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He wasn’t there. Qwian scanned the gathered villagers again while the Headman spoke the words of blessing for the honey hunt. The familiar ritual brought her no comfort and she barely listened until mention of her own name burst into her self-doubts.
‘Qwian was chosen by her father, whose passing we grieve. And she has been visited by the dream so she must lead the honey hunt in his place. Her shoulders are slight, with much resting on them. Today the bees will make their own choice, confirming or rejecting.’ Gurratan’s voice was clear and sharp as the diamond he was named after.
Qwian shivered in the dawn chill and her heart hammered like war drums. Where was he? Surely he would not let her go on the hunt without one gesture to wish her well. He knew she might die this day, falling like her father had, one year ago, to death below the cliffs. What if the bees slashed the bamboo ties of her rope ladder, as they had done to his?
When they argued last night, she’d told Tau that she must walk her own path and if she died hunting honey, this was her fate, like her father’s. Of course he retorted that death would find her more easily half-way down a cliff attacked by giant bees than if she sat cross-legged, weaving in her family hut, like the other women.
‘I am not like other women,’ she’d told him and his eyes gleamed like stones wet with river-water but he had not kissed her to make up. He’d turned away, stoking his fears to a blaze of resentment. He could not even come with her. The Headman’s son was too precious to the tribe’s future to be allowed to hunt honey. He could only wait to know if all who set out returned and waiting was a humiliation fit for women, not warriors. So he’d told her.
What if she did die today? Her thumping heart told her that she would. Her father had said she must have the honey hunter’s dream to follow in his footsteps so she’d told the Shaman of the one where she climbed down a rainbow in pursuit of a dark red monkey. This satisfied everybody although Qwian was sceptical about the way men’s interpretation of dreams suited their plans.
Maybe she had never had the honey hunter’s dream. Tau was not here because all the omens were bad and she would die. Gurratan would be forced to buy a honey hunter from another tribe and the bees would be angry at such disrespect. She did indeed carry a heavy burden on her slight shoulders.
Gurratan brought the rite of well-wishing to an end but it meant nothing to her if Tau was not here. The Headman handed her the two long bamboo spears with square wooden ends that she would need for her work. Her father’s spears, recovered undamaged from the shrubs around his broken body, by the bees’ will. She had been there, his apprentice, when he fell to his death and now the spears were hers. In such a manner did a child become an adult. She bowed her head in acceptance as she took them.
‘Do not taste the honey,’ hissed Gurratan, for her ears only. ‘You are still only a woman even if the bees accept you as our honey hunter. If your father had been blessed with sons, we would not have come to this.’
|© Yunchuan luo|
As she raised her head, she felt some shift in the scene, the presence of the newcomer, before she saw him, coming out of the shadows at the back of the gathering. Dawn sunlight bronzed hair that hung straight as weighted threads on a loom. Tau. His face granted no smile but he raised one arm slowly, put his hand on his heart and offered it to her in mime.
Qwian’s open palm caught his invisible heart and placed it on her own, in a gesture that could have been acceptance of Gurratan’s words. But was not. Her heartbeat steadied and now she was ready. She would not die this day because she was born for bees.
Now she could smile and so she did. ‘The day begins well,’ she told her team of twelve hunters and she turned her back on the village to lead the way with her spears through the surrounding jungle to the place of preparation.
On the previous day, the honey hunters had carried bamboo ropes, slats of wood and a wicker basket to the sacred clearing above the high cliffs. They’d braved the freezing river, helping each other across on the slippery stones. Two men had been caught by leeches and their wounds were still bleeding. This time they knew all the danger spots and could move more quickly without their burdens, chanting songs to bring courage.
When they reached the place of preparation, they needed no word from Qwian to set about their tasks. The ropes and slats were assembled as ladders and the bamboo-shoot joints were double-checked. Nobody spoke of the death of Qwian’s father but she knew they all carried the blackness of it, like the rage of bees. This day’s harvest would be in homage to him.
With nods and whistles, their work at the top of the cliff was done and the group split into two as the May sunshine grew stronger. One team took the pathway down to the base of the cliffs, avoiding the bees.
Last year, Qwian had been among them. She’d gathered wood and saplings for the fires, secured the rope sent down from the top. She’d shinned up the rope carrying leafy brushwood and lodged it in crevices, just below the huge scallops of honeycomb, so that the smoke would reach the bees without hurting them. The roar of the giant bees drew her, spoke to her in a language she did not yet understand.
‘Be patient,’ her father had said, before he fell to his death.
She’d been fanning flames upwards, proud of her work with the brushwood, when he reached out with his spear to dislodge more comb. The cliff was black with giant bees, clouded with smoke but she saw him stretch, saw the ladder tilt impossibly as a slat gave way. He should have been held by two security ropes.
Had he slipped them to reach that tempting honeycomb, just out of reach? Had the jerk on the two security ropes been too much for the trees that held them on top? Had the knots come loose? In the confusion of smoke and fire, fall and death, cause was irrelevant. The bees had decided.
When the first whistle came from below, Qwian looked over the edge. She saw the first wisps of smoke and the first black clouds of bees swarming in panic two hundred ladder-steps below. She could glimpse the team of fire-starters, like ants scurrying in and out of flames another hundred ladder-steps or so further down the cliff.
Her stomach filled with wings. Tau was right. A woman could be safe weaving in her hut.
The men beside her gestured, whistled back to those below. All was ready. It was time.
She donned the honey hunter’s veil, her only protection. Anything more would show disrespect to the bees, deny the bond they shared. She murmured the words due to the gods, attached the two security ropes and started to climb down the ladder into the smoke and black buzz, into the heart of bees.
Then Qwian was lost, choking in fumes, her entire body vibrating in the wrath of bees that bounced off her veil, her arms. They were almost weightless but there were so many she was suffocating in bees. Thousands of them in contagious panic. She must fly! She pulled on one of the security ropes, the signal to lift her up again, get her to safety. She could not do this!
Nothing changed. Was this how her father died? Wondering why he’d been abandoned?
A rope whistled down beside her, snaking through the blinding white, dangling an empty basket that stopped close enough for her to hook it with a spear. The men were good at their jobs. They’d interpreted her jerk of panic as a sign to send down the basket and they’d guessed where she was on the cliff face. They’d guessed well.
Already she was adapting to short breaths, closed mouth, listening to bees and echoes, marking the position of the honeycomb each time she had a clear view of the glistening hives. She made a tentative stab, swung a little on the ladder, stabbed again. She would do this. She grew used to the swing of the ladder as she stretched more, became braver, determined to dislodge the first comb.
|© Patricio Sánchez|
Nearly severed, Qwian thought. She used one spear to position the basket and then gave a last jab with the other. Stretching the last sticky dollop of dark red honey as it ripped free, the comb dropped into the waiting basket, which jerked with the weight. Immediately, the basket was lowered by the top team to those on the ground.
Qwian swung on her ladder, waiting for the empty basket to come back up, so she could fill it again. She was a honey hunter surrounded by her bees. Her mouth opened in laughter and at that moment a breeze of bees lifted her veil and smacked her mouth with a morsel of honeycomb. She licked it instinctively, the mad honey made from rhododendron nectar. Aphrodisiac honey, that made men crazy or healed them. Forbidden honey that she should not taste.
Fly, the bees told her. Fire! Dangerous!
She understood them in their language but it did not seem strange. Their voices were in her head.
‘We are not robbers but guests in your home. Thank you for the gift of honey,’ she told them politely, licking the last bit from a corner of her mouth as blackness zoomed around her, too fast to be more than fuzzy shapes.
We will need you, they told her. Your hive and ours. Never forget our gifts and your promise.
Her head swimming, Qwian saw the smoke curl into a girl’s face surrounded by bees. Then the girl was running through a forest. A bee tattoo glittered on her thigh, came to life, took flight. The smoke blanked white and the vision was gone, broken by an empty basket, returning from below.
Remember, the bees buzzed. Then they stung her so she would not forget but she just laughed. The stings did not hurt her. Qwian shook her head to clear her thoughts of honey madness.
She heard the bees say, We must protect our queen. We must protect you… and then all she heard was humming. She set to work once more, careful to take only outer honeycomb, leave the heart of the beehive safe, where the new brood was in capped wax cells. Where the queen was at work, laying eggs. Protect the queen.
After four heaped basketfuls of comb, Qwian’s work was done and she jerked on both ropes to show she was coming up. The ascent was slow, her limbs suddenly stiff with fatigue, and she let the men help her onto firm ground. Her legs shook as if she was still swaying on the ladder and she disguised her weakness by sitting.
Someone passed her the leather bottle and she eased her throat with freezing river-water. Waiting is women’s work, she thought. On the ground below, the men were mashing comb and straining the precious honey into their containers. On the top, ropes and ladders were untethered and dismantled. Qwian had earned her moment resting.
When the honey harvest arrived on the cliff top, each man saluted Qwian, kissing her spears in reverence.
‘The bees have recognised your father’s daughter,’ they said.
More could not be said without transgressing the mystery of bees and Qwian had no desire to ask questions. She too was reluctant to talk about her experience. And of course she could not say she had tasted the honey. She merely looked on, indulgent, while each man took his allotted gulp of honey and became talkative, foolish or quarrelsome, as was his nature.
Although each felt the urge, nobody returned to the honey-pot for more. Nobody wished to go home in the shame of drunken sickness, remembered only in jokes. This harvest was their triumph, worth a fat year for the village.
The trek homeward was lighter in spirit than the outward journey, not just because of the honey’s effect. Now the men could tell stories of past hunts and talk of Qwian’s father. She felt his approval like a warm blanket on a cold night.
They called out as they approached the village, to let all know they were returning. This time, Qwian did not need to search for the one person who mattered. Tau, in front of the other villagers, did not wait for her to reach him but rushed towards her, heedless of custom.
‘You came back,’ he said.
‘I will always come back,’ she replied, losing words in a kiss that tasted of mad honey. ‘For the honey,’ she murmured, kissing him again. ‘And you.’
Did you guess the song title?
A Taste of Honey - Piers Faccini, Luca Aquino
Jean Gill is an award-winning Welsh writer, photographer and registered beekeeper living in the south of France with two big scruffy dogs, a beehive called Endeavour, a Nikon D750 and a man. She was the first woman to be a secondary headteacher in Wales and, as she is mother or stepmother to five children, life was always hectic. Best known for The Troubadours Quartet, ‘a whole bag of Discovered Diamonds’ (Helen Hollick), Jean’s latest novel is eco-fantasy featuring a shape-shifting heroine and her fellow bees.
Discovering Diamonds has reviewed Jean's Troubadour Quartet
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