The Bees

By Shawn Selway
Published October 11, 2013

While reading Aleksandar Hemon's Love and Obstacles a few months ago, I was startled to turn the page and come upon this sentence:

They applied for a Canadian immigration visa, got it, and arrived in Hamilton, Ontario, in December 1993.

Although Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver regularly pop up in extra-Canadian fiction, and Winnipeg and Halifax receive an occasional mention, it is rare to find a reference to this out of the way town in the works of the metropolitans.

Landing in winter, the family does not at first perceive the beauty of our Shangri-la by the lake.

From the window of the fifteenth-floor unfurnished apartment they moved into they could see piles of snow, the smokestacks of the Hamilton steel mills, and a vacant parking lot. It was all black and white and gray, like an existentialist European movie (which my father found unreal without exception, and morbidly boring on top of it). He started despairing as soon as he set foot on Canadian soil: he didn't know how they were going to live and pay for food and furniture; he didn't know what would happen to them if one of them got terribly sick. And it was perfectly clear to him that he would never learn the English language.

This is in a story called "The Bees, Part I", which is ostensibly about bee keeping and displacement. The narrator's father is that exasperating thing, a literalist; not your ordinary literalist born that way, who looks at you blinking and blank, waiting for you to go on after you have paused to allow your little sarcasm to register, but a convert, a militant, a man who is capable of turning to those seated next to him at a movie and saying "People don't believe this! Comrades! This is not real!" (We are in still-socialist Jugoslavia.) The comrades continuing to suspend their disbelief, Father drags his wife and kids out of the theatre.

With a Dad like that, naturally the son has given himself to fabulation - if that is what it is; one is never quite sure. As he tells it, the father, lost in his new non-home, attempts to write a book about the murdered past. Just the facts, of course.

There is something faithfully connecting our family and bees, my father starts his narrative. Like a member of the family, the bees have always come back.


Father devotes nearly a page to the moment he first recognized a queen bee...His father pointed at the queen bee on a frame heavy with bees and honey, and, my father writes, it was like reaching the centre of the universe -- the vastness and the beauty of the world were revealed to him, the logic behind it all.

During the Second World War, the family is forced out of their village, and loses their bees. On their return, a couple of hives stolen by a neighbour ( the sense of shame having reappeared) are recovered and within a few years, the family is in possession of twenty-five.

In the fullness of time, however, the grandfather loses his sight and with it his ability to tend the bees, who diminish again. The father and his brothers take over, with difficulty. The bees increase, but then comes the war in Bosnia, and the Hemon family must leave for Canada.

Shortly after their departure, a horde of their neighbours, all drunken volunteers in the Serbian army, came at night and kicked the hives off their stands, and when the bees tried to escape (it was night, cold again, they crept on the ground) the neighbours threw a couple of hand grenades and laughed at the dead bees flying around as though alive.

In Canada, however (I am skipping so much), the father, working three shifts at a job he hates, bored, regretting many losses, one day comes upon an ad for honey among the classifieds. He calls the seller, and invites himself to visit the man's bees. By and by, he is back up to 23 hives.

And he would be pleased, I hope, to have one of his son's readers confronted, as I was confronted last week on entering the office of Beach Road Steel Sales (which is not on Beach Road but on Brampton Street) with a jar of honey - right there on the window ledge, between the spray cleaner and some kind of screw contraption, a real jar of actual honey, with his name on it.

Jar of Hemon Honey
Jar of Hemon Honey

Shawn Selway is a Stelco trained millwright who runs a consultancy in the interpretation and conservation of historic machinery. He lives in the North End with his family.

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted October 11, 2013 at 13:49:02

Seems autobiographical.

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