In our beekeeper gloves, boots, and masks cinched tight with twine, Mar and I dig a hole. Six feet long and three feet wide. Deep enough to fit the old man below the red clay’s frost line. This is how I remember it beginning: the slowest two weeks of my life.
Middle of the day, late summer, humid as standing neck-high in a peat bog. No one comes speeding down the state road. That two-laner runs by our farmhouse, the walnut grove’s twenty beehives, and the rest of our acreage in Yell County, Georgia.
The sun and the hives’ droning boil the air. I already smoked the nearest colonies so they wouldn’t buzz us. And we locked Lawless back in the house, though his barking rages on.
Daddy lies covered by the old blue tarp in our one wheelbarrow. His steel hive tool sticks out my pocket, his tin smoker hangs off my belt loop.
Mar isn’t holding anything of his. She just keeps digging.
Beside the barrow we’ve piled the last twenty jars of his honey. We want the burying to last forever. We want it over with so we can go back inside the shady house with the swamp cooler and get to packing.
I’ve seen too many other folks hold on to their dead for weeks after, years even. They keep a seat for them at the table; they ask them to pass the butter. They never let go. I refused to go on that way: my hands grabbing the shirttails of Daddy’s spirit so he won’t leave us. He is dead and that is that. What he left behind is a bunch of honeybees. I have the uncommon sense that they will swell, and spread, and cover this land, and outlive us all.
I say, “Daddy’s proud of us.”
After she turns over another heap of earth, Mar stabs the shovel in the ground. She leans on it. Her whole suit heaves with each breath. She’s moved slower, as if suddenly old, in the two days between his death and now. “We should be the proud ones,” she says. “We’re what’s left.”
The urge to take off her mask charges down my arms and into my hands. I keep digging.
When she pulled on the mask this morning, her blue eyes faded to gray and her sagging pumpkin skin became that veil of steel mesh. She looked much reduced. That’s what flood plains Georgia does to a person. Living a month here is like living a year in softer places. It scrapes you away. Layer by layer, then speck by speck.
That’s not what happened to Daddy.
After the storm two days ago, a downed electrical wire lay across the state road. Having worked with electric crews before, he thought he could clear it with a wood claw rake. That wire’s live end jumped into his hands the way the dog always did.
The higher the heat rises in the grove, the more Mar and I hurry to put Daddy down.
With our income nil, we need to be out of this place in two weeks. We’ve leased our land from Jericho Trim my whole life. He owns a lot of Yell; he bought up the bankrupt Bates Sawmill where Daddy once worked and then left it to rot because he could. Now we owe him more money than we could stuff in a pillowcase.
I peel off the tarp. “What’s electrified supposed to look like?” I ask Mar. His black hair’s shiny wet, eyelids drawn down, mouth cracked open with dry brown teeth in the sun. The shock should have uncrossed his eyes, but I’m too chickenshit to check.
“Don’t matter what’s supposed.”
The feeling I get is that we’re of the same mind: let him be where he go.
“He was old enough,” she says. “That’s all matters.”
What I don’t know then—and do not to this day—is there ever an age when you aren’t?
After we flatten the hole’s bottom, Mar gets him by the shoulders and I get his feet. We lay him in. Then I pour the first jarful of honey over his thigh: my own little touch to the ceremony. I manipulate that honey into golden shapes: an X for the fallen, an H for the Harlan family name, a big old zigzag for I didn’t have a clue. By the end, a thick mask of it goops down his face.
Mar’s knees make a cracking noise. I expect her suit to suddenly cave in on itself, like she’s given up when I need her most.
Instead of collapsing, she undoes the twine and flips her mask onto the ground. She looks most gorgeous. Years younger than when she put it on hours ago. Her slender blonde curls browned with sweat. Her cheeks shock-red and eager. Makes me feel young, but in a worse way. Like I’m only half of seventeen then, and understand even less. I keep my mask on. I’m thinking, I don’t want to know what I look like. If I could, I’d wear this mask the next two weeks.
She sweeps the wet curls out of her suddenly green eyes. “You’re Man of the House now, Em. You’re Mr. Decision. I can’t stay out here any longer. Day’s too much for me.”
Over her shoulder I can see the new For Sale sign tilted toward the road. “Decisions is all bad news.”
“Get to Florida, we do fine.”
“We’re really moving, huh.”
She’s already headed inside. “Talk about a hot day.”
Once I fill the hole back in with the clay pile, it doesn’t look right. With the hive tool I tamp down a lump of beet-red earth. But it’s the color that’s off, the whole shebang. I stay out there. Not to prove I am tough or proud or anything great. Not to say goodbye to Daddy, either.
It’s the hives have me fixated.
After the mill went under, Daddy used to spend all day in the grove. He’d hold a queen in his palm, palm to his chin. He let the workers dangle down his neck in a heavy beard of wings and stick-legs and stingers. With all those bees taken to him, he looked point-blank invincible, smart enough that the rest of the world bent its ear to him. He got so good he didn’t need the smoker anymore, could do it blindfolded in the dark. I kept asking him to show me how. If you kill the queen, he told me, you’ve got to kill every last one—elsewise, they’ll chase you to the ends of the earth. The way they crawled all over him gave off an electricity that leapt between his crossed eyes. The one day he thought me old enough to grow a beard of bees, I crippled the queen. He said some of us will never be the good and ready kind. But I want to prove I am.
The day Daddy died, news zipped through Yell faster than the power outage. Right through Stumbles Hardware, the post office with Old Fly’s horse skeleton, the market selling fresh brown eggs. Yell was tough people on tough land. I once loved it all.
Cops came in their whitish cruisers. Mar’d already rolled Daddy onto the blue tarp and dragged him out of the road. The coroner, Mr. Jackies, drove up too. He handed out Marlboro 100s. Then he spread three certificates on the porch planks, his signatures still wet. We filed our papers of death.
Some neighbors brought pineapple upside-down cake and breads cut with crosses. They left cards of scribbled grief. Lots of folks drove by. Some slowed down to stare. Was there a mark? A scorch in the shape of his shoes? In his honor they poured out cans of Natty Light before they tossed their empties in the ditch.
While everyone smoked and talked on the porch, Lawless kept whining in the den. Smartest or dumbest mammal I ever met; I go back and forth on this. But the bee masks scared him. I put mine on and snicked the hive tool from the wall hook. Daddy’s old black and white bulldog had bitten my legs before, but he’d not gash me today. I needed to quit him and his oven knob of a tail as badly as I needed to rid myself of any grief ready to hatch inside me.
Daddy’s friends all put their hands on my shoulders and squeezed hard. They said to me: you now, she can’t, who else will, like I was that Man of the House. But what had I done? Shooting a gator cow and crouching by her eggs doesn’t make you that gator. It doesn’t make those eggs your eggs. I kept thinking: Florida, where Mar’s sister lived. Florida. Orange groves for miles on end. Palm trees wrapped in long snakes of Christmas lights. A whole coastline of plastic cities with green drawbridges and nothing I was prepared for.
Rather than stick around that evening while Yell spun its wheels about Daddy, I drove off in the pickup.
Ten miles down the state road I ended up at this transformer station. Little more than a chain-link square around two dozen breakers. Here, the county’s powerlines synced up. You’d think, with Daddy not yet six feet under but headed there on account of that voltage, a boy’d steer clear of hotspots. But with him gone, I felt a difference.
At some early leap in life where you opt whether or not to be overcome with emotion, I had hauled myself up on the banks of Never. Fuck crying. With my hands on the chain-link, I felt composed of something grander, or forced to be. Part clay, part stinger, part power and light. The endless hum of those transformers—I sopped it up through my fingers. I listened to the same old mystery talk of bees. I even hummed along, my face a blankety-blank. The comforts of home are that only when it is home, and long remaining so. As charged as I felt, I had no way to let that charge out. Now I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to, either.
Some days after we bury Daddy, Trim shows up. His twompy shoulders are all I can make out through the birdshit windshield of his blue Ranchero. I never met the man before—I’ve already made up my mind.
On the porch, I stay sitting with a full checkerboard in front of me and no one to play. All morning the corner of my eye has caught flashes of light from the grove: I keep expecting to turn and see Daddy’s raised hive tool throw the big sun my way. With his death and burial, I realize that each day promises some kind of disappearance, this day to prove no different.
In torn shorts on top of muckboots, sporting a clean black button-up, Trim lumbers to the porch’s corner. Into consideration he takes me and the chair opposite, empty but for my caved-in bee mask. “You any good?”
“Used to think so.”
Unlike when Mar or me walk across them, the porch planks bow under Trim’s steps. He casts a cornstalk shadow over the checkers. “This age? Smart boy like you ought to be a pro.”
I fake a yawn.
I don’t yet know how smart’s supposed to look without involving a swarm of honeybees, but Trim sounds like it.
His boots are scuffed like someone’s taken sandpaper to them. His rimless glasses? Scratched too. He smells like peat moss from poaching gators in the Okefenokee. From what Daddy told Mar, Jericho Trim is just a skinny Savannah cracker with big plans and a bad back. No more dangerous than gator skin on the floor.
He tries the front door. Past few days, Mar’s been locking the house. She’s the queer kind of woman who sticks it out when the chips are down. Yet still: Florida-bound we are. I fear and count on her to give in at the exact wrong time.
From his car Trim fetches a second ring of keys and undoes the deadbolt. He locks the keys back in his car. He pulls a flattened liquor box from his open-air trunk. He grins at me with two front teeth whiter than his others. “Make yourself useful.” He throws his chin toward the eleven other boxes before he steps inside.
I bring all but one to the porch. Inside his car: spare keys in the ashtray and a magazine flopped open on the passenger seat. In it, men and women are performing on each other with parts of their bodies I’d only ever touched myself.
In the kitchen Trim’s hunching over by the sink real close to Mar. She’s barefoot, wobbling there beside him. She wears khaki shorts like his and a blue homespun shirt. They both palm jars of tea. The storetag to his shirt peeks out the back of his collar. His other hand’s snaking behind her waist.
“Saw your magazine, Mr. Trim.” I wish I’d had the keys to steal it.
His head swings around like it hung on a hook and he lurches back against the counter.
I’m wearing the big gray bee mask.
Once recovered and with another gulp, he takes a seat at the table. “I read,” he finally says. “Keeps me honest.” He waves at the kitchen. “You all are still leaving, of course.” The room looks same as it always had: jars on hooks, jars in the dryrack. Bare trivets and an empty egg carton lying scavenged on the counter. “What is it they say about the early bird?”
“It gets the worm,” Mar answers.
“It gets the worm.” Trim slugs back more tea. “I always wondered why there weren’t enough worms to go around. Why can’t all the birds have their fair share?” He polishes his glasses with his shirt corner. He takes on airs of professionalism that would never fit a bog howler. If he’s here for the money, we know of none. “I suppose if there were enough worms, there’d just be more birds, and then we’re back to square one.” From the moment he stepped foot on our porch, he looked to be the kind of man brimming with contrary words. Sayings like that sound good to folks because they tell the same old lie that the world is fair.
“You get all those boxes, Killer?”
He cranes his neck toward the window facing the drive. “Trying to pull one, huh, Killer?”
I tell him the last one had a hole.
He leans in Mar’s direction and talks lower, sweeter. “Emory’s a sharp kid, Maris. Real sharp, thanks to your sharp teachings.” He runs a finger along the table’s iron rim. “I expect your late husband was quite prideful of the two of you.” She faces the window over the sink. Her hair glows fresh-washed in the sunlight. She grips her glass so fiercely, her knuckles burn eggshell white. I swear I can still hear the bees humming inside the house. Trim can tell he’s crossed some invisible line; he now folds both hands in his lap. “Emory’s a good deal like myself at this age. I bet we even have matching scars.” He winks at me.
I say to Mar, “We should tend the bees now.”
When she looks at me but neither nods nor shakes her head, I know she’s already picturing herself on a Florida beach, sinking into the sand. Sometimes I’ve wanted to lay her in the ground, too. I don’t know what else to say.
“Never was a fan of honey. But this tea is mighty fine, Maris.” Trim toasts her; she raises her glass but fails to drink. “Some might try to blame my aversion on the bees themselves. Loads of folks allergic to their apitoxins, you know.”
“Api-what?” asks Mar.
“The juice they stick in you.”
She makes the sourest face of an unhappy child.
“No allergy here. I’m merely a man conscious too late. Tongue too many sweets, find an equal number of cavities.” He runs his tongue over his teeth. “Cavities are blessings, compared. Some have it so bad, one sting and they go into a state of total paralysis.” He enunciates this last word slowly, like it might mean nothing if he didn’t. “Then they’d, well—I don’t need to say it.” He looks keenly to Mar like he already knows what she’ll say next.
She covers her mouth and looks to be holding it shut.
“Awful, yes. It pays to be a careful man. A careful young man of the house, right, Killer?” Trim winks at me again. He takes to swirling his jar and admiring it in the windowlight. For a poacher, he has the cleanest hands. Thick and unwrinkled. His nails trimmed the width of a dime. A man with hands that clean must have as much impatience as hard grit. “Will you be needing any assistance…” This trails off as he second-glances the kitchen.
“Don’t call me ‘Killer.’”
“Be nice, Em. Go patch the last box.” She sits down with her tea across from Trim. “And take off that mask.”
In Trim’s small smile, those two unlike teeth poke out like crooked hive frames. “Best do what she says. Your mother and I have some unfinished business.” He tips back his tea. He wipes his mouth on his sleeve. “Get your dog to help—What’s its name? Waffles?”
As if on cue, Lawless trots around the corner, gets one eyeful of Trim, and then takes a bite out of his calf. Lawless is half blind and his black spots look like fridge mold, but he can still surprise me. I’m sorry that Daddy’d not seen his dog do right for the first time. I laugh there in the kitchen until my teeth ache.