My father died suddenly on Christmas Day when I was seventeen, and fifteen years later strangers still call my mother’s home asking for him. They’ve found his old Yellow Pages ad for bee removal, and they leave anxious messages on our machine, narrating tales of swarms that have appeared in their kitchen vents or treehouses. I listen to these messages on my visits home. The callers’ voices are threaded with fear.
Can you come this afternoon?
A swarm just appeared in the honeysuckle by the fence.
I have small children.
Bees are in the chimney.
Bees are in the attic.
Can you come now?
These people leave their messages for my father as if he were alive. When I hear them, I feel his familiar energy in the room — a pleasant chaos, an affinity for adventure. He filled my childhood summers with beekeeping and camping trips and sleeping beneath the stars, experiences that gave my brother and me perspective. These strangers’ pleas for his help provoke a sharp desire in me to pick up the phone and say that I, too, wish he could come to my family’s aid for an afternoon, take away the things that frighten us, soothe our rattled nerves, and restore an impossible reality where we are not harboring a secret, unspoken pain. I wish he could return and stop the forward momentum of our lives without him. The calls are reminders of a life we’ve been forced to leave behind.
I held a kettle filled with burning chips of cedar and newspaper as my father and I moved quietly around one of our two hives. My job was to use the smoker to calm the bees while my father inspected the progress of the honeycombs. We were dressed in identical beekeeping suits of white canvas. Because I was six, my gloves were too large and had to be duct-taped to the sleeves of my shirt, and my pants were tucked into my favorite cowboy boots. It was early morning at our ranch on the central plains of Northern California, where we came for summers to raise chickens, rabbits, goats, and pigs. Our father would bring my brother and me there during his time off from teaching, and our mother would come up on the weekends and for a few weeks during her vacation. Far from the San Francisco suburbs we called home, the ranch was where I learned the language of sage and rocks and bees.
We stood at the edge of the hive, the bees’ buzzing an unmistakable sign of life in this arid, treeless landscape. They flew around us, crawled over the folds in my beekeeping suit, and flexed their wings in the sun. I was thrilled with the gentle way the bees inspected me, and I wondered if they knew me, if they recognized my scent, my voice. My family and I slept on a deck we’d built not forty feet from the hives, and the bees and I passed the hours in the same landscape, moving through the pasture of flowers and sage, around the pond where I fed the ducks and geese, and past the barn, where star thistle shot up from the dry earth and bloomed in yellow bursts.
The ranch was isolated in the dry lands beyond Mount Shasta. That perennially snowcapped peak, with its flowing water and lush forests, loomed a hundred miles away. At the ranch there was only sagebrush, the low drone of insects, and the slow rhythm of the days. The sky was gigantic, the highway a distant dream. There was little water and no electricity. The land was rocky; quartz veined the hills like fault lines.
But for all the desolation, there was also beauty. The soft calls of mourning doves filled the evenings. The air was sweet, the ground warm. My family had built everything on our property — the barn, the deck, a shade house with a triangular window that framed Mount Shasta. We plucked rocks from the fields to plant a garden. We were patient with the lack of water and the burden of our chores. Our animals grazed and wandered through the blond grasses. We grew basil and tomatoes. We slept next to each other under the stars, listening to coyotes howl. In those summers our lives had a different order and meaning. When we went home, we boarded the horses, sold the other animals, and left the land and the bees to themselves.
My father moved slowly toward the hive and said in a composed voice, “OK, go ahead.”
I pressed a lever, and smoke poured out of the kettle. I held it next to the small window where the workers came and went on their missions around the ranch. I was not afraid. Interacting with the bees was the only way to get the honey.
My father bent to one knee and removed the lid from the hive. He pulled out a frame filled with honeycomb, which I anointed with smoke. The bees fell away in a magical hush, and the world was, for a moment, a curious dream of honeybees and the smell of burning cedar. The frames revealed the strange alchemy the bees spun: the honey they made from scant elements came out dark, viscous, and smelling sweetly of sage.
A few months ago at work something caught my eye. From my desk, through a narrow window, I saw the glint of thousands of wings as they fought against currents of wind: a swarm of bees. I walked to the window and pressed my hands to the pane. It had been years since I’d tended a hive, but the art of bee charming remained a part of me. I lingered for a moment at the window before I was engulfed by a strange and immediate need to be near the bees.
I went outside. A small stream flanked with hibiscus and bird of paradise separated my office from the blacktop parking lot, which radiated heat, and also separated me from a magnolia where the energy of the bees was most furious.
A woman emerged from an office a few doors down. “What is that?” she said.
The swarm was beginning to form a cluster on a high branch. “Bees,” I said, and I moved slowly toward the tree.
“That’s a hazard,” she said. “They’re dangerous. What if someone has an allergy?”
Though I would never dismiss the gravity of bee-sting allergies, the predictability of her knee-jerk fear annoyed me. The bees were a force of nature disrupting a routine that has largely shut nature out. Our roads are smooth, our buildings are air conditioned, and our honey comes in plastic bears. The power of nature, at least in this corner of Southern California, has been largely erased in exchange for the neat lines of safety. We’ve forgotten what it is to be fragile in the world.
I inched closer.
“Be careful,” the woman warned.
The rush of wings produced a low sandpaper hum that was both intimidating and exhilarating. The thrum of a colony of bees is a sound that stays in your blood. It’s addicting. Spend time with bees, and you may develop a second heartbeat, an unmistakable constant pulse.
“Where did they come from?” the woman asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. No one knows exactly what causes a colony to abandon its hive and become a swarm. The bees could have followed the flight of a new queen or been forced out by the elements. They could remain in the tree for hours, days, or even months before they resettled.
People began to emerge from their dim, cool offices. They squinted in the light, wearing expressions of annoyance, while the bees spun circles in the air, a vortex of agitated gold, oblivious to us.
A family walked out of the nearby dentist’s office and paused before running, heads covered, to their car. People are allergic, someone insisted. We need to call the landlord. We must take care of the bees immediately. They are a danger. They are a threat. We can’t have them here.
The bees had dislodged something within me. I wished that I had a beekeeping suit. I fantasized about coming back at night for the colony, taking it home with me, and setting the bees up in a hive in the corner of my yard by the ocean. I imagined their hum filling my chest at night with an old and intimate memory.
My father died of complications from a heart murmur. We had no warning, and the aftermath was chaotic. Six months later I was a freshman in college and crippled by the sort of grief that most people don’t talk about, the sort that doesn’t go away but clings to the skin and buries itself in the body. I had briefly entertained postponing college for a year, but when I’d mentioned this plan to my friends, they’d told me it would be best if I continued on. Beneath their well-intentioned words I’d sensed a desire to silence me, a panic at the suggestion of life’s unpredictability. My grief — wild, uncontainable — was something to be feared, to be eliminated.
And so I tried to suppress it. I went to college. I wondered at the people around me, their constant striving. I tried, but grief lived within me, speaking to me through my days, muting the din of college. I became aware of the lengths to which we go to stay sane, comfortable, safe; how we gloss over pain for the same reason we pave roads: to smooth our way.
The men and women who lived with me in my co-ed dorm had never met my father. They’d never seen the sun wrap itself along the horizon of our ranch or collected the honey from a hive of bees. But still they advised me on how to handle the memories in my bones. A friend kindly told me to “let the dead bury the dead.” One day I walked into the common room of my dorm and saw everyone’s name on the dry-erase board. As a pseudo-intellectual joke, someone had invited others to write each resident’s Freudian “issue” beside his or her name. Next to mine an anonymous hand had written, “Daddy.”
My brother, my father, and I once huddled together through a lightning storm as it passed over the ranch. We held a blue tarp above our heads as jagged streaks of light illuminated the landscape in flashes. I was afraid, but not of the storm or of being in the open, or even of death, as my seven-year-old self understood it. My terror stemmed from the silence — the brief, stunned space after the lightning struck across the sky and before the thunder boomed. The lightning was so close I thought I could hear the ground sizzle from a strike, then sigh as if something had escaped from the earth.
The next day the sun hung bright in the sky. The dry air felt strange after the rancor of the storm. My brother and I waded through the fields of thistle, trying to find the spots where bolts of electricity had hit the earth. We walked to the edge of the property, circled the barn, and scanned the horizon, which was wavy in the heat, but we never found any scorched ground, no indication that we should have felt so afraid. We were safe the entire time.
After my first college midterm, I developed a stomachache that evolved into a searing pain like none I had ever experienced before. I worried that my appendix had burst. It was the only logical explanation.
I decided to ride my kick scooter down the hill to the student health center. I could barely breathe and was so focused on my pain that I failed to see a sewer grate in the middle of the walkway. My narrow front wheel got stuck between the bars of the grate, and I went over the handlebars. I hit the pavement with a sickening thwap. Sprawled on that sidewalk in Berkeley, I was tired down to my bones. My father was dead. I wanted to leave college, to drop out, to be alone. I wanted the world to stop spinning and to let me lie there, pressed against the ground.
People hovered over me. Instead of continuing on to the health center, I returned to my dorm, where friends helped me into my loft bed. Those who could not speak to me of death and sadness now stared at my bloody knees and listened to my short breaths, their eyes wide with worry.
The mysterious abdominal pain returned again and again. Student health services referred me to specialists, but I delayed scheduling appointments because I wanted to believe that I was fine. Some subconscious part of me knew exactly what the intermittent, unpredictable pain was: It was my grief incarnate. It was the manifestation of what my friends could not understand, what I could not say even to myself about my life. It was cellular memory, welling up to the surface, where I couldn’t ignore it.
I never went to see a specialist. The ulcers, as I later self-diagnosed them, plagued me throughout college, always flaring up after stressful events: team tryouts, finals, class presentations. Whenever it happened, I would lie down where I was, my breathing shallow, my insides churning. I lay on campus greens and watched the sun pass slowly across the buildings. I lay in people’s yards, sat on sidewalks, and slouched in corners of the library. The pain forced me to become present, because I could not run away from it.
I don’t know when the ulcers stopped. I don’t know when I accepted the forward movement of time. I don’t know when I abandoned the hope of recovering what I had lost. But it took years.
Five days after the swarm appeared, a man arrived at our office complex to remove the bee colony. I went outside to get a closer look at his suit, his transportation equipment, and the swarm, now docile and settled. I asked where he was taking the bees. I asked him for his card. I asked how often he saw swarms. He asked me to go inside and close my door. “For your safety,” he said.
I wanted to tell him I was not afraid, that I understood how to handle bees. But I went inside. I couldn’t bear to watch anyway.
We spent our last summer at the ranch when I was ten, pulling away in August with a truck full of chickens bound for sale. In my teens we backpacked the Sierras, camped in Baja, and explored the Arctic by canoe. We hunted and fished and felt the pull of the wild.
For many years after my father’s death, my mother, my brother, and I could not bear to return to the dry, arid plains of the ranch, perhaps because we didn’t want to have the conversations it would require. A decade passed. The sting of memory lessened. And when we felt whole enough, we returned. We did not stay overnight to sleep under the stars — we could not live that life again — but we visited for an hour, just to see what was still there.
The dirt road held familiar ruts, wide and uneven. Star thistle bloomed bright and defiant in the pastures. The planks of the deck had been eroded by the wind and weather, and sage grew wild, eating at the empty corrals. Bullet holes made by an unknown gun riddled the sides of old pickups. Desiccated patches of mud covered the path to the barn, their edges curling like the corners of burnt paper. The shade house we’d built and painted, with its triangular window framing Mount Shasta, had collapsed into a pile of bleached boards. The hulking tractor sat askew. Toys and feed buckets lay strewn across the yard. Whose hands had last touched this frying pan? What child had left this cracked xylophone? A strange entropy was everywhere I looked: the deterioration of our efforts, everything melting back into a natural order that does not care about memory — an order that will outlive us all.
Can you come this afternoon?
I walked the familiar path to my hives.
I have small children.
The hives waited for me in a mausoleum of weeds.
Can you come now?
The boxes, painted by my father, were still white. They were splattered with mud, dormant; the paint worn, the wood weakened. The grasses were high; I felt small. I pulled the top off a hive to find that wasps had invaded and then abandoned it. Midday crickets chirped. Here, my childhood was yesterday. Here, my father was still alive. He was in the barn, turning planks of redwood in his hands. He was feeding the calves. He tinkered with the generator. He held us close beneath summer storms. He tended these hives in a past I can never recover.
I hope my bees turned wild and swarmed to the high prairies of the Marble Mountains, where wildflowers blanket the pastures. I hope they sensed the hard winter coming. I hope they shed their domestic roots, forgot us, followed their instincts, and made it to the next valley.
After the beekeeper packed up and drove off, I went back outside. A few stragglers circled aimlessly around the parking lot, but the massive colony was gone, taken away in a five-gallon bucket destined for some safe haven. I stood there, arms crossed, bereft in a way I could not articulate. The woman from a few doors down came out of her office and stood on the sidewalk.
“Are they gone?” she asked.
She wrapped her arms around her body. “Did you ever find out where they came from?”
I wanted to say that I knew exactly where they’d come from. They’d come miles, through valleys of lightning and dangerous winds. They’d come from the high plains, where the air was hot and dry and everything I’d once known was now a memory of a memory. I wanted to say they had come for me. But I could not explain the arrival of the bees any more than I could explain what it was like to lose a father, a world, without a single word of goodbye. I could not explain the lengths to which we will go to conceal our grief.
“No,” I said, and I held my hand to my chest.