~1800 words, approx 7 min read time
I wasn’t always like this. Prickly. Pained. Borders unfixed and shifting, amorphous. Women start out so simple. We start out such sweet things. Plump and rosy, smelling like vanilla straight out of the shower. We beckon with our bright colors and our heady perfume. Crowds gather, and we can’t shake them. It’s fun until it’s a nuisance, and it’s a nuisance until it’s scary: eyes everywhere, a swarm of eyes, barbed gazes.
Later, when our skin slackens and loses its apple flush, when our hair sighs and releases its pigment, eyes slide past us on the street. Not yet old enough to pity, no longer young enough to desire. We have to shout to be noticed, but we seldom do.
I’m not sure how much I’m going to be able to tell you. I have to assume you’ve done your homework; there’s a whole mythology that’s built up in the twenty-five years since my mother became Hive Mind. As for my experience, well, it’s hazy. I was only twelve at the time.
Mostly what I have are flashes: the feeling of a cool hand against my feverish forehead. The brush of lips against my bruised arm. Her shirt wet with my tears as I buried myself in her chest. When you’re twelve, your mom exists only when you need her to; otherwise, she fades into the background.
It’s painful to remember. Because now, of course, there’s no getting near her.
I was in my room, reading with my headphones on, when she got stung. To be fair, she dealt with the sting quietly and on her own, swallowing her pain the way she always had. It wasn’t until I came out of my room, probably wondering where dinner was, that I saw her on the couch with her leg propped up, swollen like a sausage, shiny and red.
She didn’t make a big deal about it and neither did I. The swarm didn’t start arriving until later that night, and until then, other than the sting, it was pretty much a normal day.
She probably got up to fix us some sandwiches. I probably let her.
That first sting hurt, the way a child’s pinching fingers can hurt. The way an old photo can hurt. The venom spread, thick as honey, and the pain swelled and deepened. My skin, red and hot, broadcast its anger, something I had never been able to do.
Sometimes pain turns you into something you aren’t. Sometimes it just brings to the surface everything you’ve been hiding.
Bees are fascinating creatures. Did you know that honey bees have barbed stingers? The barbs ensure that the stinger stays lodged in your skin, so that as much venom as possible will course through your body. It also means that when the bee pulls away, the stinger wrenches from her small, plump abdomen—the stinger, and part of the bee’s insides as well. Think about that for a moment. The bee literally pulls herself to pieces in order to sting you. She stings you anyway.
The superhero stuff didn’t start right away.
People think it did, like she just woke up one morning and decided to become Hive Mind. Like most changes, this one happened gradually. At first there was just a single bee bumping up against the living room window while my mom sat with her leg elevated. Then a few more, crawling up and down the outside of the screen door. We didn’t think anything of it, other than there must be a hive nearby.
“Bees send out a signal when they feel threatened,” Mom said. “It calls the rest of the hive. The one that stung me must have done that, before she died.”
I imagined the bees—hundreds of them, a hive-full, a legion—tasting distress in the air. I imagined them pausing in their work, backing their pollen-dusted bodies out of deep flowers and looking skyward, where the dying bee’s panic broadcast its signal against the underside of the clouds.
By the time Dad got home, several dozen bees blanketed the screen. Mom reacted badly when my dad suggested spraying. She was already changing, although none of us realized it.
The bees found their way inside—a few at a time, crawling underneath Mom’s blouse or buzzing through her hair. It wasn’t as hard as you’d think for her to hide them in the beginning. It had been a while since any of us had really looked at her closely, even my dad. Even me. When we finally started paying attention, it was too late: she wasn’t Mom anymore. She was a swarm.
Regrets are pointless. The past is an ancient, crumbling tapestry that will fall to pieces if you try to pluck out its threads and stitch them anew. Better simply to remain in the present. This flower, already brown on the edges of its petals, offering up its nectar.
I am not now what I once was. None of us are.
Still, if I had one wish, it would be to hold my daughter. All parents must eventually let their children take flight, but my daughter had to trust her wings earlier than I might have wanted. She was so young, her skin so tender and raw. No exoskeleton to protect her from thorns, from fingers and teeth. If I could have, I’d have used my arms as a shield; I’d have been her soft place to land. But I was no longer soft.
Don’t ask me if I would surrender the hive if it meant having my family back. In my darkest, honey-filled chambers, I don’t know if I would.
There was a man, that’s what I can tell you. I don’t know what he looked like. I wasn’t paying attention. At twelve, I was already used to guys telling me to smile, commenting on my clothes or my hair, or my preteen body. But this one didn’t stop. He started following me, peeling away from his pack of friends and trotting behind me as I walked home.
I must have felt threatened. I must have sent out a signal.
It happened so quickly. One moment I felt his breath on the back of my neck—reeking of anger and power and entitlement—and the next he was on the ground, punctured, poisoned. Powerless. The swarm enveloped him, swallowed him in its barbed mouth.
I won’t lie: it was terrifying. This was my mother. She’d always been my comfort, my safety. My home. Now, she was…violent. Unrelenting.
From the buzzing, humming center of the hive came my mom’s voice: Go. Run home. And I did. Of course, I ran.
That’s when she became Hive Mind. That’s when she got a taste for justice. Justice, or vengeance. Maybe they’re the same thing.
I was stung, too, a couple of times. That’s why Dad finally left and took me with him. But he wasn’t there. He didn’t hear what she sounded like. She knew she’d hurt me; she knew she’d keep hurting me, if she stuck around. So she told me to run and didn’t follow me. In order to keep me safe, she sent me away.
Even though I don’t blame her for what happened, I can’t forget it. How the guy screamed and then, how the screams stopped. Maybe he deserved it. Maybe he was planning to attack me, but maybe he’d have backed off eventually.
Women can’t take that chance. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to think about.
The bees tangle in my hair. Crawl on my skin and excavate my nostrils, ears, and mouth. They decorate each finger like jewels. They’ve replaced my blood with pure venom, a sweet transfusion. I am poison. I drip honey in my wake.
They call me a superhero. I can see why; that word makes me into something familiar, a narrative they think they understand. But the truth is, it’s never that simple. Being a superhero means getting stung as often as you sting. Your barbs turn inward as often as they turn out, and that line between being visible and invisible is just as complicated as it ever was. There’s no alter ego, not really. You can’t ever escape who you are, who you’ve become.
I know this isn’t the story you expected. You wanted an exposé of some kind, an origin story. You want to slot her into the proper category, hero or villain. It’s not that simple. Nothing ever is. You should know better.
I haven’t seen my mother since I was twelve. No one has, not really. The swarm covers her like a cloak of invisibility from her hair down to the soles of her feet. I’ve read theories she’s not even underneath there anymore— swallowed by the hive, that there’s nothing but bees all the way down.
I think they’re wrong. She’s not the same woman she used to be; she might not even be my mother any longer. But she’s there. She’s always been there.
If you need some kind of a quote, or a moral, this is what I’ll say: All of the comics and the movies, all of those kids in tights and masks—it’s not real. It’s just a metaphor. Think about it. The pimply, skinny-armed kid who wakes up one day with beauty and strength? The prepubescent, downtrodden outcast who discovers his true power in a singular moment of rage and fear? It’s so easy, it almost writes itself.
Here’s the real truth about being a superhero: it takes years. I’m almost the same age, now, as my mother was when she became Hive Mind. I’ve started to understand what it feels like to become invisible. I’ve started to think about how power shifts and changes. How the process of figuring out who you are, and how you feel about who you are, never really ends. It just evolves.
Like I said, it takes years. Years to decide that you want to be dangerous.
Years more before you realize that you already are.
Jennifer Hudak is a speculative fiction writer fueled mostly by tea. In addition to having appeared previously in Apparition Lit, her stories can also be found in venues such as Flash Fiction Online, PodCastle, and Translunar Travelers Lounge. Originally from Boston, she now lives with her family in Upstate New York where, in addition to writing, she teaches yoga, knits tiny pocket-sized animals, and misses the ocean. Find her on Twitter @writerunyoga, or visit her at jenniferhudakwrites.com.
Author of “With the Nectar Comes the Sting”
What inspired you to write this story?
I’ve been thinking for a while about how middle-aged women tend to get sidelined in hero narratives. The thought of older women having power seems to make people uncomfortable, because it conflicts with the roles we’re otherwise pressured to fill. In some ways, middle-aged women make the perfect superheroes, because we do tend to become “invisible” in society; we’re already equipped with our Clark Kent disguise. But I am a mother, and when I started thinking about how the mother-daughter relationship would be affected by this kind of power, the story really took shape.
What do you hope readers take from this story?
Even though this story doesn’t have an uncomplicated, hopeful message, I found it empowering to write. I hope that other women find it empowering as well. I particularly hope that it casts the process of aging in a slightly different light–that the years we live, the experiences we accrue, are what make us powerful. That aging is a superpower.
To give other writers hope, would you mind sharing with us how many edits and/or submissions this story has been through?
SO MANY OF BOTH! The story went through five false starts before I figured out the right way to tell it, and then it went through at least three major revisions–including a drastic trim–before I started sending it out. It was rejected 15 times before landing here, and I think it was fate, because there’s no better place for it than the JUSTICE issue.
Recommend something to us! This could be a book, a short story, a video game, a project you’ve heard about, something you’re working on, etc. Anything that has you excited and that you want people to know about.
My husband is a glassblower, and we both loved the Netflix series “Blown Away.” The thing about glassblowing is that you can do everything right through the entire process, and then suddenly you touch the piece just the wrong way, and crash! It shatters and you have to start over. It’s just an entirely different artistic process than, say, writing is; it definitely teaches you resilience. Anyway, we just found out that Season 2 is coming to Netflix in January, so go watch Season 1 now!