Bees on the Brain

A sad, beautiful story about medical mistreatment, cancer, death, and grief.

Your bees are in my brain, and they sing when I am asleep.

I thought it was a dream at first, a phantasmal apiary. I only heard the humming in the twilight violet, in the void between wake and sleep. A soft sound, but a constant one, like radio static. Nothing to worry about—I’d always had a good imagination. And I had other things to worry about, besides.

I realized what had happened when the first bee died. I was talking to the funeral director. My head hurt all day, a sharp and pulsing throb—a bee-sting throb, though I didn’t recognize it at the time. Jake wrapped his hand around mine as we sat in the twin stiff-backed chairs the director provided for us. (They were mismatched, a weird little detail, but I didn’t think the funeral home had expected two people to come. All of us didn’t fit in the dry, cramped room where the mortuary business was done.)

There came a twitching sensation in my nose, an allergy come to life with a vengeance. I pulled away from Jake and grabbed a tissue from my pocket as something rose in me—no, fell from me. It rattled down my nasal cavities and mucus and saliva until I nearly choked on it, and I turned away to cough as the funeral director told us about the benefits of buying lilies over roses.

I hacked out a sharp burst of phlegm and hot mouth-air. Something small flew into my tissue. I would have dismissed it as a particularly viscous glob of spit, but a flash of yellow in my palm caught my attention. I brought the tissue to my lap under the pretense of pocketing it and studied it underneath the table.

A bee. Fuzzed up and striped through with black, delicately veined translucent wings pressed against its abdomen. A regular bee, as far as I could tell. But it had come from my mouth, had come from me. There was no brushing away what had happened—I felt it fall. I felt it come from within me.

“Mel,” Jake said. “Are you listening?”

I crumpled up the tissue in my palm and slid it into the side pocket of my purse. “Yes,” I told him, but in truth, I hadn’t been listening since we had entered and the secretary had tried to give us a two-for-one discount on coffins. Nothing had been real after that. Nothing had mattered.

There was a noise in the back of my head, a persistent itch. I tried to focus on the funeral director, but I couldn’t. Who cared if it was lilies or roses, pinewood or oak in the coffin? The fact remained that your coffin still had to be built, and flowers had to be placed around it.

The bee lay crumpled in my palm. My breath felt tight. There were more: in my lungs, my throat, my brain. If I listened, I could hear them scratching up against the soft fleshy interior of my skull. It wasn’t painful, just slightly unpleasant, the humming numb of a limb fallen asleep. Where had they come from? (It made sense to me, later, that they were yours. One final burden from a dying-dead woman.)

“Let’s go,” I told Jake through clenched teeth, cutting off the funeral director in the middle of his lecture. I didn’t open my mouth much for fear of insects spewing out like a plague. “We’ll come back later.”


“Let’s go,” I repeated, more firmly. My hand, holding the tissue, trembled underneath the table. “Please, Jake. I don’t feel well.” I didn’t feel at all. The numbness was a swarm, and it hadn’t abated since your heartbeat had stopped.

Jake shot an apologetic look at the funeral director and herded me out the door, hand on my arm like he thought I might bolt. His grip was firm but relaxed, the way people held expensive glass vases. Once we were outside, blinking in the oversaturated sunlight, he said, “What was that all about?”

I fumbled for the words to explain and looked down at the bee in my palm to confirm it was real. Its glistening wings were bent in clumsy origami folds where my hand crushed the tissue.

“Something’s happened,” I said. I thought of your phone call, when you had first been admitted to the hospital: Mellie? Are you there? Something’s happened.

“What happened?” Jake asked. “Are you okay?”

God, what a thing to say to a grieving person. I ignored the question.

“I…I coughed this up. In the director’s office.” I held out the bee. “It came from my head,” I added, to stave off confusion. “Deep inside.”

“No,” Jake said slowly. “It didn’t.”

“Why not?” A sour note of defensiveness, something both you and I had learned in the past year: You think you know better than me? I am the one in pain.

“Because that’s impossible, Mel! It must have flown into your mouth or something. It can’t have come from your head.”

“But it did,” I said dumbly. “I felt it.”

Jake shook his head. That rattling itch rose in my throat. My nose twitched. The hive hummed and sent a sacrifice down my esophagus.

I sneezed. Something yellow flew from my mouth. Jake twisted to follow its trajectory and grabbed it from the air.

“Ow,” He said, sounding more surprised than hurt. “It stung me—wait. No. Wait.”

Our gazes met. Jake’s mouth hung open slightly. “I don’t believe it,” He said faintly.

“See?” I said, mouth twisting with double meaning. “It’s all in my head.”

The night before you died, I had a dream. I didn’t recognize it then, but the bee song was a constant undulating current in all my unconscious activity: the crackle of white noise, the distant echo of trucks down the freeway. In my dream, it echoed from the air-conditioning.

There was an air conditioner in your hospital room. You were always hot, burning up with unknown fever. You made me turn it up every time I came to visit, so much that I swaddled myself in coats before I came, and the buzz of the unit made it impossible to hear your radiation-weakened voice.

It’s uncharitable, but towards the end, you looked like an insect to me, something pale and blind and bald and writhing. I hated seeing you. I loved you, but I hated to visit. The hospital-colony hummed. It never had any warmth.

In my dream, you cradled the air conditioning unit in your lap, caressing it with intubated arms. It was ugly and square. Your veins bulged against your frail wrists.

“What are you doing?” Dream-me asked.

You looked up and smiled. Your eyes were glassy. “I’m taking care of it. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to, though. Will you look after it for me?”

“What is it?”

You shook the box. It rattled angrily. A few black insects flew from it and alighted on the windowsill.

“It’s my hive,” You said. “You’ll take care of it for me, won’t you, Mellie?”

Then you’d died, and I was left alone with bees in my brain and funeral arrangements to make. It only got worse as the days wore on. I loved you, but I’d never promised you anything, you understand. I couldn’t live like this—with something wrong with me.

I let Jake know I was going to meet my sister, and then took a sharp left at the second highway exit and pulled up into the parking lot of the local hospital. (If I told him the truth, he’d want to come with me, and his bedside manner wasn’t the best. I knew that from experience.)

The hospital, like my head, hummed with activity, white-coated figures buzzing in and out through the sliding glass doors.

I clutched the tissue-wrapped bee in my hand as I entered the main lobby. A receptionist told me to take a seat, the doctor will see you soon. When I tried to protest that it was urgent, she looked towards the bleeding man being wheeled in on a gurney and raised an eyebrow at me, as if to say, really? It’s more urgent than that?

I took a seat. I waited. The tissue grew damp in my sweaty palm. I checked periodically to make sure the bee was still there. It looked so out of place in the white echo of the hospital, so depressingly mundane. It could have come from anywhere. I could have imagined what happened in the funeral home if I didn’t still feel that itch in the back of my brain. The cloud of bees rattling in my skull made it hard to think, but it was better than the antiseptic fog of grief.

Eventually, an impatient nurse beckoned me down a long blue-painted hallway. I could see the disdain tugging at the corners of her mouth, the small lines of disbelief: What’s wrong with you? You look fine. Why are you wasting my time?

I was used to that look. The doctors always gave it to you—because you were a woman, because you were overweight, because you had pains in your head that no one else could see. I still think their hesitation was what killed you, not the cancer.

The nurse ushered me into the claustrophobic office and shut the door firmly behind me—either to turn her back on me or to prevent my escape. My nails dug into my palms. The bees hummed in the hollow of my left ear.

The doctor turned to me. The light glinting off his glasses obscured his eyes. “What seems to be the problem?”

Wordlessly, I held out the tissue of bee as a sacrament. The doctor’s brow creased. I cleared my throat and shook my head, wincing as the stingers grazed against my temple. I swallowed, choking up my gag reflex, and spat up another offering. Its wings fluttered weakly, encased in thin strands of translucent saliva.

The doctor stared at the insect, then at me. He didn’t take the bee from my palm.

“Right,” He said. He hacked at his keyboard for a few seconds, mumbled something under his breath, and nodded. “It’s not common,” He said, eyes fixed on the blue light of the screen. “But it’s been seen before.”

My breath hitched. “It?”

“What’s wrong with you.” The answer was careless, easy, but I felt it like a sting. The bees hadn’t hurt me yet. They were living creatures—invasive, but living. They kept me from breaking down and crying, because I didn’t know what would come out of my mouth if I did.

The computer beeped affirmatively, and the doctor scrawled something down on a clipboard. “Take this to your local pharmacy,” He said, handing it to me, “It should stave off the worst of the symptoms. I’ll be calling to arrange an MRI later in the week. And stay away from honey, no matter how hard you want it.

I hesitated. The bees hummed. I could feel them building hives inside my head, made of paper and excess thoughts. “But—what’s wrong with me? What’s my diagnosis?”

“Oh,” Said the doctor. “You’ve got bees on the brain. It’s hereditary.”

I had no plans to take the medication. The hive didn’t hurt, so I didn’t care. The doctor said I could keep living life as normal, and besides, I liked the company. I needed it, to do what I was about to do.

It was well past time to start packing up your things. I told Jake I wanted to do it myself. It had been a week, and the smell was starting to bother the neighbors.

The house was damp and dark, peeling spittle-backed wallpaper and doilies draped over chairs. You sold my childhood home after I’d left for college and bought something new for yourself. I never liked the place much. It always felt cramped to me, like you were trying to squeeze your life into something that didn’t fit it.

The smell was sulfurous and foul. I could see why the neighbors complained. God, what had you left that smelled so bad? I forced my way through the crooked and constricting kitchen to the fridge and hauled open the off-white door.

Raw meat, oozing and soured. Molded-over vegetables, unhappy spotted fruit. A lone jar of honey, half-eaten and forgotten in the back of the fridge. All to feed a single person with minimal appetite, a sad look into the last moments of your shriveled life. I stared at the container of honey, mundane in its glimmering translucence. Was it to feed the hive you’d given to me, or just forgotten in your fridge?

The hive rattled in my head. The sound smothered me. Hum-click. Hum-click. Hum-click. I shook my head, trying to clear it, and the hive hissed in a chorus of displeasure. How many of them were there? Could they control my limbs, my heart, my thoughts? My body wanted honey—but I didn’t know who the desire belonged to.

How many bees were trapped in my head, anyway? God, were they breeding in there? A life cycle all wrapped up in my own. Not symbiosis—closer to possession.

I reached for the jar, then my hand wavered. I didn’t want this. The hive wanted this, and its desires were overtaking my own. I took the jar.

It felt cold in my hand. The doctor had told me to stay away from honey, but a drop or two couldn’t hurt. It looked so sweet, so simple—one way to soothe the seething hive in my head. My mouth watered. The bees hummed in ecstatic agony. I could almost imagine the humming was a word: want. Want. want.

No. I didn’t trust doctors, but I wasn’t suicidal. I wasn’t going to do the one thing they told me not to do. My body twitched with indecision. The humming in my head became an overwhelming roar.

I reached to put the jar back. I wouldn’t do this.

Insect legs brushed against my tonsils. Then came a sharp sting, right up against the delicate pink of my uvula. I choked and dropped to my knees. Pain bloomed and blood trickled down my throat. It felt like someone’s fingers were scraping the inside of my neck, some godly being reaching down and gutting me. I was a fish on a string. No. I was a hive torn apart.

The jar slipped from my clumsy grip and shattered against the tile. Honey oozed between my feet. My throat swelled up. I couldn’t breathe. Anaphylactic shock? I didn’t know I was allergic to bees. You had been, though. You had given this gift and this burden to me.

I tried to speak, but the words were lost in my bloating throat. I didn’t want to die in your house, shadowed and small. My lips swelled. My eyes bulged in their sockets. The hive did not relent.

I fumbled on the floor until my fingers scraped through some of the oozing liquid. Then I shoved my shaking hand into my mouth.

The hive raced to my tongue, wings fluttering against the roof of my mouth, little black bodies clustered around and over my nails. Their pincers clicked, small tongues reaching out to lick the honey from mine. The swelling stopped. For a moment, the bees and I felt the same thing, in ugly insectoid symbiosis: relief, pure and overwhelming.

I started to cry. Tears of honey leaked from my swollen face. It was inside of me now. It was clogging up my thoughts, anesthetizing me in its sticky sweetness. There was pain and there was numb. It was easier than grief. If I kept eating broken glass and floor-honey, then I could drown in it, gladly.

I sobbed and sobbed, gagging up insects and weeping honey. My body was a function of something else. It had been taken over by the hive. All I had was the last of my honey-clogged thoughts: Did it feel like this for you?

In the distance, the screen door slammed.  “Mel? Babe? Oh, Mel—”

“Jake,” I cried, a spray of bees leaving my lips. I shoveled more honey into my mouth before it swelled shut entirely.

“Mel,” Jake said, and wept with me.

The hive calmed down once it was away from the honey. Jake drove me—kicking and sobbing in the backseat—away from the house, the colony was sated, and I didn’t die. Maybe I wasn’t allergic—or maybe I just got lucky. I never did get rid of the taste of honey in my mouth.

I could remember it, a remnant of liquid gold, one fleeting minute of catharsis. I had nearly drowned, but there was almost solace in the pain and swelling. If I died, I would see you again. If I died, I didn’t have to remember to pick up flowers for your funeral or size your casket. God. Why did caskets come in different sizes, anyway?

Stupid, to be asking questions of God. The bees had more answers than he did.

Jake treated me as though I were an invalid in my grief, swaddled in your old wool blankets on the couch. I took my medication as the doctor prescribed. I let him coddle me. I tried to kill the hive and its quiet, continuous work.

No more drowning. No more bees. No more dream-gifts from the dead. The pills were chalky and tough to get down. They sucked the appetite from me—except for honey. I still wanted honey. It was the only craving I had left as the pills turned me cold and lethargic.

The medication killed the bees, but it killed me, too. The outside world seemed unbearably loud. I rarely left the house. The pills tasted like rat poison and acted much the same. Some sort of pesticides, maybe? That couldn’t be good for my body.

Was this how you felt, with your pills and your tubes? Did your body tremble in the same way as mine? Did your heart flutter like bee wings in the cavity of your chest?

Were you scared, Mom? Did you want your hive back?

On Monday, I went for my MRI. Jake drove me there—I insisted I’d return the favor on the way home. Driving was hard, but I needed it. I wanted to feel like a living thing again. I hated the melancholy, sapping feeling the medication gave me, like the marrow was being slowly leached from my bones.

I hoped the doctors would find something wrong with me, that science would make more sense than coffins or God or bees—but there was nothing. The scans showed a hive in my skull, strings of honeycomb brushing up against my temporal lobe. The colony was hard at work, flitting in cryptic patterns through my nasal cavity. It was strange to see them on the doctor’s blue-tinted screen, but it made sense. I could feel the bees when I breathed in. It wasn’t just in my head.

I wondered what they sunk their small apiatic teeth into, inside my skull. What fueled them? What kept them going? I had no answers, just more pills.

I hated to admit it, but I felt bad when I saw the pile of tiny corpses building up behind my occipital lobe. The medication had been working. Parts of the hive were broken off in jagged splinters, unfinished.

I went to the waiting room with a bad taste in my mouth. I had begun to enjoy the company: the bees kept me occupied while I filled out form after form. When I thought, hello? Hello? To them, they hummed in kind.

Did you go through these same tests, too? Did you watch the doctors watch you, and try not to blink first? Were you offered the same choices, and did you make the right one?

I wished you’d chosen hospice instead of sticking it out until the end. That way, it might have hurt less. But we never choose the way that hurts less.

You’d told me that it was your decision. That you wanted to keep control over what you had left, to keep trying to live. I understood that better now. I wanted to be in control of my own body again, but if doing so meant slaughtering the colony that shared the space with me—well, I wasn’t sure. They were living beings, and I’d grown attached. Things that lived and things that I loved rarely overlapped these days.

“Isn’t there a more humane way to do it?” I asked the nurse on our way out the door. “Couldn’t we relocate them or something?”

“Oh, no, honey.” She shook her head. I flinched at her choice of endearment. “This is all we can do.”

I drove the way back, hands shaking. The hive hadn’t liked being scanned, and they didn’t like the highway. (To be honest, neither did I.) The bees rattled and raged behind my eyes. I bit my tongue until blood drew up to smother the taste of honey that still stuck with me. If Jake noticed the blood pooling at the corner of my lips, he didn’t comment on it.

The pocket of pills rattled inside my purse. I stifled it with my hand. Now the only rattling came from my brain where the colony was busy at work. I swore I could feel them digging into the wet gray matter of my brain, black mouth clicking and buzzing. When I shook my head, their soft winged bodies scattered against my skull.

Honey would help. That was what they wanted. I could satiate the hive so easily. I owed it to them, because I hadn’t cried since they’d nested in me. I owed it to you, if they were yours. (I loved them, if they were yours.)

It was stupid, I knew. The doctors had advised against it—but the doctors didn’t know what was wrong with me. They didn’t have a hive in their head. I did. I knew how to fix it.

Up ahead: a farmer’s market, next exit. I swerved towards the sign. Jake looked up and frowned.

“Where are you going?” He asked, but I didn’t hear him, only the excited humming of the hive.

It was a warm spring day, unfairly bright. The farmer’s market was arrayed next to a wide sprawl of land, lush and thick. White tents were dappled against green grass and oak trees.

I heard it before I saw it. My head instinctively turned towards the end of the market, where a stack of square boxes teetered nervously in the grass.

“Melissa,” Jake saw it too and grabbed my arm. “Don’t.”

He didn’t understand. I could hear the hive humming from the soft wood of their boxes. I could feel them in the thick of my throat. I opened my mouth to respond, but only bees flew out, wings brushing against my tongue like the fine bristles of a toothbrush as they went. I let them go easily. Jake backed away.


His voice faded in with the humming, the sweet siren song. It sounded like your voice, a little bit. I ran to the apiary, chasing after my bees, chasing after your hive.

An apiarist dressed in white tended to the boxy-bodied colonies. I shoved him aside. I didn’t need to swaddle myself anymore. I needed no protection, no medicine.

I dropped to the grass, breathing hard. I fumbled for the hive, snapped the wooden box with my bare hands. My fingers bled with splinters, but I didn’t care. My hive and I were the same. We wanted honey. We wanted to sing and scream in insect-clicking tongues. We missed you, so badly it ached.

The beekeeper didn’t try to stop me. I think the look in my eyes scared him—maybe he saw the bugs crawling behind my sockets. I plunged a shaking hand into the box and pulled out a crunching chunk of honeycomb, still crawling with insects—a foreign hive, conquered by my own. I shoved it into my mouth.

I tasted blood and sweetness and relief.

I sobbed, again, tears sticky. Bee bodies died between my teeth. The hive swarmed and consumed them. Globs of honey rolled down the back of my throat, sweet and satiating. I gorged on it, honeycomb splintering beneath my tongue. There might have been bee bodies mixed in with it. I didn’t care. I felt something better than grief. Something sweet.

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Issue 2.2 Paperback

In this issue of The Dread Machine, you’ll visit an automated retail hellscape, attend a wild party on Earth’s tempest-ravaged surface, and determine what caused the strange deaths at the AudioSnap building.

See the stars in the prison walls, inherit the sacred responsibility of an irradiated priestess, meet a sinister sommelier, befriend a spider, then attend a macabre art show. Whatever you do, don’t eat the honey, and avoid the child with the robotic toys.

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Issue 2.2 Paperback

Visit an automated retail hellscape, attend a wild party on Earth’s tempest-ravaged surface, and determine what caused the strange deaths at the AudioSnap building.

See the stars in the prison walls, inherit the sacred responsibility of an irradiated priestess, meet a sinister sommelier, befriend a spider, then attend a macabre art show.

Whatever you do, don’t eat the honey, and avoid the child with the robotic toys.

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