Fiction, Vol. 3.4, Dec. 2009
Harold’s shinbones ached before every rain, which was how he knew to call his wife to bring in the laundry. It wasn’t that Edie couldn’t judge the weather, it’s just that she chose not to, losing herself in her bees. They clear my head, she explained, and he knew better than to ask of what. For Harold, watching the sky was as good a way to pass the time as any other. He loved how the light glinted off the windshields and waxed chrome of the new cars sitting in their neat rows. He knew enough about selling cars to know that people’s eyes were drawn to bright shiny things, which is why each morning he buffed down every car on the lot with the yellow chamois he kept in the top drawer of his desk, his hand turning in tight circles until every hood gleamed like a mirror. Like Edie’s bees, this act cleared his head. Then he’d settle in at his desk in the showroom with its wide plate-glass windows or on the lot itself, if his legs felt up to it, standing still as a sign post, leaning on his cane more for effect than necessity. As he liked to tell his customers, the weather was the best show in town. Clear blue sky one moment, dark mounting cloud cover the next.
Even with the unpredictable weather, Edie refused to use the dryer, preferring to pin the laundry to the line Harold had run between the porch and the garage. The sheets she saved for Saturdays when he was home to help her hang them. Sometimes the sheets flapped like white sails, other times, in colder months, they hung stiff as boards. Once even, when they’d forgotten to bring them from the day before, the sheets froze tight, cold and rough between his fingers as he took two corners and cracked them together, the fabric snapping, releasing a fine spray of ice crystals. Leave them, Edie said. They’ll warm back up.
And they did and later that morning, the two of them took the thawed sheets down together, each bringing in their corners to meet in the middle. Edie liked the feel of clean sheets, the way the wind made them soft and the way they absorbed the smell of the clover from the back pasture where the bees were kept. The clover smell gave her sweet dreams, like honey, she said.
Before the clothesline, the clover, and the bees, back when they were first married, both just turned nineteen and living in a one room walk-up in town, Edie had to use the laundromat, piling everything together in one load, for simplicity’s sake. Back when you could smoke your cigarettes wherever you pleased, she’d sit across from the dryers on those slick plastic bucket seats, slouched the way she did when she smoked, daydreaming. This was the image of Edie that Harold carried with him when he was sent overseas—only two months into their marriage and suddenly drafted. The bottoms of her old jeans rolled, her slim white ankles crossed neatly at the bone, how she wore her sneakers with no socks, jamming her bare feet into those old sneaks like they were clogs, her pink heels peeking out from the back. They didn’t know then that their baby was growing inside of her, rocking gently to the sound of the dryer’s revolutions. Edie called him a month later, her voice crackling on the line, the mess hall behind him so loud he had to ask her to repeat herself. A baby, she shouted. You’re going to be a daddy.
And he was, a daddy, though only for a few hours. The baby, a beautiful pink baby girl, didn’t make it home from the hospital, her tiny lungs, tissue paper thin, filling with fluid as she slept. Dry drowning, the doctor called it, Edie’s brother John explained. While Edie recuperated in the hospital, John packed up their old apartment, boxing up all the baby’s things. They’ll keep, John told him, but she doesn’t want to see them right now. She says she’s going to stay up at the farm with me until you can get back home.
When Harold thinks of his baby, he imagines her grip by grasping his index finger with his other hand. He’s done this so often now it’s become an involuntary reflex. They named her Mary on the birth certificate, after Edie’s mother. A daddy for a few hours, though he’s been thinking of her every day for thirty years now.
Harold asked permission to fly home to be with his wife, but the Army refused to grant him leave. A week later, in the middle of training, he came down wrong on a jump and split both shins from ankle to knee, the pain white-hot and blinding before he passed out, his parachute settling over the top of him like a dream. He woke in the hospital, his legs encased in plaster and raised at the ankles by two canvas loops. His friend Sully came to visit him. You’re the bravest somabitch I know, Sully whispered. Gimping yourself up like this, they’ll have to send you home now.
Harold didn’t correct him. His injury was just a mistake, nothing he could have planned. From his hospital bed, he watched the planes lift and land, feeling more like a mascot than a man. Going into action was like going down to the lake, he imagined, a big pool of blue that people dove in and out of, sometimes coming up for air, other times drowning. Going down to the lake then coming back again. Or not coming back at all. Everyone around him was dying. Sully died. McIntire died. Graves and Gallagher. His baby girl. In his dreams, he saw them all, intact and smiling, but when he woke, all around him were men in beds with bandaged limbs and broken faces. There wasn’t much he could do about it, as he lay with his legs looped to his hospital bed, moving only when the nurses bathed and rotated him to avoid bedsores and rot. Though he had a box of Edie’s letters and photos, these he kept folded away, preferring to run images of her on the back of his closed eyelids. He tried to keep his focus on the next immediate thing, the way the Army had taught him how to deal with crisis—though flat on his back, his legs two stiff boards, was the only time he’d been called on to use his training. Two months later, when his casts came off, the flesh on his legs had shrunk in tight around the bones, the skin yellow, puckered and hairless, his shin bones crooked and knobbed where once they’d run straight. He was declared unfit for combat and sent home with a cane. Legs as good as rubber bands, they said.
Coming out of the terminal, he expected to see his wife, but instead there was John, his ball cap rolled up in his hands. Edie wasn’t up for the drive, he said. She’s excited you’re home though, he added as an after-thought. John wasn’t much for talking, so Harold, tired from the flight, drifted into sleep, his forehead pressed to the car window. When he woke, they were coming into town. Harold watched for their old apartment, looking up at the dark blank windows as they drove by. John glanced over at him. Not sure how to tell you this, he said, then explained that Edie had signed the farm over to him. As a thank you, he said, not that she needs to thank me, but you know how she is. We can put it back like it was before if you want.
Though Edie’s parents had left both of them the land, John was the one who farmed it. Harold had helped out around the farm from time to time, with harvests and bailing, walking the fence line for repairs and keeping the tractors in working order. He liked the work, but he didn’t want to be a farmer. He’d told Edie and she understood.
Harold shifted in his seat, stretching his legs out in front of him. Probably need to find another line of work, he said. Less physical.
John nodded. Edie, she’s stubborn. All she said she wanted was the bees.
Edie was standing out in front of the house as they pulled up the gravel drive. At first Harold thought she must have been standing there for hours, waiting, then realized she had most likely heard them when the farm dogs started up, their barks alerting everyone on the farm as they shepherded in the truck, snapping at its tires. One of thems going to get hit one day, John said, shaking his head. Can’t help it though. Instinct. He slowed to an idle at the front walk. I got to go check on something in the back pasture, he said to Harold as he turned his head towards Edie, lifting his hand to her in greeting. She stood so straight, so very still, slowly lifting her hand back, and then dropping it in front of her, clasping it in the other. Watching her, Harold felt as if he could stay rooted in his seat forever, marking her movements, the way her chest lifted and fell with each breath, but he made himself get out of the truck, staying to that side until John had pulled forward and was out of sight beyond the barns. Hey there, he said, trying not to lean too much on his cane.
Here, let me get that, Edie said, rushing forward to take his duffle bag from his other hand. As she did, he let the bag drop and with his free arm, he circled her waist as she brought both arms around his neck, burying her face into his shoulder. Her hair, so soft against his face, smelled like sharp clean air and for a moment, he thought he might pass out from the whiteness of it all.
The baby, she said, and then broke into tears, the muscles through her shoulders rigid and tight.
He kept his arm around her until her sobs ran out and her body went slack. He knew the anger he felt was directed elsewhere, out there somewhere, to the fates, to God, he didn’t know where, the same force that took his friends, that had taken his baby. No rhyme or reason for it, just cruel spite. He pulled back from her then and brought his hand up under her chin as he tried to loosen his jaw into a smile. You and me, he said, quietly, almost a whisper. Don’t you forget that.
For the first few months after Harold’s return, they lived on the farm with John until they were able to buy a place of their own, winning the old Morgan house at auction. Harold liked it for its price and Edie for its location, the next property over from her family’s land. Through that spring and fall, Harold busied himself with repairs on the house while Edie helped John over at the farm, bringing in the hay and hanging tobacco leaves from the rafters in the drying loft. From their kitchen window, Harold could see the farm, its pastures and little white house, its windows sharp yellow squares of light at night, shining across the small ravine that cut between the two properties. Back when her father first started raising cattle, Edie had been the one to climb down one side of the ravine and up the other when the cattle had strayed too far. No one had fences back then, the ear tags on the cattle was all anyone needed to identify their stock. Now Edie used this same path to walk to and from the farm each day. Harold too used this path, the steep incline and uneven rocks strengthening his legs as he learned how to lean his weight into his cane, until the cane became second nature, an extension of his right arm, its crooked handle smooth against his palm. After he finished up with whatever project he’d been working on that day, he liked to sit out back, watching Edie on her walk home, as she disappeared from view on the one side of the ravine, then suddenly coming back into view on their side, so close he could see the damp strands of hair framing her face, and always a smile when she saw him sitting there.
They waited until that winter to move the hives, after the first frost when the bees had tucked themselves into the lowest chamber of their boxes, massed around the queen, their bodies wriggling out a tight dance for warmth. This was how Edie described the bees to him, reading aloud from a bee-keeping manual she’d found on her father’s workbench, along with a smoker, a scraper, and a wooden press with which to extract the honey from the comb. The hives, six in total, sat in a row at the far edge of the back pasture, like a line of squat soldiers set up against the tree line, a defense against what, Harold did not know. With their white paint, the hives were visible only by their hard edges in contrast with the soft mounds of snow that had blown up around their bases. John drove them to the end of the lane where the road ended and swung open the wide metal gate that led into the pasture.
It was a gray day, the flat white sky meeting the flat white snow at the horizon. Harold and Edie started across the field, pulling a sled between them while John headed off toward the woods with his shotgun to shoot down some mistletoe for Edie’s Christmas decorations. The mistletoe grew in vines, weaving itself in tight clumps to the tops of the tallest trees where its gray leaves could best reach for sun. The only way to bring it down was to shoot it free. Harold paused, watching as John drew back, angling the gun up, taking aim. The air was so tight with cold, it seemed to close around each shot. Like a silent film, Harold thought, how, with each muffled crack of the shotgun, the birds lifted from the trees, black birds against gray sky, ropes of mistletoe dropping to the ground. Let’s hurry, I’m getting cold, Harold said, turning his attention back to the hives, kneeling down to break the crust of ice away from their base with the side of his hand.
Edie placed her ear to the top of one of the hives. Listen, she said. You can hear them in there, like the ocean inside a seashell.
Well, that’s a good sign. Wouldn’t want to come all the way out here for a box of dead bees, Harold said, lifting the first hive carefully to the sled before roping it in place. Edie walked next to the sled keeping her palms flat on top of the hives to steady them in place as Harold retraced the sled’s tracks back to the truck where John had kept the engine idling. Back at the house, they placed the hives in a circle at the back side of the tool shed, next to a field of clover ringed by crabapple trees whose white flowers in spring would benefit from the bees’ work. The sweet clover would flavor the honey, Edie said. She wasn’t as sure about the crabapples with their sour tang.
One warm afternoon in early March, Edie called down to the car lot, her voice excited in a way that Harold hadn’t heard in a long while. They’re starting to come out, she said and that night, she pulled him out to the hives, pulled him closer than he wanted to be. In the dim light of dusk, he could make out a few bees coming in for a landing at the mouth of the hives before disappearing inside. I think this is going to work out fine, Edie said, tucking her arm into his as they made their way back to the house. Throughout that spring and well into summer, Edie tended to her bees. At first, Harold kept his distance; his sole memory of bees was not a pleasant one, of running barefoot through the grass and catching a bee between his toes, the sharp sting, his foot wrapped in ice. Well, it was hardly the bee’s fault, Edie said. You don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.
And so he didn’t, leaving the bees to Edie while he sold cars at the dealership in town, where customers liked that he was a vet, his one failed jump transformed into a story of true bravery played out behind enemy lines. He was ashamed, but the story, modestly told and with minimal details, worked, and with each car sold, the lie started to feel more like the truth. Only Edie knew what had really happened, just as only Edie knew the way his shinbones ached with damp or chill. When the pain was really bad, she’d help him to bed, sliding the pillows beneath his legs before setting two heating pads along the raised knobs of bone. He got up the nerve to ask her once if she thought less of him, about the way things turned out. The room was dark, lit only by the light from the hallway, her face cast in relief, bending toward him as she touched her lips to his forehead. No, she said.
They tried again to have a baby in those early years when it seemed like their happiness should be enough of a justification to whatever forces were out there, plotting against them, Harold thought. There were no physical impediments, the doctor said after the months had passed with no pregnancy. You need to just give yourselves time. But Harold had begun to doubt that time would make much of a difference. It was as if Edie’s body had set itself against the notion of pure joy, as if her very cells doubted their capacity for redemption.
Edie said she wanted to do something special for the baby, for Mary, so one afternoon they bought a lilac. Edie didn’t say much as they loaded the bush into the back of her pick-up truck and once they got back to the yard, she insisted Harold plant it far from the house. Don’t you want it closer, or maybe out by the hives? he asked.
Edie shook her head. The bees will know how to find it. I don’t think I can bear to see it every time I go out on the porch, she said. It’s enough for me just to know it’s there.
So Harold dug a deep hole and set the root ball in place and tended to it himself. In that fertile soil, the lilac grew like a weed, spreading tall and wide against the wire fence. Harold liked to go out there from time to time, after Edie had gone off to bed, pulling a branch down close to his face, its smooth green leaves like silver in the moonlight.
Over time, Harold got used to the bees, their busy sounds, Edie’s slow deliberate motions as she worked the hives, lifting out each frame. As she dragged the wooden scraper across the comb, the bees would lift up in one tight movement, a brown cloud of buzzing, before settling back down around the hive, along its porch, taking their positions. Edie taught him which were the workers and which were the drones. How they moved in relation to the queen, kept hidden away deep within the hive. An ugly grub of a thing, she called her, not what you imagine when you think of a queen. There is no king, she explained.
Harold started out slowly by holding the smoker, though Edie said she didn’t really need it, the bees were used to her by now. After a few times, Harold got so he could help comb the frames, could hold the bucket to catch the honey as it fell from the comb, the thick amber honey coating their fingers. She liked to tease him then, chasing after him with her sticky fingers, honey smearing their faces, their lips, their hair. These times, he hoped she might want to try again to have another baby, though when he asked her, she put her hands flat against his chest, her face hidden away under his chin. I think of her every day, she said, shaking, her lips buzzing against his skin.
And in their way, they moved forward, falling into the comfortable rhythm of marriage, of quiet dinners and nights spent watching TV or playing cards. Saturdays after taking the sheets down from the line, they’d make the bed together, the snap of the sheet as they pulled it into place. Harold liked the exercise of changing the sheets, describing for Edie the more peaceful, orderly parts of his time in the Army, how the officers insisted they be able to bounce a quarter off their tightly-made bunks each morning. Show me, Edie once dared him and they spent a morning, flipping a quarter onto the bed, each time it settled into place without the slightest bounce. Another myth broken, Edie called it, laughing as he grabbed her around the waist before tossing her onto the bed.
Sundays, they’d make a roast or a chicken and sit around the table, sometimes inviting John over with his girlfriend Cindy, a bleached blonde with bright glossy lips. Harold suspected Cindy had become attracted to John only after he’d bought his fancy silver sports car that Harold had given to him for a song. Neither that car nor that girl is of much use over at the farm, Edie complained.
But the relationship stuck and one Sunday, after dinner as Edie was starting the dishes at the sink, John said that they had an announcement. Even before Cindy said the words, Harold knew what they were going to be, the way she ran her hand in small circles on her belly. Turning from the table, he watched as Edie’s back stiffened. We’re having a baby, Cindy said.
Edie looked over and lifted her mouth into a tight grin but didn’t speak, so Harold offered a hurried congratulations, reaching across the table to shake John’s hand. Let me help you with those, he said, walking over to Edie as she filled the sink with soapy water, the stack of dirty dishes on the counter. He saw her hands shaking as she took a dish from the top of the stack, so he followed her hands into the warm water, her fingers thin and slick in his hands. They stood like that, as if they were doing the dishes together, while Cindy chattered and chirped behind them.
They didn’t talk about the baby that night or much at all during Cindy’s pregnancy. Edie left it to Harold to ask John how things were going and Harold appreciated that John understood his sister as well as any brother could, never pressing the issue, not even when Edie came up with an excuse at the last minute to get out of going to the baby shower, making Harold drive over with a gift box full of tiny blue baby clothes he’d picked out from a store in town.
When John’s son was born, Harold drove over to the hospital alone to see them. This was the first time Harold had ever held a baby, in weight and girth more like a bag of flour but with those wriggling limbs. As Harold held him, the baby grasped Harold’s index finger with his tiny hand. He smiled, running his thumb along the baby’s fingers. He couldn’t believe how tiny his fingernails were, like little flecks of mica. He’s got some grip, John said, leaning over Harold’s shoulder to coo at his baby boy.
Harold pat his thumb against the baby’s fist, still wrapped tight around his index finger. What’s his name? he asked, his voice barely above a whisper. He glanced up at John who coughed a bit into his fist, his face reddening slightly.
Well, don’t be shy about it, Cindy prompted from the bed. His name is John, John Junior, she said, her round face breaking into a wide smile as she stretched her arms out for her baby.
Cindy’s idea, John said. First son and all.
Harold made himself smile as he placed the baby gently into Cindy’s arms. A boy, and named for him no less, he thought. Well, that’s something, he said, clasping John around the shoulders.
Harold found reasons to stop off to see the baby on his way home from work, telling Edie that he’d be late, that he had some errands to run. At first, he pushed for Edie to join him, hoping that if she spent time around the baby, it might trigger her maternal senses, to see a baby so healthy and whole. He’s got a mother, he doesn’t need some aunt nosing around, she reasoned. So Harold went by himself and Cindy was more than happy to have him hold the boy while she tidied herself up before John came in from the fields. Harold would sit in the rocking chair with the boy tucked into the crook of his arm. Hello little baby, he’d say. He liked to close his eyes and breathe in, the tip of his nose barely touching the baby’s soft downy crown of hair. In those first few weeks, he allowed himself to imagine how the baby, with his indistinct features, that tiny little nose and big searching eyes, could be anyone’s, could even be his. He tried as he could, when he held the baby, not to feel jealous. It wouldn’t be right to feel such strong emotions so close to such a small, defenseless thing, he told himself. But as the baby grew, his features sharpened and the more apparent it became that he was someone else’s child, not his, not ever, and Harold began to feel more and more like an intruder. Cindy told him not to be silly whenever Harold tried to suggest that he was just in the way. I like the company, she told him. It’s lonely here with just the baby. Life of a farmer’s wife, I guess.
You’re so good with him, you’d be a great father, Cindy said another time. John had just come in from laying out feed for the cattle, and the thick smell of manure hung in the air between them. Cindy, he said, sharply, shaking his head slightly as he glanced over, catching Harold’s eye.
Well, it’s true. Harold knows I’m not trying to hurt him saying that.
Harold felt suddenly very small and he wished that there was a way he could hand the baby back and just leave, just walk all the way home, his legs straight and steady beneath him. But he didn’t want to seem rude so he made himself sit there, his eyes cast down on the baby’s face. It’s okay, he said, quietly in order not to wake the baby who had finally drifted off to sleep moments ago in his arms.
The world’s greatest uncle, John said, standing to take the baby from Harold’s arms, holding the boy up to his face as the baby opened his dark eyes and let out a yawn. Play your cards right, little boy, and your Uncle Harold’s going to give you a sports car one day, John said, bringing his nose in towards the baby’s face, the baby cooing, reaching a hand out to touch John’s chin.
Harold looked away from the baby and out through the front window to the wide expanse of field, how the sky came down to meet it at the horizon in one flat sheet of white. It had been gray for days now and Harold told himself he was just feeling down because of the weather. He turned his attention back to the room, his face opening up with a smile. I don’t know if I can afford to give him a whole car, but I’ll certainly give him a good deal on one, he said. They all laughed at that, the tension breaking.
All during dinner that night, Harold worked the words around in his head, unable to settle on the right combination. Are you okay? Edie kept asking. You seem awfully quiet.
Later, as they settled down on the couch for some television, Harold turned and took Edie’s hands into his own. I think it’s time we try again. I really want this, Edie. He tried to slow the words as they ran from his mouth, coming up from a depth he didn’t even know had existed. As he spoke, everything tumbling around together, he told her about the friends he had lost, and their baby, and how much he loved Edie but how he would lose her someday or she might lose him and he didn’t want that, couldn’t take that. One ghost was too much to bear already, he told her. I can’t lose you, he said. If we had a baby, it would really be something, ours. He was crying then, he couldn’t help it, and Edie pulled her hands gently from his and placed them on either side of his face, turning it towards hers, kissing him, her lips pressing against his eyelids, his cheeks, his lips.
I’m sorry, she said, crying too. I’m sorry, but no, she kept saying, shaking her head, moving her hands down to his shoulders as if trying to square off his resolve with her own. But he couldn’t meet her eyes, his chin at his chest as he tried to breathe.
Give me a minute, he said. I just need a minute.
As she stood, she squeezed his shoulders, and then left the room. Harold sat, his head down for a while until the muscles in his neck seized and the veins at his temples grew too tight. He needed air. So he stood, took the keys from the hook by the door, went to his car and pulled out of the drive, turning the wheel as if by instinct, following the dark curve of the road that led into town. The car lot was silent, dark, lit only by a few overhead lights. He parked next to the mechanic’s garage and stood looking out across the river that ran behind the dealership, swift and black, the sound of its lapping against the banks the only sound he could hear.
After a while, he went back over to his car and pulled an old stadium blanket from the trunk then climbed into the back of one of the pick-up trucks on the lot, spreading the blanket out beneath him. So this was it, he thought. What his life was meant to be. It was him and Edie and the gap, a ghost that would always remain between them, a space they’d keep clear, tending to it together the way one might tend to a patch of land. This would be his legacy, he thought, and he had to be okay with it. He stared up at the stars for a long time until, emptied of everything, he fell asleep and slept straight through until the morning when the birds’ sharp calls woke him. He lay on his back as the sun came up, watching the birds coming in low along the water before settling up in the trees, how they lifted and landed like black shadows against the white sky.
When he got back home later that morning, he found Edie still in bed where it was clear she’d been since the night before, her eyes swollen and red from crying, the sheets tangled around her legs. It’s okay, he told her, wanting to believe it. You and me, he said. That’s all that matters.
After that, Harold started coming straight home from work. Cindy and John still called over to the house to ask them to come over and of course, he and Edie agreed every now and again, a few Sunday dinners, a birthday party when the boy turned one and again at two. But without ever speaking about it directly, it was as if they’d come to an understanding that they needed to carve out a space for just the two of them. And slowly, Harold grew used to this new idea and his resolve grew stronger. One night over dinner, Edie told him about how her honey was coming along. They say they’ll sell it for me down at Tadlock’s, she said. Been drawing up labels. She showed him her design, one bee set against a tiny lilac blossom. What do you think?
He traced his finger over the picture as if each petal were raised, the bee’s fur velvet against his skin. It’s good, he told her.
And it was. At nights they’d sit out on the porch and listen to the quiet.
But then, sometime soon after the boy’s fourth birthday, Cindy ran off and John went after her, bringing the boy over to stay with them, a small suitcase in hand. I’m sorry to bother you, he said, twisting his fingers around the suitcase handle until Harold reached out and took it from him. I don’t know what happened. Suddenly she says she can’t live like this. The boy stood behind him, his face pushed into John’s thigh. John dropped his hand to the top of the boy’s head, patting it. He’s real quiet. Won’t be too much bother?
It’s fine, Edie said then crouched on her knees in front of the boy. You’ll be fine, won’t you, little thing?
The boy wrapped his arms tighter around John’s leg as John tried to pull free. Go on, he told the boy who glanced up at John before reaching out his hand to Edie.
Harold stood back, taking it all in. What would this mean for them now, he wondered.
It’s just a few days, Edie said later after John left. Until they can sort things out. But the days stretched into a week and then two. Edie quickly settled into the boy’s routines, waking when he did, making him the foods he liked to eat, listening patiently as the boy pointed out everything he saw. But as quickly as Edie settled, Harold became more and more unsettled, surprised each time he came home to find this small boy sitting at his table, or when the boy’s cries woke him in the middle of the night, cries that made Harold’s heart knock against his chest, his stomach roiling. He’d felt this way before, back in the Army, how panic would punch its way up through his throat, the sudden pains that sprang up in his shins. Edie would wake then and hold him, rubbing the spasms from his legs. I’m right here, she said. Try to go back to sleep.
After about three weeks, John came around one night as they were settling in for dinner. As Edie and the boy packed up his things in the room they’d made up for him, John told Harold that Cindy wasn’t coming back. She’s got herself an apartment in the city. Says I can’t give her what she wants, he said, his voice tight. Harold just nodded, unsure what to say.
The house feels a little empty now, Edie said, the first night without the boy.
Harold let her statement sit between them as he lowered himself to the edge of the bed, keeping his back toward her as he waited for her to settle herself in before switching off the light. He was relieved the boy was gone, he wanted to tell her, but he doubted that she would understand.
The months passed with no further word from Cindy and John started to spend more and more time out in the fields then out late at night in town, leaving the boy to fend for himself. Edie reported all this back to Harold, shaking her head. He’s taking it too hard, the boy needs him, she said. Harold took all this in without comment. He knew how stubborn Edie got when she put her mind to something and so he wasn’t surprised when she took the boy shopping for school clothes, got his hair cut before picture day, brought him over to the house to eat. Then the bus started dropping the boy at their house after school, his bag bouncing against his back as he ran up their drive. He’s got so much energy, I’d like to bottle it up and sell it, Edie said, describing their afternoons to Harold.
Most days when it got too late, Edie would call over to John, who was always more than happy to let the boy spend the night. Harold suspected that the sight of the boy was painful to him, how much he had grown to look like his mother, the same heart-shaped face and the way his dark hair fell across his brow, the only trace of his father in the straight line of his nose. In the stubborn jut of his jaw, though, the boy looked most like Edie. Whenever Harold pulled up the drive and saw the two of them sitting out in the yard, Edie’s head dipped over the boy’s, he was surprised by how much he resented them both, so happy now and whole. Some days the boy would run up to Harold’s car with a handful of crabapples, other times a bat and a ball, always his hand tugging at Harold’s, pulling him in a direction he did not want to go.
He has a name you know, Edie said one day, not unkindly. She’d taken to calling the boy “Jay.” She didn’t like that they called him “Junior,” said it made him sound like some kind of country grit. Of course Harold knew the boy’s name, but for some reason he just couldn’t bring himself to use it. What was the point? The boy was always here, easy enough just to gesture to him, nod in his direction, acknowledge his presence. Names were too close, meant too much. If he couldn’t make the boy go away, at least he didn’t have to claim him. He felt suddenly and very sharply angry with Edie. What more could she possibly want from him, he thought, but said instead, simply, I know that.
Edie nodded, slowly, as if absorbing these three words might take her all day. Okay then, she said finally. But even though she claimed she was just helping out her brother, Harold saw the way she tucked the boy in at night, sitting at the edge of his bed until he fell asleep. And though she was always clear that she was only the boy’s aunt, her face lit up from within whenever she told Harold about something the boy had said or done, and he suspected that the gap he still carried around in his heart was starting to close over in her own.
When the boy turned ten, the boy asked Edie to teach him about the bees for his 4H project. She taught him how to fill the smoker with wood chips, then, as Harold watched from the back porch, she showed the boy how to angle the smoke, its thin gray wisps curling up between them as Edie talked, her fingers moving like bees’ flight in air.
One afternoon on their way to deliver honey, Edie and the boy stopped off at the car lot. Harold walked over to their truck where the boy sat, holding a box of jars carefully on his lap. He’s a good little helper, Edie said, reaching across the seat to ruffle the boy’s hair.
Aunt Edie, stop, the boy said, laughing, jerking his head away. He smiled across to Harold. Aunt Edie said I could look at the cars.
Harold nodded. Well, if Aunt Edie says, then I guess it’s okay. He stood back as Edie stepped down from the truck and the boy ran around from his side. Go on, but make sure you don’t leave any hand prints on the finish.
The boy nodded and darted off, his head bobbing up from time to time between the rows of cars. Edie took his arm, squeezed it a little. You’re a good man, she told him.
Harold shrugged. Don’t know about that. Listen, I’m about to sit down with a customer. You mind?
No, go right ahead. I’ll keep an eye on him. We were just passing by. Figured it would be nice to say hello. She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. See you back at home.
Harold watched as she walked off in the direction of the boy, calling out to him, then the two of them peering through the windows of different cars. He walked back across the lot and found his customer waiting at his desk. That’s a cute little family you got there, the man said. I got two of my own. Boy and a girl. One’s about to graduate. One’s about the age of yours. What is he, eleven, twelve?
He followed the man’s eyes out to the lot where Edie was talking to Mack, the other salesman on the lot. She had her arm around the boy and Mack was leaning down to point something out to him. Harold wondered briefly what they could be talking about, and then turned his attention back to his customer. Going on twelve, he said, forcing a wide smile across his face. There was no point in correcting a customer about to make a purchase.
That night, after John had come around to collect the boy, Harold left Edie alone in the kitchen with the dishes and went out back to where the lilac grew, the tops now just beyond the reach of his fingertips if he stretched his arms far above his head, arching up on his toes. The night was silent but for the low drone coming from the bee hives. It was a good life, he told himself. Still, as he brought the fat pads of his palms into his eye sockets, pressing slightly, he was surprised at how their perfect fit could make everything suddenly go black.
That was the summer Edie suddenly started losing a lot of weight. Harold was the first to notice, coming in one day from work and finding his wife at her work bench, angling fresh honey into the jars, the muscles on her arms seemed ropey to him, the bones of her face too sharp. You been on some kind of diet? he asked, coming up behind her to pass his arm around her waist. Not that you need it, he added quickly.
Edie laughed. You’re going to make me spill all this. Stop, she said, pushing her elbow back into his side. Later that night as she crawled into bed next to him, she said, that bathroom scale can’t be right. Says I’ve lost ten pounds.
The cancer was a shock, a handful of hard black nodules sitting tight in her pancreas, found during an exam to figure out why Edie was melting away, her round face now gaunt and sallow. Harold took time off from work to care for her during the chemotherapy. He tried to make her comfortable, propped pillows behind her head, lowered the sheets as lightly as he could, but still they scratched her, her skin raw and peeling. He sat next to her in the dark room, his thumb dipped in ice water that he pressed against her cracked lips. I’m so thirsty, she said, but she was unable to hold anything down. The doctors said it wouldn’t be long.
One of the nurses told him about the healing properties of honeycomb while he waited for Edie to come out from treatment, his spine pressed straight into the back of the hard plastic benches that lined the waiting room. Edie told me you raise bees, she said. He just nodded, not wanting to break his focus, gripping his index finger with his other hand so tightly he lost all sensation in it and had to clap his hands together to get the blood moving again before he was able to hold the steering wheel to drive them home.
That night after helping Edie with her bath and into her soft flannel pajamas, Harold went out to the hives to cut one of the combs from its frame, waving off bees as they landed on his arms, his neck, a few stings he wouldn’t feel until later when they welled up. Here, try this, he told her, holding his hand gently behind her neck, angling a small square of comb, wet with fresh honey, into her mouth. He watched her face as she chewed, her lips parted slightly in order to breathe.
I can’t, she said finally, pushing the wax out from her mouth into his open palm. It doesn’t taste like anything to me.
It’s supposed to be good for you. See, he said, taking another square from the plate and pushing it into his own mouth. As he chewed, sweet bursts of honey broke from their chambers, coating his throat as he swallowed. If anything, it was too sweet, the smell punching up through his nostrils, masking the stale odors of the room, the damp sweat of the sheets, the rot that hung in the air no matter how many times Harold cleaned. You know, you’re right, it doesn’t taste like anything, he said, turning his head away from her.
The cut-up chucks of comb sat in a butter dish in the center of the kitchen table for weeks, an indictment, he felt, of his failure to cure his wife, or, at the very least, to take away the pain that had gotten so bad, they had no choice but to check her back into the hospital to stay, a flexible tube of morphine attached to her arm, its steady drip able to do what Harold could not. It’s so cold, Edie said, shivering as the first bag of clear liquid emptied into her veins. Harold stayed with her until, only a few days later, he had no choice but to return home alone where he sat at the kitchen table in the dark that first night, digging his fingers into the honeycomb, stuffing thick balls of wax into his mouth until he could no longer breathe.
Before Edie died, she had asked Harold to watch out for the bees and the boy. But Harold, in his grief, did neither. The bees seemed fine enough on their own, left to their own devices, turning wild without tending, the hives clogged with comb. The boy was another matter. For a few weeks after Edie’s death, Harold would come home to find the boy sitting on the front steps, waiting.
What are you doing here, Harold asked the first time he found him.
The boy didn’t respond, just shrugged.
Well sitting here isn’t going to change anything. Harold tried to soften his voice as he said this, but even as the words were leaving his mouth, he knew it sounded as mean as he meant it to be. He couldn’t help it, every time he saw the boy, he saw Edie’s stubborn jaw, the way she’d set her mind against a child, a child he could have called his own, someone to make him feel less adrift right now, less alone.
The boy looked up at him. I know that, he said, pushing himself up off the step with the palms of his hands. As Harold watched him walk back out the lane, he was surprised that the boy didn’t look back once.
After the third time, he called John to complain. I just can’t have this right now, he explained.
There was silence as the crackle on the line buzzed in Harold’s ear until, finally, John said that he understood. He misses her, he said, we both do. But he kept to his word and the boy stopped coming around and Harold busied himself around the house and on the lot, showing people cars they had no intention of buying, and listening to Mack’s idle chatter as if he had nothing better to do than to waste Harold’s time. After a while, the busyness stopped working and the grief he’d staved off with chores and mindless tasks paralyzed him. And then everything stopped. He stopped making up the bed at home, the sheets in a tangled pile atop the mattress he’d stopped sleeping on in favor of the living room couch. He stopped wiping down the cars each morning, letting a thin film of gray grime build up so that the light no longer glinted off the windshields and after awhile, people stopped pulling in, now that there wasn’t anything shiny to catch their eye. And in this way, time passed with Harold doing just enough to keep going, his focus on the next immediate thing, counting his breaths, one hand closed around his index finger, grasping.
John checked in on him from time to time, calling to see if he wanted to grab a beer or come over just to get out for a while, but Harold always found an excuse not to go. Some nights he found himself looking out across the ravine to the little white house with its yellow squares of light, wondering what they might be having for dinner or what they might be talking about. He hadn’t seen the boy in a while, but heard rumors from time to time down at the lot. One slow afternoon, Mack stopped over at his desk, taking up the photo of Edie. Sweet lady, he said, shaking his head before setting it back in place. Harold just nodded, staring down at his hands. That nephew of yours, now he’s a different matter altogether, Mack added, as if attempting to change the topic, but not going far enough to take the tension out of the air between them. Got some streak in him. Must of got that from the mother, he said, more matter of fact than unkindly. My girl says he gets kicked out of school every other day. You might have to have a talk with him. Sure isn’t how Edie raised him.
Harold just let him talk. Everyone knew how much Edie had loved the boy and had always just assumed Harold felt the same way. They were family, after all. Harold wasn’t going to try to correct Mack’s perception. It wasn’t worth the bother. It’s just the age, he said. About fifteen now. I’m sure John’s got a handle on things. Besides, it’s not really my business, is it?
Mack nodded. Been through that myself with my oldest. Not a good age at all. Thank god it passes.
One night a few weeks later he heard a noise from the back yard and went out with his flashlight. There, standing in the middle of the hives was the boy, taller than Harold remembered him, the same dark hair still falling across his forehead. He held a lid from one of the hives in his hands.
What are you doing out here? Harold asked, dropping the flashlight’s beam from the boy’s face, sweeping it around to survey the damage. All six hives were fine, all but one with their lids in place. He lifted the flashlight back to the boy’s face, framing him in its circle. The boy dropped the lid to the ground beside him and held his hands out in front of him, palms facing out as if to reassure Harold he meant no harm.
I just wanted to check on the bees, he said.
The bees don’t need you checking on them. You’re going to get yourself shot sneaking around people’s yards at night like this. He stood to the side as the boy walked off past him. Then he settled the lid back down on the hive, rubbing his palm across the top lightly before turning back towards the house. That night, he threw the bolt on the front door. Though he didn’t feel unsafe, there was something about the boy’s face that had unnerved him, his dark eyes a little too wide open and unblinking in the glare of the flashlight, the way he’d walked off without making a sound. He thought about what Mack had said, but told himself it wasn’t his problem. John could handle it. Harold had done enough already.
A few days later though, the boy was back again, this time sitting on the ground in the middle of the hives, the bees flying around him, going about their business as usual, not bothered at all by the boy’s presence. But before Harold had a chance to say anything, the boy spoke first. Aunt Edie always said that the bees talked to her. They ever speak to you?
I don’t think she meant it literally like that.
The boy didn’t respond. You’re not taking very good care of the hives, he said finally. I could help you out. Paint them up. Help you collect the honey. The way I used to help Aunt Edie.
Edie’s name coming out of the boy’s mouth jarred Harold. It had been a long time since he had heard her name spoken aloud and he wanted to tell the boy to shut up, to stop calling her Aunt Edie, for Christ’s sake. Instead he said, they’ve been doing fine without you, and immediately regretted it, the look on the boy’s face like a sharp slap, the way his cheeks went slack, the light gone from his eyes. He added quickly, I mean, those bees are doing fine without either of us. It’s in their nature. They keep going.
At least, he thought he said this last part, but later on, when he mulled it over, he couldn’t say for sure if he had.
The boy just nodded at this, lifting himself to his feet before walking off. Harold was surprised that, this time, the boy looked back. As their eyes met, a sharp jolt charged through Harold and an image of Edie flashed into his head, back to that very first day, the dogs barking alongside the truck as she came into view. How still she stood, like she’d been waiting there for him her entire life. He gasped, placing his hand against his chest as if to remind his lungs to keep moving. The boy just stood there, watching him closely as if to make sure Harold was okay, then, seemingly satisfied, he turned and walked back up the drive, as he had each time before.
That night, Harold moved from the couch back to the bed, spreading clean sheets into place then propping two pillows against the headboard before settling back against them to read Edie’s bee manual late into the night. The next morning, he gathered up everything he needed to work on the hives and spent the rest of the day tending to them, pulling the tall weeds from around the base of each hive, making sure to fill any cracks in the wood with putty. That weekend he sanded the wood lightly then applied a fresh coat of white paint to each hive and the following weekend, he checked the combs for honey. He knew the boy had shamed him into this, but was surprised by how comforting he found working the bees, their low, steady drone, the lazy dipping flight as they landed on the porch of each hive, their back legs round with yellow pollen. The first batch of honey he collected after Edie’s death he expected would taste like sorrow, sharp with a slight brine, but he was disappointed to find that it was as sweet as any they’d bottled before.
Later, after the incident, he couldn’t remember if he first saw the boy or heard the bees, their angry buzz like a chainsaw catching against hard wood. He ran out to the back where he found the boy hunched over one of the hives, two other hives knocked over next to him, a black cloud of bees circling like a cyclone about to close in.
Get out of there, he shouted and it was as if he’d roused the boy from sleep, suddenly animated, the boy standing up straight, the bees closing in around him as he turned, swatting, turning again, crying out to Harold.
Help me, he said.
Harold ran over to him, knocking him to the ground, covering the boy’s body with his own, bee stings raining across his back, down his arms and legs. Come on, he said, pulling the boy up beneath him, still shielding him as he crawled them out backwards away from the hives, until they were clear of the swarm and he was able to stand. His arms crossed underneath the boy, he lifted him, running for the car.
Stay with me Jay, Harold said, one hand cradled against the boy’s cheek as he drove them to the hospital. Already the boy’s face had swollen up red, his lips tight to the point of bursting. He needed the boy to keep talking so he’d know the boy’s airway hadn’t closed off from the stings. Though his words were mumbled, Harold could hear what he was saying clearly, because he kept saying the same thing over and over again until they came up to the hospital and through the Emergency Room doors.
They talked to me, he said.
The doctors were able to treat the stings immediately, but wanted to keep the boy several more days to monitor him. His behavior’s erratic, the doctors said and they wanted to run more tests.
Thank god you were there, John said, reaching out toward him as Harold stood to leave. You saved his life. Harold let John close his arms around him, his own arms down at his sides, still sore and swollen with stings. He’d been at the hospital for hours with John, bringing him coffee, nodding along as John paced the small room, waiting for news. But now, he just wanted to be back home. He’d feel better, he thought, after a good night’s sleep. As he drove home, he tried not to picture the boy, the way he’d called out to him, how light he was in Harold’s arms.
They think he’s got some kind of chemical imbalance, John told him a few nights later over the phone. Doctor says it explains a lot, how he’s been acting, those bad moods of his. Should be right again with the medication, he said. This was the most they’d spoken in a long while, and Harold didn’t know how to respond. So he just offered John his help, figuring John probably knew enough not to ask for it.
Harold waited a few days for the bees to calm down before cleaning up their hives, lifting the boxes upright and sliding the frames back into place. For the next few days, he went out back after dinner and again in the mornings before work, sitting cross-legged between the hives the way the boy had. He thought about what the boy had said and he made himself sit there as the boy had, sitting and listening closely, careful not to make any sudden moves, afraid the bees might spook again, though they appeared to be back to their usual business, looping around him as if he wasn’t even there, silent except for their buzzing.
Harold tried not to give too much thought to the boy after that, and so was caught off guard one afternoon some months later when John’s truck pulled into the lot, the boy in the seat next to him. He’s turning sixteen next week, John said, his voice forced and chipper, one hand clapped to the boy’s shoulder. We’re thinking of getting him a car.
Well, I’m sure I can give you a real good deal on one, Harold said, walking them up and down the rows of cars, stopping from time to let the boy to slide in behind the wheel. In each, the boy just sat with his arms out stiff gripping the sides of the wheel, staring at rather than through the windshield while John asked all the right questions about miles per gallon, horsepower, and warranty.
After the boy had gone back to wait for John in the truck, John asked if Harold might consider coming out for dinner. Just a little thing on his birthday, he said. He’d like that. He still talks about Edie from time to time. And those bees. John’s voice trailed off as he turned to look back across the lot, his face so dark and troubled that, without thinking, Harold quickly said yes.
But the night of the dinner came too soon for Harold. As he sat in his dark house, he watched the lights come on over at the farm, the phone ringing a few times after that, but each time, he ignored it and soon it stopped ringing altogether.
Harold couldn’t say for sure how much more time passed after that, days, weeks even. He was out at the hives when he heard the shot, one sharp report, the birds lifting then resettling in the trees, all other sounds sucked from the air, the sky suddenly so flat and white. Without thinking, he ran in the direction of the shot, down the ravine along the path Edie always took, up the other side, scrambling, his hands against the rocks, past John’s house to the tool shed behind, the shed door open. A gun lay at the boy’s feet, the awful bite of the shotgun where the boy’s face had been. Harold could feel the moan breaking out from his mouth, but heard it as if it were coming from some other place far away. He was too late. He went into the house to call for an ambulance then looked for something to cover the boy. The first room he went into was the boy’s, a typical boy’s room with clothes thrown on the back of a desk chair, a twin bed still unmade, a blue comforter on top in a heap. He lifted it to his face. It smelled like sweet clover. He made himself put the comforter back down and took instead a sheet from a stack he found in a hall closet. This he settled down over the boy, drawing it up gently from the boy’s feet, pausing before pulling it over the boy’s face.
He hears the ambulance wail coming up the hill, knows John will soon follow. He can’t think that far ahead. Instead, he forces himself to think only of the next immediate thing to do, which is to grasp the boy’s hand in his own, and as he does, he fears that his entire life has prepared him for this. The one shot, the black birds lifting against that white sheet of sky.