"Now try not to move," he said. "You've got about five more in here. I'll get them all out, but you might get stung again."
Another bee stabbed me. Each sting magnified the pain until it felt like my scalp was on fire, but I grabbed the truck tire and hung on. "How many more?" I whispered.
"Just one," he said.
When it was all over, Grandpa took me into his arms. I rested my pounding head on his chest, which was muscled from a lifetime of lifting fifty-pound hive boxes full of honey. He gently placed his calloused hand on my neck.
"Your throat closing up?"
I showed him my biggest inhale and exhale. My lips felt oddly tingly. "Why didn't you call out to me?" he asked.
I didn't have an answer. I didn't know.
My legs were shaky, and I let Grandpa carry me to the truck and place me on the bench seat. I'd been stung before, but never by this many bees at once, and Grandpa was worried that my body might go into shock. If my face swelled up, he said, I might have to go to the emergency room. I waited with instructions to honk the horn if I couldn't breathe as he finished sawing the branch. He shook the bees into a white wooden box and carried it to the truck bed while I reached up and checked the hot lumps on my scalp. They were tight and hard, and it seemed like they were getting bigger. I worried that pretty soon my whole head would be puffed out like a pumpkin.
Grandpa hustled back into the truck and started the engine.
"Just a minute," he said, taking my head in his hands and exploring my scalp with his fingers. I winced, certain he was pressing marbles into my head.
"Missed one," he said, drawing a dirty fingernail sideways across my scalp to remove the stinger. Grandpa always said that squeezing the stinger between your thumb and finger is the worst way to pull it out, because it pushes all the venom into you. He held out his palm to show me the stinger with the pinhead-sized venom sac still attached.
"It's still going," he said, pointing to the white organ flexing and pumping venom, oblivious that its services were no longer needed. It was gross, and made me think of a chicken running with its head cut off, and I wrinkled my nose at it. He flicked it out the window and then turned to me with a pleased look, like I had just shown him my report card with all A's.
"You were very brave. You didn't panic or nothin'."
My heart cartwheeled in my chest, proud of myself for letting the bees sting me without screaming like a girl.
Back home, Grandpa added the box of bees to his collection of a half
dozen hives along the back fence. The swarm was ours now, and would settle into its new home soon. Already the bees were darting out of the entrance and flying in little circles to explore their surroundings, memorizing new landmarks. In a few days' time, they would be making honey.
As I watched Grandpa pour sugar water into a mason jar for them, I thought about what he had said about the bees following the queen because they can't live without her. Even bees needed their mother.
The bees at the tennis ranch attacked me because their queen had fled the hive. She was vulnerable, and they were trying to protect her. Crazy with worry, they'd lashed out at the nearest thing they could find—me.
Maybe that's why I hadn't screamed. Because I understood. Bees act like people sometimes—they have feelings and get scared about things. You can see this is true if you hold very still and watch the way they move, notice if they flow together softly like water, or if they run over the honeycomb, shaking like they are itchy all over. Bees need the warmth of family; alone, a single bee isn't likely to make it through the night. If their queen dies, worker bees will run frantically throughout the hive, searching for her. The colony dwindles, and the bees become dispirited and depressed, sluggishly wandering the hive instead of collecting nectar, killing time before it kills them.
I knew that gnawing need for a family. One day I had one; then it was gone overnight.
Not long before my fifth birthday, my parents divorced and I suddenly found myself on the opposite coast in California, squeezed into a bedroom with my mom and younger brother in my grandparents' tiny house. My mother slipped under the bedcovers and into a marathon melancholy, while my father was never mentioned again. In the empty hush that followed, I struggled to make sense of what had happened. As my list of life questions grew, I worried about who was going to explain things to me.