Bee-Keeping: Short Story

Unedited, written in two hours 

Bee Keeping

This was how I learned: through tedious repetition and idiosyncrasy and careful planning, not well meaning teachers or holy revelations. My learning stemmed from damp earth, like a plant that lived by the way of a trickle of water. While my sister voraciously devoured recipes, I sifted and remeasured flour, juggling little bits of falling snow.

I never did exhibit any talents. Not sports. Not mathematics. Not even art, that tea cup holder of discard paintbrushes.

What are you going to do with your future? my sister asked when she was in her final year of highschool, while I sat through endless nights on a stool beside her in our mother’s apron. She had clad herself with a cheesy newspaper apron her friend had given her from New York. Brightening up the tacky windowless kitchen. Toiling even after dark, emitting her own light.

The earth has no future, I countered. The flash of knives like accidental lightning storms. What does it matters what I do?

Stop talking as if your own failures are the world’s fault. There was disdain in her voice even in those early days. Fish scales sung like violin strings to a bow from under her knife, musical even when her hands were specked with blood. The noise of lips puckered to kiss as the fish plunged into scalding water. There. You would see results if you grew up and tried something.

Mom and dad say I am grown up. In those early days forms began to take shape in the negative space between my hands, shadows without bodies, as I blunt-chopped celery and carrots and measured flour. I practiced behind the darkness of my eyelids, the secret magic of vengeful fantasies. My sister’s julienne, dice and brunoise cuts became more and more complex as did my mental films. Unbeknownst to her, we were rising on equal levels, but different playing fields.

Because I never saw her again after she left for culinary school, I never revisited our kitchen. My precision and culinary skills became honed to the next level as I grieved.

Beekeeping is a precision surrealist art. Picasso by Paint By Number, severe penalties if you colour outside the lines. This is what makes me well suited for the job.

Months after locking myself in a rented kitchen slaving over the precise quantities of magical baking soda, the karat of egg yolks, I had completely splattered the unrecognizable front of my sister’s apron. “What’s a cook like you doing in the dangerous outdoors?” said the twenty something who was hiring. Lisping through his tongue rings and leering at my apron.  

“There’s nothing left to learn in the kitchen.”

“Where do you come from? You don’t look like you come from the countryside. Your mother’s kitchen, maybe.”

I gave him the eye. Well practiced, glinting like the eye of a dying fish, honed to wake the dead. It must have worked. The next day I was given a white hazmat like suit like his and was incorporated into the foreign landscape.

~

When my sister disappeared, so did I. We just disappeared to different places. But I didn’t ignore everything I learned from baking in my sister’s presence. Practice makes perfect, and I was a beekeeper from ages seventeen to thirty seven. Twenty years. Twenty years that I did not revisit the kitchen but instead plunged my hand into golden infested dripping honeycombs and waiting stingers. Twenty years that I worked alongside people with pierced tongues and hazy backgrounds that were like shadows without a body to cast them. In that time, an unruly landscape can become pruned by the elements to reveal an orchard. In that time the dead can come to be dead longer than the living.

In twenty, even the most rebellious and naive spirit yearns to stir honey into chamomile tea, and not worry about ointment. Fall marks the only time I can return home. I volunteer to work at the farmer’s market at our stand. Although I know our home has changed, no longer a shrine for when production was at its peak, very few things change. A slight preference for chunky, viscous honey straight from the comb over the domestic, bottled version. Crinkled letters written in more and more illegible script.Tongue rings after a mouthful of honey.

My parents sometimes still mention their regret. We shouldn’t have sent her across the country to culinary school, their script whispers from time to time. Today’s her anniversary, we’re feeling under the weather today. Like a lone bee separated from its colony, rubbing its wing in a papery SOS. Too many winged SOSs and the barely audible whispering becomes deafening, disorienting. When will you be visiting the farmer’s market next? Are the bees treating you well? They never mention the kitchen. I send them homestyle recipes using organic local ingredients. Years have taught me that even the most difficult of tasks yield to consistent support.

We the farmer’s market are liminal. Harvest is fleeting. Deprivations are the norm. Winter comes inevitably no matter how many pumpkin pies we bake and bottles of sunlit honey we try to stave it off with. The meaning of them is not to create a fancy feast or indulge in nostalgia. The meaning is to make sure I have done justice to the bees, kept my promise to the earth, be a good culinary artist.

I have spent twenty years at farmer’s markets and still never found someone who could whisper the secret ingredient in my sister’s winning dish to me.

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