Excerpt from Saint Valentine
BY KIT PYNE-JAEGER
Finalist for the 2020 Adroit Prize for Prose
When I moved back home to California after college I started keeping bees. I had been a classics major and my fantasies were pastel and pastoral, springy with wildflowers, love as an apple and the body as a bowed violet. Bees seemed appropriate because their urban hustle and sacrificial way of life made me ashamed of my own bad habits—I completed work at three in the morning the night before; I was unfaithful; I feared pain. I had a job writing copy for a website that helped students cheat on their readings, a bleak poetry. The ghosts look back at them. The devil and his cat arrive.
My bees cost one hundred and twenty dollars and arrived as a trembling box, heavy with anxiously worded labels—LIVE BEES and FRAGILE and DO NOT OPEN. With the box in the passenger seat I drove home from the post office and thought in a nonspecific way about how exactly I would die if the box opened, what it might feel like to have bees burrow through your eardrum, to be stung on your papery eyelids and the fleshy whites of your eyes.
My mother was in a nursing home and my father spent most of his time with her, stumbling through the house after dark to collect magazines, drink orange juice from the carton. I talked to the bees because I had no one else to talk to: about work projects, dating apps, a petition I had signed to protect Alaskan national parks from drilling, an exhibition of botanical drawings at the Getty Center. In rural Europe the telling of the bees is meant for weddings and deaths, important events in the life of the keeper, but I was a lonely and serious woman and mourned mostly the minor and irrelevant. I was also anxious and did not know what was important enough to be acknowledged by the bees, or if they might die, like those dizzied young lovers in Greek myth who ran on their swords or hurled themselves into rivers, because they loved me and I had looked away. I imagined them stirring under the glass of the hive, pulsing with longing, unfulfilled.
So I sat on the grass in a white hazmat suit and sang to them when I had nothing to say (Liz Phair and Tori Amos, sad-girl cliché, what’s so amazing about really deep thoughts) and they crawled into the wind of language and nested there, faraway movement blowing in a field, and they floated with it, expanded richly with it, tumbled out of its dry leafy air when they had eaten everything able to be eaten. Bees, and this is little-known, are parasitoid. The cuckoo bee, yellow- and black-ringed like illegible Linear A script, will slaughter its granddaughters and trick its daughters into feeding their sisters instead. What is language, anyway, but the act of a parasite? What do we do when we speak except latch on to something older and more beautiful, and feed ourselves?
During her nervous breakdown in 1904 Virginia Woolf, who I had written my senior thesis on (satire of classical epic in To the Lighthouse), was haunted by birds singing Greek choruses outside her window, like ghosts or Aeschylean swallows. Ironically I was working on a synopsis of Woolf—Monday or Tuesday, like a picture book of some green ghostly world—when the bees began to murmur. Μέλισσα Μέλισσα Μέλισσα.
When my bees let me know that they had learned language, or perhaps that they had always known it, they spoke Attic Greek. This was why I recognized that the telling of the bees was absolutely necessary, that they loved me enough to die if I did not rejoice and mourn in their company. Greek was my intimacy with myself, my private secret, and love without trinkets and ceremony is simply making room for yourself in someone’s quiet intimacy, taking a chair and saying, I belong here.
I stood up from my desk and veiled my face and went barefoot out into the sun. The wild grass sprawled languorously through the slats of the fence, the dark thrash of the blackberry bushes. Against the back fence the hives flickered.
“What do you want?” I said, because it was easier to imagine I was having a conversation with them, rather than obeying their commands as one does an authority at an uneasy, sideways angle to reality, unknown motivations (ghosts, the terminally ill).
Μέλισσα, they said, a grainy chorus like a prayer. Μή φοβοῦ. ἐλθέ δεῦρο.
My name was Melanie. The bees, I had decided, must term me mélissa as a joke: the Greek word for a bee but also a name given to the oracle of Delphi, stoned on laurel leaves, overfull with the brimming light of the sun god. What this says about bees, memory, humor, the survival of myth, is one of those impossibilities to which you adapt. I took my Ancient Greek lexicon, a five-pound Liddell & Scott, with me to tend the beehives now, because once they had used a verb that none of my tragedy seminars had glossed. Άπάρχομαι, απαρξομαι, απήρξάμην, to inaugurate a sacrifice by cutting off the hair, to offer the first fruits, to dance.
Why they said μή φοβοῦ, be not afraid, I had puzzled over, worried the syllables with my hind teeth like a dog, until I decided it was not worth worrying about. St Valentine was the patron saint of beekeepers. Also of plague victims, epileptics, lovers, and the happily married. Angels were not unlike insects, eusocial, a huge ultraviolet mind, too many eyes.
To harvest honeycomb from a hive one lifts off the roof, the membrane of the inner cover, and then extracts one of the comb frames, drunken with honey, heavy as someone sleeping on your shoulder. When I lifted the frame out of the hive to carve away the honeycomb I reared back, moaned, crammed my knuckle in my mouth and bit, a preteen habit produced by crushes’ horror-movie birthdays that I had broken nine or ten years ago.
Out of the comb was sculpted a woman. The muddy face was recognizably human, lipless mouth drooling and milky with honey, one eye hexagonal and caved in on itself. Its eyelashes, black and fragile, were made of discarded legs. I remembered images of late-stage embryos I had seen—figures of weird serenity, their hands clasped, their brains jelly inside a clear skull. As I watched, gnawing my thumb, a bee emerged briskly from the eye of the mask as through the moist eye socket of a corpse.
Back indoors I clawed my pith helmet and gloves off and bent over the sink, pressed my forehead against the cool metal of the faucet and shut my eyes. Pre-dreams, those small sleeping things that will become nightmares, scented my thoughts darkly. I was not squeamish, disliked women who self-defined that way either for attention or out of a feeling of obligation. I expected to vomit because I had never known the sourness of abjection to my body to come before anything else.
Without looking I turned the water on and it blew cold and sharp down my throat, into the collar of my shirt, between my breasts. I waited there until my shirt flushed dark and dripped. I did not throw up. That was when I understood that eventually I would love her, this woman of beeswax and evolutionary miracle, fig and vine creature, Queen of the May, or understood, at least, that I had done something very wrong, and past repair.
The bees knew that I was lonely but I had not known they were able to intellectualize loneliness. I explained it to them as though I was narrating fiction: a problem that had never fully existed, a woman unselfconscious and lonely as the Lady of Shalott or Sleeping Beauty was lonely, as a prerequisite for womanhood and for being wanted. And so, this being fiction and the rules able to be manipulated, the bees had wanted to make me a lover, to love me in the senses and tenses an insect could not.
Having become a she instead of an it when I was not looking she ripened with the fresh fruit in the backyard. The ripe blackberries that summer were so plump and slippery they burst when touched, thirsty, and I ate them by the sloppy handful and drank seltzer and left bruised stains on my jeans and the kitchen table, winy with juice. Only in California did these mismatched orchards jungle suburban backyards, figs, pomegranates, avocados, lemons, grapefruits, all of which were strewn across the lawn as quickly as I could collect them, to be eaten by raccoons and coyotes and pulped by the wasps at generational war with my bees.
Bees do not understand beauty. Bees understand hunger, thirst, power, need, devotion, and sacrifice. A worker bee will be killed by yellow jackets voluntarily to protect her unborn sisters, and the oldest of those sisters will kill the others to be queen. She was a beautiful woman, as beautiful as a queen, as beautiful as a queen in a Greek tragedy, where the loveliest thing on the stage is the corpse she has brutalized like livestock with an axe. She was an insect, a fruit, a weather event, an angel, a dead language. In the first week of June a thunderstorm cooled her skull, tongued vertebrae into her back, made her body livable.
The morning after the storm, the sky sullen and purple and the air dense, I wrapped myself in my mother’s bathrobe and went downstairs to make coffee and she was sitting at the kitchen table.
She was naked. Her hands, six of them, were crossed politely in her lap and on the oak of the table. Her face rippled with eyes, blinkless and pupilless, a ring of yellow balls strung like lights around her head. Her body frothed with life—fernlike leaves unfurling shadowy as a slap from her temples, her backbone maned with tufts of carved fur and the stems of more eyeless eyes, long, soft strings of silky hair that might have been fungus, exposed roots, spiderweb, the cocoons of some unfortunate moth.
As if blind she moved her head and looked at me. I was still. I thought of how my hands in her hair would feel, her wet fair hair and her thick forehead. I thought that love was only accepting disgust, in small ways and sweetly.
Έγώ, she said. Έγώ.Έγώ.
I. I. I.
For a bee, or an approximation of a bee as an approximation of a woman, to give oneself a singular pronoun was holy, as it was holy in medieval times to die well. From her head there branched fruit trees, darkened by rain. Where her neck met her shoulder there was warm skin and a firmness like muscle, heartbreakingly right.
I put my hand beside hers (the fifth of six, nails frilly with something like feathery antennae) on the table, bent my head, and kissed her. Then I went to make both of us coffee.
The bees would not give her a name when I asked them. This was the first time I wondered whether they grasped exactly what love was, what it meant, the increasingly formal network of distinctions between love and possession, love and hunger.
I named her Aglaé. In Attic Greek άγλαία is the word for beauty, festivity, glory. Aglae is also a monotype of euglossine bees, an orchid bee endemic to the Neotropics, its sole species the rainbow-blue Aglae caerulea. In photographs the specimens are an azure blue the color of missing language, violets are blue and Homer’s wine-dark sea, the indescribable.
She was light-footed and curious, read obsessively the Greek texts I had left over from college—wolfish Odysseus and saffron-clad Iphigenia, he slaughtered his child at the altar to charm away the winds of Thrace. By two or three in the morning she would be reading Sappho, curled in a flea-market armchair with her spadelike tail, amphibious and smooth as a salamander’s, coiled around her feet. She would drink coffee but preferred sugary, viscous food that left the hardwood gluey and adhered to her hooked teeth: Nutella, ginger liqueur, melted ice cream, watery oatmeal red with pancake syrup.
I loved her as though she were the only explanation possible for any question I had ever asked. Of course I liked blackberries, of course I knew how to give a hand massage, of course I was meant for this luscious, flooded happiness. Of course happiness had always been in my short hair, tweedy clothes, bedsheets and deck chairs, waiting to be caught like flotsam of the beach—the smell of salt water, grains of sand—and gathered by her sticky body, its tendency to cling to whatever it touched.
Because of her stickiness, perhaps, or for some strange medieval reason (chastity; the devotion of courtly love) we slept curled away from each other, never touching. I kissed her each night before our cups of decaf coffee, mine black, hers more vanilla creamer than coffee, six sugars. Her mouth was buttery, melting against my teeth, and when I bit a lump of wax out of her lip with guilty curiosity she seemed not to notice, blinked her eyelashes of legs placidly against my skin.
During the days we looked after each other, in that she took care of me and I of her, and also in that when she left the room I would wait and watch hungrily the last place I had seen her, the quivering light there like the sun flowing through leaves, breeze and shade. In the morning I combed her hair and toweled the creases of her thighs and underarms, lent her my toothbrush or face wash when lint and dust bearded her cheeks, dressed her with whatever she wanted from my half-emptied suitcases or my parents’ abandoned closets. Prairie dresses with long flowered skirts, army jackets slit along the ridge of her back mane, jangly bracelets and earrings swinging from her branches like garlands. Aglaé spent most of her time putting things in order, water glasses in the kitchen and Greek syntax, and swaying, wistfully, into my shoulder when I passed her. The handiwork of my body interested her and often she would sit on my knees, myself naked to the waist, and pluck dark hairs (witch hairs, my mother’s term for them) from my breasts, pinch acne from my shoulders, soothe patches of dry skin. I learned to prune miniature trees and to translate Aeolic Greek when she did not recognize a Sapphic conjugation. She was deft with her plurality of hands and taught herself to weave, knit, sew, embroider, mending the gauze of my pith helmets, stitching hoops of native plants and gold-threaded eyes.
Κυρια μου, I said, my hands on her sharp hips, my crown of clover and dandelions askew on her hair, some Celtic ballad on the CD player—comfort for the comfortless, and honey for the bee. O comfort for the comfortless, but there’s none but you for me. φίλη μου, she said, and touched the mole below my cheekbone, which delighted her. My lady, and my love. And there’s none but you for me.
We were wildly, dumbly, deliriously happy, flush with new love, our hives toothsome with honey, our pockets full of summer fruit. Eating clementines over the sink they were as cool and tart as the beginning of desire, the first bite.
Not long before Aglaé’s body had begun to take shape in the backyard my father had rented an apartment downtown. He wanted to be able to stay overnight with my mother, he said. Though this would once have touched me I thought only about the wonder of my lover’s ἀνάστασις—a standing-up, a recovery, a coming-back-to-life—and whether this was an additional miracle, this unexpected absence, the house ours and in love with us too. When a woman you love is with you your world becomes unworldly, as small and warm a room as a cell in a monastery and smelling also of soap and cigarettes, faith.
At the coppery end of summer he asked me to drive into the city proper to have lunch. We had been speaking on the phone once a week on Sundays, I reporting on work (the motif of nature in The Waves, symbols in Howards End) and he talking to me about the sandwich shop near his place that sold naan with cashews and tomatoes, the statistics that indicated California was in a mega-drought. We didn’t talk about my mother, talked intentionally and with professional enunciation around her. I didn’t mention Aglaé.
Lately she had been restless, stormy in her moods, tending to confidence and destruction. I knew bees were capable of detecting weather variation and so treated it as a side effect of the abundant storms—sky striped catlike with thunderlight, wind crackling, a smell of ozone. She bit her fingertips and tried her teeth stubbornly on her knuckles, crushed yellow jackets in her bare fists until they pulped, ground champagne glasses into the the wood of the kitchen table. This wasn’t to say that I no longer loved her but to say that, because of her spinning rage and because of the way I loved her, I was eager to leave the house.
So I said yes. My love for him was remote in my and Aglaé’s private country but I loved him; I had always been Daddy’s not-quite-girl, a tomboy of crew cuts and stolen T-shirts who trusted my mother but worshipped my father. Our house was an hour and a half away from the nursing home. I told Aglaé that I would be gone most of the day and would she please check on the bees and not answer the door. She was bubbly after breakfast, her tail thrown like a silk scarf over her shoulder. She laughed and kissed my cheek, a rarity, and said, Μεριμνᾷς. Πᾶν εὔκοσμον ἔσται.
I would think while driving, in traffic on the 405, that her vocabulary was becoming strange, more gutsy and archaic. Μεριμνᾷς, you worry, a derivative of μέριμνα, n., care, anxiety, or literally a dividing, a pulling-apart, meaning less allegorically to go to pieces. Εὔκοσμον, not exactly all will be well but something like everything will be orderly, graceful, well-behaved. Everything will be right, for a prim and particular definition of rightness.
My father met me on the front steps of the care home, looking emaciated in Tevas and jeans, and said, “Hi, Mel,” before he hugged me with haste.
He smelled strong, salty and like tropical air freshener, days unshowered and a smear of coconut. His skin was flexible, palpated under my fingers. Aglaé smelled of nothing except wax and sometimes at night wet soil, a green and pleasant smell, and her skin did not spring back. I touched his back and felt unclean myself, a crust of sweat and human fluid like the skin on oily soup. My stomach protested and I breathed with care through my mouth.
“Hi,” I said when he let me go, and thought uneasily of Aglaé who would greet me at home, murmur χαίρει, φίλη, and let me kiss her knuckles, with no skin to glide across her joints and no interruption in the crispness of her Greek, its warlike shine.
He smiled, and I scraped a thumbnail against the other and avoided looking at the old milk of his teeth. “How’s work?”
“Oh,” I said, “fine. You know. Kids going back to school. I’m doing Plath.” The irony did not escape notice me (an active verb in Greek: λανθανω, of cats and thieves). I was ten when they buried you. At twenty I tried to die and get back, back, back to you. And then I knew what to do. My father was neither mythology nor monster, which meant he was not poetic.
From behind his glasses he watched me, blinking, abstracted. “Did you bring something for your mother?” he said eventually.
(The first duty of a daughter in Greek tragedy: to die, like Antigone, when her family dies. The first duty of a daughter in a hive: to feed her mother.)
“You always bring flowers. She’s been looking forward to them.”
My stomach dangled, a fall arrested like the extension of neck bones mid-hanging, failed suicide. I toothed the skin from my inner lip until salt drenched my tongue. This was a habit Aglaé disliked because it left sores, raw spots and swollen holes inside my mouth, which she could not play with so that my skin and fine hairs were once again in order.
“The florist was out,” I said. “Out of nice things. There were just some daisies. Mostly dead.”