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Thursday, May 29, 2008

An Absence of Nectar

Meant to post this all last week and my computer was flaking out on me. This book kept me up all night one night. I started it one afternoon and finished the next morning. I couldn't put it down.

It's the whole first chapter and I know it's a little long-but it's definitely worth it.

The absence of Nectar

By Kathy Hepinstall

Chapter One

All these years later, there remains a scar on my face. Very thin, and light in color like a beekeeper’s glove. My stepfather, Simon Jester, was standing at the stove one day, flipping an egg. I walked up behind him and said something. Startled, he whirled around.

"It's only me, Simon," I said, already afraid of the look in his eyes.

Instead of answering, he pressed the edge of the hot spatula against my face. My mother, who insisted that her children call her by her first name, Meg, found me later on the porch and rubbed a white cream into the long, thin blister. "It's the heat, Alice," she murmured, still rubbing. "Makes him touchy." That was only a half-truth, Meg's specialty. Simon's madness wasn't a slave to temperature alone. However, I am convinced that it was the soaring heat of a summer afternoon—together with my brother's unforgivable betrayal—that made Simon finally decide to kill both of us.

That day I stood before the mirror in a bathroom that reeked of Simon's aftershave, gazing carefully at myself, looking for evidence that Simon had poisoned my toothpaste, my pillow, the milk I'd held to the light that morning. My eyes were clear. The pupils weren't dilated. My lips weren't blue. No yellow tint to the skin. No tremors. I leaned forward and bared my teeth. My gums weren't bleeding. The mist my breath made on the mirror looked benign. And yet my body could fail at any moment. My heart could stop.

It was early June. The grass stood high around the fence posts where my brother had forgotten to trim. Clover and black-eyed Susans. Oleander in bloom. Ladybugs, grasshoppers, crickets. My bare feet could not touch the lawn without collecting living things, but I knew that there was something wrong with the ecosystem of that yard, that house. Stepfathers are not meant to conspire against their new children, and if they do, mothers are meant to put a stop to it. But my own mother would not believe the truth about Simon, was dead set against it, annoyed by its heat and its color.

I finished my inspection in the bathroom mirror and went out on the back porch where my brother sat polishing his glasses. His hands trembled and the nervous tic around his eyes was worse than I’d seen it in a long time, but he seemed to have shaken himself out of the strange daze he’d been in since that morning, and for that I was relieved. I sat down beside him and said: "The jig is up, I guess." I said it very casually and with an air of weariness, hoping my tone would calm my brother.

"I know," he said.

"We've gone too far."

"I've gone too far."

"Doesn't matter who did what."

Boone looked over at our mother, who sat on a cypress glider facing the porch, holding her swollen stomach, her back to her dead bee colonies. She seemed lost in the memory of those bees. Their variable buzz. Their perfect functions. Their desperate urge for order, which had churned seasonally into wax and honey. The last of them had died before the daffodils opened, and the frames in the hives had crusted over with a fuzz that proved on closer inspection to be their decaying bodies. Meg, however, still tended to speak of them in the present tense, as though they still worked and buzzed and stung her unprotected hands. She wore a shapeless green muumuu and arched her bare feet each time the glider moved her forward. Even from that distance we could see the glow that her pregnancy put on her face. The triumph. She waved at us languidly, and Boone shook his head in disbelief.

"Why won't she help us?" he whispered.

"She doesn't think anything's going to happen."

"God.” He ran his fingertips over the bushy curves of his eyebrows and put his glasses back on. He looked at me and his eyebrows twitched. A brief tic smoothed by an afternoon breeze. He touched my arm. "Do you hate me?"



"Simon was just waiting for an excuse. If it wasn't what you did, it would be something else."

"Please, Alice. Go talk to her."

"What good will it do?" "Maybe she'll finally believe us."

Boone was fourteen—two years older than I was—but he didn't understand what I did, that it's easier to shake a snapping turtle from a barbed hook than a woman from her savior. Just to please him, though, I waded through the grass toward my mother, sending gnats dancing up and grasshoppers in their crazy directionless bounces. Here and there in the grass lay the abandoned artifacts of my mother's beekeeping: white gloves, a nylon veil, a hive tool, a smoker turned on its side and spilling charred burlap. At this time the bees should be gathered around the perimeter of the rain barrel, collecting water for the steaming hives. Now all of the bees were dead. Except . . .

Meg slid over on the glider and showed me the back of her hand. "Look," she said, delighted. "A bee!" It crawled between her fingers, through the pink valley between her knuckles, circled back around and moved up her fourth finger to the diamond on her wedding band, balancing precariously on the tiny gem whose real value was always in question. It was a wild bee—not Meg's Italian bees that used to roam the countryside aching for nectar. Nonetheless, she admired it on her finger as though her diamond had suddenly swelled.

"He's my new friend," she said.

The bee was covered in yellow pollen. It turned around again on the ring and flew away. My mother sighed sadly, because she hated to be left.

I said to her: "Simon's going to kill us for what Boone did. I can see it in his eyes."

She didn't answer me. Instead she picked up my hand and pressed it against her stomach. Against my palm I felt the pressure of the baby's kick.

"Can you feel it?" she asked. “That's your brother."

"Half brother. If it's a boy."

"Oh, it will be a boy. Simon wants a boy."

"Did you hear what I said, Meg? About Simon?"

"Simon just likes to talk. He likes to scare us. He'll be all right after dinner, when it's cooler."

"Cooler? That doesn't matter. He'd plot my death sitting on an iceberg." I took a deep breath. "Don't you want to know what happened this morning?"

"No." Meg said the word in a sad, gentle way.

Underneath my hand, the baby kicked again.

"Won't be too long now," Meg murmured.

"Until we die?"

"Sweetheart . . ." Meg's voice was soft and sad. "Nothing bad will happen." She brushed back my hair. Pulled me closer so I could feel her scent: an immature sweetness, like the fluid of a honeysuckle. She moved her feet and the glider rocked. I looked down at her stomach. A bully, no doubt, this baby. Temperamental in the womb. Annoyed by the dull light coming through the stomach wall. The heat of the embryonic fluid. The pull of the umbilical cord.

Gently I shook off Meg's embrace, left the glider and walked back through the grass.

Boone was missing from the porch. He had probably gone to his room to shiver. The wild bee that had crawled over Meg's fingers now hovered on the railing. It had lost its way in the search for sweetness and was now sniffing at the perspiration my brother's palm had left on the wood. I wondered if it had already flown through the quiet beeyard, among its dead fellows.

I looked back at Meg. She was rocking back and forth and holding her belly.

I turned and slapped my palm against the railing. The bee died under my hand with all its bustling intentions, and I left its crushed body there, pollen from one stomach, nectar from the other. I went into the house and was passing by the den when Simon called to me. My heart dropped suddenly at the sound of his voice.

He was propped up in his recliner, an empty china plate on his lap, inspecting the tines of his fork with squinted eyes, turning the fork over and over in the afternoon light that poured through the drapeless window. His black hair was gathered in a rubber band, pulled back from his head so tightly that it revealed a mole near his ear and another at the edge of his hairline. His goatee hosted crumbs. He turned so that he could regard me with his close-together eyes. "Where's your mama?"


"When's dinner?"

"Whenever you want."

He looked up at me and I could see the line in the skin between his eyes. A wrinkling that meant an angry mood. One of his sleeves had turned red earlier that day. Wincing, he lifted his arm and pointed in the direction of the kitchen. "Got any more of that cake in there?"

When I nodded, he said, “Bring me some.”

I went into the kitchen, where a drop of blood still clung to the peach in the fruit bowl, and two drops had dried on the floor near the sink, and one had run like a tear down the front of the white oven. A gash of blood had left an anchor shape across the window curtain, and a small brown streak of it still lingered on the rose-colored soap.

I found a knife and cut Simon a piece of cake, thinking about his plans. I knew he had access to poison; out of terror and uncertainty, I had read all his books on that subject, properties and effects and case studies, and I knew that within our home, garage and yard half a dozen deadly poisons could be found: strychnine, arsenic, calcium cyanide, Sevin, fluorosodium. Thallium in the dated products. No more poison than usual for a family who had mice and roaches and gophers to contend with, along with the now-dead bees. A family who had silver to polish, floors to clean, cabinets to stain.

I went back into the den and handed Simon the cake. I watched him tear off little chunks of it and put them in his mouth. Swallowing the pieces like pills. Jamming his fingers into it, pressing so hard they left indentations. His hand trembling. This man. A bully to cake and children. He looked up at me, his eyes crowded close to the line between them. More lines in his forehead. "You still here?"

"Where would I go?"

"Away from my sight, if you don't mind."

"I don't."

"Hold on."

He looked at me a long time, perspiration running down his face. A crumb fell out of his mouth and onto his plate, and he flattened it with the tip of his finger. "You and Boone think you're funny, don't you? What you done this morning."

"How about what you did?"

"I didn't do nothing wrong. Tried to help somebody. A poor little girl with half a brain."

"Some help."

"What do you know? You ain't even my child. Neither is your brother. You don't have one drop of my blood . . ."

I looked at his sleeve.

". . . and so you're not my . . . you know . . ."

"Natural children?" "That's right, Smart Girl."

I left him without waiting for my dismissal and went back into the hallway, my senses so heightened that I could feel the darkness against the part on my scalp, and when I ran my hand along the wall, I discovered tiny uneven patches in the paint that no other human in the world could have felt.

Boone was sitting on his bed in the room he and I shared. He was shirtless in the heat and looking at a black-and-white picture of Persely Snow he’d cut from the crime section of the newspaper and copied at the city library. The poor quality of the Xerox left the famous teenager looking even more maniacal. Eyes wild, hair tangled. Teeth bared like an animal. No flesh tones to make excuses for the expression. Even as the hour of our deaths drew near, Boone remained entranced. His fingers traveled down her face, forehead to eyes to defiant smile. I had tolerated his devotion for years, but now I wanted to seize that picture and tear it to shreds, for this girl had entered our lives with a vengeance and had caused us nothing but trouble. She had recently escaped her flimsy state institution for the seventh time and was now hidden on a small island in the middle of Lake Shine. Now I imagined her pacing around in the brambles, looking up at the sky, waiting for my brother.

Boone whispered: "What did Meg say?"

"She said that we were right all along. That she married a maniac. That she's going to shoot him in the back of the head. And sell his demon child.”

"That's not funny, Alice."

"Why'd you even ask? You knew what she'd say."

He lay back on the bed, the picture of Persely Snow facedown on his chest. "Meg can't help it. She's not like other mothers."

"No kidding." I sat down on my bed, hugged my knees, then flopped back against the mattress, frightened and angry and sad for all the things I would miss on this earth. Hula hoops. Handmade belts. Necklaces made by twisting the insubstantial stalks of clover. The hard black shell of a licorice gumball. The yellow wig of a young dandelion. The gray wig of an old one. The slide on the school playground. The peculiar and random spread of live-oak branches. The dome of a purple snow cone, inviting the ache of a pair of front teeth. I hated Simon Jester for wanting to take these things away from me with his poison. I was a tomboy and an expert on American Indians and a straight-A student, and I deserved to live.

And if I did have to die, I couldn’t bear the thought of doing so without finding out Simon's secret. Where he'd come from. And what he'd done to his first family.

"We should feel sorry for Simon," Boone said suddenly.

"I don't. I hate him."

"He’s one of God’s creatures."

"Remember that when you’re drinking your tea."

He wasn't listening anymore. He was looking at the picture again.

I folded my arms and glared at him. And how about Persely Snow, Boone? The girl you love. Who killed one person and tried to kill another. Is she one of God's creatures, too?

I wanted to say this, but I held my peace.

Around six o'clock Meg comes into our room, flushed and wet like a woman just pulled from a lake. If she has lived her afternoon according to habit, then she has spent it on the cypress glider, humming to herself, gazing up at the blue summer sky, rejoicing in the stagnant clouds and mourning the ones that leave her.

When she opens the door, Boone hides his picture of Persely behind his back.

"It's only me," she says.

"Oh." He takes his picture back out. "I thought it was—"

"No. He's in the den." Meg has applied lipstick to her bottom lip and then rubbed her lips together for the haphazard coverage of a color I've seen on winecup flowers. "Could you help me with dinner, baby?" she asks me. Reluctantly I rise and follow her into the kitchen, past the den where Simon may be sleeping or plotting, reading or praying or rubbing his bloody arm.

The kitchen smells of Clorox. The white oven gleams. The peach in the fruit bowl has been scrubbed clean of blood drops. The curtain has a big water stain where the red shape used to be.

I prepare the rice myself, rinsing out the utensils first and reaching way back in the cabinet to find the hidden salt. Another package of salt sits on the counter, which Simon can poison all he wants. I use only my guarded crystals. While the water boils, Meg busies herself at the stove, her pregnant belly causing her to have to lean forward to stir the chicken dish..

Just before dinner Simon comes in. He’s changed into a clean shirt and his black ponytail is caught inside the back of his collar. He walks up behind my mother, puts his arms around her stomach and kisses her neck. Simon has been deeply suspicious about whether the baby is his, but now he suddenly seems to believe all of Meg's tearful denials, and he murmurs into her ear: "How's the queen mother?"

Meg giggles and turns around. She puts her arms around him and he says, "Ow, be careful."

"Sorry, sweetie."

"He been kicking?"


"That's my boy."

He kisses her cheek. His hands slide from her stomach to her breasts, and Meg says: "Oh, Simon."

"How long till dinner?" Simon asks.

"It’s almost ready."

"I'll help you dish up," he says meaningfully.

I bring him a stack of plates, which he yanks away from me with a grunt, then I stand there watching him dish up our meal. Chicken Meg, we call it. Shredded chicken mixed with bell peppers and tomatoes.

"What are you looking at?" Simon asks me.

"Nothing." Sweat runs down my face. If I blink it away, I might miss a sudden movement of his hand.

"Alice," my mother says, and without thinking, I turn my head away from Simon.


"The rice is burning."

I take the rice off the stove and turn off the flame. When I turn back, Simon is putting the full plates on the table, and my heart speeds up and my knees tremble with fear. In those few seconds Simon could have added an ingredient that carries no spice but arrests the nervous system or thins the blood or kills the light in my eyes. But I do not betray my emotions as I dish up the rice—safe and white—and put it in a separate green bowl, then set it on the table.

Boone comes in and we all sit down. My brother looks at the rice and then at me. I give him the signal. Two long blinks and two short ones. The Morse code of survival. It means that Simon has not been near the rice, and so it is safe to eat. Not so the Chicken Meg, and I broadcast this fact to Boone with three short blinks. We've been using these signals for weeks, growing lean and sad as the food we love ends up down the disposal.

My mother pours the strawberry lemonade, which is sweet and red and safe. I’ve kept the mix in a secret place in the bedroom. Ten minutes ago I watched Meg make the lemonade; Simon hasn’t come near it. I blink at Boone.

Simon looks at my mother. "Say the prayer.”

She takes my hand and Boone's and begins: "Lord, thank you for another day. Lord, teach us patience. Lord, thank you for always being good . . ."

As she speaks, my eyes open just enough to see what Simon's up to. He's sitting there drumming his fingers on the table. I wonder if he washed the blood off his arm before he put on the fresh shirt. "Okay, that's enough," he says, interrupting the part of Meg’s prayer that has to do with mercy. "Everybody eat."

We begin. No one speaks. Meg and Boone and I eat delicately, as if we can placate the situation by handling the food gingerly enough. White rice slides through the tines of our forks.

Simon picks up his teaspoon and begins eating from the sugar bowl—his most disgusting habit. Presently he looks up, glaring at us.

"Why aren't you eating the chicken?" he demands, spitting white crystals.

"We don't like chicken," Boone says nervously.

"Bullshit. I've seen you eat it before."

"Come on, kids," says Meg. "Just eat a little. It's really good."

"I'm tired of it," I say.

She looks hurt. In life-or-death dramas, she has room to flinch from small discourtesies. This is the magic of Meg.

Simon jumps out of his chair and rushes over to Boone, his shadow coming out ahead of him and announcing him too late. He grabs the back of my brother’s neck and forces his head down into his plate. Boone struggles, his fork still in one hand.

I leap from the table and grab Simon's wrist. "Stop it! You're hurting him!"

Simon pushes me, and I fall back to the linoleum floor. By the time I jump to my feet, it is already over.

When Boone's face finally comes up, it is covered with Chicken Meg, his glasses heavy with it.

Simon sits back down and crosses his arms, watching Boone clean his glasses and then go over his face with his napkin, wiping away a long, thin piece of tomato that is shaped like the blister Simon once gave me with the edge of his spatula.

Meg is blinking. I imagine her head as a beehive, a quiver of terror in the very center that does not radiate outward to the other bees. Judging by the expression on her face, the beehive remains calm, though she wrings her hands.

"Please," she says.

Simon ignores her. "Eat your damn food," he tells Boone and me. "Both of you. After what you did today, you're lucky to eat at all."

In this year, in this house, things happen and nothing stops them. In the living room God’s Bible sits open on Simon’s chair, where he’d been leafing through it, bloody. This part of Texas can't save us. We eat our chicken.

After dinner Boone and I go back to our room and wait to die. I lie on my twin bed; he flops on his across the room. We don't say anything for a few minutes, caught up in our own processes, vigilantly regulating our bodies, waiting for a falter in the heart, a dizzy sensation, a headache or a breath that brings sudden agony. Sweat is dripping down our faces. Too much sweat? We stare at our hands.

In the darkness I think of the Indians I’ve been reading about at the library. How they died so bravely. Crazy Horse was stabbed while struggling against his captors. Mangas Coloradas was invited to a peace conference and bayoneted by white men. Roman Nose fell in battle. And Sitting Bull died in a hail of bullets, slumping to the ground as his white horse danced.

I breathe in and out, trying to shift my mind from death to Spencer Katosky, the boy I love, but instead my thoughts wander to Meg. I want to hate her and also her new baby, who is half Simon and therefore half despicable, but something in me forgives them.

Boone picks up Persely Snow's picture again and puts it on his chest so she can smile down at his seizing heart. I roll my eyes a little but keep my voice steady. "How do you feel?" I ask him.

"Kind of sick."

"Sick like you're scared, or sick like you're poisoned?"

"I don't know." His voice is shaky. "What if Simon put strychnine in the Chicken Meg?"

A reluctant expert on poison, I shiver now as I imagine the effects of that nightmarish drug. The stiff neck, the spasms of the arms and legs, the involuntary arching of the body, the horrible smile. "Strychnine is bitter," I say, remembering what I've read in the books, trying to soothe my brother with my quiet voice. "We would have tasted it."

"How about cyanide? You know, what Meg uses on the sick bees. Simon could have mixed it in the lemonade."

I shake my head. "First of all, Simon never got near that lemonade. And second, I think that kind of cyanide turns into a gas when it touches moisture."

He thinks a minute. "Carbolic acid.”

"Your mouth would be burning."


"Doesn't hurt you if you swallow it. It has to break the skin. Has Simon shot you with a dart lately?"

"Alice, I think I’m dying.”

He looks pale as a ghost. I go over to his bed and begin rubbing his arms. “You’re fine, you’re fine. Think of Persely. She needs you." I rub his arms harder and say what I know will galvanize my brother: "She can't survive on that island without you, Boone."

At the thought of this, he lets out a groan and lunges off the bed. I lose my balance and we fall down in a heap together.

"Get up," I say, trying to extract myself. "We’ve got to get out of here. Get up. Get up!"

"I'm trying."

I hear footsteps coming up to the door, and Boone and I stiffen as the knob turns and light spills onto the floorboards in an anvil-shaped gash.

It's Meg. We sigh in relief.

She closes the door behind her, staring down at the floor, at our tangled-up bodies. She says nothing but holds one hand over her stomach and pushes the other against Boone's mattress so she can kneel on the floor. Her belly presses against my arm and I can feel her baby kick. The real baby my Simon craves. The one with his blood. His face. His madness. I picture a line forming between its tiny eyes, its face turning red at some perceived grievance there in the darkness of the womb.

Boone and I are still tangled up, motionless, silent. My mother runs her hand through my hair, then through his. I am still half angry at her, but glad to be alive and awaiting her sweet endearments.

Tears begin to roll from her eyes and a look crosses her face, one of such torment that I think she has taken poison herself. One of the corrosives, perhaps. She smoothes our hair again, takes a deep, painful breath, leans down to us and whispers a word that I know must cause her unbearable grief.


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