Autumn 2017 / Short Story and Poetry Contest
Everything Belongs to Me

Finalist in the U of T Magazine Short Story Contest


The Bee Man comes every second Sunday, after dinner when the sun’s low as the hydro poles.

Sam comes with his nets and smokers, veil and gloves. Each week I wait for his red Chevy Nova to scrabble up the steep driveway. I listen for the small hailstorm of gravel that spurts from both sides. I watch him open the back of his truck, gather his gear, and walk down the path past the grapevines. Today it rained so the hailstorm is louder than usual.

“Hello there, Blanche.” I watch his mouth as he speaks, though there’s only a screen door between us and I can hear every word clearly. I like his mouth and its wide flexible contours. Stan comes in for a slice of pumpkin pie while he waits for the sun to drop lower. “The setting sun calms angry bees,” he explains, though he’s told me before. When it’s time, I stay inside and watch from the window. I’m afraid of bees, so I wait for him to knock on my door when he’s done.         

It’s mine now, the door, the tin-roofed barns, the granary, the bee hives, the well. I inherited the dog too: an old mixed breed with a bit of collie in him named Beau-jo. The street’s called Country Lane Road, but the name isn’t fooling anyone. Once you pass the golf club, you expect ayrshires in pastures but instead there’s Italian-style villas mixed with old abandoned farms. Like this place – all I’ve got left is a few apple trees, gnarled grapevines and eight beehives. Neighbours still come over to use the pond since my sister Helen put out an invitation in 1979.  

Yesterday, the weather was fair, and I tried to clean out the hay, all moldy and full of bat-shit. It’s been here for decades, sitting in the barn, and when I began to sift through it, I found old horse medicine and lumber jackets that my father stashed away during the depression. I gave up. I daydream sometimes that I’m growing old like a bee, learning to forage away from home, changing my gene activity to improve my learning skills. But when computers came into the office, I retired with a nice pension and a certificate for my wall. I worked at the ministry of HR in Ottawa during the war when we needed money to keep the farm; then working came to be a habit. The craft shop job I have now is just for fun, really.

I bring things home with me from the shop. Things people don’t miss: bits of raffia and twine, cords of rick-rack and the odd sheet of crepe paper. Today in the shop, I had to hang out in the “Seasonal” aisle a full ten minutes before it was empty. I fit five Styrofoam balls into my sweater pockets. All different sizes, too.

 

Helen’s will specified I receive the farm. No one was surprised: I’d lived by myself in a small apartment in town and visited her every weekend. She was four years older than me and together we’d cared for father before he died. Helen and the Bee Man were an item once. He went to the Audley School with us, twenty-odd kids in one room. But things fell apart between them and I never knew why.

“He’s pleasant,” I told her then.

“We don’t see eye to eye.”

 He tried proposing in 1935. He hid the ring in a pot of clover honey. She didn’t have a sweet tooth. It took her a full year to get to the bottom of it and, by then, she was tired of honey and he was tired of waiting.

 “Your mountie’s pleasant, himself,” Helen told me that day, winking.

“I’m not waiting five years.” He was stationed in Ottawa and I loved him but after six months I stopped answering his letters. It was a regulation five years until he was allowed to marry. I couldn’t see that far ahead.  

I only work part time at the shop – in the artificial flower section at Michael’s, behind the counter where I give people advice and teach a class once a week on flower arranging. One time I wished I had a boy; I might have named him Michael, after his father. If five years hadn’t seemed so long. Some well-meaning biddies who come to my class philosophize their every mistake, muttering to each other, we do everything for a reason, but I’m not so sure. To be a good beekeeper, or HR manager, or silk flower arranger, you need intuition too, and some balls of steel. Not just blind fate.

I designed one of the new classes that started in November, hoping to get the Christmas rush. Bob asked me to type out new customer testimonials as they come in. Though I’m not much good at computers, my steno skills are still A-1 and so I type out the rave reviews: My sister-in-law was thrilled with the flowers. She says they are stunningly lifelike.

There’s a new thing that came out a few years ago, our customers go crazy over it – acrylic water. You put it in the base and it makes the flowers look real. You don’t even have to bother with real houseplants any more. Not with the things they’ve come out with.

“Blanche, your shift’s over for the day.” Bob tries to get me out each week after my class.

“Just getting ready for tomorrow,” I say, organizing the spanish moss and floral stem wrap into neat piles.

“Time to go, we’re closing up,” Bob says, despite the hours on the door that tell me there’s still a full three hours till closing time.

I don’t get paid much and my classes always fill up, so there’s not much he can do, manager or not.

I usually give him the slip.

 

Mail comes at four o’ clock every afternoon. When there’s rain, the mail-lady’s sometimes a little late. No mail today. Nothing postmarked Ottawa? Then I remember it’s Sunday. Still wish I could make it up to him. I never made it down the aisle with another man, if that counts for anything. The name Gardiner is peeling off the mailbox. Time to get out my paints.  

Instead, I go back in and stare at the picture in the living room; it’s a cheaply-framed print of a boy and a girl in the woods. The background is dark and the children almost glow. I stare at the picture, slowly rocking back and forth on my chair. It’s been there ever since I can remember.

I’ve drawn the curtains, but Stan stops in after his work is done.

“How are the bees?” I ask.

“Fine.”

I pull out a chair from the kitchen table and motion for him to sit.

“How are you?” he says, words rich with a meaning I can’t decipher.  

I’ve put a tape in the cassette player. The Ballad of Sam Steele comes on.

He rests his bee box on the table. “Put some grease patties out there,” he says, pointing with his head. “Menthol chips, too. Lots of mites ‘round lately.” He hooks his thumbs into his belt buckles with a grin. To Stan, bees are more than just insects.

He looks for pie but there is no more. “Let’s take you on a walk,” he says. He crooks his elbow, but I reach for my walking stick. The rain’s made it slippy. He leads me to the duck pond. “I bet one look at Eddie will make you smile,” he says. When we arrive, I look over the pond to find the turtle. The grass is growing tall on the bank. I see cattails cropping up around the edges and purple loosestrife moving in on Eddie’s corner.

Father named him after Eddie Shack’s golf course. He found him there and smuggled him home in his golf bag. He loved to golf, though he wasn’t any good, and could only afford to play once a year. He’d drive balls into the cornfield for practice at the end of a long day in the field.    

No Eddie. How long do turtles live? Maybe Eddie’s on vacation. There’s a family of ducks and two swans on the far end.

“They don’t corner well,” Stan says, as one swan attempts to circle the other.

“What’s all this business about?” I ask.

“Mating.” Stan lets go of my arm and takes a step forward. Swans look ridiculous trying to take a corner. Tailfeathers flutter, bum jerks awkwardly, the birds becoming a parody of amusement park swan rides. I think of how Stan’s hair, once dark as coffee, has turned the yellow-tinged white of swan feathers. Helen liked his hair thick with pomade, but I always liked it natural. Even now, I want to run my poor achy hands through the waves.

“Almanac says we have a hard winter coming, so I’ve got you some new carniolans. They may be slow combers, but they winter well and build up real fast in the spring.” He looks into my face. “Good long-term investment.” We stand at the edge of the pond. “Good news in the bee world,” he continues when everything goes quiet. “Have you heard about land mines?” I shake my head. Stan knows too much about these sorts of things. “Honeybees. Scientists in Washington are using them to detect landmines—” There’s a crackle in the cattails.  

A boy is hiding in the grass by the small dock my father made before he died. The oak boards are beginning to rot.

“It’s not a fishing pond,” I tell him.

He whimpers.

I move up closer till I can see why he is whimpering.

“You’re the crazy lady,” he says, looking right into my eyes.

In his quiet voice, Stan calmly asks him where he’s from and if he caught anything. He hasn’t noticed that a small snelled fishhook has pierced the boy’s eyelid. The boy holds the rod limply in his right hand.  

“You with the scouts?” Stan asks. The boy nods and then yelps at the pain.

“Don’t move your head.” We walk him along the path and back towards the narrow forest that divides my property from the Lincoln Conservation Area. We emerge from the brush to find a group of boys circling the fire pit, playing a game with stones. Most of the leaders huddle beneath the shelter. One scurries over. They shout the boy’s name as if they are singing a round.

“He’ll be needing the hospital,” I say. We offer to call an ambulance from the house, but the counselors would prefer to drive. It’s faster that way.

 

Two weeks pass before Stan shows up again.

I take off my housedress and put on a blue pair of slacks. He always liked blue on Helen.

When I come out from my room, his car is already parked in the driveway. I whip together ingredients for chocolate chip cookies. I’m nearly out of sugar, so I substitute with honey.

Life would be sunny, I’m sipping honey, with plenty of money and you. I turn the radio down.

Go out there, I tell myself. Go see him.

And then another chiding voice replies, He’s Helen’s. Don’t you dare.

Go tell him all those things you couldn’t say over butter tarts. He wants to hear them. He still comes every week doesn’t he?

He only comes for Helen. The bees, now that Helen’s gone. He’s still just coming for her.

 

The whole discussion plays out in my head, both voices, and finally I win. I open the screen, hesitate a moment, and then step out. This time, I will meet Stan at the hives.

Beau-jo barking. What’s he doing out there? I run to the screen door, call his name. I thought he was in the pen. He’s chasing Stan, but Stan hasn’t noticed the lame dog lumbering behind him.

And then they swarm. A cloud of tiny monsters forms around the dog’s head. Beau-jo yowls and flicks his tail in mad circles.

“Stan!” I run barefoot, slamming the door behind me. I run to the beehive, to save Beau-jo, to save Stan. He can’t hear me through the veil. I pass the grapes, and the bees surround me.

“Go,” Stan says, his voice calm. “Get sugar and mix it with water—” He turns to check on Beau-Jo. I feel a sharp pinch on my left leg, just below my shin. I won’t be able to make it to the front door. Instead, I reach for the cellar door, my arms jutting out at clumsy angles. I fumble down the steps and weave my way along the damp stone walls. I reach the room at the back, push open the door and sit among bushels of last year’s potatoes with peeping eyes.

Finally I hear slow footsteps. Barking in my ear. I imagine Stan figuring in his head a nice way to tell me that Beau-jo is dying.

Then I see him looking at my dark shapes hanging from the low ceiling; the Styrofoam bees with crepe paper wings swing back and forth in a current of air. The stripes are done in black and yellow poster paint though I switched to blue when I ran out of yellow. The beehive hats sit on a crate. Muskrat pelts strung with imitation diamonds carpet the hard-packed dirt floor. A life-size black horse made of sticks and burlap with a wool mane stands in the middle of the room, propped up with a birdbath. He still needs a saddle. Stan flicks on the light. He walks to the small black and white picture hanging on the wall – the man with dark hair in a mountie uniform. The tones are faded but the boy still looks like he’s staring back at you. Red serge tunic. Klondike cap. You can almost see the colours.

“Did you make all of this, Blanche?” There is a sort of awe in his voice – I cannot tell if it is admiration or revulsion. Perhaps he is simply taking it all in.

Heat rushes up to my face. My shin mushrooms. My stomach roils as I look at the potato eyes.

“Aspirin?” He’s talking through a tin can phone. My shin throbs, turning bright pink, slowly growing, the stinger and the poison sack firmly lodged. “No – antihistamine.” He reaches for my elbow.

“Don’t touch me.” I’d shout but no one would hear me through stone and cement. My breath turns raspy as I feel the venom sapping into my bloodstream. My voice runs out with the wasted decades of fear and hesitation. The venom turns sadness to anger as his bee stories waft through my mind. What else do you hide in the honey, Stan? Guns in the bottom of 55-gallon drums? American dollars? Sniffer dogs can’t smell through globs of sticky gold. We always gave you our extra, first Helen, then me. The bees are all dying and when bees die, we follow. Lead-gray bees with the sweetest sugar. Just take the extra, I told you. What do I need with so much honey? I try to lash out at him, like it’s his fault for my cowardice all these years, but the words don’t make it out of my head.

He can see it – the anger, the blame, the love – and he slowly backs away.

Then we are in the kitchen.

I reach for the glass of water that’s sitting on the table. My ferning pins drop, scattering across the room.

The hyacinth I started lies half-petalled, still without leaves.

“For you,” I say. “For you, Michael.”

It is a poor apology, but I hand him the flower. He takes off his veil and reaching for the phone, he nods.

 


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