It were Franny's idea that we oughta keep bees, so, in the end, whatever the joke is, it be on Franny more'n on me.
"We need more than what we can grown on this land now that we have another mouth to feed," she had said. Her sayin' "we" struck me hard at the time, as it had done ever since I'd asked her pa for her hand over in Pearisburg, where we'd both been at school, she bein' from the flatland and me from the mountain. She'd gotten herself in a bad way and people were talking about me too, and it seemed the right answer to two problems at the one time. It seemed the right thing for us to take up the old Tolbert place too, abandoned since my Uncle Eddie died two years before that, up Sugar Tree Holler on Sugar Run Mountain. Everything around here seemed to be somethingorother sugar. I shouda knowed that takin' on honey bees would be trouble, honey bein' a form of sugar, as we all know.
"We can talk about it if you be wantin' more work, Franny," I said. "I got my hands full adding to the cleared land. But you be right that we need more out of the land than we are gettin' this growing season. We're still beholden to family for gettin' by, and we won't want to be in that way any longer than he have to."
I were watching her feed Billy Junior with her tittie, looking at his little screwed up face again, tryin' not to see the red hair. There was no red hair in the Tolbert family, or Franny's Gleason family neither, as far as I knowed. I couldn't see how people couldn't see it right off. The redheads around in the Blue Ridge Mountain section of Giles County, Virginia, were the Previes. And it had been Jamie Previe who'd been at Franny that fall. Folks should tell how things were right off, I would think. But I guess not, if folks don't see the baby. That's why Franny had said yes to comin' up here in Sugar Tree Holler, high up on the mountain. Franny was a flatland girl by raisin' and she knowed how flatland folks could gossip and criticize. Mountain folk are more for keepin' their mouths shut and lettin' be what be and knowin' that, in most cases, folks are just getting' by as best they can.
Still, I could see the red hair every day, and I knowed what was what, and I couldn't feel a family or a daddy much at all—at least not yet. Franny had said that would come in time. I'd said somethin' to my pa, Michael Tolbert, about it when he was helping me figure what to do about the rumors—and what were behind them. He told me not to be a fool about it. He tole me to take it as a lesson and to fight the urge and to make peace with it. He'd seen Franny's problem as a chance for me.
"Make a family," he'd said. "Forget what else you been up to."
"Easier to say than to do," I told him, "under the situation." He'd been forgiving but not understanding. But in telling me that there was Uncle Eddie's abandoned spread we could have—the old, original Tolbert place—he'd told me that I was being given a second chance, a second chance not to be a fool. I couldn't say he were wrong. Somethin' was tellin' me, though, that I could maybe deny myself if I tried real hard and temptation didn't come my way, but was I bein' fair to Franny? Could I ever be enough for her? Would she ever be enough for me?
"She'll have the baby," pa had said. "She'll be a damn sight better with a Tolbert than lettin' those Previes take the child." I couldn't say he was wrong about that either—or that I should expect better from him in understandin'. Some pas would have taken me out in the woods and shot me fer bein' unnatural. And nobody on the mountain would have blamed him.
"Bees don't take much care," Franny had said. "All you need do is make boxes; I'll take care of the bees. Two boxes. I got the directions for that. I already put in an order down at the general store in Thessalia when I met my folks down there for them to give us staples to tied us over."
"You've already put in an order?" I asked. "For what?"
"I asked that the bee man bring us bees for the first hive. Will Lambert down at the store told me we should make two boxes, but only put one out. The bee man would bring bees when he got around to us for the first box. We're not to put the second box out until that one fills with comb. Then the bee man will bring us another colony. And so on. One box will meet our needs. If we can fill more, we can be making cash money off it. Will told me what to do to bottle what's above our own needs and that we can bring it down to him to sell."
"We can bring honey down to Will to sell in Thessalia?" I guess Franny didn't know. She knew I married her out of more than the goodness of my heart, but she didn't know it all. She didn't know that I wouldn't want to be goin' to Will Lambert down at the Thessalia general store for anything. And the bee man. "What bee man would this be?" I asked.
"Why Honey Tom," she answered, all innocent and unknowing. "It's already done. He'll be bringing bees in another couple of weeks, Will says. We need a box by then. You best make two off the bat. We won't know how fast the first swarm will fill a box with comb."
I couldn't look at her direct. She weren't in the know of it. It weren't her fault. But it were her doin' if the temptation of it got to me. She'd be the fool of the piece. She will have done fooled herself.
"I might be out working the field when he comes," I said, lookin' out of the window of the two-over-two wood house my grandpappy had built with his own hands, with the help of a few neighbors. There weren't many around here close enough to call neighbors anymore, not that there ever were. The black hermit, Rufus Jefferson, up beyond the Sugar Holler pools at the top of the holler were the nearest neighbor, I guess. But I ain't seed him for years. After Uncle Eddie passed on, I hadn't come up here at all—not until we needed to to hide our shame and from the gossips, Franny and me both. "You might be the only one here at the house when Honey Tom comes in with a swarm."
"That would be OK with me," Franny said. "I do hope it's soon, though. The directions for the boxes are over there on your grandfather's desk. Sooner is better to build them than later, I think, Billy Ray."
"I'll get right on that," I answered. "And then I'll go look for someplace to put down the boxes."
"In sight of the house, I think, but not too near that we'll worry about getting stung. Will said in a cleared area of milkweed, dandelions, clover, and goldenrod—that's what they like to gather from, he says. As much as they can have near if we want them to fill the box fast."
"I guess up at the top of the meadow, by the sycamore stand, will do," I said. "Just be knowin' that I can't stand around waitin' for Honey Tom to show up. I'll probably be off in the field when he comes and goes. He comes and goes as he likes—and does what he likes too. Always has."
"He's a wild man for sure," Franny said. "But he's a fine looking man too, a golden man, a man standing in the sunshine. Half the ladies up the mountain swarm over him no different than those bees of his do."
"That they do," I said, "that there's a fact." And some of the men too, was my thought—but no way in hell I was gonna say that. I decided there and then that I damn well would make sure I were off in the field and would miss him comin' and goin'. 'Stead of fightin' her on this and makin' her curious, I picked up the paper Franny had writ the directions for the bee boxes on and went out to the wood shed to get to work on them boxes.
* * * *
It were the last day of June and it were hotter than normal for this day. I'd been weeding in the new field south of the house all morning and was right tired and hotter than blazes. Franny was down on the flatland at Staffordsville, with her kin, sayin' it were just too hot and close up here in the holler for her and the baby. I didn't expect her back in the pickup before sundown.
It were too hot to work and nobody were there to say otherwise, so I took myself off to the pools up at the top of the holler. This was where we came whenever the season allowed to do our bathin'. The stream that came down near the house came from a spring up here. When the rains were good, as they'd been this year, water ran down the rock walls up there from one pool into the next before it ran out into a steady stream and by our house. The pools were deep and there was room to stretch out and dry on the rocky ledges around them.
I was doin' that—stretchin' out on a ledge after bathing in the cool water—and, I admit, I was naked and takin' care of myself. I did that whenever I come up here alone, as a way to find relief. Franny was of a mind that we could do it—she said she wanted to do it—but I'd been puttin' that off. That seemed just a might too far of this pretendin'. I supposed we'd have to do it eventually, though. I kept thinkin' of my pa's advice to just be normal now—to forget all of that other stuff and foolishness.
Well, I was layin' there, stretched out, pulling on myself, gettin' hot and bothered and real big—I was sort of prideful that way, although there were men around who were bigger than me—not that Will Lambert, but Honey Tom, most certain—and comin' real close to flaring off when I heard rustling in the bushes off the trail leading up to here. Well, I curled into a ball right quick then and looked t'ward where I'd heard the noise comin' from. There had been something out there, I was sure, but it wasn't there now.
For some reason the name Rufus stuck in my mind—probably because the only other one living this high up in the holler now was the black hermit, Rufus Jefferson. He had a cabin not more than a mile from here on the rim of the holler, near the top of Sugar Run Mountain. I don't know what Rufus did to keep himself goin'. He came down to Lambert's store in Thessalia now and again for supplies, but I knew seed him workin' anywhere down there, and folks gave him a wide berth, as big and hulking as he was—and black. More of a chocolate brown, of course, but a black is a black. I admit when I did see him, it gave me pause, standin' there and lookin' at him with a funny feeling coming on me. It probably was because of what I heard about him from one of the men at the mill. At one time he was a trapper, I heard, but I didn't rightly know if there was a market for skins anymore.
I lay back, but I couldn't get my mind off Rufus. The last I knew, he was one fine figure of a man—big, massively big, but not fat. Muscular. A man there was once at the mill who asked if I'd ever lain under him or seen the size of him, sayin' that when I remarked about Honey Tom. I never did, but it got me to thinkin' 'bout him now and again. Whatever he had been doin' for a living, he was built strong. Now that I think about it, I think I heard he was doin' some blacksmithing or at least workin' with bending iron to how he wanted it. If so, he had the muscles to show for it.
As I thought about him—the chocolate brown of his skin, the size of him, and that muscular torso, as I recalled it, my hand went back to my dick, and I lazily stroked myself off again. This time I went to completion, and then I just laid back and took myself a snooze.
When I woke, it was a good hour past noon. I slapped my canvas shirt over my shoulder, it being too hot to put it on and nobody around to care at me not wearin' no shirt. I pulled on my worn jeans, noticing that they were getting' a might small for me and pulled down at the waist until it was almost indecent wearing them. 'Course it might be too that I was toughening up and trimming down more from working the fields than I had down at the lumber mill in Pearisburg in those after-school hours. My chest was expanding and my waist narrowing and my biceps brought Rufus Jefferson back to mind—or Honey Tom, although I didn't want to be thinkin' of him. He hadn't come yet with the bees, and I'd had the box sittin' up there at the top of the meadow and waitin' on them for neigh on to three weeks.
But just thinkin' about him when I'd promised to keep him out of mind is probably what conjured Honey Tom up in the flesh. I'd gotten almost all the way back to the house when I heard whistlin' and I turned and looked up into the meadow, and there he was. Honey Tom, blond and muscular and wild and untamed and golden looking, was stridin' out of the tree line near where I'd set out the bee box and into the sunshine, which made him glow. He was carrying a cut from a tree, one with a hollowed-out section in it, and he was carrying it right gingerly. I could tell the hollow had a bee hive in it, because the bees was swarming all around him and buzzin' something fierce. He was walking steady like, like he knew exactly what he was doin' and could get away with it with them bees—and he was, in fact, doin' that. The bees was all over him—in his tossed blond curls and his close-cropped beard and crawlin' all up his naked, tanned, and muscular torso. But nary a one was stinging him. It was like they knowed he was taking them to a better home than where he'd found them. Everyone said it was a gift he had, and I guess it was, because that's what he'd become—a honey man.
The gift weren't just with bees either, I could tell a person. He had a way of calming a person and getting them to go where he wanted them to be and doing what he wanted them to do.
Even though he didn't look my way at first, he knowed I was here, stopped in my tracks near the house, just in my low-riding jeans. I had the thought that I should pull my shirt off my shoulder and put it on and cover myself. I knew how he sometimes before got when he saw me all naked. But I was mesmerized in watching him get that there tree section put nicely into the box I'd built and settling those bees—all without getting stung. Then he looked my way, and Honey Tom were watchin' me more than he were watchin' what he was doin' in putting those bees to bed. It was like he could do the bee work in his sleep, and he probably could. But it gave me chills that he was watchin' me while he worked—giving me more attention than he were giving them bees.
He didn't call out or nothing, but I knew from the way he were looking at me that he wanted me to come to him. So I did. When I got there, he put a hand on the small of my back and said, "Billy Ray."
I answered with a "Honey Tom."
It took no more than that to bring us back together as before. Even with all the changes—me marryin', Franny having what was called our baby, the move up the mountain to here—all he'd needed to do was come out of that there tree line, will me to come to him, and, when I did, say my name, and I would let him do what he wanted to me. He did say my name, and then he did do it all to me.
"I brought you your bees. When you see hive through the slit near the top of the box, you put out another box and I'll bring you more. They get confused if they have more than one choice of box unless another colony is in there."
"How will we let you know that—?" I said, my voice shaky—not because of the bees buzzing around us both but because of that hand he had palmed on the small of my back—on the flesh of my spine, running fingers below the dip in my waistband at my butt. He had the tip of a finger on the rim of my asshole and I couldn't think of nothin' but it pushin' inside me—and when he'd get to doin' that.
"I will know when to come," he said. "Now—"
"I meant for Franny to be here when you came," I said. "I didn't mean to be here to meet you. This was Franny's idea and arrangement. This weren't my doing. Franny's—"
"Franny's down at her folks in Staffordsville till at least dark, I know," he said.
I didn't ask how he knew. I didn't want to follow that line of discussion.
"I don't know what we owe you for this or when we can pay you," I said.
"You know what I want in payment," he said, and his finger did push inside me then, and the heel of his hand was pressing on my back, turning me toward the house, showing me what was next.
"You know we can't, Honey Tom. That ship has sailed. I'm a married man now. No more of that foolishness for me."
"You say that, but your body tells me different," Honey Tom said. His other hand was on my crotch, feeling me up, finding me hard. Hard for him. "We can sail that ship again anytime I come here and have the notion. Come on down to the house with me."
And so I did. I didn't see no other choice. I didn't see no other choice from the first time Franny said Honey Tom would be coming up here on the mountain to us. Seems my mind and body couldn't agree on wantin' the choice or not.
I knelt between his spread thighs as he sat on the corncob mattress in the bed Franny and the baby slept in. I slept on a pallet in the other room upstairs. The light in the room was splotchy, bright on the floor where the windows let the sun in, but dim over here by the bed. His dick tasted sweet, the first of the essence coming out of it as I sucked it even sweeter. That's what I'd remembered the most about Honey Tom—the sweet taste of his dick, leaving the idea that that was what he mostly ate—the honey that he dealt in. As I sucked him, he leaned over my back, his fingers pushing under the waistband of my jeans in back again and reaching all the way to my hole—entering me and opening me to him, rubbing on that nub there inside that made my juices rise.
When he wanted it, he pulled me up, upending me, till I were streaming down between his legs to my head bein' on the floor, lookin' up the line of my trembling body at him, my arms above my head, fingernails clawin' at rough floorboards. My legs were bent on either side of his torso, feet pushin' into the mattress, as he held my crotch up to his face by cupping and spreading my ass cheeks, the smooth blondness of his beard tickling my tender ass flesh, and, taking his time as he pleased, he done everything he wanted to do with my dick, balls, and asshole with his mouth.
When I were moaning and beggin' for everything, wantin' and needin' his dicking, he done everything with me, givin' me the dick, deep. Pushin' in hard, stretchin', and puttin' me full of both pain and pleasure, the first time with me upended that way, body arching back t'ward the floorboards. Him grabbing me at the waist and pullin' me on and off the dick, on and off the dick, on and off the dick. Diggin' deeper, throbbing thicker, and me bein' wild, cryin' because of the pain and filling of it, but cryin' out for it like I was possessed, like he couldn't dig deep enough, couldn't fill out thick enough inside me. As always before I gave him all he wanted of me, and were beggin' for more. And he took more and then took more again.
"Remember this, Billy Ray?" he muttered.
"Shit yes, I remember it all," I cried out.
"You been missin' this, Billy Ray?"
"Fuck, yes, don't stop. Give it to me hard, Honey Tom!"
Plowin' me hard, deep, long, lickety-split fast, then slow, then fast again. The two of us workin' together as one, groanin', gruntin', rutting animals of the wild. No, after him getting' goin' good, like angels dancing on the clouds, golden Honey Tom the angel Gabriel, playin' me like a harp. Me singin' with the angels, releasing my seed with a cry of passion, "Fuck! Shit yes!" Honey Tom goin' so deep inside me with a growl deep in his throat and then a long, drawn-out sigh as he flowed in spurts.
Fuckin' me real good.
"You are the sweetest lay," Honey Tom murmured when he stopped jerking jism out and his muscles relaxed into a calmness.
It weren't true that what I remembered most about Honey Tom was the sweet taste of his dick. What I remember most is that he had the biggest, longest, thickest dick I'd ever taken inside me before. And he put it to me directly, makin' no bones nor nicety 'bout it. And I just lay back there on Franny's corncob mattress when he done me the second time and spread and bent my legs for him and moaned as he slid it all inside me, me all open to him this time. Like we'd done this forever and were meant to be doin' it for that long. He held there deep inside me until I begged him to do it to me. And then he started his hips moving and he did it to me, and did it to me, and did it to me.