Katja’s house stood like a solitary guardian where the road changed from pavement to hard packed dirt, just far enough out from town that the people had no qualms with the old-fashioned surfacing. The plants grew long and wild, wildflowers sprouting from the drainage ditches, and every so often, a tree root would force its way onto the road before a city man was called out with an electric saw to remove it. Her mailbox was decorated with fading images of more flowers and bumblebees, and she’d watched several times as children would go up to study it, before being called to the other side of the road by their parents. Contrary to the spider webs that amassed on the mailbox like unpleasant decor, it was used every week: one letter brought in the early morning by an exhausted mailman who Katja could watch from her kitchen windows.
The dew lay thick on the flowers in the morning, appearing in the night like thousands of diamonds to cluster on the wildflowers Katja let thrive in her gardens. The front lawn had once been full of raised plots, neat and orderly with herbs in once section, flowers in another, and food crops in a third, but the particular bending and scraping had gotten to be too much for her knees. She much preferred the disorderly way the flowers had chosen to grow, how the roses had escaped the clutches of a strangling vine to climb into the pine trees, and how the heliotropes had drifted into the shade by the side of the house. The place felt less empty with the flowers everywhere, but of course, the bees had always been there.
Like every Monday, Katja watched through the kitchen window as the car trundled away, shooting up a line of dirt in its wake, visible by the light of her beeswax candle and the full moon that hovered above. Her cup of coffee burned at her fingertips, but the heat was nothing to her anymore. It burst through the pockets of cold that slipped through the unpatched walls, the chill that her heavy coat couldn’t keep away, bone deep.
Katja drained the rest of the coffee before sliding into her comfortable working shoes and tottering out onto the porch, then through the garden to the mailbox. She could just glimpse the hives over a cluster of sunflowers that were getting particularly large. The night had been full of the chirps of crickets, and now the earliest of birds were beginning to wake, but the hives were absent from the symphony; they would wait until sunrise to contribute their buzz to the orchestra.
The mailbox was devoid of anything but the single letter, which felt unusually large and thick in Katja’s hands. “They’ve sent me a surprise,” she muttered with some displeasure, turning it over to trace the familiar address on the front, and then the thick wax seal on the back. It felt as warm as the sides of her coffee mug. She slowly traced her way back into her house, where she set the letter down on the counter before returning to a breakfast casserole in progress, humming quietly all the while.
The letter lay forgotten until the sun had fully risen, illuminating the small breakfast table with a single chair, vases and pails of flowers perched on every surface, Katja positioned over the sink peeling potatoes. When the sunlight was strong enough to penetrate her thick coat, she dropped the last of the potatoes, shrugged the coat off, and headed back outside with her letter.
Out of all of the paths carved around her house, the one towards the hives was the most well worn. The bees had at last begun their daily routines, bumbling about through the garden. Katja allowed herself a small smile as one hovered momentarily by her ear before deeming her pearl earrings to not be as lovely as the flowers. Eight large hives squatted near the fence, painted with green base and subsequently decorated with hundreds of animal and plant scenes that were far beyond Katja’s skill; the scent of the viburnum in this area would never let her forget the day Arthur had put them there, and the day she realized no more would be added.
Katja settled into a large cushioned chair near the hives before breaking open the wax seal with a quick flourish. A few more curious bees took flight around her, but it was not them to which she paid heed for the moment. Her fingers traced the lines as she read the familiar script, more tightly cramped than earlier letters, and more pages too. As she separated the last two pages of the bunch, a spattering of glossy photos fell into her lap.
Katja paused to hold them up to the light and the bees. “Ah! The wedding’s happened then!” She chirped, bringing the photos ridiculously close to her eyes to examine them. “How lovely they both look, the pair of them together.” The invitations had been sent out nearly a year ago, and Katja had almost forgotten it was happening at all; her grandson had thought to send one to her, of course, but it had been so long since she’d left her house and her bees that the idea was completely foreign to her.
“We’ll have to decorate,” she said, perhaps too loudly, towards the hives, and the bees around her seemed to flutter in response. It had been a long time, too long, since Katja had gotten to decorate for a wedding, but she could still remember the traditions that went along with it; the bees had to be told all about it, and the hives had to stay decorated for a week so they too could celebrate the occasion.
Even though it had been decades, the words of her great-grandmother still reverberated in her ears. “The bees are extensions of our family, little Katja! It’s bad luck not to tell them; it would be like not sharing sweets with a brother. They share with us, so we must return the favor.” Lately, Katja had taken to telling the bees of every minute change in her life, from her aching back to the old car she’d seen the other week. The bees were much better listeners than Arthur, though they didn’t ever have as much to say back.
Katja left her letter and the photos scattered on the chair outside, and headed back in to begin work on a cake, and to dig up a modicum of white lace that could be draped onto the hives like veils. She even found herself turning the dial on her small radio up higher, all the better to hum along to as she worked. The cake came out easily, and she decorated it with the practiced hand of a long-time baker. The white lace was much more difficult to procure, and Katja spent an eventful afternoon digging through boxes of old paperwork, her grandson’s photos from when he was a baby, and a much older family photo album before she located her prize. The photo of her grandson was tucked into a pocket and the white lace placed on the kitchen table, but the album was shoved deeply into the darkest corner of the closet.
The sun had floated down beneath the hydrangeas before Katja emerged back out into the yard, cake in one hand, lace in the other. She took several minutes delicately arranging the lace over the tops of the hives, the bees all returned for the night. Over top of the lace Katja scattered handfuls of colorful flower petals, and then a single rose as a crowning piece for each. She sunk into her chair again to pick at the cake she’d made, eagerly rereading the letter and devouring the pictures with her eyes.
“Many years and blessings to you,” she murmured quietly when she’d finished her slice, before getting up to join the roses with a photo. The night was silent when she laid down for bed, dreams full of dancing and well wishers.
Two nights later, the jarring scream of the telephone that woke her, so unlike the quiet sunrise that she was used to. The phone had been silent for so long Katja had nearly forgotten it was there, buried under a pile of large cookbooks in the kitchen. She sat bolt upright in bed, moving so quickly that her back twanged awkwardly and she winced. The ringing stopped, and she breathed a sigh of relief, but then it started up again, sounding somehow more frantic than it had before.
Katja shivered, not entirely from the morning chill, and pulled on a robe before hurrying out into the other room as quickly as she could. With trembling fingers, she eventually seized upon the phone, and raised it to her ear without saying a word.
“Hello, is this Katja Schnaur?” The voice was soft, feminine, but unfamiliar.
Katja made a small noise into the receiver before she replied. “Yes, but how did you reach my telephone? Who are you? It’s too early for this.”
“I’m a friend of your grandson’s,” the strange woman replied, and the tone was thicker than before. Katja’s heart gave another galling pound. “I’m… he’s… he got into a bad car crash. We’re at the hospital right now, but… he always said someone should call you if anything happened to him.” The woman stopped abruptly again, giving a small sob before choking it off. “The doctors say there’s nothing else they can do for them. They say it would be better to just let them go, and–”
Before the friend could inform her of anything further, the strength flooded out of Katja’s body faster than the next heartbeat. She found it in herself to click the button to end the call, and then keeled over onto the floor, the phone buzzing like a hornet, unceasingly loud in the silent room. He couldn’t be gone too, Katja thought, her cheek pressed to the cold linoleum. I did everything right this time. She seized her pocket and brought out the small photo of her grandson as a child, fingers numb and eyes tingling as she looked at it. Just like that, he’s gone. Her head had started to pound, and the pain in her hips was overwhelming, but she welcomed it. What had he felt, then? And before she could steel herself further, a loud sob wrenched itself out of her throat, raw and primal. The kitchen was foggy through the haze of tears that clogged her eyes, but her attention caught on the remains of the wedding cake she’d made to celebrate just days ago. This was not the good luck she’d been promised, and her mind whispered with the voice of her great-grandmother, “you’ll have to tell the bees about this too, little Katja, you know that.”
But for hours Katja did nothing except lay on the floor, watching with fractured eyes as the sunlight flooded in. She closed her eyes against it, imagining that that dense blackness behind her lids was the darkness during a stormy day, one where the sun was erased from the sky and the birds hid in their nests and the bees didn’t venture out of their hives.
When she finally got up, the flowers outside seemed a mockery, the way they flourished and returned, season after season, vexatious nature. A car crash wouldn’t kill a flower. Katja stumbled as she went to move back to her bedroom, her free hand connecting with the side of the wedding cake and sending the plate skidding off of the counter, porcelain shattering on the ground. Katja let out a hoarse scream that would have normally surprised her before she moved back into her room, yanking the blinds closed and collapsing into the bed, her covers drawn up over her head.
She didn’t move further until that night, not bothering to clean off her tear-stained cheeks or wipe her crusted nose. Katja only lit a candle to see by and went back out to the hives, mostly feeling her body move by muscle memory. The bees, as to be expected, were silent, the painted hives looking black under the blanket of stars, and the white veils floating in a taciturn breeze.
Katja placed her candle down by her chair, and took a deep breath, fully intending to inform the bees of the latest tragedy that had befallen her family. But when she opened her mouth, she couldn’t seem to form the words. Her sadness felt depthless, even the vast eternity of the planets above her wouldn’t be able to hold it all; she’d been told, been promised, that the bees were good luck, the bees would bring her favor and good fortune, but they’d let her grandson die. They had not been listening at all.
Abruptly, Katja let loose another wail and seized the veils off of the hives, the tears running down her face. She fed the wedding photos she’d left sitting outside to the tiny flame of her candle, and then chucked them into the surrounding grass when they burned down to nubs, her grandson’s handsome face devoured by the hungry light.
She stalked back into her house, hand on the door when a large flare of light caught her attention and Katja looked back to the hives, illuminated brightly in the flames started by the burning photographs. The light flashed higher, and then, like a bee moving from one flower to the next, the fire jumped from the burning grasses to the first hive, then the second. Katja hustled back towards them as quickly as possible, not knowing what she could do, watching in horror as the fire spread, not caring that she herself was perilously close to being consumed. She moved to get the hose from where it was coiled against her house wall, but the fire was moving too quickly. The hum of the unexpectedly awoken bees could barely be heard over the fire, and Katja heard even less once she turned on the hose and aimed it towards the fire.
A few darkened bees had fought their way out of the flames, streaming out of the garden and over the wall of bushes. Katja kept the hose focused on the hives, her back aching, even more tears leaking down her face. Bad luck upon bad luck. In the distance, she could hear the wail of a firetruck; some neighbor must have seen the fire and called, thinking to protect Katja’s house from the flames, but it wouldn’t matter. All the hives were on fire now; what was one human house to the house of thousands of bees? They were dying because of her, maybe her grandson had died because of her. She could have jinxed him, not believing in the bees enough, not doing enough to celebrate his life.
Katja sank to her knees in the mud created by the dripping hose and watched as the hives were ravaged, praying that more bees would be able to make it out. She didn’t look up as the firetruck pulled up by her mailbox, or as the fire jumped to the brilliantly tall sunflowers. It didn’t come closer to her, as if it wouldn’t dare attack its creator, and when the firefighters managed to subdue the flames, she half wished they’d let it continue to blaze.
One spotted her kneeling in the dirt and hurried over, his round face pallid. “Excuse me, Katja Schnaur?” It was that same tone the friend had used just hours ago. “Are you alright?”
“I am cursed,” she said, but she didn’t cry as the ashes of the hives blew towards her. “I am alone.”