Book Excerpt: The Secret Life of Bees

But when we got there, they'd vanished back into the wall like they knew he was coming, like they didn't want to waste their flying stunts on him.

"Goddamn it, Lily, this ain't funny."

I looked up and down the walls. I got down under the bed and begged the very dust and coils of my bedsprings to produce a bee.

"They were here," I said. "Flying everywhere."

"Yeah, and there was a goddamn herd of buffalo in here, too."

"Listen," I said. "You can hear them buzzing."

He cocked his ear toward the wall with pretend seriousness. "I don't hear any buzzing," he said, and twirled his finger beside his temple. "I guess they must have flown out of that cuckoo clock you call a brain. You wake me up again, Lily, and I'll get out the Martha Whites, you hear me?"

Martha Whites were a form of punishment only T. Ray could have dreamed up. I shut my mouth instantly.

Still, I couldn't let the matter go entirely-- - T. Ray thinking I was so desperate I would invent an invasion of bees to get attention. Which is how I got the bright idea of catching a jar of these bees, presenting them to T. Ray, and saying, "Now who's making things up?"

My first and only memory of my mother was the day she died. I tried for a long time to conjure up an image of her before that, just a sliver of something, like her tucking me into bed, reading the adventures of Uncle Wiggly, or hanging my underclothes near the space heater on ice-cold mornings. Even her picking a switch off the forsythia bush and stinging my legs would have been welcome.

The day she died was December 3, 1954. The furnace had cooked the air so hot my mother had peeled off her sweater and stood in short sleeves, jerking at the window in her bedroom, wrestling with the stuck paint.

Finally she gave up and said, "Well, fine, we'll just burn the hell up in here, I guess."

Her hair was black and generous, with thick curls circling her face, a face I could never quite coax into view, despite the sharpness of everything else.

I raised my arms to her, and she picked me up, saying I was way too big a girl to hold like this, but holding me anyway. The moment she lifted me, I was wrapped in her smell.

The scent got laid down in me in a permanent way and had all the precision of cinnamon. I used to go regularly into the Sylvan Mercantile and smell every perfume bottle they had, trying to identify it. Every time I showed up, the perfume lady acted surprised, saying, "My goodness, look who's here." Like I hadn't just been in there the week before and gone down the entire row of bottles. Shalimar, Chanel No. 5, White Shoulders.

I'd say, "You got anything new?"

She never did.

So it was a shock when I came upon the scent on my fifth-grade teacher, who said it was nothing but plain ordinary Ponds Cold Cream.

The afternoon my mother died, there was a suitcase open on the floor, sitting near the stuck window. She moved in and out of the closet, dropping this and that into the suitcase, not bothering to fold them.

I followed her into the closet and scooted beneath dress hems and pant legs, into darkness and wisps of dust and little dead moths, back where orchard mud and the moldy smell of peaches clung to T. Ray's boots. I stuck my hands inside a pair of white high heels and clapped them together.

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