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Sweetpea Simkins reminded herself to smile as she turned her face up to the school bus window where her three children pressed their small hands against the glass. A line of thirty-something mothers waved manicured hands or pursed their shining lips and blew insubstantial kisses as the door slapped shut and the bus pulled away from the curb in a cacophony of creaking, rumbling, and screeching. Within seconds the women formed a tight little knot that coiled its way across the sidewalk and onto Cindy Hoffman’s front yard. Every school day Sweetpea had to pass through this circle, feeling the air around her buzz and hum like old telegraph wires. Every school day she would plunge her hands into the pockets of her oversized grey cardigan and hope that the other mothers wouldn’t notice her as she walked past. Sometimes one or two of the women might murmur polite words in her direction, to which she would respond with a slight nod of her head. This morning she had to force herself not to hurry across the street when she heard the new neighbour ask The Question and the familiar answer coming from Lily Richman’s lips, perfectly lined and coloured with Coty Magnet Red: “Why, no, it’s not a nickname. Sweetpea is her actual name.”
Cutting across the neighbour’s yard, Sweetpea unlatched the back gate and stepped into her garden, shutting out the bus stop unpleasantness. More important concerns were waiting for her in her own backyard. Here, away from disapproving eyes, she could work peacefully among masses of tall delphiniums and swaths of yellow sun drops that generously gathered light for the sky. Around her the jewel-like heads of rose campion floated above their graceful grey-green stems. In a little while, as the morning progressed, the hanging bells of the spiderwort would open to reveal a triad of deep purple petals, each with its own cluster of bright yellow anthers. For now, though, the sun was still low in the sky, leaving much of the garden in the shade.
Earlier that morning as she stood by the kitchen window tentatively sipping chamomile tea, Sweetpea had spied a fat bumblebee resting in perfect stillness atop the bright orange petals of a coreopsis bloom. Even from as far as the house she could see that the bee wasn’t moving. The poor thing seemed to be frozen in place. She had the urge to run outside in her robe and slippers, but then reminded herself that first she had to get the kids safely on the bus. Once she had gotten that over with, she could move the bee to the sunniest part of the garden where her damask roses grew in such profusion she blushed with pride just to look at them.
In the midst of ushering the children out of the house, making sure that each had her own lunch and not one of her sister’s, Sweetpea had tucked her leather gloves into the left pocket of her cardigan for the express purpose of moving the bee. Now she stepped carefully along the narrow brick path that she had put down herself so that she could reach even the tallest plants that wound themselves along twine secured to the tops of the fence posts: clematis, honeysuckle, morning glory, and, of course, sweet pea. She stopped in front of the coreopsis. There was the bee, still not moving but (somehow she just knew) not dead. She reached down and broke off the stem at its base, being careful not to dislodge the insect. Slowly, one deliberate step after another, she wound her way between the plants until she reached a heavy cluster of damask roses. Placing the bee above one of the wide yellow blooms, she gently tipped it onto the flower where it settled itself amidst the soft sun-warmed petals.
After a few moments the bee spread its wings and rose up in the direction of the house. Sweetpea watched as it made its way past the big bay window of her study. Stacks of books of varying heights and sizes covered the window seat. She wondered why she kept buying books after she’d used every inch of shelf space in the house. Often she’d thought about donating some of them to the Friends of the Library (from whose shop she’d acquired most of her books in the first place), but whenever she set about the task of choosing, she could never decide which ones to part with. Could a person live without the collected works of Emily Dickinson or Austen’s entire oeuvre? She had once considered giving her Pelican Shakespeare to a cousin as a kind of housewarming gift, but lost her nerve at the last moment and chose a well-developed philodendron instead.
The bumblebee rose higher, past the windows of the rooms where Sweetpea’s children played and slept. Rooms in which she read them stories, doing all the different voices so that the girls would giggle or gasp, and all three would climb onto her lap so that she would tumble backward with mock surprise. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, a tremulous voice would drift across the hall. Mommy, there’s a monster behind my door. Downstairs the old grandfather clock could be heard, like a heartbeat in the night, ticking down the minutes until sunrise. If it struck the hour, Sweetpea would count – ten, eleven, twelve! – before rising from her bed to inspect all shadowy corners, including the dusty space beneath the bed. No monsters here, love. Looking at the moonlit garden below. It must have jumped out the window. There it goes! It’s running past Miss Mistral’s house. It’s gone now. You can go back to sleep, honey bunny.
The bee flew up along the steep pitch of the roof. In her mind’s eye Sweetpea saw the inside of the attic. There in the dark spaces where the roof sloped down to meet the attic floor sat rows of boxes, each with a child’s name printed in black marker. Sweetpea had promised herself that one of these days she would sort through all the baby clothes and toys. The linens, too. She’d almost forgotten about the crib linens, hooded towels, and receiving blankets. They – she and Walter – had always planned on having a fourth child, but she’d kept putting it off until the thought of starting again with diapers and bottles and midnight feedings was, well, she told her husband, too exhausting even to think about.
The sun was glowing now as the bee flew in a wide circle before landing, finally, on top of the clay chimney pot that drew the smoke from the living room fireplace. Its twin was capped with a metal cylinder that shot a beam of light back at the sun. The bee had disappeared into that light. Sweetpea turned away. For a few moments she couldn’t see anything but the aura of the cylinder. When her sight cleared she picked up her secateurs and began deadheading the spent blooms of daylilies, peonies, and oxeye daisies. Now and then she found a stem alive with masses of aphids. These she coated with a watery spray of rosemary, clove, and peppermint oils. She liked to watch their tiny bodies drop off the plant.
For a while she sat with her hands stretched out behind her in the soft grass and thought about whether or not she should drive over to the nursery and buy a box of ladybugs to devour the aphids. Would this be a more humane method of killing them? she wondered. The other voice in her head – the one that was hers but somehow not hers – reminded her that, although this was an admirable and chemical-free solution to the problem, it was also a waste of money. “Right,” she said to a blue jay who was just then vigorously bathing itself in a small cement basin. “Ladybugs are migratory. They’ll probably just fly over to Mistral’s house, and God knows, nothing grows there except weeds and wisteria.”
Just to the north, up past the New Streets where the north meadow used to be, a train whistle let out a long steady note that offset the rhythmic clacking of its wheels against the rails. She could feel the sun warm her skin through her old cardigan and the white tank top that she wore beneath it. “Too hot back here, don’t you agree?” she said to the blue jay, who was now drinking his bathwater. “Good time to move to the north garden.” She unlatched the gate and stepped into the cool gloom of the fern garden. When they first moved in, there was nothing on this side of the house but piles of decomposing leaves. Sweetpea had spent an entire day raking and piling them onto a rusty wheelbarrow that the previous owners had left behind. The adult children of an old lady who died in her sleep. The neighbours told stories about how the children had found thousands of dollars under the dead woman’s mattress. Sweetpea didn’t believe the stories. She didn’t put much stock in neighbourhood gossip.
The fern garden was special to Sweetpea. It could have been the gloom that made her love it. All those shadowy corners where the ground never seemed to dry out. Or it might have been the way she’d arranged the plantings. People think that all ferns are alike, so they plant just one kind, usually ostrich ferns, so unpleasant in their unwavering verticality. Sweetpea preferred the fluffy grey of ghost ferns or the delicate spirals of maidenhair. The Japanese painted fern she thought especially lovely and a nice counterpoint to the whimsical fiddlehead. She spent more than an hour popping out the clumps of violets and the grass ivy that had snaked its way across the back lawn of the Mountain mansion (“It’s pronounced Mon-tane,” the old woman would say to anyone who wasn’t wise enough to know better) before she realized she was lightheaded and thirsty.
Sweetpea put her tools back in their basket and set it by the side steps. She would return it to the shed later when she was feeling better. She walked through the side porch and into the living room without noticing that the blue jay had perched itself on a low branch of the dogwood that grew near the chimney. On her way to the kitchen she heard a buzzing sound. She stopped near the sofa and scanned the picture window above it. Could be a yellowjacket bumping against the glass, she thought. Maybe a fat fly or a wasp. There was nothing there. “Must have flown away,” she said to the dog, an undersized Jack Russell that had been sleeping in a basket near the fireplace. “Or maybe I just imagined it.” The dog yawned and stretched its front legs. “Wouldn’t be the first time.”
Sweetpea washed her hands in the kitchen sink before pouring herself a glass of iced tea. She contemplated eating a peach, but finally decided against it. “Too much sugar,” she told the dog, who’d followed her into the kitchen in the hope of a biscuit. She opened the refrigerator door and stared at the nearly empty shelves. She’d meant to go to the grocery store this morning, but the rescue of the bee had chased the thought from her mind. She wondered what she could make for dinner. Maybe she should take something out of the freezer. Tuna casserole? Lord, she was sick of that. Meatloaf? She’d had her fill of that, too. She pulled open one of the plastic drawers. Hotdogs. American cheese for grilled sandwiches. The kids never got tired of that stuff. Hell, if she were a kid, she’d eat that sort of thing every day. Maybe she’d call Walter and ask him to pick up a pizza on his way home from the office. “I’m a terrible mother, aren’t I, Jack?” The little dog took the opportunity to look up at the cupboard that held the dog biscuits. “Yeah, yeah. I know what you want, little guy. Just give me a minute here.”
She took a long swallow of tea and grimaced. “Needs sugar,” she said, counting four teaspoons into the glass and swirling the grains into a tiny cyclone. “I really shouldn’t. My jeans are already tight.” Sweetpea looked at the dog as though waiting for him to disagree with her. The animal began to scratch at the floor and whimper until she took out a plastic container, removed a small bone-shaped biscuit, and put it in the pocket of her grey sweater.
The little dog followed her back into the living room, wagging its tail in happy anticipation. Sweetpea sat down heavily in the old wooden rocker she’d inherited from her grandmother. At her feet a basket overflowed with catalogues. There were seed catalogues devoted entirely to flowers or vegetables or herbs, some with all three. There were catalogues that showcased bulbs of every size, colour, and variety. Others showed nothing but azaleas, lilacs, and, of course, roses. Hybrid teas, climbers, shrub, and her favourite, old fashioned ones that bloomed only once in a season but smelled sweeter than any newfangled rose ever could. She groaned as she bent down and began to leaf through the pile. “I’ll never get through all of these. I don’t know why I don’t just throw them away. Some of them are three years old!”
The dog had fixed its gaze on the pocket of her cardigan. When she looked at it, the animal licked its jowls, shifting its weight from one hip to the other.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake!” Sweetpea pulled the biscuit out of her pocket and snapped it in two. “Here ya go, little guy.” The dog took the biscuit and walked out of the living room.
Sweetpea took a long drink of tea, nearly emptying the glass. She leaned back, closed her eyes, and began to rock slowly. The creak of the wooden runners, first loud and then soft like a heartbeat, comforted her in its steadiness. Underneath the familiar sound, though, she heard a desperate counterpoint. A thrumming or vibration somewhere in the room, like a tiny motor running at fewer and fewer RPMs. Sweetpea sat very still. The buzzing seemed to be inside her head, the way one hears a high-pitched tone that does not come from outside the body. The little dog stood before her on its hind legs, shifting from side to side to keep its balance. “What do you want now, Jack? Oh, right.” She reached into her sweater pocket and held out the other half of the biscuit. The dog snapped its jaws around it, deftly missing her fingers, and ran back into the hallway.
Sweetpea slid off the rocking chair and crawled over to the fireplace, tilted her head to the doors, nearly touching the cold glass with her ear. She could hear the buzzing clearly now. “It’s in the firebox, Jack!” she cried, for the dog had once again taken its treat to the secret place under the back staircase. Sweetpea sat back on her haunches and squinted. The inside of the doors was covered in a layer of yellowish-brown grime. “I really need to clean these things. They’re filthy.” She lowered her head until her chin nearly rested on the hearthstone, leaning forward and peering through the vent, her rear end sticking up in the air, the grey cardigan puddled around her shoulders.
The little dog returned to his basket, pawed at a worn baby blanket still adorned with faded forget-me-nots and yellow butterflies, and made three quick circles before dropping down as if exhausted from its labours. In an instant the animal was snoring quietly. Sweetpea shifted her behind, which had been blocking the afternoon sun that poured in through the front window. With more light, she could see the bee through the firebox’s lower vent. The insect would buzz for a moment, spinning on its side in the soft grey ash, and then become quiet. She watched it repeat this pattern three or four times. It was probably dying. On the other hand, maybe it was just exhausted from its efforts to free itself. Maybe she should let it go. Scoop it up with her leather gloves and take it back out to the garden and set it once more on the damask roses. Then again, what if, in a surge of angry energy, it stung her in the face? She sat back and tried to decide what to do.
It’s dying. I should let it out.
But what if it gets loose in the house? It might sting one of the children.
But, look there, it’s nearly dead. The spaces between buzzing are getting bigger and bigger.
What if one of the children is allergic, and we just don’t know it yet?
Oh, that’s a point.
Sweetpea leaned forward again and peered through the vent.
It’s hardly moving now. Maybe I should open the doors.
What if you can’t catch it and then it stings one of us in our sleep?
Look, it just buzzed for a second, but it didn’t move.
What if the dog tries to catch it and gets stung in the mouth?
Sweetpea looked at the dog asleep in his basket.
Do you really think he’d go after it? Or that he could actually catch it?
Well, you never know, do you?
It’s not moving at all. It’s not even buzzing now.
Again Sweetpea sat back; this time she crossed her legs, her elbows on her knees, and made a table of her hands to rest her head. She stared at the glass doors while the clock chimed the hour. A quarter past the hour. Half-past. There was the steady swing of the pendulum and the incremental movements of the small hand of the clock, the little dog’s rib cage expanding and contracting. But for these the house was still. There were no more little bursts coming from the firebox, no more little puffs of ash sliding out from under the vent.
Outside, from the corner by the old brick mansion she could hear the screech of the school bus brakes. The little dog woke from its dreams and lifted its head to turn a pointed ear toward the sound.
Sweetpea reached forward with both hands and pulled open the glass doors. Inside, pressed up against the vent, its motionless body covered in grey ash, lay the bumble bee.