For the Beekeeper's Wife
"Death and love are the two wings that bear the good man to heaven." ~Michelangelo
Giorgio Pantazis was 64 years old when he buried his wife in the flower garden. Although perhaps “buried” wasn’t the best word. Actually, he’d sprinkled her ashes – under the light of a full moon – amongst the marigolds and crocuses. Even the birds had stopped their midnight chirping. They, too, understood the magnitude of his loss. Melissa was everything; with her gone, his life carried no meaning. He was adrift. Desolate.
His wife’s family, who still lived in the village they’d been born in three miles over, were outraged. Their sister was a pious woman! Who would read the Trisagion? How was there no makaria, no koliva? Most importantly, how would her soul find its way to Heaven when her body had been burned to ash?
Father Christos shook his head and crossed himself. “I will pray for her soul,” he said. “I will pray for yours as well.
“Giorgio,” he said, “come to church.”
But Giorgio did not. Instead, he wandered like a zombie through the house, wondering if the very walls would crumble into nothing now that Melissa was not there to keep it all together. He noticed a fine film of dust beginning to settle on windowsills and backs of chairs, but – other than the irresistible temptation to draw his finger across it – he had no compulsion to clean it off. He saw his own reflection and assessed it dispassionately, like an eggplant or tomato at market. There was stubble on his face, perspiration stains under his arms. He cared not.
If it had not been for his dog, Argos, he might have wasted away into nothingness. While Giorgio did not care whether he himself ate or drank, he could not punish faithful Argos because of his grief. Twice a day, he gave the dog food and cool water from the spring. Argos had been his dog –or to be honest, Melissa’s dog – for nearly 13 years. He had the right to thoughtful, conscientious care.
While Giorgio’s existence withered almost daily, there was one thing that did not. Melissa’s garden grew. It bloomed. It bloomed magnificently, stupendously. Giorgio marveled at it. The marigolds were huge, like sunflowers - their color warm, golden, bright. The crocuses, while smaller, were such a luxurious, saturated purple it felt indecent. One could smell them as far away as the gate. Even the young apple tree they’d planted on his 60th birthday was so crowded with blossoms it looked ready to topple.
The 40th day after Melissa died, the priest came to see him. “Giorgio,” he said. “You look like some monk or a hermit in a cave. Look at your beard! And are you out of food? Are you starving?”
Giorgio shrugged his shoulders. What did it matter?
Father Christos gave him an icon of the Theotokos gently cradling the baby Christ to put over his bed. But he and Melissa had never had children. “What is this?” he said. Finally, Father Christos blessed him and handed him a small bottle of holy water. “If I find you are not eating,” the priest said, “I will send your sisters-in-law to come take care of you.”
“What kind of priest is that,” Giorgio said, “to threaten an old man with a fate worse than death?” He’d never got on with Melissa’s family; they were nothing like her. He did not hang the icon over his bed, but instead built a little box for it and set it atop a beam he stuck in the middle of the garden. He watered the marigolds with the holy water.
He fell into the degenerate habit of sleeping when the sun was up. He said to himself, why not sleep through the worst, hottest time of day? He was retired, there were no appointments, no reason at all to get out of bed while the sun beat down on his dusty house.
This meant, though, that he was awake throughout the long, dark hours of the night. There was nothing to do. He didn’t like to read by the lamp – it hurt his eyes. Besides, the books on philosophy and botany he’d so enjoyed before seemed pointless and foolish now. They no longer interested him. He might have spent the time baking or making pasta, but that was too much effort. If he was hungry, which he rarely was anymore, he would simply grab a tomato from the garden or a piece of cheese. And those brought no joy either.
One night he wandered to the garden, looking for Argos. He found him sprawled out on the cool ground near the marigold patch. “There you are,” Giorgio said. Then he sprawled next to him, facing the stars.
“How do we go on like this?” he said to the stars.
The stars did not answer. Argos whined.
Even in the dark, he could see how the marigold bed had grown. In the span of little more than a month, it had tripled in size. The flowers were bigger, brighter. They practically glowed. And the box where he’d set the icon atop the beam was barely visible anymore.
“Mother of God,” Giorgio said. “How is it your Son bestows on me flowers like this, such miraculous flowers, but takes away the light of my heart?”
The Mother of God did not answer him either, but at least her eyes were kind. She looked as if she understood sorrow. He was unable to be angry with her. Eventually Giorgio found himself sleeping outside every night at the edge of the marigold bed, under the stars. Argos slept at his feet.
The flowers kept growing. Giorgio awoke one morning to the sound of church bells in the village a few miles away. A feast day, but Giorgio didn’t know which one. Melissa would have known.
It was early but already the sun was hot and high in the sky. Giorgio rubbed his eyes and yawned to clear his ears. A humming seemed to resonate in the earth beneath his feet. His mind finally grasped what it was - bees, hundreds of them. Thousands of them. They danced among the marigolds and crocuses, swirling around the little apple tree. Oh, the sound of it. Giorgio had never heard such happy bees. He did not know whether the marigolds had brough the bees or the bees had made the marigolds. What did it matter?
Later that day he found the hive, in a hollow tree at the south end of his property. It hummed like a radio tower, vibrating and alive. From what he could see, the entire tree was filled with honeycomb.
He lit some sticks to create smoke that made the bees drowsy and complacent. With his hand he was able to scoop out enough honey to fill a pint jar - a tiny fraction of what was there. He tasted it as he walked back to his house. He had never eaten anything in his life that could compare to this.
Back in his kitchen, Giorgio washed his hands and face. He stuck a finger into the jar of golden honey and brought it to his mouth. It made his lips tingle with joy. He ate another fingerful, then put on his wife’s apron and made a loaf of koulouri and slathered the honey on that. He ate, invigorated in a way he hadn’t been in years. He went back to the tree and filled more jars, small ones and large ones, all he could find. He set them on the small kitchen table that he and his wife had used for 35 years. It seemed aglow in the low afternoon light.
Two days later, when Giorgio looked up from his chair and saw Father Christos coming down the road toward his house, he jumped up to meet him. He greeted the priest with the customary metanoia, or bow, and presented him with a jar of the golden goodness. “You must try it,” he said. “No, no not later – immediately, right now.”
The priest, noting that Giorgio looked more like a civilized villager and less like a crazy hermit, did so. His eyes grew wide and he crossed himself. “Kyrie eleison!" he said. “You must give me a jar to take to the bishop!” So he did.
Within a week Giorgio’s appetite was back to normal. Better than normal. Each morning he ate a little feta and rustic bread with golden honey. For supper there was fish or lamb, some eggplant or dolmades. One afternoon he baked a tray of sticky baklava with honey from the hive and ate a fourth of it in one sitting.
He bathed in the little spring near the garden, letting the water fill his ears, his mouth. He combed his hair. The beard he kept, deciding he liked the look of it, but neatened it. He picked the giant marigold blossoms and steeped them for tea, sweetened with clover and honey. When he cut his hand on the bread knife, a poultice of fresh marigold and yarrow stemmed the bleeding. He placed the cool, wet flowers over his eyes when they became red from the dust after he swept and mopped the house.
In September he entered a clear amber jar of honey in the county fair and won first place. A week later he built a little market booth that could be wheeled around and set up a roadside stand just outside the village. Each time he went, laden with large and small jars of the precious honey, he sold out. “No more today,” he would say. “Next time, maybe.” One day Father Christos brought the Bishop to his stall, who insisted on seeing the miraculous garden and hive for himself. He said a prayer while a young deacon doused the tree with holy water and incense. “You must give me a jar to take to the Metropolitan,” he said.
Giorgio’s little honey stand became so busy that he had to hire an employee, the second youngest son of Father Christos. The boy, Niko, was only 9 and skinny as a pole but smart and a hard worker. “Mr. Pantazis,” the boy said, when he showed up at Giorgio’s door. “Your garden, sir. I’ve never seen …”
“Yes,” Giorgio said, grinning. Later, after they’d sold all the day’s honey and gone back to the house, Giorgio sent the boy home with a large jar from his own reserves and a bouquet of marigolds for the priest’s wife. The presvetera had been bedridden for weeks due to difficulties with her seventh pregnancy, and Giorgio thought the flowers might cheer her up.
A month later she gave birth to a healthy baby boy, the delivery by far the easiest she’d ever had. She wrote Giorgio, thanking him. “You must come and have dinner some Sunday evening,” she said.
Giorgio’s little employee was 13 when Argos passed away. Niko dug the grave next to the marigold bed, which was now as big as Giorgio’s house. At 68, Giorgio no longer had the energy for heavy labor. He taught the boy beekeeping and botany in the twilight hours after supper.
When Niko was 18 Giorgio handed him full control of the honey stand, now a permanent booth in the center of town. When Niko married, his bride wore a crown of bright yellow marigolds, outshined only by the joy in her eyes. The highlight of the feast was Giorgio’s baklava. The whole village came – except for Giorgio, who was bedridden with pneumonia.
When Giorgio died six months later, people came from far and wide for his funeral. The Bishop read the Trisagion prayers over his body, wrapped in embroidered silk burial cloth – a gift from the Metropolitan. Monks from the Holy Mountain sent koliva. Those attending swore he had the sweetest expression in death - like a saint, they said. Giorgio was buried with the little icon from his garden.
And a small jar of honey.
And a bouquet of marigolds in his hand.