Editor’s note: There's a heart-sadness to Kat Howard's short story about relationships, bee-keeping, and magic. And her prose—dark and rich and sweet—draws you in, but you still feel it when the sting goes in.
~ Julian Yap, January 30, 2022.
Telling the Bees
My lover is dead and my honey is bitter.
The latter of these, certainly, is my fault.
I should have told the bees of . . . I should have told the bees. Or maybe I should have better listened.
I should have done any number of things.
I did not.
* * *
People offer any number of reasons why bees, if you keep them, and if you want to keep them sweet, loyal to house and hive, should be told of the goings-on in the household.
The oldest stories, the ones told in the most serious voices, say that the bees are creatures of betweens, that they can even cross the between of life and death, their gentle hum an accompaniment for the souls as they pass. In these old stories, only one telling is required: you tell the bees when there has been a death.
Those who pass on the newer stories will tell you, very earnestly, that bees are creatures of community, with their hives and swarms and wax-sealed closeness, and so telling them your news binds you into their community. In that way, when you take their honey, it is sharing, not stealing. Those who belong to this school of thought have no required stories, only the strong suggestion that keeping things to yourself means you are not a very good neighbor.
Community and death and everything in between. We tell almost as many stories about bees as we do about ourselves.
But I wonder, I always have: If the bees travel with the souls of the dead, why is it necessary to tell them of a death, when certainly they would already know, having not only seen the dead person, but also escorted their soul to its final home?
And if the bees did know something like that, did have the knowledge of death and of what happens after, what else might they know? What could I possibly tell them that might be a surprise?
No, I think the bees–with their constant buzz, with their shared story-dances, with their hive-mind closeness–I think they like to gossip, to know things, to seal secrets away in the combs of their hives. I think it’s just the simple act of telling them something–of sharing a sweetness or a sorrow–that matters.
* * *
I told my bees almost everything. I visited my hives daily, chattering away as I did. Not just about births and deaths and big, life-altering events, but about tiny quotidian details.
I could pretend like this was some sort of spontaneously eccentric behavior that emerged on its own, the result of living by myself in the woods, far enough from town that I barely touched its edges, but the truth is, I made the choice to speak to the bees deliberately.
I wanted them to like me.
To like me enough to want to stay, tucked in my hives. I wanted the busy hum of their presence, wanted the thick, gold sweetness of honey. I wanted the idea that something so strange and wild–a flying queen and her court–would choose to belong with me. I wanted them to feel welcome.
So when I moved to the cottage and became the witch, I planted a new garden, full of flowers, pollen-heavy. And I told the bees where it was, that I had planted it just for them.
But I also told them when I saw something interesting while out walking. A particularly intricate spiderweb, crystalline with dew. A perfect clutch of quietly blue eggs. I’d visit the hives to warn them of a poor weather forecast. I’d stop by just to say hello. I liked talking to them.
When I visited, the hive buzzed around me, low and content. The honey was plentiful and sweet.
I have never once been stung.
* * *
After a few weeks, the bees began to tell me things when I visited their hives. Not in words, but in hum and in flight. They would perch in my hair and cling to my fingers when they wanted my attention.
That first day, they gave me a patch of wild strawberries. All unasked, they told me where to find them and then flew with me as I walked, in a quiet, winged hum. The berries were as red as jewels, as sweet as summer. “Thank you,” I said, delighted by the gift.
As I ate, I told them stories. Of the very large man in town who had acquired a very small kitten. He called her Buttercup and carried her everywhere in his shirt pocket. Of the pleasure of being soaked in a sudden summer downpour. Of the warm happiness of baking bread.
They didn’t speak to me every time I visited the hives, but I always listened when they did.
* * *
Then he came. A man. My lover. He told me during the morning of our first breakfast together that he did not like my bees.
Lazy with morning softness, I smiled and asked why.
“They sting,” he said, then bit into a slice of bread spread lavishly with their honey.
“Only if you’re not careful,” I said. “Only if they’re afraid. It’s easy enough to be around them if you like. I could introduce you to them.”
But that was the end of it for him. Bees stung. And so he did not like them.
* * *
I didn’t tell the bees about him. Not at first.
* * *
You might have thought I would have known better than to tangle myself up with him. After all, I’m the person who women here tell, when there’s trouble with a man. One who can’t hear “no,” or who talks with his fists, or who is some other variety of wrong. They come to me, and they leave with a spell, or a poison, or some other, more direct, solution.
I know all the stories, and still I wandered into this one.
I could tell you he had enchantments of his own, but that wasn’t the case. All he offered was what was ordinary, expected–attention, a compliment, a symbolically romantic gesture.
It’s the worst thing, when you lose yourself and you haven’t even traded for magic. When you’re happy just to have ordinary.
* * *
“I had heard that your honey was good even before we met,” he said.
“Thank you.” I smiled, pleased at the compliment.
“Though, maybe it’s a little too sweet?” His teeth crunched through the bread, leaving crumbs and stickiness at the corners of his mouth. “Almost ordinary. But I can see how the people here would think it was special, coming from the witch’s own bees.”
“Thank you,” I said again, leaving my smile stuck in place.
* * *
It was the bees who told me what he had been doing.
He started stealing from them, their wax and their honey. Things they would have given, if only he had asked. At first, they stung him for it and he showed me the wounds and complained that he had done nothing to deserve them. I didn’t know, then, that he was lying.
“That was strange,” I said. “They’re normally not aggressive. Are you certain–“
He grabbed my hand, the hand that had been tending his stings, and held it so tight, I felt my bones grind together. He had done, he told me, nothing.
“Of course.” I understood.
The bees stopped sending their own to die to punish his thievery when it became clear that the minor pain of a sting was no deterrent. Instead, they told me the truth.
* * *
Everyone is born with gifts, with affinities, with small magical strangenesses. Everyone has planted deep within them the seeds of the witch and of wonder. It is their own choice, whether to let those seeds grow and when.
Or at least it should be. Sometimes those strange and magical gifts are drowned, or smothered, choked out by things that cannot bear to see them thrive.
Sometimes, those gifts are stolen.
* * *
Even now, I can’t tell you who was the first.
Was it Miriam, whose bright voice dulled and went silent? Catrin, who moved like grace upon the waters until the day when she walked as if every step were a weight? Anna, who was a glittering spark of a person until the day she went dim?
When the gifts started disappearing from the women they belonged to, when the women started changing in the aftermath, no one came to ask for my help. No one even told me about it, not until the bees.
I didn’t understand why then. I was the witch. Dealing with this sort of thing was my job. But then it became clear.
The thief was mine. They thought I already knew.
* * *
The worst thing was that what he had built was beautiful.
Well, no. Of course not. Of course the worst thing was that it existed. The worst thing was what he did to those women in the first place, the stealing from them, the things he took. The way he didn’t even use what he had stolen, only locked their gifts away so that he had them and they did not.
There were a lot of worst things.
But also: the worst thing was that it was beautiful. That the thing he made, that horrible cabinet of wonders he built so lovingly to hold what wasn’t his.
Made of golden, glowing wood, carved and shaped and sanded smooth. A treasure box. Each stolen item preserved in honey, sealed in wax.
The bees took me there to show me what he had done, guiding me through the forest as if I were another sister of the hive. It was beautiful, and when I saw it, my mouth filled with bile until I couldn’t speak.
* * *
I planted a second garden then, far from the first. I filled it with plants bitter and dire, with yew and oleander, belladonna and hemlock. I coaxed them to grow quickly and strong, and I asked the bees for their honey.
I told them how I would use it.
You are, after all, supposed to tell the bees when there will be a death.
* * *
“They’ve stopped stinging me,” he said. “I think they like me now.”
“That’s good,” I said. “I don’t like to think of them dying.”
“Or of me being hurt, right?” He spoke as if the things were equal, a temporary pain and a permanent death.
“Of course.” I smiled as I passed him a slice of bread, spread thick with honey.
“This is good!” he said. “Less sweet. More interesting.”
He died screaming, swelling up as if he had been stung.
* * *
The bees swarmed after that, leaving my hives empty. I wondered if perhaps they were escorting the soul of my dead lover, the man I killed, if they were making sure that wherever he was, he was stored carefully and sealed with wax.
I told the empty hives thank you.
I keep, in jars, that last, bitter honey.
Thank you for being part of The Sunday Morning Transport journey this week.
Kat Howard is an award-winning writer of fantasy and horror. She is allergic to bees.
“Telling the Bees,” © Kat Howard, 2022.
Absolutely beautiful and haunting story.
It’s lovely, that little thread of bitterness through the beauty, the occasional abruptness and grip in the syntax, the very large man with the very small kitten