by O. Spaniel Murray
The narrator recalls the life and death of an old beekeeper.
Blue florets of borage dangled along the path that wound from the gate to the back door. Worker bees bloated with pollen took busy steps up the anthers or drank at the raindrops resting in the flower's bell. Even in cool weather there was always a small cloud of bees outside of the corner shed, drunk on the smell of honey, their black and gold frames hovering in the air, heavy with industry. The flywire door was kept open with a broken brick. Archie was either inside tending to the woodstove and sipping tea or else in the shed fixing frames or cleaning fumeboards with the underside of his capping knife. Most times I was there with my best friend Dorkel Faisalbad, a chubby Turk, skipping Phys. Ed. again and stealing his father's cigarettes.
"Hey Archie! Ya home?" we'd call.
He was home.
"What are you boys doing?" he'd say, coming out. "No school today?"
"Its a curriculum day," said Dorkel, lying, one of the dozens of "curriculum days" we enjoyed at Archie's place.
He never commented on this, and neither did Wayne, his apprentice, who pottered around out back wearing his grey boilersuit and saying precious little. He was usually working on the truck. Archie owned an old Bedford tray with rusty red fenders, bald tyres and mirrors stained with propolis. It barely made it to forty miles an hour and was missing second gear. It was essential for transporting hives in the evening. Wayne kept it on the road in spite of every mechanical misgiving.
"So, how are the bees, Archie?" we'd say.
He'd smile and say, "Humming!" and then invite us to sit around the stove to hear his tales of yore and reels of beelore extracted from a book called 'The ABC of Bee Culture' by a character named Amos Root. ("Imagine being named Root!" I whispered to Dorkel. With a name like "Dorkel" I knew he'd understand.)
Archie wore his khaki shorts, shirt and floppy toweling hat. He wore it all year round. When the weather was really cold he pulled his socks up and rolled his shirt sleeves down. He was the oldest individual either of us knew, but spritely and preserved, as he insisted, by a daily dose of royal jelly which was good for the heart and soothed his "roomatizz." He was tall and gangly and had been supplying honey to the district for more than fifty years.
He had never bothered to marry. The lady in his life was Melissa, a cud-chewing housecow brimming with butterfat and a happy disposition. And as well there were, of course, all the Queens of his harem - more hives than we could count. Dorkel told the tale about his uncle Ahmed back in Anatolia who was a beekeper and loved his Queens more than he loved his wife.
"A beekeeper is like a snake charmer," Archie would explain and told us that in the old days snake charmers, beekeepers, like elephant boys, bear-masters and lion-tamers, were always forbidden to marry because they needed a steady heart to match their beast's devotion.
"You never thought of marrying then?" I asked.
"Engaged once," he muttered, poking at the fire, but explained that it was the year he imported breeding Queens from Serbia and his loving miss soon left in a jealous pique.
The fire was simmering 365 days of the year, and when we arrived he threw on some golden wattle leaves which made the kitchen smokey. This was to clear away some of the drones who would be drinking at his dripping tap or seeking stains of sweetness on his benches. Dorkel in particular was afraid of being stung.
"Don't they sting you, Archie?" he would marvel. A bee would land right on Archie's forehead as he talked and trot across his brow without the slightest consternation.
"Not for years," he'd say. How come? Because by now his blood was full of pheromones and inhibine and invertase and gluconic acid, and the bees could smell him from a mile away and would descend into a swoon of insect playfulness that was their equivalent to love. "They sense fear, you know," he said, and moreover they had a natural hatred of woolly fabrics and hairy men and anyone bow-legged or who might in other ways remind them of a grisly bear. His tip for junior apiarists was to be as "unbear-like" as possible. Bees, he said, could read your inner thoughts. "Do this experiment. The next time you are working a hive, start thinking about bears. You'll see! The bees will get all agitated and suspicious and they'll send out scouts to see what all the bear-thinking is about. But as soon as you stop thinking about bears, and start thinking about daffodils, or roses, or bursts of black wattle the hives will calm down again and the scouts will go back and say 'Don't worry! False alarm!'"
I wanted to give it a try. "Will ya let me work some hives with ya, Archie?" I asked. I asked it a dozen times. For a long while the best he'd do was take me in his truck to see the hives among the mauve waves of salvation jane down the slopes of Woogly Peak, or on another occasion a longer trip to the ironbark forests across from Banghem Bridges where there were glorious spreads of pink blossom blended with the sharp nectar of the bloodwood trees.
"My dad says that beekeepers are freeloaders because they don't own any land and can agist across the fences and their bees drain the dams of unsuspecting men," I found the courage to say one time.
Archie took an apple out of his lunch box and bit into its crisp snowy flesh. "No bees, no apples," he said, formulaic, believing that to be rebuttal enough.
He left me in the truck as he went and tended to the hives alone. He seemed to like lone communion, often spending twenty minutes doing nothing, just listening and looking, as far as I could tell. Once, one hot summer's day, at a remote spot out the back of Afghan's Rest, he marched in amongst tall stacks of white hives armed only with his smoker. He stood and listened as usual. Then, after a while, he made a funny little dance, awkward like a waterbird, shifting from leg to leg and spinning about on the spot. And at last he stood frozen, his arms raised up like a rustic ballerina, and the bees all seemed to understand. Wayne was with us that day. Archie marched back to where we were standing and told us that the bees were unhappy with the farmers and the orchardists and didn't like the taste of the river and dreaded the passing years and the shrinking merit of the earth.
"Do you know bee language, Archie?" I asked him on the journey home. He didn't answer, but he did explain that his bees, at least, were Christians, and they liked it when he read the Bible. Since Archie's was a place to escape the tedium of schoolwork we rarely went there on the weekends. Consequently, we didn't get a chance to catch his customary Sunday sermon. Each Sunday, strapped by orange belts of sun in the dawn, he strode across the dew-soaked paddocks to preach the hives in olden English. He considered it a duty.
"Harken, ye bees!" he'd begin. "Glory! Glory! Glory!" And then remind them of the parables of Christ and the writings of Timothy and the shipwrecks of Paul and conclude with a reading from the Psalms. Their favourite, he said, was the book of Ezekiel - especially the bit about the wheels within wheels.
One Sunday I arrived with my father to buy our honey supply and there was Archie sitting in amongst his home hives reading portions of a coal-black King James aloud as globs of golden bees amassed on his legs and arms and shoulders intent on hearing Holy Writ. He shrugged them off, closed the Book, and came over to say hello.
"Sorry to call on the Sabbath," said my Dad, showing an unusual sensitivity, "I came around the other day and there was no one home."
This was because sometimes Archie and Wayne would be gone for days chasing white clover down at Gnostic Leap or checking the hives that worked the bimblebox flowering near Restless Pleasure. Other times, in autumn, they would drive as far as Thunderfork in pursuit of the rich manuka and fat stores of solar joy before the onset of the winter. Sometimes on "curriculum days" they were away on sojourns into the floral inland and so Dorkel and I would sit and smoke cigarettes on the back doorstep and talk about the beelore we'd acquired such as how competing Queens would fly directly at the sun until one fell away or how the bumble-bee was not nearly aerodynamic and how it managed to fly was still a mystery to science. Sometimes Archie would leave out thick aurumic slices of dribbling beeswax and after six or seven smokes we'd sit chewing on a lump, sucking all the gold from its holes. Even malshaped balls of slumgum made us happy. Best of all was honey time, when the essences of the six-sided sun coagulated into the oozing fluid of spring and made our teeth ache with an overwhelming sweetness. Swarms gathered in the chimney of the old Johnson house. Archie ran his extractor through the night.
I asked my father if Archie could take me out to work his hives. "He's got a suit and veil that'd fit me," I explained.
A few months after turning twelve my father agreed. I suited up and stoked the smoker. I tried to sound professional with chat about foulbrood and brace comb and the buckfast hybrid. Archie was unimpressed. "Bees are cold-blooded, like lizards," he said. "That's all ya need to know."
We drove the few miles down to Gum Tree Gully where he had a dozen hives and was resting in-calf Melissa on a fresh feed of native kwongan grass. We walked out to where the hives were buzzing. Then, as I stood at his side, he lifted the lid and for the very first time I peered into a living hive, gazing at its bustling alchemy, staring at the sexual complexity of it all. Extraordinary skep! Secrets of pollen! Wriggling gold wonder ordered with some fantastic common mind! I could see into the hidden mysterium of Nature then and there. It took my breath away.
Business-like and calm, Archie then started explaining to me that you need a soft bristle brush to gently move the workers from the lid-rim because if you crush too many the alarm odors start seeping from their abdomens and they can get aggressive.
"How many is too many?" I asked.
He preferred not to crush any, but one or two couldn't really be helped.
It was then, at that moment, that I had the horrible realisation that a bee had penetrated through my veil.
"Archie! Archie!" I cried, starting to panic. "There's a bee in my veil."
"Just relax, then" he said calmly. "The worst that can happen is that you'll get a bite on your face."
The thought was too much. In an involuntary jerk, I did the worst possible thing. My hand went up to my face and I suddenly ripped off the veil. The violence of my actions instantly sent ripples of reaction through the open hive. Like a black and gold cobra that had just been poked with a stick an enraged cluster of bees rose up from the hive's belly and was set to strike. Lamely, I glanced at Archie like a fool trusting his control. He looked back at me helpless.
"Run!" he yelled, suddenly. "Run, boy! Run!"
He ran too. I followed as the bees swooped and started biting at the sweat glands behind my ears. I ran blindly, madly thrashing with my hands at my head and yelling in genuine terror. It all happened in an instant. Archie kept yelling "Run!" and we raced across the paddocks towards the water troughs. He dived in first and I quickly followed. I submerged myself below the dark water and stayed there among the bottom slime as long as I could manage. I came up for a breath and went back under again. Then, eventually, I noticed that Archie was sitting up and that, apparently, the swarm of raiders had returned to their hive having driven off the rude intruders. I surfaced again and this time braced myself against the sides of the trough, long ribbons of thick green algae falling down across my sorry face.
To my relief Archie was enormously amused. He let out a yelp of invigoration and laughed a belly laugh, panting. It had been maybe twenty years since he'd tried to outrun a swarm of angry bees.
"What the hell did you do that for boy?" was all he wanted to know. And he underlined the lesson with the rather obvious words, "You never, never, NEVER! tear off your veil when you're working a hive! Even IF, there's a bee in your veil and you're likely to get stung!"
I counted twenty-six bites on my neck and face. It was three days till the swelling went down.
Three or four months after this misadventure I was at home watching television on a quiet windy afternoon. My father came in and spoke to me and my sister. "Old Archie May has passed away," he reported matter-of-factly. "Died in his sleep last night."
At first I made no reaction. This had nothing to do with being manly or being afraid to show emotion - more just numbness and the realisation that, yes, he was old Archie May after all. I went for a walk and noticed a few worker bees defying the wind and sucking on the slowly tossing blossoms of the stringybark that draped across the carport. Later, I rang Dorkel and in the silences we pretended that we weren't sobbing and we changed the subject to the football after a while.
I don't remember why I didn't go to the funeral but my father and I went back to Archie's yard to hear the eulogy to the bees, an ancient custom even mentioned by Amos Root who reported that it had been adopted by colonial Americans from the ways of rural Europe. How it reached Australia I didn't know.
Wayne was really upset. It took him a long time to gather his composure. It was the first time I had seen him wearing anything but his boiler suit. Mrs Hayworth from down the road comforted him and gave him a pat on the back. He stood up, cleared his throat and looked back at the gathered crowd. He glanced over at me and when he saw that I was almost crying he decided to be brave. Solemnly, in deliberate steps, he walked out towards the home hives where Archie kept his breeding Queens, the husbandry of a lifetime. He approached the boxes of frames and called out - these were his exact words :
"Hear this, ye bees! Archie May is dead and has departed this life for the life eternal. Pray for his soul! May he be guided to an everlasting bliss and be carried up in the rapture that is at the end of time. Amen."
And then he read a passage from Ezekiel that began, "And lo! I saw a whirlwind come up from out of the north..."
The bees stopped and listened. The whole sky stopped and listened. The drones went and gave the bad news to the Queen. She wept gossamer tears, bathed herself in dextrose, took comfort in her young and declared a season of mourning by royal decree.
Wayne walked back and we all went home more or less in silence.
The next day Dorkel and me skipped Phys. Ed. again and went down to the rocks near Gum Tree Gully where Melissa and her newborn calf were grazing in the tepid light. We chain-smoked until we felt green and feverish but otherwise had nothing to say. I stood up and balanced on a fallen tree branch that made a sort of bridge across the gully.
"Do they eulogy the bees in Turkey?" I wanted to know.
"Of course," he said. "Of course." But he explained that in Turkey they have Muslim bees and that they read out a portion of the Holy Koran.
That made sense. "OK," I said, and we walked up the gully towards the pine plantation to look for mushrooms after the recent rain.
About the author
Raised by wild dingos until the age of forty-three, the author is the long-lost third cousin of Ern Malley, notorious poet avante guard. His first collection of short stories Four Mormons In A Leaky Canoe sent shockwaves through the Australian writing establishment. His second volume The Broken Heart That Went South sent it back to sleep again. A long-time resident of Elegant Ridge on the ever-flowing Murumbigee, he recently ran for local government on a platform of massive rate cuts for short story writers. He often pretends to be Dr Rodney Blackhirst, an inconspicuous lecturer living in the goldfields of Central Victoria.