Sarah Jay is nineteen. She lives with her husband, the beekeeper, in a farmhouse in Pittsgrove, New Jersey. She knows more about bees than she would like — facts she has overheard more than anything. Only female bees can sting, she could tell you. A queen bee will lay one egg per minute, all day and all night.
On the breakfast table in front of her, a honeybee lands on the open rim of a marmalade jar. Sarah settles The Observer and eyes the bee — the wisps of hair on its limbs, wings like plastic. She rolls up the paper like a pirate telescope and tightens it in her hands.
“Sarah,” a voice calls from the doorway.
She looks up to see her husband dressed in overalls with a pair of yellow rubber gloves in his hands. His wrinkled face is barely visible behind the mesh covering of his beekeeper’s helmet. He pulls open the screen door and comes across the kitchen.
“It’s in my marmalade,” Sarah says.
The beekeeper cups his hands around the jar, taking the bee gently on his fingertips.
“She’s attracted to the sugar.”
Sarah takes a bite of dry toast as her husband walks towards the door.
“Get dressed,” he says. “We’re going to Walter’s.”
She was sixteen when she met the beekeeper. Flat-chested and awkward, she worked the register at her father’s market. The beekeeper came in twice a month, bought soap and root beer, bags of oatmeal. Sarah had noticed him immediately — his shock of silver hair, his thick, creased fingers. She smelled honey on him when he stood close.
The beekeeper smiled at her, looked her in the eyes when they spoke. He was an entomologist, he told her, somewhat of an adventurer. He’d studied Africanized honeybees in São Paulo and nearly died from a hornet’s sting in Corpus Christi. The university was sending him to Central America next year for a month in the rain forest. He could bring a companion.
“He’s an old man,” her father had said. “You’re my child.”
They left together in his white truck. She took a battered red suitcase, wore a sundress, never once looked in the rearview.
Today, the truck is the same, but only now does she think of her father eating dinners alone on the living room couch — his ruddy round face, a bit of corn in his beard. He must be endlessly haunted, she thinks, forever aware of the emptiness of his home. How the hurt and worry must have burned through his stomach.
She rolls the window down, looking to feel the wet cold of Jersey autumn against her cheeks.
“Close that,” the beekeeper says. “I’ve got the heat on.”
Walter’s house is deep into farmland, a shuttered red monster surrounded by miles of crab grass and yellowing oaks. The old truck putters down the strip of gravel that leads to his yard. Walter’s there, crouching between two large wooden hives, dressed in a white jumpsuit and a beekeeper’s helmet.
“Wait here,” the beekeeper says and slams the door tight behind him.
Sarah watches her husband walk through a cloud of bees over to Walter. He pats him on the shoulder and they shake hands. The beekeeper points over to Sarah in the front seat and Walter offers a wave. Sarah lifts her hand, smiles slightly. The two men then walk together, disappearing into the house.
She opens the door and steps outside the truck, feeling the tall weeds against her ankles for what feels like the first time. The beekeeper always made sure she stayed inside, only letting her out to hang the laundry or tend to the hives. She had once gone to town to see a movie without telling him. He put his hands on her when she got home, told her he’d chain her to the radiator if she did it again.
The sound of thousands of wings rubbing together begins to swell in her ears like some horrible symphony. She grimaces. Looking down the gravel driveway towards the road, she thinks about running. She could find her way to the railroad and go back to her father and the market. But would he have her now, she wonders. Would he ever forgive her? No contact had been made with him. Her father might’ve retired years ago. The old man could be in Vancouver watching gulls and buffleheads like he’d always dreamed.
A bee flies past Sarah’s cheek and circles around her head. It settles on her forearm and walks slowly towards the crook of her elbow. She pauses for a moment to look at it. A worker bee, apis mellifera, searching for nectar to provide for the colony. It reminds her of a dream she once had. She was naked in the yard, smashing her husband’s hives and watching the bees fly free. Yet, even in her dream she knew the bees did not want this freedom. They depended on the hive, survived because of it.
Sarah is startled by her husband’s voice. He’s standing in Walter’s doorway, calling her name.
“We’re ready,” he says.
The bee gently works its way against the hairs of her arm. She eyes it, stabs it with her finger and prepares herself for what comes next.
Ryan Murphy is a writer living in New York City. His fiction has appeared in Hobart and Pindeldyboz and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His nonfiction has appeared everywhere from FHM to WWE Kids Magazine.