Book Excerpt: The Secret Life of Bees

I wanted to tell T. Ray that any girl would love a silver charm bracelet, that in fact last year I'd been the only girl at Sylvan Junior High without one, that the whole point of lunchtime was to stand in the cafeteria line jangling your wrist, giving people a guided tour of your charm collection.

"So," I said, sliding his plate in front of him, "my birthday is this Saturday."

I watched him pull the chicken meat from around the bone with his fork. "I was just thinking I would love to have one of those silver charm bracelets they have down at the mercantile."

The house creaked like it did once in a while. Outside the door Snout gave a low bark, and then the air grew so quiet I could hear the food being ground up in T. Ray's mouth.

He ate his chicken breast and started on the thigh, looking at me now and then in his hard way.

I started to say, So then, what about the bracelet? but I could see he'd already given his answer, and it caused a kind of sorrow to rise in me that felt fresh and tender and had nothing, really, to do with the bracelet. I think now it was sorrow for the sound of his fork scraping the plate, the way it swelled in the distance between us, how I was not even in the room.

That night I lay in bed listening to the flicks and twitters and thrums inside the bee jar, waiting till it was late enough so I could slip out to the orchard and dig up the tin box that held my mother's things. I wanted to lie down in the orchard and let it hold me.

When the darkness had pulled the moon to the top of the sky, I got out of bed, put on my shorts and sleeveless blouse, and glided past T. Ray's room in silence, sliding my arms and legs like a skater on ice. I didn't see his boots, how he'd parked them in the middle of the hall. When I fell, the clatter startled the air so badly T. Ray's snore changed rhythm. At first it ceased altogether, but then the snore started back with three piglet snorts.

I crept down the stairs, through the kitchen. When the night hit my face, I felt like laughing. The moon was a perfect circle, so full of light that all the edges of things had an amber cast. The cicadas rose up, and I ran with bare feet across the grass.

To reach my spot I had to go to the eighth row left of the tractor shed, then walk along it, counting trees till I got to thirty-two. The tin box was buried in the soft dirt beneath the tree, shallow enough that I could dig it up with my hands.

When I brushed the dirt from the lid and opened it, I saw first the whiteness of her gloves, then the photograph wrapped in waxed paper, just as I'd left it. And finally the funny wooden picture of Mary with the dark face. I took everything out, and, stretching out among the fallen peaches, I rested them across my abdomen.

When I looked up through the web of trees, the night feel over me, and for a moment I lost my boundaries, feeling like the sky was my own skin and the moon was my heart beating up there in the dark. Lightning came, not jagged, but in soft, golden licks across the sky. I undid the buttons on my shirt and opened it wide, just wanting the night to settle on my skin, and that's how I fell asleep, lying there with my mother's things, with the air making moisture on my chest and the sky puckering with light.

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