The Secret Life of Bees (Chinese Edition)by Sue Monk Kidd
Sue Monk Kidd's ravishing debut novel has stolen the hearts of reviewers and readers alike with its strong, assured voice. Set in South Carolina in 1964, The Secret Life of Bees tells the story of Lily Owens, whose life has been shaped around the blurred memory of the afternoon her mother was killed. When Lily's fierce-hearted "stand-in mother," Rosaleen,/i>… See more details below
Sue Monk Kidd's ravishing debut novel has stolen the hearts of reviewers and readers alike with its strong, assured voice. Set in South Carolina in 1964, The Secret Life of Bees tells the story of Lily Owens, whose life has been shaped around the blurred memory of the afternoon her mother was killed. When Lily's fierce-hearted "stand-in mother," Rosaleen, insults three of the town's fiercest racists, Lily decides they should both escape to Tiburon, South Carolina--a town that holds the secret to her mother's past. There they are taken in by an eccentric trio of black beekeeping sisters who introduce Lily to a mesmerizing world of bees, honey, and the Black Madonna who presides over their household. This is a remarkable story about divine female power and the transforming power of love--a story that women will share and pass on to their daughters for years to come.
The big book of the moment was The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen's relentless tale of dysfunction, anomie and self-perpetuating dissatisfaction. What could a book about bees possibly yield in a time like this, I wondered as I studied the jacket. It was early morning, dark, when I cracked the spine. It was a far brighter day by the time I had finished.
"At night I would lie in bed and watch the show, how bees squeezed through the cracks of my bedroom wall and flew circles around the room, making that propeller sound, a high-pitched zzzzzz that hummed along my skin.... The way those bees flew, not even looking for a flower, just flying for the feel of the wind, split my heart down its seam." This is how the book begins, and this is how the author transports us into the story. We know at once that we are in the company of a narrator we can trust. We sense that this is a tale of many layers and deep resonance.
Like Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping and Kent Haruf's Plainsong, this book is about family and caretaking and blurring social lines, about eccentric kindness, swollen hearts and the artifacts of love. It is about the South in 1964, about a child named Lily whose world is irrevocably transformed when her mother dies one tragic afternoon. It is not just the mother's absence that haunts Lily as she grows up; it is the fuzzy memory of the circumstances of her mother's death that makes Lily secretly wonder if she isforgivable, lovable, good. Goodnesswhat it is, what it looks like, who bestows itis the frame within which this book is masterfully hung, the organizing principle behind this intimate, unpretentious and unsentimental work.
Lily is fourteen when the story opens, her mother ten years gone. Her life is a hard, small one. She lives with her father, a punishing man, and with Rosaleen, Lily's black "stand-in mother," who had worked on the family's peach farm until she was brought inside to take on the newly motherless girl. Rosaleen is a magnificent creationfull of spunk and odd wisdoms. With her lips packed full of snuff, she is embarrassinglyand powerfullyunself-conscious. Rosaleen has been practicing her cursive writing so that she can register to vote, and she has picked herself a candidate to back. She's more than ready for her coming civil rights, and she sets off one day, defiant.
Things go awry, of course, and Rosaleen ends up bruised and beaten, in jail; Lily decides that it's up to her to save Rosaleen, which, in a comic scramble, she does. As fugitives from justice, the two put their fate in the hands of a relic from Lily's deceased mothera small wooden picture of a black Virgin Mary.
It's the handwritten words on the back of the picture of Mary"Tiburon, South Carolina"that compel three black sisters to take Rosaleen and Lily in, for reasons they keep to themselves, at least for awhile. The sisters are beekeepers, with a flourishing business in honey and candle wax. They are keepers, too, of an old black Madonna carving, which presides over their house. It isn't long before Lily and Rosaleen are inducted into their world: "We lived for honey," Lily says. "We swallowed a spoonful in the morning to wake us up and one at night to put us to sleep. We took it with every meal to calm the mind, give us stamina, and prevent fatal disease. We swabbed ourselves in it to disinfect cuts or heal chapped lips. It went in our baths, our skin cream, our raspberry tea and biscuits. Nothing was safe from honey.... honey was the ambrosia of the gods and the shampoo of the goddesses."
In the company of the beekeepers and their extraordinary female friends, Lily slowly learns to live with her own past, to trust the beekeepers with her secrets and to navigate the pressing prejudices of the South. She learns what goodness is and how it finally survives. She earns the respect of the company she keeps and becomes a better version of herself.
Maybe it is true that there are no perfect books, but I closed this one believing that I had found perfection. The language is never anything short of crystalline and inspired. The plotting is subtle and careful and exquisitely executed, enabling Kidd not just to make her points about race and religion, but to tell a memorable story while she does. The characters are lovable and deep-hearted, fully dimensional, never pat. The story endures long after the book is slipped back onto the shelf.
- Xin Miao Publishing Co
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.90(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)
Read an Excerpt
The queen, for her part, is the unifying force of the community; if she is removed from the hive, the workers very quickly sense her absence. After a few hours, or even less, they show unmistakable signs of queenlessness
--Man and Insects
At night I would lie in bed and watch the show, how bees squeezed through the cracks of my bedroom wall and flew circles around the room, making that propeller sound, a high-pitched zzzzzz that hummed along my skin. I watched their wings shining like bits of chrome in the dark and felt the longing build in my chest. The way those bees flew, not even looking for a flower, just flying for the feel of the wind, split my heart down its seam.
During the day I heard them tunneling through the walls of my bedroom, sounding like a radio tuned to static in the next room, and I imagined them in there turning the walls into honeycombs, with honey seeping out for me to taste.
The bees came the summer of 1964, the summer I turned fourteen and my life went spinning off into a whole new orbit, and I mean whole new orbit. Looking back on it now, I want to say the bees were sent to me. I want to say they showed up like the angle Gabriel appearing to the Virgin Mary, setting events in motion I could never have guessed. I know it is presumptuous to compare my small life to hers, but I have reason to believe she wouldn't mind; I will get to that. Right now it's enough to say that despite everything that happened that summer, I remain tender toward the bees.
TX:July 1, 1964, I lay in bed, waiting for the bees to show up, thinking of what Rosaleen had said when I told her about their nightly visitations.
"Bees swarm before death," she'd said.
Rosaleen had worked for us since my mother died. My daddy—who I called T. Ray because "Daddy" never fit him—had pulled her out of the peach orchard, where she'd worked as one of his pickers. She had a big round face and a body that sloped out from her neck like a pup tent, and she was so black that night seemed to seep from her skin. She lived alone in a little house tucked back in the woods, not far from us, and came every day to cook, clean, and be my stand-in mother. Rosaleen had never had a child herself, so for the last ten years I'd been her pet guinea pig.
Bees swarm before death. She was full of crazy ideas that I ignored, but I lay there thinking about his one, wondering if the bees had come with my death in mind. Honestly, I wasn't that disturbed by the idea. Every one of those bees could have descended on me like a flock of angels and stung me till I died, and it wouldn't have been the worst thing to happen. People who think dying is the worst thing don't know a thing about life.
My mother died when I was four years old. It was a fact of life, but if I brought it up, people would suddenly get interested in their hangnails and cuticles, or else distant places in the sky, and seem not to hear me. Once in a while, though, some caring soul would say, "Just put it out of your head, Lily. It was an accident. You didn't mean to do it."
That night I lay in bed and thought about dying and going to be with my mother in paradise. I would meet her saying, "Mother, forgive. Please forgive," and she would kiss my skin till it grew chapped and tell me I was not to blame. She would tell me this for the first ten thousand years.
The next ten thousand years she would fix my hair. She would brush it into such a tower of beauty, people all over heaven would drop their harps just to admire it. You can tell which girls lack mothers by the look of their hair. My hair was constantly going off in eleven wrong directions, and T. Ray, naturally, refused to buy me bristle rollers, so all year I'd have to roll it on Welch's grape juice cans, which had nearly turned me into an insomniac. I was always having to choose between decent hair and a good night's sleep.
I decided I would take four or five centuries to tell her about the special misery of living with T. Ray. He had an orneryness year-round, but especially in the summer, when he worked his peach orchards daylight to dusk. Mostly I stayed out of his way. His only kindness was for Snout, his bird dog, who slept in his bed and got her stomach scratched anytime she rolled onto her wiry back. I've seen Snout pee on T. Ray's boot and it not get a rise out of him.
I had asked God repeatedly to do something about T. Ray. He'd gone to church for forty years and was only getting worse. It seemed like this should tell God something.
I kicked back the sheets. The room sat in perfect stillness, not one bee anywhere. Every minute I looked at the clock on my dresser and wondered what was keeping them.
Finally, sometime close to midnight, when my eyelids had nearly given up the strain of staying open, a purring noise started over in the corner, low and vibrating, a sound you could almost mistake for a cat. Moments later shadows moved like spatter pain along the walls, catching the light when they passed the window so I could see the outline of wings. The sound swelled in the dark till the entire room was pulsating, till the air itself became alive and matted with bees. They lapsed around my body, making me the perfect center of a whirlwind cloud. I could not hear myself think for all the bee hum.
I dug my nails into my palms till my skin had nearly turned to herringbone. A person could get stung half to death in a roomful of bees.
Still. The sight was a true spectacle. Suddenly I couldn't stand not showing it off to somebody, even if the only person around was T. Ray. And if he happened to get stung by a couple of hundred bees, well, I was sorry.
I slid from the covers and dashed through the bees for the door. I woke him by touching his arm with one finger, softly at first, then harder and harder till I was jabbing into his flesh, marveling at how hard it was.
T. Ray bolted from bed, wearing nothing but his underwear. I dragged him toward my room, him shouting how this better be good, how the house damn well better be on fire, and Snout barking like we were on a dove shoot.
"Bees!" I shouted. "There's a swarm of bees in my room!"
But when we got there, they'd vanished back into the wall like they knew he was coming, like they didn't want to waste their flying stunts on him.
"Goddamn it, Lily, this ain't funny."
I looked up and down the walls. I got down under the bed and begged the very dust and coils of my bedsprings to produce a bee.
"They were here," I said. "Flying everywhere."
"Yeah, and there was a goddamn herd of buffalo in here, too."
"Listen," I said. "You can hear them buzzing."
He cocked his ear toward the wall with pretend seriousness. "I don't hear any buzzing," he said, and twirled his finger beside his temple. "I guess they must have flown out of that cuckoo clock you call a brain. You wake me up again, Lily, and I'll get out the Martha Whites, you hear me?"
Martha Whites were a form of punishment only T. Ray could have dreamed up. I shut my mouth instantly.
Still, I couldn't let the matter go entirely--T. Ray thinking I was so desperate I would invent an invasion of bees to get attention. Which is how I got the bright idea of catching a jar of these bees, presenting them to T. Ray, and saying, "Now who's making things up?"
My first and only memory of my mother was the day she died. I tried for a long time to conjure up an image of her before that, just a sliver of something, like her tucking me into bed, reading the adventures of Uncle Wiggly, or hanging my underclothes near the space heater on ice-cold mornings. Even her picking a switch off the forsythia bush and stinging my legs would have been welcome.
The day she died was December 3, 1954. The furnace had cooked the air so hot my mother had peeled off her sweater and stood in short sleeves, jerking at the window in her bedroom, wrestling with the stuck paint.
Finally she gave up and said, "Well, fine, we'll just burn the hell up in here, I guess."
Her hair was black and generous, with thick curls circling her face, a face I could never quite coax into view, despite the sharpness of everything else.
I raised my arms to her, and she picked me up, saying I was way too big a girl to hold like this, but holding me anyway. The moment she lifted me, I was wrapped in her smell.
The scent got laid down in me in a permanent way and had all the precision of cinnamon. I used to go regularly into the Sylvan Mercantile and smell every perfume bottle they had, trying to identify it. Every time I showed up, the perfume lady acted surprised, saying, "My goodness, look who's here." Like I hadn't just been in there the week before and gone down the entire row of bottles. Shalimar, Chanel No. 5, White Shoulders.
I'd say, "You got anything new?"
She never did.
So it was a shock when I came upon the scent on my fifth-grade teacher, who said it was nothing but plain ordinary Ponds Cold Cream.
The afternoon my mother died, there was a suitcase open on the floor, sitting near the stuck window. She moved in and out of the closet, dropping this and that into the suitcase, not bothering to fold them.
I followed her into the closet and scooted beneath dress hems and pant legs, into darkness and wisps of dust and little dead moths, back where orchard mud and the moldy smell of peaches clung to T. Ray's boots. I stuck my hands inside a pair of white high heels and clapped them together.
The closet floor vibrated whenever someone climbed the stairs below it, which is how I knew T. Ray was coming. Over my head I heard my mother pulling things from the hangers, the swish of clothes, wire clinking together.
When his shoes clomped into the room, she sighed, the breath leaving her as if her lungs had suddenly clenched. This is the last thing I remember with perfect crispness—her breath floating down to me like a tiny parachute, collapsing without a trace among the piles of shoes.
I don't remember what they said, only the fury of their words, how the air turned raw and full of welts. Later it would remind me of birds trapped inside a closed room, flinging themselves against the windows and the walls, against each other. I inched backward, deeper into the closet, feeling my fingers in my mouth, the taste of shoes, of feet.
Dragged out, I didn't know at first whose hands pulled me, then found myself in my mother's arms, breathing her smell. She smoothed my hair, said, "Don't worry," but even as she said it, I was peeled away by T. Ray. He carried me to the door and set me down in the hallway. "Go to your room," he said.
"I don't want to," I cried, trying to push past him, back into the room, back where she was.
"Get in your goddamned room!" he shouted, and shoved me. I landed against the wall, then fell forward onto my hands and knees. Lifted my head, looking past him, I saw her running across the room. Running at him, yelling. "Leave. Her. Alone."
I huddled on the floor beside the door and watched through air that seemed all scratched up. I saw him take her by the shoulders and shake her, her head bouncing back and forth. I saw the whiteness of his lip.
And then -- though everything starts to blur now in my mind -- she lunged away from him into the closet, away from his grabbing hands, scrambling for something high on a shelf.
When I saw the gun in her hand, I ran toward her, clumsy and falling, wanting to save her, to save us all.
Time folded in on itself then. What is left lies in clear yet disjointed pieces in my head. The gun shining like a toy in her hand, how he snatched it away and waved it around. The gun on the floor. Bending to pick it up. The noise that exploded around us.
This is what I know about myself. She was all I wanted. And I took her away
T. Ray and I lived just outside Sylvan, South Carolina, population 3,100. Peach stands and Baptist churches, that sums it up.
At the entrance to the farm we had a big wooden sign with Owens Peach Enterprise painted across it in the worst orange color you've ever seen. I hated that sign. But the sign was nothing compared with the giant peach perched atop a sixty-foot pole beside the gate. Everyone at school referred to it as the Great Fanny, and I'm cleaning up the language. Its fleshy color, not to mention the crease down the middle, gave it the unmistakable appearance of a rear end. Rosaleen said it was T. Ray's way of mooning the entire world. That was T. Ray.
He didn't believe in slumber parties or sock hops, which wasn't a big concern as I never got invited to them anyway, but he refused to drive me to town for football games, pep rallies, or Beta Club car washes, which were held on Saturdays. He did not care that I wore clothes I made for myself in home3 economics class, cotton print shirtwaists with crooked zippers and skirts hanging below my knees, outfits only the Pentecostal girls wore. I might as well have worn a sign on my back: I am not popular and never will be.
I needed all the help that fashion could give me, since no one, not a single person had ever said, "Lily, you are such a pretty child," except for Miss Jennings at church, and she was legally blind.
I watched my reflection not only in the mirror, but in store windows and across the television when it wasn't on, trying to get a fix on my looks. My hair was black like my mother's but basically a nest of cowlicks, and it worried me that I didn't have much of a chin. I kept thinking I'd grow one the same time my breasts came in, but it didn't work out that way. I had nice eyes, though, what you would call Sophia Loren eyes, but still, even the boys who wore their hair in ducktails dripping with Vitalis and carried combs in their shirt pockets didn't seem attracted to me, and they were considered hard up.
Matters below my neck had shaped up, not that I could show off that part. It was fashionable to wear cashmere twinsets and plaid kilts midthigh, but T. Ray said hell would be an ice rink before I went out like that—did I want to end up pregnant like Bitsy Johnson whose skirt barely covered her ass? How he knew about Bitsy is a mystery of life, but it was true about her skirts and true about the baby. An unfortunate coincidence is all it was.
Rosaleen knew less about fashion than T. Ray did, and when it was cold, God-help-me-Jesus, she made me go to school wearing long britches under my Penecostal dresses.
There was nothing I hated worse than clumps of whispering girls who got quiet when I passed. I started picking scabs off my body and, when I didn't have any, gnawing the flesh around my fingernails till I was a bleeding wreck. I worried so much about how I looked and whether I was doing things right, I felt half the time I was impersonating a girl instead of really being one.
I had thought my real chance would come from going to charm school at the Woman's Club last spring, Friday afternoons for six weeks, but I got barred because I didn't have a mother, a grandmother, or even a measly aunt to present me with a white rose at the closing ceremony. Rosaleen doing it was against the rules. I'd cried till I threw up in the sink.
"You're charming enough," Rosaleen had said, washing the vomit out of the sink basin. "You don't need to go to some highfalutin school to get charm."
"I do so," I said. "They teach everything. How to walk and pivot, what to do with your ankles when you sit in a chair, how to get into a car, pour tea, take off your gloves..."
Rosaleen blew air from her lips. "Good Lord," she said.
"Arrange flowers in a vase, talk to boys, tweeze your eyebrows, shave your legs, apply lipstick..."
"What about vomit in a sink? They teach a charming way to do that?" she asked.
Sometimes I purely hated her.
The morning after I woke T. Ray, Rosaleen stood in the doorway of my room, watching me chase a bee with a mason jar. Her lip was rolled out so far I could see the little sunrise of pink inside her mouth.
"What are you doing with that jar?" she said.
"I'm catching bees to show T Ray. He thinks I'm making them up."
"Lord, give me strength." She'd been shelling butter beans on the porch, and sweat glistened on the pearls of hair around her forehead. She pulled at the front of her dress, opening an airway along her bosom, big and soft as couch pillows.
The bee landed on the state map I kept tacked on the wall, I watched it walk along the coast of South Carolina on scenic Highway 17. I clamped the mouth of the jar against the wall, trapping it between Charleston and Georgetown. When I slid on the lid, it went into a tailspin, throwing itself against the glass over and over with pops and clicks, reminding me of the hail that landed sometimes on the windows.
I'd made the jar as nice as I could with felty petals, fat with pollen, and more than enough nail holes in the lid to keep the bees from perishing, since for all I knew, people might come back one day as the very thing they killed.
I brought the jar level with my nose. "Come look at this thing fight," I said to Rosaleen.
When she stepped in the room, her scent floated out to me, dark and spicy like the snuff she packed inside her cheek. She held her small jug with its coin-sized mouth and a handle for her to loop her finger through. I watched her press it along her chin, her lips fluted out like a flower, then spit a curl of black juice inside it.
She stared at the bee and shook her head. "If you get stung, don't come whining to me," she said, "’cause I ain't gonna care."
That was a lie.
I was the only one who knew that despite her sharp ways, her heart was more tender than a flower skin and she loved me beyond reason.
I hadn't known this until I was eight and she bought me an Easter-dyed biddy from the mercantile. I found it trembling in a corner of its pen, the color of purple grapes, with sad little eyes that cast around for its mother. Rosaleen let me bring it home, right into the living room, where I strewed a box of Quaker Oats on the floor for it to eat and she didn't raise a word of protest.
The chick left dollops of violet-streaked droppings all over the place, due, I suppose, to the dye soaking into its fragile system. We had just started to clean them up when T. Ray burst in, threatening to boil the chick for dinner and fire Rosaleen for being an imbecile. He started to swoop at the biddy with his tractor-grease hands, but Rosaleen planted herself in front of him. "There is worse things in the house than chicken shit," she said and looked him up one side and down the other, "You ain't touching that chick."
His boots whispered uncle all the way down the hall. I thought, She loves me, and it was the first time such a far-fetched idea had occurred to me.
Her age was a mystery, since she didn't possess a birth certificate. She would tell me she was born in 1909 or 1919, depending on how old she felt at the moment. She was sure about the place: McClellanville, South Carolina, where her mama had woven sweet-grass baskets and sold them on the roadside.
"Like me selling peaches," I'd said to her.
"Not one thing like you selling peaches," she'd said back, "You ain't got seven children you gotta feed from it."
"You've got six brothers and sisters?" I'd thought of her as alone in the world except for me.
"I did have, but I don't know where a one of them is."
She'd thrown her husband out three years after they married, for carousing. "You put his brain in a bird, the bird would fly backward," she liked to say. I often wondered what that bird would do with Rosaleen's brain. I decided half the time it would drop shit on your head and the other half of it would sit on abandoned nests with its wings spread wide.
I used to have daydreams in which she was white and married T. Ray, and became my real mother. Other times I was a Negro orphan she found in a cornfield and adopted. Once in a while I had us living in a foreign country like New York, where she could adopt me and we could both stay our natural color.
My mother's name was Deborah. I thought that was the prettiest name I'd ever heard, even though T. Ray refused to speak it. If I said it, he acted like he might go straight to the kitchen and stab something. Once when I asked him when her birthday was and what cake icing she preferred, he told me to shut up, and when I asked him a second time, he picked up a jar of blackberry jelly and threw it against the kitchen cabinet. We have blue stains to this day.
I did manage to get a few scraps of information from him, though, such as my mother was buried in Virginia where he people came from. I got worked up at that, thinking I'd found a grandmother. No, he tells me, my mother was an only child whose mother died ages ago. Naturally. Once when he stepped on a roach in the kitchen, he told me my mother had spent hours luring roaches out of the house with bits of marshmallow and trails of graham-cracker crumbs, that she was a lunatic when it came to saving bugs.
The oddest things caused me to miss her. Like training bras. Who was I going to ask about that? And who but my mother could've understood the magnitude of driving me to junior cheerleader tryouts? I can tell you for certain T. Ray didn't grasp it. But you know when I missed her the most? The day I was twelve and woke up with the rose-petal stain on my panties. I was so proud of that flower and didn't have a soul to show it to except Rosaleen.
Not too long after that I found a paper bag in the attic stapled at the top. Inside it I found the last traces of my mother.
There was a photograph of a woman smirking in front of an old car, wearing a light-colored dress with padded shoulders. Her expression said, "Don't you dare take this picture," but she wanted it taken, you could see that. You could not believe the stories I saw in that picture, how she was waiting at the car fender for love to come to her, and not too patiently.
I laid the photograph beside my eighth-grade picture and examined every possible similarity. She was more or less missing a chin, too, but even so, she was above-average pretty, which offered me genuine hope for my future.
The bag contained a pair of white cotton gloves stained the color of age. When I pulled them out, I thought, Her very hands were inside here. I feel foolish about it now, but one time I stuffed the gloves with cotton balls and held them through the night.
The end-all mystery inside the bag was a small wooden picture of Mary, the mother of Jesus. I recognized her even though her skin was black, only a shade light than Rosaleen's. It looked to me like somebody had cut the black Mary's picture from a book, glued it into a sanded piece of wood about two inches across, and varnished it. On the back an unknown hand had written "Tiburon, S.C."
For two years now I'd kept these things of hers inside a tin box, buried in the orchard. There was a special place out there in the long tunnel of trees no one knew about, not even Rosaleen. I'd started going there before I could tie my shoelaces. At first it was just a spot to hide from T Ray and his meanness or from the memory of that afternoon when the gun went off, but later I would slip out there, sometimes after T. Ray had gone to bed, just to lie under the trees and be peaceful. It was my plot of earth, my cubbyhole.
I'd placed her things inside the tin box and buried it out there late one night by flashlight, too scared to leave them hanging around in my room, even in the back of a draw. I was afraid T. Ray might go up to the attic and discover her things were missing, and turn my room upside down searching for them. I hated to think what he'd do to me if he found them hidden among my stuff.
Now and then I'd go out there and dig up the box. I would lie on the ground with the trees folded over me, wearing her gloves, smiling at the photograph. I would study "Tiburon, S.C." on the back of the black Mary picture, the funny slant of the lettering, and wonder what sort of place it was. I'd look it up on the map once, and it wasn't more than two hours away. Had my mother been there and bought this picture? I always promised myself on day, when I was grown-up enough, I would take the bus over there. I wanted to go every place she had ever been.
After my morning of capturing bees, I spent the afternoon in the peach stand out on the highway, selling T. Ray's peaches. It was the loneliest summer job a girl could have, stuck in a roadside hut with three walls and a flat tin roof.
I sat on a Coke crate and watched pickups zoom by till I was nearly poisoned with exhaust fumes and boredom. Thursday afternoons were usually a big peach day, with women getting ready for Sunday cobblers, but not a soul stopped.
T. Ray refused to let me bring books out here and read, and if I smuggled one out, say, Lost Horizon, stuck under my shirt, somebody, like Mrs. Watson from the next farm, would see him at church and say, "Saw your girl in the peach stand reading up a storm. You must be proud." And he would half kill me.
What kind of person is against reading? I think he believed it would stir up ideas of college, which he thought a waste of money for girls, even if they did, like me, score the highest number a human being can get on their verbal aptitude test. Math aptitude is another thing, but people aren't meant to be overly bright in everything.
I was the only student who didn't groan and carry on when Mrs. Henry assigned us another Shakespeare play. Well actually, I did pretend to groan, but inside I was as thrilled as if I'd been crowned Sylvan's Peach Queen.
Up until Mrs. Henry came along, I'd believed beauty college would be the upper limit of my career. Once, studying her face, I told her if she was my customer, I would give her a French twist that would do wonders for her, and she said—and I quote —"Please, Lily, you are insulting your fine intelligence. Do you have any idea how smart you are? You could be a professor or a writer with actual books to your credit. Beauty school. Please."
" It took me a month to get over the shock of having life possibilities. You know how adults love to ask, "So...what are you going be when you grow up? I can't tell you how much I'd hated that question, but suddenly I was going around volunteering to people, people who didn't even want to know, that I planned to be a professor and a writer of actual books.
I kept a collection of my writings. For a while everything I wrote had a horse in it. After we read Ralph Waldo Emerson in class, I wrote "My Philosophy of Life," which I intended for the start of a book but could only get three pages out of it. Mrs. Henry said I needed to live past fourteen years old before I would have a philosophy.
She said a scholarship was my only hope for a future and lent me her private books for the summer. Whenever I opened one, T. Ray said, "Who do you think you are, Julius Shakespeare?" The man sincerely thought that was Shakespeare's first name, and if you think I should have corrected him, you are ignorant about the art of survival. He also referred to me as Miss Brown-Nose-in-a-Book and occasionally as Miss Emily-Big-Head-Diction. He meant Dickinson, but again, there are things you let go by.
Without books in the peach stand, I often passed the time making up poems, but that slow afternoon I didn't have the patience for rhyming words. I just sat out there and thought about how much I hated the peach stand, how completely and absolutely I hated it.
The day before I'd gone to first grade, T. Ray had found me in the peach stand sticking a nail into one of his peaches.
He walked toward me with his thumbs jammed into his pockets and his eyes squinted half shut from the glare. I watched his shadow slide over the dirt and weeds and thought he had come to punish me for stabbing a peach. I didn't even know why I was doing it.
Instead he said, "Lily, you're starting school tomorrow, so there are things you need to know. About your mother."
For a moment everything got still and quiet, as if the wind had died and the birds had stopped flying. When he squatted down in front of me, I felt caught in a hot dark I could not break free of.
"It's time you knew what happened to her, and I want you to hear it from me. Not from people out there talking."
We had never spoken of this, and I felt a shiver pass over me. The memory of that day would come back to me at odd moments. The stuck window. The smell of her. The clink of hangers. The suitcase. The way they'd fought and shouted. Most of all the gun on the floor, the heaviness when I'd lifted it.
I knew the explosion I'd heard that day had killer her. The sound still sneaked into my head occasionally and surprised me. Sometimes it seemed that when I'd held the gun there hadn't been any noise at all, that it had come later, but other times, sitting alone on the back steps, bored and wishing for something to do, or pent up in my room on a rainy day, I felt I had caused it, that when I'd lifted the gun, the sound had torn through the room and gouged out our hearts.
It was a secret knowledge that would slip up and overwhelm me, and I would take off running -- even if it was raining out, I ran -- straight down the hill to my special place in the peach orchard. I'd like right down on the ground and it would calm me. Now T. Ray scooped up a handful of dirt and let if fall out of his hands. "The day she died, she was cleaning out the closet," he said. I could not account for the strange tone of his voice, an unnatural sound, how it was almost, but not quite, kind.
Cleaning the closet. I had never considered what she was doing those last minutes of her life, why she was in the closet, what they had fought about.
"I remember," I said. My voice sounded small and faraway to me, like it was coming from an ant hole in the ground.
His eyebrows lifted, and he brought his face closer to me. Only his eyes showed confusion. "You what?"
"I remember," I said again. "You were yelling at each other."
A tightening came into his face. "Is that right?" he said. His lips had started to turn pale, which was the thing I always watched for. I took a step backward.
"Goddamn it, you were four years old!" he shouted. "You don't know what you remember."
In the silence that followed, I considered lying to him, saying, I take it back. I don't remember anything. Tell me what happened, but there was such a powerful need in me, pent up for so long, to speak about it, to say the words.
I looked down at my shoes, at the nail I'd dropped when I'd seen him coming. "There was a gun."
"Christ," he said.
He looked at me a long time, then walked over to the bushel baskets stacked at the back of the stand. He stood there a minute with his hands balled up before he turned around and came back.
"What else?" he said. "You tell me right now what you know."
"The gun was on the floor --"
"And you picked it up," he said. "I guess you remember that."
The exploding sound had started to echo around in my head. I looked off in the direction of the orchard, wanting to break and run.
"I remember picking it up," I said. "But that's all."
He leaned down and held me by the shoulders, gave me a little shake. "You don't remember anything else? You're sure? Now, think."
I paused so long he cocked his head, looking at me, suspicious.
"No, sir, that's all."
"Listen to me," he said, his fingers squeezing into my arms. "We were arguing like you said. We didn't see you at first. Then we turned around and you were standing there holding the gun. You'd picked it up off the floor. Then it just went off."
He let me go and rammed his hands into his pockets. I could hear his hands jingling keys and nickels and pennies. I wanted so much to grab on to his leg, to feel him reach down and lift me to his chest, but I couldn't move, and neither did he. He stared at a place over my head. A place he was being very careful to study.
"The police asked lots of questions, but if was just one of those horrible things. You didn't mean to do it," he said softly. "But if anybody wants to know, that's what happened."
Then he left, walking back toward the house. He'd gone only a little way when he looked back. "And don't stick that nail into my peaches again."
--from The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, Copyright © January 2002, Viking Press, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.
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