The Secret Life of Bees, Page 2Sue Monk Kidd
Still, I couldn’t let the matter go entirely—T. Ray thinking I was so desperate I would invent an invasion of bees to get attention. Which is how I got the bright idea of catching a jar of these bees, presenting them to T. Ray, and saying, “Now who’s making things up?”
My first and only memory of my mother was the day she died. I tried for a long time to conjure up an image of her before that, just a sliver of something, like her tucking me into bed, reading the adventures of Uncle Wiggly, or hanging my underclothes near the space heater on ice-cold mornings. Even her picking a switch off the forsythia bush and stinging my legs would have been welcome.
The day she died was December 3, 1954. The furnace had cooked the air so hot my mother had peeled off her sweater and stood in short sleeves, jerking at the window in her bedroom, wrestling with the stuck paint.
Finally she gave up and said, “Well, fine, we’ll just burn the hell up in here, I guess.”
Her hair was black and generous, with thick curls circling her face, a face I could never quite coax into view, despite the sharpness of everything else.
I raised my arms to her, and she picked me up, saying I was way too big a girl to hold like this, but holding me anyway. The moment she lifted me, I was wrapped in her smell.
The scent got laid down in me in a permanent way and had all the precision of cinnamon. I used to go regularly into the Sylvan Mercantile and smell every perfume bottle they had, trying to identify it. Every time I showed up, the perfume lady acted surprised, saying, “My goodness, look who’s here.” Like I hadn’t just been in there the week before and gone down the entire row of bottles. Shalimar, Chanel No. 5, White Shoulders.
I’d say, “You got anything new?”
She never did.
So it was a shock when I came upon the scent on my fifth-grade teacher, who said it was nothing but plain ordinary Ponds Cold Cream.
The afternoon my mother died, there was a suitcase open on the floor, sitting near the stuck window. She moved in and out of the closet, dropping this and that into the suitcase, not bothering to fold them.
I followed her into the closet and scooted beneath dress hems and pant legs, into darkness and wisps of dust and little dead moths, back where orchard mud and the moldy smell of peaches clung to T. Ray’s boots. I stuck my hands inside a pair of white high heels and clapped them together.
The closet floor vibrated whenever someone climbed the stairs below it, which is how I knew T. Ray was coming. Over my head I heard my mother, pulling things from the hangers, the swish of clothes, wire clinking together. Hurry, she said.
When his shoes clomped into the room, she sighed, the breath leaving her as if her lungs had suddenly clenched. This is the last thing I remember with perfect crispness—her breath floating down to me like a tiny parachute, collapsing without a trace among the piles of shoes.
I don’t remember what they said, only the fury of their words, how the air turned raw and full of welts. Later it would remind me of birds trapped inside a closed room, flinging themselves against the windows and the walls, against each other. I inched backward, deeper into the closet, feeling my fingers in my mouth, the taste of shoes, of feet.
Dragged out, I didn’t know at first whose hands pulled me, then found myself in my mother’s arms, breathing her smell. She smoothed my hair, said, “Don’t worry,” but even as she said it, I was peeled away by T. Ray. He carried me to the door and set me down in the hallway. “Go to your room,” he said.
“I don’t want to,” I cried, trying to push past him, back into the room, back where she was.
“Get in your goddamned room!” he shouted, and shoved me. I landed against the wall, then fell forward onto my hands and knees. Lifting my head, looking past him, I saw her running across the room. Running at him, yelling. “Leave. Her. Alone.”
I huddled on the floor beside the door and watched through air that seemed all scratched up. I saw him take her by the shoulders and shake her, her head bouncing back and forth. I saw the whiteness of his lip.
And then—though everything starts to blur now in my mind—she lunged away from him into the closet, away from his grabbing hands, scrambling for something high on a shelf.
When I saw the gun in her hand, I ran toward her, clumsy and falling, wanting to save her, to save us all.
Time folded in on itself then. What is left lies in clear yet disjointed pieces in my head. The gun shining like a toy in her hand, how he snatched it away and waved it around. The gun on the floor. Bending to pick it up. The noise that exploded around us.
This is what I know about myself. She was all I wanted. And I took her away.
T. Ray and I lived just outside Sylvan, South Carolina, population 3,100. Peach stands and Baptist churches, that sums it up.
At the entrance to the farm we had a big wooden sign with OWENS PEACH ENTERPRISES painted across it in the worst orange color you’ve ever seen. I hated that sign. But the sign was nothing compared with the giant peach perched atop a sixty-foot pole beside the gate. Everyone at school referred to it as the Great Fanny, and I’m cleaning up the language. Its fleshy color, not to mention the crease down the middle, gave it the unmistakable appearance of a rear end. Rosaleen said it was T. Ray’s way of mooning the entire world. That was T. Ray.
He didn’t believe in slumber parties or sock hops, which wasn’t a big concern as I never got invited to them anyway, but he refused to drive me to town for football games, pep rallies, or Beta Club car washes, which were held on Saturdays. He did not care that I wore clothes I made for myself in home economics class, cotton print shirtwaists with crooked zippers and skirts hanging below my knees, outfits only the Pentecostal girls wore. I might as well have worn a sign on my back: I AM NOT POPULAR AND NEVER WILL BE.
I needed all the help that fashion could give me, since no one, not a single person, had ever said, “Lily, you are such a pretty child,” except for Miss Jennings at church, and she was legally blind.
I watched my reflection not only in the mirror, but in store windows and across the television when it wasn’t on, trying to get a fix on my looks. My hair was black like my mother’s but basically a nest of cowlicks, and it worried me that I didn’t have much of a chin. I kept thinking I’d grow one the same time my breasts came in, but it didn’t work out that way. I had nice eyes, though, what you would call Sophia Loren eyes, but still, even the boys who wore their hair in ducktails dripping with Vitalis and carried combs in their shirt pockets didn’t seem attracted to me, and they were considered hard up.
Matters below my neck had shaped up, not that I could show off that part. It was fashionable to wear cashmere twinsets and plaid kilts midthigh, but T. Ray said hell would be an ice rink before I went out like that—did I want to end up pregnant like Bitsy Johnson whose skirt barely covered her ass? How he knew about Bitsy is a mystery of life, but it was true about her skirts and true about the baby. An unfortunate coincidence is all it was.
Rosaleen knew less about fashion than T. Ray did, and when it was cold, God-help-me-Jesus, she made me go to school wearing long britches under my Pentecostal dresses.
There was nothing I hated worse than clumps of whispering girls who got quiet when I passed. I started picking scabs off my body and, when I didn’t have any, gnawing the flesh around my fingernails till I was a bleeding wreck. I worried so much about how I looked and whether I was doing things right, I felt half the time I was impersonating a girl instead of really being one.
I had thought my real chance would come from going to charm school at the Women’s Club last spring, Friday afternoons for six weeks, but I got barred because I didn’t have a mother, a grandmother, or even a measly aunt to present me with a white rose at the closing ceremony. Rosaleen doing it was against the rules. I’d cried till I threw up in the sink.
“You’re charming enough,” Rosaleen had said, washing the vomit out of the sink basin. “You don’t need to go to some highfalutin school to get charm.”
so,” I said. “They teach everything. How to walk and pivot, what to do with your ankles when you sit in a chair, how to get into a car, pour tea, take off your gloves…”
Rosaleen blew air from her lips. “Good Lord,” she said.
“Arrange flowers in a vase, talk to boys, tweeze your eyebrows, shave your legs, apply lipstick…”
“What about vomit in a sink? They teach a charming way to do that?” she asked.
Sometimes I purely hated her.
The morning after I woke T. Ray, Rosaleen stood in the doorway of my room, watching me chase a bee with a mason jar. Her lip was rolled out so far I could see the little sunrise of pink inside her mouth.
“What are you doing with that jar?” she said.
“I’m catching bees to show T. Ray. He thinks I’m making them up.”
“Lord, give me strength.” She’d been shelling butter beans on the porch, and sweat glistened on the pearls of hair around her forehead. She pulled at the front of her dress, opening an airway along her bosom, big and soft as couch pillows.
The bee landed on the state map I kept tacked on the wall. I watched it walk along the coast of South Carolina on scenic Highway 17. I clamped the mouth of the jar against the wall, trapping it between Charleston and Georgetown. When I slid on the lid, it went into a tailspin, throwing itself against the glass over and over with pops and clicks, reminding me of the hail that landed sometimes on the windows.
I’d made the jar as nice as I could with felty petals, fat with pollen, and more than enough nail holes in the lid to keep the bees from perishing, since for all I knew, people might come back one day as the very thing they killed.
I brought the jar level with my nose. “Come look at this thing fight,” I said to Rosaleen.
When she stepped in the room, her scent floated out to me, dark and spicy like the snuff she packed inside her cheek. She held her small jug with its coin-size mouth and a handle for her to loop her finger through. I watched her press it along her chin, her lips fluted out like a flower, then spit a curl of black juice inside it.
She stared at the bee and shook her head. “If you get stung, don’t come whining to me,” she said, “’cause I ain’t gonna care.”
That was a lie.
I was the only one who knew that despite her sharp ways, her heart was more tender than a flower skin and she loved me beyond reason.
I hadn’t known this until I was eight and she bought me an Easter-dyed biddy from the mercantile. I found it trembling in a corner of its pen, the color of purple grapes, with sad little eyes that cast around for its mother. Rosaleen let me bring it home, right into the living room, where I strewed a box of Quaker Oats on the floor for it to eat and she didn’t raise a word of protest.
The chick left dollops of violet-streaked droppings all over the place, due, I suppose, to the dye soaking into its fragile system. We had just started to clean them up when T. Ray burst in, threatening to boil the chick for dinner and fire Rosaleen for being an imbecile. He started to swoop at the biddy with his tractor-grease hands, but Rosaleen planted herself in front of him. “There is worse things in the house than chicken shit,” she said and looked him up one side and down the other. “You ain’t touching that chick.”
His boots whispered uncle all the way down the hall. I thought, She loves me, and it was the first time such a far-fetched idea had occurred to me.
Her age was a mystery, since she didn’t possess a birth certificate. She would tell me she was born in 1909 or 1919, depending on how old she felt at the moment. She was sure about the place: McClellanville, South Carolina, where her mama had woven sweet-grass baskets and sold them on the roadside.
“Like me selling peaches,” I’d said to her.
“Not one thing like you selling peaches,” she’d said back. “You ain’t got seven children you gotta feed from it.”
“You’ve got six brothers and sisters?” I’d thought of her as alone in the world except for me.
“I did have, but I don’t know where a one of them is.”
She’d thrown her husband out three years after they married, for carousing. “You put his brain in a bird, the bird would fly backward,” she liked to say. I often wondered what that bird would do with Rosaleen’s brain. I decided half the time it would drop shit on your head and the other half it would sit on abandoned nests with its wings spread wide.
I used to have daydreams in which she was white and married T. Ray, and became my real mother. Other times I was a Negro orphan she found in a cornfield and adopted. Once in a while I had us living in a foreign country like New York, where she could adopt me and we could both stay our natural color.
My mother’s name was Deborah. I thought that was the prettiest name I’d ever heard, even though T. Ray refused to speak it. If I said it, he acted like he might go straight to the kitchen and stab something. Once when I asked him when her birthday was and what cake icing she preferred, he told me to shut up, and when I asked him a second time, he picked up a jar of blackberry jelly and threw it against the kitchen cabinet. We have blue stains to this day.
I did manage to get a few scraps of information from him, though, such as my mother was buried in Virginia where her people came from. I got worked up at that, thinking I’d found a grandmother. No, he tells me, my mother was an only child whose mother died ages ago. Naturally. Once when he stepped on a roach in the kitchen, he told me my mother had spent hours luring roaches out of the house with bits of marshmallow and trails of graham-cracker crumbs, that she was a lunatic when it came to saving bugs.
The oddest things caused me to miss her. Like training bras. Who was I going to ask about that? And who but my mother could’ve understood the magnitude of driving me to junior cheerleader tryouts? I can tell you for certain T. Ray didn’t grasp it. But you know when I missed her the most? The day I was twelve and woke up with the rose-petal stain on my panties. I was so proud of that flower and didn’t have a soul to show it to except Rosaleen.
Not long after that I found a paper bag in the attic stapled at the top. Inside it I found the last traces of my mother.
There was a photograph of a woman smirking in front of an old car, wearing a light-colored dress with padded shoulders. Her expression said, “Don’t you dare take this picture,” but she wanted it taken, you could see that. You could not believe the stories I saw in that picture, how she was waiting at the car fender for love to come to her, and not too patiently.
I laid the photograph beside my eighth-grade picture and examined every possible similarity. She was more or less missing a chin, too, but even so, she was above-average pretty, which offered me genuine hope for my future.
The bag contained a pair of white cotton gloves stained the color of age. When I pulled them out, I thought, Her very hands were inside here. I feel foolish about it now, but one time I stuffed the gloves with cotton balls and held them through the night.
The end-all mystery inside the bag was a small wooden picture of Mary, the mother of Jesus. I recognized her even though her skin was black, only a shade lighter than Rosaleen’s. It looked to me like somebody had cut the black Mary’s picture from a book, glued it onto a sanded piece of wood about two inches across, and varnished it. On the back an unknown hand had written “Tiburon, S.C.”
For two years now I’d kept these things of hers inside a tin box, buried in the orchard. There was a special place out there in the long tunnel of trees no one knew about, not even Rosaleen. I’d started going there before I could tie my shoelaces. At first it was just a spot to hide from T. Ray and his meanness or from the memory of that afternoon when the gun went off, but later I would slip out there, sometimes after T. Ray had gone to bed, just to lie under the trees and be peaceful. It was my plot of earth, my cubbyhole.
I’d placed her things inside the tin box and buried it out there late one night by flashlight, too scared to leave them hanging around in my room, even in the back of a drawer. I was afraid T. Ray might go up to the attic and d
iscover her things were missing, and turn my room upside down searching for them. I hated to think what he’d do to me if he found them hidden among my stuff.
Now and then I’d go out there and dig up the box. I would lie on the ground with the trees folded over me, wearing her gloves, smiling at her photograph. I would study “Tiburon, S.C.” on the back of the black Mary picture, the funny slant of the lettering, and wonder what sort of place it was. I’d looked it up on the map once, and it wasn’t more than two hours away. Had my mother been there and bought this picture? I always promised myself one day, when I was grown-up enough, I would take the bus over there. I wanted to go everyplace she had ever been.
After my morning of capturing bees, I spent the afternoon in the peach stand out on the highway, selling T. Ray’s peaches. It was the loneliest summer job a girl could have, stuck in a roadside hut with three walls and a flat tin roof.
I sat on a Coke crate and watched pickups zoom by till I was nearly poisoned with exhaust fumes and boredom. Thursday afternoons were usually a big peach day, with women getting ready for Sunday cobblers, but not a soul stopped.
T. Ray refused to let me bring books out here and read, and if I smuggled one out, say, Lost Horizon, stuck under my shirt, somebody, like Mrs. Watson from the next farm, would see him at church and say, “Saw your girl in the peach stand reading up a storm. You must be proud.” And he would half kill me.
What kind of person is against reading? I think he believed it would stir up ideas of college, which he thought a waste of money for girls, even if they did, like me, score the highest number a human being can get on their verbal aptitude test. Math aptitude is another thing, but people aren’t meant to be overly bright in everything.
I was the only student who didn’t groan and carry on when Mrs. Henry assigned us another Shakespeare play. Well actually, I did pretend to groan, but inside I was as thrilled as if I’d been crowned Sylvan’s Peach Queen.