The owl hovered high up, its brown wings stretched wide as if to gather all the air towards it. Susanna knew it would have a white mask for a face and darting, hungry eyes but all she could see from this angle was the sun flickering and flashing between the feathers as it turned. She leaned back, craning her head to watch it dive. The meadow hummed and buzzed around her, soporific. Field mice would be out nibbling anxiously through the hedgerows, having prayed to the sun for protection from all the monsters of the night. She wondered if they sensed the shadow of this daytime owl, so far from their tiny lives, so close to the heavens. Suddenly, sharply, it plummeted to the ground. There was a scuffle, a shaking of grasses, and the smallest of high-pitched squeals, then it rose again, barely weighed down by the soft parcel it carried in its claws. Susanna followed its upward flight with her eyes, wondering dispassionately if she might cry about this small death. Sometimes, if she approached her grief sideways, she could creep up on it; observe from a distance before it came rushing back into her and pushed her breath away. She counted, ignoring the mouse, letting her mind drift up with the owl. Ten breaths and she would be free. She had never started crying after ten breaths. But at eight breaths her concentration wavered, and she remembered her little brother, as clear as a summer sky, chasing after her in this very meadow on the day the bees swarmed. A sob burst from her and she was tethered back to earth.
She sat rocking on her heels until it passed, like a storm front, through her. First the rush of choking, breathless sobs, then the panting and whimpering like a trapped animal, and now finally the tears; spring rain. It was pointless to resist when she was alone. She saved all her fortitude for the solemn house full of people with more right to tears than she; their mother, who had carried and birthed him; Judith, his twin; their father, famed for his words yet struck dumb now by this. They walked around like ghosts, their faces as white and expressionless as the owl’s, but they didn’t cry and so neither, in their presence, would she. The tears slowed. Her voice came back to her, wavering as if underwater. ‘Where the bee sucks’, she sang tentatively, ‘there suck I’. She wiped her cheeks gently with the corner of her apron. She had learned not to rub her eyes. ‘In a cowslip’s bell I lie. There I conch when owls do fly.’ It was sweet nonsense. ‘On a bat’s back I do fly’. She used to sing it to him and Judith when they were babies. Her mind glanced off the thought, but it was safe; she had finished. She stood up and drew a quivering breath.
From high above, the owl observed her, turning his head crookedly to do so. He knew the paths and habits of every human in Warwickshire, or at least he would have done, had he cared to notice. This one lived near the barn where mice grew fat even in winter, and also the grain store where he hunted for food for his chicks in spring. She was moving slowly as if wounded. A breeze nudged his wingtip and he leaned into it, forgetting her. And time, as it always does, moved on.
5 thoughts on “Where the bee sucks”
Ouch. That really got to me, slowly dawning on me where this was coming from. Brilliant little story just adds a tiny bit of something extra to a brilliant novel. So good Gudrun, thank you!
Reminds me of Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. Do read it if you haven’t already.
Thank you! I have read it and loved it.