Thursday, November 29, 2007
The Christmas Bees
It was our first Christmas in the new house that we built on the wooded hillside over the beach on Reloncaví Bay. It felt as though we were camping out inside, since there was still no varnish on the redwood sheeted walls and the ceilings were just beams and insulation. There were bare light bulbs hanging on wires where later rustic iron lamps would brighten up cold dark winter nights in July. There weren’t even any interior doors in the house yet. Personal privacy depended on each person respecting the intimacy of the rest.
The house was a big three story log affair. Actually the bottom floor was mostly a basement, only on the front did it have doors or windows. That was because the house was built on a slope so as to have the best view of the bay, the islands and the Cordillera of the Andes. Behind the house there was still an ugly pit where mud had been pumped and bucketed out of a little swamp. A trickle of clear water seeped out of the ground there and found its way under the house into a concrete pipe and then out from under the front of the house to join a stream that ran right below the terrace on the beach side of the house.
The kitchen door opened out the back over the mud pit and one hundred feet further back was the foot of a big wooded bluff that rose steeply to three hundred feet above sea level. In order to use this back door I had cobbled together a rather precarious porch using leftovers from the rest of the construction. The construction budget was empty and a real porch would have to wait for next year. Whatever more could be bought would have to go for lamps, doors, ceilings and other details that my wife considered important.
When I got up early on Christmas morning, I opened the back door and stepped out into the warm green light of sunrise in summertime, to find that I wasn’t the only one who approved of porches. There were bees, honeybees, flying around and lighting on the porch. At first I noticed five or six, but quickly the porch began to fill up with beautiful little bees. “Well Merry Christmas, little friends. Have you come to bless our house?” I asked them. They answered affirmatively by arriving en masse. Now there were thousands of bees on the porch. They formed little roiling balls on the floor and the handrail. This was a swarm and they were looking for a new home.
It so happened that I had a couple of empty wooden nail boxes in the basement. They looked like bee boxes; maybe these bees would get the hint and enter a nail box. So I went and got a box and cut a little hole for a door. I picked up a waste piece of plywood to serve as a lid and went upstairs and out on the back porch. There were many more bees then before. I didn’t know much about bees at that time (I still don’t know much, but I know more than I did then). However, I was pretty sure that this was the moment, that either I would get the bees to make the nail box their home or the queen would fly out of the milling group, up into the woods trailing her thousands of minions and they would be gone.
So I set the box down and with a piece of shingle began to scoop up bees and deposit them into the box. Only because these were blessed Christmas bees did I avoid being severely stung. But although they didn’t sting me my loading system didn’t work very well. The bees didn’t want to stay put in the box and soon there were bees flying everywhere and crawling out of the box and all over me and all over the porch. Then I remembered that we had a jar of honey in the cupboard. I don’t know how I knew that this was the solution to my bee problem; the idea somehow had popped into my head of its own volition.
I went back into the house and came out with the honey. When I opened the jar the bees immediately became more active, buzzing around in earnest. I tilted the jar and let a big dollop drop heavily into the nail box and quickly put the lid back on the honey, even so I had fifty or sixty little bees all over the jar and on my hands and arms. When I went into the house the bees left me and flew back towards the open window. Eventually they figured out how to exit. I looked out the window to find more bees milling together in the box and around it. I said a little prayer of thanks to the Creator of this incredible, beautiful world we live in and left the bees to themselves.
My son woke up and came downstairs very anxious to tear into his presents. He was six that year; his little sister was just a baby and didn’t know much about Christmas yet. After presents we had breakfast in our new kitchen. It was marvelous, and I believe that may have been the first meal where we felt really at home in our kitchen, in our beautiful, innocent, unspoiled house. After breakfast we went out (cautiously) onto the rickety porch to see the bees. They were all in the box! Every single bee was in that box.
I got some cypress posts and banged a stand together for the box under the eaves of the trees at the foot of the bluff. Then I went back and lifted my precious box very carefully, walked off the porch to the trees and I set the bees down on their stand. There they stayed for years until I moved them to the front of the house where the sunlight warmed the box earlier in the spring. There were plum trees there in the front yard near the beach that yielded very few plums because they were never pollinated before their blossoms fell in early spring. After the bees moved into the orchard we had to support the plum trees or the weight of their fruit would break the branches off.
Those plums were old trees, the deep red fruit was small and neither so juicy nor so sweet as the varieties sold in stores. I always found them to be delicious to eat, but they reached their full potential when they were cooked slowly in a big stock pot, together with lots of sugar. The jam that we made from these plums was the most flavorful jam of all time as well as the most beautiful, when the jam jar caught the sunlight just right on the kitchen table it shone a beautiful ruby red like a giant jewel. That jam was just one of the many blessings that the Christmas bees brought to our family.
Our third child, a precious little girl was born two years after that magical Christmas. The children grew and went to school where they learned to read and write and gossip about musicians and other celebrities. At home they learned that the creation of God is perfect and that every leaf, every flower, every seagull that flies over the beach and every chucao that calls from the underbrush in the forest is a work of art more beautiful and intricate than the greatest paintings of the Renaissance masters. And there were the bees that God had sent to us, tending his garden. The children saw the bees. The kids grew up as part of God’s garden.
The house grew and took life. It was an integral part of the family as we lived in it and learned its personality. A beautiful back porch replaced the rickety one and became the haven for summer lunches. The pit was filled and became a garden full of calla lilies and fuchsias. The iron lamps were installed, the ceilings were sheeted with blond mañio boards. The Christmas bees’ house was also improved with frames for their honeycombs and a little take-off and landing ramp at their front door. The girls and I would sit in the orchard on a sunny summer day and watch the bees come and go with irresistible determination to fulfill their two responsibilities; the fertilization of the flowers in God’s garden and the magical confection of sweet honey. They were not normal bees they were specially blessed.
Honeybees are extraordinary creatures that live and work in harmony. One bee can explain exactly where good flowers and pollen are located to the other bees in the dark of their hive by dancing in a certain pattern, even if the flowers are half of a mile away. To protect the queen and the hive, bees sacrifice themselves for the good of all. The honeybee is a humble servant to all of its brothers and sisters. But God balances all things and therefore as beautiful, clean and productive as is the honeybee, there is a mirror opposite. The hornet or yellow jacket is evil, a thief and assassin. It steals what it eats and it steals the home in which it lives. It produces nothing but death and loss.
Alas, every day isn’t Christmas and we do our best to despoil God’s garden. Life should have been good, but there were problems. I originally went to Chile to build a fishing lodge in the mountains. But a number of years later the decision was made to sell the lodge and my job ended. At that point I had my house and family in Chile and I had to do anything that I could invent or that appeared on the horizon in order to earn a salary that would maintain our standard of living. I worked in logging, and went back and ran the lodge which had been ours. That was humiliating and horrible; it was like being hired as the nanny for your own children by crass and stupid adoptive parents. I built a little plant to manufacture redwood doors. And I followed in the footsteps of countless knuckleheads to lose a bundle as a fish broker. Each job was more uncertain than the last.
My wife and I had always had a difficult marriage. We are very different people and have never been very good at understanding one another. The relationship got worse as my job opportunities became more uncertain and less lucrative, although I’m not certain that there is any relation between the two things. At any rate my wife, who was always rather choleric and vituperative, became more and more displeased with me. I was the cause of all her woes. And I had more and more problems with her family. I am still flabbergasted that a group of people so adept at extending their hands palm up for my money, either directly or indirectly through my wife, somehow loathe me enough to poison my wife against me. Her brothers would quit jobs that I gave them and that they did worse than poorly, and then cadge money from my wife and ask her for a job that they would do even worse than the last one. In the interest of marital relations I gave them endless opportunities to do me wrong. They were quite adept at taking advantage of those opportunities. But my wife would not hear a word of criticism against them and my gripes about her family caused me to suffer long and ugly bouts of screaming insults.
I began to distance myself from God and the church. I am an alcoholic and I was in recovery all this time, but I got closer and closer to a drink. My wife got nastier and nastier to me. In fits of dysfunction she would block me into a room by standing squarely in the doorway and scream insults at me. I pushed her on various occasions and even hit her. The children had to witness the screaming, the swearing and insults, and our boy had to see me lose it and backhand his mother. I felt absolutely trapped. I dreamed of being free to live a happy life, but I was certain that the fate of my children without me would be worse than bleak. I considered my existence with her untenable and dreamed of raising the kids myself. My wife let me know that as a foreigner I had no chance of even seeing the children if I were to separate and a Chilean lawyer collected a fat fee from me in order to agree with her judgment.
So I made a decision, the worst decision possible, I opted for the choice of the alcoholic. I started to drink again. I began to get drunk, stay drunk and cheat on my wife with many women. Our fights became epic, tragic battles that followed a sick pattern, like ballroom dancing in hell. The children suffered terribly. My beautiful older daughter would cry without being able to stop at school. My son had to protect his mother from me when I was drunk. At the same time my wife started to go out with friends; she would drink and stay out all night. This took place off and on for three years. Finally I went to a clinic in Connecticut to which I harbor an enormous gratitude. May God bless Mountainside Clinic and everyone who works there. They reunited me with God and AA and I came out a better person than I’ve ever been. I’ve now been sober for almost three years, but my sins have contaminated everything and everyone around me. My children are happier, but there is something in each of them that is permanently wounded. There are stains on the soul of our house; there are too many bad memories there.
Even so, I noticed the bees again one day a couple of years ago, and noticed that it was early summer and noticed that the world was beautiful. My kids have seen it too. We are living in the light again.
My wife has had a harder time. She can’t seem to forgive me and that causes her terrible bouts of anguish and rage. Her father did her the courtesy to teach that a Chávez never forgives anybody, ever. Forgiveness is for God. People who forgive are just weak. He taught that your most prized possession is your pride. Perhaps my sins were too heinous to be forgiven, but I know that my wife’s life will be better if she forgives me. I had forgiven her and I could see the bees; she didn’t forgive and couldn’t see the bees for what they were. To her they were stinging insects that produced a couple of jars of honey each year. She didn’t remember that they were a gift from God.
Now for the last six months I’ve been working in the States trying to help a wonderful man save marriages in hopes that my labor might balance out some of the damage I have done. This work’s greatest benefit is that it has improved the quality of our marriage greatly. We were learning to get along again and enjoy each other. We took a cruise with my boss during which we found that she and I still truly love one another. Things were looking like we might be able to have a healthy relationship for the first time. After the cruise I went back to work in Wisconsin and she went back home to Chile to tie things up and pack all of our worldly possessions for shipment to Wisconsin.
That is because we had decided as a family to accept the invitation of my new employer to move to the United States, at least for a couple of years. My family was to have packed and sent our things in February, but my wife’s relatives (15 of them at one point) all moved into our house for the summer and she began to change. When I spoke to her on the phone, the loving and beautiful woman began to regress to the hateful untrusting and irrational being that I shudder to think about. Why does this always happen when she is around them?
I decided to go to Chile to find out what happened and what will happen. My wife did not come to meet me at the airport and was very cold the night that I arrived. I tried to talk to her about moving to the States but she just brushed aside the questions and wouldn’t give me a straight answer. I tried to follow my boss’s wise advice and to be a calm voice of reason. I did so that night, although she simply would not listen to reason and instead insulted me imaginatively, graphically and loudly. The next day she took off with our son before noon and said she’d be back in a couple of hours. I was stuck with no way to get to town and couldn’t do anything that I had planned to do. They finally got home at 9:30 that night without having phoned all day. She was irate when I suggested that it was rude to do what she had done. When I asked her about moving to the States she said that if the gardener can’t go with her, she wouldn’t go and neither will the kids. I had explained about fifty times that the only way the old gentleman could go was to initiate a long and expensive process from the USA. But she wouldn’t hear it. Either he goes with her or she doesn’t go and neither do the kids. Then she left me talking alone, turned her back to me and walked away. I lost it and a terrible scene ensued. She took off with the kids although the girls wanted to stay with me. Of course she went to the house of her mother where the sister and brother live.
I spent a bad night with no sleep, finally the day dawned and I got up. I kneeled and prayed that God give me a sign. I prayed for over an hour. I asked to know what had happened and to know how to proceed. I asked what I should do if my wife continued with her stubborn resolve to stay with the children in Chile. I asked Him to show me what is wrong, to show me why my wife changed again. I didn’t get an answer so I got up and walked outside.
I walked out the front porch and down the steps with no destination in mind. I wandered around the raspberries and currant bushes and strolled towards the beach. Then I noticed that the ground was covered with rotting plums under the trees. Even with all those people here all summer, no-one had bothered to pick the plums or make jam. And then I saw the home of our Christmas bees.
There should have been intense, continuous movement in and out of the hive. There was none. I walked closer and heard no buzzing from inside the box. It looked dead. I felt all the energy and hope that I had left leave me like a long, last exhale. I stood looking without breathing for a long moment. Then I saw a couple of yellow jackets crawl out of the box with their hideous radioactive yellow bodies. My Christmas bees were gone. There were vile, poisonous yellow jackets feeding on the Christmas bees’ labor. I almost cried. But what did it mean? Did it mean they were dead?
No, it meant that the bees had given up fighting against long odds, and they had gone somewhere that promised a brighter future for their offspring, somewhere free of the predation of the thieving yellow jackets. Their queen had to believe that it would be better somewhere else, or she would not organize the hive and the bees would not go anywhere. But since she never leaves the hive she must trust the bees that inform her that there is a better place. If she didn’t believe them, didn’t believe that there was a better place, they might all stay and be beggared to starvation by the hornets. The key was to convince the queen with the truth, with patience and humility. Some bee or bees had done that and had danced honestly and humbly in front of the queen to show her where there was a better place. She believed the dancer and led the hive to their new home.
May God bless them wherever they are and may He send them back to us when we return to Panitao years from now, because we aren’t going to live there for a long time.
I swallowed my stupid pride and imitated the humble, patient bees. I took the time to dance well in front of the queen. I danced humbly; I explained with great patience and finally she decided that she will gather the children and follow me to where there are more flowers and fewer hornets far to the north.
Glory be to God.
My beautiful wife is in Chile as I write. She left the cold of Wisconsin two weeks ago and won’t be back for another two weeks. I am here in Green Bay with my two girls and Shark the idiot golden retriever. We are getting by without my wife, but it feels odd and not quite right. It is cold outside and the wind is screeching; blowing empty water bottles and odd trash from somewhere into the yard of our rented house. Green Bay is where we live now, but it will never be home. The girls and I just talked to our wife/mother by voice over Messenger. She has been dealing with a year and a half of accumulated problems, each of which has its own constituency by now. She is tired and irascible, but underneath she is thrilled to be at our home.
It is wonderful to call her and send messages because we love each other again. She and I and our boy and the girls have all learned to love each other like never before. We are doing what we have to do and we are helping people. The girls are studying here with us, ice-skating and singing. Alan just finished High School in Puerto Montt. He’s living with his grandmother. It is all working out, but we feel like the Israelites in Egypt. We want to go home.
It was warm in Puerto Montt today. It wouldn’t seem warm to most people, but a native of Seattle would understand. She said that the chucao was calling from the woods behind the house, the wire-tailed rayadito is nesting under the eaves next to our big bedroom window again, and the swallows are flying their racetrack pattern down from the house, through the rose bushes, past my stately sequoia, over the poultry barn, behind the empty bee hive and the plum trees and then swoop to ground level, over the lawn and speed back up the hill to the house to complete another lap. The gulls were calling from the beach and two pelicans flew gliding ponderously over the waves in front of our gate.
I say she is thrilled to be at our home, not that she is thrilled to be home. She said that without her family with her she feels like she is looking at a movie, it just doesn’t feel real. She won’t be home until we are all there. Oh, how we want to go home.
So I asked my wife if there were bees in the rose bushes and the fuchsias. She said that there were some, not many but she saw a couple.
Are there any bees in the plum trees?
Are there any bees in the hive? …
No, there are no bees in the hive. … Yet.
I hope that the bees go home soon, because when they do, I’m going to pack up the idiot dog all of our Chilean furniture and these lovely people and we are going to go home. Until then, like the Israelites, we will try to do God’s bidding here in exile.