The bees in the wall had been flying out in suicide pacts of two, three, five bees at once. They went for Rice's face and he tried to brush them away with his work gloves, but he'd lost count of the stings. He was removing the last section of paneling when a lone bee stung him dead center on his forehead, which made his eyes water. He blinked hard and kept working, jammed the end of his crowbar under the thin, dusty panels and snapped them away from the studs, then again, moving from floor to ceiling and back down on the other side. When everything was loose he dropped the crowbar and reached back for the sledge-hammer, smashed the whole section clattering to the floor. [End Page 9]
He stepped away from the wall and rested the weight of the sledge on his boot. The doors and all the windows were open, and a breeze blew into the cabin from the meadow, stirring up dust. His eyes itched and his nose was running. Sweat ran down his cheeks. That last sting above his eyebrows felt like an ice-cream headache.
He'd started before dawn and now there was only the one last six-foot section where the hive between the studs had made stains on the paneling that looked like water damage. Several hundred bees crowded there in quivering lines and clusters that slowly shifted, broke apart, coalesced into new shapes. Part of his job up here was eradicating invasive species, but European honeybees weren't on the termination list, probably because they'd been around for about five hundred years and were themselves dying off from some new parasite.
Rice blew his nose in a dusty paper towel and watched the bees on the wall. They moved like a marching band on mescaline—ranks and columns that circled, dissolved, reformed. He waited, wondering if they might eventually spell out some revelatory message just for him, but the patterns remained inscrutable, and he shut his eyes and exhaled. He should go outside, get away from the dust, this bee hostility. He tossed the paper towel in the direction of a plastic trash bag in the corner, turned and picked his way through the nail-studded boards littering the floor.
Out back, dragonflies swooped and hovered, hunting lesser insects over a waving non-native chaos of blue chicory flowers, tilting white Queen Anne's lace, a few remaining purple-topped Scotch thistle. The long green wedge of Turk Mountain loomed above like a wave going away, breaking northward. There were crickets, always crickets, and from the trees at the forest edge the neurotic pulse and whir of dog-day cicadas. Seven thousand acres of private nature preserve: Rice was its caretaker, the science tech, the guy with the Roundup. Construction wasn't in his job description, but he'd agreed to do the work on the cabin so the owners wouldn't hire a bunch of carpenters and plumbers to drive up in the mornings and ruin his solitude.
His neck ached, and when he took off a glove and reached up to touch below his ear he felt another sharp jab of pain, like getting stung again. Something came away under his fingernail. He peered at it—a tiny stinger attached to a bulb of bee guts. The bee had jammed her barbed stinger into Rice's skin, then pulled away, eviscerating herself, and flown off to die. What a system, he thought. The stinging bees were females, nonbreeders, kamikazes all—apparently their individual survival meant little enough. He held the [End Page 10] stinger-and-guts apparatus in the sunlight, close to his face, looking for his future there, extispicy in miniature.
A dark shape rushed out of the meadow and he jumped away as the vulture careened overhead, its big shadow sliding past his feet. His heart pulsed in the back of his throat, but the thing he refused to call fear—it always felt more like recognition: there it is, here it comes—passed quickly. He watched the bird glide above the meadow. When he'd first...