Featured Poem • December 2013

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The Girl Who Learned to Live
with Bees in Her Hair

 

Brigitte N. McCray

 
 

1. When she came to the dead tree near the Roanoke River, dark congregation of the hollowed out trunk buzzing with invitation, she did not mean to threaten the queen with her honeyed lips, the slender abdomen exposed by her striped sports bra, her own frenzied movement brought on by the music humming through iPod buds in her ears. She couldn’t detect the release of pheromone, and when the swarm suddenly flew near, the girl had no time to think of how to transform into an attacking bird. No need. The worker bees thought of her as their new queen and settled in and around her thick red hair. 2. At first, the girl ran faster and farther, alongside the river, over the embankment, the bees swarming behind her as if she were a rich source of energy to forage. Her legs cramped and her hips grew sore, and so, when she came to a shallow water spot, she halted. Her reflection: the top of her head alive, like a hundred mini-Christmas lights electrifying her brain. She sat then for hours on a river rock as the bees built their honeycomb, removing the fatty wax from the folds of their skins, their tiny feet kneading her scalp as if they were concerned, tension and anxiety knotty under their mandibles, and with the building up of cells, her body weighed sweet. 3. She learned to deal with small annoyances: teachers complaining about sticky essays and exams, her dates getting stung as they tried to kiss her goodnight, watery eyes and runny nose from the pollen-filled cells atop her head. 4. In return, honey daily dripped down, her tongue licking up before it reached her mouth, the substance seeing her through the years. In her forties, always carded, she was easily mistaken for the girl she once was, before her bees, in her early twenties. Other women begged to lick a bit of the sweetness from her cheeks. She would refuse, knowing that immortality’s cruelty is to live with endless shells of death: the bees’ life spans about five weeks, she would sit rocking on her front porch, waiting for the foragers, already beyond their prime, to return to her hair. She learned to sing ballads that eased the flutter of their tired wings. She spent days plucking the dead bees from her windowsill, where they were dropped by their fellow workers keeping their home clean. She kept the bodies in a shoebox under her bed, and, in the evening, before sleep, she would pull it out, plunging her hands in deep, the crunch of carcasses compelling her to whisper and whistle a soft, sad tune as the bits of fur prickled her taut skin. During the nights, honey slipping down her plastic-covered pillow, when the buzzing quieted and the hundreds of feet softened their movement, the woman dreamed of Tithonus, his babbling equal to her own tears.

 

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profile picBrigitte McCray’s poems, short stories, and essays have also appeared in Southern Humanities Review, storysouth.com, Red Rock Review, Timber Creek Review, The Journal of Homosexuality, Ecozon@, and The Explicator. She’s at work on Southern fantastic poems and short stories. Originally from Southern Appalachia, Brigitte currently teaches writing and literature in the Midwest.

About the origins of this poem, she says, “When I was a kid, we lived in an apartment at the Willow River complex in Salem, Va., which is near the Roanoke River. I remember playing outside one day and seeing a girl running on the embankment, a swarm of bees above her head. She fell. The bees flew away. People rushed to help her. An ambulance came. My mom said recently though that she doesn’t remember any of that. I wonder then if I dreamed the episode and it’s just stuck with me to the point that I believe it actually happened. A couple of months ago I had a dream that insects were crawling in my hair. It was so vivid that I woke up scratching my head. Creepy. But at least I knew how to write about the girl and those bees. I would like to thank my writing partner Ann Boaden and Mike Allen for their excellent feedback on the drafts of this poem.”

 

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