Telling the Bees

Originally printed in the January - February  2001 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: O'Grady, John P. "Telling the Bees." Quest  89.1 (JANUARY - FEBRUARY  2001): 14-17, 23.

By John P. O'Grady

John O'GradyOne summer day some years back a man showed up at the door seeking permission and something else. No ordinary caller, he was dressed in full beekeeping gear:coveralls, high-top Redwing boots, long coated gloves, and a thick veil of dark mesh that hung like an ominous cloud from the broad brim of his white hat. In his left hand he held an old, tin bee-smoker with noxious plumes curling from its stack. What was he doing here? We had no bees.

Yet he wasn’t a total stranger, or so we told ourselves. Wasn’t he the man seen every week at the farmers market, the one who sold the raw honey and beeswax? He had a small table with a hand-lettered sign on it that read "Locally produced." We never bought anything from him, and didn’t know anybody who had. Stories around town hinted that his honey was tainted, his bees spent too much time up in the mountain laurel and rhododendron that grew on the mountains. Honey made from those flowers is said to contain a toxin that, ingested even in small amounts, leaves you flat on your back for a day or more, hallucinating. "Mad honey," the teenagers call it. Not that we had anything against a sweet madness or weren’t willing to take a chance, but none of us cared for honey. We preferred maple syrup.

Before we could ask what brought him to our door, he told us. It had to do with a loss he suffered involving a particular beehive now located in our woods,or in the woods just beyond our woods. So he said. We didn’t know anything about any bee hive. He assured us it was out there nonetheless, and it belonged to him.

He went on at length about the trouble that had arisen between this hive and himself. A falling out had occurred. About a year ago, the man’s mother--whom hereferred to as "the queen beekeeper"--had died. The next day the hive was empty, the bees having pulled the apiary equivalent of running away from home.

"They were upset with me," he explained. "You’re supposed to tell the hive when ever there’s a death in the house. They’re sensitive, you know, and consider themselves part of the family. When mother died, I just forgot to tell them. You can understand this, can’t you? It was a sad and busy time, so many things to take care of. Mother’s last request was that her coffin be filled with honey before we put it in the ground. Not an unusual desire for a life long beekeeper, so don’t look at me like that.

"I went out to the hive and gathered all the honey they had in there, but it was hardly enough. I had to call around to every honey warehouse in the region until I finally had what I needed. It was difficult work and involved a lot of driving, not to mention the grieving I was doing--no wonder I forgot to tell the bees mother had died. It’s not like I was trying to hide anything from them or go out of my way to be rude. But the bees were peeved, and I don’t know if they were offended because I didn’t tell them about mother or because I went out and got all that stranger honey for her coffin. Whatever the reason, they abandoned me. It’s terrible, and I’ve been looking for them ever since.

"I finally spotted one of them this morning and followed it up here. The hive must be nearby. I have to tell them I’m sorry. I just hope they forgive me and come home."

This entire story came to us through the dark mesh of his veil. Listening to it was like sitting on the priest’s side of the confessional window. We wondered if he had been snacking on his own honeycomb.

"Look!" he exclaimed, pointing at something moving across our field toward the woods."There goes another one now."

None of us could see anything where he was pointing. Maybe a dark veil makes it easier to see the hard-to-see things.

"Would you mind," he asked, "if I followed that bee into your woods and had a look around for the hive?"

We felt a certain sympathy for him based on his story, and his request provided a novel reason to get outside, so we said sure. We even offered to help look for his bees out in our woods, or in the woods just beyond our woods--we were willing to go that far.

"Thanks," he said. "Follow me." He darted for the forest and was immediately taken in by it.

We were only about a minute behind him but it was already too late. The Catskill Mountains in summer are lush and fraught with obstacles to following even a man lumbering along in a beekeeper’s suit. The leaves on the trees only serve to hide the immense lichen-shrouded boulders strewn everywhere. Trunks and leaves notwithstanding, those big rocks effectively hinder all lines of sight, so once the man stepped into the woods, that was it. For a while we could hear the crashing of his progress up-slope through the dark trees and thick under story. Soon, though, it faded away. Before long we were lost.

Maybe that’s all we were after anyway. We did this sort of thing many a time, and rather enjoyed the aimless gadding about that inevitably brought us out on some faraway and unfamiliar road, where we could hitch our way home. Since we possessed no maps or guidebooks--save for a couple of antiquated and unreliable volumes acquired at flea markets--we came to know our region by employing more rash methods. Friendly fault finders have often suggested that my writing and thinking are caught in a similar drift.

Anyhow, since it looked like our mission was turning into another one of those free and easy wanderings, one of us proposed we wait around until a bee flew by, then follow it to the hive and the man. Such a plan was a bit more systematic than was our wont, but we agreed to give it a try. We didn’t have long to wait. And we didn’t need a veil to see the bee. Keeping up with it, however, was another story.

We lost it almost immediately, but at least we now had a confident vector to follow. We were making what progress we could when another bee buzzed by, confirming our course. Then another, and another. We had merged into honey bee rush hour traffic, and remained in it for more than an hour. Our bee line took us deeper into the woods and higher up on the mountain, but still no sign of the hive or its contrite keeper.

Just as we were about to give up hope of ever achieving our goal--and muttering that we didn’t need the help of any bees to get ourselves lost in the woods--we came upon the tombstone. After that, we forgot all about the hive.

We were high in the mountains and far from the usual tombstone habitat. Up here you’d sooner expect to discover a bird-of-paradise in bloom. The marker itself was carved from native sandstone, and we found it toppled over, nearly buried in a few human life times of fallen leaves. We might have walked right past it, hadit not been for the partially obscured letters engraved at the top.

"Hey, that looks like a tombstone! What’s it say?"

We brushed away the upper layers of detritus, exhuming a name: Rip VanWinkle.

"No way! This is a joke, right? He was just a character in a story."

"Well, who would make a tombstone for him, and why put it up here?"

"Think a body’s underneath there?"

"I don’t know. Let’s dig some more."

With our hands, we removed further layers of forest debris, going down through the moldy horizons of soil that had begun to consume the stone. Our works melled like old books.

Soon a graven image was revealed, just below Rip’s name. It looked like a mountain lion--around here they’re called panthers--surrounded by seven stars, or what looked like stars. Maybe they were bees. Hard to tell what they were because the stone was so timeworn and soiled. The panther also had something in the grip of its jaws, perhaps another star or a bee. We kept digging.

We were past the organic layers and into the mineral soil and unconsolidated glacial till. By this point we were using sticks for digging tools. As we labored away, an inscription began to emerge, scrolling up from the earth as we scratched our way deeper into it:

Just above, upon this crest,
For twenty years Rip took a rest.
Now he’s gone where all men go . . .

We had reached a point where the tombstone was broken off. The lower half with the remainder of the inscription was missing. We continued to dig, hoping to get to the bottom of it, but turned up nothing except more mineral soil and glacial till.

We were disappointed not to have the complete text of Rip Van Winkle’s epitaph, but still we had this tantalizing fragment. In the years since, we’ve spent many a satisfying hour down at Pandora’s Tavern discussing the questions the tombstone raised for us: Was this really Rip Van Winkle’s grave? Was he a real person, and not just the offspring of an author’s imagination? And if he was real, did he actually encounter that strange band of men in the wilderness, just as the story says?

You remember the story, don’t you? Rip wanders off into the mountains with his dog one afternoon, ostensibly to do a little squirrel shooting but really he’s trying to get away from his workaday duties and the clamor of his wife. Back then they didn’t have sports bars and golf courses and men’s groups; instead, a man went squirrel shooting. After hiking along for many hours and occasionally discharging his firearm into the trees but never hitting anything, Rip runs into this crew of odd-looking men dressed in quaint and outlandish clothes. Apparently they’re having a party up here in the mountains--there’s a keg of potent mead and everybody’s playing at ninepins. Funny thing is, though these fellows are trying to whoop it up, none of them breaks a smile or even says a word. It’s as if they can’t decide whether to have a bachelor party or a funeral reception.

Rip is recruited to pour the mead into flagons and serve it to the somber revelers. He’s happy to do so and, as a naturally thirsty soul, helps himself to repeated draughts of the brew. Before long his senses are overpowered and his eyes are swimming in his head. Finally, he passes out--for twenty years.

When at long last he awakens from his slumbers with one of those what-did-I-do-last-night headaches, there’s no trace of the strange crew or his dog. In addition, his rifle is rusty, his beard is white, and his joints ache. If what the epitaph on the tombstone says is true, then we had come upon the very spot where the events in the story took place. Should the Park Service ever find out, they’d turn it into a National Historic Site, build a road up here, and put in a visitor center.

The problem is we were never again able to find that spot with its tombstone. On that long ago day, after many hours of roaming back down the mountain and through the forest, we finally broke out on a road. We were in an urgent haze of excitement. We couldn’t wait to tell the world of our discovery. Rip Van  Winkle’s tombstone--think of what this could mean!

Well, what the world--at least our small part of it--thought was we were nuts. Either that or making the whole thing up. Especially when, a few days later, we led a group from the local historical society up the mountain in order to show them the tombstone. It’s easy to lose your way up there. We couldn’t locate the spot.

Matters weren’t helped any when the next week, seeking corroboration, we went to the farmers market looking for the man who sold the honey. He wasn’t there,nor was he in the weeks following. Finally we asked around and were told he had moved away, taking his bees and mad honey with him. Now there was no way of knowing if he was even the one who showed up at our door that day. We never saw him again.

Events such as these certainly cast doubt on our impulsive methods of reckoning: the world demands proof and all we have is our word. But if you’ll take mine for it, I assure you that tombstone is out there. We did find it once,way back when we followed the beekeeper into the forest. I myself have continued to look for Rip Van Winkle’s tombstone--often in the company of friends--but alas, no luck. My understanding companions, however, usually enjoy the hike, and all of them like the story.

Their favorite aspect of the tale, more often than not, concerns the last extant line of the epitaph: "Now he’s gone where all men go . . . ." People have always been intrigued by the question of where it is, exactly, that all men go. And for that matter, where do they come from? Whether pertaining to flesh-and-blood historical figures or mere fictional characters, questions of coming-into-being and passing-away remain vital.

A few weeks after our dismal performance with the historical society, a jar of honey showed up at our front door. A note attached to it read: "Thanks. Fred." Was it from the beekeeper? Did he actually locate the hive, tell the bee she was sorry, and bring them home? Was this was his way of thanking us for our help? Even if that was so--and we never did find out for sure--none of us were willing to try that honey. Those bees had been living too long on their own up in the wild reaches of the mountains. Who knows what unfamiliar nectar they may have been sipping.

Or perhaps the jar left at our door was simply an accident.This Fred had made a mistake, confusing our place for that of someone to whom he owed a debt of honeyed gratitude. Or more likely, the whole thing was just a prank by one of the many skeptics we encountered in telling of our experience. No matter. Let’s just say something like along these lines is what happened.

Thus our mysterious beekeeper--that veiled man on a quest for forgiveness--is still out there in the forest, high up in the Catskill Mountains. Like Rip Van Winkle,he ran into a strange crew of sourpuss men playing at ninepins and trying to have a party. He wound up serving as their bartender and helping himself to repeated draughts of their wicked mead. If that’s the case, he ought to be waking up any day now.


John P. O'Grady teaches English at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania. "Telling the Bees" is from Grave Goods: Essays of a Peculiar Nature, a new collection of his work to be published by the University of Utah Press, which will include also a number of other articles first published in the Quest.


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