sidebrow

Stung

His stepfather’s body was genuflected as if disposed at prayer, a bee wriggling on it, its stinger inserted into the naked back. The boy took a pillow from the bed, slid his hands inside the pillowcase, used the pillow to push the body over. His stepfather teetered and fell, crushing the bee beneath him. The mouth of the fellow had been sewn shut with carpet thread, which had begun to tear out through the lips. The hands and feet were swollen, and the face was so puffy that the cheeks overwhelmed the eyes—two squinting slits sunk deep into flesh.

The boy used the pillow to move the arms around a little. He took his hands out of the pillow and put it on the knees and sat, hearing the knees crack when they slowly straightened beneath his weight. He sat there staring down at the body. The carpet thread had been sewn in blood-tipped cross-stitch all the way along the lips, nine stitches in all, the outer two torn all the way through so that there was an exit through which a bee, its wings plastered back against its abdomen, could, and did, squirm.


Through the glass doors he saw his mother lying on her towel, her bare back up, her head hidden beneath a bleached, floppy straw hat. He hesitated, until he saw her move.

He slid the door open.

“I’m coming out,” he called. “My eyes are closed.”

He walked toward her tentatively, listening to the sound the straps made in dragging up her arms to her shoulders, pulling the sheer triangles of fabric up over her breasts. Through hooded eyes, he watched her arrange herself.

“All right,” she said.

He opened his eyes very wide. “I just got home,” he said.

“What time is it?” she said.

He shrugged. “I stopped at a friend’s,” he said.

“What friend is that?” she said.

“Nobody,” he said. “You wouldn’t know him.

She leaned back onto the towel, crushing the rim of the hat. Eyes closed, she tipped her neck back, exposed her face to the sun.

“Benny out at the hives?” the boy said.

“Upstairs, I think,” his mother said.

“Has he been out to the hives today?” he said.

“Who wants to know?” she said. “He’ll probably go out with you, either way.”

“If I want to go,” the boy said.

“If you want to go,” she said. She turned her head away. Leave me alone a while,” she said.

He sat down on the hot cement next to her.

“What you been up to today?” he said.

“The usual,” she said.

“You seen much of Benny?” he said.

“Same old, same old,” she said.

“What has he been doing?” he said.

She locked her fingers behind her head. She pulled her head up to look at him.

“What little thing did I just ask of you?” she said. She let her head fall slowly back onto the towel. “Can’t a woman tan?”


There were bees crawling about on the body and through the carpet and up the legs of the furniture. He went into the bathroom, opened the cabinet behind the mirror, took out a glass misty from water deposits and toothpaste spit. He dumped the toothbrushes out of it.

He carried the glass back into bedroom and began to fill it with bees. He took bees by their damp wings, lifting them up as their abdomens twitched, dropping them down into the glass. He opened the top drawer of the chest of drawers, fingered through underwear and medals and old Boy Scout awards until he found a plastic bag full of rings, traces of powder in it. He dumped the rings out into the drawer, turned the bag inside-out, licked the powder off of it, slipped the bag down over the top of the glass.


He shook the glass until the bees were maddened. His mother was lying on her stomach, bikini top off again. He took the plastic bag off the glass.

“Get out of my sun,” his mother said, without looking up.

He took a step back, put the plastic bag back on the glass.

“Where is a rubberband?” he said.

“Try the rubberband drawer,” she said.

He went into the kitchen, opened the half-drawer, untangled a rubberband from the mess. He smoothed the bag down around the glass, putting the rubberband over the bag, staring at her out the kitchen window.


He took the shears from the knife block on the counter. He removed the latex gloves from their arthritic agony behind the faucet, shook them straight, slipped them on. They were warm and moist against his skin. He felt his hands already becoming slippery in them.

He climbed the stairs to the body, saw another bee crawling on the face. The bee made its way along the bridge of the nose and tucked itself down into the nostril, the end of its pulsing abdomen hanging out. He reached out, pinched his stepfather’s nose shut, watched the bee’s abdomen split and ooze yellow fluid.

His gloved fingers held the shears awkwardly. He opened the paired blades, sliding the bottom blade between his stepfather’s lips, beneath the carpet thread. He cut through the thread, sheared off some of the lip with it. The opened flesh remained dull and bloodless.

Filling the mouth was a bolus of dead bees, squashed and stuck together, stingers missing. He poked at the clump, broke it apart, flicked smaller clusters of bee pieces out of the mouth and onto the carpet. The throat was crammed with bees as far down as he could reach, and farther.

He peeled the gloves off and left them bunched up, inside out, on his stepfather’s bare chest. He moved the stiff jaw and pulled it wide open for the ceiling light to drive the shadows out of the mouth. He took a good, long look.


He looked at her naked back, his eyes tracing her spine up to the wide-brimmed hat hiding her face. He pulled the plastic bag off the jar slowly, watched the rubber band flip off and spin out over the cement. He leaned over his mother, shook the bees out onto her hat, watching them slide down along the rim.

“Whatever the hell you are doing, cut it out,” his mother said, not moving.

He watched the bees wander over the pale, matted straw, watched each err its way through the vastness of that ridged expanse, test wings, vanish into the sky.

“No sign of Benny,” the boy said.

“Hmm,” she said.

“Any ideas?” he said.

“Try the bedroom,” she said.

“I didn’t see him,” he said. He stuffed the plastic bag into the glass, set the glass down on the cement. “I’m going out to the hives,” he said. “Coming?”

“No,” she said.

“Come on, for a change,” he said.

She sighed, stretched her fingers, her arms, her back. “Close your eyes,” she said.

He did not close them.


He stood among the bees, spraying them with smoke. She kept her distance, leaning against the willow a few meters away, arms folded loosely over her bare stomach. He opened the hive and slid out a slat thick with honeycomb, aswarm with bees. He sprayed smoke over them until they fell off the slat, back into the hive. He felt the bees in his hair, on his hands, on his face.

“Know anything about bees?” the boy said to her.

She shrugged. She looked at him as if bored, then looked coldly away.

He felt the sound of them all through him. He tasted the honey. He broke off a bit of honeycomb, cleaned the dead bees out of it, chewed on it.

“What about sewing?” he said.

“I’ve done it before,” she said.

“Clothes?” he said.

She shrugged. “Among other things,” she said.

He held the rest of the honeycomb out to her.

She shook her head.

“Come over here,” he said. “Mother.”

He watched her bare feet leisurely picking their way back down the path, away from him, without hesitation. He lined up the grooves and slid the slat back in place. He sprayed himself with smoke, watched bees slow, stop, drop off.


She had taken the hat off, sticking it on the fencepost. The wind rocked it back and forth, ruffling the brim. The sun beat down on her back. Her eyes were closed.

“Benny’s dead,” he said.

She didn’t say anything.

“Benny’s dead,” he said. “I mean it.”

“Don’t be tiresome,” she said. “Just get the lotion.”

He stood there a while, but then walked over and got the lotion from where it was by the glass doors. He carried it over, dropped the bottle onto the crease of her back.

“Rub it into me,” she said. “Into my back.”

He kneeled down beside her, opened the bottle, squeezed some out onto his fingers, began to rub it into her skin.

“Undo my top,” she said. “Rub in circles, and evenly.”

He fumbled her catch loose and pulled the straps off her shoulders and down her arms. He made long circular strokes until the white swirls of lotion vanished into her back.

“Good for a beginner,” she said. “Don’t neglect the sides.”

He rubbed down the sides of his mother’s body, feeling how the swelling edges of his mother’s breasts were hot and dry under his lotion-slick fingers. He finished the back, remained hanging over her.

She stretched her bare arms far out in front of her. Ever so slowly she turned over. She tilted her head back.

“Now the front,” she said.

He stayed there, on his knees, feeling the strength of his mother’s small hands, pulling him, pulling him in.