by Rajiv Moté (Fiction, 3,400 words)
Aryeh Levin picked up the newspaper from his driveway to see how the world would disappoint him today. “Rockets Break Cease-Fire.” Well what else would they do? When your only tool is a sword, every problem looks like a neck. Sarah saw vindication in the headlines, never a sign we ought to do better. But on this side of the world, the morning street was quiet. The big houses lining it were variations of his own, with tidy lawns, shady trees, and gardens dappling the green with a Crayola box of blooms. A summer breeze carried their scents. Here, there was enough room to live and let live. He had resisted moving here. Places like this were walled gardens in a complicated world. He encouraged his students to start their adult lives and careers outside such walls. But Aryeh came to agree with Sarah that this was where Dina should grow up. In this neighborhood, on this block, Dina could learn what civilization could be, before her generation had to rescue it.
Aryeh returned a wave from a neighbor, the father of Dina’s friend, the bossy little one with pigtails. He started climbing the stairs to the porch when something strafed in front of his nose. He jerked back, stumble-hopping down a step. It was a bee. The porch was swarming with them.
Aryeh hadn’t noticed bees on his way out. He backed down the remaining steps and then hurried around the garage and into the side door, so not to let them into the house. From the living room’s safety, he peered through the bay window at the front porch.
On the roof of the garage, slanting down alongside the porch landing, an unstuck asphalt shingle curled up, creating a gap. There were maybe a dozen bees crawling in and out of the opening. They were hard to count as they came and went. They all looked alike. From behind the glass, Aryeh squinted to study the blur of their wings. He’d read they challenged conventional understanding of winged flight. Bee wings created vortices. They rode tiny tornadoes.
The bees bobbed and careened around the hanging pot of pink and purple fuchsia and the window boxes of red impatience blossoms. Aryeh confronted his revulsion for insects–a vestige of ancestral fear–and looked past it. He could see how the porch was an attractive home for bees, with a floral feast nearby and shelter from the rain. He imagined a honeycomb under the shingles, with a queen nestled somewhere within, laying eggs the worker bees bathed in the nectar of Sarah’s flowers.
Sarah would want him to handle this.
He put it off.
“Did you see the bees?” Sarah said, hurrying inside. She slammed the front door behind her and swatted at the empty air. “They’re all over the porch.”
“Hm?” Aryeh’s eyebrows arched over his glasses. Dina sat on the sofa next to him, sounding out the words in If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, a book he privately thought ungenerous.
“I could barely get the mail.” Sarah dumped envelopes into recycling. “You need to get rid of them.”
Sarah was always a whirlwind of brisk, purposeful motion. She phrased requests as orders. She exhausted Aryeh.
“Did they sting you, Mommy?”
“Bees won’t bother us if we don’t bother them,” Aryeh told Dina.
“They didn’t, munchkin,” Sarah said. “But they could. That’s why Daddy needs to get rid of them.”
“There are nine million species of animals, plants, and things in between,” Aryeh said. Scientists had come up with that number somehow. “It’s a little unrealistic for us to carve out pieces of the world and say, ‘This is mine and only mine.’”
Dina launched into a song. “This land is my land! And only my land! I got a shotgun! And you don’t got one! I’ll blow your head off! If you don’t get off! This land is private property!”
“Where did you learn that?” Aryeh and Sarah both said, in instant alliance.
Dina looked at her feet. “I made it up.”
“No you didn’t–” Sarah said. Aryeh knew she fought back a smile. They both sang that version in their childhood. He refocused the discussion.
“Honey, do you think that song is right? Do we say ‘mine?’ Or do we share?”
“We share,” Dina said to her toes.
“In fact, do you know how the real song–”
“That’s right, munchkin, we share,” Sarah said. “With family. With friends. With people who are less fortunate.” She shot a glance at Aryeh. “Not with bugs.”
Aryeh scoffed. “If we didn’t have bees, our food crops wouldn’t make seed. It’s a real problem–”
“This isn’t a farm, Aryeh,” Sarah said, going off to file the bills, or to pay them, or whatever her system had her do next.
“Yes, Daddy. This isn’t a farm,” Dina said, rolling her eyes. She was a prodigy at her mother’s mannerisms. Dina looked like her mother, for which Aryeh was grateful. Of course, he couldn’t imagine her growing up to be anything but lovely. But she was thoughtful too, and given space, she asked good questions and reserved judgment until she got answers. She tried to see other sides. He admired that. Her generation was the world’s hope.
“There are always ways to live together,” he whispered to her. But all her attention was back on the escalating consequences of feeding that mouse.
After he put her to bed, Aryeh took a flashlight into the garage and inspected the ceiling for signs of intrusion. He panned the beam into the dark corners, looking for holes, or even the hive. Nothing revealed itself. The bees seemed content with the space they had.
He began coming and going through the side door. Sarah drove the car to work, protected in steel and glass from garage to street. Dina played away from the porch. The postman had taken to leaving the mail in a bundle on the steps instead of in the mailbox on the porch. It was a reasonable accommodation.
“Your favorite,” Aryeh said to Dina at breakfast, proffering a plate with toast slathered with honey.
“No it isn’t.”
She had started knowing her own mind, he noted with some pride. “So you don’t want any?”
“No, I like it.”
“You know honey comes from bees, but do you know how we get it from them? There are beekeepers who live near the hives and care for them. They harvest the honey by–”
“Don’t they get stung?” Dina asked.
“I’m sure it happens sometimes, but it’s not that big–”
“Have you ever been stung?”
“Um… No.” Honesty held the high ground. “Come to the window, look at how small they are. You’ve gotten shots at the doctor bigger than–”
“I hate shots.”
“We don’t say ‘hate,’ sweetie,” Aryeh replied by rote. “What I’m saying is, it’s better to find ways to live with other creatures instead of fighting against them. You might be nervous around bees at first, but we need them for honey, and for plants to make seeds. They’re good for us in ways we don’t always see right away.”
Dina said nothing, thoughtful as ever. The analogy to the larger world wasn’t perfect, and it was a pragmatic instead of moral lesson, but it started her thinking.
Later, Sarah told Dina “We aren’t beekeepers, munchkin. It’s our porch, not theirs. We don’t want them to come into our house next, or sting us, right? That’s why it would be so nice if Daddy cared enough to get rid of those nasty bees…”
Sarah didn’t share Aryeh’s politics. Once, he appreciated that. Rational disagreement tested ideas. He realized, though, that only worked if there were shared values underneath. Over the years he wondered if he and Sarah had that, especially when their disagreements got ugly. At least she and Aryeh didn’t fight in front of their daughter.
“Here,” Sarah said later, pushing a plastic hardware store bag into Aryeh’s hands. “I went out myself and bought some bug spray. If you can’t handle it, call an exterminator, I don’t care. But do something around the house for your family. I’m not going to do everything on my own.”
It wanted to make him complicit. A hypocrite. “It’s up to us, you know,” Aryeh said. “Together. We set the example of how she’s going to deal with the world.”
“So why don’t you give her an example of a man who takes care of his home and family?” Parenthood taught them to lower their voices in anger instead of raising them. “You think I like having to nag all the time?”
“I could teach her something if you didn’t keep undermining me.”
“Undermining you?” Her voice went even lower, a near whisper.
“You do nothing unless I push you into it.”
A dangerous glint in her eyes warned him she might do just that, and Aryeh drew himself up to his full height and did his best to loom. The air between them hummed.
Then she rolled her eyes, turned, and disappeared up the stairs. Aryeh’s shoulders relaxed.
When Dina spotted a bee crawling up the living room wall, Aryeh felt betrayed. He kept his expression bland. Sarah rolled up the New Yorker he’d left on the sofa, but Aryeh said “Wait. When you kill them they release a pheromone. It makes the others more aggressive.”
“The others?” Dina said in a small voice.
Aryeh swallowed the water in a glass he’d left out, and took it and its coaster to the wall to wait for a lull between angry buzzing. He clapped the glass over the insect and moved his captive down the wall and over the coaster, watching with distaste as its abdomen flexed and curled, stabbing at the glass. “I’m trying to save your life,” he grumbled, conscious of his daughter’s eyes. Dina still believed the bugs he “helped go outside” with a napkin survived the experience. He hoped she still did. “See honeybun?” he told his daughter. “When you’re bigger and stronger, you don’t need to hurt anything. You just help them go where they need to go.” But he trusted the bee no further than it trusted him.
He carried the covered glass through the kitchen, out the garden door, and into the driveway. The creature buzzed angrily as it collided with the sides, “tapped” when it butted the coaster, and “plonked” when it fell to the bottom. Its abdomen spasmed. It was in a stinging mood. Aryeh tried to just toss the glass into the lawn, far enough away… The coaster slipped, his throw faltered, and the glass shattered against the pavement. Aryah scrambled backwards, nearly tripping as the bee zig zagged into the air. He glanced back up at the bay window, where Sarah and Dina watched. It was not the first time he saw contempt in his wife’s expression. He was dismayed at how alike she and his daughter looked.
Aryeh knew aggression was born of fear. Fear, and intellectual laziness. It was Alexander cutting the Gordian knot, brutal pragmatism over patient problem solving. Civilization called for intelligence and creativity. Aryeh found a large and varied body of advice on repelling bees without harming them. He tried vinegar, peppermint, garlic, and tea tree oil, each in turn. Every time he thought a remedy had succeeded, he’d see–sometimes in a matter of hours–the workers back at their chores. The bees were entrenched. The sprays and solutions agitated them, but didn’t convince them to leave. He had to find another way to make his porch less appealing. A way that displayed strength.
Sarah was at a rare loss for words when he transplanted the flowers from the window boxes to a freshly turned patch of soil, as far from the house as the property line allowed. She snapped back.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing with my flowers?”
Aryeh was prepared for her reaction. “They’re the reason for the bees. You can’t have flowers if you don’t want bees.”
“So you… You won’t call an exterminator, but you’ll dig up my entire garden…” She quivered. “What are you trying to prove? Seriously, what is this? Are you just fucking with me now?”
It was petty, but Aryeh tallied a victory in making her swear.
“Oh my God, you’re useless. Useless! Put my flowers back right now. You win. I’ll call the exterminator myself. Don’t worry, I’ll never ask you to do a goddamn thing again. Just sit there, read your books, and show your daughter everything a man shouldn’t be. If you can’t bring yourself to be the man in this house, I’ll just have to hire somebody.”
This went on. It stung, so Aryeh tuned her out as he worked. He stayed strong.
Afterward, they did their best to avoid each other, for Dina’s sake.
Dina was stung two days later. She howled while Aryeh chivvied her from the front yard, where she had been doing cartwheels, to the upstairs bathroom. In her shoulder’s delicate flesh Aryeh found a tiny brown thorn, topped by pulp he realized was a bee’s innards. The skin around it puffed up red from the venom. He removed the stinger with tweezers, swabbed the wound with disinfectant, and applied an ointment that was supposed to soothe inflammation. He tried to coax her into letting him dab it with ice.
In a voice clearly hurt by the injustice as much as the injury, she asked, “Why did it sting me?”
“It was scared of you,” Aryeh said, still trying to dab her shoulder. “Sometimes when they’re near people, bees get scared.”
“Well I’m scared of them,” Dina said.
He couldn’t argue with that. “They’re so much smaller and weaker than us. In fact, they’re dying out–”
“Scientists found out the pesticides we use on our crops kill bees. And–”
“I hate them!”
Aryeh dropped to a knee and tried to hold both his daughter’s hands. The melted ice made his own hands slippery, and she fidgeted away. “Sweetie, do you know why we don’t use that word?” he said in his teaching voice. “Hate is an ugly thing. It makes people do ugly things.”
She wasn’t listening. His daughter was hurt and scared, but the ointment seemed to work, and after a while Dina had forgotten the sting and settled at the kitchen table to paint pictures. After Aryeh admired them, he coaxed her to look out the window with him. Before the fear could take root.
“All the bees have just one mommy, called the Queen. She lives deep in the hive, and lays eggs. All the bees help take care of the larvae, the baby bees. Just like any other mommies and daddies, they would do anything to protect their babies.”
On the roof, the insects scuttled and darted with implacable industry, segmented bodies and legs wiggling into the crevices of his home.
“That instinct to protect their babies is why–”
Dina shrugged off his arm and backed away. “Mommy called the bug man to protect me.”
“She called an exterminator?”
Aryeh realized he’d lost all standing with his daughter. He’d failed her.
“Fuck,” he said aloud.
He dressed himself in thick denim jeans, a bulky sweatshirt, jacket, boots, and work gloves. He wore a wide-brimmed hat with a veil of Sarah’s sheer scarves to protect his face, and tucked them into his shirt collar. Sarah snorted back a laugh when she saw him.
One hand held the aerosol can of insect poison, and the other held a caulking gun. He mounted the steps to the front porch. The bees must have sensed his intent. They buzzed in agitated formations around the gap under the roof shingle, riding their little tornadoes. Aryeh sprayed a few puffs on the shingles around the opening, but not directly onto any insects. A warning shot. A bit of saber rattling. Maybe the smell would drive them out, and he could seal the gap behind them. The queen couldn’t be saved, but maybe the others could start anew somewhere else. One bee, and then another, launched itself at him with enough force that he felt them through his clothing, like thrown stones.
“Take the damn hint,” Aryeh growled, and misted the air. A slight tug alerted him to the bee that was stuck in his sweatshirt, its stinger caught in the thick cloth. He plucked it away in his gloved fingers. It writhed in his grasp, and a disgusted reflex made Aryeh pinch. “Oh shit.” He tossed the body down the steps, but its gore smeared the glove, and the pheromones did their work. Enraged, the bees attacked.
His armor was inadequate. The stings through his sweatshirt and jeans ballooned with an angry pain in his flesh. He crushed one against the wall. Bees fell from the air as the spray hit them, then rolled and thrashed on the ground. He swatted at the silk veils in front of his face. Aryeh’s finger pushed hard against the aerosol button. The poison stream filled the opening in the roof and bubbled out. It ran in glistening tracks down the wall and pooled on the concrete porch. The insects swarmed. He did not expect to see some bees climbing through the poison froth, into the drowning hive, and to carry out tiny objects. Some objects curled into themselves, dying as they were born.
They would do anything to protect their babies.
There was no return from this.
He soaked them in more poison. And more. He stomped on the fallen, writhing creatures with enough force to send shocks through his foot. Finally he thrust the caulking gun’s nozzle against the gap and squeezed the trigger. White globs oozed into the opening, and he spread it over the entire edge, careless of appearance. The remaining workers threw themselves against the barrier and scrambled over it in a vain search for passage. Their home was now a sealed tomb. It must be. If not, he hoped those trapped within would quietly and invisibly starve. On his way back inside, he dropped the aerosol can into the garbage, spent. A straggler plucked its way up his sleeve. Aryeh removed it with a gloved hand, closed his fingers into a fist, and held it for a slow count of five. He dropped the remains into the garbage as well.
Aryeh picked at the clothing around his stings, wincing as the adrenaline ebbed. Dina was excited. She had watched. “Thank you for killing the bees, Daddy,” she said, using her manners. “I’ll get you ice.”
He felt Sarah’s eyes, and turned to face her, but there was no gloating, none of the expected smugness. “I’ll get the ointment. Just stay still.”
The front door remained closed another day. Through the window, Aryeh stared at the mass of caulk that sealed the shingles beneath the empty hanging planter. It had gone transparent, unnoticeable unless one knew where to look. Three bees, survivors, hovered and crawled around the seal, still probing. Was it loyalty? Instinct? Was there a difference? He wondered if they were even capable of giving up, of starting over someplace new. One bee launched itself towards him, and he jerked back from the glass. His face flushed hot. Tomorrow he’d finish the job. It would be a mercy. Tonight, he’d let them mourn.
Summer cooled and autumn turned the air crisp. The windows were drafty, and Aryeh weather-stripped the gaps. Orange and gold leaves littered the lawn, and he raked them up, with Dina’s help. Sarah had hot cocoa ready when they came back inside. There were times Aryeh stared at the expanse of roof shingles, imagined the lattice of supports and spaces that lay beneath, and wondered whether bees passed memories down their generations. Not that it mattered. People could reach a detente, but there could be no treaties with insects. There was only one language they understood. Eradicating the remnants was a project for the spring, before next year’s flower buds, in their new bed at the far end of the yard.
I wrote this story after seeing Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which was, for me, a great lesson in the structure of conflict. Two well-meaning leaders go through a try/fail cycle of keeping the peace between their two societies, while fear and mistrust hang heavy in the air. Every accident, every mistake, fuels the more militant fringe until even the leaders who wanted peace must accede to war or be torn apart by their own people. Political scientist Samuel Huntington posited that a “Clash of Civilizations” would characterize geopolitics following the Cold War.
This story, and its protagonist Aryeh, are meant to be absurd. His adversary isn’t another civilization, but an infestation of bees. But on a micro level, where the stakes are small, can we co-exist with neighbors we don’t understand? And if not, what does that mean for the macro level?