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Igms issue 15, p.8

IGMS - Issue 15, page 8


IGMS - Issue 15

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  "It must have wriggled through the net."

  As I spoke, I was aware how inadequate this sounded. If it had escaped through the netting, it could have done so at any previous time, since the leaning door had never impermeably obscured the whole doorway. I felt strongly, if unreasonably, that the creature's disappearance stemmed more from my scrutiny than any other factor. Yet I could not defend this as a logically robust proposition, and it certainly wouldn't satisfy Annette.

  "I'm sorry. The creature disappeared in my possession, so I shall compensate you."

  "Indeed, sir, I think you must!"

  I will spare you an account of the distasteful haggling that followed. As soon as I could decently manage, I departed and began walking back. But I was so perturbed by what had happened, and so occupied in turning it over in my mind, that I neglected to pay sufficient attention to the road. I tripped upon an unseen obstacle and sprained my ankle.

  You can well imagine my mood when I finally returned to the Establishment. My ankle ached abominably. I seethed with frustration at not having examined the purported Fairy, leaving me only with fruitless questions.

  Foremost, I could doubt whether I'd genuinely seen anything unusual. My views of the creature had been fleeting. It had previously been described to me as a Fairy, perhaps inspiring a predisposition to interpret glimpses in such a manner. We so often see what we expect to see.

  Yet that answer, however comforting, did not adequately explain all aspects -- for if the creature had never been extraordinary, then why would Annette have asked me to come and see it?

  I might suspect some larcenous scheme (since Annette had indeed succeeded in extracting payment from me), but I couldn't fathom its operation. Annette was not nearby at any time when I saw the creature, or when it disappeared. I could only impute her involvement by fancifully allowing her a supernatural faculty of summoning and dismissing Fairies. Yet such an assumption is an excessive contrivance. We have long abandoned the primitive practice of ascribing strangeness and misfortune to witchery, and I do not propose to revive it. (Even our clergymen often disdain the notion of witchcraft, although if witchery is the Devil's work, it is therefore surely also evidence of God.)

  No, on reflection I believe the most likely answer is that the creature was simply an exotic bird, escaped from some rich man's aviary, and it squeezed through the net too swiftly for my gaze to follow.

  I firmly believe that nothing can remain mysterious when approached with a keen truth-seeking eye. Our knowledge advances slowly but inexorably, banishing the fanciful and inexplicable.

  To ascribe anything to supernatural creatures, or to witchery, or to the hand of God, is merely to confess our ignorance. Whatsoever puzzles us today, we may solve tomorrow. The more we currently attribute to God, the more He must inevitably diminish.

  Perhaps when Thunder and Lightning were first explained from secondary causes, some folk regretted to give up the idea that each flash was caused by the direct hand of God.

  I shall write no further on this, for I know I will not convince you. I have only written at such length to clarify my own thoughts.

  In consequence of the creature's disappearance, no extant specimen contradicts my hypothesis, and so my book may proceed. I confess to feeling considerably relieved, as it would have caused much trouble to cancel at this late date, but you can be sure I would have done it, given sufficient cause.

  I have asked Murray to send you a copy. I know you will disagree with my Theory and its corollaries. I have resigned myself to my wife's distress, and yours too. For Emma's sake I shall remain discreet in my opinion of Natural Theology, but I will not recant it -- not until I see evidence that stands firm, rather than evaporating upon examination.

  Most affectionately yours,

  Charles Darwin

  PS: Yet if my scrutiny dispelled the supernatural, was that my reward for seeking the certitude of worldly evidence -- or was it my penalty for being doubtful as to anything beyond?

  Sweet as Honey

  by Bradley P. Beaulieu

  Artwork by Nick Greenwood

  All was silent as I lay in the rooftop garden above my home. I could remember neither the reason I'd come nor the duration of my stay. I couldn't, in fact, remember anything. My mind was so caught in the fugue of slumber that it seemed determined to hide the answers from me, and my body was so leaden it refused all calls to action.

  I did after some effort manage to flutter my eyes open. Spread above me was a cloudy, cream-colored sky. The sigh of the Inland Sea returned soon after, and with it, the drone of my honey bees.

  What a welcome sound. What a welcome sound, indeed.

  Footsteps thudded toward me. A moment later Joseph Winslow was staring down at me, his woolen hat crumpled in one fist, his ragged face concerned. "You all right, Susanna?"

  I wanted to answer him. I did. But I was helpless. My mind seemed unable to focus on anything but the world around me: the air, which smelled of brine and seaweed and smoking fish; the breeze, which chilled my skin; the ground, which rocked to and fro as if I were lying on the deck of a creaky old galley. Then, like an approaching storm, flesh and bone demanded their due consideration. My head ached, perhaps from the fall. My thumb was sore, and it seemed to be growing worse by the moment. My breathing, shallow only moments ago, was beginning to deepen, bringing with it a feeling of suffocation.

  Joseph's voice became insistent. "Susanna, are you all right?"

  I sat up, coughing. Joseph helped me to my feet, but it wasn't until I had removed my hat and pulled the bee keeper's veil from around my head and neck that my breathing came easier.

  Everything around me seemed new. There was a partially filled beehive sitting on the ground nearby. Several of its frames already held bees; the rest were empty. For the life of me I couldn't figure out what it was doing there. I wasn't planning to work on the new colony until tomorrow --

  I frowned at the painful red welt that glowered on the meat of my thumb. A tiny black stinger rested in the center of it. One of my bees . . .

  Yes. The venom would have robbed me of a day's memory, perhaps more, but my mind had bridged the distance so completely it was hard to believe I'd been stung. There was no gap, as one feels upon waking, no sense of the passage of time. There were only yesterday's memories followed immediately by today's. I remembered my ankles hurting something terrible in the morning -- which would have been yesterday morning. I had gone to prayers and vaguely recalled coming home again -- yes, Giles Billington had rowed me home himself -- but that was all before waking up here with the bees.

  "Did you see what happened?" I asked Joseph.

  He nodded. "You reached into your smock, then you pulled your hand to your mouth and tipped over, quick as you please."

  In the front pocket of my smock I found a recipe for cod in pastry shell.

  "I don't know if you remember," Joseph said. "I was going to make that for you tonight. Well, I was going to try, anyway."

  I smiled to hide my embarrassment. "I'm sorry, I don't."

  He paused awkwardly and then motioned to his home. "Why don't you come on over? I still have that ointment you gave me a few years back."

  "Now why would I use yours when I have a perfectly good supply of my own?"

  "For the company, Sue. Purely for the company." Joseph's smile seemed forced, and I had to wonder why. Joseph wasn't the sort of man to overreact.

  "I'll be fine." The bees were becoming animated in the rising heat. "Just watch yourself. They might want more now that they'd feasted on these old bones."

  I shooed him off to his own garden on the houseboat next to mine and returned to my hive. It was important to find the ointment, but I didn't feel right leaving the hives open to the elements with the work half-done, so I replaced my hat and veil and took out several empty frames from the new colony. Then I stood before the other hive -- my main, the one filled with thousands of bees moving slowly over the tops of the exposed frames. A loud buzzing came f
rom deep inside the hive -- the piping of the unborn queen, still inside her cell. Swarming season was nearly here, and I would have to act quickly when the virgin queen emerged. She was needed in the new colony, and any delay might force a battle to the death with the old, mated queen.

  I rested my hands above the moving mass, allowing them to dance over the bare skin of my hands and the tight cuffs of my white shirt. A wise woman might be afraid of another sting, which, so close after the first, would rob me of much more than one day's memory, but I had always found comfort in my bees, in their selfless will to work for the good of the hive.

  I shivered, realizing I'd been staring at the bees for quite some time. It was a trick the venom sometimes played.

  The ointment, I told myself. I've got to find the ointment.

  I carefully moved several more frames to the nuc and replaced them with empties. Then I took the stairs down to the boardwalk that connected my shop with the village's inner and outer rings. Beyond the boardwalk's railing was the sea itself, channeled by the network of canals that neatly segmented the village. My rowboat, lashed nearby, knocked hollowly against the boardwalk in time with the waves licking their way along the canal.

  I headed in through the side door and rummaged through my desk until I'd found a pair of tweezers. The stinger was buried deep, but I took extra care given the nature of the sting and eventually managed to remove it intact. Then I set to finding my ointment.

  I dug through the bottom drawer of the pine desk, through several wooden bins my husband had left behind when he'd died. There were still nails and twine and miscellaneous tools among my spools of thread and scissors and needlepoint. I checked my writing desk, the kitchen cupboards, my basket of yarn. I even considered taking a fresh tin from the shelves, but that had never been my way, so I chewed on the problem until I remembered my old hope chest beneath my bed. I pulled it out and rummaged underneath the baby blanket I'd knitted when I was sixteen, and there it was: the first tin of royal jelly ointment I'd ever created, dented, rusted on the outside, and still only half used.

  I was just about to close the lid when a lock of hair tied with faded purple ribbon caught my eye. The hair was long -- several years' growth easily -- and strawberry blond, nearly the same color as my own. I had no recollection of it -- none at all -- but then again, I hadn't remembered putting the ointment in the chest, either.

  I sat on my bed, on the quilt my mother had made as my wedding present, and applied the ointment. It hurt something awful as I rubbed it into my swollen skin, but moments later, the pain dulled.

  The motion of rubbing the ointment, though . . . It brought a sense of déjà vu so strong I was sure I'd been in this exact situation before, rubbing the ointment, wondering about the lock of hair. Yet in the way of these things, the more I tried to pin the memory down, the more slippery it became.

  I left the bedroom, taking the ointment with me. I would need it, for if I didn't continue its use, I would forget the simplest of things at the most inconvenient of times.

  Fresh and Smoked Fish, Whale Meat

  Spermaceti Lamp Oil, Whalebone Stays

  Many more products of the sea.

  Hook and Net, Outer Ring, Docks Central

  That night I dreamed I was in my nightgown, standing before a door in an empty room filling with frigid water. The water rose to my ankles before I realized the key that would open the door hung from a leather cord around my neck. As the numbing water licked my ankles and the tops of my feet, I removed the key, only to find that the key didn't open the lock. Nearby sat a heavy, ironbound chest. I quickly tried the key as the water tickled my shins -- dear God, it was cold -- and inside was another key. My fingers shook so badly I could hardly fit the new key into the door. This didn't work either. Behind me, another ironbound chest had appeared. I worked frantically, opening chest after chest, each of the keys failing to open the door; all the while the water crept up my thighs and hips and stomach, until I was forced to duck my head under water in order to try the door or open the new chests.

  I woke with a gasp and a body-heaving jerk.

  The sun had yet to rise. I was cold and sweaty despite the warmth of the blankets.

  Close enough to dawn, I thought, while shivering at the memory of the dream.

  I swept the shop and dusted the honey jars. Joseph ducked in shortly after dawn to let me know that two ships had come early to trade. He remained in the doorway, looking at me as if I were a cracked china doll ready to fall to pieces. I shooed him out and fussed over the shop one last time.

  Years ago ships wouldn't have left harbor until the village floated close enough to make it a day's sail or less, but the wares of Crucialis had built a keen reputation, and merchants wanted to cherry pick the goods before the common man could get their hands on them.

  More to the village's favor, I thought.

  I opened the shop door and sat with a cup of blackberry tea and my needlepoint, waiting for buyers to wander along the boardwalk.

  I took the ointment and rubbed it into the bee sting. My thoughts wandered, and a vision of holding the hand of a child breezed through my mind. It was a momentary glimpse, like a twinkling of the sun through the verdant leaves of a maple. The child's wrist was marked by a mole. I bore no such mark myself, so I tried to think through the many Sundays at the village square where I would sit and watch the children play on the lawn. But I couldn't remember any of them having a mole. Then again, why would I? I'd never bothered to look for such a thing.

  Shadows darkened my doorway, and an older couple entered. I clapped the lid back on the tin of ointment and waited as they wandered, inspecting my wares, adjusting like land lubbers as the shop creaked and swayed in time with the waves. The woman smoothed her earthy green dress while inspecting the honey. The man stood with hands shoved deeply into his pockets, looking at nothing in particular while pointedly ignoring both his wife and me.

  They weren't here for dried flowers, I knew, nor flax thread, nor honey. They were here for my candles.

  "May I help you?" I asked.

  They traded uncomfortable glances. Then the man cleared his throat. "I heard word that you have bees . . ."

  The woman stepped forward. "That you can help a man forget."

  I smiled as kindly as I could. "You heard right." And I waited. I had to hear the story.

  It was the woman who spoke. "You see, my father . . . My mother died a few months back. Fifty years they were married, and now that she's gone he's lost the will to live. He sits home, stares at the ceiling, doesn't want to eat. He's wasting away, and we just thought . . ."

  I shrugged. "The candles can help, but there's a steep price to pay. You have to understand what his mind will do. It's a resilient thing, and when it finds a gap, it will bridge it. He'll no longer recognize you as his daughter --" I turned to the man "-- nor you as his son-in-law."

  The woman seemed shocked; nearly everyone did when they learned the truth. "But he's my father . . ."

  "Don't worry, dear. He'll remember. Your mother will simply be missing. He'll think of you as a close friend, like a daughter but not quite so. You'll see the changes in little ways. He'll be distant from you. Cordial. He'll ask after your children, but more out of politeness than true interest. He'll come to your house for holiday dinners, but might not invite you to his."

  I waited for the words to sink in. The husband stood now at the entrance to the shop, his face troubled. The wife, however, smiled, a fleeting thing, and nodded to me.

  "I require one hair from your mother, the longer the better."

  The woman pulled a small linen bag from her purse and held it out. "It's the longest I could find."

  "You know the price?"

  "We do," she said.

  I accepted the bag with the hair in it. "Come back in three hours."

  The couple were the only unusual customers that day, but I still sold a sizable amount of honey and boot polish.

  I set the beeswax to melting, and in between
customers carefully braided the hair the woman had left into a flaxen wick. Then I dipped the wick into the melted wax over and over, slowly building its layers until the candle was complete.

  When the couple returned, I told them to make sure her father was alone while the candle was burning; leaving it in his room while he slept would be best.

  They gave me their money and took the candle. Neither of them thanked me.


  SHAMPOOING, Shaves, and Haircuts Given

  Purity Bath & Barber, Outer Ring, Due West, Adjoining the Guiding Light Hotel

  After the ships left, I walked along the canals to the Childress's. Rose was the village's midwife; if anyone would know about a child with a mole, it would be her.

  We sat in rocking chairs as the sun touched the horizon, sipping hot toddies from porcelain cups and watching the wind play among the flowering cucumber and cantaloupe. Rose wore a calico dress -- pretty fabric, but she sewed her dresses too tight, and the neckline was altogether too revealing. She was staring at the knitted shawl I'd just given her.

  "Do you like it?" I asked.

  Rose gave a half-hearted smile. "I can't think of what I've done to deserve it."

  I didn't return the smile. We both knew I'd given it to her because of the cut of her dress. "You'd like them if you only gave them half a chance."

  Rose folded the shawl and set it on the grass near her feet. "Let's not start that again."

  "It's for your own good."

  "Susanna, I'm asking nicely."

  I stared at Rose, my blood rising, but I stopped myself. Rose never responded to directness. I'd make her a different type of shawl, perhaps a nice cornflower blue.

  After the sun had set -- and my temper had cooled -- I broached the subject of my bee sting and the events that had followed.

  "A mole?" Rose asked.

  "Yes, here." I pointed to my wrist, spilling a bit of my drink in the process. Perhaps I should have stopped at one.

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