Damion Searls is the author of a book of short stories, What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going_, and an award-winning translator, most recently of Rilke’s_ The Inner Sky: Poems, Notes, Dreams, Proust’s On Reading_, and the Robert Walser stories in this issue. He has also edited an abridgment of Thoreau’s_ Journal and an anti-abridgment of Melville’s Moby-Dick_, called ;_ or The Whale_._
Regarding this story, Damion tells us: “It’s all true except for the mystical part, which of course is true too. I was reading Walser’s The Tanners at the time, and Thoreau’s Journal_; I stole a few lines from Thoreau. I found out later that the donkey in the story was actually a jenny named Romance. This was in January and February, 2007.” _
I was in a birch woods, Breughel country in winter. The long house with the mossy roof and window after window in two rows was set far back from the road, separating the woods from a large square meadow sloping down into the countryside; my rooms were on the meadow side and looked out onto a few minutes a day of yellow sunlight, glowing off of the ice crusts on the grass, and a few other hours, not many, of gray daylight or falling snow. Silent black birds with long straight tails flew by, on their sides, showing profiles I knew from paintings.
The winter woods were bare but interesting. If I headed away from the driveway, past the pile of felled logs too big for firewood, I would lose myself down in the ravine or up where a fence on the hillside forced me to turn back and get disoriented. I sometimes balanced on the tree stumps that held the fence posts, swung a winter-coated leg over the timid old barbed wire, and jumped heavily down on the other side, sinking in snowy mud to my boot tops. I could walk across other people’s fields and once made it to the paved roads of the next village. Or, getting through a widely spaced wood fence, it would be harder to push through the thick-grown thorn hedge, hunched over, leaving lichen-green smears on my coat, but that was on the meadow side, with the two horses, the mice who looked brown and natural—health food for falcons—and a gentle donkey with an enormous, slow-to-move head, like a papier-mâché actor’s mask of a donkey; it was so big it must be hollow inside. I named him Robert Walser. His fur was surprisingly rough and harsh, and crusted with mud. The woods at that time of year had lichen on the north sides of the trunks and dry empty seed pods and once, just once, threads of gossamer in the sunlight.
Otherwise the woods were almost uninhabited, except for Reuben: age ten, a neighbor’s boy who roamed and tromped and showed me his favorite places, the special trees or clearings. He liked to guide. His father had died last year, unexpectedly, his mother worked and he was often alone, so of course my heart went out to him, but I think it would have anyway—I like to be guided, and I especially needed it then. Before long he trusted me enough to show me his camp, a sort of lean-to he had built all by himself, collecting bare branches for the walls and thick branches of pine needles to prop up and layer over each other as a roof. He had a long thin saw that looked like childhood to trim branches or cut down dead saplings with. He had put the whole structure together without nails or tape, just rope and leaning, structure being what he especially needed then; inside (well, the walls weren’t done, so there wasn’t exactly an “inside”—say “underneath”) were a low plain bench and some pots and pans for an imaginary, self-reliant kitchen. I was honestly impressed and let myself be shown around for a long time more to Reuben’s quarries and sources for the best pine branches and saplings.
The other life in the woods was a box of bees at the far corner, by the bend in the main road. Truly self-contained, it was just a crate at this time of year, nothing even worth walking over to look at. But from this distance you could hear the hum of the summer swarm, the air on a hillside filled with sound. A whole world poured out from that cold, dead crate—dead on the outside—like a genie from a bottle. This was the summer you have not experienced yet, the summer to come, on a gentle meadow with the desert smells of lavender and sage, or the globous bass tree with enormous leaves and pendulous, heavy flowers, or September, the month of yellow, sunflowers and asters and falling elm leaves, and the sound of that yellow is the buzz of the bees.
Summer is somewhere inside you, invisible, its golden combs dripping with honey-colored sunlight.
At your center, your centermost center, sits the Queen. Out from her emanates the world.
The bee with its jaunty stripes and delicate wings has gone out into the field so that you can hoard it in you through your winter.
The hum of the bees is the sound of the world, the way the rush of the wind is like the roar of the sea.
This was the winter, though we didn’t know it yet, of the death of the bees, whole colonies wiped out from agribusiness practices of long-distance trucking, corn-syrup feedings, and overextended pollination seasons, or from who knows what other mysterious cause. This would, in truth, be the spring when the bees reminded us that sometimes the world’s unstoppable surge toward destruction is not worth bearing any longer and it is simply time to die. Back then, it was only winter and we had no reason to think that the bees were not merely asleep in the crate, the rack, the comb.