Before them, under the garden wall,
Forward and back,
Went drearily singing the chore-girl small,
Draping each hive with a shred of black.
Trembling, I listened: the summer sun
Had the chill of snow;
For I knew she was telling the bees of one
Gone on the journey we all must go!
— From ‘Telling the bees’ (John Greenleaf Whittier, 1858)
She can still picture his grimace. It somehow reminded her of someone squinting, blinded by the light. ‘How is melissa called in English?’ A grimace. He was trying to find something to say that could interest her.
‘Bee. It’s called bee. It doesn’t really differ from verb to be.’ And after a short pause: ‘Tu bi or not tu bi.’ Gibberish.
‘Say again?’ He must have grimaced once more, trying to understand.
To bee or not to bee. Because ever since he had become a widower, bees were a synonym for life.
She had a hard time explaining it to him. The verb to be made him feel shame. It was pathological; incomprehensible to the others, but not to her. Part of this shame was passed down to her. It could be the genes, or because for years he had been training her in life, using exclusively his own method.
To bee or not to bee. It was the only phrase he ever learned in English.
Even at his funeral, the verb to be must have caused him shame. In a way he was still here, it was for him that the people had come. People introducing themselves to her — she had found their names in a spiral-bound address book, but most of them she now met for the first time. Few people, as though he had sent word that there was no need for them to come: he did not want to inconvenience them, least of all on a rainy day.
‘And what about the bees?’ one of them asked, looking concerned. He had bold full lips, but full does not necessarily mean sensual.
‘The bees…’ She did not know what to say.
He shook his head. He must have been younger than her father, although her father was not old anymore. His name sounded vaguely familiar. ‘My father had mentioned you’ she said, and it was then that he took her hands in his. Holding them, he spoke without drama:
‘My last friend has just died.’
The weight of his phrase was unbearable, especially in comparison to hers, which she could no longer take back — her father had mentioned him, period. While he was still holding her hands, she had time to think, on a day like this, about whether he saw her noticing his lips and wondered what they could have done to her.
After the funeral, she visited the house. It was strange not to find her father there, but just that: strange. She felt no grief; she even felt a little bit relieved. His last illness did not last long, because he had refused to see a doctor. Neglect — self-neglect and neglected by those surrounding him, said the doctor-in-chief at Evangelismos. She had preferred not to comment. The truth was that she had failed to convince her father to see a doctor. She had failed to convince him about most things.
She decided to postpone going through his papers. Not to try to find out whether he had kept any of the stuff she occasionally sent him from England. After her mother’s death, when he first got into beekeeping, she had translated the poem ‘Telling the bees’ for him. She had explained the custom of shrouding the hives in black. Because she, too, tried to find things to say that could interest him. As far as she remembers, he was not impressed. But fifteen years later, her memory is perhaps distorting certain things.
And what about the bees?
So she went to take a look. Sky blue beehives — what kind of blue is lilac? They suited autumn, with its soaked tree trunks and its cinnamon-red leaves. She stood close to listen to the buzzing, to look at the bees flying in and out. They tumbled out of the hive from the landing board — she remembered the term. Maybe one of them was now dancing in the darkness of the hive. Because bees communicate by dance. Animals have language too; bees do. They cannot chat because their language is limited: a collector dances to show to the other bees how far the source of pollen is and in what direction, in relation to the sun. Their language filters out excessive verbosity; therefore, limited here means superior, her father used to say. Chomsky, generative grammar and the presumed structural superiority of human languages left him unimpressed.
She would not drape each hive with a shred of black. Bees cannot see black — they cannot distinguish it from red. They see black and red as one and the same color. She had read this in one of her father’s manuals that described early experiments: bees were fed on a light blue square, on a checked board — the rest of the squares colored in shades of grey. In the next stage, when the bees were left to ‘choose’ between light blue and some other color, they flew to the light blue square, expecting to find food. The experiment was repeated with new colors, but the insects could not tell the difference. Bees can see light blue, indigo, yellow, green-blue and ultraviolet — lilac, too, must fall within this range. Everything else, they see in grey or black, as if in a black-and-white movie.
Even fewer people came to the memorial service forty days later. It was normal. She was feeling OK and she would have felt even better, had she not been concerned about not feeling anything much yet. No grief, no relief either. Just that time had passed and things had changed.
It was sleeting and the fan-heater in the church did not make much of a difference. Her cold feet made her think of his — how they must have been at the funeral. It’s pointless to think of such things. Maybe that’s why the language of the bees filters such things out and a collector bee cannot even express her discontent that the pollen source is far away. Nor is she capable, therefore, of feeling discontent.
The friend with the full lips (she could no longer remember his name) was there; she saw him seated somewhere in the back. ‘When is the memorial service going to start?’ a voice called out amid the psalms. She did not know either. Were it not for the tray of Kolyva — with a simple sugar decoration — this could have been just any Sunday service, the type she had not attended since she was a child.
Three little girls approached the tray, whispering admiringly. Discreetly, the middle-aged woman who escorted them prevented them from touching it. ‘It’s starting now’, she heard the friend with the full lips say, and almost immediately her father’s Christian name was cited in Byzantine Greek. The rest of the service did not last long. The friend with the full lips did not stay for coffee.
On the way back, it was still sleeting. She remembered the scent of wood burning in the fireplace. The white of the wood turning to ash, the glowing orange of the burning coal. It had been years since her father last made a fire.
That is the question — not sure why Hamlet’s words cynically come back at the most irrelevant moments. Perhaps because she still feels nothing much; only that time has passed, that things have changed.
She went back a few days after the memorial service. It was sunny but bitterly cold. She had to come really close to notice them: dead bees in front of the hives — lots. On the ground and on the landing board. Countless. The bees were dying.
Because you must go and tell them — you tell the bees. You knock on the hive with the heavy key of the house to attract their attention and you shout: ‘Father’s dead. Don’t come out! Don’t fly!’.
Some people shroud the hives in black. Others lift them symbolically and put them down again at the moment when they bring the coffin onto the shoulders of the bearers. Or they turn them to face the funeral procession. And they treat the bees with what was offered at the funeral — kolyva with sugar.
If you do not tell the bees, a tragedy befalls you.
She came back home and this time she went through his papers. The same whiff of humidity everywhere. Bills, receipts, calendar slips with proverbs on the back side. Useless stuff. One of her old university textbooks, reeking of mold. Introduction to theoretical linguistics. Oh, Chomsky! How they had argued about Chomsky, about the language of the bees and those of humans. And she had failed to convince him once more.
She browsed through the spiral-bound address book. The same handwriting everywhere. Faint, calligraphic and utterly illegible, as though produced by the bees. It probably resembled the trace they leave when scribbling on the honeycomb performing the round dance or the waggle dance. Under letter B she found a beekeeper. His surname seemed vaguely familiar. When they talked on the phone, she was surprised by his willingness to come over.
‘Were you passing by?’ she almost asked the friend with the full lips when she saw him at the kitchen door. He was the beekeeper. His name was Vassiliadis, yet he was registered under B.
‘What do bees do in the winter? Do they die?’ The question slipped out naturally.
‘A winter cluster’, he uttered with a faint smile. ‘You know what it means?’
She didn’t, which he perhaps interpreted as yet another sign of her lack of affection. Now that he was dead, she should get to love him.
They silently walked to the beehives. Reaching the light blue boxes, the friend started counting the casualties. ‘They are not that many’, he muttered at one point. He then bent down to inspect a few stains on a landing board. He got up, approached the beehive from the back side, knelt behind it and took in a few deep breaths. He put his ear on the lid and started beating the sides with his hands. Only then did she realize that he was not wearing the white suit and the hood with the veil. She could hardly picture him as an astronaut or a fencing master. He eventually stood up and told her that they should do an inspection.
‘To see if they have enough honey.’
And noticing her surprise:
‘Why do bees make honey? They save it for the winter, when they stay in because of the frost. But some bees can be fooled and venture out during the halcyon days. They freeze and can’t make it back to the hive.’
Suddenly, he smiled at her.
‘Your father talked about you. He used to tell me about your studies, about your achievements. He was proud…’
This touched her a bit, even if it was not true. She imagined the beekeeper thinking that she too had been fooled. And because of the frost, she had not managed to make it back to the hive.
‘What is a winter cluster?’ she asked hastily, to block not just the thoughts.
‘They squeeze together to get warm. Gathered in the center of the hive, they form the winter cluster and produce heat by the contractions of their bodies. From time to time, they change positions. Those in the outer circle move inside, and the other way around. But they need to have an adequate population and food. Had your father left any honey? Had he managed to put out any sugar dough? The substitute must be of good quality so as not to solidify during the winter.’
She was watching his full lips caressing the words.
The truth was that she did not know. She had no idea if her father had had the time to leave provisions for the bees. She didn’t know how active he could have been towards the very end, before his fall, before being taken to hospital.
‘His last illness did not last long.’ She refrained from saying more.
The friend promised to arrange an inspection when the weather would again permit it. She thanked him.
Before parting, she gave him her mobile phone number. He, too, gave her a second phone number.
It was on the tip of her tongue, but she did not say it.
To bee or not to bee. That is the question. For this is what had happened. Now her father was the bees.
A traditional ritual dish for the commemoration of the dead.
Note: ‘B’ is one of the 24 self-contained parts of Insect Alphabet, each corresponding to a letter of the (Greek) alphabet and the initial of the name of an insect. Cutting across the genres of ‘novel’ and ‘short story’, Insect Alphabet provides a glimpse into Europe from WWII to the present time, exploring violence, isolation and the European identity challenge. This chapter is the first extract of the book translated into English. Many thanks to Michele Seminara for her valuable suggestions. Thanks also to Ligeia Kafetzi-Louziotou for her contribution in the translation from Greek.
Dimitra Kolliakou grew up in Athens. She studied classics at the University of Athens (NKUA) and obtained a PhD in linguistics from the University of Edinburgh. She lived and worked in various places in Europe, before settling in Paris. She has published six works of fiction in Greek, and regularly contributes short stories to newspapers and literary magazines. She has been short-listed for and won a number of literary prizes, including the Athens Prize for Literature and the National Academy of Greece award for her novel Θερμοκρασία δωματίου (‘Room temperature’, Patakis Publishers 2007), and the Anagnostis 2019 prize for her most recent book Αλφαβητάρι Εντόμων (‘Insect Alphabet’, Patakis Publishers, 2018).