Arlene and Isaline
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
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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