County Galway, Month of the Aphid
The great scarab pushed the dying dung-ember of the sun into the western ocean, limning the dead tree. The grass swayed in the breeze, a few purple flowers among the heather, and John Magnus leaned on his axe, smoked his cigarillo and looked out over the waters at Inishmore, Inishmaan, and Inisheer as the gloaming came on. There were no animals about—not the hum of insect or the small shiver through the undergrowth of animals. The grass was unkempt, as no farmer hereabouts would let their flocks graze here, even by day, and the nearest farmhouse was abandoned with hasty, deep-dug graves, and their neighbors farther off than that. The cunning man chewed the end of his tobacco and spat it out, throwing the rest away.
“Boy,” the cunning man said, “bring the stuff.”
The lad was ten years if small for his age, or younger besides, and struggled under the bag like a veteran caddy. Together they painted their necks and arms and ankles with a greasy oil that smelled of garlic and dogberries, which is called the witchbane in England and Scotland, and put on heavy bags about their boots, thick leather gloves, and strange veiled hats. The cunning man said little to the boy through all of this, but double-checked the boy’s knots to make sure the laces were tight, and no skin showed. Once bedecked, the night was nearly on them, and the boy filled a small lantern with kerosene and lemongrass oil while the man circled the tree, running a hand over the dry, peeling bark before stopping a certain bulge where once had healed a grievous wound.
“Here’s the spot. Bring the light in, boy.”
The cunning man did not swing the axe, but held it up by the head and dug into the crumbly wood until a chunk of it fell inward. Then he lodged the iron in the hole and pulled, ripping away a great shingle of rotten wood, the size of a breastplate. By now the boy had the lantern lit and starting to smoke, and raised the lamp over his head ‘til it was level with the cunning man’s chest, and by the reddish light they looked at what horror may lie within.
At first, the boy mistook it for a mud dauber’s hive, for it was thin and dry and brown like wasp-paper, organic and curled in on itself over a web of twigs. Then he made out the shape of the skull, the teeth absent save for the two great long, sharp canines. The hive did not buzz, but seemed to hum and vibrate so that the boy felt it along with the pounding in his chest, and despite the summer’s heat he had to clamp his teeth together to keep them from chattering.
But now John Magnus had put aside the axe and took out a great thick-bladed silver knife with a black handle, and tore it to the right of the breast bone, causing a great crack in the chest cavity—and then the cunning man reached in with both hands and pulled the two sides apart. The outside of the thing was ashen, grey and brown, but inside it was damp and dark and vibrantly red. Pale things crawled and flew and danced in the air, swarming around John Magnus’ hands and over him. The boy nearly dropped the lantern as they came pouring out of the corpse’s mouth, lazing through the air. One landed on his outstretched hand, and the boy was glad it was gloved. He studied the strange thing—like a honeybee, but its fur was alternating stripes of white and black, and the pale thin stinger was a needle of glass that dug ineffectually at the heavy leather.
John Magnus came out with a great chunk of something in his hands, and the frenzy of the swarm increased, so that the boy could feel the pounding subaural hum in his temples now. The cunning man showed the prize to the boy—a vast chunk of scarlet honeycomb, each little brown cell red with blood. The cunning man had described what it would look like to the boy—at St. Alban’s was an apiary where a corpse had been sliced up and fitted in shelves, to ease the insect thing’s works—but this was the first that he had seen it, and he wondered a little at the dried meat that hung off it, and the thin curves of bone that were once a man’s ribs.
The red honeycomb disappeared into a satchel, and Magnus turned back to the work, hacking into the corpse to harvest more. The pale bees swarmed silently, but the smoke confused them, and no unprotected skin presented itself. In half an hour the thing was done, and then the cunning man motioned the boy in close with a flick of his knife. Pointing with the dull blade, he outlined the still-wet heart of the corpse, slick with stolen blood—the thin, half-dried veins that the bees had colonized and drunk from, to their doom, and the poor dry litter of pupae which had once been the bee’s young, drained of vital fluids and left to rot and dry. With care, the cunning man pressed the dull knife into the pliant flesh of the heart, bringing forth a spurt of bright red arterial blood that dripped into the mess below. The pale bees swarmed at the wound, but Magnus forced the organ open to reveal the nymph—no larger than the boy’s thumb, the body pale and translucent, almost never formed, but with horrible black spots for its eyes.
The silver blade slashed through the queen bee, crushing her and the heart against the bone of the spine. Then the humming ceased, and the boy saw that all the bees lay on the ground and still, and no more did the heart look like a living thing, but only a piece of meat—as a bull’s heart might look on the counter in a butcher’s shop. John Magnus wiped the blade on his trousers and sang a little song to the Bee King, who lived in the lower reaches of the Nile in the olden days and harvested the first of the red honey, and the great uses he made of it. The boy brought the lantern forward and upended it, pouring the smoking oil on the corpse, and it was not long before the whole of the dead chunk of wood was a merry bonfire. John Magnus looked on the blaze and took the veiled hat off his head, and the boy could not read the emotions in the cunning man’s gaze and the set of his face.
They turned their faces from the burning tree and the islands and the sea, and walked back into the night.