Plain China

The Hive

by Abby Hess · Susquehanna College
Oil Painting, Hollis Moore · Colorado College

My cousin shows me how to capture a firefly and hold it against the ground, two fingers splaying out its wings like a butterfly about to be dissected. She takes a twig and scrapes out the glowing abdomen, takes all its glow away and it stays lit up on the end of the twig like a wand—a green, pulsing light. She twirls it in the air in front of me and I watch the light stay for a while, a tail behind her strokes. She catches another firefly between her cupped hands and gives it to me. Now there are two lightless fireflies on their backs on the driveway lying next to one another, hollow and black, flinging their legs into the air until they both stop moving altogether.

 

Iwish I were a haunted person. I wish I were more like my mother, who believes in ghosts as much, I think, as she believes in God.

I am thankful now that our church never had a crucifix. The empty cross was enough. We used to draw crosses on placemats during Sunday school, and, for practice, in the bulletins. With my finger, I would trace the embossed golden cross on the cover of hymnal after hymnal. To me, a cross was not something on which a person would hang.

I wouldn’t see a crucifix until I was eleven and saw the midnight showing of The Passion of the Christ, which I sat through mostly with my eyes closed. I think the sounds were worse. I left the theater with my head down, not in prayer.

In our church, there was a painted portrait of Christ that hung on the wall to the left of the pulpit with a small, brass sconce above it, haloing his face. The portrait of Christ smiled and looked out beyond his frame, as if to God and the giant cross hanging above the pulpit. My mother always told me that the church she grew up in had the same picture of Jesus hanging on its wall. She said that she would stare at it, and that somehow, it could calm her. I too thought this portrait somehow captured a look of love. But whenever I see that picture now—and when I used to look at it from my seat in the pew, with my dress bunched at my knees and crayons rolling across the curving seats—I don’t think of Christ. To me, Jesus is the bleeding man nailed to the cross—senseless, useless pain—and the portrait of the loving man is a ghost. It reminds me only of my mother.

 

Across the beam that supports the landing to our plastic yellow slide is a beehive. I’ve learned about them through a computer program at school. Inside are catacombs and hundreds of twitching, vibrating bodies rubbing against one another—drones and workers and, somewhere in deep, the queen. The hive is a self-sustaining heart with bees swarming through it like blood—a visceral engine.

My brother and I remember the time hornets secreted their paper wad nest there, clinging to the wood like a flaking wart. Our father sprayed it with an aerosol can and knocked it down with one of our t-ball bats. He ran back to us, knees pumping with the bat in hand like a baton. We waited across the yard, barely breathing behind the screen door.

We won’t go near this one, less of a lump than a hanging chrysalis or an enlarged, gray, snake’s rattle tied above the slide like Indian corn. My brother stands with his yellow Wiffle ball bat in the stance we learned, right hand above the left, knuckles lined up, knees bent, feet shoulder-length apart.

“Don’t hit it,” I tell him.

I watch him look up there again. He is still in his stance, deciding. The hive isn’t much different from a ball on a tee, waiting to be knocked down. This hive is alive inside, but from where we stand, it is dead. To us, the interior movement is invisible.

 

My mother lived in a house with ghosts—at least one. She felt it on the landing where the main stair stopped and turned and kept rising. She said she knew someone was watching her. The alcove of the thin window was tall enough for someone to stand if they were hunched or small. Other people felt it too, and they’d tell my mother. Each time she traveled up and down the stairs she jumped the landing and ran, like a floating girl.

Long before, a relative had been struck by lightning in the front yard of my mother’s childhood home and then went mad. Rather than sending him to an asylum, the family kept him shut in the study. Heavy doors as tall as the ceiling closed him in. After he died, these doors were taken off their hinges, but when my grandfather installed them again, things began to fall. My mother would hear thuds and smacks like children stomping their feet, and she’d run in to see books fallen to the floor. Many ghosts surrounded her there.

My mother’s house is just down the road from her church, which has an old cemetery with tombstones that have sunken and fallen over—small, curved ones that are unreadable, granite plaques hidden by weeds. When I was eighteen, I helped a friend restore these tombstones for his Eagle Scout project. I read the names aloud, thinking up their obituaries and wiping them with bleach until my hands burned and turned red. I was so focused on the stones that I didn’t remember that there were real people below me, under the ground where I squatted. Now, instead of faces, I remember them as engravings in rock. Large, rectangular stones are men, the smaller ones, adjacent, their wives. The ones with embossed lambs lying down are children. I find traces of their personalities in the texture of the moss hugging the sides or in the jagged edge of a chipped corner.

My grandfather is a tombstone. He died when I was four. Above my mother’s childhood home, up a curving road, is another, newer cemetery where he is buried. All I know of him is that he loved animals and that he had cats, dogs, some pigs, and even an owl he found with its wing broken. It would sit on his shoulder while he fed it, wearing welding gloves to cover his hands. He was the one who told my mother ghost stories; the one who army-crawled into her dark bedroom, silent on his stomach, and grabbed her ankles. Sometimes, I know she is waiting for him, when it’s dark, to reach up and scare her again.

 

“Please,” I say, knowing we can’t run as fast as our father had.

I had never been stung by a bee or a wasp.

I wasn’t stung when I was ten years old in hiking camp and a hornet’s nest fell on the trail. Girls from the front of the group forced us to turn around and shuffle-slide off the path, down the mountain. One of the guides had to carry the girl who had a hornet stuck in her shoe. It stung her over and over, trying to break out.

I wasn’t stung when I accidentally chewed on a yellow jacket that had slipped its way into my can of tea and drowned—the metal-like taste of it, the solid crunch of the exoskeleton, its abdomen, and the empty spaces between the legs. The stinger somehow missed the tender places of my mouth. I wonder if this was because it had died already.

I was stung, eventually. It happened while I was looking at newborn kittens hidden by their mother in a window well, behind some shrubbery. A wasp darted at me from under the rain gutter and pierced the thin, hollow place above my eyelid and under my brow. Pain came instantly and I stumbled, blind, back into the house, to the sound of crying kittens disturbed by the shuddering bush above them.

 

My mother believes she has seen signs of her father. Once in a meditation during a death and dying class in college. Once with a fortuneteller at the Renaissance fair. Again in our front yard, when she found a Mexican cigar while planting flowers, the same brand that her father used to smoke.

When this happens, my father tells her it is not a sign. He tells her someone must have thrown it from the road, and that over time it was buried in the earth. I reprimand him later. Why can’t he let her believe her father is watching over her? Can’t he see this is important to her?

I don’t believe it myself, though I would like to. I am hoping he leaves signs for me, too.

My grandfather is a ghost I know only through my mother. Once, Pap fell asleep in a rocking chair with one of his Mexican cigars in his mouth and caught on fire—his chest, neck, and arms in flames. As he grew older he went in and out of the hospital. He tugged on my grandmother’s arm and wouldn’t let her go for days. They had to call the police to pull him off of her.

In the car, my mother tells me that my great-aunt saw him hold a gun to his head once, but he couldn’t shoot. I can’t help but remember another story, when he went hunting and shot a deer, but didn’t kill it. It fell, eyes wild. He was out of bullets. He smashed its head with the butt of his gun and never killed anything again.

I stare back at Mom and think about petting her hair. About how I wish I were the one to have seen it, the one telling these stories to her.

All I remember of my grandfather is his chasing my older brother with a hopping-spider toy. A black, furry ball attached to a tube and another ball that he squeezed. It filled with air and had limp legs glued to the sides and googley eyes, and bounced almost as high as my head. They ran through the house in a big circle, my grandfather laughing, my brother screaming. I sat on the couch, and for several moments they were invisible. I heard them through the walls. All I could do was wait for them to pass me again, to come back where I could see them.

 

As Ben and I stand there in the yard, I wonder what it will feel like to be stung. I am afraid of the humming hive above us. I’m scared that I can’t see inside or know for sure how many bees there are. I picture bees attacking my brother, covering him in black-and-yellow fur and shaking wings. He doesn’t seem to be listening to me. He is calculating his chances. He is too short to reach the hive in his batting stance and would have to climb the ladder-side of the slide and poke it to make it fall down. A honeybee floats past us, its fat, black head like a wet crumb of charcoal, legs limp in flight.

My brother is ready. He swings and the bee is shot from the air. Instantly it changes from weightlessness to a solid, a dropped penny, and lands in the grass several feet from us. He walks up to it with the bat raised again, like it might need another whack, but it is still, weightless once more, not even heavy enough to bend the blades of grass it has landed on.

I think the rule of gravity applies to spirits, too: they sink. They are constantly in the process of coming back to earth. If I could see them, I would not expect them to float but to fall slowly, always coming from somewhere above. Moving like older generations slipping down their family tree.

 

My mother has a book that predicts futures based on a person’s birthday. She always says that her page is true. June Thirteenth: The Day Of Far-Off Adventurer. The page describes a person who is absorbed in dreams of being someplace else. A person who believes in mythologies and fantasy. A person who is prone to hero-worship.

Unfortunately, when the hero happens to be the father of June 13 people, this god-like idol of their own making can come crashing down when he descends to less than god-like behavior.

In the book, I am March Twenty-FifthThe Day Of Dynamism. It describes a person who is enthusiastic, loyal, interested in everything, but a soloist. A person who will most likely never marry, who will take on her ambitions alone. A person who is highly critical of herself, self-destructive.

My mother feels her page reveals the truth about her. My page only solidifies my fears.

 

We stare at the dead honeybee on the grass. We know some things about honeybees. They like flowers. They are good workers. If they sting you, they will die. I have a slight unease that the other honeybees will find out what we have done.

We pick some of the miniature purple and blue pansies from our neighbor’s yard. We grab mint leaves from two houses over. We make a circle of flowers and leaves around the bee, which is slowly sinking into the grass, but looks somehow lighter, like a bit of colored Styrofoam. We both say something about the bee. I say it didn’t really look like it had wanted to hurt anyone.

Later, when we go inside, I put some of the pansies in a small ceramic pot on the windowsill for my mother. I do this every day. When I look outside, I wonder if the honeybee had ever noticed us at all.

 

During a trip to Salem, Massachusetts, my mother buys fortune-telling cards. They are just for fun, she says. Their backs are orange with black silhouettes of witches, cauldrons, and cats. At home, she plays them with me. She reads me the story of the ancient cards—the formations that have been used for centuries. She lays them facedown in a cross and fills in the empty spaces until eighteen cards make a large rectangle on her bed. As she flips them, she reads their connection to each other, and what that means for my future. She tells me a story, pointing to images of white roses, swords, lightning, and flying birds. She moves quickly, her eyes skimming, and she speaks as if she is reading from a book. I can tell she wants the outcome to shape out well for me. She points back again at the positive cards to remind me of them. I want so much for each card to be something good.

Most of my story goes like this: I will be successful, my highest expectations will be fulfilled, but soon, I will lose someone I love. Someone I have been closest to the longest. I believe this while I am sitting with her, across the bed.

When I try to play this game later with my friends, I have to leave the directions out beside me. I go back on my readings and correct myself. I try to read my own fortune again to see if it has changed, but it no longer feels real. Because of my mother, I can believe most things, even though I never see them when I am alone.

I still wonder who I will lose. I want to be haunted, but please, not by her.

 

Long after the honeybee, I will go to the house of a boy I like, and there, he will show me how to hit summer fireflies with a metal baseball bat. We will watch as they explode into tiny fireworks, their black bodies and green lights no longer distinguishable from each other. Just a shock of a sparkle that darkens and disappears before it hits the ground.

I remember those two fireflies—hollowed of their light by my cousin and me—kicking their legs like beetles reaching toward heaven for ground. I never did see them die. The green-glow on our sticks faded too fast.

About the Author

Abby Hess · Susquehanna College

Abby Hess recently graduated from the creative writing program at Susquehanna. Previously the publicity assistant for Atticus Books, she is now a product assistant at Cengage Learning, an academic publisher in Boston. “The Hive” was originally published in Susquehanna’sEssay magazine. Her essay, “Sleeping Gas for Fruit Flies,” appeared in plain china 2011.

About the Artist

Hollis Moore · Colorado College

Hollis Moore graduated in 2013 with a B.A. in studio art. She makes oil paintings directly from observation in the Colorado landscape to build colorful compositions, which she translates into contemplative, gestural woodblock prints. Excited by the collaboration and problem solving that takes place in the print shop, she now works at Oehme Graphics in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Oil Painting first appeared in Leviathan, Colorado College’s literary journal.