Grist for the Mill
by Kaye George
Kevin Grady couldn’t wait to get outside. The sunshine beckoned him from his office window, the first nice day since it started raining a week ago. It felt like he’d been cooped up in his home office forever. He hurried through paying the bills online and flung the back door open to suck in the warm spring air.
When he choked on it, he stopped and looked around, spitting out the foul taste he had inhaled. His property was two acres, not a large amount of land, but big enough for his vegetable garden and his bee hives. The new neighbor to the west, Vivian Sessions, was in her yard, head down, walking slowly. She had moved in over the winter. He had met her then, but they hadn’t talked much. He often saw her at church and they greeted each other, but that was about it.
What was she doing? She was spraying something on her lawn, working methodically back and forth, covering the whole yard, it looked like.
Whatever she was spraying, the wind was blowing the smell of it to his yard. It was sulfurous, smelled the way Kevin imagined Hell might smell if he were to get there eventually.
It had been a long time since Kevin had contemplated Hell. In his younger days, his twenties and thirties, he had done some things that would warrant eternal residence there. Except that he had already served a period of confinement for those things in the state penitentiary. When he was feeling philosophical, he used to debate with himself whether his slate would have started over by now. Or not.
One of the reasons he liked keeping bees was that he hoped it would balance the scales. They were good for the planet, so he had the idea he was doing good for all his fellow humans by collecting and selling their honey. Some of his customers seemed to think he was wonderful. They gushed about being able to purchase “local” honey.
“Good morning, Ms. Sessions,” he called. She looked up from her sprayer. No response. “What are you doing?”
“Spraying.” She spat the word at him and went back to it. He couldn’t read the printing on the plastic container, shielded by her rather substantial body.
“Ms. Sessions, what are you spraying?”
“My yard.” She continued working her way closer to the property line, her permanent frown even deeper today.
His bees buzzed around their hives as usual. They seemed okay for now. But there were a lot of sprays that could hurt them. They were delicate little creatures. He tried again. “What is in your sprayer?”
This time when she looked up, she glared. “That’s my business. This is my yard.”
That was the longest exchange of words they’d had since she moved in. She didn’t seem to like him, but he had no idea why. He smiled to try to soothe her. “It’s just that the bees, you know….”
“What about them?” The look in her hard eyes was hateful. With a jolt of shock, he thought he saw real hatred there.
“I need to make sure it’s not something harmful to them.”
This time she turned her back on him. That’s when he caught a glimpse of the label. It was the popular major brand of weed killer that contained Glyphosate, a substance banned in many countries, but not yet in the USA. He knew it would also kill not only the weeds, but her grass and his bees if she sprayed enough of it.
There wasn’t even a fence between their yards to prevent it from blowing his way. Now he was getting mad. He crossed the invisible property line into her yard and came up behind her.
She raised her head, alarm in her eyes. “Get out of my yard. I can’t keep your horrid bees from flying into the yard, but I can tell you to get out.”
“You can’t spray that around my bees. You’ll kill them.”
“Good,” she said, walking to the other side of her property, still spraying.
Kevin stood watching her, fuming but helpless. What could he do? She was allowed to spray that poison in her yard. There was no law against it, unfortunately. He walked to his hives, slowly, so he wouldn’t alarm the bees. The wind had shifted, blowing the toxin away from his place. He didn’t see any dead insects on the ground. Yet. The prevailing winds were usually from her place to his, west to east, so it was only a matter of moments until the wind shifted back his way.
She kept spraying. Was she going to use the whole sprayer in one day? It was a huge container. He stuck his hands on his hips and stared at her until she quit and went inside, taking her sprayer with her. She hadn’t used all of it, but she had slathered it thick on her yard. At that rate, her grass would probably die along with any weeds.
Kevin uncoiled his hose and washed off his vegetable plants, tomatoes, pole beans, small heads of lettuce just beginning to form, and some broccoli and other vegetables. He couldn’t wash off the bees, though. Those poor little guys.
Sometimes he thought it was strange of him to feel that way, but he had an affection for them. They were cute, fuzzy, and made that soothing hum when they flew. He belonged to a local group of beekeepers who met a few times a year. They were all fond of their insects. Kevin had done terrible things to a few people, but wouldn’t think of harming a single worker bee from his hives. They were great little fellows, working so hard to make honey for people to eat. Besides doing that, they also pollinated plants. Kevin thought that everyone should love bees.
Over the next three days, he didn’t catch Ms. Sessions spraying again. Sometimes when he went out to tend the hives or his vegetables, though, he could smell it and knew she’d been at it. One evening, his indoor bookkeeping work done, the actual job that supported him and the bees, he strolled through his yard to do a routine check on the vegetables. He tied up some tomatoes and beans, then suited up and approached the three hives. The air was pure tonight. No spraying.
Tending his garden and his bees made a welcome change from his work, freelance from his home office. He had three regular major clients who gave him enough work to suit him. He didn’t want to get rich. He just wanted to tend to his hobbies.
The three hives sat in a row with about a foot of space between them. He usually pulled the frames out twice a month to inspect them, but pulled out a few today, even though he’d done it last week. He wanted to see how the bees were doing after the attacks of the next door neighbor. It didn’t seem like there were enough bees on the rack he held. He pulled out another. It, too, was low, by at least a third. He moved to the second hive, thinking he could maybe transfer some bees from there to the ailing hive, as he sometimes did, but eventually discovered that all three hives had lost a lot of worker bees.
Tears sprang to his eyes. His poor bees were dying. And it was because he lived next door to a monster who sprayed poison that covered both their yards.
He wondered if he could appeal to her again. Maybe she didn’t mean it when she intimated that it was good if his bees died. How could that be good? He still had a few jars of honey from last year. It lasted forever. Everyone loves honey, he thought. Maybe even her. After getting a jar of it from his basement shelf, he rang her doorbell.
“Ms. Sessions,” he started when she came to the door. He showed her the jar and smiled. “I don’t think I’ve ever given you any of my honey. I’d like you to have a jar.”
“Don’t want any honey. I have allergies.”
“Ah. This is very good for allergies. Local honey is recommended by everyone when you’re allergic to—”
“Bees,” she said. “I’m allergic to bees. I’ll die if they sting me. If you come on my property again, I’m warning you, I have a shotgun.” And she slammed the door.
Kevin stood, stunned, for a moment. Is that why she sprayed? Was she actually trying to kill his hives? Did she want to kill him, too? He stomped home and fumed for a couple of hours. What a stupid woman. Being allergic to bees didn’t mean she couldn’t eat honey. But she wasn’t going to stop. She was going to continue until his bees were all dead. And she was going to be happy when that happened.
He paced his living room, wearing a path. He had to save his bees. They were all going to die. They weren’t all dead yet, though. What could he do? He slumped on the couch, envisioning his bees dropping to the ground, strangling, dying. Then a different vision appeared.
A calm came over him. One of the bees, writhing on the ground, changed shape, grew, developed into a human form. It looked remarkably like his next door neighbor as it struggled against death.
How could he make that vision come true? This thought occupied him every evening for a few days, then inspiration struck. He got online and did about ten minutes of research to find what he needed.
The church was having their “social” next weekend. Would that give him enough time? He thought so, if he got to work right away. He ran to a couple of local stores and procured the equipment he would need. The collection kit was more expensive than he thought it would be, but it would be worth it, he was sure. He took care setting everything up as the instructions directed, aided by some online videos to show him exactly what everything should look like.
The bees were drawn to the plates he set out, just as the online instructions said they would be. After landing on the strategically placed plates outside the hives, they reacted to the electric shock and stung the surfaces of the plates, depositing their loads of venom there, but, as it said online, with no resulting harm to the bees. When he had enough, he scraped the venom off the plates and brought it into the house.
Saturday, he prepared a salad and mixed up a vinegar and oil dressing. He used lettuce from his own garden, and sliced a few radishes, carrots, and tomatoes. After he made the vinegar and oil dressing, he poured a bit of it into a smaller container and added bee venom. He hoped the vinegar would mask the bitter taste. When he sampled a tiny drop on his tongue, he decided it needed a lot more herbs. His crops of oregano and thyme were lush, so he ground up even more, adding the pungent flakes as he muttered, “Grist for the mill,” amused at his own pun. Besides being the stuff ground up at a mill, a gathering of bees was also called a grist, a fellow beekeeper had once told him. He wondered if Ms. Sessions knew the term. He couldn’t wait to see her at the church dinner after the service on Sunday. He sealed his small vial of “special” dressing and shook it. The tiny pieces of herbs looked a bit like a swarming hive. No, he corrected his thought. A swarming Grist of Bees.
Sunday was so fine that the early afternoon dinner was set up outdoors on long tables carried from the fellowship hall and set in the shade of the tall sycamore trees behind the church. Kevin set his salad and his larger container of dressing on the table near the other salads and looked around for Vivian Sessions. He hadn’t seen her at the service, but there she was, driving up for the social.
“Yoo hoo, Vivian,” called one of the many widows of the church. “Come sit by me.”
Kevin was glad to see where she would be sitting. He made his way to that table and put his hat on the seat next to the one being saved for Ms. Sessions, Vivian, at the shady end.
After everyone filled their plates and the pastor blessed the food, Kevin belatedly took his seat next to his neighbor, slightly late on purpose, so she wouldn’t move away from him.
“Hi Ms. Sessions,” he said with a smile. “It’s good to see you here.”
She frowned at him, that hatred shining through her eyes that he had seen before, and leaned away.
“Come on, we’re next door neighbors,” he persisted. “We need to get along.” He pointed with his fork. “I see you took some of my salad.”
She looked at her plate. “Your vegetables do look very good. I see you out in that garden all the time taking care of them.” Her words were friendly, but she sounded wooden, like it was hard for her to say something nice to him.
“Yes, gardening is my joy, Ms. Sessions. I could bring you some of my crop if you’d like.”
She frowned again and turned to the woman on her other side.
“Who is this, Vivian?” the woman asked.
“This is my neighbor, Kevin Grady,” she added. Grudgingly, it seemed to Kevin. “This is Alice,” she said to Kevin, half facing him.
They all said hello and started eating. Kevin fingered the small vial in his pocket, waiting for his chance. “What did you bring?” he asked her, staying alert for his opportunity, while trying to appear relaxed.
“The brownies. I see you took one.”
Kevin’s chance came when he “accidentally” knocked over her ice tea. She jumped up and swatted at her dress with her napkin. Several people handed her extras since her clothing was sopped. Kevin, concealing the small vial in the palm of his hand, passed it over her salad as he reached to set the glass upright. He refilled it from the pitcher on the table. She gave him a small, but grateful nod of thanks.
When she was reseated, she ate some corn casserole, then worked on the salad.
“My, the dressing is heavy on the vinegar, isn’t it?” she said, turning her scowl on him..
“I don’t think so,” Alice replied. “It’s good, I think. And your brownies…yum.”
Kevin made an apologetic face. “Maybe I got the proportions wrong. I like the brownies, too, Alice. You’re a good cook, Vivian.” He finished both the brownies that were on his plate.
She leaned close to him. “I have a special surprise for you in one of the brownies. I raise some plants too, on the other side of my house. Do you know what belladonna is?”
Kevin frowned. Belladonna. You weren’t supposed to eat that. Had she given him poison brownies? Wait, he had eaten two. He had only taken one. Where had the other one come from?
He stared at her as his vision started to blur. His mouth felt dry, but, in a macabre replay of events, he overturned his own glass when he reached for a drink. He could hear his heart getting ready to burst.
Vivian, almost to the bottom of her salad, dropped her fork. “I…don’t feel too good. Faint. Dizzy.” Her eyes stared ahead, not focusing. “Kevin, what did you…” Then her throat started making gurgling sounds.
As he fell to the ground, he thought, at least she’ll die, too. I hope someone will…take care of my…bees. He also had a brief thought that he would now discover just what Hell was like. The last thing to run through his slowing, numbing mind was that…Vivian Sessions…would probably…be there, too. His thoughts turned gray. And stopped.