“For I am full of fear when I behold
Io, the maid no human love may fold,
And her virginity disconsolate”
– Aeschylus, from Prometheus Unbound
I speak bee. No one believes it, except maybe my friend Europa, but I learned the language. My mother taught it to me, when I was very young. What you do is you place honey on your finger, your nose, and then a splash of floral perfume upon the back of your jeans. Then, you go into a field to speak to the bees, who find you because of the smell, and then they watch you to see what you have to say. You shiver, and move forward, then shiver again. Shivering looks like shaking your butt, like shimmying, but it’s not. It’s shivering. It’s a complex language. It took years of practice. I’ve gotten so I can get their attention even if I don’t have any honey or floral perfume.
My mother was an expert Apiarist before her marriage. She could guide the flocks of bees over the highway, into safe harbors all over the city. Someone had to keep them safe from the killing men, that came in fancy trucks to spray the streets. Someone had to protect the bees from the changing places, where the old buildings that should have been a refuge were doomed to be rebuilt.
In this world, no one cared about the bees. Father doesn’t care about them. He doesn’t believe in my mother. He says the powerlines have changed everything. Everything will be connected together that’s human, and anything that can’t ride along the lines might as well be forgotten.
My mother agreed with him when he says that, but she still taught me to speak bee.
Fly away from this place to an older country, little sisters…
Do not heed the call of the lines that beckon without breathing…
The flowers of the hills are sweeter for the absence of our painted walls…
Bees are not like us. When they hear a word, it is like a command to them. When they speak a word, it is like a command to others.
Momma says it’s like with electric things.
Then there’s output.
It’s like how God would speak to us, if he wanted to do it.
Father is the name of God in most of Nebraska all the way through Colorado and Iowa and Texas, too. We lived in the big Western sky, and when we stood up we were the tallest thing for miles around, and we imagined a man so tall he could look down upon us. Nothing was imagined taller than this man. He was the tallest. We called him Father. We looked behind us for a son who always had our back. Lightning meant something out here. When it struck, it started fires, destroyed our towers and demanded cattle in sacrifice. The powerlines ran underground, and we felt them buzzing when we walked over them, and saw the passing souls emanating like an aura that were swallowed by the uninsulated places in the wires. Our fathers mostly worked for power companies and farms, and we saw them pushing cattle around, driving tractors around, and backhoes, and reaching into the cloud of soul to fix the lines.
We work hard, Hi-Ho and off to work we go. My father works so hard. He buries power lines, digs them up, and runs them along the side of houses, through fields and up to transformer stations that glow with an unearthly light.
He came home from work and he said someone died, today. My mother stood up from her chair.
-Oh, my God, who?
-You didn’t know him. New guy. New in town. Was wiring street signs together on a cherry picker and forget to ground out, bumped the line. Lit him up like a turkey. Poor kid was just twenty-nine. Just out of the Army. New in town. Shoulda watched him closer.
I was doing homework when my father came in he hasn’t sat down, yet. He stood in the kitchen door with all his gear on, his work jacket and his tool belt and gloves like he had seen a ghost. Maybe someone he recognized in the wires. We all held still, waiting for someone to move, like how the air hangs still and pregnant with water before a storm. I decided to get a glass of milk. Mother had to move to let me into the fridge. Father disappeared into the bedroom to change for supper and no one said anything about it again all week.
We have powerlines near the school. The ghostly fog of flocks of birds and bugs glisten along the lines in the morning dew. We push each other up to the edge, laughing. Powerlines running under the ground, swallowing the electricity of souls. Some animals-squirrels running like horses in herds, some shadows of horses and the ghostly haunt of the men in workmen’s uniforms, all electricity subsumed into the flow of lines. The man who died will be in the lines forever, imprinted at the point of death, not a soul they say, but like a copy of one. We girls and boys push each other up to the edge of the flowing lines, laughing, until someone falls in. It’s me, this time. It makes the hair on my arm stand up. I’m laughing. It tingles. A ghost of a man flows over me, his melted eyes opening after me. A hand reaching. I fight the others until another girl is thrown upon the line. She’s scared by it, but nothing happens to her. She gets up screaming. We’re laughing at her.
Father says he’s done with all of this. He says he wants to be a farmer, raise chickens and maybe pigs, and lots of soy. Soy is a great cash crop, he says.
-What do you know about farming? You’ve never touched a live chicken in your life.
-I know enough about it to know the chickens don’t steal your soul. A chicken isn’t civilizing our wild prairies, or demanding sacrifices of our boys and our birds. A chicken is food with legs, and nothing but.
-Don’t talk like that in front of the kid.
-She’s old enough to learn…
-Superstition. Father in heaven, you know there is nothing greater than God. Nothing can steal your soul except the devil, and the power company aren’t devils.
-The power company might as well be a God. We pray every day in the miracle of light. We flip switches and we have light day and night. We got radios and tvs and it’s like a miracle. Zeus has wormed his way back into Christian country. Old gods are back. They’re taking what’s theirs.
-Ten more years until the pension. Hold down. This restlessness will pass. He was a good boy, I’m sure. They always are. We’ll mourn him. We’ll mourn as a family.
I never imagined my father was afraid of the lines, but he was. His hand was on a cup, and trembling a little, and pale.
I was a girl named Isabella. My name means I am beautiful. I was in the tenth grade. I am going to go east to college if I can, to a good school away from this huge, overwhelming sky, and I will make something of myself. I want to be part of the future that comes from these wires, I think, even as I dance to speak with bees like my mother taught me.
This was not a small town. This was a rural community, and it grew up around the power factories and reactors and cables and trains that came for all our crops. We had come to expect electricity when we plug our devices into the walls.
I think my mother was right to speak this way to my father. In school we are not allowed to use our cellphones. We had to turn them off, put them on silent, and pretend like we didn’t want to spend all the hours of the day staring at the screen in our palms. We had to pretend that we didn’t worship the blinking and the lights in our hands that are so much more interesting than algebra.
The bees are dying. I do a report on this for class. I explain that the bees get confused when they get near power lines. Their souls are so small, so weak. They are pulled towards electricity the way we are pulled towards air conditioning or moths are pulled into street lamps against their will. Even if they escape the electric fields, they forget what they were doing, and bumble around. People have to help them through the fields near the electric factories, power stations, and junctions. I want to show a video of bees dancing their warnings to each other, about the place where they became very confused, and how the wings and thorax are clearly swirling a little bit to demonstrate their confusion to each other in their very precise language. No one would believe me, though.
My teacher probably doesn’t believe me.
-I speak bee.
My teacher isn’t listening. The class isn’t listening. They’re all staring at their hands. My teacher is taking notes on my presentation. The students are using this as an opportunity to IM each other. I’m alone, in front of them all, and there’s nothing I could say that would be heard more than this: I burp as loudly as I can, with the widest mouth I can muster.
Everyone looks up. People are giggling. I smile and shrug.
The teacher’s attention is mine, now.
-Hey, do you ever wonder what it is like to be a bee, and to be riding the edge of certain doom, to work so hard and so hard, but there’s nothing you can do because the powerlines are coming, growing, spreading, and all your forests and fields are being devoured? Do you ever wonder what that’s like?
The teacher, a young man, fresh out of school, and handsome. He folds his arms and thinks a moment.
-I think it would be terrible. That’s true. But, bees aren’t people. They don’t have feelings.
-You’re so sure?
-Insects don’t have feelings. They don’t feel pain.
-How do you know?
-Because they don’t. They don’t have nerve endings.
-Do you have a degree in insectology? Do you know that for certain.
-It’s called Entomology. My degree is in psychology and English. I was a double-major. Still, I know that bees don’t feel anything.
-They do. They just don’t feel it the same way that you do. Would you feel it if your hand was cut off?
-Enough. Take your seat.
-Because when you cut off a bee’s limb, they may not feel pain, but they do feel the absence of it. It isn’t the same, but it is a feeling, and it is not a good one.
-Fine, whatever. I’ll sit down.
By the time I was in my seat, all the cellphones were put away. I had kept a distraction going, but we were all ninjas. We knew when it was time to put them away, to time it just right to get the most out of our phones, without getting found out and losing them.
I looked around me at all the students. I wondered if anyone else spoke bee.
My phone vibrated. Europa was smirking at me. She had sent me a message on the phone.
U spk bee?
I texted back: Ya 😉
cool. show me.
My father was working on the line near school. He was monitoring the digging from the side, while another man ran the backhoe. The line wasn’t powered up. I could tell because it wasn’t running the ghosts through the wires. My father didn’t see me coming up to him. When I tapped his back, he saw me, and flipped off the digger so we could talk in peace.
-Hey, kiddo. Good day at school?
-Sure. What’re you doing?
-Fixing the line. Funeral tomorrow. You don’t want to go?
-I guess. Nothing else to do.
-You shouldn’t go if you don’t want to go.
-Well, I didn’t know him.
-I’m going. You’re mother’s going, too. You can stay home, if you like. You can make dinner.
-Can we order Chinese?
-No. Isabella, I got work to do, now. Go on back to class.
-School’s over, dad.
-Go home, then. See you there.
He turned away from me and waved at the man to start the backhoe again. The man was smoking while I had distracted my father. He threw away his cigarette and stretched his arms over his head before starting up again. He looked tired. I watched him reach down and poke at the wire in the ground. It was a cable at least a foot around, and my father pulled at it, lifting it up like a heavy python with a groan. It had been burned and broken. It was frayed and fractured. He pulled out the ripped up parts. Backhoe had done it on purpose, he would say later. They were installing a filter to keep the souls down and away from the air, keep it all locked up in the wires. Ought not to frighten people like that, if it’s going to be taking over the world, in every home and every classroom and every hospital bed and church. Have to hide what it is, he would say.
-Momma says it isn’t anybody’s soul, Dad.
-Your Momma’s right. Whatever she says is right.
-What is it, then? Who’s right? You or her?
-Everyone’s right, all the time. Respect other people’s point of view.
Instead of speaking to gods, we speak to fathers. I sat in his lap like when I was young because he asked me to sit there. I let him stroke my hair. I wondered why he wanted to hold me like I was a child. Tomorrow he was going to the funeral for the man who died on his line. I haven’t decided if I want to go or not, yet. I didn’t know the man, but I might go just to help dad through it. I saw the man’s picture in the paper. He was so young. Dad cut out the picture and put it on the wall next to the other pictures of the men who had died on the lines.
Momma says being close to children is the best way out of the death fear that comes, sometimes.
Still, I didn’t know the one who died. Why should I mourn him when it would be dishonest of me? I’m staying home. I’m going to try to make Chinese food. I’ve got this book that says it can teach me how to make orange chicken. I want to try it, just to see if it works. I want to invite my friends over, and we can watch TV and make Chinese food and if we get it wrong we can eat the evidence, or if it’s really bad bury it in the yard. If we bury it in the yard, we’ll probably mark it with a rock, so no raccoons get after it, and we’ll say a few words over it. That’s what we’ll do.
My house was so weird. I went to Europa’s house to show her that I could speak bee.
Her mother was home, smoking marijuana in the living room on account of her glaucoma. Her mother was nearly blind. We weren’t allowed in the house when she was smoking. We had to sit on the porch. It was a cattle ranch. It was spring. The bulls were charging the cattle, mounting them. I watched, a little bored, and thought I’d ask her about boys. Europa spoke first.
-I’m so embarrassed…
-My mom… Our cows… Jesus, Isabella. There’s nowhere to go. Can we go to your house?
-My parents are acting weird. My dad especially. There’s a funeral tomorrow.
-I heard about the guy on the line…
-Some guy. Not even from here. He was up on a cherry picker. He moved up too fast. He touched a wire, and it was still hot. Something had him grounded, too. He should have worn rubber gloves or something. Cooked him like a chicken.
-That’s gross. Don’t say that.
The cows were making strange noises. They seemed to be in such terrible pain, with the huge bulls on their backs, but it wasn’t pain that did that.
-Do you think people make noises like that, Europa?
-Like a chicken when they die? How would I know, Isabella?
-No, I mean, when they…
I pointed at the cattle. They were making faces, too, and moaning.
-Oh, God… Izzie, let’s go to your place. I don’t care if your parents are acting weird. At least we could watch TV or something. Mom won’t remember dinner. She’s too stoned. Glaucoma. Right. An excuse. Dad says it’s just an excuse.
The cows were huge, like whales on top of each other. It was horrible to watch, all that weight on each other. Amazing their legs didn’t give out.
We walked past the power lines, where the clouds and the sky muted the ghosts flowing through them. I stopped and listened to the buzz of them. They sounded like a bee hive, kind of. I thought I might recognize the word if I concentrated. Bees didn’t say much with their sounds, but that doesn’t mean it had no meaning to them.
-Come on, Izzie. Don’t tell me you want to stay and watch the cows do their thing.
I pointed up to the power lines.
-Do you hear that?
-What do you think the power lines are saying?
–That’s right. But what does it mean to us? Who are they saying it to?
-Isabella, you didn’t eat any of my mom’s brownies, did you? Come on, weirdo. Let’s go watch TV at your house.
At my house, my mother was drinking a bottle of wine by herself at the kitchen table. She had half the wine down, and a little more. She turned and smiled for us. She held the bottle out.
-Do you want some?
-We’re underage, Mom.
-Not for long, you ain’t. Look at you, girl. When I was your age… When your father was… Oh, go on. Go play with your friend.
I took her into the back yard, where my mother had hollowed out logs which she used as a refuge for wayward bees. The logs were a little rotten looking, and soft, and if I lifted them up, there’d be all sorts of millipedes and worms and ants. I didn’t lift it up, though. I wanted to see if there were any bees inside the log. I tapped at it, and stepped back. I waited, and nothing came out.
Europa pointed to the power lines. They ran up from the ground, to our house.
-I think we’re being watched.
I looked up to the lines, and there was a man’s ghost emanating from the flood of souls in the wires, drifting slowly, like floating downstream. I recognized him. It was the man that had died in the wires. He was drifting with his body angled like he was looking at us. He was reaching out to me.
-That’s so weird…
I wondered how to talk to him in the wires. I wondered if the buzzing in the wires meant anything. I reached out a hand to him. He reached out a hand to me. Between us, there was this spark, like a word passing in between us. I felt it, a buzzing like with the bees.
-Do you know what sex is, Europa?
-My father, he works with electricity. He says that sex is the input and output. I/O.
-Hi-ho, Hi-Ho, Off to work we go?
-No. No. Input and output. Switches. I/O is input and output.
-I don’t get it.
-It’s the bees’ talk. It’s the way the wires talk, too. It’s the language of nature and maybe the language of god in all men. I hear a bee word in these wires. I can hear something. Death, I think. I think that’s the closest equivalent. Like the opposite of a bee word. Like the sound of bees when they are screaming and dying. Like the wordless scream of pain. It’s an input. There’s an output for that sound.
-My dad says electricity is the future. He says cattle are the past. He says I should stay away from cattle and bulls.
-There will always be cattle, Europa. There has always been cattle. Electricity is a newfangled miracle.
I stood up. I planted my hands at my sides and bent over a little.
-What are you doing, Izzie?
-Bees speak very plainly. There is an input of words. There is an output of action. It is a guileless language.
-You speak bee. Right. Show me.
-Do you speak anything?
-Watch me. I might be able to teach you a little. It’s a language of bees.
I danced, then, shivering and moving. I tried to tell the bees about all of us, them and us together, and what we had in common, with the words they knew.
We will all become cattle.
We will go east and be cattle.
The hornets and spiders will look at us with a rancher’s eyes, up and down the back of our legs like taking measurements for harvest.
Europa and I will be cattle. We will go east, to good places in the east, where we will be eyed like cattle by everyone – drones, queens, drag car racers – and the ripeness of the years will swell us up with their desire.
We will be cattle.
We will be an input for them and there will be an output.
We will ripen like queens, but we will not be queens. We will birth electricians and programmers and linesmen. The ends will come from the bowels of the earth.
Listen to the words of the electric wires…
-Izzie, look out. There’s, like…
-I know there’s bees, Europa. I know it.
-I think they’re…
-A million of them. I think we should…
-Run. Run, Europa. Run for the house. Run for water. Just run.
She held still, curled over herself. She curled into a ball like fetal tissue.
I ran. I ran away from the house, and away from the wires, and away from everyone I knew. I wanted to lead the bees away, and after a while I wasn’t being chased. I was leading them. They were simple things, with no memory of their anger. They flew because they were flying. They followed because they were following. To the east, I led them, always east, into a sunrise and a mountain and the old country, where maybe the trees would block out the view of the sky and the powerlines were wrapped in the clutch of trees older and more solid than any newfangled god.
There will always be trees.
There will always be cattle.
There will always be an input and an output.
Generally, this will involve a woman, or an insect, or a woman who is treated like an insect, sometimes. The output is always, eventually, death.
The name for the devil is death in our hearts, but we pretend like death is an act of god.