*Image: “#3 Pollen Tsunami” by Ramsay Wise, 24″ x 36″ Spray Paint and Acrylic on Canvas
The Bees Are All Women
By Millie Tullis
Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free. //
The Box is only temporary.
— Sylvia Plath, “The Arrival of the Bee Box”
My naked back is still open to the winter air, and I know Jaden can see its white glow even in the dark as we talk. I feel cold sitting up in the bed. I hold the heavy comforter to my neck and chest and bury my face in it when he speaks.
“I think…it should wait…until marriage,” he says. “I mean, how long have we even known each other? How long have we been hanging out?” His words are awkward and slow; they are chosen carefully.
The dark blanket turns wet as I breathe into it. It’s as dark as the bedroom inside the comforter, and I feel distanced from his words. I feel grateful to him for just that moment because he didn’t touch me when he spoke. He knew my question hadn’t been ridiculous and he was being nice to me.
But I want to hate him too, because I can’t stop thinking that just ten minutes before I had been pressing my palms into his bedroom wall, gleaming, naked, as he pushed his fingers into me, one after another, faster, as my breaths became short and sharp.
As he speaks—until marriage—I can still feel the stickiness in between the fingers on my right hand. I’m marked with a stain from the sperm that had come out of him less than fifteen minutes before. The stickiness, and the noise he made, like an animal getting hit by the tire of a bike—I can’t stop thinking about that either.
I panic for an instant. Have I hurt him with my hand? I’ve never given a hand job before. When I was in high school, my Mormon mother told me that even a boy touching my boobs was supposed to wait until marriage. I was taught that having sex before marriage is a sin next to premeditated murder.
I don’t believe that anymore, but I know Jaden does, and I’m confused about what he wants from me. He went down on me the third time we were alone together.
He sits up on the bed and returns the question I’d asked him: “Do you…want…to have sex?”
“No.” I don’t look at him as we sit side by side. “I’d at least want to be in love with you.”
Later that night we fall asleep. I lie with his arm around my naked waist, his other hand buried under my pillow. His body curves up to hold mine. I listen to his breath as it slows and creates a hot space on the back of my neck, the space where his lips almost touch my skin.
He falls asleep first.
I lie stiffly, my body refusing to melt into his as it normally does—has—for almost every other night the past two weeks. It’s been a just over a month since I broke up with Stephen, the Mormon boy my parents hoped I would marry my freshman year of college.
I feel better in the morning. He is gone before I wake up. The next time I see him, he won’t mention that I said the word “sex,” and I won’t mention that he spends Sundays in bed with me now instead of at church.
That spring, I was researching beekeeping for a nonfiction writing class. I arranged to interview Keith, a local beekeeper who was either the president or the former president of the Valley’s Beekeeping Association— he couldn’t remember which, he explained gruffly over the phone. He couldn’t understand why I wanted to talk to him, but he agreed and invited me to his home.
The house’s brick—a yellowed orange and brown—made the yard’s color look young and noisy. The exterior reminded me of my grandparents’ 1970s-style ranch house, and when Keith opened the door and invited me into the musky, dim, warm house, the smell—the smell of a small room full of trinkets, aged food and soft, folding skin—evoked memories of my grandparents.
Keith wore Dickies overalls, the kind of thick, stiff denim I’d never seen at any department store, and sturdy, leather, serious-looking brown work boots thrust out of his pants’ legs. He was tall and took my hand somewhat awkwardly. The second I’d entered the door’s threshold, I’d stuck my hand out and introduced myself.
“Hi, it’s nice to meet you! My parents actually live here in Providence, just a half mile above the elementary school. I grew up here.”
“Oh, yes, well…we like it here.” He didn’t ask me about the names of my parents, which amused me. Most of the older people I meet seem to constantly seek names; they ask the names of my parents, my grandparents, the boy I’m dating, his parents, his grandparents. They’re constantly searching for connections so they can exclaim what a small world it is.
“I’m Millie Tullis, thank you so much for letting me come here and talk about the bees and your equipment—”
“Millie, was it? I couldn’t remember if that was your last name or your first one.”
I could have happily told him that I went to elementary school for six years a block away from his home and to the middle school four blocks away. I could have told him that my grandparents live in the next town over, that my parents both went to the high school on the other side of the valley, and that my father works at the university now. But he didn’t ask any questions.
Instead, he led me to the dining room. It was five steps deeper from the doorway and was attached to a tiny kitchen corner; all that separated the kitchen from the dining room was a counter that was blanketed with newspapers, pills, letters, bills, a dish soap container with no label and an open, opaque bucket of honey. On the very edge of the counter, pointing to the front door was an open-mouth sack full of pistachios. I sat at a table that had a brightly saturated woodwork pattern on its face—I could have sat for hours, making up faces and pictures in the swirl of rings on the wood—its colors covered with a creamy, aged-white doily, a bouquet of plastic flowers, and a box of tissues. I wondered if Keith had a wife who knitted the doily or had bought it at a yard sale. My grandmother collects other people’s discarded memories at yard sales. I tried to check for a wedding ring, but when we sat down, he slid his hands into his lap, and they were hidden below the table.
He looked a little like my grandfather, with his serious expression and tanned skin. My grandfather had been a farmer, and for as long as I could remember, the backs of his hands were covered in massive brown spots, like a pile of moles stacked on top of each other. He had married my grandmother when she was nineteen, and she had dropped out of Brigham Young University to support him while he finished school; she typed his papers on their cheap typewriter because he made too many mistakes. She became pregnant within the year.
We know that on February 11, 1963, Sylvia Plath Hughes arranged buttered bread on a plate for her children. We know that she placed the plate next to two mugs of milk in the bedroom her two children shared. We know that Frieda was four, and Nicholas was one.
We know that as a toddler, Frieda had light brown hair like her mother’s. The summer before, when the Hughes family had been living in the English countryside, the sun had made the little girl’s straight hair look bright, threaded it with gold. In the small London flat, where their pipes froze overnight, her hair had faded back to brown. Perhaps her mother looked for the gold missing there, and remembered when her own hair had been blonde. It was even bleached from a bottle one summer, and had contrasted so youthfully with her brown, lean body. In the black-and-white pictures of Plath on the beach at Cape Cod with a boyfriend in-between semesters at Smith, her hair is almost as white as the sky, almost as pure as her white bikini, and her legs and arms stretch long.
We know that after leaving the bread and milk with her sleeping children, Plath taped shut the door of their bedroom. She filled the crack under their door with heavy, wet cloths. She sealed the doors to the kitchen similarly, and put a cloth down in the belly of the oven, before turning on the gas, folding her arms, and sticking her head in.
I know this information because as a freshman in college, I began to study Sylvia Plath’s poetry. What started off as a fascination with “Daddy” drew me to a poetry writing class, the poems of Ariel, The Bell Jar, and two weeks of in-class discussions tracing her depression, suicide, and chaotic relationship with Ted Hughes.
My parents were sure my boyfriend Stephen, who I started college with, would be my husband by the time I was a sophomore—a junior, maybe. They wanted me to accept and treasure what they did, because they did. But what I wanted was to understand people’s private lives, the relationship between what is private and what is public, and how a life unfolds in time. I wanted to understand poetry and art—I wanted to learn how to start to make it myself. I wanted to know how life creates and destroys beauty, and I fell in love with my own curiosity, not with Stephen.
The longer we talked, the more Keith relaxed. He placed his left hand on his cheek, and the clean-shaven skin folded easily; his pinky continuously roamed along his face. He brushed his nose, with its thin layer of whispering white hairs, then his cheek, and then rested it on the thin beak of his upper lip. His eyes were sharp, small, and bird-like. Whenever I looked at them, they met mine and waited for my eyes to drop first. The soft pillows of swollen skin under his eyes were larger than his eyeballs, which were brightly surrounded by the flesh.
“Now, the honey you go down and buy at the store, there you have to be careful. Most of the honey comes from China; it’s diluted down with all this corn syrup and water, you don’t want it with all of that and what else.”
“So you began keeping bees in order to have good honey?”
“Oh yes. Really good honey. You’ll feel it kind of burn down your throat and things when it’s really good honey.” His pinky rubbed across the thin bow of his lip. I could see dark brown hair coming out of his wrist, spilling from the cuff of his blue flannel shirt. It looked strange there, compared to the white hair that glowed against his scalp. I could see he’d combed the hair with gel that morning—the light came through little hardened lines of hair because of the window behind him. I looked hard in his face for a moment and wondered what he had looked like at my age. I wondered if I would have thought he was handsome if he were eighteen, if I would have thought he was interesting.
All I could see was wrinkled skin folding and white hairs sprouting from the tip of his nose.
“And one thing you need in order to keep bees is patience. You can’t get upset too much because bees can feel that. I don’t know if you call them an ‘intelligent animal,’ but they’re not dumb. If you put out a spirit or a radiance that shows you’re angry or upset, they’ll get more upset and swarm around you. You’ll hear beekeepers say, ‘Oh my bees know me.’ But there’s stories—there’s a story or two, over in England, a beekeeper died, and they said at his funeral, there was a swarm of bees come—and this was back in 1800 or so—but the swarm come, right to his grave. They never stung anybody or anything, and when the funeral was done, they just left. Never stung anybody.”
“Do you feel your bees know you?”
“Oh yeah, they know me. I’m the first thing they want to sting, that’s how well they know me. I try to be gentle…but I’m the one they don’t want around, that’s how well they know me. They’re happy to accept any honey I give them, to get them through the winter, but they don’t want me taking anything. It’s all take and no give.”
My mother follows me outside of Old Main into the canyon wind that flips up the tips of my hair. I’m five weeks into the second semester of my freshman year of college.
Her eyes fill with tears and she begins waving her hands at me, “You can give your mother five minutes! Do not walk away from me!”
I feel only frustration. Everything she does frustrates me. I have homework to do before rushing back to my apartment to wash my hair and put on clean clothes before my next class. My mother is in my French class because she thought it would be fun if we took a course together my first year away from home.
As Mom demands we talk about “things” on campus—halfway hiding our argument in a little nook the brick building makes while other students walk past just a few feet away—I wonder if I should feel proud or ashamed that my hair and face are unwashed, that I’m wearing Jaden’s hat and his blue flannel shirt with the leggings, boots, and dirty pink lace underwear I wore the night before. I mostly feel absurdly aware of it all, like I’m hiding secrets in plain sight.
But of course I don’t want her to know that I haven’t been sleeping at my apartment every night, because I know it will lead to more scrutiny. More talks where she tearfully clutches at me and asks “where were you?” and then doesn’t believe anything I tell her about things going well, about my doing well.
She still can’t swallow my “no” this morning when she asks about a friend from high school getting caught with a shot glass in her dorm elevator. She tells me that she couldn’t sleep for worrying the night before, that she awoke early that morning worrying about me.
“Mom, it’s really not my thing to tell. I don’t drink. I’m not doing anything like that. I’m really not doing much of anything for you to worry about, even though I don’t go to church every week—”
“How do I know? How do I know what you do at all? I don’t know that you would tell me the truth! And you know what, maybe I shouldn’t tell you this, I don’t…I don’t think I should tell you this, but well, you know what, maybe you need to know—your father doesn’t even respect you anymore because of this pain you’re causing our family. We don’t trust you. We don’t know what you’re doing. We don’t know who you are anymore.”
Plath’s life, marriage, and suicide became better known over the years as her fame grew, and these details were used to interpret her poetry. Plath’s struggles with depression and her husband’s infidelity became constant touchstones of her work for fans and critics. When I read Ariel in my Introduction to Writing Poetry course, Plath’s death and failed marriage had been discussed before we read a single poem.
Ted Hughes, who was still Plath’s legal husband at the time of her death despite their separation in August the year before, found the manuscript that would become Ariel. Plath had carefully prepared the book for publication before her death and left it on her desk, knowing it would be discovered and published.
I want to know how it feels to know that your children were found cold in their beds because their mother cracked open the window to save them from the toxic gas she used to kill herself.
I want to know what you do with the guilt that comes with the suicide of a woman you loved, and then left, because you came to love another man’s wife better.
I want to know what you do with her poems, her art, and all the journals she wrote before you, during you, after you; the things that described her everyday life, all the little things, as she saw them. As only she could see them.
When he published Ariel in 1965, two years after her death, Hughes made her poetry famous. However, the book of Plath’s poetry Hughes published was altered from the manuscript Plath had left. Hughes changed the order of the poems, even replaced some of them. Scholars have suggested that Hughes’ arrangement of the poems makes Plath’s death seem inevitable, as the depressive tone grows throughout the book, while Plath’s original order had left the ending as more hopeful. Hughes removed twelve of Plath’s originally selected poems and replaced them with twelve of her poems he selected himself. Hughes took out one poem, “The Rabbit Catcher,” that Plath thought was so significant to her body of work that she had chosen it to be the original title for Ariel in earlier drafts.
“The Rabbit Catcher” had been written shortly after Assia Wevill and her husband had visited the Hughes family in their country home, Court Green. It was Assia who would become Hughes’ mistress, and the woman he lived with after he and Plath separated. Hughes read the poem shortly after Plath wrote it, around the time his affair with Assia began, and was alarmed by its violent depiction of their relationship breaking down in the last stanza: “Tight wires between us … the construction killing me also.”
Plath employed the rabbit as a symbol in earlier work at a time in her life similarly marked with deep depression. The summer after her junior year at Smith College, Plath attempted suicide by hiding in small crawl space in the cellar of her mother’s house and taking sleeping pills until she passed out. Her body was found after three days, when her younger brother heard her moaning; she had survived because she had vomited up many of the pills after passing out.
Three months previous to this early suicide attempt, Plath wrote in her journal: I want to love somebody because I want to be loved. In a rabbit fear I may hurl myself under the wheels of the car because the lights terrify me, and under the dark blind death of the wheels I will be safe.
Plath’s honesty in these journals resonated with me in a way that her careful poetry had not—I had never been suicidal, but I feared change, and I feared rejecting everything I had been raised to believe mattered. I knew that that rejection would mean I was a failure to the culture I was raised in, and as much as I tried not to care, it filled me with isolating fear.
Keith’s hives were sitting on an ice-covered dirt patch, in a small square of land made by a little wire fence and under a tree that reached so low I had to duck my head to avoid brushing my bare head against it. Walking up to the little fenced-off area, I was put off by the yellowed white sheets that hung from the wire fence.
“Are those to…keep the wind out?” I asked.
“Ah, yeah. The bees have a pretty hard time of it up here in the winter.”
“Oh, I think I read about that. In nature don’t bees always die off before the winter? Except the new queen, because she burrows underground, or something?”
In the wild, bumblebees die every fall, and the colony is reborn every spring, when the new queen—who gathered sperm for her eggs before going into a form of underground hibernation for the winter—begins building a new hive. The queen produces worker bees first, and then will give birth to newer queens, who will survive the winter alone after their mother and the rest of the colony die.
“Yeah, that’s right with bumbles in the wild. Most bees can’t survive when it’s cold out here like this.”
“Are those the hives?”
The hives looked nothing like the sweet cartoon image I had in my head, the clip-art picture I grew up recognizing as a symbol of the Mormon church, particularly the young girls of the church. When I was seventeen and completed my “Personal Progress” (a large project directed to making young women of the church develop their “divine” characteristics), I received a necklace with a temple on it behind a beehive, and then a little bee charm that sat next to it when I did extra hours of service. I never wore the necklace after they gave it to me. In Utah, that same beehive sits in the center of our flag.
These hives, real hives, were wooden boxes. They had previously been painted yellow and pink, but weather and water had worn off enough of the paint to leave them looking as if they had been sprayed with mud, or were beginning to bleed out their natural brown color. The boxes were stacked two high, and the crack between them was filled with frayed green-and-cream-colored rags; they looked as though they had been torn into strips and then stuffed in. A mesh wire net was nailed down around the bottom of the lower bee box, and all three hives were wrapped with plastic tarps and bungee cords.
“Is all of this to keep the cold out?”
“Yeah, it’s important that the wind doesn’t get too much into the hives, you know, and it’s important that the bees don’t get out and freeze to death.” Keith stumbled closer to one of the hives, and pulled his shaky hand out of his coat pocket. “You see this metal right here?” He pointed to the metal mesh along the base, which he had nailed down himself. “Well, see, this is to keep the bees in, firstly. They don’t know that leaving will mean they could freeze to death. Some of them still manage to get out though, like these here.”
I inched closer to the hive, which was difficult because of the ice, and saw that along the bottom of the wire netting some bees had left the hive and frozen to death just outside its door. Five little bee bodies were frozen to the metal mesh.
“Hopefully this metal keeps the rats out too, though.”
“Rats? You mean rats can get into the hives?”
“Oh absolutely, you would be shocked what rats can do. They can squeeze in almost anywhere, and if they get into your hive, well, they’ll get all the honey, and your bees will starve to death in the winter. And rats like to stay in a hive too, if they can. It’s warm in there.”
Keith told me that early pioneers in Utah kept honeybees, and I remembered that Brigham Young chose the beehive as the state symbol in 1847; he named his own home in Salt Lake “The Beehive House.” Honeybees were brought from England to the American continent early in 1622, when the English began to settle in Virginia. In 1934, two years after the birth of his daughter, Otto Plath published his textbook on the nature of bees—they were his expertise as well as his passion.
As a little girl, his daughter Sylvia was amazed by her father’s ability to handle bees and make them feel calm. She remembered her father could catch a bee and hold it in his hands, seal it in, without the bee becoming angry and stinging his palms.
Curiosity doesn’t distinguish between private and public. The shocking story of Plath’s broken marriage, the suicide that left her children motherless, and the way it mixed explosively with the angry, confessional poetry she left behind threw what Plath and the Hughes family considered private details into the eye of the public.
When Sylvia Plath wrote in her early journals, I don’t believe she imagined that she was writing for any readers other than herself; she sounded like a girl who wanted to be a writer, something I could relate to. Plath practiced her narrative form, brainstormed ideas for short stories, novels, and poems; she vented about boys and the women in her life she envied, and wrote about insecurities, particularly her insecurities as a writer, often.
But after her death and the widely praised Ariel, Sylvia Plath became a significant 20th century American poet; she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982.
Perhaps in response to the popularity of Plath’s work, The Journals of Sylvia Plath was published in 1982, but Hughes heavily censored the journals. In the foreword he wrote for The Journals, he noted that the publication contained “perhaps a third of the whole bulk.” He said, “Nearly all of [Plath’s] earlier writings … suffered from her ambition to see her work published in particular magazines, and from her efforts to produce what the market seemed to require,” and used this to justify his editing of her journals. Hughes wrote that Plath revealed her true self, and her real writing came, only at the end of her life, with Ariel: “Though I spent every day with her for six years, and was rarely separated from her for more than two or three hours at a time, I never saw her show her real self to anybody—except, perhaps, in the last three months of her life.”
Many literary critics agreed with Hughes. The poet Robert Lowell, with whom Plath took a Boston poetry seminar, wrote in the introduction to Ariel that, “in these poems … Plath becomes herself, becomes something imaginary, newly, wildly and subtly created.” She “burns to be on the move, a walk, a ride, a journey, the flight of the queen bee. She is driven forward by the pounding pistons of her heart … Language never dies in her mouth.”
When The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath was published in 2000, including all entries that remained from the last twelve years of Plath’s life, critics proclaimed it a “genuine literary event … [a] discovery.” They hailed Plath as “the diarist of our time.” The Christian Science Monitor announced: “No one has put Sylvia Plath down on paper better than she did herself.”
Missing from the unabridged journals are two notebooks that according to Hughes “continued the record from late ’59 to within three days of her death.” The first, he said, “disappeared.” The journal that contained the last months of Plath’s life, the journal she kept while she was writing the poetry of Ariel—the poems Hughes himself considered her greatest work, her tour de force, and evidence of her shedding the “masks” she had worn her entire life—he admitted to destroying.
“I destroyed it because I did not want her children to have to read it (in those days I regarded forgetfulness as an essential part of survival),” Hughes explained.
Ted Hughes’ book of poetry addressing Plath and their life together, Birthday Letters, was published in February 1998, thirty-five years after Plath’s death and not long before Hughes died. He’d written much of the work long before its publication. One of the poems, “Visit,” ends with a reminiscence that comes from reading Plath’s journal: “Your actual words, as they floated / Out through your throat and tongue and onto your page—.” He describes the words in her journal as a medium through which he could speak to Plath again: “I look up—as if to meet your voice / With all its urgent future /That has burst in on me.” The poem ends with Hughes’ looking back at the journal: “… the book of the printed words, / You are ten years dead. It is only a story. / Your story. My story.”
When I read Plath and Hughes I crave the cleanness of life on the page, crafting pain and love into poetry that marches on white paper in neat black lines; that lives long past all of the people my honesty would hurt.
Stephen takes me out to dinner on the last day of my fall semester, the night I break up with him. I’ve just finished my first semester at Utah State and have been living out of my parents’ home for four months. I had been dating Stephen for six, and my parents couldn’t stop asking if we were discussing marriage in the Mormon temple yet.
Stephen picks me up from my apartment at seven, and of course he’s on time. He lives two hours away, in Provo, and only visits on weekends. It’s a Friday night, and all of my roommates have left for winter break. The hallway is empty and quiet when I open my apartment door to awkwardly hug him with my right arm, keeping my left on the door so that it stays open and doesn’t bang our embracing sides. Stephen has never come all the way in before hugging me tightly with both of his arms, turning my torso left and right for a minute or two.
I don’t want Stephen to take me out to dinner, because I don’t want him to spend thirty dollars on food that I won’t enjoy because I know I’m breaking up with him.
But I let him take me out. The lasagna sticks a little in my throat.
After dinner, we get in car and he cheerily places his hand in mine while he drives. I glance at the dashboard, amazed that it’s barely nine o’clock.
“What would you like to do next, Miss Millie?”
“Um, actually, can we just go back to my apartment and talk?”
We sit on the brown sofa of my dorm living room facing each other. He grabs my hands. I tell him I want to date other boys, that I’m not ready to be dating for marriage.
I don’t tell him I also want my boobs grabbed regularly. I don’t tell him I want to taste alcohol someday. I don’t tell him I want to get a tattoo. I don’t tell him I want relationships that won’t anchor me where I’ve always been: placed in the same box my parents have shoved my elbows and knees and edges into as they protectively buzz about it. Because none of those things are his fault.
I tell him that I need to be separate for a while, alone, or at least in some non-committed relationships, where I don’t have to answer to anyone but myself. I don’t tell him I deeply doubt the Mormon church, that I don’t believe in waiting for marriage in the temple.
I don’t believe in “waiting until marriage”— waiting to be a woman, a person, waiting to be someone who isn’t waiting, preparing myself for a man to come and take me from daughter to wife.
I don’t want to get married before my nineteenth birthday, or my twentieth— before I ever leave the valley I was raised in, before my life ever starts.
I just say, “And there are some things I need to figure out for myself.”
I feel my body relax with rushing relief when I close the door after him. I immediately turn on Pandora and turn off the lights to my bedroom. I slip under heavy blankets with my phone, and calmly, lying in the dark, I send the necessary texts to my friends, my parents, and my sisters, telling them that Stephen and I have broken up while Ella Fitzgerald croons.
Later, during one of the fights that would become regular with my parents after Christmas, my mother tells me she and Dad always believed I would be grounded enough, I would be all right as long as I was dating Stephen, and that when I told them about our breakup, they knew I must be pretty lost.
I quietly listen to her cry, and realize I have broken her heart more than Stephen’s or my own. Somehow I have changed this middle-aged woman into something small and trembling—something I’m afraid to touch. I felt guiltily free from pleasing her; I try to ignore the way her throaty crying pinches my skin, makes my eyes go dry. She is becoming more of a stranger. The distance stretches between us like a rubber band.
Queen bumblebees emerge from their winter sleep just after winter passes, before spring sun has warmed the world.
They wake up into a world that is nearly freezing, and although the coarse hairs that cover their body allow them to remain warm enough during their hibernation and reenter the outside world, the fat bodies particular to their species are uncommonly heavy; this makes flight for a queen nearly impossible when she first emerges from her hibernation.
In order to warm up her body enough for flight, a queen holds her wings still while continuing to flex the muscles, building a warmth from within that raises her overall body temperature enough to allow flight.
Now is the time to gather pollen and prepare for new life.