avatarSteve Fendt


A novelette in 20 chapters

Telling the Bees: Chapter 1

A Walk in the Woods

‘In the Woods’ by Steve Fendt

The Hill was stubborn this morning.

It didn’t want to cede those metres of elevation to her stiff legs.

But you bloody well will, damn you.

She gripped her pole, dug in the steel tip and levered herself up the slope.

It was slick here, where feet, hers and Tom’s, had polished away the grass, tramped bare earth into mud. Maybe she should get him to come up with the tractor, spread a few bucketloads of chips?

Just a few steps more, then she’d be over the Bulge, down into the Dip.

They had private names for the features of their eight hectares of hillside. Sometimes they’d find that each had come up, independently, with the same one.

The sun was up now, sending its rays down the valley toward her, skimming the treetops. There was no warmth yet in the air that she drew into her lungs, but it would come.

Uncle Kooka started up, somewhere over to the left. She pictured him on a low bough of the big manna, over Top Dam.

Ah, Aunty Burra too. That’s the way, girl. Don’t let him have the last say.

The harsh duet rang out, filled the woods with inhuman mirth. You had to chuckle along. Even if you felt the joke might be on you.

She traversed the Dip swiftly, denying her legs the respite they pleaded for, and pressed on upslope. An east-facing clearing opened left of the track, allowing morning light to penetrate the deep, dark stillness under the trees.

Her hives dotted the Glade, tall grey sentinels greeting the sun. Five now, after splitting Number One last spring. Number Three was at six boxes, a lot to overwinter with. It would need watching, come the warmer weather.

Tom had grumbled about ‘carting everything up and down the bloody hill,’ but she’d insisted that this was the right spot for her apiary. Sheltered from the prevailing winds, harvesting a precious extra half-hour of morning sun on chill winter days like this one, with sufficient gradient for icy air to slip away downslope, not form a frost pocket.

Nobody out and about yet, of course. Too cold still for their tiny metabolisms. She bent down to peer in the entrance of Number Five.

A sentry looked back, antennae waving suspiciously.

‘Only me, sweetie. Amélie. Just saying good morning.’

She moved round the back of the hive, ran her palm over the rough-sawn cypress pine to where she could feel the faint heat of the brood ball deep inside the colony. She fished in the pockets of her oilskin for the old stethoscope Barry had given her.

Ah, there you are. She listened to the sleepy hum of sixty thousand insects, punctuated by the occasional sharp buzz of an active individual. The new hive seemed to be wintering well.

Good girls … Well, I must be on my way.

It was tempting to stay with her hives: to sit with them; to watch, listen, feel each superorganism rousing itself, sending out foragers, embarking on the day’s business.

She knew it would be an excuse.

I will not give in to it.

‘Old woman shuffle’ indeed. Tom’s observation had wounded all the more for its truth. She caught herself doing it from time to time. Doddering about the house or in the supermarket.

I’m sixty-seven. It’s not old.

She knew, of course. The tremor in the hands had started, though she could still suppress it. It wasn’t just the years.

‘Have you told him yet?’ Barry’s voice had been gently reproving. A friend and confidant now, after seven years, as much as their GP.

She shook her head to scatter these thoughts. Onward and upward. A nice, long walk in the State Forest would do her recalcitrant limbs a power of good.

The gate at the top of their property led out onto the aqueduct trail. The ground on the other side of the wire was pocked and rutted by small, sharp hooves.

Those bloody deer again.

They’d have to repair the fence — the animals chewed the bark off their young trees, ringed and killed them.

At least the pigs hadn’t come back after last year’s cull.

A scramble over slick logs, and she was on the public trail. Deserted still. In late August, few tourists could be expected and the locals were sparse.

The trees up here were taller, straighter than in their own woods. Fewer exotics. Mostly mountain ash less than a hundred years old, with the occasional forest giant left by the timber cutters. Out of reverence for the mossy, buttressed, ancient being? She liked to think so.

A hundred metres east along the level path, wincing at the loud click of her pole on gravel. Here was her crossing point. Two steps down into the concrete-lined channel, then five up the other side. Up into the forest. Free.

Not one for public trails, she had always ached to explore to left and right, find secret paths that only hunters and wild animals knew.

‘I wish you wouldn’t,’ Tom would say. ‘Come up against that pack of dogs while you’re bush bashing, and you’ll be stuffed. And what if there’s, you know, some weirdo?’

‘We’re the weirdos around here, according to locals.’

He’d made her the steel-shod walking pole as much for self-defence as a walking aid. A length of ash as tall as her, light and slim, resilient with just enough whip to avoid jarring the wrist. He called it her quarterstaff.

‘I’m not one of Robin Hood’s Merry Men, you know.’

Still, she appreciated his concern. And it was a good stick.

A light breeze was stirring the still of dawn, in the canopy far overhead. Down here on the forest floor, the air was motionless, moist with the breath of the earth, myriad green growing things, saprophytic fungi sucking life from dead timber, unseen insects burrowing, crawling, chewing.

She took in a deep breath and was happy.

Soon time was cast off, an unwanted garment, as she wandered among the tall trunks, carefully pushing branches aside to protect her face. The sweet fragrance of wattle hung in the still air.

Crashing. Coming up the hillside behind her. At first, she took it for a gust, clashing the treetops forty metres overhead.

No. It’s down here — at ground level.

It broke upon her like a great wave. A rushing sensation in both ears, a flurry of movement in the corner of her eye. A shriek. Vertigo. She fell to her knees with a low moan.

It passed on up the hill, faded, was gone.

Afterward, making her way down the slope, homeward, she wondered if the shrill scream had been ripped from her own throat.

Or had there been someone else?

Frightened eyes. A face turned briefly toward her. Flailing limbs and a pale torso.

Was it another hallucination, or had she actually been passed by a naked, terrified man?

A young man, scarcely more than a boy. Running as if for his life.

Thank you for reading! Next week in Telling the Bees:

Chapter 2: The Homestead

Amélie and Tom learn that the property next door has been sold.

Telling the Bees is published in weekly instalments in Serial Stories. Links to other episodes will appear in due course in this list:

Disclaimer: The people and events described in this story are entirely the product of the author’s imagination; they bear no intentional resemblance to real-life people and events. The locations are based on real places.

Acknowledgement of country: This story is set on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. I pay my respects to their Elders past, present and emerging.

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