Book Excerpt: The Secret Life of Bees

"What are you doing with that jar?" she said.

"I'm catching bees to show T Ray. He thinks I'm making them up."

"Lord, give me strength." She'd been shelling butter beans on the porch, and sweat glistened on the pearls of hair around her forehead. She pulled at the front of her dress, opening an airway along her bosom, big and soft as couch pillows.

The bee landed on the state map I kept tacked on the wall, I watched it walk along the coast of South Carolina on scenic Highway 17. I clamped the mouth of the jar against the wall, trapping it between Charleston and Georgetown. When I slid on the lid, it went into a tailspin, throwing itself against the glass over and over with pops and clicks, reminding me of the hail that landed sometimes on the windows.

I'd made the jar as nice as I could with felty petals, fat with pollen, and more than enough nail holes in the lid to keep the bees from perishing, since for all I knew, people might come back one day as the very thing they killed.

I brought the jar level with my nose. "Come look at this thing fight," I said to Rosaleen.

When she stepped in the room, her scent floated out to me, dark and spicy like the snuff she packed inside her cheek. She held her small jug with its coin-sized mouth and a handle for her to loop her finger through. I watched her press it along her chin, her lips fluted out like a flower, then spit a curl of black juice inside it.

She stared at the bee and shook her head. "If you get stung, don't come whining to me," she said, "'cause I ain't gonna care."

That was a lie.

I was the only one who knew that despite her sharp ways, her heart was more tender than a flower skin and she loved me beyond reason.

I hadn't known this until I was eight and she bought me an Easter-dyed biddy from the mercantile. I found it trembling in a corner of its pen, the color of purple grapes, with sad little eyes that cast around for its mother. Rosaleen let me bring it home, right into the living room, where I strewed a box of Quaker Oats on the floor for it to eat and she didn't raise a word of protest.

The chick left dollops of violet-streaked droppings all over the place, due, I suppose, to the dye soaking into its fragile system. We had just started to clean them up when T. Ray burst in, threatening to boil the chick for dinner and fire Rosaleen for being an imbecile. He started to swoop at the biddy with his tractor-grease hands, but Rosaleen planted herself in front of him. "There is worse things in the house than chicken shit," she said and looked him up one side and down the other, "You ain't touching that chick."

His boots whispered uncle all the way down the hall. I thought, She loves me, and it was the first time such a far-fetched idea had occurred to me.

Her age was a mystery, since she didn't possess a birth certificate. She would tell me she was born in 1909 or 1919, depending on how old she felt at the moment. She was sure about the place: McClellanville, South Carolina, where her mama had woven sweet-grass baskets and sold them on the roadside.

"Like me selling peaches," I'd said to her.

"Not one thing like you selling peaches," she'd said back, "You ain't got seven children you gotta feed from it."

"You've got six brothers and sisters?" I'd thought of her as alone in the world except for me.

"I did have, but I don't know where a one of them is."

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