Honey Laws
Jeff Frawley

We’re honey-folks, rabid nectarists. Sticky-necked, blossom-rapt, lovers of that goo—uncooked—hived along the rio. Our market home to thirteen sanctified/certified apiarists. The oldest, Milo Quann-Macintosh, purple with age. The youngest, Rolf Eichmann, said to whisper-buzz to bees. For five nights, to be sanctified, they sleep beside hives. No netting, no smoke, blistered with stings. Tourists, awestruck, pay exorbitant prices. (E.J. Chillicothe’s lavender sage now forty a pint!) Tourists flood our honey boutiques, Trumpetvine Winery, historic plaza with gallows. Then Apiarist Gates, that cutting edge lab making once unthinkable blends. And, by the river, that uneasy new monument — why, some ask, flaunt long-ago wrongs committed by men up our family trees?

***

We plead peace from the desert, use willows for shade, cottonwoods for family trees. Never for hangings. Honey, the harmony of bees — these are our guides. So we’re riddled with guilt, what happened to Crumbling Thomas, third oldest sanctified/certified, known for crunchy orange blossom mesquite. Once he was just Thomas. When his wife, Lupe, passed, his skin molted like a reptile’s, decaying from face, flaying from arms, hair littered with scalp. Grief? we wondered. Or years of no sunscreen? The Institute for Apiary Advancement postponed review of his hives. At the market he wept and peeled skin from his arms. Thomas, we whispered, go home and rest up. You’re frightening tourists.

Instead he barbed-wired his gate — unparalleled aggression from a sanctified/certified. A month later he was back at the market, a pyramid of honey, surprising new flavors. The good stuff, he giggled, just twenty-two bucks! Customers ogled his skin, said even though it’s dark he ought to wear sunscreen. Wasn’t the sun, Thomas shouted, tearing skin. It’s that stuff sprayed by Apiarist Gates, rogue bee repellant, that stuff Lohman Chiles pumps onto fields! Nadine Klind, market director, instructed Rolf Eichmann to distract gawking tourists. We begged Thomas: go see Father Eugenio at Our Sacred Heart. Thomas said we should visit those fields, visit Cinderblock Pueblo, smell the air. Rolf Eichmann loudly touted our tolerance for different honey-peoples. (Thomas’s family tree is lacquered cottonwood, veined with ornamental turquoise. You look different, he’s told.)

For weeks he continued his rants — pesticides, illness, bad water — until Klind produced a warrant: surprise inspection of the honey-harvesting premises of one Thomas Jean Roper. Some called this cruel, a mourning sanctified/certified hauled off by Klind’s men. Rainclouds, if we may be so suggestive, devoured the sun. Showers quashed the inspection, though inspection was unnecessary: the hives on Crumbling Thomas’s property, they immediately saw, were long dead.

***

Rumor has it the director hissed that saying: The farther the bee shits from the hive, the less valuable the bee. We supported you, she screamed, cut quotas on groups eligible for sanctification/certification! Inspectors wrenched back his arms. Klind sighed, said they weren’t interrogators, merely code enforcement. He was banned for six months from the market.

People gathered outside his gate, chanted: The farther the bee shits from the hive, the less valuable the bee. Someone shouted, Should’ve kept quotas! But this, reminiscent of those accusations during hybridization troubles, was quickly shushed.

Thomas vanished from his usual haunts: lunch at the Maid-Good, tea at the Hive B&B, three Ibis beers three nights a week at the Gallopin’ Lamb. Some, secretly, missed his honey, his toothpick-pricked samples. Whispers it came from Georgia, China, multiple Mexican states. Father Gleason, at church, sermonized about purity of honey. Sweating, he added: But I caution against use of this term, purity, beyond context of honey. Rumor swirled that Thomas, three Saturdays in a row, stalked the market parking lot, cooing to customers, pawning off jars. Klind sent inspectors, but Thomas was gone. She bribed one of his customers, cash plus pints of Rolf Eichmann’s clover. The next week Thomas was dragged from behind Guzman’s Bistro, kicked by Klind’s goons, skin everywhere. Klind smashed his pints, nine or ten total, instructed inspectors to clean up the mess.

***

Unregulated honey, understand, opens old wounds. Harkens back to those days, thirty, thirty-five years ago, apiarists experimenting wildly: imported fruit trees, pheromone sprays, fellowship recipients from far-flung places, foreign bees in boxes. The rio was soon lined with crossbreeding tents, our bees mixed with non-native subspecies. Wild new flavor notes: apricot-fig, apricot-cognac, tobacco-paprika-butterscotch. The first annual Dr. Tiba Quann-Macintosh Prize awarded to a team who bred our bees with Red Pilgrims.

Even back then some already argued: Only through insularity will we preserve strong family trees. Then die-offs were found, miles from the rio, hundreds of bees. The next season, thousands. Output waned, prices rose. Our Sacred Heart offered shelter to the penniless. Queen bees discovered amidst the die-offs, big and blood-striped: Red Pilgrims. Queen excluder filters found missing from apiaries, matriarchs free to breed throughout valley — sabotage. Hyperaggressive hybrids attacked farmers, killed hives. The Institute trucked in Chihuahuan honeypot ants to bolster reserves. Locals hated the flavor, undignified, chemical, those olive-fat ants bursting sweet ooze. A new insult: a honey-potter, someone who’d voted to open our valley to outsiders.

Thankfully bad winters slowed hybridized swarms. The sixth and final Quann-Macintosh went to two local pest-men whose homebrew killed hives upon contact. Industry steadied but the damage was done — fellowship outsiders, read a Register op-ed, had sabotaged our apiaries.

***

Keep in mind — it’s qualified during school lessons, museum tours, memorials — the poverty suffered. This must explain the events of that morning: Mr. Roly Jackson, here on fellowship, lured from his dorm by a sweet-sounding woman. It’s true: the men in that mob hang just a branch up our family trees. They tied Jackson to wagon, dragged him to rio, sang hymns of repentance. Trailed by Rio-Chivatown residents alarmed at the sight: man strung to wagon, dogs echoing his howls. We hear Bertrand Lox was the leader, though nowadays witnesses feign to forget. He charged Mr. Jackson with weaponizing bees. Rio-Chivatown residents, frightened, spit on the victim (later given as evidence the mob had full support). Apiarists uncapped jars of cooked honey, slathered Jackson’s chest and neck. Then Lox, demanding names, smothered his face. They left him to the ants and wasps, went to cool off in the rio, splashing and arguing about fiberglass hives, invasive oleander. Roly Jackson dead by the time they returned. The cause — stings? heatstroke? asphyxiation? — unclear to this day. Same as to what they did with the body.

***

Some worry Apiarist Gates is reviving that time. Others say don’t fear: the invasive shrubs they plant catalyze production, their hybridized swarms are meticulously neutralized.

This debate echoes that over Tuft’s Pigs, whose hog yards, it’s claimed, slop nitrates into the rio, sickening residents of Cinderblock Pueblo. But why sacrifice success when Puebloans chose to build downriver? Others say it wasn’t a choice, Puebloans’ sanctification/certification applications never processed, people too sick to work (a claim Addison Tuft III disputed in the Register). Crumbling Thomas himself bemoaned legislation banning motorboats on the rio, Puebloans’ only means to visit town given the lack of good roads. In the end we voted no to restrict Tuft’s, fearing unforeseen consequences. Tuft’s, to foster goodwill, offered Puebloans jobs on their new technology enhanced, air conditioned killing floor.

***

As for Crumbling Thomas, we hear he still sells middleman honey (Slovenian, it’s rumored) over in Blint, with its lamentable sanctification/certification standards. Someone passing through Blint saw him downtown, hobbling on a cane. Then someone at Shorty’s Quick-Fill on Route 909 saw Thomas blistered and peeling, unrecognizable. When they whispered his name, he seized, spun around, stammered, One of y-y-you.

This phrasing we lament, one of you. It was Director Klind’s fault, that final Saturday at the market: Crumbling Thomas discovered in a blonde wig and sunglasses, contraband honey strapped to his waist. The beatings, the injuries are on Klind. We voted her out, replaced by Rolf Eichmann — fresh blood, liberal youth. We voted to punish those who joined in disciplining Thomas. Now, Eichmann’s plan is in action, the merging of our market with Apiarist Gates.

Ours is a changing world, Crumbling Thomas a symbol of progress. Apiarist Gates even sponsors a new junior high curriculum, the “Thomas Jean Roper Fun, Funny Honey!” program, lessons on industry, deregulated goods. We are figuring it out, inspired by bees, each producing in its remarkable lifetime just one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey — one-twelfth! Surely our valley shows sanctity of cooperation, of strength-in-numbers. All us honey-people, all us trying-to-learns. All those millions of bees buzzing in hives, trillions of wingbeats thrumming like God.

***

While we prefer to avoid that crook in the rio, we recently went for the memorial’s unveiling. (Will it, we worry, eclipse our tourist mainstays — the Big Tin Roadrunner, Hot Air Balloon Cemetery, quarter-mile Chile Slide?) A vote was held: Do we want a Roly Jackson memorial? YES/NO. Yeses beat nos fifty-two percent to forty-eight. Those special interest groups popping up through our valley decried the results, demanded a recount.

The event, in the end, was deemed reason for optimism. Hundreds filled the field where Roly Jackson was smothered. There was cheese from Weinhardt Farms, bacon-figs from Tuft’s, honey from Apiarist Gates chemists-in-training. An accordionist played blues standards favored, it’s said, by the victim. Then time for the unveiling.

We withhold comment on that bronze-and-cedar statue, large and postindustrial. Grisly. Frightful. That man’s screaming face, that rusty-bronze honey. Mountains of wasps — surely an exaggeration. Some, swabbing eyes, whispered, We’ve finally done right. In the evening we mingled downriver, feeling weepy, feeling tired. Paused at hives owned by three branches of Quann-Macintoshes. Smelled lavender and rio wafted on wind. When the time came, we watched bees bullet out a hive and blacken the air, funneling towards a willow where, behind mournful branches, the swarm began to work at something we couldn’t see.

Jeff Frawley's fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming from Portland ReviewCrab Creek ReviewBeloit Fiction JournalBridge EightPackingtown ReviewStorm Cellar, and elsewhere. After receiving an M.F.A. from New Mexico State University, he served as a Fulbright scholar in Budapest, Hungary, performing research for a novel. He now lives in southern New Mexico.