Fiction - Third Place
If you think about it, it only takes two men sitting together in a bar to disagree. Hell, they don't even gotta know each other: Let one fellow in a hurry cut off another one at a four-way and you got yourself an altercation. Bees, I've never seen them disagree. They're the most peaceful set of critters in the world, far as I've seen. And they know a whole lot more than we give 'em credit for.
Doc Benoah will tell you that. I worked for him for a while tending the bees until he got so scared of their little bee-brain logic that he quit the whole field. And Doctor Sarah Gennaro, who's the new head entomologist at the university, she knows how to respect bees. She doesn't even wear the veil when she's working with her bees. The more you put between you and the bees, the less they get to trust you. And you'd want to earn the respect of any old honeybee much faster than the respect of some old jerk who thinks you're in the way just because he's bigger than you are.
I take care of the 300 bee boxes on the farm. Actually, I personally take care of the oranges and blues. There are 63 of each color in the university preserve, and it's my job to make sure the boxes get cleaned and repainted every two months at least. The rest of the boxes they're bringing in now are plastic and they don't need to get painted, so I've been staying on, learning how to smoke the bees, so when the time comes that they tell me, "Louis, I just don't know what you're going to do here at the bee farm now that all the hives is plastic and they don't need any painting," I can just show them that I know how to smoke them and then they'll keep me on until they figure a way to replace me with a computer or something that'll do that better than me too.
The thing is this: They don't believe me when I say the bees'll talk to me. And I mean talk, not like your lips move and your tongue swishes around and pushes sloppy syllables out of your mouth, but they talk to each other and they talk to me. They tell me that they used to talk by smell but now they talk by the hum of their swarms, because with all the smoke their smells don't mean much anymore. They play jokes on the doctors, and maybe they're even smarter than me because they play some funny jokes that I wouldn't have thought up. Like I said, they got Doc Benoah to give up his experiments working with the bees, and if you'd believe me when I said that the bees talk to me, you might believe what I'm gonna tell you: I talk to them and they understand me.
I told Doctor Sarah that I talk to the bees and she put her round pink cheek into the palm of her hand and smiled at me like most women don't smile at me. She smiled at me like my mama smiled at me once. When I was 11 and my father had just left us for good and it was Valentine's Day, I brought my mama some roses. I'd had to untangle them from the briars that had grown around them and my hands were bleedingnot so much that it hurt bad, but just a little. Usually, Mama looked just like an apple muffin when she smiled, and her black eyes looked just like raisins stuffed into her brown face. But when my mama smiled at me that time, her neck raised up like a sunflower stem and her smile unfolded like the petals of a morning glory and I could see her eyes were flat like cool black stones in a stream and her lips were broad across her face like a pressed satin ribbon and she looked beautiful. That was the kind of smile that Doctor Sarah had across her face, though she looked nothing like my mama, of course. Doctor Sarah is as pink as a cherry blossom and her eyes are the color of moss. And she's not the kind of woman that wants to be raising babies like my mama was.
So Doctor Sarah looked at me and straight up asked me, "What makes you think that, Louis?" I appreciated her not laughing at me.
"Because they sound different at different times and I know what they mean when they do it," I said, by way of explaining how I understood them.
And she said, "You can interpret their language?"
"Yes, miss," I responded, because I still believe I can.
"What are my bees saying right now?" she asked me. She cares about her bees, which is a swarm that she got about three months after she arrived and she's most proud of them. They are sectioned off and though they do make some honey, they're mostly for her experimentations. When I have some time I help her by weighing the bees or watching the time. She does all the real observings herself. She showed me how to understand some of their dances like their lovemaking dances, and their food-finding dances, which is called a "foraging pattern." It's very beautiful to watch them in the summertime now that I understand what their movements mean. It's like when my brother Barry first showed me how to tell the different trees from each other, because then the forest wasn't just all the same green stuff, but like a big room full of people whose names you test yourself on and who have these interesting personalities that you want to tell everybody about.
So I listened to her bees for a moment, but they weren't talking to me. They just let out a low hum, like a bunch of people just sitting there and saying "hmmmm." It didn't mean nothing and they knew it. They seemed to be wanting to talk to her only, but she couldn't understand them.
"They're frustrated because they want to talk to you, but you can't understand them."
She looked thoughtful for a moment. Then she asked me a very smart question. She asked, "Can you tell them that you want to talk to them for me?"
But the way it works with me and the bees is that they just generally know what I want them to know. There is no telling to be done. They had their minds made up and they didn't want to talk to me. So I told her that and she said it was OK, and she thanked me for trying. She's a very polite lady, and if she ever made her mind up to have babies I'm sure she'd have some very polite little children.
She had me do a couple of tests with the "amplitude" and "pitch," she said, but I didn't know the differences of what she was talking about and she finally just gave up trying to figure it all out. Sometimes she and I go on walks around the other bee boxes, but she wears her veil because the other bees aren't nearly as kind to her or anyone else as her bees are. As I said, you gotta trust the bees and win their respect. That takes a lot of time. We talk about what the bees like and don't like and what they've been discussing and she's always happy to hear about it.
So what happened with Doc Benoah was that one day I wasn't happy with Doc Benoah because when I was coming into the parking lot of the university preserve on my bicycle, Doc Benoah almost hit me and he didn't seem to want to apologize. He was in a mean temper that day. His wife had a baby girl and I think the little thing couldn't sleep straight through the night, so he wasn't getting much sleep. At least that's what I figure the problem was.
So I had to paint the boxes in lot 35F and I was grumbling just a little I guess because I didn't think it was right that someone should drive so close to a man on a bicycle. The bees were really gabby that day, all in an uproar about something. Oh yes, that's right: Some of the colonies had been split up and they weren't happy about it. And the new boxes had preserved wood, that is wood that has a waxy coat on it, which the bees hate. It makes them sick. Those boxes came in right before the plastic ones, I remember.
So the bees kept talking about a joke they were going to play on the doctor. He was running an experiment at the time where he was moving their food 10 feet from their box and they had to look for it. He'd move it 10 feet away for a week, then 20 feet away for a week, then 30 feet for a week. Then he'd move it 10 feet to the left, but drop back 10 feet towards the center, then 10 more feet back from that space, and on and on, so he was making this big daisy shape of the places he'd put the food. I remember he sat down with me and tried to show me what he was doing, but the way he explained it, I couldn't figure it out. But then the bees explained it and it was clear as day.
They'd been going on along, just looking for the food like they were supposed to every day, but that day they played the big joke on the old doctor. They had figured out his pattern, and so they just sat there at the new spot and waited for him to arrive with the food. I hid in the trees so he couldn't see me because it was really the bees' joke and not mine, but I had no idea he was going to go so white. He dropped the food right to the ground when he saw them everywhere, some dancing, some perched on leaves and on trees, some hovering at exactly the place he stopped with the tape measure.
"I don't believe it. I don't believe it!" he cried out. "They can count! They can measure; they measured out 10 feet. They can count!" Some of the bees, cool as iced tea, went straight for the food he'd dropped to the ground, and some went over and looked him in the eye, right through his veil, and some just sat on their leaves or in the grass and looked as calm as a pretty young lady just filing her nails, nothing better to do. Doc Benoah took off his hat and veil and gloves and left them right there at the place where the bees sat and laughed and ate. And he quit. You could see it in his eyeshe was never going to understand those bees.
When I met him back at the university gate, he was still struck with amazement. And all I said to him before he got into his car and never came back was, "Doc, of course they can count. They're bees."
Meri Robie lives in Charles Village. She is working on her master's degree in fiction at Johns Hopkins University.
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