:: a sestina
The dawn made a grey world and dried men’s throats. The relentless drone pushed sand over the blemish they’d burned in the playa. The dead fire interrupted the land’s flatness. The charred remains, purged from the center of dead embers, scooted and tinked and tonked. Collins toed the can with his boot. The tin leaked juice from the burned fish in it. He hunkered down and took the can up. He tasted a fingerful of cold jelly, the burned oil and skin. He offered it to Jasper. The wind came up. The sand blew. Angry bees could not have welted their necks worse. The abrasions wept. The raw flesh, rinsed only with sand, ran thick and venomous. Collins raised his collar to the gale. He took his penknife out of his boot and threw it into the ground. The blade had dulled. He appraised the edge with his thumb. Jasper looked at a map. He pointed. There was a very long ways still to walk. Collins shouldered the maul he had carried with them. They got away then.
* * *
The maul split the stump, spilling orange ears and caddis across the foliage. The stump had sat too long in the wet. The fibers turned grey. They fell apart at the presence of the bit. Collins could have split the timber with a penknife. He knew that this corked pulp was no good to build this settlement with. He reached into the water barrel. Its sides were as ashen and putrefied as the wasting timber. Its staves rusted beneath the tin hoops. Collins took a draught from the dipper. Their well tasted of iron. He cleared his throat of venom and bile. Jasper walked out of the near woods with a rabbit tethered to his gunny. The drone of rifle shot rang in his ears. He spat blood through the gap in his front teeth and removed a raw haunch from his mouth. He bent to sift through the fishbone crumbled in the coals. Soot scattered from his palms. Bees hummed low over the clover. He got a fire going. The rabbit’s sucked legs popped in the coals.
* * *
Bees burst from the trunk of the hollowed tree. Collins left the maul buried to the hilt. The swarm curved from the bark like the fish that rose from the river to take them. Grey ripples spread on the surface of the water. Collins jerked the hilt of the maul. He gritted his teeth, and splayed his legs on the moss-covered ground. The damp bark tightened around the eye of the axe. He took the penknife from his boot and pared away from the wedge. The knife was dull and the bark dimpled under the blade. He worked the axe free. Dead drones spilled from the cleft. Honey came after. Jasper cast his net into the tongue of the river. Broken shale chipped down the mountain. It skidded toward the bank. The river bent there, and closed off further view of the peaks, austere and jagged, the weather in them, the icy waters running from them that stole the men’s breath. Jasper scratched the stubble on his throat. He cast his line into the river while he thought about the ripples from the rising fish. He decided that beauty was a venom.
* * *
The venom of a honeybee releases a pheromone, and this pheromone signals other bees in the colony to attack. This same toxin, issued in a single sting, causes the contraction of smooth muscles and the dilation of blood vessels in the throat. This is called anaphylaxis, an allergic reaction to the foreign proteins inherent in a bee’s sting. Anaphylaxis is shock that can shutter the functional body, as if a singular sting were a ten-pound maul and the victims’ annealed body a block of dry wood. If the proper steps are not taken immediately to counter the toxic proteins, the result can be death. Often, as a result of this severe reaction, those allergic to the sting of bees become alarmed, if not horrified, by droning. The scrape of pliers that remove a hook from the mouth of a fish. The rasp of a boy’s penknife grinding against a honing stone. The fear of this thrumming can turn the skin moist. It can turn the skin grey. It can cause the teeth to chatter.
* * *
The honey tree had lived briefly in fire. A single bright bolt that killed the hive, burned the honeyed hollow into sweet-scented charwood. Collins twisted the grist stones. With his teeth gritted, he ground the bees’ venomless chrysalides into a grey paste. He sifted them with handfuls of meal and honey. He turned the powder through the stone. The ground mixture of bees and stalk turned to silt. Collins scraped the mixture onto the board in his lap. He swept the piles on the board into a greased sack, and cleared the board with his penknife.
Jasper took the powder-sack to the dipping barrel and scooped in a ladleful of water. He stirred while he cleared his throat of grist. The mixture dried at the gunny’s coarse edges. It crackled around the mouth. Handful by handful, Jasper applied the insulating putty to the cracks in the walls of their settlement. The sack emptied. He walked down to gather the fishes he had caught for their dinner. He gathered more dead bees.
Later, while Collins slept in his chair, Jasper knocked the heads off of the trout with the maul. Collins’ arms rested slack at his side. The day’s work droned through his nose. His beard was tangled in the grist, his face covered in a fine dust.
* * *
The drone in the early summer was pleasant and the men picked their teeth with splinters of ash. They leaned against the cord they had stacked against the walls of their settlement. The maul rested tight in the splitting stump. Collins claimed a doe. It soothed the men’s spirits. The long months of winter and the pale venom of fish flesh had turned their spirits grey. They needed the blood. They needed the red meat from the deer. It stuck pleasantly to the back of their throats as they dozed in a swarm of bees gathered to reap the blood. The men napped. They shared the blood they’d loosed with crude pulls of the penknife.
* * *
Collins folded his penknife. He placed it in his pocket and cinched his belt. He stuck a fist in the hole he carved in the loam. The heat of summer made him sweat. It made him thinner, his clothes loose. He speared the shovel into the dirt. The mound had swelled from the earth. He dug for the spring water he thought to have surged. He buried the spade again. The drone came first. The earth shook loose and the bees pushed out, the sun-blanched teeth from an old doe’s skull rolled loose from roots and dirt. The doe jaw clacked, fell into the mouth of the burgeoning hive, and down its throat into the chaos. The bees mauled the air, turned the sky grey. Collins took the first sting on his hand. The barb stuck in his flesh. A sack of venom and guts pulsed into the stinger. To free the sting, Collins pinched the sack and injected the venom into his palm.
Jasper heard the cloud swarm and dropped his saw. He heard his brother’s yell. He wrapped his shirt around a branch, coated it in grease, and struck the branch in the ashes of the fire. Collins was rigid, a fish away from its river, and Jasper, with smoking torch, cut through to drag his brother free.
* * *
Collins took the fish in hand and removed the hook where the barb had sunk in the gills. He smacked the fish’s head on the back of his knee and ran the penknife up the softness of the fish’s stomach and stopped at the base of the throat. He cut out the translucent spaces below the lower jawbone, next to the gills. He hooked one finger under the fish’s nose, and stuck the other down the fish’s throat. He gripped his finger on the fish’s toothed tongue. He pulled the cut apart, and all the venom of that fish’s gullet came out with fins and gills.
In the other hand he held a cleaned trout. He shucked the guts into the creek. The gut-eating things would not smell them there. They would not come to eat. That was the danger. The danger of the animal’s eating. Far off somewhere, the towns droned in electric lights and the hum of grey, sun-heated slabs stacked one on top of another. The forest did not speak that language. The river hurried the night away. The bees murmured over the clover. Jasper sharpened the broad head of the maul. He clamped a sheaf of wheat between his teeth. Collins held the fish up by the throat. They cut off the fish heads. They ate.
* * *
The sky is the throat of a fish. The stars are its teeth.
Collins brandished his penknife above the handle of the maul. He etched his initials into it just below the lug. He sucked the venom from a reddening, trout-bit finger.
No, the stars are bees. The sky floods with their droning.
Collins wrapped his stung hand in grease and cloth. Firelight moved through the smoke. It sputtered and left the grey millers dancing above the embers. The millers felt the heat. The millers caught fire. They flew where they would and all along burning.
Danilo John Thomas earned his MFA in fiction from the University of Alabama where he made the most of his time by serving as Fiction Editor for Black Warrior Review, issues 38.1 and 38.2, and teaching in Alabama’s maximum-security prison systems through a fellowship from the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project. He was raised in southwestern Montana and currently lives in Tallahassee, FL, while he pursues a Phd in Creative Writing from Florida State University. AB Gorham Press (abgorham.com) fine letterpress printed his chapbook Murk, and his stories have been finalists for the Italo Calvino Prize in Fiction and Shenandoah’s Bevels Prize in fiction. His work can be found most recently in apt, Moon City Review, Sleepingfish, Shenandoah, and, Juked.