It was cotton season. The white stuff lined the road for miles on either side of the farmhouse where I’d grown up. I squinted out at it, holding aside the old curtains to reveal the sun climbing towards high noon. My sister Georgie and her husband John had gotten up early that morning and started cleaning, determined to continue the momentum we’d built up yesterday, sorting through the mass of personal effects that one collects over eighty years of life. I’d slept in, guiltily enjoying the opportunity to rest without being woken early in the morning by my children. My sons, Geoffrey and Nicholas, were ten and seven years old respectively, and my husband Theo had taken them home after the funeral so they could get back to school and he could get back to work. Theo was a doctor, and the hospital was not overly flexible with unplanned vacation time. Life goes on. So I was left in west Texas with my sister and her husband and the dust and my grief. Back where it had all started.
King Cotton, ruler of our hearts, deliver us. Bringer of purity, money in the bank. When I was a kid we’d have to go with our father to the cotton gin to separate the seeds from the fibers, to fetch a good price. Tufts of white floated through the air, settling on hair, on clothes, on the old farm dog sleeping by the door. The noise of the cotton gin hung in the background, a witness to the fulfillment of another year’s harvest. When we got a good price we’d stop at the ice cream shop on the way home and my father would buy us a banana split each and we’d laugh at the days to come. When we got a bad price or the harvest was poor we’d drive home not talking while my father played Johnny Cash on the radio. We heard a lot of Johnny Cash.
Our mother had been killed a few days earlier in a car crash, leaving us reeling, trying to pick up the pieces. I was madness, I was grief, I was trapped in a cavern of ice. It had been about a year since our father’s heart had finally given out and our mother had just begun to try to live her own life after fifty years of marriage, alone in that old farmhouse in Hunter County. We all knew her mind was starting to go. We should never have left her alone, but she insisted on staying in that house and we had children, husbands, jobs and lives in other cities.
Then we got the call. A farmer had found her car flipped in a ditch near his field. Death had come swiftly. She’d gone around that curve hundreds of times. Thousands, maybe. The sheriff said it had been raining and she’d taken the turn too fast. An accident, they said. Now it was three days since the funeral and we were facing the prospect of clearing out her house.
I got dressed quickly that morning, slipping out of the sweatpants I’d been using as pajamas and digging a clean pair of jeans out of my suitcase, scrounging around in the hopes of finding a blouse that wasn’t wrinkled. There wasn’t anyone to dress up for. In ten minutes I was ready to go, running a brush through my hair and then stumbling out into the hall and downstairs to the kitchen, where I was gratified to see that there was some coffee left in the pot. I poured myself a cup and sat at the kitchen table, taking the seat that had been mine growing up. It faced towards the back of the house and if I angled my head right I could see out of the window behind the kitchen sink and into the backyard. Our ancient tire swing hung from the mulberry tree, swaying a little in the breeze. I waved at John as he walked past, carrying a paint scraper. The plan was to repaint the west wall. It had taken a beating a few years ago when an old crape myrtle fell against it during a big storm. The paint was scratched and a couple of the boards were cracked a little, but we’d never gotten around to doing anything about it and it hadn’t seemed to bother Mom. The wall was against the garage, and no one was out there much these days. John smiled back, raising a couple of fingers in a mock salute. Georgie followed a couple of steps behind, carrying hedge clippers. She waved at me, pulling a face that had always made me laugh growing up. I smiled.
Personal effects. The accumulated material wealth of a lifetime. My own mother. Our relationship had never been easy. She’d always had a firm idea of what a daughter of hers ought to be, a matter of working hard and not letting your mascara run. We’d get into screaming fights back in high school when I’d dated the wrong boy – Thomas O’Connor, a Catholic! – or worn the wrong thing – ‘Change out of that skirt immediately, young lady’ – or spent time with the wrong crowd – ‘I won’t have you hanging around that Garner girl, you know what kind of family she comes from? Look at me when I’m talking to you, you lazy bitch!’
So it had been a relief when I’d gone off to college, and I’d taken classes over the summer when I could so I wouldn’t have to spend too much time at home. But the white hot fights had cooled over the years into occasional mild tussles, and she’d cried for happiness at my wedding and when she’d held my firstborn. We’d settled into a truce and let the years roll by. I didn’t visit home much. And now I was going through her house with a trash bag, brutally sweeping things from shelves and pulling them from drawers.
Finishing my coffee, I started going through the kitchen, clearing out all the old food and hauling it outside. I sorted through an immense collection of Tupperware, through pots and pans that I still remembered from childhood. Here’s what she used to make pasta, here’s what she always cooked that awful casserole in, here’s the pan that has a dent in it from when she would drink too much gin and swing it at my father, miss, strike the wall. Or the little girl who was crouching underneath the kitchen table. Some things went into boxes to be donated. The will had not been specific, only said that we should divide things equally. Outside, I could hear the soft sounds of Georgie and John working, snatches of their conversation occasionally floating through the open window. I cleared out the pantry, a dark little room that always seems a few degrees warmer than the rest of the house, top shelves stacked deep with preserves which I now tossed into the trash. It had been my favorite spot for hiding when I was growing up.
The kitchen was now mostly empty, aside from a few casseroles people from the church had sent over for us. I left them stacked in the refrigerator, half eaten and covered in tin foil. I turned my attention to the glass-doored cabinets where the good china was still sitting in its perpetual light layer of dust. It had been a wedding present for my parents decades ago, but it was mostly for show. I could only remember my mother getting the plates down a few times in my life, usually for Christmas or when we had the pastor from church over for dinner. When I was about seven years-old I’d gotten the idea to use a couple of the little cups for a tea party with my cat, which was supposed to be an outside cat anyway. I’d accidentally knocked a chip out of one of the little cups. Reaching into the back of the cabinet I could see that it was still there, pushed to the back where no one would see. I ran my finger over the chip, remembering.
My mother broke her wooden spoon over my backside when she’d found out about that.
I got a cardboard box and started to pack away the dishes. I was debating how best to wrap them to keep them from breaking when I heard yelling from outside. John swore loudly. Alarmed, I put the dishes down and walked to the back door, looking out into the yard. Stepping out of the door, I could hear a buzzing in the air, and that’s when I saw it – the swarm. What seemed like hundreds of bees were streaming from the side of the house where Georgie and John had been working in the direction of our back field.
Ahead of the swarm, my sister and her husband were sprinting, jerking madly, swatting, straining. I froze for a moment, panicked. Late night cable specials about killer bees flashed through my mind along with books about pioneers I’d read as a child. The people in those books always seemed to be accidentally hitting a bee hive and having to run from the swarm. Inevitably, they would find some pond or lake to jump into and escape the flying menace. But this was west Texas, and there weren’t any ponds around.
That’s when I remembered the creek. Georgie and John were running away from the house and the main road and away from me, making like mad down the narrow dirt road that was supposedly maintained by the county. I jumped in the red truck we kept around for doing farm work and followed after as quickly as I could, unsure of what to do. Should I call somebody? If so, who? Who could stand against the madness of the swarm?
The buzzing mass writhed between us, mixing with the dust that my unfortunate sister and her husband were kicking up as they ran. They were waving their arms about, trying to protect themselves, and I could tell they were being stung, were in pain, but the water was only about one hundred yards ahead and if they could just make it then maybe the bees would dissipate, their ire foiled and their anger quenched by the muddy waters. I followed behind them in the truck as closely as I could, but they didn’t seem to have noticed me. Being attacked by bees tends to distract you from the details.
When we were kids we used to swim there sometimes, throwing in rocks to scare the snakes away and slipping out of our shoes on hot August days. We just called it the creek, but once our mother took us aside and told us that it wasn’t just any creek but part of something larger: the Prairie Dog fork of the Red River that diverged from its massive ancestor and made its slow winding way through our county, losing majesty as it turned. In dry years there was hardly any water in it. But this had not been a dry year. I watched as they scrambled down the bank and fled splashing into the brown water, parking as closely as I could to edge of the river.
That’s when we learned these were killer bees, and killer bees don’t act like the bees in cartoons. Instead of dissipating, the swarm hovered over the water, waiting to sting again and again when Georgie and John came up for air. Killer bees aim mostly for the head and neck. We learned that too.
I realized that I would have to leave the safety of the truck. ‘Georgie!’ I called, opening the door but still halfway inside the car, desperate to make them hear yet terrified of drawing the bees’ attention. ‘Georgie! John! Get in the truck!’
They had gone back under the water, didn’t hear. Georgie told me later that in that moment she was sure she was going to die. I flung open the door to the back seat so they could get inside quickly and, before I could think too much about it, plunged down the bank.
In the river, it was hell. The bees began to sting me as I reached under the water. I felt hair and gave a mighty tug. Georgie came up, spluttering. She looked surprised. Her face was swelling.
‘Grab John! Get in the truck!’ I called above the buzzing, trying not to open my mouth too far for fear that a bee might get in.
Understanding flashed in her eyes and the next moment the three of us were scrambling back up the bank. John lost a shoe in the mud where the river turned to earth but we made it into the truck, gasping, slamming the doors behind us. A couple of bees had gotten in the open door but John smashed them mercilessly with hands and his remaining shoe.
Two hundred and forty-six stings between the three of us. That’s what they told us at the hospital. By the time they’d gotten all the stingers out they found that Georgie had gotten stung ninety-three times. John had been stung more – one hundred and twelve times. He was the one who had had the misfortune to first anger the bees. For myself, I’d been stung forty-one times trying to get them out of the river.
The Hunt County hospital was miniscule. We must have taken up half of the beds. There were no private rooms so they put the three of us in beds next to each other and kept the curtains drawn back so we could see each other. The doctor said that a human can survive ten bee stings for every pound of body weight, so we knew we’d be all right. But boy, it sure felt like we were dying.
They gave us something to reduce the swelling but my face still looked like a ball of playdough some two-year-old had thought it would be fun to squeeze. I was the first one up, staring at my face morosely in the bathroom mirror. Well, staring out of the eye that wasn’t swollen shut, anyway. I wondered what we were supposed to do about the bees in the house.
I heard Georgie calling from the bed.
‘Hey,’ I said, sitting down next to her. ‘How are you feeling?’
‘Like I just got stung by a bunch of killer bees,’ she said flatly, mumbling around swollen lips. ‘You?’
‘About the same,’ I replied, then sighed. ‘Listen, what are we going to do about the house? I mean, can we get the bees out?’
‘You’ll have to call the fire department,’ said one of the nurses who’d been listening. She came over to stand near us. ‘My cousin had a bunch of killer bees in his shed about a month back. Call the fire department and they can use their hose to spray them out. Worked for Billy.’
None of us really wanted to go back to the house, but we agreed that someone ought to be there when the fire department came. Since Georgie and John were still pretty out of it, the responsibility fell to me. When I got back the fire truck was already there and a couple of young firefighters were setting up the hose. With a jolt I recognized that one of them was the child of a girl I’d gone to school with. She’d gotten pregnant our senior year of high school, never left our hometown. The child’s name was Christopher. I’d seen pictures on Facebook.
I stayed in the truck, parked a little ways off where I could see what they were doing. I was embarrassed by my swollen face and still feeling a little ill from the venom. Whatever they were going to do they could do without me.
That plan didn’t last long. Christopher came over and tapped on the window. I hoped he wouldn’t recognize me, but of course he knew whose house this was.
‘Um, ma’am? Sorry, are you Mrs. Wilson?’ he said.
I stepped out of the truck. ‘Yes?’
‘We’re about ready to get started. It looks like the bees have built a hive right into the wall. The boards are a bit rotten and I guess they just moved in.’
That wall, I knew, bordered the garage on the inside of the house. How had my mother not heard the buzzing? But of course it had been years since anyone had spent much time in the garage. It had been my father’s workshop once.
‘Will you be able to get them all out?’ I asked.
He nodded. ‘We think so. Could cause some damage to the wall though.’
‘Do what you have to do.’
I leaned against the truck. They started spraying.
Georgie, John, and I met up back at the house the next afternoon. They’d been released from the hospital that morning, a little worse for wear but firmly on their way to recovery. We had been thinking of fixing up the house a bit and renting it out, but now we decided to sell the house as it was, fully furnished, a fixer upper.
The day turned to evening, and then into two days, then three. I was burning through my vacation days at work, but I couldn’t leave yet. We combed through her closet, stripped the beds in all the rooms but left the mattresses groaning silently on their frames. These would be sold with the house. We pulled down decades-old photos from the walls and divided them up, wrapped them carefully in newspaper so the frames wouldn’t break when we took them back to our houses. I let Georgie have the photo albums. She gave me the old record player.
We mopped and vacuumed and dusted behind things that had probably not been moved in either of our lifetimes. There was no trash service so we piled those things we couldn’t save or donate into a pile in the field out back. It grew higher and higher as the house grew more and more bare. At first, I worried that the bees would return, but we were left in peace except for a few of their corpses that had fallen from a high shelf when we’d first cleaned out the garage, causing John to go pale, Georgie to scream, and me to jump about a foot in the air.
When it was finished and the last of the garbage had been tossed on the pile, John had gone into town for gasoline. Georgie and I sat out back on the old porch swing and sipped Arnold Palmers we’d made from the last of the sweet tea and lemonade that had been in the fridge. I re-opened the box of china and it sat open at our feet. Neither of us really wanted it. I was drinking out of the chipped cup. There was a light breeze and the whole world seemed to give off a lazy hum. Tomorrow someone was coming to look at the house, and I would be going back home to my family.
People out there still burned their trash. When John got back he poured the gasoline onto the trash pile, lit a match, tossed it on. Georgie and I got up and walked over near him. She took her husband’s hand and I wished Theo was there.
The flame bloomed from where the match had fallen near the center of the pile and raced outward from there, fed by the accelerant. Smoke began to rise, black and billowing, from the stinking heap. I hesitated a moment before throwing the china cup into the flames. It shattered. We watched, stepping back every now and then as the heat grew until none of us could breathe and we retreated, coughing, to our cars.
MARY WHITE is an MFA student at Texas Tech University, where she specialises in fiction writing.