by Ashley mae Hoiland
There was a swarm of bees twenty feet above Geraldine and her clothesline. The swarming hive was more quiet and collected than usual, but still the sticky Uruguayan air was thick with the sound of a thousand black bodies.
Swarms of bees usually wait in rounded masses on high spring tree branches, or in the over-hangings of roofs, and often they’ve been reported searching and desperate out on airport runways. On this particular morning in November, the bees were in the shadows of green leaves.
When a hive of bees grows too big, it chooses another queen, and when the new queen hatches from her cell, half the hive flies with the old queen, homeless, away into the sky. This is called swarming.
This was a swarm of bees.
Geraldine was hanging her husband’s thin, yellow-striped shirt on the clothesline. She heard the bees first. The sound of flapping wings frightened her momentarily. Geraldine imagined a few dozen bees as she approached, but when she got to the other side of the tree she realized that there were hundreds, probably thousands, clinging to each other on a high branch. The whole tree branch seemed to be moving, crawling outward. It looked like a skin. The swarm was an oval shape. Some bees, she noticed, left the swarm and circled close by, stopping to rest on a single leaf. Geraldine envied them because she hadn’t one person pushed in close beside her.
She felt the seething threat of loneliness and moisture in the air. Gabriel, her husband, was gone in the fields, and she knew her mother wouldn’t answer her frightened phone call. She would have to borrow the neighbor’s telephone anyway. Nearly fifteen months before, her mother had come to their wedding in her faded lavender dress but had hardly spoken.
The last conversation Geraldine had with her mother, they were in the kitchen a month before the wedding. Her mother was kneading salty dough with her pretty hands. Geraldine watched the muscles of her mother’s thin forearms rise with each push on the table, her head down as she spoke terse syllables.
“I raised you to marry a Catholic, a man with an education. You have shamed our family. You have your new religion. Have your family. Your father would be sorry. I am sorry.”
Geraldine often had moments when she felt so alone she was sure she could hear the clouds moving and bumping across the sky.
Geraldine had black hair that hung straight to her shoulder blades, parted down the middle of her delicate head. She had a small widow’s peak she had inherited from her mother. She had a slender nose and cheeks that pulled up into small, red apples when she smiled. Her eyes were wide, dark marbles. A baby was inside her, a month from the world. Her husband, Gabriel, was out in the fields picking oranges during those first months of spring.
Each weekend when Gabriel came home on the dusty bus, his hands looked scratched, but they felt smooth and sparkled from the skin of so many peels. When she met him at the gate to hug him and press her nose to his chest, he smelled of dirt and sun and five days of sweat. He carried a bag of oranges and a few pesos in his front pants pocket. She would watch him as he set down his things on the bed and undressed. In his shorts he would walk under the clothesline and up through the weedy grass to the bathroom they shared with the neighbor, who was rarely home. While he was showering, she would cook the polenta and sausage in a frying pan over the rusted propane tank they could afford to fill only halfway.
Geraldine was thinking about how Gabriel would soon be home and about the way she had hated her mother the day she told her she didn’t need her, packed up her small room, and moved in with Gabriel. She was full of regret and love and new life on the Tuesday morning she was hanging the clothes out to dry.
Above her the bees were waiting anxiously and patiently for the scouting bees to find the swarm a new home. A traveler and national hero named Rivadavia had brought the migrant honeybees across the river to Uruguay in 1839, and still they had nowhere to go.
Geraldine wanted to do something, and the house was too small and hot to sit in, so she crouched down to wring out some more laundry.
For the first year of a queen’s life, bees have no reason to swarm. They are content to enter the hive after a day’s work and deposit collected nectar in their cell, where evaporation and chemicals from their head glands will eventually make the nectar a microscopic drop of honey. For a year they do this, without question. But annually the bees feel the natural instinct to fly beyond the designated hive, and so the worker bees pick a new unhatched cell and feed it their royal jelly so that the bees remaining behind will have a new, virgin queen. The day the new queen is hatched the hive flies, staying close to the hive at first, then venturing further into the unknown, risking everything in search of a new home.
Without a home, bees are docile creatures. Geraldine could have put her hand on the black, breathing cloud and no bees would have attacked because they would have had nothing to defend.
But Geraldine remembered once when she was young and her uncle invited her out to the beehive with him. She put on a hood that covered her face, and a long-sleeve shirt and gloves, and he let her peek down into the brood boxes where the bees were making honey. Looking back on it now, she remembered how her uncle showed her the six-sided cell he had cut off that week and the week before. He explained to her that the hive was trying to make another queen, that they wanted to break off and leave, that as soon as he allowed the queen cell to grow she would hatch, and within two days half his hive would be miles away. A bee flew up then, under her shirtsleeve, and stung her on the wrist. Her skin swelled until there was no fold of skin between her arm and hand. She tried to be brave, but when they got back to the house and the gentle uncle saw that she was crying, he sat her down at the table and brought her a plate of cookies and orange soda.
Now Geraldine stood below the swarm, calculating its distance, pulling her hair back with a rubber band. She was unsure of what a sting would do to the baby. Even if it did nothing, a sting was still a sting. She was alone, and she needed to finish the laundry.
The small batch of clothes sloshing in the cheap blue bucket reminded Geraldine that there were two in her family, and soon there would be three: herself, Gabriel, and the baby. She pulled out the pink dress that Gabriel loved so much. It was a summer dress, so it still fit her. Her mother always thought it too see-through. Geraldine wrung it out over the muddied lawn, twisting it with her young, brown hands, a few soap suds spilling and running down the footpath, through the flowers she’d planted, near the stump where Gabriel sat and played guitar on Sunday mornings, through the tall yellowing weeds and under the drooping wire fence to the gravel road below. She tried to ignore the hum above her, hoping they would leave soon, hoping they would find a new home. She saw a few bees land on the clothesline. One landed on the top of her wet hand. She moved too quickly and it stung her.
Honeybees die after they sting. The stinger stays put in the victim, and the bee’s abdomen rips. The bee flies to a branch or bit of grass to bleed to death. It is unknown if any other bees follow to mourn as the bee’s wings beat 12,000 beats per second, then 1,000, then 100 small beats, then none.
Beneath the shade of the trees, the sun was bearable. But the humidity made the air sticky and ripe. Geraldine put her aching hand to her mouth and cried a few childlike tears. Surely her uncle would come. She could go to his house, but it was three buses away, and she didn’t have the money, and they hardly visited since she moved to the campo. She was sorry she’d told her mother she didn’t need her, and sorry her mother kept her word and stayed away.
Geraldine’s belly bulged and stretched into a rounded reminder that the world is, after all, so small. She felt sweat at the bottom of her hair; it rolled slowly down her neck and back, soaking the orange tank top in the parts pulled taut by her stomach. Her nose raised and she smelled the strange bitter scent of insects and the sweetness of a South American spring above her. She searched the leaves about her, and then she searched the shadows of the leaves for signs of more bees.
It wasn’t that Geraldine wasn’t happy. It wasn’t that she didn’t love the cement stoop on her tiny porch, or the rope latch on the handmade gate, or the sheets a rich lady from the church had given her after she married. She loved Gabriel and the baby growing inside her. She loved her home. She just wondered why from time to time she felt so small and tossed. There were many times when she hadn’t gotten along with her mother, times when she slept in the homes of friends. She’d always come home though. Sometimes she felt the bitter ache inside her, an anxious search for a return to what had been so familiar.
The bees, in the clump above her, were writhing and moving with life and with a motion that didn’t entirely belong to them. Nothing around them belonged to them yet. She wondered if they noticed one missing worker bee. The queen bee was there among them, and so they stayed put, clinging to the branch. They could stay this way for days, waiting for the scouting bees to find a proper new hiving place. The sound of the swarm was a thousand lives breathing deep and looking for a place to go.
Once, in grade school, Geraldine had gone to Montevideo. She remembered the people on the bus as it threaded through the narrow streets, the shuffle of feet on the metal lines in the floor, the mother speaking to the baby, the newspapers in hands, the moan and creak of the old swinging door, the two-peso fare clinking in the box, the old men gossiping in their sing-song Castellano. When Geraldine got off at Ciudad Vieja, the people on the sidewalk immediately swallowed her in their click-clack walks, in their hurry and conversation and swinging bags. In the market the people pressed in around her, touching her with hand-painted shells and crocheted baby clothes.
Geraldine remembered the hum of the city, how the sound moved from below the sidewalks, to the grimy, papered gutters, to the people, past the slick-windowed buildings, and up into the sky. The sound of the bees reminded her of that city hum. They were a miniature, crowded city, moving together like a great heartbeat, increasingly frantic for a place to call home, for a return to somewhere, for something to reach out and protect. Geraldine was surprised she hadn’t heard the sounds earlier. The branch was high, but the buzz was clear.
Geraldine reached into the bucket of well-used clothespins to hang a pair of pants. She cried silently, thick, knotted sobs forming in her throat, first for the sting, and then for her mother.
She reached down into the shallow bucket of water and pulled out another shirt and a sock. She thought of Gabriel, the way he had made her laugh since elementary school, the way he tucked his hair behind his ear and pressed his lips on her neck. She was alone, and by the time he got home, the swarm would be gone. Her hand ached, and she was alone. As she looked up into the tree, sun kaleidoscoping onto her pretty eyes, she prayed silently for the bees to take flight, to find a new place. She put her hand, palm down, on the top of her belly and listened to the hive searching and living above her.
They were homeless, yet still they could not escape the movement and uncomfortable proximity that inevitably comes from living in a colony, when the single organism cannot survive on its own.