This month marks the 9th annual Women in Horror Month and to celebrate we’re publishing a story and an interview with Priya Sharma. “The Nature of Bees” appears in Sharma’s forthcoming collection from Undertow Press, All the Fabulous Beasts.
Vivien Avery came into her summer late. She blossomed at the age of thirty-eight, a time when most women are past ripeness, their fruit sampled and discarded.
The men buzzed around her, enthralled.
The bee is praised by ancient Greeks and our own captains of industry for its philosophies of order and productivity. There is no self in this honeyed utopia, each member a willing sacrifice to its machinery.
As much as we would emulate its nature, we also emasculate it. The bee is reduced to a fuzzy bumbler, nectar drunk amid the blooms. We do not heed the warning of its colours. Such sweetness always comes with a sting.
When Vivien stepped inside the cottage she knew her choice to be correct. Built into the walls of an estate, it contained sunshine and shade, heavy oak and threadbare rugs. The manager showed her around without embarrassment at the stained hip bath beneath the dripping shower head, the tired, Formica of the kitchen and the rattling windows. Vivien was happy to endure such deprivations. It had character.
He led her through the kitchen into the suntrap yard, the stone slabs warm. There was a washing line strung across it, wearing tea towels like a row of flags. There was a rotten door in the far wall, askew on its hinges.
“I keep meaning to fix this,” for the first time he sounded like he was apologising.
“What’s through there?”
“The orchard. The estate. It’s better that you stay out unless they invite you.” He stood and looked at her. “You will remember that, won’t you? Only if they ask you to.”
“Of course. Are you in charge of the estate?”
“Good God, no. Just this.”
She followed him up the twisting stairs. From the windows under the slanting roof, she could see the yard, then hives scattered in the orchard, a kitchen garden and finally the roof of the mansion, made of crumbling ochre stone. She could see figures moving among the trees and between the rows of vegetables.
“You’re not allergic to bee stings, are you?”
“No, but I’m not fond of them either.”
“This used to be a beekeeper’s cottage.” He nodded towards the big house. “They produce the caviar of honey.”
He did not exaggerate. The estate’s honey was a secret, kept by those who knew and didn’t want to share. Medicinal and beautifying, it was sought by kings, media moguls and entertainment divas.
“They’re very shy people. Filthy rich, apparently. Not that you’d know to look at them.”
He stepped closer.
“The honey’s very expensive. It’s an aphrodisiac, you know.”
The man lightly grasped her wrist and she pulled away. Undeterred, he went to the bed, seemingly to demonstrate the firmness of the mattress, patting the space beside him. Not looking her in the face made it an insipid invitation. He ploughed on.
“My wife. She doesn’t understand me.”
“Then perhaps you should make a better job of explaining yourself.”
Vivien was shocked and excited, despite herself. Not by him but by the possibilities of the invitation. She had tried romance and found it fragile. This man was not offering her romance, but something entirely different.
She hid her smile behind pursed lips as she ushered the manager, who was baffled by his own audacity, out of the door.
Long divorced, her marriage bewildering and brief, Vivien was an anomaly in her social circle. Being without husband or child, her personal and professional successes could be overlooked by her female friends. Being true friends, they never voiced their opinions that her manlessness had made her selfish and her childlessness had made her trivial. They never talked in pitying tones about her lonely nights of splendid isolation.
She became a pale shadow of herself in the company of the husbands, sons and lovers of these friends. Her failure with men blighted her side of the conversation. She was socially uncertain, diffident and eager, where another sort of woman might have become bolshy and bitter. She put them in mind of their brothers, the one’s that were young enough to need their approval and not old enough to be a rival. Her attempts at flirtation were charming. Innocent and awkward enough to share with their wives, mothers and lovers.
It was this group of men that were the first to sense a change. They noticed her fingers lingering on the stem of her glass, that she no longer covered her mouth to stifle the laughter hidden there. There was nothing bitter in the tilt of her chin as she challenged their opinions. She teased them and it made them tingle. They did not share these exchanges with their wives, mothers or their lovers.
Vivien Avery was in flower.
The queen is statuesque, bigger than any of her progeny who attend her. Her monarchy is two-fold. She is the only one of her tribe to reproduce and she has the power of chemical domination. Her prodigious pheromones keep the colony in supplication. The workers are her hand maidens, who clean and feed her from their own mouths with ambrosia, a viscous yellow milk that promises her abnormal longevity. So it is that for her entire life she is utterly theirs to adore, her residence a hexagonal cell that is both her throne and her prison.
Later in her life, when Vivien had a surfeit of leisure to reflect, those early days at the cottage were the ones she remembered most. She had memories of basking in the yard, eating roast chicken with her fingers. The crisp skin melting between her tongue and palate. There was a square of unsullied blue above her and she wondered if it could have been as perfect or if she imagined it that way. There were afternoons with a muted radio and tatty paperback. Her life before was vague by comparison, barely tasted, lost and wasted.
Vivien also recalled when this life ended and her new one began.
The encounter with the manager had reminded her that her body had its own purpose, not just functions. Its need for satisfaction disturbed her sleep. By night she stood naked before the mirror in the bedroom, studying her tarnished image and invoking the jolt of his fist around her wrist. Her hoarding ovaries now threatened to release all her eggs at once. This rampant fecundity made her shine. Her pheromones were maddening. Vivien Avery didn’t give a fig for procreation. Her state made her pleasure hungry. She longed to be a carnal adventurer.
She turned around, peering over her shoulder to view herself. The motion made one scapula take flight. There was the hollow of her back. The ample hips and fleshy bottom. Flesh on fire, she glowed in the dark.
The faint tapping startled her. It was a hesitant request for admission. She paused. It came again. Vivien pulled on clothes. The stairs creaked under her feet. She looked left to the soft shapes of the sofa. The rapping wasn’t at the front of the cottage, but from the kitchen door. This was a backdoor caller.
The knocking came again. The trespasser had come through the estate and by the rotten door into her yard. She turned the key. The prospect of the manager didn’t threaten her even though she had not decided what to do with him yet.
Vivien gaped. It was a woman. Tall and stooped. As naked as Vivien had been only moments before. Her silver hair was twisted into a rope over one shoulder. Her skin was taunt and uncreased on her aged face.
The old woman stepped inside. Her abdomen was revealed. Womanhood had ravaged her. The skin sagged as though once greatly distended and then emptied. The abdomen of a mother, many times over. Her pubic hair was sparse and childish. Her breasts were like a beast’s, damaged by the dragging suckling of a large and selfish litter. Her limbs were emaciated. Yet the skin had the same sheen as her face, cosmetic, youthful and unnatural. Bony hands snatched at Vivien as she collapsed into her arms.
Vivien lowered her to the ground, cradling her in her lap. The old woman smelt of honey. Her skin was thin satin slipping under Vivien’s hands. It was as though she had been oiled to keep it supple.
“Please, help me.” She touched Vivien’s face, her fingers butterflies.
Figures loomed up from the darkness outside.
“Mother, we’ve been so worried.”
They came as a pair, one enfolding the old lady in a blanket like she was an injured animal, pulling her from Vivien’s embrace, the jealousy plain on her face.
“Mother,” said the other, “we thought we’d lost you.
They clucked and fussed with palpable concern. They were shorter than their mother, solid country girls. Squat and square rather than curved. They were dressed in simple blouses and trousers that looked homemade.
“Do you want to bring her in? I’ll light the fire and get some clothes.”
“No, that’s all right.”
The taller one was brusque but the other one seemed more inclined to conversation.
“This is our mother,” the girl said as though it weren’t obvious. “She’s never wandered off like this before.”
“Your mother’s lucky to have such a caring family.”
“Oh, thank you. Thank you very much.” The girl beamed at her, pleased by the comment. Vivien saw that she wasn’t a girl at all, but a woman. Her lack of grooming, the unplucked eyebrows and the faint moustache, made her look younger. She lingered as her stocky sister lifted their frail parent in her arms.
“Hadn’t you better help them?”
“She’s very strong.” Her hand loitered on the door frame, as if to stop Vivien from shutting her out. “We look after her. She’s very old now. What’s your name?”
“I’m Bea.” She pointed to Vivien’s arm. A bee had landed there. Insects could be as insomniac as old ladies. Bea lifted it off with care. She held it up and it took flight. “They like you.”
“Is that good?”
“Well, nice to meet you.” Vivien started to close the door.
“You’re very kind to have helped us.”
“Most people wouldn’t have answered the door. How much longer are you staying?”
“Are you with your husband?”
“No,” Vivien hesitated, “I’m not married.”
Bea leaned in. She seemed to be deciding something.
“Will you come to see us? I think my family will like you. We can thank you properly.”
“That’s not necessary.”
“Please. It would mean so much to all of us. Through there, tomorrow afternoon then,” she pointed back to where she’d come from, “and if you don’t come, we’ll have to come and get you.”
It is appropriate that the workers are female, their passion not for themselves, but for the greater good. They are supple creatures, young and unfeminine, relishing their roles as cleaners, guards and builders, as hunter-gatherers and factory workers.
These workers forage among the flowers, curling tongues sucking nectar from blooms into their rosebud mouths. They hurry back to the hive with this delivery, where other workers wait with eager, open mouths.
They show blind devotion to the queen. They smother her with mother love which is touching as they are sterile.
A life of toil, doting on their queen, sweet and incestuous honeyed kisses, mass murder and the production of a spoon of honey are the best that they can hope for.
Vivien pushed open the door to the orchard. The wood was crumbling splinters against her palms. There was a sound on the air, a hum between the trees, a buzz, the Om that underlies the universe. It hung before her, sound given body.
It was a swarm.
He came through the bees as if invincible. Vivien was won over immediately, enchanted by his entrance. She admired the broadness of his chest and shoulders. The sinews of his forearms made her shudder. He wasn’t pretty, which was good, as she distrusted prettiness. She’d made altars of beautiful men only to have tear them down again. Her ex-husband was one such man. She’d become indifferent to his sculpted face. By the end she found it vacuous. They was no chemistry, no urgency between them. Give her an ugly, charismatic man any day. She imagined them to be more attentive lovers.
“You’re quite safe,” his molten voice poured right through her, “they’re not interested in you.”
The man lingered in the swarm. When he opened his mouth bees flew onto his tongue. She gasped as they crowded his mouth. She imagined kisses, full of stings. Swollen tongues and bruised lips. He blew gently, sending them on their way.
“You must be Vivien. I’m Tom.”
“Hello.” She was shy. The shyness that is loaded with expectation, that showed her thoughts were giving her cause to blush. She was determined to enjoy this game. After all, it was her summer and nothing would be as sweet again.
Tom carried an enamel pail. He dipped his fingers in and they came out coated, dripping honey. Tom offered himself to her and she took them in her mouth.
He tasted exquisite.
“Come and join us. There’s a picnic in you honour.”
They walked together through the orchard. The boughs leaned towards them, laden with gifts. Several women were at work, harvesting the fruit. There was singing, the sound of wassailing and cider, of garlands and maidens. They were dressed in simple homemade clothes, like the women who’d come in the night. They turned as Tom and Vivien approached, eyes full of appraisal.
The kitchen garden opened up before them. Here more women were at labour, rearing rows of brassica and pulling up potatoes. Ferny carrot stalks spilled from their trugs. One woman had her face buried in a lavender bush, grasping it like a lover’s face. She surfaced, glowing with pleasure. There was that song again.
They walked around to the front of the house whose leaded panes stretched above them, winking in the sun. The doors were treble height, unassailable and carved with bees.
The lawn spread out under the sun, blankets laid upon it and men laid out upon them. They turned their heads, they smiled at her and some even stood up but were waved back down by Tom.
“Here.” Tom directed her to an empty woollen square and handed her a glass. His spoon clinked needlessly upon the glass as though he needed this to get everyone’s attention. “I’d like to introduce Vivien.”
Glasses were raised amid murmurs of welcome.
“Thank you.” Vivien would not be flustered. Be it a coven, cult or clan, she would stand her own ground. No harm had come to her so far. It was just a plate of sandwiches and drinks.
Tom lay down, reclining like a sultan on a nest of cushions. He patted the space next to him. There was nothing insipid about this invitation.
Vivien sipped her drink, musing on the order of things before her. The women worked, the men looked on. Sunshine smiled upon them. A paradise for men and bees. The women’s arms were always full: a spade, a tray, a plate or jug. Cult indeed. Subjugated, sexless women with hairy legs and industrious hands.
No wonder I’m in such demand. Vivien shocked herself with such an unsisterly thought.
Bea’s hand fell on her shoulder.
“I’m so happy to see you.” She kissed Vivien’s cheek.
“How’s your mother?”
Vivien had been so distracted by Tom that she hadn’t asked him about the old woman and Vivien now wondered if she was his mother too.
“Not well,” Bea’s face fell. “Not well at all.”
“She’s not been well for a while.” There was a cropping sound as Tom ripped up grass. “Why don’t you leave us alone?”
He addressed Bea as she stood over him like a servant bearing a plate of fruit in one hand.
“Are you always so rude?”
“Don’t worry,” Bea was radiant. Vivien had taken her side. “I’ll get him back.”
“Tom,” Vivien put a hand upon his shoulder. The fabric of his shirt slipped over his skin. “Don’t be so unsociable. Bea can join us if she likes.”
“Whatever you want.” Tom shrugged and looked away.
“I can’t, but thank you. I have things to do. I’ll give you some privacy.” Bea eyed Tom, her mouth close to Vivien’s ear. “My brother likes you.”
“Are all these men your brothers?” Vivien called after her. “Surely not.”
Bea did not turn to answer, leaving Vivien to be more direct.
“Are you all related?”
“Yes, we are. This is my family.”
The occupied women and men at leisure were busy listening.
“And you all live here together?”
“Our family are direct descendants of the original beekeepers that lived in your cottage. There’s always been bees, so there’s always been us.”
“So where were you born?” Vivien asked Tom. She was determined to find them out.
“Here. Bred and reared.”
“And you grew up here?”
“I’ve never lived anywhere else.”
“Yes. Why would I want to live anywhere else?”
“But haven’t you ever wanted to get away?”
“Not at all,” he looked troubled, “it’s a simple life but I don’t know how much longer it can last, especially now with our mother being so ill. I love how we live. It satisfies me. In most things.”
He handed her a piece of apple. It had arrived already sliced. The flesh was white beneath the skin.
“Most things?” She bit into it. Tart juices flooded her mouth.
“Nearly,” he smirked at her, “but not everything.”
Vivien stifled a giggle. A colony of inbred beekeepers living in arcadia. Tom’s sauciness appealed. A simple man, a simple life, what was there not to like?
The drones are hedonists. These spoilt boys exist to feed and fornicate, a golden life which culminates in mating with their monarch. They have no inkling that this will herald their demise, hence their surprise when their servant-sisters, the jealous workers, rise up in pre-ordained revolution to starve, brutalise and slaughter the consorts of their beloved queen.
After the picnic, Tom and Vivien retraced their steps across the man-littered lawn, through the falling dusk of the kitchen garden, past the hives and trees to the back of the cottage. There was a large, yellow moon in the darkened sky. It was low enough for Vivien to draw it down and put it in her pocket.
The rotten door was as she left it, half pushed open.
“What are these?”
Vivien saw what she’d missed earlier that day. The side of the wall facing the orchard was a series of niches. Some were empty, some containing the last glimmer of candles. It looked like a shrine.
“They used to contain bee bowls.”
“Straw baskets. An early form of the beehive.”
Neither of them could be still. Their bodies, one electrified by the other, were in constant motion. She twirled from side to side on one heel; he twiddled a long stalk of grass between his fingers, put it in his mouth and took it out again.
“Bee bowls,” she arched her back, “I’ve never heard of them before.”
They had moved into the yard.
“15th century.” His eyes flickered from her eyes to her mouth and back again.
“As old as that?” She unlocked the kitchen door, eager for him to continue her education inside. They came close enough to raise the hairs upon her arms.
“There’s always been bees here. That’s how we began. Wax used to be how the estate paid their taxes.”
“A wax tax?”
“As candles for the church,” he frowned, the idea displeased him, “before we were excommunicated for heresy.”
“Persecuted for witchcraft. As they did with anyone with knowledge of birds and bees.”
She trailed her fingers down her neck. His frown softened and faded.
“Tom, are you trying to convert me?”
They had reached the stairs. Vivien was on the first step. Tom caressed the newel post with his palm.
“To your religion. To bees.”
He laughed. She entwined a strand of hair around her forefinger.
“It’s not a religion. A way of living, maybe.”
He leaned towards her. They had reached the top of the stairs. His clothes seemed wrong on his large frame. She wanted to take them off.
“I’ve no intention of being one of your little women, waiting on you hand and foot.”
This part jest, part test made Tom suddenly tender.
“Is that what you think I want?”
“I don’t know.”
“Look at me. Tell me what it is you think I want from you. And more importantly, what do you want from me?”
Sex with Tom, clothes half on, half off, left her breathless and invigorated. She didn’t imagine herself to be in love. She knew herself to be in lust. Desire was a means to its own end. Tom was vigorous and selfish, making Vivien claw back satisfaction with her teeth and nails. It left her sore and satiated. She didn’t chide herself for such recklessness. Her time of having regrets had passed, or so she thought. She lay back on the pillows, Tom beside her, close but not touching, nursing the feeling inside her, of wanting, of taking but not needing.
The lovers slept with the bedroom window open. A swarm of males stood among the trees in vigil, gazing up to where she lay. They could smell her. Her fertility was fragrant. It carried on the breeze.
They were in rapture.
“Vivien, wake up.”
There was a gentle voice and clammy hand upon her shoulder.
There was breath against her cheek. It smelt of honey. Her eyes snapped open. She was naked and chilled, the bed sheets twisted at her feet. Vivien’s hand roamed across the mattress. The space beside her, the place that Tom had filled, was empty.
It was Bea, her hair tied up in a yellow ribbon, a school girl’s decoration. It brushed against Vivien’s skin and she pushed it away, her other hand snatching at the sheets. For all her new powers, she wasn’t ready for such exposure yet.
“Vivien, it’s our mother.”
“She’s ill. Will you come?”
“Shouldn’t you call a doctor?”
“We have.” Bea blinked. “Tom asked me to come for you.”
“He sent you?”
“Yes,” Bea was too old to look so sulky, “but I wanted you to come too.”
Whatever for? Vivien nearly said but stopped herself. “Tom has taken such a shine to you.” It was a sly lure.
“All right.” Vivien swung her legs over the edge. “Turn around.”
She retrieved her discarded clothes that lay in puddles on the floor. Bea watched in the looking glass, a pale figure glowing in the mirror.
Vivien was luminous.
They were on the threshold. The carved doors were ajar, the innards of the house reduced to a long strip of shadow and greasy yellow light. Bea turned to Vivien.
“Not just anyone can come here.”
“Are you absolutely sure that you don’t mind me fetching you?”
Vivien looked at her with irritation.
“It’s just that I like you. So does Tom. We’ve all agreed how special you are. That we can trust you.”
“I’m not sure what it is you think I can do to help.”
“You’ve brought us so much comfort, just by being here. Come in now, Vivien, and be our willing guest.”
Vivien followed her into the entrance hall. She expected the same evidence of industry that she’d seen in the garden and orchard but in the gloom of the electric lights everything was shabbiness and neglect. The wooden panelling was dulled by dust and she could smell the mildew in the walls. The tiled floor was tacky underfoot. She could hear the wavering, nasal hum of air conditioning, a ridiculous thing in such a tatty old pile.
His sudden presence calmed her. He came to her with outstretched hands. His face was tears.
“I knew you’d come.” He enfolded her in an embrace, which she returned. “Didn’t I say she’d come?”
“So did I.” Bea’s eyes were angry hollows. “Don’t make out that I ever doubted her.”
“Is she very ill?” Vivien looked at Tom, wanting Bea to leave them to each other.
“She’s dying.” His mouth was compressed. “It’s no surprise. She’s so old.”
Still enfolded in him, she rubbed his back, feeling the strength in his muscle and bone. His mother was dying and he pulsed with life. The thought inflamed her. Inappropriate but an affirmation of life all the same. She wanted him again and could tell he wanted her too. Before she wouldn’t have known such a thing and it thrilled her that she knew with such certainty.
“It doesn’t matter,” he whispered in her ear, “you’re here now and nothing else matters.”
The corridor they walked along was kinder to the house. Lit only by candle, the dirt and decay was lost in their warm glow. Bea and Tom walked beside Vivien.
“We’ve been waiting such a long time for you.”
“Shut up, Bea.”
“No. Shut up yourself.”
Vivien halted. The corridor seemed very narrow suddenly. “What do you mean?”
“Once our mother’s dead we’d have to leave here. I’ve no idea what we’d do. Thank God you’re here.”
“I don’t understand.”
“None of us could ever replace her. We were so relieved when we met you.”
Tom had taken her arm. She shook him off.
“Vivian, we’ll take such good care of you. We’ll be your girls. You’ll want for nothing. Mother never had to lift a finger, we’d never let her. Let us show you how good we can be. You’ll have to stay then. You’ll see how much we love you.”
Her relief and sorrow paralysed Vivien. Tom put his arms around her. Holding her. Restraining her. She was overcome, overwhelmed by their love. It brought bile up in her throat and made her limbs like lead.
Not so heavy though that they couldn’t lift her.
Here in the great hall was the sound she’d mistaken for air conditioning. It was a buzz. A hum. An Om. The sound that underlies the universe. The hive was humming.
The sun was rising, spilling through the long windows. Vivien could see the room had been made fit for their purpose. The walls were lined with honeycomb, a construct of man sized hexagons. The honey within made the growing light liquid amber. Some of the chambers were darkened by the figure curled up, grub-like, foetal-style, within.
On the wall opposite was the old woman’s bower, where she was kept safe, even from herself. The honey light made her look jaundiced. She was a queen lying in state. The hive sensed her dying. She was withered, drying, desiccating, her chemicals waning.
Vivian saw that she hadn’t yet expired. Her ribcage heaved, erratic gasps as she tired of the task of respiration. Her eyes rolled and her heart threatened failure. The hive was in the act of entombing her in this state of semi life, of packing her in wax. She would be an effigy within her cell for Vivien to gaze upon. This was the old woman’s fate, her successor had come too late for her to abdicate.
Vivien had her own cell. Disrobed by a multitude of hands, her hair let loose, her rings and earrings were removed. She would be adored without the need of such adornments.
Bea patted her hair and then sniffed at it. As if invigorated by the smell, she did a little dance of celebration and kissed one of her sisters full on the mouth. These grinning, buzzing women were no longer comical. They were monstrous. They all wanted to be near her, to touch her.
The men hung back. Crooning, swaying, waiting creatures. Vivien could not see Tom. She’d heard his shouts and then his silence. The women swept him up and carried him off to where he wouldn’t be in the way.
She felt distant from the proceedings. They’d filled her up with ambrosia. They made her gorge on it. She would soon sicken of the taste and texture clogging up her throat. Sickened but she would wait for it, this addictive sedative, its arrival marking the divisions of her day.
It was getting darker instead of lighter as the morning became midday. Bees had lined the windows, crowding the panes, blocking out the light. The building crawled with them but they would not enter uninvited. They were excited. They wished to witness this rare spectacle. The coronation of the queen.
The mating flight is not polite. It is an orgy, during which the queen is serviced by the drones. This is no gentle love making, no prelude to a lifetime of tenderness together but the panicked ejaculation of the selfish gene. The drones will deposit a lifetime of sperm, distending their queen’s abdomen with thousands of fertilised eggs that will keep her hive bound and bearing baby bees, both workers and more drones, for the glorification of the hive.
Vivien Avery came into her summer late. As she blossomed, the men buzzed around her, enthralled.