portion of Jenny Halper artwork

Arlene and Isaline
Jenny Halper

The berries were poison but Arlene didn’t know it. She was with her husband, Don; they had rented a bedroom overlooking the property, bushes and apiaries where bees were kept. Honey was served with toast, with omelets, with steak. Arlene never thought this would work but it did. Trip, the chef, a gangly man in his late fifties with silver hair shaved into a buzz cut, had dozens of ways of mixing the honey so it was either tart or sweet. “I never thought that was possible,” she said to Don the first night. “It’s a gimmick,” Don said. “It’s artificial, anyway.” He rarely ate. Arlene had picked the place.

They had come to congratulate themselves on raising three children who were now in college. Safely, Arlene liked to think—she and Don guided their children to campuses where lawns were perpetually mowed, windows scrubbed so hard you could see your reflection. Even the ground gleamed, coin-like, students carelessly tripping over it. Their youngest, Isaline, had left for William and Mary earlier that week, a tall, pale, nervous girl who peeled skin from her cuticles, who repeated everything Arlene said like she didn’t understand it: You want me to unpack? You want me to live there? You want me to be brave? You want me to stop calling home?

Seventy-two hours had passed and Isaline had called twice, crying, and Arlene told Don not to baby her, but he still spent afternoons she’d set aside for hiking on the phone with Isaline, crouched over, murmuring, “Yes, yes, yes, it’s OK, darling, yes, yes, yes.” This tone of voice made him sound like a grandfather and Arlene was not ready to be a grandmother.

“Yes, yes, yes,” Don whispered. “I’d be having a much better time if you were here.”

Arlene turned away from his hunched shoulders, his yellow-checkered flannel shirt; he’d had it since before they met. She went down to the kitchen where Trip had parsed the honey into different bowls. He was stirring in spices: paprika, alfalfa, cayenne.

“Can I help you?” she asked, pushing her hair, which was sweaty with September humidity, off her forehead. She’d recently taken to dying it, since no one who looked as young as she did should have to show the world her hair was gray. Trip nodded, extended his slender fingers over her wrists, led her through the cellar out into the garden, toward the apiary and the bushes of berries with their waxy gleam.

Arlene picked one and rolled it between her fingers, the juice staining her skin. Inside the apiary, bees teemed in circular mazes, indecipherable. Arlene wondered if bees looked at people and thought they all looked the same. She wondered if bees stung each other. The clay molded around the hives was damp. “I’ve watched them for years,” Trip said. “You never see, what would you call it, loner bees? Hold that.”

He handed her a pail. He lifted a screen and the bees flew out, and Arlene knew that she could stay out here all day, listen to the buzz of bees and wonder how the insides of their bodies came out sweet. Trip was already working, bent over in an uncomfortable position he somehow made seem comfortable, his legs thick the way her husband’s were wiry. There were so many things she wanted to ask: how bees meet, how bees mate, was it true that when they stung they died? She waited, picked more berries. The pail needed washing, sugar bristled on the bottom. Out here, in the bushes, she wouldn’t—couldn’t—hear the phone ring.

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