I found the country fair by accident, a splash of color in a drab little town on the back roads. I needed material to finish my photo essay before deadline, and a healthy dose of nostalgia was just what my client wanted. The sun was bright, the breeze gentle and warm. I snapped pictures like a machine, the motor drive on my Nikon whining softly as I captured every detail:
Click. Whirr...A little girl, beribboned in yellow and blue, face pink and sticky with cotton candy, ice cream cone dripping down her arm.
Click. Whirr...A rickety old carousel badly in need of new paint, horses valiantly galloping along their circular road to the glue factory.
Click. Whirr...A scruffy clown in patched overalls sitting on an overturned bucket, greasepaint melting, nursing a fat cigar.
Perfect. The old ladies at the magazine would love this stuff. It was Norman Rockwell to the nth degree. I switched to the wide-angle lens, training it on a line of rickety booths with hand-lettered signs advertising pies, and preserves, and honey.
Honey. "Regina Honey, Homemade With Love Since 1860. $5/Jar"
I lowered the camera, caught in one of those moments when I've seen something in the viewfinder that I know, on some subconscious level, is very important but will take a little puzzling-out. I walked toward the booth, dodging a gaggle of sticky, shrieking children on the way, narrowly avoiding a tumble of comic proportions.
The black-haired woman at the honey stand looked to be in her twenties. She wore a simple calico sundress and a broad-brimmed straw hat with a sprig of clover tucked into the band. Her hazel eyes sparkled merrily as she sized me up, tiny honeybee earrings flying in small circles beneath her ears as she moved.
"You're not from around here. Newsman?"
"Photojournalist. I'm working on an article about summer in Perth County for Snowbird Quarterly. It's almost finished."
She nodded. "It's a pity you can't capture the best things about this fair with just a camera. You miss all the sounds and smells. What's a fair without the smell of funnel cakes and corn dogs, or the sound of children's laughter?"
"I like to think those sounds and smells will come to life when people look at my pictures."
"Ah, then we're very much alike. When you taste my honey, visions of everything dearest and best will fill your mind's eye. Just five dollars a jar...a bargain at twice the price."
I selected a jar from atop the pyramid stacked on the counter, turning it over slowly in my hands. The contents had a lovely deep amber color and glowed attractively in the sunlight. "You've been at this a long time," I said, "if that's a true date on your sign."
She didn't seem offended by my veiled skepticism. "Longer than you know. It's the family business. Passed down from mother to daughter, time out of mind. We didn't begin selling our honey outside the family until 1860."
A bee buzzed inquisitively around the jar's lid. In reflex, I swatted at it, missed.
"Stop it!" The woman's voice snapped like a whip. I froze. "That's my livelihood you're about to crush."
The bee orbited angrily about my head. Reaching out her hand, the honey vendor intercepted the insect, which lit docilely upon her index finger, wings twitching, abdomen pulsing.
To cover my nerves, I snapped a couple of shots as the lady and her pet posed obligingly. "That's quite a trick. Aren’t you afraid it’ll sting you?"
"Not really. When you've been working with bees as long as I have, you begin to think of them as children. They're all my children. A little ornery sometimes, misunderstood most of the time, but mine. I know them, and they know me." She sent the iridescent little creature on its way with a gentle toss of her hand. "So, you want to buy a jar? I guarantee it will change your life."
I hesitated. The woman suddenly seemed odd, and threatening. She leaned closer to me, and something unidentifiable, a scent just outside perception, insistent and intoxicating, swirled into my mind.
I bought ten jars.
Stretched out on the hotel bed, I contemplated my fifty-dollar investment, now stacked haphazardly on the mini bar. What had possessed me? I wouldn't use that much honey in a year. The vendor was pretty, but I'd never fallen all over myself in an attempt to impress a woman, no matter how mesmerizingly beautiful, or shapely...but those eyes, and that maddening fragrance...
Perhaps her perfume contained some pheromone or musk. I'd been functioning normally until she moved in close to me. The voice of my crystal-spinning, incense-burning mother whispered in my imagination that the woman was an enchantress who had cast a spell over me, binding my will to hers.
There was also that stunt with the bee.
Maybe if I tried the honey. If it was as good as she claimed I wouldn't feel so stupid about buying ten jars of it.
I selected a jar at random, popped off the lid, and took a sniff. It smelled innocent enough, sweet and flowery, pretty much what I expected. Some rummaging through drawers produced a cellophane condiment packet containing coffee creamer, a stir-stick, and a spoon. I dipped the spoon into the golden ooze, and after a few gyrations to avoid dribbling honey all over the carpet, slid it into my mouth.
As advertised, I was whirled into a mental travelogue of all things dearest and best in my life since infancy.
...my first birthday, yellow icing smeared across my face, and Sadie, still a pup, slobbering it away, auburn fur shining in the afternoon sun...Grandpa Taylor with his bristly mustache, teaching me how to fish, battered green tackle box filled with red and white bobbers, polka-dotted bugs with hooks for feet...flying down the hill on my bike, metal-flake orange, chrome sissy bar, white-striped tires...Mom posing for me, the first photo I ever took, daisies woven in her hair, she's so pretty...cruising Jackson Boulevard in my beat-up jalopy, red and rusted, girls waving, guys laughing their heads off, I don't care...my high school portfolio, purple and gold ribbon, best in show...college graduation, lost in a sea of maroon caps and gowns, Dad shakes my hand, black suit, paisley tie, I've never seen him cry before...
It was psychedelic, panoramic, and colorific. Technicolorific. When the trip down memory lane subsided, my eyes still blurred with afterimages.
I couldn't believe it. This lady had the brass to sell drugs right out in the open, from a booth at a country fair? Whatever this stuff was, it had to be on somebody's controlled substances list. After a couple of aspirin, and some more reflection, I decided to confront the honey lady before taking any drastic action. Maybe I was still reacting to her perfume. Maybe I shouldn't have eaten that third corn dog. There were any number of logical explanations for what I'd just experienced, and it wouldn't be right to call in the cops without giving her a chance to prove she wasn't making some kind of country-fried LSD.
Besides, I wanted to see her again. I had to.
I returned next day to the fair, off the clock this time. My cameras, as always, were within easy reach. Even when I wasn't working, I was compulsively on the lookout for a good picture. I also thought I might need to document the shady goings-on at the honey stand.
The fair was mostly unchanged from the previous day. Sticky-faced girl, check. Merry-go round, check. Scruffy clown, shorter cigar, check. Pie eating contest...that was new. Fifteen little boys were buried up to their ears in blueberry filling. Beautiful.
I sauntered over to the Regina Honey booth. She was there, same hat, same earrings, new dress...big roses this time. She laid down the novel she'd been reading, some flavor of Cartland-esque romance, and smiled brightly up at me.
"You're back! How'd you like the honey?"
"It was very...illuminating. I wanted to ask you about that. Do you blend any 'special' additives or anything into it?"
"Nothing but love, just like the sign says." She winked mischievously. "Maybe just a tiny little touch of magic."
I leaned in closer...but not too close. "Ok, Miss Regina, I'm going to be straight with you. That honey sent me on a trip like the ones my mother talks about when she's reminiscing about the Summer of Love. You've got to be putting something illegal in there, some kind of herb or chemical, and people are eventually going to find out."
She rose gracefully from her chair, smoothing the folds of her flowered dress. She didn't seem at all disturbed by my accusation. The smile was as brilliant as ever, the hazel eyes dancing. A pair of bees hummed lazily around her hat, finally alighting on the sprig of clover, an event I noted with a little trepidation. I would have sworn their multifaceted eyes were fixed on me.
"My name is Kerri Ann. And you are?"
"Bob, I swear to you there are no 'special' additives in my honey, natural or otherwise. The very idea is crude, repulsive, and completely unnecessary. My bees make very good honey. I collect a portion and sell it. It's that simple. I do find your reaction interesting. I rarely encounter someone so sensitive to its charms."
"Charms? It was like watching a movie of my life produced by Walt Disney! Everything was in primary colors. It was so intense and out of balance, it gave me a headache."
Her expression sharpened, as if she were evaluating me. The bees buzzed off and away. "Out of balance? What do you mean?"
"Well...I'm a photographer. My job is to create pictures that tell a story. A good picture requires good composition. I have to balance objects, light, and color, or people don't see the picture properly. They misinterpret it. They might even be offended by it."
"Offended?" She was silent for a few moments. "I don't want my honey to have that effect on people. Perhaps I need to make a few adjustments. Tell you what...why don't you come for a visit tomorrow, and take a closer look at my operation. Maybe your discriminating palate can help me make the honey better. It's a work in progress, after all."
My mother's voice began yammering about dark enchantments, ritual sacrifice to pagan gods, and bee stings.
"I...I hadn't planned to stay beyond today," I blustered. "I've got a photo shoot scheduled for a big advertising contract, and I need to set up the studio, and..."
Kerri Ann stepped closer to me. Too close. My head swam.
"Reschedule it." The smile still shone, but the tone brooked no argument.
"Sure. Reschedule. No problem," I agreed, dazed.
Despite my misgivings, I rose early next day and followed Kerri Ann's directions to her farm. She'd written them out for me in loops and curlicues on a sheet of blue pastel stationery adorned with a little cartoon bee and the caption, "A Buzz from Kerri Ann." Cute. The country road meandered through woods and rolling hills, finally ending at a white, two-story Cape Cod house bordered by a neat picket fence. Stacks of wooden boxes dotted the surrounding fields.
Beehives. More beehives than I'd ever seen before in one place. The air was literally humming with insect commerce as I stepped gingerly from my rented sedan.
Kerri Ann emerged from the house, a vision in white taffeta, not at all the beekeeper swathed in layers of heavy denim and netting I had expected. She might well have been stepping out for afternoon tea with the Queen. She met me half-way, reaching out to grasp both my hands. "I'm so glad you decided to come, Bob. Let me show you around the farm, then we'll sit and talk a while."
"Thank you, that'll be great." I started to pull out a camera, but she stopped me in mid-motion.
"I'd prefer you not take any pictures while you're here. It disturbs my bees, and I'd rather not reveal too much to the competition, if you know what I mean."
I closed the flap on my bag. "Of course. Do you need to change first?"
"Whatever for? Don't you like my dress?" She twirled about with a little giggle.
"No, it's beautiful. I just thought, with the bees and all..."
"Oh, don't worry about them. I told you, they're my children. We'll be fine."
And we were. Although a few spiraled suspiciously around me from time to time, Kerri Ann's presence seemed to provide an inviolate bubble of space about us. The clouds of bees parted to allow us passage, and she chatted merrily about their biology, their social structure, and the mechanics of making honey. At one point in the tour, she even removed the lid from a beehive and let me look inside at the frenzied, yet purposeful, activity of its inhabitants, pointing out the honeycombs and the cells where the larvae incubated. She showed me the female workers, and the male drones, and finally the long-bodied queen, attended by her own retinue of workers, busily laying eggs from cell to cell.
"So many drones," Kerri Ann murmured, "but only one queen."
As we walked back toward the farmhouse, it was my turn to talk, this time about photography - lighting, perspective, contrast, and the little tricks of the darkroom that could make a good picture even better. She listened raptly. Our hands wandered toward each other, and we walked that way for a long time.
Inside, Kerri Ann had prepared a loaf of fresh-sliced bread and a pitcher of lemonade on a little table in a sunny parlor room overlooking the fields of beehives. "This farm is huge," I remarked, "How in the world do you manage it all?"
"The bees do most of the work," she replied softly. “My mother taught me how to handle the rest. In the winter, there's hardly any activity. Everyone is sleeping, waiting for springtime."
“Do your parents live nearby?”
Kerri Ann seemed to contemplate her lemonade, running a finger around the rim of the glass. “My mother passed away shortly after she turned the farm over to me. I never knew my father, but my mother said he was a fine man. Named me after him...it’s sort of a family tradition.”
"But doesn't it get lonely here, all by yourself? You said the business has been passed down from mother to daughter over the years. You'll need someone to take over when you're gone. I don't suppose there are many available guys in Perth County?"
I was getting way ahead of myself, but I couldn't help it. Simply being in her presence was inebriating.
"Oh, I'll have my own daughter, eventually, when the time is right. I'm not worried. It's like the bees," she sighed. "So many drones, only one queen."
There were apparently more potential suitors than I'd seen in town. No matter. This was my moment. "Say, what about the honey? You talked about changing it, making it better. I'm not sure how I can help, but I'll do whatever I can."
"You've helped quite a lot already. There are ways I can introduce subtle differences - adjust the balance, as you say. I'll change the orientation and spacing of the hives and move some of them to new fields to alter my bees' diet. Little things like that."
She reached across the table to gently squeeze my hand. "You've truly given me a new perspective on my honey, and I think it will be better than ever now. Thank you."
"It's my pleasure. You know, I was wondering...ow!"
A needle-prick of pain grew into a throbbing ache across the back of my neck. Something buzzed past my ear and out of the room.
"Oh, dear, you've been stung. Let me get some ice for that."
It hurt like the devil, but I waved her off. "It's nothing. I'm not allergic. I'll just see a doctor when I get...back..."
My vision fogged, tunneled, and went black. The buzzing returned and grew steadily louder until it filled my universe. A hot, suffocating wind blew over me, and I could feel the press of a thousand...somethings...surrounding me, pushing, biting, stinging. There was a precipice, a cliff ahead. I couldn't see it, but there was no denying its reality. The multitude carried me along in its smothering embrace and with a final shove, sent me tumbling into a black, droning nothingness.
The buzzing subsided, and light began to slowly creep in under the edges of the void. My head pounded. The light grew brighter. I opened my eyes and immediately regretted it.
Kerri Ann's voice wafted through the pain. "Are you all right? You fainted. I managed to move you onto the sofa in the sitting room. Here's some water."
I fumbled about with one hand, felt something cold and wet pressed into it, guided to my mouth. The water was delicious. I tried opening my eyes again. Better this time. I was able to struggle into a sitting position, and my surroundings gradually came into focus. Kerri Ann was there, her face worried and sad.
"You had me scared for a minute, but I think you'll be all right. You should go home."
"Yeah, maybe so. I can meet you in town for lunch tomorrow. I'll just push my photo shoot back a couple more days."
Concern and sympathy shifted abruptly to harsh impatience. "No, you don't understand. You have to go. Now."
The headache didn't help my confusion. I must have offended her somehow. "I want to spend more time with you," I protested. "You're wonderful, like no woman I've ever met before, and I think you like me too. Please, if you'll just give me a chance..."
"Bob, you must leave now. I'm sorry."
Another stray bee entered the room. Two more followed, then half a dozen. They circled around me, not attacking, but herding me out the door and toward my car. Their fellows outside joined in, myriad wings roaring furiously as they churned the air. They bumped against my unprotected face and arms, clung to my clothes and hair.
The fever dream was still fresh in my mind--I knew if I resisted, they would sting until I retreated or collapsed. The only open path was toward the car. When I reached it, the cloud of bees fell back, forming a translucent, undulating barrier that blocked any return to the house. As I slammed the transmission into reverse, I could see Kerri Ann standing on the porch in her lacy white dress, eyes downcast, enveloped by thousands of her children.
I swung the car around and didn't look back.
Six months afterward, a package arrived at my studio by courier. There was no return address on the package, but I knew who sent it. The box contained a single jar of honey. I took it home that evening and stared at it for over an hour. The honey had a lovely deep amber color and flowed smoothly as I turned the jar over and over in my hands. I finally worked up the courage to open the jar, spoon out a sample, and taste.
The honey spread through my mouth, across my tongue, and like a warm breath of summer air, memories of everything dearest and best flowed through my mind, this time in perfect color, in perfect balance, and Kerri Ann was there.
...Kerri Ann with her floppy hat and calico dress. Kerri Ann walking through the fields in white taffeta and lace, holding my hand, speaking of bees, and honey, and dreams. Kerri Ann of the hazel eyes and the shining smile. Kerri Ann with the numberless golden children who dance in the air on gossamer wings and part before her like courtiers before their queen...
"So many drones. They serve their purpose, then they're driven from the hive. Only one queen."
The vision gently evaporated, like mist, like smoke, like a taste of honey.
Pain followed in its wake. I meant nothing to her. Once I'd provided the means to perfect her honey, my usefulness was at an end, so she drove me away. There were plenty of other drones to provide whatever she needed next time.
I put the jar on a high shelf, out of sight, and never touched it again.
I remember it all, twenty summers past, as I drive through Perth County on my way to a gallery exhibition in Ottawa. The little town is still here, not so little anymore, and the country fair is in full swing. I can't say why I choose to stop. It would be so much easier to just keep driving. Slinging my camera bag over my shoulder, I trudge up the hill toward the smell of funnel cakes and corn dogs, toward the laughter of children and the music of the carousel.
I notice the carousel horses have a new lease on life and a fresh coat of paint. The same clown is there, even scruffier, chewing gum instead of a fat stogie. Little girls and boys run rampant with sticky faces of various colors. The booths are more substantial now, but they still sell pies, and preserves, and honey.
Honey. "Regina Honey, Homemade With Love Since 1860. $10/Jar"
A bargain at twice the price.
I square my shoulders, swallow hard, and walk slowly over to the booth.
The black-haired young lady behind the counter lowers her camera. A tiny diamond bee piercing her left eyebrow glimmers in the sunlight, and she grins cheerfully at my astonishment.
"Hey, a fellow shutterbug! This is the best honey in the world. Want to buy a jar? I guarantee it'll change your life!"
The name tag on her flowered blouse says, simply, "Bobbi Ann."
© 2008 by Fred Warren
Original fiction debuting at Residential Aliens.
Fred Warren lives in the merry old land of Kansas with his lovely wife, three above-average kids, and two noisy dogs. He recently retired from the Air Force and now has a fun but somewhat less exciting job flying computer-simulated airplanes for the Army. Fred's stories have appeared this year in Postcards From... and A Fly in Amber, and he has several others forthcoming in Sand: A Journal of Strange Tales, Sorcerous Signals, MindFlights, and Beyond Centauri. You can find him online at Frederation and in the Liberty Hall writing forums.
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