provenance: unknown


In the summers when I was home from school, I would help out around the house in various ways. I would make breakfasts and lunches for my grandfather (and dinners if my parents were away), and work in the garden. The latter mostly entailed digging holes and offering landscaping advice (which was inevitably ignored, much to my own frustration and, it often turned out, my parents' eventual chagrin). And, during the weeks when my parents went away, "dead-heading" — pulling dead flower heads off their stems.

This last was a daily ritual during August — when the flowers were most profusive and my parents were often away — and one which I little minded, as it was a pleasant enough excuse for leisurely meanderings in the sun. It was tedious as well, but I always also had the option of skipping it for a day or two, so it never became a burden.

The flowers requiring the most frequent attention were by far the marigolds, as my mother planted a great many of them, with many buds each, and they budded and flowered all summer — especially, of course, if you dead-headed them. I did this always with my bare fingers, simply snapping off each head; it was the most efficient way, and it would leave a strong, sweet smell on my hands, until I had washed them a few times.

Dead-heading, however gruesome it may sound, is not especially dangerous work, the gravest occupational hazard being the occasional thorn (which, being inanimate, is avoided easily enough). Or, so I thought.

I'd been doing dead-heading for years before I discovered its other threat. It happened as I reached through a cluster of buds to remove a dead one on the far side of a plant. I felt on my palm a heated friction — a vibration, a buzz. I stopped; I felt it again. It was a bee, rubbing against my palm; perhaps, now, crawling on it.

I had been stung a fair number of times in my life. I still remember getting ice from the fish counter in the supermarket when one of the illicit denizens of the fruit aisle landed on my head and, after I sent a tentative finger or two to investigate, stung me there. And of course there was the unfortunate incident involving the wasps' nest in Maine, which, when I stumbled across it, unleashed countless, remorseless defenders; they chased me a good 100 yards before I reached my grandmother, who valiantly shooed them away. I think my brother counted 17 stings on me that time, though to be sure all I knew was that I hurt all over.

But it had been many years since I'd been stung, and I had little recollection of the sensation. Insect bites usually don't bother me that much anymore, besides — I've been bitten by so many mosquitoes my body seems to mostly disregard their effects, for instance — and I wasn't really all that upset by finding a bee on my palm, or even the prospect of getting stung.

And the bee was in fact already on my palm, though it (my palm) was still facing down. Most likely that palm smelled of nectar; it was natural for the bee to investigate, it stood to reason, but eventually it would move along, no doubt. So, I thought, continuing in this line, I would turn my hand over, and it would fly away.

The bee, however, remained on my palm. Perhaps it was contemplating its newfound launching pad, or maybe gauging the wind speed, but it evidently saw no need to rush.

Well, alright, I thought. After all, I was also at my leisure, and neither of us had displayed any proclivity for aggression toward the other. Why not enjoy my new friend's company for a while? So, I let it stay. I stood up (I'd been squatting over the flowers), raised my palm a little, and took a closer look. It was a bumblebee, nice and fat and black and yellow, laden with pollen and perhaps a little drunk; it strolled about my hand for a few moments, and I watched. Finally, however, I suppose it made up its mind — but, rather than fly away, it stung me.

I was hurt, and outraged. "Fuck you!" I yelled, at the bee but loud enough for the whole neighborhood. I'd been betrayed, and the sting was far worse than I'd imagined. A friend had parlayed my trust into throbbing, itching hurt, and destroyed itself in the process.

I watched the bee on the ground, where I had dropped it from my hand. It died, and I was left, stung, disconsolate and railing against the stupidity of it all, until it sunk in that there was nothing to be done for it, what was lost was lost, and I was standing alone, surrounded by dead flowers.

revised 1/24/02

Copyright ©2002 Matt Pfeffer


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