PseudoPod 830: The Honey Witch
The Honey Witch
By Kathryn McMahon
My hood and gloves are on the table next to the smoker that, for now, remains unlit. Its charred pine needles quiet the bees and mask their alarm, a perfume that smells, improbably, of bananas. I don’t need the smoker at the moment and if I used it, I wouldn’t be privy to the hive’s secrets. I sniff. Wafts of apple linger with thyme that grows between the orchard rows. And lemon, the Nasonov pheromone calling the bees back home. Usually, a few would be dancing now, telling their sisters about the nectar they have found. But just as my sinuses throb, the bees feel the air pressure dropping. A storm is on its way.
Even down here in my basement, I can hear gravel crunch and a car door slam. I head up to my living room, which also holds my little shop. The road stops at my house, the only one all the way up here, but sometimes tourists passing through see my signs along the highway.
I don’t like people, but I can read them as easily as I can read the bees. I always know if they are going to buy my honey. Sometimes, I can tell what kind of argument they are going to have about it, if they do, when they see my prices. I look at their clothes, at their car, and try to connect it back to them. Would they pay thirty dollars for a bottle of wine that would only last them the night? Yes? Well, my honey is going to last so much longer. Serve it with goat’s cheese or brie, baste it over turkey or ham. Keep it ‘til next summer, it tastes the same. Honey is immortal. I give them rosemary-infused apple honey on toast, or a spoonful of blueberry honey, collected from a neighbor earlier in the season. Try it with vanilla ice cream, I tell them. And if after a few tasters they’re still unconvinced, I lean closer and say, “And if you like that, you’ll like my pickled apples. From my orchard. Ashmead kernel apples, named for my family.” Yellow-green striped with russet. Drab—a bit like me. I open a jar for them. People are always amazed when food carries a legacy and, if it’s yours, they’re desperate for a few authentic slices of you.
But the person walking up the hill and past my borage and chamomile is no tourist.
My chest pinches. It’s Tanith. When we were kids, she would help with the apple picking. Then she moved to New York City to dance ballet. She used to make her way home every now and again and stop here. It’s been a while, though. Since her mom died.
I take a jar of pickled apples off the shelf and pop it open. Tanith’s favorite.
She walks in, biting her lip, and my heart jumps. I almost followed her to the city for those lips. But that was a long time ago.
Silver spiders through her long, golden curls. She breathes in deep, savoring the air bright with honey. “Goddamn, Melissa, it’s good to smell that again.”
We hug, maybe a beat longer than I would any other friend.
“I’ve got news.”
I hold my breath. Is she moving back?
She can’t quite meet my eyes. “I sold the farm. It’s going to be a bed and breakfast. I’m opening a dance school. In Manhattan!” She looks up.
I steady myself on the wall. One more farm, gone. There’s not much economic sense in growing carrots up here anymore. But how I used to love the sharp, grassy honey they made. My dad would drive a hive out to pollinate them so Tanith’s family could collect seeds for the following year.
“That’s great.” I do my best to smile but everything inside me is folding down, brittle and unused. I offer the jar of apples.
Tanith pulls out a slice. As she crunches, juice and brine slide down her chin. She catches it and licks her finger. “I can’t believe it sold. Can you imagine anyone coming out here for their vacation? What is there to see? Trees and that church in town, the one with the saint’s remains? ‘Incorruptible,’ right?” She rolls her eyes. “Clearly fake.”
I smile, despite the pounding in my head. Yeah, nothing to see here, never mind the mountains and lakes, farms and forests. But she knows how I feel about that.
“Guess again. Beeswax is an excellent preservative.” I’ve provided the wax for the saint’s upkeep. I know.
I gesture at the cabinets and the jars of honey, the beeswax candles and tins of balm. The mint-honey lozenges. The pulled honey taffies. The wildflower mead with notes of anise. “Bees are magic. What they make lasts forever.”
And wards off decay, but I stop short from telling her how the organs of Egyptian pharaohs were preserved in honey.
She picks up a jar and lifts it to the window. Her face fills with the look people must get when they see actual gold. “How much for three?”
I hear, I don’t know if I’m ever coming back.
“For you? Free.” I’ve given her so many gifts of honey trying to bind her to me. What’s one more?
But she spots the price sticker on the bottom and gets out her wallet. “I will never understand why you keep bees in your house.”
Tourists might shudder, but how can Tanith not love bees? I don’t care what she thinks; she’s still a farmer.
I rest my hands on the applewood counter. “So they stay cool in the summer and spend their energy roaming my orchard rather than fanning the hive. And when winter sweeps snow up to my attic window, the bees are safe.”
“You know, urban beekeeping is a big thing in the City now.”
She nods, her eyes locking with mine.
I want to tell her that the orchard is all I know and, except for her, all I want. I want to say, Remember when we got drunk on mead because we were too young to buy beer? Remember how you said you wanted to stay with me? I said not to worry, go and dance, the bees will take care of me. Well, I didn’t mean it.
Her brow tightens and she rubs her temples.
“You feel the storm coming. I feel it, too.”
We glance at the sky. It’s blue, but in the mountains, things can change fast.
“The weather is supposed to be clear today.”
I haven’t had a pressure headache like this in years, so I put my hand on her arm. “Maybe you should stay.”
She pulls back, sucking her lip in a way that tears my ribs open. “You know I shouldn’t.”
“Then hurry. You don’t want to be around if a flash flood comes through that ravine.”
“Come visit.” She kisses my cheek, and I turn to her, my hand catching her jaw. I bite her lip for good measure. It might be the last time I do it.
I stare after her as she backs her car down the drive.
A shadow creeps over the ridge. Halfway between here and there is the ravine and the highway just beyond. I bolt the storm shutters. I’ll be fine. The phone lines might go, but not the electricity. I use solar backed up by battery. I have a well and plenty of food. I’m high on a hill where the tree roots are deep and strong. And the centenarian gnarls of my apple trees have weathered plenty of storms.
But that doesn’t mean I have enough.
Clouds shove through the mountains as rain scrapes towards my cottage. Wind tugs where it can, lightning stinging through the cracks. Lying on the floorboards, I count the beats between flashes and booms. Tomorrow, the bees will go out hunting and find blossoms perked by rain.
I chew some ginger-honey venison jerky, crawl into bed, and fall asleep thinking of Tanith winding away from home.
I dream the dream where I am submerged in honey. Heavy-limbed, I float as if cast in yellow glass. I can’t breathe, but I don’t need to. I can see, but only the honey, a pale linden sharp on my tongue. There is a constant buzz that is very nearly comforting.
It’s a sticky morning and the bees are even-tempered, hopeful. I’m not. Tanith hasn’t called to say she is safe. The lines are dead, so she couldn’t have. I have no reason to worry, but an ice pick chips away at my stomach.
I don’t eat breakfast. I don’t even check on the hives and deal with the new queens whose brood cells curl out from the bottom of the frame like knobby fingers. There’s a hive getting crowded that must be split soon with the queens almost ready to hatch and swarm, but I smell too nervous for the bees. I get in my pick-up and drive down the mountain past acres of orchards and woods that belong to my family. Or what’s left of it—me. When I go, no one will put me in the ground. I will dry out like an old hive and this place will go to the bees.
Nearly to the ravine, I slam the brakes. Around the bend are the beginnings of the bridge—all that’s left of it. The middle has washed away. Rubber tracks swerve across the road to the right where
trees are toppled, their branches snapped as if something heavy disappeared down the slope.
I throw the truck into park, jump out, and run to the edge of broken trees. Where is she?
There’s the car halfway down.
I climb through the undergrowth and pry open the door. Tanith’s eyes stare at nothing. A sapling has impaled the windshield and staked her heart.
I rip branches out of her and haul her out onto the mulch. She’s gone stiff. My mind empties, my body numbs. I feel only air going in and out and look at her to do the same, but she doesn’t.
I don’t know how long I scream.
Bears and coyotes, even wolves could be along soon. I wipe my face on my sleeve. I can’t leave her. And I’m not getting over that ravine. I’ve got to take her home.
Twigs clutch at me as I fumble Tanith up the hill. Don’t think. Just follow your feet and hands. They know what they’re doing. I heave her up and lay her in the truck bed.
My hands are shaking when I pull into my driveway. I hug her waist and lower her out of the truck, then barge through my shop and into my living room.
Her skin is chilly as I prop her up on my couch. She sits as if listening to something perfectly interesting.
I want to stroke her hair and tell her so many things. Instead, I get a bottle of Maker’s Mark, dark as wildflower honey. And build a fire. She must be cold.
It’s only noon, but firelight deepens the house’s shadows. My thoughts crisp and fry with the flames.
I can’t get Tanith over the bridge, but I can’t bury her here, either; she doesn’t belong to me. I can’t put her in the ice chest because it isn’t big enough. I can’t leave her outside and I definitely can’t leave her in here to ripen.
I swig the whisky. She may be dead, but I can save her. In a way.
The bottle is empty when I get up and go to the kitchen for my whetstone and knives. I carry these and some rope and buckets from my shed down into the cellar.
Then I come for her and bump her along one step at a time.
Tanith’s eyes are still open. I don’t want to close them. I lay her on my basement floor and, kneeling, smooth hair off her forehead and stroke her cheek.
“I love you. There hasn’t been I time when I haven’t. I just wish you could’ve stayed.” But there was no ballet here, no place to dance. I nip the guilt in my heart. I couldn’t have gone to the City. How would I have survived among so many others? I am not a social creature. I am not a bee.
I stand. Bees need to be told of a death in the family. Once upon a time, I’d hoped Tanith would belong here. So, I touch each hive and whisper to them. Guards dance through my whisky breath.
Tanith is so motionless. I expect her to turn over and bite her lip, to look at me like she did when we were teenagers and there were a whole lot of apple trees to get lost in.
I prepare the double boiler.
I unbutton her blouse, undo her jeans, and peel her clothes off to find freckles in funny places like secrets affairs with the sun. Bits of her shimmer with glass. She’s been ripped open. Where her heart should be is a red hole blooming as big and bright as a rhododendron.
I tie a rope around her ankles, toss the rest over a ceiling beam, and winch her up. Below her I place a bucket and it’s not long before the gouges vine downwards and she begins to drip.
I tie her hair out of the way and sink to the floor. Dusty and bloody, stinging with salt. Who knew I could have such venom in my tears.
There are over four liters of blood. We are such wet, liquid things, so red. Bees can’t see red. I pretend I am a bee as I set her onto the floor and bathe her, then fill her arteries and veins with hot, clear beeswax. I spread apple honey on her lips, which I kiss once, softly, so she remembers the both of us.
It takes a long time to scrub dirt, blood, and wax from under my nails. If I could rip them out, I would.
The fire is coals when I leave the house with the bucket of blood and march off to pour it in the creek. When I get back, the sun is slung low. I’m sweaty and my hands burn from gripping the bucket so hard. Ignoring my knee, which creaks like an apple branch, I plop onto the porch steps to watch the fireflies wink. It’s cold among the shadows. I hug myself. The moon rises as full and golden as an Ashmead kernel.
I haven’t eaten all day and it hits like my own blood has drained out. I drag myself inside and poke around the kitchen. The idea of eating makes me feel even worse, but I need to. I’m staring into the cupboard when I hear it.
It’s probably a bear sniffing around, smelling the honey. I freeze. But wait, is it coming from downstairs? Has a bear gotten inside? The basement door is closed. A bear wouldn’t have done that. And the scraping is definitely coming from below.
If whatever is down there has angered the bees, then I need to be careful.
I take my beekeeper suit from its cabinet. I hardly ever wear it, but now I pull it on and check that everything is velcroed with no holes for the bees to find. Then I grab the broom.
What’s down there? I’ve never been scared of the bees, not even when I was a child. I close the door behind me. I don’t want bees swarming into the house looking for a new home, especially if a queen has hatched. I pad down, heel to toe.
In the middle of the floor is a frame of honeycomb and there beside it is Tanith, sitting up and licking sticky sweetness off her fingers.
“Come join me.”
I stay fixed to the step. Did I imagine today? She is dead, isn’t she? Her eyes are milky. She’s covered with holes, though they aren’t red like before. They’ve been etched in—with yellow comb. Bees crawl over where her heart was pulverized by oak. Her skin is different. There’s no pink to it anymore. She is golden, filled with beeswax, which crusts her ears as bees fly in and out of her nose.
My mouth dries up.
She wobbles upright and walks towards me.
“I’m so sorry.” I say it over and over as she wraps syrupy arms around me. She smells like sunshine. Dizzying. Like if I just listen to her, everything is going to be fine.
“I want to go outside. I never get to go outside.” She takes my hand and leads me upstairs. Her legs jerk and she clutches the rail.
I put my hand on the small of her back to steady her. “You should get dressed.”
“And you have too many clothes on.”
An old ache tugs at my belly and loins. I follow her out to where moonlight bleeds over the stars. I take off the suit and let it fall away. Hungry, finally, I open the pickled apples, tart and juicy, and offer Tanith a slice.
She takes it. Inspects it. Sniffs. A bee zooms out of her nostril as if rudely awakened, and returns at once. Tanith shakes her head. “No, thanks.”
She drops the slice back in the jar.
I sit and eat the salty-sweet apples. Beauty to my bloodstream.
Tanith swings her arms, warming muscles and wax, and twirls in the moonlight. She tries to catch it and laughs. She doesn’t seem bothered by the chill or the cuts that race over her body. A leaf whips along and pastes to her thigh.
“You need a bath.” Her hair is matted with honey and blood.
She strides across the grass, bends down, and kisses me.
Violets, rain, and earth. The smell and taste of her saturate me. I am up, my tongue trading between cold skin and warm comb. I nibble her neck and she presses herself to me.
We make our way inside, up the stairs and to the bath where she lays in the tub and lets me shampoo her hair. My head chatters with things that don’t make sense, but I trust my hands and my mouth, and she does, too.
In the morning, my bed is empty. There are crumbs of resin and a dozen dead drones in the sheets. But where is Tanith?
The breeze is tossing the curtain and one sticky footprint lingers on the sill. I pop my head outside and call her name.
I grip the window and, pulling myself up, land a foot on the trellis and climb onto the roof.
She is sitting above my window watching the sunrise. Her eyes glow, ale-brown and unblinking. She’s braided her hair into a crown. Legs crossed, she leans back. I sit behind her and trace the hexagons humming beneath her skin.
A bee dances under her nose. There are new apple blossoms, come. I love watching them move. Circles or waggles. Graceful and as storied as a ballet. Out of Tanith stream vibrating wings as the bees flow towards the orchard where they will pollinate the flowers and conjure my apples.
“They always dance. I want to dance, too.” Tanith stands, not caring that we are up so high.
I stretch out an arm to help her, but she brushes past and a sliver of skin tears off on my nail. I rub it between my fingers. She is not really Tanith, but what remains of her inside?
She climbs back through my window, which I, more careful, take longer to navigate. When I get all the way downstairs, she is already outside pirouetting amongst the trees. Bees flicker after her, squirming through the cracks in her body.
She dances for hours.
I examine the hives and check for more queen brood cells, but she’s killed them all.
Tanith keeps dancing as evening stews the sky to marmalade.
Up to the porch, she springs. “I have something for you.” She tugs at where I nicked the skin on her thigh, and peels away more to reveal capped rows of honey.
I catch her eye and she nods.
With my fingernail, I pick open a cap. Inside, amber honey bursts with sunset. I touch my tongue to it. Apple. My apples, her honey, my honey, her apples, ours. In the City, we would’ve floated above everything, landless, the sources of nectar lost below to secret scraps of earth.
She’s watching me. I press my mouth to her leg, tearing off caps with my teeth and sucking up honey. She nests her hands in my hair and groans as I make my way up. She is not really Tanith, but she is more of her than I’ve had in a long time.
This is how we spend the summer: Tanith dances to melodies I cannot hear, the bees find their nectar and make honey. I don’t eat it all, but scrape most into sieves to filter out little legs and bits of wax or propolis. I don’t talk about New York or ballet or the ravine with its bridge still unrepaired. The dead bees I find in the sheets, I prick my wrists with to stave off arthritis.
One day when I find Tanith on the roof yet again, there is a nervous look in her eye.
She points north where the sky is dark and tumbling. A forest fire.
“That’s miles away. It won’t reach here.” I squeeze her waxy hand and she squeezes back. I can’t really promise that, but I also can’t do anything about it. Afternoon rain takes care of it, anyway. We celebrate with a bottle of mead and even I am dancing by the end as the hive within her thrums.
Every day I want to taste more. Her eyes shine when I take my uncapping knife and chip open the honeycomb on her stomach. Wax wedges in-between my teeth. As apple blossoms plump to fruit, I offer her new sweet, sticky things. Rose syrup and lemon icing. Bittersweet chocolate and merlot. Homemade raspberry jam. Peaches soaked in her own honey. I hold these in my mouth to tempt her and she always answers my call.
Her skin, like autumn leaves, flakes off. What replaces it is waxy and my nails catch and scratch it. Sometimes I wake before she does to the buzz of workers busy fixing and gluing what I have crumbled in the night. I can’t get the residue of her off of my skin, nor do I try. Even as her muscles burn themselves up in dance and are swapped for comb, I eat her up, too. I can’t stop myself. I have hungered; I have missed her so much. My hands need her. She melts under my friction. My mouth needs her. I bite off chunks of honeycomb along her hip and fill my belly. She tastes of apple cores and copper earth, like the soul of the mountains and the skunk of dogwood that grows near the ravine. Like clarified butter and roasted carrots. She is not Tanith but she is the nectar of her, chewed-up and condensed into honey. Immortal.
Her bees and the basement hives scout for new blooms. While Tanith squirrels up candied walnuts and peanut brittle, her lime-yellow linden honey prickles my throat. I empty her of rich, crystallizing glucose; set honey. I try not to take too much. The bees will need something for winter. Though, even if I do, the baby bees will eat protein right from the bodies of the workers themselves. Why should I worry?
In the orchard, Ashmead kernels clutter the branches. We gather the apples. I offer her bites of mine, but she declines and in the flash of rejection, I am reminded of the sting of her leaving so long ago. This Tanith wouldn’t do that. She is not really Tanith, but she is mine.
The days wane. I dream only of honey. Tanith’s body is stiff, less flesh now than comb. I offer coats and shoes, but she refuses. Says she needs to feel where she is in the air and that being covered up confuses her sense of direction. Her purpose.
She studies how I empty the hives, watching the smoker with unease, but saying nothing. Her bees block the entrances to her hivebody and fan away the fumes they usually find so hypnotic.
The bridge is fixed. The torn trees have recovered and her car stays hidden. Cider makers come for the fruit. Tanith does not dance, but hides in the house. Perhaps that would not have happened in Manhattan. But here, there is nothing for the queen and her sixty thousand children to do but eat and wait for spring.
Winter comes. The hives are dull and uneventful, the bees, dormant. Tanith’s eyes are parched cork and her movements, slow and contained. Wings whisper through her, rationing energy as the bees’ flowers freeze over.
“I’m hungry,” she says, sitting and staring mistrustfully at the fire.
I offer her a bowl of sugar cubes as crisp and white as the snow.
She touches one to her dry tongue. Crumbles it against yellowing teeth.
“What is this?” She spits it out.
I hover over her. “Can I get you something else?”
But she shakes her head and goes to the kitchen. I follow. She reaches into the cupboard and takes out a jar of honey. She unscrews it, raises it to her lips, and drinks. She finishes it without pausing to breathe, but she doesn’t do that, does she?
Her eyes are softer now, warmed and sated.
“Better? Or are you going to eat all my honey?”
“Your honey?” Bees bullet out from her ears and nose to halo around her face. She smells different, like more than disapproval. Like bananas. Is she trying to intimidate me?
I almost laugh, but raise my hands instead. “I’m sorry, you’re right. Happy?”
She smiles. “For now.”
The bees retreat and her smell lightens. I want to drown in it. I know she’s trying to manipulate me with pheromones. This creature is not really Tanith. This is a walking candle that’s afraid of fire.
And what am I? I am lonely.
She leads me to the couch where waxy fingers hum over me as I watch the flames twist and leap.
I wake up with a crick in my neck. My head is half-off the couch. The house is cold and dark, the early light muted even more so by snow that has masked the windows overnight.
The fire smolders. But I smell more than charred timber. Pine needles. My smoker. I run to the basement.
Emptied pots of honey lay smashed across the floor. Tanith is oozing. Dollops of honey roll out of a fissure in her shoulder from which bone protrudes. So close to her, the smoker blankets not just the bees’ alarm scent, but her scent, breaking the spell shielding me from seeing the extent to which the hive has consumed her. Her hair is patchy and her skull split open, nurse bees abuzz over the brood comb within. She faces me with a grin of rotten gums, and eyes that are no longer golden-brown, but the compounded black stare of a hive. Honey drips from her mouth and from the bone-bowl that once held her heart. Threads of honey trail after her footsteps where shards of glass have pierced the soles of her feet. She leans with the bellows blowing smoke over the hive she has prized open. A few bees that are still alert try to sting her, catching their barbs in her wax and tearing open their abdomens. Dying useless deaths. Her fingers race over the frames and snatch the queen, crushing her.
“What are you doing?” I rush towards her, bracing myself for her to throw the smoker at me, but instead she sets it down and opens her arms.
“Come. Kiss me.” From her ear flows a dangerously fragrant curtain of bees. They fold around me. She dips her hand into a frame of honeycomb and beckons with a sticky claw.
I am not wearing my hood or any sort of protection. Just my nightshirt. Bees land on my cheeks and bare legs.
She smiles, the Tanith who is not my Tanith and also not mine. Lilac and lavender float around her, massaging my vision, but I cannot unsee the truth. She pours forward, extending honeyed fingers, and dabs my lips.
Even if I don’t lick it, it will remain there forever. Like pollen, I am embedded within its amber. I am the honey. It is what my bones are made of, my flesh, my heart, too. The linden, the apples, the thyme between the rows. The mountain air. The ravine, the storms, and all the wild blooms.
And the bees? They will take care of me. I promised Tanith they would and I was right all along.
I take her hand as a bee stings my chin, another, my eyelid. The back of my neck. My blood pressure drops from the surge of venom. Shaky, I lie down as she guides my shoulders and begins cupping warm honey over my skin.
She kisses me.
There’s a tickle as I open my mouth to hers. Then six fuzzy feet land on my tongue and nudge their way in.
About the Author
Kathryn McMahon is a queer cross-genre writer living in Montana with her spousal unit. She can usually be found in the woods, her garden, or in the kitchen making gluten-free treats. Her prose has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Luna Station Quarterly, PodCastle, and elsewhere. Find more of her writing at www.darkandsparklystories.com and follow her on Twitter at @katoscope.
About the Narrator
There are few entertainment fields that Rhianna Pratchett hasn’t written for. In her award-winning work for games, she’s crafted titles such as Heavenly Sword, Mirror’s Edge, the entire Overlord series, Tomb Raider, Rise of the Tomb Raider and Lost Words: Beyond the Page. In the world of comics, Rhianna has contributed stories for DC, Dark Horse, Dynamite, Marvel and Kodansha. Some of her favourite achievements in that field include creating an origin story for Red Sonja’s chainmail bikini and having Lara Croft fight bad guys on the London Underground whilst dressed as one of the Bennet sisters.
In film and TV, Rhianna has worked with Motive Pictures, Film4, New Regency, Complete Fiction, The Jim Henson Company and The Bureau. She is also co-director of Narrativia, the multi-media production company who control the rights to the works of Sir Terry Pratchett – her late father.
Most recently, Rhianna wrote the Fighting Fantasy novel Crystal of Storms. The first woman to do so in the history of the nostalgia-inducing franchise. She also co-authored the hilarious Campaigns & Companions: The Complete Roleplaying Guide for Pets.
Rhianna lives in London, likes hard liquor, soft cats, and makes a damn fine tiramisu.
About the Artist
Marty Perrett has dabbled in the podcasting/narrating/production world for around 10 years now and likes to fumble his way around manipulating audio for best results. An office manager by day, he lives with his partner and their ridiculous cat in London. His local pub knows him by name and starts pouring his drink before he’s even stepped in the door.
Marty is also perpetually in the middle of writing a four-part comedy sci-fi novella series called Space Danger, under the name Doug Strider. His belief is that if one day he should finish it then all other prophecies will come to pass (in time for tea, it is believed). So it’s like a huge responsibility.