by Meg Smith
Everyone has a talent, and Charlotte Plesser’s talent was not one she asked for, or ever sought to cultivate.
Her talent was attracting bees.
Anywhere she went, bees went. It didn’t matter if she did or didn’t wear fragrance, or what soap she used, or what foods she ate -- she tried avoiding fried foods, anything with honey, anything that might prove agreeable to bees.
None of it made a difference.
She would walk past a clutch of wildflowers, or a meticulously cultivated garden, where bees were busy harvesting pollen. They’d abandon their task, and dither toward her, forming a dreamlike, buzzy cloud around her.
They never stung her. They might occasionally alight on her arms, or shoulders.
They would envelope her, dazzled by something in her presence, something she couldn’t explain or define.
Then, as if they remembered they had work to do and a colony to help feed, they’d gracefully fall away, as if in a stupor, back to the flowers they’d abandoned to be near Charlotte. Or, they might follow her, in such a fuzzy, buzzing way that time seemed to cease.
This strange affinity began the summer before Charlotte started junior high school.
Living in the northeast, winter generally didn’t present a problem.
But in the spring, summer and early fall months, Charlotte’s life became so disrupted by bees that she had spent a better part of her high school career being schooled at home.
And for much of her time, she was confined to her room, in her parent’s house, in the basement.
But even there, with the windows closed, she’d look out and see a fervor of bees, batting against the glass, as if pleading with her to let them in.
At night, even in her dreams, they’d come to her. She’d dream of sitting in a pleasant field, reading a book, or perhaps enjoying a picnic with a handsome guy. The bees would find her, cascade around her, and drive off her date, who would get up and run, frantically waving his arms.
Charlotte spent a lot of time looking up information online -- from gardeners, entomologists, beekeepers -- to no avail. She could not find the cause, or a way to stop it.
There was one person in her neighborhood, Mr. Ferris, who might have been helpful, but she was not about to ask him.
He himself was a beekeeper, but also the neighborhood grouch, and since the death of his wife, he’d gotten worse, so bad that even those who sympathized kept their distance.
One day, there was an angry knock at the door. Her mother went to answer it.
From her downstairs room, Charlotte could hear the muffled exchange.
Mr. Ferris was demanding that Charlotte send his bees back to their hive.
Yes, he was accusing her of appropriating his bees.
Charlotte heard her mother making calm, reasonable noises, assuring him that no one in the house had stolen his bees.
Suffice it to say, Charlotte’s propensity for attracting bees created an enormous disruption in her life. She could not do things so many people took for granted, and, in the bloom of young adulthood, began to find herself growing withdrawn from the world.
But she knew she could not continue on that way, simply hiding herself from the adoring, fuzzy hordes awaiting her outside.
She began to lay out her options, including moving to some perennially cold part of the world, where the odds of being accosted by bees would be extremely remote.
But while chatting on the phone one day, her friend, Candace, gave her an idea. “Instead of running away from the bees, maybe there is a way to put their peculiar talent of yours to good use,” Candace said.
“Besides discouraging rude men and messing up my life?” Charlotte said.
“Well, think about it. All over the world, bee colonies are in danger. Perhaps you could go on a mission, and lead the bees someplace safe. You could be...like...a bee herder.”
Charlotte signed, and turned the idea over in her mind. A bee herder.
The truth was, despite her magnetic draw of bees, she didn’t really know anything about them -- their habits, habitats, nothing, apart from what she’d read in her efforts to find out what would make them knock it off.
In truth, the last thing she wanted to do was engross herself in the science of bees.
She just wanted them to go away, and it seemed they never would.
Perhaps Mr. Ferris, her disgruntled, beekeeping neighbor, could help her.
The idea made her head pulse painfully.
The fall was approaching. For Charlotte, it had been another summer of being confined mostly indoors, going out almost exclusively at night, and otherwise staying mainly in the bivouac she, now a grown woman, had created in her parents’ basement. Waiting, begging for winter.
Charlotte desperately wanted to go out, to feel the fresh autumn breeze, and expand her encounters with human beings.
Even irate Mr. Ferris would do.
She got up, and went for the door.
Mr. Ferris lived a few houses down the road. The sky was brilliantly blue, and the reddish-gold leaves in the trees were dazzled by the light.
It was simply a glorious, early fall day.
Apart from a few scattered, stray bees who clamored about her before darting off, Charlotte managed a relatively unimpeded walk to Mr. Ferris’ home.
When she arrived, he was surprisingly glad to see her. “Ah, Charlotte!” he said. He had graying hair, and was wearing his beekeeping suit, minus the head covering -- and looked vaguely like a creature from some other planet. A planet ruled by bees.
“Hello, Mr. Ferris,” Charlotte began, warily. She expected at any moment to be mobbed by the bees from his carefully-stacked hives, which formed a row along the back of his yard.
“I’ve smoked them for now, so they should be quiet,” Mr. Ferris assured her. “But maybe you could help me with something.”
“Well, Mr. Ferris, that’s why I came by. I don’t know how much help I am -- but I’d certainly like to learn more about bees. Then maybe I can figure out a way to -- “
He was clearly engrossed in his own problem. “Charlotte, take a look up on that tree there.”
She sighed, annoyed at being cut off in mid sentence, but she looked up as he asked. It took her eyes a moment to adjust to what she saw.
A fork divided the uppermost branches of a tree, and it was moving --alive -- with bees.
“Well,” she said. Knowing as little as she did about bees, she did not feel she had much to contribute.
“I think that’s a wild colony,” Mr. Ferris said, a hint of distress in his voice. “No one knows why, but bees sometimes swarm in the fall, and it doesn’t do them any good. They don’t have time to store up enough food for the winter. They’ll probably die.”
“That’s too bad,” Charlotte said, but she almost felt relieved at the thought of fewer bees to contend with. She walked, tentatively, closer to the tree, but was beginning to feel Mr. Ferris had neither the knowledge or the inclination to assist her.
Before she or Mr. Ferris could say any more, the bees began to leave their perch in the tree, and descend -- forming an aura around Charlotte, and buzzing merrily.
“Ahah!” Mr. Ferris exclaimed, and clapped his gloved hands. “Charlotte, you’ve done it!”
“Done what?” Charlotte said with exasperation, blinking her eyes because the bees made it hard to see, and spitting out a stray bee that had tripped over her lip -- a not-infrequent occurrence.
Instead of answering, Mr. Ferris slid his head covering on, took big, elated strides over to one of the hives, and opened its lid. He began waving toward the opening -- as if the bees would follow his prompting.
“Come over here, please, Charlotte,” Mr. Ferris said, in a tone that reminded her annoyingly of a gym coach from eighth grade. As she walked, the hive commuted with her.
The bees seemed to understand that the hive box was meant for them, and gradually, they made their way into it.
This process took several minutes. To Charlotte, it felt as if it took much longer -- like the communication was slowly and hesitantly making its way through the bee command chain.
When the last bees trickled inside, Mr. Ferris clapped the lid on triumphantly. The buzzing grew a bit fainter, and it seemed that the bees were adjusting to their new home in a satisfactory way.
“Now,” Mr. Ferris said triumphantly, “I just need to be sure of providing them with a queen.”
“They already have one,” Charlotte said.
Mr. Ferris looked at her suspiciously. Charlotte doubted many people questioned his authority on bees.
“Honestly, Mr. Ferris, I don’t know how I know that. I just know it.”
Mr. Ferris looked greatly perturbed. “How on Earth would you know a thing like that,” he demanded.
“I don’t know,” Charlotte said.“Mr. Ferris, these are your bees. You can do what you want.”
Mr. Ferris opened his mouth, but Charlotte persisted. “You know, Mr. Ferris, first you accuse me of stealing your bees, and I didn’t. Now, I just helped you put these ones in one of your hives. And you’re mad at me?”
“Sorry, Charlotte.” It was almost shocking to hear him apologize. He looked down at the tufts of grass growing on the ground.
“Mr. Ferris, do you have any idea what it’s like to live like this? Every time you go out these stupid bees coming rushing over to you like you’re their mom or something?”
Mr. Ferris began, “Now, let’s not call them stupid --” but Charlotte was in no mood for such corrections.
She started to turn away. “Go ahead, and dump another queen in there, but don’t blame me for whatever happens,” She said crossly.
She stalked off before the colonies in the other hives could register her presence.
She’d about had it with his accusations, his snooty attitude about how he knew all there was to know about bees.
And that this encyclopedic wisdom somehow made him superior to everyone in the neighborhood, who could care less.
As she fairly stomped away, toward her own home, errant bees tumbled in the air over to her, as if their beating wings could vibrate a refrain: “What’s wrong?”
“Go! Away!” Charlotte shouted, not even feeling stupid about yelling at bees.
But what surprised her was that she wasn’t only mad about Mr. Ferris’ rudeness.
She was beginning to think he really wasn’t as all-knowing about bees as he obviously thought he was. Who ever heard of a swarm with no queen? Even with her scant expertise, it was a foreign idea.
A short while later, back at home, Charlotte lay on her bed in her basement abode, while a cluster of bees kept knocking themselves against the single window. Her mind would not free itself of thinking what a jerk Mr. Ferris was.
That night, she had a dream; bees made their way into it, as they so often did. But this time, it was different.
In her dream, she asked the bees out loud how she knew that the swarm had a queen. They offered no answers -- their clamor was like a noisy class of children, all trying to answer a teacher at once.
In the dream, she was walking through a field -- and with every step, more bees found her, followed her. But, instead of the thrum of their wings, they progressed quietly.
For the first time, she could make out their faces -- serious, and black, with wide eyes.
In the silence, they began to tell her things. They were not just buzzing; they were speaking, their words beating in the air from their wings, their fervent brains.
The things they had to say made her uneasy.
She opened her eyes, and realized she wasn’t dreaming at all.
She was standing outside, in a field, a real field. In her socks. Her feet felt damp and cold.
She felt relieved when she saw she was wearing a shirt and sweatpants, and it was not like a classic dream when a person goes out in public with only underwear, or less.
But as she looked about, through the fog of bees, she saw that the field was unfamiliar. How far had she gone, she wondered, how did she even get here, in her shirt and sweats, and just socks on her feet?
Their answer came to her: “We carried you.”
Okay, this is totally nuts, she thought. A dog or maybe a cat could understand a command from a person, but she was pretty sure bees couldn’t understand humans.
She suddenly, longingly wanted to get back home, away from the staring, plaintive, deep black eyes of the bees, away from the flashing wings flooding the air with riddles.
The idea seemed to take hold of the bees physically. She thought she saw an odd ripple travelling from one to the other, like a wave in the black and gold of their bodies.
She felt something lift, and descend, in her core. And then was fumbling around in the driveway, her hands reaching out for the side door to the house, which led to the basement. The bees had receded in a sweeping, graceful tide, and were gone, soundlessly.
She shook her head, as if banishing any stray bees in her hair. She looked about, hoping that no neighbors had seen her. But everything around her was quiet, absent of people.
She went inside.
Not much time passed before Mr. Ferris implored, through Charlotte’s mother, for Charlotte to come back.
“I’m sure Charlotte can make up her own mind,” Charlotte heard her mother tell Mr. Ferris.
Charlotte decided that, as unappealing as the idea might be, she would go over to Mr. Ferris, and tell him she wished him the best with his bees, but that she wanted to be left alone.
Before she could say this rehearsed bit of speech, however, Mr. Ferris appeared, his face pinched with grief. Even the bees darting around Charlotte seemed to grow quieter, easing their hum.
“I haven’t been very pleasant since my wife died,” Mr. Ferris said. “Even my kids have stayed away.” He paused. “Honestly, I think it was my wife that kept us together -- and now, she’s gone.”
Charlotte shifted uncomfortably between sympathy and awkwardness.
Mr. Ferris seemed to get that, because he said, “Don’t mind me, Charlotte. And thanks for stopping by.”
It irritated her that he had stolen the thunder of what she had planned to say to him.
It doesn’t matter, she told herself, over and over, on the walk back home. A bee smacked against her ear with a cold thud. “Watch it,” she said aloud.
But when she got home, Charlotte found herself thinking about what Mr. Ferris had said. About his loss. His loneliness, brought on by his own acerbic nature.
She tried reading a book, sewing, flitting through social media online, which was mostly either stupid jokes, or people enjoying bee-free lives -- weddings, dates, graduate school, travel.
Most aggravating, was that there was no escaping the thought that Mr. Ferris loved bees, and she was a virtual prisoner of them. But he was deeply alone, and so was she.
Living a life of relative confinement put her in touch with peripheral realities in her neighborhood that most of the busy, workaday folk didn’t seem to notice.
One was that there were a fair few young wastrels dedicated to a life of loitering and boredom.
Charlotte knew that for some of them it was a passing phase. Jimmy Orbutt, to name one, had been a scourge, driving around, with his friends, and of all things, throwing rubber, bouncing balls out the window of their speeding car.
“Send them all to the slammer for a month,” her father had declared. “That’ll scare ‘em out of it.”
When her father said such things, Charlotte reflected on what she knew, that her mother had told her, but which her father didn’t know she knew -- he had started life as a full-fledged, red-dealing hoodlum.
Over time, Jimmy, and neighborhood kids who acted like him, were again and again given the passes that a kid from a slightly upper middle class neighborhood was wont to receive.
Charlotte had enough friends from the city to know that such graces weren’t bestowed upon kids in less gentrified neighborhoods. Instead, those kids started life early with a steadily-growing police record.
All she knew was that Jimmy and his peers were out and about, making mistakes, learning from them, or not -- and there she was, trapped, except for an odd night when the bees had escorted her out to a real field, somewhere.
If people in the neighborhood thought Mr. Ferris was weird, disagreeable and unpleasantly obsessed with bees, there was one person who had quietly made a declaration of war against him.
That person was Bobby Burkes.
In truth, Bobby Burkes had long ago declared war against the whole world, or at least, the world as defined by the parameters of his suburban habitat.
Bobby didn’t possess more than a marginal grasp of the world beyond. He knew of it, of course, through his indifferent traipsing through the internet.
But in real terms, Bobby’s life was defined by the vague space of time between sunrise and sunset, and sometimes, a few hours after sunset.
He was one of the few members of Jimmy Orbutt’s group who did not go on to negotiate the world of adults with some measure of success.
In the evenings, Bobby was inclined to walk in the purplish haze of the streetlights, always the same route, and almost never encountering anyone.
Except the odd raccoon, possum, or one time, a neighbor woman who grasped his wrist with her ice-cold hands and declared herself to be Eleanor Roosevelt’s lover, Hick, and declared Bobby to be Eleanor Roosevelt.
When Bobby passed the home of Mr. Ferris recently, though, something tightened in his stomach, a stab of anger and anxiety.
If he had been asked why, Bobby would not have been able to provide a lucid answer, even as most of his answers to any question lacked lucidity.
A friend, Mark, one of Jimmy’s pals, still dropped by to see him, and sometimes brought pharmaceutical comforts.
A short while ago, Mark had brought him a tab of acid. Bobby reflected that somehow, he had gotten this far in life without trying it.
He smirked a little contemptuously, looking at the tiny, pill-like object in his palm before putting it indelicately on his tongue.
He lay back down on his bed, and stared up at the ceiling. A slight discoloration had formed where a pipe had leaked long ago. Flecks of peeled paint formed a pale archipelago.
For a while, nothing seemed to happen. And then, he thought an agreeable humming, like -- well, he frowned. Like Mr. Ferris’ bees.
Bees. Bees were for disaster movies where a savage strain invaded a country club, and attacked everyone in it.
As if in reply, the buzzing grew into a disagreeable growl.
The flecks of paint began to waver, and flutter, and then, ridiculously, moved to form Mr. Ferris’ face -- as Mr. Ferris’ face. Or, how Mr. Ferris’ face might look if rendered in flecks of ceiling paint.
Only, in this ceiling-paint portrait of Bobby’s tripping mind, Mr. Ferris’ face went from annoying to sinister, and Bobby did not like this. It began to grow darker, and denser, and Bobby seized upon a revelation. It wasn’t ceiling paint at all. It was Mr. Ferris’ precious bees.
Bobby sat up, swamped in his own sweat. The beeswarm face had grown into an angry cloud, and within that cloud, Bobby saw and remembered what it was about Mr. Ferris he had come to hate.
With a damp, shaking hand, Bobby groped for a glass of water on his nightstand. He grasped it, still trembling violently, and managed to bring it to his lips. He forced his breathing to slow down as he drank. He closed his eyes, and opened them again.
The vision began to fade. The bees dispersed, and the paint scraps settled back to ordinary, inert paint scraps.
But Bobby could not rid himself of the cold sensation that clutched at him.
While Bobby was struggling with his first and he was sure, last trip on acid, Charlotte, without any sort of mind-altering intervention, was coming to her own conclusions.
Unlike what Candace had suggested, Charlotte had no desire to save the bees. The thought of the bees telling her things she didn’t want to hear -- like whether they had a queen -- provoked more resentment.
She did not want to see their big, weird nonhuman eyes, entreating her.
But, there was something else. The bees that Mr. Ferris had lured into his hives, thinking he was doing them some great favor by sparing them a cold fall and even harsher winter -- were unhappy.
“Oh, that’s just tripe,” she said aloud, to the low ceiling of her basement bedroom, and thinking how often she was exclaiming out loud to herself these days. “Bees can’t be happy or sad, or mad, or feel like their striped outfits make them look fat. They can’t think!”
But, she could. As a human being. She was sitting in her room, in total silence -- yet the air seemed to thrum with a million messages -- of want, of anger, of a longing for freedom.
And something else. Something like alarm.
She leapt to her feet, which made them smart a little. She spat out expletives as she pulled herself into jeans and a sweater, and shoes, and stormed out -- this time, not away from Mr. Ferris’ home, but toward it.
It wasn’t Mr. Ferris she wanted to see. It was his captive colony.
They needed to join Mr. Ferris’ colony, into one fine, strong hive -- or, pick up and fly off and leave everyone alone.
She remembered what Mr. Ferris had said about the colony’s chance of survival in the fall.
But maybe together, the colony would have enough strength to face the future and overcome the hardships of fall, and winter. Maybe, just maybe, the bees of the world would follow their lead, and leave her alone, once and for all.
And she could at long last, reclaim something of a normal, bee-free life. To have a job outside her home. To travel anywhere she wanted. Maybe to meet someone, and fall in love. Or at least revel in a transitory fling.
Yes, she must do it. Surely the bees must be made to understand.
She was past caring how crazy any of these thoughts might have sounded to other human beings who were not so loved by bees.
When she arrived at Mr. Ferris’ house, she realized something -- along her walk, there had been very few bees joining her.
Perhaps because the air was definitely turning cooler.
But this somehow did not make her feel better.
When she got to Mr. Ferris’ gate, she stumbled.
Bobby Burkes was there, and he was pushing Mr. Ferris up against the wall of his house.
“Hey!” Charlotte yelled. Bobby turned, and Mr. Ferris managed to wriggle away from his grasp.
In a quick, cruel lash, Bobby’s hand snapped out and grabbed Mr. Ferris’ arm.
“Let him go!” Charlotte screamed.
Mr. Ferris was trying to say something, but his lips flubbered.
“Bobby, just let him go!” Charlotte screamed again.
“You don’t know anything!” Bobby hollered, turning and pushing Mr. Ferris so hard he fell to the ground.
Charlotte ran to the fallen man, kneeling down, horror blazing within her. The side of Mr. Ferris’ face was cut, and laced with specks of blood. The sight of this suburban, beekeeping widower injured so brutally tore up the fabric of her life.
“He’s a murderer!” Bobby howled.“He killed his own wife!”
For a moment, Charlotte felt numb. She was fumbling for her phone, to call police, or an ambulance -- and realized her phone was sitting tidily on her nightstand, charging.
“Bobby, we have to get him help,” Charlotte said.
But Bobby was in no state to listen. He leapt, in a jagged movement that for a moment looked to Charlotte like a rehearsed dance of lunacy.
Before she could say anything else, he danced his way over to the hive -- the one to which Mr. Ferris had directed the outlier swarm -- and, swatting at the bees that dove at him, he flipped off the lid. It crashed to the ground.
“Oh, god,” Charlotte whimpered, now cradling Mr. Ferris’ bloodied head in her hands, and trying to shield him from further assault.
For one heart-stopping moment she expected the bees to rise out of the hive -- and maybe even send some bee pheromone signal to the other bees in the other hives.
This did not happen -- at first.
In fact, Bobby was now leaning into the open hive, and sputtering words at the bees, as they began to rise and dart about him, in ragged strings, their wings flashing in the terrible sunlight.
Struggling to pull off her outer sweater, Charlotte bunched it into a graceless pillow to nudge under Mr. Ferris’ head.
She wobbled to her feet, running to Bobby and, seeing his phone hanging out of a dragging pocket, she grabbed at it.
He swatted at her, and she stumbled again.
It was then that the sunlight disappeared, and a cold, massive cloud began to form above them. Rain, she thought, as if she could simply will it to be so.
But, no. It was the bees.
Bees were homing in from everywhere -- as if some distress signal went out to them all.
To the wild colonies in the outlying fields not yet carved up by developments; to workers busying themselves in manicured flower beds; bumble bees, honey bees, a symphony of hums, low and high.
Their wings created a cold breeze; she actually began to shiver.
Charlotte felt caught. If she raced inside to Mr. Ferris’ house, she risked leaving him alone with Bobby -- and the bees.
She made another dive for Bobby’s phone, and this time he raised his arm, and cracked her across the face. She managed a kick at him before she fell.
After a moment, a thud jarred her as she lay. Bobby had collapsed, not far from her.
They lay -- three stunned and broken figures, between the driveway and the grass of Mr. Ferris’ backyard.
Charlotte breathed in and out rapidly. She struggled to get up, yet couldn’t.
She thrashed her head, side to side, struggling to shift her weight in an effort to right herself.
Her lower back had lost almost all sensation.
The ground shivered beneath her. To either said, she heard moaning -- Bobby, and Mr. Ferris, both.
She looked up, feeling jabs of pain in the back of her head, and neck.
The sky had gone very dark, once more.
The sky had fallen, until hovering just above them.
The ground shivered, and she shivered, she realized, because of millions of beating, fanning, flashing wings.
“Oh,” she managed, and wondered if the bees, the bees that had so devotedly followed her, veiled her, bound up her life, could hear or understand her now. Or she, them.
Her eyelids flitted; great black eyes, so familiar to her now, were all descending, over her, and around her.
And, she realized, dimly, Bobby, and Mr. Ferris.
But, these bees, joined together from near and far, had not formed not in a peaceful union. There was a battle -- drumbeats of wings -- the drumbeat of war.
They’re fighting each other, she mused. Swarm against swarm. Because there can only be one queen.
Something pelted the side of her face, like rain, or hail, Then, more and more.
Bodies. Bodies of the defeated, the slaughtered, were raining down; some dead, and some still wriggling in a sickening way, as if that effort could revive them.
Sharp edges of hair on their bodies, withering legs -- Charlotte coughed -- the casualties were falling into her nose, her mouth, choking her.
She tried trashing, too, as if one of those wounded, but the weight of the swarm -- the dead, the half-dead -- was pinning her. Flares of light exploded in front of her eyes, but her eyes were shut tight.
The wind of countless wings began to ebb, as more plummeted.
One last bloom of fire erupted in front of her eyes, and then the blackness blanketed her, blanketed them all.
With all that fell, there was a time to rise. The victorious among the swarms signaled to one another, in the minute, perfect chemistry that only bees of kindred can know.
There was no time to mourn. The air was turning, with nature’s season, edging toward the certitude of colder days and nights.
If they were to move, to fly, to flourish, the time was now.
But even in their urgency, they would not forget. A colony, after all, was a living, unified force, and they would not abandon the being they saw as their queen. Their true queen.
Charlotte could not know it -- as she could not know anything, anymore. She was being lifted up -- by the grand effort of unabated loyalty.
And in time, they would be rewarded, with a full, flushed husk, a nest of plenty, a body of sturdy shelter that she could provide, even without her knowing, or planning, or wanting.
Under a pristine, blue autumn sky, a dark, dense mass, carrying their queen -- a hive borne of her own being -- in search of bright, open pasture, perhaps with the flowers that remain hardy until the first frost.
© 2021 Meg Smith
Bio: Meg Smith is a writer, journalist, dancer and events producer in Lowell, Mass., USA. In addition to Aphelion, her poetry and fiction have appeared in Dark Moon Digest, Raven Cage, Blood Moon Rising Magazine, Dark Dossier, The Horror Zine, and many more. She is author of five poetry books and a short fiction collection, The Plague Confessor. She welcomes visits to megsmithwriter.com.