If there were bees
originally published in The Greensboro Review
Lacey and Otto took to the coast and rented a motel room for the weekend, right on the water. Workers in white hazmat suits had descended upon their house, cutting holes into the walls because the bees had filled their home.
Lacey first saw the bees while pruning back the bougainvillea two weeks before: a small cluster near the kitchen window, a nest the size of her fist tucked up beneath the overhang. Otto told her they would be gone in three days.
“They do that. You can’t just kill them,” Otto said and leaned against the kitchen counter. The nighttime light in the house looked staged for a play—dramatic, expensive.
When Otto spoke, he touched his beard, pressed his index finger to his hidden jawline, a glass of wine in his other hand. He liked animal facts.
“In the spring there are bees. Three days and they move on. Everyone knows that,” he said and left the kitchen.
Lacey stood at the counter spiralizing summer squash and listening to the bees as they bounced against the kitchen window in the dark. She wanted Otto to lean his face into the back of her neck and speak so she could feel the heat of his breath. What she wanted him to say was, It’s okay. I’ll fix it.
Within a week, the small nest became a horde, and in two it was an invasion, the buzz like a chorus in the walls. The house seemed to pulsate, bee wings busy inside light fixtures on the ceilings, against candelabras affixed near the fireplace.
When the men came, they wandered through the house, writing down numbers and knocking on the hollow spaces of the walls, using a heat sensor to find the hive. One of the men told her, “They’ve been here for months. There are honeycombs in the walls. You’ll have to leave for a few days so we can take care of it.”
Lacey woke in the motel room hearing the noise in her sleep. She lay still and imagined the men in suits cutting human-sized holes in her dining room walls, stepping into them and scooping out the honeycomb as if there were rooms between her rooms, ones she hadn’t thought to fill with anything until now. She listened to the early sounds of the motel waking up—the clatter of silverware on the lanai below, an ice machine running. She rested her hands on her stomach at the space between her hip bones, an enclave.
It was the sort of motel that was nice because it was on the ocean and not nice because it was on the ocean, everything sick and wet with salt water, sun-bleached and painted over so it peeled. It sat on a wave break at Mussel Shoals, public beaches in either direction that in the summer were littered with children and Popsicle-colored umbrellas. But now, in early spring, there were only morning surfers like seals, and a thick marine layer socked in the coast.
Otto rolled over to face her. A few gray hairs had grown in near his temples and the cowlick at the crown of his skull. They made her want to climb inside him and offer up apologies from the inside out. His bright blue eyes were more clouded now. She’d stirred the silt.
A few days before the bees, she’d come home from the doctor’s office in a taxi, and he’d said, “You can’t unring a bell.”
Otto was hurt by her decision in ways she didn’t know he was able to be hurt. And still he took care of her: glass of
watered-down ginger ale and crackers on a plate with her painkillers. She slept in their bedroom, drops of blood like Rorschach tests on the white sheets, and he slept on the couch until their stay at the motel.
The line of light at the bottom of the blinds was gray and slim, waiting to be uncovered. She wove her boney knees between his warm legs and pressed her torso against his.
“Wake up,” she whispered and waited for him to say, touch this.
“Coffee,” he said instead.
She licked his neck, stubble against her tongue like concrete.
Otto got up from the bed, leaving Lacey naked on the starched sheets. He opened the blinds. The dull morning came in and made everything feel wet and cold, the lilac bedspread strange. Lacey decided that the brain must process pain in singular ways, that the absence of touch can hurt as much as a burn.
On the lanai, they ate sliced cantaloupe and Cheerios from paper bowls, drank coffee that tasted like tin. Otto read the newspaper while Lacey sifted through brochures she’d collected at the front desk, Xeroxed paper in pinks and greens: local history about a sinkhole that opened on the PCH in the ’70s, Italian restaurants in Carpentaria, shopping in Santa Barbara. One was made by the woman who worked the front desk, a handwritten list: 50 Ways to Spend Your Days. Xeroxed so many times the letters were faded in certain places.
She’d pressed it into Lacey’s hands. “I made it myself. Done almost all of them too. You know my husband and I used to come here for vacation.” She wore seashell earrings. Her hands were thick and tan.
“I bet he loves that you work here.”
“Only started after he died. Suppose he does though.”
Lacey was going to say that she was sorry, but she only stood there, her hands filled with colored papers.
“Let me know how far you two get,” the woman said, and then offered her a plate of frosted pink seahorse-shaped cookies.
Otto cut his already cut cantaloupe with a plastic fork and knife.
“Let’s try and do all of them,” Lacey said and pushed the list to him across the table.
“Learn a new language? Start a seashell collection? Please.”
“Walk on the beach. Drink a bottle of wine. Make love,” she said.
“This is silly,” he said, and went back to his newspaper and cantaloupe.
“No, Otto. This. Is silly.” She left the table, locked herself in the motel room and turned on Jenny Jones so no one could hear her cry into the lilac pillow case. She cried about the list and she cried about the bees and she cried about how far away people get, even, or especially, when they are in the same room.
It was hours before Otto came to check on her, but when he did he had the list in his hand, had crossed out all of the things they’d inadvertently accomplished, and held a bottle of wine. It was an olive branch, a gesture, the first one he’d made in weeks.
“Number thirty-one,” she said.
By three in the afternoon the marine layer was gone, as was their wine. A weak spring sun made the water on the rocks glow like they’d been painted, and the tide dropped so waves crashed rather than rolled on the deep green sea. Lacey followed Otto down the beach, walking in his footprints, tossing glittering shells into a champagne bucket. Small birds with razor-like beaks ate crabs from beneath the wet sand. Otto ate a pomegranate, spitting the seeds on the ground, his lips dyed burgundy.
“Find a sand dollar,” Lacey said, “number nineteen.” She rubbed wet sand from between its grooves, so thin she wanted to crush it. It was an urge she’d had since childhood: break something delicate, crush the mandolin cookies between her fingertips, smear the perfectly finished painting. She tossed the sand dollar in the bucket, hooked her arm around Otto’s, and buried her face in his shoulder to hide from the ocean wind.
A few yards ahead, a small lump sat on the beach, just out of reach of the water. A bird. It moved its head left and right but as they got closer it didn’t leave. Lacey could see the rise and fall of its feathers, its breathing rapid, like it was confused how it ended up on a cold beach in California.
“It’s a loon,” Otto said.
“No. Those don’t live here,” she said.
“It is, look at its red eyes.”
“The feathers, though. They’re sad.”
Otto said, “They’re gray. They turn gray when they fly south. And they don’t make noises. And their bones are solid so they can dive for fish. And their legs aren’t strong enough to hold them so they never leave the water.” Otto was pressing his index finger into his beard. “It’s beached.”
“It’s cute. Kind of,” she said.
“It’s beached,” he repeated.
“It’s fine. It’s a bird.”
“We can’t just leave it. It’ll die,” Otto said, hands on his hips and eyes on the ground.
The word bounced around inside the empty parts of Lacey like the bees stuck between their bedroom walls.
“Okay,” she said, “take off your jacket.”
The bees were the first thing to come along that Lacey and Otto had to talk about, a problem they could wrap themselves around, a part of the new world they were living in. She was even thankful for the bees because of this.
Otto laid his jacket in the sand next to the beached loon. “Scoop it up and I’ll wrap it,” he said.
She hesitated, afraid it would bite her or fall apart or that she’d want to crush it between her hands.
“You can do it.”
Her hands shook, vein-lined and white. She slid them under the downy feathers of the loon, felt it twitch and try to wriggle from her grasp. She pressed her fingers through the layers of gray to where she could feel its body—a heartbeat so fast she could hardly feel the spaces between, a vibration.
“Okay, ready?” Otto said.
She lifted the bird and Otto wrapped his canvas jacket around it, tied the sleeves so it couldn’t escape, and cradled it against his chest. The bird bit at the air, reaching for something that wasn’t there, and then lay perfectly still and rested its head against the jacket. The three of them headed back toward the motel.
“Oh, he’s definitely a loon,” said the woman at the front desk. Her seashell earrings swung as she shook her head. “It’s been happening.”
“This has been happening?” Otto asked.
“Oh yes. It’s the algae bloom. The fish eat so much of it, and the loons eat the fish. It makes them go mental. They lose their way, attack surfers, beach themselves. We find a few dead every morning. Poor guy,” she said and pet the loon’s feathers.
Lacey ate one of the frosted pink cookies, still a bit buzzed from the bottle of wine.
“Okay, so does someone take it back out into the ocean?” she asked.
“No, I’m sorry, dear. It’s a whole process. Plus, it’s the weekend. He won’t survive here, so you’ve got to take him to the Loon Lady.”
Lacey started to laugh. “Of course we do, number forty-seven. We can’t.”
“You’re the one who wanted to do all of this,” said Otto, “and now I’m standing here holding a loon.” He cradled the bird against his chest. His words were supposed to be sharp she knew, but Lacey only heard softness. The room smelled of wet sea air and sweet, burnt popcorn. For the very first time, all the way down into the empty space, she let herself grieve what she had done. She allowed herself for just an instant to imagine a different narrative entirely.
Lacey came closer and rested her head on Otto’s shoulder. She pet the loon, its feathers so soft she could barely feel them. It closed its eyes. It seemed smaller now that they were inside.
“Where can we find her?” she asked.
“I’ll draw you a map,” said the woman. And on the back of the list she drew a map.
They drove in silence, Lacey in the passenger seat with the loon in her lap, Otto with one hand on the wheel and the other on her thigh. Paul Simon played on the radio: hearts and bones, hearts and bones. The ocean stretched out behind them as they climbed into the hills, following the map with a shared attention.
When they pulled up to the house, there was a man outside filling pails of water with a hose, carrying them from one end of the yard to the other, to a fenced-in area with pink and blue kiddie pools. They parked in the dirt driveway and climbed from the car.
“She’s inside,” the man shouted across the yard. “Just knock. She’ll come.”
The metal screen door rattled and the Loon Lady appeared in the doorway, bottle-feeding a loon that looked like the one Otto held.
“Gracious,” she said through the mesh of the screen. “He doesn’t look so good. A moment please.”
She disappeared in the house and came back with a box filled with alfalfa, like the kind you stuff in a class pet’s cage. Otto carefully unwrapped the jacket and the woman scooped up the loon and set it inside the box. They followed her around the side of the house.
“Do you work for the state?” Otto asked.
“I don’t work for anyone anymore. I was a vet when I was young. When the birds started dying, I don’t know why, people started showing up here with them. Like someone told them who told someone else I could do something.”
“And you help them?”
“Sometimes. Sometimes I help them die. Depends on what they want. How far gone they are. Usually make up their minds to live or die before they even get here.”
Nearly twenty loons littered the yard, some floating in baby pools, others cradled in alfalfa. Otto went to one of the pools and softly pet the birds one by one. He told the woman all the same facts he’d told Lacey earlier about the birds. They both listened carefully. Otto pressed his finger into his beard.
They stood in the yard for some time, neither touching nor speaking, just watching the Loon Lady circle the kiddie pools. It was motherly, the way she tended to the birds, touched the tepid water, and refilled feed dishes. The ocean air made its way up the hills and into the yard, smelling of salt and sage brush.
“And what about the ones who die?” Lacey asked.
“What about them?” said the Loon Lady.
A loon flapped around in a pool, disturbing the eerie calm of the yard.
“I bury them at the edge of the property. Everything goes back to where it came from,” she said.
Lacey wanted to ask if she could bury one. Instead, she looked for their loon, the one they had found, but the birds were all the same. All gray in the feathers and red in the eyes, silent like they’d never once made a sound.
“Is it going to be okay?” Lacey asked.
Neither the Loon Lady nor Otto answered her.