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Grey Sparrow Journal

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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Secrets of the Bees

 

by Nicola Hodges

 

 

 

         I exhale my warm breath on the iced glass of the leaded window and wipe the delicate appliquéd patterns that swirl and coat the pane with my sleeve, so that I may look out on the world.  I am surprised to see it has taken on a shroud of white.  Chilled below the dew point, the hoarfrost has settled on every leaf, branch and blade.   The world has suddenly aged.  Spicules of ice have spread, fern like, so that everything is covered in a frigid white lace.  It looks like the frosted layer that sometimes forms on the top of our honey.  I have a good view from my bed chamber which is on the upper floor of the house, where there is plenty of daytime light for sewing.  Wood smoke curls its way through the trees, from the woods beyond, drifting through the walled gardens.  It hangs over the moat below in a white mist.

 

         It is here on this lace-frosted day, I have come to look one more time, God willing, upon your face, and bid you farewell.   In your absence, I dreamed of you.   We were standing in the orchard and you called to me, with that smile upon your face, with that look.   I warned you that it was dangerous to talk, now that you had gained such fortune and fame.

  

         "Tell your secrets to the bees instead" I had said, "for they love to hear our news."

  

         To see you once again, as you return after nearly a decade has passed, to address the crowds, would be a fine thing.   But still, I shiver when I think that you may catch me in your glance on this historic day.

 

         In all this time did you ever see the light of day, whilst you sweated over the words from your political pamphlets? Or did you slink furtively by moonlight, as I did, sulking in the garden at night wishing for you to return?  I even penned a note but it was most likely secreted away, from the leather mail bag which was to make its way to where you lived.  How I waited.  The weeks, the months, the years slipped by as the sun sinks with each sunset.  I waited for that note, that token, that letter, that never came.   Each day arrived as wanting and barren as the last.   So it would remain until I no longer looked out from under the lintel. 

 

         "He is not coming, he has gone away," the wolf streak of suspicion within said to me, and you were not mentioned again. 

 

         Until today, when someone disclosed your name.   It gently uncurled from the lips of a serving maid like the peel from an apple.   Yes, sweet Robert, it was your name. The sound of it fell as subtle as a snowflake, yet it sliced sharp as an axe hacks through dead wood.   Memories seep out, which have long been locked away.  The name hung in the air like a warm spice.   It spun like a spider's web gently unraveling as I lay in my bed and, giving up on sleep, I rummaged for the keepsakes you had once given to me.   A curl of your hair tied with a ribbon, a sprig of rosemary held within a sleeve of knotted lace. 

 

          It began in the spring, many years ago, when the white thorn was in leaf.   My father was known for his generous house parties: the large red brick house with the herringbone bricks and tall chimneys, the servants, the lavish table that buckled under the weight of food and most of all the reputation for our ripe, freshly collected honey.   Liquid gold, it flowed from the knife with the aroma of blossom and thyme.  Visitors would come from miles around not just to talk religion and affairs of state with my father, but also to savor our delicious honey and mead.   There were times when we were stuffed to the rafters with guests.  Many a young gentleman was invited by my parents to stay at our country home, so that they might be considered as a possible suitor for me.

 

         One fine day, I walked outside with the ladies to gather in the garden and embroider under the good light and the gentle lilting of the lute.  I watched as you returned with the hunting party from a hard morning's ride, with the dogs running about the horses feet, lustful and sporting, your sword with its gilt handle flashing in the sunlight, held in a velvet scabbard.  How you loved the thrill of the chase.  You broke away from the crowd riding hard into my vision, a silk scarf fluttering in the wind across your face to shade you from the sun.  Your prey was sighted.  I was a young maid, some years younger than you, with hair, lustrous as chestnuts, cascading like a river, over the fair skin of my sweet face.  Laid out like a flower waiting to open, on the velvet-edged cloak, beneath the graceful spread of the Cedar tree.  You were the handsomest gentleman I had ever seen.

 

         Sweet times they were, when we gave the others the slip, walking in the meadow, riding out on the heath.   My hair flowing long and unpinned over your shoulder.  The brim of your hat turned up and fastened to the crown with the jeweled brooch that sparkled in the river light.  How the great bunch of feathers peaked on top of your hat.

 

         "Looks like a cockscomb!"  They all said.

 

         The taste of the sweet mead by the river, where the sun sparkled on the primroses and shone from the river bed, all was so fresh and green.   The earth, lush and life-giving and full of promise of what was to be.  We would watch the seeds drift and the flowers that had climbed to their height as we exchanged tokens and words of love.   The nutmeg and ginger, the furtive kiss, a lace handkerchief, a pair of rose-scented gloves.

   

         "Confess!"  You teased me, as you twirled my hair around your fingers, like the spirals on the woodbine taking hold, and with a single stroke upon my cheek, expected open and deep disgraces to deliver from my mouth.   Aye, open and deep.  But I have been taught that some secrets are too dangerous to speak.  They are better left unsaid or shared with the bees instead.   For the bees love to hear our news, otherwise they may take offense and leave, taking their good luck and fine honey with them.   Thank God my words were lost in the air, lifted and carried in the wind across the river, to the orchard where the bees lived.   With the tracing of many tiny feet they wove our secrets into their combs of honey and sealed them in with wax.

  

         "He is like so many of the young courtiers," Mother said, whilst she braided my hair by the soft and yellow light of the candle, as I prepared for bed.  "Caught up in politics and strange matters of religion.  It always goes to their head.  He should be careful what he writes.  Once written, words cannot be taken away."  She did not see the love note concealed beneath my pillow, the petals scattered upon my bed.

 

         You presented me with a sprig of rosemary, one day, tied up in lace, as we led our horses by the reins, to the natural wilderness of the heath.  Through the thickets of sweet-briar and honeysuckle, to the wild and secret place where primroses grow in the shade.

   

         "You can wear it on your arm" you said.   I remember how you gently tied it to the sleeve of my left arm as you eased me down to the ground, your eyes full of eager expectation. 


         I laughed at the gesture and gave voice to my confusion.  "But Robert, only a bride wears rosemary on the left arm!  This is not a bride lace you are giving to me?"

  

         "We will be, my love, one day!"  You whispered to me.   It used to sleep with me under my pillow, this false bride lace.   A foolish act of chivalry.   I had long moved it, of course.  I tried to summon up your face, but the specter of a married man bent under the burden of his estate, silver hairs running through the black, a wealthy widow laid on her back, it all haunted me. 

 

         As the moon moves through all her phases so did we.   You worshiped me from the saddle as you rode out with the horses each day.   Like a young stag, standing behind the wall, you gazed through the latticework to steal a glimpse of me.   "Honor me with your presence," you beseeched me, eyes begging, never leaving my face, words burning from your unshaven face.   You were drunk on the nectar, inebriated with lust.   Waiting to catch your next glance of me, you were ever alert.   Like a monk fervent with duty, you declared your devotion.   How you loved the games, the music and flirting, the subterfuges to avoid detection.  The virtuous rejection, the wooing renewed.  The dancing when you could covertly caress me.

 

         You called to me.  The voice! Calling as you came to me through the darkness.   The visits, the gifts, the compliments.   You pursued me like a wild cat pursues its prey. Nighthawk by night and wolf by day.   How your unsatisfied desire made you sick as a dog.  The moans of approaching death when you could not have me.

 

         How flattering you were to my mother, who took great pride in overseeing the brewing of the mead and the care of the bees.  "I must compliment you Madam, on your fine mead and honey.   How is it that your mead is spiced, yet stays so sweet?"

 

         I explained to you, "The secret is in the sweetness of the honey.  The spices should not be too strong that they drown the luscious sweetness.  We add the flowers of clove-gilly and sweet marjoram, cinnamon and strawberry leaves."   The taste varied from year to year, the aroma and flavor depending on the nectar that the bees had fed upon.   Sometimes it had the aroma of the clover, which grew in abundance in the meadow, or the chestnut trees, which grew tall and sweet at the edge of the woods.

   

         "Perhaps we should give them more gossip then, to give the honey more spice," you said in a low voice meant only for my ears.

 

         Mother cut in.  "We have to be careful not to over-spice the mead and not to be too hasty, drinking it before it is ready.  For the spices are mellowed away in a year.   One has to learn to wait for at least a few months for it to mature."

 

         "I cannot wait that long" you said, with a look that lingered upon me that made me blush the color of your crimson breeches.  "I would rather it were spiced too strongly than to have to wait!"

 

         "But we have to learn patience!"  Mother replied with a reproachful voice.

 

         You not only courted me, you gained favor with my father and mother, and for a time there was talk of betrothal in the air.   You seemed embarrassed when you first heard it mentioned.   "You were right, it is safer to gossip with the bees," you once said with a sideways glance, when we walked down to the long grass of the orchard, where the bees hummed under the damson and cherry trees.   You spoke in a lazy, drawling drone, your senses mellowed by the mead and the warm sun of the late afternoon.

 

         "They like to hear your news but shall only spin your words into their sweet combs of golden honey" I said.   I would smile each time we had honey with our food, thinking of the sweet secrets contained within each spoonful; the delicious sticky syrup that dribbled down our chins and teased our tongues.

   

         I wanted you to return and enthused about the orchard.  "You can come here in September when we pick the fruits from the trees and see how we turn these juicy plums into marmalades and wine."   Alas, our fruit never matured either from the tree nor the vine, for the foxes came and ate heartily before they had the chance to ripen.

 

         "I should like that," you said.  "To be here for all the seasons of the year, always by your side."   You slipped your arm around my waist and let it rest, warm, against the small of my back.  I flushed as red as an apple, unsure what to do with your advance.   I could feel your breath, the soft black stubble on your chin, how intensely your brown eyes stared into mine, the scent of deer musk as we waded through the bracken and heather, towards the deep, dark woods.

 

         You returned in September and picked a spicy blue plum from the Damson tree and dangled it over my mouth.   Much to your amusement, it was so sour I spat it out.   "The alchemy of sugar and heat will turn this sour little fruit into the rich purple jewel it was meant to be," I said, flourishing a bottle of our Damson wine, rich and spiced, deep and red, humming with ferment.

  

         How you teased me in the tipsy afternoon.  "You have such a sweet, fair face.   I swear your cheeks are covered with the bloom of peaches," you said, tracing your fingers along the brow on my face, down to my mouth and cheeks.   In your hand you held a cluster of fine-toothed edged leaves from which the purple-red, shining heads of several cherries drooped.   You plucked one from its stem and placed its hard roundness in my mouth and one in yours.   We chewed them slowly, peeling the soft yellow flesh from around the stone, savoring the juicy sweetness and the rare moment of being alone.

 

         The autumn had to come.  I am glad it only came with a sigh, gently shaking the rose petals from the loose and shabby heads, the September sun weakening to a warm afterglow.    The bright and brittle stubble in the earth-clod fields, scratching our feet as we walked.   It was a harvest moon that night as we lay looking up at the deep mantle of sky, our backs arched under the green knolls of grass, acorns strewn at our feet, below the eve of curving branches of the oak tree.   You vowed then never to leave me and I vowed it too, for under the bright silver glow of moonlight everything was cast in an eerie, supernatural light.

   

          All those words that were spoken.  What became of them? Did they drift away like the smoke of many fires or did they become something lasting and eternal like the hastily scrawled love notes, the oaths of virtue carved into the bark of the oak tree?  Like the plow that had laid fallow the copper earth for the winter, so we were plowed back into the land.   Tears were shed like the leaves that fell from the trees and as the flash of the silver scythe separated the head of golden corn from the sheath, so we were, by a single stroke, to be parted.

 

         My mother, like all mothers, smoked us out and confronted me one day.  "Take heed of the pretenses of men and their affections.   For only men that are worthy and honest will honor a woman as fair and young as you."

 

         "Mother, he is a fine man with good breeding, wit and elegance, and seems determined to have me!"  I boasted to the reflection of my mother's face in the looking glass, as she brushed out the full and natural beauty of my long hair.

 

         "It's safer to play a game of chess than to play the courting game with a man such as him," she retorted as she brushed vigorously.   "He is a handsome and captivating man, charming, but flirtatious, with very little sense."  She lowered her voice to a secretive murmur.  "And his family has great ambitions for him."   I would not hear anything of it and tutted, but she snagged my hair with the brush.   

 

         "There are many suitable offers of marriage for him.   Don't be surprised if you find that he is already promised to someone else!"  She snapped at me.   I was shocked at the change of tone in my mother's voice and sat in numb disbelief.

 

         "I thought that you and father held Robert in high esteem?"  I pleaded to my mother.

 

         She looked away with a tight-lipped face and said, "There's a line of flowers with broken heads that lie in that man's tread.  There is a lot about him that you don't know."   With a frustrated rustle of her long skirt and the busy clatter of her shoes, she swept out of the room leaving me to contemplate sorely what she had said.

  

         The love notes were soon sequestered away.   On my mother's insistence I would pardon myself from your company to catch the daylight hours for sewing and said the ground was too wet to take walks.  The length between your visits drew longer, like the breaths of a dying man, until the dissolution was complete.

  

***

                       

         One of my maids enters the bed chamber and beckons me to make haste for the occasion.   "You must dress now Madam.  Be sure to be well covered, it is a bitterly cold day."

  

         Why does our reunion have to be on such a fatally, frosted day?  The stars this night will be brilliant as diamonds in the cloudless sky, if only there was more time, but the cold penetrates and time calculates with a ruthless severity.   I am laced and compressed into my garments.   Tied and fastened, the cord snaps as I yield to the cold of the fabric, harassed by the chill.

   

         I wear my best gown and kirtle on this special day.   The clouded mirror reflects my pale face.   I redden my lips and cheeks so that I may stand out resplendent in my green dress with the red slashed sleeves, tied with true love's knots and buttons made of ivory and mother of pearl.   I turn the key on the casket and remove my jewels to wear.   I stumble upon a pair of gloves, faded yellow, folded like a wordless letter.   The heavy crease confirms the length of time they have lain concealed together, in silent prayer, the perfume long gone.  They were made to wear against my skin and so I shall wear them for you today.

 

         Starched and constricted in the linen ruff that caresses my goodly neck, edged with fine lace, speckled with silver and pinned into place I stand, a stately arch of pride, stranded with gold, whalebone padded, long and wide.   I am mistress of my own house now.   I am tinseled, bright, and spangle in the light.   Sweet Robert, I shall honor you with my fair presence.

  

         I wonder how you will be dressed on this mortally cold day.  I remember the time spent grooming your hair, curled with wax and hot irons and the monstrous ruffs, quarter of a yard deep interwoven with silver-gilt thread.  The sleeves of your jacket slashed to expose the red colored lining beneath, like a layer of wounded flesh bulging through the cloth.   The velvet breeches tied finely with silk, inlaid with rows of lace, drawn tightly around your slender waist.   The silk shirt that slipped so easily from your skin.

 

         It is time.  I make my way down the stairs.  The ladies of the house and I make our way across the wooden floor, sweeping the rushes strewn with the herb leaves of winter savory and marjoram with our long, heavy skirts.  We step outside into the cold, savage light.   We walk gingerly, clinging to one another, down to the frost fair below.   Our cloaks rustle in chorus and the hard ground cracks under our feet as we walk.   The ground is treacherous.  I am afraid that I may fall in many ways.  Sheets of ice sweep one or two off from their feet to land awkwardly on the iron tombed earth.   Frost cracks flesh.

 

         We walk past peddlers selling their wares at hastily constructed stalls.   I am offered sugared fruits and sweet cakes flavored with ginger and nutmeg.   Rooks fly in the smoke from the bonfires that drift across the fields.   The cold, cold fog creeps up from the woods, sending the party to crouch around the fires, drink ale and sup on pastries and pies.    The crowd, many hundreds, grows like mold spreads on old bread, like a blood stain smears the white snow.   They are here to enjoy this day and eagerly await your arrival akin to greyhounds held on a leash, straining for a glimpse of you.

 

         The sudden commotion of the clatter of horses signals your arrival in a swirl of shouts and raised swords.   You move through the crowd, hemmed and shackled in a narrow avenue of fettered lace.   From this angle I cannot see your face as you are swept through the sea of people thronging about in the waves of excitement.  For a moment you become one of them, jostling with the others, at risk of being drowned.

  

         I tremble at the thought of seeing you again, wonder how you have changed.   The pleasure is mixed with pain; my cheeks flush with a sudden shame.   A mawkish fool for having claimed to have loved you.  How naive  one can be at such a young age.  And what of love? Did the trinkets, colorful posies and promises bring you to my side, when you were already betrothed to another?  It only lasted a season or two, then, like a bee on the pollen, you went on to find another.   A lady should control her passions in pleasure's wasteful land, for the world is a dangerous place.

 

         I heard that you reveled in intrigue and the risks you took were too great.  You took to wearing a light coat of mail under your clothes, they said, sadly you did not manage to keep your head.  "Confess!"  They said to you as they twirled the hair of the rope around your wrists, like the prickles on the sweet briar taking hold, the open and deep disgraces delivered from your mouth.   The greatness of your misfortune saddens me to this day.   Your hands covered with their sweet washed gloves carry you up onto the platform to address the crowd and shall be pressed together later to pray.   You are butted and hustled like a baited bear, until you appear to speak, a limp ejaculation into the cold accusing light.

 

         The crowd is expectant and has left the warm fires.   They fill a space around you to hear you talk, to catch a glimpse of your face.   They would take a piece of your clothing if they could, a piece of skin, a lock of your hair for a souvenir, such is your fame.  Your eyes dart in your face like thunder flies on a summer's day, and you shift restlessly, one foot to the other, from pride to shame.  Your face is pale and warm breath streams from your mouth in a mare's tail as you speak.   I stand unnoticed, shoulder to shoulder with the ladies.   We are shrouded under our hooded capes and hooped farthingales, the fabric of our shifts thin as tissue against our goose flesh.   We shiver in the cold.  You speak.  The crowd goes silent straining to listen.  We strain to listen too, eager to hear your voice pierce the chilled air.

 

          You greet us as though we were old friends, hands held out in welcome.  The master courtier, you still speak in your commanding voice, no doubt wearing a vest made of wool under your clothes, lest you should shiver and appear afraid in front of the crowd.  Your words stab the audience standing before you, open mouthed.  "Almighty God, have mercy on me.  Teach me to forgive my persecutors and false accusers!"  They watch every move; they have become your jailers hemming you in with their thoughts.  You claim repentance and make your oath to the Queen, thereby protecting your reputation and those that remain.

   

         The feathers on your hat are fewer now, and you have grown wasted for want of light.   Your body is broken; shoulders droop under your cape.  You turn your back to the crowd and vanish from sight as you kneel to pray.   Heads are raised on tip-toed feet straining to see.  The wood splits and words spit in the bonfires and hang in the smoke that drifts in pungent grey clouds.  It obscures our sight, settling on the grass and leaves and in the minds of all around you, sending us all to obscurity.

   

         A murmur sweeps through the crowd like the wind passing through a field of uncut grass.   There is a sound like the scythe that cuts through the hay, sudden and swift and the soft thud as though a basket of apples has tumbled to the ground.  A loud, unholy gasp.  The rooks suddenly fly up in a mob circling the bare-bone trees that claw the sky.  The smell of rosemary slays my senses, in a sweet and sudden stench, as the sprig tied with lace shakes itself loose from the hidden pinfold in my sleeve.  For an instant I am flooded with memories.  It is all I can do to stifle the sobs that rage through me, that threaten to tattle and shake me to my grave.

   

         The ladies and I, heads bowed, arm in arm, turn and silently walk away.   I notice how their eyes glisten, as mine smart with stinging tears, so we avoid each other's gaze; how we tremble so in the cold.  The blood drains away from me so that I can hardly walk, and I shiver to the bone.   Thank God my words were not written down on that day.  They laced the sweet jars of honey with a color and spice that earned us the reputation for the finest honey and mead.   I humbly take leave and bid you farewell, sweet Robert, my heart heavy with sadness and regret.   If only you would have had told your secrets to the bees instead.