Timothy O'Connell

  Media Production, Art Projects and Information Systems

A Hundred Dead Bees

I wrote the short story below for inclusion in the March 2013 edition of Digital Literary Magazine. Download an illustrated, nicely-formatted version of the story in PDF form (along with the rest of the mag) at this URL: http://digitalliterary.com/issue-one

A hundred dead bees.

Some had come to rest atop rubbery boughs of desiccated, green-gray fennel. Others had insinuated themselves among a clutch of rotten-looking hazelnuts.

A few, Mary now noticed, had fallen from the shelves to the floor.

These dead (or were these ones dying?) bees on the pantry floor were hard to make out at first. Midnight got them lost in the dark shadows between the wisps of moonlight that smoked dustily up through the gaps between the black planks.

Among the ringing silence and the stale things of the pantry, there had somehow come to be scores of dead and dying bees.

Her mind had been wandering, she realized, and now, as it was finally finding its way back to her, Mary was surprised to learn that her eyes had settled on her own bare feet. Normally Mary's feet were fish-belly white, but now she saw they were silvered by the full moon. She squinted down at her own two feet like they were a stranger's and wondered how it could be that she was totally unafraid that she might step on the bees.

So she looked up. And there were goosefoot seeds. And they had been left, uncovered, in a splintering basket and looked like they had already been ground. Or crushed, at any rate: unbaked is thy bread.

Of course there were bees on the tiny hill of seeds, just like everything else in the moonlit pantry. Mary imagined that she could look at one and tell apart each of its little black legs. There were four bees on the crushed goosefoot seeds. All on their back and each one's legs twitching the same waterwheel rhythm.

Dead bees doing a backstroke through a blanch-gray heap of broken seeds.

It came to her then that her eyes had managed to adjust to the light and she was scanning more rapidly now and finding some of the heat making its way back into her face as she went. On a low shelf, there moldered a limp-looking canvas pouch that she was sure would contain at least a handful of knotgrass seeds. She could make out the bottoms of some tin ramekins on a high shelf and she was somehow sure that they were the kind that would hold oats. Cut ones. Or maybe barley.

"There's bees," she said.

And then came the knuckles-on-treebark scrape of the Thing's icy ribs grinding against her spine. And in her mind, Mary cursed. And then she felt the shuddering palsy of the Thing's ribs make its way into the Thing's throat. Its greasy chin fell against her shoulder and she made vain bargins with God.

Eventually, the freezing spittle pricked at her ear.

"These old eyes," came the sneering, nasally whisper.

Then, with those words, the Thing seemed to pause, its quavering throat chugging the dead-bee leg-rhythm against her shoulder as it hugged its left arm--that arm as strong as any living man's--tighter around her neck and pulled its dead weight higher on her back. She squeezed her eyes shut in anticipation of the Thing and its awful talking.

"These old eyes can still see the emerald green, Mary Culhane. Clear as day, Mary."

The Thing's disgusting mouth was nearly touching her ear now. It had no breath, but when the Thing spoke, the speaking somehow felt cold against the growing hotness in her face; the damp fishiness of it against her fire-hot ear made her squeeze her eyes shut even tighter. Her front teeth dug into her lower lip and she squeezed her stomach as tight as it would squeeze.

"Can still see the curl of the living smoke and the bone straight of the dead plumb line, Mary Culhane."

The words came faster and Mary felt tears push through, slip down and collect at the corners of her mouth in tepid pools.

"These eyes, Mary, can see you clear as the cold river; keen as the cracked ice. Can see through all girls like you. Can see everything that you see, Mary Culhane. Can see every little thing that you see."

"I can make porridge," she gasped. "That's all. That is all that's here and is..."

Her voice broke and her words fell from her and came apart like a handful of burning straw into the well. She struggled bitterly, her eyes suddenly open and rolling backwards in her head, but she could not find her voice and she could not find her words. Such things, in that moment, forever irretrievable.

"Ah, Mary Culhane. There is no need," the Thing's heavy arm loosening from her neck, "no apologies necessary."

"I'll have to draw water, if it's porridge you want."

"No, Mary Culhane, we shall not leave this house now for water."

"Then what do you expect me to do without it? I can't do what you are asking me to do," she choked.

Another pause. The Thing was winding up to speak again. Ribs like knuckles again, grating against her spine: the shuddering as it tried again and failed to draw breath.

Mary tried to remember anything.

"Take the little point, Mary Culhane; the sharp little razor knife: the one you wear like a watch in your waistcoat."

Mary could not feel anything but an electric tingling between her fingers and toes. She focused on the tingling and shut her eyes until violet sunspots pulsed in whorls on the black.

*   *   *

And then she remembered that she was a girl, that her name was Mary and that it was very late.

Slowly at first, and then faster and faster, the same way that laces come loose, it came to Mary that she had fallen. Somehow she had fallen back and to her left and landed directly on top of the Thing: its back was pressed to the floor and her back was pressed to the horrible iron-hard ribs that held its yellow skin taught as tent leather. Its legs had come out from around her middle and were bent up underneath her, though its left arm was still tight around her neck.

Then she knew, in a flash, that the burrowing chill of that strong arm must have gone through her skin and chilled the life from her heart and made her faint; the nauseating two-legged bear hug and the freezing meat of the Thing's long, slender legs had finally numbed her middle and chased the warmth all the way to her toes.

Her toes, where there was no trace of the old tingling.

Mary could not remember ever having felt so cold as she did on the floor of the pantry with the blood coming back into her trunk from her face and her hands.

And there, lying on her back, staring up at the boards, the blood beginning to flow, she remembered the night.

Disconnected for a long, silent eternity from hands, wrists, forearms and all the far-off places that her heart's blood had evidently fled, Mary was vaguely astonished by the sudden reality of her own skin, the spots where a bruise felt tender or a scrape lazily oozed.

She remembered how she had carried the Thing to this house; Mary remembered her hours-long journey and how she went color-blind in the full moon light and she remembered how at first her legs were sore and then, during the long walk back from the graveyard to the town, how her legs had stopped hurting and didn't feel anything at all.

Now she could move them--she tried them, and they moved a little--but she hadn't been able to move them before, even as her legs carried her into town and her arms and hands unlatched the gate and opened the door.

Mary wondered when she had lost the ability to control her arms and legs. Was it when the Thing's arm shot out from the open grave, hooked her ankle and pulled her down into the earth? Had she struck her head on a stone when that happened?

Maybe she lost control later, once the Thing had wrapped itself around her and forced its first foul words through its grave-cold nose and into her ear: "Now you just turn around and you climb out of this grave, Mary Culhane."

No, Mary felt like she at least must have climbed out of the grave on her own, though she had no idea where she had found the strength to do so with the Thing wrapped around her. So when, then, did she lose control? When did the Thing take control of her arms and legs?

The fall to the pantry floor had brought the Thing's face closer than it had been since the two of them tumbled and struggled in the open grave. Mary observed again how strongly the Thing stank of earth. And then she noticed that she was standing again.

Standing without thinking about it. Thinking about it without remembering it. The Thing's strong left arm wrapped around her neck; the Thing's legs wrapped around her waist. Feeling cold, and then feeling nothing.

"Reach out with your right. Reach out and take it, Mary."

When she reached out with her right, she observed that she had to let go of the Thing's right leg to do so, and its dead weight pulled hard and the cold of it dug deep into her.

But she reached out with her right and she took the basket of crushed goosefoot.

Then, turning and spinning on a silver-sandaled heel, she faced away from the pantry and plunged into the placid blackness of the kitchen, half expecting to break its flat, black surface and send out a glittering, Mary-shaped ripple.

"Now how many steps from the pantry to the stairs, Mary Culhane?"

She took seven small steps, her right arm outstretched, her left cradling the Thing's leg. She found the top of the first step with her right foot and took the next two automatically.

"Now how many more to the top?"

She mouthed the words, "Four to the landing."

"Now four to the landing. How many more make the top?"

"Nine steps to the top," she thought to herself.

Delivered gradually from the musty closeness and impenetrable black of the stairs, Mary eventually recognized the waxy moonlight seeping through the top of a shuttered, glassless window at the far end of the narrow hall into which she had emerged.

The air hung thick and greasy in the hall: whoever lived here burned tallow at night and the effect was to give the upstairs rooms an animal warmth that Mary could smell, even if she could not feel it.

When she was at the top of the steps, she whispered, to no one in particular, "They are asleep."

The grating waterwheel rhythm of ribs on spine, throat on shoulder distant now: unbaked is thy bread; I shall not have thee.

"Who is asleep, Mary Culhane?"

"All of them is who's asleep. The Dunn boys and their old father: I know this house. I knew I knew this house."

"I knew you knew it, Mary. I know it too."

With the basket of pulverized seed held out before her and the Thing clutching its freezing death grip, Mary followed the goosefoot seed and four dead bees through the stale-smelling gray hall and into the Dunn boys' room.

Three boys slept on their sides and all in a row: the first boy on his side, facing her. The other two, sleeping on their sides, facing away. Mary knelt at Michael's bedside.

By inches and in breathless silence, she rolled forward on the balls of her bare feet and closer to the sleeper's gaping face. In the darkness she could just barely make out the boy's blocky features. Michael was the oldest of the three. And he was very ugly: an angry spray of red raised the skin of his forehead and his cheeks. A purplish pimple on his chin glistened flatly in the pale light.

By millimeters now, Mary carefully brought her face closer to his. Her own face was becoming hot again, and she could feel cold coming from his.

The Thing began to pull hard on Mary's neck, bringing its own face closer to the sleeper. The Thing pulled itself so close that Michael's broad, squarish nose rubbed the cold leather of the Thing's forehead.

"This one," exhaled the Thing, "is first. This one first, and then the others."

And so Mary placed the basket on the bed, next to Michael's head. Then she thrust her right hand into the pocket of her waistcoat.

With her old dad's knife, Mary drew a smooth, perpendicular stripe across Michael's throat. To her, it felt like pulling a spoon through fresh cream.

She held the knife in space for a moment, squinting at the marble gleam of it: someone else's hand, someone else's knife--to her, it felt like something she ought to be afraid of.

But Mary was not afraid.

*   *   *

In the kitchen, Mary stood by the pantry, looking in, hoping to see the bees.

Some of the heat had come back to her face, and she imagined that she could see steam coming from her own neck where the Thing's left arm curled around it.

"And now Mary Culhane, payment for this night's toils: take, take and drink."

Mary twisted her head to her right, pulling against the weight of the Thing's arm, and saw that she was holding the basket of crushed goosefoot and the steaming blood of the three Dunn boys aloft on her palm, tilting it in the direction of where the Thing's head must have been.

She could not see the Thing's face--had not seen it all night--but, craning her neck, she could see where it had spilled the steaming gore and the crushed seed on its narrow, jutting chin.

Her hands felt hot--like there was too much of her own boiling blood within her fingers. She struggled to feel the basket, but like Michael's face had felt in the dark, it was cool to her touch.

And her touch, the feel of her fingers on the basket, felt nothing like a basket. To her own growing confusion, her touch felt more of the dancing electric tingle than of the coarse weave of the splintering, gore-slick basket.

Mary felt the Thing relax its grip, and some of the heat go out of her face. She raised the basket to her mouth, and poured the steaming porridge from the edge of the basket. As she saw the porridge creeping towards the edge of the basket, she inhaled sharply, squeezed her eyes as tight as they would go and mashed her lips together.

The blood porridge went over her nose, slid down her lips and around her chin. She felt a torrent of it go down the front of her dress and collect in the frayed houndstooth neckerchief that she had worn out to the graveyard that night.

But the porridge kept coming, and it filled the hammock-shaped hollow created by the neckerchief past what it could hold. Blood and mangled seed raced down the front of Mary's chest, boiling hot between her breasts and along her ribs. She felt where it collected and started to cool at the top of her belt and the snug parts of her waistcoat.

When the basket was empty, she lowered it and wiped blood porridge from her nose and mouth with the back of her sleeve. She took a long breath. She could taste the tin of it on her lips.

"Now, Mary Culhane, how many steps to the door?"

She opened her eyes, spun again on her heel, and walked through the pitch-black kitchen to the front door of the house. It was open, but the moonlight was little more than a dim glow coming in from the street now. Mary walked through the door, basket in her right hand and the Thing clinging hard on her back, down the steps and into the garden.

As they made the street, they turned right. From the corner of her eye, Mary could see the house and the open door.

The Thing squeezed hard, ratcheting itself up her back, and shuddered once again into speech.

"Do you see what the Dead can do, Mary Culhane? Do you know what happens to girls who walk in open graves at night, Mary Culhane?"

Tears again, this time cool: cooler than they had felt before. They slipped off of her lips and turned into dark spots on her waistcoat. The blood porridge in the houndstooth neckerchief still felt hot against her sternum.

The heat in Mary's face was nearly unbearable as they came to the edge of the well in the middle of the town. Mary raised her hand, held the basket out over the edge and dropped it down.

The Thing writhed and shook against her. Mary shut her eyes.

"Do you know what happens to girls who play in open graves, Mary Culhane?"

The Thing was squeezing harder--harder than before--and its bony, blood-slick chin was lolling against her shoulder obscenely as its voice rose in pitch and volume. She felt the old tingle in her hands and feet as it squeezed.

"Do you know what happens to girls who drink the living blood, Mary Culhane?" the Thing shrilled at the top of its awful, nasally sneer.

Huge, racking shudders now. Mary realized that the Thing was laughing at about the same time that she realized that she was running, headlong, away from the town and back up the long hill to the graveyard. The thing bouncing up and down, half because of her pace and half because of its horrible, undulating laughter.

Her face was too hot: a bladder full of boiling water. Her hands tingled as she ran, and her feet felt a mile away.

The Thing cackled wildly as it rode her harder and faster from the town, up the hill, back to the yawning grave and the stench of the earth.

The whorls and pin-pricks of violet began to creep in from the corners of Mary's eyes. And then, just like that, she fainted dead away.

Mary fell face-first, the Thing clutching hard as the two of them rolled in the dust of the road. As they came to a stop, Mary's face was in the dust, and the Thing's left arm and both legs were pinned underneath her.

The sun rose, as it always had, from behind the hill.

The first ray, two identical spheres of liquid gold floating motionlessly in the depthless black of the Thing's eyes.

2013-03-02 - fiction, horror, writing