1People, years later, blamed everything on the bees; it was the bees, they said, seducing Vera Lang, that started everything. How the town came to prosper, and then to decline, and how the road never got built, the highway that would have joined the town and the municipality to the world beyond, and how the sky itself, finally, took umbrage: it was all because one afternoon in April the swarming bees found Vera Lang asleep, there in a patch of wild flowers on the edge of the valley.
The coulees and the flats along the Bigknife River were too rough for wheat farming so the sod was never broken; the crocuses bloomed in spring as they had always bloomed, the buffalo beans cracked yellow, the violets and the buttercups and the shooting stars took their turn. Perhaps Vera had gone simply to pick a bouquet of crocuses, or to gaze down into the long, clay-shouldered trench of the valley, at the meandering river still locked in ice, at the town of Big Indian, its six grain elevators, its gravel streets, hardly a mile downstream, and yet so distant from the farm.
Why she took off her clothes, no one explained that either; nor why she lay down: perhaps it was the April wind, and the breaking clouds, and a girl's — a young woman's — simple desire, after a spring rain, to dream in the spring sun. But when she first stirred awake, out of her unexpected sleep, the bees were already arriving. Scouting for a nest, a new place to hive, the first bees had found the scent of her sun-warmed body. What her terror must have been at the soft caress of those touching bees, at the trickle of gold along her bare thighs; what ultimate desperation caught in her throat at the ferocious and innocent need of those homeless bees, at the feverish high hum, she never told. Locked into silence, she lay as transfixed as death, the bees hunching headlong into the first resistance of her blonde pubic hairs.
Vera's younger sisters, somewhere, all five of them, were searching, first in the barn where she might have gone to gather eggs. They hopped like the chickens themselves, pretending to cackle, straying their way up the straw-hid wooden steps. They looked in the back stall, where Vera had nursed and groomed a sick calf through the winter. They left the barn, shut off the windmill where it turned in the April wind, the watertank overflowing; they straggled across the muddy yard up to the tall, gaunt, wooden house.
While Vera, south of the house, south of the garden, sheltered from the wind by a poplar bluff on the valley's edge, watched the bees break cluster on a poplar branch. The broken cluster swam gray-brown and humming into the air, bloomed yellow-brown into the air; the bees, too, waiting; like a grotesque blossom they swayed above the suddenly naked branch, the great flower itself breathing, pulsing itself large, contracting, swelling again, as huge as a house that had bloomed into the air. Vera's whole life, ascended into the helpless air, giving a shadow to the pinched sky. The bees, without their queen, waiting.
Vera's five sisters, remembering their mother's urgent request, paraded in a straggling row up the three steps and across the porch, through the entry. They dawdled past the cream separator and the milk pails, through the room called a summer kitchen, though now it was the kitchen proper. They poked lazily through sun-warmed rooms where flies buzzed against the windowpanes. They went up the dark stairway. They snooped in their grandmother's trunk. They spilled out into the garden behind the house, the long garden reaching down from the slight rise to the shelterbelt at the garden's bottom, almost at the valley's edge. They peeked in at the outhouse, checked the three unpainted granaries that stood in a row near the barn, went to the machine shed and climbed up on a binder, sat and bounced in turn on the iron seat, then went to the pig barn, then wandered back to the corral where the bull should have been.
While their mother, Tiddy Lang, held the bull at bay with her shook skirt and apron. For the bull had got into the pasture north of the barn at a time when Martin Lang did not want his milk cows bred. Martin Lang, who was always in town when he was needed, always in the beer parlor in the Big Indian Hotel, doing anything but farming. And Tiddy must alone, as always, keep the farm in its thriving; a woman with six daughters when she needed one ambitious son, with an ordinary husband when she needed a paragon; she stood against the red bull, its savage pawing, its snorted breath.
While Vera closed her eyes to the whine, to the high, electric hum, of the bees' coming. Out of the wind that lolloped over the trees they took degree and angle; they took from returned scouts the final dance of direction. Their queen arose. The bees, streaming, shaped into a streamer of brown and gold, high in the sparkle of sun, began to drift toward the place where Vera waited. Without quite opening her eyes she knew they had touched down onto her arms, onto her belly, her legs. For how long she lay transfixed there was never a way to tell. Somewhere, long ago, the queen had been impregnated, her body never more to need that mating. Why the drones followed her, why they mistook a swarming into a new nest for a mating flight, was simply a mystery. Vera, the bees in her blond hair now, touching onto her cheeks, could only lie still. She felt on her whole body the cloaking bees like a garment of black and gold, a living garment. The woman herself was still. The covering bees fell out of the sky, the first arrived, already, crawling down into the space between her slightly parted thighs.
The sisters had not found her, could not; and in their growing concern they pressed their grandmother, Old Lady Lang, into the search. She was in the cellar breaking the sprouts off last fall's potatoes. The weather, too warm too soon, had set them to sending up long, pale sprouts, out of the darkness of the bin. She hobbled up the cellar steps, into the sudden light and stood for a moment, blinking, clutching in the folds of her apron the special ball of sorrow that was hers. She had been there from the beginning, Old Lady Lang. Gertrude Lang, in her black dress, in her endless mourning not at any particular death but at the inevitable absence. "It's too sad," she would say, "I don't want to think about it." She crossed the yard, past the windmill, in through the front door of the big red barn and out the back. She saw her daughter, saw the bull. "Your cousin is in town," she said. "Put a chain on the ring," she said, pointing to the brass ring in the bull's nose.
Vera, alone at the edge of the valley, lifted her body against the pressing bees. Her not daring to resist became the excuse, the cause of her slow yielding. She lifted her hips against the pressing, her long pale legs spreading to the weight of the bees, the slow surging of the bees. Her body joining their urgency. The drones, bigger, slower, moving with a hot deliberation, seeking always the hiving queen. Vera herself, swarmed into a new being. Her body singing like a telephone wire. Her nipples swelling and throbbing to the kiss of wing and leg, her belly tightening to the push and rub of her myriad unthinking lovers. She was enveloped. Her eyelids wore each a bee. Her armpits opened to the nuzzling bees. They found the spaces between her fingers, between her toes. Her body was not hers now, it moved with the surge of grass in the wind, a field of green oats, a flowering of clover. Her moving crushed the blue-purple petals of the crocus bed, broke the hairy stalks, the blossoms, into the dizzying sweetness of her own desire. The hum of wings melded earth and sky into the thickness of her skin. She had no mind left for thinking, no fear, no dream, no memory. The bees had closed her mouth, her ears. The bees found the swollen lips between her thighs; she felt their intrusive weight and spread farther her legs.
Then she gave her cry.
Big Indian, at that hour, was quiet. The train came into town from the west three days a week, returned on alternate days. But the clanging of cream cans being unloaded had not yet begun. The drayman had rattled his team and wagon through the gravel streets and stopped beside the platform. The egg crates were stacked and ready for loading. The farmers were sitting quiet in the spring sun, in front of the hardware store, in front of the pool hall. Doors were propped open along Main Street, the businessmen inside waiting for shipments of parts for machinery, waiting for the farmers to stir alive before going home to supper and to chores. They had expected, all those waiting men, to hear the train whistle, for the CNR bridge, a mile below the town, was also a bridge for cars and wagons. No one had ever got around to building a road bridge to join the town to the north bank of the river. Planks laid beside the tracks on the one-lane railway bridge were sufficient. Every driver, even the engineer of a train, must announce his coming.
They had expected a steam locomotive's whistle, all those loafing and waiting men; they heard a sound that was almost human. Far distant to their ears and yet clear too. They could not describe it later, those same men, and yet there were surely as many of them, that day, in Big Indian, as there were drones in the swarm of bees. A coyote, one man said; but not at this time of day, another answered. Terrified and prolonged, but not a cry for help; despairing and ecstatic too. At first it was a cry of joy, a joy inhumanly exquisite; then it released a sorrow beyond all sorrow. They knew then, the men outside in the streets, the women in their houses, it was a human outcry, pain-filled and sweet, beautiful, wild, terrified. From up the valley, not from down. They knew, the women sitting over coffee cake and gossip before they started supper, they knew it was a woman's outcry, lament and song in one, even if they did not know its secret origins, its wail and hardihood of source. They guessed, the boys in school, dreaming away the last half hour before escape; they heard and looked to their teachers' faces, guessed they were confronting a mystery greater than any they were expected to or ever would learn. The old priest, alone in his rectory, poured himself a secret glass of wine.
She opened her thighs. Vera reached, gently, with careful, ferocious hands, pulled wide her own thighs. The bees moved. It was love, it was pure love, her body beginning to move, again, unable to stop and yet no longer urgent, the hiving bees arriving home, the whole nectar of her world-old virgin body poured into their instinct to begin again. The men, below her, downriver in the valley, in the town: they heard the surrendered call. Years later, they would claim to have smelled the moment too: the crocus and cold earth smell, the smell of spring earth, breaking alive. Vera, moving, not able not to move, crushing the silken stems of the crocus bed, breaking the petals back from their pollen-yellow tongues. They heard the outcry of her painful joy, those men, the extremest coming; they heard, each of them, and they knew. Not knowing her name, or where she was, or what had touched her into that fierce and passionate and desperate ululation: they knew no man would satisfy her. Not one. No mortal man would satisfy her.