We played this game as sisters: replacing our dead mother with teachers, with other children’s parents, with women we saw at the supermarket or in the shows we liked on TV. We couldn’t remember her, so she became Lucille Ball, or Mary Tyler Moore, or the woman from the vacuum advertisements whose name we never learned but we liked the tilt of her smile. Our mother has a nice dress on today, we would say. Our mother will cook us a nice dinner when she comes home.
When that was not enough, we replaced her with fantasy. She was the robin nesting outside our window, the duck leading her children across the road. She whispered to us in sunbeams and fell with our eyelashes to our cheeks. Some nights when I couldn’t fall asleep, soaked with sweat and memories, Jeannie would sit on the foot of my bed and stroke my hair gently. Listen, she said, that’s your mother raining on the window.
The spring the bees moved in, we listened to them buzzing around our porch and imagined ourselves swarming into the nest, pollen speckling our legs, building honeycomb cells to stash our nectar. Our mother has come home, Jeannie said. Laying outside, bathed in moonlight, Jeannie’s eyes were dark pools staring up at the hive above our heads. Our mother is the queen, she told me.
The days grew and stretching out before us like taffy. I brought us cool glasses of lemonade that we pressed against our sticky sweat, our father absent many more nights than not. We watered the flowers and planted more, hoping the bees would like it, hoping the queen would be well fed. The first time a bee stung Jeannie, she burst into tears, not for the pain or the blossoming welt on her palm, but for the tiny, fuzzy bee cupped in her slender fingers. This is my sister, she cried, holding the limp body, the stinger still poking from her skin.
I’m your sister, I said, but she was already kneeling among the garden, digging a shallow grave. I dropped to my knees and offered to help, but Jeannie turned away.
Spring warmed into summer and I pointed to our mother everywhere—the caterpillar inching up Jeannie’s dress, the stray cat nursing her kittens in the alley, the drop of dew clinging to a dandelion caught in the cracks of the sidewalk. I was growing older. I understood now the ways I wanted to keep her alive. But Jeannie had gone somewhere else. She shook her head each time, the lines on her forehead deepening. She’s not there, Jeannie would say. She came home. She’s in the hive. She’s the queen.
She stared at the beehive until the days grew shorter again and cold settled in. I invited her to come ice skate, build a snowman, find our mother among the frosty ice crystals coating each sliver of grass. I brought her hot chocolate, wrapped her in blankets, moved her chair from the porch to the window so she could watch from inside our home. She only stared at the hive, and I felt a different sort of chill, one that whipped through my ribs and left me icy on the inside, looking into my sister’s vacant eyes. Eat something, I said, you’ll feel better. Our mother is in these cookies. Our mother baked this bread. Our mother is the warmth from the fireplace, she’s crackling in the embers, come look, she’s dancing tonight. But Jeannie shook her head. Her skin was sallow, papery and gray. Our mother is out there, she said. Icicles dangled from the hive, motionless in the cold.
Come to bed, I said, the chill inside me deepening, needling to my bones. Snow had begun to fall, clumping on the railing, billowing up by the door.
I’m waiting, she said, so I went upstairs and went to sleep. When I woke in the morning, stillness had settled into the house. Jeannie’s chair was empty, the porch still covered in crisp, untouched drifts. I looked out the window, squinting against the sunbeams that reflected off the snow in a thousand brilliant crystals. The beehive was still there.
Katy Mullins is a writer originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Brevity, and others. She currently serves on the board of Nimrod International Journal and lives in Washington, DC, where she is an MFA candidate at George Mason University. Follow her writing at http://www.katymullins.com
image: MM Kaufman