national anthology of the best
undergraduate writing 2010

A Million Dead Bees

Lurking in the Bayou, Antigone Smith

They keep my mother at the end of a yellowed hallway at St. Tammany’s. I’ve learned you have to walk quickly, keep your eyes fixed on the footprints in the dusty floor. Do not stop at the first room on your right where the man with the grinded-down teeth is clanking his bedpan and food tray together. Left-foot-right past heart monitor beeps and nurses taking their cigarette breaks through a hallway window and huge box fans that blow the disease off malaria victims. Stop at the car-wrecked couple; both plastered head to toe and strung up like white piñatas. Laugh when you shake their feet and start running when you hear the cries through the slots in their featureless faces. At the end of the hall, catch your breath and look up. This is your mother’s “room,” nothing but hospital curtains that hide her and the machines charting her coma, where she’s been for the last six years. Close your eyes tight because you know if you see her the world will purple over your shoulders and you’ll hit the cold floor hard.

This was the summer the wood bees ate right through our walls. My father and I were on the front porch in his coveted La-Z-Boys, waiting for the Finks’ White Trash Haircut Ritual. The Finks were our only neighbors, in the vine-eaten car accident of a house across the street. My father had been there since sunrise, an ice-chest of beer at his side, sipping slow and steady, staring straight-forward, not even bothering with the flies pecking at the remaining crumbles of mayonnaise sandwich in his beard.

It was getting more and more difficult to find things to talk about. He didn’t care about the wood bees chewing through the walls or that the roof had been leaking for a year. To my father, the bees were just another thing come to witness the ruin of his life.

The tiniest things, like late-night infomercials or seeing a bunch of crows lined up on power lines, would cause his face to crack open. And sometimes he would break into old memories, like how on their honeymoon, he and my mother passed out by the pool, and they couldn’t touch each other for days. But watching the Fink’s White Trash Haircut Ritual always gave us some hope: there were people out there worse off than we were.

We were waiting for Daddy Fink to come out of their broken doorframe and round up his kids with a long car horn blast.

“What about these bees?” I asked, turning to him. “They all want to kill me.”

My father stood up and nearly fell off the porch into our weed garden. He put his hand on a column to steady himself. “What about the bees? Is that what you’re asking me?” He put his dirty hand over his mouth to keep the laughter in and walked across the porch. He stopped at the screen door, looked at it for a second like he was thinking about going inside, and then kicked it in. The glass shattered and he broke it up on the ground under his boot. “That’s what you were asking me, wasn’t it?” he yelled, stomping. “You said, ‘What about the bees.’”  He stopped and looked at the broken glass, then swept it off the porch with his boot and came back to his chair and took a big swig of beer. He shook his head and started chewing on the mustache strands that hung over his lips.

In the spring when the wood bees showed up, they were just a light hum coming through the window. I thought, fat bees living quiet lives of honey and pollen, there is room for us in this world together. They seemed nice, reminding me of the times my father would take me on the two-hour drive down to the fishing camp and set the radio to a low indecipherable murmur, to where we didn’t have to talk to each other and we didn’t have to listen.

But that was spring, and now their buzz was thick and tremendous and coming from deep within the walls. Too many nights I lay in bed reaching for sleep and when it finally did come it was dreams of bees the size of fists, eating through the walls and covering me completely, until you couldn’t see my skin anymore, carrying me up to the edge of space before dropping me all those thousands of miles back to Earth. I pleaded and pleaded, but he wouldn’t pay an exterminator. This was a job you did yourself.

Finally, Daddy Finks emerged. He was covered in tattoos from head to toe, even on the bridge of his nose and the palms of his hands. He walked through the high weeds, opened the door of his defunct truck, and held down the horn. Out poured his hopeless offspring through the lopsided front door—shirtless, rabid, bleary-eyed kids with poked-out ribs. Every time you counted there was a different number. This time, fourteen.

Daddy Finks lined his skeleton kids up and starting at the left side, he began buzzing their blonde hair into the ditch. The children smiled and closed their eyes as he removed the fuzz from their heads. When one was done, he tapped him on his shiny bald skull to let him know it was over. I had imagined myself as one of them many times: closing my eyes, floating loose in that black formless space, pushing up into my father’s warm fingers with my sensitive new head, allowing my hair to leave my body forever.

“Where’s your girl at?” my father asked me. There was a huge smile on his face for all the dead hair in the grass.

He was talking about Adele Fink, the oldest daughter. She had been in my class at school for a couple of weeks before she gave up the world of education entirely. It was her fourth time in the sixth grade. After she stopped showing up, I moved into her desk and traced with my finger the curse words she had carved into it.

“Not my girl,” I corrected him.

“Yeah, okay,” he said.

My dad had been trying to get me to go over and talk to her ever since he’d found her yearbook picture that I had cut out and hidden under a loose tile in the bathroom. And there was the time he caught me watching her sunbathe up on the roof of her house with this toy space telescope he had bought me. She undid her polka-dot green swimsuit top so her back could get tanned and smoked straight through a pack of cigarettes, like she was a real woman, capable of unspeakable things.

“Listen here, and listen here good,” he said, staring in awe at the ceremony. “You listening? Cause I ain’t wasting a penny on no exterminators. But I’ll pay you twenty-five cents per bee you kill. Kill them all and you can take that Fink girl to the Chinese Buffet or whatever it is you teenagers do nowadays.”

“I don’t know,” I said, shaking my head.

“Jesus, son. You kidding me? You gotta pluck out your ovaries and man up. It’s a cold world, boy. A cold world.” The half-filled beer bottle slipped out of his hand and rolled off the porch. His head was tilting forward and his voice was slowing down and melting. “Every time we go see your mother you pass out cold or vomit. We just want you to do something with your life. Anything. You know how long six years is? When I was your age I…Just look at Adella over there. She’s something, ain’t she? They’re just little nothing bees.” His head came to rest at an uncomfortable angle, his chin hanging just above his collarbone, like a man shot dead in a chair.

Adele came out from behind their house, smoking a cigarette like always. She walked right past the ditch into the road, where she lay down and started making a gravel angel. On her back, she started singing tuneless nonsense words. None of her skeleton brothers paid her any attention, too absorbed by their father’s fingers. Adele stood up and threw two handfuls of rocks into the air, so that they rained down on her. Still, no one looked. She turned to them and screamed, a painful, shrill note. Even my father looked, with his half-closed drunk eyes. “Get out the goddamn road,” said Daddy Fink, irritated she was interfering with his spiritual moment.

She raised one skinny arm to the sky as if it were an antenna to space, and then, slowly, with her other hand, she pressed the cigarette into the meat of her forearm. She let out a murmur of pleasure.

For some reason I wanted to clap, I wanted to stand up in my chair and cheer, I wanted to say, I can feel it too, right here, and point to anyplace on my body. But no one said anything, her brothers and sisters just turned back to their father, who shook his tattooed head and knocked the clippers against his leg to remove stuck hair.

At seven in the morning I woke up to Adele Fink tapping on my window with one hand and smoking her cigarette passionately in the other.

If you looked at Adele from the chest up she looked like a boy: flat, unformed breasts; lopsided bowl cut; pimpled face; somewhat muscular arms from years of fighting for that breakfast hot dog. But from the waist down you couldn’t help but stare. She had her thrift-store football jersey rolled up, showing her slender, freckled stomach with the glow-in-the-dark belly ring dangling from her navel, red and infected.

“Let’s kill some bees,” she said.

“Do what now?”

“This is my last cigarette and your daddy said he’d pay me the big money to help you out, so open up. Apparently, they’re in your house now.”

Her lips were like wet pink slugs. She had a croaky voice, but croaky in a sexy way, like the half-whispered voices of the phone-sex hotlines that I called from the corner-store payphone.

I dressed and crawled to the front door on my stomach. The bees had breeched the walls and there were several flying up by the wooden supports in the ceiling of our living room. When I reached up and opened the door Adele headed straight for the icebox.

“Where’s your daddy keep his stuff?” She opened the fridge and squatted down, examining each level closely, like my mother used to when she couldn’t find something to eat.

“That’s illegal,” I said.

“Looks like the hurricane done fucked up your kitchen,” Adele said, closing the fridge. It felt so good to hear that voice in my kitchen, the assured voice of a woman.

“It’s been a while since we cleaned.”

She looked around at the fungus-filled dishes climbing out of the sink, the holes in our walls from my father’s fist, and the deformed telephone my father cooked in the microwave when the credit card companies wouldn’t stop calling. Mold-crusted towels were scattered on the floor and a bowl of dead goldfish sat on the counter, their orange bodies upturned and the water a thick green. She started laughing to herself and picked up the canister of fish food.

“What’s so funny?”

She sprinkled the fish food on top of the dead fish, and I could see the little red flakes float over their upside-down bodies but I lost them in the dark green. “Even cleaning won’t fix you now.”

She disappeared into our pantry and I could hear her rummaging around. “I ’member you from school. I could feel you staring at my ass. And how when I turned around to look at you, you’d look down at your desk and chew your eraser right off.”

I pressed myself flatter against the floor.

“You used to be ritzy as hell,” Adele said. “I ’member you and your momma flying remote-control planes in the field across the street while we was stuck playing catch with old paint cans and rolling down hills in rubber tires. You had it good. So good we thought out shooting down your stupid plane with my daddy’s twenty-two if we ever saw it flying again.”

I imagined Adele up in the pine trees in her back yard, watching me and my mother through the crosshairs in her scope, sighted on my mother’s head, who had her hand over her squinted eyes to block the blinding sun, searching for my plane in the air.

Adele said, “You know carpenter bees can’t sting you none.”

She jumped up on the counter and grabbed at some bees until she caught one. She came over to me, with it pinched between her fingers, the black-Sharpie she colored her nails with starting to wear off.

“See, no stinger.” The hairy wood bee had a wide, black face and its little legs moved wildly. “Only the bitches sting. But they stay in the colonies. The males, they don’t do a thing but chew wood and dream about boinking the queen.”

She let the bee fly off her hand then clapped her hands over it, so that it exploded in her fingers.

“Show me your room.”

I kept my room simple—a twin bed, a desk, a chair. No posters, one window. I kept it clean, so when I entered it, it was like entering a new house, no history looming in it to bring you down, no reminders of your mother’s gaping mouth lying frozen on a hospital cot.

“So is this where the magic happens?” Adele’s hand brushed against my leg and my face went numb.

“Yeah, definitely, you could say that. A little magic here and a little magic there.” I had lost complete control of my mouth.

Adele grabbed my desk chair and pulled it to the middle of my room with a screech. “Your daddy ain’t home for awhile. What do you say we play a little game, Cadoc? I’ll need belts,” she said and ran her tongue along her slug lips.

I didn’t ask questions. I came back from my father’s closet with five long leather belts and my palms all sweaty.


I sat.

Then, right there in the center of my room with no music, she began to dance, raising her hands over her head and putting her scratched-up legs between my knees. I stared into the infection of her bellybutton and found it acceptable. The heat of her freckles came off her and smelled like coins. I wanted that taste, wanted it in my mouth.

“Never have I met a soul more pathetic than you.” She shook her flat chest in my face. She lifted my shirt over my head and put my arms down, wrapping belts around them and my legs to the chair.

“I like you, Cadoc. I always have. You were so safe. So safe, I just wanted to rip your fingers off.”

I looked up into her green eyes with a fleck of yellow thrown in there somewhere. “I’ve done terrible things, too,” I said. “We’re not so different.”

She grabbed my hair and pulled it back hard so my face was tilted up.

“Okay, okay,” I said and made struggle sounds.

“I’ve carried things over to the other side, Cadoc. Daddy Fink brought me a rat named Snowflake. I chucked it against a wall. I blow-darted a possum in the eyeball. Have you ever touched an electric fence? Do you know what a Daddy Long Legs is?”

She let go of my hair and punched me a hard one across the face.

“Do you know what a Daddy Long Legs spider is?”

I nodded my head, whimpering. She unfastened my leather belt and pulled my pants and underwear off quickly, so that I was naked and anxious and yearning.

“The most dangerous mother on the planet, the Daddy Long Legs. Just ain’t got no fangs to bite with. I used to pluck off their legs so that they were tiny red balls, carry them around in a Ziploc bag like ammo. Someone pissed me off and I could crush it up in their carton of milk. Or crush the whole bunch of ’em in the water tower and kill everybody in the whole town.”

“Actually, I bet my dad gets off early today. Yep, I remember him saying something like that.”

“Shut up, you pussy.” She put her finger to my lips and then stuck it in my mouth. It tasted like a finger. She pushed it in deep and kept repeating shut up, shut up. I thought of honeymoons and pregnancy and the disturbing sound of a newborn crying.

“You suppose to be a man but you’ve got no balls.”

“I’ve got balls,” I murmured over her finger, deep in my mouth.

“I can see that,” she said, looking down. “But you don’t know the first thing about being a man. You have no idea how to fuck me. You’re afraid of stingerless bees!  But I’m gonna cure you, Cadoc Cadwaller. I’m gonna cure you, gonna set you free. You’re one of us now. And here at the bottom we got to look out for each other.” She walked out of the room.

I tried to move, but the belts were so tight I felt like I had no arms or legs. I don’t know how much time passed. I heard her put Led Zeppelin on my father’s record player in the living room.

She poked her leg through the door, kicked it out slowly like beautiful ladies did when they were hitchhiking on TV. She danced through the door, her bare shoulders bobbing out from one of my mother’s favorite dresses, strapless and silk and blue, sagging on her bony frame. She had stuffed toilet paper to fill up the breast space. Her face was powdered peach with blush and she had so much eye shadow on that she looked like a caricature of an Egyptian priestess. My mother’s earrings in her ears and on her feet, high red heels.

“Well, what do you think?” She lifted up her hands and pirouetted to give me the full view. “A Fink. A real woman. Who would have thought?” She had my T-shirt, folded over in one of her hands.

“You have no business touching my mother’s—”

“Ssssshhhh.” She shook her toilet-papered breasts in my face. She lifted open my shirt in her hands just quick enough to show about fifteen bees swimming in the cloth.

I screamed. Humming the Led Zeppelin and shaking her ass to the bass drum, Adele extracted a bee from the shirt and held it in front of my face. She plucked the wings off easily, and when she dropped them they flew off with a breeze that came through the window. She disappeared behind me and left scratch marks on my chest and unfolded her tongue into my ear. “Remember, Cadoc,” she whispered, “the boys can’t sting you, but they can sure as hell burrow,” and placed the creature in my ear.

I could feel each one of its little tendrils and I knew it would think my ear wax was honey and dig towards it, drilling through my brain. If it didn’t have a stinger now, it would grow one. It would call its friends and hollow me out and make honey out of my insides. It would find a way to destroy me. I was hyperventilating, breathing in chokes.

Adele danced back to the shirt full of bees on the ground. She attached more to my bare chest and head. I was shaking all over and cold. When I shook my head violently the bees didn’t fall off. They walked all over my body as sweat pooled in my pits.

“Let it surround you,” she said. “Don’t fight it. I’ll be back soon enough.” She kissed me on the lips. Her long rancid tongue forced its way through my clenched teeth. She closed the door and I heard her turn the music up louder in the living room.

Even though the window was open, I didn’t call out. I didn’t want anyone to find me like this: belts holding me down and bees crawling over my dinger. I closed my eyes and recited the Apostles’ Creed and the Hail Mary and the theme song to Gilligan’s Island many times over, surrendering myself to death. The world purpled around me, the same dark color that grew around my vision every time I looked at my mother.

Mother in the passenger seat. The AC softly catches her blond hair and picks it up. The light from the dash colors her face green.

My father driving. We’re floating down the highway returning home from a day at the beach. Dark woods surround. Rain tapping on the roof of the car like a soft drum roll. Me, six-and-a-half years old in the back bench on squeaky blue leather. All delirious from standstill traffic and the thick rain. My mother pretends our car is a spaceship. Presses the cigarette lighter in. A radio to Earth.

Mission Control, come in. My mother cups her hand over her mouth when she speaks. This is Commander Caroline. Captain of the 1983 Buick Regal, beginning our descent from orbit down to Intergalactic Highway-128.

What’s it look like up there in space? I asked. The Earth, I mean.

Absolutely beautiful, mission control. Wish you could see it. Big and blue and green and we can see Africa and Eskimos and famous people everywhere.

Nothing but dark water and dark highway.

Up here, no one can touch us. We have the whole world to ourselves.

How long will it take for you to come back? I ask. She knew what I really meant. When are we getting home?

Well, mission control, good question. The atmospheric conditions up here aren’t exactly favorable and there is a slight chance your daddy will have to pull over to pee again. Warm laughing voices fill the small car.

I see it in the road. Two small yellow eyes, blinking like diamonds. A dog? Armadillo? Swamp rat? A child of six years old? Not knowing leaves you nowhere to put the blame but on yourself.

The wheel spinning in my father’s hands. Laughter into screams. The brakes crack like fingernails snapping off against chalkboard. Time skips. Or freezes. We’re moving forward, forward through blackness. I thought as I reached out to grab her, where were the yellow stripes of the road, but I could not reach her. Below us, the metal stretching and stretching. Then the car pulls back, tight as a knot. And I watch the bottom of my mother’s bare feet fly through the windshield.

The steering wheel like part of my father’s chest. His face dripping ropes of red, rolling down over the dash. The front of our car wrapped around a wide tree with purple bark-like scabs. Front tire still spinning. My father opens his mouth to talk. But no language, a choking sound.

I want to move.

I want to separate our car from the tree and put us back on the road. I want to shove those ropes of blood back in my father’s head. I want to translate his chokes into English. I want to run out to my mother’s shape in the dark, wet forest and reanimate the dead. I want to be circling the world in green tinted orbit, far removed from all of this. But I stay in the back of the car in my seat belt and that is where this usually ends.

But the vision keeps on. I am still in the car on the squeaky blue leather. I lift my hands. Squeeze them. I have control. Mother. Her shape. Door handle. Wet ground. She’s naked. Face down. Her skin glows bright, pale pink. Her hands swollen, doughy as a newborn’s. Body bloated up like something waterlogged. How long was I sitting there in the car while she was out here in the thickest rain still moaning? I say her name and her long blond hair moves, starts retracting back into her head. Crawling up her body like the lifting of curtains for the first act of a play. Like her roots were strings being yanked in from the inside. I lift her head.

This is not my mother.

This is Adele Fink. Foaming at the mouth and telling me to call my father.

And then I was back in the room, naked again, with the belts and the chair and Adele in the dress sprawled out on the floor, her body blown up like a pink balloon. I could see the red peaks on her neck and shoulders where she had been stung. I knew enough to know she was suffering from some sort of allergic reaction. She lay there, pink and huge and foaming, her eyes closed. Now I yelled for help out the window.

Thirty minutes later my father got home from work. With his hand over his mouth he crossed himself and paced in the hallway outside my door saying, “Oh Jesus, oh Jesus,” a million times. I didn’t have a voice to explain. My father undid the belts and not once did he look at my face. He ran over to the Finks’ and came back. They weren’t home. He picked Adele up over his shoulder and took off down the gravel road in his truck.

Again, I had failed. I had turned Adele Fink into a giant pink marshmallow. I was the reason my mother was stuck in the coma. Stuck out in orbit. I had killed my father’s hope.

I ran out to the rusty tin shack where my father stored his gardening tools and my failed Christmas presents—an unassembled weight bench, a Daisy twenty-two rifle, every kind of baseball mitt, a batting tee, roller blades, hiking gear, collapsible tents, football pads, elbow pads, jock straps, etc.—all still wrapped in plastic or packed inside their boxes. I had begged my father to return each one, but he ripped up all the receipts and stared at the floor.

I went through the crates and boxes. I put a wool ski mask over my head and stepped in the fishing waders that went up to my chest. I attached catcher’s gear over my body like armor. I grabbed the aluminum bat, some gardening shovels that I thought resembled daggers, and the vacuum cleaner with its suck-noodle thing.

I went through the house yelling, but I had no sound left. I bashed bees with the bat, flattening them. I was fearless and impenetrable. They were the blinking diamond eyes that stole my mother. They didn’t even really try to fly away. They accepted their fate. I took off the gloves and crushed them with my bare hands. I went outside with the vacuum noodle and sucked the females out of their holes. They came out by the hundreds. I sucked the dirty dishes and the holes my father punched in the walls back to normal. I sucked my mother back through the windshield. I had rid the entire house of the bees in an hour and by the end of it had enough bee carcasses to fill a small trash bag. Which is exactly what I did.

I ran out to the road with the clear plastic bag of bees. Even though it was full, it hardly weighed a thing. The sun was at its highest and I ran until my breath gave out. I waved a flatbed trunk down and climbed in.

My father had taken Adele to St. Tammany’s, the only hospital within a hundred miles.

I ran past my father before he saw me, the sole person in the waiting room, sitting with his elbows on his knees and his head buried in his hands. I knew the layout of this hospital well enough by now, wandering around it while my father visited my mother; I knew exactly where they brought the new patients.

I was going to show Adele the bees, present them to her, so she’d have proof of my ascent to manhood. I’d buy her cigarettes for the rest of her life with the bounty earned because she had cured me.

I found her name on a clipboard outside a sheet and flung it open.

Adele didn’t look human. She looked like a cartoon. All her features were exaggerated except for her little eyes, which looked like dots in her pink face. The blue dress was hanging up on the wall with a giant slit down the side; they must have had to cut it off her. Adele had the sheets pulled up to her neck glands and her hands resting on top, so swollen there was no way she could hold anything. She was covered in sweat and there were three small plastic fans pointed at her.

I held up the garbage bag, packed with the dead.

“The bees. I killed them. All of them.”

She focused her little eyes on the contents. Everything was slow and gradual. Her dark eyes got wet, then droplets ran down the sides of her face towards her ears.

“Get a good look,” I said, shaking the bag. “We’re rich.” I brought the bag closer and she exploded.

Her hand thrashed out and tore the bag open, sending a million dead bees circling out and pouring into the bed. They spilled over her, filling up the valleys in the sheets, and careening over the sides of her cot. They took flight in the air of the fans. The lifeless black bees reanimated and swarming in her crowded white cell. She flailed her elephantine limbs and her cracking voice filled the ward, unmusical as locking brakes. Desperate voices behind the curtains joined her. Nurses came running down the hall. Soon the entire ward was screaming in fear of the unknown. The bees themselves seemed to scream.

I ran past the old man and the infected, rolling around in their cots with wide eyes, past the couple in plaster swaying in their straps and yelling through their coin-slot mouths. When I got to my mother nothing had changed. There were still the whites of her eyes; her pupils pointed somewhere else in her head, where I couldn’t see. She was hooked up to great menacing machines, but I didn’t acknowledge them. I moved towards the bed, hugged her frail body, imagined the rain pelting my shoulders in the middle of the woods where I lost her. I moved my fingers through her long hair, held it in my fingers and kissed it. Her body was warm and I felt her pressing out towards me from whatever depth she was kept. I knew she was staring back at me through a pane of glass to which she whispered, “It’s okay to be afraid.”