana teased him, almost mocking his failure. The virus had isolated everyone, but this? What if something happened and they needed help? Or had to get out?
Things had started to happen. Her brother had been falling. There had been trips to the ER, but when she asked him about the falls Charlie said he couldn’t recall. The nearest house was a considerable distance away, far out of earshot. The gate to that neighbor’s drive was plastered with painted tin signs: “Jesus is my Savior,” and “Trump is my president.”
I want to go home now, Lynn told herself, but it’s only a couple more days. Besides I may never see him again, not himself, not the guy I grew up with. They had had a few nice talks, but Charlie would get stuck in a loop, repeating and repeating himself. Then he would stop abruptly, his eyes going vacant. Now he was slumped over in the front seat, almost as though he were asleep.
There was nothing to count on here, and the heat was already scorching. Lynn couldn’t bring herself to get out to look at the alligator.
At dinner the night before, Diana had told a story about the snake that lives under the barn. “That snake was almost seven feet long, big around as a grapefruit,” Diana said; “It was perfectly safe — I heard the rattles before I even saw it. You wouldn’t believe how big it was!”
“I believe you,” Lynn said; “But please, I don’t want to see that snake.”
The car made its way through swampy shade under the live oak trees and emerged into the morning glare. Lynn squinted against the sun; it was hard to focus. Boxes, there were so many boxes. This was no little cluster of beehives. This was row upon row, snaking around the field, colored plastic boxes like the ones you might buy at Staples to organize stuff in your garage. Some of the boxes were grouped into little villages, twenty or more of them, bright red, yellow, orange and blue.
Diana was chattering, explaining the strange-looking apparatus on top of each hive. They were disks, sort of like miniature manhole covers, something to do with how the honey was removed.
“What are you saying? I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Charlie sounded distressed.
“See those sheets handing down? It’s wrapping,” Diana said; “Each hive gets shrink wrapped before it’s placed on the back of the truck. That way they can travel to Canada or California or wherever the bees are going.”
The people in the car were staring, riveted, fascinated, a little frightened by the streaky clouds of black dots, like the twisting wisps of smoke that rise seconds before a flame ignites. The car was barely moving, creeping and bumping over the sandy pyramids left by the fire ants. Suddenly Lynn saw something. It was odd, there was something she couldn’t quite see beside one of the boxes, “Wait, slow down,” she said to Diana. They slowed almost to a stop.
“Close the windows! It’s hot, I know it’s hot, but close them – if just one bee gets in the car…” Diana’s voice was tense. “Wait, look there, look at that,” she pointed to where Lynn was already looking. A strip of red tape dangled from a metal stake at the side of a blue box. Beside the stake, rooted to the ground, an irregular dark form took shape. Lynn couldn’t make it out. Was it an animal? A small bear trying to get to the honey? Charlie sat up straighter, alert. Everyone was quiet. The car was at a stand still. Someone started to roll down a window, peering out.
“Oh no,” Lynn drew in her breath; “Oh no, I think it’s a raccoon. Oh shit, there’s a trap, it’s caught. One foot is caught – it can’t get out. The creature rose to standing, upright on two feet, its long ringed tail flat on the grass. It stood taller than a Labrador retriever, thin and a little mangy. The body was almost immobile, the nose pointed at them, helpless. Stricken. The eyes glinted black. The sun was brutal.
“Probably rabid,” Diana said, pressing hard on the button to close her window, which was already closed.
No water, no mercy, nothing to be done. No escape, only suffering. Diana and her husband seemed to be stunned: they were the ones who lived in this place, alone with the rattler and the alligator and the bees. No one said a word.
Lynn broke the silence, “Let’s go; please just go. Can we get out of here? Now; we have to go now.”
Nancy Barnes is an anthropologist and teacher who has now begun to write personal essays and stories. Her work has been published in Public Seminar, Hippocampus, Harpur Palate, Evening Street Review, and other journals. A native New Yorker, she and her partner divide their time between NYC and Northampton, MA.