April 6, 2019

A TALE OF BEE WARES by Michelle Kaseler

Don't be foolish human.
Our stings are swift and true...
There once lived a young man named Nathaniel. When his mother perished during his sixteenth summer, Nathaniel’s father turned to drink and fell into debt. After the magistrate seized their home, Nathaniel’s father took his own life, leaving his son in the humblest of circumstances. Alone and ashamed, Nathaniel took his meager belongings and set up camp in the woods by the river.

On the first night, scratching and screeching sounds kept him from sleep. Dawn’s light revealed claw marks at the base of a nearby tree. While Nathaniel pondered their source, a plump bee landed on his nose. As he raised his hand to strike, a cloud of drones gathered overhead. “Don’t be foolish, human. Our stings are swift and true.”

“You threaten me?”

“On the contrary. We propose something that will benefit us both.” The bee walked the bridge of Nathaniel’s nose. “Night after night, skunks feast on our kin. Rid us of their ilk, and you shall receive something more precious than gold.”

“Honey?” Nathaniel snorted. “You think too much of yourself, bee.”

“The blooms of our glen yield a magical nectar that makes the choicest of meads. Like all spirits, it brings temporary leave of ambition and intelligence, and in excess, loss of vigor and sensibilities.” In one voice the swarm spoke, their gossamer wings ablaze with sunlight. “But here it differs: add your blood to the brew, and the qualities ceded will become your own.”

Every night, Nathaniel guarded the tree, and while he succeeded in protecting the bees, he slept the day away, reeking of sulfur and musk. After a fortnight passed, he could stand it no more.

“Nothing is worth this trouble,” Nathaniel muttered.

The bees formed a wall around him. “With nothing you arrived, shall you leave the same way?”

Nathaniel sank to the ground, not wishing to return wretched and poor. He built fences of sticks, but the skunks tore them down, no matter how many reeds he wove between them. Tired, discouraged, and desperate to cleanse himself, he waded into the cool river. Sticky clay seeped between his toes, and inspiration struck.

He dug a trench around the hive and filled it with clay and thrice as many sticks as before. When the clay hardened, the skunks could not topple them. Satisfied, the bees showed him flavorful fruits and spices to flavor his mead, and Nathaniel spent the next year perfecting his recipe.

Before he returned to the village with the brew, they cautioned: The magic is powerful. Woe to the one who abuses it.

Unremarkable of face or wit, when Nathaniel had disappeared, no one noticed, but now that he peddled the finest mead in the county, everyone noticed. Although the townsfolk clamored for more, Nathaniel wished his father’s fate upon no man and refused to sell anyone more than a goblet’s worth a day.

Over the next few years, Nathaniel grew in intellect, fame, and fortune and developed a man’s chiseled features. Whatever he desired, he bought—until the day he happened up Violet at the market.  

With obsidian curls and eyes purple as a sunset’s embers, Violet awoke in Nathaniel a fervid desire. Her basket, brimming with fruits, meat, and loaves, swung in time with her graceful stride.

Summoning his courage, Nathaniel approached. “What a fine selection. Are you preparing a feast?”

Her laughter trilled like a robin’s song. “Tis not all for me, but for the poor and orphaned.”

His ardor blossomed at her kindness. “I thought perhaps you had a husband with a hearty appetite.”

“My Philip shall partake as well.”

Nathaniel turned his face, afraid it revealed too much.

Every morning, she walked by his shop, hand in hand with her husband, while Nathaniel ground his teeth until his jaw ached.

Search as he might for a love of his own, the village maidens seemed simple and plain in comparison. Every time he caught sight of Violet, his passion grew. He frequented the market, hoping to catch a glimpse, and watched from afar as she cared for those in need. So consumed was he with thoughts of her, he scarcely ate. She was always kind, but her eyes met his with mere friendly regard.

One autumn’s day, Violet’s husband entered the mead shop. Nathaniel could hardly bring himself to look at the broad-shouldered man who had captured Violet’s heart.

“My good man,” Philip said, “I would like to sell your mead in my tavern.”

While Nathaniel had rejected previous offers of partnership, here he saw an opportunity to get what he desired most.

The magic is powerful. Woe to the one who abuses it.

A chill ran through Nathaniel’s veins as he recalled the bees’ warning, but he summoned an image of Violet, smiling as she gave food to the poor and ragged. Her willowy figure. Those luscious lips. He’d been judicious with the magical mead up to this point. How much harm could one exception cause?

“Why do you seek to do business with me?” Nathaniel asked.

“I would like to build a new home for my wife. It has taken most of my wealth to build the tavern, so we live in but a humble cottage. She claims contentment, but what we have is not suitable for two, much less a family.”

Nathaniel handed Philip a flagon and gestured towards a table. “Let’s discuss terms.”

Philip guzzled it down. “It’s the best in town, no doubt.”

“Then let me pour you another.”

“Don’t mind if you do.” Philip’s face flushed as he partook.

“I will sell my mead at a discount if you agree to a purchase a cask each month.”

“That’s reasonable.”

Nathaniel took a seat across from his rival. “I have one more stipulation.”

“Yes?” Philip raised his eyebrows.

“You have a discerning palate, and my stomach is sour of late. I can no longer partake, so I ask you to visit me weekly and test my stock for brightness of flavor.”

“Agreed!” Philip raised his glass. “A toast to our partnership.”

During a visit to the bees, Nathaniel inquired about a stronger brew.

They swarmed, the vibration of their wings tingling his ears. “Provide us with your blood directly, and we will oblige you.”

“Only for the special batch.” Nathaniel drew a blade across his fingertip. “The rest is to remain unchanged.”

Week by week, Philip grew more haggard, feeble, and foolhardy. As he downed flagon after flagon, Nathaniel remembered his own father and seethed. A person who destroys himself with spirits should never raise a child. Violet will be better off without this fool.

While Philip diminished, Nathaniel grew ever more crafty and handsome. When he approached Violet at the market, he hoped she’d show a spark of interest, but sadness weighed upon her face.  “My Philip has not been well.”

Frustrated he had yet to win her over, Nathaniel devised a new scheme. He requested payment several times a month, and Philip, easily convinced of his liability, always paid. Every time he was short on funds, Nathaniel got him to sign away a portion of his tavern.

One day, Violet entered Nathaniel’s shop, and his heart soared. She had never sought him out before. “To what do I owe this honor, my lady?” he asked with a bow.  

“Philip has taken leave of his senses.” Her voice trembled. “We can barely afford to eat.”

“I will speak with him. In the meantime”—he pressed some coins into her palm—“let me pay for your dinner.”

The season turned, and Philip continued to drink until the day he perished. In tears, Violet fell at Nathaniel’s feet. “Have mercy on me. I know my husband was indebted to you, and I have nothing with which to pay.”

Nathaniel’s heart pounded—everything he wanted would now be his.

He furrowed his brow, pretending to be deep in thought. “Out of friendship, I deferred charges, but I cannot withhold from my own suppliers any longer. Not even the remaining share of the tavern is sufficient to cover his debt.”

“But I have nothing of value.” Tears streamed down her face.

“Your home would fetch the proper price.”

Wiping her eyes, she lifted her head. “If that is what’s required to clear my debt, I shall sell it and seek residence at the workhouse.”

“It pains me to see such suffering heaped upon an honorable woman.” He fetched his ledger and made a show of flipping through the pages. “I have a week before the suppliers return. Perhaps I can devise another solution before then.”

“If any man is able, it would be you.” A wan smile crossed her lips. The light was gone from her eyes, but he found her just as beautiful. Perhaps even more so, now that she needed him.

“If I figure something out, I will come to you.” He extended his arm to help her up. “Otherwise, return next week with payment.”

He waited six days to visit, leaving her alone with her predicament. Even with a kerchief tied around her head and a dirt-smudged dress, her beauty stole his breath.

“Welcome, Nathaniel.” She led him into her tiny home. It was tidy and sparsely furnished. “Please excuse my appearance. I have been preparing the house for sale.”

Perhaps it was the physical exertion that made her cheeks flush so becomingly, but he dared hope it was because she was pleased to see him.

“I have spent many hours pondering how to help, and I proffer an arrangement that would benefit us both.” He gazed into her amaranthine eyes. “My business dealings prevent me from keeping an orderly home. You would still need to sell your house, but you may come and live with me.”

She paused before answering. “Being your servant would be preferable to the poor house.”

“Your husband was so dear to me that I couldn’t bear to see you reduced to servitude.” He offered his hand. “Consent to marry me, Violet, and I will be good to you all your days.”

He dared not breathe while she considered his proposal, and when she agreed, he felt he would burst with joy.  

Violet tended house while he worked and greeted him with a kiss when he returned home. But only on the cheek. Gentle. Even showering her with delectable things and fine frocks only awarded him the faintest of smiles.

“My dearest, what must I do so that joy lights your face once more?” Nathaniel asked.

“You have already shown me every kindness possible.” She lowered her eyes. “I will forever be grateful.”

He stroked her cheek, which no longer bloomed with color. “But will you ever grow to love me?”

Smiling, she laid her hand on his. “Any woman who does not appreciate a kind, handsome, brilliant man would be a fool.”

Hope flourished in his heart.

She tended to their home and prepared fine meals without complaint, but as the months passed, she grew listless. He urged her to continue feeding the orphans, and even accompanied her, but she did so with half a heart, even as he became ever more moved by their plight.

Her youth and beauty faded, as did her strength, and she could no longer keep up with the housework. Early each evening, she retired to bed while he wept over her sleeping form. He hired a housekeeper, brought her the choicest of fare, and spent vast sums on healers, but she continued to wither.

One day, she failed to greet him at the door.

“Violet!” he shouted, running through the house. The door to the bedroom was closed. He entered and found Violet splayed across the bed, her cold, lifeless hand resting on a bottle of mead. Crying out in anguish, he grabbed the bottle, and for the first time, partook of his own wares.

Outside the window, a swarm of bees gathered ‘round.
Michelle Kaseler is a software engineer by trade, but can be whatever she wants to be when she reads and writes. A three-time Boston Marathon qualifier, the only thing she enjoys as much as creating stories is running (and cheesecake). Her short fiction has appeared in Flame Tree Publishing’s Dystopia Utopia anthology and NewMyths.
Check her out:
Facebook HERE
Twitter @storycobbler

Cover: Amanda Bergloff @AmandaBergloff

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