- Alan Ward
Spread the Word first published Sweet Memory in their 2018 City of Stories anthology. The story was highly commended.
Pine needles and wood smoke, that’s what Eliza can smell when she thinks of grandfather slipping his knife into the nest. The bees were gone, but now when she thinks back there’s a buzzing drone in the background of the memory, as if it’s stained.
Other memories with that sound: the lawn outside the one-storey school block that day her father didn’t show; the bike track outside town the summer she and Niall broke up; the front yard when her mother’s washer broke and they all decamped to watch suds licking the steps of the bungalow. “No insurance,” her mother said before Eliza even asked.
“Honey,” her grandfather told Eliza, “has over four-hundred medicinal qualities.” He jabbed his penknife in her direction and a gold wave swelled on the blunt edge. She licked it, her mouth blooming with the sweet unprocessed labour of honey bees. Its taste had a hint of pine, like the smell of the forest.
“Don’t know what it’s doing down here,” grandfather had said when they came across the nest just off the track. A lightning bolt slither of it clung to the trunk above them. “Hoodlums knocking about, I guess, or else a bear.” Eliza gripped the straps of the backpack on her shoulders at that. She had neat new walking boots for the trip, and her socks were pulled up above her ankles, though one kept falling down. “Bees gone. Not like they can stitch it back to the tree.”
At the time she might have said the half-shattered nest was like a crashed spaceship. Later, when she looks back, in the same way she can hear the bees she’s pretty sure weren’t there, she can see a papery skull, smashed-in and half smiling, dripping honeyed saliva from broken teeth.
The bees are going now, she reads in the newspaper years later, her belly swollen with her own first step towards grandchildren. And that’s a problem: without pollinators the plants are in a pickle, and without plants animals, and, without plants or animals, people.
“People’ll do alright in the end,” her grandfather had told her. She wants to remember it was the same hike as the fallen nest but she knows that’s probably her memory neatening things up. Like she’s not sure that was the walk with the new boots or when her right sock kept falling down. Her grandfather always had faith in people. Like he hadn’t been knocked about like she had, like he’d never had his heart broken, like all he’d ever see when he looked down at that nest was a broken nest, not a cracked-in skull that might have been asking for it. Eliza breathes. It’s the baby, she thinks, playing with her hormones. She’s cut up about grandfather’s last days. Could he see the skull if he looked down from where he is now?
From the backyard Eliza can hear that buzz again. The bees, some of them, back.