From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

The Tongue of Bees

The children roll in clover on the other side of the hill. On this side, Raymond Holt is eating belladonna.

He chews each berry thoroughly. His mouth has not yet gone dry. Between berries he takes care to tongue all of the seeds and skin from between his teeth, and suck his fingers clean.

Laughter reaches him: Valeria and Teddy and Mummy, climbing up and tumbling down again. They will be stained with crushed grass and clover nectar. Raymond can smell it from here, a sweet front moving down into the hollow as the air begins to cool.

He lies back under the lilac tree; the blooms are all off now, but the brown ghosts of them litter the ground and tangle in his hair.

When he has finished eating all five berries he sits up again. He must not be found down here.

Upward, then, to the halfway oak. The effort gets his heart going like mothwings on a window-pane. He settles himself among the roots, with his book: nothing that might give anyone a misconception of his state, no Baudelaire or Poe this time, only James Whitcomb Riley. He has been reading it to Teddy for his bedtime. The gobble-uns’ll git you ef you don’t watch out. He does not think Teddy has been paying attention.

#

The bees come: one, and another, and a swarm. He has no fruit left for them, but when he tries to tell them so, his tongue cleaves to his teeth.

They speak to him, in the manner of bees, of the clover and the phlox, the apple-blossoms and the Queen Anne’s lace. They shift places in the air around him, so that he can never tell the speaking bee from another; or maybe it is that they all speak as one.

“Get my Mummy,” he says to them, without using his lips. “She will be over the hilltop with my sister and brother, or in the laundry with Maggie.”

The bees dart away, one and another and a swarm, and Raymond lies still with his book upon his chest, over his fluttering, buzzing heart.

#

Mummy comes over the hilltop like a galleon, the sail of her apron golden with sunset, white-frocked Teddy a little catboat chasing along in her wake. “Oh, Raymond,” she says. “Dreaming again. Teddy, leave that; it is a bee, darling, it will sting you like this.” And Teddy howls delighted at the pinch on his arm. “Raymond, is that your new waistcoat? You are all over grass; but so are we. Such a lovely afternoon we have had of it, haven’t we, Teddy? Heavens, Raymond, you might rise to greet your mother. Raymond?”

Raymond must finish thanking the bees; and then there is the matter of thanking the tree whose roots he has lain upon these last hours, and the clover for its scent, and the berries for their bittersweetness.

Mummy does not wait for him; when he listens to her again he finds her saying his name, loudly now. She drags Teddy down beside him. She picks up a hand that lies on the ground, draws it into her lap, and turns it over to touch the wrist.

“Teddy,” Raymond says, remembering. “Did the bees sting you?”

“No,” says Teddy, laughing. “Mummy stung me like a big bee. Like this.” He pinches the hand in Mummy’s lap. It looks like Raymond’s hand, but it cannot be, for his own is much farther away. His own hand, in fact, has grubbed its way down through the earth and the oak-roots to reach for the world’s heart.

“Raymond,” says Mummy, with a trembling in her voice. “Cannot you feel your brother? Cannot you feel this?”

She pricks the hand with her sewing-needle, and then she washes it with a tear.

Raymond tells her, after the manner of bees, that he can feel it very well; but perhaps Mummy does not speak the tongue of bees, for she sets aside the hand, gently but in a great hurry. She catches up Teddy and presses a distracted kiss to his cheek. “No wriggling, now, my sweet. We are going in to the nursery where Maggie will give you some milk, while I will send Jim for Doctor Radcliff. . .”

Her voice dwindles over the hilltop, and the light begins to go with it.

She is back in a trifle, though, with a blanket from the stable and a flask of water and a lantern. “To light the way to you, my love,” she says, “for you are too nearly a man for me to carry you inside, and Maggie is watching the babies.”

“Who is watching Maggie?” Raymond asks her, for Maggie has been known to burn herself on the copper or scorch Valeria’s curls; but though Mummy bends close, she cannot seem to take his meaning.

Now that the bees have all gone the stars begin to come. Raymond wonders if their sting is as sharp. They crowd into the still-blue sky.

Closer, brighter, thick as milk, the stars rush toward him in a humming cloud. They swallow him up, stopping his breath so that he begins to tremble, and then to thrash.

When the stars recede again, Raymond finds that Mummy is still here, weeping, and pressing down upon his shoulders.

He reaches up to stroke a loose curl of hair back from her face. “Mummy, you mustn’t upset yourself so.”

She lifts him up and embraces him. “Oh, my dear, to hear you speak! I had feared your reason lost. You are very ill, my love. You have had a spasm. Doctor Radcliff is coming.”

She lays his head down gently and tucks the blanket tight about him. “I shall scold you properly when you are better, for lying out here under the trees all day and putting yourself in such a case. Raymond, Raymond, will you speak to me again?”

Mummy sobs, a little, and she squeezes his hand tight; it has come back up from the earth and lies now on Mummy’s knee, fingers twined with hers, and so they remain until Doctor Radcliff’s light comes over the hill.

#

In the house the lamps burn very bright. Raymond turns his head to gaze into them as he is carried past. Jim and the Doctor have laid him on a pallet and hoisted him up, so that he rocks with their steps as on a small sea.

“Observe his pupils,” Doctor Radcliff says. “The dilation is pronounced.”

“I do not know what that means,” frets Mummy. She stands on the landing with a basin and a copper.

“Of course you do not,” says Doctor Radcliff.

A swoop and a tilt, and Raymond is tipped into his own bed. Under his pillow, he feels the firm edge of his volume of Poe.

Jim is sent downstairs again. Doctor Radcliff strips Raymond of his waistcoat and shirt, and holds a light close to his eyes. “Yes, very pronounced.”

He listens to Raymond’s heart and breathing, touches Raymond’s head and hands, palpates his abdomen.

“The auscultation reveals a heartbeat that is fast and weak. And you say he has had a spasm. One only? I hope you thrust something between his teeth.”

“No, sir,” says Mummy. “I had nothing to hand.”

Doctor Radcliff glowers. “Should he have another, you must give him something to bite upon, else he might swallow his tongue, or chew it to ribbons. God preserve me from the idiocy of women.”

“But why–”

“He must have laudanum, to calm his tumultuous pulse,” Doctor Radcliff says, withdrawing the brown bottle from his case, and measuring drops into a glass.

Raymond pushes his dry tongue against his teeth in eagerness. This. This. He feels the pace of his heart increase still further.

Mummy does not keep laudanum in the house since Teddy’s misadventure. If she did, Raymond would not have had to lay such an unkind trap to draw the Doctor. And he does see, now, how unkind it is in him to frighten Mummy in such a way; but needs must when the Devil drives, as they say, although he does not think it is always meant so literally.

Raymond thinks this thought quite clearly. A moment later, another thought. The belladonna–is it wearing off? In a panic he attempts to sit up.

The stars come about him again, stifling, so that he throws himself back on the mattress and gags for breath.

#

“–quiet now, I shall remove the strap, and let you wash his face,” Doctor Radcliff says.

Something like a horse’s bit is withdrawn from Raymond’s mouth. Cool water trickles in and he swallows weakly.

“You have had another spasm, my dear,” says Mummy, bending over him, straightening his pillow, sponging his face, propping up his head. “You must take some drops now.”

The chill of a spoon between his lips, and the cloying taste, familiar from childhood agues. Raymond swallows and swallows again. Afterward, more water, as welcome in his parched mouth as anything ever in his life.

Doctor Radcliff and Mummy speak together by the door.

“. . .reading poetry all afternoon, I would swear to it. I have it here: James Whitcomb Riley. Our Raymond loves poems. Such a gentle lad.”

“Delicate, though, I recall. You haven’t a man in the house–have you any one to educate him in masculine pursuits? An uncle to take him riding? He’s too old to be cosseted in this way. Reading poetry all day is hardly a healthy pastime for a lad of his age.”

“Doctor, it is only Riley. Rhymes for children, you know. He reads them to his brother.”

“Well and good; but when he’s strong again, send him out of doors, and take his books away. If you won’t have him away at school find him a good man for a tutor. He must have the right influence to grow up straight and strong.”

#

The Doctor goes, leaving the brown bottle beside the bed. Mummy sits with Raymond and sighs over him.

“I suppose it is my fault, my sweet. It is only that I cannot bear to think of you abroad, hurt perhaps, or alone, and no Mummy to watch over you. Should you like a tutor? Should you like Reverend Phelps to lecture over you, and Mr Broadway to take you hunting?”

“I should like a bit more laudanum, please,” Raymond says. His voice comes out husky and weak.

Mummy gives him a spoonful, and pats an escaped drop from his lip.

“Your heart is not quite so quick, I think,” she says. “Could you sleep, if I turn down the lamp?”

“Perhaps.” Raymond’s heart is indeed slowing as the laudanum sinks into him. What it loses in speed, it gains in force, until his whole body pounds with it, until he can even see the beating swell of blood in the capillaries of his eyes.

Now comes the test. He breathes as slow and deep as he can, pretending to sleep.

By his bed, Mummy is so quiet now he can almost forget she is there, except that he must not make an outward show of what he does.

The bees showed him, earlier, the way of their speech; but with only the belladonna, he could not make sense of the way of their flight. Now, with the laudanum, the knowledge coalesces in him.

He is sparks, or stars. He is a swarm. He arises within himself and then upward, from his slack body toward the window, and out.

#

Moonlit fields crawl below him. Owls stoop on mice. Deer cross clearings. The river glints, here and there, where the water furrows over rocks.

Raymond darts as high or as low as he pleases. Nothing sees him; he cannot see himself. He has neither weight nor form, and he rushes over the wheat without a stalk swaying.

He turns about again, back toward town. His own house, a cramped thing huddled against the hill, he passes by; only a single light shows and he knows who lies behind it.

Ahead, though, are the steeple and the Town Hall and the livery, all the shops of Main Street, and the Mayor’s own mansion, which even at this hour spills over with revelers and gaslit cheer.

When Raymond dips low to enter the house, though, he finds himself balked. He might be a slight bird beating on a window. People eddy just below him but he cannot follow them inside. No hands to pry, no feet to kick, no lock to jimmy; Raymond circles to all the windows and doors, and in each one is the same invisible block to his passage.

Nothing succeeds: neither increasing his speed, nor hovering skin-close to a guest of the house, nor flying down the chimney.

At last he flies onward to another house, a less enticing house, where the lights have been snuffed but a window remains ajar. This, too, is barred to him.

A horrid thought: what if all houses are so, even his own?

He flies home all in disorder. If his swarm were made of bees, they would be batting themselves out of the air, bruising each other’s wings.

At his window he pauses. Mummy drowses, mouth open just enough to show the tips of her teeth. Raymond does not look at himself, at his body, lying slack in the bed. He arrows through the window and the swarm disperses back into the flesh.

#

“Will you have more laudanum, my love?” says Mummy, touching his cheek.

The window shows grey half-light, brighter than it should be, for Raymond’s eyes have not quite recovered.

“I am so tired,” he murmurs.

“Drink, then, and sleep. I will watch.”

The belladonna must have mostly dissipated from his blood, for this time the laudanum, instead of unlocking a secret, sends him off into uneasy dreams.

#

Raymond stays abed the following day. Once Mummy is confident he will have no more spasms, she goes to her own bed, and leaves Raymond a bell to call her. Sometimes he drowses; sometimes he lies half-awake, hearing Valeria on the stairway, singing to her dolls, or Teddy begging for marmalade in the nursery.

Outside, afternoon ripens. A bee or wasp bumps against the window and Raymond sits up to watch it.

With nothing but the last dregs of laudanum in him, he discovers that his head aches, and his chest, and that he did in fact bite his tongue rather badly at some point last night. And he is weak: a damp, just-mangled shirt thrown over the rack.

When Mummy comes to check on him, though, he refuses the brown bottle and asks for tea and toast and a book, and says he is much recovered.

“I do hope so, my love. You frightened us all.”

“I am sorry for it, Mummy; you know I would not hurt you for the world.”

“Of course you would not. You are only careless sometimes, as are all young men. I beg you will lie abed until you are quite rested; and then you must promise to refrain from reading on the cold ground.”

Raymond thinks he remembers Doctor Radcliff saying something rather different; but it is not as if he wants a tutor or a riding-companion or any of that nonsense. He holds his peace.

While Mummy takes supper in the nursery with the children, Raymond finally dares to open the volume of Poe, and take from within it the folded pages of the grimoire. He lights a lamp against the twilight and props himself up in his bed.

He reads again about the preparations for flight. Raymond sees now why witches of old used to infuse the belladonna and poppy into an ointment, which they spread upon their skin. Perhaps if they went into spasms they could simply wipe some of it off, instead of relying upon their Mummies and Doctors to put them to bed.

These pages–these browned and torn pages, with their archaic type–are all Raymond has for a master. He cannot write off to anyone for advice without Mummy seeing it.

He did ask the proprietor of the bookshop in Ithaca, one of the days he rode in with Mummy.

The proprietor stroked his whiskers in a way that said he was covering up a smile, and tried to sell him a book of children’s tales, at which Raymond rather took offense. Raymond redeemed himself in the shopman’s eyes by buying a handsome volume of Wilde: redeemed enough that Raymond found himself accepting the offer of a glass of sherry.

“Are you in town for long?” the shopman asked. “Perhaps you might stay for an hour; I have something upstairs you might wish to see.”

What it was, Raymond never did discover, as Mummy arrived just then with her shopping, and Raymond had to go back to Stourville.

He thinks about his next visit to Ithaca often; it will be before winter, of that much he is sure, and he will visit the bookshop again, for more Wilde and some Chambers and perhaps Bierce.

For a fuller grimoire, or another witch, he does not know where to search. He would not quite credit the idea of a witch living here anyway, if he had not just proven the possibility. The very soil of New York feels unmagical and dull when he sets his foot upon it. If only he could avoid setting foot upon it at all: the air is magical enough, peopled with speaking bees and bounded with invisible wards.

To fly again, though, Raymond must have another go with the belladonna and laudanum. The very thought exhausts him.

He lies back upon his pillows, the folded pages held to his chest. His eyes ache. He lets them close for a moment.

#

Raymond wakes in the deep of night, with his lamp extinguished and the blanket tucked up about his throat. By his bed, Mummy sits, chin on collarbone, breathing softly.

Raymond cuddles down into the warm sheets and returns to sleep.

In the morning, he realizes his pages are gone.

#

Wrapped in a shawl and seated in an invalid-chair, Raymond takes the air at the bottom of the garden. Teddy sits upon his lap to listen again to the Child-rhymes. Valeria, coming and going, plucking the first goldenrod from the border of the woods, asks for “The Raggedy Man” and then runs off before the end.

At last Teddy is called in for bread and jam. Raymond pretends to sleep. When he is alone he goes through his Poe again, and the Riley for good measure, searching for the pages of the grimoire.

Under the bed, he thinks. He must have missed them, for when he knelt there to search, his eyes were aching, and his vision might have been blurred.

Or in his coverlet, unnoticed, when Mummy turned it up over him. Or tangled in his nightshirt when he took it off this morning.

Or none of those places. He knows quite well they are not there. He can only hope Mummy took them for garbage and threw them in the grate.

A solitary bee wanders by. He listens to it, if that is enough of a name for the sense he employs. Without his preparation, he only hears a thread of its speech, but he follows it off along the border of flowers until it rounds the house.

Doctor Radcliff returns, and gives the verdict that Raymond must keep warm and drink broth, and that he may go abroad again at the end of the week, if he has not suffered any relapse.

“That is great news, Raymond,” Mummy says, smiling so widely that Raymond can see the little gap between her front teeth. When she smiles this way she looks like a Gibson girl. In her day she was the beauty of Ithaca, or so he has been told.

Mummy leads Raymond inside, supporting him, holding his shawl and books, and instead of taking him to the dinner table she has Maggie bring trays up to Raymond’s bedroom, so that he may sit tucked up with his dinner on his knees.

“Like a picnic, Raymond. Do you remember when you were very small, and I used to visit you in the nursery this way? Your father was still alive, then, and when he and the other gentlemen sat over their port, I would slip away to see my favourite boy.”

“I am not your favourite any more; Teddy is that, I suppose.”

“Teddy is only a baby. A darling and precious baby; but he cannot talk to me yet.”

“I am afraid I am very dull company for you, Mummy, for I am still so very tired.”

“And no wonder,” Mummy says. “Flying all over the countryside in such a manner.”

Raymond, caught with his mouth full of ham, pauses to think of what else, what else on earth, she could possibly mean.

“I found your pages,” Mummy says. “Such a wonderful secret! I see now why you kept it so close. When were you going to tell me, my dear? I have supposed from your looks this last day that you were successful; though of course the price is high; but you are well now, or well enough. Perhaps the dose was a bit excessive. When shall we try again?”

#

At the bookshop in Ithaca, Raymond spends Mummy’s dollars on the books he has been coveting.

“My, my,” says the proprietor. “You’re growing into quite the little decadent. Do you like these so much? I will look out some more for you.”

“Please,” Raymond says.

“I suppose you stay up too late reading them. The pallor suits you. Perhaps a little glass of something?”

“I cannot. My Mummy is waiting for me.”

The proprietor rolls his eyes, ties up the books in a neat package, and slips his card beneath the string, with a wink for Raymond and a quirk at the corner of his mouth. Many times on the long ride home, Raymond holds the package close to his face, breathing the aura of books, and imagining beneath it the scent of bay rum.

The next time they fly, perhaps he can persuade Mummy to come here. Perhaps he can dip down quickly and hover for a moment beside the window of the flat at the back of the bookshop. Only for a moment, short enough to escape notice; and perhaps that will be enough, a tiny thing but all his own.

#

Mummy and Raymond go berrying. The season is about to change; oak leaves gather in the hollow, and the lilac tree is bare. The belladonna berries are withered now, but still midnight blue, and they fill a basket.

“We will be able to get to Ithaca and back a dozen times,” Raymond says.

“We may fly anywhere,” says Mummy, “so long as we are together. We will be a little coven. Just you and me, my love.”

From the other side of the hill, Raymond hears the laughter of Valeria and Teddy as they climb up, tumble down, and climb again.

IMG_4726Claire Humphrey writes novels and short stories. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fantasy Magazine, Strange Horizons and subTerrain. She works in the book trade as a buyer for Indigo Books, and she volunteers as a slush reader at Ideomancer. She is a graduate of Viable Paradise. Learn more about her at www.clairehumphrey.ca.

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