Kij Johnson

At the mouth of the River of Bees

This story was first published on Scifi.com's SciFiction site, and reprinted in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Seventeenth Annual Collection.

It starts with a bee sting. Linna exclaims at the sudden sharp pain. At her voice, her dog Sam lifts his head where he has settled his aging body on the sidewalk in front of the flower stand.

Sucking at the burning place, Linna looks down at the bouquet in her hand, a messy arrangement of anemone and something loose-jointed with tiny white flowers, dill maybe. The flowers are days or weeks from anywhere that might have bees. But she sees the bee, dead or dying on the pale yellow petal of one of the flowers.

She tips the bouquet to the side. The bee slides from the petal to the ground. Sam leans his dark head over and eats it.

Back in her apartment, she plucks the stinger from her hand with a tweezer. It's clear that she's not going to die of the sting or even swell up much, though there's a white spot that weeps clear fluid and still hurts, still burns. She looks out the windows of her apartment: a gray sky, gray pavement and sidewalks and buildings, trees so dark they might as well be black. The only colors are those on signs and cars.

"Let's go, Sam," she says to the German shepherd. "Let's take a road trip. We need a change, don't we?"

 

Linna really only intended to cross the Cascades, go to Leavenworth, maybe as far as Ellensburg and then home—but now it's Montana. She drives as fast as the little Subaru will go, the purple highway drawing her east. Late sun floods the car. The honey-colored light flattens the brush and rock of the badlands into abrupt gold and violet, shapes as unreal as a hallucination. It's late May and the air is hot and dry during the day, the nights cold with the memory of winter. She hates the air-conditioner so she doesn't use it, and the air thrumming in the open window smells like hot dust and metal and, distant as a dream, ozone and rain. Her hand still burns. She absently sucks on the sting as she drives.

There are thunderheads ahead, perhaps as far away as North Dakota. Lightning flashes through the honey-and-indigo clouds, a sudden silent flicker of white so bright that it is lilac. Linna eyes the clouds. She wants to drive through the night, wonders whether she will drive through rain, or scurry untouched beneath their pregnant gravitas.

The distance between Seattle and her present location is measured in time, not miles. It has been two days since she left Seattle, hours since she left Billings. Glendive is still half an hour ahead. Linna thinks she might stop there, get something to eat, let Sam stretch his legs. She's not sure where she's going or why (her mind whispers east, toward sunrise, and then my folks live in Wisconsin; that's where I'm going, but she knows neither are the true answer). Still, the road feels good; Sam sleeping in the back seat is good.

A report would say traffic is light, an overstatement. In the past twenty minutes, she has seen exactly two vehicles going her way on the interstate. Ten minutes ago she passed a semi with the word Covenant on the side. And just a moment ago, a rangy Montana State Patrol SUV swept past at a hundred miles an hour to her eighty-five, its lights flashing. Sam heaved upright and barked once as the siren Dopplered past. Linna glances into her mirror: he's asleep again, loose-boned across the back seat.

Linna comes over a small hill to see emergency lights far ahead: red, blue, a purple-white bright as lightning. The patrol SUV blocks the freeway. There are six cars stopped in the lanes behind it, obedient as cows waiting to file into the barn. The sun is too low behind her to light the dip in the highway ahead of the cars, and the air there seems dark.

Sam wakes up and whines when the car slows. Linna stops next to a night-blue Ford, an Explorer. The other drivers and the state trooper are out of their cars, so she turns off the Subaru's engine. It has run, with occasional stops for gas and food and dog walks and a half-night of sleep snatched at a Day's Inn in Missoula, for two days, so the silence is deafening. The wind that parched Linna's skin and hair is gone. The air is still and warm as dust, and spicy with asphalt and sage.

Linna lifts Sam from the back seat, places him on the scrub grass of the median. He would have been too heavy to carry last year, but his muscles atrophy as his spine fuses, and he's lost a lot of weight. Sam stretches painfully, a little urine dribbling. He can't help this; the nerves are being pinched. Linna has covered the back seat of the Subaru with a waterproof tarp and a washable blanket; she's careful when she takes corners, not wanting him to slide.

Whatever else he is (in pain; old; dying), Sam is still a dog. He hobbles to a shrub with tiny flowers pale as ghosts in the gloom, and sniffs it carefully before marking. He can no longer lift his leg, so he squats beside it.

The only sunlight Linna can still see fades, honey to rust, on the storm clouds to the east. The rest of the world is dim with twilight: ragged outlines of naked rock, grass and brush stained imperfect grays. A pickup pulls up behind her car and, a moment later, the Covenant truck beside it. Another patrol vehicle blocks the westbound lanes, but its light bar seems much too dim, perhaps a reflection of the sky's dying light. If time is the measure for distance, then dusk can be a strange place.

Linna clips Sam onto his leash and loops it over her wrist. Rubbing at her sore hand, she walks to the patrol SUV. The people standing there stare at the road to the east, but there's nothing to see, only darkness.

Linna knows suddenly that this is not twilight or shadows. The air over the road truly is flowing darkness, like ink dropped in moving water. "What is that?" she asks the patrolman, who is tall with very white skin and black hair. Sam pulls to the end of his leash, ears and nose aimed at the darkness.

"The Bee River is currently flooding east- and westbound lanes of 94, ma'am," the patrolman says. Linna nods: all the rivers here seem to have strange names: Tongue River, Automatic Creek. "We'll keep the road closed until it's safe to pass again, which—"

"The freeway's closed?" A man holds a cell phone. "You can't do that! They never close."

"They do for floods and blizzards and ice-storms," the patrolman says. "And the Bee River."

"But I have to get to Bismarck tonight!" The man's voice shakes; he's younger than he looks.

"That's not going to be possible," the trooper says. "Your options would be Twelve and Twenty, and they're blocked. Ninety's okay, but you'll have to backtrack. It's going to be a day or two before anyone can head east here. Town of Terry's just a couple of miles back, and you might be able to find lodging there. Otherwise, Miles City is about half an hour back."

Linna watches the seething darkness, finally hears what her engine-numbed ears had not noticed before: the hum, reminding her of summers growing up in Wisconsin, hives hot in the sun. "Wait," she says: "It's all bees. That is a river of bees."

A woman in a green farm coat laughs. "Of course it is. Where you from?"

"Seattle," Linna says. "How can there be a river of bees?" Someone new arrives and the patrolman turns to him, so the woman in the green coat answers.

"Same way there's a river of anything else, I suppose. It happens sometimes in June, July, late May sometimes, like now. The river wells up, floods a road or runs through a ranch yard."

"But it's not water," Linna says. Sam pushes against her knees. His aching spine stiffens up quickly; he wants to move around.

"Nope. Nice dog." The woman waggles her fingers at Sam, who pushes his head beneath them. "What's wrong with him?"

"Spinal fusion," Linna says. "Arthritis, other stuff."

"That's not good. Not much they can do, is there? We used to raise shepherds. Lot of medical problems."

"He's old." Linna suddenly stoops to wrap an arm around his ribcage, to feel his warmth and the steady thumping of his heart.

The woman pats him again. "Well, he's a sweetie. Me and Jeff are going to turn back to Miles City, try to get a room and call Shelly—that's our daughter—from there. You?"

"I'm not sure."

"Don't wait too long to decide, hon. The rooms fill fast."

Linna thanks her and watches her return to their pickup. Headlights plunging, it feels its cautious way across the median to the other lanes. Other cars are doing the same, and a straggling row of tail lights heads west.

Some vehicles stay. "Might as well," says the man with the Covenant truck. He is homely, heavyset; but his eyes are nice as he smiles at Linna and Sam. "Can't turn the rig around anyhow, and I want to see what a river of bees looks like with the light on it. Something to tell the wife." Linna smiles back. "Nice pup," he adds, and scratches Sam's head. Leaning heavily against Linna's leg, Sam stands patiently through it, like a tired but polite child through the cooings of adults.

She walks Sam back to the Subaru and feeds him on the grass, pouring fresh water into a plastic bowl and offering food and a Rimadyl for the pain. He drinks the water thirstily while she plays with his ears. When he's done, she lifts him carefully onto the back seat, lays her face against his head. He's already dozing when she rolls his window down and returns to the river of bees.

A patrol car has rolled up the outside shoulder. Now it's parked beside the SUV, and a second officer has joined the first. Lit by their headlights, the young man with the cell phone still pleads. "I don't have a choice, officers."

"I'm sorry, sir," the patrolman says.

The man turns to the other officer, a small woman with dark hair in an unruly braid stretching halfway down her back. "I have a Ford Explorer. This—river—is only twenty, thirty feet wide, right? Please."

The patrolwoman shrugs, says, "Your call, Luke."

The patrolman sighs. "Fine. Sir, if you insist on trying this—"

"Thank you," the man says, and his voice shakes again.

"—I have a winch on the patrol vehicle. We'll attach it to your rear axle, so I can pull you out of trouble if you stall partway. Otherwise unhook it on the other side, and I'll drag it back. Keep all vents and windows closed, parking lights only. Tap your brakes if you need a pull. As slow as the truck will go. And I am serious, sir: the river is dangerous."

"Yes, of course," the man says. "I'm really grateful, Officer Tabor."

"All right then," the patrolman, Tabor, says, and sighs again. He talks into the radio on his shoulder, "Tim, I've got someone who's going to try and crawl through. I've warned him of the dangers, but his wife's in the hospital in North Dakota, he really wants to try. If he gets through, can you make sure he's okay?" Indecipherable squawks. "Right, then."

Linna and the Covenant driver (his name is John, he tells her as they wait, John Backus, from Iowa City originally, now near Nashville, trucking for twelve years, his wife Jo usually comes along, but she's neck-deep in preparations for the oldest's wedding—and on and on) watch the huge Ford roll forward, trailing cable like a dog on an inertia-reel leash. Barely lit by its parking lights, the truck inches onto, into the dark patch of highway. Blackness curls like smoke, drifts over the truck. The SUV revs its engine for a moment and then dies. Brake lights tap on, and Tabor sighs a third time, sets the winch in motion, and pulls the truck back.

The air is cold, the sky moonless but bright with stars. To warm herself, Linna walks along the line of cars and trucks. People doze across their front seats, or read or talk or play cards under dome lights. Engines purr, running heaters, and the air is sweet with exhaust, an oddly comforting smell. An older couple sit in lawn chairs by their parked RV; the woman offers Linna a styrofoam cup of coffee and the chance to use their bathroom. Linna accepts gratefully, but refuses their offer to sleep on the couch.

She does not think she'll be able to sleep. Stars pace across the sky, their dim light somehow deeper than blackness, and yet too bright to sleep through. A coyote, or perhaps a dog, barks once, a long way away. Back at the car, Linna watches Sam chase something in his sleep, paws twitching in the rhythm of running. Live forever, she thinks, and wills his twisted spine and legs straight and well. It doesn't happen.

 

It is very cold, and the sky through the windshield is the color of freshwater pearls. Linna wakes, blinks, and remembers. There is half a cup of coffee on the floor of the passenger seat. It's cold and acidic, but the familiar bitterness anchors her. Sam is still sleeping: he never liked morning, and they moved to mountain time as they drove yesterday, so whatever time it is (4:53, the dashboard clock tells her when she looks), it is really an hour earlier. Once out of the car, she stretches. Her eyes are sticky and her back aches, but the time before dawn is a strange land to her, and she finds herself surprisingly happy.

She walks to the patrol SUV. Tabor sits with the door open, drinking directly from a thermos. "Coffee," he says. "Still hot. Want some? I lost the cup, though."

She takes the steel cylinder. The smaller patrol car and its driver are gone, as are the big Ford and the distraught young man. "What happened to the guy who had to get to his wife?"

"We scraped all the bees off the air intakes, and got the car running again. He drove back to Ninety. It's adding three, four hundred miles, but he's going to try and go around."

Linna nods and drinks. The coffee is hot, and it warms her to her toes. "Oh," she says with delight: "That's good." She returns the thermos.

"You get stung last night?" Tabor has seen the white spot on her hand.

She rubs it and laughs a little, oddly embarrassed. "No, right before I left Seattle. And now here's a river of them. Small world," she says and looks toward the fog collected in the dip.

"Hmm," Tabor says, and drinks off some of the coffee. Then: "Listen for it," Tabor says.

Linna listens. The SUV's idling engine throbs. A car door clicks open, far back in the line. There's no wind, no whispering grass or rubbing leaves. There is a humming, barely audible. "That's them." She whispers, as if her voice might disrupt the noise.

"Yeah," he says. "The fog is clearing. Look."

She walks a little toward where the river should be, will be. "No closer," Tabor behind her warns, and she stops. A tiny breeze brushes her cheek. Mist recoils, and patches of darkness show through: asphalt black with sleeping bees. And then something else.

The sky lightens, turns from pearl to lavender to blue. The clouds are gone and the eastern horizon glows. The fog retreats. There is the river.

The river is a dark mist like the shifting of a flock of flying starlings, like a pillar of gnats over a highway in hot August dusk, like a million tiny fish changing direction. South to north, the river runs like cooling lava, like warm molasses. It might be eight feet deep, though in places it is much less, in others much more. It changes as she watches.

The river of bees streams as far as she can see. Off to the south, it flows off a butte beside the freeway and across the road, down into the river bed of the Yellowstone, then pours up over the side of a gully to the north and west. As she watches, then sleeping bees wake and lift to join the deepening river. The buzz grows louder.

"Oh," she says in wonder. Tabor stands beside her now, but she cannot look away. "Where does it begin?" she says at last. "Where does it end?"

He is slow answering. She knows he is as trapped in its weird beauty as she. "No one knows," he says: "Or no one says. My dad used to tell me tales, but I don't suppose he understood it, either. Maybe there's a spring of bees somewhere, and it sinks underground somewhere else. Maybe the bees gather, do this thing and then go home. There's no ocean of bees, anyway, not that anyone's ever found."

Others join them, talking in loud and then hushed voices; there are flashbulbs and video cameras—"not that the pictures ever come out," a voice grumbles. This is peripheral. Linna watches the bees. The sun rises, a cherry blur that shrinks and resolves as it pulls away from the horizon. Pink-gold light pours into the hollow. The river quickens and grows. People watch for a time and then walk back to their cars, sated with wonder. She hears their voices grow louder as they move away, conversations full of longing for coffee and breakfast and hot showers and flush toilets; they comfort themselves with the ordinary.

Linna does not move until she hears Sam bark once, the want-to-go-out-now bark. Even then, she walks backward, watching the river of bees.

 

"This is going to sound strange," Linna says to Tabor.

She walked Sam until his joints loosened and he no longer dragged his hind legs. She exchanged pleasantries with the man from the Covenant truck, though now she remembers nothing but his expression, oddly distant and sad as he watched her rub her hand. She drank orange spice tea and ate a fried-egg sandwich when the woman at the RV offered them, and used the little stainless steel bathroom again. The woman's husband was cooking. He flipped an egg to the ground between Sam's feet. Sam ate it tidily and then smiled up at the cook. Linna spoke at random, listening for the bees' hum. "Excuse me," she remembers saying to the couple, interrupting something. "I have to go now." She has led Sam back to the patrol SUV, and says:

"This is going to sound strange."

"Not as strange as you probably think," Tabor says. He's typing something into the computer keyboard in his vehicle. "Let me guess: you're going to follow the river."

"Can I?" she says, her heart leaping. She knows he shouldn't know this, shouldn't have guessed; knows she won't be allowed, but she asks anyway.

"Can't stop you. There's the River, and then I saw the sting and I knew. My dad—he was a trooper, back twenty and more years ago. He told me it happens like this sometimes. There's always a bee sting, he said. Let me see your car."

She leads Tabor back to the Subaru, lifts Sam into the back seat. The trooper makes her open the back hatch, sees the four gallon jugs of water there. "Good. What about food?" She shows him what she has, forty pounds of dog food (she bought it two weeks ago, as if it were a charm to make Sam live long enough to eat it all, but she knows it won't work out that way) and two boxes of granola bars. "Gas?" She has most of a tank: just under two hundred miles' worth, maybe. "Get some, next time you're near a road," Tabor says. "Subaru, that's good," he adds, "but you don't have much clearance in an Outback. Be careful when you're off-road."

"I won't go off-road," Linna says. "There's just too much that can go wrong."

"Yes, you will," Tabor says. "I've heard about this. You'll follow the river to its mouth, whatever and wherever that is. I can't stop you, but at least I can make sure you don't get into trouble on the way."

Tabor brings her a heavy canvas bag from his SUV. "This is sort of an emergency kit," he says. "My dad put it together before he retired. We've been keeping it at the base ever since. Got the report and hauled it down with me, figuring someone might show up needing it. Heavy gloves, snake-bite kit, wire, some other stuff."

"Do people get back?" Linna says.

Tabor unzips the bag a few inches, drops a business card in. "Don't know. But when you get wherever it is, you're going to send all this gear back to me. Or leave it. Or—" he pauses, looks again at the river.

She laughs, suddenly ashamed. "How can you be so calm about this? I know this is all insane, and I'm still doing it, but you—"

"This is Montana, ma'am," Tabor says. "Good luck."

The aqua clock says 6:08, and sun is only two hands above the horizon when Linna puts the Subaru into gear and eases across the median.

 

Linna is lucky at first. The exit to Terry and its bridge across the Yellowstone is only a couple of miles back, and she learns her first lesson about following the river. She doesn't have to see the river of bees because she can taste its current in the air as it pulls her north and west. Terry is a couple of gas stations and fast-food places, a handful of trailers and farmhouses, everything shaded by cottonwoods, their leaves a harsh silver-green when the wind moves through them.

Her second lesson: the river tells her where to go. There is only one road out of Terry, but there is no chance she might make a mistake and take another. She stops long enough to buy gas and road-food and breakfast, and eats in the car on her way out of town. Sam is interested, of course, so she feeds him a hash-brown cake by holding it over her shoulder. Soft lips lift the cake from her hand. The vet would not be pleased, but she's not here, and Linna and Sam are.

The road is two empty lanes of worn pavement threading through soft-edged badlands, following a dry streambed. She knows the bees are a mile or two to the east. Gravel roads branch off to the north from time to time. She longs to take them, to see the bees again, but she knows the roads will taper off, end in a farmyard or turn abruptly in the wrong direction. It will be many miles before she reaches the river's mouth. These roads will not take her there.

The road changes from worn to worse, and then decays to gravel. Linna slows and slows again. The sun that pours in the passenger windows loses its rosy glow as it climbs. The only traffic she sees is a single ancient tractor that might once have been orange, heading into town. The old man driving it wears a red hat. He salutes her with a thermos cup. She salutes with her own cup of fast-food coffee. The dust he's raised pours into the car until she rolls the windows closed.

When she crosses the mouth of a little valley, Linna can just see the bees. She stops there to walk and water Sam and to drink stale water from one of the jugs. The cooling engine ticks a few times then leaves her in the tiny hissing of the wind in the grasses. The river of bees cannot be heard from here, but she feels the humming in her bones, like true love or cancer.

She opens the bag that Tabor gave her, and finds the things he mentioned, and others besides: wire-cutters and instructions for mending barbed wire; a Boy Scout manual from the '50s; flares; a spade; a roll of toilet paper that smells of powdered paper; tweezers and a magnifying glass and rubbing alcohol; stained, folded geological survey maps of eastern Montana; a spare pair of socks; bars of chocolate and water purification tablets; a plastic star map of the northern hemisphere in summertime—and a note. Do not damage anything permanently. Close any gates you open—mend any fences you cut—Cattle, tractors and local vehicles receive right of way—Residents mostly know about the river. They'll allow you to pass through their property so long as you don't break the fences. It was signed: Richard Tabor. Officer Tabor's father, then.

 

In another small town—the sign says Brockway—the road tees into another dusty two-lane, this one going east-west. She finds a gravel road heading north and west, but it turns unexpectedly and eventually leaves her in a ranch yard in an eddy of barking dogs, Sam yelling back. The next road she tries turns east, then north, then east again. The gravel that once covered it is long gone. The Subaru humps its way through gullies and potholes. She drives over a rise, and the river streams in front of her, blocking off the road.

She's close enough to see individual bees but only for an instant before they drop back into the texture of the river. Brownian motion: she can see the bee but she cannot see the motion; or she sees the current but not the bees.

What am I doing? she asks herself. She is fifty miles off the freeway, following hypothetical roads through an empty land in pursuit of something beautiful but impossible and so very dangerous. This is when she learns the third lesson: she cannot help doing this. She backtracks to find a better road, but she keeps slewing around to look behind her as if she has left something behind; and she cries as she drives. The tears are bitter when she tastes them.

So she threads her way across eastern Montana, gravel to dirt to cracked tar to dirt, always north, always west. Sometimes she's in sight of the river; more often it's only a nagging in her mind, saying follow me. She drives past ranches and ruined lonely barns, past a church of silver wood with daylight shining through its walls. She drives across an earthen dam, a narrow paved ridge between afternoon sunlight on water and a small town straggling under cottonwoods, far below what would be water level if it weren't for the dam. She crosses streams and dry runs with strange names: Powder Creek, Milk River; when she slows on the narrow bridges to look down, she does not see powder or milk, just water or nothing. Only the river of bees is what it claims to be.

When she crosses U.S. Highway 2, Linna stops for a while in Nashua. Sam is asleep, adrift in Rimadyl. She parks in the shade and leaves her windows open, and sits under the comforting glare of fluorescent lights in a McDonald's, stirring crushed ice in a waxed cup. Conversations wash over her. Their words are strange as a foreign language after the hours alone: the river of bees (which blocks Highway 2 less than a mile east of town); feline asthma; rubber flip-flops for the twins; Jake's summer job canning salmon in Alaska.

The bees pour north. The roads Linna follows grow even sketchier. The Subaru is four-wheel drive and set fairly high, but it lurches through potholes and washouts, scraping its undercarriage. No longer asleep, Sam pants in her ear until Linna slows to a crawl. Once the car seems to walk over the stones in its way Sam relaxes a little, sits back down. The sun crawls west and north, scalding Linna's arm and neck and cheek. She thinks sometimes of using the air conditioner but she finds she cannot. The dust, the heat, the sun, are all part of driving to the river's mouth. Sam seems not to mind the heat, though he slurps thirstily through almost a gallon of water.

Linna is able to stay close enough to the river that individual bees sometimes stray into an open window. Black against sun-gold and dust-white, they inscribe intricate calligraphy in the air. Linna cannot read their messages.

 

Linna stops when the violet twilight starts to hide things from her. She parks on a ridge, under a single ragged tree that makes the air sharp with juniper. Thinking of snakes, she walks Sam carefully, but it is growing dark and cold and only the hot-blooded creatures remain awake. A bat, or perhaps a swift or a small owl veers overhead with the almost inaudible whirring of wings. A coyote barks; Sam pricks his ears but does not respond, except to urinate on a shrub he has been smelling.

She does not sleep well that night. At one point, great snorting animals surround the Subaru for what seems hours, occasionally bumping into it as they pass. Sam is as awake as she. At first she thinks they're bears, that she has stumbled somehow upon a river of bears (and why not? the world that contains a river of bees may contain a thousand wonders), but starlight shows they are steers. For some reason they are not asleep but travel under the spinning sky, toward water or away from something or out of simple restlessness. Still, she cannot sleep until they are long gone, no more than a memory of shuffling and grunts.

 

It is past dawn when Linna brings herself to admit she won't be sleeping any more. After the steers passed she couldn't stop shivering, so she crawled awkwardly over the front seats to curl up with Sam, pulling his soft blanket over them both. Now his spine presses against her thigh, each bone sharp as a juniper knurl. He smells of stale urine and sickness, but also of himself. She eases away for a moment, presses her face to his shoulder and inhales deeply, feeling his muskiness work its way into her lungs, her blood and bones.

People have smells like this, smells that she has collected to herself and stored in the memory of her body; but Sam is special, has been part of her life for longer than anyone but parents and siblings. She has friends and has had lovers, though lately she has grown to love her solitude. For the first time, she thinks that perhaps she should have stayed on the road, closer to where veterinarians and their bright clean buildings live; but she has enough Rimadyl to kill Sam if he needs it, and death is the only gift she or anyone can give him now.

At last she climbs out of the car, stretches in the surprising simultaneous sensations of cold air and sun's warmth. "Come on, pup, " she says aloud. Her voice startles her; it's the first she's heard since Nashua—yesterday, was it? It seems longer. Sam staggers upright and she lifts him to the ground. He creeps a few steps and then urinates, creeps a few more and pauses to smell a tuft of something yellow-green. She doesn't bother with the leash; he's not going to run away—as if he could run anywhere, anymore.

The river hums along perhaps a hundred yards away, broader and slower now. Bees stray from its course; Linna can see individuals as she squats to urinate, grateful again for the toilet paper in the kit the officer, Tabor, gave her. Something wild and sweet-smelling grows all around her; it might be lavender, though she thinks of lavender as something polite and domesticated, all about freshly ironed sheets and bath salts and tussie-mussies. Bath salts: she sniffs her armpits as she squats and then recoils. Well, dogs like stink; perhaps Sam will enjoy this new, pungent her.

The straying bees explore the flowers around her, spiraling and arrowing like electrons in a cloud chamber. One lands on her stung hand where it rests on her knee as she crouches. The slight touch of its legs might be no more than an imagined tickle if she did not see its stocky, velvety bulk. It's the Classic bee: yellow-and-black striped, small-bodied, dark transparent wings folded tidily. It strokes the air with tiny feelers, then leans its head over and touches its mouth to the white spot on her hand, as if tasting her. For a dizzying moment she wonders if it's going to snap her up the way Sam snapped up the bee that gave her the sting back in Seattle.

Behind her, Sam gives a yelp, all surprise and pain. Linna whirls around and feels a drop of her urine splash against her knee as she stands, and a hot sharp shock to her hand—a bee sting.

"Sam?" she shouts and stumbles forward, dragging her pants up, suddenly feverish with panic or the sting. She knows he's going to die, but not yet, her mind tells her. Too soon.

Sam limps to her, a comical look of distress on his face. She's reassured. She's seen this expression before, and it doesn't mesh with grandiose fears. She folds to her knees beside him (lightheaded or concerned) and looks at the paw he's lifting. She sees the tiny barb against a pale patch of skin on his pad. She finds herself laughing hysterically as she removes the stingers, first from his paw and then from her hand. Officer Tabor's father knew what he was doing.

 

Linna has not driven more than five miles an hour since awakening, though these terms—mile, hour—seem irrelevant. It might be better or more accurate to say she has driven down forty little canyons and back up thirty of them, and crossed twelve ridges and two surprising meadows, softly sloped as any Iowa corn field and spangled with flowers that are small and very blue—time measured as distance. She thinks perhaps she's crossed into Canada, but there's been nothing to indicate this. She's running low on water, and is tired of granola bars, but she hasn't seen anything that looked like a town since Nashua.

The trail she follows is a winding cow or deer path. She keeps one set of tires on the track and hopes for the best, which works well as long as she goes slowly enough. She keeps inspecting where the bee stung her earlier: there is an angry swelling across her hand, centered on a weeping white spot, half an inch from the first. What is half an inch, if measured in time? Linna doesn't know, but she worries over the question, as if there might be an answer.

Since the sting the light has seemed very bright to her, and her hand is by turns hot and cold. She wonders whether she should turn around and try to find a hospital (where? how can she know when she measures distance by event?). But the calligraphy of the bees hovers; she is just on the edge of making sense of it; she is reluctant to give this up.

The Subaru grinds to a stop in a gully, too deep to cross. Linna feels the river: close, it says, so close; so she lifts Sam out and they walk on. He is very slow. There are bees everywhere, like spray thrown from a mountain stream. They rest on her hands and tickle her face with their feather-tip feet, but she is not stung again. Sam watches them, puffs air at one that clings to the silver-furred leaves of a plant. They cross a little ridge and then a second one, and there is the mouth of the river of bees.

The bees pool in a grassy basin. As she watches, the river empties a thousand—a million—more into the basin, but the level never changes, and she never sees bees leave. It is as if they sink into the ground, into some secret ocean.

She knows she is hallucinating, because at the bank of the pool of bees is an unwalled tent hung with tassels and fringe. Six posts hold a white silk roof; the sunlight through it is intimate, friendly. And because this is a hallucination, Linna approaches without fear, Sam beside her, his ears pricked forward.

 

Linna cannot later say whether the creature under the tent was a woman or a bee, though she is sure this is the queen of the bees, as sure as she is of death and sunlight. She knows that—if the creature was a woman—she had honey-colored eyes and hair, with silver streaks glinting in both. And if the creature was a bee, her faceted eyes were deep as Victorian jet, and her voice held a thousand tones at once.

But it's easier to think of the queen of the bees as a woman. The woman's skin glows honey-colored against her white gown. Her hands are very long and slender, with almond-shaped nails; they pour tea and arrange cakes on plates ornamented with pink roses. For a disconcerting moment, Linna sees long, slim black legs arrange the cakes and blinks the image back to hands. Yes, definitely easier to think of her as a woman. "Please," the queen of the bees says. "Join me."

In the shade of the awning are folding chairs draped with white fringed shawls. Linna sinks into one, takes a cup, thin as eggshell, and sips. Its contents are warm and clearly tea, but they are also cooling and sweet, and fill her with a sudden happiness. She watches the queen of the bees place a saucer filled with the tea on the ground beside Sam (a thousand dark facets reflect his face: no. Simple gold eyes, caught in a mesh of laugh lines fine as thread that smile down at him). He drinks it thirstily, grins up at the woman.

"What is his name?" the woman says. "And yours?"

"Sam," says Linna. "I'm Linna."

The woman gives no name for herself, but gestures to her skirts as they swirl around her ankles. A small cat with long gray and white fur and startling blue eyes sits against one foot. "This is Belle."

"You have a cat," Linna says. Of all the things she has seen today, this somehow seems the strangest.

The woman reaches down a hand, and Belle walks over to sniff them. Belle's fur is thick, but it doesn't conceal how thin she is. Linna can see the bumps of her spine in sharp outline. "She's very old now. Dying."

"I understand," Linna says softly. She meets the woman's eyes, sees herself reflected in their gold, their black depths.

Silence between them stretches, defined by the eternal unchanging humming of the river of bees, filled with the scent of sage and grass in the sun. Linna drinks her tea and eats a cake, which is gold and sweet. Across from her the bee's body glows brilliantly in the silk-muted sun.

Linna holds out the injured hand. "Did you do this?"

"Let me mend that for you." The woman touches Linna's hand where the two stings burn, the old one awakened by its new neighbor. The pain is there, under fingers that flicker soft as antennae, and then it is not.

Linna inspects her hand. The white spots are gone. Linna's mind is as clear as the dry air, but she knows this is an illusion. She must still be having some sort of reaction, or everything—the tent, the woman, the lake of bees—would be gone. "Could you heal your cat like this?"

"No." The woman bends to pick up Belle, who curls up in her thin black insect's legs. Belle's blue eyes blink up at the face of the queen of the bees. "I cannot stop death, only postpone it for a time."

Linna's mouth is suddenly dry. "Can you heal Sam? Make him run again?" She leans over to touch Sam's ruff. The blood rushing to her head turns everything red for a moment.

"Perhaps." The woman's voice is melodious, with a humming in its tones that Linna decides to ignore. "I hope that you and I will talk a while. It's been many years since I had someone to talk to, since the man who brought me Belle. She couldn't eat. Her jaw—" the cat purrs and presses her head against the bee's black thorax "—it was ruined, a cancer. He walked the last day, after his old car gave up, carrying her. We talked for a time, and then he gave her to me and left. So long ago, now."

"What was his name?" Linna thinks of a canvas bag back in the Subaru, filled with all the right things.

"Tabor," she says. "Richard Tabor."

 

And so they talk, eating cakes and drinking tea under the silk awning of the queen of the bees. Linna recalls certain things, but cannot later say whether they are hallucinations, or stories she was told or told herself, or things she did not speak of but experienced. She remembers the taste of sage pollen, bright and smoky on what might be her tongue, or might be her imagination. They talk of (or visit, or dream of) countless infants, creamy smooth and packed safe in their close cribs; small towns in the middle of nowhere; great cities, towers and highways seething with urgent activity. They talk of (or visit, or dream of) great tragedies—disaster, whole races destroyed by disease or cruelty or misfortune—and small ones, drizzly days and mislaid directions and dirt and vermin. Later, Linna cannot recall which stories or visions or dreams were about people and which were about bees.

The sun eases into the west; its light crawls onto the table. It touches the black forefoot of the queen of the bees, and she stands and stretches, then gathers Belle into her arms. "I must go."

Linna stands as well, and notices for the first time that the river is gone, leaving only the lake of bees, and even this is smaller than it was. "Can you heal Sam?" she says suddenly.

"He cannot stay with you and stay alive." The woman pauses, as if choosing her words. "If you and Sam chose, he could stay with me."

"Sam?" Linna puts down her cup carefully, trying to conceal her suddenly shaking hands. "I can't give him to anyone. He's old, he's too sick. He needs pills." She slips from her seat to the dry grass beside Sam. He struggles to his feet, and presses his face against her chest, as he has since he was a puppy.

The queen of the bees looks down at them both, stroking Belle absently. The cat purrs and presses against the bee's black-velvet thorax. Faceted eyes reflect a thousand images back to Linna, her arms around a thousand Sams.

"He's mine. I love him, and he's mine." Linna's chest hurts.

"He's Death's now," the woman says. "Unless he stays with me."

Linna bends her face to his ruff, smells the warm living scent of him. "Let me stay with him, then. With you." She looks up at the queen of the bees. "You want company, you said so."

The black heart-shaped head tips back. "No. To be with me is to have no one."

"There'd be Sam. And the bees."

"Would they be enough for you? A million million subjects, ten thousand million lovers, all as interchangeable and mindless as gloves? No friends, no family, no one to pull the sting from your hand?"

Linna's eyes drop, unable to bear the woman's fierce face, proud and searingly alone.

"I will love Sam with all my heart," the queen of the bees continues, in a voice soft as a hum. "Because I will have no one else."

Sam has rolled to his side, waiting patiently for Linna to remember to scratch him. He loves, her, she knows, but he wants his stomach scratched. Live forever, she thinks suddenly, and wills his twisted spine and legs straight and well.

"All right then," Linna whispers.

The queen of the bees exhales, and sweet breath blows across Linna's face. Belle makes a tired cranky noise, a sort of question. "Yes, Belle," the woman says. "You can go now." She touches her with what might be a long white hand. Belle sighs once and is still.

"Will you—?" the queen of the bees asks.

"Yes." Linna stands, takes the cat from her black arms. The body is light as wind. "I will bury her."

"Thank you." The queen of the bees kneels, and places long hands on either side of the dog's muzzle. "Sam? Would you like to be with me for a while?"

He says nothing, of course, but he licks the soft black face. The woman touches him, and he stretches lavishly, like a puppy awakening after a long afternoon's sleep. When he is done, his legs are straight and his eyes are very bright. Sam dances to Linna, bounces onto his hind legs to lick the tears from her face. She buries her face in his fur a last time. The smell of sickness is gone, leaving only Sam. Live, she thinks. When she releases him, he races once around the little fields before he returns to sit beside the queen of the bees, smiling up at her.

Linna's heart twists inside her to see his expression, but it's the price of knowing he will live. She pays it, but cannot stop herself from asking, "Will he forget me?"

"If he does, I will remind him every day." The queen lays her hand on his head. "And there will be many days. He will live a long time, and he will run and chase—what might as well be rabbits, in my world. "

The queen of the bees salutes Linna, kissing her wet cheeks, and then she turns and walks toward the rising darkness that is the lake of bees and also the dusk. Linna watches hungrily. Sam looks back once, a little confused, and she nearly calls out to him, but what would she be calling him back to? She smiles as best she can, and he returns the smile, as dogs do. And then he and the queen of the bees are gone.

 

Linna buries Belle using the spade in the canvas bag. It is twilight before she is done, and she sleeps in her car again, too tired to hear or see or feel anything. In the morning she finds a road and turns west. When she gets to Seattle (no longer gray, but gold and green and blue and white with summer), she sends the canvas bag back to Officer Tabor—Luke, she remembers—along with a letter explaining everything she has learned of the river of bees.

She is never stung again. Her dreams are visited by bees, but they bring her no messages; the calligraphy of their flights remain mysterious. Once she dreams of Sam, who smiles at her and dances on young straight legs, just out of reach.

Return ]

—for Sid and Helen

 

© 2003 Kij Johnson

scifiction.com, October 2003
The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 2004: Seventeenth Annual Collection,
ed. Kelly Link, Gavin McCloud, and Terri Windling, St. Martin's Press, 2004
Trochu Divné Kusy 2
(Czech anthology), ed. Martin Súst, Laser Books, 2005