Read an Excerpt
From Day of the Bees
The train continues to rattle. Is it an even louder chattering of teeth, or a ticking in the basket balanced on my knees? Do the uniformed men around me hear the ticking? Is that why they avoid looking at me, afraid I will blow up their compartment if they approach? The train lurches to a squealing stop in the Nice station. I still hear the ticking. My heart? The soldiers must hear it too. They stay where they are, not moving, letting me make my way down the narrow aisle between them. I feel like a little girl walking in a forest of tall trees with a picnic basket of poisoned food. Red Riding Hood carrying a bomb?
I am not prepared for what I encounter after I manage to push my way through the crowd in the train station. This is no longer the Nice I remember. No longer the glittering Baie des Anges, with its broad sandy beach and hotels frosted with pink stucco. In winter light a grey film coats everything. Windows are painted blackout blue, walls are covered with thick camouflage netting, coils of barbed wire block the seaside promenade. Menacing concrete and steel struts line the shore, and spoked black balls of surface mines float in the sea.
The city streets are not filled with fashionable summer visitors, but with the homeless seeking shelter, a restless mob with everything they own tied in pitiful rag bundles or suitcases held together with rope. The air echoes with accents from all over Europe. Begging hands are held out everywhere, dirty hands with deeply creased palms. Men, women, and children cough and shiver in the cold. The scent of summer perfumes and suntan creams has given way to the stench of the unwashed, the stale sweat of defeat. Following the gaze of downcast eyes I see shoes worn through with holes, exposing festering feet. How far have these people journeyed, walking with blood in their shoes? Did they flee here from other countries or from a house just around the corner? It makes no difference now. I have been instructed not to stop nor reach out a comforting hand, not even to a small girl, slumped alone before a high stone wall with a boarded-up mansion behind. The girl's whimpering cannot be drowned out by the shouted pleas of others around me. I continue, still seeing the stain of urine on the dirty sidewalk beneath the girl, feeling her shivering body in my own bones.
I look at the address on the slip of paper Royer gave me. Can this be right? There are nothing but fancy hotels here, protected by banks of sandbags and patrolling soldiers. Two soldiers stop me; one asks for my identity papers. I hand them over. He reads them carefully, then hands them to the other soldier, who quickly walks away with them.
"What's wrong?" I ask, trying to keep the alarm out of my voice.
The soldier does not answer. He looks down at my basket as he puts his hand on the holstered gun at his hip.
The other soldier returns with a tall blond man. The man wears a leather trench coat and expensive dress shoes shined to a high gloss; he is not a soldier. When he speaks I am relieved that his language is not foreign, but French.
"Madame has a reason for traveling so far from home?"
"Aren't my papers in order?"
"Travel in this area is restricted."
"My mother is ill. I've brought her a present."
"A present? May I see it?"
"I have nothing to hide. Nothing at all."
"I'm certain you don't."
"Look." I pull the cloth cover off the basket.
The two soldiers draw their revolvers and point them at me.
My hand stops, but I cannot prevent my fingers from trembling.
"Madame is nervous?"
"No . . . no." I continue to pull the cover back, exposing the loaf of bread.
"Ah, Madame has only bread! She has saved her coupons to get enough flour to make her sick mother a present. How quaint."
"It's only bread. I assure you of that."
"May I," the blond man bends over and touches the crust of the loaf, "just have a closer look?"
"Yes, of course."
He pulls the loaf from its basket and holds it above his head, looking underneath as if expecting to see dangling wires. Could he hear a ticking from the loaf, or was it the pounding of my heart? He spins the loaf around, assaying it from every angle, verifying its shape and weight like a judge in a baking contest.
He hurls the loaf onto the sidewalk. It hits with a hollow thud and smashes into crumbs at my feet. I am surprised the loaf contains nothing inside, that he has taken such a chance. But was it a chance? He must have known the loaf was harmless. He hands back my papers.
"Madame should be aware that she has only one hour before her permission to travel through this area expires. She must be on the last train leaving today."
"Yes . . . I'm aware."
He turns and walks rapidly away with the two soldiers on his heels.
Surrounding me is a sudden clatter of grey wings and deep-throated gurgles as hungry pigeons descend in a rush to the crumbs on the sidewalk, pecking and jostling. Then, just as quickly, they fly up as children gather around, stomping their feet to scare off the birds. The children fight one another for the crumbs, snatching bits of bread and shoving them into their dirty mouths. Among them is the girl I passed earlier, the little rag doll slumped in her own urine. I want to reach down and stroke her matted hair, to soothe her pain, but my time is short. I am not to call attention to myself, even though my loaf has been lost; I have instructions to follow and a rendezvous to keep.
I glance again at the address written by Royer. I am surprised to see the number is the same as the gilded gold number above the ornate entrance of a hotel. Can this be right? It seems a mistake. But I am to follow instructions. The hotel attendants swing open the heavy doors, bowing solicitously as I pass.
I feel I have entered the grand salon of a luxury ocean liner at sea, so far removed is this world from the one outside. I am transported into another reality as I step onto the plush carpeting. Glistening marble walls soar upward; the crystal brilliance of chandeliers high overhead casts an expensive glow onto a shadowless realm. I become lost among the velvet-flocked pillars of the vast lobby. I search for a way out. Royer must have given me the wrong address. Or is this another test?
"I can assist you."
The words float toward me through the forest of pillars. I try to adjust my eyes to the rich light. Then I see a man dressed in a black tuxedo and white shirt. He stands on the far side of a granite counter; behind him rises a wall of message boxes holding silver room keys. How can he assist me? I see him looking at my basket. My basket! I carry no luggage; I must be someone to be quickly ushered out.
He comes from behind the counter and beckons me to follow: "Right this way." He leads me down a broad hallway lined with potted palms and stops at the entrance to a formal dining room.
An imperious maître d'hôtel, standing guard at a desk with an open reservation book before him, glances at me skeptically. "Is this she?"
"Yes." The man in the tuxedo nods and walks away.
"Your table is ready." The maître d'hôtel picks up a leather-bound menu and starts into the dining room.
"Wait." I grab him by the sleeve. "Who do you think I am? I can't possibly afford to eat here." I look around at the linen-covered tables where people in fancy clothes speak in hushed tones, pretending not to notice my shabby appearance. The perfume of flowers in Chinese vases makes me feel even more light-headed.
The maître d'hôtel pushes my hand away, whispering, "Follow me and don't ask questions." He glides off among the tables and stops at one with a silver stand on it. The stand holds a card: reserved. He slides out a silk-covered chair and motions for me to sit.
"I told you, I can't afford "
"You have the right address. Sit."
I sink into the silk chair with embarrassment, like an impostor queen being seated on a throne.
The maître d'hôtel bows and glides off. A waiter appears with a bottle of champagne in an ice-filled silver bucket. He pops the cork and pours champagne into two crystal glasses, then hurries away.
No one at the surrounding tables makes eye contact; only the murmur of low voices comes to me. I am afraid to drink the champagne. Maybe I am expected to pay for it! I push the chair back to leave, but a stern-looking man wearing a brown suit and wire-rim glasses sits down opposite me. He picks up his champagne glass and raises it in salutation.
"To your health." He smiles.
I don't touch my glass.
"Are you afraid it's poisoned?" He sips his champagne and licks his lips. "So, you are the woman men write operas about."
I wanted to say no, that I was a school teacher from a small village. I say nothing, because he knows who I am. How? I remember my instructions from Royer: not to speak unless I hear the right words, not to engage in conversation because the enemy might discover my identity. But this man may not be the enemy. How am I to know? I finger the stem of my champagne glass.
"Have you met the Fly?" he asks.
I do not answer. I pick up my glass and drink.
"The Fly hunts the Eagle," he continues.
I swallow hard. Now I can speak. "Flies don't hunt eagles."
He refills our glasses. "And eagles don't hunt flies."
"Not in a normal world."
"This is not a normal world. What's in the basket?"
I look around, afraid to be overheard.
"Don't worry about them; they are busy with their own conversations. They are all butter-and-egg men."
"Black marketeers. Who else do you think could afford to eat in this mausoleum?"
"And you? Who are you?"
"I work here. Now, what's in the basket?"
"Nothing," I whisper. "They took the bread."
He slides a silver room key across the table. "I want you to meet me in this room in five minutes."
"I told you, they took it. There is nothing left. I have no reason to meet you in your room."
"Yes, you do."
"Because your name is Lucretia."
I pace the Persian carpet in the hall before the room of the man I am to meet. Each time I pass his door I listen for sounds inside, but there are none. A do not disturb sign hangs on the doorknob. On the door itself is a bronze plate engraved with the words hotel doctor. Finally I knock.
The door cracks open. The man in the brown suit pokes his head out, looking up and down the hall. He sees no one else and pulls me into the room, locking the door behind us.
There is dull blue light in the room. What am I doing here? He takes the basket from me. I tell him again, "They destroyed the loaf. There is nothing for you! My trip was a waste. I must get to the train before my right to travel expires. If they catch me without proper papers I can be arrested."
"If you are arrested we will have to kill you."
"What are you talking about?"
"We don't know what you would tell them if you were tortured."
"So what good is it to kill me after I've told them?"
"Because you might make a deal with them that leads them to us."
"So could you."
"No. I would not wait for them to torture me. I will kill myself first."
I see now the room is blue because of blackout paint on the windows. His skin is blue. He keeps talking, like a blue ghost.
"I'm a doctor. Do you want me to give you something to swallow if you are captured? That way you'll be dead before they get a word from you."
"No, I'm not going to do that."
"As long as you know the rules. They are the same for you as for the rest of us. No exceptions." He flicks on an overhead light and sets the basket on the table.
"I told you it's destroyed! Let me go to the station while there's still time."
"It's not destroyed on the contrary, it's here."
From the basket he takes the rumpled cloth that covered the bread. He holds it up to the light, pulling both sides tightly until the material is stretched like a screen. Within the red-and-white checked pattern another pattern can be discerned, sewn into the fabric in delicate black stitches. It is a grid; within its lines numbers and letters stand out against the light.
He peers closely at the coded pattern. "You did a good job. You got it past them."
"You did indeed."
"Then I must go."
"That's right. We don't want you to be captured."
I turn to leave but he grabs my arm.
"Wait one moment."
"I haven't much time."
"No, you don't. That's why I want to examine you. You're pregnant you can't hide it from me, I'm a doctor."
"I'm in a hurry, I'm leaving."
"Do you want to jeopardize your child's life?"
"Of course I don't!"
"Then let me examine you and make certain you're all right. Have you seen a doctor since you've become pregnant?"
"Then for the sake of your child this must be done. You don't want any complications."
"Complications? I just learned that if I'm captured I'll be killed! And you are talking about complications!"
"If I had known beforehand of your condition I wouldn't have used you. I can tell you are pregnant from the way you walk and the pupils of your eyes."
"What else do you see in my eyes?"
I stare at him angrily. Can he see the tears I have not shed? Can he see the fear I've tried to hide? Can he see that I have no reason to trust him? But if he really is a doctor, I should let him examine me.
"I see a woman who needs to trust someone."
"No! I don't need to trust. I need to know if my baby is healthy."
"You'll let me examine you then?"
"Yes. But now that you know I'm pregnant, and I understand the risk I'm running, I don't want to be used any more. I want to protect my baby."
"You won't be used any more. We can sympathize with your condition."
"Let's do it; I must go."
"Take off your clothes and lie down on the bed."
"You don't have an examining table?"
"This is wartime. Everything I used to have here in my office has been confiscated. They left me nothing but this." He snaps open a black leather doctor's valise and starts pulling instruments from it.
"I heard most of the doctors in the country have been forced into the military. How do I know you are not a veterinarian, a common cat surgeon?"
"You don't. But who better to examine you a trained veterinarian, or no one?"
I disrobe and lie on the bed, shivering from my exposure to a stranger. To be naked in front of a man is one thing; to be naked and pregnant is quite another. I feel misshapen and vulnerable. In the blue light my blue skin makes me look like some marine creature tossed ashore by the tide and left abandoned in a tangle of seaweed. But it isn't seaweed I am tangled in, it is the swollen blue veins of my belly and legs. I am just a big blue swollen thing, but inside is something beautiful, this I must believe.
His hands touch my cheeks. He presses his thumbs beneath the bones of my jaw, feeling my lymph nodes. He puts the cold metal tip of a stethoscope beneath my breast, listening to my heart. It is quiet in the room, just his breathing, and then my own as he tells me to inhale and exhale deeply. He slides the stethoscope over the mound of my belly, listening even more intently.
He drops the stethoscope back into the valise, takes out a rubber glove, and draws it tightly onto his right hand. "I'm going to have to ask you to pull your knees up and spread your legs."
Is he really a doctor? I am doing this for my baby. I spread my legs. A cold finger comes into me. Is he a cat surgeon? I shudder.
"There, there," he assures me as he prods. "It's just a routine examination."
"Hurry. The train."
He removes his fingers from me and pulls the glove off with a loud snap. "I'm concerned about you down there."
Dread shoots through me. I feel impending death rattle every cell of my body. "Don't tell me there's something wrong with my baby!"
He takes my hand between his and holds it sympathetically. "Your baby seems fine. But you are anemic and too thin. You must eat more."
"We all need to eat more."
"You especially. I'm going to give you some pills for the anemia. They are hard to get. You must take them."
"You must have this baby in a hospital."
"Because you are very small down there. I'm afraid there could be complications."
"Don't treat me like a lamb. What are you saying?"
"You have a narrow birth canal. Without proper medical care things could go very wrong."
"You mean I could lose my baby?"
"And your life."
"It's the baby I care about!"
"That's why you must deliver in a hospital."
"Good. Now get dressed."
He turns away as I hurriedly put my clothes on. When I finish he is standing at the door with the basket. He hands it to me. It feels heavy and has a new cloth cover. He smiles. "I put another little something in it. I don't want you to go away empty-handed. So many people have gone to so much trouble to get you here."
"I thought you weren't going to use me any more."
"Oh, don't worry. This just needs to go to the hotel entrance."
"What do you mean?"
He looks at his watch. "In six minutes you will be at the entrance. A black Citroën will pull up. There will be a commotion. The Fly will hunt the Eagle. You will see him. Do not panic. Be firm. Set the basket behind the Citroën and walk quickly away. You will have just enough time to catch your train, the last one out before they seal the station off."
"Why will it be sealed off?"
"Because of the commotion."
"But what about the basket? They will search it again at the entrance."
"No, they won't. They have already searched it." He taps his watch impatiently. "Now go."
Should I thank him? I don't even know his name. Is what he says true, about my being small down there? Is he a quack or a double agent? I have one last question.
"Who will be in the black Citroën?"
"Don't worry. Just a butter-and-egg man."
He smiles and opens the door. I step into the hall. Before I can turn around the door slams and locks behind me.
When I stop outside the hotel entrance I glance at my watch. I want to keep going to the train station. Why should I wait for a black Citroën that might never appear and make me miss my train? The two soldiers who challenged me earlier spot me on the steps. They come directly to me, demanding to know why I am still in the area. I assure them I am going home. I show them my train ticket with its departure time just minutes away. I tell them I must run to catch my train. They insist that I stay. They want to search my basket again. The tall blond man in the trench coat approaches, shouting angrily at the soldiers that the basket has already been searched, that no one is to be in front of the hotel but authorized personnel.
I thank the blond man and walk away. Around the corner in front of me comes a man on a motorcycle. He is dressed in black, his head completely covered by a leather helmet strapped under his chin. Bulging glass goggles hide his eyes. He looks like one of the insect men on motorbikes on the Day of the Bees. Is he coming for me? I turn back just as a black Citroën screeches to a stop in front of the hotel. The blond man in the trench coat stiffens to attention and salutes those in the Citroën. The two soldiers at his side also snap to attention.
The man on the motorcycle roars by, pulling a gun from his black leather jacket and firing straight at the blond man, whose hand drops from his forehead as blood sprays from his face. The soldiers fall to their knees and take aim, shooting at the motorcyclist.
I set the basket down on the curb beneath the back bumper of the Citroën and run, not knowing where the gunfire is coming from as its metallic cracking echoes along the street. As I reach the corner an explosion thunders above the gunfire. A concussive whoosh of air pushes at my back. I turn to see the Citroën in a twist of steel, windows blown out, flames engulfing the interior.
I hurry to the train station. Everything is still normal. Word of the explosion and killings at the hotel has not yet reached here. I push through the crowd and climb into the train as it starts to roll away. The train whistle blows; in the distance police sirens wail. The train lurches. Is it going to stop? It picks up speed, rolling quickly out of the station. Through my window I see the streets fill with speeding truckloads of soldiers, their rifles pointed at those they pass.
The world seems gray and cold with a dull frenzy at its center. My hands are clutched between my knees, trembling. Then I remember. The doctor forgot the pills for my baby. Maybe he was a cat surgeon. He never gave me the pills for my anemia. Instead he gave me a bomb in a basket. The train picks up speed, its iron wheels clatter on the track. I lay my head wearily against the glass window and fall asleep.
How long do I sleep? Am I dreaming? Something jolts me awake. I rub foggy moisture from the window. A motorcycle is racing alongside the train. A man in black is crouched over the cycle's handlebars, leaning into the wind, a leather helmet on his head, goggles obscuring his face. He looks like a fly. Is he now hunting me? The train goes into a tunnel. Everything in life or in a dream is blacked out. At my very center I hear the dull frenzy, and faintly, in the unseeable distance, the distinct beating of another heart.