Editor’s Note: The story below is the first installment in a new serial novel by Laura Boggess, The Honey Field. Future installments of this delightful and intriguing story of love, loss, the earth and the bees, will be available to Tweetspeak Patrons only. Become a Patron to follow along.
No one had checked on the bees since early spring—not since Corrie got sick. She’d been meaning to get down there for weeks, but there was the funeral, and then the estate to settle … all the sympathy cards to acknowledge … the food and flowers. All summer long the bees had been left to tend to themselves. To which, Corrie had said, don’t worry about it. Those bees know better than we do how to do the work they do. Just make sure there’s no robbing going on. And check the queens. Make sure the hives are all still queenright.
The morning sun was mild, so she pulled on her garden boots and walked down the hill to the apiary. She wasn’t planning on opening the boxes. Not yet. She’d wait until the afternoon when they would be out foraging. But the thought of the neglected hives had been nagging on her all week. She just wanted to look them over from the outside, see if there was anything obvious amiss. Besides, she needed to brush up on the inspection technique. She’d never done this by herself. Corrie kept all the equipment and the protective gear in a shed close to the hives. She’d just look around. Scare off the snakes. Re-familiarize herself with all the things.
In truth, she’d never wanted the blasted critters. But she could never say no to Corrie. Whatever Corrie wanted; Corrie got. Ever since they were kids. There never was anybody but Corrie for her. They’d both had false starts. But it didn’t take long for them to find their way back to one another. And now, here she was, 25 years later. Left to deal with the infernal bees on her own.
How it would grieve Corrie if she were to lose these bees.
It took a few minutes before she realized she was crying. Angrily, she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. She was so tired of crying.
Do not stand at my grave and weep.
She’d read it just this morning. That poem by Mary Elizabeth Frye. It was in a collection of poems someone sent in the mail by way of condolences. What was that book called? Earth Song. That was it. “A Nature Poems Experience,” read the subtitle. Who sent that book? Ah, yes. It was Sarah. Corrie’s only daughter. Sarah knew. “May these words heal your heart the way they are healing mine. May you find peace and solace in nature and the many memories you shared surrounded by this good earth.”
She remembered the words easily because they reminded her of Corrie so much.
Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.
Corrie had said something of the like before passing.
“Don’t cry when I’m gone. I can’t abide the thought of you crying. Not for me. Not for anything. Just remember how happy we’ve been. How many good years we’ve had. Remember that first time I kissed you—under the stars, out in the meadow. Remember how surprised we both were. And how many kisses we’ve had since. Remember that. It will make you smile, like it’s making me smile right now.”
It did make her smile. Through tears, sure, but she was smiling.
The shed was being overtaken by multiflora rose. Darn that stuff! She recalled Corrie’s battles with the invasive shrub and shook her head in frustration. She’d have to get the Brown boys out here to do some weed eating. They’d done a nice job on the front lawn. She wasn’t one for lawn maintenance. She’d do just about anything but.
She sighed and approached the shed, stomping heavily to warn any snakes in the vicinity. The door only stuck a little, swollen with rain and neglect. She shouldered her way in, wiping a spider-web from the entry as she passed through.
Inside, it took a minute for her eyes to adjust to the dim light. She inhaled. It smelled of earth and dust. She walked over to one of the windows and lifted the blind to let the morning light in, waving away more cobwebs on the way. She looked around. Everything was tidy and in its proper place, if not in need of a good airing out. A single shaft of sunlight fell through the pane, honeying Corrie’s oak potting table, illuminating dust motes in the air. The bee suit hung on a hook on the west wall and the light was slowly moving up the length of it. The years had yellowed the coarse white fabric. The veil sat on the floor at its feet, along with the gloves. Everything was still … waiting.
Earth-scent, golden light, a song in her brain, a memory, a memory, a memory …
Suddenly the beauty of it all was too much and she had to leave.
She fell asleep reading Earth Song and dreamed of Inversnaid. “It was inspired by the time Hopkins spent in a village in the Scottish Highlands,” Sarah had told her when she asked. “Burn is the word for brook in the Scottish dialect. He uses some other Scottish dialectic words that can make it a tricky poem to read if you don’t know. Google up an analysis of the poem and you’ll see what I mean.”
She did. And now she was walking beside a stream in the Scottish Highlands. The dew-soaked hills surrounding her fell into the water, creating a rolling reel of light and shadow, filling her spirit with an indescribable ecstasy.
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
She reached out beside her to grab Corrie’s hand …
The tolling tones of her cell phone jarred her awake. It took her a minute to re-orient, but the phone kept ringing. She grieved losing a Corrie visitation. They were becoming ever rarer. Poetry seemed to bring them on, though. She made a mental note to read at least one poem from the book a day. She sighed and picked up the intruding instrument.
“Hey, friend, it’s Rhoda. Sorry I missed your call. What’s up?”
“Hey, there! Thanks for getting back to me so quickly. I have a favor to ask, and please, don’t hesitate to say no if you’re too busy.”
There was a slight pause, so she rushed forth with her request.
“It’s Corrie’s bees. I was wondering if you’d have time to help me get up to speed on their keeping. They haven’t been inspected since late spring, before, ah, before Corrie was too sick to tend to them. I’ve been down to the meadow and done an outside inspection. Saw nothing alarming, no robbing, no excessive bee carcasses outside, no evidence of critter tampering … I just … Well, when it came to opening the hives, I chickened out. I’m afraid I’ll do something wrong.”
There was still silence from the other end. Finally, Rhoda said, “Corrie’s bees,” slowly, as if trying to figure something out.
“Yep,” she responded.
“They look good from the outside?”
“I think I can make time to help you inspect. How many hives all together?”
“Just seven. All in proximity.”
“Tell you what, if you don’t mind me bringing a class down to observe, we could come this Saturday afternoon. Would that work?”
“Yes, of course, that would be awesome! Thank you, Rhoda. I’m so, so grateful.”
“I’ll email you specifics of the logistics, but I’ll bring my own tools, so shouldn’t be much prep required. This is actually great experience for my student beekeepers. So thanks goes to you.”
She felt her eyes begin to smart at her friend’s graciousness.
“You’re the best, Rhoda.”
Saturday arrived with blue sky and low humidity. She had gathered all the gear Rhoda suggested and placed it outside the shed for easy access: smoker, hive tool, bee brush, protective gear, a couple additional boxes and frames in case they need to add on to the existing setup, and the first aid kit in case of emergencies. Rhoda said she would have her own supplies, but she wanted to do some of the hands-on work so she would develop the confidence needed to take care of the bees on her own.
She was nervous. Not of the bees, but the people. She hadn’t spoken to one single person, other than Sarah—and the Brown boys—since Corrie’s funeral. And she’d only spoken to them on the phone. She knew she’d become a bit of a recluse, but still had little desire for human company. Now she was welcoming a group of ten or so people, not only into her meadow, but her home. She’d offered to provide lunch for the group as a way of thanking them for their help. She’d picked up some cheeses and meats at the deli, some portabella caps to roast for the plant eaters, and thrown together a quick sandwich tray to keep things simple. But Corrie always said she couldn’t keep things simple and, true to form, she’d decided last night to make some peach tarts to throw in the oven while everyone was eating their sandwiches. They only needed to bake for fifteen minutes, and she had that bushel of peaches the Brown boys brought when they mowed the grass last week. The recipe she used called for rosemary honey drizzled on top. She thought it a perfect pairing with their bee work. There were still several jars of Corrie’s honey in the pantry. She decided to put the tarts together ahead of time, hoping the puff pastry wouldn’t get gummy, so all she’d have to do is pop them in the oven when they returned to the house.
The class was arriving at eleven, so she had an hour to prepare. She pulled the shallots out of the fridge and carefully washed and dried them before cutting them into thin slices. Then she heated some olive oil and sauteed them, stirring in some apple cider vinegar after a couple minutes to caramelize the shallots nicely. Pinch of salt and twist of the pepper mill. Setting that aside, she sliced up the peaches, ignoring the juice oozing over the cutting block. Then she sliced two wheels of brie and pulled out the puff pastry she had thawed overnight. She cut the pastry into twelve individual portions (to be safe—always better to have more than less when entertaining). Over the individual squares she layered shallots, brie slices, fresh basil (chopped), and the peaches. She folded the edges of the pastry up and pressed the tines of a fork over the lip to secure. Then she brushed some egg wash over the edges; she would drizzle a little more oil and add more salt and pepper before putting them in the oven. She’d made the rosemary honey last night (2/3 cup honey, 4 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary, cracked black pepper to taste) so the flavors had time to mingle.
Sliding the tray of tarts into the fridge, she glanced at the clock. They would be here in twenty minutes! She ran to the bathroom and did a quick swab on the toilet, then ran a comb through her limp hair. She stared at herself in the mirror for a minute, trying to decide if she cared enough to add some lipstick.
She leaned in closer to her reflection. The ten pounds she’d lost in the past three months showed in her face, her eyes and cheeks hollowed out, sinking deeper into her round chin and jawline. There were purple shadows under her eyes, etchings around the beak of her mouth she didn’t remember. She looked like an owl—round and angular all at once. What was that line she’d read in the Earth Song poems this morning? The owl/ rehearses a song to life./ It refuses to presage its own death.
Is that what she was doing? If she rehearsed—pretended—a song of life long enough, would her heart begin to beat again?
She remembered something Corrie had said in the last days.
“Please take care of your body. I know how you forget to eat when you’re sad. I know how you stop sleeping. Don’t do that when I’m gone, ok? Take care of that body that I love so much. Do it for me. Please?”
She grabbed an elastic and pulled her hair into a ponytail. She wasn’t sure it helped but at least it tidied up her appearance. She opened the drawer in the vanity. Her fingers hesitated over a small tube of pink when the doorbell rang.
She closed the drawer quietly. One thing at a time.
Explore Earth Song
I am so grateful for this collection of poems. So many of my poetry heroes are in this book–Gerard Manley Hopkins and Robert Frost, Jane Hirshfield, Wendell Berry, Li-Young Lee, Pablo Neruda, Tomas Tranströmer–such a powerful gathering of voices that span centuries and continents. I love, too, that there are many poets in this collection who are new to me. And, full disclosure, I am so grateful to have a poem in this collection as well, conversing with these other poets about the earth and all the ways it holds us and how we, too, are called to care for it. I love that Barkat has done the work of gathering poems that bring us into deeper connection with this fragile and resilient planet and with each other.”
—Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer