Authors: Jodi Picoult,Jennifer Finney Boylan
she has people.
“Ava,” I say, to the blank space of voicemail, “this is Olivia McAfee. Asher’s mom. I just…I wanted…” I close my eyes. “My God. I am so sorry.”
I hang up as a tsunami of sadness sinks me into a kitchen chair. You read about tragedies in the paper, where a student athlete falls dead in the middle of a basketball game or a National Honor student is killed by a drunk driver or a school shooting claims the life of a preteen. In the news you see their faces, braces and cowlicks and freckles.
You tell yourself this wouldn’t happen in your hometown.
You tell yourself this isn’t anyone you know.
Until it does, and it is.
IN THE MIDDLE
of the night I hear it—a note like an oboe, vibrating in the heart of the house. I bolt upright in bed, thinking of the bear that decimated my hive, and then the rest of the day fills in the empty spaces in my conscious mind. Reality hits like a fist.
The floor is cold on my bare feet as I follow the thread of sound. I know I am headed to Asher’s room, and I throw the door open to find my son curled on his side, sobbing uncontrollably. “Ash,” I cry, gripping his shoulder. “Baby, I’m here.”
It doesn’t stop, this waterfall of pain. It comes pouring out of him from a source that refills as quickly as it is emptied. I touch his arm, his face, his hair, trying to soothe. With a little jolt I realize that Asher is sound asleep.
Imagine a sorrow so deep that it batters the hatches of sleep; imagine drowning before you even realize you’ve gone under.
I don’t know what to do. So I curl around him the way I used to when he was little and had a nightmare. Except now, he is bigger than I am, and I’m more like a barnacle than a protective cloak. I whisper in his ear, lines that used to slow his pulse, calm his heart.
The owl and the pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
I repeat this, letting it pull at him like a current, until I fall asleep.
THE NEXT MORNING—SATURDAY—I
am awakened by the buzzing of Asher’s phone. I gingerly sit up, making sure not to disturb him, and look at it. On the lock screen are notifications from Dirk. I remember suddenly that there is a game at 4:00
. today, one that Asher will obviously not be playing in. Then I realize that Dirk likely isn’t texting about the game. By now, I am sure, news of Lily’s death has spread.
I power down the phone so that Asher won’t be disturbed, and leave it on his nightstand. I rush through a shower and braid my hair, then mix up 2:1 sugar syrup. I put on boots and a parka, grab a top hive feeder and the crate that holds my bee kit, and hike across the frosted field to my hives. I don’t want to disturb the colony that was attacked yesterday, but I don’t have a choice. I have to free the queen, feed them sugar solution, and insulate the box—even though I know this is still a losing battle.
When I reach it, I light my smoker first and remove the cover. I’m surprised to see a couple of drones—male bees, with their big heads and giant eyes and helicopter noise. By this time of year, drones are mostly gone. Their only purpose is to mate with the queen in the spring, and they die in the process. While waiting for their big orgy,
they do practice flights, the bee equivalent of flexing. But they don’t collect pollen or nectar, even though they are allowed to eat it anytime they want. They don’t make beeswax. They don’t clean. They’re allowed to enter other hives, like goodwill ambassadors. But because they are basically a giant energy suck on a hive, in the fall, any drones that are still alive are attacked by the worker bees, literally dismembered and tossed out.
We could learn a lot from bees, frankly.
Girls run the bee world, and worker bees are all female. They feed baby bees, shape new cells out of beeswax, forage for and store nectar and pollen, ripen the honey, cool down the hive when it’s too hot. They also are undertakers, working in pairs to drag out the dead. But their most important job, arguably, is taking care of the queen, who can’t take care of herself—feeding and cleaning her while she lays fifteen hundred eggs a day.
It’s hard to spot a queen bee if she’s unmarked. She is the largest—longer, skinnier—but she tends to look more frenetic, and to run away from the light with her ladies-in-waiting. When Asher was younger, we’d play a game where I’d pull out frame after frame until I found the queen for him
. How do you know it’s her?
he would ask, and I’d say,
She’s wearing that tiny, tiny crown.
In truth, the way you spot a queen is usually by sussing out the proof that she’s alive. If you don’t see eggs in all stages of development, the queen of a colony is probably dead.
The first time Asher brought Lily to our house, I was with the bees. I saw him crossing the field with her, holding her hand as if he thought she might fly away—a balloon untethered, a dandelion puff. I was debating whether to add another super to Ariana’s hive when they stopped, about twenty feet away. In his free hand, Asher carried his beekeeper hat. But tucked beneath his arm was also an old brimmed pith helmet with face netting, one that used to belong to my father and must have been in the attic.
Asher had dated before, but he’d never gone the extra step of introducing me to a girlfriend. Granted, I knew all the kids in town. This one, I had never seen before.
“Mom,” Asher said, after he’d helped her don her makeshift bee gear. “This is Lily.”
I glanced up, smiling through my own netting. It was September; the winding down of bee season. In a few weeks I’d do the second honey harvest, but for now, there were still plenty of blossoms and forager bees diving into the entrances of the hives with leg baskets full of pollen. “Ah,” I said. “The famed Lily.”
She glanced at Asher with her eyebrows raised.
“I talk about you,” he said, grinning. “Maybe a lot.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Mrs. Fields,” Lily replied.
“It’s McAfee,” Asher and I corrected simultaneously, and when Lily blushed, embarrassed, I shook my head. “Don’t worry. Just call me Olivia.” I glanced up at her. “First rule of beekeeping: don’t stand in front of the hive.”
Lily darted to the right, shrinking from a curious bee that circled her head.
“Are you allergic?” Asher asked.
“No,” she answered. “I mean, not that I know of?”
“You’d know,” I said. At that, she shied back a tiny bit, closer to Asher.
“These hives are pretty chill,” I told her. “They won’t bother you if you don’t bother them.”
Asher slipped an arm around her, his hand in the pocket of her jeans. “I promised Lily some honey,” he said.
I twisted the frame in my hand to reveal its back side, glistening. “There it is.” I showed Lily. “But it’s not quite ready yet. They have to cap it first.”
“Bee vomit,” Lily said. “Isn’t that how they make it?”
“The nectar is regurgitated, sure,” I agreed. “But
just doesn’t look quite as enticing on the label.”
“It’s an enzyme they add that breaks the nectar into glucose and fructose,” Lily said.
“Yes, invertase,” I confirmed, taking another, longer look at Lily.
“Lily is ridiculously smart. She’s like Google,” Asher said. “But cuter.”
I watched her cheeks pinken again, and looked back down at my busy hive. Sometimes, when I opened a deep hive body, I got the sense I was invading the colony’s privacy. I felt the same way, at that moment, with Asher and Lily.
In spite of his compliments, though, her eyes were on me as I worked methodically through the super, inspecting the new white wax the bees had added to the comb to build out between the frames, creating the right bee space for them to move comfortably in, and making the cells deeper to hold the honey. It always looked to me like wafer cookies, or white chocolate.
“It’s like a dance,” Lily said, mesmerized. “Like you’re moving through honey.”
I smiled. “What else do you know about bees?”
I expected her to know the usual factoids: that 80 percent of crops are pollinated by bees; that one out of every three or four bites we eat is a result of their work. But instead, Lily surprised me.
“In 1780, outside of Philly, there was a Quaker girl—Charity Crabtree—who was taking care of bees when she came across a wounded soldier. He asked her to ride his horse to General Washington, to let him know that the British were about to attack. She did, but she could hear the army behind her, so she threw down the hive she was carrying and the bees swarmed the enemy soldiers. Washington supposedly said that it was bees that saved America.”
I blinked at her.
“I told you so.” Asher laughed.
“I like this one,” I told him.
Gently, I fitted the telescoping cover on top of the super and ratcheted tight the nylon ties. I dug my heel into the soft earth and made a small divot where I could dump the embers from my smoker and stamp them out with my boot. “In 1925,” I told Lily, “in a book called
there’s an account of a group of Egyptologists who came across a big sealed jar in a tomb. When they opened it and found honey, they tasted it because they knew honey doesn’t spoil, and they thought it would be amazing to taste something from thousands of years ago. But one guy found a hair wrapped around his
finger…and then they pulled out the body of a toddler from the honey, still dressed and perfectly preserved.”
” Asher said at the same moment Lily said, “That is
“I know a lot of bee lore,” I said, laughing. “I trot it out at cocktail parties.”
“When was the last time you even
to a cocktail party?” Asher asked.
In my previous life,
I thought immediately, remembering the get-togethers with Braden’s colleagues. Instead, I just laughed.
Lily’s eyes sparked. It made me think of those cocktail parties, actually. How sometimes I would see someone else standing alone across a crowded room and catch her gaze and nod and know she, too, was thinking:
These people, who do not really see me, have no idea what they are missing.
We walked away from the hives. As I fiddled to reanimate the electric fence, Asher turned Lily to face him, and he lifted up the bee veil from her face. In that moment, I saw his future. I could so easily imagine him on his wedding day, repeating the movement with delicate lace, revealing a girl who looked at him the same way Lily looked now.
It was the moment I realized that my son wasn’t a boy anymore, but somehow, when I wasn’t paying attention, had become a man.
NOW LILY WILL
never be a bride,
I suddenly think.
She’ll never grow up.
My knees give out beneath me and the frost bites my legs as I sit on the frozen ground, shaking. Lily is not coming back. I will not see her holding Asher’s hand as she crosses the strawberry field. I will not hear her draw from an endless well of ephemera and factoids over a roasted chicken. I will not watch her bang through the front door or tease Asher out of a funk.
We are so lucky to have our children, even for a little while, but we take them for granted. We make the stupid assumption that as
long as we are here, they will be, too, though that’s never been part of the contract.
I cannot bring Lily back. But I can keep Asher from following her to a place from which he can’t return.
When I stand up again, there are spots of thawed green grass where my palms were a moment earlier, proof that—against all odds—winter doesn’t last.
INSIDE THE HOUSE,
I stamp my boots, and feel the burn of blood rushing into my feet. From the living room, I hear a British voice.
Asher sits on the couch holding his laptop. He is wearing the same clothes he wore yesterday; his hair is sticking up on one side. His eyes are an unholy red, and he is barely blinking as he stares at the computer. I see the yellow chyron of the History Channel in the corner. A World War I plane streaks across the screen as the narrator says something about the Red Baron.
“What are you watching?” I ask.
Over his shoulder I see a fiery missile punch a hole in the broad body of the plane. You know it’s only a matter of time before it’s going down.
“That,” Asher murmurs. “That’s what it feels like.”
I take the computer from him and close the clamshell. “Will you come with me?” I ask. “To tell the bees?”
It takes him a long moment to answer, but finally, Asher nods.
“It’s cold,” I say. “You’re going to want a coat.” But in the end, his hands are shaking too much to work the zipper, and I wind up kneeling in front of him, fastening the metal teeth, as if he is small again.
For the second time that morning, I make the trek across the fields to the hives. This time I am carrying yards of black crepe from the attic
Lily wasn’t family, technically, but she was one of us. It is the beekeeper’s job to let the bees know of the loss, and I’m superstitious enough to think that if I don’t, a perfectly healthy hive could deteriorate. With Celine’s already bound to fail, why would I take that risk?
Another part of the ritual: it’s the job of the beekeeper’s firstborn son to shift all the hives to the right.
I lean close to each colony, and sing the first song I can think of.
Neptune of the seas, an answer for me, please
The lily of the valley doesn’t know.
“Queen?” Asher asks. His voice sounds like it’s hidden at the bottom of a well. He puts his shoulder to Adele’s hive, using his strength to budge the wooden frame six inches to the east.
I nod, laying a length of fabric over it. It’s a shawl, a shroud. An invitation to mourn with us. It might be my imagination, but I think I hear the buzzing within the hive swell just a little in response to Freddie Mercury’s lyrics.
Asher drags Beyoncé’s hive a few inches, and then Gaga’s. “She loved that song,” he says.
FIVE DAYS AFTER
Lily’s death, there is a memorial at Ricker’s Funeral Home, the only one in Adams. Asher is wearing a suit that he’s outgrown; the cuffs of the jacket end above the knobs of his wrists and the pants are an inch too short. He sits next to me in the pickup truck, silent as we try to find a parking spot. But he is silent a lot these days, except for at night, when he cries so hard he sometimes cannot catch his breath.