It's Perfectly Normal
“That’s all the time we have for today,” the massage therapist says, crouching beside me. “I extracted the colony of bees that was dwelling in your lower back.”
My eyes pop open and I stare into the massage therapist’s deep brown eyes. I never thought it would be me. The bees buzz undeniably.
I had tried so hard to enjoy the massage, doing everything to stop the pinball machine of my racing thoughts, but barely succeeded.
“My grandma had bees,” I say idly, paying more attention to the newfound buzzing that surrounds me rather than our conversation.
“Happens to the best of us,” he replies.
“But why now?” I ask.
“It is perfectly normal, you know. Some things just need to come out” he shrugs. “I’ll leave you to get changed.”
I change slowly, trying to remember how grounded I felt as his hands pressed into my flesh for the past 50 minutes. The bees dart in and out of the armholes of my tank top, rest in the pockets of my denim shorts. I head to the front desk to pay and the bees cascade down the stairs behind me, a waterfall of wings.
The receptionist is unfazed as bees swirl around us. She reads the total, I insert my card and leave a tip. A bee lands on the card reader and I watch it in silence. That came from my body, I think. I don’t book a next appointment. I hold the door open longer than usual as I go so the bees can follow me out.
As I meander down the sidewalk, I think of the women I’ve known who have had bees. No one I’m close to. I was just starting to befriend my coworker Courtney from sales when some incident happened with her boss. She wouldn’t say a word about it. Then suddenly, she had bees, and shortly after that, she quit. My brother’s ex-girlfriend got bees in college. He was afraid they were going to sting him and they broke up not long after. And in high school, my best friend’s mom had bees when she was going through a divorce. She stood a little straighter once her bees arrived. I was just a kid, too lost in my own head to ask questions.
I’m not that different now. Still a ball of anxieties. Still weaving my way through the world fearfully, trying to avoid conflict. As I pick up the pace, the bees buzz faster and louder. I can’t help but wonder if they will sting me. Why wouldn’t they hurt me? Everyone does. There’s a reason I’ve crafted this solitary life for myself–a freelancer, single, living in a studio apartment. I’m better off on my own. I don’t need bees. I will get rid of them.
Fire is my first thought. My older brother Eric keeps a fire going in his backyard all summer long, obsessed with gazing into its depths whenever he can. I’ve seen him cook dinner over the fire, play fetch with his dog beside the leaping flames, and even take customer calls for his remote job in a lawn chair by the fire. He’ll be there, and there will be fire. The bees and I begin the long walk to his place.
When we arrive, Eric is out back as expected, prodding the crackling fire with a stick.
“Hi,” I murmur. Eric and I don’t see eye to eye on some things, like our childhood, so we don’t talk often.
“Those are new,” he says, tearing his eyes away from the fire and gesturing to the bees.
“I’m trying to get rid of them.”
“I’m just…not the kind of person who has bees. I don’t need them. I’m fine.”
Eric stares at me for a long time.
“Marshmallow?” he asks.
“Sure,” I say, swallowing it unroasted. “Look, I’m going to try something,” I say. “And I don’t want you to stop me.” He nods coolly.
I inch closer to the fire. I lean forward and let the flames lick my forehead. I wrap my arms around the fire pit as if to hug it. I wait for the heat. I will scorch the bees out of me.
I had closed my eyes tightly but now open them, confused. I can scarcely feel the heat. I back away and sit down in the grass slowly. My arms feel funny. So does my face. Tingly. Is this what third degree burns feel like?
I run my fingertips up and down my arms, softly touch my forehead, not wanting to do more damage in case I am having some neurological breakdown that is preventing my brain from understanding the severity of the burns.
Instead, my fingertips find the fluttering wings of sleepy bees. They cover me completely, every inch of my skin.
“They protected you,” Eric says. “Grandma had bees, remember? She didn’t talk about it much, but I know she missed them when they left.”
My eyes are wet and I’m not sure why. I stand up too fast, dizzy, and take off running.
The bees seem unfazed by our sudden sprint, flowing from my shoulder like a cape, tickling my neck and nesting in my hair. I pause to rest on a bench at the bus stop.
A bus screeches to a halt and the doors fold open. The driver cranes his neck to look out. He winces. I climb the steps slowly, hoping for the best as I bring my bees on public transportation for the first time. They hum louder as I walk toward the back of the bus. It’s crowded.
There are no empty rows, I have no choice but to sit with someone. I softly slide in beside a middle aged man.
“Sweetie, you can’t ride on a bus with that many bees!” he says, eyes wide. “There’s a law against it,” he huffs.
“They changed that law a few years ago,” a teenager says from down the aisle, pulling out an earbud. “The summer I turned 15. I remember because my sister had just gotten bees and we rode the bus together. People were not happy about it,” he adds with an eye roll.
I cringe in sympathy and mouth thank you to the teenager. The man next to me mutters something under his breath and goes to stand in the aisle near the front. A few bees trickle after him, buzzing fiercely and landing on his shoulders. I cough pointedly and they return to my side. They listened! I swell with pride.
The bees spread out, clustering on the window as if watching the world go by. Others form a pillow for me on the head rest. I smile softly, let my head droop, and finally relax.
On the bus I nap, for the first time in years. Napping is for babies! You’ll sleep when you’re dead, my parents used to say. I’ve conditioned myself to stay awake, stay functional, stay productive.
Today, I dream.
I am in the grocery store, basket over my arm. I weigh two broccoli crowns, print the sticker and affix it to the bag, then set them in my basket. I head toward the bananas. My father is standing near the mangoes, examining a honey mango with curiosity, an emotion I’ve rarely seen on his face.
My bees crackle to life behind me, staticky, as fury seeps in. Images flicker through my brain and I can’t stop them. Crying alone on the porch, Dad joins me; I lean on his shoulder and he rubs my back for awhile, then gets up and goes inside. My bees race up and down my arms, hairs standing on end at the memory of this small moment of care that I’ve treasured for years. Dad slapping Mom when she asks how much he drank at the work event. My throat tingles with the fuzz of furious bees. Getting cornered the night I got home from the wrap party for the school musical, giggly and light, and feeling his fist connect with the side of my skull as he screams at me for missing curfew. My ears ring as my bees vibrate with rage.
I am not afraid anymore.
Grinding my teeth, I look directly at my father. I open my mouth, shout, “DAD!” and bees pour out. Buzzing, wrathful bees. They shoot toward him, flooding as if from a fireman’s hose. Instantly, he is covered. He grabs at the mango bin for balance as he starts to wobble, then overturns the whole thing as he tumbles to the ground, covered in a fruit he’s never tried. He writhes and scratches and moans as stings well up all over his body. A smile cracks my face in two as I watch.
I wake up sweating and alone on the bus. I remember the dream, a rarity. I remember everything. Every little detail.
Hot and agitated, I get off the bus near the river. My heart is beating too fast, but my bees are calm. I stop at an ice cream stand and purchase an orange creamsicle. I find a picnic table and sit, licking slowly as I try to cool down. A few bees happily rest by a puddle of dripped creamsicle, slurping at it with fuzzy tongues.
I’ve never had such a violent dream. I would never hurt anyone–I’m too familiar with being on the receiving end of someone’s wrath. My rage does not control me. I’ve locked it below the surface, like we’re supposed to. It can’t hurt anyone there.
I leave my purse on shore tucked under a log and wade in from the banks of the river. I open my eyes underwater and squint as the fish go by. It’s quiet down here. I swim a few strokes, roll to my back, and open my eyes to stare at the cloudless sky.
The bees hover over me like a blanket, darkening my vision. They grow frantic and worried as I try to lose them. I take a big breath and dive as deep as I can, gliding along the bottom of the river. When my lungs start to burn, I kick my way to the surface and am greeted by my symphony of bees. Some land softly on my cheeks, one ever so gently on a closed eyelid. They seem concerned, and against my better judgment, I’m touched. I thought this swarm of bees was some manifestation of unchecked fear or anger, but they seem…caring. Nurturing, almost.
I paddle to shore and ring the water from my clothes, bees hovering around as if to help.
“Hello!” I call to a little boy and an elderly woman, building a sandcastle on the shore.
The boy’s face is bright and curious but the woman places a hand on his back and turns him away.
“It’s not polite to stare,” she tells him.
“Grandma, why does the lady have so many bees?” he asks.
“It is perfectly normal,” I tell him with a friendly smile.
“I used to have my own, long ago,” his grandmother adds. “Back then, folks would try anything to get rid of them,” she says with a grimace.
I frown, feeling guilty. “But now we know, it’s just part of life,” I say, crouching next to him. “If you’re kind, they’ll be your friends.” I’m not entirely sure if I’m trying to convince the boy or myself.
I reach down and pick up a shell. The boy watches in awe as bees race down my arm and form a little ring around the shell, carrying it into position on the turret. He reaches toward me, and I nod to let the bees know they can greet him. We watch together, enraptured, as they nuzzle his hand and then depart to carry more shells to the other turrets.
I walk home from the beach, damp and mystified. When I collapse into the hammock on my porch, the bees’ consoling hum reminds me to breathe deeply. Tears coast down my cheeks. Twice in one day? That’s new. I extend an outstretched hand and a few bee friends land lightly.
“You won’t hurt me?” I ask quietly.
They buzz gently in response. One seems to snuggle me. I think of my brother’s face in the glow of the fire, the understanding teenager on the bus, the little boy’s awe. That dread I felt when the massage therapist told me I had bees has been dissipating bit by bit all day long.
“I guess I’m not alone anymore, huh?”
I will move through the world with my bees. As long as we’re together, we will nuzzle, swarm, storm, nurture, work, and rest. It is perfectly normal to be a woman with her own colony of bees. I take a deep breath in. The fear I carry is receding. The anger pulses dully in the back of my mind. And something new–a kindness, a gentleness–is emerging from the darkness. I exhale and feel free.