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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 8, Number 3, September 2014

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Gary LeBel
Cumming, Georgia, USA


C.

There is a world elsewhere.
               â€”William Shakespeare, Coriolanus, Act III, Scene III

where sun-bright fields are ending
the evergreen forest begins:
sequestered in tines of iron
once-white marble's swept
by winds and a tide of lichen . . .

When we went to visit them Sundays, the curtains were always drawn, a see-through, dingy affair that filled the parlor as if with a haze of smoke. Talk among the adults was quiet, hushed and strained, the surrounding countryside vying to trump the silence within that small New England farmhouse with its own: the shingled roof weighed a thousand medieval earths, and the pressure of that silence was often hard to bear.

C. would always sit in a chair behind us, and in the murk of the parlor's shadows, his face seemed all the more misshapen as he sat in silence, the animal within him crouched and watchful through the deeps of half-light.

But one of those slow-footed afternoons I heard him say my name, which startled me out of my boredom, and when I looked around his coal-black eyes had caught hold of mine.

"Let's go." he said, "Want to?" and when I nervously agreed he rose, groaning as he pushed himself up with both hands flat on the arms of his chair, inches shorter than his true height would have been, had not the rest been stowed away in the deep curve of his spine.

With the adults hardly noticing our sudden absence, C. led me past what appeared to be a row of daguerreotypes, and a grandfather clock that ticked ominously away in the cramped narrowness of the hallway. I had never been so far into the house.

We came to a bright, Spartan kitchen, and the field with its sweet summery odor drifted in through the screen door. He opened it and without a word bid me to step out onto the back porch first. Watching the way he moved I saw that his hands and body were wracked with pain: I had begun to like him.

There were eleven steps, I know, because I am a compulsive counter of such things. Beyond the porch lay a wide, inviting slope that was lush with a yellow-green nearing its zenith. In the middle of it was the largest slab of granite I'd ever seen, but like an enormous stepping stone, it was inset, thus flush with the surrounding earth. The breadth of the field itself, so bright and vivid under the cloudless sky, verged on the point of levitation, held in place by a verdure of thick spruce and pine at the margins. Straight off the porch, in the middle of the field, beside the granite, lay another slope descending at a far steeper grade, almost as if it were a trough that had been dug by hand and grassed over. Beyond it in the distance, between a narrow gap in the tall pines glimmered a patch of luminous blue, the river, the aspect I most remember about their property. "Come on," he said. "Not far."

We set off down the steeper slope, C. taking careful and arduous steps till we neared the woods and a path that opened there like a door. Though narrow, it looked well-trodden. C. was in his element now for you sensed that he could have followed its sudden twists and turns blindfolded as he quickened his pace to a capering limp. The smell of the trees and bushes was intoxicating, as thick and sweet as if someone had unscrewed an enormous jar of it.

Leaving the woods finally, we stepped out into another clearing, into a meadow that was nearly level, a kind of small intimate valley in which the surrounding fields sloped up and away from it like a Greek theater. There on the stage, whitewashed wooden boxes were arranged in a loose circle; the glare from them was almost blinding, and in the strong sunlight they seemed to hover. As we neared them, I could see that bees were coming and going with the regularity of a stopwatch.

Now C. said in a whisper, "You stay here. They don't know you. Not like me."

And as he bid me to remain where I was, I watched him move to the center of the white wooden boxes. There was an increase in the bees' activity immediately, and even from where I was standing, more than a few yards away, I could hear them faintly.

He stood there like a scarecrow, his head bowed on account of his terrible humpback. He rolled up the sleeves of his white dress shirt. And lifting his arms till horizontal he began to shout.

"Bees, come dance! Come dance!"

After a minute or so, I watched in astonishment as swarms of bees began filing out of the hives in brownish streams made a circle round him as if their queens were in danger. I trembled as their numbers grew and swelled the air with a much louder, excited buzzing.

I wanted to turn and run but my feet were frozen.

C. stood calm and tranquil as the growing mass of honeybees wove a great living cloth of movement and noise around him covering every inch of his naked face and hands, even his white shirt; he swatted none, but stayed erect and purposeful, his arms held straight out like wings.

I could see the shape of his face clearly as they made a mask of it, covering his arms and gloving his hands with their tremulous mittens, all without an inch of flesh or fabric showing from the waist up, the long, protruding chin, the high forehead standing apart from the rest of his face relished by the bees. Even his eyes, his eyelids! were completely covered over with yellow-brown bodies, all of him aquiver with those busy little engines, shifting and circling in place, flying from one place to another wherever there was space to be found. I tried to imagine what all those little feet and tiny tongues must have felt like as they explored and tasted every speck of him now a writhing sarcophagus of exuberant life.

And then he started to walk round in a circle, very slowly, stepping forward and back as he danced a kind of courtier's gigue while the dense swarms clung to him.

After a few more minutes that seemed like hours, he stopped and raised his arms slowly above his head like a steeple almost joining hands at the top, slowly, I say, so as not to frighten a single bee lest it become an instantaneous broadcast of alarm: C. knew exactly the speed and amplitude to impose on each movement in this slow, subtle ballet, a knowledge gained doubtlessly from years of practice.

And then, exactly as if they were being peeled away from him like the skin of an orange by an unseen hand, in a matter of moments their layers parted and went streaming back, like a fluid in reverse into their respective hives.

C. began to walk towards me, his face and high forehead flushed with a light pinkish tinge. He was smiling from ear to ear with an irresistibly beaming pride, his double-rowed teeth flashing like the mouth of a lamprey.

"How did you do that?" I asked.

"I like them," he said, "and they like me."

"They sure do!" I said breathless and still bewildered.

"Let's go," he said, pointing. And so we started back up the path through the woods without so much as a word between us. All the way there, trailing behind, I kept staring at him in wonder.

We climbed back up the porch-steps, he behind me; he opened and held the screen door for me again, the old wan color returning to his face.

I noticed when we were in the hallway that a honeybee was crawling out of his shirt pocket and I pointed excitedly.

"Hey, there's still one in your pocket!"

He looked down and smiled and went quickly back outside, with me on his tail.

He stood in front of me on the porch, coaxing the lost bee from his shirt to his fingertip. Once it climbed on he held it close to my eyes; it seemed to obey his every wish. I wanted it to ride on my fingertip, too, but I was afraid of being stung.

"Friend," he said. "Here," and drawing my courage up tight as a knot, I placed my trembling finger next to C.'s.

"Go," he said to it softly, and it migrated from his fingertip onto mine. Just then my father came to the kitchen door to see what we were doing. As soon as he opened it, the bee flew off. C. watched it disappear with a wistful gaze. "Go home," he said quietly, "Go home."

We both returned to the parlor and C. took his usual place behind us, half-submerged in shadow. He was smiling to himself, and when he saw that I was watching him, his eyes looked briefly into mine, then as quickly away. Through all that had happened, I had seen him.

Unable to contain my excitement, I went back out on the porch alone. The woods were softly respiring, and on its breath I could smell a faint odor of cool, moist earth mixed with the sweet turpentine of the pines. The clear sky was the color of a robin's egg, and seemed like an enormous eye, one that had always seen him, perhaps as I had just begun to, one that had praised and guided his simple, uncluttered ways, an eye that had shown him the path to the apiary one fortuitous day, to consummate a union, a brotherhood that curiously now included me.

And as I sat on the top step looking out through the gap in the tall pines at the blue of the river, the sun declining, the early dark sifting down through the restive leaves, I couldn't have said how or exactly when it happened but everything had changed.

With a chin
like The Man in the Moon and a smile
overrun with a cache of teeth,
O distant uncle, why do I think of you
tonight of all nights?

Envoy

Armed only with imperfection
to meet the blind & shunning armies
it's only tonight
that I've learned to hear
the silence of that parlor . . .

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