Bees/Not Bees, Kate Hargreaves
“I can’t. I’m allergic.”
The swarm careens from window to skylight and back over Winn’s head like a cartoon cloud.
“Move. Sweep. Eat. Make sandwiches. Grind beans.”
“So you plan to sit on the floor?”
“If I move, I’ll choke on my own throat. I’ll swell up like a cyst and explode or fall over. I may as well already be down here.”
Winn, pressed into the space between fridge B and the grinder stand, dips her fingers into her apron pockets and slides plastic across her palm. Rubs milk bag corner against milk bag corner, an ocean of milk-bag corners where she might be able to float. Her fingers slip across corners and the sudden skin-on-skin friction drags her back to the bees overhead. Not bees, wasps. The swarm multiplies above her.
“Winn. Winn?” Brenda steps over Winn’s legs to pack espresso into the machine; it buzzes and groans. “Winn, either you work, or you go home. You need a breather? Go to the back room. Take a walk. You can’t just sit there. On the floor. In the way.”
The swarm pulses around the skylight. Winn tries to count them. 36, 42, 44, no, wait, counted that one twice. Every customer who walks in the door has an entourage of buzzing menace in tow. The skylight is too small and the wasps are beginning to funnel down.
“Winn? Did you hear me. You are in the way. Do I need to phone your mother?”
A young couple is breaking up at the table in the far right corner, only a few feet from the bee funnel. Wasp tornado. She looks up and dabs her eyes with a recycled paper napkin to stop the mascara drip. She holds her hand and thumbs the chipped nail polish. She shakes her head no and a wasp flies out of her hair. “Winn!” A restaurant-style black non-slip sneaker clips Winn’s thigh. “I almost spilled this tea on your head. You have to move!”
It’s getting more and more difficult to see in the cafe area because of the swarm. They buzz in front of the windows, between the couple at the break-up table, even underfoot where they occasionally meet the bottoms of shoes. The swarm swoops down and collects the bodies of the dead. Absorbs them back into its mass.
If she budges, the swarm will feel the shift in the air. Displacement rules apply. And Winn will be no longer Winn but a beast bearded and haired and suited in bees. Bees, wasps, biting and stinging and itching and welting and swelling her up into an unbreathing heap, red and radiating heat into the tile. Wings fluttering against inflamed skin and tiny legs pausing on strands of hair.
Coffee rain from above scalds Winn’s thigh through her regulation black pants. The burn blooms across her skin and the swarm turns at once together, alert to the smell of searing leg. She stuffs her hand in her apron pocket again and closes her eyes, sliding the ocean of plastic across her palm to shut out the sting. Closing her ears to the buzzing all around her, Winn pushes her ears to take in the roar of waves and wind for a moment. Then its gone. The bees, the wasps, clog her ears. Her lids squint open into darkness, the swarm clinging to her apron strings, lifting her off the tiles millimetres at a time.
With the scratch of steaming milk under the hummmmm of the swarm, the cloud pulls Winn to her feet, hovering paper-thin over the floor. “Good, you’re up. Now either take a minute off the floor, or get over to the sandwich station and start cutting up cucumbers for lunch peak.” The swarm pulls Winn past the knives and cutting boards and the reek of cucumber, and out through the cafe. Her thighs clip metal chair backs and throb. She knocks into tables, and waves of hot chocolate overrun mugs. Wings brush Winn’s ears and her cheeks. The wasps, bees, their feet bring her neck out in tiny hives, but they keep their stingers clear. They pull Winn out the door as the next double small nonfat cappuccino walks through in a haze of hairspray and tapping heels.
Unencumbered by ceiling fans and beams, the swarm begins to rise higher, tugging Winn along. The knot holding her apron strings unravels as the bees tug and tug her and Winn rises millimetres and feet and metres off the ground. Winn is hovering over the parking lot until she’s not. She thunks onto the sidewalk. The wasps, unburdened by her weight, clutch the brown strings, pulling the apron further into their black cloud like a kite escaping its string or a lost balloon. Milk bag cuttings flutter into Winn’s hair and down her shirt as the apron swarm pulls away, brighter and further away than she can squint.
“I can’t. I’m allergic.”
A wasp hovers above the raspberry syrup pump, pausing to sticky its feet on the residue.
“Pump syrup. Splash myself in wasp bait."
Brenda reaches under the counter and produces a thick office supplies catalogue. Rolls it up and with an unceremonious wrist flick, snaps the wasp out of the air. It lands on the damp counter with a small tap, twitching its legs for only a moment in a small puddle of milk. Brenda wipes up the wasp, the milk, and the syrup splatter in a damp rag, shakes it into the garbage bin, and drops the rag back in the dishwashing sink.
“Wasp handled. Can you get back to work now?”
Winn, leaning against all regulations on the countertop, scans the row of syrups for movement. Was the wasp a scout sent to identify sources of sugar and report back? Still, the wasp appeared to be without backup, so Winn supposed she could safely return to steaming milk and pulling shots of espresso without much risk. She wipes her hands front and back on her brown apron, not because they’re dirty, but purely out of habit, and turns to back to the counter and the row of empty cups she’s neglected.
Kate Hargreaves (she/her) is a writer and book designer in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. She is the author of three books of poetry and fiction with a second collection of poetry, tend, forthcoming from Book*hug Press in 2022. Find her work at CorusKate.com.