"Now tell me again, dear, why we're doing this?"
I was exasperated by this point, having explained myself twice already. The interview had only begun, but I knew I must have her cooperation, so I explained—for the third time—the purpose of my visit. There were better ways to spend the summer, I knew, but this project would put me ahead of the curve. If I played the credit game right I could save myself a semester of student loans, and with funding for the humanities, let alone an anthropological folklorist, almost non-existent, a quicker graduation meant less debt, less long-term stress. I was back in my hometown staying with my parents anyway, so why not take advantage of the situation and interview the centenarian Fernworthy? The sooner I finished my degree, the sooner I could leave this town for good. Besides, Fernworthy wouldn't be around forever.
She wasn't rude, just incredibly odd. Perhaps it was the age difference, but I felt there was something more than mere experience and biological chronology between us. Something was fundamentally different about Emmie Fernworthy as a human being. I couldn't prove it to a psychologist's satisfaction, but I felt it was true. Old Fernie was out there. Somewhere. Away.
"I see," she responded at the third conclusion of my rote explanation. "Continue."
"The idea here, Miss . . . Emmie, is to get a snapshot of the community as you remember it in your youth."
"The community," a broad smile erupted across her face, the wrinkles alive, as if composed of hundreds of tiny living beings. The lines under her eyes seemed to smooth out, a youthful glimmer restored to her brown irises, her posture becoming a little straighter, as if she had been injected with an infusion of pure life. Perhaps it was the aroma of flowers wafting onto the porch, or sunlight washing over the few wispy clouds in the sky. Perhaps the soothing tone of her voice—a low hum, almost a buzz, infiltrating my mind like the warm remnants of some pleasant dream, an afterglow of ethereal breeze. She seemed to have been redeemed from the rickety frailness of her withered frame, resurrected on this spring day.
"Yes, the community—and your part as an individual within it."
"An individual." Her countenance slackened, the floral scent dissipated, replaced by the mustiness of the ancient house. The thrumming in my ears died, shattered by the creaking of old boards under her rocking chair.
"Individuals. In my younger days there was one individual critical to the community." The "mm" of "community" drawn out into a long hum whenever she spoke the word. "Communities need individuals." The word "individuals" spat out in choppy syllables, a hint of detestation in her voice. "But in all cases there is only one individual that matters as an individual. Here, in Heatley, it was Mrs. Grimble."
"The mayor's wife?" I interjected.
"Yes. You might, of course, think that it would be the mayor himself out here. Iowa was far from a woman's world back then. But Mrs. Grimble carried a great deal of influence. Some of it through her husband, yes, but Gertie had her own ways and connections. It was all about connections back then—everyone knew everyone else on their street. Gertie just plain knew everyone. From church, knitting guild, quilting night, community celebrations," (that "mm" again), "her social feelers were all atwitter, like a queen bee—unseen to the outside world, but at the center of the hive, as it were."
Again, the buzzing in my head, almost numbing this time. The heat must have been getting to me. I thought I might faint, a hazed delirium flashing into my skull, pulsing, then subsiding as she carried on.
"But those days are gone. So long ago. A dream." Emmie stared off past the outskirts of town, across dark green cornfields guarded by blue cornflower sentinels. The lumbering flight of bumblebees traced arcs from bloom to bloom, like bolts of black and yellow electricity jumping across a circuit board.
"All these electronics—phones, computers, color television—they were supposed to create community, were they not?" She asked sharply.
"Well," she droned back down into her sleepily hypnotic voice, "they have not. In fact, they have made things worse. Much worse. Too much talk, no listening. Back when, we were good listeners. Here, keep still for a moment, put your pen down, and listen. Turn your cell phone off for a minute and you just might hear."
I set my pen and clipboard down—not that I had taken any worthwhile notes. I had spent most of my time doodling on the edges of the page, red ink flowing in waves and lazy circles, mirroring the meandering paths of bees across the fields—a mesmerizing calliope of vector, velocity, and wave function, a mathematical vortex of organic dance across the ballroom of the sky.
Emmie leaned back in her chair, her breath seemingly stopped, exchanged for another breeze, a rustle moving across the corn, the nettles, the giant oak beside the porch. Blue flowers blurred into sky, the buzzing of bees churning the countryside into a mélange of color melting at the borders, strands of connectedness, of together, forming in the quiet. Earth to root to stalk to pistil to pollen to bee to sky to sun to rain to earth to root . . .
I listened to the blur, the sound of that fuzz between sky, planet, earth . . . me . . . and Emmie . . . and the community. The documents I had read in preparation for the project now had a life, had meaning beyond ink on paper. The personalities, the places and events took shape, not like a movie, but within me, in the liquid interstices of my brain. Mayor and Mrs. Grimble; the sheriff, Sam Sidwell, accused of an affair with Mrs. Grimble; Jeffrey, Sidwell's son, disabled from the war; Jeffrey's caretaker, Phyllis Hill, whom he later married; Phyllis Williams, her younger cousin (named after the older); Margaret Lilly, college friend of Williams, who moved here after marrying Williams's brother, Chad Hildebrandt—my father; Cindy, their first daughter, my sister; me. I traced footsteps in the dirt from the post office to Veteran's Memorial Library to city hall to Ken's market, footsteps connecting with the dust of the earth, sending soil to the air, to the cornfields, corn to the plates of every household, again to my parents and through their seed to me. The myth of detached anthropological observation was punctured through with holes, the impossible falseness of objectivity lacerated with relationships, ripped open by the closeness of human intimacy. Science was a farce. Dead.
The unfamiliar silence startled me from my reverie. I returned to the present, Emmie Fernworthy coming into focus before me. Her chair had ceased rocking, her head lolled to one side. A cloud of yellow pollen puffed forth from her nostrils and mouth as she exhaled her last breath, tears of honey sticky-golden on her cheeks. The buzzing that had haunted my thoughts throughout our interview grew in intensity, emanating from her head louder and louder. I saw movement from under her hair and gasped as several bees—hundreds of bees—crawled forth from her ears. The queen drug itself out on Emmie's now-extended tongue, emerging from the protective honeycombs of the host brain. Emmie, I now knew, was that lone individual who supported the hive, the locus of connectedness and community; that community that has been lost to modernity; the community that held her together.
Bitterness filled me, a loathing for "progress," an empty nostalgia. The urge to leave it all or destroy what I could surged through me, a luddite rage washing through my bones. But I knew that vengeance must follow the wave of hate and that death must follow the sting—the wound to self deadly, the wound to other a mere annoyance. Violence was not the way. I must embrace community, the old with the new, must carry within me the eggs and sperm of peace and cooperation.
I extended my tongue and invited the queen bee inside. The hive must continue. I am the hostess. I am the hive. Assimilation is the answer.
Forrest Aguirre lives in Madison, Wisconsin with his wife and four children. His most recent work has appeared in, , and . He has work forthcoming in the Paper Cities anthology and in . He has edited extensively, winning the World Fantasy Award with Jeff VanderMeer for editing . He most recently edited .
Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon with his books and two inept cats, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects, including the World Fantasy Award-nominatedanthology series from . His current projects are from and Mainspring from . Jay is the winner of the 2004 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. Jay can be reached through his blog at jaylake.livejournal.com.
image, "untitled" © 2007, Jay Lake—All Rights Reserved