Thursday
Apr142011

The Bee-Loud Glade

By Steve Himmer



Atticus Books
April 2011
224 pages
978-0984510580

 

 

After my arrival, time in the garden quickly became more about memory than measure, and my days went as shapeless and soft at the edges as my whole world is now. A few weeks into the job, my breakfast basket brought a note instructing me to perform tai chi outside my cave every morning. So for a few days I pretended I knew what I was doing, going through the motions of knowing the motions, until another note arrived requesting sunrise meditations on top of my cave instead.

I hadn't climbed up there yet, I hadn't discovered the surprisingly comfortable seat carved from stone, but that morning I found the footholds and scaled the wall of my home in the dim predawn minutes and was settled and ready to watch before the sun showed its face. I've kept that routine ever since, with a few exceptions when Mr. Crane had me briefly try something different. But always, before very long, he sent me back to my rooftop reflections.

As thin orange light filled the garden, I saw that the leaves and grass were still wet with night and I watched brown birds hop to the ends of branches to shimmy their feathers dry. A beehive tuned up nearby but out of sight, up somewhere in a tree, and someone close to my cave—A fox? A skunk? Maybe me?—released a slow, whispering fart, or else the wind blew in a way I wasn't expecting. Leaves drifted down from the trees and landed around me on that rock, and stayed where they settled until another wind rose and lifted them off. Insects landed—flies, beetles in various sizes and colors, a butterfly as purple as grape juice—and sat cleaning their wings and rubbing their legs and going about their own morning business as I went about mine. Most of my encounters with bugs until then had been smashing and scraping them out of the house or watching them splatter against my windshield while I was rushing to work on the few stretches of road where it was possible to go fast enough for a bug to be splattered. Cars, I realized from atop my cave, were too fast even when they weren't moving. Too fast for me to have noticed before all of these slower things, leaves and beetles and mornings unfolding at their own pace and with their own rhythms. All this had been happening every day of my life, while I'd been moving too fast and with too sluggish a mind to take note. While I'd been too busy shitting and showering and shaving myself, trundling myself off to work in a mental fog that lent itself to traffic-jam driving but not to being alive. I sipped the tea I'd carried up to the cave top in my wooden mug, and through its thin steam I watched that brown bird on the branch fluffing and smoothing its feathers with quick darts of its beak.

If not for my morning marathon of sneezing and wheezing from pollen and particles flown into my cave and into my nose and my throat overnight, and from the blankets I'd spent the night under and the tunic I was still wearing, that first sunrise on my cave top might have been perfect. And even with all that discomfort it was still pretty good. I drifted off into my head, not thinking about anything so much as trying hard to think about nothing; I was getting better at meditation but I wasn't there yet, I wasn't where I am now. Where I am on a good day, at least, when I'm adrift on the water and in my head alike, when I'm nowhere at all for long hours at a time.

That first morning atop the cave, my quiet reflections were interrupted by someone whistling, the first human sound I'd heard since my arrival in Mr. Crane's garden, and I turned away from the sunrise toward the house and the hill. A woman was walking in my direction on legs so long there's no way to describe them without stupid clichés. She wore cutoffs so short that a tongue of white pocket hung down each leg, and her hair was as yellow as waxed lemon rind. Like a magazine page on the move, her breasts were barely draped in twin triangles hardly large enough to suggest a bikini. I hadn't seen a woman in a long time, and what a first woman to see. She carried a gray metal bucket, and it bounced against her thigh with each step.

As she drew close, the mist rose around her like a special effect, giving the moment a sense of slow motion or of a TV show's opening credits (an impression that made more sense once I realized who she was). I wasn't sure if I should climb down to meet her or pretend she wasn't there. I hadn't been instructed on how to respond when visitors appeared at my cave, and I hadn't had any yet. Smithee, the last person I'd seen when he showed me the cave, was an employee like me, but this—I assumed—was Mr. Crane's wife, not one of his workers, and I wasn't sure if I worked for her, too, or should go about the task her husband had set me like she wasn't there.

I decided to stay on my perch and stay in contemplation, keep watching the world with utmost concentration, because that's what I was being paid for. Maybe she'd report my commitment back to her husband. I tried to keep my eyes on the sunrise and the wakening flora and fauna, but it was hard to ignore her approach. Her feet were bare, crosshatched by wet grass from her walk down the hill, and her toenails and fingernails were all painted the same shade of orange as her bikini and dangling surfboard-shaped earrings.

Oh, I'm glad I could still see in those days, and more glad that memory hasn't gone with my eyes. Thanks to my scribe, I can flip back through the days of my life in this garden and recall more than I could on my own.

She stood by the mouth of my cave on the broad, flat stone that serves as a threshold, and she brushed some of the grass from her feet but let most of it be. Then she climbed the side of the cave, easily, like she'd done it before, and sat down beside me. Her feet left wet shadows on the gray stone.

I tried to ignore her, to go about the business of my meditations like I was alone. I tried to do my job without interruption. On the branch of a tree I'd decided was cottonwood only because its flowers were white and puffy, a black bird spread his wings, revealing red shoulders, then flapped hard and rose in a spray of fine mist.

"So you're my husband's new hobby," she said. "His hermit."

She was facing me, but I didn't turn away from the garden. She leaned closer, warming my leg with her own, and as her heat spread over my body, I was glad for once to have the uncomfortable tunic covering my lap.

"I'm his old hobby, his wife."

Mr. Crane had mentioned his wife was an actress, or maybe Smithee had said it, and now I realized which one: her name escaped me, but she'd been on a cop show a few years before, as the buxom young officer always wearing bikinis and maid's uniforms to go undercover. That's why she'd looked so familiar coming down the hill from the house; it was an outfit like one she'd worn in the opening credits, pushing her way through saloon doors in the midst of a brawl, bringing the whole wild bar to a freeze.

My rash escalated its itching, and it was all I could do not to scratch at my balls or throw my tunic open to catch some cool air. Mr. Crane's rule about bathing was beginning to chafe. I didn't mind smelling, but the itch was driving me mad. But with Mrs. Crane beside me I tried to bear it, though I think the strain showed on my face, because she gave me a strange sort of look.

"Finch, isn't it? I think that's what he said." She paused; it was my turn to speak, but when I didn't she said, "It's awkward talking to someone who doesn't talk back. I don't think I'll enjoy having another man like that around." She waited as if I might answer, then leaned so close I could feel her lips moving. "Listen, I don't know what my husband hopes to accomplish by having you here. But I know why you're here. I'm sure he's paying you well."

She looked toward the house and, I assumed, toward the window of her husband's office. I didn't turn, so I couldn't tell whether he was watching; by that point in my tenure, after worrying about it for a few days, I'd pretty much forgotten I was being observed except when the telescope's lens caught the sun and flared way up on the hill.

A few yards from us, two bright male blue jays lit into each other, squawking and screeching and thumping their chests, batting each other's head and body with swinging wings, and wet as the grass was they tossed up so much water while tumbling around that it looked like one of those cartoon fights, a dust cloud of disjointed limbs. Then one bird flew off in a huff as the victor berated him from the ground.

"He isn't here, you know. My husband. He's gone to China for some meeting or to buy another company or to do whatever he does. He's gone out into the world to make himself richer. You aren't being watched. You don't need to perform."

I hadn't thought of my job as "performing," and I might have said so, but even without her husband at home I didn't want to start speaking. I was enjoying my silence; everyone I might come into contact with in Mr. Crane's garden (though she was the first) would already know that I couldn't speak, so there was no pressure to say anything. I wouldn't be rude to ignore them, I would simply be doing my job and doing it well for perhaps the first time in my life. And, I thought, Mrs. Crane tempting me to open my mouth could be a test from her husband.

"Oh, hell," she said, "this is boring. I thought you'd at least be more fun. Come on. We're going to pick berries. You hold the bucket."

She climbed down from our perch, but I hesitated and hadn't moved yet when she reached the ground. "Oh, come on," she called over her shoulder, already walking away—and that walk! "I'm not going to bite."

I looked toward the house, then back to her.

"Okay, you work for my husband. Fine. But I live here, too. So you also work for me, right? Now get down here and hold my bucket before it's too hot out here."

If Mr. Crane asked, I thought I might do better explaining why I'd done what she told me rather than why I hadn't. Should he care, should I have to explain myself to him at all. So I climbed down and hoisted her pail, the perfect tin pail, exactly the one you'd expect to find in a picture of people out picking berries in an outdoor clothes catalog. Hand-carved wooden handle darkened by years of berry-stained palms, dented in just the right places, no doubt from being dropped by excited berry enthusiasts running up and down rolling hills, or else thumped precisely by technicians in a pail factory.

I'd been to the blackberry patch already during my early weeks on the estate. It wasn't far from my cave. But I hadn't done any picking because, to be honest, I wasn't sure I was allowed. My meals came from the house, so I thought the blackberry brambles and blueberry bushes and apple trees and all of that might be decoration, like Second Nature plants were. I was meant to be decoration, so why not the plants and the animals, too?

But Mrs. Crane was intent on picking blackberries and just as intent on my holding her pail, so I followed her out of the glade that surrounds my cave and over the roll of the hill that put the house out of sight. Every step in the tunic was like sliding sandpaper between my legs. I felt my skin redden and blister, and it hurts to think of it even now, years after shedding my tunic for good.

She dropped berries into her pail by the handful, moving fast from one bush to another but choosing fruit carefully, not scraping every branch bare. She ate some, staining her lips, and juice trailed down her tanned neck and onto her chest, and the whole scene started to feel like a letter to a skin magazine: I never thought it would happen to me, but there I was picking blackberries... When the pail was more than half-full, she stopped picking and sat in a circle of sunlit grass on a downward slope near the bushes.

"Sit," she said, patting the ground, so I sat close enough not to seem unfriendly but not too close, in case Mr. Crane emerged from the bushes like Dr. Livingstone watching his tribe. In case I'd been offered the temptation of his wife's company (if she really was his wife and not hired for the day) to make sure I could be trusted around her and with the job I'd been given to do.

It was a nice spot, and I could tell that later in the day, when the sun grew too warm, the bushes would be well-positioned to offer some shade. I was looking into those bushes, imagining how their shadows would slide across the ground as day passed, when I spotted the first of the cameras. It stood on a thin stalk a foot or so into the brambles of a blackberry bush, its tiny lens no bigger than one of the berries, no bigger than someone's eye, and as I watched it swiveled a bit to one side, away from me and toward Mrs. Crane.

Mrs. Crane spun on the seat of her shorts and stretched her legs in the grass, and laid her blonde head in my lap. She arched her back and her body went taut against mine, her arms reaching up so one brushed my face, and I was concerned—why wouldn't I be?—that something might stir without being asked in my loins; a beautiful woman I'd watched on TV, and not for the quality of the show she was on, and here she was in my lap and in a bikini and wearing shorts too short for the name. I focused my mind and all of my nerves on the itch of my rash in hopes of avoiding any other sensations.

Now that I knew I was being watched by more than the telescope in the window, now that I'd spotted the camera, I knew I had to control myself. I knew it was a test after all, a test of my commitment, of my restraint, of my ability to be trusted in another man's garden. Maybe she already knew that the camera was there, maybe she was in on the test, and if I alerted her to it that would be failure for me. Or maybe she didn't know and if I told her somehow—a gesture, a directing gaze—the camera would notice, and that would be failure, too. So I needed to hold myself and my body in check. I needed to be professional about it all.

"It's nice to have someone to talk to," she said, looking up with eyes as blue as they'd been on the screen.

She rolled onto her side across my thigh, looking away toward the water far off in the distance, and her hair smelled like coconut and laundry dried in the sun, and I imagined my rash was on fire and frozen all at the same time because that seemed like the most unpleasant sensation I could possibly feel and therefore the most distracting. I tried not to look at the camera, in hopes it hadn't spotted my spotting of it, in hopes I could pass off as natural my professional, trustworthy behavior.

"This is my favorite part of the garden," she said. "The view from right here. It would be nice if the ocean was closer, but it's fine as it is. Quiet. Even if do I miss living on the beach. You could probably see my old house from here, if my husband hadn't torn it down. Had his men do it, I mean. He doesn't do much himself." She shifted her weight more heavily onto my thigh and said, "He doesn't need to."

She rolled onto her back in my lap, her stomach arched and smooth and her breasts... God help me, it was all I could do just holding my tongue.

"Is that what you like?" she asked. "The quiet? Is that why you're here?" She paused, still leaving space in our conversation for me to answer. "I thought it was so strange, to hire a hermit. But I think I understand. I understand why you'd do it, I mean. I don't get what's in it for him, but there must be something. There always is."

She sat up, and I breathed a silent sigh of relief.

"I think I could be a hermit. He didn't ask me, but I think I could do it." She laughed. "Maybe I'll live in your cave with you. We'd have some fun."

My heart and stomach swapped spots when I heard that, and in case she'd noticed I smiled at an angle I hoped she would be able to see but would stay out of sight of the lens in the bush.

"Let's get more berries," she said, and stood up. "My pail's almost full."

I gave Mrs. Crane a second to turn her back and start walking before lifting myself from the ground, then followed with the bucket held in front of me for the sake of discretion.