My mother kept the beehives in our backyard,
small-domed against the wall of trees. She wore
a nylon-netted veil, and walked out in evenings,
gripping cotton gloves and a round, shallow pan
to hold the combs she’d coax out from the dark buzz.
She said it was an art, and moved, smooth as solder,
keeping her breaths small while she reached
one arm into the swarm, as deep as her shoulder.
The worker bees sank into clover, and I watched
from high up on the stone ledge, knowing
the honey’s taste laced with the drone of the bees
when they rose—a dark pall—while she smoked out
the hives, moved the swarm among billows and blue sky,
calm in her black gauze, ghosting past trees.
I’d never been stung, still whenever a bee hummed by,
looking for peonies or lily blooms, I ducked,
low to the grass, shrank like the dog under the table,
who feared a thunderstorm each time like he’d been struck.
I thought to the bee, there’s nothing for you here,
and swatted it on, up to the garden or apple tree to find
nectar, to feed its queen and all her tiny rows of cells,
six-sides each, sharp-brimmed with sting and sweet.
In winter, the hives stood snow-capped, slumped
under drooping pines. I wondered how bees slept,
if they died, small bodies curled stinger to sternum,
frozen, dry in their dry nest. In winter, my mother
would keep to her room, not enough light
she would say, while she harvested afternoons, steeped
long in the south-facing glass. On the bed, her body
curled into itself, small under goose down, steady in sleep.
Summer, near dark, the fireflies gathered,
and from deep in the lower field, the barred owl
summoned the last flutter of light. I stood, resolute
by the hive, but I would not lift my hand to the dark
gape, would not dip my finger. I remember
that ache—and years later, after the bees
had gone, my mother withdrawn from their keeping,
I would go out to the wood’s edge, where the hives
stayed like ruins, spread by raccoons and snow thaw,
some overturned, two jutting out on their balks,
close to falling. I knelt low in the long grass
to see one, and bracing my eyes, lifted the roof
from the body. I imagined its cavity strewn still
with thorax and fore wing—now blackened
by frost, dried far from the daylight. I raked
the inside but could find only broken combs—open
faced, and vacant as robbed graves—with no movement,
no sound to trace up from the dark middle.