Up The Hill To The Hives
Walking up the hill I was thinking about what it was that made living with me unbearable. My wife, when she left the apartment we shared in the city, could not seem to tell me in any way I could understand. Up the hill, along a path I had worn over weeks of making the same trip, past naked stalks of rhubarb and the sleeping bodies of beetles, I walked, wondering about my habits and my choices. I weighed the events of my past and considered the sum of my life, but I found no truer insight than before. The day was clear and signless, the only disturbance a flock of geese passing noiselessly overhead. Up the hill I could hear the sound of the hives at work.
People told me, when I first arrived with my supplies at the house I had rented, that it was the wrong season to construct hives. The man who lived on the plot adjacent to me, a retiree and collector of vintage cars, told me that the bees would not have enough time to gather food before the winter set in, and would be unlikely to survive. He said any honey they made would be unusable because the flowers that were necessary for harvesting were no longer in bloom. Whatever they produced would be bitter and thin. I listened to his advice and thanked him for it, even though the truth was I wasn’t interested in honey at all. I appreciated that his kindness towards me seemed unaccompanied by any curiosity, even after he saw that I had disregarded his advice and continued with my building. I was pleased to be in a place where I could be left alone.
I came to the idea of the hives when I was still living in the city, a few days after my wife took her things and moved away. I had gone to the largest library in town, seeking a direction for my life, which had suddenly become aimless and full of hazards. I walked into the large main hall, surrounded by rows and rows of books. I took a deep breath and held it, setting off down an aisle at random. I walked until my lungs were bursting, changing direction and moving between the stacks, losing myself. When I couldn’t hold it any longer I reached out and touched a volume on the shelf without looking, and finally breathed. I took the book down and opened it to its middle.
In it, a widow walks down to the river where beehives are kept to inform the bees of the death of her husband, the beekeeper. The hives are lazy and quiet in the late season, and the widow leans in and tells them the news. The bees, awake now with grief, swarm from the hive and cover the sky with their lamenting. They chase sparrows from the trees and skip across the water like stones. The widow covers her hair and face with her hands, but the bees do not sting her. Instead they anoint her temples and her ankles with healing honey, and some lay themselves restful around her feet, rolling onto their backs like supplicating hounds. The scene ends as the widow weeps wholly to herself, and the bees finish their mourning and return to the hives. I closed the book. I was still gasping. I thought to myself: Alright.
My wife and I did not betray one another, or strike each other, or subject each other to shaken, sleepless nights. I thought of this as I sat in the country house, watching evening arrive along the rim of the hills. We were very simple. We were both hard workers, had hobbies, small groups of friends. When my wife left I didn’t call these friends. In fact, I have never spoken to them again. Sitting in that house, I felt that I did not miss their absence. And I did not miss my work, or the noises and sights of the city, or the familiar routines of the life I lived there, all things that I have heard people miss when they renounce lives of complication. I looked out the window up the hill, towards the hives, where I imagined the bees at work, combing the bare hill for something to take back. I knew that I missed my wife.
Raising hives was a difficult art and I did it imperfectly. I put the frames in crookedly, so the bees made uneven combs. Nervous, I smoked them too often, so many days they were too dazed to move. My hands were often swollen from being stung and this made me even clumsier. But they never swarmed, never abandoned their hives. I took this as a sign of their cooperation. Up on the hill, I willed myself to consider the bees as allies, tried to disarm the nervousness I had while handling them. I attempted to settle myself into their noise, which was like the tense warning of violins. As the weather cooled I began to find a scrim of dead bees around the hives each morning, which I swept into a pan and discarded into the wind. I knew that I didn’t have very long. My lease on the house would soon end and I didn’t have enough money to continue living there. The hives would have to be abandoned to winter. I felt a sense of urgency growing inside of me.
I thought sometimes about the apartment where my wife was living. I imagined it somehow shabbier, smaller than the one we had shared, and filled with cheap, unfamiliar furniture. I pictured my wife sitting by the window and smoking, stirring only to change the records that played in the other room. I imagined her inviting her few friends over to make dinner, working together in the cramped kitchen. Their silent agreement to take part in this new life of hers. I pictured her going to and returning from work without any change of expression. Autumn damp in the room where she stood. I passed quiet evenings thinking in this way, lodged in my chair like a stone. Sometimes these images made my hands shake, at others they felt distant and weightless as they passed through me.
Walking up the hill, I was thinking about what constituted a bearable thing. I held my veil in my hands. The bleak, clear afternoon was at work, and nothing transpired overhead. The hives were quieter in the cold. I imagined the cramped cells where the millions of bodies were shivering, in misshapen combs that sprouted like yellow fingernails. I imagined the brood, I imagined the queen. I took the smoker and filled it with straw. As I approached I could hear them working, barely audible, the sound of water through gravel. I looked at how shamefully I had neglected them. There were many dead. I thought of the cold house down the hill, of my wife’s apartment in the city, and of the river where the widow stood. Each seemed like an exhausted place. There was wax over every door like a seal, and bodies like beads in the air. I lifted my veil over my head and said to myself: Alright. ⁂
Tom Thor Buchanan is a writer living in Toronto. His work has appeared in Hazlitt, the Baffler and in the anthologies After Realism and Best Canadian Stories 2018.