A Feral Queen

By John Minichillo

Sue Ellen knew a healthy fear of dinosaurs and bumblebees. Dinosaurs populated her nightmares, where they turned up in miniature, like squat dogs that bit at her legs with pointed teeth. They foamed at the mouth, hungry for her, and when Sue Ellen’s mother tucked her in and told her to pray, the word she heard was “prey,” and she hoped her limbic system had already fallen asleep, the place her father called the seat of her fears. Dinosaurs weren’t real, she knew this, but they appeared in her dreams sinewy and fast. They would sometimes purr and sidle up to her. Small or not, they were dinosaurs and not to be trusted, with birdbrains and lizardy dispositions. Sue Ellen would sometimes lie awake through the night. And in the morning she had to pretend she’d slept.

“Bumblebee” was what Sue Ellen called any stinging insect, a rational anxiety supported by everyone around her. She wasn’t afraid of them, as bumblebees, but she was allergic, and well aware that a harmless sting could kill her. So when, in the shade of their poplar, she recognized a faint buzzing and looked up to see the fast flying darts swirling around a globe of dried mud, she backed away slowly, then she ran to the house, where she stayed inside for days. Her father promised to do something about the hive. Honeybees, he said. But he was a little afraid of being stung himself, and wanted to plumb the minds of the men at the hardware store in order to suit up with the best possible chemical attack. So Sue Ellen occupied herself indoors, against her nature, watching TV, or trying her hand at her father’s video games, until she could hardly stand it, the sun shining through the sliding glass door, then the sun turning orange, and another summer day wasted.

On Saturday, she ran to the front seat of her father’s Silverado and made sure all the windows were rolled up. He came out slowly, so sure he wouldn’t be stung. Sue Ellen saw, and he didn’t even realize, how one of the bumblebees flew toward him, and above him, where it paused and contemplated him, before curling off. Honeybees, he would have corrected her. Honeybees.

At the True Value she wandered an aisle with buckets and boxes of nails, screws, tacks, hinges, latches, springs. The connecting-together aisle. Then she walked down a row of hoses, pipes, faucets, and shower heads. The spraying-down aisle. Then she stopped in front of a locked display case of hammers, screwdrivers, socket wrenches, monkey wrenches, and pipe wrenches. The screwing-on aisle. And she loved this old-fashioned place with kind men who were always happy to be there, and the heavy objects infused with permanence and utility. Fishing poles. Fertilizer. Lawnmowers. Seed.

When her father reappeared, he said, “Let’s go,” but he didn’t buy anything, and he wasn’t carrying any insecticide. He recognized Sue Ellen’s puzzled anxious look and he said, “We got something better.” He patted his shirt pocket where he’d put a slip of paper with a phone number, and he explained, “There’s a guy will come take care of our bees. And he’ll even pay us.”

* * *

When the beekeeper arrived, Sue Ellen and her father stayed in the house and watched out the sliding glass door as he climbed up a ladder in his white astronaut suit, smoked the hive, cut the poplar branch, and lowered the whole swarming mass into a large Rubbermaid container with a snap-on lid. He waved at them that it was okay to come out, but Sue Ellen saw how the bumblebees were angry, with several left outside their stolen home. So she waited while her father went out to talk with the beekeeper. He was excited, his sense of scientific curiosity stimulated, like it was Shark Week or Discovery of the Pyramids happening in his own backyard. He was beaming when he came back in, and he said, “He says we can go. He’ll show us his hives.”

Sue Ellen could not believe that her father, even for a moment, considered this a good idea. She knew that if her mother was home, with a word she would put a stop to it. But then she also recognized that her mother being gone was the problem. If her mother were home he could go off with the beekeeper while she stayed home and everyone would be happy. Today, however, he just wasn’t up to the challenge of taking care of her. He was that child that lived inside himself, and he wasn’t going to hear her say no.

“He said we could follow him,” her father said.

Sue Ellen was going to be made to go along.

“He says it’s perfectly safe,” he said. She knew it wasn’t. “You can face your fear.” She really didn’t need that last bit of advice, because there was more than fear involved. In fact, she wasn’t afraid. She really wasn’t. She just didn’t want to die was all. What was so difficult to understand about that?

* * *

The Rubbermaid container with the hive was in the bed of the beekeeper’s pick-up and Sue Ellen and her father followed in the Silverado, which was an older truck, without air conditioning, and they drove with the windows rolled down. The beekeeper had taken off his gloves and his screen-helmet but drove off still wearing the white suit. Sue Ellen kept an eye on the lid of the container in front of them after each bump in the road, to be sure it didn’t jostle open, and she concentrated on not appearing as skittish as she felt, especially with the windows down.

They drove through a part of town Sue Ellen’s parents never stopped in, and after they crossed under a bridge with railroad tracks, and across a second set of tracks, the road took them away from the city, where the yards were spacious. They passed the new Wal-Mart, and the Lowes, with the fast food joints, the multiplex theater, and all the other businesses that had grown up in this empty place. And then there were fields. The beekeeper turned down a county road and before long they were driving through a peach orchard, with peaches in season, tarps around the trees, and workers operating cherry pickers or climbing ladders up into the short trees. At one end of the orchard, the beekeeper parked near his apiary, with box after stacked white box of buzzing, active, swirling bees.

“I’m not going out there,” Sue Ellen said.

“You can stay in the car,” her father said.

“I’m not going out there.”

The beekeeper walked over and he let himself into the Silverado. Sue Ellen scooted over to the middle of the cab and sat between them.

“I want to thank you, Sue Ellen,” the beekeeper said, “for giving me that hive. We’re in the midst of an environmental catastrophe. The bees are dying and you’ve given us the antidote: a feral queen.”

“Why are they dying?” Sue Ellen said.

“No one knows,” the beekeeper said. “We think they’re stressed. The farm crops are a monoculture. There’s not enough diversity and they’re inbred. They’ve got a syndrome.”

“Like AIDS,” her father said.

“Something like that,” the beekeeper said. “They’re working too hard. They eat the same kind of pollen all day every day. They get sick. They get confused. They get lost.”

“It’s like if you had to eat mac and cheese every day,” her father said.

“I like mac and cheese,” Sue Ellen said.

“But it’s not good for you. Not all the time. You’d get sick, probably.”

“A dog eats dog food every day.”

“They’re dogs,” her father said.

“I’m not going out there.”

“I’ve got a suit for you,” the beekeeper said.

“She doesn’t have to if she doesn’t want to,” her father said. And so Sue Ellen was resigned to sitting in the cab of the Silverado with the windows rolled up, hot as it was, but there was no way she was going to go out there.

Her father put on one of the suits and the two of them carried the Rubbermaid container over to an empty white box, the last in a row of apartment buildings and the new tenement for this transported hive. Sue Ellen wasn’t quite sure what she’d given them, but she felt sorry for the bees. They were out here in the country, yes, in an orchard no less, with peach blossoms everywhere in the spring. But she’d been made to understand this life for them was somehow lacking, and that eventually they would suffer for it. She couldn’t tell her father from the beekeeper in their matching white suits as they worked, except the beekeeper would sometimes point, or take up the smoke, but then these men would become confused again in her mind. And she only hoped her father would remember who he was to be able to drive her home.

They seemed to take their time. And the heat in the cab of the Silverado had Sue Ellen drenched with sweat. She had heard that dogs could die if left like this. She resented being treated like a dog, and she cracked her window and the window on the driver’s side, to let in fresh air. And then a bee landed on the windshield and a bee flew into the cab with her. It landed on the steering wheel and crawled halfway round before it fell to the floor, then it buzzed about the cabin. Through all of this Sue Ellen wasn’t afraid. Through all of this she felt sorry for the bee. It ate mac and cheese every day and was made sick by it. The bee had AIDS. It was overworked, lost, tired, confused. Then the bee landed on the seat, and as it crawled toward her, Sue Ellen calmly untied and removed her shoe. She smacked it dead and smacked it a second time just to be sure. She was sorry she had to, but there was no question; she had to kill it.

If she could see the look on her father’s face under the screen-helmet, Sue Ellen knew he was smiling. He was a boy again, taken back. And he was thinking he wanted to raise bees for a living, to be a beekeeper full-time who also somehow made the house payment.

Then he started to dance. He stripped off the suit and ran. It was obvious to Sue Ellen one of the bees had gotten under the collar of the suit and had stung his neck. Other bees pursued him while the beekeeper waved and yelled to him that he shouldn’t run. Sue Ellen laughed, and Sue Ellen was glad, not that her father was being stung, but that she was right, that she wouldn’t have been safe and that all this would be over soon.

As her father came hobbling back, the beekeeper escorted him to the Silverado. He lifted Sue Ellen’s father’s shirt to inspect the welt, he assured him he’d be fine, and he suggested a cold water bath with baking soda. Her father was sulking and sheepish, and as they drove back, Sue Ellen realized it was because he was going to have to explain the bee sting to Sue Ellen’s mother, and that would be it for her father—the end of his beekeeper fantasy and the beginning of a well-deserved chewing out.

He sat straight up as they drove away down the county road and Sue Ellen was glad for the breeze as they rolled down their windows and picked up speed. The smell of over-ripe peaches permeated the air, and Sue Ellen took in the orchard workers as she wondered who they were, and where they lived, out here past everything.

They came to the Wal-Mart and its environs, with so many cars and so much pavement, the heat rising and the obnoxious signs towering over flatland. Before long, they’d crossed back over the railroad tracks, under the tracks on the bridge, and back into the part of town where Sue Ellen’s parents never stopped, with the peach orchard closer than it seemed on the way out.

A woman walked out toward the curb, and she thumbed at the Silverado for a ride. Sue Ellen’s father leaned out the window as they slowed, and Sue Ellen was excited about the prospect of picking up a hitchhiker. This was turning out to be an exciting day after all. But her father, with the back of his neck stung, and sweating in the heat of the old beaten Silverado, had turned into someone she didn’t recognize.

“Get a job!” he shouted and sped away.

Sue Ellen felt a sinking in her gut. She saw in the side-view mirror how the woman stopped thumbing and waved her middle finger.

Her fathered muttered to no one but himself, “I hate trash. I really do.”

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John Minichillo

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