Kristin stopped typing to breathe. She did her best to work, but when she thought about Asha’s illness the shaking started—and the difficulty breathing. Her mind felt stretched and warped and letters on the screen blurred. She heard her heart pumping rapidly; the sound of its loud thumping against her breastbone caused a wave of fear. A voice in her mind repeated: This cannot be happening. This cannot be happening. To calm the panic, she turned her eyes out the window and took deep belly breaths.
Outside her single-pane glass window two bees were circling each other as if in a strange mating dance. Another bee bumped into the glass with its hairy feet close enough to touch; then a second, a third. She paused the recording she should have been transcribing, swept off her headphones and magnifying glasses, and leaned over to look. Holding her head close to the glass, squinting to compensate for low vision, she watched the bees as they multiplied in numbers. She could see their squirming oval bodies with shocks of mustard-colored hair on head and thorax, the striations of dark and light on the abdomen, black compound eyes, wings madly fluttering.
As she stared, a dozen more bees joined, flying in fast circles, generating a kinetic energy that reminded her of a turbine engine. She put her hand on the glass; it was warm. She could feel their buzzing vibrate the glass, tickling her fingers, as the glass shuddered when the bees struck its surface. As she stood frozen in awe, gazing at the brown squirming mass developing in front of her, the bees covered the window, blocking the sunlight. The room darkened.
Was this an omen? Good or bad?
Kristin called out to her wife: “Asha, you must come see this.”
But Asha did not answer. Asha was lying down again. Another difficult day of chemotherapy. Spring was their favorite season, but not this year.
In their marriage Asha had always been the one taking care of Kristin. Born with albinism, Kristin had vision impairment. Asha did the driving, went to the grocery store, assumed all those chores difficult for Kristin to manage. Being older, more mature, she was Kristin’s emotional rock, the grounded partner, her protector. Kristin’s role was the fun spouse, the young one who entertained, who made Asha laugh. Kristin had developed strong audio skills and it was her standard joke that she “was not encumbered with sight” like Asha. But all that was before.
Frightened, unable to bear Asha’s suffering, Kristin delayed going to check on her. She waited by the window as the bees began to disperse and the light returned. Finally, a few bees, the last stragglers, remained on the glass, then lifted and circled each other before flying away.
The next day she discovered the swarm, a living, squirming hive of European honeybees, clumped together in a long oval ball the size of a huge watermelon, attached to their palm tree in the back yard. She ordered a bee house online and once it arrived, she hired a team of two of professionals, Gerardo and Phoebe. They smoked the area to calm the bees, set a ladder next to the tree, climbed up, cut down the swarm and poured the bees into the bee house. Phoebe carefully picked up the queen holding her by her wings. She was the largest bee, identified by her longer shape and pointed abdomen. Using a Posca paint pen, Phoebe permanently marked her with a white dab of paint on her thorax; she explained all beekeepers do this to keep track of the queen so they know when a queen dies and a replacement occurs in the hive. All queens found in 2021 were marked with white.
“Think of it as her crown,” said Phoebe, “she wears a white pearl.”
Kristin and Asha named their honeybee queen Regina.
It was mid-summer, but instead of months, it seemed like years had passed since early spring when Kristin found the swarm. They sat under the shade of the terrace looking out on the garden; Asha had finished a phone call.
“Cancelled this week.” She turned away, her face dark. Her platelets were low and the oncologist had delayed chemotherapy once again.
Kristin pressed a fallen sunflower head into Asha’s hand, its petals dripping, its fuzzy center where the bees loved to land, tickling her fingers as she passed it to her. Asha smelled of bee smoke, a sweet scent of pine needles and spicy embers of sage she used to calm the bees while she tended to their new home.
Once the bees arrived, Asha became consumed with bee keeping, which Kristin accepted as a blessing. She thought, with a smile, that Asha looked like a bee with her yellow hair, short oval body, and tanned skin. Asha had dark and light striations on her belly too, birth marks from their daughter who died at birth, but Kristin did not like to talk about this wrenching subject. Kristin didn’t want to bear children because she didn’t want to pass on her albinism gene. After Asha was diagnosed, they stopped talking about having another child.
Kristin waited a moment, listening to the familiar buzzing near the sunflowers, feeling the hot sun on her forehead. She was overwhelmed with guilt, guilt at not being able to help manage the logistics of treatment, guilt at her angry, selfish thoughts when Asha was fighting cancer, guilt for being the healthy one.
She changed the subject, as she always did. “How is Regina today?”
“No signs of honey yet,” said Asha, frowning. She hated that Kristin always pretended things were fine and never wanted to talk about difficult subjects. “The comb was stuck together again; I used the uncapping knife you bought.”
Kristin knew it would take time for the bees to make honey in their new home; it annoyed her that Asha, in every conversation about her bees, kept repeating no signs of honey yet. “Their yellow poop is all over the walkway,” said Kristin. “I don’t appreciate the dirty mustard dots everywhere. I’ll have to hose it again.”
“You bought the damn bee house,” said Asha. “Don’t complain to me.”
Kristin flounced off with her pruning shears to the sunflowers on the far side of the garden. Taller than the tallest sunflower, her white hair shone like a dome above them, curly, wild, in contrast to their perfectly formed circular yellows. She had on bioptic sunglasses with cat eye tortoise frames. Behind the flamboyant frames she squinted her unusual sapphire eyes, which Asha had loved from the first moment they met. Covering her jeans and white tee, she wore her garden apron, red with multicolored tulips in abstract pots which, pulled in at her waist and flowing around her hips, gave her young body the round voluptuous look of an eighteenth-century oil painting—with her pale face, all she needed to look like an angel among the flowers was the wings. But—and she would be the first to confess—she was no angel.
She attacked the sunflower stems, slicing with her shears, cutting wildly, without precision. She tossed a dozen drooping heads together in her bucket knowing crowded heads would quickly dehydrate. She stood in the bright sun without her hat, risking damage to her pale skin. Not caring, on purpose.
From across the garden, behind the fountain where two shiny emerald hummers splashed their wings, bathing, Asha coughed. The sound of her dry rasp mixed with the birds tweeting and the bubbling of the fountain brought tears to Kristin’s eyes. Asha was wrapping her arms around herself, in a tight hug, as if holding onto her chest would help the poor left lung breathe, the left lung where they found the malignant tumor.
“Lung cancer,” said Kristin to herself, as she continued to thrash sunflowers as if they were to blame. “And Asha never smoked anything.”
Asha said she expected to die first because she was nine years older than Kristin, but not this way. Not at forty-one. She had never smoked, not like Kristin who had tried just about everything up her nostrils. Kristin still snuck away in the evenings, pretending to need a last walk in the garden at sunset, when she actually went to have a cigar. She smoked in the side yard, a small rectangular-shaped area about the size of their guest bedroom. A tall redwood slat fence separated it from any neighbor’s view. The ground was covered by a previous owner with ugly pink concrete and Kristin had left the cheap white plastic table and two chairs they found when they moved in; she claimed it as her space for “meditation” when she needed to be alone.
Of course, Asha knew Kristin was smoking there; she could smell it on her skin, in her mouth, in the kiss Kristin offered in bed. This was in the old days. The before days. Now they rarely kissed and loving was delayed until Asha felt better.
“He’s at it again,” Asha yelled across the garden to Kristin. She lifted her arm toward the house next door and held up her middle finger. Their neighbor, Gerald Mudgett, looked down from his second-floor window, his big binoculars aimed at Asha.
Kristin stopped thrashing the tall green stems and gave him the finger too. She had a theory that Mudgett had observed them one of those first nights when Kristin, in a celebrating mode after moving out of their cramped condo downtown, invited Asha outside to see the full moon. This was before the fountain they installed, before the bee house, and before the sunflowers when the back yard was one big square of grass with the lone palm tree in the corner.
She took off her clothes and began to roll in the cool wet grass, tumbling freely back and forth. “On Jónsmessa, Midsummer’s Night in Iceland, my ancestors celebrated the summer solstice by rolling in dew-covered grass. They thought it would bring them health,” she said, laughing. “Take a grass bath with me, Asha.”
At first frowning, mumbling about grass burns, Asha eventually took off her clothes and joined Kristin, abandoning her usual reserve. One thing led to another in a moment of coming together they would remark on later as shocking in its intensity, smiling all the next day while thinking about the aphrodisiac effects of newly mown grass and the surprising effect of a dewy grass bath.
Later when they noticed Mudgett observing them repeatedly from his upstairs window, they realized he might have been watching them that first evening. When it became clear he was a Peeping Tom, they knocked on his door to complain. Mudgett had gray hair cut short and a long oval face wrinkled into a permanent frown. A drooping lid on his right eye gave him a sinister look.
When they asked him to stop staring at them, he said he was “bird watching” with a lewd leer. He claimed that what he did in his own house was none of their business and slammed the door in their faces. It turned out he was actually a “birder,” belonged to the neighborhood chapter, so they didn’t think they could successfully report him to the police. Kristin started calling him “Creepy Peeper.”
Throwing down her garden tool, Kristin carted her sunflower bucket over to Asha and banged it on the ground next to her. “When you get over feeling sorry for yourself, see if you can muster up energy to arrange these. I’m going inside to start an audio file I got yesterday,” she said.
She hated the nasty person she had become.
Kristin went into her office, turned on her computer and clicked on the recorded audio. Lined up across the side of her desk, was an assortment of dome magnifiers, her reading glasses, and a microscope to aid her vision.
This filmmaker did not send her the accompanying film footage; he used her transcript to edit his film. Most filmmakers were on a tight deadline and sent their work piecemeal, but this time she had the whole project. She sat back in her swivel chair, head on the head rest, eyes closed, not thinking yet about marking speakers or adding time codes. Before transcribing a word, she listened all the way to the end, open to images that came to her mind, to the undercurrents in the speech, like looking deep into a river for stones, or swimming fish, or for sediment blurring the color of water. Eventually she would summarize the interview questions, though the answers had to be typed verbatim, including every cough, sigh, and throat-clearing. She was known as one of the best professional transcribers of film documentaries in the business.
The interviewer began by introducing his subject “The Living Room,” the name of the support group provided by GO2 Foundation for Lung Cancer. “The Living Room” was live streamed to patients and their families all over the world once a month. It was unusual for an interviewer to take time to describe the scene, but it was clear he was moved by his topic. He described the room as a meeting place, as welcoming as his grandparents’ house on holidays, with sofas, chairs, coffee tables, colorful rugs. He claimed he could smell his Nana’s hot chocolate and home-baked cookies when he walked into the room. On a gray wall above a couch, where patients and others sat to talk, hung four huge capital letters, each with a white background overprinted with articles about patient support and success. The white letters, which stood out against the gray background, formed the word “HOPE.” He went on to introduce Bonnie J. Addario, a co-founder of the Foundation.
Kristen paused the recording. She had forgotten that this filmmaker had sent her this subject, suggesting it might have a personal interest for her and Asha. Asha had tried a support group in the beginning and came home depressed, angry, claimed she would never go back.
When Bonnie Addario began to speak, Kristin was captivated by the sound. Her voice, the rich tenor of a woman in the prime of life, exuded vitality; she formed her sentences without fillers, without hesitancy. She was not afraid to pause and think before answering. Her survival story was courageous, riveting, inspiring, and by the time Kristin had finished the last words of the interview she found herself crying. Bonnie Addario said, “And for those who find themselves on this trail, know that I will be walking by your side, hand in hand, toward a brighter future dominated by a single word: Life.”
Life, hope, cure—words Kristin had not allowed herself to say, pretending the cancer wasn’t there would be the best way to make it disappear.
Kristin took off her clouded glasses and rubbed her eyes. It was the first time she admitted to herself that they needed help. Sheneeded help. She searched online for GO2 Foundation and registered for the next month’s virtual session.
The first thing Asha wanted to do when she got home from infusion treatment was sit outside in her garden, watching her bees. She was still sitting there at 5:30 in the evening when the Living Room session was scheduled to start.
“It’s only an hour,” said Kristin who took Asha’s arm and pulled her up. She leaned down and kissed her hair. After infusions Asha always smelled vaguely like disinfectant. She brought home the white glare of clinic hallways, nurse uniforms, masks, the chill of the treatment room’s low temperature, the lingering taste of this other world, outside nature, a chemical world.
Kristin gently put her arm around Asha’s waist and walked her into the house, up the stairs, to her office. After she settled Asha in her most comfortable office chair, she put on the spectacle-mounted binoculars she used to watch video and sat next to her in her desk chair. She clicked on YouTube to join the session.
The screen opened with printed text: “The Living Room—Bring Hope Home.”
Bonnie Addario introduced herself. She was an attractive, energetic woman with round glasses sporting black and white striped cat eye frames and she wore her auburn hair swept up into a modern shag style.
“Look, she has cat eye frames like your sunglasses,” said Asha. Asha liked her immediately.
Addario explained how survival rates from lung cancer had been increasing since she started her work with the Foundation, since more research had been funded, since the stigma of lung cancer associated with smoking had been slowly easing as more people realized that anyone could get lung cancer. Bonnie briefly told her story as a lung cancer survivor and then described her disappointing experience with her first support group which made her feel hopeless. She explained “The Living Room” was started to offer something different; to bring in oncologists and scientists to talk about research and treatment options, and patients and caregivers to share stories. “The Living Room” would provide a place where people could gather to believe that surviving this disease was a possibility—a place to “bring hope home.”
“When is your happiest time?” asked a woman, who appeared next. She had gray hair that fell past her shoulders and she wore a red sweater. She began with a wide, opened-lips smile, showing bright white teeth. “What brings you joy?”
She introduced herself as Jaya, the younger sister of Swaytha, a survivor. “Though Swaytha had the cancer in her body and bravely faced treatment after treatment, being her caregiver was much harder than I imagined. I fell into depression. Then I met another caregiver through the GO2 Foundation; she gave me her secret. She said focus on finding joy, one moment of joy every day. Every day I found a thing of beauty to share: an aria we loved, Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot, Bonnard’s painting “Stairs with Mimosa,” a Billy Collins poem, “The Genius,” fresh baked bread, salted caramel ice cream. It gave me purpose each day, something positive, something that wasn’t giving the cancer any more space than it deserved. Remember, all of us, together in this journey, we are not the disease. We are managing the disease.”
The session went on with reports about new discoveries in biomarking, but Kristin stopped listening. She leaned back against the head rest of her desk chair, closed her eyes. When was their happiest time? She knew immediately. She could smell the fresh-mown grass, could see the green all around her, could feel the cool, tickling blades next to her lips, the emotional sense of well-being, of fun, of play. It was the grass bath. The grass bath with Asha.
In the evening, after Asha was asleep, Kristin went into her office and sat again at the desk in front of her computer. She wanted to sit outside with a cigar, but she had promised herself to give up smoking. Instead, she stared out the window. She could hear the soothing water of her garden fountain bubbling like a small brook. She imagined Asha’s bees waggle-dancing in their bee house, Regina the queen, wearing her white jewel, laying eggs, the creamy yellow honey dripping from the combs, harvested, spread over her morning toast, or licked from a dipped spoon. She imagined Asha healthy, her soft warm mouth open, lips full, the taste of honey in her kiss. Asha, a survivor.
Kristin thought about her smoking space, its privacy, with its convenient side door to the downstairs and gated fence. She went to the web and searched for “concrete removal.” She took out a piece of paper and wrote down figures, estimated the square footage of her side yard. After removal, there would be the cost of turf, irrigation, and drainage. It was an area that got full sun several hours a day; the turf would have to be a warm-weather grass. She searched for “the softest grass.” Then she sketched the yard. Around the perimeter, she drew steppingstones made of natural slate and a place for a wooden bench, where they could put their discarded clothing. In the center would be Emerald Zoysia grass, velvety soft for bare feet, refreshingly smooth for naked skin, perfect for dewy grass baths.
Finished with her planning, she looked out the window toward the palm tree, fronds lit by the moon, waving in the breeze. She remembered how the bees first swarmed outside this window. European honeybees weren’t aggressive, but if they stung their venom could cause death in rare cases. She didn’t wish Mudgett’s death; she wished an allergic reaction—hives, itching, some dizziness, a welt or two. She imagined a team of her protective female bees swarming around Creeper Peeper’s open upstairs window, stinging his binocular-holding arms, convincing him to sell his house and move.
She went to bed late that night. Closing her eyes, she felt her heart thumping, but at a normal pace. Asha was already asleep. She heard her whisper breath, a comforting sound in the night. Kristin reached under the covers and took her hand. It was warm, soft, familiar. As Kristin interlocked their fingers, Asha squeezed back.
Stories by Jeanne Althouse have appeared in numerous literary journals including Gravel, The Examined Life, Birdland Journal, Penman Review, Inkwell and The Plentitudes Journal. Her story, “Goran Holds his Breath,” was nominated by Shenandoah for the Pushcart Prize. A collection of her flash fiction, “Boys in the Bank,” was published by Red Bird Chapbooks. She dedicates this story with gratitude to Raina Glazener, Evy Schiffman, and the two beekeepers who inspired this story.