Winter Honey

Finished products: over two gallons of honey, and about two pounds of wax. Winter honey is a mix of whatever the bees had stored. Last year’s was fruity, this year’s amber and spicy.

Spring honey is so pale it’s almost white. It comes from tree flowers: maple, locust, catalpa.

Fall honey, from goldenrod, is pungent and dark. My neighbor says it smells like old shoe.

But winter honey, the kind I’m pouring into jars now, is the kind you only harvest because your bees are dead.

According to my non-beekeeping husband, the sum total of all bee books is “your bees will die.” But they’ll do it in the most complicated way possible. When x awful thing happens (and it will), try this strange remedy (actual examples: shaking the entire hive contents out onto a bedsheet, dusting the bees down with powdered sugar once a week for a month, hanging empty boxes scented with lemongrass oil in trees near the apiary, stacking one colony on top of another with a few sheets of newspaper in between). Do all these things, master the skills, keep careful records. And then, your bees will die.

It’s true. In the past three years, I’ve had eleven colonies. Only two have survived a winter. I buy new bees every spring the way I buy new seeds. They’re happy and busy throughout the summer. And almost always, in the winter thaw, I find them dead and frozen in their cluster. All around them, their life’s work, the darkly glowing heart of the hive.

For six days now, my kitchen has been sticky with the dying of my hives, as I scramble to clean up the mess and take what’s left before the mice do. Seven frames of honey thrown away because of mold, thirteen stored in the chest freezer to feed the bees arriving next spring, and fourteen for the humans to eat. I’m trying the crushed comb method of extraction, which involves no extractor but far too many buckets, reams of cheesecloth, a long slow filtration process, and an explosive, slow-moving mess all over the kitchen.

The thing about honey, says Sam to cheer me up, is that you have plenty of time. He’s right. Pots of honey thousands of years old have been found in the pyramids, still unspoiled. (See the fascinating article here.)

What keeps me on my feet after a long day of teaching, after cooking and dishes and shutting the chickens in for the night, to filter honey and melt wax? The same thing that makes me open a blank file and begin to write when my eyes are itching for sleep. That makes me order new bees every spring. Sheer cussedness in the face of all that erodes, that molds, that dies. Not for the winter honey, but because if I sit down now I’ll fall asleep, and that in itself is reason enough to keep moving forward.

This is what happens after the end of everything. You get up, you keep going, and you salvage what’s left.

Best smells in the world: Sheets dried on a line in winter. Scalp of a contented baby. And warm beeswax with the honey just filtered out. I’ll make candles another day, when I’m not so tired.


Photo: Bernard Gagnon

These are dark days. Although this will never be a political blog, I give up on tiptoeing around that particular elephant: when world events are as dire as they have been these past few weeks, writing fiction feels silly. Selfish, even.

But here’s where fiction and the real world collided, for me, a few days ago.

I was in my favorite place, deep in the rabbithole of research. Six books lay open on the floor around me, none of them published in the past quarter century. For me, fiction writing demands real, hard research, the kind that goes far beyond what the Internet has to offer. Right now, I need to know more about 13th century Syria and Lebanon. All kinds of things: landscape, clothing, food, calendar, weights and measures, demographics. Also wetlands, because I need to know where you’d live, if you happened to be a swan.

Eventually, I always stumble on the right page, those crucial few sentences. That day, they were these:

 “Buhairah al Afâmiyyah: ‘These,’ writes Abu-l Fidâ in 1321, ‘consist of a number of lagoons divided one from another by beds of rushes, with lowlands covered by reeds. […] Its depth is less than the height of a man, but its bottom is so miry that a man cannot stand up in it. On all sides and all over its surface are reeds and willows, and in the middle there is a thicket of reeds and papyrus. […] On these lagoons there live all kinds of birds, such as swans, and the species called Al Ghurairah, and Sangh, and pelicans, and cranes. Also birds that feed on fish, such as the species called Al Jalth and Al Abyadâniyât, and other such aquatic birds. In no other lagoons of which I have knowledge are there so many kinds of birds as here. In springtime these lagoons are so crowded with yellow water-lilies that the whole surface is hidden thereby, and the water is as though covered by a veil from end to end, formed of their leaves and flowers. The boats thread their way through them.’” (Guy Le Strange, Palestine Under the Moslems, Beirut: Khayats, 1965, pp. 70-71)

This kind of source material nourishes me. It puts me in 1321: I see and feel what it was like to be there. But where on earth is Buhairah al Afâmiyyah? Sometimes, even a purist like me has to turn to the Internet. After a few keystrokes, I identified the ancient town of Apamea, with its stunning Roman ruins.

With one catch: those same keystrokes also let me know that Apamea no longer exists. Not as it did in the photos, the ones that make me want to drop everything and get on a plane. No, those are from before the war. Now Apamea has been looted, stripped. From my safe vantage point at the other side of the world, studying photos on Google Earth, I can only guess at the damage. I didn’t know I wanted to visit Apamea until a minute ago, and now I also know I never will.

And then, although I have social media and news sites blocked, and I’m trying to keep my head in a different place, that quiet place where writing gets done, suddenly it’s all right there in the room with me. The refugee ban. The fact that I should probably be, at that moment, driving to the Philadelphia airport to stand in solidarity, not reading medieval Arabic geographers while dreaming of pelicans and water lilies.

Why am I trying to write this book? In no sense am I the right person to tell the story: a series of diplomatic incidents between a Frankish lady of Beirut and Sultan Baybars, colliding with fragments of folklore from two or three cultures, none of them mine. I am a white person with no qualifications but a love of research, a familiarity with Western medieval culture, and a working knowledge of all sides of the Crusades, gained over years of wanting to teach my students what really happened. I know just enough to understand how many ways this could go wrong, how many real people I could hurt. But the story wouldn’t stop tugging my sleeve, and I was already writing it before I began to wonder whether I shouldn’t.

For now, I focus on doing my research, expressing the full humanity of all my characters, and acknowledging my own ignorance. It’s never wrong to want to learn more. It’s never wrong to write a first draft, to tell the story to yourself. Later, I’ll think about what comes next. The worst that can happen is I’ll have to throw it all away. And that’s only what happens with most of the novels people write anyway.

So I tell myself. But I am scared. Scared of doing this ham-handedly, insensitively. And, in my snug little office in central Pennsylvania, never having had to flee my home, never having been turned away by a country that had pledged to take me in, this kind of fear is itself a privilege.

These are the quotes I have above my desk right now:

“When fear arrives, something is about to happen.” – Leigh Bardugo

“You have to write the book that wants to be written.” – Madeleine L’Engle

“Never trust the teller. Trust the tale.” – Rabih Alameddine


Read about the probable looting of Apamea here and here.