Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Claire Luchette, “New Bees” from Ploughshares #43.4

David Pettibone: Beekeepers (2012)

David Pettibone: Beekeepers (2012)

We bought the nylons before evening prayer at a twenty-four-hour grocery three miles away. They came folded inside paper envelopes, tawny mesh showcased under cellophane windows. We bought a dozen. They tend to rip.
Later we disagreed about whether the envelope could be recycled. If paper’s affixed with plastic, is it still paper? Eventually, we stripped the cellophane squares from all twelve envelopes and sorted the scraps.
Everything has a thousand uses. When nylons run, we slip our hands inside and dust shelves, polish silver, buff our leather shoes. There’s always a way to give something new life, but most people don’t realize this. Most people don’t want to know all the lives contained within disposable things.

Welcome to another episode of My Journey Through This Story. It’s a charming, rather short short piece, and just fun to read on the face of it. I could stop right there. But that isn’t really what I’m here for, is it.

The first paragraph would be pretty run of the mill if it weren’t for that reference to evening prayer. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about short stories, it’s to keep reading even when I’m confused. I can always go back and re-read, especially when I’m only on the first page, and maybe I’ll realize I missed something. But in this case, the details filled me in as I read. Slowly, and kind of sneakily, a word casually dropped in there (like the evening prayer) the next paragraph following some white space:

That spring, we wanted new bees for Harriet. They hadn’t wintered well, our bees. Only a few hundred were left by the time Harriet came to the convent. She didn’t know there used to be thousands, so to her, there was a bounty. She’d go out bare-handed and give the hives some air. She’d coo and grin, watching them float. She was unlike us – we found them fearsome. Agatha was allergic to bees, and Mary Lucille was seventy-three, frail as linguine. Therese avoided pain, and I avoided anything with violent rage.
The winter survivors moved slowly. They were depressed, having witnessed the deaths of their babies and their parents, who had come to lie in piles at the bottom of the apiary.

So this is a convent. At first I thought we might be doing another first person plural narration, but then the “I” slipped in there. It’s still got the feel of group narration, though. The four nuns. And Harriet, the newbie, for whom they want to get new bees. Oh, I see.

The description of the depressed, mourning winter bees is one of the many great details of the story. So are the individual reasons the nuns feared the bees. It’s a skill of writing, to know which details to highlight, and how to highlight them. In spite of the darkness of the information being revealed – a dying bee colony, a nun who avoids violent rage (why, I wonder; is it so far outside her experience, or was it once too far inside?) – the tone is brisk and… not quite cheerful, but upbeat. I found myself smiling. Maybe it was the mention of the Oreocookie cow. I had no idea there was such a thing, more formally known as belted Galloways, so I had to look it up. It’s hard not to smile with an Oreocookie cow in front of you. Later, we’ll read about the nuns getting out of their van, “one sister at a time”, another perfect little smile-generating detail.

But for now, we find out more about Harriet.

We were having trouble with Harriet, it’s true. She was a novice – hadn’t been veiled, hadn’t been given a religious name. During morning prayer, she had this look of hurt. It’s not unusual. 5:20 is a painful time to be praying if you are usually dreaming then. But it was harder for Harriet than for most. She displayed none of the joy we felt, none of the love. She worried the skin under her eyes. She never had an appetite. She had a round crater on her neck where an old boyfriend had stubbed out a cigarette.
So we wanted to surprise her with new bees. Many times, all a person needs is somewhere to be and something to do.

By now, I’m recognizing some of the very smart things Luchette does. On second read, that is; on first read, I don’t analyze, I just read and maybe make notes when I notice something. Again, there’s the detail casually dropped in, this time Harriet’s scar. In addition to making Harriet more of a concrete character, it connects with the narrator, and makes her fear of violent rage more likely to be part of her history as well.

The paragraph ends with a little aphorism. The story contains a lot of these thoughts: “[Bees] like inertia, just like us…. It’s best, more often than not, to say nothing, rather than something…. [Harriet] didn’t know yet that privacy was not a punishment, but a gift…. It’s possible to be candid about your candor’s limits…. It is terrible to be conscious of all the ways you can be hurt…. If you look long enough, there is always something to blame…. Many times the greatest mercy you can grant a man is the chance to believe himself the hero…. Everything comes with a price…. It is our belief that the greatest grace you can grant yourself is the private knowledge of your own strength.”

I’m a little divided about this technique. Shouldn’t the story bring out those ideas, rather than stating them so baldly? Isn’t this tell, don’t show? But then, why did the writer, who must know this, whose story made it through several rounds of eagle-eyed editors, do it that way? Yes, it’s the James Cary quote again, “Why did you do it so clumsily like that”, and it turns out there’s a reason. I don’t know what it is. Maybe just because an aphorizing nun fits so well in the story, keeps the tone lighter than it might be while conveying what is sometimes heavy-duty truth. And is sometimes just funny, like the hero line, and is sometimes banal, like everything having a price. It also fits the characters: when things go a little sideways, and this calm, rock-solid nun has an aphorism for it.

As much as I enjoyed this story about the sisters’ trip to buy bees, I have trouble putting it all together. I contrast this with the earlier story, “The Last Voyage of the Alice B. Toklas”. That, too, was a delightful read, but it fit together as a whole. While this story was just as much fun to read, I don’t quite get the gestalt. Let’s consider the possibilities.

Ploughshares’ stated theme for this issue was “how we react to change in our surroundings.” We have Harriet, the newbie, not adjusting well to life in the convent, possibly because she is, to use a phrase from some TV movie, running away from something rather than towards something. We have winter bees feeling sad at their fallen comrades. We have nuns encountering a very strange person in their effort to buy bees, and then dealing with technical difficulties on the ride home. Is that the point, that the nuns have learned to deal with pretty much anything, from a strange man who lives in a house with millions of bees and asks them to come into his garage in a scene that recalls Buffalo Bill asking the Senator’s daugher to help him put the chair in the truck, to a van that won’t steer, to a priest who needs to feel like a hero? Would Harriet develop this competence if she were to stay with them?

I see another possibility stemming from that first paragraph, the aphorism about the lives contained in disposable things. All of these people seem disposable. That isn’t criticism; most people are disposable. But they contain so much. Even the bee guy. First, there’s the coda to the nun’s phone call setting up the meeting:

After he said goodbye, his phone hovered in its receiver, and we heard him whispering tender words: “Oh, darlings. You can have my waffles. Yeah.” We hung up, flushed with the hot shame of happening, uninvited, upon an intimacy not our own.

They have no idea who he’s talking to, but they recognize intimacy. Later, they will realize who he’s talking to, and perhaps rethink that. But then, in his garage, there’s an incident with his dog: “On his face, there was, for a moment, tenderness. Care.” Again, a moment of what might be considered craziness is seen for something much sweeter. What might seem disposable contains beauty. The same insight seems to extend to the priest when they call him for help they don’t need.

As a third possibility, I spent some time considering the similarities between bees and people. The nuns certainly are busy; is the convent a beehive? It doesn’t seem like it’s dying, though they do mourn the loss of Harriet when she leaves.

From a different angle, it’s tempting to see the nuns as beekeepers, particularly with their habits; several images of beekeepers evoke this as well. They do a great deal of tending, from their concern about recycling materials to calling the priest for help they don’t need. Harriet would fit in with this; she’s a bee they tended who flew away. I like the idea of this approach the best, but it’s still a little wobbly.

So I don’t feel like I’ve got it yet. That’s ok; sometimes it can be frustrating to not “get” a story, and sometimes it can be an intriguing puzzle. Maybe it’s because the story itself read so nicely, I’m willing to let this simmer, hoping eventually the flavors will blend and I’ll see it as a whole. Or I’ll understand why it isn’t a whole, and accept it as such.

4 responses to “Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Claire Luchette, “New Bees” from Ploughshares #43.4

  1. I have to let it percolate, too. I was loving it, and then the weird maniac threw me for a loop, (can there be any doubt that he had evil intent with the garage? Is there a different way of reading it?) and then as they solve their car crisis and wait for the puffed-up priest, I lost my affection a bit, wondering if it is just cute, and nothing else. I will have to reread and ponder. I’d like to really like it. Seems most likeable. Is this a Girl Power song? “I’m a Woman” and I can do anything, and I know better than anyone? Surely it is more than that, please.

    • i’m thinking about the Ploughshares theme again, “how we react to change in our surroundings”. I wonder if the point was to show them interacting with three very different people – Harriet, the bee guy, and the priest – in very different ways. They were trying to take care of Harriet and the priest, but they knew to protect themselves too. Yeah, he really doesn’t fit, maybe he’s not supposed to fit. And yes, there was clearly some danger there, which is why I brought in Silence of the Lambs! Guy was creepy.

      By the way, “Girl power” isn’t trivial. I don’t think their womanhood is central to the story, it’s more about their function and station, but female agency is not something to be dismissed as not important enough a theme.

  2. You are right. I apologize. Girl Power was and is important. It cannot and should not be dismissed. I will have to refine what I meant. But most definitely I believe in and support Girl Power. That just came out wrong.

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