|The Words and the Bees|
Issue #25 (September 1983)
A beekeeper lived on a mountaintop, or so he believed. One day, looking down into the valley, admiring the thistlebloom roofs and snailtrack footpaths, envious of the medalions of cropland strung on the river's opened necklace, he asked himself: how do I know that I am looking down? So passed that murmurous day. In his honey-scented night, studying the constellations below, he thought: perhaps the villagers are looking down at me.
[quoteright]The beekeeper was puzzled, and wrote a letter to the village schoolmaster, the wisest man he knew. But now a problem presented itself. The postman rode a bicycle, and could distinctly be seen to pedal strenuously from the village to the mountaintop, them to coast effortlessly back to the village, his idle feet sticking out in mid-air, or spinning the pedals on their axes. The schoolmaster would laugh at him. Down was down, up was up.
Discouraged, he tore his letter into many tiny pieces. Or so he believed. Had he really? If not, what were these white flakes, like cantons swept from their map by an avalanche? The question struck him as fair: what were they? He realized with some relief that, strictly speaking, he did not know. A moment ago he had seemed to remember tearing up the letter. But even if he had torn up the letter, could it be proved that these were its scraps? One might, the beekeeper thought unhappily, straightening and curling his fingers -- despite many stings he had long been arthritic - manage to reassemble them. But that re- felt rubbery, a trick link. Assembling a letter from the scraps would not prove that the scraps had originally been the letter.
Encouraged, the beekeeper entered his hut and prepared his evening meal, for he was suddenly hungry, or so he believed. Chewing more and more slowly on a loaf-end of black bread smeared with honey, he realized that it was possible he was not hungry at all, indeed, that he had never been hungry in his life. Hunger was an idea that he had failed to examine. Yes, he had certain sensations in what he took to be his body. Say it really was his body, and say these feelings were no phantoms - what them? How could he know that his body was urging him specifically to eat? One could not, if fact, interpret any sign with such confidence.
This realization made his food seem to thicken in his mouth - "seem" is good, he thought -- and he spat it out, realizing that it might well be for this purpose that he had taken it into his mouth in the first place.
Then he lay down on his pallet and watched the clouds and sky chase each other across his single window, unless, as was possible, his hut was moving the other way. The sky grew dark, or else the single lamp in the hut grew brighter. The beekeeper lay still. If his body was not heating up, the night was growing colder. He seemed to remember that on such nights in the past he had lit a fire and covered himself with great thicknesses of quilt -- a naive coupling of cause and effect that struck him, as his shallow breath turned to crystals in his beard, as the perfect error to have now left behind.
The next day was calm and sunny. His bees were in the air as soon as their wings had warmed through. The last of the nectar had dried up with the start of the nightly frosts, but there was still pollen to be gathered. The bees knew in their great eyes, in their busy antennae, they knew in their complicated mouths, that they must fill their food chambers before everything died in winter.
The only one who knew this in his brain, however, was one young drone who was exceptionally intelligent. He had the fullest confidence in his idea. But he was wise enough, after one or two attempts had led to endless explanation, to say nothing about it to anyone.
Writer Jonathan Penner won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize for his latest book, Private Parties. Now, to top it all off, he has finally made the pages of The Ecphorizer!