The dance for her name would translate to something like, hatched-in-the-pollen-of-the-long-sun-milkweed. We’ll call her Milkweed. She’s born from an egg, lives in a waxy cup that’s raised above the squirming worker larvae, and swims in the thick royal jelly the worker sisters secrete into her cell every day. As she grows, the worker-sisters build her wax cup up around her, until Milkweed finds herself at the bottom of a dark well of sweet jelly. Then the worker-sisters close off the top, and Milkweed is alone for the first and last time in her life.
Milkweed thinks if this is how she is meant to live the rest of her life, in a world of warm, dark sweetness, then she is all right with it. But she continues to grow, and the walls of her cup are beginning to crush her new body. The royal jelly is almost gone. Milkweed stretches herself out as long as she can and chews a hole in the soft, chewy cap of her cell.
Outside her microworld, everything is dry and bright. Milkweed clings to the top of her cup with all her legs. The worker-sisters are dancing excitedly; joyful, eloquent dances that Milkweed knows well, even though she’s still covered with the sticky residue of infancy. She tentatively flexes new wings, new mandibles. Her antennae reflexively test the air around her, smelling. She’s not prepared for the weight of thousands of consciousnesses, but all she can do is cling to the top of her cup and know: wind speeds, pollen counts, honey yields, the virility of nearby drones, and on, and on. The hive is the dance of dances, and Milkweed knows every step before ever taking a single step of her own. She hasn’t even managed to climb down from the top of her cell.
June is a young woman. She was born in a hospital bed in Omaha, Nebraska, when pollen counts were high and everyone’s eyes and noses were itching. She’s twenty-three now, living alone in a creaky studio apartment just west of the Missouri river. She sits in her window seat, watches the sunset make red-limned silhouettes out of the downtown skyscrapers, and thinks about all the people moving and breathing in the air of the city. When it gets dark, she watches timelapse videos of traffic pumping through intersections like a heartbeat. What stories would she find, if she could read the secret dance of the busy city?
She lives on her own because, somehow, it’s lonelier to have a partner. The heat of another body in her bed is cloying, suffocating. Almost as suffocating as love itself. Love, June believes, is like reading the same book over and over while living in a library. The men she brings home fall in love, and they want her to fall into it, too. Flies in a pitcher plant. Love turns you into somebody’s someone; June wants to be everyone’s no one, like a ghost, or a bird drifting in the negative space between high-rises.
Milkweed flies up to the highest, darkest part of the hive and clings to the golden combs. Now she can see the parade of doting worker-sisters, clumsy drones, and a fat, old queen lumbering toward the hot, white wall of light at the edge of the hive. Milkweed’s own attendant worker-sisters look up at her and dance confusion. You are the hive and the hive is yours, they tell her in a complicated cabaret of leg motions and pheromones. She is the queen. The queen is the hive. Mother-of-the-spring-broods is leaving with the older worker-sisters, and Milkweed is to take her place.
She feels the mélange of odors in the hive turn sour and hears the tap of feet. An uncooperative queen was like a severed head, useless. Had they not cradled her in royal jelly secreted from their own glands? Had they not encased her in a queen’s cup so she could grow fat and healthy?
Milkweed remembers her cell and its insular warmth and sweetness. In all the hive, she is the only one who has such a memory, now that mother-of-spring-broods is gone. It’s the only thing that’s hers. She curls herself around that memory, spreads her wings, and flutters down to the combed floor of the hive.
June imagines a story for every person she passes on the way to the park. She tries to be genuinely perceptive about it and hopes that, on some level, she’s subconsciously deducing things about the people she passes from their postures or expressions or snippets of their phone calls. The jogger with a limp is a recovering alcoholic who’d been in a drunk driving collision; he hasn’t touched a drink in years, and he can run five miles without stopping for the first time in his life. The woman washing her car is doing so to avoid her husband, who she knows is cheating, except he isn’t cheating, and not only that, but her husband thinks she’s the one having an affair because she’s been spending so much time outside of the house. June imagines these stories, then imagines their effects rippling outward across the neighborhood, every life gripping and turning other lives like clockwork. The sidewalk is heavily shaded by full, summer-green trees and the sun flickers between the branches like a strobe light as she walks. June feels like if she could just relax her eyes enough, she’d be able to see the giant Rube-Goldberg machine of events that dictates how the wind blows and whether husbands and wives have faith in each other’s fidelity.
Milkweed gnashes her mandibles at the attendant worker-sisters who try to groom and fuss over her. Stupid, heavy drones buzz in and out of the cavern, circling nearer and nearer to the virgin queen. They’re waiting for the mating flight, the one time in her life Milkweed will be permitted to leave the hive. They will mate with her, and die in the process, leaving her with enough material stored in her body to lay a generation of worker-sister eggs. And these are fine things, because the dance of the hive may whirl on another season.
I do not want to be your queen, Milkweed dances. It’s an obscure set of steps, and the worker-sisters stumble in confusion. They don’t know how to reply; in a hundred queendoms, none have danced rejection. I want to be–Milkweed doesn’t know the steps that mean alone, because hive is the opposite of solitude, and she is the hive, and the hive is hers.
More than half the hive is already gone to escort the old queen to a new tree. Those who remain crawl over the combs, their feet saying confused nonsense things. The confusion spreads out in agitated ripples until Milkweed is at the center of concentric rings of anger and aggression. You are ours and we are yours! The hive roars with feet and wings and pheromones.
Milkweed flies desperately for the light at the mouth of the hive. The wind immediately snags her, hurls her through the air, and her wings are still too weak and unfamiliar to correct for it. She tumbles through a space so vast distance is meaningless, where trees, grass, and flowers undulate in a dance that dwarfs the small, complex rhythms of the hive. A thousand different kinds of pollen fill the air, competing for space on the wind. Milkweed can smell the distant pheromones of a foreign hive. There’s something else, a slight acrid burn in the air that the bees don’t have a dance for.
June lays on her side in the grass beneath the cherry trees in Hanscom park. It’s a dog-barking, lawnmower kind of day, and the air smells of wet grass and mulch and other yard things. She rests her cheek on her picnic blanket and watches the bees pollinate the small white daisies that dot the grass. She daydreams about what it would be like to exist in the timeless, golden afternoon of insect simplicity. To be a bee and belong to a hive. To live according to light and temperature and the subtle cues of micro-seasons, the voices of her sisters always in her mind. Separateness and wanting were the two great flaws in humanity; bees lived together in huge numbers, had societies and roles to fulfill within them, but they didn’t have the uncertainty that came from the illusion of solitude that humans dwelled in.
She rolls on her back and spreads out her arms and legs and imagines she is the hub of a great wheel whose spokes extend out across Omaha. As the wheel turns, so does she. The sun is heavy and potent like honey, and soon June falls asleep with her body heavy against the earth and her mind far above, drifting with the honey bees in the breezy afternoon.
Milkweed travels far and fast, though she has no idea where she’s going. Outside the hive, there is no one to dance a directive for her, or feed her secretions of royal jelly, or pick crusted flakes of the stuff off her body. The sun slips behind the clouds and it’s like someone is pouring ice water over her wings. The temperature drops in degrees until she’s too sluggish to keep herself aloft.
She spirals down to the ground and lands in the dirt between blades of grass. There’s a faint scent of pollen nearby, and she crawls weakly to its source. The forest of grass rustles around her, alive with spiders and ants and beetles. Danger! Far as she is from the hive, she still carries their knowledge and memories. Rustling in the dark spaces between blades of grass only ever means death for a tired, stranded queen. She wonders if the worker-sisters are looking for her, or if they’re already grooming another queen. The earth beneath her feet gives off a wet chill, and now she can barely move. The smell of pollen, like Milkweed’s dream of solitude, is nothing more than a taunt in her last moments. She will die a virgin queen, and be picked apart by the things that scuttle and crawl in the grass. Milkweed rests her heavy abdomen on the cold dirt and waits.
June dreams of a honey bee. As Milkweed’s wings go stiff and her metabolism slows and the hive of her mind goes silent, she dreams of a girl. The bee and the girl mourn each other’s desires. Each has the thing the other wants. June might’ve been a great queen; Milkweed might’ve been an independent girl.
“Let’s trade,” says the girl to the bee in her dreams.
“I’m dying,” says the bee to the girl in her dreams.
“I’ll fly back to your hive,” says June. “I’ll feel the dances of your sisters and give broods of eggs, and love them all as my own.”
“You won’t make it. I’m starving. My body is dying,” says Milkweed. And it’s true; June can feel the joint-stiffening cold seeping up from the earth and into the little queen’s body.
“My body is full and healthy. My mind is closed off from the voices of the human hive. You could be truly alone. You have nothing to lose,” June says. “Why not let me try?”
Milkweed considers that, having flown so far and fast from her hive, she might like a second chance at life. It’s not so strange to think a bee might be born with the soul of a girl, and a girl with the soul of a bee. June seems very sure of herself; perhaps she can make Milkweed’s wings beat again, in spite of the creeping chill and gnawing hunger.
“All right,” she says, knowing her body only has a few moments left. “Perhaps you were meant to be a bee, and I was meant to be a girl.”
Every animal knows that in dreams, a very strong intention is all that’s required to make desire into reality. The bee knows she’s a girl. The girl knows she’s a bee. The bee and the girl touch, and pass through and into each other.
Milkweed wakes up on her side with her cheek against the earth and a ringing silence where the voice of the hive had been before. A few inches from her nose, a large bee is laying in the grass, trying feebly to move her wings. She sits up, scoops the little queen gently into her hands, and takes her to a nearby tree where the worker bees are swarming in a confused cloud. She is yours, and you are hers, Milkweed thinks as she coaxes June into the mouth of the hive. If the worker-sisters are dancing with joy, she can’t tell.
She watches a while, to make sure the hive doesn’t tear June apart. But all is forgiven for now, it seems; so long as the dance of dances continues. She heads home, alone, grateful that the human hive is full of unknowable mysteries. Dances within dances; too many to ever learn them all, even in the near-infinite lifespan of a human. Her head is quiet. Her mind is like a content larvae living forever in a dark, sweet cup of royal jelly. She tests her human legs, takes an experimental hop, then a twirl, then a couple more hops. Soon Milkweed is dancing in the grass, among the cherry trees, and the story her feet tell belongs only to her.
Tara Lee writes speculative short fiction and her work has previously appeared on Flash Frontier. She lives in Seattle, Washington, and spends most of her time in the shadowy corners of the internet, judging and competing in cutthroat underground flash fiction contests.