by Gwen Goodwin
We were raised by the men, my twin sister and I. Our mother worked day and night. We never saw her. She lived in her own room attended by her own men. I wondered where she was and what she did in her room. When I asked about her, the men shook their heads. She’s only good for one thing,they told me. One day you’ll understand. But underneath their words, when they thought I wasn’t listening, I heard. Whore, they said.
The men fed us. It was all they knew how to do. Royal jelly, they joked and spooned cactus fruit jam into our mouths. It was winter. There wasn’t much to eat. More, said the men. Eat more. We ate until we became sluggish, heavy.
One night, as I fell asleep in bed with my sister, I heard the men eating, plotting. The gold was gone. None to be had, they said. Never saw a spec. It had been a lie, the gold. A lure in a fetid pond.
The room was warm. My sister never spoke. I didn’t know her name. Neither did the men. Girls, they called us. Or, if they were in a good mood, Our little queens.
When I awoke, the room was cold. The men were gone. They always left in the mornings. But, when I sat up, I saw my sister was gone, too. We’d never left our room. I had always heard the din of activity around us, but had never left. I wasn’t allowed. The men said it was dangerous. Best you stay inside.Your sister, of course, isn’t going anywhere.She never left the bed. She only ate what the men fed her and stared. Once I slapped her to see if she’d hit me back, or even blink, but nothing. No response.
I left the room and stepped into darkness. I felt my way forward. The walls were like paper, yet strong. I found a source of light in the distance. My eyes stung. I had to shut them. I moved forward a little at a time, toward the light, unable to look at it. Finally, I stood in the light and stepped through it. I was outside. I’d seen the grass and the trees through the window, but now I could touch them. Everything was sharper than I’d imagined. The grass, the sunlight. My eyes hurt. I looked at the ground to see.
Everything was quiet. The men had stopped mid-dig. Shovels pierced the dirt. Metal pans tossed about. A cracked jug. I heard a noise like an approaching sandstorm. It was far off but growing louder. I raised my head and searched the sky. A black cloud moved toward me. Not a storm cloud: something that shifted in waves – expanded, contracted, something alive. I could run, but to what? Back to my room? I couldn’t go in there ever again. It had been a prison. I stood facing the cloud waiting for the end.
The cloud split, forked into streams. The rivers flowed toward the trees. Except one. It branched off toward me. I felt light taps on my forehead, then down my neck and shoulders, as if every strand of hair on my body was being inspected by careful bristles. I heard their voices, the bees. They sounded like the men, whispering in my ear.
Eat, they said. You must eat.
The bees lived in my hair and fed me at the corners of my mouth. Honey dripped on my shoulders. I walked an empty street with their voices guiding me. Every shack, every building was empty.
Where will we live?I asked the bees.
In a field of flowers – of course.
I lived with the bees for an entire summer. Possibly more. Life passed as a dream. Then the men came. They weren’t the same men as the miners.
What are you? they insisted, angry.
You don’t have to be scared, I told them. I’m just a girl.
Your hair is alive and dripping with honey, they said. We want to taste it, to touch it.
I wouldn’t do that, I told them.
But you’re just a girl, they said. You told us yourself.
I may be just a girl. But they aren’t. I lifted a finger to my hairline and a bee walked on. I showed them the bee and returned him to his brothers.
Then you are the queen, said the men.
No, I said. I’m not.
Of course you are. They wouldn’t stay with you if you weren’t.
They only stay to feed me.
You are a naïve girl. They only stay if it benefits them.
I know where the queen is. That is why they stay.
Where is the queen?
That is between the bees and me.
Why are you here all alone?
The miners left.
Miners, they spat. Fools. Falling for a dream.
I loved the miners. They were good men.
If that’s true, why did they leave you behind?
They must have a reason, I said. Why are you here?
We are here to build the world, the future.
What is the future?
The future is the railroad.
What is the railroad?
A road that connects oceans.
I had tired of the new men. They weren’t like the miners. The miners had discussions, opinions. They argued. These men were of a single mind.
Come to our camp, said the men. We can feed you.
My bees feed me.
Our food is much better.
So you say.
But I was lonely and curious and followed the railroad men. It was hot, late summer. I had long outgrown my dress and torn off the sleeves. Still it was tight across my ribs. We passed shacks with glass windows, every one broken, or without any glass at all. The railroad men had moved in and brought their filth with them. Beyond the shacks were tents.
Who lives in the tents? I asked.
The railroad men laughed. Temporary men, they said. Disposable.
Most of them die. Exhaustion. Accidents. Disease. That is the price of the railroad. It eats men.
We arrived at a shack and the men brought me a bowl of food. It looked tempting, but underneath, I sensed rot. I took the bowl and went toward the tents.
What are you doing? Do not go to the tents. They’re dirty. You will catch a disease.
One man caught me by the arm. My bees swarmed him. Attacked his eyes, stuffed his mouth full. He tried to scream, to fight them off, but they kept coming. He collapsed to the ground.
You’ve killed him! shouted the men. Stung him to death.
He killed himself. I warned you not to touch me. And my bees don’t sting. Only females sting. Touch me again and find out for yourselves.
They backed away and I brought the food to the tents. These men were clean. And starving. The tents were bursting with men. I asked the first man I saw, Who is in charge here?
He brought me to a man who had a tent to himself. This food, I said. See that you share it. I will get you more.He took the bowl from me.
Thank you, he said. Then, in his own language, what sounded like: she, she. And the men of the tent joined him. She, she.
All the men had gathered now. I spoke quietly to my bees.Some of you must leave me and stay here. These men are starving.They were angry, agitated. They moved faster, arguing with each other. They refused to feed me. Possibly they forgot.
We will die, they said to me, if we stay. We have no queen.
You have no queen now.
Someday we will.
You must find your own queen. There are many hives here.
It will be suicide.
We are all going to die. Yours will just come sooner.
If you insist, we will stay.
I went back to the railroad men, lighter than when I’d left them. Some bees had stayed in the tent with the lone man.
You must feed the men in the tents.
Feed them what you fed me.
No, then we’dstarve. The company only gives us so much. Why don’t you have your bees feed them?
It is only meant for me. For anyone else, it would be poison.I wasn’t sure if this was true. It was all I could think of.
The men looked at each other. What will you do for us if we feed the men?
I will tell my bees to let you live.
The men laughed.
Do you think I kid you? I went to the dead man and stood next to him.
They fell quiet. Fine, said one. We will feed the men. But you have to bring them the food.We won’t go to the tents. It’s beneath us.
The food is in that house, said the railroad men. They pointed to the only shack with an unbroken glass window.
Why is it in there?
That’s where the cook lives. He gets the best house because he keeps us all alive. They found this amusing.
When will the food be ready?
Soon.We must give him time to prepare it.They left and went to the cook’s house. I sat and waited. The thin line of smoke that came out of the house grew wider and wider.
One of the men stood in the cook’s door and waved me toward him. It’s ready, he said.
Why did I insist on feeding the tent men? What business was it of mine?
I was nervous. I didn’t want to go in the house. But I had my bees. Nothing could happen to me. More men had gathered at the cook’s house. I approached the entrance.
Like we said – you have to bring the food.
The cook’s house was dark inside. I forced myself to step through the door. Stay with me, boys.Inside the house was full of smoke. My throat stung, my eyes felt like sharp glass. The cook appeared in front of me holding a steaming bowl.
Here it is, he said. He sounded like he was across the room, but he was right in front of me. My bees were quiet. I hadn’t realized they were always making noise until the noise stopped. I fell to one knee then crashed to the floor. I could see through the doorway, but I couldn’t move.The men came inside.
It worked! said one. How did you know to use the smoke?
I’ve been telling you, said the cook. I’m the smartest guy in town.
Is she dead? said another.
I don’t know. Why don’t you touch her and find out.
Hell, no. I ain’t touching her.
Who will? We have to find the queen. She must be in her hair.
I tried to move my arm. A finger. Nothing. The smoke surrounded me. Boys, I said to my bees. Wake up.But they couldn’t. The smoke.
I’ll do it, said the cook. She can’t move. Keep the fire stoked. That smoke stops and we’re all dead.
The cook kneeled next to me and pushed the bees from my hair. Kill every last one of them, he told the others. All around me the men stomped on the bees. Some smeared them on the ground, some smashed them with shovels. I couldn’t move, but I could cry.
The cook searched my hair meticulously for the queen. All the men were occupied with killing my bees. Through the door, I saw the lone man from the tent approach. Except he wasn’t by himself. He was covered in bees – everywhere but his head. A cloud of bees followed behind him. Like the one I’d seen just before they split into rivers. The men outside were covered in bees before they had a chance to scream. The lone man grabbed me by my wrist and dragged me outside. The cook slammed the door shut.
The bees fed me. I was covered in bees. They lifted me from the ground. I stood face to face with the lone tent man. The bees had left him.
She, she, I said to him. I looked around. He was the only man alive. What about the men in the house?
They will die from the smoke, he said. Or die outside with the bees. Their choice.
I nodded. And what will happen to you?
We will stay here. In the houses. We will send for our families and live out our lives here.
The bees lifted me from the ground. They flew me across fields and I saw we were going toward the house where I lived with the miners. I thought the bees would bring me to my room, but they set me down just outside the house, then all of them, even my own bees left me.
I’m scared, I told them.
You must go in alone, they said.
Do I have to?
Will I see you again?
I pushed open the door. The walls were covered in flowers. Big blooms: purple-blue like clouds at dusk, pink bright as cactus fruit, orange like an afternoon sun and white. I came to the steps. Upstairs was my room. I hesitated, then went up.
I stood in the doorway to my room. It was just as I’d left it. Except, when I left the house, I walked through the dark. Now I could see. I turned around and there was another door. I went to it and gathered my courage before I opened it.
Inside stood a young woman, her hair was long and dark. Mine had been dark once, before the honey.
Mother? I said.
I thought you couldn’t speak. That you couldn’t move.
When the miners left, they brought me to her.
Why not me? Why didn’t they bring me?
They knew you could fend for yourself.
But – I wanted to be with her. With you.
She could only care for one of us.
Where is she?
Did you kill her?
How did she die?
She grew weak and died.
And you’ve been here all along?
For you, of course.
Now you have brought me the bees.
But, they’re my bees.
They were never yours. They’ve always been mine. Even you knew that.
I saw then that she held a knife in her fist. One that’d been left behind by the miners.
You don’t need that.
You should have killed me when you had the chance.
Yes, but I suppose that means I’m not the true queen.
You could have been. You chose not to be. You must at least understand this: the true queen doesn’t wait to be anointed. She takes her place on the throne because she knows it is hers.
My bees loved me. You they will only serve.
Who needs love when you have power?
We stared at each other one last time, then I left, went down the steps and picked the flowers from the wall. I put them in my hair until it was only flowers, then I went outside. I expected the bees to come right away, but they had covered the house. It expanded and contracted like a heartbeat. I couldn’t hear the bees at first – I could only feel their pulse – but, at last, one spoke.
We love you, dear girl.
I took two flowers from my hair and placed them over my eyelids. I’m ready.
We will make this quick.
I know, I said. She, she.
About Gwen Goodkin
Gwen Goodkin‘s writing has been published by The Dublin Review, Fiction, Witness, The Carolina Quarterly, Atticus Review, jmww, Exposition Review, The Rumpus, Reed Magazine and others. She has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has won the Black Fox Literary Magazine Contest as well as the John Steinbeck Award for Fiction. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. She also writes for the screen and stage. Her Web site is gwengoodkin.com