From Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath
Excerpt from Chapter 18, “Lesbos”
Late September-October 11, 1962
Tiny grasshoppers leap randomly out of her path, airborne flakes of jade. She walks through the high, blonded grass and dying fern of the orchard, carrying a tin of golden syrup to feed her bees. There’s no use putting more energy into Ted, the midwife had counseled her a few days ago; Sylvia sat sobbing on a ladylike upholstered sofa in a room with a view of the moors, black-footed Pekingese puppies toddling like chubby infants at her feet. She clutched Ted’s cable from London in her hand — it was waiting for her when she returned home from Ireland alone, holding her breath, crossing from Dublin wondering if he would meet her at the station. Her knuckles stung; she’d scraped them on the sliding compartment doors of the train from Holyhead, trying to move all of their heavy luggage into the racks by herself. Who knows when he’ll have a change of heart. Think about yourself now, the midwife said, bringing tea on a tray, you and the children. You go to your study in the mornings, it’ll be good for you to have a routine. I’ll come by in the afternoons to visit, help you with the chores.
She did come by in the afternoons, bringing her apple ladder, her honey extractor, two kittens as a surprise for Frieda; burlap sacks to store the onions and to cover the combs they harvested. Now you’ll have to feed your bees, she told Sylvia as they cranked the handle of the centrifugal cylinder in which they’d loaded the uncapped, dripping combs. Dusty late September sunlight fanned in through the open doors of the barn, a deception of the cool afternoon. Glass mason jars that Sylvia had boiled were lined up on the cobbles, ready to be filled. The job was messy, but the women kept their jackets on under their aprons. There’s not much pollen left to forage, and without enough honey the colony won’t last the winter, the midwife explained, her kind, pragmatic face set determinedly as she spun the galvanized crank. They close up shop, so to speak, but they still need to eat. Tate & Lyle, corn syrup, even granulated sugar is fine.
Tate & Lyle, that’s what Sylvia has brought; she pries the metal lid off with a butter knife. As the syrup oozes slowly from its tin onto the pie pan she sets in tamped-down grass near the entrance to the hive, she watches the bees: the guard bees come to inspect her, pinging around her shoulders as if on elastics, beyond the cheesecloth draping of her veiled hat, and buzzing back to the hive to report. A few aging scouts and foragers returning from late reconnaissance in the fields, their wings all but shredded from the summer’s flights. But the most dramatic activity is the commotion at the hive door, where bees are pouring out, not in. There, workers are pushing the larger drones out the gabled entrance. Hovering, humming, cowering in clusters, the fat-bottomed drones try to crawl back up the wooden frame past the waiting line of workers, who pinch the male bees and push them away, literally dragging pupal drones clear of the hive and dropping them into the grass. As she watches, Sylvia realizes what the workers are doing. The midwife has told her about this. Winter was coming; there will be no room for bees who have no purpose, who eat up all the honey, whose only job is to mate with the queen in spring. The workers, the sisters, are doing what has to be done. They are evicting the useless drones. They are getting rid of the men.