(photo by Eternal Photography)
(Part of Project Unicorn: A Lesbian YA Extravaganza, updated twice weekly on Mondays and Thursdays with a free, original, never-before-published YA short story featuring a lesbian heroine. Also, every story is a work of genre fiction [Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Dystopian, Post-apocalyptic, etc.].)
“The Bee Telling”
by Sarah Diemer
I forgot my shoes. I had to leave, had to get out of there, running, stubbing my toe on the doorframe to get away from them, the hovering blackbird women, drawing me close in the folds of their sweaters to tell me how sorry they are over and over and over again.
Tammie’s at the beginning of the path in the woods. I knew she’d be here, knew it, but I still can’t help crying when I reach her, out of breath, my too-small black dress pinching me under my shoulders as I reach up, wrap my arms around her, squeeze so tightly because I need to know she’s real, alive. Here.
She gulps in air, pulls me so close, I don’t know where she ends, where I begin. Maybe we’re one thing, the same creature, black hair, blonde hair, merging, her freckled white skin and my soft brown stitching together with the worn black thread from my dress. If we’re the same thing, we can’t be separated.
I kiss her so roughly my teeth hurt, all animal in that heartbeat. She kisses back, but she’s hesitant, questioning.
Am I sure that I want this right now? Right after the funeral?
Yes. Please. Anything to fill this ache.
“I’m sorry,” she whispers into my ear when we break apart, and I back away, then, pressing my hand to her mouth like a wild thing, feeling her breath damp and hot against my palm.
“Please don’t say that,” I whisper, my heart pounding in my ears so loudly, it sounds like the wind through the trees, roaring, branches breaking. “I can’t take it if you say it.”
So she nods, tears squeezing out of the corners of her bright blue eyes, and we stand there, holding onto each other tightly, no space between us, neither one of us wanting to be the one who lets go.
I do, eventually. I break away, taking a lungful of air in as I rub at my crusty red eyes, trying not to think. I’ve been trying not to think for so long that it’s almost second nature now to push down the hovering hollowness, the great yawning empty feeling that threatens me with open jaws if I look over my shoulder.
“Together,” Tammie says, like she promised me when this all started. She leans forward and snatches up my hand, threading her fingers through mine, and this is how we begin down the path into the woods, Tammie a little ahead of me, a solid presence with her long, tangled blonde hair and her warm skin that smells of soap.
I want to tell her things. Like I don’t know when social services is coming. They were supposed to let my aunt know last night, but the funeral happened, and no one knows anything. Will they take me? Will I stay here? Will my aunt look after me? Will they let her? My insides are squeezed so tight in this too-small black dress that I can’t breathe, not really, so I take short little huffs as we walk quickly into the slanted, late afternoon sunshine.
“What do you have to do?” Tammie breaks the silence as she pauses on the path, her hand slick with sweat from my palm, but I don’t want to let go, so I squeeze my fingers tighter, squeeze her tighter. “You know…” She waves her fingers, licks her lips. She’s nervous, I can tell. Tammie’s pretty superstitious. She’s being brave to be with me right now.
“I guess just say it to them,” I answer, pushing my hair out of my eyes.
It’s something I should have asked her about, and she would have told me. She would have told me anything. But she’s gone, and she can’t tell me now, and I don’t know how to do it, but I have to, so I have to figure it out.
Momma was always the bee teller. That’s what makes all of this seem wrong somehow. It shouldn’t be me out here, making the trek up the hill to the meadow with the weight, heavy, carried in my heart. Momma was the one to take the news to the bees, always at the closing of the day, as the afternoon draped around her like a tired dress. She’d leave me playing in the cabin, and she’d put on her hat and her boots, and she’d take me by the shoulders and tell me to mind myself because she had a bee telling that needed done. And she’d go, then, leave for hours. Come back with a handful of flowers, no smile, quiet.
And the people in town rested easy, because as long as the bees knew you were dead, your soul could rest. The families would thank her with a crock of honey or a loaf of fresh baked bread or a hug. Momma didn’t need anything for the bee telling, she’d say to them. But it was important. And the people knew her gesture needed to be repaid.
And then Momma died.
And who tells the bees for the bee teller?
I wish I’d asked her. I wish… I stumble; Tammie catches my arm, helps me up. I can’t see again because the stupid tears keep coming.
The path is twisted with rutted tree roots, but between them, the forest floor is made smooth with the carpet of rotting leaves from the past autumn, the color drained away and gone, like blood. I keep my eyes ahead, on Tammie, on the path.
On the meadow that opens up in front of us, cresting over a smooth green hill bursting with green hay and wildflowers.
The bees are everywhere.
I close my eyes, stop, listen. I can hear the panting of Tammie’s breath, can hear the single drip of sweat rolling down her temple, can hear the thousands of beetles burrowing into the earth below our feet, the worms that dance through the dirt and the dark alone. But nothing is as loud as the symphony of bees, of bees rising around us, moving from flower to flower, lifting up into the air on an excess of wings that glitter in the descending sunlight.
Tammie squeezes my hand, lets me go. I falter a little when her skin leaves mine. I waver back and forth for a solid heartbeat. I’m alone now, and I didn’t feel that aloneness until her sweat-slick palm was gone. But then I take a step forward, and another one, up and into the meadow. The sunshine hits me when I come out from beneath the trees, the heat and weight of it making me stagger, but I continue on up until I’m at the top of the meadow. If I looked to the right, I could see down and into the bay, but I don’t look to the right, gaze down only, at the countless flowers, at the countless bees that rise around me like fire, like air, the sky thick with their gold-black kingdoms.
Momma says that humans started bee telling a long time ago. That it was important for the bees to know so that they could tell the rest of the world to let the soul go. The bees were the only way a soul could go on to its other business, being dead and all.
There was supposed to be time. She was supposed to teach me, like Gramma taught her. There’s got to be something to it, something I don’t know, and what if they don’t listen? I swallow, rub at my face with my dirty hands. If the bees don’t hear me, does that mean Momma’s stuck forever?
I don’t know what I pray to, but all I can think is: Please, please, please. Maybe I’m praying to the bees.
I hold up my hands, my palms to the sunshine, let the sun warm them, warm me.
And, sudden-like, this warm and golden feeling moves through me. Like I swallowed a big spoon of honey. I breathe out, breathe in. And then I whisper, “I have something to tell you.”
I hear Tammie move up the hill behind me, feel her warmth against my side as she puts her arms around my middle, pressing her breasts, her stomach, to my back. Our hearts beat together, together, as I feel everything slowing, stilling, the golden feeling merging me and her together, moving through us both now.
I can feel it.
The buzz of the bees rises in crescendo, and then they come to me, swirling around Tammie and me, the pitch of their song rising as the bees gather together.
I open my eyes, watch them sweep about us, and for half a moment, I’m afraid.
Tell them, she’d whispered.
And I’d said: Yes.
“Momma’s gone,” I begin, but the words are too soft, are choked out of my mouth, and Tammie squeezes me for reassurance, and I swallow, still my heartbeat. Think of Momma, the way she smiled, the skin crinkling at the edges of her eyes, the careful way that she’d braid the bread together. She wasn’t perfect, god knows. But she loved me no matter what.
“Sandra Wilkins is gone from this earth,” I whisper to the swarm of insects, to the countless bees that swirl like a buzzing tornado around Tammie and me. “Sandra Wilkins is gone.”
When I close my eyes, I see her smiling face, her broad-brimmed hat, her dirty boots, her arms, held out to me.
You’re the bee teller now, I hear, clear as day. My eyes shoot open, and the tears come again, because for half a heartbeat, in the center of the rising dance of bees, I see her.
The bees disperse. They rise, up and up, toward the sky, the clouds, the bee telling done. If Momma was right, they’ll go to the ends of the earth now, tell all the creatures that one of their own is gone. That Sandra Wilkins has left this earth.
And then the dirt will relinquish her soul. And she’ll continue on, as she’s meant to.
I stand, mouth open, watching the trail of bees vanish into the sky.
“They heard me,” I whisper to Tammie, who holds me close, who squeezes me tight.
The meadow is silent except for our heartbeats, the brush of skin as Tammie kisses my cheek.
We holds hands tightly on the way down the hill, my heart heavy and light and strange, all at once.
I’m the bee teller now.
If you liked “The Bee Telling,” you can now enjoy entire collections worth of stories in Project Unicorn, Volume One on your eReader or in person in paperback form (I’m a real book!), and support the project at the same time!
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Sarah Diemer is an award-winning author of lesbian young adult (YA), speculative fiction. Her debut novel, The Dark Wife, the YA, lesbian retelling of the Persephone myth won the 2012 Golden Crown Literary Award for Speculative Fiction, and was nominated for a Parsec Award (first two chapters of the audiobook). She writes her lesbian adult fiction under the pen name Elora Bishop, including the Sappho’s Fables: Lesbian Fairy Tales series, which she co-writes with her wife, author Jennifer Diemer.
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