Jim was given custody of the bees in his divorce. Not knowing where to go with them when he moved out, he house-sat for a woman in her seventies who needed someone to look after her hives while she summered in Canada. He integrated his bees with hers in the backyard, fed them sugar water, and—barely—saved them from hive beetles.
When Judith returned, Jim, a frugal freelance photographer and handy man, suggested he convert the tool shed out back into living quarters. Having had both hips replaced, Judith liked having an able-bodied man around and agreed. He cleared out truckloads of hoarded items and hauled them to Goodwill. It was as much work convincing her to part with the stuff as to move it, he told me two years later when we started dating.
Jim had plumbed the shed for a sink, built a closet, laid a hardwood floor, installed a mini refrigerator, but until he dug a trench for a composting toilet, he used the backyard or Judith’s bathroom. At night, I would pull on my shoes, part a mosquito net that served as a screen door, and make my way by moonlight to the grove of hemlocks behind the cottage to squat in the grass. Sometimes when I climbed back into bed he folded my night-damp body in his arms. Other times, he merely stirred, leaving me to look for warmth I’d left under the sheets. Jim wrestled in college. He never lay on top of me that he wasn’t conscientious about knees and elbows, distributing his own weight. The sound of rain on the roof was romantic. I could deal with muddy sneakers.
In the early days of the relationship Jim showed me a photograph of three Russian Queens he had ordered on the Internet. These winter-hardy Constantinovas arrived in a neon green envelope that read: LIVE QUEEN BEES // FIRST CLASS MAIL. He placed a straight razor beside the tremulous pouch in the image to foreshadow the next act of slicing it open, situating each colony’s ruler inside a cage plugged with marshmallow, which would protect her long enough for the drones devouring the candy to accept her. I liked that a replacement for the locus of a hive, for whom all honey is made, might be delivered. My grandfather also kept bees but relied on natural methods—feral finds in barns and trees or captured swarms.
As we started to close the windows against November nights, to leave a fleece within reach of the door, I knew I had to end the relationship. Summer rain or sleet in February, that one-room cabin wasn’t getting any bigger. It wasn’t the inconvenience I minded so much as how the arrangement allowed him to keep sealed the other chambers of his heart. I might hum around all I liked, industrious as any worker bee, dancing clover nectar off my feet, but I would never be taken to the queen.
Now, months later, my memory does not return to the futon where we often woke to find Judith’s pet hen poking her head around the screen to remind us of her pellets. What stays with me instead is the sensation of leaving the shed in the middle of the night, crawling away from the honeycomb of his body to trust my inherent navigation system. It was the same guidance system that inspires wax-producing workers to carve their cell blocks into hexagons, but it carried me away from my compulsion to gather and store flower pollen.
In late fall bees start clustering at night to pool their body heat, only leaving the hive during the day for cleansing flights. When I came back from my last starlit foray, Jim remained on his side, a single knot facing away from me. I turned toward the window still charged with the largeness of night, which he in his soft sleep, alone with an incredible loneliness, could not fathom.
Amy Wright is the Nonfiction Editor of Zone 3 Press and the author of three poetry chapbooks with her fourth forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press. Her prose appears in a number of journals including Drunken Boat, Freerange Nonfiction, and Bellingham Review.