The Sweetness of Honey and Rot

Issue #254

It’s the last day of autumn, and Jiteh’s twin brother is dead.

He sits on the edge of his cot, thorns popping like seedlings from between his knuckles and poking through his sweaty scalp in a blood-slicked crown. “I’m scared,” he whispers.

Jiteh bites the tip of her tongue hard enough to feel her heartbeat between her teeth. It makes her focus on the pain and keeps her from opening her mouth. She isn’t allowed to speak to the dead.

She yanks open the reed curtain and lets in the dawn. She can’t tell him she heard his death in her sleep: the crunch of tree branches winding through his bones, the smell of sweet rot as his skin softened and let the thorns through. It woke her before it woke him. She can’t tell him her heart almost stopped, clogged with rage.

“Jie?”

She pulls on her long wool shirt and belts it with his leather cord. All his possessions will belong to her by tonight, and she doesn’t want her mothers to bury them to forget.

He starts shaking. The thorns glisten in the chill morning light. “Jie, please. Don’t leave me.”

When the Life Tree chooses its tithe, it sends tendrils through the earth. The thorns spread from the center of the village and the sacred branch, tunneling up beneath the floor of the chosen’s hut. The thorns wind through the soles of the feet, course through veins, and emerge from skin like newborns wetted with membrane and blood. The roots break off once threaded into flesh so the Treekeepers can carry the tithe to the House of Delight.

It is an honor. When one becomes a tithe, one will be reborn as a leaf in the Life Tree, watching over the valley and all who come after.

She looks at her brother—his veins still warm, his eyes bright with wasted tears, his breath ragged. She says, just to herself, “I won’t forget who my brother is.”

The Treekeepers come for her brother after her mothers see he’s been chosen. The Treekeepers wear heavy bark masks painted in expressions of joy; red and green pigments sweeping in gaudy patterns that circle inwards from a white center. Their robes are made from sloth fur, unadorned, and they carry sacred branches strapped across their shoulders like bony wings.

“Blessed are thorns that grow from fertile soil,” the younger Treekeeper chants. Her voice is one Jiteh remembers. It belongs to her oldest sister, who is no longer kin now that she has taken the robes. “Praise to the Life Tree.”

“Praise,” her mothers respond.

Jiteh grits her teeth. If she loses her temper, she’ll be punished and her mothers will lose both their children.

“House of Masaud,” the elder Treekeeper says. He’s the oldest person in the village. Jiteh’s grandmother spoke of him as unchanged even in her youth. “You have been honored to give a tithe for the winter.”

Jiteh’s brother huddles between the Treekeepers. He can’t run.

“We serve the Tree,” Kersah, her first mother, says tonelessly. Deswu, her second mother, inclines her head, her hands clenched behind her back. Her thick fists bulge; only Jiteh sees the brick, one pried from the hearth, and she knows her mother won’t use it.

No one except her dead brother cries. Jiteh sits on their front step, the wide smooth sandstone carved with her family names along the edges. She pulls the thin stone rod from its box and chips away at her brother’s name. It need not be done until tomorrow, but she can’t stand the reminder she’ll never speak of him again.

The Treekeepers gently hoist her brother by the elbows and carry him towards the village center and the House of Delight.

Jiteh scrapes her nails ragged against the sandstone as she finishes her task. There’s only a gouge, now, above her unknown father’s name. “I’m going to tend the bees,” she tells her mothers, who stand arm in arm on the path. “I’ll return for evening prayer.”

Her mothers, heavy-boned women with worn sun-burned skin, nod in dismissal. Neither looks at her.

Jiteh pounds her sandals against the cobbled path that loops behind their family hut to the bee hives stacked in tiers. Fog sweeps in thick damp breaths across her village as if the ancient mountains far beyond the forest have sweated off layers of mist.

The bees are slow, readying for the winter. She walks the hives, brushing her fingertips against the wooden slats. “I wish I was a bee,” she tells them. “I’d fly from here, far beyond the Boundary. I’d find flowers no one has ever seen and make the sweetest honey and give none of it to the Tree.”

The bees don’t answer her in words, but she feels their sluggish sympathy. Ever since she was little, barely upright on her feet, she has loved the hives. She’d sit amidst the swarms, stick her chubby hands into the honeycomb without being stung. The Treekeepers blessed her skill and named her one of the tenders of the hives.

She loves the bees, even though they can’t help her. No one can save her brother.

Jiteh presses her palms against her mouth and screams.

On the fifteenth day of winter, the village gathers for the exchange of the tithe.

Jiteh shivers. She’s bare-armed, as tradition demands, and the harsh breeze from the forest smells of old growth and mulch. Her skin is painted with her name, her family house, her duties—Jiteh of Masaud, keeper of bees.

Her kin and neighbors crowd the brick-paved square planted at the front of the village on the path to the forest. Treekeepers hold the bright-lamps—alchemy without fire—aloft to light the circle; the clouds obscure the moon tonight.

The Trough of Life stands cold at the epicenter of the square. Carried on a cot draped in the finest barkcloth is her once-brother.

The thorns have been plucked from his skin and the wounds packed with savory spices. His eyes and mouth are sewn shut and painted with sweet jelly. Salt and honey glaze his naked flesh, and his chest rises and falls in slow, sedated breaths. He’s been fed nothing but cream and honey for the fifteen days since he was chosen as tithe, and his body is gloriously plump and ripe.

Jiteh bites her tongue. This time it is she who holds a brick behind her back. She’s always had a strong arm. One throw and she might crack her brother’s skull and spoil the tithe. The Tree would grow angry. Her fingers weaken, sweat chill on her skin, and she lets the brick fall. She chose not to stand near her mothers, but their arms are painted with their house name, too.

No one has ever defied the Tree. Not the families of the tithes, nor foreigners who pass the Boundary, a misted veil that shields the valley and its old forest. She’s as helpless as she’s always been. Like when Ahuat, her friend, was chosen last autumn. Like when her mentor for the bees, Oliet, had to give her a larger share of duties when her son Bishteh was picked in the spring.

The Tree’s holy sloths appear in the darkness, shuffling in single-file along the road from the forest. Tension tingles at Jiteh’s skin like the dance of bees directing each other to pollen.

The sloths are great man-sized beasts walking upright, covered in mossy fur, eyes like small moons aglow in the bright-lamps. They move in silence. A dozen of them, huge front claws dragging against the ground.

“Praise to the Life Tree, sustainer, watcher, and protector of all,” the elder Treekeeper says. “We offer this body in honor of all the Tree has given. We give with humbleness and gratitude. Praise to the Life Tree.”

“Praise to the Life Tree,” everyone says.

Jiteh doesn’t let herself flinch or look away as four sloths pick up the cot with the tithe and shuffle back towards the forest.

It’s traditional for the village to make the journey to the Tree itself in high summer, when the tithe is greater, and give worship. She remembers since she was six how the sloths lay the tithed bodies at the roots of the towering Life Tree. How the thinner roots unwound and penetrated the soft, succulent flesh of the tithes. The Tree feasted; the holy sloths, hanging like huge rotted fruits from the branches, bit through bark to taste the sap that sustained them. The tithe bones were swallowed into the ground at the roots and would regrow as white leaves amidst the Tree’s bloody foliage.

When these sloths have disappeared into the night, the village families let out a collective breath. Relief that this season they will be safe and prosperous. That this season, it was not one of theirs who was chosen.

Jiteh creeps back to her beehives after the ceremony. Forehead pressed against the slats, she digs her fingernails into the boards until wood splinters prick her skin.

“One day,” she tells the bees, “I will destroy that Tree.”

A year passes. At her puberty crossing, when she’s sprinkled with watered sap from the Tree in the House of Delight, she is given a carved brick from the Holy Kiln. It’s heavy, bigger than both her fists, with an image of the Tree inscribed on all sides. It will be the foundation of her new house when she marries. Her mothers smile, the first time they’ve shown happiness since the autumn tithe. Jiteh doesn’t smile back. Her brother is not beside her.

The first day of the following spring, Jiteh wakes early and finds a small barkpaper bag at the foot of her cot. It was pushed through the reed curtain—two of the stalks are bent in the middle.

Her stomach squirms like minnow spawn, churning up nervousness. No one has snuck her a courtship gift before. She’s fourteen, her hair brushing her right shoulder while the left side is smooth like a bee stripe. She’s noticed several other girls and quite a few of the boys eyeing her, the grim-jawed beekeeper who rarely speaks.

She has had little to say since her brother died. There are no thorns in her knuckles or her scalp. The Tree has never chosen two in the same family without three years between. She sings with the bees, however, when she’s alone by the hives. They hear her fury and grief the way no one in the village will.

Jiteh opens the gift and finds a pinecone. It’s the size of her fist, dried and peeled open. She breathes deep. Pines only grow by the Boundary or on the mountain range, which is too far beyond the forest for anyone to travel to and from. There’s a note folded into minuscule corners between two of the pinecone’s nubs.

Jie,

I’ve thought about you each morning and evening since we danced together at Leaf Fall. The cold winds have not chased away the image of your hands and face. I would like to court you, if you feel the same.

Will you favor me with an afternoon? I’d like to see you soon. As soon as you can. Please? I’m where the pinecones fall.

—Mateu

Jiteh reads the note several more times. Mateu is the stone mason’s son. He and her brother and she used to collect rocks and build small temples for the ants and beetles, or steal carrots from House Louteh’s gardens to bait traps for groundsquirrels. Each squirrel pelt was worth a drop of bright-lamp fluid from the alchemist.

She thought the two of them were simply friends. Mateu often confided in her—when his mother was chosen on his tenth summer, he cried into her shoulder half the night. She thought he’d lost interest in her, favored others with his attention, as they both grew older.

That he might fancy her makes her throat flutter with excitement. For the first time in years, she feels more than fury. She isn’t in love. But she has admired his body, thick and muscled, and enjoyed his wit and laughter in communal meals. He is always the first to compliment her on the honey.

She’s only hiked to the borderlands twice. Once with her brother, when they were ten and the weaver’s daughter dared them, and once when their older sister became a Treekeeper. She knows the way.

The pines sway like tall ghosts in crisp green gowns, needles still dewy as the fog ebbs. Broken cones shift and crunch under her boots.

“Jie?” Mateu leans out from behind a scrappy pine. His face is drawn; he grows his hair in a long strip down the center of his scalp, knotted with needles. “Thank the Tree.”

She folds her arms, slowing. This isn’t the greeting she expected. “What’s wrong?”

He hunches his shoulders, his hands clasped against his belly. “I didn’t know who else I could tell. I’m scared.”

Her spine prickles. Her dead brother’s voice lingers in her memory. Jie, I’m scared.

Jiteh breathes in deep. A trick, then. He doesn’t want to kiss her. “Did something happen, Mateu?” He couldn’t have killed anyone, or the sloths would have come. A pregnancy is a celebration, not a shame. Did he steal from the Treekeepers?

Mateu holds out his palms, trembling, and tiny blue flames ignite against his skin.

Jiteh flinches.

Fire is a forbidden element: the Life Tree banned flame since before the village was born. Only heat-stones and alchemical bright-lamps are sanctioned. She’s seen fire once, when a foreigner came down from the borderlands, through the Boundary, with a lantern. The sloths took the foreigner away and snuffed out the flame, but she recognizes it here.

He edges forward, arms extended.

“Rot,” she curses under her breath. She steps back. “Stay away from me.”

Mateu clenches his hands, and smoke curls between his fingers. “I thought...” His throat bobs. “I thought it was an accident, like when Bishteh broke a heatstone because he tried to carry too many at once.” She hadn’t been there, but she’d heard the story from her brother: how the stones had clacked together and sparks glittered in the air. “But it keeps seeping out. It burns inside, it hurts, and—” He presses his fists against his forehead. “What do I do, Jie?”

“I don’t know,” she says. “I need to go.”

“Don’t—”

She glares at him, her face flushed with shame. “You lied to make me come here!”

“I’m sorry.” He snatches at his tears, nails scraping his cheeks. “Jie, I didn’t think—I didn’t know who else to tell. And it’s not a lie!” He gulps down breaths like water. “I do like you. But—you had to know this first, and—”

“Stop.” Disappointment gnaws against her stomach, devouring the excited flutters. She retreats, step-by-step, back down the path. “I speak to bees. I can’t help you.”

He slumps down to the dead needles, shaking harder. “If the Treekeepers find out... I didn’t do this deliberately, Jie, I swear. You’re the only one I can trust not to tell.”

She hesitates. Tithes are chosen, the Treekeepers preach, because of their virtue. It is an honor to serve the village. But those who defy the Life Tree and disobey, those who resist the Way of Life, those ones are ripped to pieces by the sloths. They receive no ritual blessing to ensure they will be regrown from the soil as the grass, as fruit or lesser trees.

Mateu is not dead. She can still help him.

And, if he has fire, perhaps he can help her.

“Go home,” she tells him. “I’ll think of something.” She doesn’t know what to do, but she doesn’t want him to panic again.

Mateu trudges down the path, glancing back every few steps until he’s out of sight.

Jiteh presses through pine branches and dry undergrowth. As the pines thin and give way to grassland, she feels the tingle of the Boundary.

It shimmers like endless mist against the ground, stretching up the sky; it wraps the valley on all sides, even into the mountains. It’s opaque, a sheet of fog that climbs into the clouds. She imagines the other side like a tapestry: lush hills, opulent berry bushes, great expanses of meadow filled with bright flowers that would make the sweetest honey. Beyond the grayness is another world, she knows, one she yearns to see. The Life Tree sustains the Boundary; very few foreigners find their way through it, and no one she has ever known has stepped beyond it. Her bees cannot pass either.

Her grandmother whispered of this other world to her and her brother when they were small.

“We aren’t to speak of it,” Grandmother said. It was the night before she was found drowned; she had slipped on a mossy stone while bathing by the river and struck her head in the fall. “So you mustn’t ever tell. But once there were many villages in the valley and beyond. There were many more people, and the Boundary was thin, easy to pass between. That is how my mother came here.”

“Did all the villages tithe?” Jiteh’s brother asked.

Grandmother shook her head. “Not all. The Tree grew jealous and closed away the valley so we would not run away like other villages did. And so it has been.”

“Can we go beyond the Boundary?” Jiteh asked.

Grandmother sighed. “No, child. Not any longer.”

“Why not?” Jiteh insisted. “Won’t the Tree let us?”

Her mothers overheard and hushed Grandmother. “Don’t plant treason in their heads,” Kersah said.

“They should know, daughter,” Grandmother said.

Deswu looked away. “Mother-of-my-wife, please. Do not poison our children. It’s enough that her first husband...” But she did not finish.

Grandmother patted Deswu and Kersah’s clasped hands. “Do not forget. We were not always in debt to the Tree.”

Jiteh lets her hand hover a breath away from the Boundary. Somewhere beyond, there are people who do not watch their brothers devoured by the Life Tree. There are people who do not praise.

She clenches her fist and turns back towards her village. Brilliant red petals tipped in blue-black fuzz catch her eye. She crouches. She’s never seen these flowers anywhere near the village; they are barely the size of her fingertips, dark stems curled like tiny thorns. She plucks several and weaves them into her hair for safekeeping.

She’s begun to master the direction of her bees, sending groups to specific flowers, fruits, and trees to bring back pollen. If these are a new flower, she’s curious how sweet a honey they will make.

She finds Mateu by her beehives. He jumps when she approaches and clamps his hands together behind his back.

“How much...” She teases the word fire against her lips, but gives it no weight or breath. “Can you hold in your palms?”

He shifts from foot to foot. “A lot, I think. Why? I just want it to go away.”

She beckons him close, curls an arm around his neck and pulls his mouth against hers. His kiss is awkward, as is hers, but she finds his tongue and he leans closer. After a moment, she draws back. He blinks fast, his breath short as if he’s just ran two laps around the village. Jiteh’s lips tingle and her heartbeat echoes up her throat in excitement.

“You could set the Tree alight,” she whispers, fierce, and kisses him again. His lips are hot and so are hers. She holds him against her and whispers the rest of her plan into his ear. “You could burn it all.”

He wrenches back, wide-eyed. “Are you mad?”

She shrugs. “Your mother was a tithe. So was my brother. Don’t you want something better than wondering who else you love will be chosen?”

“But it’s an honor,” he says. “It’s why we have happiness, it’s why we’re safe. Without it, we’d have no crops and no protection from beyond the Boundary. Don’t you hear what the Treekeepers say?”

“I hear everything,” she says.

And she remembers Grandmother’s stories.

Mateu shakes his head. “The Tree is Life, Jie, how can you want to destroy that?”

She meets his eyes, searching for the fury that has kept her focused since her brother’s death. Mateu has only fear in his heart. She wonders if the fire, however, is in more than just his hands. Is it in his blood as well? Can his children inherit it?

Jiteh sighs. “I don’t know how to take away the...” She cups her palms, mimicking what he showed her. “Your secret. But I won’t share it.”

His breath quivers in relief. “What do we do, then?”

She rubs her cheek. It’s a wild idea, like seeds carried on the wind. “Have a child with me,” she says, “and let’s build a house.”

He blinks. “What?”

“If we’re together,” she says, “we can hide your secret. We can wait and find a different solution. Besides.” She leans against him, nudging her hip against his. “You said you fancy me. What if you take a husband or wife and they don’t understand? What if the secret slips out? I will never betray you.”

He swallows hard. She feels his excitement hardening between his legs and watches as his fear fades into exhilaration and joy.

“I accept, Jie.”

She leaves Mateu to inform his family that he and Jiteh wish to bond and trudges through the village to see her older sister.

If she cannot convince Mateu to use his fire, then perhaps their future child will have his gift. She also wants a baby to extend her own grace—new parents are not chosen for the tithe until their offspring are at least three seasons old.

The Treekeepers’ hut is as big as ten houses, stone rooms built in a square around an interior courtyard open to the sky that holds a sacred branch from the Life Tree. It grows from the earth like a severed limb.

Jiteh removes her boots, dabs her fingertips in the bowl of holy soil at the supplicants’ entrance, and smears her forehead before she enters. The flagstones are chill against her feet. The room is high, the walls painted with the Litany of the Tree—the creation of the village, the first tithe, the rejoicing as the Treekeepers were christened from the very sap of the Tree itself.

Jiteh wonders again why there is no blood depicted in the tithing.

There are only two other women here today: Lilur, a cloth-maker, and Isket, an old huntress with a shaved head. They nod to Jiteh, kneeling in silence on the bark mats before the mural.

Jiteh bows her head in return, then pads to the front of the room and presses her fingertips against the heatstone altar. The warmth burns into her chilled skin and recognizes that she is of age to speak in the supplicants’ hall. “I wish to see the Treekeeper,” she says aloud, “for I seek blessings on the founding of a new House.”

Isket smiles and gives Jiteh a congratulatory wave.

Jiteh smiles back. It has, oddly, become easier today. She feels no joy, but her face does not creak like old wood. She waits on the bark mat beside Isket until the younger Treekeeper, her once-sister, shuffles out through the bead curtains and beckons her.

Treekeeper Viteh wears no mask. Her face is painted in serene greens and yellows for the coming spring season. As Jiteh approaches, the Treekeeper hisses between clenched teeth. She seizes Jiteh’s elbow and yanks her without ceremony into the private blessing chamber.

“Speaker—”

Viteh cuts her short by swiping the flowers from her hair. “What are you doing, girl?”

The red-petaled flowers tumble to the floor. Viteh stomps them into the stone, then draws her foot back, shuddering.

“Do you know what those are?”

Jiteh stares at the smear that looks too much like blood.

“That’s traitor’s kiss,” Viteh hisses. She grabs Jiteh’s chin and glares at her. “It’s poisonous to the Life Tree and all of us! Where did you find it?”

Jiteh’s breath comes quicker. “There were just those blossoms,” she lies. “By my beehives. I thought them pretty. Birds must have dropped the seeds last autumn.”

“You are certain there are no more?” Treekeeper’s eyes are fearful. “Swear to me, Jie.”

It’s the first time in years her sister has spoken to her like family. It twists the prickles of loss deeper in Jiteh’s chest.

“I swear,” Jiteh says, remembering the wide patch that stretched along the Boundary. “There are no more.”

Jiteh and Mateu are bonded after the spring tithe is finished. Her mothers and Mateu’s father paint their faces with the design for their new House as the Treekeepers recite the Litany of the Tree. Jiteh holds her husband’s hand, gripping the heat in his skin, and watches the dawn rise above the mountains. It looks like fire.

“When was my father chosen?” Jiteh asks her mothers one evening when the three of them sew a blanket of blessings to encourage her belly to take with Mateu’s seed and grow a child.

Kersah’s needle pricks her thumb, and a droplet of blood smudges the stone-smoothed fabric. Her jaw clenches. “It doesn’t matter.”

Deswu glanced sidelong at her wife. “Keke...”

Kersah shakes her head vehemently. “Don’t ask questions, Jie. That was his problem, too.”

Jiteh waits until her mother leaves to relieve herself before bed and looks at Deswu. “I need to know, Mother.” She folds the unfinished blanket into squares, clenching her fists out of sight in the fabric. “I don’t want Mateu...”

Deswu studies her fingers and sighs. “He was a hunter. A month before you and your brother were born, he went into the forest to beg a favor of the Tree.”

“He didn’t talk to the Treekeepers?”

Her mother shrugs. “I don’t know his reasons. I was only recently courting Kersah. He said he wanted a promise from the Tree itself that none of his family would be chosen. When he came back, the week after, he became the tithe. He looked... relieved.”

Jiteh massages the back of her neck, her mother’s words ringing in her ears. “What did he tell you?”

“He said the Life Tree promised his family would be safe.”

Jiteh spins to see Kersah in the doorway, her face grim.

Jiteh understands her mother’s rage now, the way she clenched a brick in her hands the day Jiteh’s brother was chosen.

The Tree had lied.

“Go home, child,” her mother says.

Upon the eve of summer solstice, Jiteh paints her arms and her swollen belly and walks with Mateu to the village square for the Consummation of Life.

Seven holy sloths glide from the forest path: three in front and three behind the chosen offering. Its fur is dyed white with pollen and its eyes are glazed over with hardened sap—blinded yet unable to look away.

“Blessed is the gift from the Life Tree,” the eldest Treekeeper says, his voice a wheeze. “We offer gratitude for this body, a testament to our worthiness to serve.”

Everyone lifts their arms high. Jiteh remembers her first participation with her dead brother. They had pressed to the front of the villagers, eager to be within the sight of the holy sloths. She was such a fool.

The white sloth steps into the square Trough, and the Treekeeper’s apprentices use wood and clay paddles to set heatstones underneath the grille. The summer sun leaves long shadows along the horizon.

The Treekeeper resumes the Litany, reciting the story of the village’s birth: how the Life Tree sacrificed its softest branch in the middle of the land, and from it grew the bones of the Holy Kiln. From the heatstones, dug from the earth, the first villagers baked brick and gathered stone to build their houses.

The six holy sloths move with precise coordination. They slit the white sloth’s throat. As fresh blood spills down, dying its fur pink like the dawn, they use their claws to skin the offering alive. The white sloth has no tongue.

As the body sinks into the Trough, wetted with blood, the sloths fold the stripped hide and lay it at the eldest Treekeeper’s feet. It will become a new robe in the winter.

The apprentices carry jugs of milk and honey and pour them over the dying sloth, covering the cooking flesh in sweet cream. The Trough heats rapidly, bubbling as meat and sinew melt from bone. The accompanying sloths bring forward a skin of sap from the Tree itself and pour it into the Trough. The sap will break down marrow and organs, liquefying the offering into a rich broth as sweet as summer clover.

Jiteh rubs her belly. Her child will taste whatever she eats. And everyone will eat from the Trough when it is fully cooked—a cycle governed by the Life Tree. Tithes feed the Tree, and in turn, the Tree gives back blessings in its holy sloths.

“We are one with the Tree,” the eldest Treekeeper says, and dips a spoon into the Trough. He blows on the creamy broth and swallows.

One by one, each person steps forward to partake.

Jiteh remembers, on her eighth year, when Gurteh, father of the spring’s tithe, broke down sobbing and refused to drink. The sloths skinned him as they had the offering and added his flesh to the broth. Each villager was then made to drink two spoonfuls.

No one has refused since.

Jiteh holds the broth in her mouth, mimes a swallow, and bows to the Treekeepers before she hurries away. The broth sits like bile on her tongue, burning, as saliva seeps from between her teeth. She’s afraid liquid will burst from her mouth, spill across her chin and betray her.

The walk home is agony. Each step jostles the blood and spit. She presses her lips tighter together, her heartbeat a low roar in her ears.

She is almost running by the time she sees her roof. She scurries around the hut, shoulders open the lavatory curtain, and bends over the hole. She spits, again and again, then scrapes her fingernails across her tongue until the pain stops her. She thrusts two fingers down her throat and vomits. It burns her tongue; she refuses to let even the flavor of the blood seep down into her belly.

She spits again when her stomach settles. Her child will not have to know the Tree’s bitterness. Not yet.

That night, Mateu huddles by the hearth, trembling. Jiteh kneels beside him with effort. He presses his hands against the heatstone, and his skin doesn’t burn. Flickers of blue fire dance along his nails.

“What do I do?” His eyes gleam damp with panic. “I can’t make it stop.”

Jiteh wants to scoop the fire into a jar, save it until it can find wood—but his fear makes her heart ache.

“Close your eyes,” she tells him. She rubs his shoulders, not daring to touch his hands. “Imagine bees—my hives brimming with yellow bodies, like the goldstalk followers. Can you see them?”

He presses his face against her belly. “Yes...”

“Breathe slowly,” Jiteh says. “Imagine my bees, their feet rubbing pollen from the wild flowers. They dance to the hum of their wings. They fly into the blue sky, free like clouds. Can you see them? They’re painting our child’s face with music.”

His breathing steadies. The flames draw back into his hands. “They’re beautiful, Jie.”

She smiles, stroking his head as he listens to their child’s heartbeat. “If you feel your secret rising again, think of my bees.”

When her daughter is born, Jiteh names the girl Soteh, after her dead brother.

Mateu’s smile warms her heart better than the anger. Her mothers come to give their blessings and bring gifts: pigments to paint the newborn’s arms and a necklace of bark and clay beads for luck.

“She’s beautiful,” he whispers, over and over like he has for days after the birth, cradling Soteh in his arms as Jiteh stirs honey into her tincture. She’s eaten more honey during her pregnancy than she has in all her life; she wants her daughter to grow strong.

“Are you happy?” Jiteh asks. “You’ve been so worried before.”

Mateu grins. “How could I be any happier, Jie? You’re alive, our daughter is healthy, we have this home.” He nods at the small hut they share, built from stone with only one window. It is constructed within sight of the beehives and close to her mothers’ home. “And you, Jie? Are you happy now?”

At night, she hears the droning in her dreams. It keeps nightmares of thorns away.

Sweat-slick and spent, she lies nestled against her husband’s naked chest. His large belly presses against hers, his arms thick and strong from his masonry work. He strokes her breasts with thumb and finger, casual caresses that make her smile.

“Your secret has not come out in years,” she says.

“I thank you for that,” Mateu says. “You keep us all safe and sweetened with the bees.”

“Have you liked this summer’s honey?”

He nods. “It has a spicier undertone. I don’t recognize it.”

“I’ve directed the bees as far as I can.” Jiteh traces the line of his jaw and down to the bob in his throat. “Do you ever worry...” She hesitates. “When Soteh grows older. If she’ll be chosen?”

Soteh, two years old now, sleeps in a sling stretched between the bed and the wall.

He looks up at the thatched ceiling. “Yes. Doesn’t everyone?”

“I heard Viteh speaking to the other Treekeepers when I went to the supplicant’s hall to ask for more fuel for our bright-lamps,” she says. “She said the Tree needs more nourishment. It’s getting sick, she thinks.”

It is what she hoped for, yet she’s ashamed. She was trying to nurture her village and keep her family safe, but she’s only made things between her people and the Tree worse.

She grimaces, tucking her chin against his bicep. Her husband can’t see her guilt. “There will be more tithes each season, not just in summer.” The Life Tree was supposed to take fewer tithes.

“I heard Betro say the same.” Mateu’s voice creaks at the edges. “There will be an announcement tomorrow at the evening prayers.”

“We could prevent that,” she whispers. “If you let your secret out.”

Mateu sits up. “No. Don’t talk like that, Jie. The Life Tree will hear.”

She rolls over and pulls up the thick woven quilt. Her father bargained and was betrayed. She thought her way, slow and subtle and sweet, would have fared better. Her old rage, dimmed now from childhood brightness, still simmers. She will not stop. Her family has tithed enough.

“Mama, look!”

Jiteh lifts the heavy veil she wears when harvesting the honeycomb and glances back at her daughter. Soteh sits amid the hives, bees dancing on her fingers and crowning her hair.

“The buzzes are my friends!”

Jiteh smiles, her stomach twisting like nettles. In a year, Soteh will be vulnerable—old enough to be chosen. Rarely does the tree pick children so young, but she’s seen it. Her friend Yetrah and her husband lost their firstborn the winter before. The hunters found Yetrah’s husband hanging by his own belt in the forest, halfway to the Life Tree, before spring.

She waits until it’s dark, when Mateu is asleep and snoring, before she eases from her bed again. As she crosses the hearth to the door, Soteh sits up in her small cot and rubs her eyes.

“Mama, where are you going? It’s sleep-time.”

“Hush, beebee.”

She hesitates, then gestures at the brick shelves by the door.

“Get your boots and you can come with me.”

“This is so far, Mama. I can’t see anything.”

Jiteh shifts her daughter’s weight to her other hip. She brought no light, but she’s walked this path often enough that she has no need of it any longer. They pass the old pines, the sap odor sharp in the pre-dawn air. Fog curls about her feet and she sets Soteh down in the wet grass. “You must not move,” she says. “Or you’ll get lost.”

“But why did we come here? Not even bees come here.”

“Some bees do.”

She leaves her daughter to watch the first edges of gray spill against the Boundary. She made bad time due to carrying Soteh; she won’t make it back to the village before the sun is high. Mateu will worry—not right away, for she often takes Soteh early to the river for baths and catching frogs. She needs to hurry.

With a small stone knife, she shears the newly blossomed traitor’s breath with quick strokes. She fills the inside seams of her heavy skirt earned with motherhood. She’s lined the hidden pockets with pine needles to disguise any scent from the blood-red flowers.

“What are those for, Mama?”

“Making the honey the sweetest you’ve ever tasted, beebee.”

Her daughter nods, satisfied, and starts braiding herself a crown of grass.

Jiteh has harvested the flowers every spring since the year she found them, hiding them away to dry beneath her bee hives so she can crush the petals into fine powder she buries in stone jars deep inside the honeycomb. She needs more. Patience will not fell the Tree. It is time to make the honey red.

When she has gathered all she can find, she scoops Soteh up and hurries back.

The Treekeepers are at her hut when she returns. Jiteh’s legs feel heavy, slow with sudden cold. She sets Soteh down and pushes past the honorary hunters who accompany the Treekeepers.

“What are you doing?”

Isket holds out an arm to stop her. “Be joyful. Your husband has been chosen by the Tree.”

Mateu stumbles out the door on thorn-pierced feet. A great crown juts from his scalp and twist in his fingers, binding his hands in fists. Blood drips down his cheeks like tears.

Jiteh screams and barrels past Isket, elbowing her hard in the chest. Isket seizes Mateu by his torn shirt—already thorns are budding from his nipples and down his ribs. They scrape her fingertips raw. She leaves bloodied prints on his clothes, but she can no longer tell which marks are her blood and which are his. “Mateu!”

He stares and does not seem to see her.

“No, it can’t have you!”

“Child.” The new Treekeeper’s strong voice slices through her panic sharper than sloth claws. Her once-sister took the elder’s place in the winter when he died. “You may not speak to the dead.”

Isket wrenches her back. Jiteh sees Soteh sitting in the street, sobbing and clutching her grass crown, and Jiteh’s body sags. Isket lets her fall.

“Forgive me, Treekeeper,” Jiteh says, the words hollow. How does the Tree know of her treachery?

She lands on her knees, shaking. Soteh crawls to her and buries her face in her skirt.

The Treekeepers lead her dead husband away, and she can do nothing.

“It is an honor,” Viteh says as she sits by Jiteh’s side later.

Jiteh lies on her bed, an empty gap where Mateu should be yawning beside her. The Treekeeper sighs and takes off her mask. For a moment, she looks like the older sister Jiteh once knew.

“I know it hurts, Jie. But he will bring us prosperity and safety.”

“How many others?” Jiteh asks. She holds Soteh nestled at her side, asleep at last.

“Four have been honored,” Viteh says. “Don’t fret. You’ll be safe. So will your girl.”

The Tree lied to her father. She believes nothing the Treekeeper promises now.

“We can’t sustain this.” Jiteh rubs her face, swollen from tears she’s kept back. “When will the Tree be well again?”

“It is not sick,” Viteh says too quickly. “The seasons have been hard on the land.”

Odd, for Jiteh has observed harvests flourishing; her bees produce more honey than ever before; children are born healthy and fewer elders fall sick. She says nothing.

Viteh rubs Jiteh’s shoulder. “The Life Tree has come to me in dreams. This summer will see everything restored to health and happiness. I promise, Jie.”

Jiteh decides, as she holds her daughter, that she will see that promise fulfilled.

Jiteh asks Yetrah to watch her daughter, and Yetrah, hollow-eyed and thin, agrees without asking where she’s going.

Jiteh puts on her dead husband’s trousers, one pocket filled with a handful of fresh traitor’s breath for protection, and slips past the ceremonial brick square and the Trough, into the forest. The village is quiet on the evening of the First Choosing of the season; she will be assumed to be tending the bees or walking to the river to bathe.

Night sparrows and crickets hum in the foliage. Leaves whisper and click overhead as she follows the path she has walked for many summers to observe the tithe. A dozen bees hum behind her, concerned. They thread around her head.

“Go back,” she tells them. She fingers the flowers in her pocket. Her hands tremble. “I’ll be fine.”

The bees lag but do not entirely obey. She’s grateful. She’s never been to see the Tree alone, and she can’t swallow down the nervous drum of her heart. Even the numbed dread at her husband’s fate can’t dull the fear.

The path ends at the edge of a great dip in the forest, squared off, half-decayed stone walls peeking through thick moss. In the middle of the indent towers the Life Tree. She squats by the edge of the square. The sloths hang lazily amid the branches, their heavy, ripened bodies patched with discolored moss. They sway as if in a slow wind.

KEEPER OF BEES, says the Life Tree.

Its speech is the vibration of branches and the groan of roots. Like all the villagers, Jiteh knows the language like her own tongue. It is passed through the rituals and learned at the Summer Tithes.

“Giver of Life.” She can’t mimic the Tree’s speech, but the Tree understands words made with lips and teeth. “You must leave my people be.”

OUR PEOPLE. WE ARE ALL ONE. BLOOD AND SAP, LEAF AND BONE. ALL WILL BE SAFE AND SATISFIED. THERE CAN BE NO GAP IN THE CYCLE OF LIFE.

Jiteh grasps at her anger through grief and fear, uses it to steady her voice and harden her will. “We cannot sustain this much blood.” She clenches her hand inside her pocket, crushing the flowers into a sickly-sweet pulp. “How much more will you take?”

AS MUCH AS IS REQUIRED. WOULD YOU SEE OUR LAND FALL TO DUST, CONSUMED BY THE ENCROACHING STORMS? WE ARE SAFE WITHIN THE BOUNDARY AND WILL REMAIN THUS FOREVER.

The Tree cares nothing for the cost or the grief. “Neither would I see my daughter eaten.”

ALL MUST GIVE SO ALL MAY LIVE.

“My husband is not yours!” she screams. The anger floods her belly, fierce and hungry. The Tree lied to her father. It will always lie. Around her, she senses her bees: more and more, a wave of gold and ebony, their wings raising thunder in the air. She stands, trembling with fury. “You will stop the tithes.”

THAT IS NOT POSSIBLE. ALL WOULD DIE.

“Give us three years, then.” She inhales slowly. Tries to find the calm and patience she’s nurtured in her heart. “Let us become strong again.”

Time to grow away from the Tree, time to reseed their population, time to live without fear.

WHAT YOU ASK IS NOT POSSIBLE.

The sloths stir on their branches.

LEAVE NOW, KEEPER OF BEES. RETURN TO YOUR CHILD AND GIVE THANKS FOR THE HONOR YOUR HUSBAND HAS EARNED.

She stares down the wide sloped stairs that lead down to the Tree’s white roots. Hundreds of thin strands writhe like worms. She pulls the traitor’s breath from her pocket; her fingers are stained red. “Not until you heed me.” She raises her hand over her head, ready to throw the remaining petals. “Tell your priests no more.”

YOU WOULD THREATEN ALL LIFE?

Thorny appendages whip up from the moss and bite into her leg. She gasps in pain as her feet are yanked from under her. Jiteh claws at the moss but finds no purchase for her nails. Thorns writhe in a curtain in front of the Tree’s exposed roots, ready to tear her apart for the tendrils to feast on.

She shoves her reddened hand into the thorns, and they recoil free of her leg. The wound bleeds, and searing pain climbs to her thigh. Jiteh scrabbles backwards, her heartbeat a roar in her ears.

The sloths drop from the Tree’s branches and lumber towards her, claws raised. Jiteh limps down the path, gasping. She must get out of the woods—

One sloth catches up to her and clubs her in the side of the head. Her scalp splits, and she tumbles to her knees once more. The sloths’ pale eyes look like the sickly roots, glistening white and clammy.

The bees, her bees, thunder forward in a wave of furious wings, swarming over the sloths before they touch her again.

She screams for them to stop. They refuse to heed her. The bees swallow the sloths in stinging clouds. They give her time to run. The sloths writhe under the attacking bees and Jiteh runs, runs, runs and curses the Tree with every ragged breath.

She feels her bees die, pinpricks of light going out one by one behind her eyes.

Jiteh limps from the forest with a dozen bees humming about her—all that is left of the hives. She collapses against the side of her hut and sobs. The village is still quiet.

She touches the side of her head, fingers sticky with crushed traitor’s breath and blood. She failed. And her bees are gone.

“Mateu,” she whispers, rocking on her heels in the dark. “Mateu.”

He is—no, he will be—dead, and she cannot save him. She expects the last of the sloths to storm into the village and kill her, but nothing follows from the woods.

Before dawn, Yetrah finds her and helps her inside.

“I know what it’s like,” Yetrah says. Her voice is soft; it barely rises above a whisper any longer, and each word bobs the scar across her neck. The hunters found her before she bled out from her slashed throat on the same morning her husband died.

Jiteh nods, realizing the gash on her head, shallow, bloodied, and unthreatening, looks worse than it is and tells a story other than the truth. “I lost my brother and my father, and now my husband.”

Yetrah cleans the wound and ties a cloth around Jiteh’s scalp. “I understand.” She peels off Jiteh’s ruined boot; the thorns gouged through wool and bark and leather alike. “But you still have a daughter. Don’t abandon her.”

In the morning, five more people are chosen as tithes. Her husband’s father, her cousin, two of her friends who have young children of their own, and a girl Soteh’s age. Too young.

Whispers of confusion and worry flood the village. The Treekeepers assure the people all is well. There are summers in the past, the Treekeepers say, that this has happened. It is a sign the winter will be hard, and the Tree is prepared to withstand the elements and protect them all.

Jiteh does not remember any such summer.

She holds her daughter close, her body dry of tears now. There is not even anger, which she yearns to find. Only shock and the horrible, unyielding pain of knowledge.

All these tithes were chosen because of her. Mateu’s fate. All the others she can no longer name.

She rocks back and forth on her heels before the hearth. Since she became the beekeeper, it has been her doing. Since she cultivated honey made from traces of traitor’s breath and fed it in small amounts to her people.

The honey should have weakened the Tree slowly, withered it while keeping the villagers healthy. So the Tree would choose less. So it would decide that this generation was not worth its attention and control. So it would let them live.

She added the crushed flowers in small amounts, careful that the children and elders would not fall ill. She had erred on the side of adding too little. Her defiance has cost too many lives.

“Why are you so sad, Mama?”

Jiteh hugs Soteh tight. She inhales the scent of her daughter’s hair. Soteh looks so much like Mateu her heart aches. “I was wrong, beebee. I wanted to give you a better future and I failed...”

Her daughter hugs her back. “What’s a future, Mama?”

Her voice chokes. She tries to find words nevertheless. “It’s what we call the promise of days to come.”

Soteh nods. “Can I have one?”

“Yes,” Jiteh whispers. “Yes, beebee. You will have a future.”

Jiteh limps to the hall of supplicants when the sky is bright and asks to be allowed to feed the tithes.

“You are not consecrated by the Life Tree,” Viteh says, uncertain.

Jiteh does not lower her head. The bandage is speckled again with blood. “There is no law that forbids those bound to the tithe from giving them their honored honey and milk. Please. Let me do this. I have saved a special honey I wished to share on the anniversary of our bonding day but... now it will serve a greater purpose.”

The Treekeeper nods at last. “I will let you do this, if you will tend to all the tithes equally.”

“I will,” Jiteh says.

For the fifteen days before the tithe is to be offered to the Life Tree, Jiteh mixes honey with goat’s milk and spoons it into the mouths of the chosen. The tithes lie in a warming hut, each resting on a cot above a heatstone. Each day the bodies are washed and massaged and oiled.

She can scarce look at the five added to the initial four. Her eyes burn with tears when she feeds the small girl who might have been Soteh.

No more after this season. She will not wait for the Tree to relent and show her people mercy.

On the morning of the Offering, she kneels by her dead husband’s cot with his final meal. His eyes have been sewn shut, and only a tiny gap in his lips is left un-tied so she may feed him.

“I saw our daughter reach a hand into the hearth last evening,” she says. “She touched the heat stone and didn’t burn her fingers. I saw flame under her nails, and heard her laugh. I didn’t tell her to think of the bees.”

Her husband’s chest rises and falls slowly.

She presses her lips against his ear, tasting the scented oil and salt on his skin. “Mateu, I have slipped this poisoned honey into every villager’s meal, one drop at a time, until it is in our blood. All of us. We’re resistant to the poison, and the Tree is not.”

She kisses his forehead and sits back. Only the tithes hear her words in the warming room.

“Though you can’t see, the milk I fed you today was red. It’s strong with the crushed petals from the flower—all my stores, saved for years. When the Tree feeds on you from the inside, as it devours all nine tithes offered today, it will drink poison and rot as sweet as honey.”

Only four sloths parade down the path to collect the tithe. None come for her, but she recognizes the swollen lumps of beestings on them all. The Treekeeper appoints strong men and women to help carry the cots to the Tree. Jiteh waits, silent, until the last bearers disappear into the forest. The ceremony is over, at least here.

She cups Yetrah’s face, and her friend looks at her with unfocused eyes.

“Will you come with me?” Jiteh whispers. “I have something I would share with you.”

As if hearing the promise in her voice, Yetrah nods. She loops her arm through Jiteh’s, clinging tight. Supporting her in turn.

Jiteh almost left a note tucked inside a pine cone for her mothers to find—a plea to meet her at the Boundary. But she tore the paper into pieces and buried the scraps inside the hives, under the husks of old bees. No word must reach the Treekeepers. If she is found, she does not want her mothers to suffer. She cannot risk saying goodbye.

Jiteh takes her daughter’s hand and limps towards the pines. The last of her bees follow. She and Yetrah will wait with Soteh in the field where the red flowers grow until the Tree’s death brings the Boundary down and she sees what lies beyond


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A. Merc Rustad is a queer non-binary writer who lives in Minnesota and is a Nebula Awards finalist. Their stories have appeared in Lightspeed, Fireside, Apex, Uncanny, Shimmer, Nightmare, and several Year's Best anthologies. You can find Merc on Twitter @Merc_Rustad or their website, amercrustad.com. Their debut short story collection, So You Want to Be a Robot, was published by Lethe Press (May 2017). Fun fact: Merc finds sloths both adorable and terrifying simultaneously, while bees are always awesome.

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“And the Village Breathes” by Emily B. Cataneo
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1 Comment on “The Sweetness of Honey and Rot”

One Response to “The Sweetness of Honey and Rot”

  1. Evan says:

    Another excellent story, well-written and moving. I’m definitely going to look up more of A Merc Rustad’s work.

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