Fiction · 06/29/2011

A Hole In The Head And The Beekeeper Girl

Etheridge has a hole in his head, or at least that’s what he says. It is a shifty son of a bitch, the hole, slithering from place to place, opening and closing like phases of the moon, and it won’t give him a moment of peace. Any untoward movement could send his brains sloshing out every which way, requiring an immobility that leaves him no form of sustenance other than sitting on the front porch with a .22, firing into the treetops, flinging lead and rage and violent death about at even the hint of a birdsong.

The origins of the hole, like the thing itself, are hard to pin down. It could have been a chunk of rebar, rocketing Etheridge-ward through the twisty passages of a hard rock mine, borne on flaming clouds of oxidizing methane. Or perhaps a bastard shard of shrapnel torn from the casing of a Chinese grenade detonated in the service of an ideology alien and poisonous to everything we hold dear. Whatever the cause, the hand of God was ultimately behind it, and the injustice of it all has pulled Etheridge’s soul into a tight, tiny knot of hatred for just about everything, but especially for greenery and life and joy and a lightness of spirit that he will never again feel, entombed as he is in a creaking wheelchair on the porch of a slack-jawed house backed by a barren orchard and wrapped close and hot in an itchy blanket of weeds.

The curse God placed on Etheridge lies on his son Roy too, lies on him like the heft of millions of years of black earth, earth full of arrowheads and coal seams and dinosaur bones planted by Satan to lead us astray. Roy didn’t ask for this, to live buried beneath Etheridge and his hole and his geological, petrified stratum of hate. He didn’t ask for it but it’s here for him now, and his life is crushing and close but for his visions of a gentle, white-breasted girl with the steadiness of heart not to flinch at the sound of a .22.

A raven has been sitting at the very top of the digger pine — a tall, dignified bird that somehow knows that it is roosting well out of range. It caws at each snap of Etheridge’s gun, jeering him on, or sits silent, waiting for more impotence to mock. Etheridge talks about buying a .38 that would turn that filthy black thing inside out, but he’s flat out of credit in town, and the bird seems to know that, too.

And that’s where things stand — bitter Etheridge, pining Roy, and a bird that seems to have a precise knowledge of Etheridge’s strengths and weaknesses — when the beekeeper girl shows up. It’s an early spring afternoon when she arrives, walking down the rutted lane that leads to a house people are trying to forget exists. She is young and pretty and gracious enough that if she notices the rough edges — the rotting, stuffing-spewed chair in the weeds in the front, the screen door with no screen that slaps the house with rage at the smallest breeze, and, most of all, Etheridge in his rusty wheelchair, pistol laid across his lap, squinting upward into the heavens, praying for avian death — if she sees any of this for what it is, she doesn’t betray it.

“Howdy,” she says, and Etheridge squints at her as if the pressure of his eyelids could crush her into something more satisfying, like the corpse of a bird. She has black hair, and black eyes, and Etheridge imagines that she walked here from someplace far away, where men sleep under sombreros and knife the God-fearing for fun. Roy, his senses filed to needle points by loneliness and longing, comes charging around from the back of the house to behold the impossible.

“I was just talking to your daddy there,” she says, and Roy wants to say that Etheridge is not his daddy, that he, Roy, has appeared by spontaneous generation, that spring rains and warm winds conjured him up on this spot so that he might meet her, but he just swallows and nods.

Behind her sits a flatbed truck, the ticking of its engine merging with the speculative hum of the hives piled on back. “Folks in town,” the girl continues, “they say you might be in need of pollination.” Her eyes move to the trees at the back of the house, hopeless wood skeletons that haven’t borne fruit in years. Roy looks at her, mute. He imagines their children, going through photograph albums, pictures of when they were babies. Is that really me, Daddy, is that really me? His heart flutters in the breeze of his fantasy, a kite ready to be pulled up into the sky.

“If you like, we can put them out there. Might want them up on shelves or some such,” she says. “Keep them off the cold ground. They’ll be more active that way.”

Roy has never heard of such a wonderful thing. Bees on shelves, a lovely girl directing their work. “When?” he says, his hands shaking, and he has forgotten all of it — Etheridge and his hate-holed head, the raven and the .22, the bony trees in back. “When?”

Etheridge lets out a throttled screech and pitches forward out of the wheelchair. His brain frothing and pitching from side to side, he pulls himself toward them on his elbows. He raises the pistol and aims with palsied hands. “Nothing’s going to save you now, you bitch,” he says, and the bullets buzz around her, flitting through her hair, humming off into the evening.

She looks again at the remains of the orchard, and back down at Etheridge. “It’s difficult,” she says, “but it’s never impossible.” Walking to the truck, she pulls the cover from one of the hives, and a cyclone of bees bursts forth into the evening. They fly purposefully out into the cool air, and the breeze on Roy’s face suddenly smells like a river of flowers.

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John Haggerty is a former software engineer and a volunteer prison teacher living in the San Francisco Bay Area. His fiction has appeared or soon will in Confrontation, Opium Magazine, PANK, Santa Monica Review, Vestal Review, and War, Literature & the Arts, among others. He is starting his MFA in San Francisco State University this fall.