by Liz Kellebrew
Look: the woman. She walks with bees, carries smoking sumac in her pot, scrapes thick white honey from the combs. She strips to the waist under an August sun, splits her firewood, renders her beeswax, melts her honey into gold. She hasn’t seen a living human being in a year.
Only the dead come, blazing a trail of weeping through her tall grass and her fruited orchards. Every few weeks she finds another man, a solitary traveler, his clothing torn and the soft parts of his body scavenged by coyotes. Such are these days of terror and pestilence.
But she’s not afraid. She prepares the bodies of the strangers and gives them to God. The rest of her days are given to her work.
Anemone samples the warm honey from the pot. In every batch she tastes the pollens the worker bees have gathered, the nectars they have drunk, the places they have been. When the plague is over—some better year, perhaps—Anemone will go places, too. She misses the ocean.
She wipes sticky hands on her calico skirt and looks out her window. Rows of young corn and bush beans, stacks of whitewashed beehives, the stand of cedars guarding her cabin.
Look: the stranger. Back bent under the burden of his earthly possessions, the sun a bleached scythe on his brow. He strides through her trees and over her fields, the smell of wood smoke and honey a promise in his nostrils. Hot yearning in his brain.
She must not fail the wayfaring stranger, but she must not catch the plague. If she dies, no one will tend her father’s lands, and the cabin and the barn and the hives will fall into decay.
She pumps cold water on her hands and face, fills glass jars. Cornbread and honey cool on the table. She combs her hair.
The stranger comes into her yard. He wears no hat. His hair is red. His beard, an orange flame. His eyes, bright blue. Fever or nature?
One toe pokes out of his left shoe. His shirt and pants rolled up, the muscles of his calves shine with sweat. He’s beautiful.
“Can I help you?” Anemone asks.
“Just passing through.” The stranger wipes his forehead, props his pack against the woodpile. “If you’ve some water and food, I’d be indebted.”
“You come from the city?”
“You know I’ll have to check, then.”
He unbuttons his shirt, his chest white where it hasn’t seen the sun, nipples pink over ribs. He raises his arms, his eyebrows.
Anemone doesn’t see the black boils in his armpits, just wiry red hair. The stranger smells like salt. Like the sea.
“I’m clean,” he says. “Trust me.”
Anemone shakes her head. There’s one place she hasn’t looked.
His eyes go grey as stones, but he unties his pants. His legs and buttocks are pale as his stomach, and his manhood hangs under a frizz of red fur. Anemone smells the salt again as she looks for the boils that aren’t there.
“Come in,” she says, standing. “Table’s ready.”
“Not until I know you’re clean.”
Anemone laughs, slips her dress off her shoulders just like she does when hoeing corn or splitting wood. She lifts her arms, her breasts, her skirts. The stranger’s hair spirals from a bare spot on his scalp.
They drink and eat. He does not meet her eyes. When the sun goes orange, he goes to the stream to wash.
The drones are sleeping now, their rainbow wings cool and stiff. Anemone takes the stranger’s filthy clothes from the riverbank, leaving her father’s flannel suit and a clean shirt instead.
Upstream, she scrubs the stranger’s clothes, her dress, herself. She rubs cedar oil into her skin to keep the mosquitoes from biting, and the odor of tree is so strong she doesn’t smell the stranger until he’s right behind her.
Naked and dripping, he holds her father’s suit. “You took my clothes.”
“I washed them.” The stranger’s soft parts have gone hard. His eyes flick to her breasts and away again, nervous butterflies.
His white knuckles clench black flannel. “These belong to your husband?”
“No. My father.”
“Where is he?”
A strange and wonderful thing: the stranger kneels. He presses his mouth to Anemone’s lips, and his hand on her neck is like the furry feet of a bee. Anemone kisses him back, and the sun makes a fire she can see with her eyes closed, and when she opens her eyes again bats are swooping to meet the purple east.
The stranger moans in her arms. Anemone anoints his head with oil, and it trickles to his shoulders and his chest, down his stomach and into his navel, and he guides her hand to his cock and he is so beautiful that she takes him right there at the stream.
When they are finished, the stranger wants to smoke. They walk in the garden under the moon, and the stranger smokes and does not speak.
His pipe is finished. He taps out the ashes at the corner of the barn, grinds them under his heel. His face is half in moonlight, half in shadow.
“I must leave in the morning,” he says. “I hope you won’t think I’ve taken advantage of your kindness.”
Anemone watches the rise and fall of his chest under her father’s shirt. He looks like the fishermen who live by the ocean, their muscular fingers blood red and silver-scaled as they gut their catch and share the innards with the gulls.
“I’ll leave before dawn,” the stranger says, as though Anemone can’t hear.
“You can’t leave. You’ll die.” Anemone’s hands are cold.
“I have to. I’ve a family who needs me.”
“Then leave now.” Anemone’s voice trembles, but she is firm. “And take off my father’s clothes at once.”
“Please. It’s dark, and I need rest. I’ll sleep in the barn. You won’t even know I’m—”
“No, you won’t sleep in the barn. You’ll leave.” Anemone tugs at the sleeve of her father’s jacket. “Clothes off.”
He shivers, but he undresses and goes to fetch his damp clothes by the stream.
Anemone watches the stranger’s shadow cross the tall grass, then she bolts her door behind her. She lies in bed but she does not sleep. She still smells salt.
Listen: the barn door creaks. She jolts from her half-sleep, charges from her cabin like a frenzied animal.
The stranger holds a lit match inside the barn door, but he startles when he sees her, and the match drops and sputters out. He has seen her work.
“What are you?” he whispers, his eyes dark wells in his ghost pale face.
Anemone’s chest hurts too much to speak. The stranger backs away from her, and she knows she has to protect him. The plague can’t have him. He’s too beautiful.
She grabs his arms, but even though she’s strong, he is stronger. He breaks free and runs, terrified, a wild rabbit. Anemone has no choice.
She swings the garden hoe and knocks him down, and the stranger’s perfect body falls with a thud like grace. Anemone weeps, but only for a moment. Soon, all tears will be wiped from their eyes.
She lights a lantern and brings the stranger’s body into the barn. She bathes him in cool water, and dries him with her hair. She pours precious cedar oil into his anus, and seals it with beeswax. She lays him in a washtub and covers him with honey, his skin preserved against the ravages of insects, mice, time.
Look: the woman. She drains liquefied organs from the stranger’s body, covers him in melted beeswax. Hammers four nails in the rough barn wall and mounts him here with ropes of hemp.
Next to him, the woman’s father. Next to them, eleven strangers, the forgotten men who died on her lands. Their beautiful eyes are all clouded over and fixed on some distant horizon. Here, in the land of the undead, the land of God, they still wander, eternally loved.
Liz Kellebrew lives in Seattle and writes fiction, poetry, literary essays, and creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Elohi Gadugi, Mount Island, Section 8, The Pitkin Review, and Vine Leaves Literary Journal. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College.