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This short story was first published in Allies and is featured in our new special project:
The earliest sighting was in Reykjavík, beyond the Hallgrímskirkja at the head of Skólavörðustígur, three hives having been introduced to Iceland in the nineteenth century by missionaries who wished to bring God’s bounty to a cold and sparsely peopled land. In chisel-hollowed stumps and backyard boxes, the bees had lived and gathered pollen and spun food and refused to reproduce, their ranks augmented by foreign stocks. In the first of the appearances, the swarms gathered in dark clouds beyond the steam hills, first a smudge on the landscape and then, approaching, taking on shapes—hundred-foot women, their arms reeling wheels in the sky, lurching toward human habitation.
The swarms gathered in dark clouds beyond the steam hills, first a smudge on the landscape and then, approaching, taking on shapes.
After this they were seen in other locations: near a collection of huts in Mongolia, tenant farmers circled around a fire sharing cups of milk, the creature whirling up out of the darkness of the plain like a dust storm sweeping across the grassland. Appearances were reported outside a village near Fukushima and in the refugee camps of South Sudan, aid workers scrambling to replace the tents whose roofs had been ripped by the great wind of the giant’s passing into empty, stargazing holes.
At times they seemed unaware of the presence of humans, as if they could not see the waves of screamers scattering at their feet. At other times they seemed to wish to communicate. There was, for instance, the rented accommodation in Joshua Tree, vacationers standing at the edge of the fenced yard beside a churning, empty hot tub to peer in the direction of a nighttime sound over the hill, the motion sensor light of the neighbor’s house switching on, the giant head appearing above the cacti under the pale disc of the moon, rising and rising into a female shape that held her arms before her in what struck the people on the ground below as some strange, choked signature of grief.
Their name emerged as a result of what each one left behind her. Amid the rubble of Eibingen Abbey, on top of and between the strewn and chewed-up concrete blocks of the pylons for the funicular to the Genting Highlands above Kuala Lumpur, beside the esplanade along the Brahmaputra River where it flowed past Guwahati’s newly beautified shore—there would be, after her going, small flecks of darkness, iridescent wings and dismembered thoracic sections, spiderwebs of legs too infinitesimal to be seen, in a powdery dust that seemed as though it had been strewn by a careless hand in a collection of rustling, empty carapace parts over the ground, and here and there could be found, too, whole specimens lying on their backs with their legs curled to their stomachs, multi-sectioned eyes blind and upward-looking: the remnants and scattered bodies of bees.
The mothers, people called them, before they knelt to gather specimen after specimen the mothers had left behind, specks in their hands, which they put into boxes to keep in their desks or kitchens, or to send to experts who might know why bees would behave in such a way, taking the shape of women and wandering the land.
And that is how many of these specimens made their way to me.
• • •
At the time, I was becoming aware of my first pregnancy. There had been the loss of appetite—one long, dizzy shiver as I tagged my catches in the cold, metallic air of the high Wuksachi Range, where Muir once wandered. Just before Roland called with the news of the first of the specimens’ arrivals, the greatness of the valley had stretched below me in stone cliffs and space plummeting down to the trickle glint of a river half covered by a carpet of trees—I had gasped and leaned against my silver-haired assistant, Jean, under a hollow mountain hemlock, above the tree line. I smelled the powder detergent on Jean’s soft shirt, the warmth of his body underneath. The hemlock made a gnarled and dark and cave-like canopy in a clearing of whitebark pines.
I had located, in this clearing, a healthy colony during my year of field work, the bees unaffected by the changes that, I understood later, would usher the mothers into being. Some of the precedents had been sent to my Los Angeles lab already: odd-acting bees, harbingers of the giant walkers. Some of them I had seen for myself, in the Sierras. Some of the bees there had grown listless, and others more aggressive, as though uncomfortable in their roles. I had seen a drone perform a segment of the mating dance, a performance reserved exclusively for queens, moving in an ancient pattern over the heads of the Achillea millefolium and attracting the notice of the other drones in the neighborhood. I had seen a queen wander far from her hive, as though she had forgotten her proper home.
Others had been sent to my attention with scribbled notes attached, on which scientists and bee enthusiasts had recorded the details of the odd behaviors. Drone with queen mandibular pheromone, a colleague in Beijing wrote, (E)-9-Oxodec-2-enoic with carboxylic acids and aromatic HOB present in high quantities. From a bee habitat activist in western New York: I saw these three bees fly purposefully into the eye of my grandson Bobby, I believe they’re trying to tell us what we’re too dumb to see. From a well-known, reclusive apiarist on New Zealand’s Stewart Island, My bees (I enclose samples) have stopped consuming manuka, can you advise me how to get them to eat and pollinate?
But I had been focused on proving my discovery at the time, tagging all the Sierra bees I could to track their foraging patterns, transporting the healthiest ones and their foods back to the lab, to prove the discovery that had so recently earned me international fame—the Bee Woman, they called me, so often the words rose up as if from a thousand stinging mouths into the soundscape of my dreams.
Roland called as Jean and I were tagging a drone, the two of us crouched close together under a bitter cherry in a small patch of sun. Jean held the stunned drone with the gentlest pinch of his tweezers as I worked to accomplish the tagging with the help of the portable magnifying glass, which we’d arranged on a flat rock where it wobbled back and forth on its unreliable legs, making it harder to see the drone’s fragile, threadlike upper femur in order to affix the tag. The phone buzzed in my pocket as I began to wrap the microwire in place below the coxa, buzzed some more and went to messages.
I had seen a queen wander far from her hive, as though she had forgotten her proper home.
“Come back,” Roland said, his voice crackling in the recording. “There is something you will want to see.” On the long drive back to Los Angeles, Jean sat in the passenger seat. A former environmental minister for the French government, he’d joined our project three years ago in Rouen. We had been close from the time we crouched in the cow field and I discovered what would garner such acclaim, and bring us all—Roland, Jean, the entire lab—from France to California.
I opened my window as I drove, the leather of the seats too hot. “I’ve been sick,” I said, as the rutted fields passed by, the wind a roar in my left ear.
We passed lone gas stations, white plastic tunnels of strawberry farms in rows. Jean draped the warmth of his hand near my leg, in the well between our seats, as he sat looking out the window at the dust going by. He began to tell me the story of a wolf cub he’d found as a child, the discovery of which had turned his eyes from religion to science, according to the account he gave.
“It was in the back woods, near the stone where my village used to leave the children. Exposure, expositio, it was called.” His hair was silver white, his skin a plum tan, his face blocky and kind, heading toward death as it was. “It would follow me and lick me,” he said, and laughed. “Imagine that, abandoning your pup to human mercy.”
As we ventured into the outskirts of the city, tight brown hills and viral sprawl of buildings, we grew silent.
My lab was in northeast Los Angeles, in Glassell Park. When we’d passed the Guatemalan consulate and the bare hills of the canyon nature reserve, after we’d pulled into my designated spot and entered the mirrored glass front of the low white concrete building, Roland met us in the radiant silence of the lobby with a box held out in his hand. He poured its contents onto my fingers, and so the body of a mother specimen first skittered onto my skin, as I felt a wave of nausea push up from the very bottom of my stomach to fill my chest and throat.
I ran to the bathroom, where I dry heaved over the bowl, and then I warmed the first of the mother specimens—still somehow clutched in my hand—to life, on a glass plate under the globular heat lamp, where she lay immobile and then proceeded to drag herself, front foot by front foot, soft and slow, across the pink of the reflective mirror, where I looked down and saw my face as she pulled her body across it, my mouth open with redness, with the stupefied, somewhat transfixed wonder of the human race.
I lifted her in a clear tube and transported her to the old aquarium on the metal table at the back of the lab, which I had created as a habitat for the still-living odd behavers people had sent from around the world. The ones I could not revive went to the freezer graveyard—a box in the laboratory’s walk-in cold storage room, placed on the deep bottom shelf on an otherwise empty rack at the rear of the chamber.
“Why do you tend to them?” Roland asked of the aquarium colony.
“I don’t know,” I said, as more arrived and were revived or sent to the freezer—as the survivors in the aquarium became a shining, penny-burnished ball, which pulsed from within with ragtag, cross-species communication.
And that is how I created the Los Angeles colony.
• • •
As the news reports poured in, with bumpy footage of mothers rampaging through towns and cities all around the world, I sat by the aquarium and watched the mother specimens crawl through the lacy plastic of soda rings and the remains of a soccer ball—a half-crushed, Bauhaus-style, many-windowed sphere.
The Sierra alpine meadows had evolved, due to their remoteness, a superior interrelation of flowers and bees.
The lab also contained an artificial Sierra habitat, thriving with my healthy high-altitude catches, which constituted proof of my discovery, my entire life of research up to that point. Throughout the day, Roland went in and out of its netted door, bringing fresh plants and water. He put the sun lamps on a timer after I began to forget to turn them on.
“Come home, eat,” he said. It had been a little while, after the first of the mother specimens arrived, before I had thought to tell him what was stirring inside me. The flutter far down in my abdomen, deep under my heart, the culmination of what we had both thought to be an old, impossible longing.
I was forty-one, we had been trying for years, and of course there had been the invitations that followed the presentation of my discovery, the move to be near the Sierra alpine meadows which had evolved, due to their remoteness, a superior interrelation of flowers and bees.
When I told him, I touched my hand to the cherry red of his cheek and all the bees in the aquarium buzzed noisily beside me. He picked me up and spun me around, then dropped to his knees and sang a French lullaby against my belly the way his mother had once sung to him in Rouen. We had met at his field station there ten years before, after I’d finished my graduate work in Austin. I’d gone on a grant and partnered with his lab, and three years later we were married in Paris, surrounded by flying buttresses and blue-latticed windows, on the steps of Abbot Suger’s Saint-Denis. Now we lived in a wooded bungalow in Silver Lake, all shadows and polished floors and recessed windows looking out at evergreens.
It was Jean, though, not Roland, who was present at the moment of my discovery. A Eureka moment, Archimedes in the bathtub, the sort of singular event to which chroniclers return in order to perpetuate the false notion of invention’s simplicity. We lay in a field outside of Montigny, near the Forêt Domaniale de Roumare. It was a hot day. The sun made a blazing cavern of the sky and the ground pressed up into our bodies with the dry insistence of a rainless week. We lay close on our stomachs and I could feel Jean’s heat through the ground. We lay in the sticky silence of milk-sap shrubs and new larch as we watched a honeybee stumble on her path through short-grown barbs of yellow grass.
She was a European dark bee, and feral, from one of the last pure colonies of Apis mellifera mellifera in France. She found a low stalk of aquilegia, its long petals open in a burst of invitation.
And I saw, as though in a flash, some shared design between bee and flower, as the bee’s mandible touched itself to the mound of the columbine pistil. I had, during the decade in Rouen that followed my eight years of doctoral work in Austin, been sequencing the DNA of Apis mellifera mellifera and the Breton abeille noire d’Ouessant, in the subregion of the genome that governs social behavior, which stands as an analogue to that subregion in the flower genome, and in the human genome, too, for that matter.
I believed, at that moment in the field, in some genetic communication taking place in that subregion between the dark bee and the aquilegia, and a particular base pair sprang to mind in visual form.
Intuition is a wonderful and terrible thing, a foreknowledge that frightens in its accuracy.
I found, when I sequenced the DNA of bee and plant together, a mirroring effect in this base pair. An evolved degree of communication, in the material shape of those infinitesimal proteins, a communication that might be enhanced by editing to increase similarity.
I called my discovery sympathy. The ramifications were significant—a genetic basis for the behavioral and morphological connections between bees and plants, a location and physical substrate for symbiosis across organisms.
I conducted my experiments in the Sierra bees, who exhibited the highest degree of genetic mirroring with their flowers. When I edited the base pairs to better reflect one another, I found the changes enhanced advantageous dependency.
In the glass-fronted room where Roland now came and went were the bees I had brought back from the healthy Sierra colony up on the mountain, along with the plants on which they fed, the Ribes roezlii and Spiraea densiflora, the entire habitat thriving due to genetic enhancements I’d made in both bees and flowers. The habitat stood as a web of genetic interdependence, bees and plants bent to one another’s benefit at the deoxyribonucleic level. The bees lazed from flower to flower, fat and unconcerned, honey overflowing in great wax chambers. Gooseberry and meadowsweet burst with growth and buds, as if the bees’ touch reminded them of their worth. The fruition of my theory was there for all to see—the foundation of interspecies adaptation.
• • •
But as the mother specimens arrived, and as my belly grew, I turned my back on this glorious habitat. Month by month, I sat and watched the resurrected bees group and separate in their aquarium. There was something about their behavior I could not quite understand, something about their social organization that struck me as unique.
I pressed my forehead to the glass and felt the heat of it on my skin. There was a beautiful kind of buzzing from the grouping of bees within, a plaintive and coherent buzzing that filled my ears and my head, as though this subsonic buzzing might be filling me with a question.
The bees were aware of my brooding love, and their buzzing grew louder with my anticipation.
At night when everyone had gone, when Roland had hugged me and run his hands over my growing belly, when he’d told me he’d have dinner waiting in the oven, I stayed beside the aquarium and listened to the colony. Outside the windows, I could see the lights of the city, its buildings and the strangeness of traffic, and on these nights all of this felt extremely far away. It was me and the bees and a new kind of joy, the joy of what was growing within me. I would climb on the metal table and pull up my shirt and slather cold gel on my belly. I had a sonogram for visualizing the interiors of hives, and I’d press the transducer against my skin. I knew that what was growing was not a child yet—I was a scientist above all else—but as I watched her move her arms and legs, I was seized with a welcoming in my being. It seemed, as well, that the bees were aware of my brooding love, and their buzzing grew louder with my anticipation.
“I am growing something inside me, what will be a child,” I whispered to the mother colony as my belly grew larger and larger, as I began to sense from within the being I would introduce to all I loved.
And the mother colony whispered back the high whine of their honey-mouthed blessings.
After I lost her, I rarely left the lab. Roland would try, and he even sent Jean, who clung to me with the tenderness of an older man. But I didn’t care about any of them, I couldn’t listen to anyone’s advice. I visited her body many times during the days and nights, her body I had birthed at almost seven months, this fragile and perfect and fully formed being whom I could only think of as my daughter. After I held her and would not let her go, after she arrived in the corner of the bathroom where I crouched as the pain seized me fast, after I’d screamed away the circle of concerned faces that blanched too sick and close—after her skin had grown plastic to the touch, I pulled my skirt over my bloody legs and carried her through the lab to the cold storage room, where I made a cushion with a blackout cloth and placed her on her own on a shelf at the back.
“We need a funeral,” Roland said. He had researched it on the Internet. “People have funerals for things like this.” He couldn’t bring himself to say her name.
“Cassandra,” I would say when I visited her. I wouldn’t hear of anyone taking her away. I’d arranged her on her stomach, her tiny fingers clasped together, her head at rest and turned so I could see her chin and her bud of a mouth. Her legs I folded gently and tucked up underneath her rump, which curled soft and plump the way a real baby’s does. She was so cold, so beautiful, so frozen into crystalline perfection, I could hardly stand the fact that I had made her. I couldn’t reconcile myself to the accident that she’d been born so still and quiet, when I’d known her so alive within me.
• • •
By this point I had begun to change, of course. I sat and watched the bees in their aquarium, watched how they flocked and gathered. The Los Angeles colony, these leavings of the mothers, becoming their own distinct organism.
I leaned my forehead against the glass, and I felt the bees buzzing like a buzzing in my brain. It felt like a tickle deep in my skull, back in the top left quadrant of my cranium. It was there that I had bored the tiny hole, inserted the micropipette with its burden.
I had gone to my child, curled and perfect in the cold room, to take back some of what I’d created. I drilled into her body and cut out a part of one of her ovaries, a tender pink-white cluster of my daughter. From the eggs inside the ovary I extracted her DNA, and from the DNA I extracted the base pair for sympathy. I harvested the eggs to host the DNA from the honeycomb in the Sierra habitat, the only bees in the lab that were reproducing. But I replaced their DNA with DNA from the Los Angeles bees, with my daughter’s base pair spliced into the correct groove. I had only mapped the DNA for editing the base pair with which I’d been working—the base pair in which sympathy is housed.
The DNA from the Los Angeles bees with the sympathy base pair from my daughter I inserted into the Sierra eggs. Many Sierra eggs died this way, brown and clustered in their dish, but in the end I gazed down into a clutch of pearly white hosts suspended in translucent purple gel. I took the drill I’d pushed into Cassandra’s back, the one with the micro-millimeter bit. And I mounted it to the wall by the aquarium habitat and pushed the back of my head right into it. I had already drawn the eggs into a micropipette, which I inserted into the hole the drill had made. I pushed down the plunger and the eggs entered my head in the cool liquid of their solution.
The DNA from the Los Angeles bees with the sympathy base pair from my daughter I inserted into the Sierra eggs.
At night when the lab was empty, I brought my daughter out of the cold room. I sat before the aquarium with her in my arms and I rocked her and even sang a little. The bees loved my singing, they grouped and moved in response, and their cousins in my head would stir, too.
“You must come home,” Roland said to me during the days. “Come home and sleep in your own bed.”
But I stayed in the lab, took my daughter out of the cold and put her back, pressed my head to the aquarium glass. Lab corridors opened around me in pathways I could barely parse. Furniture, walls, windows, doors—a black-and-white flatness, a series of half-related outlines, a blurred environment of mere shapes. When the humans returned, I could smell their strange materials. Outside the lab the city stretched in a long, endless architecture of hard and erstwhile bewilderment. I stood and I saw a jumble of skyline and in the glass some odd features reflected—eyes that glittered above a slack and honeyed mouth that I could only guess might be mine.
When I opened the lid of the Los Angeles aquarium, the bees sensed it and pulsed, flew up and out, joined their relatives in the glass-fronted room, the Sierra habitat. I curled in my sleeping bag under flowers shaken by bees, gold bulbs of heat lamps, both colonies roiling above my aching, echoing head.
• • •
Then came a sound—water moving, wind, the chime of voices. I opened my eyes to a network of trees overhead, a lattice of leaves and light that pierced the film of my eyes with its sharp points.
A figure shadowed the sky, brought a face close to mine, spoke some sounds, a mouthlike structure moving. “Tu es là,” the mouth said, “l’endroit que tu aimes le plus.”
One of the human languages. A name came—Jean—the name belonged to the face. I licked my lips, opened my mouth to respond.
“Wuksachi,” he said.
Wuksachi, I began, but no sound came out.
“Je pensais que,” he said, as the light pinwheeled down, sliced at my eyes. He switched to another language: “I thought, perhaps, it might help you. I brought you here to the mountains. The Sierras, your research station.”
As I lay there, I could not help but pattern words, languages in my mind. Hallgrímskirkja, I said, the words high pitches in the air. Then: Apis mellifera mellifera. Abeille noire. (E)-9-Oxodec-2-enoic. Bee.
But a sound was calling, a chorus, a symphony in the distance.
“What are you doing with your head. Your hands.” He grasped at my fingers, which moved wildly in the air.
Guwahati, my hands said in his hands. Hypoxanthine. Athabasca oil sands. CCD.
His body on mine, a rucked root, beautiful and soft and hot, pressing down—pleasurable—on the bones of my chest, stomach, hips.
Mothers, I said against the skin of his back. Mothers. Mothers. I pulled him so close it might have hurt, but didn’t. Some instinct came to mind then, our bodies locked in that ancient, mechanical dance—a joyful, muscular-skeletal coupling, needs dispatched, mutually advantageous, succinct.
But a sound was calling, a chorus, a symphony in the distance. I rose, left him in the grass, walked up the mountain toward the upper slope, the hemlock in the sparse grove.
Mud made an iron smell, clinging to my feet. The trickle of the snow-melt stream, clear water in it. I wanted to kneel, thrust the back of my head in the freeze of water, to quiet the buzzing, the heat, the ball-shaped swelling in the back of my skull.
But I didn’t—I went on, I walked—I walked up the mountain, my head split with heat, shards of light, color, a field of shapes in which a ball of warmth pulsed in the tree at the top of the ridge.
Up the slope, up to the sound, the sound I could hear now as a chattering, a communication, a mass series of dispatches to my body, head, heart.
A hundred, a thousand bees, the swarm up ahead—their cacophony quickened, grew louder, a trillion miniature trumpets with stingers, excited at the sound—and sense—of my coming.
I came to the tree, wormholes in its surface, pulled at the wood. It came loose, the velvet thump of a soft skull-piece, onto the ground at my feet.
“Holy mother of God,” came Jean’s voice as he entered the clearing. “Holy of holies.” The crack of twigs behind me as he sank to his knees.
There had been, in the composition of the hive, a drastic, spontaneous change.
Every individual bee in the hemlock was dancing in sequences reserved for queens.
When a hive realizes it has grown too large, it will send its queen out into the meadows. The queen will fly and half the hive will follow her, until she finds a new home for them all. From the eggs left behind, a new queen will be made—bees change their roles in response to the group’s state.
The bees streamed from the tree, and they danced the queen’s dance—the dance that tells the hive it’s time to leave. The cloud swarmed around me and I was not afraid—I could see they could sense what I carried. In a boiling, smoky haze they swept fast up over the meadow, high toward the peak of the mountain. They gathered in a brooding, expectant woman-shape of queens, head trained toward me, expecting me to follow.
Jean muttered behind me, and I turned myself toward him, and I witnessed the horror on his upturned face. I could feel the change coming, a trickling through my ears, a trickling up through my eyes and throat.
Further up the mountain I knew a cave lay, and that cave is the place the bees marked for me. The cave lay behind a massive ice shelf where once I’d found a strange, unwelcome sight. I had come to this shelf in my early Sierra days, before I found the colony that was healthy. The ice shelf had stretched before me in a vast and pitted surface clouded all over with black dust. But the dust had not been dust—in fact it was bees, scattered there on the ice, in a sort of mass grave.
Behind the ice shelf, now, behind that frozen once-grave, my sticky form sutures fast and deep in a rock crevice. Outside the mother of queens, unable to reproduce, hovers in a swarm, a guardian attendant. I can feel my offspring coming, their strength and their newness, their resilience in the face of destruction. They’ll have metallic bodies and the ghost of human thoughts and they’ll walk across the land and be called daughters.
I am here with an open mouth, a mouth full of royal jelly, and my daughters are creeping out from me.
I do not know how many humans will remain, or if my daughters will view them with sympathy. It may be that with the changes I’ve made, my daughters will only feel sympathy for themselves. But I like to think, when I turn my thoughts to humans at all, that genetic interdependence might enable some mutuality between the species.
I am here with an open mouth, a mouth full of royal jelly, and my daughters are creeping out from me. The mothers made their way to me with this riddle of feeling, to spin into the honeycomb of a story.
I don’t remember now why I did what I did, though I know I must have had a reason. There was something in my body that I loved as I love my daughters, but I can’t even remember what I was then.
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