Authors: Valerie Geary
In loving memory of my mother.
Also for Kristy, my best sister.
e found the woman floating facedown in an eddy where Crooked River made a slow bend north, just a stone skip away from the best swimming hole this side of anywhere. Her emerald-green blouse was torn half open and her dark, pleated skirt was bunched around her waist, revealing skin puckered and gray, legs bloated and bruised. Her hair writhed like black snakes in the current. I poked her back with a stick. Not mean, but gentle, the way you might poke someone who’s asleep. She skimmed the surface, bumped against a half-submerged rock, and returned to where Ollie and I stood at the water’s edge. She bobbed there in the shallows in a tangle of brown leaves, her arms outstretched, fingers reaching, and it seemed like she was settling in to wait for someone else to come find her. Like maybe we weren’t good enough, Ollie and me, just two girls with skinny arms and skinny legs who didn’t know the first thing about death. We did, though. We knew more than we wanted to anyway.
I dabbled the stick in the water near the woman’s foot. “What do you think happened to her?”
Beside me, Ollie tugged her braid, a pale rope knotted all the way down her back. When she let her hair down, the ends curled near midthigh, almost reaching her knees, but since we’d buried our mother Ollie kept it all tied back and tucked away. And not just her hair, her voice, too—she hadn’t said a single word in nearly four weeks.
“We should go back to the meadow,” I said. “Get Bear.”
Ollie, still clutching her braid, leaned into my leg.
“Well, cover your eyes at least.”
But she didn’t.
I was fifteen that summer, and Ollie was ten, and maybe we should have been more surprised or grossed out or whatever else normal kids might feel finding a dead body, but we were both still dazed from the funeral and everything that came before. Everything that came after.
I crouched close to the water, wanting to touch her, the dead woman, wondering if she would feel the way our mother had: cold, like rubber, a deflated balloon. All her life, breath, heat, gone. And in that moment before I reached and grabbed her shoulder, rolled her just enough to see her face, I felt a twisting dread that she would be no stranger at all, but someone we would recognize, another someone we loved taken too soon.
Her eyes were open, hazel and bloodshot. Her mouth, a dark gaping hole. One of her front teeth was missing. There was a deep gash above her left eye and something, a fish or a crawdad maybe, had pulled at the skin around it, eaten the flesh underneath all the way down to the bone. Mud streaked her shirt, weeds tangled in her hair, and welts covered her face, her arms, her chest and collarbone. The darkest marks, almost black against her faded skin, were around her neck. Here were impressions of fingers wrapping the circumference, thumbs pressing against her windpipe.
I stared at her face and then, when no name came to mind, I turned to Ollie. “She look familiar to you?”
Ollie pushed her glasses up high on her nose and shook her head.
Still, she was somebody’s somebody and we couldn’t just leave her.
“We should do something. Shouldn’t we? Tell someone?” And then again, because I couldn’t remember if I said it out loud the first time, “We should do something.”
I readjusted my grip on the woman’s shoulder and tried to pull her closer to shore, but she was slippery and much heavier than I expected, and she dragged along the river bottom like something was snagged around her ankle. I dug my toes into the mud and pulled hard, but I wasn’t strong enough. The dead woman slipped from my grasp and dropped facedown into the water again, creating a wave big enough to push her out of the eddy and into the middle of the river where the current raged. She spun halfway around until her head was pointing downstream, then she was sucked away.
I splashed in after her but stopped when the water reached my knees. Heavy spring rains and melting snowpack had turned Crooked River into a thundering flood. Boulders protected our swimming hole from the violent current, but past that, where I stood now, the river gathered itself up again and rushed north, curving around Terrebonne and connecting with the Deschutes River miles from here. White water slammed against my calves. My toes burned from cold. I kept waiting for the dead woman to snag on something, a log or a boulder, or get flushed into another eddy, but she flew straight and fast down the middle where the water was thick and churning. After a few seconds, she looked more like a stick than a person. A few seconds more and she disappeared completely.
Maybe she hadn’t been real, only a trick of shadow and light. But my heart was thumping so fast it hurt and the hair on my arms stood on end, and I could still feel her cold flesh under my fingers, still see her face, her hollow eyes staring up at me. She was as real as real gets, and we had lost her.
A splash in the river sounded behind me, and then Ollie slipped her hand into mine. She was sucking hard on her bottom lip. The water surged around her waist. The greedy current clawed at her, trying to drag her under and away from me. I tightened my grip on her hand. Ollie blinked up at me and then looked behind us toward the woods and the path that would take us back to the meadow. She pulled my arm.
“Where do you think she’ll end up?” I asked, turning my gaze again to the rapids.
Ollie pulled harder, tugging me toward the riverbank.
We waded ashore. Water dripped from our bare legs and shorts and turned the dirt around our feet to mud. We’d left our shoes on a log. I picked up both pairs by their laces and then put my arm around Ollie’s shoulders and steered her toward the path.
“Bear will know what to do,” I said.
We walked in silence, single file through the trees. Normally, the branches around and above us would be a bright symphony of birdsong and rustling leaves, but not today. The birds were hiding. The trees were still. Too quiet, and the shadows were cold. I urged Ollie to walk faster.
ear’s meadow was ten minutes from the river along a narrow path that wove through white alders and sugar pines. It used to be part of an alfalfa field. Then it was a horse pasture. When the horses died, Zeb tore the fence down and let the grass grow tall and the flowers bloom. Eight years ago Bear moved in, but he hadn’t changed much. He put up a teepee and planted a vegetable garden, dug a fire pit and an outhouse, and brought in a picnic table, and of course there were the hives. But there was no electricity, only the sun. No plumbing, only the river and a barrel to catch the rain. No roof over our heads to blot out the stars, no television to drown out the bird and cricket songs, no asphalt to burn the soles of our feet. Most kids would probably hate a place like this, but to me it was home.
I’d been spending my Augusts in the meadow with Bear since I was seven. On the first Friday of the month, Mom would drive us from our house in Eugene to the Johnson farm just outside Terrebonne, where Bear would be waiting on Zeb and Franny’s front porch. We ate breakfast together crowded around the Johnsons’ kitchen table, and after, Bear and Mom would go and sit on the front porch swing. They’d rock and hold hands and talk in low voices. Ollie always tried to listen at the screen door, and I always pulled her away—what Mom and Bear whispered about out there was none of our business. When it was time for Mom and Ollie to drive back to Eugene, Bear and I walked them to the car. Mom pulled me close and kissed the top of my head and told me to be good and obey my father. Then she kissed Bear and told him she loved him for always. After they were gone, Bear and I walked a quarter mile from the farmhouse to the meadow along a dirt road pocked with holes. I picked flowers and told him about school and swim team; he carried my duffel and sleeping bags and told me what was new with his bees.
The first few summers I stayed with Bear, Ollie was too young to come along, and after that, when she was finally old enough, she decided to go to summer camp with her friends instead. This was the first year Ollie was staying with us in the meadow rather than going to camp. Our first year, too, without Mom.
The Johnsons technically owned the meadow and Bear paid them rent, but what had started out as a simple landlord/tenant relationship had, over the years, grown into something more like family. In the coldest parts of winter, Zeb and Franny let Bear stay in their guest room. If he needed to drive somewhere, they let him borrow their truck. They had him over for dinner a couple of times a week. In exchange, he’d do things for them around the farm—fix fences, mow grass, replace shingles. Bear’s parents died before I was born, but from what I’d learned eavesdropping, they weren’t the nicest people. And Mom’s parents lived on the East Coast, visiting once a year at Thanksgiving and sending twenty-dollar checks on our birthdays. Zeb and Franny were more like grandparents to me and Ollie than our actual grandparents, and since they lived so close to the meadow, Mom never worried about me staying with Bear. She knew Zeb and Franny were watching out for me, too. I think that’s the real reason Grandma agreed to let us stay here after Mom died. If not for Zeb and Franny, we’d be in Boston right now.
But this was only a trial period. We had six months to prove the meadow was safe and Bear was a good father. Six months to convince her we could thrive here. Three days in, we weren’t off to a very good start.
hen we reached the meadow, we found Bear in the apiary hunched over his newest Langstroth hive, billowing smoke into a narrow opening in the front panel. So intent was his focus on the bees, he didn’t notice us stop in the shade to watch.
He wore long sleeves and pants, but no gloves, no veil, no hat. “Bees recognize those who cherish them,” he told me once. “They can tell who respects their hard work and generosity and who just wants to take advantage. If you come to the hive humble and gracious, you won’t get stung.” He set his tin can smoker on the ground and lifted the cover. Bees flew lazy around his face and head, tangling in his grizzly-red hair and thick beard, but he didn’t swat at them or try to pick them out. He was calm and his lips were moving, and even though we were too far away to hear, I knew he was asking after their queen and how the flowers were blooming this summer and if they would be so kind as to share their honey—the same questions he always asked this close to harvest.
With this newest addition, the hive count was up to eight. Bear had started out with two and every spring since had added one new hive. Most of the year the bees stayed here, at the west end of the meadow, well away from the picnic table where we ate our meals and bottled our honey, and even farther from the teepee where we slept. In early spring, though, Zeb brought his truck around and he and Bear loaded up the hives and divided them among the alfalfa fields and apple orchards for a few weeks. I was never around when this happened. By the time I showed up, the bees had been returned to their usual spot and were buzzing happily among familiar wildflowers.
When I learned they moved the bees from one place to another, I remember asking Bear, “Don’t they get confused and try to fly back home?”
“Their hive is their home,” he’d said. “Wherever the queen is, that’s where they return.”
“But what if the queen’s not there?”
“The colony falls apart.”
Since he’d started keeping bees Bear hadn’t lost a single hive.
Ollie had grown tired of waiting and tried now to pull me toward the teepee.
“Wait,” I said, tightening my grip to keep her from going anywhere. “He’s opening the box. Maybe he’ll let us have some of the comb.”
Ollie had eaten Bear’s honey before, but only what I brought home in jars. Not like this, not warm and fresh from the hive when it tasted like all the best parts of summer melting sweet on your tongue.
Bear pried the movable frames from the top section with his hive tool, a flat piece of metal that resembled a small crowbar. The bees filled cracks in the hive with a sticky resin stronger than glue, and the hive tool was the best way to unstick things. He worked at the frames, jamming one end of the tool into the hive and jerking it back and forth until a frame finally popped loose. Ollie flinched.
“Don’t worry, the smoke keeps them calm,” I said, and then, “That top box is where they store all their extra honey. And the bottom one is where they lay eggs and raise their brood. They store honey there, too, but we don’t harvest it. You can’t be selfish with bees or they’ll stop working just to spite you.”
She looked up at me, her mouth open a little like she was surprised, then she looked back at Bear. He tucked the hive tool in his back pocket, then brought the frame close to his face and blew gently on the bees until they started to crawl toward the edges. He lifted the frame to the sun, checking to see how many cells had been capped and how close we were to harvest.
I tugged on Ollie’s hand, wanting to take her close enough to show her how when you tipped your head back to catch the light, a kaleidoscope of amber and gold glinted through the opaque comb, but she dug in her heels and wouldn’t move.
She was shivering and staring up at me with puppy-dog eyes. Our clothes were still damp from the river, and though only the bottoms of my shorts were wet, Ollie was soaked all the way up to her chest. She leaned her weight toward the teepee and pulled on me.