By Cara Hoffman
The helicopter hovered above the girl, hovered above the still green retina of the in-ground pool, where the girl lay on her towel. A single, armed Adonis hung from the door, in his flak jacket, dark glasses, and boots, and she hoped it might land out on the long stretch of burnt prairie that rolled out to the perimeter fence. But it was caught as it descended, pulled up suddenly as if by an invisible wire, then banked just as fast, and was gone, over the yellow hill.
The air was thick with pollen and she lay sweltering beneath the scant shade of a battered awning by the abandoned cabana, reluctant to get up and cross the hot cement to slip beneath the murky water. She rested her arm over her face and began to drift, wishing she was back at work in that perfectly ordered world; the smell of wax and honey and wholesome fire; the little bellows puffing clouds of calming smoke into the hive so that she and Tetsuo could tend the bees.
A second helicopter passed lower this time, deafening, blotting out the sun, rippling the dry grass. She pulled the top of her bathing suit down exposing her breasts to the cool wind, and one of the soldiers leaned out to snap a picture. The first one was antipersonnel, this one was to document its work.
Above her, inaudible, the boy with the gun said, That was so nice.
Yeah, that’s all Green’s getting, said the boy with the camera.
That’s all Green’s ever got, said the boy behind the stick.
Green laughed. No, man, y’know f’real. It was just nice of her.
It was the only living body they’d photographed that week.
Past the cinderblock dormitories and white plywood outbuilding and the long half-sunken bunker of the med-test lay the shade of the pomegranate grove where Tetsuo waited; zipped into his suit. She walked quickly, sweating, checking for gaps at her ankles and neck, making sure she was sealed in, running her gloved hands over the hood, looking for holes.
He raised a fistful of dead grass and she raised the green plastic lighter and flicked a spark by way of greeting.
Today they’d check the bees for mites, see if any had brought viruses home to the hive, exposed the queen. They’d scoop clumps of delicate bodies off the combs and examine the brood cells. See who was ready to be born, to learn the mapping flights, who had died and been re-absorbed. They’d mix oxalic acid with sugar and spray it on frames. And they would stand together as they did each day, silent at the center of the circumambient hum, unable to see each other’s faces, their voices muffled or spent from heat and thirst and fatigue.
Tetsuo Uber was the great-great-grandson of the inventor of the hanging frame. The file cabinet–like constructions where bees build their hives; white boxes that could be seen in other places, stacked in lone meadows or by the crests of highways, somewhere near fall flowers, near berry bushes or orchards.
Outside the apiary’s little grove there was nowhere else to go, besides the swimming pool and the dust road that ran along the perimeter fence. She took the job because she could work in the field instead of the lab; be outside, be visible from the air in case some kind soldier flying over had room for a passenger. If there was any dying to do it wouldn’t be done underground, or in a crowd, the thought of dying in a crowd was unbearable. And these details factored into the dysteleology that she somehow considered to be decisions she’d made—a kind of self-determination brought about by fate; brought about by narrowing the concentric circles of providence.
They worked without speaking, baking in their white suits, and it was only in the packaging plant or the changing room where they wiped sweat from their faces and smoked and shuffled over to drink from the fountain that she could see him; pale like a creature who lived near the ocean floor, his face deeply lined, arms dotted with the raised scabs of stings, dark intelligent eyes. She handed him the shipping forms for a case of propolis and he signed his name beneath hers, the percussive scrape of the pen like a match being struck.
Her signature never appeared alone, was always followed by detainee number and housing bloc number, the same numbers which were stamped inside her boots, and on the collar of her protective suit. Still, a signature is all it takes to get you work in zones of disaccord; places that no longer mattered or may soon become unmapped. And she’d determined that this work would be instructive down to the cellular level; would rebuild (through the resistance to stings and the consumption of honey) whatever discipline or determination it was that floated the helicopter day trips of armed beauties with telephoto lenses. That kept them weaving a rope of sand, kept them hovering between corpses and the exposed breasts of women in work camps.
When it was clear that she had studied somewhere, they asked if she knew anything about entomology. Having just come from six weeks in an experimental trial in the med-test, and still seeing halos around each tree, faces rising from the dirt, spiders shimmering in every drop of water, she told them yes, yes.
The sheets smelled like sweat and smoke and the room was hot, but the house was her own; a particle board cube with a tarpaper roof and cracked solar panels near an outcropping of limestone by the billets. Such freedom. At night the big cats shrieked like wind, the stars were no different than before. Dreams were still landscapes of sex and food and cities, keys that worked, locks that broke, a getaway car, the ability to swim in the sky. Or dreams were of Tetsuo lying beside her, his belly rising and falling, his breath making no sound while she drew on his skin with the tip of a finger; signing her name, writing about the algae thick as moss on the swimming pool walls; about the pieces of waxy comb she chewed to keep from feeling hungry. No touch could wake him, in the dream, no story. The curtainless windows in the dream are black. A single lethargic bee crawled in the corner of the sill, and it turned out it could speak. And then there was the siren and she ran to put her boots on, to head for the border fence, but it’s only the siren that signals the start of day.
She picked up a pound of margarine, a pound of rice, two loaves of white bread, coffee, apples, a pomegranate, two packs of cigarettes; more than enough food to supplement the meat kit. She ate honey by the tablespoon. She went to the billets when she was sure she wouldn’t see another human face, especially the short timers, or the people who’d just arrived. They didn’t pretend they were somewhere else—like home—like an apartment or a hotel or a college intern- ship. They didn’t pretend they were an apprentice to an artisan, or a scientist. They didn’t go to the pool, though they could. No one went to the pool but the girl. The other prisoners were housed two or five to a barracks. Most of their work was in the factories, and some were employed, what could be called employed, in the medical-testing facilities.
Tetsuo had a bicycle, and a ring of keys, a cat, an account at a bank, and a garden of grasses and stones, but he was still inside the fence, serving his sentence too, from inside a green shingled house on a rise to the east of the apiary. When the helicopters ceased to pass, Tetsuo would not be traded for another living body, nor for a dead body, nor pieces of a dead body, nor for information. When the helicopters ceased to pass no one would show up to debrief him. He would put on his yellow helmet, put his cat in a side pouch, and ride his bicycle away.
Or when the helicopters ceased to pass nothing would happen. No one would be traded, or debriefed. No one would go home and there would be silence, there would be winter. The girl and Tetsuo would produce honey for no one to pick up. The women in the med- test and the women in the factory would wander away, not worth a bullet. The difference between authority and the lack of it having had, after all, no real distinction. Several years investment in the outskirts of inhumanity would have been dissolved by the day-to- day, by common language, by the undeniable likenesses in form, and all that form disguises. People—even the girl—could remember that California wasn’t always like this. Or maybe, she thinks, they could remember that it was always something like this. Believing in a future, any future, was a luxury she had because of Tetsuo. Her skin wasn’t a petri dish for variations on entropy, or the thin red landscape for chemical burns, observed with a lover’s steady mastery of the detail. She was not looking into human eyes that looked into her human eyes, while feeding her chemicals that had yet to be named. Neither was she sitting with her mind in blank repose as she helped build some or other mysterious item for deployment.
She kept bees. She swam between the tile crosses at the ends of the algae-covered lap lanes, and this was not the apocalypse of her dreams. This was no uncovering. No peeling back the surface to reveal anew, Adam and Eve amid the rubble, back-to-back, a four- legged creature that could at last think and do on its own. And she thought about Tetsuo’s veined white hands as he suited up, and later as he lit his cigarette—the languidness there, a defeat or inertia, or simply biding, waiting.
For three thousand years people had been eating honey that had first passed through thousands of tiny mouths; made from particles of yellow dust, that hung in the air and coated the stamens of flowers, honey that was made in a home constructed of nectar and spit. And there was poison too, she remembered; a story about a hive near a mechanic shop, bees drinking antifreeze, making green honey. And ancient poison too; the honey from the rhododendron flower, she thought, which wiped out a Roman invasion near the Black Sea, soldiers poisoned, helpless.
She drew new houses for the bees with a stub of a pencil that had been left in her room, schematics that would increase the production of the Apis Meliflora, and gave them to Tetsuo before they opened the hive.
Why do you think they’ll produce more inside this construction? he said.
It expands the space for brood cells, she said, without having to stack another super.
It would require more fertilization to produce more females. This doesn’t simplify anything. You can assume the hive will self- regulate, especially Meliflora, but you can’t predict the initial response.
It’s compensated for after the new brood matures.
The Uber design has remained unchanged for one hundred and eighty years because it works.
But they’ll use any space, said the girl.
No, he said. Sometimes they leave. All of them.
He tossed the drawing to the ground and pumped the bellows and the smell of burning grass and paper filled the air. She lifted the lid of the white box and slid a frame out, and the bees moved toward their food, murmuring, gorging.
Every day was not the same, even for the bees. Even though their world burned down, and then ceased to burn down, with great regularity.
If the world was on fire, the girl said, watching their yellow bodies move like one trembling creature through the smoke, it wouldn’t make me hungry. It wouldn’t make me work.
Tetsuo looked up at her, Oh, no? he said.
The next afternoon seven helicopters passed over the pool as she swam. A cloud of them. A swarm, a flock, like with crows—is it a murder? A murder of helicopters passing. The stuttering chop and whump of blades reverberated through the landscape and they were not on voyeur maneuvers, they were not low enough to cause a breeze or moving slowly enough for her to catch a glimpse of who was inside.
The smell of burning rubber caught in her throat each time she broke the surface to take a breath. The pool was warm as bathwater and she swam close to the bottom, opening her eyes to the hazy green that covered the walls like moss, the black crosses that marked the end of each lap lane were barely visible beneath. She reached out to touch one but jerked her hand away revulsed, shuddering at the slickness.
What was the state of the Pacific? How was it to swim there now? Last time she had seen the ocean was at night and the black water lapped at the coast. All she wanted was the rising world of water dark and deep. No heat, no hum, no baking dust, no songs of artillery.
In the beginning, when she first came to the camp, she believed a passing helicopter was bound to drop down long enough to pick her up, to set her somewhere outside the fence. She could walk from there to safety. Or could have if it weren’t for the mines, if it weren’t for the food she’d miss. If it weren’t for Tetsuo’s closely shorn hair or the way he hardly needed to shave, or the way he held his hands when administering drugs to insects, his hands nearly weightless holding their fragile bodies. It was not the pale skin at his wrist, she thought. No one is imprisoned by the blue veins beneath the pale skin at someone’s wrist. If you’ve been saved from hunger and fire, if you swim and walk and speak, while others burn, are you still a prisoner?
She swam until exhaustion, then lay in the sun watching a dark column of smoke billowing up from the earth beyond the hillside thinking of the fisherman and his soul. She’d read about him back when the library was still standing.
The fisherman had fallen in love with someone who wasn’t human, so he stood by the sea and cut his soul away at the feet; not to repent but so that he could live with her. When he was free from his soul, he dove into the ocean to join his love, to become her comrade.
Every year his soul would come to the shore and beg for him to return; bribe him with the riches of experience; stories of beauty it had seen, how it had lain in the snow beneath the northern lights, run beside the strongest animals, listened to the voices of children ringing like bells. It had watched the sun shining low and orange through a corridor of glass towers; had danced and wandered, cooked and eaten, slept and woken. It had watched the stars fill the black night. But these stories meant nothing to the fisherman and each year he refused his soul.
After many years of these stories, the soul came around torn and filthy, pleading, telling the fisherman of his thefts, and cruelties, and finally murders. And fisherman listened no more, leaving the soul wandering, howling in rage and grief at the water’s edge. How could it have done anything but beg and plead and kill without its heart?
This, she thought, was the apocalypse of man. All soul. Opportunistic soul, starving soul. Gorged on blood until there is no more, then weeping to its own form for reconciliation. Pleading for the return of a thing that will make it do right.
Once, stung inside her ear, the mean spike brought such immediate rage she screamed, toppled the hive. Tore her hood off and stomped it. Her jaw was throbbing, her eyes were burning, streaming; the tiny dart was still in her ear—a needle with an abdomen connected to it. Bees landed on her skin and Tetsuo dropped the smoker at her feet, held her shoulders with gloved hands, he said, Stay inside your body. When that happens, you stay inside your body.
She’d always had luck: a corner of the public library instead of a bed; blinding white light that swallowed the street where she’d lived, no money to secure a trip farther than the edge of the ruined town. Without that kind of luck, she’d be dead now. Wouldn’t have been picked up at all. Wouldn’t have had a free trip to a tech colony. Without luck like that, she might be rising in a column of oily ash.
She mentioned the helicopters as they sat on the benches in the packaging plant and he didn’t respond; unzipped his suit and lit a cigarette. She’d seen him every day for two years, and in most of that time he had worn the white suit. In all of that time they had spoken about insects.
When he pulled off his boots and placed his bare feet on the tile she could feel the coldness of the floor in her own body.
I’ll come with you to the pool, he said.
She walked over to drink from the fountain.
Tomorrow, he said. After we look at the Meliflora.
That night she dreamt she was down with the fisherman, in a cathedral of sound, in the black Pacific. The water was thick with voices whose harmonies shifted in weight and density. And that sound was glorious and everywhere, pressing against her eyes, pouring into her mouth, pulling her flesh.
The fisherman showed her his home with such pride; but it was as green and empty as the pool and she saw now that his teeth were shells, a weed flapping raggedly between them. He swam with his love and she was white and hideous like a thing that’s never come to the surface. And no one had ever looked as happy as the fisherman; down there all body and heart. But the song that flowed through them, that lifted them like waves, it wasn’t a choir at all. Whose song is this? she asked but knows already that it was his soul. Beneath the sky’s dark mirror, inside the sea’s heavy belly his soul’s misery had become his heart’s delight; the music they lived by, the walls of their home.
The girl was waiting for Tetsuo in the heat, her feet hanging over the side of the pool. The smell of algae and smoke thick in the air.
He walked, wearing gray shorts and rubber sandals, bare- chested, a diving mask pushed up on his forehead, another in his hand. She’d never seen so much of his body before.
And she looked down at her arms, dark, burnt, peeling. Her hair was black and dull from sun and chlorine and dust. A gunmetal, washed-out black. And she looked away as he got closer, fighting the embarrassment at not seeing him in his protective suit, and of feeling herself a piece of kindling.
We received a new shipment of Apis Dorsata, he said, handing her the other mask, and squatting before her on the concrete, elbows resting on his knees.
The rubber straps felt stiff and crumbly as she slid it over her head.
No one raises Dorsata, she said. They’re like dinosaurs.
We do now.
You can put them by the pomegranates, she said. But it’s hard
to imagine they’ll be happy enough to stay, and those stings.
They won’t need the trees, he said, we’ll be feeding them
She thought, Nothing has changed in three thousand years.
I won’t make poison, she said
You won’t be making it, he said. But it’s interesting, don’t you
think? Even that it’s possible. Something new to study.
She thought, It’s the smallest details that form the autonomy in every slavery, the slavery in each choice that’s made. The compulsion and the reflex, the opposing symmetries. Eighty thousand bees in the hive hear, with the hairs on their legs, a song that tells them where
to find food. Each bee sings with its body, its own song of proximity. And every woman at the med-test walks there on her own. Because they have all, she understood now, looking at Tetsuo’s scarred and solid chest, left the body. Like the miserable murdering soul, they’d been pulled from the body; like the bee left its soft stomach and spike in her ear. And maybe all of them were languishing like that bee, unnoticed, dying, dismembered. Their last involuntary reflex having pulled them inside out.
He slipped off his sandals and put his feet in the water, slid his lean body in, and strapped the goggles over his eyes, and they swam in their separate lanes, to the crosses at the end.
With the mask everything was clear; the water full of particulate life shining gray and silver and green. Sunlight illuminated the cement floor; a web of cracks eclipsed briefly by a helicopter passing above. The algae covered walls were bright and Tetsuo swam beside her, and she saw the architecture of his legs, of his back as he crested to breathe, as he moved through the veil of green, through the bands of gold light, close enough for her to touch.
After many laps she didn’t look at him, and then he was gone, standing in the shallow end, barely visible a glitch of movement amid static. She dived to skim the bottom and stand beside him.
It was refreshing, he said, and pulled himself up, standing on the hot cement, running a hand through his hair. You can keep the mask, he said, then turned, walked away barefoot, sandals dangling from his fingers.
The girl moved into his lane and kept swimming, and as she neared the wall she saw shapes cut into the algae like a petroglyph.
In the slick green life, at the center of the cross, he had written her name with his fingertip. And she read it, weightless in the green and luminous pool, while above the quiet swarm of spinning blades cut the light in two.