Elizabeth Banicki

Hopelessly Queenless

Sandy closes her eyes and rests her head against the sun-warmed wood of the observation porch. The Texas heat cooks the salty scent of the chickens and ducks into the air. Beads of dirty sweat stream down along her hairline and she waits for him to come around the corner asking if she needs the queen cage. He might remind her too how they had planned to finish off the brisket for lunch, his voice echoing in her head. The sound so crisp she is certain he just spoke. She opens her eyes to the yard. Empty and quiet but for the low hum of the bees on the tallow tree. Today marks four weeks since Lars died.

The colony had divided during the night. A virgin queen and half the hive had swarmed to the tree rooted outside the bedroom window. Her eyes two glassy bottomless pools of blue, she watches them in their confusion, hanging on a branch like a congested lung. At forty-five her face is sunbaked and drawn along the cheekbones from her sharp pale lips to her freckled ears. The bee yard is one she and Lars made together. Their child. Long hours had been spent building the boxes and encouraging the native foliage, the Texas redbud, kidneywood, and spiderwort, to flourish and bloom. The construction of this yard was their honeymoon so to speak and had been their great labor of love as they worked together dirty sweating and bug-bitten under the sun. The four-acre kingdom of Lars and Sandy Lantana sat perched up high overlooking hill country. They were not chasing extravagance but were proud people who after decades of stumbling along through failure and life’s many disappointments had finally found peace with each other and with their bees. We earned this and we have paid our dues, was the silent mantra.

Sandy combs her fingertips through the tangled platinum ringlets clinging close to her scalp. She stretches her arms and fingers out into the space in front of her and flips her hands drawing the fingertips in towards her thick palms in loose fists to examine the dirt-lined nails beds. Then her eyes fix on the emerging queen who climbs over top of her workers dispersing pheromones to calm them. She is large, as a queen honeybee should be, but something is different about her. Moving in tiny half-crescent jolts she makes her way over and under her subjects. Sandy leans in narrowing her sight on one shriveled and curled wing. “How the hell you get over here to my tree like that?” Sandy clicks her tongue against the backs of her crowded teeth. “You know lady you ain’t never gonna win. You know it too dontcha? Well if you don’t know you sure is gonna know it soon.” Sandy let her weight fall back against the wood and imagined his hands, deeply creased and calloused, dark from the sun, but so skilled and tender. His hands knew the earth and knew her, and she had learned from them the mysteries of both.  

A bell chimed like jagged glass cuts through the silence. Keeping hidden behind a corner she squints towards the shop’s front door. On the porch is a woman in a yellow dress holding hands with a little dark-haired girl with flushing cheeks. The girl smiles and whips a tattered stuffed dog in circles at her side. The woman brushes her boney fingers through bumblebee windchimes hanging from the awning and an eerie and familiar tinkling fills the air. What was once so lovely a sound now ignites a burning behind Sandy’s eyes and tears begin to flood their crevices. Those chimes, and a shellacked piece of wood with the words “I Love You Honey” engraved in slanted cursive, they had bought together from a gift shop in Wimberly. The wooden artifact sits on a shelf in their den, unthought of for years until this moment. These things they have, they had, and the memories they hold had seemed so new still. Snapshots of their personal history that were with them each day and as alive as in the moments they had happened. Even days long ago had not felt like the past. Lars being the past and a thing that no longer is, what a horrifying concept and one she had meticulously sidestepped from the moment he died. But now, with no more time to make new things, the old ones risk being forgotten. Going forward only her memories can offer any evidence of their life together. These callous recognitions ride into her head on the ringing of the chimes.

Next to the mother and child is a man with olive skin leaning on his forearm against the porch railing. His face is serious but gentle with dark sloping eyes and a precise beard trimmed close to the flesh. Sandy watches the family, observing the light on their faces and the life they embody so effortlessly. There is nothing about pain and loss in them, only an obliviousness to the preciousness of the moment.

Brushing her hands across the thighs of her dirty jeans she draws a shallow breath and starts towards the guests. At a large aluminum drum converted to an aboveground pond, she stops to examine three koi fish. The water level has dropped, and the smell of hot stagnation rises into the air like the stench of a corpse. The water plants have withered leaving the fish clinging to the walls to escape the intense sunlight. Days have passed without routine. She looks out over the yard. It is overgrown and unkempt. The bee boxes once glowing in coats of bright pink and blue paint now look shabby-dull. It is all but abandoned. She drags her fingertips across the water’s surface and makes her way to the porch.

“Welcome, folks,” she smiles without eye contact, walking up the porch steps. The little girl watches her with a face full of curiosity and shine. “Hi!” says the woman with her hands tucked in the folds of her flowery dress. She smells like strawberry soap and her soft hair is pinned delicately around her face. “We thought we’d stop in and see the bees. Is that OK? We’ve been seeing so many on the flowers behind our house that Fern, my daughter here, got curious.” She pauses for a response but when none comes, she glances at the man then continues. “We figured we could take her for an up-close, maybe learn somethin’ about them,” she says.

The man is watchful and quiet. She feels their love for each other, and it is soothing but she can feel how it also feeds the knot of anger that now grows and festers just beneath the surface of her skin. “I don’t see why not,” Sandy says. “We aren’t really ready for customers right now. We are in a transition and things are a little disorganized around here, but I don’t see why not.”

“We can come back another time.”

“No that’s fine. Not necessary. Just things may not be the same as usual, as when we are ready for customers. We’ve had some recent changes you see so we are working that out and figuring out how things are going to look… going forward.”

“Well thank you so much and we apologize for having just dropped in like this. The website says you are open, so we just decided…,” the woman says.

“The website. Right.” Sandy unlocks the shop door with a set of jangling keys. She stomps her boots on the doormat giving rise to a plume of dust that billows up around her ankles. Their eyes are at her back and she feels as though they can see right through her, into the agony locked within like an animal caged and humiliated. Inside the shop, Sandy sits on a stool behind a small old-timey register while the family explores the shelves, cluttered with honeys in different shades of gold and amber. There is a small freezer with goat’s milk popsicles and more shelves and small tables layered with bee-inspired knickknacks. Soaps molded in the shapes of bees and beehives, wooden honey dippers, and beeswax candles, products all made by members of the local chapter of the Texas Beekeepers Association. Sandy watches the girl who is drawn to a shelf of carved wooden figurines. These are pieces Lars had whittled in his spare time. There were always wood chips and shavings scattered on the floor of their den. They remain there now.

Fern’s small fingers with their deeply bitten nails work over each structure, unable to process their meaning without touch. She settles on a beehive box in the shape of a birdhouse. The tattered dog is on the floor at her feet as she turns the hive box over in every direction, opening and closing a small wooden door built into its front. Sandy sees the girl’s mind working, picturing, and questioning all the ways in which this little wonder could play a part in her world.  

“Mama,” Fern spins toward her mother with the box propped between her fingertips. “No. Not today squirrel. Today we’ll get some honey. Come taste these honeys you little honey.” Fern’s large grey eyes sink, and her mouth turns down at the corners. She shrugs the tiny bones of her shoulders upwards in defeat. “Okay, Mama.” In exaggerated sadness she reaches back setting the box in its place on the shelf and to her parents she goes, enveloping herself between them. Her mother offers her a popsicle stick dipped in wildflower honey.

The tension that had been constant in her jaw and brow and her incessant headache begin to subside as she watches the girl. “Little girl,” the words spill out, “What is your favorite thing about bees?” Fern peers curiously at Sandy from around her father, an inquisitive look on her heart-shaped face. “My favorite thing about bees is their honey pants!” A delighted smile grows large across her face revealing two crooked oversized front teeth. Confident that her answer was sufficiently witty she studies Sandy’s expression. “Smart girl ain’tcha! It is true that honeybees carry pollen on their legs. Well look at you…”.

“Can we see the bees?” the father asks. He does not smile but there is something comforting about him, a trustworthiness. Sandy had trusted Lars and most other men were suspect as far as she was concerned. “Well sure,” her eyes averted, and she smiles with sealed lips. “They are right out back here, right through this door.” She leads them out onto a screened porch through a door at the back of the shop. A framed photo of Lars is mounted squarely on the middle beam of the porch between the two observation windows. His dark hair is combed to one side in a haphazard outdoorsy way and his smile is easy. He has a straight nose and a weak chin. His eyes are as green as spring grass and full of humor. Below his face on an extra lip of the frame designated for script it reads:

In Memory of Lars Lantana
Beekeeper, Husband, Friend

Laying in the darkness he had talked passionately of the politics of the Beekeepers Association of which he had been president for years. She floated away on his words and the shadows the tree’s leaves and branches cast onto their bedroom walls by the moonlight. He kept a jar of the rich tallow honey on the kitchen countertop to use in his coffee. It remained there now under a patina of dust and glued to the surface by a ring of stickiness.

Her sleeping hours have developed into varying patterns of two cycles. One is a vivid dreamland full of surreal activity and the other a deep goneness where hours pass in minutes. On these trips of altering consciousness, her mind rips like a train along a track of recollections. Precious flashbacks are out of reach, seen but intangible like a star. When the train slows her breath grows shallow and finally into stillness, a nonexistence in which she is with him once again. Her rugged hands clawing at his shoulders, pulling him in, holding him to her. She cocoons herself within the earthy smell of his clothes, his body, skin. The world is right-side up again for just enough time to renew her aching.

Her eyes crack open to the morning sun bleaching her face. The bees on the tallow tree are subdued and the air through the screened window smells of warm sagebrush. Her tongue scrapes against the roof of her mouth. There is a pulsating pounding within her skull from the wine and pills. “What it is to be alive,” she croaks. Alone in the house, she rolls towards the edge of the sheetless mattress. Waking up has become nothing more than a heavy descent. In the kitchen, she stands in bare feet and Lars’s tee shirt. Smelling of cigarettes and ferment with sour sweat soaking her hairline she runs her fingertips along the contours of the tallow honey jar. Prying it from the surface with shaking hands she pours the honey down the drain and fills the jar with scalding water. 

On the yard, the heat is thick as she checks the hives to make sure the bees are busy storing honey and tending the queen’s larva. She picks up some duck eggs from behind the coy pond then sits on the steps of the porch to finish her coffee and have a smoke. The rogue colony is now in disarray, she can see it from where she sits. She crosses the yard to the tree and below the mass of confused frantic bees on a smooth stone is the atrophied queen. Her body motionless and curled on its side. Sandy stares down then bends over and pinches the one good wing. She lifts her up laying her carefully in the palm of her hand. Bee in hand she mounts the observation porch through the screened side door and sets the queen down on the ledge below the picture of Lars.

In the late afternoon as Sandy sits leafing through unpaid bills the shop bell chimes and Fern comes through the door wringing her small hands, the two big teeth gripping her bottom lip. “Hi!” she chirps. Sandy looks up from her statements and smiles at the girl.

“Well, hello. What can I do for you little one?”

“I left my doggie yesterday. My Mama brought me back to ask if I can get it.”

They both shift their eyes towards the corner with the shelf of wooden carvings. On the floor is the tattered dog.

“I am so sorry. Had I seen him there I would have picked him up and kept him for you. I’m a forgetful old lady, aren’t I?”

“You’re just sad,” said the girl. “My mama said you’re just feeling lonely.”

Sandy stares at Fern, her throat in a knot and eyes flooding.

Fern walks over, picks up the dog, and tucks it under her arm. Her eyes find the little wooden beehouse on the shelf. “Take it,” Sandy says. Fern looks at Sandy and then back again at the beehouse. She takes the figurine from the shelf and clasps it tightly in her small hand.

“Are you sure?” she says with the grey eyes big and wide.

“Positive,” Sandy smiles and wipes away a tear with her knuckle. “But wait just a minute.” She goes out onto the observation porch and picks up the dead queen and carries her back into the shop. She kneels in front of the girl and searches her face holding up the queen for her to see. “Does this scare you?” she asks tenderly.

“No. It’s just a bee with a twisted little wing.”

Sandy takes the beehouse from her hand and opens the little wooden door, sets the queen inside, closes the door, and holds it up in front of her. “If I give you this house, will you always keep her inside?” Fern shifts her eyes left to right in thought then looks at Sandy and smiles, “Yes! She can live there forever if she wants.” 

After years of exercising horses at America’s Thoroughbred racetracks, Elizabeth Baniki began writing about life both on the track and off. Her work on horseracing has been published in The Guardian and has been nominated in Best American Sports Writing and Best American Essays. She has also written features and book reviews for The Austin Chronicle as well as a short fiction story published in The Dillydoun Review. She is currently creating her first short fiction collection while also continuing to write about life with horses.