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The Place Beyond the Brambles

Peter M. Ball is a writer from Brisbane, Australia. His most recent book is Frost, the second novella in the Flostam series about Ragnarök and the Gold Coast, and his short stories have appeared in publications such as Apex Magazine, Eclipse 4, and Daily Science Fiction. He can be found online at petermball.com and on twitter @petermball.
When last I saw you, my sweet, my love, you were shrunk to the size of Grandma's thimble and plucked from the porch by the bees of the forest. We heard your cries, your wild shrieks of delight, as they carried you to the place beyond the southern brambles. Listened, after, to the silence that followed, to the empty fields and the dark shadows beneath the trees where no bee remained to hum its evening song.
You've been gone now a five-month, and grandma does not remember you, nor does Jordy or Cousin Ferdinand or our dear, sweet Claudette. Whatever magic was used to shrink you, to make your final exit possible, has stolen your memories from those you once deemed close as family.
But I remember you, my sweet, my love, just as clearly as I remember your delighted squeal upon being taken aloft, just as I recall the tiny hymn of joy on your lips as you went where none of us can follow. I remember you just as clearly as the first day we met, when you emerged from the forest in your dress of black and gold, and we talked for hours and days on end, talked until you finally kissed me and declared that we would be lovers.
You tasted of honey that day, my love: so sweet; so sultry; so wild.
For those who prefer the technical term, you were taken by Aspis mellifera, the common honeybee. The Latin name fascinated you, the first time you heard it. You had me trace its genus for you, explain the origins of the word. Aspis: bee. Melli : honey. Ferre: to bear. They were named by Carolus Linnaeus in the eighteenth century, who later realized his mistake and tried to correct it.
In that respect, my sweet, my love, he is a smarter man than I.
People ignored his calls to use the name mellificia, maker of honey, in place of his first attempt at nomenclature. They did not fret about incorrect designations, nor see the need to correct so small a mistake.
Sometimes, in your heart, you know a thing to be true, even if it is also wrong.
When we were married, my sweet, my love, you carved a slice of our wedding cake and took it to the brambles. You left it there, that the bees would know of your happiness, and spread it through the world in their travels.
We held our reception in the barn, danced across the dusty wooden floor and ate of the feast Cousin Ferdinand organized, served on those great trestle tables laden with cakes and roast meats and pies. We did not own those tables, my love. Ferdinand acquired them from generous neighbors, much as he acquired the components of the feast by calling upon those who owed him favors.
There have always been those who thought highly of my family, leastwise around these parts.
We had oft discussed what it must be like in the place beyond the brambles, even before you were taken. We each told Claudette different stories about the kingdom of the hives. In mine, the bees inhabited a golden land, serving the Queen bee with a slavish devotion. In the land beyond the brambles there were rivers of honey and flower-covered hills, vast swathes of clover where the bees could rejoice and play.
In your stories, the land beyond the bramble was simply another beehive. Bigger. Grander. More impressive. To your mind, there was no grander magic.
"Why should the bees conform to your human desires?" you asked me. "Must you make your magic so familiar in order to appreciate its beauty?"
I call Claudette our daughter, but I know this child is no get of my loins. She shares your hair, your smile, your face. She shares your penchant for walking the fields, letting the bees gather round her. She shares your knack of speaking to the swarms.
Occasionally she is stung, but she doesn't cry out.
The bees are hers, as they'd once been yours, and I fear they will take her as well.
I am not a foolish man, my love. I knew, when we married, that it would be forever.
There are many, around these parts, who have taken wives from the forest. Nettle brides and fox brides and daughters of the trees and the river. They are often beautiful, always enchanting, and none have ever stayed for long. They come, they marry, they bear us children, and then the forest reclaims them.
We do not speak of it, not in the open, but its common knowledge such things happen. When you disappeared, oh my love, people came to our door to pay their respect. The delivered foods--frozen blocks of casserole to be defrosted and microwaved--and said nothing about your origins.
"Be pleased you've got your daughter," they told me. "Claudette, she is a bonnie girl."
I ask about you, to see if they remember, but their memories are faded. Faded and gone.
I make lists of the things I no longer remember: your name; the first words we spoke to each other; the exact and specific color of your eyes on the evenings of the summer storms. That thing you told me, on that morning. The one before you went away.
I make lists of the things I remember still: the average life of a worker bee is measured in months. Weeks, sometimes, in colder climes, where winters are long and cruel. The average life span of the Queen is measured in years, often four, but sometimes longer.
I never knew your age, my love, when we were married. We did not celebrate birthdays in our house.
I do not know if you're alive or dead, although I keep hoping for one or the other.
I spend the evenings on our back deck, love, watching the brambles and the forest and the stars. I drink beer and write these letters, never quite sure where to send them, and I pretend that somewhere out there you can still hear me and still remember.
Some nights, when the air is still, Jordy comes out to join me. He is older--his brown skin worn to leather--and he is haunted by the same look that I see in the mirror now. He sits with me a while, and brings me a fresh beer, and the earthy scent of the field is slowly replaced by the lilac of Jordy's hair tonic and the mint of the gum he chews.
"The hardest part," he tells me, "is getting used to memories that no one else has. Treasuring them, 'cause they need to be treasured, without thinking that you've gone mad. You loved her most, so you remember. That's the husband's burden."
And I would ask about his wife, if it would not pain him, for I've asked about her many times and I cannot keep her name straight in my head. There is something about her, as there is something about you, my love, that makes it difficult for those who weren't lovers to recall her.
Once, while very, very drunk, Jordy offered some darker advice.
"The hardest part isn't that everyone else has forgotten her," he said. "It's the fear, one day, that you'll find another man who remembers every detail."
I never asked him about this statement. I've never had the stomach. I cannot remember the woman he speaks of, so any comfort I can offer is platitudes and conjecture.
But the fear of it sticks, like a knife to my stomach.
I can see you there now, my sweet, my love, in the place beyond the brambles. Often I picture it, in my mind's eye, a reminder of you and where you've gone. A reminder that, yes, you are most likely happy, certainly happier than I could make you in this worn down house, on the border between the fields and the forest and the thorns.
I see you on a throne there, oh my love, because I would not care to see you otherwise. This way, at least, I can pretend your departure is as much about duty as anything else. I can console myself with a greater good, even if it is one I cannot understand.
I see you on your throne in a dress of gold and black and green, ruling over your apiary subjects with kind words and a smile that soothes the soul like honey. I see your court with its busy rulers and its stiff, unyielding guards.
In my mind's eye, my love, my beloved, my only, I can see the rolling fields filled with clover. I can see the vast and endless hills covered in wild flowers.
This is the story I tell our daughter, when she asks after her mother. You would not like it, my sweet, my love, but it comforts her more than science and truth.
At least, it does, for now.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, November 6th, 2015

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