Mr Dmytro sat down in his wicker chair in the shade of the shed where he kept all his beekeeping supplies. It was a hot August day in a valley in the Catskills.
The humidity and the mosquitoes were fighting it out for dominance so he was enjoying the respite of the shed. Filled with old hives under repair and his tools, the shed still stayed cool and reminded him of the stone cathedral in Ukraine where he’d attended the monastery as a lad before the war. Even though he knew the places really shared very little.
He took the handkerchief off his head. It’s four corners were folded up to make it fit and protect his bald skull from the summer sun. He picked up a smudgy old rock glass – a ‘stakan’ – and poured some homemade plum brandy into his mouth where he let it swirl and savour on his tongue. “Heat makes us cool”, he thought to himself.
Out the open door, his thirty hives buzzed and bees ceaselessly circled around the fruiting plum, pear and cherry trees, as well as the relentlessly joyous sunflowers, and other flowers of his backyard plot. Over the years, he’d planted the little orchard and established the hives when he had time off from his bookstore on the Lower East Side.
Each plant contributed something subtle but separate to his many varieties of honey. Filled jars of product, some clearer and some muskier, glowed on the worktable behind him. They awaited Olena, his 11 year old granddaughter, his youngest of four, to put the paper labels on. ‘Jimmy’s Catskill Mountain Honey’. Because Americans can’t say Dmyt-whatever, his sponsoring cousin, Ihor/Ron, had told him when Dmytro was fresh off the DP boat.
“I was only 10 years older than her when I got here”, Dmytro thought to himself. He recalled the jobs he’d worked until he saved up for his own store. Night porter on trains to and from Washington DC and Pittsburgh PA. Busboy and dishwasher at Ratner’s on Delancey Street where he’d dropped and smashed a big metal tray covered with heavy ceramic dirty dishes and half-filled bowls of matzoh soup. Road crew pouring sticky black asphalt in upstate New York.
The old joke about “they told us the roads were paved with gold – and it turned out they weren’t paid with gold and we had to pave them”. But the 11 year old and his other four grandkids would never need to know that hustle. He knew her last honey jar label was not far off when she’d get interested in shopping malls and boys she’d met at summer camp, and that made him happy. Futures that flowed like a mountain stream rather than one’s you had to fight for. He sipped again on the ‘sliwowytsya’. It warmed him further and he wiped sweat off his forehead with the handkerchief.
His thoughts further sifted the past. Memories of the Carpathian village of his birth and youth where there was a 16th century wooden church. It had been constructed with no nails, and he knew from some of the letters smuggled to him that it was still standing as a locked-up and never-open Museum of Archaic Religion. He could see in his mind the solid timber beams and hand-hewn panels interwoven and rising to a wrought-iron Byzantine cross atop a cupola. It seemed to Dmytro that it was held together more by faith than physics, even as the Soviets now waited for its demise. More memories. How many of the villagers built beehives – which were small replicas of the ancient church they were proud of – for their front yards. Each little church hive encircled by bees like busy-body babushka parishioners getting their embroidered eggs and plentiful baskets blessed at Easter. Before the war.
“Dido, it’s the phone. For you,” he heard Olena calling on her Babtsya’s behalf through the flyscreen door on the back veranda of the house. He saw a breeze catch one of the tallest sunflowers – easily six foot high. It swayed and some of its bees lifted off, hovered and waited to land on it again. He wondered as always why none of his granddaughters ever used the old language even though they understood it: ‘Dlya tebe’. For you. How hard can that be’. Dmytro closed his eyes, took three strong sharp breaths in, and pushed his arms to get up from the chair.
“Khalo”, Dmytro said into the heavy, black telephone handset.
“Hey Jimmy, how ya doin, awright yeah, I’m callin for ya know what, I know your upstate, and I’m sorry for callin, but it’s a big one”, responded Superintendent Phil Caputo of the New York City Department of Sanitation.
“Mi amici Felice,” Dmytro said, using the Italian name only Phil’s Sicilian-born nonna used. At Christmas, Dmytro would send his friend’s grandmother several packets of dried porcini mushrooms imported from Poland via Yugoslavia. How people punched little holes in the Iron Curtain.
Dmytro liked that Phil had always talked to him fast and put all his sentences together. Like he was talking to a real Nu Yawka and not some DP off the boat. It didn’t mean Dmytro necessarily understood everything being said, but he liked it, especially coming for an official of the City.
Respect. ‘Povaha’. Something the world seemed to be losing, Dmytro thought. The other week, speedfreak punks – their spikey mohawks matching the metal studs on their leather jackets – had thrown a garbage can through the shop’s front windows and stolen the amber necklaces – ‘yantar’ – on display. During the last winter, he watched dozens of them come into the neighborhood. In the pigeon park across from CBGBs and near his shop, they would burn trash fires and fight and scratch at each other. For Dmytro, they were different to the tired and tie-dyed hippies of the 70s that had come through St Marks Place and the neighborhood before these kids of the 80s. Who were furious at everything. Like Gestapo officers, but with bad skin, careless New Jersey parents, drug addictions, and no permission to blast their rage at the world.
“Yeah Central Pahk Sout, swahm as big as a gahbidge bin on a crossing light, right across from da Pierre, livery drivah’s goin nuts, so all the brass at City Hall might go whacko too, ya know how it is, can you do me a solid, Jimmy,” Phil continued.
“How long?” Dmytro asked.
“Since sunrise and gettin biggah. Like you taught me, Jimmy, you know I wouldn’ta axed otherwise. They ain’t rushin to go away,”
“See you three hours. Before dark,” Dmytro said, and started to plan the kit of equipment he needed to take with him to drive down to the city in his ’69 Plymouth Fury III.
For 20 years, Jimmy Yarosh had been the City’s official bee guy. Whenever there was an out-of-control swarm on a Park Avenue traffic light or an oak tree in Central Park or even a toll booth on the Triborough Bridge, Sanitation had rung him to gather it up and take it away. It struck Jimmy that New Yorkers seemed to be more afraid of some busy bees than they were of gangs on the subway, or being burnt out of their apartments by greedy landlords in Alphabet City.
For the last twelve years, the calls had come from Phil, their special ops manager, a Sheepshead Bay guy who’d come up from the garbage trucks and snowploughs. ‘Fat Phil’ got promoted to desks cos he was smart, the other field guys liked him even though they taunted him – and cos he’d gotten too big from his Nonna’s stuffed cannelloni and Amaretto cookies in his black metal lunch pail every day.
“Maria, I’m going to the City for Phil. Returning very late so don’t wait,” Dmytro called in Ukrainian to the kitchen, and headed to the shed.
He found his large dark canvas suitcase with the worn leather handle and buckle straps; the same one he came to New York Harbor in 1949 on the US Navy’s troopship, the General Taylor. On the suitcase’s side, in uniform, hand-painted white letters, it still had his cousin Ihor’s Allentown, Pennsylvania address.
Inside, Dmytro placed the tools of his trade: a brass incense holder from his friend, Father Kyrylo from the church across the street from the shop; a small bellows; a cigar box; the head net and safety gloves Maria made him take that he didn’t use; a skinny carved birch stick with a coral sponge from St Augustine’s in Florida fastened to its fork with twine; more twine; a few small jars of different honey; a very finely meshed plastic fishing net; two repurposed Seagram’s 7 half-pint bottles filled with ‘sliwowytz’; an extra handkerchief; a length of clothesline; wooden clothes pegs, and; several burlap sacks. He also grabbed an empty waxed Genesee Cream Ale cardboard box.
With the kit in the trunk and a wooden ladder strapped to the black vinyl roof of the Fury, Dmytro put the keys in the two-door, hard-top’s ignition and turned the big engine over. It was like a hammer on anvil. He’d especially chosen the model with the V8 and Corinthian leather seats. The car’s bulk, power and style said freedom to him every time he started it. There were things he loved so much about America that it made him miss Ukraine even more. The lost opportunities. The betrayal of a future.
Olena’s blonde head and blue eyes popped up in the rolled-down passenger side window.
“Dido, Babtsia said I could go with you and sleep in the backseat if it gets too late,” Olena announced and opened the door that weighed heavy like an ice slab on a frozen lake in winter.
She was the most direct and independent of his granddaughters. Dmytro had noticed that, from age four, Olena Yarosh had picked out her own clothes, usually a favourite set of green coveralls, and brushed her hair and teeth on her own. “A very orderly child,” he thought and he liked her very much for that trait. She jumped up on the end of the Fury’s long front bench seat, leant a pointed elbow on the passenger side armrest, rested her head, and began to read her book. He noticed it had a purple cover and was entitled ‘Charlotte’s Web’. He recalled a folk tale from his own childhood – how a spider had weaved an intricate web across a cave’s entrance to hide Jesus, Mary and Joseph from Roman soldiers. And, that’s why they should never be stomped on or killed, his own grandmother had told him. They drove to the City, together and apart.
The sun was still strong and eight fingers from the horizon – two hours of light left, Dmytro figured – when they pulled the Fury up to Central Park South. Phil was standing next to a Sabrett’s hot dog stand talking to the vendor, and wiping some yellow mustard from his pressed white Sanitation shirt. His thin black tie was very long and it’s bottom half hung out from his round belly like the string of a balloon. Phil spotted them and officiously waved Jimmy into the No Parking Zone in front of a lined-up row of horse-drawn carriages that the tourists took rides on.
“Look, Dido, at the flowers on the first horse. The really tall black own,” Olena said as she turned around on the seat and looked out the back window. In the rear view mirror, Dmytro noticed that the big dark gelding’s headpiece was made from real flowers – a big bunch of pink daffodils – compared to the faded plastic roses and carnations that the other horses wore. As he carefully reversed, he made eye contact with one man from the group of chatting drivers – wearing crumbled velvet top hats from an older era and suit vests from a colder season – further down the row.
At the men’s feet, there were scattered cigarette butts, apple cores and Coke bottles lined up in the gutter; there were graffiti tags on the bluestone wall separating the Park from the city. The fingerprints of the city’s decay since his arrival 32 years ago, Dmytro thought.
“Howyadoin, Jimmy, goodaya, really I mean it,” Phil poured forth as Dmytro got his kit.
Olena, holding her book to her stomach, stood quietly and observed Charles. That’s the name which was on the engraved brass name plate across the horse’s chest. She looked up at Charles the way Minnesotans looked up at the Empire State Building, or the new World Trade Centre that you could see no matter where you were on the southern end of Manhattan. Dmytro had watched these Twin Towers climb up from the 110 year old front window of his shop where he sold not only books, but his honey, wax and dyes for making batik Easter Eggs, spools of thread for embroidery, metal strings for the Ukrainian ‘bandura’ instrument. A place that held the things for holding on to a past.
“They’re just around here in the carriage turning area. Couldn’ta picked a sweetah spot. Main fuckin entrance to Central Pahk from this side. Sorry kiddo. The French,” Phil said as he noticed Olena trailing behind them.
The bees’ sound preceded them. Dmytro could tell by its intensity and its oscillation how big the swarm was and how much will it possessed. Whether to wait or to act. When he sighted them, it confirmed that it was maybe the biggest swarm he’d ever seen in the City. They completely covered the walk / no walk signal. Oblivious to its own circumstance and true to its duty to New York’s pedestrians, when the signal changed from green to red and back, faint points of the respective color peaked through their dark density of the swarming bees.
Phil had set up some pale blue Do Not Cross barriers ten yards back from the signal. Like a crime scene. Dmytro nimbly ducked under one with his suitcase.
“Good luck to ya, pal,” Phil offered. “I’ll hate it but I’ll hand ya the stuff when ya axe for it.”
Dmytro stood a few armlengths from the swarm. As always, he wore no protective equipment as he’d long ago grown used to stings and knew that most swarms were usually docile, as there had no hive or honey store for them to protect.
The swarm was a living thing, Dmytro always thought. Somewhere inside this one was a queen who’d left her previous, too-crowded hive and brought her followers on a journey to this once-glamorous corner of Fifth Avenue in search of a better life. Dmytro knew to respect the swarm by listening to it and watching it.
His next task was to look for shapes and patterns. Where were the biggest and densest concentrations of bees on the signal and light pole. What was the different flight path of different parts of the swarm and what did it show about the queen’s position. How fast did they fly and therefore how much honey were they laden with. How many bees were falling to the ground from exhaustion. Did the bees buzz toward him if he held out his arms.
The key was to accept the swarm and its messages of movement and sound, Dmytro knew, rather than resist it or will it. Back in his village as a kid, in their orchard apiary, his own grandfather had once said to him as a bee crawled through his long white moustache: “Bees make for better friends than enemies. If you love their queen as they love her and they will come to love you.”
This swarm was as big and solid as a hay bale. And August was very late in the year for swarming. Exceptional in several ways. As he tied a fresh handkerchief on his head – a “Ukrainian baseball cap”, Phil called it – Dmytro knew he needed to show the big swarm every kindness for their special circumstance – the why, how and where they had come to be.
Dmytro undid the rusting tin latches of the old suitcase and set its contents down on burlap bags – marked “Baker’s Delight Bread Flour” in red type – on the asphalt. He left three bags aside, the beer carton and the ladder aside. From the Dutch Master’s cigar box held together with a rubber band, Dmytro took out a small brown paper bag with lumpy white crystals in it. He took three pieces of it, lit them with the metal Zippo lighter from his shirt pocket, and put them in the censer, which hung from a thin gold-plated chain.
The metal cap on one of the bottles of the “sliwowitz” was sticky as Dmytro unscrewed it to take a syrupy, hot gulp. He took the loose burlap bags and, using his Swiss Army knife, he cut holes and strung the clothes line through them to make a what he would use as a screen.
Then, he gently pumped the small bellows into the censer to increase the intensity of the smoke it was producing.
When he’d first come up with the solution – using the chained censer to waft and wave calming frankincense into the body of the swarms he was asked to gather – he’d been unsure and self-conscious. He’d said as much about the method to Father Kyrylo one evening after closing the shop as they shared a potato-and-cabbage soup at the Kiev Diner on East 7th Street. It was Lent. The priest had said: “If only I had more parishioners, Dmytro, who thought it somehow sinful to pour smoke on insects… Go forth, my friend.”
Now, Dmytro leaned the ladder against the pole of the street signal and used its rope mechanism to raise it high enough to be arm’s length of the swarm. He took hold of the curtain he’d made, and the fishnet, and very slowly climbed the ladder. To make sure he didn’t rush and gave the bees a chance to accept him, on each rung, Dmytro sang to himself another verse of an old village song before stepping up again. The song was about a girl carrying water from a well as her suitor admires her, just as Dmytro had to court his bees. In concentric circles, the outlying bees of the swarm flew back toward the signal.
Then, with bees buzzing around his head and bouncing off his handkerchief, he hung the curtain around the structure of the signal and the pole, shrouding most of it in burlap bags and containing the bees. He firmly tied off the clothesline’s ends with slipknots.
“Okay, Phil. Next step,” he called down from his new tunnel turret.
“Hear ya go, Jimmy.”
Holding tight on the shiny black visor of his brown Sanitation peaked cap with one hand, with the other hand, Phil picked up and handed the censer up the ladder to Dmytro. He retreated backwards on the balls of his feet, nimbler than was expected from a big fella. The varsity catcher from James Madison High School was still someplace underneath the pounds.
For the next five minutes, all Olena could see of her grandfather were the legs of his tan slacks on the ladder and the trail of incense rising above the curtain contraption. ‘Sleepy smoke’ is what Dmytro called it. It attracted the bees and calmed them.
As the bees gathered back to the sign post so did a small crowd around it, including a few of the doormen from across the street at the Plaza. It was nothing new for Olena, though. She’d been around the bees her whole life so it wasn’t interesting – just like Chinese food wasn’t interesting to her friend May Wing whose parents worked in their take-out restaurant 12 hours a day.
Olena wandered back to Charles, the livery horse, and said “Hello” to Patrick, his owner and driver.
“But you young lady, call me Paddy,” he told her in the Irish accent that said ‘happy’ to the world and ‘sad’ to all other Irish.
“Seeings how your pop – it’s your grandpa, is it – is stealing the show and all my tasty tourists with his bee tricks. Wouldja like to take a seat up the top, bonnie girl, whilst we wait? Would that be grand?”
Paddy helped Olena up onto the bench from which the carriage was driven. She could see down the length of Charles, the girth of his rump and the dip of his great back. The horse flicked his head sidewards and a dark eye blinked at her, and then turned back.
“See, old Charlie gave ya a wink. Means he likes ya, does he now. Tell me what you see over at the bee show,” Paddy said.
She was as high up now as her grandfather on his ladder. She could see over the perimeter of people that had gathered. Among them, there was a man with a really long lens on a camera like on the sidelines of the Jets games her dad watched on TV. Somehow, being up higher made things different.
“Well, I can see Dido’s feet – that’s my grandfather’s. He’s got brown leather shoes with shoelaces. Now, Fat Phil – that’s my grandfather’s friend, the garbageman – is bringing him the stick, the white one, that he puts the queen bee on,” Olena said.
“Oh grand. Queen’s gambit! What’s next after the queen bee? Mind I’ve not much time for queens or kings or the like.”
“Well, after the queen is calm, Dido gets the beer case from Phil, and Dido take the swarm in his hands and sets them down in the beer case. If the queen’s okay, and with the smoky stuff, they all just become sleepyheads.”
Her grandfather was coming down the ladder with the cardboard box in his hands, and the birch stick was clenched in his teeth. The man with the long lens surged forward and was rapidly firing photos at Dido. A plastic tag around his neck said Daily News.
“No pitchas, no pitchas please,” Phil said as he pushed in between the photographer and Dmytro. His big ass brushed against Dmytro’s hand and the box. It jostled and one side slipped from Dmytro’s grip with its cover cracking open. A dozen bees or so rushed out like a platoon deploying for battle.
And then they were gone. Dmytro, Phil, the photographer, the Plaza doormen, and the little crowd turned in circles, looking up and around, for the escaped bees, but there was no sign.
The bees had air-sprinted toward the fresh flowers about Charlie the Horse’s head. Olena watched one bee landed on the hairs near Charlie’s quivering nostril, and that was the last she saw. The little girl fell back on to the red velour lounge where passengers normally sat, as the horse broke into rapid trot toward the stone arched gate of Central Park.
Paddy the driver shouted: “Charlie! You git!”. He smacked his top hat on his thigh.
Dmytro the beekeeper said: “Bozhe Mylyj” and asked for God’s mercy in Ukrainian. The box of bees buzzed against his belt.
Fat Phil the man from Sanitation yelled “Ringoleveo!” and sprinted after the horse and carriage. The leather of his City-issued shoes slapped on the asphalt.
Olena crawled upright and saw the bees hide themselves away in the depth of the daffodils. They would settle there now, she knew.
“Spokino, konyk, spokino,” she whispered to Charles, calming him in the language Dido always told her that all animals understood.
Charles the horse, his muzzle clear, slowed to his usual lumbering walk after about fifty yards. Phil, running as fast as he used to after garbage trucks at 4am, nearly slid past him as he grabbed a loose bridal.
“Gotcha you okay Olena hey horsey Holy Moley.”
As Phil steered the horse around in a wide arc back toward the Park’s gateway, Paddy, Dmytro and the photographer came jogging up. Phil sucked air.
Olena saw her grandfather had left the box of bees behind. When he reached the carriage, Dmytro was not sure what to say. He took the handkerchief off his head and handed it up to his granddaughter in case she might need it.