There was once an old woman who traveled by bees. Afternoons, when her duties were done (honey jarred, tea leaves bagged, marmalade made) she would go into the clearing just beyond the thickest part of the groves where the oranges grew to the size of basketballs, and she would stand with her broad face to the sun until the bees emerged from their hundreds of hives, shaped their swarm into the form of a throne, lifted her into the air, and carried her wherever she wanted to go. This was how she got from place to place, and of all the places in Green City she went only to Old Down Towne each day, even though the prices there were not unbeatable. Still, she preferred to have her chops from the gentle butcher who had been unlucky in love but never let on that he knew, to have her ointments from the apothecary because in another life she might have liked to have made him her beau, and to have her letters pass through the hands of the dark-haired postmistress with the lisp who never failed to ask about the woman's sister.
And then, one Tuesday in January, the bees were gone.
—How odious, the woman said (after ominous eluded her).
She wondered if the bees had gone extinct due to that globe warming business she had heard so much about. Curious, she waited for them until the sun set and the moon rose, and that night she had no chops for her dinner, no ointment for her ears, and no letter from her sister to read before bed. She waited a long time. Hungry, she picked and peeled an orange, swallowed a bite-sized explosion of sweet, pierced membrane, then went inside and squeezed the rest into a large pitcher over ice cubes that had marigolds and dandelions frozen in them (bits of prettiness she had snipped and saved for a not-so-sunny day).
When the bees failed to appear on Wednesday, the woman put on her shoes and trekked into Old Down Towne. She could have taken the Jolly Trolley or a Sky Tram but she preferred to walk on her own two feet and see the sights slowly (Oe's Vineyards, the 1,001 Acres Rose Gardens, Big River, and Twohearted Hot Springs Day Spas and Resorts). It was nearly suppertime when she finally arrived.
The butcher, who hadn't served a customer all day, was stunned to see the woman's velvet hat bob by his window instead of her feet, which were usually elevated by bees. She strolled in, normal as peach pie and just like any old woman, but she didn't joke about his apron not being bloody and so he didn't crack back about how her chariot awaited, abuzz. He felt sorry for her because she had never looked worse and had apparently been so distracted she had mistaken red lip liner for brown eyebrow pencil.
He slipped a hambone into her package and would not accept her jar of honey, which was what she always paid him for two pork chops.
—Storm's headed our way, he said. Best make up some hot soup for supper and keep inside where it's warm.
She tried again to give him the honey, but he turned and pressed buttons on his cash register, seemingly amazed when the drawer cha-chinged him in the gut. She coughed to get his attention, but he busied himself sawing ribs.
—I thank you, she finally said, which was what she always said, and in this way both of them knew the transaction was completed.
Under the sound of the bone saw, the butcher's door bells jangled.
A few blocks away the apothecary, like the butcher, didn't think it right to point out the woman's red eyebrows and refused her payment of dried orange blossom petals and gave her an extra week's ointment and a salve for the blisters on her heels which were not used to tramping twelve-and-a-half miles into town.
—No delicacies today? she asked, attempting a flirtatious grin and feeling ancient and beyond ridiculous.
The thought of her walking so far made him want to carry her home himself. Was it rude to ask where her bees were?
—What now? he fumbled. How's that?
—Your display, she said. It's missing the chocolate-covered grasshoppers.
The apothecary reverted at once to the man she knew to be neat as a new pin, and just as sharp.
—That's right, he said. There's been some holdup with the shipment.
Heart quickening at the idea of having something so ready-made to discuss the next day, the woman smiled.
—Maybe tomorrow, then.
—Tomorrow, surely. A thumping lie, but the woman's coming and going flattered the apothecary to no end, for he was as fond of her as he was the smell of warm, wet earth on a brilliant spring day.
—Then I'll see you then, she said. Good-bye, and thank you.
At the post office there were no letters and something was off. According to the dark-haired postmistress the mail trucks had been delayed due to an animal fat spill on a major highway. To make up for this, the postmistress gave the woman a sheet of one-cent Elvis stamps (a collector's item).
The woman slid a jar of marmalade over the counter.
—Please. Take it.
The postmistress did.
—Much obliged. She hesitated, then added, Your eyebrows, dear. They're red.
The woman set down her bags and used the backs of her hands to wipe her eyebrows, which smeared. To make matters worse, the dark-haired postmistress with the lisp was now a blonde! The woman burst into tears, then laughter, then tears again, and the postmistress leaned over the counter and put her arms around her.
—There, there. It's nothing to get upset over. You'll have your sister's letters tomorrow, I promise. How's she doing, by the way?
—I don't know, the woman said, wiping her cheeks and leaving streaks of red. She straightened, gathered her parcels, and quietly hiccupped her way out onto the street.
The butcher, the apothecary, and the postmistress left their counters and watched through their windows as the woman limped out of town burdened by her own weight. —No bees? the postmistress mouthed.
The butcher shrugged. The apothecary flipped over his Closed sign and disappeared into the darkness of his shop.
At home the woman cold-creamed her face, then used the hambone and made soup that gave her the trots. She put too much ointment in her ears and ruined the collar of her best dress. With no letter to read and no letter to respond to she had no use for any stamp, not to mention one of Elvis, which her sister couldn't see to enjoy anyway.
Our woman was very sad and wondered where the bees were, why they refused to come. Crestfallen, she said her prayers, ending with the one about her wary soul to keep (she of course meant weary), and went to bed early and died.
Thursday, when the bees returned, bringing with them their brothers and sisters from all over the world, they flew into town and broke through the butcher's, the apothecary's, the postmistress's windows. Startled, the three jumped to their feet, and the bees formed chairs for each and swept them from behind their counters and through their doors, out of Old Down Towne, past the hot springs, over the river and roses and grapes, all the way to the woman's home. The bees dumped them beneath a hand-carved sign that read GRANDE'S GROVES, then surrounded the house from all sides, and smashed through the windows as one. The butcher crossed himself.
The apothecary shook his head.
—Like bulls in china shops!
And the postmistress stepped through the front door.
The bees led the search.
In the kitchen one flew to the lip of the pot on the stove, and when the butcher peered into it he found only the hambone in some water, and in the refrigerator nothing but a pitcher of orange juice with flowers afloat like dead goldfish. In the bathroom the apothecary found the salve resting on the edge of the tub beside the woman's socks, washed and dried and stained with blood. In the den the postmistress found the woman's sister's letters bound with red ribbon and an unfinished letter still in a typewriter that punched perforations in Braille.
Upstairs in the bedroom the bees swarmed to the woman and some pulled down her white lace bedspread and others gathered around her and lifted her up and carried her downstairs and outside into the groves where they placed her gently on the ground, then plucked the oranges big as basketballs from the branches, one by one, pluck, pluck, and entombed their queen within them.
Worried about his broken window and the hungry bums and town punks who might rob him, the butcher hurried back to his shop, but he found the window was barricaded by a wall of bees. He looked down the street and saw it was the same with the apothecary's and postmistress's windows, too. Nearly closing time anyway, he went home to his wife, unable to say, Honey, honey.
Since she had not been able to buy tea leaves from the apothecary she made a fist and thumped the butcher once upon the head, for she had expected at least if she could not have tea to have some honey in her milk.
—What kind of man can't provide his wife with a bit of sweetness? she hissed, tearing at her hair. What's the world coming to if a body can't even have a little tea and honey before supper?
The butcher grabbed her waist and smelled her freshly scrubbed face, her shampooed hair, her minty breath.
—I'll tell you what it's coming to, wife. The word wife he spat. People don't need butchers anymore, not when they can get their chicken breasts and rump roasts at the big marts, just two aisles from their Irish Spring and Herbal Essences, and where their Altoids are waiting for them at the checkout.
His wife sighed. She had heard this before, too many times to count. More than seventeen times this month.
—You're too young to retire, she said, freeing herself from his big arms, his flannel sleeves. And too old to work in some deli booth at the big mart.
The butcher shrugged.
—I lost a regular today. She came every day, rain or shine, without fail. She lived alone, and now she's dead.
—People die, his wife said. That's how it goes. You should advertise in the newspaper, make up some coupons or something. Find a way to attract new customers, young customers who won't die anytime soon.
He would not be browbeaten. With a little faith, things would look up sure enough in no time, but to avoid a fight he put on his coat and went out for a smoke. A light shone from the apothecary's shop, and the butcher walked down the street and knocked. The apothecary let him in, and the butcher nodded impatiently, eyes sparkling like champagne.
—No tea today? My wife's got a bee in her bonnet something awful.
To the butcher's disappointment, the good man did not acknowledge his punning. The butcher wondered if the apothecary was a suitable companion for the evening, after all.
Gravely, the apothecary shook his head.
—When she came in with her eyebrows like that I couldn't bring myself to make the trade.
—I know it, the butcher said. I gave her a soup bone on the house. If my wife knew, she'd find a way to get her claws in somehow.
—What do you want?
The apothecary, a widower, had heard enough about wives.
Not usually a thinking man as he let his cleaver or wife think for him, the butcher considered.
The apothecary put on his shoes, and the butcher waited outside and had himself another smoke.
—How's business? the butcher asked as they passed the intersection with a Walgreen's on one corner and a CVS on the other. The apothecary had no answer, but the butcher continued, I'm thinking of closing up the shop. But my wife...
The apothecary tuned the butcher out, recalled how he had gotten into the business of healing only because his father and his grandfather and their grandfathers had been healers. But now people were distrustful of apothecaries, put their faith in needles and scalpels. They took pills, not potions, wanted cures, not treatments, and expected him, if he really expected them to hand over hard-earned cash in exchange for dragon's blood (komodo) and metal magnets and fermented roots, to be a short, wrinkled old Chinese man with a long, thin gray beard, not a tall skinny Scot with a red handlebar mustache who wore three-piece suits and trilbies.
They passed the post office and neither man moved. The butcher threw pebble after pebble at the postmistress's window two floors above. The apothecary shielded himself from the rain of pebbles until the postmistress came to the window and saw them. She had been thinking of them all evening, had wondered if she should notify the sister about the woman's death. The woman had come to the post office every day, and every day after receiving a letter from her sister she had given the postmistress a reply letter to send to Cincinnati. In this day and age of E-mail and personal weblogs the postmistress, who had no sister, thought fondly now of the woman who loved her poor, blind sister so much she supplied her every month with a package of pre-addressed envelopes and daily sent her own letters in scented, monogrammed envelopes sealed with wax.
Downstairs, the postmistress berated them.
—I can't eat. Your fowl tastes like sawdust. And you, I can't sleep. Your powders do me no good. To the bees in her window, What now?
—Join us, the apothecary said.
—We're on our way to the tavern for supper, the butcher added.
—I've eaten, the postmistress said to the apothecary. Or tried to, she said to the butcher, still thinking about how the bees burst through their windows so that there would be at least three people who had known the woman, no, provided the sustenance of her life (food, medicine, familial connection) to witness her funeral, if you could call it that? Perhaps it was more fitting to call it a ceremony? The postmistress made up her mind to look up the woman's sister on the Internet when she went to work and call her first thing in the morning.
—Oh, all right, she said, but I can only stay for a nightcap.
So they went, and when the men had finished eating and they were all three done drinking and being merry together and telling every last story they remembered about the woman (their favorite was the one about her red eyebrows) they went outside, where it was just beginning to snow, and where the bees were waiting to carry them home.
The butcher fell back as if to make a snow angel, but the bees caught him and he settled himself comfortably, already thinking about how he would start selling two pork chops for the price of one and call this The Grande Special or Grande's Chops, or something like that. He wondered what his wife would say, if she would be pleased. If not about that, then at least about how the tavern owner had picked up their tab, slipped a contract under the butcher's nose and pleaded with him to sign and become the tavern's sole supplier of beef, pork, poultry. The animal fat spill on the major highway had caused such a fiasco the past two days the tavern owner wasn't taking any more chances on meat that had to be shipped more than a ten-minute walk away.
Thinking of never selling a chocolate-covered insect as an aphrodisiac again, of taking over and selling, instead, Grande's Groves honey and tea and marmalade, the apothecary had no regrets other than the one about not carrying the woman home.
—Shall we see you home? he asked the postmistress.
She shook her head.
—No need, gentlemen. And to the bees she held out an arm and said, No offense, bees, but I'm too young to become the bee lady just yet.
As the men drifted away she turned and slowly walked home, kicking her feet and ruining the half-inch layer of snow that had settled upon everything in sight.
From her living room window she watched as it stopped snowing and waited for it to start again, for the flakes to swirl hypnotically along her windowsill, and though it never did she kept watch over the town (a place she had once heard a traveler refer to as God's pocket) all through the night.
In the morning, when the sun turned the snow to silvery glitter, she rose, padded into her kitchen, and put water on to boil. It was at this precise moment that she realized that everything she did was done deliberately, which was, she justified, the only way to do anything. She sliced up a loaf of bread and put one piece in the toaster oven, turned the timer to medium, twisted the lid off the woman's homemade marmalade, which snap-popped under her light grip, and when her toast was golden-brown she slathered it in butter and marmalade, savoring the rich, sweet smells.
The windows of the apartment fogged up, the kettle shrieked, and the postmistress slow-brewed tea, stirring in several spoonfuls of honey. For a long time she did nothing but inhale the different scents, her nose just inches from the rising steams before her, until, finally, she raised her mug in honor of the woman's memory and feasted (swallow by hot, throat-soothing swallow, bite by perfect, crescent-moon-shaped bite, and she finished by licking her fingertips, one by one, then her thumbs, left, right) and then dabbed her lips with a napkin and went downstairs to start her workday and call the woman's sister once and for all.
Molly Gaudry edits Willows Wept Review and Willows Wept Press, co-edits Twelve Stories, and is an associate editor for Keyhole Magazine. Find her online at < a href='http://mollygaudry.blogspot.com.'target='_blank'>mollygaudry.blogspot.com