The History of Bees
District 242, Shirong, Sichuan, 2098
Like oversize birds, we balanced on our respective branches, each of us with a plastic container in one hand and a feather brush in the other.
I climbed upwards, very slowly, as carefully as I could. I was not cut out for this, wasn’t like many of the other women on the crew, my movements were often too heavy-handed. I lacked the subtle motor skills and precision required. This wasn’t what I was made for, but all the same I had to be here, every single day, twelve hours a day.
The trees were as old as a lifetime. The branches were as fragile as thin glass, they cracked beneath our weight. I twisted myself carefully, mustn’t damage the tree. I placed my right foot on a branch even further up, and carefully pulled the left up behind it. And finally I found a secure working position, uncomfortable but stable. From here I could reach the uppermost flowers.
The little plastic container was full of the gossamer gold, carefully weighed out. I tried to transfer invisible portions lightly out of the container and over into the trees. Each individual blossom was to be dusted with the tiny brush of hen feathers, from hens scientifically cultivated for precisely this purpose. No feathers of artificial fibers had proven nearly as effective. It had been tested, and then tested again, because we had had plenty of time—in my district the tradition of hand pollination was more than a hundred years old. The bees here had disappeared back in the 1980s, long before The Collapse; pesticides had done away with them. A few years later, when the pesticides were no longer in use, the bees returned, but by then hand pollination had already been implemented. The results were better, even though an incredible number of people, an incredible number of hands were required. And so, when The Collapse came, my district had a competitive edge. It had paid off to be the ones who polluted the most. We were a pioneer nation in pollution and so we became a pioneer nation in pollination. A paradox had saved us.
I stretched as far as I could, but couldn’t quite reach the blossom at the very top. I was about to give up, but knew I might be punished, so I tried once more. Our pay was docked if we used up the pollen too quickly. And our pay was docked if we used too little. The work was invisible. When at the end of the day we climbed down from the trees, there was no evidence of our work except for the red chalk X’s on the tree trunks, ideally up to forty trees each day. It wasn’t until autumn came and the trees were laden with fruit that we would know who among us had actually succeeded in their work. And by then we had usually forgotten which trees had been dusted by whom.
I was assigned to Field 748 today. Out of how many? I didn’t know. My group was one of hundreds. In our beige work uniforms we were just as anonymous as the trees. And just as close together as the flowers. Never alone, always together in a flock, up here in the trees, or wandering down the tire ruts from one field to the next. Only behind the walls of our own small flats could we be alone, a few short hours a day. Our whole lives were out here.
It was quiet. We weren’t allowed to speak while we worked. The only sound to be heard was that of our careful movements in the trees, a faint clearing of the throat, some yawns and the material of our uniforms against the tree trunks. And sometimes the sound we had all learned to dislike—a branch creaking and in the worst case breaking. A broken branch meant less fruit, and yet another reason to dock our pay.
Otherwise only the wind was audible, passing through branches, brushing across the blossoms, slipping through the grass on the ground.
A fly buzzed through the air, a rare sight. It had been several days since I had seen a bird, there were fewer of them as well. They hunted the few insects to be found, and starved, like the rest of the world.
But then an earsplitting sound broke the silence. It was the whistle from the management’s barracks, the signal for the second and final break of the day. I noticed immediately how parched my tongue was.
I climbed down with awkward caution. My workmates and I crept down from the trees to the ground. The other women had already begun chatting, as if their cacophonic prattle was flipped on like a switch the split second they knew that they could.
I said nothing, concentrating on getting down without breaking a branch. I managed it. Pure luck. I was infinitely clumsy, had been working out here long enough to know that I would never be really good at the job.
On the ground beside the tree was a beat-up metal water bottle. I grabbed it and drank quickly. The water was lukewarm and tasted of aluminum, the taste made me drink less than I needed.
Two young boys dressed in white from the Trade Commission rapidly distributed the reusable tin boxes containing the second meal of the day. I sat down by myself with my back against the tree trunk and opened mine. The rice was mixed with corn today. I ate quickly. As usual, a bit too salty, and seasoned with artificially manufactured chili pepper and soy. It had been a long time since I had tasted meat. Animal feed required too much arable land. And a lot of the traditional animal feed required pollination. The animals weren’t worth our painstaking handiwork.
The tin box was empty before I was full. I stood up and put it back in the return basket from the Trade Commission. Then I jogged in place. My legs were tired, but nonetheless stiff from standing still in locked positions up there in the trees. My blood tingled; I couldn’t stand still.
But it didn’t help. I took a quick look around me. Nobody from management was paying attention. I quickly lay down on the ground, just to stretch out my back. It was aching after having been bent over in the same position for a long time.
I closed my eyes for a moment, tried to shut out the conversation of the other women of the crew, instead listening to how the chatter rose and fell in volume. This need to talk, all of them at the same time, where did it come from? The other women had started when they were little girls. Hour after hour of group conversations where the subject was always of the lowest common denominator and one could never really go into depth about anything. Perhaps with the exception of when the one being talked about wasn’t there.
Personally I preferred one-on-one conversations. Or my own company, for that matter. At work, often the latter. At home I had Kuan, my husband. Not that we had the longest conversations, either, conversation wasn’t what held us together. Kuan’s references were here and now, he was concrete, didn’t crave knowledge, something more. But in his arms I found peace. And then we had Wei-Wen, our three-year-old. Him we could talk about.
Just as the cacophony had almost sung me to sleep, it suddenly fell silent. Everyone was quiet.
I sat up. The others on the crew were facing the road.
The entourage was walking down the tire ruts and towards us.
They were no more than eight or nine years old. I recognized several of them from Wei-Wen’s school. All of them had been given identical work clothes, the same synthetic beige uniforms that we were wearing, and they walked towards us as quickly as their short legs could carry them. Two adult leaders kept them in line. One in front, one behind. Both of them were equipped with powerful voices that corrected the children without cease, but they did not reprimand them, giving instructions with warmth and compassion, because even though the children had not yet fully taken in where they were headed, the adults knew.
The children walked hand in hand, in mismatched pairs, the tallest with the shortest, the older children taking care of the younger. An uneven gait, disorganized, but the hands held on tight as if they were glued together. Perhaps they had been given strict instructions not to let go.
Their eyes were on us, on the trees. Curious, wrinkling their noses a bit, cocking their heads. As if they were here for the first time, even though all of them had grown up in the district and didn’t know of any kind of nature other than the endless rows of fruit trees, against the shadow of the overgrown forest in the south. A short girl looked at me for a long time, with big, slightly close-set eyes. She blinked a few times, then sniffed loudly. She held a skinny boy by the hand. He yawned loudly and unabashedly, didn’t lift his free hand to his mouth, wasn’t even aware that his face stretched open into a gaping hole. He wasn’t yawning as an expression of boredom; he was too young for that. It was the shortage of food that caused his fatigue. A tall, frail girl held a little boy by the hand. He was breathing heavily through a stuffed-up nose, with his mouth open, missing both front teeth. The tall girl pulled him behind her while she turned her face towards the sun, squinted and wrinkled her nose, but kept her head in the same position, as if to get some color, or perhaps glean strength.
They arrived every spring, the new children. But were they usually so small? Were they younger this time?
No. They were eight. As they always were. Finished with their schooling. Or . . . well, they learned numbers and some characters, but beyond that school was only a kind of regulated storage system. Storage and preparation for life out here. Exercises in sitting quietly for a long time. Sit still. Completely still, that’s right. And exercises to develop fine motor skills. They wove carpets from the age of three. Their small fingers were ideally suited for work with complex patterns. Just as they were perfect for the work out here.
The children passed us, turned their faces to the front, towards other trees. Then they walked on, towards another field. The boy without teeth stumbled a bit, but the tall girl held his hand tightly, so he didn’t fall. The parents were not here, but they took care of one another.
The children disappeared down along the tire rut, drowned between the trees.
“Where are they going?” a woman from my crew asked.
“I don’t know,” another replied.
“Probably towards forty-nine or fifty,” a third said. “Nobody has started there yet.”
My stomach twisted into a knot. Where they were going, which field they were headed for, made no difference. It was what they were going to do that—
The whistle sounded from the barracks. We climbed up again. My heart pounded, even though I wasn’t out of breath. For the children had not grown smaller. It was Wei-Wen . . . In five years he would be eight. In just five years. Then it would be his turn. The hardworking hands were worth more out here than anywhere else. The small fingers, already accustomed to weaving carpets, trained in fine motor skills every single day at school, already fine-tuned for this type of work.
Eight-year-olds out here, day in and day out, stiffened small bodies in the trees. Not even an excuse for a childhood, as my peers and I had had. We had gone to school until we were fifteen.
My hands shook as I lifted the hand holding the precious dust. We all had to work to acquire food, it was said, to make the food we would eat ourselves. Everyone had to contribute, even the children. Because who needs an education when the wheat stores are diminishing? When the rations become smaller and smaller with each passing month? When one must go to bed hungry in the evenings?
I turned around to reach the blossoms behind me, but this time my movements were too abrupt. I hit a branch that I had not noticed, suddenly lost my balance and leaned heavily over to the other side.
And that did it. The cracking sound we had come to hate. The sound of a branch breaking.
The supervisor came quickly towards me. She looked up into the tree and assessed the damage without saying anything. Quickly she wrote something down on a pad of paper before leaving again.
The branch was neither large nor strong, but I knew all the same that my entire surplus for this month would vanish. The money that was supposed to go into the tin box in the kitchen cupboard where we saved every single yuan we could spare.
I drew a breath. I couldn’t think about it. I couldn’t do anything but keep going. Lift my hand, dip the brush into the pollen, move it carefully towards the blossoms, brush across them as if I were a bee.
I avoided looking at my watch. Knew it wouldn’t help. I only knew that with each flower I moved the brush across, the evening came a bit closer. And the one hour I had every day with my child. That tiny hour was all we had, and in that tiny hour perhaps I could make a difference. Sow a seed that would give him the opportunity that I myself never had.
Maryville, Hertfordshire, England, 1851
Everything around me was yellow. Endlessly yellow. It was over me, under me, around me. Blinding me. The yellow color was completely real, nothing I was imagining. It came from the brocade tapestry my wife, Thilda, had stuck up on the walls when we moved in a few years ago. We’d had a lot of space at that time. My little seed shop on Maryville’s main street was thriving. I was still inspired, still thought I would manage to combine the business with that which really meant something, my natural science research. But that was a long time ago. Long before we became the parents of an inordinate number of daughters. And a very long time before the final conversation with Professor Rahm.
Had I known the kind of anguish the yellow tapestry would cause, I would never have gone along with it. The yellow color did not settle for remaining on the tapestry. If I closed my eyes, or kept them open, it was there, every bit as furious. It followed me into my sleep and never let me get away, it was like the sun’s highlights from foliage in the forest. The color kept forcing me to return there, to the forest of my childhood. In there I became blind to the rest of the world.
I forced my eyes open, did not want to go in there again. Compelled myself to be present. To listen.
It was late afternoon; from the kitchen the sound of the rattling of pots and the burner rings being moved about on the stove could be heard. Perhaps it was the sound of food being prepared that awakened my stomach, twisting it into knots. I collapsed into a fetal position.
I looked around. An untouched piece of bread and a dried slice of cured ham lay on a plate beside the half-empty water glass. When had I last eaten?
I sat up halfway, grabbed the glass of water. Let it run through my mouth and down my throat, washing away the taste of old age.
The saltiness of the ham was rancid on my tongue; the bread dark and heavy. The food found its way to my stomach, which settled.
But I still could not find a comfortable position in bed. My back was one large blister, my hips worn to the bone from lying on my side.
An agitation in my legs, a prickling.
The house was all of a sudden silent. Had they all left? Nothing but the crackling of coke burning in the hearth. But then, suddenly, singing. Clear voices from the garden.
Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King
Would it be Christmas soon?
In recent years, the region’s different choirs had begun singing at people’s doors during Advent, not for money or gifts, but in the spirit of Christmas, solely to bring joy to others. There was a time when I’d found it beautiful, when these small performances could ignite a light in me that I was no longer certain existed. It felt ever so long ago.
The bright voices flowed towards me like meltwater:
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled
I placed my feet on the floor. Beneath the soles of my feet it felt unusually hard. I myself was the infant, the newborn, whose feet were not yet accustomed to the ground, but instead still shaped for dancing on my toes. That’s how I remembered Edmund’s feet, with a high instep and just as soft and arched underneath as on top. I could stand with them in my hands, just look and feel, as one did with one’s firstborn. I thought that I would become something else for him, be something else for you, something else entirely, than my father had been for me. That’s how I stood with him until Thilda snatched him away from me under the pretext of a feeding or diaper change. The infant feet moved slowly towards the window. Every step hurt. The window grew before me, huge and white.
Then I saw them.
All seven of them. For it wasn’t a choir of strangers from the village. It was my own daughters.
The four tallest in the back, the three shorter ones in the front. Dressed in their dark winter clothes. Wool coats, too tight and too short, or too big and with ever more patches, the threadbare quality disguised behind cheap ribbons and pockets in odd places. Brown, dark blue or black wool bonnets with white lace trim framed narrow, winter-pale faces. The song became frost in the air before them.
How thin they had grown, all of them.
A path showed where they had walked, footsteps through deep snow. They must have waded through it far above the knees and had certainly gotten wet. I could feel the sensation of damp wool stockings against bare skin, and the frost penetrating up from the ground through the thin soles of their shoes—none of them had more than this one pair of boots. I walked closer to the window. I half expected to see others in the garden, an audience for the choir, Thilda, or perhaps some of the neighbors. But the garden was empty. They weren’t singing for anyone. They were singing for me.
Light and life to all He brings
Risen with healing in His wings
All of their gazes were focused intently on my window, but they had not yet discovered me. I stood in the shadows, at the back of the room, and the sun shone on the windowpane. They probably could only see the reflection of the sky and the trees.
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
I took one step closer.
Fourteen-year-old Charlotte, my eldest daughter, was standing at the far end. Her eyes were on the window, but she was singing with all of her body. Her chest rose and fell in time with the melody. Perhaps it was her idea, all of it. She had always sung, hummed her way through childhood, with her head in her schoolwork or bent over the dishes, a melodious murmuring, as if the soft notes were a part of her movements.
She was the one who discovered me first. A light slid across her face. She nudged Dorothea, the precocious twelve-year-old. She quickly nodded to eleven-year-old Olivia, who turned her wide-open eyes towards her twin sister, Elizabeth. The two did not in any sense resemble each other in appearance, only in temperament. Both gentle and kind, and dumb as posts—they couldn’t understand arithmetic even if you were to nail the numbers onto their foreheads. In front of them a restlessness had begun in the ranks. The young ones were also about to discover me. Nine-year-old Martha squeezed seven-year-old Caroline’s arm. And Caroline, who always sulked because she really wanted to be the youngest, gave little Georgiana, who would have liked to have escaped being the youngest, a hard shove. No great cheer to the heavens above, they didn’t allow themselves that, not yet. Only the slightest irregularity in the singing betrayed that they had seen me. That, and weak smiles, to the extent that their singing, O-shaped mouths would allow.
A childish lump pushed forward in my chest. They did not sing badly. Not at all. Their narrow faces glowed, their eyes shone. They had arranged it all just for me. And now they thought that they had succeeded. That they had pulled it off—they had gotten father out of bed. When the song was over they would release the cheer. They would run jubilantly light-footed through the freshly fallen snow into the house and tell me about their own homespun miracle. We sang him well again, they would crow. We sang father well!
A cacophony of enthusiastic girls’ voices would echo in the hallways, bouncing back at them from the walls: Soon he will return. Soon he will be with us again. We showed him God, Jesus—the born-again. Hark, the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king. What a brilliant, yes, truly dazzling idea it was to sing for him, to remind him of beauty, of the message of Christmas, of everything he had forgotten while bedridden, with the thing we call illness, but which everyone knows is something else entirely, although mother forbids us to speak about it. Poor Father, he is not well, he is as thin as a ghost, we have seen it, through the cracked-open door as we have crept past, yes, like a ghost, just skin and bones, and the beard he has let grow, like the crucified Jesus. He is beyond recognition. But now he will soon be among us once more, soon he will be able to work again. And we will once more have butter on our bread and new winter coats. That is in truth a real Christmas present. Christ is born in Bethlehem! But it was a lie. I couldn’t give them that gift. I did not deserve their cheers. The bed drew me towards it. My legs trembled, my new-born legs were unable to hold me upright any longer. My stomach knotted again. I gritted my teeth, wanted to crush the pressure in my throat. So I slowly pulled away from the window.
And outside the singing subsided. There would be no miracle today.