"The Hive" is taken from The White Bridge. See our feature in this issue.


"The Hive" was a finalist for the Pablo Neruda Prize from Nimrod. Sections 6 & 7 of “The Hive” were originally published in Nimrod, Awards 21: Bol. 42, No. 2, Spring/Summer, 1999.

Francine Sterle photo Francine Sterle

The Hive

In winter, I tunnel through snow.
In spring, it’s the plow.
A thousand cuts in the field.
In summer, a thorn
scrapes a bloody furrow in my skin.
Ditches fill with color.
Trees, once green, go bare to the top.
My feet make a trench in the leaves
as an insistent bee
rises from the underbrush.
Does it expect to soothe me
when it kisses my hand?

I wanted you
as no one has ever wanted me,
but I waited
while the first gray hairs
appeared on my head,
waited for the stars’
glacial drift around a snowy comet
that comes once a century,
its fading tail
luminous as fishline,
waited for the other woman
to die or divorce,
waited long after I refused.
I was left waiting
while bees hummed in their hives
and winter choked
the river’s throat with ice.

Amid green thumbs of weeds,
a most common flower
sends up from masses of dark,
deeply-cut leaves, tall blue blossoms.
Just opened, it lures a visiting bee
that zigzags flower to flower,
disappears inside a petal’s puckered skirt.
Eurydice, I think. When I turn, a head
powdered with white pollen emerges,
and the shadow mine makes
moves plant by plant around the garden.

The day I found
the plump corpse of a bee
lying motionless on the window sill,
I held it in my hand.
Cradling its velvet-coated body,
I noticed my own lifeline
like an arrow underneath it,
while outside, toiling bees
crisscrossed in the sun.
Consider the bee and see how she labours.

Everywhere in the exotic
flowering of that garden, bees
soared and hovered, wings
beating the air, heart-shaped heads
visible on honeysuckle and catkins
collecting acres of pollen, the world
astir around me. It was there,
between the dense notes of your pulse,
you kissed me, bewildered
about where to place this moment
given our complicated lives.
Days later the tremor you sent through me
returned: the aftershock of bees
drawing nectar to make
a single drop of honey.

Look at the beehive you’ve made of my heart
Look at the swarm clustering around me
55555 and the wax I use
55555 trying to seal myself off
Look at what you’ve become
55555 a bear
55555 clumsy and mulish
Look at yourself
55555 nosing the feathery ferns
55555 the milky-colored mushrooms
55555 ignoring the dizzy funnel of bees at your back
Look at the muscles bunch in your legs
55555 then stretch the long length of a tree
Look at your claws thrusting toward me
55555 your muzzle smeared
55555 by the dripping honey
Look at me tremble
Look at the paper-thin comb
55555 wedged between my ribs
Look at it
55555 then tell me again how the wind you miss
55555 sleeps in my hair
55555 again
55555 about the tangled hues in my eyes.

Inhabited by bees.
Spring still burning in my eyes.
The intricate dance
home from the flower.
In my deepest thoughts,
the smell of the hive.

I surrender to it all.
My heart is thick with pleasure,
but I’ll tell you
about the holes inside,
the honeycomb
I’ve worked for years to fill.

A secluded nest
and bees
breathing beneath my ribs.
A scent of clover in the air.
Certain summer nights
love comes to me
frantic for meaning.
I haven’t got the answer,

but I know how honey
sweetens the tongue,
how my own blood hums
from the bee’s nimble bite.

First the swarm tone,
then a dense cloud forming,
the impetuous flight
to limb or random stump,
fence or ladder where bees
alight. Are these the ones
Aristaeus saw sicken and die,
that touched the lips of Pindar
and Plato lying helplessly
in their cradles, that crossed
the lips of St. Ambrose
before entering his mouth?

The greedy bee returns to its hive
with sticky feet, a packed pollen basket.
Half-drunk from venturing
beyond the petal’s crease
and into the trumpet-throated lily
drooping on the garden wall,
it drones, the same sound
that flows through my veins
as we sleep, side by side
across a continent, our words
holding us together like the thin
cells of a hive. Is this the unhesitating life
I was meant to lead?
Many chambers? Much noise?

From my pursed mouth,
a single word
works its way out
like a pillow feather
then floats to the floor,

but I’m not ready for the truth,
cannot ask who or when or why.
Why bother with explanations
when my tongue is dead in my mouth,
and thoughts half-crazed in my head.

I stare out at a frozen landscape,
at moonlit gardens of ice
spreading over the fields,
at a fraction of light, so far off,
shining at me from the other side.

A hum of bees from dry lips
all night in my ear:
a swarm of words inside a crimson flower.

It clings to me––the sugary
smear of honey on my hands,
pollen dusting my breast.

What frightens me awake,
lighting a flame deep in my cheek?

I fly out of myself,
all that we love between us.

From an open window,
a breeze blows in
thin bandages of fog.

The black night softens.
On the fringe of audibility,
the truth draws near.

The moment they’d sensed
thick puffs of smoke
filling the hive
the feral bees forgot
their tending and readied
themselves to abandon it.

Gorged on honey, too full
to bend into stinging position
for defense, the docile workers
forgot how singlemindedly
they’d returned from those snow asters
spreading through the meadow.

Spooked by fire
from a smoldering bee smoker
that smelled of pine needles
and sumac bobs, they ate their way
into a stupor while the beekeeper
cut that dead limb and carried it away.

When your letter appeared,
I held it for an hour, remembering
the way our bodies joined
one last time to say good-bye.
I barely spoke for a month,
my words falling away
as I stared at snow swirling
a thousand miles between us.
Not even a warm day
could woo me into the world
to watch the bees’ brief
thistledown flight.
You never wrote again, but
I will tell you about memory,
the crust it formed so I could heal,
the scab I picked until it bled.

For months winter disguised
the hidden hive body
nobody touched, but after spring
melted the last snow from my hand
and all that was unsaid
vanished in a river of water,
the slow-headed bees
dropped from the comb
one by one, half-starved,
the colony so strong
they’d run out of food
weeks before any flowers would bloom.
I put out pots of sugared syrup
to save them. It was only a matter of time.
How could I stop those clumsy,
richly-veined wings from stirring inside?

How sharply the thorn stuck in my finger,
how reliable my blood
making its own rose in my hand,
and this memory of you:

a petal
the flower didn’t feel
when it fell . . .