Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be posting previews from the 17 stories in my new short story collection, Before and Afterlives. If you like what you read, take a hop over to your favorite online bookseller and purchase either the print book or the e-book, and leave a review when you’re finished reading. It helps other people figure out if they’d like to read the book (and strokes my ego, at least when they’re good reviews).
Today’s preview is the opening to a short story called “The Boy Who Was Born Wrapped in Barbed Wire” which originally appeared in The Journal of Mythic Arts, edited by Terri Windling and Midori Snyder. This story is what I think of as a Midwestern fairy tale. I wrote it in 2004, after waking from a dream of being tangled up in a barbed wire fence in the woods on my family’s farm here in Ohio. It was a couple of months later that I’d move to Japan, so this was the last story I wrote prior to that experience.
The Boy Who Was Born Wrapped in Barbed Wire
There was once a boy who was born wrapped in barbed wire. The defect was noticed immediately after his birth, when the doctor had to snip the boy’s umbilical cord with wire cutters. But elsewhere, too, the wire curled out of the boy’s flesh, circling his arms and legs, his tiny torso. They didn’t cause him pain, these metal spikes that grew out of the round hills of his body, although due to the dangerous nature of his birth, his mother had lost a great amount of blood during labor. After delivery, the nurse laid the boy in his mother’s arms, careful to show her the safe places to hold him. And before her last breath left her, she managed to tell her son these words: “Bumblebees fly anyway, my love.”
They followed him, those words, for the rest of his life, skimming the rim of his ear, buzzing loud as the bees farmed by his father the beekeeper. He did not remember his mother saying those words, but he often imagined the scene as his father described it. “Your mother loved you very much,” he told the boy, blinking, pursing his lips. The beekeeper wanted to pat his son’s head, but was unable to touch him just there–on his crown–where a cowlick of barbs jutted out of the boy’s brown curls.
The beekeeper and his son lived in a cabin in the middle of the woods. They only came out to go into town for supplies and groceries. The beekeeper took the boy with him whenever he trekked through the woods to his hives. He showed the boy how to collect honey, how to not disturb the bees, how to avoid an unnecessary stinging. Sometimes the beekeeper wore a baggy white suit with a helmet and visor, which the bees clung to, crawling over the surface of his body. The boy envied the bees that landscape. He imagined himself a bee in those moments. As a bee, his sting would never slip through his father’s suit to strike the soft flesh hidden beneath it. His barbs, though, would find their way through nearly any barrier.
One day the beekeeper gave the boy a small honeycomb and told him to eat it. The comb dripped a sticky gold, and the boy wrinkled his nose. “It looks like wax,” he told his father. But the beekeeper only said, “Eat,” so the boy did.
The honeycomb filled his mouth with a sweetness that tasted of sunlight on water. Never before had something so beautiful sat on the tip of his tongue. Swallowing, he closed his eyes and thought of his mother. The way she held him in her arms before dying, the way she spoke before going away forever. The memory of his mother tasted like honey too, and he asked the beekeeper, “What did she mean? Bumblebees fly anyway?”
“Bumblebees shouldn’t be able to fly,” said the beekeeper, closing the lid on a hive. Honeybees crawled on the inside of the lid like a living carpet. “Their bodies are so large and their wings so small, they shouldn’t be able to lift themselves into the air, but somehow they do. They fly.”