Book Excerpt: The Secret Life of Bees

That night I looked at the jar of bees on my dresser. The poor creatures perched on the bottom barely moving, obviously pining away for flight. I remembered then the way they'd slipped from the cracks in my walls and flown for the sheer joy of it. I thought about the way my mother had built trails of graham-cracker crumbs and marshmallow to lure roaches from the house rather than step on them. I doubted she would've approved of keeping bees in a jar. I unscrewed the lid and set it aside.

"You can go," I said.

But the bees remained there like planes on a runway not knowing they'd been cleared for takeoff. They crawled on their stalk legs around the curved perimeters of the glass as if the world had shrunk to that jar. I tapped the glass, even laid the jar on its side, but those crazy bees stayed put.

The bees were still in there the next morning when Rosaleen showed up. She was bearing an angel food cake with fourteen candles.

"Here you go. Happy birthday," she said. We sat down and ate two slices each with glasses of milk. The milk left a moon crescent on the darkness of her upper lip, which she didn't bother to wipe away. Later I would remember that, how she set out, a marked woman from the beginning.

Sylvan was miles away. We walked along the ledge of the highway, Rosaleen moving at the pace of a bank-vault door, her spit jug fastened on her finger. Haze hung under the trees and every inch of air smelled overripe with peaches.

"You limping?" Rosaleen said.

My knees were aching to the point that I was struggling to keep up with her. "A little."

"Well, why don't we sit down on the side of the road a while?" she said.

"That's okay," I told her. "I'll be fine."

A car swept by, slinging scalded air and a layer of dust. Rosaleen was slick with heat. She mopped her face and breathed hard.

We were coming to Ebenezer Baptist Church, where T. Ray and I attended. The steeple jutted through a cluster of shade trees; below, the red bricks looked shadowy and cool.

"Come on," I said, turning in the drive.

"Where're you going?"

"We can rest in the church."

The air inside was dim and still, slanted with light from the side windows, not those pretty stained-glass windows but milky panes you can't really see through.

I led us down front and sat in the second pew, having room for Rosaleen. She plucked a paper fan from the hymnbook holder and studied the picture on it - a white church with a smiling white lady coming out the door.

Rosaleen fanned and I listened to little jets of air come off her hands. She never went to church herself, but on those few times T. Ray had let me walk to her house back in the woods, I'd seen her special shelf with a stub of candle, creek rocks, a reddish feather, and a piece of John the Conqueror root, and right in the center a picture of a woman, propped up without a frame.

The first time I saw it, I'd asked Rosaleen, "Is that you?" since I swear the woman looked exactly like her, with woolly braids, blue-black skin, narrow eyes, and most of her concentrated in her lower portion, like an eggplant.

"This is my mama," she said.

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