The bee liberation group meets at seven o’clock every other Thursday in the group study rooms on the fourth floor of the Main Library. Hannah tears tabs from the flyers that they post all over campus—outside the big auditoriums in Wells Hall, on the doors of the dorm cafeterias, in the women’s bathrooms—and feeds them into her jacket pocket. When she forgets and puts the laden jacket through the laundry, they turn into so much confetti. One of her bees crawls out from her shirt sleeve and circles her wrist on its precise, prickling feet as she sifts through the wreckage. She doesn’t need the papers to tell her where to go, or when, or why.
There are ten others crammed into the eight-person study room by the time Hannah arrives; she sits on the floor with her legs drawn up close, between other people’s coats and messenger bags. The group leader, a white femme named Joss, welcomes her warmly. They lift their tongue to show Hannah the tiny scorpion set like a jewel against their wet pink gums.
“I had to get rid of my tongue piercing when she came,” they tell Hannah. “She kept stinging when the ball hit her.” A grin, in which the barest glimmer of gold shows through. “That’s not the only thing she hates having in there, but at least with the other thing, I’m not the one who gets stung.” The group laughs, raucous but rehearsed; Hannah joins them.
The skinny brown girl leaning by the door doesn’t join in. Hannah moves over, implicitly offering a space on the floor at her side. The other girl’s brow creases, but she comes over and sits cross-legged. Her knee presses into the side of Hannah’s thigh, a mutual discomfort.
A pair of her bees meet one of Hannah’s at the junction of jeans and leggings; six antennae twitch questingly. Hers are different to Hannah’s, the fur on their back a snow-white downy tuft. To pet one would be incredibly rude; Hannah folds her hands so tightly in her lap that their freckles fold into new constellations.
The first item on the agenda is a proposed protest. Outside the administration building? Outside the auditorium at Commencement? Fraternity Row? Pros and cons for each location go onto the study room whiteboard in a rainbow of colors, as the threadbare markers give up their last ink.
“Maybe it would be easier to pick a spot if . . . ” No one stops arguing to look at Hannah when she speaks. She tries again. “What are we trying to say with the protest? Exactly? Or, like . . . ” do, she doesn’t say. There have always been bees. Protesting her own bees is as useful as protesting her own bones, and as likely to change things.
The girl sitting by her says, quietly, “Bees are wild animals. They shouldn’t be, um, conformed. I mean. Confined. To the way people live.”
Joss snaps the cap back onto a blue marker. “Natural apian biology shouldn’t be forced into the artificial structure of human behavior.” Which is what the other girl already said, more or less, but Joss says it again anyway. “It’s immoral to constrain an animal, or a whole colony of them, to unnatural habitats, ecospheres, schedules . . . ”
“I know, but . . . ” Her inability to ask the obvious question shames Hannah. This group of upperclassmen has a passion for the problem, and they certainly have the vocabulary to describe it. But. But. Hannah doesn’t need her fears explicated. Her hand goes to her throat, which vibrates softly with the hymenopterous sac inside. One of her bees, agitated by her spiking heart rate and increased body temperature, crawls out from her nose and paces overlapping circles of alarm on her cheek.
These people don’t know any more about how to get rid of bees than she does.
In her silence, another girl leans forward. “Did you hear that during Rush Week, Psi Upsilon made all of its new pledges bring in twenty bees? Like, from girls in their classes or dorms.”
“Dead ones? Or alive?”
The group takes that in for a moment. “Jesus,” says Joss. “Why not collect our teeth, too, while they’re at it?”
“The administration didn’t even fine them,” the girl confirms, her lip curling. “Because they could’ve been just ‘wild bees’ or whatever.”
“When my mom was in school, they just did panty raids. That kind of dumb shit.”
“You think they didn’t fucking molest bees back then, Dessa? People just didn’t talk about it.”
The discussion shifts to a litany of genuine grievances, modern and historical, personal and public. Hannah aches to contribute her own entries to this long and ugly catalog, this communion of words. But her stories are small, venal, compared to the violations the others describe. It would be a gross unfairness for her to demand an answer to the hymenopterous question from anyone here.
In the end, she keeps her petty injustices for herself. She has broken those moments open with talk before, anyway, and the cracks always plaster themselves over afterward. Saying it out loud again won’t change a thing, and it won’t lead her anywhere new. She watches Joss’s wasp, which is making a lazy circuit of the whiteboard.
The girl next to her, fidgeting, jostles Hannah’s knee with her own. When Hannah looks at her, she flicks her eyes at the door. A handful of her distinctive white-tufted bees are already crawling up and down the jamb, examining the drafty crack between wall and door. Do you want to get out of here?
Hannah wants to go but she always wants to stay and be part of this, whatever it is. Whatever it isn’t. She shakes her head minutely and finds herself, obscurely, on the verge of tears. The other girl sweeps up her coat and bag in a jumbled armful, mumbling something about an early Freshman Comp class as she hustles out into the corridor.
In her haste, one of her bees is left on the wrong side of the closing door. It crawls frantically back and forth, waving its antenna, until it falls and is lost to the ugly taupe carpet.
• • • •
That night, or another night, or both, Hannah leaves the library, following the river trail back to her dorm. The trees enforce a heavy silence, one that crushes down the gurgle of the Red Cedar River, but the darkness is incomplete, punctuated at intervals by light-posts. Hannah steps over a single bee, dying alone at the center of one of those bright-white circles on the path. It’s not one of hers; she would recognize those, even at a glance.
Someone else is walking the same direction, ahead of her. Hannah walks briskly, what her mother calls the campus stride, closing the distance between them. Soon she overtakes him.
After she passes, his footsteps continue to follow her. He probably lives in Holmes Hall too, or just across the street in Akers. She walks faster. He does too. Hannah puts her hands in her pocket. Nothing there, not even a pencil; even her keys are in her backpack, inaccessible. Her throat feels thick, as if she might start to cry. She cuts past the graduate student housing toward the main road and breaks into a run.
He starts running too.
Hannah trips, scrapes her knees, stumbles up still running, the frantic zig-zag of cornered prey. It’s only when she breaks out into the bright lights of the traffic circle at Shaw Lane that she realizes she’s alone again.
She has Band-Aids in her backpack pocket. She stops to peel back her torn jeans and apply one to each leg, before gathering her things and limping the rest of the way home.
• • • •
Hannah’s regular Sunday Skype call with her family has deviated from the standard check-in chat to a negotiation. Hannah’s bees are bustling all over her desk, some of them wending paths over the phone screen, obscuring her mother’s left eye or the kitchen window behind her shoulder. Her father has disappeared from the webcam frame entirely, leaving her mother alone and unbalanced on the right side of the screen.
“But Hannah,” she says, aggressively scribbling in her planner, “if you don’t come home before that, we’ll never fit in a proper party between our Thanksgiving and visiting Nana and Poppa’s.”
“I don’t need a party, Mom.” Hannah doesn’t want a party. Her roommate Rose glances down at Hannah from her loft bed, then rolls over with her textbook so that only a crescent of pale forehead and pink bangs show over the lip of her mattress. Her big, tropical-looking bees have gone largely dormant with the arrival of cooler weather, but a few of them take to the air every few minutes, making solicitous circuits of her half of the room. “It’s not that big of a deal.”
Her mother’s pen clicks irregularly: ballpoint in, out. In. Her bees must be irritable, too, but only one presents itself, preening her eyebrow. “Your swarming day is a big deal. It’s your special sixth, too! Hannah.” Out. In. “Should we just skip your birthday next year, too?”
“Mom. I have a biology group project, and my last paper for Freshman Comp will be due on the fifteenth, and exams will be coming up . . . ” She’s losing, and she knows it. She tries not to panic. If she cries, her mom will want to drive down to campus today. God.
“Just come home Friday night, then. We’ll take you back Saturday after dinner. It’s not that long of a drive.” Her mom’s head bends as she writes in her planner, showing the gray seam that runs through her brown hair. “You can work on your paper in the car. That’s why you have a laptop, for God’s sake.”
“Okay. Sure. That sounds fine.” It sounds like a pain in the ass. A soft snort drifts down from Rose’s loft. There’s a soft clicking sound, and the music from her earbuds grows loud enough to reach Hannah at her desk. “As long as it’s just us.”
“Good.” Mom snaps her planner shut. “Now, I’m sure you haven’t started thinking about a recipe yet. Cookies would be simplest—”
“Maybe I’ll do Grandma Dee’s honey cake,” Hannah blurts. God, a honey cake will be a nightmare. But telling her mother what she wants to hear drops the conversation to its lowest energy state, ejecting the brittle excitement of the narrowly avoided argument.
“Well, that would be special, wouldn’t it? I’ll make sure we have all the ingredients on hand.” Her mother’s posture reflects the change more than her expression: she leans forward, elbows on the table, face close to the camera. “Are you going to invite any of the girls from high school? Or your new girlfriends there at school?” She adds false friendliness to her voice to make it louder. When Rose isn’t there, Hannah’s parents joke about her history major: an MRS degree, they say, taking a minor in McDonalds. “How about you, Rose? We’d be glad to have you for the weekend.”
“No, thank you.” Pages scrape in Rose’s textbook. “I’m not one of her girlfriends.”
The unexpected emphasis settles heavily into the conversation, leaving a deep uncomfortable dent; all the possible ways forward seem to roll back into the demands of that gravity. Hannah’s mother opens her mouth. “I can’t wait to see Nana and Poppa again,” Hanna says, breathless with fury. “Are they doing okay?”
Rose’s loft rustles. One of her bees, drowsy on its duties, lands on Hannah’s phone. Hannah’s restless bees suddenly share a purpose: the destruction of this interloper. A glassy wing spirals down to the desktop; the translucent threads of entrails catch the light from her family’s kitchen window. “They’re good!” says her mother, through her veil of viscera. “They’re real good. I’ll tell them you said hi.”
• • • •
Rose and Hannah made out once, the second week of school, after going to an off-campus party together. More than ‘made out.’ They’d been sitting on the porch, Hannah on the cooler lid, Rose in a fold-out chair, instead of in the overcrowded, overheated house, until an older student in search of a beer ordered Hannah up from her seat. While he rooted through the melting ice, Hannah looked around. “I’ve got a lap,” Rose said, with tipsy jocularity. “It’s okay, we’re roomies.”
So Hannah sat. And then slouched back slowly, with the long night’s gravity, until her head was on Rose’s shoulder. Rose’s hands went inside her shirt and Hannah giggled and kissed her neck. The upperclassmen cheered and urged them on until Hannah started to roll her pelvis on Rose’s knee; then they went back into the house except for one junior, who stayed still and intent while Hannah peeled off her shirt and let Rose suck on her lingering swimsuit tan line.
Eyes closed, Hannah couldn’t see him, but later, she would remember his soft rhythmic grunting. Sometimes when Hannah wakes up in her room in the middle of the night, she thinks he’s there in the corner, standing over her loft.
• • • •
In HST 332, the professor asks the class to tell her what they already know about Henry VIII’s decision to break with the Roman church.
“That tea thing,” says the guy sitting in the front row, and belatedly, shamefacedly, raises his hand. “Anne Boleyn served him tea with her honey in it, and it was so good that he was like, bye, old wife. I mean, it probably wasn’t really just tea, right?” He looks around, nervous grin pasted on. “Um. Anyway, the Pope wouldn’t let him get divorced so he started his own church. The end, except later Henry sent Anne a poison bouquet that killed all her bees and then she died, bleghhh.”
“A memorable description.” The professor leans back against the board, against the faint lines of a poorly erased five-act story structure. “Also very, very wrong. When it comes to historical tradition, unfortunately, memorable has a severe advantage over correct.”
The guy slouches lower in his seat. The professor uncaps a marker to scrawl untidily across the whiteboard. The black marker from the board is smudged on the back of her blouse. Someone titters. “The beginning is never where you think it is,” she reads, as she finishes. “The root causes of the Reformation predate Anne Boleyn’s arrival on the scene—predate her birth, even. While it would be wrong to discount the extent to which women of her era traded on the strength of their honey, as, with their bodies, one of the few avenues of social power afforded to them, of course, very few historical narratives can stand on their own when stripped down to —”
Sharp bright pain whites out the rest of the professor’s sentence. Hannah drops her pen and holds her hand close to her chest. A welt is rising on the back of her thumb; the stinger in the middle of it balances a jagged cup of black-and-yellow abdomen overflowing with ruined venom sac. The offending bee is one of Hannah’s own, and it crawls desperately back and forth up her sleeve, still tethered by its own trailing viscera to the site of its death.
Hannah tears the stinger free and throws it on the floor. The bee follows helplessly. She kicks the whole mess under the seats in front of her.
The kid sitting next to her is staring. “Fuck off,” she hisses, throat thick with unshed tears. He shrugs and scribbles in his notebook.
The girl sitting on Hannah’s other side hands her the lost pen. “Fucking bees,” she says, with sympathy.
“Fucking bees,” echoes Hannah. When she takes the pen and presses it to the paper again, ghost pain chases down her wrist, all the way to her elbow.
• • • •
Do you remember Rebekah Mallory? her mom texts, while Hannah tries to balance chemical reactions in the margins of her lab notebook. She and her sisters were homeschooled but her sister Andrea was on your YMCA swim team? She died last week. Allergic to bees. Family never had her tested. Bees all swarmed too. Long gone nothing to remember her by. Just thirteen!!
that sucks wow
It more than sucks Hannah it should be illegal. Awful awful awful
• • • •
On the drive home, it quickly becomes clear to Hannah that there is a world of difference between her definition of just us and her mother’s. “Of course I invited Uncle Jake and Aunt Lynda,” her mother says crisply, allowing a smaller sedan to merge in front of her onto the highway. The driver of the other car waves a hand in thanks; Hannah’s mom waves back, or waves it off. “We were all invited to your cousin’s sixth Swarming Day; how rude would it look if we didn’t reciprocate?”
“Jackie works in a bakery! Of course she wanted everyone there!”
“You’re not competing with Jackie, sweetheart. Everyone will just be happy to be part of your special day.”
A cold circle widens on Hannah’s temple as she presses her forehead harder into the passenger-side window. “Whose special day?” she mutters, but her mother is enthusiastically declaiming the distracted driver passing them on the left while texting.
Walking into the kitchen in the house where she grew up is like walking backwards into a dream. “You moved the toaster oven,” she says. “Where are the flour and sugar canisters?”
“In the cupboard.” Her mother sighs and steps around the overnight bag that Hannah has deposited in the middle of the floor. “I don’t bake as often now that you’re not here. Did you want to get started now, or after dinner? The sooner the better with honey cake, I’d say.”
Hannah opens the oven and peers inside, as if a layer of cake might be waiting in there. “I’m tired and I have homework I should finish still tonight. I think I might just make cookies after all.”
Her mother nudges her bag with one foot, sliding it under the kitchen counter. “I told everyone you were making honey cake.”
The oven slams shut when Hannah lets go. “Well, what a fun fucking surprise for everyone tomorrow.”
Her mother’s face goes carefully we-are-not-having-this-argument smooth. “I’ll take your things upstairs,” she says. “Your father is in the den. Go say hi.”
The cookies are adequate, especially when paired with the fancy tea fixings that her mother has set out in circles around the electric kettle. Hannah doesn’t have enough honey left over to put in the little porcelain honey-pot that used to belong to her great-grandmother. She doesn’t care, but she expects her mother to. All she gets, however, is a shrug and an “Oh, no one will notice.”
Just us is Poppa and Nana, Grandma and Grandpa, two sets of aunts and uncles, and one set of just uncles, and the cousins too young to object to being driven across town. “College girl all grown up!” says Uncle Darwin proudly. “As sweet as your mother,” says her dad, kissing her on top of the head. “Isn’t it just a lovely flavor? So complex, so mellifluous,” says her mother, to, apparently, everyone in just us. Hannah doesn’t even know what the fuck mellifluous means. Her mom probably googled it before the party.
A few presents await her on the end of the table, wrapped in a sepia-photograph array of ambers and golds and browns. Hannah pretends she doesn’t see them for as long as possible. By the time her family is picking crumbs off empty plates, though, her mother has transported the little pile to Hannah’s elbow. “Open them!” chorus the little cousins. All three of them are boys; all three of them have sticky brown smudges in the corners of their lips. “Open them!”
A silver honey spoon from her uncles, a delicate tiny tea service from her mother and father. Aunt Lynda has made a little wooden recipe-box, which contains her own recipe for butter biscuits. “Has your mom taught you how to cream your honey yet?” Aunt Lynda asks solicitously. “Spreads like a dream on those crumbly biscuits. The boys will be all over you.” She glances sideways at Hannah and then reaches to fiddle with the lid of the box, as if its soundness is suddenly in question. “Or, uh, girls! Whatever!”
• • • •
A few days later, lying listless and crampy in bed and postponing an unwanted trip to the community bathroom, Hannah calls to Rose across the room. “Do you celebrate Swarming Days in your family?”
Rose fishes an earbud out of her ear. “Not really. I got a card this year, I guess.”
“So you didn’t have to . . . ”
“God! No. My mom is, like, nontraditional. She ferments hers into small batch mead, like for gifts and stuff.” Rose burrows deeper into her bedding. “I’ll probably do the same thing when I can live off campus next year.”
“That’s cool,” says Hannah, unsure if it is. Rose doesn’t answer; the light of her phone screen opens up a bright patch on the dark dorm room wall.
• • • •
Hannah and Rose have figured out how to be good roommates without being good friends. When Rose’s boyfriend saunters into their dorm room and sprawls on the couch, too-casually sorting through the video games stacked in the back storage space, Hannah shoves her schoolwork into her backpack and leaves.
She considers heading out to her favorite coffee shop, which sells boba tea in a glorious rainbow of flavors, but she hasn’t grabbed her coat and a return to the room at this point is absolutely not happening. A sludgy mocha from the dorm convenience store will do. She carries the Styrofoam cup to the study lounge, which is sparsely inhabited at this hour. There’s an open table where she stakes her claim with a pile of open notebooks, textbooks, and an army of color-coded highlighters ready to be deployed. Her bees, intrigued by the sugary smell of her drink, busily investigate the single round, brownish-gray droplet that marks the open page of her textbook.
“You’re Hannah. Aren’t you? From the FreeBees meeting? I didn’t know you lived here.”
Hannah chokes on sugary coffee. The girl who sat next to her at the bee liberation meeting steps back, out of range of Hannah’s wet sputtering, until Hannah recovers long enough to invite her to sit.
The other girl’s name is Rochelle, and she lives on Three West, while Hannah lives on Five East; no wonder they’ve never bumped into each other here before. The table is small; their untouched notebooks mingle pages and their knees bump together as they talk under their breath. The customary niceties are brittle, and they crumble quickly into the kinds of things you don’t say out loud in a study lounge at ten o’clock at night. The humiliations of the swarming day party tumble, whisper-mashed, from Hannah’s mouth the same way the others at the FreeBees meeting had shared their own stories. Her stories and Rochelle’s are not equivalent but they pair familiarly together, like cheese and jam, coffee and chocolate.
Their bees mingle on the table, examining the discarded plastic lid of Hannah’s mocha, avoiding the steam coming from Rochelle’s black coffee. Circular dances, figure eights. A language to which Hannah is not privy. She watches one of those darling white-tufted bees nudge itself between Rochelle’s parted lips. Maybe the honey under Rochelle’s tongue is the same pale color, harvested from the nectar of the forsythia bushes by the Natural Sciences building? Or the bright sharp amber of the campus rose gardens?
The tide of grievances rolls back and leaves Hannah stranded on the shore, gasping for something new. “I was kind of surprised,” she confesses, nervously breaking the comfortable lull, “That you, uh. That you’d want to get rid of your bees. I know some people are shitty about. Um.”
“Girls like me?” Rochelle examines the gritty bottom of her coffee cup. “I mean. Yeah. I cried the day I got my bees. I was so relieved. I was like, I knew it, I told you, I told you they’d come! But . . . I was still me, before they came. I’ll still be me when they’re gone. If.” Her furrowed forehead smooths, leaving behind a faint college-rule imprint of lines. “I don’t have anything to prove to anyone.”
“I’m sorry.” Hannah doesn’t deserve to hide from this, but her body tries anyway, shrinking her deeper into her oversized sweatshirt. “That was stupid of me. And shitty.”
“Yeah. It was.” Rochelle’s chair squeaks, but she doesn’t get up. She conducts the conversation to its next inevitable stop. “I don’t know if it matters, anyway. You know? We can write a whole-ass book on the problems with having bees. But who cares? Most people don’t actually want to lose their bees, and it’s not like anyone’s funding research into it. No one actually knows how to get rid of them.”
No one except Anne Boleyn, who’d lost her bees and died; no one except Rebekah Malory, who’d done exactly the opposite. “So you’re not going back to FreeBees?”
“I don’t know.” Rochelle blows a sigh. “I didn’t like it. I’m not sure they liked me. But it’s better than doing nothing. Isn’t it?”
“It’s . . . ” Hannah swallows. Understanding hangs just outside of her reach, like Calculus I lectures: it would make sense if someone else explained it to her, but when she’s left to handle the practical problems on her own it all disintegrates. “It’s . . . really just a kind of doing nothing. But the kind where you do it together. Maybe that’s still just nothing.” She clenches her green highlighter, which bends but doesn’t break. “Maybe it’s not. I don’t know, either.”
“Maybe.” A bigger rustle from Rochelle, as she creases in half to retrieve her bookbag from under her chair. “God. It’s so late. I can’t talk bee lib when I’m this tired.” She unwinds to a stand. “Maybe I’ll see you Thursday, then.”
“Maybe,” Hannah agrees. “Or in the cafeteria. Or, y’know, here.”
“Team night owls.” Rochelle smiles and slips away, her boots making soft squeaks on the ancient linoleum in the hallway.
It is late and Hannah starts to gather up her things too, her bees retreating to the safety of her body as they sense her imminent departure.
One of them, however, isn’t hers. The white-tufted bee dances in a circle around Hannah’s empty cup, plaintively seeking its companions, its host. The sugar is gone and the bee is having whatever passes for an existential crisis in its tiny apian mind. If Rochelle comes back right away, it’ll be fine, but who would ever notice a single missing bee? And who would care? There are always more bees. That’s sort of the problem. Isn’t it?
Two of Hannah’s bees encroach on the loner, but she nudges them away. In their compound eyes, the lone bee is a multitude, an army, a choir. They make agitated displays at her fingertips, but they don’t sting. Neither does the bee that wriggles aside when she slides a finger into her mouth. It comes away glistening gold, and she smears it on the open notebook in front of Rochelle’s bee.
“Gross,” someone behind Hannah whispers. “Oh my god.”
But she focuses on the bee as it approaches curiously, hopefully. Its tongue uncurls from the hidden space behind its head and gently pierces the honey’s shining surface.
She slides a finger close to it, the still-sticky one. The bee sidles over to investigate. It settles its weightless front legs on her fingertip. Before she can second-guess this uninvited intimacy, before she can calculate the risk that the bee will die stinging her, Hannah slips her finger under the bee and scoops it into her mouth, under her tongue.
It wings stir, not in a panic, but questing, curious, against her genioglossus. Hannah’s own bees don’t tickle, but this one does. Not enough to make her laugh, but enough to wrinkle her nose with the strangeness of it. In Hannah’s hymenopterous sac, her own bees stir. This is wrong, she thinks. But by whose rules? The bee doesn’t deserve to live a brief, sad little life alone, and it certainly doesn’t deserve to die. In the morning, she can find Rochelle, and give it back, and explain—and maybe, by then, she’ll even know what it is that she’s trying to say.
Inside her mouth, the bee dances with her own, twisting in silent, arcane song.
Spread the word!