Paulina was born coated in a film of creamed honey and a swarm of bees. When they flew out of her mother’s womb whirring like little clockwork toys; one stung the midwife’s upper lip but she didn’t complain. The last time she had seen a totem birth, she’d said to Paulina’s mother, was in 1972. It had been a terrible year for geese. A goose herder girl gave birth to a feathered gosling of a baby that was apparently kidnapped and made into pate.
Rather than bathing Paulina in the common way, they scraped the honey from the crevices and soft folds from the infant’s skin.
Her mother wasn’t surprised her daughter was born amidst a swarm of bees. She’d had the most desperate cravings for honey during her pregnancy. She’d sucked the little open wombs of honeycomb as afternoon tea. Perhaps she had swallowed bee larvae and they had grown inside her, too. She kissed the honey dripping off her daughter’s eyelids.
“A totem girl,” was all the midwife said, a look of worry between her long cameo earrings; she left Paulina in her mother’s arms, her wheezing breath like the tiny buzzings of winged insects.
At forty years of age, Paulina still smelled sticky and sweet. A gummy substance exuded from her pores, and it was strongest when she gardened, sweat or made love. A smell that was both cloying and tart.
It was at the onset of puberty, she had longings her mother called ‘unusual.’ They had been on a picnic with family friends in the Botanical Gardens. It was the third week of spring. While others tucked into cheese and relish sandwiches, Paulina’s body throbbed at the sight of the red bottle brushes that looked like they would tickle, the tall stalks of pussy willow that looked downy and soft. An urge pulsed through her. She wanted to stick her tingling fingertips into open flowers and feel the tacky and velvety texture; she wanted to taste them, breath them in, stand naked in the sun, her arms outstretched like a scarecrow and let the pollens of wildflowers dust her naked body. She stripped off her clothes, leaving them in a puddle by the picnic rug and ran towards the bushes. Her mother had run across to where Paulina stood, clutching at an old rug to use it to cover her daughter’s body. The two teenage boys present at the picnic giggled; it was the first time they had seen a naked girl. But Paulina didn’t mind. She had the buzz of the bees in her mind, the ecstasy of sticking those pulsating fingertips inside flowers, of pollens coating her skin.
If that hadn’t caused enough stir, it was the school outing at the hobby farm that had made Paulina’s mother know that her daughter was truly different. Paulina had trembled in fear that first time she stood naked next to Old Mackenzie’s beehive but the urge was too strong.
At first, the stings were pinching and hot. The heat and itch expanded, pinkish like enlarged areola around the sting, but she taught herself to not resist. There was pleasure in that stinging, throbbing pain, then a gentle tickling at the gauzy texture of those little bee legs crawling up her forearms, behind her earlobes and under her chin. She thought about the gosling child. No doubt the feathered baby would have grown to peck at the ground and preen her feathered hair if she had lived. Maybe she still did. It was only hearsay, after all, that she was turned into pate. Paulina was lucky nobody had wanted to eat her; unlike geese, honeybees weren’t yet scarce. She knew the truth about human nature; people always wanted to devour what they couldn’t have.
When Paulina left school and her mother realized she wasn’t hers to keep or worry over, she wished her well and bade her adieu. They held each other for what seemed a long time, Paulina’s tears sticking to her mother’s short curled hair. Her mother knew who she was.
“Listen to the beehive in your heart,” she said “my sweet daughter.”
“You will leave us soon,” Zeinab looked at Paulina with her kohl-lined eyes and Paulina laughed out loud.
She was happy. She’d worked her wonders at Ibrahim’s Lebanese Pastry store for over fifteen years now. She had grown to love the brightly lit shop with towers of pastries stacked like pyramids and sprinkled with pistachio nuts. A pastry chef of Middle Eastern desserts was a perfect profession for a girl who loved all things of bees and honey. Her batches of baklava made people queue at the door.
“Yes, yes. You will.” Zeinab said shaking her head from side to side as if she was saying no.
“She cannot leave.” Ibrahim brought a large silver tray from the kitchen to the bench and shook it so the pastries didn’t stick. “I hired her for her yellow eyes and her magic in making sweet pastry.”
“Told you!” She poked Zeinab in the arm, but Zeinab just kept shaking her head. It was in the coffee cup, she said, and she was a mystic just as Paulina was a woman born of bees.
“I mean, look at these!” Ibrahim grabbed a pair of tongs and stacked the ladyfingers, birds’ nests and baklava on the large silver platters, arranging them with architectural precision into pyramids. The sweets were baked with flaky pastry, butter, honey, and rosewater, then coated in more honey and sprinkled with ground pistachio or walnuts. Paulina’s honey made them glistening wonders to behold.
“She can’t leave when she makes them as good as these.”
“You will leave us soon,” Zeinab’s beautifully manicured red nails pointed to the coffee grounds that formed a mountain. “You will stay here,” she said touching the mountain peak.
“I’m happy here,” Paulina said, but Zeinab shook her head. “You will leave us soon.” And she kissed her on the cheek as if to say goodbye. “You will not come back.”
He was sitting at the corner table next to the shop front window reading a newspaper and ordered three ladyfingers.
“Table three wants more honey,” Zeinab called out over the sound of the milk she frothed at the coffee machine. Paulina looked up to where Zeinab’s free hand pointed. It was the man that had ordered the ladyfingers. She took the honey jug and went to the table.
“More honey mix?” she asked, tilting the jug in accordance with the question.
She poured the rosewater and honey mixture over his sweets. Leaning over the table, she felt his warm breath on her forearm as the sticky liquid gushed from the little jug. Their eyes met and an undulating wave unfurled in her abdomen. It was like every pore of her skin was an antenna prickling to attention. The sound of the buzzing in her heart boxed her eardrums; the beehive in her heart had been thrummed.
Only once before had someone moved her to awaken the hive heart. Ibrahim had a brother, Mustapha. She fell into an impulsive love with this musical man who recited Rumi’s poetry, played the oud and worked as a car park attendant. But he did not love honey and didn’t understand her beehive heart. Said it gave him a headache. They separated a long time ago, no longer even friends.
This time the buzzing was so loud Paulina wondered if the man at the table could hear it. He stared at her for such long a time, she wondered if it had offended him.
“You sound lovely,” he said.
“You can hear it? You like it?”
“Yes,” he said and put out his hand to shake. “Gustav.”
“Paulina.” She put the jug down and lightly shook his hand. “I have a beehive in my heart.”
He let out a gentle laugh. From the way it came out, Paulina could tell he didn’t laugh easily. He stopped and his face became serious. He squeezed her hand and said nothing.
Paulina’s face reddened. Her palm was sweating and secreting the honey her body perspired.
“I’m sorry. My hands are sticky.” She wiped her hand on her apron.
And now he laughed out loud, and the humming in her heart grew so loud that even old Mr. Bartok looked up from his daily crossword and coffee. A flush of embarrassment burned her cheeks. Paulina looked down at the table to the newspaper Gustav was reading.
In bold letters it said: Colony Collapse Crisis. Why are our bees disappearing?
“Do you know what that is?” He tapped at the heading with a long finger, his other hand still holding hers.
“I know that bees just disappear from their hives.”
“Yes. And so you don’t, here is my card.” On the front it said Gustav ______ Entomologist. Then he scribbled his address and a date. It was for two days’ time.
Zeinab was right. The next day Paulina departed. He had left her with that same desire to stick her fingers into blooming flowers and stand naked letting the pollens dust her body.
“Not forever, Zeinab,” Paulina wiped Zeinab’s tears with the flat of her index finger. “Ibrahim has given me a week’s holiday. I’ll be back in a week.” And she took a train into the bowels of the inner city where he lived.
He met her at a busy intersection outside the train terminal. He took her hand, and she noted how small her hand was compared to his large one, how well it fit inside his. They did not speak. There was so much noise between them. Her buzzing, the traffic, the commuters. He leaned into her, and a sensation crawled up her arms. It was as if there were thousands of silken fine hairs on her skin unfurling and making her ignite. She leaned closer into him.
He led her up seven flights of stairs, past his abode to the communal rooftop gardens of the apartment block.
Paulina looked around and delight tingled through her body. He kept a rooftop honey sanctuary! She was high above the city, in a garden overgrown with sunflowers and lavender, sage, oregano, mint, wild daisies, apples, almond trees and cucumber.
“I feel like I’ve come home,” she said.
“It started with my concern about Colony Collapse Syndrome. That and mid-life crisis,” he said. “I wanted to do something positive with my life. Keep the honeybees from dying out.”
“Honey is pure,” Paulina said as if speaking her thoughts aloud. She knew this. She was born with this knowledge. For a moment, she thought of the poor goose girl. She would have understood the pure essence of things, too, if she hadn’t been devoured. She dismissed the thought with a flick of her hand. That was just a story. Then, she thought of Zeinab’s prophecy, and wondered what had compelled her to pack a bag and come to see a man that she barely knew—she, a totem girl. A girl who could have been eaten for her sweat and bled for honey. But she was compelled; the urge was too strong. And her beehive heart had not been silent since they had met.
“The body corporate approved me keeping the bees here,” he said, stretching his arm out towards the hives proudly.
“Usually they approve the keeping of a dog or cat,” she said, “but bees . . . I would have given approval for the originality of the request.”
“You would have approved it for you are an enchantress of honey bees,” he said.
“I think more than allowing the bees, they were happier about the garden I installed. I grow them for my bees, but the residents here all enjoy coming to pick the harvest.”
Paulina walked past him to the lavender bushes. It was her favourite scent. From here was a view of rooftops and sunny skyscapes that made the cars below glint and burn her retinas. She closed her eyes. She thought of the mountain Zeinab had pointed to in the coffee cup. She was in the midst of an urban space with a haven for bees and honey on the rooftop of high rise. And then she did what she had always done as a child, something her mother had begged her to stop. She moved away to stand near one of the hives, stripped off her long dress and stood naked, her arms outstretched and closed her eyes. She heard Gustav gasp. For a moment Paulina was concerned about her unruly pubic hair, and the memory of herself trembling with fear at Old MacKenzie’s farm ebbed through her . . . but the compulsion was, as always, too strong. The humming in her beehive heart became louder. She knew he could hear it, and the bees in Gustav’s hives heard it, too.
They crawled out from their hexagonal cubbyholes of honeycomb, darting and buzzing around Paulina like a flock of pigeons circling a cathedral spire. The hot sun had made her body break a sweet sweat, and they landed on her naked skin. She could sense their delight at the honey-flavoured nectar, devouring her with their little stick tongues that were velvety against Paulina’s dimpled skin. She shivered in delight.
And he watched.
Gustav watched her from the rooftop railing, knowing better than to flinch or make a move as the bees cloaked her skin like a high ruffed collared shirt.
She opened her mouth in ecstasy as they crawled around the arc of her earlobes, the backs of her knees, the dip in her throat. All the places she would kiss him with a flicking tongue like the searching bee. She waited for that moment of delight when they stung. But they did not. It made her hungry. Her eyes met Gustav’s.
He was hungry, too.
Paulina squatted slowly, and then jumped! The bees exploded into the air and flew away, Paulina knew, to gather pollens and bring them back to the hive.
Gustav walked towards her and put his hand in hers, his head nuzzled in the curve of her neck and shoulder, and they stood in silence. Paulina felt the soft texture of his lips as she watched the bees fly into the clear empty sky with the promise of pollen and good honey. Some still sat on the railing, rubbing their furry bodies with their front and hind legs, preening like cats. A wanting made the honeyed saliva build under her tongue. She wanted him to kiss her.
He lifted his head to face her. His fingers brushed hers.
They made love that night cloaked under a sky of cold stars. Each thrust was like one of those first pleasurable stings where she wasn’t sure where the pleasure ended and the pain began. The buzzing returned. It was so loud it drowned out the sound of the night cars. Over and over: now she was the blooming flower and he was her curious finger that she had poked inside them as a child.
He rose quickly and took her hand to take her into his apartment.
“I need to take a shower and you’ll have to go soon.”
“I have someone coming soon for a meeting.” He gestured to the dining room table scattered with papers and grabbed a towel from the linen cupboard in the hall.
Paulina didn’t answer. It had happened so quickly. This sense of busyness so soon after being caressed in his arms. She put her fingers through her hair to untangle it and browsed the bookshelves for familiar tomes and then the papers on the table. She stopped short at the thesis she saw sitting at the table. The title made her not want to read any further. Then Gustav was there, wiping himself dry. He moved close to her and squeezed her hand.
“I’m a scientist, doing research on genetically modifying wasps so that they make honey too.”
Paulina stepped back from him. His words disorientated her and the world spun around. She moved her hand away from his touch. The buzz in her heart was silent for a minute. Caution. Proceed with caution, lest you sting. Bees die when they sting. She straightened her dress.
“I would rather spend my time preserving the honey bee,” she said. “I thought that’s what you wanted, too.”
“It is up for debate. The disappearance of the bees might be inevitable.”
For a moment the memory of Mustapha came. A man she loved, and he allegedly loved her, but did not understand her nature. Now she was drawn like a finger in a flower to a man that wanted to genetically modify wasps, yet he kept bees. She wanted to run towards him and run away. She felt itchy inside her skin.
“I need to go now,” she said. “Don’t want you to be unprepared for your meeting.”
“That is best. Can’t wait to see you again.”
She walked home alone. The afterglow of love was gone, and it left her confused and cold. She pulled her collar tighter around her throat.
There was the gentle sound of a whirring buzz near her ear that didn’t come from her own heart. Paulina’s face broke into a smile at the sight of a little drone. It crawled onto Paulina’s forearm and she watched him preen the day’s collected pollen from his fur. He told her why, in an old man’s voice, why this man would never be hers to have.
“Even the honey bee drones don’t mate with the Queen of their colony,” the drone whispered. “And their work is seasonal.” Then he fluttered up to her ear and tickled her ear lobe with his furry strands of black and yellow hair. “Do not give your beehive heart to a man that chooses wasps,” the little drone said, and flew away.
Paulina was surprised. This was the first time a bee had spoken to her. She wanted to run away and run towards. She thought of the moment Gustav lay next to her, brushing her long hair behind her ears when she looked into his eyes, the fullness of his lips, and back to his eyes. She would run towards. Surely he was more bee than wasp? Zeinab had been right. She wasn’t coming back.
She had sought lodgings in a boarding house only a few kilometers from his home; the little drone always visited her, even when Gustav could not. There were many reasons, he said, that he could not. Grant applications. Academic Papers. And the little drone said: “I told you Honey Bee Drones don’t mate with the Queen of their colony.”
He buzzed secrets in her ears about love and its nature, about the inertia of people, individual greed over communal wealth, and the terrible things that would happen if the wasps became the new honey bee. “Wasps cannot make honey and they don’t die after they sting. They don’t have the pure heart of the bee. Like you and me. Colony Collapse Disorder”, he whispered in a buzzing purr, “means more than the disappearance of just us. It also means the disappearance of you.”
For the second month of summer, Gustav and Paulina saw each other more frequently. The little drone less. She had left the window open for him, left honeysuckle on the sill to welcome him in, but he didn’t come. Paulina was preoccupied with Gustav, their urgent lovemaking overwhelming her so that even she stopped hearing the buzz in her heart. They argued passionately about the wasps. How their honey could never match that of the honeybee. Of stringy bark or manuka and the rising price of oranges and orange juice.
The visits were frequent but short. It made her frustrated. He would leave soon after lovemaking. That frustrated her as well.
“Why don’t you stay a bit longer?”
“I can’t. I’m supposed to be working. Wasps don’t wait.”
She looked away and didn’t answer. She didn’t understand how someone that kept bees and loved the buzzing in her heart, would dedicate his life to the wasps. Why? But she knew what he had been thinking. The little drone had told her. Gustav was waiting for the right moment to tell her. She had hoped what the little drone had told her was not all true.
Summer soon turned to autumn and Paulina had stopped asking him to stay. Stopped asking about the wasps. She did not understand the lure of money that made the research into the wasps an attractive option for Science PhD. Graduates. Now they made love with a sense of futility. The absence of words needing to be said created a sense of pointlessness. Of sweet stings and honey nectar, of the fallout between the reality of the situation and her feelings for someone that would betray the bees. Paulina had a beehive in her heart. By betraying the bees, he would betray her. But she said nothing. For she knew that if she left and walked away—just like the honeybee after he has stung, she would surely die.
She loved him.
So she stayed. Taking jobs waitressing and helping out with other urban bee keeping places. Word soon got out that she could enchant the bees. But she told no one of her beekeeper lover or of the little drone that came to speak to her about truths.
She knew Gustav was leaving before he told her. He had been given a grant to spend a year researching the common wasp and genetically modifying them to make honey wasps. Wasps were common.
He was going with his wife.
His wife. The Queen of his colony.
She’d co-wrote the proposals.
It was quarter to midnight and they were sitting in a coffee shop huddled over a small round table in the right back corner.
“I will miss you,” he said.
“I will miss you, too.” She wanted to kick and scream, beg him not to leave, the bees needed him. She needed him. But Paulina knew the rule of the bee, to sting someone meant a piece of her would die. Honey is pure.
“I’ll see you next week before I leave,” he said and called the waitress for the bill.
He stood up, and tucked his chair in, leaned forward and kissed her on the lips goodbye. Then he departed. Quickly. He didn’t look back. She looked out the window and shivered. She was glad she’d packed a cardigan. The weather was getting cooler. More bitter at night. Her eyes welled with the sticky goo of honeyed tears.
“Hey honey,” the waitress crooned as she picked up the dirty cups from the table. “You look like you’re getting a mean case of conjunctivitis.”
She smiled at the waitress, left some change on the table and departed. Tonight the road seemed quiet, deserted and wider, even. She pulled her cardigan up around her ears and shivered. She felt alone. She couldn’t get warm.
And then it happened. It was a pain of a deep burn. She keeled over, the stinging behind her breastbone making it impossible to breathe; she fell down to the pavement, scraping the palm of her hands to endure the fall. Her heart throbbed with stings and soon its rapid rhythm fluttered at the bottom of her throat so she became light-headed and she choked for air. The bees inside her heart finally left their hive and stung her internally. Heart break.
The little drone appeared. He buzzed worriedly around her ear telling her over and over: sorry, sorry, so sorry. He was sorry but couldn’t do anything anymore. That soon, he and his colony would be gone from Gustav’s rooftop, too.
Paulina pushed herself up off the ground with her forearms.
“Don’t leave,” she said to the little drone.
He rested on her breastbone, where it hurt the most. She wondered how she would make it home. It hurt. Physically hurt. This wasn’t a pleasurable sting, but one that burned and then left her empty heart stinging of what felt like needle stings. The same sensation her school friend Nettie had described when being stung by a bee in the playground at netball practice.
That night she lay awake tossing from side to side on her mattress. She couldn’t get comfortable; she couldn’t keep warm. The sounds outside the window of her small apartment were loud. The wheels of cars on the wet asphalt, the sound of a cat meowing, a child wailing. She heard everything, now that her heart had grown silent. The bees didn’t buzz anymore. All the ones that had lived there had died when they stung her. The little drone had gone with his colony, too, flying out the window when she arrived home. Sorry, Paulina, was all he could say. He didn’t say goodbye. Paulina knew that he wouldn’t be back. And when the sticky tears fell down her cheeks and sweetened her lips with the taste, she wondered . . . what if . . . what if . . . she would never be able to enchant the bees again?
Drawn against her will, she saw him again. He had said he would see her again and he did. Gustav was leaning against the balcony balustrade of the rooftop garden. He chewed on his bottom lip and shook his head. “I find it so strange all my honey bees have departed. But the garden I harvested for them is still in lush abundance! It doesn’t make sense.”
Paulina said nothing. The time had come. He was departing next week. She had promised that she would look after the bees in his rooftop garden for the year he was away. Promised.
She looked at him and her lips parted. She kissed him. It was long and loving. She poked her tongue in and out of his mouth as if she was a bee searching a flower for nectar. He sucked her tongue hungrily.
So much potential. For him. For her. For the honeybees.
They said goodbye. He was cold. Callous almost. It was over quickly.
She gathered the little jars of honey she had collected from the bees on Gustav’s garden over the last nine months of their relationship, all lovingly collected and labelled. Almond Honey. Lavender Honey. Apple Honey. Binding them up, she walked the ten blocks to his home, up the flights of stairs until she reached his front door. She knocked and waited.
For a moment she wondered if she should run. What had brought her here? He had asked her never to come without an invitation. In case he was working. For a moment she turned to walk back but froze when she heard him shuffling through the hallway. It was futile. She knew why. She heard her voice behind the door. The little drone had told her, the honeybee drone doesn’t mate with the queen of his colony. The honeybee drone relies on the worker bee to feed him. The honeybee drone is only present during the summer. His wife was the queen of his colony, and the worker bee he relied on to feed him for this seasonal work had been Paulina. And autumn was coming: the season when the worker bees stop feeding the drones.
She placed the jars of honey behind the door, hoping they would sustain him while he was away. The door creaked open. Paulina bolted behind the corner of the long corridor. Was it him? Had he come to her? He had been her hive, and she was drawn to returning to him. She pressed her sticky palms against the wall and peered around the corner.
She felt as if something had caught in her throat. It was his wife. Paulina had never seen her before.
She stared at the woman, almost twice the height of Paulina. It was her thin lips, large probing eyes and long fingers that caught Paulina’s eye. The way she snatched up the honey, eyes darting back and forth and then slammed the door shut. Paulina’s heart skipped a beat and it made her catch her breath. She didn’t expect his wife to be so waspish in manner.
Paulina jogged down the flights of stairs, her feet treading lightly, when a spasm of emotion contracted in her chest and she gasped at the memory of Gustav’s love. It came in sweet whirrs and buzzing and tickled beneath her breastbone. The memory of his tongue on her lips, him moving inside her. She knew what to do. She remembered that day she had showed him how she could summon the bees. She closed her eyes and held her breath. She would call them—the bees that had disappeared from Gustav’s colony.
Out on the street it was already midmorning, a time when bees would be busy. She did what she did best as a child, stripped her clothes off until she had nothing but a petticoat slip on. Arms outstretched, head tilted back, eyes closed, Paulina stood frozen like a piece of holy stone and felt the beat of her beehive heart summoning them.
At first, one by one they came, a gentle whirring, a fluttering; then, a swarm hovered like swallows in circular flight. They crawled inside her eyes and up her nostrils, over her lips, anywhere there was an opening to get behind that skin and breastbone. They crawled inside each orifice to make their way to their destination.
And as each bee arrived to the hive of her heart, the buzzing began again. It was loud, but Paulina would never apologize for this, nor try to quell the noise. It was the part of him that could never betray her and a part of who she was.
Originally published in Strange Little Girls, edited by Camila Bruce and Liv Lingborn.