Honey – Hugh Behm-Steinberg

One day when I was testing my blood sugar the number I got was way too high. Right away I jumped to the part where my eyeballs explode and the doctors have to chop off all my limbs because I’m such a shitty diabetic. But then my wife Sharon asked me if I had washed my hands before testing, and sheepishly I said no.

“Go scrub,” she said.

So I did, thoroughly, with tons of soap, and when I pricked my finger again and retested my numbers were fine. Back to being a good diabetic, I promptly forgot about it and had another stupid salad for dinner.

As a newly diagnosed type 2 this happened to me a lot. I’d assume I was back in my old life until it was time to test, then I’d screw up and forget to wash my hands, get the crazy high sugar reading, freak out, and then I’d get reminded by my incredibly patient wife about the whole hand washing thing, retest and go back to eating those stupid low carb crouton free salads, taking those stupid pills that are only going to work for a little while, and continuing to live with myself in this stupid new life and its terrifying clots of numbers.

If I was telling my origin story, this would be the part where I’d mention the deep regret I felt about having survived the explosion at the experimental candy factory (you’d be surprised how many of those there happens to be), how I felt the urge to do something with the newfound super-powers I was supposed to have (Candyman!), instead of dwelling upon the mutant skin condition I actually got from the accident that made me sweat high quantities of glucose and suffer the joys of type 2 diabetes. I don’t know how anyone puts up with me.

“It’s because you’re so sweet,” Sharon said. “And not just because I get a buzz from sucking on your fingers.”

“Quit procrastinating and finish your novel.” I said.

It was spring, and lucky for us the bees were swarming around the apple trees and jasmine in our yard. There was a steady droning sound all the time, which we found comforting. We’d wonder where their hive might be, whether the bees lived around here or perhaps they were migrants, going from spot to spot, working their way up or down the coast as the seasons changed. Gradually we stopped noticing; it just became part of the background, like traffic noise from the highway nearby.

That changed when we started hearing buzzing at night, coming from somewhere in the walls of our house.

“Maybe they’ve moved in next to the wrens,” I said.

“Hopefully they’ll keep the rats away,” Sharon said, reminding me that there are worse sounds than buzzing to hear coming from the walls of your home.

“Oh yeah,” I said, and started reading all the articles I could find about bees nesting in houses. “Did you know it’s illegal now to kill bees?”

The next few days were really hot and humid; I’d go to sleep early, naked and not even using a bedsheet while Sharon worked upstairs on her novel. Sometimes I heard buzzing, sometimes I’d hear the metal softly leaking out of Sharon’s headphones, and sometimes they’d blend together so I couldn’t tell which was which.

I was dreaming I was floating on an ocean of honey, bobbing up and down in a giant, humming wave, and that I was part of something ancient and wonderful, but to truly be part of it I had to lie still and move as little as possible. “Sweetie,” I heard above me. It was the Queen! “Don’t move.” I felt something tickling me. “Don’t move don’t move don’t move.”

Hardly awake, I very slowly opened my eyes, then gritted my teeth so I wouldn’t scream. There were bees everywhere, all over me. The ones that must have been on my eyelids were fluttering around my head. Those pictures you see where someone is covered all over with bees: that was me, and all I could think of was how horrible it would feel to get stung to death. I didn’t move while Sharon ran outside and dialed 911.

The dispatchers sent over animal control, who took one look, murmured something about the endangered species act and some beekeeper they knew who might know what to do, and one of them said bees can sense fear, while my wife kept insisting someone do something, anything. Around then, mercifully, I fainted.

When I woke up, I kept my eyes squeezed shut and just listened; although the buzzing was still there, it didn’t seem as bad as it was before. I opened my eyes and started to get up. I was starving.

The buzzing roared back; thousands of bees swarmed about the room from wherever they’d been resting. The landline rang and rang and went to the answering machine.

I saw Sharon standing in front of the bedroom window talking into her phone. “Sweetie,” I heard her say on the machine. “You’re going to have to stay still for awhile. The bees aren’t going to sting if you don’t move and you leave them alone. The bee specialist says she’ll be over right away with her crew, so just wait, please?”

I tried to nod without getting stung to death; Sharon gave me the thumbs up. Meanwhile the bees kept landing on me, tickling a little, and taking off. It felt like they were feeding, and I was their all you can eat buffet. At least someone was getting their breakfast today.

Not much later I saw a van drive up and a couple of people in beekeeping suits hopped out. I could see them talking to Sharon, discussing their plans, peering into the window, going back and forth fetching supplies. Carefully, like if somebody screwed up all the bees would explode, one of them removed the screen and opened the window, slipping in a hose, which in turn pumped smoke into the room, which in turn seemed to calm things down. “Mr. Berenbaum,” the other one of them said. “It’s okay to get up and leave your bedroom. Just no sudden movements: we don’t want to spook the bees.”

I was still naked, but like a vampire in one of those silent movies climbing back into the world of the quick, I got out of bed in our smoke-filled bedroom, a cloud of groggy bees trailing behind. I made it to the bathroom before they woke up and began swarming again, but I managed to shove some towels under the door. The buzzing kept growing until it peaked, then it gradually muted as the house filled with smoke. At least I got a chance to pee.

There was a knock. “Mr. Berenbaum?”

“Yes?”

“I’m going to open the door, and I want you to stand very still. Can you do that?”

“One second!” I said, wrapping a towel around my waist and trying my best to manifest fearlessness. “Okay, you can come in!”

The beekeeper opened the door with a bunch of bees buzzing around her. She was carrying a garbage bag and one of those smoking things, and once inside she shut the door behind her and started smoking up the room. Pulling a whiskbroom and a bee suit out of the bag, she brushed me down, whisking a few persistent motherfuckers away. I zipped up the suit and for the first time in forever I felt a little bit safe. Only hours later did I realize I’d been stung in seventeen different places.

Walking out of our smoke-filled house, I watched the beekeeper’s crew lever off chunks of drywall looking for the hive. I kept wondering if my insurance would be covering this as I made my way outside, still in shock as they tore our house apart, wall by wall by wall, honey and bees oozing everywhere; I fainted again.

When I woke up I was in the hospital. Sharon was stroking my forehead, which freaked me out because I thought the bees were back. I felt sour, but at least the bee stings weren’t hurting so badly, and cautiously I relaxed while she caught me up on what happened. She told me the story of the red honey from this one set of hives that smelled like lollipops because all the bees, instead of visiting flowers like they were supposed to, were sucking off the waste pipe of an experimental candy factory. How that sort of thing happens a lot more often than gets recorded because there’s all this concentrated sugar everywhere, and bees will now ignore flowers to get at it. They’ll even fly in the dark to get it. So that was what happened to me because I was just that sweet. “When they tore out the drywall they found the hive in our living room. But you’re going to be fine,” she said, “and I have something to show you.”

Sharon pulled a honey jar out of her purse and a teaspoon. “You must try this,” she said. “It’s like super concentrated you, and there’s a little something extra in it as well.” She opened the jar and swallowed a teaspoon’s worth. She put the jar down, then proceeded to do several one arm handstands on the rail of my hospital bed. If I haven’t mentioned it before I’ll say it now: my wife has the most amazing toes. I could stare at them for days, even if I was covered from head to foot in bees.

“We’re going to have superpowers, David Berenbaum, superpowers we can pour into bottles and sell for whatever we think miracles are worth! We’re going to be so rich!” she said. “There’s only a little honey now, but they can make a lot more if we let them. It’s just bees. We can live with bees. We can learn to handle some changes, can’t we?”

She looked so happy, like she did when all the words would just flow out of her all at once into that very first novel. Maybe it was a side effect of the honey.

“Ok,” I said. I could learn how to hold very, very still if it meant we’d be happy. “But you still have to finish writing that book.”

Hugh Behm-Steinberg’s prose can be found in X-Ray, Grimoire, Joyland, Jellyfish Review, Atticus Review and Pank. His short story “Taylor Swift” won the 2015 Barthelme Prize from Gulf Coast, and his story “Goodwill” was picked as one of the Wigleaf Top Fifty Very Short Fictions of 2018. A collection of prose poems and microfiction, Animal Children, was published by Nomadic Press in January, 2020. He teaches writing and literature at California College of the Arts.

Image via Pixabay

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