1906, Isle of Wight (United Kingdom).
Your sister Harriet has brought you with her on a trip to The Isle, which in itself is quite exceptional. Used to living inland, you are now surrounded by sea. Besides, your family could have never afforded to come to this prized resort, with its micro-climate, baths, soft yellow sand and beautifully trimmed grasslands renowned for its beehives. A beautiful picture indeed, were it not for your sister’s husband, Wilbur. The boat trip was rocky, at least by your terrestrial standards, although your brother-in-law made a point of clapping your shoulder with a condescending “Stop whining so, Leslie, the sea is calm today!”
Wilbur… The overbearing smile, his taste for grandeur, and his preposterous hopes to meet the Queen on her retreat on the Isle.
The morning was already spent when the three of you finally checked in at the hotel. You are now hungry, and are hoping to discreetly escape the stuffy single room to nick club sandwiches down at the lobby. Maybe you’ll feel adventurous and try one of those famous honeycomb delicacies your sister has been gushing about. Already you’re salivating, but when you open the door, you come to a stop: a bee is buzzing around on your doorstep. You’re not as terrified of insects as Harriet, but your bravado doesn’t equal that of her husband, and so you walk around the hovering creature and its strangely over-sized eyes, praying it will not take the fancy of biting you. What do they say again, that when a bee stings, she dies? The stinger, stuck under the person’s skin, pulls their insides out. Gruesome. Why would a bee ever want to sting anyone is beyond you.
Yet this particular bee insists on getting closer to your face, droning all the way up to your nose, buzzing near the side of your nostril. You squint, trying to focus in on the threat sticking out the bottom of the insect, but there is none. Uh. What is there, however, is a tiny package hanging from the bug’s back legs. The bee keeps hovering, not getting nearer nor farther, as though expecting something from you. You lift your hands up, cup them under the tiny animal, and on cue, she drops the package in your hand. As though a great weight has been lifted, the bee lets herself fall down in your hands beside the package, her delicate transparent wings fluttering as though shaking from cold.
Hunger forgotten, you return to sit on the bouncy bed and its soft but heavy duvet, careful not to disturb the peaceful bee’s well deserved rest in the crook of your palm. The down on her round body makes you want to pet her like one would a dog, but you refrain from this foolish impulse.
The package, if one can call such a tiny thing thus, is a ball of brick-shaded chiffon, sealed with wax the color of sweet cider. Picking at the wax, you let the fabric brush down the inside of your palm to reveal the pearl inside. It wears the colors of midnight, with that bluer shade of black, and just like velvet nights it is perfectly round and smooth, pulsating with a life of its own, winking at you, calling you by your name…
“Les!” Harriet startles you by calling out from her room, on the other side of the shared door, “Are you settled in yet, pet? Wilbur and I are going to walk on the seaside promenade, perhaps dip our toes in the water if it isn’t too cold.” A pause, then, “Would you care to join us?”
“… doubt it,” you hear your brother-in-law grumble from further into their room, yet not low enough to hide his contempt, “Really darling, why bring your strange sibling with us? Youre far too good a soul.” Harriet shushes him.
Shut up! You want to shout, but that wouldn’t be seemly now, would it? The bee inside your hand shuffles her tiny legs as if to draw your attention back to her. Strange, me? You’ll show him! Slipping the whispering black pearl inside your sleeve, you get up, stride over to the door that leads to Harriet and Wilbur’s room, and try to turn the knob with your elbow without disturbing the tired bee inside your hands. After some rattling, the door creaks ajar, perfectly framing your sister’s perplexed face. “What do you have here, Les?” Curious, she peeks inside your cupped hands as you open them like a flower while exclaiming “You won’t believe what what just happened!”
“Leslie! Is this a bee in your hand?”
Your chest rises softly at the stunned look on your brother-in-law’s face. Unforgiving, you continue “She looks sick. I have to help her!”
At the smirk lifting on Wilbur’s lip, you insist: “I saw some apiary on the way here, after the beach. Maybe they can help us. Would you like to come?” You ask your sister, who’s peering at the weak butt-waving of the soft bee. Wilbur snorts, then scoffs his disbelief when Harriet nods, rubbing your arm, an encouraging smile hanging about her eyes.
On the walk to the apiary, your brother-in-law strides ahead, as though to lead the way, but he has to look back frequently so that you can direct him. When the three of you get to the “Payne’s Bees” sign claiming The Best Honey On The Isle, he busts his chest and marches toward the low house to the right of the alley. A tall and lanky man comes to meet him, hand shielding his eyes against the high sun of this surprisingly pleasant British spring. Back home, it’s probably pouring right now.
After Wilbur’s finished his animated discussion with Payne, which involves a lot of hand waving and eyes-rolling in your direction, the beekeeper approaches and gently peels your thumbs, crossed like a roof over the bee’s head. You tense when he slides his own hand near the frail creature, but the bee seems to summon the last remnants of her strength, and crawls over onto his hand.
“That’d be a drone.” the man states flatly with the rough island accent as though everyone knows what he means by that.
“A… Drone?” you ask for clarification, holding your hands out again to recover the trembling critter.
“Ye, a man-bee, if you like.”
Right, not a ‘she’, then. You don’t think you’ve ever seen a male honeybee before. “Are they rare, that I’ve never seen one out sampling lilies of the valley in the fields?”
“Rare, no, but lazy, that they are the lil’ buggers. Only the females collect flower nectar and make honey.”
“A bit the reverse from men then, lady honeybee puts bread on the table.” Wilbur startles you with his impromptu comment over your shoulder, from where he’s been surveilling the conversation. You look at him sideways, but abstain from answering. Instead, you turn back to the bee keeper, “Well this little fellow here isn’t lazy! He’s brought me a gift, carried it in his own little legs, and I think that’s what got him so exhausted, poor thing.”
Payne looks harassed for a moment, and it’s with a scratchy voice that he says: “With respect, this drone isn’t tired, he’s dying.”
While your sister gasps, gloved hands clasped over her mouth, you look inside the man’s eyes. All you detect there is dull exhaustion. He must be telling the truth. “Is it because I touched it?” you ask, praying for the answer to be negative. To your relief, the beekeeper shakes his head, “It has nothing to do with you: they’re all dying.”
“You’ve lost an entire beehive?”
He sighs, shakes his head again, “You don’t understand. It’s not just one beehive that’s dying, it’s all of them. All 83 of my hives, gone! Pffft!” he mimics a stage magician blowing a screen of smoke.
Your sister’s husband walks around you to come place a hand on the man’s shoulder and says: “My good fellow. A terrible blow to your business, I imagine.”
Eyes blank, jaw slack, the man nods slowly while rubbing his sun-hardened withers, and repeats to himself, “Gone, all of them. First Walker’s, then Hughes’, Cox’s… Now even my hives!”
You feel the man’s distress, though you’re not sure you quite understand his meaning. At least, you hope you don’t. “Sir, when you say all the hives…” You haven’t finished your sentence that already the man jumps at you, grabs you by the collar, features distorted: “ALL OF THEM! All the bees on the island, dead!”
You stumble backward under the man’s grip. All the bees, dead, just like that? No! “Not all, though,” you plunge your gaze inside Payne’s gaze like a pearl catcher in the ocean. “There’s still this drone.”
“The drone? Pfft! Little good a single drone’ll do us! No, no, we need a queen, we need workers!”
Wilbur intervenes, “… Come here man, I’m sure you have plenty of honey in store to get by until the next season”, but the man turns so suddenly to him, it makes even your strapping brother-in-law flutter.
“You think this is about honey?” He holds his palm up and folds his fingers one by one as he hisses a dreary list: “No bees, no pollination, no seeds, no plants, no food. This is just the beginning sir, you mark my words.”
You feel your sister draw closer to you in a shiver, and whisper with a trill in her voice: “Pet, this man is quite mad, is he not?”
“He’s just worried, Harriet, and rightly so,” you pat her hand, which she has now slipped into the crook of your elbow, “I wonder why all the hives on the island would die so suddenly, all at once?”
Hearing your question despite your low tone, Payne turns on his heels and starts walking toward the hill behind his house. He waves you to follow, and so you do, Harriet and Wilbur on your heels. As you catch up and lock your steps on his, the beekeeper gestures while relating events that took place just before your arrival. “A few days is all it took. At first it was the workers. They’d crawl out of the hives and eat each other. Walker thought it was because the queen in one of his hive had died, but strangely no, it was still there.” As you reach the top of the hills, he stops to take a breather and spread his hands wide, showcasing the field of beehives down the other side of the slope. Then he starts downward, and you follow again while he continues. “… It spread to other hives too, in other apiaries, like some sort of formidable disease. So we all looked much more closely. That’s when we noticed the broods had started to whither too, but it wasn’t the regular sort of larvae death.” You step on the flat part of the field, and watch the beekeeper thrust a bare hand inside the closest hive like it’s nothing. The silence is unnerving: no buzzing, no droning, not a single flutter of delicate wings busying about. The smell rising from the little wooden houses isn’t so nice either. Payne brings a black plaque out of the bee nest. “Never seen honeycombs turn black like that, it was like the Old Plague had come to strike our honeybees, it was.”
As he holds it out into the sunlight for your party to observe, shades of midnight blue glint over the blackened honeycomb. You’re suddenly reminded of your precious gift hidden safely inside your sleeve, and slip your free hand in (the other is still holding onto the dying drone) to check that it’s still there, as well as to caress the smooth texture and feel the power vibrating from within. You long to look at it. No, you shouldn’t… But it’s so beautiful! So you turn your back to the others, slip your hand out and watch the mesmerizing shades of black and blue dance over the perfect surface. It’s calling your name again, wordlessly, you can feel it in the very depth of your soul…
“Les, what’s that in your hand?” you sister peeks above your shoulder, you hide your pearl, too late. “Leslie, pet! Where did you find this? It’s so beautiful…”
“The bee gave it to me. It’s mine!” you growl as your sister attempts to touch the pulsating ball.
“To you? Surely it’s a mistake!” Then, looking at your pearl more closely, she exclaims, “Truly it was meant for me!” and motions to grab it. You turn your shoulder away to block her, again too late: she’s always been the fastest one of the two. As the mesmerizing pearl passes hands, Wilbur and the beekeeper approach the scuffle. The loss of the bee’s precious gift rushes into you like a wave cutting through a ship, and you find yourself bereft, gasping for air. From the corner of your eye, you can see your sister lulling the pearl lodged between index and thumb, by the tip of her lips.
Wilbur places an owning hand on the small of her back and bends over to see what she’s holding, but she snarls at her husband like a feral beast, showing small ivory canines. Wilbur doesn’t even notice her threatening stance, enraptured as he is by the sight of the perfect thing sitting snugly between her fingers. He snatches it away, or tries to, though once more your sister is the quickest and before turning on her heels, she spits in his face. Already she’s climbing back up the green hill, but her dress slows her down, so that in a few strides Wilbur is on her. Tripping her down by the ankle, yanking her loosened golden hair, he savagely snaps her head backwards. When finally he reaches the pearl, he rises high on his feet and holds the object up toward the skies like a godly offering.
You blink as soft afternoon spring winks back at you, highlighting the dark silhouette of the possessed man standing above Harriet’s limp body. You hesitate between confronting the madman, or fleeing for your life — a small voice inside of you tells you this is not the annoyingly confident Wilbur anymore, but someone else entirely. Someone who wouldn’t hesitate to snap your neck like he did your sister’s, his own wife. Besides, Payne the burly beekeeper is already running toward him, both fists raised in front of his face.
One well-placed uppercut sends Wilbur waltzing in the high grass, but he recovers his balance quickly, and when Payne charges again, he’s ready. Their grappling is hard to follow, but soon it becomes clear that Payne’s goal has shifted from knocking out a madman to stealing the precious pearl for himself.
In your hand, the bee drone is scratching your skin frantically. On a whim, you lurch uphill and scan the estate: there is a shed below your right, which you tumble down to. In the shed sits a surprisingly well-organized collection of tools, many of which you do not recognize, but you seize the closest, sharpest object on a shaft and run back uphill then down to the mess of fighting men.
“Please! Stop this madness at once! That cursed pearl is turning you both utterly mad!”
But the men, grunting, heaving and biting, do not hear you, they keep squashing your poor sister’s body in their demented wrestling. “STOOOOOP!” you cry out from the top of your lungs, trying to break them apart, but you’re thrown backward. The drone, still trapped in your left hand, has stopped moving except for his mandibles, which he grinds compulsively against each other as though tearing flesh apart. So, yielding the tool like an Olympian’s spear, you stab blindly into the melee, once, twice, thrice, and again, until the only grunt you hear is your own. Your right hand trembles on the tool’s shaft, so you reaffirm your grip. Blood is dripping while at your feet lies a pile of corpses.
With your remaining strength you roll the heavy men away from your crushed sister, and though you already know she cannot possibly be alive, you still check her pulse. It is no surprise when you cannot find any. Sobs choke you, tears drown you, the pain in your chest arrests your heart. She had her failings, but she was your sister nonetheless. How could she be gone so fast?
Hands grab you under the shoulders, strong arms pull up on your feet, a blanket is drawn upon your shoulder. You’re vaguely aware of human speech at the periphery of your hearing, muffled by the pulsing blood in your temples. It seems the only sense you have left is sight, as you watch faceless figures transport your sister’s corpse away. You stand up to join her, but ruthless hands sit you back down, adjust the scratchy blanket on your back, harass you with words. The questions the man in uniform asks you make no sense, and all you are able to stutter is “The pearl, where is it? Did you find the pearl? Black, shiny, round. What have you done with it?”
It takes the man three repeats until you finally hear his answer, tinged with worry: “I just told you, we didn’t find any pearl. Is this jewel the reason you killed all three people?”
No pearl? “It must have rolled away during the fight. You have to find it and destroy it before it is too late. Promise me you’ll find it. Please swear…”