SINS OF THE BEES – a novel excerpt
by Annie Lampman
(Release Date: September 1, 2020 from Pegasus Books/Simon & Schuster)
Silva finally found the road to McGregor’s. Dust rose behind her, gravel pinging against the undercarriage as she navigated washboards, ratcheted enough by the ruts that she was forced to creep along or be pitched off the side of the road, and it was a good thing, or she would have driven past the driveway, overgrown as it was, even with its colorful mailbox—a standard-issue front-hinge, red-flagged version, but painted bright turquoise with a yellow sun wrapping from one side to the other, orange words painted on each ray: McGregor’s Healthy Hive-Fresh Honey.
She took a deep breath as she drove in—a trail of breadcrumbs leading her here: Isabelle’s last known residence. A run-away artist grandmother, the last of Silva’s family line.
A dozen chickens scattered from a weed-heavy yard, clucking and flying up to perch on a porch rail that looked as if it might give way under them. There was an old log house, dilapidated in that particular turn-of-the-century charm. But it was a tree next to the house that caught Silva’s attention. An ancient lilac—masterfully pruned, elegant branches gracefully reaching outward, no suckers or sprouts or offshoots. Bees hummed the crown in a steady drone, searching out the last nectar, as Silva stood under it, wondering if Isabelle had had a hand in shaping it, too, just as she’d had a hand in shaping the honeysuckle bonsai.
Silva walked to the front porch, a host of scolding clucks behind her. But then, just as she lifted her hand to knock, a grizzle-bearded man came charging up the porch steps, further dithering the hens.
“Sorry about that—these ladies think they own the place,” he said as he wiped his hands on the baggy floral apron he wore over his cutoffs, his hair frizzed into a gray nimbus, his bare feet so dirt-blackened it looked as if he’d been working in tar. “Eli McGregor, at your service.” He clasped Silva’s hand between both of his own and looked her over, shaking his shaggy head in disbelief. “You’re the spitting image of someone I knew,” he said in soft wonder, his voice wistful. “She loved that lilac, too. Painted it over and over again. . . .”
Silva’s arms prickled into goose bumps. She wanted to say Isabelle’s name, but Eli held the front door open and gestured her inside.
“Come, come, my dear. It’s a fine day for the bees,” he said, navigating a zigzagging footpath through a maze of books, boxes, Mason jars, and heaps of newspapers that had sloughed off into small avalanches of print, everything covered in layers of dust. A bachelor’s pad gone to seed. Ducking under dried herb bunches hanging from the kitchen’s entrance, he motioned for Silva to sit at a table next to a claw-foot tub, a bottle of peppermint soap on the windowsill behind it.
“Bees,” Eli said, waving his hands. “Bees are more than just makers of honey. They’re the royalty of insects, the monarchy of order, the matriarchs of nature.” He scowled in concentration as he filled a teakettle with water and shoved a few pieces of kindling under the burner of a wood cookstove until flames licked up. “You have to respect them, or they won’t respect you. They’ll leave you scorned and alone. You’ve got to treat them right. . . . They don’t just take to anybody, you know. They have fine taste, high standards.”
As the kettle started to hiss, he pulled down one of the dried herb bunches and crumbled its leaves into two heavy ceramic mugs. The smell of peppermint filled the kitchen.
Silva imagined a trace of DNA she might sense in this place where Isabelle had last been, like a honeybee locating the source of nectar.
“Everything I know, they taught me,” Eli said, thrusting a steaming mug into her hands before grabbing two spoons. “Come—we must go upstairs for the most important ingredient.”
They climbed a winding set of wooden stairs, the staircase low-ceilinged and narrow enough that Silva’s shoulders brushed the walls as she climbed, careful not to tip the sodden stew of leaves in her cup, the peppermint fumes so strong her eyes watered.
A low hum filled the space, the walls themselves vibrating. Two five-panel doors off the landing were closed, each painted dark green with light green panels. Eli thrust his mug into Silva’s hand, nudged a rolled-up towel away from the bottom of the closest door, and tapped on the door with his knuckles before opening it.
The hum became louder even though the room seemed empty: bare log walls, bare floor, and, at the far end, a small window that let in the afternoon’s bright light.
Eli motioned for Silva to stay at the doorway as he walked to the corner of the room, a spoon in each hand. He crouched to lift a floorboard, exposing the active comb beneath it. Bees were suddenly everywhere, landing on Eli’s exposed hands and the back of his neck, the space alive with buzzing. He stuck a spoon down and scooped honey off a section of comb attached to the underside of the plank, then repeated it with the second spoon, twirling them as he stood, keeping the amber thread wrapped upon itself. He came out, closed the door, and plunked the spoons in their mugs of tea.
Bees were in the hallway now, fifteen or more crawling all over his head and face, but he only nodded and said, “This, my dear, is hive-fresh honey.”
“To the bees,” Silva said, lifting her mug in toast before she took a drink, careful to avoid the sodden peppermint leaves and bee parts floating on the surface. She’d always thought of honey as the plastic bears lined up next to peanut butter and jelly, honey that tasted dusty, as if left exposed in a musty room. But Eli’s honey was robust and hearty, not only delicately floral but bursting with the tang of earth and sun. Clover, honeysuckle, thistle—she could taste them all.
“I knew when the time was right someone would come,” Eli said. “And now here you are. The one we’ve been waiting for. They won’t abandon you as they have the others. . . .”
The reverberation those words had: they won’t abandon you, the bees waggling their way through Eli’s thick beard, circling around his head as if crowning him. Something regal, something gilded and otherworldly about all of it—Eli’s floral apron and dirty feet, his wild hair crawling with bees. Silva felt as though she were receiving a benediction. Something she hadn’t known she’d been looking for, but something that felt so true she wanted to kneel and bow her head, let Eli grant her all he was offering.
“I came here hoping to find someone,” she said, the sudden emotion she felt welling up so powerfully she had to look away, focus on anything besides Eli’s questioning face. Everything leading to this moment. “I believe you knew her. Isabelle Fullbrook, my grandmother,” she finally said, her throat gone tight around the words. A name uttered, the universe taking notice, the momentum set.
And just like that, Eli’s face transformed, going from surprise to pained sorrow in one quick sweep. A gut-punched mime acting out his pain. “Isabelle,” he said with quiet, wondering sadness. Love and loss and all that lay in between. A family of ghosts gone to roost. “I didn’t know she had family,” he said, his awe soft. Full of tenderness. He had loved her, too—Isabelle.
“I don’t think she did either,” Silva said, trying to give Isabelle’s desertion room for the unknowns life was always full of, even if in this case the unknown was Silva herself. She had the urge to hold out her arms, say, Here I am, in all my tattered glory. A scarecrow husk left out to weather until it disintegrated into empty rags of mourning. But Eli turned away abruptly, going down the stairs to the front door.
At first, Silva thought he was going to usher her out the same as he’d invited her in, but he just stood in the threshold, gently brushing away the bees still crawling on him. Little yellow bodies tumbled and flew from his hair and joined the others already airborne in a steady activity of motion above the hens who had perched back on the porch rail, feathers fluffed contentedly. A small, peaceable kingdom.
“The scientists don’t know what it is, you know,” he said, walking to the kitchen. “Mites, pesticides, radio waves, genetically modified crops, neonicotinoids, viruses, fungus, bacteria. But it’s all right there in their name for it: colony collapse disorder. You have to keep your colonies strong, protect them, nurture them, give them everything they need to thrive, or they will leave, collapse. Disappear. It’s always been the rule of the universe—perhaps more so now than ever. Our world is dying from all the ills we’ve subjected it to, one poison after another.”
Silva thought of the pathogens of place, of family. All the things that outside pestilence could jeopardize. She stared at the wilted peppermint leaves in the bottom of her mug, wishing they might offer some kind of answer to everything she’d come find, to ask.
A bee Eli had missed crawled up his arm, high-stepping over wiry arm hair, its hair as fuzzed as his, its eyes as big and round as a baby’s. He reached down and carefully pinched it between his finger and thumb, looked at it thoughtfully a moment, then opened the kitchen window and released it to join the others. When it had flown, he laid a gnarled hand over Silva’s. “I’m sorry, lass,” he said. “Isabelle came and left and took this old man’s heart with her. It looks like she did the same to you.”
Annie Lampman is the author of the novel SINS OF THE BEES (Sept 1, 2020, Pegasus Books/Simon & Schuster) and the letter-press limited-edition poetry chapbook BURING TIME (August 2020, Limberlost Press). Her essays, poetry, and short fiction have been published or are forthcoming in sixty-some literary journals and anthologies such as The Normal School, Orion Magazine, The Massachusetts Review, and Women Writing the West. Her work has been awarded the Dogwood Literary Award in Fiction, the Everybody Writes Award in Poetry, a Best American Essays Notable, a Pushcart Prize Special Mention, the 2020 Literature Fellowship by the Idaho Commission on the Arts, an Idaho Arts writing grant, and a national wilderness artist’s residency through the Bureau of Land Management. She is an Associate Professor of Honors Creative Writing at the Washington State University Honors College and lives in Moscow, Idaho on the Palouse Prairie where she grows a pollinator garden full of honeybees, solitary bees, bumblebees, butterflies, and songbirds. https://annielampman.com