Sugar and Iron

Oof, sorry about that. No, no, I’m fine. Just need to catch my breath.

A cup of tea would be great.

Sorry, been on my feet all day, and I’m not nearly as young as I was.

Yes, that’s right, looking for that tarot deck.

No, don’t worry, miss, I didn’t expect you to have it. Just trying every little occult store in the city, on the off-chance. The Space Nomad’s Tarot, yes, it’s long out of print, I’m sorry to say.

Two sugars, please.

Thank you kindly.

Well, that’s a long story, I’m afraid. I love to ramble on, but I don’t want to take up your time. If I could just sit and gather myself for a minute, drink my tea...

Heh, no, you’re right, I guess things haven’t been very busy of late. Terrible times. Well, if you’re minded to hear, I won’t take much persuading. Mind you, some parts of my tale may seem a little hard to credit, but I promise you I’m no madman.

I like your colourful pin there – does that mean you’re one of those trans folk?

You young people really have it figured out. My set, hippies I suppose, the counterculture, beatniks, we really thought we were living outside the box, but at best we were just pushing slightly at the walls, maybe bowing them out a little. I’ll tell you, back in the day, I spent time in a lot of communes and collectives and the like and nine times out of ten it was still the women doing the cleaning and raising the kids, while the men got high and talked about global brotherhood. Anyway, point I was making is that if I’d been born a half century later, I sometimes think I’d have been, well, being a he never sat quite right with me.

I suppose that was the reason I headed west. One of them, at any rate. Grew up in rural Idaho and they were not too fond of boys like me. So I headed off in search of somewhere that I fit, I guess.

I landed up in a little town up the coast in Mendocino: Sandbar Point. In those days, it was popular with quite a lot of us counterculture folks, though it has to be said Mendo hippies were always a bit different from the Berkeley bunch.

Anyway, that’s where I met her, my wife. Yvaine her name was, or leastways that’s what she let herself be called. Chosen names are better than assigned ones, at least the hippies had that right, even if I ran into one too many Oceans or Skyes.

My wife sometimes said that the thing that people think they don’t understand about the universe is how big it is, but the thing that they really don’t understand is how empty it is. And she didn’t just mean the gaps between planets and stars, though those are vast beyond human comprehension, but even within the stars and planets.

You know an atom? Mostly empty. You imagine an atom the size of a football field; in the centre you have the nucleus, about the size of a marble, and whizzing around the perimeter you have a few electrons, like grains of dust. Everything else? Empty. At least kinda, Yvaine would go off about waveforms at this point, but that’s even worse. Not even a solid speck, but the idea of a speck smeared across space, the ghost of an idea of a thing.

Anyway, point is, scientifically speaking, we are all basically clouds, and most of everything is nothing at all.

So that was why it was so damn galling to her that my wife’s teleportation beam – no wider than an electron – hit a damn neutrino somewhere in the Earth’s lower atmosphere.

Heh, told you that you might think I was pulling your leg. Don’t worry, I’m not deranged or dangerous. Hear me out, or think of it as a tall tale told by an elder.

Anyhow, she materialised some way above the Earth and tumbled into the ocean. Probably would have killed a human, but whatever she was made of, it wasn’t human stuff. Never a day sick in all the years I knew her, heck I’m pretty sure she only grew old to humour me.

She swam ashore at Sandbar Point, confused as all hell, of course. A couple found her pulling herself out of the ocean; assumed that she was drunk or high, a skinny dipper who had become separated from her clothes. They gave her an old coat from the trunk of their car and dropped her at the gate of The Tract, guessing that that was the nearest place that might have lost a spaced-out chick. Bit of luck – or fate – that they managed to find the place, The Tract had a habit of being hard to find unless it wanted you to find it. I lived there for near a decade, and we never had a cop car roll up.

Now you’ve got to understand, around that time there were several communes, collectives, ‘communities’, and sometimes outright cults in and around Sandbar Point. Most of them had names like The Land, or The Hill or something like that. Plenty of them would not have been safe places to drop off a waif, but The Tract was a patch of land owned by Old Smokey Bob Bosky. I had a lot of time for Ol’ Bob; most of these places had patriarchs who were straight up pieces of shit, but Bob had no malice in him. He grew weed, good stuff too, and that was all he really cared about; finding new strains, smoking, and gaining ecstatic visions. Some of his customers parked up their campers on the scrubland by his ramshackle house and just never left. So Bob put one of his girlfriends, Morgan, to looking after Yvaine. I guess me and Morgan never saw eye to eye – she thought I was bad news – but to give her her due, she cared a lot about Yvaine. It was her that came up with the name Yvaine, in fact, since my wife’s actual name was unpronounceable. Not that Yvaine was that much better for a lot of folks.

In case you’re wondering, she did tell them she had fallen from space. And I won’t say they believed her, but Bob’s lot ran mystical, so they didn’t not believe her either. Bob himself claimed that he would be reincarnated as his crop, and that he had had carnal knowledge of at least one wood nymph. More of his folk than not thought they had talked to fairies, and they all had a keen interest in the flying saucer craze that was going around. So when Yvaine told them she wasn’t human, she mostly got sage nods and the occasional “are any of us, when you think about it”. But Morgan taught her to keep quiet about that around folks who weren’t as with it.

So meantimes I was working my way across the country, I was a pretty good handyman, and a hard worker, so I got by. Hell, I was a handsome fellow back then, and I ain’t ashamed to say I made a few bucks that way too; I like men as well as women, so while it wasn’t always great, I’ve made harder money.

I hit the coast at Sandbar Point, and found it entirely to my liking. It’s a pretty town; there’s a lighthouse, cliffs and beaches, hills and forests. I’d been there a little while before I ran into Yvaine.

At the time I was dating a woman called Betty, a bit older than me. Now, I wouldn’t say that mine and Betty’s relationship was purely financial, but, well, that was certainly a part of it. Anyway, Betty was very curious about the occult, in a sort of suburban housewife way; she’d get her palm read and her tea-leaves told at any opportunity, so one day she dragged me to one of the town’s head shops / bookstores / hangout zones, where the famous Madam Europa was giving tarot readings.

Now, as I’ve said, Old Smokey Bob Bosky’s lot were mystically inclined, and one way that they made a bit of dough, especially in the tourist season, was exactly that sort of occult hustle. Heck, ‘hustle’ is a bit unfair. Some of it was straight up showmanship, sure, cold reading, sleight of hand, but that didn’t stop them being believers. More than once I’d hear one of them say something like “Man, I was laying out a spread for a rube, but my cards started getting twitchy, telling me he wouldn’t see out the year. So now I had to explain that in a way that would still get me a tip.”

At the time, I thought it was pure bunkum, but I didn’t have anything better to do.

So Betty gets her cards read by Madame Europa, who is, of course, Yvaine. She told me later that, due to her unusual accent, people around town had asked if she was from Europe. She had not denied it, mainly because at the time she had no idea where Europe even was. She’d guessed it was probably another town a bit further up the coast. So people decided she was from Europe, not even a specific country in Europe, just Europe in general. But her new friends didn’t like to waste any opportunity, so – with the aid of a headscarf and some costume jewellery – she became Madam Europa, famed fortune teller from distant, if unspecific, lands.

Look, I’d like to say that when I first saw Yvaine it was love at first sight; that our eyes locked, and we knew that we’d spend the rest of our lives together. But honestly, I thought she was a bit of an odd fish at first. Oh, she was pretty enough, in a distant, otherworldly way, but there were plenty of pretty women and men in my life back then.

Betty raves about her card reading though, relating how it definitely told her she needed to get the third dog she’d been um-ing and ah-ing over. Anyway, she pressed me to let her pay for a reading, so I shrugged and sat down opposite Yvaine.

Her eyes were pale; grey, silvery even, and solemn. She gazed into me and I felt seen in a way that was both disconcerting and kind of thrilling. She dealt three cards from her deck; a three card spread, but she barely looked at them. I couldn’t tell you what they were now; number cards, mostly, nothing portentous. She talked for a time, telling me that I’d be in town for several years, that I’d fall in love, and that my lover would leave me, at least for a while. Also, a bit bizarrely, that I should look into bees.

Honestly, I wasn’t listening much, I was kind of spaced out, fixed in her gaze; it was relentless, but also without judgement. Like she was seeing me without my mask, but did not find what she saw repulsive. My parents couldn’t do that. My best friend on the football team, the first boy I fell in love with, couldn’t do that. So… yeah.

And that was that. Betty and I left the store, her chattering excitedly, me in something of a daze. Then Betty overpaid for marijuana and we went back to her place and fucked. Oh, sorry miss, forgive my language.

Betty and I broke up a few weeks after; on good terms. She’d got a new dog, and her husband was coming back from overseas with a medal and some shrapnel, so it seemed natural to break it off. I stayed in Sandbar Point though, doing odd jobs, construction work, whatever there was. Saved enough for a battered old covered truck, which, often enough, I’d end up sleeping in. It wasn’t a bad life; in those days you could get by on a lot less, and my only expensive vice was science-fiction magazines; Amazing Stories, that sort of thing.

So one day word reaches me that someone needs help with a bit of tree work; it’s in the hills east of town; I rattle up there in my truck. An old man, twisted like driftwood, but somehow still sprightly, shows me the problem; a bough of an old cypress overhangs his house, and it looks like when winter hits it might well come down. We agree on the price and I do the job; climb the tree, rope up the bough, saw it through, lower the bough to the ground. Hard work, especially in late summer, but the price is more than fair. The old man – Harris – is a bit of a chatterbox, but not annoyingly so, and he doesn’t tell me how to do my job. Doesn’t grumble about payment either, but tips and offers me a beer. Well, sure.

From his back porch I can see beehives, and I think back to that card reading, and ask after them. Boy, does his face light up. He’s a bee guy, you know, a fan. A former beekeeper, now semi-retired. Asks if I’d like to see them close up, and I say sure, and he fetches me a beekeeper hat and some gloves, suggests I roll my sleeves down and tuck them in. I ask where his kit is, and he just chuckles. “These are old bees, old friends,” he says, “They know me.”

And he must be right, because we head out there, and he opens up one of the hives, pulls out a panel and shows me the honeycomb. The bees climb all over him, but I can tell they’re not stinging. I’m captivated. I don’t know if you’ve ever been near a beehive? You get the strangest sense that you’re near an animal. And not a small animal either, but something like a bear; dense, buzzing, vital. Like a bear in cloud form, I suppose.

Anyhow, we talk about beekeeping for a while, and he can tell I’m getting into it. My god-daughter calls it ‘nerding out’, you know? When you find someone interested in the same shit that you are. But I’m also thinking, this is another work opportunity, another string to my bow. So I ask if he’ll teach me, and of course, he’s keen. I actually feel a bit guilty about that, I probably should have paid him for training or something, but he was so happy to share, and I did odd jobs in exchange. I do wonder if he also liked just having a young man about the house, but he never propositioned me, so if he was admiring my young buns I have no problem with that.

Oh yes, another cup would be lovely miss, if that’s alright.

Where was I? So one day Harris gets a phone call from Ol’ Bob Bosky; half his porch fell off a few months back, and now a colony of wild bees are making a hive in the side of his house. “You’re up!” says Harris, and we load up the truck. By this time I’ve got my own apiarist gear; Harris helped me source it. It was vintage even back then, but worked well enough.

I’d seen Bob Bosky a couple of times before, even been out to The Tract once to help with some scrub clearance, but I don’t think Harris had. Man, his expression! I mean, longhairs, topless chicks, flags, smoking and drinking. He seemed confused and delighted by it all.

Anyways, it soon became clear that the hippies had attempted to deal with the bee problem in their own way; blowing vast amounts of weed smoke at them, and playing guitar at them. The first thing wasn’t that bad an idea, but the bees hated the second, and they were starting to get riled up.

Harris walks up to the hive and starts talking to the bees, calming them down. I know that sounds strange, but they kind of dig it if you talk to them in a low gentle tone. Well, when Harris did it, at least. I suited up, and also tried to get the beatniks to back off a bit.

That was when I ran into her again, Yvaine; I wasn’t sure she’d recognise me, in my spaceman get-up, but it seems like she did. In the months she’d been here, she’d become quite a valuable member of the commune, largely because she was one of the few who could be depended upon to not be wasted at any given time. She had no objection to drugs, but they didn’t seem to have any effect on her. So she helped me persuade the crowd to disperse, or at least step back, and to control the dogs and children that generally ran wild. She had no fear of the bees, and they didn’t seem to be troubled by her, either.

Moving a feral colony isn’t that complex, but you need to take your time. We gave them a little more smoke; Harris’s blend this time, rosemary and paper from old books. That last isn’t tradition, but Harris swore by it. I sprayed them with sugar water, this keeps them busy grooming, but Harris said they treat it as a gift as well. With the bees calming down, I took some of the panels off the side of the house, and we set to work moving the queen and then the combs to a sturdy box. As I say, careful work, but not that difficult.

We put the box gently into the truck. Harris knew plenty of people who’d like a wild colony; you can finagle those combs into frames and keep them in a regular beehive.

As I was getting my gear off, discussing the bees with Harris, Yvaine appeared around the side of the truck, fixing me with her spooky stare. She held a small roll of bills, which she tried to hand to Harris, but he nodded in my direction instead. I took them; I’d argue with Harris later.

“Harris says you’re a handyman?” she asked. I nodded. “Bob wants a quote to get his porch fixed up.”

I named a price. A fair price, maybe a little low, but not embarrassingly so. She nodded.

“Getting late now, and we’ve gotta get these bees settled,” I said, “I’ll come back tomorrow?”

She nodded again and left without another word.

So we got the bees delivered; a senior couple as excited by the bees as if they were getting a puppy, and spent some time getting them all set up. I tried to split the money with Harris, but he waved me off.

“You should ask that girl out,” he said. I guess I scoffed or something. “No, listen, the bees tell me,” he said. “Bees make good neighbours, but they gossip.”

Next morning found me at Bob’s house. There was no sign of Yvaine, but I had a chat with Old Bob about what he wanted, and I set to work. It was a two-day job, at least without a team, but Bob was no stern taskmaster. He’d turn up occasionally to shoot the breeze, but otherwise I was left to get on with my work. His folks brought me beers and cokes throughout the day, and they shared their lunch with me.

It was after lunch on the second day, getting close to finishing, that Yvaine finally showed up. She was suddenly there, watching me work. And look, I’ve had a fair number of women ‘watching me work’ before, but this wasn’t like that. It was like she was analysing what I’d done, trying to make sense of it. She even asked a few questions – making me jump each time – about why I’d done such and such a thing. So I explained, as best I could, though after the last answer I looked around and found she’d gone.

I finished off and packed up my tools, loaded up the truck. And she was there again, another roll of bills, the same relentless stare. I pocketed the money with a nod. She just looked. Bees notwithstanding, I really couldn’t tell if she dug me or not. Whenever I asked her about that later, she’d just nod, but in that way of hers that meant that there was more to it than that.

“Hey,” I said, “Would you let me take you out sometime?”

“Why?” she said.

Gotta admit, that had me a little stumped for a moment. “Er, because I’d like to get to know you better?” I said.

“Oh,” she said, “No, I don’t think so.”

And that was that, of course. I didn’t get shot down all that often, but I’m not one to press my case when it happens, so I nodded again.

As I turned to go, she asked, “What’s that?”

It was an issue of Amazing Stories, lying on the driver’s seat where I’d left it. Reading for when I was taking a break. I handed it to her. “You can borrow it if you want?”

She nodded gravely, and I drove off.

Now, I’d gotten into the habit, when I was feeling flush, of taking my breakfast at Ruby’s Diner. Ruby had a soft spot for me, and I liked the pancakes plenty. The next morning, as I was finishing up, in bursts Yvaine, and slides into the booth next to me.

“Tell me about this,” she says, slapping the magazine on the formica. So I tried to explain about what science fiction was, but she shook her head, and started talking about places that she’d seen, places that the words and pictures in Amazing had called to mind. Giant machines, robots, strange worlds, and alien species.

Naturally, I reckoned she was crazy, or at least high, though I’ve seen a lot of both, and this seemed different. She asked if I had any more magazines like this one, and I said sure.

At that time, I was renting a single bedroom in a dingy basement, and the landlady didn’t like me having visitors, but I snuck Yvaine in. She sat on the floor and looked through my mags, almost like she was devouring them with her eyes or mind. Then she sat back and began talking.

She told me of her life before falling here, about being part of a vast galactic network of species, about how she was a sort of trouble-shooter, an intercessor she called it. She spoke about wanting to get home, but that it was almost impossible to teleport any worthwhile distance without a sending station. And she no more knew how to build one of those than we could build a jet plane in medieval times. I asked plenty of questions, at first wondering if it was a joke being played very dry, and after that, just humouring her. But it all piqued my interest, and I started to ask questions to try to see how far her delusion went, to find the rough edges. There were none. Then, at some point, I realised that I had just started believing her, however unlikely it all seemed.

We talked until evening. I was starting to see glimpses of the real her, I guessed. A sly, wry humour. Intelligence that didn’t feel the need to announce itself. And a deep wellspring of compassion that you’d never know from those grey eyes. I told her some things as well. I love to talk, you’ve probably gathered, but there are things I don’t talk about; my hometown, my parents… growing up. But I did then.

It was getting dark now, and we were both hungry, and the sort of shaky fragile that comes from talking about such things. So we snuck back out and got pizza, taking it down to the beach, perching on a boulder to share. Afterwards we just sat and listened to the sea, and watched the stars. That was the first time she told me about how empty space was, and I tell you, close as she was, I was feeling the space between us then.

She stopped, and looked at me again, grey eyes shimmering in the moonlight. A moment of evaluation, and then a smile. “Okay,” she said. “Okay what?” I asked.

“You can get to know me better,” she said, and pulled her t-shirt off over her head.

So that was that. We fell in together, easy as pie. I moved out of my basement and into her trailer on The Tract. To be honest, it wasn’t much of an upgrade in living conditions, but I didn’t care about that, and anyhow I knew I could fix it up a bit. Maybe we made an odd couple; I was muscular and handy, even clean-cut, if you didn’t know better, and she was an otherworldly woman, with an odd manner and a strange accent. But it suited us both very well.

A few happy years passed like that. I grew my business, still doing all sorts; construction, landscaping, mostly. Sometimes I would hire some of the more coherent of Bob’s folk to help me on the bigger jobs, and we got by, mostly. I still did occasional bee work too, even after Harris passed.

That was a sad affair. I knew something had happened as soon as I pulled up his drive, and it had nothing to do with the unfamiliar car parked there. Normally, they’d be at least a couple of bees, like scouts, buzzing around the front. But nothing. I didn’t need to check to know that the hives were empty. These are old bees, Harris had said, and I guess they went with him. I didn’t take to his daughter and her husband, poking around his house like they were measuring it for something. They never visited him in life, but were swift enough now he was dead. I said as much, so I guess they didn’t take to me either. Never knew when the memorial service was, or even where his grave ended up, but that never bothered me none. I knew I could mutter a howdy to a passing honeybee, and that would be as good to him as any flowers on a grave.

A few days later, an attorney turns up on The Tract. He won’t sit down, he’s barely even trying to disguise his disgust at the situation. Turns out Harris left me a behest; his beekeeping gear and beekeeping books, his apiarists journals, his little black book of the ‘bee folk’ he knew, and a fair sum of cash. It was clear this pen-pusher thought I was a con-man or a gold-digger, but there wasn’t much he could do about it. The money wasn’t enough for his family to go to war over, but would be a nice little nest egg for us.

That night, I asked Yvaine to marry me. She gave me that same appraising look for a moment, then nodded, climbing into my lap. I thought we’d see about a ceremony, maybe spend some of the money on a ring, but she wasn’t interested in that. As far as she was concerned, we were husband and wife now.

We spent a few more years in Sandbar Point, but the decade was tumbling to a close, and the mood had changed for us beatniks. Some of the commune packed up and went home, back to regular lives and jobs. For those that remained, well, they found that counterculture had kind of become their own culture now; things settled down on The Tract.

Mood of the country aside, those were mostly good years too. We did okay for money, not flush, but getting by, even squirrelling some away to add to our nest egg. My wife got her GED; no trouble there, of course. She was the smartest person I knew. And once a month we’d buy up all the science fiction magazines we could find and spent a lazy Sunday reading them. Sometimes, occasionally, she’d tell me some story from her life before, I loved that.

Of course, it wasn’t perfect; what is, in this imperfect world? I would have liked a kid, but that wasn’t possible. I’ve got a bio-daughter now; my god-daughter, and she’s got her own daughter, as well. I love them all a tonne, but it ain’t the same as raising a child yourself. Two of our lesbian friends wanted a kid, so… hmm, I’m getting off track, aren’t I?

Truth was, many of us young men were lingering on The Tract for one reason; the draft lottery was looming, and if your number came up, there were few places better to hide out than here. I’d like to have seen any marshals find the place, if Old Bob didn’t want them to.

But by the mid-seventies that wasn’t an issue any more, and my wife and I decided that we’d like to move down to the city. We’d been there many times before, of course. One of Bob’s sons, Ash, drove a minivan full of Bob’s harvest down there every so often, hung out with his city boyfriends and girlfriends for a bit, then headed back.

Ash had narcolepsy – that’s the one where you can just fall asleep – and while he reckoned that good weed kept it at bay, he liked to have a passenger with him while driving, to grab the wheel if it came to that. So we’d sometimes accompany him, and spend a few days in the city, sleeping on some friend-of-Bob’s couch. Sometimes we’d explore, sometimes we’d window shop, browse through bookshops, or try new foods – not many Chinese restaurants in Sandbar Point in those days. So we were looking forward to city living.

Again Old Bob helped us out, putting us in touch with a contact – friend would have been too strong a word – of his, Mister Winters. Winters had come into the possession of a large but rundown townhouse down Portola way. It had already been subdivided into apartments, but only one was liveable, and that was being generous. He’d hired a bunch of labourers – the cheapest he could find – to fix it up, but was worried about them ‘taking liberties’ because they were mostly, well, I won’t repeat the words he used, but ‘not white’ was the gist of it. So in exchange for living rent free, I was to supervise their work, and also keep an eye on the place. They were mostly good folks, and my wife could translate if we hit language issues, so no problems there. Took several of them on full-time, when my business got going, which it eventually did.

The first few years were a bit of a struggle, though. After the Winters' house was fixed up, he let the other apartments out, and wanted to charge us full rent for the one we were in. I argued him down to a healthy discount, with the understanding that I’d do general maintenance about the place. Still, I reckon he only agreed because, well, Old Smokey Bob had no malice in him, but you wanted to keep him onside all the same. Yvaine and I called him Uncle Bob, and while Winters knew we weren’t blood, he also knew that Bob wouldn’t worry about that.

It took a while to get my construction business going again; there was more competition here, and I didn’t have many contacts. But again, I was able to get by on little jobs here and there. Yvaine also tried to work; Ash had some friends in the art scene and she did some work as an artist’s model, but she didn’t care for it. Didn’t care for the men, to be more specific. So she tried office work, but didn’t take to that either. She understood hierarchies on an intellectual level, but the sheer inefficiency of taking instruction from someone one-tenth as smart as she was did not sit well. So she hopped from job to job, bringing in bits of cash here and there.

Not that we didn’t have a good time, you know? We expanded our love of science fiction to the comic books; my wife was particularly taken with the work of Girard, Moebius. Things like “Arzach” in Métal Hurlant. Strange birds, robots, landscapes. The oddness of the art reminded her of home, she said. Around that time she started to draw; pastiches mostly, but also scraps of memories.

We got more politically active as well, particularly around environmental stuff. That didn’t have the profile it does now, but there were still people starting to get worried. Save the whales, and the like. It really troubled Yvaine; she always took the long view.

Money was still pretty tight when Ash – on one of his periodic visits – said that one of Bob’s friends was having a problem with some bees, and handed me a card for Benandanti Press, an occult publisher.

The outside of the offices of Benandanti Press were run down and unappealing, and the insides weren’t much better. They were chaotic; abandoned drafting tables, piles of books, a corridor rendered almost impassable by piles of partially disassembled printing presses. The sole proprietor, a Mrs. Thessaly September, was a stern-looking but actually rather ditzy older woman. She explained that the business had used to be much larger, but now eked out a humble existence publishing the odd occult pamphlet or book of esoteric poetry. Including, I was amused to find, some of Old Bob’s verses. As I say, I had a lot of time for Bob, but his poetry was not good, even if you like poetry about fucking mythical creatures. Begging your pardon again.

As she’s telling me this, I’m assuming that we’re standing in some sort of junk room; there are piles of paper on every surface, and document boxes scattered across the floor. But it turns out, this is her office! She tells me she’s been trying to get it in order, but the “damnable buzzing” is distracting her. And she’s right, there is a buzzing. Not loud, and quite pleasant to my ears. But strange, as we’re well inside the building.

She shows me to a short corridor, and points at a particular wooden door. I make to open it, and she gasps. “Just a quick look,” I tell her. My suit is still back in the truck, but I should be fine for short time; the buzzing didn’t sound angry to me. “I’ll be in my office,” she says, and makes herself scarce.

So I slip in through this door, closing it behind me. It takes my eyes a moment to adjust to the dim light that’s coming in through a single cracked skylight. The room seemed like it was, or at least had been, some manner of library or storeroom. The walls were lined with shelves, many still with books on. But most of the books were piled in the centre of the room, near as tall as I was. This was where the buzzing was coming from. I moved closer, angling to see between the towers of old books, and yes, there was honeycomb. This was a large colony, in good health too. As I watched, I saw a steady stream of bees making their way between the hive and the triangular gap in the corner of one pane in the skylight. Off to forage, or returning laden. One or two bees landed on me, but I told them “howdy” and they flew off again.

I tell you, getting that hive moved was a hell of a job. It took four of us in the end, and I only had two beekeeper suits (I’d inherited a second from Harris). But I made some calls, and two of my construction guys agreed to help. They got the suits. I made do with a kerchief, gloves and tucking everything in. Most times you get stung, it’s because the bee got caught in your clothes. My wife made up the fourth; she was unbothered by bee-stings, so she did the whole operation in a light sun-dress, while we were swaddled and sweating.

Anyhow, I’ve already told you how you move a feral hive, so I won’t bore you with it again. We had no-one ready to take these bees though, but Yvaine remembered a hollow tree in McLaren park, from one of our walks. Now, I’m not rightly sure what the legalities are of putting a colony of bees in a public park, but it was dark by the time we were ready, and no-one challenged us.

Back at Benandanti Press, a visibly relieved Mrs. September cut us a cheque. Honestly, the payment was a bit on the small side, but it would cover the labourers, and this was a favour for Bob anyway. Thessaly and Yvaine got on famously; Thessaly was used to dealing with odd sorts, and it didn’t bother my wife that Thessaly was also a bit odd. Anyway, to cut a long story short, my wife started working for Benandanti Press as, notionally, an assistant.

In practice, they worked very much as team, Yvaine’s calm and organised nature meshing with Thessaly’s flighty – but surprisingly commercially savvy – mind. Benandanti started to get back on its feet; tapping into the resurgent interest in witchcraft with several small volumes targeted at the modern American witch about town. Thessaly hit upon the idea of following this up with a “witch's tarot” and hired one of Ash’s artist girlfriends to do the designs.

The thing about artists is; sometimes you want an artist, and sometimes you just want someone who can draw instead. The lady they hired – she called herself The Skink – was definitely the former. She decided that the art for this deck needed to be ‘visceral’, by which she meant ‘painted using bodily fluids’. She turned out an admittedly striking set of the major arcana, and most of the royals, before ending up in hospital with a blood infection.

The tarot was already well behind schedule, and we were all worried we’d miss the end of the witch fad, so Yvaine proposed to draw the number cards herself. My wife wasn’t necessarily the greatest artist – she said she enjoyed it precisely because she wasn’t great at it – but her work was certainly passable, and she had a small talent for pastiche.

So the Witches Tarot went to press only six months late, and it sold pretty well. Yvaine helped that a bunch by touring a lot of the local shops and demonstrating it as Madame Europa once again. Thessaly, who despite the Greek sounding name, and the Anglicized surname, had family from North Italy helped make the costume a little more authentic this time.

Now, as you might have realised, I’m getting near to reaching the actual point of my story, which is: Thessaly suggested they do another deck, and this time spare themselves the effort of finding another artist, by having Yvaine do all the art. It was Yvaine who suggested The Space Nomad’s Tarot, ostensibly to allow her to repurpose sketches she’d already done. Space and science-fiction were ‘in’ again, so Thessaly agreed.

The deck sold tolerably well; not remarkably, but it turned a profit, and I think my wife was glad to have put some of her story out there, albeit secretly. Again, she promoted it as Madame Europa, though this time we found some shiny fabric and did her up so that she looked like an extra from Star Trek. She found that extremely amusing, by which I meant that I distinctly saw her mouth twitch.

We kept a pack from that first and only print run, but I wish I’d kept another. Keep hoping that I’ll find a second-hand set.

Anyhow, life went on. In terms of our personal lives, things were going pretty good. Yvaine became a partner at Benandanti. I got a small construction company going, but even better, I was getting more bee work; a combination of Bob and Thessaly’s word-of-mouth marketing. Even more importantly, we still dug each other. Every day with Yvaine was a surprise, and you can’t ask for more than that.

In the outside world, however, things were not going as well. The eighties were a brutal time, particularly if you moved in non-mainstream circles. Lost several friends, including Ash, to AIDS. And that shit-heel in the Whitehouse. Well, we all lost hope, a bit. The promise of the sixties, the dawn of a new age, seemed long dead.

On top of that, nature itself seemed to be going to hell; a hole in the ozone layer, pesticides and oil spills, acid rain, global warming. My wife would ask, “Don’t they realise how serious this is?” but the answer was No. Or Yes, but they don’t care as long as they’re making money, let’s be honest.

We did what we could in terms of activism. Even got arrested a couple of times, for what little good that did.

And the years rolled by. You’re still young, you don’t realise just how fast they can start rolling when they get going.

Eventually, a larger publishing company brought out Benandanti Press; Thessaly had been wanting to retire for several years by this point, so they accepted a substantial but not spectacular pay-out. Thessaly moved down to San Diego to be near to her grown-up children. We kept in touch though.

My beekeeping business had kind of taken off at this point. A few people were experimenting with urban beekeeping, but more importantly a lot of wineries up the coast were wising up to the benefits of having hives in their vineyards.

Hmm? Oh, actually no, bees don’t directly help with the grapes. Grapes are, what do you call it … hermaphroditic, they fertilize themselves, which is a good trick. But bees do help with the fertilisation of other plants, those that help fix the soil, or provide homes to the big insects that eat the little insects that eat the grapes. It’s all a network, you know; people, life, bees. Everything depends on everything else.

I sold the construction firm to my foreman at a bargain price and we moved out of the city to be closer to our customers. Yvaine helped me with the business, and took night classes on ecology. Those were mostly her words about bees and grapes, just now; I mostly thought of it like Harris did: bees make good neighbours.

So we crept through the nineties and into a new millennium. I was getting things set up for our retirement, though Yvaine was becoming increasingly upset about climate change and the like. Reckoned that we – the world – didn’t have long left. She loved us you know, not just me, all of us; Thessaly, Ash, Harris, Morgan, Bob, everyone. The whole interdependent network.

I think CCD was the last straw. You know, colony collapse disorder? Most of the worker bees in a hive die or disappear, and you know how well a society does without the workers. We lost most of our hives; managed to hang onto a few, thankfully, some of Harris’s old notes came in handy. They’ve bounced back a bit, but, well, pretty devastating for us bee folk.

My wife decided that she was going to need to go for help; not just for the bees, of course, but for Earth, humanity, she was going to need to go back. To her people, to the interstellar network. She would leave, but would return with entities that could help us.

Well, it took almost a decade to prepare. She began researching the mental techniques necessary to self-teleport without a transmitter. In theory, she told me, it’s as easy as simply changing your state from matter to information, the difficulty is landing somewhere. Space, as I said, is very empty. She needed some sort of stepping stone. She drew cards – from her Nomad’s tarot – looking for options. Eventually, back in 2017, she found one.

Something she called a ‘Nidari Bell’ was approaching our sun. If I comprehended her correctly, it’s some sort of … space monastery for an insectoid species. Circa one hundred yards long, and brimming with devotees; they set it tumbling through space, unguided. A sort of spiritual retreat, I guess, but also an act of faith. Anyway, Yvaine said, they wouldn’t have a teleporter station but might have a communication device, and she thought she could make the jump. It would be closest to Earth towards the end of the year.

When us humans detected the Bell, they gave it a Hawaiian name which I don’t recall, but I remember it meant something like “first distant messenger”; which we both took as a good sign, or maybe fate.

The one remaining complication was, well, in the sixties it was easy enough to fall from space with no paperwork, birth certificates, transcripts, etc, and still get by. It’s a lot harder in the 2010’s to disappear and not have people start asking awkward questions.

Once again, for one last time, Old Bob Bosky came to our aid. He’d long since grown into his epithet, and while no-one had kept count (least of all him), most reckoned him over his century when he finally passed. As was his lifelong wish, he was buried under his best patch of growing land on The Tract. But a memorial service was to be held in Sandbar Point, and all his old friends, contacts, enemies, lovers and family, blood or otherwise, were invited to send him off in style.

We rented a nice tourist apartment, went down a few days early. Wandered around town lost in that bittersweet remembrance that you get when your old self looks back at the haunts of youth. I was so young, so unaware. But I got to spend most of my life with someone that I loved, so I couldn’t regret too much.

We paid our respects to Morgan, an elderly woman herself now, of course, and not grown any fonder of me. She’d refused to marry Old Bob right to the end, you know? Wouldn’t call herself a widow either.

The rest of Bob’s family also welcomed us, just as they had always done.

The memorial – or wake, Bob’s folk weren’t fussy about terms – was held on the beach. By chance, or fate, the same beach where Yvaine and I first… kissed. It was crowded; it seemed like everyone was here, people I hadn’t seen for fifty years or more. Many had gone mainstream, but came back to pay their respects to Smokey Bob. Hell, one guy – I won’t name him – is a mayor of somewhere now, and a fucking Republican! Traditional family values ticket – he wasn’t so family values back in the day, sitting in my truck sucking my… anyway, a lot of people there, is the point. I even thought I had run into Betty for a moment, but I realised it was her daughter instead – I didn’t introduce myself. What was I going to say “I was the guy your mom paid for sex while your dad was getting shot at”?

There were speeches and flower wreathes laid on the water. Bonfires lit against the cool air. There was a potluck, and plenty of drinking and smoking. There was dancing, and some recitation of Bob’s poetry. The whole beach seemed to me to be filled with spirals of people, groups weaving through groups, entwining and interconnecting. My heart was heavy though, and not just because of Old Smokey Bob Bosky; I knew what lay ahead.

As dusk fell, my wife pulled me to the side of the party, out of the way behind a boulder. “Well,” she said, mouth quirking, “I hope you enjoyed getting to know me.”

Tears sprung to my eyes. “I’m still not sure how well I know you,” I said, and it was true. She was still a bit of a mystery. “But I love you.”

“That, my sweet, is the most important thing to know,” she said. “Because that is the how and the why of both my leaving and my return.”

And then she kissed me, and walked into the darkness. I returned to the party; it was important that I return, that I be seen, that I’d join in with the celebrations, putting on a brave face. I knew what would happen next; we’d talked about it for long enough.

Yvaine walked through town, making sure to be seen by several folks, back to our tourist apartment. She knocked on the landlady’s door to borrow pen and paper, and sat in Ruby’s Diner to write a note. Then she walked up to one of the many coastal cliffs just outside town, a notorious suicide spot, undressed, neatly folded her clothes, weighted the note on top of them with a stone. Looked out at the stars and jumped into space.

We had a whole backstory worked out, but maybe we were being paranoid, as I was met with nothing but sympathy. And my grieving wasn’t an act, I was grieving her absence, even though I knew she would return.

When I they handed me the note, I didn’t need to read it – we’d agreed on the wording together – but inside the fold of paper was one thing I didn’t expect. One of the cards from her tarot deck; the six of swords. A hard but necessary journey. I could never find the rest of the deck though. Maybe she even took them with her.

And since then, I’ve been waiting. I’m retired now, though like dear Harris I still keep a few hives. Old bees, old friends, good neighbours. And every so often I come into the city, and see if I can find a copy of my wife’s tarot.

Oh now, look at me rambling on. Yes, it must be way past closing, and I’m fully recovered, so I’ll be on my way. Feel free to dismiss this as the ravings of an old fool, miss.

Thank you. Looks like it will be a fine clear night tonight. Just remember, when you next look up at the stars: it’s so very empty up there, but you still might have more good neighbours than you think.

Six of Swords
Fig.1 - Six of Swords.