Before my parents’ divorce, before selling off the cows, the tractor, and the property, before my brother quit school and my dad kicked him out, we lived on a farm in the middle of nowhere, and unless you looked close you’d gloss over the hairline cracks aching to fracture. The summer before my twelfth birthday, my older brother and I watched the bee tree. The massive dead snag with gnarled bark and a split in the trunk housed a colony of honey bees and sat at the edge of our driveway abutting the part of the pasture where we slaughtered cows. Busy with work, the bees flew in and out in a steady rhythm as we mused on how much honey they harbored inside. I reckoned the trunk was a liquid core of golden delight. My brother elbowed me saying something like, you’re so dumb, they don’t make that much. He figured they sat on a quart, tops. We resolved to steal it.
Growing up on a farm was a lot like being a fighter pilot. Most days played out in tedious monotony interlaced with brief moments of sheer terror. This was never more evident than the afternoon my brother and I set out to plunder the bee tree and return to the house with their comb victorious. We approached this in the usual way: with all the wrong tools and absolutely no notion as to how to go about it. I followed him over the pasture, pocked with gopher holes and jerky-like cow pies dehydrating under a mid-July sun. My black Angus, once a 4H bottle baby, chewed her cud and stared at us while her calf nursed. Her tail swatted flies as the temperature rose.
At fifteen, my brother assumed the role of battlefield general and led us to a patch of scrubby trees about twenty yards from the hive. There, we plotted our campaign. I carried a basic recurve bow and two target practice arrows. Not to be outdone, he carried a compound bow and two arrows fit with razor-sharp broadhead tips, the same kind our uncle used to kill a bull elk so big that when I stood on top of its stuffed head I could not reach the tips of its antlers. These arrowheads didn’t fool around and had nicknames names like “certain death,” “exterminator,” and “hatchet man.”
My brother held a finger to his lips and glared a stern warning. Fearing that bees may very well have ears, I zipped it. We squatted in the scrub and watched them fly in and out of the hole for nearly ten minutes until our cat, Simon, a fifteen-pound silver tabby, brushed up against my leg. His purring rivaled the hum of the swarm and interrupted our focused silence like the roar of a jet engine. He meowed, blowing our cover. A real Benedict Arnold. I looked at the tree and nothing had changed. The bees ignored us completely, so I whispered to my brother, asking what to do next.
Shoot the tree. Duh.
Years later, idly wandering the back aisles of a Barnes and Noble, I looked up my name—
Kelly Melissa Chastain—in the baby name dictionary. My first name, warrior woman. My middle name, honey bee. My last name, chestnut tree. I wondered how great it would look on my driver’s license, or to have the maitre d’ announce, “Warrior Woman, your table is ready.” But in that moment on the farm, under the canopy of oaks and the pressure of combat, warrior woman attacked, honey bee ambushed, and chestnut tree observed.
Infused with honey-lust, we loaded the arrows and pulled them back. The strings dug into our fingers, our nerves screaming as we took aim. The arrows flew from our bows with a whoosh. Naturally, mine sailed a hundred feet past the tree. My eyes went wide, fearing I’d impaled one of the herd farther down the pasture. My brother’s arrow, however, hit dead center in the hole, an indisputable bull’s eye. The bees shot from the hive with a fervor of patriotism that would go unrivaled until the first Gulf War. It took them no time to assess the direction from which the arrow came and to formulate their simple mission: Sting the daylights out of the bastards who threatened hive, honey, and queen. An angry mob of bees zeroed in on our location in seconds.
A few years before, when we fenced the pasture, I remember it took about a week to drive all the posts into the ground and string all five strands of barbed wire around its perimeter. The fence nearly cost my dad one of his eyes when a wire busted free from its staple, whipped back, and caught him just below the inside corner of his eye, a millimeter up the side of his nose. While working with an electric fence insulator the same afternoon, my brother nearly cut the tip of his finger off, and my mom rushed him to the hospital for stitches. I waited a year or so for my mark, but it surely came. My brother and I had hatched a scheme to ride into town, and after handing my bike to him over the fence I shimmied through the wires. As I stood up on the other side, a barb tore through my pants and knee, leaving a two-inch gash. We got on the bikes anyway and, with blood soaking into my sock, pedaled the eight miles into town so he could buy a six-pack of non-alcoholic beer and a pouch of jerky chew. A clear sign of things to come. The wound screamed and bled the whole way.
Now with our backs to this very fence, the barbarous ropes of our newfound boxing ring, our honey strategy disintegrated before our eyes. Adding to the treachery, a single line encircled us with a current of electricity pulsing through it with enough punch to make a bee sting a welcome event. We dropped the bows and booked it across the pasture. The cows scattered. The cat, completely spooked, hid in the barn for the rest of the afternoon. The only escape lay in running around the remaining fifteen acres of fence line, or slogging our way through an ankle-deep pool of cow dung and into the barn.
We ran down the hill without looking back, our breath heaving. My brother cussed about the bees, the stupid honey, and then blamed me solely for our co-parented imbecile of an idea. I didn’t care; I just wanted to escape the business end of the swarm––and the electric fence. Finally, we stopped in the far corner of the pasture, the same place I received my knee scar, to catch our breath and listen for the bees, but nothing could be heard over the roaring pulses in our ears. They had dispersed, and we got away without a sting between us.
Warrior woman retreated, honey bee defended, chestnut tree abandoned.
We sauntered back up the hill and to the house in the blazing summer sun; my brother alternated between cursing our idea and joking about it. It took two days to retrieve the bows from the pasture as the bees laid in wait to give us our comeuppance. The cows didn’t venture into that neck of the woods for weeks.
All summer the lone arrow jutted out of the tree as the bees worked around it. My dad cussed about it nearly every time we drove down the driveway. What the hell did you do that for? Sometimes he asked. Sometimes he barked. Sometimes he muttered the words under his breath while shaking his head. I simply admired the gleaming yellow fiberglass shaft, and how it rocketed through the air with precision. The flights, three red feathers, stood off the end like a proud Mohawk. Eventually, I found my errant arrow in another tree beyond the old snag, the aluminum shaft tweaked and one of the plastic flights sheered off completely. I threw it in the burn barrel without a word.
Later that fall we waited out a hellish wind storm. It gusted so hard we gathered the cows into the barn and brought the cat inside from my tree fort. Black clouds converged overhead into one thick blanket of doom and let loose with sheets of rain that stung our legs through our Levi’s. We woke the next morning to find branches everywhere and the bee tree uprooted and laying on its side in the scrubby little forest, the arrow sticking straight in the air, a war flag still flying on the side of the conquerors. Still, we waited.
Warrior woman patient, honey bee lethargic, chestnut tree overcome.
By my birthday the first frost hit and not a single bee had stirred for weeks. My brother and I approached the tree in anticipation, and he took the arrow by the shaft, jerking it free. The sleek and deadly broadhead, now rusted from the rain, was ruined, the fiberglass shaft faded, and the flights splintered out. Hmmph, my brother sighed and fingered the useless arrow. We came back with the chainsaw and went to work cutting the old snag into big rings for campfire wood, moving closer and closer to the notch in the trunk. I expected honey to begin dripping out of the log at any moment, honey so thick and cold it choked the blade completely, but nothing. He cut. I stacked. My fingers went numb. This went on for what felt like three hours.
About two feet above the bee’s entrance, my brother sliced straight through the hive. It was quiet, full of hibernating bees; we pulled the wood ring away to see nothing but a dried up withered comb, full of little pods of bees waiting to thaw. Waiting to strike. Further down, we discovered a pocket of honey––about a tablespoon altogether. Honey so thick with wax and dirt that neither of us dared taste it. A shriveled, useless comb. Honey that wasn’t really honey at all.
Well, there’s your trunk full of honey, my brother said and gave me the same look he would give me the day my parents took him to rehab, the one that said, we should have known this was coming. The look that opened the door for conversation when there was nothing left to say.
Warrior woman vanquished, honey bee relinquished, chestnut tree extinguished.
Warrior woman honey bee chestnut tree. It rolled off my tongue with ease, and at one point I half considered legally changing it. Every time I’ve said it I have thought about those honeybees and how bravely they charged, how seriously they took our assault, and how ravenous they were for our flesh over a tablespoon of gooey, filthy mash masquerading as honey. But it wasn’t just a piece of toast’s worth of honey— it was their home, their gold, and their family. When the arrow of divorce struck the farm like my brother’s razor-tipped bolt, there was no fury of wings and stingers, no chase across the pasture, no one taking up arms at the idea of losing it all. No. No warrior woman honey bee chestnut tree around.
Everything just packed itself into boxes and went to separate houses and sold itself at the livestock auction. The dirt bike trails grew over with poison oak and my mom’s garden with weeds. The realtor sold the place in five months. I imagined the new owners drove their car along the edge of our driveway, abutting the pasture where we used to slaughter cows, where there used to be a massive dead snag with gnarled bark and a split in the trunk, that used to house a colony of honey bees. They drove right past like it didn’t even matter that the tree was ever there in the first place.