When Gwen Woodleaf's father died back in February, leaving the Woodleaf Apiaries to his daughter, Gwen was in the hospital recovering from viral pneumonia and couldn't "tell the bees" about his death. It was an old ritual, one that had been in the family for three generations of beekeepers. The way you did it was to tap on each hive three times and say, "Your former keeper has died--but please don't fly away, I'll be here to care for you." If the ritual was ignored, Gwen's father had warned, someone else in the beekeeper's extended family might die--or, at the very least, be severely traumatized--within a year.
But then Gwen was told by her doctor to rest at home on the bee farm for several weeks, so how was she to travel practically to the Canadian border to visit two hundred hives and tap on each one? After all, a beekeeper kept only a few hives on his property; the rest were spread out for miles. How silly it all was, she told herself at the time, and she'd curled up with a Victorian. novel and watched the snowflakes fly past the window. The bees weren't flying then, of course--winters, they clustered snugly in their hives, dining on honey made from last autumn's asters.
But now it was mid-April and the worker bees were happily sucking up dandelion pollen and packing it into the baskets on their rear legs. Hearing their hm-mm-mm as she unpacked a case of new bees, Gwen felt optimistic about the future. At least there hadn't been anything so unthinkable as a death in the family-- after her father's, of course. Nothing, she felt, could faze her today, not even the gloomy face on her helper Leroy Boulanger, just back from town, the truck keys dangling in his hand. Leroy's mouth looked like someone had sewn it into a down-curve; his rust-colored hair was standing on end from the wind.
"I run into Harvey Ball in town," he announced in his high-pitched, pebbly voice. "And he's mad as hops, all right. Seems the bees we left there got in the feed bins and spooked his cows. He wants you should come and do something about it."
He stood in the barn doorway; he slapped a feed cap onto the back of his head. He was wearing a blue and white Branbury College T-shirt--to impress her daughter, Donna, no doubt-- Leroy had quit school after tenth grade. He had an unrequited crush on the girl. He couldn't see that Donna, at this point, was involved only in her studies at the local college--or so Gwen hoped.
"Is he sure they're bees and not flies?" she asked. "There's a breed of flies that look exactly like bees." She'd read, in fact, that Native Americans called the first honeybees brought over by the settlers "white man's flies."
"He says they're bees. He wants that you should go up right now." Leroy's lips squeezed stubbornly together.
Gwen sighed. "I'll go up this afternoon. Help me feed these new bees and get them into the hives, would you? Then I'll get some lunch going."
They were just finishing up when she saw Donna come laboring up the hilly road on her green bicycle. She jumped lightly off, a slim girl of medium height with her mother's dark blue eyes and the long shining black hair of her Abenaki father. She was home for the afternoon, she said--her chemistry class had been canceled. She ignored Leroy, who had managed to intrude himself on the walkway.
Gwen followed her daughter into the kitchen. Her father-in-law was already in there, fixing a huge tuna fish, onion, and chive sandwich. Mert LeBlanc was a basketmaker, a pleasant-looking man, dressed in loose leather moccasins and faded brown corduroys. His skin was weathered, his eyes a warm walnut brown;
blue tattoos gleamed on his strong arms. He held up a braid of newly picked sweetgrass, his left hand shaking a little.
"It's not right, not quite," he said. "My damn fingers are too big. But yours, Donna, you could make 'em beautiful."
Donna had heard this before. "Someday, Grandpop. Not today."
Mert sighed, grimaced at Gwen. "Okay for now, but you'll see the light. Use the braid for a bookmark, maybe--those heavy college books of yours."
"Thanks, Grandpop." Donna dropped it into her book pack. "I'm going to a frat dance tonight," she announced, with a sidelong glance at Leroy, who was standing in the doorway with his lunch bag. He ate with the family but insisted on bringing his own fast food from McDonald's. The words "frat dance" had made the blood flare up in his broad cheeks.
"I thought you didn't like fraternities," Gwen said. "You and your friend Emily."
The pair openly boasted that they'd never attended a college football game or a frat party.
"Emily's been invited by a guy in her French class, and I'm going along. She's picking me up. The college is closing down any frats that won't take in girls--and ZKE won't, so this is the last chance. I mean, we want the experience of it. Look, Mother, it's spring."
" 'Spring' meaning the hormones are beginning to dance? Full moon tonight?"
"Well, if you're going with Emily, I suppose it'll be all right. She seems a sensible girl."
"I'm not asking your permission. I'm simply telling you. So you'll understand if I come in late."
"How late?" asked Gwen, who locked the door nights now, since they'd been vandalized the month before, and three frames of honey taken. The bee farm was on the East Branbury Mountain Road, and relatively isolated. The nearest neighbor lived a half mile south, and Harvey Ball to the north had blinders on when it came to neighborly assistance.
"I'm eighteen," was the answer. "You and Dad don't seem to realize it." When Leroy gave a snorting laugh, she grabbed a red pepper and slashed it in half as though it were someone's head.
"Okay, I'll leave a light on. You have a key. But be careful," Gwen warned her daughter. "I don't like all the binge drinking that goes on in those frat houses."
"Don't worry. Mother." Donna leaned into the cutting board. Black hair falling across her face, she chopped the pepper into a hundred tiny pieces.
Donna and Emily had barely pulled out of the driveway that evening when an ancient Honda pulled up and Gwen's activist husband, Russell, got out, ablaze with silver: neck band, armbands, wrist bands, brooches, earrings. He hadn't removed them since his latest Revolutionary War reenactment. "Hey, Gwennie, babe," he bellowed even before he came through the door. "Any food in the house? Drove me straight here from Montpelier via Swanton, just stopped for one little drink at Big Joe's. All he had was Fig Newtons to eat, you know I hate Fig Newtons. Where's the girl gone? I got the one night home, have to shuffle off to Buffalo six A.M. You got any gas in the barn?"
He was all the way in the house now, filling it; his long black ponytail caught in the shutting door. She pulled it out just in time, let herself be enfolded into his muscled arms. The bear hug he gave her matched the bear tattoo on his right arm. He swung her around twice and then deposited her on a kitchen stool.
"Which question should I answer first?" she said, laughing. His original plan had been to go straight from Swanton across the lake and then down the Northway and over to Buffalo. But she didn't mind, did she? She rather liked the unexpected, the unpredictable coming and goings. And she certainly had those with Russell!
"The gas, I guess," he said. "Damn thing fizzled out right in front of the house. Hey, Pop," he called, "I'm home. Full moon tonight! Though it might rain later--or snow. God knows we need something wet. Got a pack basket I can take? The latch busted on my old case."
"What's it this time? More war games?" Mert lumbered into the kitchen, a beer in his hand. A silver earring swung from his left earlobe. "I got pack baskets, all right, come on in and choose."
"The usual, you know," said Russell, answering the first question, "the battle stuff. I got to run a lot, answer questions from the dumb tourists. 'Say, now, what is that thing you wear at your waist? Ooh, what side are you on, French or British?' Ha! I tell 'em I'm on the side gives me a good meal, a good deal. I watch their heads go click click, sure, he's an Indian, no loyalties, he's a cat: Feed him, he licks you." Russell laughed again and followed his father into the basket room.
"We're done eating, but I can fix you leftovers," Gwen hollered after him. "We've got venison left from last fall's kill. Just have to thaw it in the micro, okay?"
"Whatever," Russell sang out from the next room. "I'm so hungry I could eat you."
"Try me," she called back; then, hearing a noise, she felt her cheeks heat up. She hadn't realized Leroy was still there, guzzling a Pepsi, his face a morgue.
"Just going," Leroy said. He didn't look at her as he walked out. He was still put out with Donna. He didn't like Donna going off to a fraternity like that, not giving him the time of day--not that she ever did anyway.
Gwen wouldn't tell Russell where Donna had gone. Russell didn't approve of fraternity dances, either; he had nothing good to say about Branbury College boys, period. Anyway, there was no point telling him, he was only home on a quick overnight. Why would he have to know?
It was all so normal. A young woman going off to a dance. She'd gone to a dozen dances herself, hadn't she--in the year and a half she'd spent at the university? And nothing out of the way had occurred. Donna would be fine, just fine. Gwen would like to go dancing herself tonight. She would! She snatched up an aluminum pot and waltzed--onetwothree, onetwothree-- around the kitchen. Until she banged--ouch!--into the center island.
It was only midnight and already Emily Willmarth had announced that she was going back to her dorm. Emily was lucky enough to live in the dorm instead of at home. But then, Donna knew, Emily had been paired with a rich, stuck-up roommate from Greenwich, Connecticut, and as early as October the society girl and Emily wanted to switch roommates. But the school wouldn't let them, so they were sticking it out.
"You can't go," Donna cried. "Not yet. Shep's coming back. He's making a beer run. The keg ran out. I mean, this is the last big blast. That's why you wanted to come, right?" She pulled her short black rayon skirt down over her butt. She'd bought it in town just that afternoon--hadn't realized how tight it was until she began to dance in it, and then it wriggled up.
Emily's roommate, Alyce, undulated past with a glass in her hand, a silly grin on her made-up face. "We don't usually see you here," Alyce gushed in one of her ingratiating, be-nice-to-the-locals modes. Donna never knew quite how to respond to her. She usually just turned her head and murmured something dumb.
Now Emily was arguing with Alyce, who had turned to her accusingly. "No, I didn't borrow your art book," Emily said, "why would I do that when I have my own?" It seemed Alyce was always losing things and then accusing Emily of taking them.
"It was there on my desk when I left for class, and it's not there now." Alyce lifted a painted eyebrow, like she'd made a weighty statement.
"Let's get out of here." Emily grabbed Donna's arm. "Anyway," she confided to Donna when Alyce had waltzed on past, "I want to leave before Bozo comes back."
"You know, Billy Bozeman. He's a nerd. He's always craning back his neck and grinning at me in French class. I didn't realize he was in this frat. He went to get me a vodka and I don't want it."
"What happened to the guy who invited you?"
"He's out of it. They took him up to bed. Honest to God, it's been nothing but losers since I came to this school. Either they want to discuss astrophysics with you or they just want to get you into bed. Or both."
"Well, Shep isn't like that. At least I don't think so. I can't leave now, since he's told me to wait. You go ahead."
"How will you get home if I take the pickup? Mom needs it in the morning."
"Shep will take me. He's already offered. He has a motorcycle. Whee-ee ..." Donna threw up her arms and whirled about. The black skirt spun with her and settled halfway up her ass. She yanked it down.
"You watch him, then, okay? I gotta go. Bozo's on his way with that drink. And you gotta bet it'll be lethal." Emily ducked behind Donna and out the front door.
Now Donna was sorry she hadn't gone with her friend. Together she and Emily could face the collegiate world. She felt suddenly gauche with her black hair hanging loose down her back, while Alyce and the other girls all seemed to have blond hair done up in a sophisticated twist or, at the very least, an expensive short cut.
"Hey." She wheeled about to see Shep grinning down at her. He patted her on the rump. "Nice dress," he said, and handed her a glass. "Drink that," he ordered.
"It's only a little whiskey," he said, when she stood there staring into the glass. "I went all the way across campus for it." He held the glass to her lips and she sipped--spilled it on her blouse. He stooped to lick it up and she had to laugh. He kissed her lightly on the lips. "Come on. Just this one and we'll dance. You dance, huh?"
"Yes," she said, and drank. It tasted rather good, actually: It was icy cold and made with ginger ale, so it wasn't hard to get down. Her head felt fuzzy and free, like it was floating, unattached, beside her neck. The room smelled of smoke and perfume and whiskey and pot. She saw Alyce go upstairs with a blond boy. They would weave up a few steps, then drop down to giggle and kiss. Shep had dark hair--for some reason, she was glad of that. He was a junior already, majoring in political science, though he was in her sociology class. He wanted to be a lawyer. "The rich get richer," she remembered her grandfather saying, as he squatted in a pile of brown ash splints.
She must have finished the drink because suddenly her hands were empty; she and Shep were dancing. Shep's shaggy head was close to hers; she saw the fine hairs inside his ears, a cut on his cheek. She could smell the whiskey on his breath. Her father drank whiskey--too much of it, her mother complained. It was an Indian weakness, people said. But if that were so, then it was a white weakness, too.
As if he'd heard her thoughts, Shep said, "I hear you're Indian--uh, excuse me, Native American. That's cool."
She felt her face go hot. "Only half. My mother's not. I look like my mother." Though it wasn't entirely true. She had her father's nose, kind of flat. His hair, too, where her mother's was the color of maple syrup.
"I've never known an ... uh, native before," he said. "We'll have to talk, hmm?"
She wasn't exactly sure what he meant by "talk." Talk about Native Americans? She didn't want to be some kind of guinea pig so he could go and tell his roommate he had the inside story on "Indians"--he'd "talked" to one.
But he must have read her mind again because he was pulling her closer. "I mean just. . . talk. About stuff, you know? Like what do you think of our soc prof? Something funny about her, you think?"
"Funny? Like what?" she said. Personally, she liked Professor Wimmet. But Shep just laughed and said, "Never mind. Right now, let's . . . dance. Close, like this, huh?" He pulled her to him until she gasped. His hand was on her buttocks; she felt her dress inching up, his hand pressing in, fitting itself to her curves.
It didn't matter. Her brain was comfortably blurry, she felt as though anything could happen, anything at all, and she'd go along with it. Because that's all she could do now. She couldn't think. Her brain was shrinking away from her body. The slow music crept on and on, and then suddenly sped up again, a heavy rock beat. She couldn't dance that kind of dance, she didn't know how; but it was all right, she swung out away from Shep and moved her hips. Surprisingly her feet moved along with the rest of her. When the music stopped and finally she looked up, Shep wasn't there at all. A red-haired boy with a purplish scar over his left brow was grinning down at her, handing her a plastic cup. "Shep said to drink this," he told her.
"Where's Shep?" she asked, hearing her voice plaintive.
"He'll be right back," the boy said, not answering the question. "Want to dance?" Someone had put in a Fugees CD and turned the volume way up.
She shook her head. She wanted to go home now. She was feeling out of control and she didn't like the feeling. She didn't like the way this boy was looking at her. As if she were something he had on his dinner plate and he was starving. She pushed past him and felt his hand brush her bottom. The loud music assaulted her ears, the laughter and shouts sounded faraway, although she knew they were there in the room with her. She almost tripped over a body--some guy, wasted, crawling across the floor. She didn't know where she'd left her coat but then remembered that the boy Emily had come to meet had taken it upstairs.
Did she want to go up there? No, but she needed her coat. She would walk home, even though it was four miles. And she didn't want her mother to see her like this, smell her breath. If she was going to walk, she had to have her coat. It was chilly out. It was snowing a little, she saw through a window: fat white flakes drifting lazily down, obscuring the moon, telling the world it didn't care that it was April, that spring had arrived. She liked snow. She liked rain. No sun god for Donna!
She took a deep breath and started upstairs. She found herself lurching, and grasped the handrail. Someone was coming down, another girl. The girl banged into her, she was drunk. "So sorry," the girl said, and Donna heard a crash at the foot of the stairs.
She heaved herself to the top, but the doors were dosed to all the rooms. It was quieter up here; now and then she heard a giggle behind a door, a groan. She didn't know where her coat was, she didn't want to open the doors. She'd have to walk home without it--and how was she to get it in the morning? She went back down again, clinging to the banister for balance.
And there was Shep Noble at the bottom, smiling at her, a glass in his hand.
"Take me home, please, Shep. You said you would. You said you have a motorcycle."
Shep made a mock bow. His hair fell into his eyes; he pushed it back with a damp hand. "Whatever milady wants. One for the road?" He held out his glass. He had a rather nice lopsided smile.
"No, thank you." She didn't want it. He accepted her refusal with a shrug. She liked that; he seemed to understand.
Outside, she took deep gulps of the cool April night. The snow was clean and pure and fresh in contrast to the indoor scene with its mixed odors of people, pot, and perfume. She was surprised to see that at least a quarter of an inch had fallen, although it was a light, fluffy snow and would be gone with tomorrow's sun. She scooped up a handful and washed her face.
"Shit," he said. "Snow. And we have practice tomorrow."
Shep was the baseball captain--Emily had told her that. He was a skier, too. This was an athletic fraternity. What was she doing here anyway? Though if Shep asked her, maybe she would come to a game.
"Hop on," he was saying; his motorcycle loomed up beside her. It looked like a great black bear. Bear was the symbol of her father's clan. Her hand almost froze to the bike's cold metal, to the nameplate where Shep's full name was inscribed.
She climbed on behind him. He stuck his helmet on her head and they roared off. She was touched by the gesture. It seemed a small sacrifice. Her fears subsided. It was exhilarating to ride through the night, to feel the wind and snow in her face. She gave him directions to her house.
"Mountain road?" he called back, sounding surprised. She realized he didn't know, probably thought she lived in town.
"Just partway up," she said. "Not so far as the national forest. Though our land extends almost to there. My mother keeps bees."
"Oh, yeah?" He didn't ask any more questions; he was concentrating on the driving. He didn't want to be picked up again, he said--he'd been hauled into the police station one too many times. Just last weekend some belligerent cop had given him "the third degree--like I was some kind of criminal." The cycle slipped and swerved in the fluffy snow.
She wasn't worried, though, not a bit. She was enjoying the excitement of it, the thrill of hanging on to his black leather coat. They raced through town and then, more laboriously, up the mountain road and onto the dirt road that took them to the Woodleaf Apiaries.
"Here," she shouted over the roar of the cycle. "Stop here." He went into a skid, barely missing a tree, and pulled the machine up to lean against the sign.
"Those bees fly at night?" he asked. "I've got allergies."
She laughed. "No. And we only keep a few hives on the grounds. You won't get stung, don't worry. Mother keeps them well fed. She's got hives all over the state, on farms and orchards. She and Leroy are always on the road taking care of them."
"Leroy?" He was leaning against the tree now, pulling out a flask. She didn't like that, but he'd brought her home. She couldn't complain.
"Oh, he just works here--lives in a trailer up behind the house. He can heave those hives around while Mother can't." She thought she heard a rustle in the bushes and listened a moment. But it was only wind. Though she wouldn't put it past Leroy to wait for her to come home.
Shep grunted something and then said, "You don't wanna go in yet. We'll take a walk. Snow's practically stopped."
It wasn't a question about taking a walk; already he was yanking on her arm, pulling her along. But she didn't mind, did she? She hadn't gone out with boys much in high school, she'd had to study hard to get into college. Not many Abenaki girls went to college. But Donna had a special Native American scholarship. She was to finish college, the first in her family to do so;
it was her mother's obsession. Her father was proud of her going, too. He never said that, but she felt it was true.
Shep was still pulling from the flask. But he didn't seem drunk, except for a little slurring of his words. He had asthma, he told her--that's why he couldn't play football; he had an inhaler, but he'd left it in the frat. She rather liked the idea of his asthma; it made him seem vulnerable, less the jock. His walking was steady enough. She would go just a little way with him. Soon they'd come to the swampy part of their land; it was where a stream ran through and spilled over, especially now, in spring. The ground was still thawing from winter and their feet would get soaked. She told him this.
He laughed. Everything seemed funny to him now. He put away the flask, pulled out a slim cigarette, and puffed on it. It helped his asthma, he said, to smoke.
"Smoking helps asthma?"
He laughed again. "Not nicotine--cannabis. Cures a lot of things. Like inhibitions." He handed her the joint. "Indians smoke, right? In ceremonies? Powwows?" He seemed amused by the word "powwow." He repeated it. "Pow-wowww." He gave a high-pitched giggle.
"Not marijuana, they don't." She felt indignant now. "Tobacco is a spiritual thing. The Abenaki used to think it had special powers that could help them communicate with spirit beings." Donna was careful to refer to the Abenaki as "they" and "them." Careful to use the past tense. "Today it's a kind of hospitality thing. You can't go visit my Aunt Therese without a gift of tobacco. You wrap it in red cloth with red yarn and beads to show honor. It's important to her," she said when he was suddenly quiet. "Of course, she herself doesn't smoke."
In case she had somehow offended the boy, she took the joint he offered and inhaled. And coughed.
He was once again amused. He laughed and laughed and drew her toward the swamp.
"There are toxic plants in here," she warned. "Oleander, nightshade. Mother grows them for medicinal purposes. She has them marked with red sticks so we'll stay away. As kids, my brother and I were never allowed in here." She didn't mention the marijuana her mother grew for her grandfather's tremors.
It was hard walking now, thick vines and roots twisted about their feet. He said, "Jesus!"--he'd tripped on a root. He backed out a few feet and paused to lean against a tree. He finished the joint. Then he grabbed at her hand and pulled her roughly toward him. She went, she had to, he was strong. He was kissing her now. She didn't like it, he was too rough. She pulled away, but he only yanked her harder against him.
"You want it, you know you do, you little squaw, you," he said, and kissed her again, a smothering, painful kiss.
She wrenched away. Her hand flew up and slapped his face.
For a moment he held her at arm's length, stared into her eyes. "I don't like that," he said, spacing his words. Then, before she could catch her breath, he'd shoved her down on the ground. A stone cut into the small of her back and she cried out. He grabbed at her blouse. She cried out again, it was a brand new blouse, he had no right. She yelled, "Stop!" but he didn't stop, he was pulling at her underpants, unbuttoning his belt with his other hand, and she screamed.
After that, things happened so fast she was dazed. She hit at him with her fists and scratched with her nails. She didn't care, she just wanted him to stop. "Little bitch," he finally grunted, and, pushing her roughly from him, he rolled off and fell back on the damp ground, his eyes shut. She stared down at him, then got up and tried to pull herself together. Her blouse was torn, her new skirt filthy.
There was someone behind her then, with a flashlight, yanking her up. It was Leroy. "Come on. I'll take you to the house. Here," he said, jamming his coat around her shoulders, "so your mother won't see your dress."
She was embarrassed, mortified! "I don't need your coat," she protested, but he was moving her along. She glanced back and Leroy said, "He's passed out. He's drunk as a skunk." He added, "You're not much better," and scowled.
"You're not my keeper," she said. "And we can't leave him lying there." She tried to release herself from Leroy's grasp, but he held fast.
"I'll take care of him," he said. "I'll get him back on his big old motorcycle. How far'd he go with you, huh? Not all the way, I'll kill him!"
"Who are you, my father?" she said.
He gave a grunting laugh and kept tugging her along with him. She heard her mother's voice calling from an upstairs window. "Donna? Is that you? Donna?"
"Who's that with you?"
"Just me, ma'am," Leroy called. "I was checking the hives-- I thought I heard a noise--animal or somethin'. But it was Donna driving in."
"Well, be quiet getting in bed, then, Donna. Your little brother's asleep. I'm glad you're finally home." And the window dropped down.
Donna was relieved, she had to admit it. Her mother would think she'd come home with Emily. She wouldn't have to tell about the motorcycle. She wouldn't have to tell about Shep-- not if Leroy got him out of there as he'd promised.
"You will help him back," she reminded Leroy. Not that she wanted to see Shep again--she was disgusted with him now. He'd been trying to rape her, hadn't he? If she hadn't fought back, if he hadn't been too drunk . . . She shuddered. Still, she didn't want him hurt. She should have realized he would expect something from her. Boys did. That's what Emily said, Emily had had more experience with boys than Donna. Donna's mother had home-schooled her until her junior year in high school. She waited for Leroy's answer before she opened her door. She was still embarrassed--how much had he seen, anyway?
"I said I would, didn't I?" said Leroy. "I said I'd take care of him. And I will."