[If this strikes you as a peculiar thing to appear on this blog, that’s only because it is. It’s a serialized novel that I’ll be writing over the next few months.]
He remembers the first time it happened. It is his earliest memory. A. had awoken eager to walk along the banks of one of the city’s three rivers—he cannot remember which one—on that morning. He cherished these rare moments to himself, far from the wailing of E., his new brother. His mother insisted he not stray too far from home, but A. knew the area well and that E. would prevent her from following him, so he ranged rather further than he led her to believe.
But on this particular morning, A. felt differently adventurous, so he followed his father to the small walled garden occupied by his family’s honey bees. The bees frightened him, but he thought if he harvested a comb of honey he could prove to his father he was more worthy of attention than E. He hid behind the bushes lining the front wall and waited for his father to leave. It felt like hours before his father tired of his toil, but eventually he exited the small garden through the side gate and made for his favored tavern. A. allowed a few minutes to pass in case his father—who was always forgetting something—had forgotten something. He emerged from the bushes and approached the clay pots that housed the hives.
When the first bee crawled from the nearest pot and took flight, A. felt a strong urge to follow suit. He closed his eyes. He heard the bee circle his head twice, then once more, before he felt it settle on his shoulder. He wondered whether the bee recognized that he was his father’s son and pride shuddered through his young body. The bee had tested him and not found him wanting. His mettle steeled, he opened his eyes and glanced at his shoulder. The tiny bee made no effort to sting him, nor did it seem in any hurry to leave. A. took this as a good omen and stepped closer to the hive from which his new friend had departed.
He reached the hive and peered down into it. His new friend had many old ones. They danced up and down the walls of the honey combs in what A. could discern to be a pattern. He admired the orderliness of their movement, though he could not discover its purpose. Suddenly, he heard a footfall from beyond the wall. It had the character of a sound made by someone trying not to make sound. A. knew it could not be his father, because when his father returned from the tavern his feet made no effort to hide their tread. He waited, as still and silent in the garden as his new friend was upon his shoulder. One minute passed. Two minutes. Three. He decided that he had imagined the sound and returned his attention to the pot before him.
He slipped his hand down the side of the comb and attempted, gently, to dislodge it. His efforts resulted in the arrival of even more new friends. They lit upon his arm but, unlike his first friend, they were not still and silent. They made a noise that sounded like the air before a thunderstorm felt. Their orderly dance had been disrupted and they seemed upset about its abandonment. It was not until his first friend joined the rest of his hive in voicing its displeasure that A. began to worry. And worry he did. He removed his hand from the comb and began to retract it, slowly, slowly, from the pot. His hand was nearly free when he heard the front gate slam open. The bees heard too, but they seemed not to care who had been intruding where, only that an intrusion had occurred. A. felt a thousand tiny needles stab his hand. He reeled back, but the offense had already been given and must have been quite grave because the hive did not relent. He looked to the front gate—if he could make it to the gate he could jump into the river—and only then remembered what had startled the bees in the first place.
A man in a strange black coat stood in the gateway. His hair and complexion were dark, much like A.’s own, but his whiskers were unlike any A. had ever seen. He had something in his hand. The man shouted something that A. could not understand and began to run toward him. A. tried to say something but a bee flew in his mouth. He hoped it was not his friend, but there was no time to mourn.
The man was upon him.
The world went black. The sharp pains in his hand were replaced by deep pains everywhere else. A. desperately clutched at the black but a new pain arrived every second: on his head, in his chest, to his stomach. He felt the ground beneath him go slick. He tried to slip away but the blackness was too strong. The pains continued to arrive for what must have been hours. When the blackness finally drew back, A. found himself staring at a blue sky. The bees were still panicking but appeared to have lost interest in him. His back felt wet and the world smelled of shit and sick. He tried to move but the attempt only brought more pain.
Then the man returned. He leaned over A. and grabbed him by the hair. He shouted another string of words which had no meaning to A. and shook him. A. could no longer judge which of his many pains he was feeling. When the man struck him in the face with the object in his right hand, A. ceased to care. He no longer felt pain—he had become pain. He longed for the blackness to return and, quickly enough, it did.
It was light when he awoke, in his own bed, still very much in pain. Outside the door he could hear his parents arguing, as he would many times again, about what had happened. About why A. had been near the hives and how lucky they were that his father returned when he had. He learned that there had been a confrontation, but that the man had escaped his father, and that they had not been able to find him. A. did not want to think about that. Not now, not ever again.
But think about it he would, again and again, because this was only the first time it happened.