The buzzing grew. At first it was nothing, then loud, then the source of a terror to rival Philomel’s as her brother-in-law approached her with two blades and panting – then the buzzing grew soothing. Like everything was always this buzzing, like this buzzing was like breathing. The bees were at his mouth and with their own bee-mouths were chewing on the wax they had stored deep in their viscera; they were filling that slight space between his lips with hexagonal combs. Art, science and survival commingled because they do. Stereo Binns knew then that this wax would be the last thing he ever tasted, that his mouth would never move its lips again for speaking. The loss didn’t strike him as particularly profound – the last thing he’d said had been something like “Huh?” and his utterings before that had never been much better. Once he’d had a lady friend and he knew (somehow) all of the wrong things to say. She left without ceremony, indeed, she’d forgot to tell him that they’d broken up even after his boss (at the time) had given his sympathy for the failed relationship. He texted her about it – she never texted back to say one way or another.
A bee thumped its plump body against his cheek, the others thumped right back. ‘Oh, North now,’ Stereo thought as the bees mounted up his face, bumble-stepping on whisker legs. It wasn’t a difficult journey – three bee-steps, really – and they were at his nose. He tried to look down at them, but only succeeded in giving himself a mild throb of a headache (it bloomed like a touched bruise) from the strain of crossing his eyes. His nostrils received the same treatment as his mouth. At first Stereo tried to strain against it: all at once he didn’t want to suffocate in this place in this way, but he was unable to move. The bee with the thickest black band around its belly looked at him and thumped its body against his face again. Stereo wouldn’t lose his breathing, and if he did, it wasn’t the breathing that mattered – it was the smelling.
The last thing he’d noticed smelling (aside from the fermented sweetness that was the wax) had been vomit and blue toilet water. An old man was in the Labour Ready office that morning and had collapsed, vomiting on himself. Stereo tried to get the receptionist to do a thing about it, but she just made a little piggy face of disgust and latched back onto her computer screen. Stereo knew she was playing Farmville or some shit, and he also knew that she couldn’t care – didn’t know how to care – even if she wanted to. Stereo knew it because he was the same way. Nonetheless, something compelled him (probably the stench) and he had helped the old man to the washroom. He knew his name was Don, but he wasn’t about to do a thing about it. Stereo hated the dirty addicts and victims of mental disease that showed up at the Labour Ready. He hated them with the kind of red rage usually reserved for real estate agents and bureaucrats.
Stereo snorted derisively, reflexively, and accidentally launched a cluster of combs from his nostril. The bee with the thick band thumped for him to compose himself. Stereo was humbled into softer breathing.
After the bees had repaired the damage they separated into two groups – one migrating left along his face and the other migrating right. When each group had reached an ear the thick-banded bee landed on the tip of Stereo’s nose, thumped once and jiggled twice. His hearing would be going now. Stereo was particularly uncertain about the loss of this sense on account of it being the only one that had ever provided him with any real pleasure. The first time he’d heard “The Only Living Boy in New York” it had made his stomach feel like he was on a roller coaster – he put the needle back to the indent that started that song at least thirty times that day. He remembered the warm big-swell, probably the colour of all the roses, erupting from his gut, stretching his skin and forcing the molecules that made him solid to reach and find a partner in the wider world. He had blended.
But then. But then there was also that time his mother yelled and how that time was all the time. There were the sharp giggles of schoolgirls when he was a schoolboy. There were all those words that were never kind and for him. He could do without the ears. He felt something like that music-swelling in the vibration of the bee-bodies.
All movement ceased. The thick-banded bee hovered in front of his eyes and Stereo blinked twice. He could be ready for this too. The most beautiful things he’d ever seen were flowers. All of their efforts toward procreation only lasted a brief season, but included all of nature all at once. Stereo intuited that nothing could be more intimate than including the whole wide world in your love-making. He was enamored of the idea, even if he couldn’t know why.
Stereo wasn’t dying a virgin. He did have some notion of the sex and how it was done among mammals: belly to belly and belly to back. When he was twenty-eight he had set himself up to go out and get lunatic-drunk just so he could muster the courage to buy the time of one of those night-ladies. In the back of his car he saw her skeleton under falling, thin skin. She had a big gash of scar tissue across her stomach where a baby had been pulled from her. He’d asked her if she’d had a boy or a girl. She looked at him with eyes that were black and sinking and set to work with a clenched fist and a decidedly professional level of detachment. The next day the world had loomed vivid to him; all the colours had saturated themselves to the point of surfeiting. She hadn’t been beautiful, but she’d been electric, and with her pulse she had charged the world with all the beauty she lacked. The day after a night with a whore was the most beautiful he’d ever seen, and that’s when he intuited about the flowers and how they were generous in their lovemaking.
While Stereo reminisced, the bees had snuck into his sockets and gnawed at his optic nerves. With a grim sort of triumph they finally managed to detach the eyes – made heavy by their two humors – and heave them from their sockets. Stereo still knew it when when the sun burned through the perpetual cloud haze. Even though his eyes were nothing more than limp lids draped over bone holes, he knew the sun because he felt it. Gradually, and with great sensitivity, the bees filled those gaping holes with more combs.
The thick-banded bee pressed itself against his face and vibrated to him. Next was his touching. All at once the whole swarm arrived and Stereo’s skin became heavy as each of all of the bees mounted him at once. Then, with the delicate light-prickling points of their bee-feet, they began to prise his pores apart.
Aside from that one-night lady, Stereo had never really been touched. So far as he could tell, his skin (and all the textures it could identify and respond to) had not done much other than confirm that he was solid and condemned to live within the confines of his flesh. The only time it acted otherwise was when he was swollen with that music, and it was that swelling-expanding sensation that he felt now as his body melded into the many movements of the bees that covered him.
The hum was thunderous; the hum was everything; the hum was three Richter-nine earthquakes buried deep in his skeleton, erupting up from his bones and echoing back on itself. Stereo knew he was ending and when he knew it he finally understood. He understood that vibration was communication and that all of those bees spoke at once and that each one spoke to itself. He understood that the queen and her great fecund belly were close and approaching, that the bees had to dig in deeper and make more cells for her to lay her eggs in.
Stereo understood that she had earned this: fed exclusively on royal jelly and faster than all of the other virgin queens, she had struck them down with her stinger, flew into the vast outside, and birthed a colony from her one small body. When she arrived she mounted the backs of her subjects and writhed, rolling through waves of bee-body on bee-body, toward the deepest deep. Stereo’s heart broke open to make room for her and her many children.
Ashley Tombu is an aspiring psychologist-mother-wife who is more than mildly occupied by the art and science of people. She hopes one day to be very tall, but as she is already thirty and woefully average in height, she does not think that is likely.