(Winner of the 2013 World Fantasy Award, Short Story)
Mel peered around Cook’s hip as the butler stepped out of the master bedroom and carefully shut the door. Pearse stood for a minute, one pale hand still on the glass knob, the other unconsciously stroking his neckcloth smooth. Mel thought the hallway seemed lighter, as if the butler had closed all the darkness in the house behind the heavy oak door. The entire staff of the House was there, lining the two long walls of the hall, even Ralph the gardener and Neff who turned the roast and would on any other occasion be beaten if found upstairs. Pearse looked up then, eyes worn to a pale sharpness under heavy white brows, and Mel leaned back into the cover of Cook’s wide flank, safety from the butler’s gaze, from the strangeness of the moment.
“Lord Dellus has passed,” Pearse said; the staff gasped and sighed, as if they had not known already from the cries that had haunted the house since evening last and had stopped so suddenly this morning. “Stopped without an echo,” Cook had said with heavy significance, and added, “That’s that, then,” as she did when a loaf went flat or a bird slipped from the spit to the ashes.
There had been no sighs then; the staff had exchanged weary nods and worried glances in the silence of a House without a head. And there had been a few curious glances toward Mel’s spot on the corner stool that had left Mel wondering what one was meant to feel, and if that dizzy burst of relief and fear was evident, was evil.
“In these difficult moments, we take guidance from the wisdom of tradition,” Pearse continued now. “The upstairs staff will see to the shades, and to the curtains in the conservatory. Ralph, the shutters, closed and latched, and then the front walk swept with the yew brush. The shrouds for the portraits may be found in the cabinet of the still room. The clocks must all be muffled, and a poppy placed on each mantle.”
The downstairs maid curtsied.
“Cook, a hare’s head for the dogs, a fresh one, if you please.”
Cook snorted—’as if I didn’t know,’ that meant—but quietly; Mel felt it more than heard it, a quaking of that vast thigh.
Pearse scowled thoughtfully at the wall; the panelling there was lighter, where a painting had been taken down and not replaced. “I believe those are the most immediate duties that custom and propriety demand of us. We shall convene at noon in the kitchen to discuss the period of mourning.”
Ralph the gardener cleared his throat. “The bees,” he prompted.
“Ah, yes, the bees,” Pearse said. “Where is the child?”
Ralph shuffled uncomfortably, and looked sideways at Neff. “It’s meant to be the youngest, ah, male in the household.”
Pearse acted, as usual, as if Neff was beneath his notice. “The child will do. Where is it?”
Cook rumbled with discontent, but placed her knuckles between Mel’s shoulder blades and pushed.
“Here, sir,” Mel said and stood straight, suddenly eager for the brightness of the gardens.
“You will come with me, boy.” Pearse glared from Ralph to Cook as if courting disagreement, and Mel’s expectation slumped to unease at that accustomed tension between the senior staff. “The Lord is dead. The bees will need telling.”
Mel followed Pearse down the promenade and around the fountain, which Ralph had already shut down, past the stables and into the kitchen gardens. The butler was a thin black line against the round clouds, the wide morning sky. Mel walked a pace or two behind, a stake in one hand like a staff, topped by a fluttering length of black crepe. Standard bearer for the house of the dead, Mel thought.
“Step lively, child, the bees must be told such news promptly, less they take offense and swarm, or so tradition tells us. And there is much to do in the House.”
The east end of the gardens lapped against a low bluff, a wall of glassy green flint. The hive was on a wide stone plinth set in a hollow in the rock; it was a great skep, an overturned basket fully twice Mel’s height, straw loops whipped with briarwood and bramble and plastered with ochre dung. A dark round entrance gaped at the bottom, bees clustered there like yellowed teeth. Ralph’s father, or perhaps his grandfather, had added frames to simplify the wax harvest, and the straw had been replaced over the years, but Mel thought the hive itself was as old as the flint, as old as the House itself.
“Drive the wand there,” Pearse said, lifting his hand slightly, a finger extended. The ground was scattered with jagged shards, which Neff said were the teeth of creatures killed by the bees and Ralph said were the discards of ancient peoples working the flint. Mel looked from the ground to the butler, confused; Pearse huffed with impatience and said, “The wand, child, the stake in your hands, drive it in the ground there.”
Mel worked the stake into the ground. With the cloth coiled limply around it, it looked like a Summerday effigy of Pearse. The butler frowned and tssked at the result; Mel set it a notch more deep and straight in hopes of avoiding a flick of the butler’s hand. Pearse just pointed, however, to the space before the hive. “The words, now, the words as we practiced.” That practice had been a few hurried moments at the kitchen door, Pearse and Cook arguing the lines, and Ralph adding his opinion when the sweeping took him near enough. Mel had a knack for catching words, if not for the speaking of them; they came surely but softly.
Mistress sweet, Mistress sharp,
the lord is dead and hence away.
Away away, has flown away.
Mistress black, Mistress gold,
Your folk come hither, here to stay.
O stay, O stay, I pray you stay.
There was silence then, or so Mel thought at first and Pearse, never one for standing still, began to turn away. But under the distant chittering of the birds and the wayward breeze there was low rumble like a growling, and the hive quivered. Mel thought of Cook in the moments before her hand struck out at some failing, and flinched. Pearse stopped and turned a dry impatient eye to the hive.
A bee flew from the dark mouth of the hive as if spat; a straight line toward the garden. A second one shot north toward the barley field, and then dozens, hundreds were fleeing the hive, spreading in all directions.
“They swarm,” Pearse cried. “You’ve said it wrongly!”
“They’re na’ swarming,” Ralph said, come up quietly to lean on the broom a few yards back. “Hive’s got two, three hundred hundred. And it’s no swarm without the queen. Try the words again, Mel.”
Mel looked to Pearse, who gave a sharp nod, and a frown for Ralph. The gardener returned a look of eroded amusement; the grounds and above all the bees were his keeping, and he had little fear of the butler.
“Mistress sweet, Mistress—”
Mel was stopped by a buzzing, not from the hive but all around, thick and rising in pitch; it was as if they had stumbled into a fog of sound. Bees whizzed past ears and eyes, ruffled hair and sleeves, far more than had fled, all heading back to the hive. Some entered, but most landed on the straw or the surrounding stone in a swirling carpet.
“They fetched the workers from the fields, is what,” Ralph said. “Third time’s charmed, Mel.”
Pearse prodded Mel beck into place with sharp fingertips, a step or two closer than caution would advise. The bees slowed their writhing dance as if waiting, antennae aloft and quivering. The buzzing died down, the rumble once again audible. ‘Attentive’ was the word for it, Mel thought.
“The words,” Pearse said, though quietly, as if he too felt the attention of the hive.
The air was too clear, the sunlight flat and harsh against the flint. Mel glanced back at the House and its shuttered slowness, managed a small dizzying breath. “Mistress sweet, Mistress sharp, the lord is dead—”
The bees exploded.
“It were like someone kicked a bonfire,” Ralph said over the noon meal in the kitchen. Mel nodded: bees like sparks flying outward gold and black, and where those sparks had landed they had stung. Mel had shrieked and leapt back, sending Pearse staggering; they had caught each other and run. Even in the midst of fright, Mel had marveled to see the butler stretch his skinny legs, leather soles slipping and scraping the gravel walk to the safety of the kitchen.
Mel had not been stung badly, just a handful of pink welts that itched more than hurt. Ralph had arrived unscathed a minute later, bearing Pearse’s hat and news of the hive.
“They’ve not swarmed,” he said, around a mouthful of cheese and pickle. “The queen bides yet. But they are surely riled.”
Pearse frowned, and eyed Mel over his pince-nez.
Ralph swallowed, and said, “T’weren’t the telling, now, nor the words. That was done proper, way it’s always been done.”
Cook put a protective arms around Mel’s shoulders, and said, “Shouldn’t have made Mel here do it, is what. I’m not at all sure it was proper, with the child’s… condition.”
And Ralph said, “Not sure the likes of us should be making Mel do anything, now that the lord’s dead.”
Mel slid down under Cook’s arm, heart thumping in confusion. It was desperately tempting, the mystery of Mel’s place: responsibility of no one and everyone, without role or function in a House that was built upon those things. But the attention was unwelcome; Mel preferred the dark corners, which were many, and Cook’s reassuring “leave the child be”, not the staff’s curious glances, Ralph’s considering gaze, Pearse’s glare.
The butler had flushed a splotchy red, like Cook’s port cheddar. “I think it hardly proper for the staff to discuss Lord Dellus’s business over the kitchen table,” he said. “And the child is no matter.” Cook quivered, and opened her mouth, but Pearse added, “No matter of the staff,” with such finality that Cook sat up and shut her mouth again. It matters, I matter, Mel thought, but said nothing.
Pearse turned his glare on Ralph. “Nor are the bees any matter of significance.”
Ralph snorted into his ale. “You’ll say different when the orchards bear no fruit and the candles run out. There’s something they want.”
“You say they have not swarmed.” And when Ralph nodded, the butler sniffed dismissively. “Then what the bees want is no concern of ours.”
The scullery maid leaned forward into view from her spot behind Ralph, “Should we be sending word to the townsfolk, sir?” She wilted back into her chair under Pearse’s glare.
“Let the town swarm,” Pearse said. “By right and tradition, the House is its own interest, and any who might have claim otherwise are dead or….” His gaze grew vague and aimless, but Mel ducked from it nonetheless. “Or gone beyond our care.”
After that, Pearse kept the conversation to the rituals and responsibilities of mourning, and the meal soon broke up into busy gossiping groups. Ralph stomped out the door, and Mel followed, ducking tasks and curious looks alike.
“Ralph, what—” What are those things that you and Cook and Pearse leave unsaid, like the empty spots on the walls where paintings are missing? What do they have to do with me? What am I? But Mel stammered, and said instead, “What if the bees did swarm?”
The gardener stopped and turned, with a wary eye over Mel’s head to the House. “Don’t you fret, child, or give Pearse more mind than he’s due. He thinks everything turns around the House and its traditions, and forgets it is of the land as much as any living thing. The bees don’t like change, is all, no more than any of us.”
“But if they did swarm. Where would they go?”
Ralph looked down at Mel and squinted. “You’re growing, child. Best ask Cook for some new clothes. Or… mayhaps I have something that’ll fit you.” He tapped his pipe out against the sole of his boot and shook his head. “Not a child much longer, eh, and goodness knows what we’ll do with you.”
“But where would the bees go?” Mel persisted.
Ralph turned to looked over the garden wall and across the long rows of barley. “Away and gone past our fields, to some other House, I reckon. Beyond our ken, for sure. No concern of ours, Pearse would say, and in that he’d be right for once. No more questions, now, I have things to do and so do you.”
The gardner clumped down the path, but Mel stood, pondering the idea of another House beyond the fields, the meaning of away and gone.
The box of papers was in the old garden shed, under canvas, surrounded by tools rusted beyond repair. Mel had found it years ago, half buried in the ashes of the refuse pit, the black paint stained and scarred by flame and the silver fittings tarnished, had moved it to the safety of the abandoned shed after discovering the treasure inside. Words, and words about words, far more fascinating than the maid’s sayings or the hornbook Pearse insisted be read every Seventh-morn. “Some Thoughts on the Derivations of Meaning” the first page read, and under that, “As Discovered and Annotated by Caleb Dellus”.
‘Meaning’ had been the first word Mel searched for, turning carefully through the pages; they were unbound and unnumbered, their order obscure. ‘Meaning’ was hard to find in the dim corridors and hushed conversations of the House, and Mel had a craving for it that was sometimes as strong and sharp as hunger. But there was no entry for it; the expected page held this instead:
Melisma, n. The prolongation of one syllable over many notes, peculiar to the performance of chants, the Mysteries, etc. From µέλισµα an air, or perhaps µέλισσα as in a bee’s wandering path?
Mel had to look up most of the words in the book’s definitions, tracing that same wandering path through the fields of entries, collecting grains of meaning to ponder through long wakeful nights on the cot in Cook’s room. Like the word that had come today at the hive:
Attentive, a. Evincing heedfulness, perhaps from attende to serve, or to wait?
Whom do you serve, bees? Mel thought. Why are you waiting? There was a buzzing against the window, a creeping shadow on the grimed pane; Mel traced a circle around it with a fingertip, and said, “What do you want?”
“I had a dream,” Cook said, as she rolled the crust for the second-day mourning pie. “A strange dream it was, seemed real as life, if it weren’t for the oddness of it. Mel was lying there in the cot by my window, same as usual. And there was a line of bees, crawling in under the shade, across pillow and cheek and into the child’s mouth. Each one carried a drop of something, that glittered like a pearl in the moonlight, and was gone when they flew out again.”
The bees’ feet had pricked, Mel remembered, and their fur had tickled as they worked their way through lips, teeth, and tongue. They had smelled of barley and clover and a dark musk that made Mel think of Travelers’ wagons on market day.
“Bees is mad at Mel for ruining the telling,” Neff said from the hearth. “That was venom, is what. They wants another death and another telling, so’s things can be done right.”
The bees’ solemn procession had been silent, their wings folded and still; when they crept back out over the sash they had disappeared as if not flying but falling into the darkness. Cook had snorted and stirred in her bed, muttered a sleepy query that Mel dared not attempt to answer, and settled back into gentle snores.
The downstairs maid looked up from her sewing—every hand not otherwise busy was stitching the black cloth—and shook her head. “‘Honey-tongues tell true,'” she quoted. “Some coming revelation, that’s what it means.”
The drops had not been sweet, but fiercely sour, and spicy like Cook’s Wintercakes. They had rolled one at a time down tongue and throat; Mel had taken small shallow breaths and clenched back the urge to gag, rigid in the cot, somewhere between terror and awe.
Ralph coughed around his pipe. He was on his stool by the door; no sewing for him, fingers too rough for silk or linen, he said, though those same fingers could coax an aphid from a bloom without bruising a petal. “T’wasn’t honey,” he said. “T’was the royal jelly, that the bees use to make a new queen.” He pointed the pipe at Mel. “The dream means change, and good luck.”
Cook dropped the crust into the pan with a decisive slap. “First good luck the child will have seen, then. But I reckon the change has come to all of us.”
Everyone nodded or shook their head wisely, according to their wont. All but Mel, who sat still as always, heart quivering like wings blurred by speed, thinking of honey tongues and change, of another telling. Could the bees in their ceaseless mute searching, wanted the thing that Mel had searched for in the House and staff, the gardens and the far fields around, in the box of words in the shed? Could the bees want meaning?
Mel stood before the door to the library and ran a finger along the crease of jaw and neck where the skin always itched. For all the lure of words, the library had been a place of dread when Lord Dellus had been alive. Mel had been required to sit long evenings there, the comfort of the kitchen stool in its corner behind the ovens exchanged for a chair of cold leather set in the center of the rug and the acrid peat and ash fumes of the lord’s whiskey. Sometimes Dellus had worked in the ledgers that tracked accounts of the House and its estates. And sometimes he had spoken—not so much to Mel as to the House itself, it had seemed—of things that had happened long ago: wars and murders and deals with distant powers. And sometimes he had simply drunk. He had never looked at Mel, not directly. And as much as Mel hated to be the center of attention, the suspense of the lord’s not looking was worse. Mel had stared ahead at the faded gilt of the books and feared that if their eyes did meet, there would be some terrible recognition.
That fear was gone, though, those eyes closed behind heavy new-hung black curtains. And Mel had thought that there might be something left in the library to explain those long evenings in the chair, the confusion of household, the strange desire of the bees. Still, it was hard to turn the knob and go in where that chair might still sit on the frayed patterned rug. Mel stood and scratched and shivered a little from the strangeness of the last day, and only then heard the voice behind the door.
For a second, the lord’s death and the telling and the bees’ visit all threatened to swirl into dream, but the voice was sharper than Dellus’s murmur and raised in a tone that the lord would never have approved. It was Cook, and she was saying, “…held up to ridicule. Or worse. Goodness knows what the town folk might do.” And Pearse’s reedy voice added, “More importantly, it is our responsibility now to maintain the honor of the House. I’ll not have that… impropriety brought out of the corner and into the light.”
Ralph replied, his words calm as always and no doubt mumbled around his pipe. All Mel could catch was “not stir the wasp’s nest,” which seemed odd, as Ralph was always quick and fierce with wasps; “lest they cross the bees,” he would say as he took up his stick.
“We are agreed then,” Pearse said. “We shall speak no more of it.” Cook rumbled agreement and there was a creak of chairs and a shuffling of feet. Mel crept backward to the quiet of the hallway runner and was around the corner and halfway down the stairs before the door opened.
Mel lay awake that night, as Cook snored and grumbled in her bed. If the anticipation of the bees’ return had not been enough, there was also an ache across chest and belly, a shifting as terrifying and wondrous as the previous night’s visit. ‘A new queen,’ Ralph had said, and ‘The dream means change.’ What had the bees brought with those bitter drops? The shades were down—they would not be raised for weeks yet—but Mel had reached through to slide the sash up, and the warm breeze slipped in bearing the smell of spring clover and a slice of moonlight.
The breeze made a gentle, persistent suggestion of sleep, despite the promise of the bees. ‘Attentive’, Mel thought again, and lifted the edge of the shade.
In flew a bee.
Not the silent creeping parade of the night before, but a solitary buzzing bee, fat with fur, that flew a few lazy circles and landed on the blanket over Mel’s chest.
“Hello, bee,” Mel whispered.
The bee waggled its body in return, not a wave, but a sort of zigzagged line diagonally across the blanket. It stopped, looped right to its starting point and retraced the staggering walk.
“You’re drunk,” Mel said. Lord Dellus had paced like that almost every night, stumbling circuits around the library until he collapsed into a chair, and finally into his deathbed.
The bee looped left and drew its drunken line again. And again, and again, alternating left and right, tracing a rough circle with a jagged line across the middle.
“An Egg,” Mel guessed. The bee continued its dance. “A Gourd? The Moon?”
Cook grunted, and rolled over. Mel was quiet, then, and watched the bee walk until the sliver of moonlight crept into its path. It stopped when it hit that light, and flew up and around Mel’s head and out under the sash.
Mel pressed a palm against the pain and hoped for another visitor, but the only thing that came in the window was the air and the light and the distant trill of a nightingale and eventually sleep. And then it was the sun and wakefulness, and Mel sat up and said, “A Compass.”
The bee’s jagged path had pointed toward the barley fields, a bit west of south, and that was the path Mel took once the morning chores were done. There was nothing of note in the fields beyond a lack of laborers. They were in mourning over Lord Dellus, Pearse said, but Ralph shook his head and said, “The House has no hold on them.”
Past the fields was the west road. Mel came out onto it not far from the crossing with the town road, but that led north and away from the bee’s path. Straight ahead was pasture, spattered with cows and their droppings, and beyond that a stream and the end of the estate and then rolling hills and copses like sleepy green sheep. There were no other Houses. Mel walked until the sun passed noon and lost itself behind the leaves of old untended forest.
Amongst those trees were standing stones that at first seemed as wild as the trees, but the shifting light revealed an arm, a swell of breast, a swirl of patterned robe like honeycomb, an eye as grey as Pearse’s above moss-softened lips. These monuments marked three sides of a square, broken and overgrown. The fourth side was cut by an outcropping of chalk and flint in which was set a statue of a woman covered head to toe by a veil, carved with patterns of leaf and limb and long zigzag lines.
“Despoina,” a low rough voice said. Mel started and turned. A man stood a few paces away, sad deep-set eyes over a beard as wild as the woods, arms and legs bared by roughly-repaired clothes.
“The name means ‘mistress of the house’. It is more properly considered a title. The goddess’s true name and nature was a mystery, passed mother to daughter by those who kept this place.” His voice was as worn and splintered as the stone, but the tone was measured and clear, the words careful. “Whence come you, girl?”
“From the Dellus estate,” Mel said, and after a moment of consideration, added, “Sir.”
“And whither bound?”
“I’m following a bee,” Mel said.
The man considered this in turn, for such a time and with such a frown that Mel began to grow alarmed.
Finally, he turned to walk away, but said over his shoulder, “I have eggs, if you hunger.”
He doesn’t seem dangerous, Mel thought, and he talks like my book, like he knows things. “Thank you, sir, I do, in fact.”
They walked for a few minutes along the outcropping, which grew to a bluff, and came to a small camp around a shallow cave in the rock: a lean-to, a bed of bracken, a stack of books gone green under the shelter of the cave. Mel sat on a stump and the man produced tin cups of a sort of tea, small spoons of bone, and the promised eggs, which were small and blue and cooked warm but still runny.
They ate and drank in silence, two eggs apiece, after which Mel carefully crushed the shells. “That they may not be used as boats by witches,” the man said gravely, with a nod, and did the same to his. He refilled Mel’s cup—the tea seemed brewed from bark and small blossoms—and stared into his own, and said, “Lord Dellus, then, how fares he?”
“Dead,” Mel said and then regretted the brusqueness as the man looked up with wide eyes and spilled half his tea.
“Dead, you say! Dead. I had not heard.”
“It’s been just three days, sir.” And with an unwonted wildness that might have been the tea or the woods or the fluttering in Mel’s torso, added, “Three days and I don’t know who knows, there’s no one left in charge at the estate except Pearse the butler, and no one has been told, except the bees and they spurned the telling.”
The man barked a laugh, as strange and bitter as the tea. “Did they now? The ancients believed honey brought truth as prophecy. Despoina, the unnamable mistress whose house you found yonder, was fed by the bees who crept under her veil and thus she learned the mysteries. If the bees objected, it was only because the telling was false: their lord was not dead.”
“But I saw the body, sir.” That had been this morning, when the body had been moved from bedroom to the downstairs parlour in the casket Ralph had built, oak, with the lacquer still wet and hardware borrowed from a scattering of splinters in the crypt. “Weren’t no objections from aught when I took ‘em,” Ralph had said, though Pearse flushed and fumed. The body in the open casket had been pale and bloated with a sour peaty smell; not much changed from life, Mel had thought, and stared into the blank eyes. There had been no revelation there, after all.
“Oh, I believe the man is dead. Jacob was his name. But he was not Lord Dellus, not rightfully. He had a sister, Deborah, and a brother Caleb, and he was the youngest of those three.”
Mel thought of conversations cut short, dark spaces on the wall where portraits once hung, and Lord Dellus pacing circles with an ever-emptying glass. “And they are alive?”
“The brother is. A sad wretch, bemused by time and circumstance.”
“But he’s the rightful lord, then! Would he come back, do you think?”
“They would not have him back.”
Mel took a deep breath, ribs shifting, grinding. “I think Pearse and Ralph are going to fight, and Cook will fly into one of her moods, and where will I….” Where will I find answers? Mel thought.
“Ralph, from raeth wulf, ‘wolf’s council’,” the man said blankly. He fished a twig from his tea, flicked it away, looked up under bristling brows. “Have you no parents? A mother, at least, who could sew or cook and thus support you in town?”
“I can cook, sir, and sew. And sharpen a plow and fix a fence. But I wouldn’t fit with the town folk. I don’t even fit at the House. I’m just… in between. Is ‘limbo’ the right word?”
The man nodded, but then frowned and said, “No, girl, it’s a wrong word, a hellish word.”
“Do you think—” Mel paused, feeling foolish and a growing fear. “Your pardon, sir, but you know things. Do you think the bees want me to follow the path through the woods to somewhere else?”
The man laughed again, his face cleft by old bitter lines like tree-splintered stone. “There is no path through, girl, try and try and try as I have. No meanings to be found, just more mystery, and every way leads back here. The House won’t let me lose myself.”
“The House is lost, sir! Oh please, if you know where the brother is, or the sister—”
“Dead!” The man was on his feet, and not so much shouting as growling. “She is dead, the whore, she and her fop of a lover, both run through the heart and left to rot. And the brother, he rots too, though he yet lives; rots alive and spurns all news like your bees, and looks for understanding instead amongst old tales and older stones.”
“I’m sorry, sir, I didn’t mean….”
“Away!” he roared, and threw himself down on his bed of bracken. “Away, child,” he said, quietly, an arm across his face, “away and hence away. You’ve crawled under the wrong veil. I have no need of your honey.”
Mel was halfway back to the statues when his voice called out, “Girl!” Mel almost didn’t stop. “There is a manuscript in the House, in the library, the pages loose in a black box with silver fittings. A dictionary. Do you know it? Is it yet there?”
“It is still in the House,” Mel said, not quite a lie.
“So.” And after a minute, he added, “Words mislead, girl. Be wary of following them.”
“What else, then?” Mel asked. The man said nothing more, but in the shifting mote-speckled leaf light there was a flicker, and a buzzing.
Mel had lost the bee’s path amongst the trees, and regardless the man was too frightening and his story too astonishing. Maybe there were answers yet in the limbo of the House, its book and bees, still some comfort to be had in its corners.
It was late afternoon before Mel got back, which would have earned a few blows from Pearse’s cane under other circumstances, but the butler was in the downstairs parlour with Ralph, voices not quite raised but certainly sharp. Cook gave Mel a half-hearted swipe with a wooden spoon, and said, “The coffin’s cracked, and Lord Dellus half tumbled out of it.”
“Not the lord,” Mel wanted to say, but did not.
“It was those handles and such as Ralph took from the crypt,” the downstairs maid said. “‘Silver once buried is to the darkness married’ is what they say. Bad luck, sure as sunset.”
“Ralph should-a used more nails, is all,” Neff said, and sniggered. “Lot of weight for a little box.”
Cook went after Neff with the spoon, and Mel slipped out the door and down the garden path. Time for the book, Caleb’s book, Mel thought, but first to tell the bees.
The sun was low in the west, the hive gilded like a mosaic set into the flint. Mel stopped at the black-clad stake. The words came easily, as if glimpsed in flat thick light and the dim disquiet of the house, overheard in the rumble of the hive and the echoes of the man in the forest:
Mistress sweet, Mistress sharp,
the lord lives in the forest dim,
Broken, sad, and grim.
Mistress black, Mistress gold,
let me bide and let me stay.
O stay, O stay, please let me stay.
A bee flew out from the hive and hovered. Black eyes glittered in the sunlight. Mel raised a hand, and the bee settled gently, crawled in a small circle, and carefully drove its stinger into Mel’s palm.
The pain was unbelievable. The stings from two days ago had been mild, and the welts were already faded, but this was like a handful of molten lead, searing down to the fingertips and up past the wrist. Mel hissed, a sharp sound liked a startled cat, and fought the urge to crush the bee in a clenched fist. But the bee pulled forward on its own—the stinger ripping from its sternum, poison sacks still pumping like tiny hearts—and collapsed.
Mel stood and watched the bee quiver and grow still, the welt rise and turn an angry rose, everything swirling sky to ground and the sun squeezed to an angry spot or was that the sting and then Ralph was there clucking concern and spreading cool chalky mud on the wound and then they were in the kitchen and Cook was angry but not it seemed at Mel or not exactly and then Mel was in bed though there was still a hint of sunset coming under the shade. Cook was saying “the child has taken a fever from the sting, damn Pearse for the telling” and Mel wanted to say “no no no it’s not my hand its in my chest between my legs in my thoughts there was a sister a brother I asked for the wrong thing the dream means change” but all that came out was silence and sleep.
Later like a dream the bee danced again, pointing north this time past Cook and House and toward the village, and though the bee glowed on a blanket that was so so far down and away, Mel knew what it wanted.
The next morning Mel felt as clear and light as the breeze through the open kitchen door. Cook said, “Back to bed, child, last thing I need is another body to look after.” Neff sniggered at that. But Mel sat in the corner and had a slab of bread with honey, and when Cook went upstairs to speak with Pearse—the butler had moved Lord-not-the-lord Dellus’s body back to the bedroom while Ralph repaired the casket, and sat guard with it—Mel left the House and headed north.
The town was half a mile past the front wall of the estate, no more than a fifteen-minute walk on the old road, though rarely did anyone from the estate spend those minutes so. And it was no more than another five minutes to the far end, but within that duration were four shops and an inn and a tavern and a market and a dozen hundred people; Mel stood in the square at the crossroads and looked around in dismay as the town buzzed to all sides.
Inspiration came with a sip of water from the well, and the women come to fill their buckets and gossip.
“Please, ma’ams, is there a Deborah who lives in the town?”
There were three, it turned out. One was no older than Mel, or so the women said, and one was married to the innkeep and from a town four days to the south: who knew what customs they kept down there, the women agreed, but her blouse was far too liberal in its lines for a respectable wife in this town. As to the third Deborah, one of the women made a sign with crossed fingers and another spat thrice into the dirt. “Don’t let your path cross her shadow,” one said, “lest you catch her madness,” and it was only by asking how to avoid such an accident that Mel was able to get the location of this Deborah’s house from them.
The house was at the north end of town, and if the inhabitant was mad then her madness was not evident from the exterior. The house seemed neatly kept, with a swept path and pale roses by the door. Mel knocked, and swallowed a sigh when the door opened; the woman seemed too old to be sister to either Lord Dellus.
But the hand that held the door half-open was not so withered, though the other hung lame, and the brows that rose in inquiry were still black and smooth. It was not age but pain, Mel thought, that had graved such deep lines on the woman’s face.
“I’m sorry to bother you, ma’am, but might I ask you a question?”
The woman started to close the door. Mel put a hand into the opening, regardless of the oozing welt, and said, “Lord Dellus is dead.”
The woman blinked and bit her lip, then grabbed Mel’s hand—a stab of pain—and pried it free. “Past time, then, and past any of my caring,” she said.
“He wasn’t really lord,” Mel said. “His brother lives.” And then, heart throbbing like a fresh sting, added, “And so does his sister.”
The woman stopped, still holding Mel’s hand, and stared. The pressure of her thumb on the welt brought a whirling faintness like the fever of the previous night, but Mel sucked air into aching ribs and belly and stood firm. The woman finally looked down, shifted her grip on Mel’s hand, and said in a low distracted voice, “I have something will soothe that.”
Mel followed the woman into the house. If it was as neat inside as out, in its way, it nonetheless had something of the forest in it; the posts and beams were unfinished, and promised the swirl of robes, the hint of an eye if examined too long. The floor was flint, a mossy green. And everywhere there were plants, in drying bundled and twisted wreathes. The smell was like that of the madman’s tea, and a bit like the drops the bees had brought; it did not at all help Mel’s swirling, buzzing brain.
The salve the woman rubbed onto the welt did help, however. The throbbing faded, and the swelling, and the scent of mint and meadows cleared Mel’s head.
“This should have been better tended, boy, lest it fester,” the woman said. “In my day the gardener knew better.”
“Ralph is still gardener, ma’am,” Mel said.
“The gardener has always been named Ralph. Just as a son of the Pearse line has always been butler, and Cook’s bread the same as her grandmother’s grandmother’s. The staff do not just keep the house, and the estate, they keep the manner of things.” The woman leaned toward Mel and hissed these last lines, lame arm flailing; her breath was sharp, alkaline, like the chalk and flint hills where the grass had died away. If the man in the forest had been tangled and splintered, this woman was dry and twisted, but their eyes held the same pale anguish. As had those of Lord-not-the-lord Dellus that last time Mel had looked him in the eyes, for all that he had been dead.
The woman covered the pot of salve, placed it back on a shelf. “‘Propriety’, that was Caleb’s word for it. Tradition. Preserving the old ways, he’d say. As if the old ways needed his help.” She coughed, or maybe it was a laugh, and made a wide gesture at the shelves of pots and jars, the hanging twists of herbs; her lame arm swung like an echo of the motion and nearly hit Mel. “And here I am, bottling wive’s tales and superstitions to preserve these people, whose lives have not changed in a dozen centuries.”
Mel took a step backwards, wary of that swinging arm and those eyes, and came up against a post.
“Do you think, then, to bring me news, boy? So the Lord Dellus is dead? The staff lowers the shades, a month later they raise them again. Nothing is changed.”
“There is no rightful lord, now,” Mel said and slid sideways, heart thudding, but a wreath of plaited branches blocked the way.
“There was no ‘rightful’ lord before,” the woman said, and dry as she was, spittle flew. “Maybe there never was.”
“The bees are angry. I think they might leave,” Mel said, in a tiny voice.
“The bees have been there as long as the estate, boy, and as long again and again, since these hills first rose from the sea. I tell you again, nothing is changed and nothing is changed.”
And at that third repetition, pinned as Mel was between the post and the branches and the woman’s despair, the fear faded and there was just the meaning.
“You left,” Mel said.
“I was cast away,” the woman said, and pulled her shift aside. Above her heart was a hideous scar, the ribs crushed in and the shoulder twisted down. “Caleb ran his sword through me and through poor Davie Wilson, all in the name of propriety. I crawled from the ditch and Davie did not, and the child, the child was taken, and what difference did that make to any of us three.”
The woman stopped, and stepped back and refastened her shift. Mel could have slipped past then but stood straight instead and asked, “And what of the child?”
The woman took her lame arm in her sound hand and twisted until there was a crack from the shoulder. Cradling that twisted arm, staring into its palm, she said, “Do you know what they say about a pregnant woman who sees a hare?”
“The baby will be born with a harelip.”
“How much worse is it, then, for a woman to see something monstrous at the very moment of conception? What perversion of nature would thence arise?”
I might as well still be fevered and find as much sense, Mel thought in dismay, and asked, “You saw a hare?”
“I saw Jacob’s face atop me,” the woman cried. “My own brother! Like the Devil leering over his domain, driving his sting again and again and again. And then Caleb with all his desire for propriety and all his blindness for the truth went and killed my Davie instead, who only wanted to take me away from that hell, and ruined me and himself and left Jacob as lord. Oh, that’s a tale for Caleb’s book, is it not?”
Mel felt a sudden sharp longing for the shelter of Cook’s flank, the dark corners of the House, the woven words of the dictionary, but took a deep breath of the pungent air instead and asked again, “What of the child?”
“Of monster is monster born. The child, oh the child, was neither girl nor boy, or both. And stained, all down the neck, with the sin of its birthing.” The woman looked up into Mel’s face and her pale eyes went dark and focused. “You seemed a boy just now. What is this change?” Not waiting for an answer, the woman grabbed Mel’s neckcloth and ripped it away. She made a sort of groan, then, and leaned against the shelves. “I thought for a moment…. But who would suffer such a child to live? Go, boy or girl, go back to the house and raise the shades, and some day you’ll take the name Ralph and keep the bees and it will all go on forever.”
And as Mel opened the door, the woman said, like a sigh, “I named the child Melisse.”
“I think it means ‘bee,'” Mel said.
Ralph had built a new casket, out of massive slabs like tabletops. They were tabletops, in fact, from the formal dining room and the desk in the library. Pearse was scandalized and refused to allow the body to be placed within it. Ralph was walking round the downstairs now, whistling, tapping at the doors and toeing the floorboards, and Pearse was upstairs with the body. The rest of the staff was gathered in the kitchen, cracking and crushing nuts for the one-week mourning loaf. Cook glared at Mel, but the wooden spoon was out of reach, and her hands were deep in the dough.
Mel took some cheese and bread and a pickle from the jar in the pantry and sat on Ralph’s stool by the door to eat. After a while, Cook asked, “Where have you been, child?”
Mel swallowed, and asked in reply, “Where is my mother?”
Neff sniggered from the hearth—his hands were too filthy even to shell the nuts—and said, “The dog was your mother.”
Cook raised a sticky finger and shook it at him. “The lord may be gone, and Mr. Pearse and Ralph might as well be, but I can still thrash you, Neff Spit.”
“It’s true, though, that dog did love the child,” the downstairs maid said. “Remember the two of them curled on the hearth, and the dog licking and licking?”
“Kept the child clean, at least, unlike some,” Cook grunted, still scowling at Neff.
“‘Dog’s tongue to ease a pain, cure a wart or lift a stain,'” the maid quoted primly. “And so it was with Mel and that mark. If the dog were still alive, Mel, she’d have healed that hand of yours.”
Mel fingered the spot where neck met collarbone, vague memories of warmth and wet and a constant slow rhythm. “It’s better now, thanks.” And when the conversation turned to the hounds left on the estate, and who in town might purchase them, Mel went down the path to the old shed.
Propriety, n. Strictness of meaning, literalness; conformity with requirement; correctness of morals; right of possession: these senses difficult to reconcile, cf. Property?
Superstition, n. Unattributable knowledge. From superstare stand over (i.e. in awe or superiority)? Or superstes, that which survives?
Words mislead, Caleb had said. “There are no answers in here,” Mel muttered. “It’s just a, a….” The word was under “C”: catechism, catalyst, ah, “It’s just a catalogue of questions.”
Catalogue, n. A list or register, perhaps from κατα away? λέγειν to choose?
Choose, Mel thought. Away.
That night, after Cook drifted to sleep, Mel carefully rolled up the shade, and then the sash, slid out of sheet and robe, and lay naked in the moonlight. Things do change, Mel thought, and ran a hand from thigh to collarbone and back. Meaning can be found, if you go searching, if you are attentive. There are other answers, and other fields.
The next morning, Mel woke early. Cook was rolled face to the wall, still smelling of nuts and spice and golden crusts. Mel took a deep breath, and snuck out down the hall, into the main wing past the master bedroom, where Pearse snored softly by the sunken, stained bed. And then down the stairs and out through the kitchen, where Neff sprawled and sniffled in the ashes. Ralph had left a half-finished casket on the kitchen path, made of panelling and the parlour floorboards this time, as if determined to take the House back to timber; Mel could see him standing out in the barley field, looking south away to the distant forest.
The hive was dark, the rising sun blocked by the bluff, but Mel could feel it rumbling in its niche.
Mistress sweet, Mistress sharp,
Mistress black, Mistress gold,
Your lady lives, and here I am.
But I’m leaving.
The rumble swelled and stopped, and the bees came out. No explosion of rage, this time, nor a solemn parade like that nighttime visit. The bees spiraled out and settled onto the cliff face until the flint was covered.
Something glinted in the dim mouth of the hive, a reflection of the waxing western sky surrounded by a deeper black. A leg appeared, big as a finger, and then another, and then a triangular head larger than a fist, crowned with golden fur. The hive entrance bulged and stretched and finally tore and the thorax came through, likewise robed in fur, and then the great abdomen banded with black as dark and glossy as the flint and fully as long as Mel’s forearm.
The queen clung to the hive for a moment, and shook loose her wings. Then she leapt out and up, a long loop to land on Mel’s chest. Mel looked down into the dark faceted eyes. Her wings fluttered, catching the dull light like glass. Her stinger hung like a claw over Mel’s belly; at its tip a clear drop swelled and clung, the size of a grape.
“You can come with me,” Mel said. “If you dare.”
The queen climbed up, claws catching cloth and flesh and hair. The stinger brushed the length of Mel’s neck, the venom boiling down to the collarbone. Mel gasped and knew the mark had burned itself back in, swirling red proof of birth and change.
“That’s that, then,” Mel said, and strode to the edge of the garden, where the bluff had spilled down and could be climbed, and then ran east into the dawn, away and gone, and the queen and all the bees went with her.
Return to Issue #109