Birds x Bees by Katharine Duckett
Katharine Duckett’s “Birds x Bees” is one of three winners of the 2022 CRAFT Amelia Gray 2K Contest, guest judged by Amelia Gray.
“Birds x Bees” is a sharply rendered story of a teenager’s speculative curiosity at sixteen, the most painful of ages, not dissimilar to a hundred bee stings down one’s forearm. I love a story which doubles as a bit of a science experiment, backing up claims with evidence as this does, while moving deftly through a good story. But experiments aside, the protagonist’s earnest attention to the world around her is what kept my attention and stuck in my memory—that, and an ending which would absolutely meet the qualifications for Esther’s carnal taxonomy. —Amelia Gray
Esther was sixteen the summer that all the bees in her father’s hives died. Those were the days when she was in love with everything. The curtains in her room, billowing with the morning breeze; the spongy hills leading down to the hives; the bees themselves, round and busy as May became June.
The spring had been awful. School was a joke, all online, unreal and indelible as a nightmare. Her friends were terrible; her teachers, monsters. Now, though, Esther glowed with goodwill, grinding her bare feet into the grass to feel the dirt beneath, letting the bees whiz past her ears on their way to the pond and relishing the thrill that came from the little daggers passing her by, leaving her unharmed in their wake.
She spent most of June working on her latest catalogue. When she was younger, she had created catalogues of the flora and fauna on her parents’ property, like a real naturalist. Over the years she had filled out taxonomies of other subjects, a record of her brief middle school obsessions, from lip glosses to cheese. This catalogue was all about sex.
Her notebook was overflowing with observations, a record of everything she saw and whether it qualified as sex or not. She had received ample information on the topic. But she understood now, after a hookup with Evan Young on New Year’s Eve wherein it was the sight of a caterpillar arcing down the wall toward her outstretched hand that had gotten her off, and not his fumblings inside her jeans, that sex wasn’t found in any definitions she had been given. “Are we getting anywhere?” he’d whispered, and she hadn’t been able to reply “yes” until the caterpillar ran over her knuckles, sending a ripple of pleasure through her skeleton.
If sex could happen solo or together—if sex didn’t require penetration or reproduction—sex was everywhere and nowhere, all the time. Other people seemed to accept this premise without question, but Esther couldn’t. She needed to know what it was, and what it absolutely wasn’t.
Her least-terrible friend, Celine, initially joined her in her research. There were certain things they were able to agree were sex, no question. Succulent fruits: Obvious. See: the peach emoji. Broccoli: Not sex. Cucumbers: Sex. You can buy vibrators shaped like them.
Chocolate cake was sex, but Funfetti wasn’t. The globe in her mother’s study wasn’t sex, but the globe-shaped lights in the living room, the ones that flickered if you held the light switch in the middle position too long, were definitely sex. To have sex, she noted in her catalogue, you need tension. Something had to change its state. Fire became smoke; solids, liquid. That’s why the first scoop of vanilla ice cream wasn’t sex, but as it melted, growing ruined and runny in the dips between her fingers, it became sex.
The problem came with the bees. Honey was sex, but the bees that made it were sex to Esther, and horror to Celine. “That’s disgusting,” Celine told Esther, when she tried to explain her lust—how watching the hives made her long to become a queen and reign amidst all that want, surrounded by drones who lived to merge with you. “You’re really disgusting.”
That had been the beginning of the end. You couldn’t make an accurate catalogue if you weren’t honest. Esther knew there were things that made Celine shake with desire, things she couldn’t explain. Everyone had them, but nobody wanted to acknowledge they were like Esther. Nobody would tell her what they really felt, deep within their bones. Only the bees were honest with her.
But near the end of the summer, the hum of the hives began to dull. She noticed it immediately. One day she opened the curtains and she could no longer hear it, like a bass line that had vanished from a beloved song: the drone, barely perceptible if you weren’t listening for it, but always there.
She rushed outside in shorts and a T-shirt, and found her father examining the hives, dressed in his beekeeper’s garb. The frame he held was thick with tiny corpses, and as he shook it a shower of chitinous bodies tumbled to the ground.
“What happened?” she asked.
“What’s happening everywhere,” he replied, muffled inside his veil. “They’re dying.” He set down the frame. “Stay here. I’m going for supplies.”
Esther peered into the wooden slats of the hive, watching the frantic, barely living bees writhe over one another. She wanted to call Celine, to tell her what was happening, but she couldn’t. Celine had told her she didn’t want to talk for the rest of the summer. It was about the catalogue, but it wasn’t. They had kissed a few times, back when they could see each other in real life, but when Esther had asked Celine if she wanted to kiss her again, over text, Celine said she wasn’t sure. We can’t, anyway, her reply read. It doesn’t matter.
School started in a month. She would look at Celine through a screen, feeling less like a solid body than a hive unto herself, a collection of buzzings whose reality could hardly be translated face-to-face, and never through the void of her laptop.
If she could find another human-shaped hive, she would be okay. They would communicate through pheromones, trading sensations and bits of being, melding their separate vessels into one.
Her father hadn’t returned. The bees shuddered, spasming through their last futile efforts at connection. Esther slid her hand into the hive.
Barbed shafts entered her skin, digging in deep, puncturing, releasing toxins that would remain within her. The bees swarmed her fingers, stinging, dying; dying as they would have after mating. She clenched her fist, hoping they thought it was the same.
Her vision dimmed. She could hear her father shouting. Her hand grew numb, but down her spine, from her skull to her metatarsals, rushed a feeling that no dictionary could contain.
KATHARINE DUCKETT is the award-winning author of Miranda in Milan, the Shakespearean fantasy novella debut that NPR calls “intriguing, adept, inventive, and sexy.” Her short fiction has appeared in various publications and collections, including Some of the Best from Tor.com 2020 and Rebuilding Tomorrow: Anthology of Life After the Apocalypse, which won the 2020 Aurealis Award for Best Anthology. She lives in Beacon, New York, with her wife, and is an advisory board member for the Octavia Project, a Brooklyn nonprofit offering free summer programs in creative writing, art, science, and technology that empowers young women and trans and nonbinary youth to envision bold new futures. Find her on Twitter @kekduckett and Instagram @hottmcawesome.
Featured image by Boba Jaglicic, courtesy of Unsplash.