The black ribbons are gone.
They were there yesterday, at dusk. They were there when Sidney was doing his evening checks. His hands finding comfort in the routine. But they are gone now. Not undone or blown away but gone. Something builds in Sidney’s throat. He checks nevertheless, in case they were undone by the wind and blown away. It’s a false kind of thing to hope for that. Inside him, Sidney already knows. He won’t find the silk snagged on a twig or in the branches of a tree.
He is crouched down beside one of the hives on the eastern side of the apiary when there is a flash of movement in the corner of Sidney’s eyes.
A stranger steps out into the garden with a half eaten pastry in hand. He is tall, with a face and a set of hands held loosely by his side. Caught in the dappled light he looks at Sidney curiously.
“Hello,” he says.
Sidney’s breath catches in his throat.
“Hello,” he echoes.
Around him the bees hum, moving around their hives in a graceful pattern. They don’t seem to notice.
The grass is lush under his feet and the sun is warm on his shoulders.
Everything feels very still.
Inside the house, Sidney hears a voice. Sergei Gonchar calls something in Russian with a laugh in his voice. The stranger turns, but he isn’t a stranger. Sidney knows that. He knows in his heart of hearts who he is. His heart has never been worth much. Never anything that can be counted on. But this. This Sidney knows.
“This is Evgeni,” Sergei explains when he emerges with an armful of broken furniture. “The new Beekeeper.”
He stumbles, a little at that.
Evgeni glances at him; waiting. His eyes are dark. There is an echo of a smile on his face.
Sidney swallows. Swallows and smiles. It’s not much. Not enough. But -
He reaches out a hand.
“Sid,” he offers. “I’m your apprentice.”
Is that where the story starts? Why not?
They bury the Beekeeper in the last weeks of autumn. Of fall.
It feels. Wrong.
Sidney is the one to tie black ribbons around the hives. It is his duty, but he didn’t know the Beekeeper well. Not really. Not at all, if he is honest. He arrived a year previously, near the beginning of winter. By that time the Beekeeper was already ill. Rather than taking a place as by their side, Sidney was taught mostly through trial and error by the bees.
His voice shakes as he tells them. The bees hum around him. One lands on the shell of his ear. Careful as always.
“Don’t worry,” he tells them. “I will be here.”
He has been here nearly a year. Not nearly long enough to make that kind of promise, but he is all they have.
They are all he has.
Yet even they go away during the winter. When the days become short and the first frosts come, they stay inside their hives where they are warm and safe. Outside their hives, Sidney is knee deep in snow. Placing his hand on the wooden frames, he closes his eyes.
At home they would have used black sheets, but Sidney isn’t home.
His mouth has an accent here and it feels full of nothing but air when he tries to use it.
Pittsburgh called him, just like it called his predecessor. For that reason he isn’t a stranger here, but that can’t stop him from feeling like one, especially now.
On Sundays’ he dines with the Letang family. They live by the river, near where it forks from the singular Ohio river into the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers. The air is sharp with cold and the river is frozen over. Sidney has to be careful when he skates along it. The whistle of his skate blades on the ice sounds off. Like the ice hasn’t frozen evenly. At home he would know for sure, but Pittsburgh is still new to Sidney. It is safer to stay close to the banks.
“The clean ice is the best,” Kris says when Sidney arrives.
He is new to Pittsburgh like Sidney is, but he feels like an old friend.
Kris doesn’t care for wine but he enjoys insulting the bottle Sidney brings. He has a mouth that makes short work of the task. He also has a face people like to look at and a gimlet glint to his eyes.
His wife, Cath, carries letters, so Sidney supposes they are kin. Her hands have ink on them. It gets on the potatoes she peels and in the blonde strands of her hair.
“Better than wax,” Kris says.
Sidney supposes that is true. He takes offence anyway.
It is… easy. Almost. Few things are, but this is. Still.
“When are you going to take up the house?” Kris asks when they are sitting down to eat.
He does not know. That feels wrong too. He can’t quite imagine moving into the Beekeeper’s Cottage, sleeping under the slate roof in the old oak bed. The concept of it is too big inside his head. Too strange. Too abrupt.
“It’s your home now,” Cath tells him. Her voice is soft.
Sidney can’t meet her gaze.
To mourn and to work isn’t in-compatible, in America.
It is still only winter. There is time yet and the days are long enough to make use of them.
The ribbons must stay. Grief can’t be swallowed.
Evgeni Malkin arrives late. There was a chance he wouldn’t arrive at all.
“They don’t like to let you go,” J.P Barry hard warned Evgeni.
It was a warning Evgeni should have listened to more closely. The ties that bind had bound him tightly. Their absence makes Evgeni feel adrift rather than free. It isn’t something he knows how to say. He doesn’t have the words for it. He isn’t sure if many people would. Not even J.P who has seen so much over his many years on this earth.
Sergei Gonchar does.
“I was wondering when you’d get here,” Sergei says, instead.
It’s not much a joke, but it makes Evgeni snort.
Sergei is there to meet Evgeni when he arrives in Pittsburgh. Though it has been many years since they last spoke, his face is familiar in the crowd. Evgeni finds him easily even though they are not wearing the same colours. Evgeni isn’t wearing colours at all, but he feels lucky to have an old friend waiting for him.
The day is mostly gone by that point.
The sky is low above their heads, and the air is dry and cold.
“Snow,” J.P says, looking to the sky.
Evgeni wouldn’t be able to say either way.
It’s been around seventy two hours of travel since he left Magnitogorsk. He can’t remember when he last ate and his hair is matted to one side of his head. The sunlight hurts his eyes, a little.
It is Sergei who takes Evgeni into the city and through the winding roads up the hills to Sewickley. The roads are new to Evgeni. Each turn takes him somewhere he has never seen before. Yet he feels each mile like an exhaled breath.
Home, he thinks. Home, home, home.
The dense forests that surrounds the area forms a canopy over the roads. The branches are bare. There is only a hint of green growth.
“Spring is late this year,” Sergei says.
“I will help,” Evgeni promises.
“You will have a hot shower, change into something that doesn’t smell and then come to dinner,” Sergei tells him.
As a plan of action is is perhaps is more immediate than Evgeni’s. It also seems easier.
His mother always said; one foot at a time.
(Evgeni arrives late, always.
That is the truth as much as it is a lie.)
It is morning when Evgeni spots someone out by the hives. A figure made of lines and an open face. In the dappled light, they don’t quite look real. Though nothing feels quite real yet. He has slept maybe ten hours but he could have easily slept more. It was only Sergei’s arrival at his door with breakfast that rousted him from his bed.
It is early, for visitors who aren’t vaguely responsible for him.
Word didn’t travel this fast in the Ural Mountains.
“Sid,” he introduces himself. Then he says something else. Sergei has to translate.
Oh, Evgeni thinks when he does. Oh.
Sidney Crosby has flecks of green in his hazel eyes. He was also apprenticed to the previous beekeeper.
There was no word of an apprentice.
“I don’t understand,” Evgeni says later, when Sidney has gone.
“We didn’t either,” Sergei tells him. “No one was expecting him.”
No, Evgeni thinks. They were waiting for him.
“I think Sidney came when you didn’t,” Sergei tells him carefully.
He was young when the call came. Too young. Though he had grown up in his ancestral apiary, he was only a teenager when the first bee came for him. The markings on its back were delicate and there was a tint of navy to it’s translucent wings. It had found Evgeni when he was with his Grand Aunt. She had known it was a messenger before it landed on the back of Evgeni’s hands.
She had cried, too, when it had delivered the message.
He had not been her apprentice. It didn’t work like that in Russia. They were family and they were blood and together they hid the bee in one of the mountain hives.
It was easy to hide.
There weren’t many of the old ways left. Most had been lost; through war, through modernity, through disinterest.
Today, people didn’t know how to look. They didn’t want to look. Not at bees. However they did look at Evgeni. The more they looked at him, the more they seemed to see.
Evgeni isn’t sure what Sergei sees in his face now.
Evgeni doesn’t know what to do.
Sidney is an apprentice to a duty that is now Evgeni’s. This isn’t how it should be.
The bees provide no answer.
They are busy waking from their slumber, peeking out of their hives to greet him with soft wings and sweet songs. They have been well taken care of, they tell him. They are looking forward to the new season ahead. Their voices are a chorus, and their bodies wriggle with their fragile hopes. The worker bees are the first to make his acquaintance. They are curious creatures. A few follow him inside the cottage, to fly from his trunk to his books to the patched beekeeper suit. The stitches are uneven and clumsy. His hand has a signature and they find each example of it.
If they have something to say about Sidney, they do not share it with Evgeni.
The only thing Evgeni knows for certain is that he is the Beekeeper now. Not Sidney.
Evgeni doesn’t know what to do with an apprentice. He hardly knows what he is doing. He’s always worked alongside his family. The task of keeping a hive has always been shared and the knowledge of keeping was something he learnt as a child. The thought of teaching Sidney is ridiculous. They can’t even talk to each other.
“Maybe the bee’s will send him somewhere else?” Sergei’s wife, Ksenia, suggests.
There are other apiaries. Other bees. Many other places in the world are in search of a beekeeper of their own. There is always a need and so often there is a shortage.
“Maybe,” Evgeni says.
Maybe it is just a matter of time?
Evgeni can work with that. If he has learnt anything, he has learnt patience.
Besides, many hands make light work. There is a lot of work here, and so little time.
Sidney comes around the following morning. It is early and Evgeni body still feels like it is in other timezone. When he finds Sidney, he is dressed for the day ahead. His hands are in gloves and his face isn’t so open. He looks - Evgeni doesn’t know.
But then, there is much that Evgeni doesn’t know.
The bees like him.
The bees are nosy little things. Little liars, who steal into the jam that Evgeni brings with him. The copper of the spoon reflect their fluttering wings as they investigate what is left over from the spoonful that Evgeni stirs into his tea.
“Not a flower,” he tells them.
At the sound of his voice, Sidney looks over.
Evgeni knows a little English, but not nearly enough. He is lucky to have the Gonchar’s. Together they act as a go-between for them, translating Russian to English and vice versa.
It is a favour that does not come freely.
The forests around Pittsburgh are dense and very old. Both Ksenia and Sergei are foresters who protect and care for it. Spring is a time of rebirth for them. In the basket by their hearth they already have a doe and baby fawn sheltering with them, and in the maple tree next to their post box, a robin has made a nest. It’s lined with the soft fur of their dog who sheds everywhere.
It isn’t the best time for either of them to take a sabbatical, but they somehow manage to do it.
“The forest is generous,” Sergei tells him. “But not to a fault.”
They can give him one week of help.
It felt shameful to ask it of them, but Evgeni doesn’t know what else to do. For years he had known that his path lead to the West. Now he is here, what English he did practice in the privacy of his bedroom is completely inadequate.
The three of them make an odd group.
Day one and after half a dozen introductions, Sergei and Evgeni give up on the community of Pittsburgh. As much as they try, no one can quite say Evgeni’s name. Each approximation sounds slightly different.
“They’re calling you Geno,” Sergei says after he visits the post office.
Evgeni makes a face.
“It could be worse,” Sidney offers.
Sergei has translated some of the nicknames Sidney has. Few of them are flattering.
The Postmaster General is probably to blame. Marc Andre Fleury seems to know everyone in Pittsburgh, and was one of the first to make Evgeni’s acquaintance. There has been something in the way he had smiled at Evgeni. Something sly, Evgeni thinks in retrospect.
“Letter carriers are gossips,” Sidney says.
That is true in Russia as well.
Sidney seems to have his own routine. It’s clearly one set by the previous Beekeeper. His days begin early. Each morning he turns up, just after the sun rises, and it is the sound of him in the kitchen that wakes Evgeni. The kettle whistling, the crackle of wood burning in the aga stove. The promise of tea and breakfast being made.
Sidney does his best.
Evgeni can do better, and he thinks he will have too. Even if it involves getting up far earlier than he would prefer.
Eggs come from the neighbour's chickens, and greens grow wild in the back of the cottage garden. Evgeni cooks them in butter and serves them on thickly cut bread. Sidney looks surprised the first time. The plate is clean by the time he finished.
This early in spring, there is still frost in the morning and the ground is icy. Though the bees aren’t very active yet, it is important to check the health of the hives and investigate where each will be sent in the season ahead. Back at home, in the Ural Mountains, this work could take weeks. Sometimes months, if the winter weather was poor. Here in Pittsburgh it is slow work. The terrain is far easier to traverse, but each face they meet is new.
Together they update ledgers and mark maps. There are notes, but they are in a muddle. They are also in English.
Even Sidney has trouble with them.
“You remember, though,” Evgeni half asks and half says. Or tries too.
Sidney’s face colours and he doesn’t quite look Evgeni in the eye afterwards.
Sidney is quiet.
Evgeni asks after that, when they have retired for the day.
“I can not claim to know him well,” Sergei says.
Few people seem too.
At times it feels almost as if Sidney is as much a stranger to Pittsburgh as Evgeni is.
The only exceptions are the foresters. When they take their first hives down to the Cullen’s almond farm, Sidney waves at some of the French Canadians contingency who maintain the acres of birch and cottonwood trees in the Sewickley reserve. The same faces turn up at Evgeni’s door, one by one.
News spreads quickly. Evgeni receives a dozen visits within his first month; with them come loaves of bread, plates of sweets, and baskets of vegetables. The empty shelves in his pantry fill with each new neighbour he meets. One of the first to visit is the lead Forester, Pascal Dupuis.
“Call me Duper,” he says, presenting Evgeni with a cast iron pot filled with vegetable soup.
Pascal brings with him a gaggle of children who scatter around them and then disappear into the gardens. Evgeni doesn’t know what to say. People from his hometown would occasionally bring handfuls of beets and baskets of pastry’s still warm from the oven. Usually they would visit on the old holidays. This is clearly something quite different. An American way of making acquaintances.
In the evening, he eats Pascal’s soup straight from the pot with a copper spoon he finds in one of the unorganised kitchen draws. The broth is rich and perfect with thick slices of toasted bread. He probably eats too much, but there is enough left over to share with Sidney the following day when they stop work to have lunch on the side of the road.
In the sunlight, Sidney’s dark hair shines. The collar of his shirt is twisted a little. Evgeni’s fingers twitch.
He makes himself look away.
The jeep has mud all over the wheels. While they were in the fields one of the kids wrote something that Evgeni assumes is rude on the windows.
They spent the mourning trudging through the Lemieux’s endless vineyard. Scattered throughout it, are ancient bridleways. Though the dozens of hives that Mario requests every year are placed in the exact same place, there were rumours that during winter the bridleways had shifted under the snow. It happens sometimes. Sidney has a good eye for finding them. Thankfully none lead too close to the sheltered heart of the vineyard where hives have been places for nearly half a century.
The ground there was soft underfoot.
It had felt safe; like a good place for his bees.
Sidney had smiled when Evgeni said that.
He smiles now, when he takes the thermos of soup from Evgeni’s hands. Maybe neither of them share a common language, but it felt like Sidney understands most things. Even this.
“Good, yes” Evgeni tells him.
In return he offers Evgeni half of the sandwich he had packed in his canvas backpack. The mulberry jam is sweet, and tastes of summer. There is a mulberry tree in the corner of the garden, against the north wall of the cottage. Maybe Sidney made the jam with fruit from it’s gnarled branches.
Unlike the Malkin apiary back home, the cottage doesn’t have a garden.
Half of it is dead or dying. The other half overgrown grass. It’s shaming that a Beekeeper’s garden has nothing for their own bees. Tackling it is a task Evgeni has been putting off.
“No,” Sidney tells him, when he catches Evgeni pulling up something prickly.
Kneeling down, he pushes the prickly branches aside. Under the leaf litter, there is a shot of green.
“Tulips,” he tells Evgeni.
The first of the season.
Tulips are first.
They unfurl from the earth in shades of pale green. They frame the low fence, and sprout unevenly across the lawn.
In the morning Evgeni touches the woody stalks of - something. Maybe some kind of wild sage. Maybe something else. The flowers are gone. But there is beauty there, still, even in the dead wood. The shell-like remains of the flower crumble easily in his hand when he makes a fist. When he opens his palm, the black seeds within it shine under the sunlight, perfect and whole.
He turns his palm, and lets them fall to the earth. The dirt is black, and rich.
There is something here. There is life, here.
There is Sidney, after a sleepless night of moving hives. They have done their job pollinating the almond trees up at McCandless Crossing and will soon move to their next home away from home. Having them back at the cottage, makes it feel like home.
Dead to the world on Evgeni’s couch, Sidney’s eyelashes are long and bracken brown against his translucent skin. In sleep he sprawls, his breathing soft and steady. Evgeni managed a few hours before he jerked awake. In his dream Sidney was gone. A ghost. A phantom. It was just a dream but it had felt real.
There has been no word or sightings of messenger bees.
Ksenia checks with the owls, and Sergei asks the migrating geese.
“Nothing,” he tells him when they meet up to have dinner together.
Against his body, in a sling, is a baby fox. The kit pokes its nose out to look at Evgeni. It feels too early in the season. Winter doesn’t give over easily to spring. It hurts, a little. Most things do. Growing pains. Evgeni feels them too.
It was Evgeni’s dream to come to America; to have his own bees.
Homesickness comes and goes. Acute and unrelenting. He is so far from home, so far from those who know him and those he loves.
“Does it get easier?” he asks Sergei
Inside the warmth of the Gonchar house, Ksenia is lighting the candles. They burn bright and clean. It reminds Evgeni of home.
Sergei’s expression is soft. “Give it time.”
Letters come in wax sealed envelopes.
They are delivered by faces that have become familiar to him.
They are not the only people to deliver news to him. Him, and Sidney.
The youngest of the Chris Kunitz’s brood visits with a cream coloured envelope in hand.
“Are your parents finally getting their act together?” Sidney asks with a grin.
He gets a confused face for his trouble.
Apparently Kuni and his wife aren’t getting married, but having another baby. Their third. It’s news that is sweet in Evgeni’s mouth and he plucks the gold rimmed card from Sidney’s hand and goes immediately to the bees. Good news shouldn’t wait. Knocking gently on the side of the hive to gain the bee’s attention, Evgeni crouches down. He is too happy to whisper the news and the bees feel it.
When he glances over his shoulder, he finds Sidney a few yards away, holding hands with the littlest Kunitz.
Sidney’s expression is so soft.
“We tell the bees about your baby brother or sister,” he explains. “So the bees can share the news with everyone who isn’t here, anymore.”
Telling the bees is one of the oldest duties of a beekeeping.
As a child Evgeni remembers his Great Grandmother being tasked with sharing all of the news of their community past and present. Now the duty is Evgeni’s.
In spring there is joy.
Pittsburgh blossoms in shades of pinks and bright blues.
Around Evgeni the garden is shifting. Coming to life. The wind whistles through the branches of the trees, through the long grass that is tipped in silver. There is colour too. It is a hem to the meadow. Because that’s what the cottage garden is. Not a muddy overgrown mess, but a wildflower meadow. It’s so different to what Evgeni has known.
Over the following weeks three couples marry and all visit the apiary. The bees are delighted. They sing for days and days. When the local school throws their fete, the Cullen children bring cake. One piece for Evgeni, one for Sidney, and one for the bees. The icing is thick and tastes of strawberries. When the new roof is raised over the library, Evgeni and Sidney bring their bees to bless it. The bees happily find the grains of sugar the librarians left on the gables, blessing it with their presence.
There are many myths about bees. Evgeni doesn’t know where they end and the truth begins. He isn’t sure if it matters. They overlap in his mind, in his heart.
Why can’t the bees talk to those who are gone?
They talk to Evgeni - to Sidney too.
Maybe Evgeni cannot teach Sidney how to be a beekeeper, but he can have Sidney help with his work.
During the day, they work side by side, under the pale sunshine.
It is good work; hard work, but good. There is strength to Sidney’s body, but Evgeni thinks that is what the previous beekeeper used rather than his fine mind.
Everywhere Evgeni looks there is evidence of the previous Beekeeper. Work left unfinished, work abandoned, work not even begun. The scale of it is overwhelming. The hard work of spring and summer is ahead of them. Without Sidney, Evgeni isn’t sure where to begin.
The records the previous beekeeper left are a handwritten but not by Sidney’s neat hand. The notes are a muddle.
Sidney knows the bees, knows most of the families who will be wanting a hive.
The take six to the Cooke orchards.
Evgeni isn’t an early riser by nature. If he had his choice he would wake after the sun has trekked it’s path from the horizon to the sky above his head. If he is lucky, when he wakes Sidney will have a kettle already heating on the wood fire stove. The metal of the aga stove is dark with decades of soot and it always smells faintly of bread.
He wonders if that was one of Sidney’s jobs, before.
It was one of Evgeni’s. He was never very good at it, but he always tried.
There is no yeast in his kitchen. There is tea though, and a pantry full of honey from the last season. The tops of the jars are dusty.
Sidney stirs a teaspoon into every cup of tea he makes.
He wrinkles his nose when Evgeni does the same with a spoonful of jam.
“Try,” Evgeni tells him, pushing the mug towards him.
Reluctantly, Sidney does. The expression he makes, makes Evgeni laugh out loud.
“Not bad,” Sidney tries.
Evgeni wants to tease him. He wants to make a joke and get him laughing. He wants to say something a bit rude about his Canadian heritage, maybe about his lack of taste regarding tea and the old wicker hat he wears when the sun comes out. But he can’t. Instead he gives Sidney a look. It works well enough. Sidney flushes bright red.
By the end of Spring and the start of Summer, Sidney and Evgeni have managed to piece together their own way of talking to each other. Between each other they cobble together conversations part in English, part in Russian, and part gestures. Evgeni is - he’s funny. He’s perhaps more stubborn than Sidney and he often makes Sidney shoulder the awkward task of talking to people for him.
Sidney isn’t at all good at making small talk.
“So smart,” Evgeni says, when Sidney tries to get out of talking to someone.
He’s awful, really. Shameless.
But there isn’t much Sidney can do to change Evgeni’s mind.
Evgeni seems to know that, and he is always in a buoyant mood whenever he gets his way.
His smile is so bright, he also glows with it. Sidney would poke at him with the nozzle of his handheld smoker, but he can’t quite bring himself to do it.
They are a good team.
It doesn’t quite make sense when Sidney tries to explain it to Kris or Flower.
Now the ice has melted, Sidney has to find other, less exciting ways to travel to their homes for their weekly catch up dinners. With a standing invitation of his own, Evgeni arrives in the truck he inherited along with the cottage. If Sidney can, he walks. Sometimes if he is running behind, he rides the bike he was given by Max Talbot, the salmon farmer. It was fished out of the river; a pun that never fails to make Max laugh.
The bike isn’t fancy but it does his job.
Flower lives near the middle of Sewickley, in the Postmaster General’s home. The red bricks are warm to the touch after being baked in the summer sun all day, and the windows are open. From the footpath outside Sidney can hear music, and the happy bickering of Flower and his wife, Vero.
Instead of flowers, Evgeni brings honey.
Unable to do the same, Sidney bring wine. It’s sweet and sparkles when it is uncorked.
“One of Mario’s?” Flower asks.
Sidney nods. “From the year before last.”
Flower laughs. “I didn’t think he could give that away.”
Sidney is pretty sure most was fed to the cattle. It was not a good year for anything.
“It’s good enough to get drunk on,” Flower decides.
So they do.
Sidney’s small apartment is close by, so Evgeni ends up taking the guest bedroom. The following day he finds Evgeni looking red eyed and awful on the main street, waiting in line for coffee.
The coffee that Beau and Justin make is worth waiting in line for, but Sidney has an in with them. It’s easy to pick up a second cup.
“Sid,” Evgeni says when Sidney hands him the travel mug.
His voice is almost breathless.
It’s a bit awful really, how Sidney flushes. It’s just coffee.
So it’s good, working with Evgeni. It’s not what Sidney expected. But. It’s good.
A few miles outside of Sewickley, is a river crossing at Glenfield.
It’s an old one, and it’s difficult to access now. Mail is only collected from there once a week. This week, a letter comes from Olli Määttä. The paper is marred with dirty fingerprints when it is delivered to Sidney.
“This is for Geno,” he tells Cath.
“Then Olli made a whole lot of spelling mistakes when he addressed it,” she tells him.
There is a reason the Post Office calls the people it calls.
He can’t win.
“Want to help me pick leaves from the mulberry tree?” he asks instead.
“Not really,” she tells him, but they walk to the Beekeeper’s Cottage together.
Cath’s company is a comfort. Today she is riding her faithful mare, Mist, and her saddlebags are full of mail. Most of the post in the township is delivered on bicycle or by vehicle. Outside the town, only horses can pass through the ancient forest. Mist’s sire was a mustang; the dam was an arab. Steely grey, with strong legs and a round barrel of a body, Mist has hot blood and is devoted to Cath. The magic that ties their two souls together in their duty is a whisper.
The sound of Mist’s hooves on the cobblestones is as familiar to Sidney as the bird song. Last spring Cath was the one to show him the bridleways. With the Beekeeper to frail to leave their bed, it was Cath and Mist who had led him to the right places for the hives.
“Any news?” she asks.
What news is there?
Evgeni keeps making honey blends. He is currently experimenting with the nectarines that the Sheary’s family have growing on the boundary of their property. For the last week Sidney has been finding ants creeping into the kitchen. If it gets any worse he thinks they will need to borrow Phil Kessel’s dog, Stella. Her nose is legendary. She can sniff anything out.
“You do know Stella is having puppies,” Cath reminds him.
Sidney winces. “Don’t remind me.”
“You can’t send the next one home to your parents.”
“They needed a good working dog.”
This makes Cath laugh. Loudly. Even Mist lets out a huff.
Glancing down at him, Cath grins. “That dog you sent them hasn’t worked a day in its life. He keeps their feet warm and eats scraps from their plates.”
That is… probably accurate.
“I can’t have a dog,” he tells Cath. “I barely have time to think.”
There aren’t enough hours in the day.
Sidney can’t keep up. There is honey to harvest and hives to move and queen bees complaining about new cultivars of citrus trees and -
Cath shakes her head. “One day you’re going to give in and let us make Pittsburgh your home.”
Bees are tied to luck, in the old stories.
A hive should never be sold. If it is, so is the beekeepers luck. That is what Mario always said. That is what the previous Beekeeper told him when he tried to buy hives to keep in his vineyard permanently.
However bees can be bartered for or given as gifts.
Evgeni is clearly bemused when Sidney asks him to help pick mulberry leaves before they go to visit Olli. His mouth is drawn up, biting away his amusement. Out of the two of them, he puts little weight in any of the old superstitions.
“It’s important,” he tells Evgeni.
Sidney is huffing a little, and he knows he must be red in the face. Around him, he sees glints of navy on the slate roof tiles. The sun makes the messenger bee’s wings look iridescent. That is another sign, but Sidney doesn’t point it out. He is sure it will only make Evgeni laugh.
“You keep saying,” Evgeni says. “You say about Nealer and the whiskey.”
“You still let him try the honey infusion.”
It hadn’t ended well. This, however, will. If Evgeni will help Sidney pick the leaves he can’t reach.
With a sigh, Evgeni unfolds gracefully. The length of his arms, the curve of his torso, the length of his legs.
Sidney looks - away.
Olli lives in the depths of the forest, and although Sidney has visited him a handful of times in the past, it's still a challenge to remember the way.
They can take the jeep part of the way, but there comes a point went the dirt road trails off into nothing. They end up walking the last part. Through the trees Sidney points out the wild beehives in the hollow tree trunks and in the branches. Their markings are softer; pale golds with a hint of aqua to their wings.
A few buzz over to greet them.
Sidney swallows as they find their way to Evgeni.
After the funeral, Sidney had not tied ribbons around their hives. Though they were Pittsburgh bees, they were not kept bees. Wild and native only to this area, they predate the city by centuries. Today they are happy to act as guides, and to share honeycomb with them. It’s sticky and almost savoury.
On his back, Sidney carries the dufflebag of carefully packed mulberry leaves. When he presents it to Olli, his face lights up.
“Sid, you didn’t need to do this,” he says.
Shifting his weight from foot to foot, Sidney shrugs.
Probably not. But. He wanted too.
As easy as breath, Evgeni is grinning. “Of course not, but try telling Sid.”
Olli lets out a huff.
This is far from the first time Sidney has seen Evgeni work his charm. It strikes Sidney anew how easy Evgeni makes it look. It isn’t easy, Sidney thinks. Not always. It can’t be. They are both so far from home. Evgeni traveled so much further than Sidney and has sacrificed so much.
The wild bees are the reason they have come.
Over the past week, one hive swarmed. They have made a temporary home in Olli’s barn. The oak frame is leaning slightly to one side. Beneath it’s shingles are the soft sounds of silkworms crunching on dark green leaves. These ones are young. Only a few weeks old. Like Sidney and Evgeni, Olli’s workload is only getting heavier in summer.
It takes most of the afternoon to move the wild bees. They’re in a tricky spot and they are stubborn. The wind brought down a tree branch on their underground burrow. That was safe and warm and dark. Just like the barn. They want to stay here, with the silkworms and with Olli who sings Finnish jigs while he works.
They can’t stay. It isn’t safe.
They are meant to be in the forest, not in a barn. Evgeni is the one to explain it to them.
“I know these bees,” he tells Sidney.
Sidney thinks he does.
Sidney thinks he always has.
He nods. “I’ll be right here.”
The mulberry leaves Sidney brought are a sweetener.
“Like for like?” Olli jokes while Evgeni is out looking for a good tree for the bees to make a new home in.
Sidney tries his best, but he’s never been good at driving a hard bargain.
“A dozen extra candlesticks?”
Olli shakes his head. “Come on, I owe you not the other way around. You saved me last season.”
“It wasn’t like that -”
“It was exactly like that,” Olli tells him.
Sidney would do it all over again. He says that.
Olli goes pink. He’s a sweet kid. There is something so terribly earnest about him. It’s no wonder he found himself here, of all places.
Tearing up a leaf, Sidney gently lets the pieces fall over the silkworms.
“Patric says it’s going to be a good season,” Olli tells him.
Sidney gives him a look.
“I know, I know,” Olli laughs.
(There are no letters. Not from Evgeni’s home.
There are bees for Evgeni. Messengers with silver and crimson markings that travel a vast distance to find him.
But there are no letters. Not in all the time he has been in Pittsburgh.)
As easy as working with Evgeni has become, the work itself is laborious. The days are long and they are kept busy.
The work is good, and it is honest. But it is also stressful.
Last summer was. Difficult.
Sidney can’t help but feel twitchy when they go and visit each hive. They are doing better this year. The honey production is slow, but with each week the frames in the hives grow heavier. As much as he hopes Evgeni doesn’t notice, he feels Evgeni glance at him.
“It’s going to be a good harvest,” Patric Hornqvist says when they visit the hives they placed in his cherry orchard.
Sidney can’t help wincing. He wishes people wouldn’t keep say that.
Patric notices, because of course he does.
“I’m not tempting fate,” he tells Sidney.
He might know his cherry trees but Sidney was the one who collected honey last year. Sidney was also the one to have gone through the ledgers. There hasn’t been a good harvest for years now.
There is a secret Sidney didn’t never tell anyone. Will never tell anyone. Twice last summer the bee’s tried to swarm. Tried to leave Pittsburgh.
Sidney had spent weeks checking each hive for swarm cells and drilling extra ventilation holes. He begged and he pleaded.
They couldn’t leave. Not now. Not even for Sidney.
For a Beekeeper to lose their bees... it would be shameful. It would be a mark against their name that could never be removed. The previous Beekeeper was a good person. They were a good beekeeper too. They didn’t deserve that.
Evgeni is a good Beekeeper. A great one, Sidney thinks.
It hadn’t taken Sidney long to see that, or anyone else. He is stubborn and brilliant and has a way of making things happen.
“Bee’s are lucky,” Flower says when they catch up for dinner.
He has ink on the corner of his mouth and near his eye. When he grins, it sinks into the soft smile lines that mark the happiness to his features.
They are all lucky to have Evgeni. Geno.
It shouldn’t hurt. It doesn’t. Not really, to admit that. Sidney always knew he was second choice. He arrived too late to help the previous Beekeeper and Evgeni doesn’t need help at all.
“What’s with that face?” Flower asks.
Sidney shrugs. “Long day. Long summer.”
They were out at Phil Kessel’s new house that afternoon, trying to help with his apricot tree. It wasn’t a job for a hive, just a handful of bees who had taken delight in the frothy white and pink blossoms. But they were eclipsed by Evgeni’s joy when they were introduced to Stella’s litter of puppies. While he was cuddling with them, Sidney organised with Phil to purchase the boldest one for Evgeni’s birthday. The puppy will be from all of them. Even Olli had chipped in, sending Phil a reel of pale blue silk ribbon for his sister. That’s a few weeks away, but the puppies will be ready to be weaned by then.
Phil is here tonight, with Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino. They have found the honey mead that Evgeni had made. It’s better than the whiskey, but only just.
On the other side of the table Kris and Cath are trying to talk but are mostly arguing with Max about the best way to serve fish. They are so terrible. They’re not even Nova Scotians. They’re wrong too; lemon basil is perfect to have with salmon. Sidney brought seedlings with him when he moved to Pittsburgh. Last year it had gone to seed in the cottage garden and this summer it is a swave of soft colour.
On the deck, Kuni is laughing with Evgeni and with Sergei.
The three of them seem to always end up burning whatever they try to grill. Tonight probably won’t be an exception.
In the light Evgeni is painted in warm shades of gold. His wrists are bare and his forearms are freckled. He is so lovely; the best person Sidney knows, the very best.
The sun is low and the night is mild.
It feels something like home.
Flower leans against his side. He’s Sidney’s best friend. For better or for worse, no one knows Sidney better.
Sidney’s breath catches in his throat.
“Would it be so bad to stay?” Flower asks Sidney quietly.
“I don’t think it works like that,” Sidney tells him. Not for him.
(Everyone knows the messenger bees found Sidney.
No one knows that they came to Sidney more than once.
They had spoken of the west, of where they could go. They had spoken of leaving Pittsburgh. Sidney had stopped them before they could name any specific locations. He had. He had never spoken a word.
Then Evgeni had arrived.)
The days begin to grow shorter. Evgeni doesn’t notice that, but he can’t help but stare at the colour of the trees. Their leaves become tipped in gold, in brilliant crimson, and dance when the breeze catches them.
The pantry begins to fill. One jar of honey at a time. Candlesticks.
A trickle, then a flood.
The jarring of honey fills his dreams. The glassmakers, Paul and James, drop by each week with new vessels. Paul is a gentleman, but James will take any opportunity to steal some of Evgeni’s hard work from the pantry.
“You can’t keep it all for yourself,” James says, shoving another jar in his satchel.
“What are you going to do with all that?” Evgeni asks. “Bath? Maybe good idea, Nealer.”
James scoffs. Then his expression becomes a question.
“Have you made any more of that honey hair conditioner?”
Evgeni laughs and laughs.
“What?” James squawks. “It was good stuff.”
It was something, certainly.
The four of them have a hearty lunch together at the local pub. Today Kris is in the kitchen and he makes a roast marinade with a mix of lemon, rosemary and honey. It is warm and filling. A glass of wine makes Sidney’s pink cheeked and lovely. Sitting by Evgeni’s side, their hands brush as they eat.
There is a bite in the air and talk already of the winter ice hockey league.
“You should see Squid on the ice,” James says, leaning forward in his seat.
Sidney covers his face with his hands.
“Come on,” he whines.
James shakes his head. “No, you come on. You made the Philly Flyers cry.”
Paul rolls his eyes. “Only because he was playing to win while they were trying to have some fun. He was almost as bad as you. There was no peace for months.”
Sidney is softer in autumn.
He’s beautiful really. The dappled light makes his skin glow and his eyes are bright.
The bees follow him as he works in the garden. The fullness of the summer flowers is shifting away. Another season is almost here and soon the bees will retreat to their hives.
There were things he could have imagined, but not this. Not Sidney.
It is difficult, Evgeni thinks, to try to say such things when English is such an ugly language. It is all so indirect.
Evgeni wants to say so much.
He doesn’t know when that happened. Only it has.
It feels terribly foolish to have fallen in love. But Evgeni has. He doesn’t think he could have ever have helped it. Not when Sidney is so bright, so brilliant and so brilliantly kind. And it hurts. So very much. Because Sidney has shown Evgeni through the labour of spring and the long days of summer. He has been there by Evgeni’s side for everything. But -
He won’t stay.
He is Evgeni’s apprentice in name only.
Every year Pittsburgh celebrates the day it was founded.
The Lemieux host the annual town gala in their vineyard. They string lights from the grape vines that flutter in the darkness. Everyone attends; even Sidney is drawn into the planning process. It begins months in advance.
On the day itself Evgeni walks to the winery with the Gonchar’s. He is dressed in his new colours; the black and gold of Pittsburgh with the distinctive white sash embroidered with bees. The formal dress regalia shines in the light. It is the first time he has worn it and he can't help but walk a little taller. It's doubtful he will survive the entire night without shedding the heavy jacket or the shiny leather boots, but doesn't lessen the importance of wearing it to the gala. Part way to the Lemieux's vineyard he meets up with Kris and Cath, who is riding Mist. Like him, Cath in in her parade dress. The braids and distinctive double-wide lampasses all in the same gold as Evgeni wears. Mist too is turned out beautifully for the occasion. There are flowers twisted into Mist’s mane and tail, and her coat gleams molten silver.
The Gonchar girls are besotted.
“Gymkhana’s are in your future,” Evgeni tells Sergei with a wicked grin.
“Don’t tempt fate.”
There are games for the children; races and treasure hunts that fill the afternoon.
The gala itself stretches through the evening until the early hours. They dance and they eat and there are speeches. Evgeni cares little for the speeches but he eats a bit of most of the dishes on offer and dances with everyone, even Sidney. By this time Sidney has lost most of his regalia, and the top button of his dress shirt is undone. Flushed and beautiful, he glows under the moonlight. When Evgeni offers a hand, Sidney shakes his head.
“I can’t -” Sidney tries to say.
“Liar,” Evgeni tells him, taking his hand.
Evgeni saw him up at the Cooke’s place. He juggled two kids and a belligerent queen bee without breaking a sweat. Of course Sidney can dance. All it takes is a little direction and a hand on the small of his back.
In the soft glow of the twinkling lights, Sidney glows silver and gold. His mouth is stained red, from the wine. It’s so easy to hold him close.
Part way through the song, Sidney takes the lead. It happens effortlessly, between one step and the next.
God, Evgeni thinks.
Inside his chest, his heart beats steady and sure and it doesn’t feel like is is wholly his anymore. It hasn’t, for a while now. Something must show in his expression because Sidney stumbles; losing track of his limbs and stepping on Evgeni’s foot.
“Told you,” Sidney mumbles, his face flushed with embarrassment.
Whatever the moment was. It is ends there.
Evgeni doesn’t know. It all feels too big for him to understand. Especially with three and a half glasses of wine in his system. The only thing that makes sense is to draw Sidney close for the final few bars of the song.
Love fills Evgeni until it overflows from him. It always has. He’s never been able to do anything in moderation. His family had always worried about him and his heart. Heartbreak never taught him anything. Now it is ahead of him, on the horizon.
He doesn’t know how he will ever be able to let Sidney go.
He doesn’t think he will be able to piece himself back together.
The Malkin’s keep bees, they always have. Evgeni always felt understood, because he was by them. He was a beekeeper by birth and blood. In Pittsburgh, Evgeni feels known. A year ago he was a world away. A year ago he could never have imagined Sidney who is gentle and kind, who laughs at all of Evgeni’s horrible jokes and who will one day be the best Beekeeper.
Wherever he ends up going will be so lucky to have him.
It’s only a matter of time - that’s what Evgeni has known even when he first arrived.
“I think the bees sent for both of you,” Kris says later, when the children have gone to bed in the main house and it’s only the adults left
In the firelight he is beautiful.
Evgeni’s heart is beating very loudly in his chest.
“Bee’s call only one.”
Everyone knows that.
“Then why are you both here?” Kris asks.
Evgeni cannot answer that.
Hope cannot be swallowed. It blooms like a flower inside him.
As the season shifts, the wildflower meadow in the cottage garden begins to change again. Flowers go to seed, rose stems go woody, and the sweetpeas die back. Almost a year ago Evgeni wouldn’t have found anything beautiful in that. Just a mess. Just a problem he needed to tackle.
But there is a beauty to it.
There is a cycle to everything. Evgeni is part of it too.
He sees Sidney’s distraction, the way he isn’t quite here with Evgeni.
They were both called to Pittsburgh. But Pittsburgh only has one Beekeeper.
Evgeni doesn’t want to imagine Sidney leaving.
“Don’t be a child,” Sergei tells him. “You cannot expect him to read your mind.”
There is frost on the windows when Sidney wakes, and the pipes are frozen. Sidney touches the copper piping with careful fingers. He feels the cold vibrate out of it before his fingertips make contact with the metal. Curling his quilt around his shoulder, Sidney yawns.
It’s early yet. Too early.
Soon Pascal and Kuni will start harvesting fir trees. Last year they had turned up on Christmas Eve with a small one for Sidney’s apartment. It had been a surprise. A gift, they had claimed.
Across the road, Sidney hears Beau and Justin in their coffee shop and the sound of their oven’s firing up. It’s the time of the year they start baking endless variations of Christmas cookies and cakes. Under Sidney’s bed is the silk quilt that Olli gave him in return for caring for his silkworms while he was unwell. It’s wrapped in gold paper and velvet ribbons.
An hour later Sidney is the first customer at the coffee shop and Beau has a coffee waiting for him.
“New recipe,” he says, adding a cinnamon and apple scroll to his order.
It’s hot from the oven, and the icing is runny. Sidney licks it off his fingers on the walk to Evgeni’s home. It’s early enough that he’s beaten Evgeni to the kitchen. With the bees needing less, Evgeni has taken to sleeping in more. When he appears, he is nonverbal. He moans when Sidney hands him coffee, and practically inhales the scroll.
With the days shorter, Sidney is helping Evgeni update the ledgers and record the harvest.
“Next year even better,” Evgeni says.
His mouth twitches with mirth.
He is a terrible Beekeeper.
“Not jinx,” he tells Sidney. “Just have good feeling. Hope.”
Evgeni seems to have a lot of that. He has a lot of plans too. They have meetings set up with the foresters to see if that can work together to revegetate some of the river banks that have been eroded over the years. It’s a big project. A far cry from the humble ambitions he arrived with. But confidence suits him. He is terrible brave, Sidney thinks.
Sidney doesn’t know if he is any better a Beekeeper than he was before he arrived in Pittsburgh.
He doesn’t even know if he is a Beekeeper.
“You are,” Evgeni says, when Sidney mentions that.
He says it like it is something true.
Like it isn’t something that anyone would dare deny.
It is hard to imagine being anywhere but here.
It’s hard to imagine wanting to be anywhere but here, with Evgeni.
On Sunday, just like the Sunday before that and the one before that, Sidney skates up the river.
The blades sing as he touches the ice. When he reaches the Letang’s property, he sees Mist first. The red of the blanket she is wearing, the coat that keeps her warm even when the snow drifts down around them.
He thinks of the magic that is but a whisper.
He thinks he was wrong when he thought duty tied Cath and Mist together. It isn’t duty, it is each other.
There are a handful of other horses in the paddock; the librarian's ponies and a mustang that had wandered into town the week before last. It has a blue tint to it’s black coat and when Sidney takes off his skates, it comes close to watch him. It’s a curious creature, and a brave one.
It is hard to be brave.
Sidney doesn’t know if it will ever come naturally to him. His heart isn’t made like Evgeni’s, or even like Flower’s. Maybe it’s more like Kris’, who wears it inside his chest.
Evgeni is running late.
He always is.
At lunch, when the had finished their day of work he had promised that he would see Sidney on the ice, but the ice was fresh under Sidney’s blades. It was one race that Sidney won easily.
When Evgeni eventually appears, Sidney is starting to feel the chill. Stroking the mustang, Sidney warms his hands under the mare’s thick mane. It’s knotted and a little muddy. A good sign, Sidney thinks.
“Photo finish,” Sidney teases.
Evgeni swears at him. It’s hilarious and half in Russian and god, Sidney is such a fool at heart.
And maybe it isn’t about being brave, maybe it’s just about reaching out to take Evgeni’s hand when he stumbles off the ice and not letting go.
“Sid?” Evgeni asks.
His cheeks are pink and his hair is awful and he’s Sidney’s best friend and Sidney loves him so much.
So Sidney tells him.
“Stay,” Evgeni tells him afterwards. “Stay with me.”
And Sidney laughs, but it turns into a sob.
Pittsburgh called Sidney and claimed him. It claimed both of them.