“Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self.”—May Sarton

Mid-April, brutal hot, spring in the Blue Ridge. I’d pedaled twenty miles already, absorbing the pastel colors of emerging redbuds, dogwoods, and tulip poplars. The formidable hill was scorching my quads when the man—white-haired, overalls, rounded belly—called out, “Hey, buddy, want a cold drink?”

I stopped, dismounted, shook my water bottles like maracas. “Think I could grab a refill?”

“Sure. And I’ll get you a so-dee pop, too.”

I relinquished the bottles, declined the soda, and he vanished through the screen door.

The homestead was typical of Appalachia in southwest Virginia: shotgun house, backyard abutting a hardwood forest, clothesline, garden plot strategically angled for maximum sunlight in those unforgiving hollows.

After he disappeared, I noticed a strange movement near a solitary porch chair. The floor appeared to be flowing, lava-like, in a trippy, psychedelic manner. Clambering over the wooden slats and surrounding the chair were hundreds—perhaps thousands—of honey bees.

“Here’s your water,” he said upon his return. “And a cold drink.” He’d either misheard (or simply ignored) my earlier refusal. But in that heat, I must admit, the knockoff Sprite was perfect. The sweetness, the cold. Ambrosia. He continued, “I see you discovered my buddies.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, venturing closer to the bee horde. “What’re they doing, exactly?”

He approached the perimeter, tipped his own soda, wiggled his wrist. “Keeping me company.” Droplets splattered the floorboards, momentarily dispersing the insects. “I first did it to attract raccoons. Sit out here in the evenings, watch them rascals waddle up like they own the place.”

Perplexed, I said, “For what reason? You try to pet them?”

“Lord, no,” he chuckled. “They’d bite the daylights out of me. I just watch.”

I nodded. “That must be nice. It’s so peaceful out here.”

“Me and my wife lived here nearly sixty years. After she died a little while back, it got kind of lonesome. So, sure, it’s nice. I enjoy their company.”

A beautiful and heartbreaking image. This lonely old man tucked in the mountains, missing his wife, fabricating companionship. I imagined dusk in that hollow, spring peepers peeping, masked creatures venturing from their oak den each night, the man gently bouncing in his chair…waiting. Did he converse with them? Name them? Recognize specific personality traits, like an Appalachian Jane Goodall? How long did they stay? How long did he?

Until the last ringtail had scurried off, I bet.

“So what about the bees?” I asked. “You ever get stung?”

“Naw, they don’t bother me none. They’re so gentle,” he said with grandfatherly admiration. “Tickle your skin when they crawl on you. Sometimes I lure one to my hand, raise it to my face, say, ‘Hey, Mr. Honey Bee, you got the purtiest little eyes.’ He never pays me no mind, just uses his teensy tongue to lap that sweetness from my wrist.”

I finished my drink, thanked him, found myself smiling. His affection, his demeanor, it was contagious.

“You come back and see me,” he said, raising his can in salute.


I crushed the final ten miles, preoccupied with a fantasy from adolescence: of becoming a hermit, living in an isolated cabin, vanishing from society to be alone. No, not to be alone—to find solitude. Because solitude, I now realized, was far different than loneliness. Loneliness was sad; solitude was contentment.

Loneliness breaks the spirit, so goes a Jewish proverb. But the bee man had concocted a method to defy that maxim, to rectify his loneliness. Or at least keep it at bay. And I admired that.

What form might my future loneliness take? Sitting on my own porch in the mountains? Writing if my fingers still worked? If my mind still did? I envisioned not just sprinkling soda at my feet but pouring it all over my body, longing for the bees to fully envelop me.

I imagined it as pleasant, peaceful: fuzzy insect legs tickling my skin; little “tongues” lapping nectar from my arm hairs; “purty little eyes” paying me no mind.

Absolute solitude…and yet, companionship. Something odd to strive for, perhaps, but the entire time I pedaled home, my smile never wavered.

Scott Loring Sanders is the author of two novels, a short story collection, and the essay collection Surviving Jersey: Danger & Insanity in the Garden State, which is a finalist for CLMP’s Firecracker Award for Best Book of 2017. His work has twice been chosen for Best American Mystery Stories, noted in Best American Essays, and published in a wide array of journals and magazines ranging in scope from Creative Nonfiction to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine to North American Review, among many others.  He teaches creative writing at Emerson College in Boston and at Lesley University in Cambridge.

Artwork by John Gallaher