by Kevin Kaiser
(New Alchemy Finalist)
The rain fell often there; I was young then; the memory is strong. It was a gloomy place, and the residents were affected; I refuse to imagine what might have become of me if I’d stayed. I only lived there briefly; I’ll never return, and even if nothing had changed—no, I mean even if nothing had not changed—what I mean is, I never would have returned, I’m sure. It was such a gloomy place; the rain rarely ceased.
I think it was the tree. It was a strange tree. Now it’s gone; I want to say that I saw it only once, but I heard the rumors, and I heard this story; why shouldn’t I believe it? Maybe I’ve grown more gullible over the years, but it was a strange tree.
It stood in the old quarter of the city, near the peak of a hill where the occupants resembled their whitewashed dwellings: cave-like mudbrick extensions jutting out onto the pathway that surrounded the hill; aside from the occasional tourists who, having seen and shopped at all the recommended sights, ventured to the northern—or was it the southern?—outskirts of the city, few visited the quarter; fewer still saw its inhabitants. Still, the locals did have a name for the tree, the Tree of Abandoned Beehives, and most of them had seen it once in their lives. Most vowed to revisit it more often and meant this with some degree of conviction, but once they returned to the decadence of the decrepit city proper, they contrived all manner of excuses to stay away; I don’t mean to criticize, merely report. Often the citizens even recalled seeing the tree as one of their fonder memories. It meant something, had affected them in some way; how, they did not know.
I recall when I first heard mention of the tree. I didn’t realize then, but the whispered conversation of two of my students concerned it; my students were neither adults nor children, vacillating between the two without ever being either. What I heard and what was later confirmed by my colleague was the following: no, wait; first, an explanation.
The beehives were not normal beehives; that is, the hives were more like skeps, those little human-built abodes that pass for natural beehives, which don’t dangle from branches, in cartoons featuring bears: ovular and ringed with a little round hole near the bottom. It was the hole that altered them into raincatchers; the water ran down and dripped in or was blown in, drop by drop. Each hive was fully formed, and, if indeed they were bee-constructed, they had long been abandoned, for all were hollow; furthermore, they were always referred to as blooming. I wondered perhaps if they were really some exotic fruit that resembled the form of a beehive, but I never received a straight answer; most of the denizens of the city preferred not to speculate and little recorded information existed. The tree had never been adequately studied, was merely the object of fruitless speculations. Regardless, the tree did bear hives, fully formed, somehow, though not a single citizen could ever attest to seeing one bloom and no species of bee had ever been recorded in that region, which was too rainy for them to survive. Now that I think about it, the bees have long since fled the countryside, too; I wonder then if they ever existed there at all—or at least, what’s left of it.
When it rained, the hives filled with water, until, full, they fell to the concrete and splattered like overripe fruit; for days they rotted there, the collected water steaming away when the sun appeared, however briefly, once again. When the splattered hives were barely recognizable as such, they vanished, leaving no trace—although sometimes a young person was said to be seen drinking water from a hive that had somehow survived the fall; a few even plucked the hives low enough to be reached or at least those that had not entirely filled.
Now I may report what I heard my students say, which was this: whoever drank the water would finally know; to know what, I don’t know, not then and not now.
I scoffed at this metaphysical nonsense, but my students’ mutual claim haunted me; soon I was compelled to inquire; when I asked my colleague, who had grown up in the city, I was offered this story.
Once, from somewhere, as if from nowhere, a teacher arrived—not unlike, so it seemed, how I had arrived; at least this was the comparison made by colleague; people were always drifting in from somewhere. The teacher was old enough to appear wise to the students yet young enough to be confused for a student by some faculty; it is strange to think now that this teacher and I had once been employed by the same school, where, if the teacher was like me, concepts that were not entirely understood were taught to students who did not remotely care. The only places this teacher frequented, supposedly, were those within walking distance of a studio—no one living alone could afford anything more—that I later discovered was directly across the street from my studio; indeed, our stays in the city briefly overlapped, which meant the teacher shopped at the same market I did, ate at the same restaurants, and, on those rare days when it wasn’t raining, stopped to take a beverage at the same sidewalk cafe. It’s entirely conceivable I passed the teacher in the hallways at the school, observed the teacher entering or leaving the studio building, smelled melons beside the teacher at the market, read the newspaper beside the teacher in the cafe; perhaps the teacher was the very same person who lived in the studio directly across from mine, who always kept the shade two-thirds drawn so that I could only see the lower half of a torso, which is surprisingly enough to imagine an entire being. It should be enough; however, I never could and still cannot imagine how the teacher’s face looked; my colleague could not describe it either; how silly that this still pains me.
According to my colleague, the teacher was the kind of person for whom happiness wasn’t achievable, merely contentment, or maybe I should just say although the teacher wasn’t comfortable, the teacher believed the situation was agreeable; the teacher neither expected nor attained anything; had the teacher been more selfish, it would have been possible to notice what was coming. For that reason, the teacher was taken by surprise—upon awakening in the middle of the night—to feel the entire being—the soul, although I’m uncomfortable with the term—numbed; let me be clear: I don’t mean that prickly, tingling numbness felt when circulation is impeded in the extremities; rather, this numbness was a true numbness, a non-feeling—a hollowing.
The teacher reached for the light switch; the fingers could not feel the switch, let alone the wall. The moon was waning; it was cloudy, raining, but the teacher could still see, by moonlight, faintly, a hand, fingers pinching air. Somehow the brain’s commands still reached the limbs; the teacher willed the hand to move over; gradually it did. The teacher willed it to grip the light switch and flick upward, but the increased luminescence was negligible; a garment—the same purple garment worn everyday—was draped over the lampshade. Only by watching the fingers could the teacher know when to grab the shirt; as the fingers lifted it off the shade, the lamp’s glow shot up to the ceiling, as if its power had been restrained by this simple cloth. The teacher thought momentarily that it was desirable to be the light, not this light but a light like the moonlight, a light reflected, like the sea, reflecting; then the shirt slipped through the finger’s grasp and dropped to the floor, shapeless.
Somehow this form reminded the teacher of the tree, of the rain-full beehives: it was time to go.
Only the teacher or those who know how it is to exist in this way know if this is the truth; what do I mean by that? I’m not the kind of person to analyze such thoughts; it’s the kind of thing I teach, that way of thinking about knowing and being, but it’s not how I would think about being; I’m just repeating what my colleague said, and my colleague spoke vaguely, maybe knowing I would understand without really knowing; then again, maybe my colleague only wanted to play me for a fool by spouting sophisms; only the teacher, if anyone at all, knows the truth.
The teacher struggled into the shirt, standing but feeling nothing underfoot, not even the foot, as if a hollowness were standing atop a hollowness; when the teacher finally stepped forward, the balance was lost; the teacher collapsed to the floor, then stood and, with great concentration, endeavored again.
By watching the feet, the teacher discovered it was possible to walk with a semblance of coordination; I imagine the teacher toddling like a child who has just learned to walk; in a sense, the teacher was a baby. A hand reached to the wall, but the wall wasn’t there unless seen; a hand pressed against the wall, and a body leaned. The body toppled against the wall, which for the teacher was like toppling nothing against nothing; again, the teacher erected the body.
Glacially, the teacher reached the door; an umbrella rested beside the door, ready for use, although it hadn’t been outdoors since the first day in the city. It had since become furniture, for, as the teacher quickly learned, no one carried umbrellas in the city; the locals wore only raincoats. That night the teacher left even the raincoat behind; it would have been too difficult to don.
I should mention the rain fell stronger at night, always at night, only at night; that night, it pounded the pavement and streaked the glass, each drop breaking or carving curved opals or diamonds from the plane of water that sheeted the city. I know; I stood at my window and watched, as I often did, entranced. Yes, I must have been watching that night; I must have spied the teacher alone beneath a streetlamp. There is nothing sadder than a streetlamp in the night rain; there is nothing sadder in the world except a solitary figure alone beneath a streetlamp in the night rain. If I did observe the teacher, I didn’t realize, only stood, listening; something dwells in the sound of rain.
One foot then the other; one foot, the other, the fingers reaching toward the streetlamp; perhaps the fingers questioned its existence. When the hand at last rested upon the streetlamp, the teacher was surprised that it could hold a body upright; from this position, the teacher was able to wait and focus on which direction to go before aligning the body with that direction.
One foot, then the other, one foot, the other; with immense patience, the teacher, with no sense of how long it had taken, finally arrived; there was no turning back. The body of the teacher had reached the tree.
The teacher stopped from where the road began to bend right; I know because my colleague said left, but the truth is it led right. On the right—not left—side of the road, the tree rose before the teacher, partially concealed by one of the cave-like dwellings that curved along the road. From there, the teacher watched; the rain pattered the cobblestone. A streetlamp shone orange upon the tree, while, squinting gazing through the rain-slashed air, the teacher determined coalescing drops of rain sliding across its leaves, where they clung, momentarily, at the tips before dripping to the ground—unless they slipped into the holes of the skeps—the beehives—where, beneath one, swayed a solitary being.
Imagine the fear: shadowed by branches and leaves, the being appeared dappled by some dermatological affliction; the arms were held aloft, as if reaching for the light, but from the bobbing of the branches, the teacher could tell the figure was clearly grasping some object. Then the figure stumbled back, face into full light, and the teacher saw the enlightened face of a student whose name the teacher could not recall; still, the gentle face was recognizable. The student sat in the rear of one of the teacher’s morning classes and hadn’t spoken since the first day yet always arrived prepared and submitted every assignment before the due date; most notably, the student wrote some of the most thoughtful essays of any student in the class; somehow the words pointed towards an understanding of concepts beyond those which were taught in class but to which the teacher, in personal studies, frequently returned, as if these concepts—which comprehended the teacher rather than the other way around—existed beyond the struggle to comprehend them.
Hands trembling, the tips of the student’s long fingers cradled and lifted the object; the action seemed perilous. As the student’s head tilted back, the teacher, who by now realized what it was the student grasped, confirmed its materiality by the student’s action; with a quick tug the object broke from the branch, splashing water on the student’s face and cobblestone below. The student, holding the hive face-level, gazed into the hole as if waiting for something to appear then lifted it slightly before pressing it violently to parted lips; the head reclined; the hive tilted; the teacher longed to call out, but the voice seemed as numb as the body; now there was no way to stop it. The teacher waited, watching in agony; a gust of wind blew, sweeping the rain into the teacher’s face, a force which went unnoticed except that the scene blurred as, above the student, the boughs bobbed, the leaves fluttered, and the beehives swayed, as if floating on storm-churned sea. The teacher blinked, and in this moment, the student had thrust the hive away; then the wind stilled, for the world had seemed to pause; the boughs and leaves and beehives floated; then the student turned toward the teacher and wiped an arm across that soft but enlightened face, until, with the pale lips revealed, there could be no doubt what had transpired. Then the teacher’s body stumbled, losing that careful balance, for the student doubled over, dropping the empty hive so that it rolled around once before rocking back and forth in place just between them, the teacher’s eyes following it, and now the teacher did sway, lean, and topple over; there was no pain, only a strange sensation that buzzed from within or without; the world had tilted; the cobblestone was close, each stone like a plateau; this was the only way the teacher knew what had happened. From this peculiar vantage point, the teacher glanced up at the student just as the student’s tight-lipped mouth burst open; from the cavernous interior, a buzzing swarm emerged. The student watched the swarm sway up through the oranged glow of the streetlamp then the ghost-glow of the clouds, and, the teacher imagined, beyond, to the moon; then the student stared down at the teacher, blinked, spun about, and hurried away, descending the hill, each footfall echoing up, metronomic even in their decrescendo as the darkness swarmed, excuse the pun, around the fleeing figure. Meanwhile, the rain had ceased; for a moment, the world seemed silent.
That is the story my colleague offered, having heard it from a fellow colleague who had known the teacher, but naturally, the story didn’t end there; my colleague inferred what must have happened next. Maybe not that night, my colleague allowed, but the next night, some night, any night, after the numbness had passed, the teacher must have returned, timidly, perhaps even tremblingly, arms reaching up for a ripe one and tugging; it came off so easily, the teacher nearly dropped it; some water spilled, sparkling in the light as it splashed out. Then the teacher would have hesitated until, in one swift movement, the hive was raised to the parting lips and its contents poured down a throat that gulped like shame or fear; what must it have felt like to become a home for whatever those hives truly contained? Had they really contained bees, the bees would have been drowned in the water; they must have metamorphosed, resurrected even, within the gut. My colleague speculated that when the teacher’s mouth opened, nothing came out; the teacher would have known, at that moment, the depths, the hollow of the emptiness; if the clouds hadn’t layered so thickly at that moment, perhaps the moon would have shone into the teacher’s interior, would have reflected out, a mirror reflecting a mirror, but there was nothing, nothing: nothing.
At this point, my colleague frowned at me, desperate or embarrassed, probably both; what could I say? I truly began to wonder if my colleague had made the whole thing up; I would just have to discover the truth for myself, my colleague commented with a laugh, likely sensing my distrust, but I’d already decided, already knew I what I must do: discover the truth.
Alas, that is a story I cannot tell, not because I can’t tell it; of course, I can, it’s just that there’s nothing to tell. As for the bees, I doubt there were any—an embellishment, I’m sure, for as have I mentioned, I cannot recall ever seeing bees in the city, and now that I’ve removed myself back to the country, I have yet to see a single bee although I seem to remember them here, in my youth; I wonder when they all left. Perhaps, however, I am mistaken; when I do think about it I am not certain I do recall ever seeing any, neither here nor anywhere; were they ever here or in those hives—or are they just a myth? I should admit I’m not even sure any of what I’ve said happened or if I’ve conjured it unknowingly, unwillingly; wouldn’t that be ridiculous?
I will add this, and I end with this; I know it isn’t much, I know it’s disgusting, but it’s the truth, if anything is true, because if anything is true, it is certainly this, for this is my one regret, and I admit it; yes, I admit it, I admit it now: I never drank, never drank from a beehive, never drank the rain! I fled the city without knowing; now I’ll never return; it’s too late. The tree is gone, cut down. Even the rain has left the city, and I have nothing, nothing except the hollow memory of that tree: how it haunts me!
Kevin Richard Kaiser has published fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and music internationally: in print, online, and on disc. He also works in film and performance, frequently collaborating with Companyia Lake Angela. Along with his spouse, he is Editor-in-Chief of the multilingual literary and arts journal Punt Volat. He holds a PhD from Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona and an MFA from Chatham University in Pittsburgh. His book, An Ethics Beyond: Posthumanist Animal Encounters and Variable Kindness in the Fiction of George Saunders, is currently available. For more information, visit kevinrichardkaiser.com.