Back | Next


Nita Montoya’s brother sold her when she was fifteen — to the Bee Man who came around sometimes to sell honey to the field hands. At least, that’s what her other brother, Ignacio, called it. Selling. Alberto had slapped him and they almost started fighting, even though Ignacio was only two years older than Nita and a lot smaller than Alberto. Mama screamed at them both, and they stopped, but their bitterness scorched Nita, made her want to hide. There was no place to hide in the camp unit they lived in.

“She’s a good girl,” Alberto told the Bee Man. “She works as hard as any boy and she minds real good, even if she can’t talk.”

The Bee Man was old. His curly hair had gray in it, and his long face was lined and folded, brown as old leather. Alberto turned to look at her, and Nita flinched. He was mad. His anger hurt her, like the ache in his back hurt her when he came in from working the bushes, like Ignacio’s hating hurt her. Like Mama hurt her. Nita drew a line in the dust with her toe, wishing that she didn’t have to feel their anger and their aches. Alberto was mad because the foreman had tried to put his hands under Nita’s shirt, back behind the machine shed. Nita rubbed out the line, remembering the time she’d gone to the outhouse late and the foreman had been back there with one of the women. When he’d trapped her behind the machine shed, put his hands on her, his hot sticky excitement had been scary, but it had made Nita’s skin prickle with strange feelings.

She had run away when the foreman touched her, but Alberto had seen them. Now he was mad.

“You go with the man, Nita,” Alberto said to her, too loud and too slow, the way he always talked to her, as if she couldn’t hear. “You’re going to live with him now. You mind him.” He wasn’t looking at her any more. He was looking at the jug of honey in his hands. The honey looked yellow as pee.

“Come on.” The Bee Man smiled at Nita. “You carry these, all right?”

Nita took the pole he handed her, balanced it across one shoulder. It was a hollow piece of plastic pipe. More jugs — mostly empty — hung from each end, bowing the pole in front and behind, making it bounce as Nita walked. She followed the Bee Man down the dusty lane that led from long rows of units to the main road that led through the ag camp. Dust whirled away from their feet, and Nita’s shift stuck to her sweaty back.

The Bee Man felt . . . quiet. She studied the curve of his shoulders and back, bent beneath a heavy pack. His hair straggled down his neck in loose curls. He felt like the fields, dry and dusty, like the wind that never stopped blowing.

It wasn’t a happy feeling and it wasn’t a sad feeling. It was just . . . quiet. Nita relaxed a little as they walked across the sunbaked valley floor, toward the brown humps of the mountains. The bushes crowded the road on either side of them, their scratchy, upright branches holding in the heat. The valley was flat as a plate, and the salt crept up out of the ground, making white crusts on the bush stems, coating everything with gray powdery dust.

“They used to grow grass here, in the old days,” the Bee Man said suddenly. “Not for hay. Just for seed. It was cooler then. It rained. People had so much water that they grew grass in their yards, just to walk on. This whole valley was green.”

He didn’t look at her, just talked. Nita walked a little closer behind him, so she could hear his words.

“This is all tamarisk. Used to be a weed.” He flicked the dusty branches of the bushes that reached out above the racked asphalt of the road. “They engineered it to tolerate salt. And it’s tough. So now we pipe seawater over from the coast and save what sweet water we have left for drinking. Never mind that the salt kills the land.”

He made it sound like the fields weren’t a good thing. Mama, Ignacio. And Alberto worked in the fields, weeding the little bushes, cleaning the soaker-hoses, and cutting branches for the grinder. Magic turned the ground up bushes into food. So Alberto said. What would you do without bushes? Nita wondered about that. Maybe this man remembered the old days. He didn’t look that old though.

Papa had told her about the old days, when the riverbeds had been full of water like a cooking pot, when the rains had come soft and gentle and all the time. Nita didn’t like to think about Papa. Preoccupied, she nearly poked the Bee Man in the back with her pole as he stopped.

“You stay here.” He shrugged out of his pack. “I’ll be right back.”

He said the words too loud, like Alberto did, be he smiled at her again. Nita nodded, watching him drape a flimsy white scarf over his head. They were at the edge of the fields now. The empty land rose up in front of them, folded and rocky, streaked brown and dirty gray, dotted with a few dusty trees that still wore green leaves. She had never been beyond the fields before, and the bare land looked gray and empty.

Clumps of spiny thistle, tufted with purple blossoms, clustered at the edge of the field. Nita watched the Bee Man bend over a piece of tree-trunk standing in the shade of a twisted oak. There weren’t any other trees around, and the heat beat at her. A water jug hung from the pack frame. Nita reached for the jug, sneaked a look at the Bee Man.

The air around him shimmered like heatwaves above asphalt, and Nita heard a low hum. It sang peace. It sang a song of fullness, of enough to eat, of comfort and no fear. She put the jug down, took a step closer, eyes on the humming shimmer.

It felt so peaceful. She hummed the sound in her throat. What would it be like to feel that way, always? She hummed louder, felt some of the song’s peace seep into her as she crept closer. The Bee Man’s head was wrapped in the scarf. It was so fine that Nita could see his face through the folds.

The air around him was full of . . . bees. They landed on his shoulders and on the flimsy cloth, patched his faded shirtsleeves like brown fur, filled the air with their soft comfort-song. Nita watched him reach into the hollow piece of treetrunk. It was full of bees. They crawled across the backs of his hands, flew up to land on his scarf and on his shirt. She’d never seen so many bees in her life — just one or two at a time, crawling around inside the yellow squash blossoms in the little garden they watered with part of their ration, or with water bought at the public meter.

“What are you doing here?” The Bee Man straightened with a jerk.

Nita flinched at the stab of his fright. The bees felt it, too. Their soft song turned harsh, and they swirled around his head like summer dust.

“Go back to the pack,” the Bee Man said sharply. “Right now! Run! Ow!”

He winced as a bee stung him. They were angry now. She hummed louder, trying to block out their shrill, painful note, groping for the tone of comfort. That was it! A hair lower, she found it, sang it to the bees, pitching it against their harsh sound. It spread slowly through the swirling cloud of bees, lowering their angry song, gentling it.

Humming, she watched bees land on her bare arms, crawl up the front of her shift. They tickled, but their bodies looked velvety soft. Peace, she hummed. Comfort. And she stroked one of the black-and-brown bodies delicately. A hand brushed the bees gently away, and Nita looked up with a start. She had forgotten about the Bee Man.

“Come away now.” He was frowning, but he wasn’t angry. “We’ll let them settle down.”

He was pleased with her. Pleased! Afraid to breathe, afraid she’d shatter this precious moment, Nita followed him back to the pack.

“I’m glad you like bees.” The Bee Man smiled at her. “The last kid I hired was scared to death of them.”

Nita looked down at the dust as he pulled off his scarf. She wanted to ask him about the bees and their song, but the words stuck in her throat like they always did.

“I’m going to lose this hive.” The Bee Man shouldered his pack, his pleased feeling fading. “The tamarisk doesn’t need my bees. They come from cell cultures, so they don’t have to bloom, and the salt’s killed off most of the native plants. I’d move the hive if I had a place for it, but the wildflower bloom in the hills is bad this year.”

The dusty wind blew through the Bee Man’s words. Nita let him walk ahead as they climbed into the hills, threading their way between straggling oaks with drooping dusty leaves and tall, tall firs. They walked for the rest of the afternoon. It was a long walk, up into the dry, folded hills of the hills. The dust didn’t burn up here. It was just dust, but you could still taste salt on your lips. They followed a cracked, curving road that led past a cluster of houses, a church, and a boarded-up store, sitting on the edge of a narrow creekbed. The street was empty and Nita didn’t feel any people.

“You can still pump water from some of the deep wells up here in the coast range,” the Bee Man said. “So a few people still farm up here —vegetables mostly. This is Falls City, where they hold the market on Sundays.

Alberto and Ignacio went to the market in the valley occasionally, and sometimes Mama went too, but Nita had never gone. She followed the Bee Man up the dry riverbed; it was hard going now, and she was tired. She couldn’t remember walking this far in her whole life. You only went as far as the fields, and then you came home. The riverbed was full of rocks and evening shadows, and they had to climb around an old waterfall. The honey jugs bumped and banged, and the pole snagged on the rocks. The Bee Man held out a hand to her, offering help, but she pretended she didn’t see it. If she worked it right, people would forget she was there, and then their feelings didn’t bother her so much.

“Almost home,” the Bee Man said at last. He turned down a narrow streambed that led up into the slope above the larger creekbed they’d been following.

Small green plants with waxy leaves grew between the rocks under their feet, and a few firs spread shadowy branches above their heads, turning the bed into a tunnel of twilight. Nita paused. Bees? She heard them, saw them streaking down into a narrow crack in the rocky fence of the bank. They sang a different song, this time. Louder. Harsher. Curious, Nita went closer, trying to catch the new note.

“Nita, don’t!” the Bee Man yelled.

Bees erupted from the crack, whirling toward her like a gust of dark wind. Nita cried out at the first stings. She dropped the jugs and tried to run, but the pole tripped her. Bees swarmed over her, burning like fire as she clawed at them.

Then the Bee Man was slapping at them, hissing through his teeth as the bees stung him, too. He wrapped his scarf around her head, yanked her to her feet. Sobbing, Nita stumbled blindly along in his grip as he pulled her into a run. Hot pain spread across her skin as the Bee Man dragged her up the stream bed.

“Keep running!” he panted in her ear. “Just a little more and it’ll be all right . . .”

They were running uphill now. Rocks stubbed her toes and Nita fell again. This time the Bee Man didn’t make her get up. She curled herself into a ball, face pressed against her knees, afraid that she would hear the bees following her, humming loud, humming angry as Mama.

“Here, now. Here, this’ll help.” The Bee Man was back, unwinding the scarf from her face, coaxing her to sit up.

Nita sucked in her breath as cool wetness soothed the hot burning. Mud? She touched the tawny smears he was dabbing onto her dark skin. It was mud, and it helped.

“I’m sorry. I should have warned you about that damn nest, but I didn’t think.” The Bee Man dipped more mud from the plastic bowl in his hand. “They call them killers for good reason. The whole nest’ll come after you, and, if it happens, you run. That’s all you can do. If you don’t, you can get enough stings to kill you.” He grunted. “They came up from South America, a long time ago. From Africa, before that. They do real good in the Dry, but you can’t work with ’em and they don’t give much honey, anyway. I would have taken out that nest a long time ago, but it’s way back in the rock.” He combed a dead bee out of Nita’s tangled hair. “You’re not swelling anyway, so you’ll be alla right, I guess.”

Nita looked down at the bee, too full of pain to even nod. It didn’t look any different than the honey bees. Killers. That felt right. It matched their ugly, violent song. Nita shivered, fear crawling up her spine. She knew the killers’ song now.

The Bee Man set down the bowl and stood up. Nita watched him disappear into a tent made out of faded green plastic. Rock shelved out above her head to make a shallow cave that breathed cool, damp air on her burning skin. They were on a flat space, like a rocky shelf above the streambed. In the thickening darkness, Nita could barely make out a big, blackened cook pot on a ring of stones, and a stack of chopped branches. A light went on inside the tent, making the green walls glow.

“Those killer stings hurt. I still jump and I hardly even notice the honey bee stings any more.” The Bee Man ducked out of the tent, a jug in one hand and a small solar lantern in the other. “This will make you feel a little better, anyway.” He poured pale, golden liquid into a plastic cup.

Dry with thirst, Nita gulped at the liquid. It wasn’t water. It tasted sweet, with a faint honey smell, and it felt bubbly on her tongue. She held out her empty cup hopefully.

“Not too much, or you’ll have a headache in the morning. This stuff has some kick to it.” He filled her cup half full of the bubbly honey-water. “There’s plenty of water. Bees showed me a little seep-spring back in the rock. It hasn’t dried up yet.” He nodded at the cool darkness under the overhang. “If you’re hungry, there’s bread and some dried fruit in that basket. Not fancy, but edible. I was going to hire another boy at the market,” the Bee Man said slowly. “Alberto asked me to take you, instead.”

He was afraid, she realized suddenly. Of her? Nita swirled the last of the honey-water in her cup, frowning a little. Why should this man, taller than Alberto, be afraid of her?

“Water’s in that jug there, drink all you want. You can use this sleeping bag.” The Bee Man stood suddenly and picked up the honey-water jug. “Don’t wander off, okay? You could get lost, and you can die of thirst, even this early in the year.” He paused in the doorway of the tent. “Damn it, Alberto,” he muttered. “We’re even. I’m never going to live this down.”

He was afraid. Afraid. What did he mean, anyway? Nita crossed her arms against the first hint of evening chill, pressing her forearms against the new, tender swell of her breasts. Her body felt strange, as if it wasn’t really hers anymore. The Bee Man’s scared feeling had to do with that. It had a prickly edge that made Nita think of Alberto, when he and Theresa Santorres went for their evening walks with their arms around each other.

Nita wriggled into the sleeping bag. She didn’t want any food. The honey-water had filled her stomach and softened the worst of the pain. The Bee Man moved around in the tent, talking to himself, a few low words she couldn’t quite make out. It was getting cold, like it always did at night. She pulled the thick fabric of the bag up over her shoulders. It smelled like the Bee Man, like honey and sweat and dust.

It smelled strange. She sniffed the dry, night air, missing the familiar smell of the crowded unit, in spite of the hurting anger that filled it. They had lived there almost as long as she could remember. Since Papa died.

I’ll kill the bastard, next time he touches her, Alberto had snarled.

And they’ll hang you. You’re gonna get us all fired, and what will we do then? Mama had said that, arguing with Alberto, hissing and angry, after they thought she was asleep. It had been Mama who had made Alberto ask the Bee Man to take her. A hard lump closed her throat, and Nita made a small, choked sound that tried to turn into a sob.

“You hurting?”

She had forgotten his presence, and the Bee Man’s touch made Nita jump.

“Easy, now. Gently. Bad dreams, maybe?” He stroked her tangled hair hesitantly. “Things can look pretty dark, your first night away from your folks,” he said, and he felt like he was remembering. “We’ll get along fine,” he said as he got to his feet. “If you have any more bad dreams, you call me, hear?”

Nita nodded. He didn’t feel so scared now. He felt peaceful, like the bees. She fell asleep, comforted by his quiet song.


The Bee Man woke her before dawn. They left the narrow streambed and climbed up into the dry hills, their shadows stretching ahead of them, thin and spindly on the dusty ground.

“We’ll gather firewood later.” The Bee Man broke a limb from a fir with a dry, brittle snap. “I don’t know how much longer the forest’s going to last. It’s too dry for seedlings to make it, and the old trees give in to beetle damage and die. At least the land’s still alive up here. Flowers still bloom. Stuff grows along the bottoms of the old streambeds and in the low places here a little water seeps up. We’re killing the land, down in the valley,” he said. “If the rains came back tomorrow, it would still be a desert down there.”

Nita looked at the dying trees. The Bee Man’s words blew through her, dry and dusty as the wind, full of gray shadows. She hadn’t ever thought of the land as something that could be alive or dead. Land was just . . . land. Dust or rock or bushes. Nita stopped. Two bees crawled over a small spike of fuzzy purple flowerlets that grew from a crack in the rock. Out here, all by themselves, the bees’ song was faint and hard to hear, but it comforted her. Nita scooped them gently from the flower. They buzzed in her closed hand, confused, not angry yet, searching for the vanished sunlight.

“I thought you’d be scared, after yesterday.” The Bee Man looked over her shoulder.

He was pleased with her again. His pleasure warmed Nita, drove away the gray chill of his talk about the dying land. Nita opened her hands and the bees zoomed away.

“There’s a wild nest at the top of this slope,” the Bee Man said. “I figure we might as well take it, now that the honey-bloom’s over.” He pulled two of the flimsy scarves from his pack, handed her one. “You always wear this veil, hear?” He draped it over her head, tucked it carefully into the neck of her shift. “Stings on your arms hurt. But you get one too close to your eye and you can go blind.”

The cloth made it hard to see, but Nita could hear the bees’ song as they got close. They darted in and out of a broken stump, singing contentment. She sang with them as the Bee Man built a small fire where the smoke would drift over the nest. The bees swirled up, confused by the smoke, angry as the Bee man chopped into their dead treetrunk home. Nita hummed the harsh note, changing it, soothing the hive’s distress until the comfort-hum wrapped her, thick as the warm honey-smell rising from the folded layers of golden comb inside the trunk. Fascinated, she leaned over the opened nest. Pulpy white larva filled some of the cells and others had been closed with waxy brown caps. She could see pale, half-formed bees beneath some of the caps.

“I hate to strip the nests like this, leave them to starve.” The Bee Man sighed as he brushed bees from a sticky slab of comb and sealed it into one of the plastic pails they’d brought with them.

So this nest would die? Nita stared at the shattered trunk. Brown bits of broken comb and golden honey stuck to the splintered wood and the bees settled on their ruined nest in a dark layer. Their song would end, because she and the Bee Man had smashed through the wood and taken the comb? When the Bee Man touched her shoulder, Nita jerked away from him.

“Nita?” The Bee Man followed her into the shade of a dying pine. “What’s wrong?”

Nita shook her head, wanting to tell him that it was wrong, that the bees’ song shouldn’t die. The words wouldn’t come. They stuck in her throat, hard and hurting. A bee landed on her hand, sipping at the sticky honey coating her skin. Nita closed her hand over it, crushed it. Slowly, she opened her hand, dropped the dead bee into the dust at the Bee Man’s feet.

The Bee Man sighed. “That nest would have starved out before the next rainy season. It wasn’t big enough to make it through the dry months. I take their honey so that we can eat. I take out the killer bee nests that compete with these.” He stared down the slope of the hillside. “Down in the valley, we grind up those test-tube shrubs, digest them into sugars and grow wheat cells or soybean cells or even orange juice-sacs in tanks. So we eat and we survive, but nothing else can grow down there. Just bushes. We can never go back to the way it was. We’re killing the land to stay alive.” He shook his head bitterly. “You keep running, and all you can do is stay one step ahead of the Dry.”

It had hurt him to take the wild nest, too. He loved the bees. Nita reached out suddenly and touched his hand.

He started a little, as if she’d pinched him, but then he smiled at her. “Let’s take what we’ve got and call it a day,” he said.


They went out every day to harvest a careful share of comb from the Bee Man’s hives and to strip the small, wild nests they’d found. The sparse flowers had dried up in the hot sun that seemed to get hotter every day, and no more honey would flow until next spring, he told her.

“I’ve never seen anyone handle bees like you,” the Bee Man said more than once. “I wish I had your talent with ’em.”

He was pleased with her.

When they took shares from the Bee Man’s hives, she sang them comfort and they buzzed gold and black and brown around their heads as they cut the slabs of storage comb free, leaving the larvae-filled cells behind. When they took the wild nests, Nita sang them a gentle song that was full of the Bee Man’s sadness at taking their honey, and the bees settled onto their comb in a dark, quiet layer.

The Bee Man talked to her. He told her how the bees lived, how a worker danced to show the other bees where flowers grew, and how the hive knew when to grow a new queen. He taught her how to live with the bees, how to melt comb into liquid honey and cakes of valuable wax, how to let the bees show her the tiny water seeps, what to eat and not to eat, how to survive in the dry hills.

He told her the names of the flowers; yellow bells and shooting stars down in the crevices, where water seeped up from the winter rains; lupine and desert parsley up high, where it was drier; fescue and wheat grass in tough, dusty clumps up on the ridges, where trees still cast a little shade. He didn’t feel scared any more, and that pleased Nita. He felt warm inside, peaceful as bee song.

His song and the bee song blended, seeping through the years of silence that filled her up, like water soaking into a field. When she was little, before Papa died, she had talked. Nita listened to the Bee Man’s words and wanted to tell him how the bees sounded. He loved the bees, but he didn’t hear them. She was sure of it, and his not-hearing surprised her.

But the words still wouldn’t come.


One afternoon, they walked clear down to the edge of the fields to check on the tree-trunk hive where they’d stopped on Nita’s first day with the Bee Man. The hive was gone, replaced by plowed brown dirt and the dusty green tufts of newly planted bushes. Soaker hoses gleamed in the furrows like basking snakes.

“They just ran the machines right over it.” The Bee Man shaded his eyes, squinting against the harsh light. “I should of moved it, never mind whether there were enough flowers up there for another big hive. Too late now.”

He didn’t talk much as they walked back up to the camp. His shoulders drooped and his toes dragged as he walked, raising salty dust that hung behind them in the still air. That evening, they melted the week’s small take of comb. Nita strained out dead bees and larvae, watching foam and liquid wax swirl on the surface of the simmering honey. The Bee Man was still sad, and she sat down beside him, close enough to feel the warmth from his arm against hers. He looked at her as she touched his hand, and smiled, blinking a little, as if he’d been thinking about something else and had forgotten that she was there.

“The fields keep catching up to me,” he told her. “Stick the plants in the ground and kill the ground with salt water. I don’t know.” He stared into the red glow of the coals beneath the iron pot. “It scares me, what we’re doing. I keep moving on, but it’s always right behind me. The Dry. The salty fields. It doesn’t pay to look back.” He rubbed his face.

“My father was a hard man,” he said. “There was only his way to do things, so I took off when I was about your age. I was lucky. I ran into an old beekeeper, who taught me about bees. After awhile, my father didn’t seem so impossible anymore, so I want back.” He laughed, a short, bitter note that made Nita wince. “They were gone. Dad, Mom, the whole town. The Dry had moved in, eaten up the fields, filled the streets with dust. I don’t know what happened to my folks. Someone told me that they went back east to find a cousin, and someone else told me that they went to Portland. I never found them. Maybe they’re dead.” He shook his head slowly. “It doesn’t pay to care too much. One day you turn around, and everything’s gone. Like that hive.”

Nita took his hand in hers, wanting to tell him that the bushes and the Dry were just things — just salt and plants and dry land — not killers that could chase you. He started to pull his hand away, then closed his fingers around hers, tight enough to hurt.

“You’re a good listener.” He got stiffly to his feet and lifted the honey pot from the fire. “I thought I was doing Alberto a big favor by taking you on, ruining my reputation in the bargain. I guess my reputation’s still shot,” he said, and laughed.

Nita didn’t understand, but she smiled, too, because he was warm inside again, like the bee song.


Nita woke in darkness that night, struggling up from nightmare to the dry rumble of thunder higher in the mountains. Lightning flickered across the horizon and Nita clutched the sleeping bag around her. Thunder made her remember the gunshots. She had been playing in the yard when they drove up. They had carried guns in their hands, had called her father by name.

Thunder boomed again and Nita sat up with a gasp. Cold wind gusted through the camp, shaking the tent, and the thunder cracked again. Hard drops stung Nita’s arms and face. Rain? She stumbled to her feet, but already the shower had moved on, riding the cold wind down the stream-bed. Lightning glared, searing Nita’s eyes with the stark image of the tent, woodpile, and the pot of cooling honey. Then the darkness rushed in again, thick as dirt on a grave, pressing down on her, smothering her. Shivering, Nita slipped into the tent.

The air smelled like plastic, honey, and the Bee Man; thick and comforting. He lay on his side, wrapped in a tangled quilt. The soft rasp of his breathing filled the tent, and he stirred, murmuring in his sleep as Nita curled up beside him. The thunder rumbled again, but it didn’t scare her this time. Maybe it was raining, somewhere. Nita closed her eyes and fell asleep to the soft murmur of the Bee Man’s dreams.


In the morning, Nita woke with the Bee Man’s arms around her. His breath tickled her neck, and the warmth of his body against her back made her breasts feel tight and tender. She wriggled closer against him, felt him wake up.

He murmured something, still half asleep, and his arms tightened around her. Nita felt the stir of of his desire — like Alberto and Theresa — felt an echo in her own flesh. It took her by surprise, made her skin go cold and then hot. She pressed back against his warmth full of a strange ache that came from everywhere and nowhere, centering between her legs like a second heartbeat.

The Bee Man’s eyes opened and he sat up, pushing roughly away from her. “What are you doing here?” he asked in a harsh, funny voice.

Scared. He hadn’t felt scared like that in a long time. Nita scrambled to her feet. He was staring at her, frowning, all muddy and mixed up inside, like a pan of wash water after the whole family has used it.

“It’s all right.” He forced a laugh. “You just . . . surprised me. That’s all.” He stared at her for the space of several heartbeats, then began to talk again, too fast. “This is market day, remember? We’re almost out of beans, so we’d better get started if we want to get there before the best stuff is gone.” He stopped, looked at her again. “It’s all right,” he said.

Nita ducked quickly outside.

It wasn’t all right. The Bee Man’s fear clogged the air as he strung full honey jugs together and loaded cakes of wax into the pack. He didn’t look at her, didn’t talk much. Nita kept her eyes on the ground as they made their way down the riverbed to town, hurt by his feelings, unable to shut them out. She didn’t know what she had done to scare him.

She felt the market as they climbed out of the riverbed, a babble of feelings like people shouting all at once inside her head. Alberto had never offered to take her along when he went, and Nita was glad. Ramshackle booths roofed with frayed and faded plastic crowded the parking lot of the old high school. The Bee Man’s muddy fear was almost lost in the clamor of so many people. Nita stayed close behind him as they threaded their way between the piles of greens and carrots, old clothes, oily machine parts, and battered electronics that formed the dusty aisles. If she closed her eyes, she would be lost, drowned in the blare of noise.

They unloaded their packs, set out the cakes of wax and the jugs of honey at a corner of the old gray school building, in a strip of shade. Nita squatted with her back against the wall while the Bee Man traded honey and wax for hard bread, beans, dried fruit, or grimy government scrip that you could trade for water or use in a government store. People called the Bee Man David. They laughed and joked with him, while their eyes slid sideways to look at Nita. They all looked at her. Some of them looked at her body, all hungry. Others looked from her to the Bee Man and got mad, like Alberto had gotten mad at the foreman. Nita hunched against the wall, dizzy and trapped.

The Bee Man didn’t look at her at all. Nita closed her burning eyes, trying to shut out the stares and the crowd noise. When she opened them again, Alberto was standing in front of the neatly lined-up honey jugs. “Hello, Nita,” he said in his too-loud, too-careful voice.

Nita looked past his thick shoulders. Mama was walking up the crowded aisles.

“How are you getting along?” Alberto was asking the Bee Man. “I haven’t seen you for awhile.”

“Okay.” The Bee Man turned a jug of golden honey slowly between his hands. “But I’m thinking of moving on again, so I guess Nita ought to go back home with you.”

Nita stared at him, Mama forgotten for a moment, stunned by his words. He wanted her to go, wanted it with an intensity that took Nita’s breath away, made her feel sick and empty inside. Nita’s lips moved, silently shaping the word to ask him. Why?

“You see?” Alberto turned to Mama, his temper flaring. “I told you this wasn’t going to work.”

“It’s not Nita’s fault,” the Bee Man said. “It’s nothing she did or didn’t do.” He looked past Alberto, straight at Mama. “She’s just a kid. You take her home, and you keep her there. Let her grow up.”

“Don’t you talk to me like that. “ Mama shouldered past Alberto. “You think I don’t know what you’re saying? You think I kicked my daughter out, sent her off to whore, maybe? Well, you think about what it’s like for us, mister. If we get kicked off the farm, where do we go? To one of the camps, to live on hand-outs with the no-good and the drifters? What do we do? Alberto said you’re a nice man, that you’d take her.” She clenched her fists, glared at the Bee Man. “You want to blame someone, you blame her father — you blame Sam. We had a good place, a good farm. It wasn’t much, but we took care of ourselves. And our kids.” Her voice trembled.

“He left me with the children to feed. So, now we got to scratch in the dust, bow to some strutting little rooster of a foreman who sniffs around my daughter like a dog after a bitch in heat! You want to blame someone, you blame Sam. Not me. Not my son!” She spun on her heel and stalked away, pulling her sun-scarf up over her gray hair.

“I apologize,” Alberto said between clenched teeth. “For my mother.” He had gone pale under his weathered tan. “Nita, get up. Let’s go.” He reached past the Bee Man, grabbed her by the arm.

“Wait a minute.” The Bee Man caught Alberto’s wrist. “What happened to her? Why can’t she talk?”

“She just stopped.” Alberto looked away. “She looks like Papa,” he said. “It’s scary, how much she looks like Papa.” His face twisted. “Mama didn’t mean that Papa walked out on us. It wasn’t like that at all. Papa was organizing a water strike, up in The Dalles. That’s where we lived. Two men drove up to the house one day and shot him, right in the yard. Just shot him down in cold blood. Nita was right there with him. She saw it all.”

Run! Mama had screamed, but he hadn’t run.

The Bee Man was mad, now. Not scared any more. Mad. Like Alberto. Like Mama.

Nita twisted out of Alberto’s lax grip and ran. The Bee Man shouted something, but she closed her ears to it, dodged around a pile of vegetables. Green squashes went flying and a woman screeched at her. Nita ducked her head as she darted through the forest of shoulders and hips, pursued by flashes of surprise and irritation. Her eyes ached as she ran, dry as the riverbed.


The Bee Man followed her. In the breathless heat of late afternoon, Nita heard him call her name as she climbed up a narrow, twisting creekbed high in the folded mountains. Too late, she looked back and saw the footprint she had left in a damp patch of creekbed clay. The thunder that had awakened her last night had meant rain somewhere higher on the slopes, and the runoff had come, quick and violent, down this bed.

She hadn’t thought he would follow her. Nita shrugged her small pack higher on her shoulder and scrambled upward, toward the rim of the creekbed and drier ground where her tracks wouldn’t show. On the other side of these hills lay the sea. The Bee Man had said so. The full water jug that she had taken banged her shoulder painfully. He called to her again, his voice hoarse, as if he had been shouting for a long time.

“Nita? Come back! You can’t just run away like this. You’ll die out here.”

Not true. Nita ducked down into the hollow left by a wind-felled tree. The tilted mass of roots and sunbaked dirt roofed the torn earth, and she crouched in the cool shadow, catching her breath. She would live with the bees. The Bee Man had showed her how. The bees would find water for her. They would sing to her with the sound of the Bee Man’s peace. Nita swallowed, her throat tight, peeking down into the creekbed.

He wasn’t down in the creekbed. He had climbed the bank, too, appearing only a dozen yards away, circling around a rocky outcrop. Nita squeezed deeper into her hiding place, holding her breath.

“Nita?” He cupped his hands around his mouth, looking up the creekbed as he shouted. “Damn it, Nita. Don’t do this!”


It wasn’t his anger that she was hearing. Nita’s arms prickled with the memory of burning stings. Killers. Afraid to move, she peeked between the twisted roots of the old tree. There they were — a little farther along the side of the streambed. Nita’s heart beat faster at the sight of the bees darting in and out of a broken treetrunk. If she had gone on a little more, she would have walked right into them.


She flinched, her heart leaping. He was right beside her, on the other side of the roots. Nita squeezed her eyes closed, trying to make herself small, trying to become invisible, like she’d done in the unit, trying to hide.

The Bee Man wasn’t mad anymore, but he was still scared. Nita opened her eyes a crack. Papa had been scared like this, the day the men had come. Run, Mama had screamed, but he hadn’t run. He had looked at Nita, afraid, had scooped her up, tossed her behind the old pickup, where the men with the guns couldn’t see her.

The Bee Man hadn’t seen her. He had walked past her hiding place, was starting to climb down the side of the creekbed. Nita sucked in her breath, fear squeezing her. Rocks and pebbles, loosened by his feet, bounced down the slope. A few of them hit the killer bees’ treetrunk. Their song rose a notch and a small cloud of bees swirled into the air. The Bee Man saw them.

He looked, but he didn’t stop. He couldn’t hear their song. He didn’t know that they were killers. She scrambled to her feet, her head full of their harsh warning. In a moment, he would be too close.

You can die from too many stings, he had told her. “Stop,” she whispered, but he didn’t hear her. More bees swirled into the air, humming anger, humming death. “Stop!” she screamed.

He heard her, twisted around, his surprise flaring bright as lightning. A rock slid out from beneath his foot, and he staggered, struggling to stay on his feet. More rocks slid and he gave a cry, falling backward, rolling down the slope in a shower of dirt to slam into the killers’ tree trunk.

The killers boiled out of their nest. Nita cringed at their harsh song. All you could do was run, he had said.

“Run!” she screamed.

Hands covering his face, the Bee Man tried to get to his feet. He fell again and stared crawling away from the nest, too slow, too slow, yelling something as the bees swarmed over him.

The stings hurt him. It had hurt Papa to die.

Nita dropped her pack and scrambled down the slope. A killer stung her face. Their harsh song hammered at her and they settled on her, stinging, stinging, stinging. Nita stumbled, clawing at bees on her face, slapping at them, struggling with her fear.

Run! Mama had screamed. Why didn’t you run? I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!

The bees would kill the Bee Man.

“I hate you!” Nita screamed with Mama’s voice and rage flared up inside her, hot as flame. I hate you! Fists clenched at her sides, barely feeling the stings, she sang with the killers, louder and stronger, until her song was the killers’, until they hummed her note. Then, she lowered it, gentled it.

Slowly, reluctantly almost, the dark cloud of killers lifted, thinned away, back to their tree trunk. Nita scrambled down the slope. The Bee Man lay curled up in the dust and she clutched him, terrified that he wouldn’t move, that he would lie still and silent under her hands, like Papa had. She gasped in relief as he sat up, clutching at his leg.

“My ankle,” he gasped. “I thought . . . I hope it’s just twisted. Nita?” He wiped sweat out of his eyes, his face swollen with stings as he looked at the nest. “How did you do that? How did you drive them away?”

Nita licked her lips, struggling with stony words. “I . . . hear . . . their song,” she whispered. “I . . . sang with them.”

“You hear them?”

Abruptly, Nita leaned forward, kissed the Bee Man on the lips. For a moment, he crushed her against him, fingers digging hard into her back.

“Don’t.” He pushed her away.

“You’re scared,” Nita whispered. “Of me.”

“I’m not . . .” he began. Stopped. Sighed, and pulled her against him. Gently. “I know what people think . . . about you living up here with me. I don’t give a damn what anyone says, but I didn’t know . . . how I was going to start feeling. He stared down the dry creekbed, his face folded into harsh lines. “You can’t afford to care like that anymore.”

Scared. Of her. Nita sighed, feeling hollow inside, sick with the stings, or maybe from her rage-song to the bees. She touched her face, the face that reminded Mama of that day, every day, felt tears and mud beneath her fingers, the lumpy swelling of stings. “I was going to go live with the bees,” she said. “By myself. I can do that.”

He was struggling with his fear. Nita waited, all still inside, like an empty hive.

The Bee Man took a long, slow breath. “It scares me, how I feel about you. I’m forty and you’re a kid, and that scares me some, too.” He gave her a sideways look. “Can you feel me, too? Like you feel the bees?”

She nodded. Fear and desire, and under it all, beesong peace, like a layer of golden honey. A stalk of tiny, white blossoms poked up from the rocks at Nita’s feet; shooting stars, coaxed into quick bloom by the shower. Nita bent and picked it. Up on the bank, the killers sang their harsh song and she shivered, tasting fear of her own. “It’s all right,” she said. “You don’t have to run always.”

“It’s a lot safer to run,” the Bee Man said, but he took the stem of flowers from her and tucked it into her hair. “Will you tell me what the bees sound like?” he asked her softly.

“I will.” She took his hand.

This time, he didn’t pull away.

* * *

Back | Next