The death of Briony’s parents left her, at sixteen, to run their homestead alone. Decades later, the townsfolk still whispered about the car accident that killed her folks—not because it was unusual, but as a means of gossiping about Briony. No wonder the girl turned out weird. She had shunned college, marriage, and children, yet through some strange alchemy, transformed her parents’ struggling dirt farm into a prosperous honeybee ranch.
Briony’s bees grazed on barrel cactus flowers that bloomed two weeks a year. Only magic could explain how her bees produced enough honey to fill the large mother-well on her property. She never apprenticed with a beekeeper or earned a master’s degree—how could she know what she was doing? Her powers were unnatural.
Despite their slights, the townsfolk were addicted to Briony’s succulent-flower honey. They traded twenty dollars for each hexagonal glass jar of gold, calling her Witch Hazel behind her back. It was Briony’s self-respect, rather than poor hearing, that held her chin high. Growing up, her mother had taught her to ignore their petty, stinging chatter.
Briony inherited the land in the ‘70s before the cancer of master-planned homes and manicured golf courses spread across the Valley. Briony’s homestead was situated in the foothills off a long dirt road far west of Phoenix—a pine cabin hewn by her father’s hands. Her parents first used the cabin for weekend retreats, then moved in permanently when Briony was in grade school. Her family’s distancing from society is what started everyone whispering. They’re jealous of how freely we live, her mother, a former professor, explained.
A sturdy girl, Briony picked up where her parents left off, tending fields of parched agriculture, until she realized what thrived best in the hot, gravelly earth wasn’t corn or wheat but indigenous barrel cactus. Her parents had considered them a weed amongst their crops, but Briony observed the candy-colored blossoms attracted fat bumblebees who made the sweetest honey she’d ever tasted. She cultivated the cactus in neat rows, designed a label and sold her first jars of honey from a card table at the Saturday farmers market, winning fans with free tastes. As demand grew, she negotiated a permanent shelf for her honey at the general store.
Briony’s magic brew was said to cure colds, flu, burns and cuts—in addition to tasting damned good. The townsfolk picked Briony’s Magic Barrel Cactus Honey four-to-one over the national brands. They sweetened their tea and porridge with it and made honey sandwiches, spreading it thick over grainy slabs of bread, closing their eyes and murmuring, Mmmm. Drunk on her sweet elixir, the townsfolk joked they were under Witch Hazel’s spell.
It was true what they said: after high school, Briony found no reason to attend the local college. What would she learn there that she couldn’t from her mother’s books on botany, biology, chemistry, philosophy, physics, and woodcraft? Briony taught herself to raise the knee-high barrel cactus, build bee boxes, and nurture healthy colonies. It wasn’t witchcraft, it was educated diligence. Elbow grease, her father would have called it.
Tending to the bees became Briony’s life. Her so-called magic cactus bloomed during the full moon each spring and fall, feeding rumors of her honey’s otherworldliness. Her wittily reputation was a back-handed compliment, seeing how the ridiculous buzz drove sales. She fed tactical morsels of scuttlebutt to the owner of the general store, like how she tiptoed through the prickly rows at night, singing to the sherbet-hued blossoms. Yellow, pink, and orange, the flowers opened in her wake, as if Briony was their sun. Maybe she does have magical powers, he whispered to his wife who spread word of Briony’s sorcery through town, thick and golden as the profit it yielded.
One afternoon, Briony returned home late from tending her bee boxes, having fallen under the soothing hum of the hives. She schlepped two buckets of fresh honey, one strapped to each shoulder with thick swatches of leather, singing to herself beneath the brim-shade of her straw hat. She nodded at her noble saguaro, its lone green arm raised to say, Hello. She distracted herself from the pre-thunderstorm swelter by daydreaming of the handsome newcomer in town. Hale and broad-shouldered, James was a ranch hand at the neighboring spread. He shopped in town on Saturdays, his brindled cattle dog, Blue, trotting at his ankles. A well-mannered fifty-something bachelor of few words, James kept to himself. Even Blue, a rabid barker, was anesthetized by James’s aura of calm. Briony’s heart swelled to see his grocery basket always contained a jar of her honey.
Though people called her a witch, Briony was hardly old or ugly. Her long brown hair hadn’t a filament of gray nor had her waist grown thick with middle age. She wondered what—or if—James thought of her. Was he threatened by her entrepreneurship, like the rest? Or might a forty-six-year-old businesswoman be the sort to turn his head? A hardworking man of unstirred passion, James had thick salt-and-pepper hair. She fantasized plunging her fingers through it.
The previous week, James spoke to her.
When she passed him in the aisle at the general store, James raised a jar of her honey, ignoring the high school girls who elbowed each other at their exchange. He smiled and drawled, “Mighty fine.” Heat rose in her cheeks. Did he praise Briony—or her honey?
“Th—Thank you,” she sputtered.
Briony replayed the compliment in James’s deep voice—Mighty fine—as she opened and closed the wooden gate with a clunk. If she had stayed to talk with him, would he have asked her out? Lost in daydreams, Briony pulled up short at the sight of her front yard.
In the clean, raked dirt, someone had scratched BITCH HAZEL with an arm broken off her ocotillo. The young barrel cacti straddling the footpath had been defiled—twelve tender fontanelles bashed in like baby skulls. Briony gasped when she saw the real damage: the vandals had plundered her honey.
Choking back sobs, she recalled her mother’s counsel: Never let their cruelty make you cry. She couldn’t help but despair at the sight: globs of gold ran down the sides of the ceramic mother-well and pooled on the concrete slab, drawing swarms of insects who became trapped in an orgy of consumption. Their bodies created a sticky carpet of thoraxes, wings, antennae, and legs, some still twitching. Half a year’s honey crop ruined.
It took Briony hours to clean and secure the well, to hose down the cement pad until it was free of death and destruction. Who could hate her enough to threaten the delicate livelihood of a single professional woman living alone?
Before she went inside, Briony noticed marks carved into the wood of her home, which her father had cut and sealed and secured by hand. Two initials—H and G—scarred into the pine, along with sticky bite marks from two jaws. This was the handiwork of the town’s hooligans, the Twins of Terror they called themselves—children of the Sheriff who wrote off their vandalism to high spirits: Hansel and Gretel. Their obsession for destruction had fueled them to ride their bikes twenty miles out of town in grueling heat to reach her place, to ruin her honey, knowing they would get away with it. Somewhere, they were cackling at her, their bellies bloated with honey. They had marked their territory and would return to finish the job—that’s how they operated, feeding on their victims’ fear even more than property damage.
Briony’s blood boiled. She would teach the vile children a lesson.
The next morning, she set out her most precious stock: pure, glistening honeycomb she usually saved for the holidays when it fetched a higher price. She set small, neat hillocks on white plates, the first in view of the mother-well. A line of plates with honeycomb led around back and down into the cellar, which her father had blasted into the caliche.
Briony made a show of locking the front door, slinging her harvest wells over her shoulders, and striding out through the gate. She felt Hansel and Gretel lurking in the brush. Bitch Hazel, she imagined them snickering from the tall sunburnt grasses. She walked to the outfield, trying not to glance back at the house. All day she was distracted, wondering whether the Twins of Terror had triggered her trap.
Briony returned at dusk to find her homestead undisturbed.
A quail trilled coo-coo. All else lay still. She tried to stride confidently into her yard, but her assurance was cracked. She hunched protectively like the witch they said she was, wincing glances left and right, expecting the children to jump out of hiding and beat her with ocotillo arms. Hands trembling, she set down her vessels of honey near the mother-well. There, she spied the first empty white plate. Someone had found the honeycomb.
She picked up the plate and walked to the second, also empty. And the third. She turned the corner to discover a series of empty plates leading to the cellar. The wooden doors lay closed. Cries rose from inside, muffled by another sound. She threw open the cellar doors and leaped backwards in surprise. A dark, buzzing cloud of bees swarmed skyward. On the dirt floor, a carpet of yellow-and-black corpses. Briony had set the lock to trap the children inside—she planned only to scare them—but the bees must have followed them in, attacking them for the honeycomb. The Twins of Terror writhed in the dirt, their fists wrapped stubbornly around the sticky, glistening bits. Drones proceeded to sting them and drop to the floor, dying.
“Help,” Gretel, a blond waif with cerulean eyes, moaned. Her pale skin was pocked with angry welts.
“I can’t believe you sicced killer bees on us, you bitch-witch,” spat Hansel, knobby-kneed and freckled. His eyes were swollen shut with stings.
Briony wept. Not for the children, for the hate seething inside her.
“It’zzz what you wanted, yez?”
Briony spun around.
“Lazzzt night. You zaid you wizhed zomeone would punizh them.”
Briony had said that, sobbing to herself as she cleaned the mess. In wondering what she would do to make up for the lost revenue, she muttered a wish that someone would smite the wicked children.
The most regal of Briony’s queens flew to her shoulder, a tinkle of laugher next to her ear. “You were right—theeze are terrible children!”
Briony paled, realizing what her wishing had set into motion.
Hansel and Gretel gagged down in the cellar, choking in anaphylactic shock.
“They’ll die,” Briony whispered to the Queen. “What should we do?”
“What’z the world minuz two hooliganz?” the Queen shrugged.
“Anybody home?” a voice called.
Briony skittered to the front yard to find James pondering the carrier wells she had abandoned.
“For a second, I thought the rumors were true,” he chuckled. Blue circled her legs madly until James lifted his hand. The dog settled at her feet, gazing up at her, his tongue lolling from his pink maw. “I saw the honey,” he nodded at the wells, “and wondered if you’d disappeared, like magic—poof!”
Briony smoothed her work shirt, darting a look over her shoulder, wishing she had closed the cellar doors. “Nope, it’s plain old me.”
“Have—you been crying?”
“Oh no,” she sighed, wiping beneath her damp eyes. “Just tired after a long day.”
James nodded. The brim of his sable gray Stetson shadowed his face. “I love my job, but by God, my body’s tired at the end of the day. I figured yours was, too—you don’t have any help out here—so I brought dinner,” he said, raising a picnic basket. “If you’re interested.”
Briony’s head swam. First, her honey, then the children—now this? She needed to think. “Why don’t you come in,” she said, relieved that he couldn’t hear the children’s moans. She wasn’t sure how she would keep James from discovering Hansel and Gretel. Getting him and Blue inside was step one. He pulled up short behind her as she unlocked the front door.
“What’s that?” he said.
“I hear… buzzing.”
“Oh—ha!—it must be the bees out for a late afternoon stroll.” She ushered him inside.
James unloaded the picnic basket, explaining how he had moved to town from the Midwest where farm work had evaporated. Normally, she would have hung on his every word, but Briony’s attention crept back to Hansel and Gretel dying in her cellar.
“What about you?” James said, slicing the steak thin. “How did you end up out here making Briony’s Magic Barrel Cactus Honey?” His green eyes twinkled at the creases when he said, Magic.
“I’m sure folks in town told you.”
“I don’t put much stock in gossip,” he said. “Why don’t you tell me.”
Briony couldn’t recall the last person who asked her more than, How are you? except the occasional grad student she slept with. Their version was, How’s this? (or was it, How do you like this?) No one cared enough to heed her answers.
“My parents died when I was sixteen. In a car accident. This was our home.”
James shook his head. “Hard on you, losing them so young. What happened?”
It was a question Briony never had to answer. Everyone in town knew.
“Tr—truck driver. Fell asleep and crossed the double yellow. Hit them head-on. They were driving home late from the State Fair.”
Here, Briony paused. What the townsfolk did not know was the truth. The real reason she tended her parents’ homestead for thirty years, alone.
“We had an argument that morning. I said I didn’t want to grow up to be a hippy farmer like them. I was going to have a career in town.” Briony darted a glance at James. He nodded for her to continue. “My dad said it embarrassed him to have a snob for a daughter. He told me to stay home. He’d sooner show a prize hog than a sullen girl amongst hard-working people he respected. Mama could barely look at me, she was so disappointed.”
Briony swallowed, summoning the grit to say what weighed on her mind for decades.
“I was supposed to be with them,” she breathed. “Their punishment saved my life.”
James set down the knife and wiped his hands on the dish towel. He lay his callused palms, cool and moist, on the sides of her face, tipping up her gaze. She tried to smile, to be agreeable, something she was never good at. Instead, she sobbed into his chest. James held her, petting her head the way her father used to. Blue bumped gently against her calves. Briony felt herself take too much comfort from the stranger’s arms. She drew away from him, watching while he finished making dinner. James drizzled a zee of blue cheese dressing across the steak salad, which he had plated on fresh butter lettuce from the farm. James was kind of a dream.
“So that’s how you inherited the bees,” he said. He sat across from her at the table she once shared with her parents. He poured them each a glass of red wine.
“No,” she said. “The bees came later.”
She would never tell that story to anyone.
After the accident, Briony sat out back on the covered porch, crying, wondering how she would support herself. She had no other family, no income beyond her parents’ meager savings. A Queen Bee, seeing her distress landed on her shoulder. Let her sting me. Maybe I’ll die, Briony thought.Instead, the Queen crawled up her cheek and sipped the salty sadness that fell from her eyes. Sipped and sipped until tears flowed no more. She couldn’t explain it: after the Queen feasted on her despair, Briony felt better.
“What elze can I do for you, dear?” the Queen asked.
“Never leave me.”
And she hadn’t. Eight more Queen Bees came to join their sister, setting up colonies in the white boxes Briony built. The drones gathered pollen from throughout the desert (if the town was foolish enough to believe otherwise, so be it), and the Queens drank Briony’s tears. In reality, it wasn’t the barrel cactus that made her honey potent and flavorful, it was Briony’s well of grief and guilt, the royal jelly that fed them all.
The deception that secured her survival never bothered Briony. Better to be labeled a witch than starve, she decided. Now, with those dying brats in the basement and a man whose affection could save her from isolation, she questioned her dignity, as her mother once had, even if the truth could ruin her.
James gathered the dirty dinner plates and washed them by hand, setting them onto the rack to dry. He plated two thick hunks of spongy angel food cake garnished with tart, juicy blackberries and drizzled Briony’s special reserve of lavender-infused honey on top. Briony’s sadness, sweet and golden atop the cake, was dizzying.
After dessert, she poured them each two fingers of bourbon, then two more.
Briony described her childhood growing up on the ranch. James confided tales of his youth on the rodeo circuit. At midnight, he pulled himself up from the table.
“I ought to go,” he drawled, beaming a moony grin. “This has been the best evening in recent memory.” He wobbled, then righted himself on the back of her chair. An echo of fate sounded: James would be driving home in the dark of night. Like her parents.
“It’s late,” Briony said. She curled her fingers through his belt loops, pulling his body to hers. “You should…stay.”
Blue’s ear twitched where he snoozed beneath the table.
“Imagine those wagging tongues in town,” James teased as she led him to her bedroom. “Briony and that handsome rancher spending the night together on the first date.”
That’s exactly what they’d say. The hens would cluck their jealous tongues, begrudging her the freedom to sleep with whomever she wanted because they were mired in dull marriages.
“Yeah,” she murmured, brushing her nose against his, “but they’d call me Witch Hazel.”
She unbuttoned his shirt, admiring his lean muscles in the moonlight that shone through her bedroom window. A life of farm work kept James in good shape. She ran her hands along his chest, deliciously carpeted in thick hair. Briony kissed his neck, stubbly beneath the jawline, and worked her way down. There was not a spare ounce on him. She undid his belt buckle, a thick slab of silver with a rearing horse in the center, and drew his belt off the loops. She snapped the leather and cackled.
James growled and drew the belt away to the floor with a thud. He undid the snaps of Briony’s work shirt, sliding it off her shoulders, followed by her camisole bra. She shivered at James’s mouth on her neck, across the bones of her clavicles, down to her breasts, nuzzling her nipples and the swelling curves beneath, down down to her belly, then he worked his way back up, slowly. “Mmmm,” she growled into his ear.
He crushed her to his chest, skin to skin, and kissed her with urgency—my God, what a good kisser he was—stoking her desire, slow and low and aching across the floor of her pelvis. James unzipped her jeans, and she unzipped his, tugging them down and off. She was delighted to find that the skin of his back and butt were creamy smooth despite his woolly chest. He peeled away her jeans from her ankles, one, then the other, and pulled her onto the bed. She ran her hands over the flesh of his legs, his back, his butt, his perfectly respectable six-inch cock.
Mighty fine, she smiled to herself.
He rolled her on her back, his hands clasped with hers overhead, and pinned her to the bed with the gentle shift of his body on top of hers, kissing her neck, her breastbone, down past her belly, her navel, down, down, and finally, gloriously, in between her thighs. He was as skilled a kisser there as he had been mouth-to-mouth, his tongue gliding over the secret purple folds of her flesh. When she came white-hot bottle rockets exploded behind her eyelids. She lay in the thudding luxury of the moment, feeling James—not the random college student who didn’t know her sad story, but a man of character, entwined with her, naked, under her spell.
He took his time working his way back up, kissing her belly, her breasts, her elbows, her wrists. “What about you?” she sighed. He kissed her throat, her jaw, her swollen lips.
“Better to start with you one ahead,” he winked.
She pulled him on top of her and kissed him deeply, pleased to feel him at attention between her thighs, neither too big, nor too small, but just right. She guided him inside herself and thought, There’s nothing better than the weight of a wanted man. An amber well of desire stirred deep inside her; she had forgotten she possessed it. Passion. Unlike her college boys, Briony was delighted that James knew—exactly—where her clit was. He made her come again, a second little death that shook her core.
In between snoozing and making love, Briony forgot Hansel and Gretel in her cellar.
After a rushed breakfast of fried eggs, toast and coffee—James and Blue started work at six—Briony embraced him at the door.
“Would it be too soon to see you tonight?” he said, hugging her tight to his chest.
“No,” she gulped.
That would give her ten hours to adios the children.
Blue chased James to his truck, hopping up into the cab. After the sound of tires on the dirt road faded, Briony scurried out back and gritted her teeth, eying the storm cellar doors, open as she left them. She had never wanted kids—potential orphans she would over-nurture, abandon, or accidentally kill—and these children, dead or alive, were more responsibility than she could bear. She strode to the edge of the cellar—she would fix this, somehow—and gasped. In place of Hansel and Gretel, swollen and stung, lay two skeletons.
“You zeemed aggrieved, girl,” the Queen Bee buzzed, “zo I called in a favor.”
“Dermestez maculatuz,” the Queen said. “Flezh eaterz.”
“Happy to help,” burped a voice. It came from a brown beetle the size of a dime. “Aloysius,” he said. “At your service.”
The Queen mad dogged her until Briony realized her rudeness.
“Thank you,” she said. “Aloysius.”
The beetle fiddled grit off the ends of his antennae. It must have taken thousands of beetles to clean the children’s carcasses overnight.
“What do we do now?”
“Disposal is your business, ma’am; eating ‘em is ours,” the beetle belched. “You could bury the bones—although, if you boiled them, they’d make a nice stock.”
She filled an old canvas sack with the bones of her enemies and interred them at the bottom of a nearby arroyo. What else could she do—call the Sheriff? She couldn’t explain what had happened to his children and expect not to be arrested for murder. She piled shovelfuls of sandy dirt onto the remains, wiping sweat from her forehead with a faded red handkerchief. The children’s cruelty—the fact that they, the Twins of Terror, brought her to this—would bite each time she eyed their vicious teeth marks in the beams of her father’s house.
The following weekend, a thunderstorm ripped through town.
Purple-white lightning crackled through the cumulonimbus clouds, the metallic smell of water hung in the air, drones buzzed in the fields. While Briony and James made love, a flash flood barreled down the dry riverbed, loosening the silty bottom of the arroyo—and unearthing the green canvas sack. Meanwhile, missing posters for Hansel and Gretel flapped from every telephone pole in town. It was the Sheriff’s deputy, out on patrol, who discovered the sack of bones. The flood washed them to the roadside. The Sheriff rushed DNA tests of the skeletons; their identity soon confirmed as his missing children.
The road where the bones were found was close to Briony’s ranch. Though he had no hard evidence against her, the Sheriff called her into the precinct for questioning. Everyone knew Witch Hazel hated children. It was one thing the Sheriff could control in an investigation that was quickly escaping him.
The Sheriff questioned Briony for hours in a stuffy, windowless room. He enjoyed watching the spinster’s knees knock. Why shouldn’t he lean on that high-horse-riding Mary Tyler Moore? Her perspiration, her quavering made him feel strong, especially when he pressed an alibi out of her for the night of the twins’ disappearance. She had been with that rancher fellow, doing it. “Turns out old Witch Hazel is a hellcat in the sack,” he cackled to his deputy.
The rancher’s testimony confirmed it.
Oh, the delight of Briony’s shame—the Sheriff told her he had spoken with James, that he knew what they had been up to. She was off the hook, for the time being. He advised her not to leave town, like she had anywhere to go, and felt satisfied knowing he could squeeze her dirty little secret whenever he wanted to. The townsfolk clucked about her affair with James, goaded by the Sheriff’s colorful commentary. That poor rancher’s got no idea what trouble he’s into with old Witch Hazel. One day we’ll find him turned into a frog!
Briony held her chin high and went on collecting her honey money. The prattle raised to peak levels when she and James shopped together into town. Oh, the gall of the fools who underestimated her. They were more interested in gossiping about her sex life than her capability of committing a double murder. Briony felt so furious she nearly confessed, though she didn’t technically kill the children, she reminded herself. Nature finished off what nature had begun. Besides, those brats started it.
The Sheriff clucked his tongue at Briony when their paths met. His eyes feasted on parts of her he found pleasing, evidence of the Jezebel he always suspected she was, cloaked beneath dusty work clothes. Her breasts swelled beneath her button-down shirts, her hips curved inside her dirt-scarred denim. She avoided his gaze, set her jaw and stuck her nose in the air, like she had in high school. This uncoiled an ancient resentment inside the Sheriff. He once dreamed of unloosening that auburn witch-hair of hers from its demure bun. He despised her false purity. Bitch Hazel. She and her hippy communist parents thought themselves too good for everyone.
Neither the Sheriff nor his deputy could pick up the murderer’s trail. The suspects were few, the crime well executed. The MISSING posters bearing the twins’ faces weathered and frayed, eventually disintegrating into fragments. That fall, Hansel and Gretel’s bones were interred in the family crypt; by Christmas, the police file was stamped in red, UNSOLVED.
Briony, again, had been saved.
“Good day,” the Queen tinkled at Briony, out in the field. She wondered what she owed the Queen, and when the bill would come due. James, too, was a gift, for without the honey they would never have met. Rumors of her bedevilment of James drove demand of the honey, which the town bought as fast as she could harvest and bottle it. Briony’s magic honey was rumored to be an aphrodisiac that could cure infertility, too. Several couples confided in the maternity ward nurse that they had used Briony’s honey during lovemaking and—poof!—they got pregnant. Upon hearing this, Briony shook her head, the magic of gossip both her savior and undoing.
On the humid August anniversary of their first date, James brought the same dinner in the same picnic basket: steak salad, spongy angel food cake, cabernet. Briony came three times that night, remaining one orgasm ahead as always. The next morning, James left at daybreak for work, Blue trotting at his feet.
Briony leaned against the doorway, a mug of steaming, strong coffee in hand. She waved goodbye to James, the yolky fingers of dawn curling over the jagged hump of Camelback Mountain. Sex with him remained lovely—Mighty fine, she teased when he spooned her afterward—and James’s company was something she looked forward to in the evenings. She appreciated his acumen, his humor, his support of her business. Some nights, they read books from her mother’s library in bed. She shared almost everything with him.
Given her affection for him, it amused Briony how relieved she felt when the house became hers again. It surprised her, the mindfuckery of middle age. Briony no longer wished to change her past, her present circumstances, or even herself. Was this resignation or maturity? The power of being loved? If only things could remain this way, she thought, but no magic power could trap the universe in amber. At least, none she would wish aloud for.
It was ironic, wasn’t it, that old Witch Hazel wouldn’t use magic to alter things, not even a little, not even if she could? She replanted twelve baby barrels to replace the ones the Twins of Terror pummeled to death in her front yard. She stepped back from her work, her lower back aching, part satisfaction, part pain, the scales offset and far from perfect.
About the Author:
Gabriela Denise Frank is a Pacific Northwest writer, editor, and creative writing instructor. Her writing has appeared in True Story, DIAGRAM, Hunger Mountain, HAD, Poetry Northwest, Bayou, Baltimore Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She serves as the creative nonfiction editor of Crab Creek Review. www.gabrieladenisefrank.com
Feature image by TieuBaoTruong / Pixabay