When Arati was born, bees hovered above her crib. The humming swarm yielded only to her mother and those with the gentlest of touches. As she grew, they followed her, buzzing around her head and nestling within her clothes. They made a hive in her wall, widening a thin crack in the mud between the room she shared with her parents and the tiny garden they kept. The bees tickled her cheek with their wings when she cried, and sometimes she thought she heard them whispering; not in words but in meaning, like the language of dreams. They stung the people who upset her—the milk-delivery boy who made fun of her doll, the gun-wielding lowlander men who demanded coins from their village, the old woman who said Arati was a curse on her family. A child of the bees, the village people knew, was always volatile. They were never sure what would upset her, so they stayed away.
Eventually, as Arati grew to understand the fear of the people around her, she began to hate her bees. She swatted them away and closed her ears to their whispering, but they persisted until she set fire to the hive in the bedroom wall. Then, at last, they left. She still heard them sometimes, just on the edge of her hearing, like the distant call of a bird at night.
When she was twelve, she had a fight with her mother. In the heat of the moment, she wished to herself a wish that many children shared, that her mother was no more, and the bees came to this call. From miles around they came, from the forest and the field and further up the mountain. They came, and they stung. For a week after, her mother ailed. For a week after, she withered, the stings puffing on her skin as if drawing the life from her. Then she died.
Arati’s father, deep in his grief, sent her to live with the witch.
Arati traveled up the mountain, through the thick forest and goat-thin paths. Goodwitch Vidya lived in a simple bamboo hut and cared for the bees on the cliffside. She was wrinkled and hunched and moved at the pace of the rising sun, but her withered brown hands touched the bees unscathed, harvesting healing red honey and combs from the plated cliffside hives as easily as another would pick fruit from a tree. She told fortunes in the movements of the swarms. Every week, people came to her for healing or comfort or advice, and she would give it all, accepting with grace whatever paltry gifts they could afford to give her.
“Bees know their witch better than anyone,” she told Arati that first week, showing her a jar of glossy crimson honey. “They feel us, understand us. They read our lives in the lines of our hands. They aren’t just insects—they are part of this land. Just as we are.”
Arati hated it all. Hated the kind witch, whose eyes knew every part of a bee’s life, from egg to flight to death. Hated hauling wood from the forest, hated thatching the leaking roof. Hated the people who begged the witch for help, hated especially the ones from her village, who turned their eyes from her as if she were diseased. Hated her father, who never came.
But most of all she hated the bees, who buzzed about her head and asked to be let in.
Arati could not understand them like the witch did. They scared her, the way they pulsed and flowed through the air like a storm. She could not forgive them for killing her mother any more than she could forgive herself.
During harvests, Goodwitch Vidya would scale down the cliff on a rope and cut chunks from the hives, the bees swarming around her in a constant humming haze, soothed by her voice. Not once did they sting her. When Arati joined the harvest, she had to clutch a pouch that trickled sweet smoke and move slowly, her arms and legs covered in cloth, and still she sometimes left with painful stings.
“They die after they sting someone, don’t they?” Arati said one day as they sat in front of their hut and crushed honey from combs. “Why would they do something so stupid?”
“Each bee is one of many. They give themselves out of love—for each other, for their queen and their hive, and for me. Is it that strange for them to die for the ones they love?”
Arati remembered her mother ailing. Dying. For what—for love? A bee settled on one of her honey-slick fingers, and she heard that whisper again, a familiar humming from so long ago: we know you.
She shook the bee off, dropping the honeycomb, and Goodwitch Vidya sighed.
They lived in that uneasy peace, an orphan and an old woman and a cliffside of bees, until the lowlanders came. The lowlanders had taken money from Arati’s village for as long as she could remember, armed with hard black guns they swung over their shoulders; always men and always tall, as if the thick air of the lowlands had filled them taut like waterskins. But they never came here. Goodwitch Vidya saw their arrival in the hive the day before, and so she got up early and set tea over the fire. The bees hummed around her anxiously and occasionally landed on her shoulder, as if trying to give her comfort.
The men arrived when the sun was high. They came demanding not money but healing honey, red from the crimson flowers found only here. To Arati’s surprise, Vidya refused. To her even greater surprise, the lowlanders left.
“They cannot gather the honey themselves,” the witch told her. “And they know better than to harm a witch.”
Arati was not so sure. They came back again and again, week after week, and each time they left with a growing darkness in their eyes. She heard their anger rumbling in her sleep, their patience waning with the moon. It was an almost familiar anger. Arati could feel it growing within her too; anger at her village for fearing her, anger at the bees for wanting her to join their hive one moment and dying to hurt her another, anger at the witch for saying that the two of them were anything alike. She did not want to be here, not with the incessant buzzing and the aches from scaling cliffs and hauling firewood, and especially not with Goodwitch Vidya, who would not give up her precious honey to the people with guns. Who would get them both killed when that darkness boiled over.
“Honey is the lifeblood of this place,” Vidya told her one day as they squeezed out thick honey. “Each person, each village—all are a part of a hive, and it’s our duty to help them. You, me, and the women before us, generations back, from the moment our people arrived in this land. Understand?”
Arati was not sure she did.
That night a woman came to them crying, clutching a feverish child. By moonlight Vidya spread crimson honey onto the child’s sores, her soothing hums harmonizing with the bees that circled the garden, her eyes soft and infinite as she worked unresting through the night. Arati did not know how to comfort the woman. She felt useless, and all she could think of was her mother, who had wheezed in a bed like this child, her last ragged gasps a gift from her own cursed daughter.
Goodwitch Vidya looked up at her, just once, and in that moment Arati felt the great weight of generations press onto her back, the duty of witches long gone. A duty she did not want. A duty she was expected to uphold. She made tea with numb hands, let the woman cry onto her shoulder, and all the while the bees hummed from the cracks in the walls.
Arati made a choice. When the lowlanders came again, she followed them. Far from the witch and far from the bees, she approached them and made a deal.
“Take me away from here,” she told them, “and the honey is yours.”
They argued, but she had the stubbornness of youth. One batch of honey and they would bring her down to the lowlands and let her go, where she could form a new life away from this all.
She feared the bees might know her plan when she returned, their whispers of we know you swimming through her head, but life went on as normal. She waited days for the lowlanders to appear, each sunset a stinger boring into her skin.
The boy recovered, the woman left, and the lowlanders came once again. This time they arrived with great baskets strapped to their backs. The bees fled, leaving the witch and Arati in the hut.
“I’m sorry,” Goodwitch Vidya said, “but—”
They shoved past her and looked to Arati, hands on their weapons. Goodwitch Vidya looked to her too, but her face was worn and tired, as if the weight of this betrayal had compounded every day they had spent together, heaping upon her the ages of the witches who came before.
“Rethink this, Arati,” she said. “These men are not your—”
They struck her, and she fell with a cry. The lowlanders shoved Arati from the hut, assuring her in their gruff voices that she would be free of this place soon. She tried not to cry as she led them to the hives, feeling the burning of Vidya’s gaze until they were out of sight.
The bees roiled on the cliffside. For just a moment Arati thought she saw them like Vidya did, saw the future and the past in their shifting shapes, like glimpsing for an instant a rabbit in the clouds. Then it was gone, and they were just bees. Just insects that had ruined her life.
She brought the lowlanders to the top of the cliff, where she lit her sweet smokepouch and wrapped her limbs and mouth in cloth. The lowlanders feared the darting bees, so alone Arati pulled the rope from the ground and fastened it to a tree, letting it unfurl down the cliffside.
She strapped a basket to her back and scaled down. Immediately, the bees swarmed around her, buzzing furiously, their whispers of we know you echoing in her head, and for a moment she thought they would kill her. She thought they would look inside her and take her life for what they found, atonement they should have exacted long ago. But it seemed more of a dog’s growl than a bite, and they let her work. She carefully cut into a hive with a knife, exposing the insides like a wound, like the skin of a bamboo stripped back to reveal white flesh. Her hands shook. The bees buzzed so loud she could not hear her own beating heart. She forced herself to think of a place away from here, a place with no bees, no kind witches, no reminders of what she had done.
She smelled burning. Not her own sweet smoke but something bitter. She looked up.
The lowlander leader held a burning rag over the cliffside. The bees were too focused on her to give his proximity a thought. “Sorry, little girl,” he said, “but there’s a war going on. A single batch won’t do it. And if we can’t have that honey, no one can.”
He let the rag fall. It struck one of the hives, which erupted into flames. Arati ducked her head and shrieked. A part of herself was burning too, a jagged pain ripping through her stomach and into her ribs, as if something were tearing her apart. The bees panicked. They swarmed from the burning hive, some of them smoldering like embers for a moment before falling far to the earth. What had once been a distant whisper roared wordlessly in her head.
Another hive burst into flames. A chunk of burning hive fell past her, trailing tiny corpses. Trembling, Arati scrambled up her rope, but it jerked once, just once, and then tumbled free. She plummeted down the cliff, her head swarming, bees massing in her wake as if she were a hand waved through dust. It took forever to fall—her entire life.
When she hit the ground, she wondered for an instant if this was what her mother had felt—a torturous week climaxing in a moment of agony and fear.
She lay in the crimson flowers at the base of the cliff, a broken girl watching the hives burn above her; watching the frantic swarms who could not place their attackers, their tiny minds understanding only the flames. A single bee landed on her nose. Then another, brushing her cheek, tickling her through her tears as if she were a child. She heard it again, that dreaded whisper, we know you. And she feared, because she knew it to be true. Because here and now, as she lay too weak to keep them out, the bees knew inside of her. Every horrible thought and horrible deed: setting fire to the hive in the wall, the deal with the lowlanders, her mother dead, every cruel thing she’d done in her life laid out like honeycombs in a familiar hive.
But instead of a final sting to end her life, she felt a strange sense of peace. They knew every part of her, every flaw and every mistake, but still the bees called to her and asked to be let in. They knew her goodness too, the parts she could not see for herself. As the cliff burned above her and tears crystallized on her cheeks, she understood what it meant to be part of something. To be part of the hive.
She let them in. They filled her, desperate and mourning, and with them she rose. Her body flowed with crimson nectar, and her bones slotted together like honeycomb. Their wings hummed inside her skin as they flew higher and higher, more and more bees joining the swarm. As she stepped onto the clifftop, the lowlander leader raised his gun and pulled the trigger, but it only clicked, clogged with pollen and bees. He froze, and the others fled. The bees, understanding at last who had hurt them, pursued, a horrendous swarm that stretched and flowed as if it were all one creature, entombing the screaming men. The leader swung his weapon desperately at the swarm, but Arati only stepped aside and watched his momentum carry him off the cliff, his screams ending a moment later in an almost silent crunch. The bees swarmed around her too, but she knew they would never sting her again. She was part of the hive.
By the time Goodwitch Vidya struggled to the cliff, half the hives were mere burn marks on the stone. Arati hung from the rope near another, extracting a queen from her smoldering prison.
“Well,” Goodwitch Vidya said, “do you understand now why bees die for their hives?”
Arati held the queen in her hand, watching bees fuss over her wings and legs. “Perhaps.”
When Goodwitch Vidya died, bees swarmed over her grave for months, mourning. Arati thought that perhaps people would stop coming to the hut, but they did not. They left flowers and jars of spice at Vidya’s grave, then stepped into the witch hut for healing or comfort or advice. Arati gave it. Bees bumbled from teacup to chair to the garden outside, their humming a comfort to her and the people who had been hurting enough to brave the walk, who sought the lifeblood of this place—not just the honey, but the witch who provided it.
Arati waited for the day she knew would come, when a child would be brought to her with the hive in their heart.