Michael McDermit is a writer and musician who just changed coasts, moving from Pennsylvania to Oregon. He is an MFA candidate at the University of Oregon. He is a contributing member of the My Idea of Fun artist collective based out of the sleepy city of Johnstown, PA. He also archives original writing, music and photography within a correspondence blog called Rubber Necking.
The boy was long awake and watched orbs of white dawn light flicker and bend through foggy panes of glass above his bed. It was Saturday, the last week of September, and his room was so oddly silent he could hear the air slowly swirling through the maze of ducts in the ceiling. His father was late to wake him, and that was strange. Maybe he wouldn’t come at all today. A swirl of hope thrummed in the boy’s trunk. But the thought was premature; the stairs in the hallway creaked and bowed under heavy steps. The boy clamped his eyes shut as the door squeaked open. His father entered and stood at the foot of his bed. The man was dressed in a loose ivory jumpsuit that covered his entire broad body. The boy made himself rigid, like old wood beneath the blankets. Maybe if he kept absolutely still his father would get distracted and go away. It happened frequently. His father would be in the middle of a sentence or some chore and suddenly have his attention drawn fully away to something small, like the low hum of an electrical outlet or a beetle skittering across the porch boards. Often times, he never returned to his previous task.
His father let out a loud, intentional cough that jolted the boy from beneath the covers.
“Grab the extra veil from my room and meet me outside,” he said.
The boy saw that the bed in his father’s room was still made, and that meant his father had spent the night discontented, mulling and pacing between the expansive rooms, smoking shag-filled cigarettes. His father had said that their house in Henrietta, NY came from the boy’s grandparents. They turned it over for a dollar after deciding a sojourn near the monastery in El Escorial, Madrid should turn into something permanent. They called it a late wedding present. Before the move, the boy’s father had been a moderately successful columnist based out of Watkins Glen; in Henrietta he found himself a job as the assistant editor of Buck Beat, a hunting magazine that published each quarter. There were back issues stacked and scattered throughout the house.
The house was much too big even when all three of them lived there, and now that she was gone, it was a vacant city wailing to be lived in again. Every scrap of the old house had its own strained melody. The woeful sounds kept both the boy and his father from ever fully resting at night, though neither of them ever discussed it.
The boy met his father on the large porch in the backyard. A rusted swing spotted with soggy cobwebs hung in the center. Wisps of first frost coated the grass.
His father flicked the end of his cigarette into a coffee can brimming with crushed white butts. He gripped a red toolbox filled with flat scraping knives, a grafting tool, and thin strips of netting. Attached to his belt was a silver cylinder marked with black smears of tar.
“They work hard on this kind of day. Do you know why?” his father asked. He did not wait for an answer. He never did. “Because they know there isn’t much time left. They need to finish what they start. Everything stops for them when the cold comes.”
His father pulled the thick screen over his face and began to walk across the yard. The two passed the garage, with its barrier of overgrown grasses and vines crawling the outside walls.
The boy remembered being inside of the garage with his mother right before she left. Most all of her possessions—absent her stained glass kit—were boxed, ready to be taken from the house to somewhere new. A place far away from this one, she said, one that floats on the water. The boy watched her as she soldered the copper-wrapped edges of colored glass pieces, carefully fitting together the oblong shapes that became staring owls or sturdy trees losing their leaves into streams.
When she finished her work, she took the boy by his hand to the far corner of the yard, and spread a blanket for them. They laid in silence for some time, watching the clouds morph into
galloping beasts and eerie faces as they glided past.
“Your father was with another woman for six years before me,” his mother said. “Does he ever talk about her?”
The boy shook his head.
“She left him, too, you know. At first I thought he had a pretty bright mind. I was giving glass blowing classes at the museum in Corning, and he came through writing one of his stories about the place; just swept me up. But after moving here, and after you, that’s when I saw it all. He’ll never write that novel he talks about. And you know what? He’d still be with that girl, too, if she hadn’t run away. He’s a hand-me-down, just like this house.” She looked right into her son’s eyes. “He doesn’t love one thing in this world, that’s why I’m leaving. You make sure you tell him that someday.”
The hives were built right at the spot in the yard where his mother spread the blanket. The boy’s father started construction on the day the movers came for her chestnut armoire. It was the last of her things that remained in the house.
“But why bees?” the boy had asked him.
“They’re dying off,” he had said. “They need my help.”
His father looked to him like some strange sports team mascot taking high steps through the wet yard. The smoker attached to his father’s belt lifted the sweet smell of burning cedar chips into the still air. The boy stared through the mesh netting of his hood at the washed-out land. He could not tell where the ground off in the horizon gave way to the sky. It was the kind of blank palette that begged to be doused with shiny paints.
“They can see more of this world than we can, you know,” his father said. “They have color vision and can even see ultraviolet light.”
“But you told me they can’t see us in the white, though.”
“Well, that’s true. It’s like we’re invisible to them.”
“I don’t want to be invisible.”
Their feet crunched against the thawing grass.
“Dad, why do I . . . why do I have to be out here doing this? It’s Saturday.”
His father stopped and swooped around, bent down and looked through to his face. He spoke slowly. “Because it’s needed. I’m supposed to impart something to you. This is needed. Do you know what that means, impart?”
The boy looked through the dark screen and saw his father’s face rigid and etched with fine lines. “Yes, sir.”
They continued walking.
The boy looked around. The yard, the sky, his father slogging in his clownish suit—all looked the same drizzly white color. He wondered just what it was the bees saw if the entire world was undetectable to them that day. He imagined them in their hives, blind, their tiny brains full of white light, pressing against one another for heat.
His father stopped walking when the beehives came into view. He dropped the toolbox, ripped off his mask, and sprinted toward them.
“Bear!” he yelled. “Bear attack!”
The beehives lay in a mangled heap. The painted wooden casings were splintered into shards and strewn all over. Big claw prints dented the mud. Mounds of flaxen combs were mashed into the surrounding slush.
The boy’s eyes were wide. The prospect of seeing a wild bear was more interesting to him than any nugget of beekeeping knowledge he might have garnered from his father that morning. He recalled the cover image of an issue of Buck Beat that showed a towering mass of black fur and blade-like teeth. He imagined coming face to face with the beast that did this, squaring off like famed boxers in a ring made of pine trees. But when his father looked at him with puffed out and dripping eyes, he felt ashamed.
He had never seen his father cry. Not even when she left.
The boy wanted to cry as well, but stopped himself. He gazed around at the slaughtering site. He hated the bees, anyway. He hated that the hives were built on the spot he shared with his mother. When he looked up at the white sky, he hated that it was so white, and he hated the dopey white suits they both had on. And he hated every yowling sound the big house made, and how there were no curtains on the windows in his room. He hated his father’s pungent cigarettes and the cracking lines coming more and more into his face, and the bad take-out meals that he forced them to eat together at the giant table in the dark dining room. He thought of his mother miles away, laughing with a stranger on a long boat bobbing in the yawning blue of a far-away lake, and he hated her, too.
Sometimes, on mild nights before she left, the boy peered out through his window down onto his parents smoking cigarettes and rocking together in the swing on the back porch. They stared at the tips of the hemlock trees swaying in the breeze, and watched the crows dart from tip to tip. The boy heard his father grumble that he knew everyone in the publishing world was unscrupulous anyway so why even try, and that all the writers at Buck Beat were habitual ingrates. His mother listened as the orange end of her cigarette made her face glow.
“They are supposed to respect me. I’m pragmatic,” his father said.
“You mean phlegmatic,” his mother said. “You’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Remember that.”
“He slopped up all the honey. He ate all the larvae in the brood chamber,” his father said. “It’s ruined. They’re all gone.”
His father knelt down and scooped an armful of dead bees from the wreckage. The lifeless shells looked like tarnished gold charms in his hands.
“Look what he did to the workers. They never had a chance. They were gathered around the Queen in a cluster formation, keeping her warm. They all died saving her. He’s probably got two hundred stingers sticking all in his fur.” His father shook his head. His face had gone sallow. “I should have put up a fence. Why the hell didn’t I? It’s all lost.”
“What’ll happen to her?” the boy asked. “The Queen, I mean. If she got away.”
“I don’t know, Matthew. I really don’t,” his father said, “but she’s never coming back here.”