Authors: Sue Monk Kidd
Tags: #Historical, #Family Life, #African American, #Psychological, #Coming of Age, #Fiction
Sue Monk Kidd
The Secret Life of Bees
Lily has grown up believing she accidentally killed her mother when she was four. She not only has her own memory of holding the gun, but her father’s account of the event. Now fourteen, she yearns for her mother, and for forgiveness. Living on a peach farm in South Carolina with her father, she has only one friend: Rosaleen, a black servant whose sharp exterior hides a tender heart. South Carolina in the sixties is a place where segregation is still considered a cause worth fighting for. When racial tension explodes one summer afternoon, and Rosaleen is arrested and beaten, Lily is compelled to act. Fugitives from justice and from Lily’s harsh and unyielding father, they follow a trail left by the woman who died ten years before. Finding sanctuary in the home of three beekeeping sisters, Lily starts a journey as much about her understanding of the world, as about the mystery surrounding her mother.
The queen, for her part, is the unifying force of the community; if she is removed from the hive, the workers very quickly sense her absence. After a few hours, or even less, they show unmistakable signs of queenlessness.
—Man and Insects
t night I would lie in bed and watch the show, how bees ueezed through the cracks of my bedroom wall and flew circles around the room, making that propeller sound, a high-pitched zzzzzz that hummed along my skin. I watched their wings shining like bits of chrome in the dark and felt the longing build in my chest. The way those bees flew, not even looking for a flower, just flying for the feel of the wind, split my heart down its seam. During the day I heard them tunneling through the walls of my bedroom, sounding like a radio tuned to static in the next room, and I imagined them in there turning the walls into honeycombs, with honey seeping out for me to taste. The bees came the summer of 1964, the summer I turned fourteen and my life went spinning off into a whole new orbit, and I mean whole new orbit. Looking back on now, I want to say the bees were sent to me. I want to say they showed up like the angel Gabriel appearing to the Virgin Mary, setting events in motion I could never have guessed. I know it is presumptuous to compare my small life to hers, but I have reason to believe she wouldn’t mind; I will get to that. Right now it’s enough to say that despite everything that happened that summer, I remain tender toward the bees.
July 1, 1964, I lay in bed, waiting for the bees to show up, thinking of what Rosaleen had said when I told her about their nightly visitations.
‘Bees swarm before death,’ she’d said. Rosaleen had worked for us since my mother died. My daddy—who I called T. Ray because ‘Daddy’ never fit him—had pulled her out of the peach orchard, where she’d worked as one of his pickers. She had a big round face and a body that sloped out from her neck like a pup tent, and she was so black that night seemed to seep from her skin. She lived alone in a little house tucked back in the woods, not far from us, and came every day to cook, clean, and be my stand-in mother. Rosaleen had never had a child herself, so for the last ten years I’d been her pet guinea pig. Bees swarm before death. She was full of crazy ideas that I ignored, but I lay there thinking about this one, wondering if the bees had come with my death in mind. Honestly, I wasn’t that disturbed by the idea. Every one of those bees could have descended on me like a flock of angels and stung me till I died, and it wouldn’t have been the worst thing to happen. People who think dying is the worst thing don’t know a thing about life.
My mother died when I was four years old. It was a fact of life, but if I brought it up, people would suddenly get interested in their hangnails and cuticles, or else distant places in the sky, and seem not to hear me. Once in a while, though, some caring soul would say, ‘Just put it out of your head, Lily. It was an accident. You didn’t mean to do it.’
That night I lay in bed and thought about dying and going to be with my mother in paradise. I would meet her saying, ‘Mother, forgive. Please forgive,’ and she would kiss my skin till it grew chapped and tell me I was not to blame. She would tell me this for the first ten thousand years. The next ten thousand years she would fix my hair. She would brush it into such a tower of beauty, people all over heaven would drop their harps just to admire it. You can tell which girls lack mothers by the look of their hair. My hair was constantly going off in eleven wrong directions, and T. Ray, naturally, refused to buy me bristle rollers, so all year I’d had to roll it on Welch’s grape juice cans, which had nearly turned me into an insomniac. I was always having to choose between decent hair and a good night’s sleep. I decided I would take four or five centuries to tell her about the special misery of living with T. Ray. He had an orneriness year-round, but especially in the summer, when he worked his peach orchards daylight to dusk. Mostly I stayed out of his way. His only kindness was for Snout, his bird dog, who slept in his bed and got her stomach scratched anytime she rolled onto her wiry back. I’ve seen Snout pee on T. Ray’s boot and it not get a rise out of him. I had asked God repeatedly to do something about T. Ray. He’d gone to church for forty years and was only getting worse. It seemed like this should tell God something. I kicked back the sheets. The room sat in perfect stillness, not one bee anywhere. Every minute I looked at the clock on my dresser and wondered what was keeping them. Finally, sometime close to midnight, when my eyelids had nearly given up the strain of staying open, a purring noise started over in the corner, low and vibrating, a sound you could almost mistake for a cat. Moments later shadows moved like spatter paint along the walls, catching the light when they passed the window so I could see the outline of wings. The sound swelled in the dark till the entire room was pulsating, till the air itself became alive and matted with bees. They lapped around my body, making me the perfect center of a whirlwind cloud. I could not hear myself think for all the bee hum. I dug my nails into my palms till my skin had nearly turned to herringbone. A person could get stung half to death in a roomful of bees. Still, the sight was a true spectacle. Suddenly I couldn’t stand not showing it off to somebody, even if the only person around was T. Ray. And if he happened to get stung by a couple of hundred bees, well, I was sorry. I slid from the covers and dashed through the bees for the door. I woke him by touching his arm with one finger, softly at first, then harder and harder till I was jabbing into his flesh, marveling at how hard it was.
T. Ray bolted from bed, wearing nothing but his underwear. I dragged him toward my room, him shouting how this better be good, how the house damn well better be on fire, and Snout barking like we were on a dove shoot.
‘Bees!’ I shouted.
‘There’s a swarm of bees in my room!’ But when we got there, they’d vanished back into the wall like they knew he was coming, like they didn’t want to waste their flying stunts on him.
‘Goddamn it, Lily, this ain’t funny.’
I looked up and down the walls. I got down under the bed and begged the very dust and coils of my bedsprings to produce a bee.
‘They were here,’ I said.
‘Yeah, and there was a goddamn herd of buffalo in here, too.’
‘Listen,’ I said.
‘You can hear them buzzing.’
He cocked his ear toward the wall with pretend seriousness.
‘I don’t hear any buzzing,’ he said, and twirled his finger beside his temple.
‘I guess they must have flown out of that cuckoo clock you call a brain. You wake me up again, Lily, and I’ll get out the Martha Whites, you hear me?’
Martha Whites were a form of punishment only T. Ray could have dreamed up. I shut my mouth instantly. Still, I couldn’t let the matter go entirely—T. Ray thinking I was so desperate I would invent an invasion of bees to get attention. Which is how I got the bright idea of catching a jar of these bees, presenting them to T. Ray, and saying, ‘Now who’s making things up?’
My first and only memory of my mother was the day she died. I tried for a long time to conjure up an image of her before that, just a sliver of something, like her tucking me into bed, reading the adventures of Uncle Wiggly, or hanging my underclothes near the space heater on ice-cold mornings. Even her picking a switch off the forsythia bush and stinging my legs would have been welcome. The day she died was December 3, 1954
The furnace had cooked the air so hot my mother had peeled off her sweater and stood in short sleeves, jerking at the window in her bedroom, wrestling with the stuck paint. Finally she gave up and said, ‘Well, fine, we’ll just burn the hell up in here, I guess.’
Her hair was black and generous, with thick curls circling her face, a face I could never quite coax into view, despite the sharpness of everything else. I raised my arms to her, and she picked me up, saying I was way too big a girl to hold like this, but holding me anyway. The moment she lifted me, I was wrapped in her smell. The scent got laid down in me in a permanent way and had all the precision of cinnamon. I used to go regularly into the Sylvan Mercantile and smell every perfume bottle they had, trying to identify it. Every time I showed up, the perfume lady acted surprised, saying, ‘My goodness, look who’s here.’
Like I hadn’t just been in there the week before and gone down the entire row of bottles. Shalimar, Chanel N° 5, White Shoulders. I’d say, ‘You got anything new?’
She never did. So it was a shock when I came upon the scent on my fifth-grade teacher, who said it was nothing but plain ordinary Ponds Cold Cream. The afternoon my mother died, there was a suitcase open on the floor, sitting near the stuck window. She moved in and out of the closet, dropping this and that into the suitcase, not bothering to fold them. I followed her into the closet and scooted beneath dress hems and pant legs, into darkness and wisps of dust and little dead moths, back where orchard mud and the moldy smell of peaches clung to T. Ray’s boots. I stuck my hands inside a pair of white high heels and clapped them together. The closet floor vibrated whenever someone climbed the stairs below it, which is how I knew T. Ray was coming. Over my head I heard my mother, pulling things from the hangers, the swish of clothes, wire clinking together. Hurry, she said. When his shoes clomped into the room, she sighed, the breath leaving her as if her lungs had suddenly clenched. This is the last thing I remember with perfect crispness—her breath floating down to me like a tiny parachute, collapsing without a trace among the piles of shoes. I don’t remember what they said, only the fury of their words, how the air turned raw and full of welts. Later it would remind me of birds trapped inside a closed room, flinging themselves against the windows and the walls, against each other. I inched backward, deeper into the closet, feeling my fingers in my mouth, the taste of shoes, of feet. Dragged out, I didn’t know at first whose hands pulled me, then found myself in my mother’s arms, breathing her smell. She smoothed my hair, said, ‘Don’t worry,’ but even as she said it, I was peeled away by T. Ray. He carried me to the door and set me down in the hallway.
‘Go to your room,’ he said.
‘I don’t want to,’ I cried, trying to push past him, back into the room, back where she was.
‘Get in your goddamned room!’ he shouted, and shoved me. I landed against the wall, then fell forward onto my hands and knees. Lifting my head, looking past him, I saw her running across the room. Running at him, yelling.
‘Leave. Her. Alone.’
I huddled on the floor beside the door and watched through air that seemed all scratched up. I saw him take her by the shoulders and shake her, her head bouncing back and forth. I saw the whiteness of his lip. And then—though everything starts to blur now in my mind—she lunged away from him into the closet, away from his grabbing hands, scrambling for something high on a shelf. When I saw the gun in her hand, I ran toward her, clumsy and falling, wanting to save her, to save us all. Time folded in on itself then. What is left lies in clear yet disjointed pieces in my head. The gun shining like a toy in her hand, how he snatched it away and waved it around. The gun on the floor. Bending to pick it up. The noise that exploded around us. This is what I know about myself. She was all I wanted. And I took her away. T. Ray and I lived just outside Sylvan, South Carolina, population 3000. Peach stands and Baptist churches, that sums it up. At the entrance to the farm we had a big wooden sign with [-] painted across it in the worst orange color you’ve ever seen. I hated that sign. But the sign was nothing compared with the giant peach perched atop a sixty-foot pole beside the gate. Everyone at school referred to it as the Great Fanny, and I’m cleaning up the language. Its fleshy color, not to mention the crease down the middle, gave it the unmistakable appearance of a rear end. Rosaleen said it was T. Ray’s way of mooning the entire world. That was T. Ray. He didn’t believe in slumber parties or sock hops, which wasn’t a big concern as I never got invited to them anyway, but he refused to drive me to town for football games, pep rallies, or Beta Club car washes, which were held on Saturdays. He did not care that I wore clothes I made for myself in home economics class, cotton print shirtwaists with crooked zippers and skirts hanging below my knees, outfits only the Pentecostal girls wore. I might as well have worn a sign on my back: I AM NOT POPULAR AND NEVER WILL BE. I needed all the help that fashion could give me, since no one, not a single person, had ever said, ‘Lily, you are such a pretty child,’ except for Miss Jennings at church, and she was legally blind. I watched my reflection not only in the mirror, but in store windows and across the television when it wasn’t on, trying to get a fix on my looks. My hair was black like my mother’s but basically a nest of cowlicks, and it worried me that I didn’t have much of a chin. I kept thinking I’d grow one the same time my breasts came in, but it didn’t work out that way. I had nice eyes, though, what you would call Sophia Loren eyes, but still, even the boys who wore their hair in ducktails dripping with Vitalis and carried combs in their shirt pockets didn’t seem attracted to me, and they were considered hard up. Matters below my neck had shaped up, not that I could show off that part. It was fashionable to wear cashmere twinsets and plaid kilts midthigh, but T. Ray said hell would be an ice rink before I went out like that—did I want to end up pregnant like Bitsy Johnson whose skirt barely covered her ass? How he knew about Bitsy is a mystery of life, but it was true about her skirts and true about the baby. An unfortunate coincidence is all it was. Rosaleen knew less about fashion than T. Ray did, and when it was cold, God-help-me-Jesus, she made me go to school wearing long britches under my Pentecostal dresses. There was nothing I hated worse than clumps of whispering girls who got quiet when I passed. I started picking scabs off my body and, when I didn’t have any, gnawing the flesh around my fingernails till I was a bleeding wreck. I worried so much about how I looked and whether I was doing things right, I felt half the time I was impersonating a girl instead of really being one. I had thought my real chance would come from going to charm school at the Women’s Club last spring, Friday afternoons for six weeks, but I got barred because I didn’t have a mother, a grandmother, or even a measly aunt to present me with a white rose at the closing ceremony. Rosaleen doing it was against the rules. I’d cried till I threw up in the sink.