THE MAN WITH BEES IN HIS BEARD
In those days before spring deepened into summer, Ava liked to spread out a Mexican blanket and a plate of grapes and study underneath the umbrella of the willow tree. Here, she felt like other people in the park were curious about her, or better yet, secretly wanted to share in her natural luxury—thick thighs, rough blanket, clean silver platter. This was where she met the man with bees in his beard.
His name was Noah. He had huge, glassy eyes. These were the least important facts about him, because underneath his chin, a pulsing hive of honeybees were buzzing, flitting, crawling within the forest of his reddish-brown hair.
“Stick your hand in,” he said. “Don’t be scared.”
Ava felt thousands of feelers tickling her fingers. Minuscule legs making their way up her skin.
“Where’s the queen?” she asked.
Noah smiled. Two bees started wiggling on the dancefloor of his lips.
For a time, Ava wanted to study zoology. Last summer she tried to intern at a wildlife reserve. But she couldn’t stomach removing an abscessed incisor from a mangy hyena, and so she quit. She’d spent most of her early adult life searching for a job that did not involve cruelty. Even in the no-kill volunteer shelter, the other employees had snubbed her for not being able to fit her arm in between the cage bars to give the abused puppies food.
When she told Noah this, he suggested the Pillbug workout.
“All you have to do,” he said, walking his fingers up the meat of her thigh, “is pick a hill, and tuck your legs and arms into yourself. Make yourself into a ball and roll down. Then you run back up for sixty seconds, and if you don’t make it, you snap back into a ball and catapult back down to the bottom.” A butterfly landed on his finger and he presented it to her like a flower.
She let him take her to his grandfather’s cabin in the woods. The chimney was smoking when they arrived, but when they crossed the threshold, no one was in sight.
“Maybe the animals have made camp,” Ava said, only partly joking.
In the evenings, Noah hunted for wild deer and fished in the creek. At first, he used a gun, but when he ran out of bullets, he took to constructing elaborate traps, weaving rope through the trees so thinly that no animal could see it coming.
They slept together on the couchbed because the bedroom floor had rotten away with termites. Granddaddy longlegs sometimes nestled on her during the night. She tried not to scream too loudly the first time she felt spindly legs meandering across the bridge of her nose.
Noah admonished her quietly the first time she washed spider legs out of her hair. But by this point it was summer edging into fall, far too late for them to play make believe with each other. Noah settled into the cabin and his nest in the couch, and kept the chimney smoking. Sometimes Ava searched for the truck keys when he was in the bathroom, but most of the time she was satisfied.
In her heart, she knew that Noah was made of pus and fat and muscle. Flesh and cartilage. Only a small scattering of keratin above his skin. And yet when she fell asleep next to him on the couchbed, she had dreams that his exoskeleton turned brittle and black, and his mandibles started crunching away at the pillowcase, and since he was sleeping on his back, his legs motored uselessly in the air. She kept very still during these dreams. She was afraid she’d roll over onto him, and that in the morning, she’d wake to find him crushed into shards of bone.