Most girls wanted Daniela's contagion. They envied her cheekbones and chest. Prepubescent themselves, they craved her menstruations. She said that the blood lasted weeks!
If she breathed, the girls swallowed her exhalations. They crowded her elbows and knees. At recess, they tackled. Their hips ground her pelvis. Her tailbone dug in the mud.
She was scavenged, collected: hair, nails, skin. They stored her in ivory boxes. At lunchtimes they traded. They jostled for parts. They treasured her earwax and scabs.
Some girls bought spellbooks for chemical change. They dealt in mucus and blood. In the woods they found toadwort, brambles, and snakes. They mashed insect wings into paste. When they drank her, they waited: one day, or two. They felt themselves after dark. Twice, girls swore that they had grown hair; and the juice crazed the school for a month.
At the village school Selena gangled. She outstripped the tallest boy. She was longer than bones: slimmer than wrists. Her body dripped itself dry.
Selena's father farmed tomatoes. He was a youngest son. His brothers, rich, caroused in the city; but he had his daughters and farm.
His wife was dead. He alone taught Selena. He dressed her in collars and pants. He said: we trudge. He gave her used boots. She learned to compost and mash.
Daniela's mother wore a red sash. Her father hulked like an alp.
They had a house on the village main street. Her mother made curtains and jam. Her father built chairs, bureaus, and tables. He was a carpenter.
They spoiled Daniela with toys and with clothes. They allowed her to curl her bangs. They gave her music, a teacher, a flute. She ate prosciutto and bisque.
Selena liked strongly: or she disliked. She disliked horseradish and beets. She disliked her teacher, and the smooth girls at school. She liked science, sweatpants, and mother-of-pearl.
She was thirteen, and solo. Daniela, precocious, was twelve.
Daniela owned boys as girls owned themselves. She pulled them away from their games. They flanked her, magnetic, like arms or like braids.
Thursdays, they danced with the dancing master. He was an ex-ballerino. He was spry, but not young: a Muscovite. He had danced in Hong Kong and Berlin. At the school he taught ballroom: the waltz and the mambo. The girls begged for can-can and twist.
Selena waltzed badly, like an unjointed doll. She avoided the mambo and reel.
The floor moved Daniela. She felt the sounds. She liked to imagine earthquake. Around her, beneath her, the school shifted and dipped; but she rode as though she stood still.
Girls paired with girls. They were even in height. Boys danced alone, arms curling on air. The couples, entangled, envied the stags. They tromped on each others' heels.
Selena followed Daniela's feet. They did not speak or smile. The master, in tights, scolded the count. The stags led invisible girls.
Cinched, Daniela swayed from her center. Her waist was an axle, misfit. She wobbled; she whirled. Selena staked her. Selena was spiny and stiff.
Daniela held Selena's waist, which did not tuck or fold. Selena felt Daniela's nails, which were not shiny or red. Daniela thought Selena spoke. "What did you say?" she said. Selena, silent, thought of words. "Bone," she finally said.
Daniela pined for adventure. She was an impractical girl. She hoped for dark men on the steep mountain road, and for kidnappers under her bed. She dreamed of starvation; of shipwreck, trapeze. She prayed for disfigurement. Mornings, when she was home by herself, she played at Russian roulette.
Evenings, she swayed on glitter-spike heels. She was courting a widower's son. The widower's son was mute but not blind. She wore sequins, mirrors, suns.
Her parents promised discipline, meted by convent nuns. She gnashed and she sobbed; but she happily packed. Nuns wore wimples that hid mysterious pasts.
Her circumstance pleased her. She was misunderstood! Her father and mother oppressed. The mute was peevish, dainty, and wan: she knew she would love him past death.
The night before she left on the train, she tied her hair in a braid. When the mute boy touched, she recoiled and said, "What if they make me a nun?"
The mute boy liked formaldehyde. Pigs swam preserved in his room. There were moths on the ceiling, ants on the walls. He had built a hive out of bees. On his desk, he kept a pickling kit, with pickled cabbage and tongue.
The mute undressed and went to bed. He tried to beckon or leer. Daniela, however, stared at the bees. "You beekeeper," she said.
At six in the morning she said goodbye. "I will write if I take any vows."
Selena followed Daniela, for the farmer approved of nuns. Daniela's mother said, "You will watch my girl." Selena agreed that she would.
The convent girls knew that Daniela escaped. They thought she met boys, or men. When she jumped, they gathered to watch her fall. The courtyard was misty and dark.
Landing, she crumpled. The nun-on-guard whirled. Daniela rolled down the slope.
Ear to the ground, she listened for spring. The earth hissed. New grass bristled.
Her flowers budded on paltry stems. They lolled, overburdening. She touched their pollen, then peered at her hand. It was yellow enough for the bees.
Daniela's father and mother rejoiced, for Daniela wrote only of bees. They could not detect any signs of romance. She asked them for money and seeds.
The widower's son neither signaled nor ate. He watched the spiders hatch. When the spiders spun, he snipped their webs: he made a showercap.
Her mother wrote that the mute had gone mad. Daniela elaborated. At the convent she broadcast: she had made him insane. She strode like a murderess. Her face was white; her eyes were inflamed. She wore a hairshirt and cuffs.
In the garden, she lured. They thought that she kissed! Her project was danger, not sex.
In April, the bees stormed the convent. The nuns shut the building doors. They caulked all the cracks with towels and rags. They forbade any girl to leave.
For three weeks they stayed in the convent. They lived on potatoes and soup. The nuns devised projects. They knitted hats for the poor. They translated books into Greek.
The bees, concussive, rammed into doors. They drubbed the windows and walls. They deafened the nuns, who sang choral hymns. Their noise was a constant pitch.
Most nuns prayed for exterminant aid. They woke with their fingers clenched.
The boarders, however, chose not to pray. They doubted that God would swat. At bedtime they wrote to chemists, for gas. They folded their letters in half. No mail came, and no mail left. They flung the notes toward the wall.
The cook staff fretted. Canned soups were scarce. The final potatoes had sprouted.
For supper the girls had candy and broth. The nuns ate fruitcake and pickles. The superior offered a table grace. "Let us ignore," she said.
Selena's suspicions were inexact. She struggled to gauge the facts. She barely slept, for she watched Daniela, who weekly cemented her hunch.
Those weeks, Daniela luminesced. She was static: she crackled and flashed. She sat, unmoving, with a view of the bees. Selena awaited some act.
Then the bees crested. It was the twenty-first day. Bees blacked the sky before dark.
The nuns did not eat. They fed the girls ice. The superior stayed in her cell.
They went to bed early. They slept to stop thought. Around them, the beeswarm raged.
Past midnight Daniela stole out of bed. She dressed in a flannel robe. She tied her hair in a knot on her head, and she put on a pair of gloves.
Stealthy, she left the dormitory. She crept down the convent stairs. Selena, barefoot, shadowed her. She lurked by the banister.
In the coatroom Daniela stole army boots. She laced them onto her legs. They tied at the tops like ballet shoes; yet they clobbered the floor when she walked.
The nuns had stuffed the cracks of the door. Daniela removed the towels.
One bee flew through a new-made chink. It battered the kitchen ceiling. It droned. It dived. Its long sound blew. The cook staff, dreaming, imagined kazoo.
In a coat and dust mask, Daniela went. She opened and closed the door.
Selena, crouching, disbelieved. She dashed to restuff the cracks.
Daniela stood in an animate fog. The army boots weighed on her feet. She shined a flashlight, low, toward the gate. She saw the thick traffic of bees.
The bees infested the garden. They nested, termitic, in trees. They cankered the walls; they siphoned the dew. They swarmed on Daniela's shoes.
Daniela trod, intending to run. The bees' feet galvanized her.
She reached the wall. She opened the gate. She stepped outside to the street.
The street was lit. No bees flew. The walls, unflowered, were stone.
Couples strolled, in spite of the night. Daniela arrested them. They gazed at her hair, at her marvelous skin. Her voice was vibrato, like wings. "Bees," she beseeched. "Please do something."
Before they could answer, she re-entered the gate. As yet, she was strangely unstung.
Selena watched from the window. The towels were back in the cracks. She looked for Daniela, but she could not see. She saw a tantrum of bees.
Daniela inched. A bee stung her thumb. A second bee stung her breast. When a bee stung her armpit, she instinctively jumped. Her flashlight roved wildly.
In the hallway, the nun-on-guard rose to her feet. She peered out the nearest window. "Daniela?" she said, to the echoing walls. She saw bees, and a beam of light.
The cook staff, rousted, muttered and yawned. They kicked off their coverlets. They groped in the dark for a watch or a clock. The clocks said two-thirty-nine.
"Daniela?" the guard nun said again.
"Daniela," Selena said.
Close to the door, Daniela stopped. She tried to unpry her hands. However she could not close her mouth. She could not straighten her arms.
Then the building light revealed her. Selena, aghast, discerned
Daniela was tactile: feathered, untarred. Bees teemed on her hair and her throat. They burrowed her ear ducts like entries to hives. They drank the wet of her eyes. They rode each other, like a conga dance, front legs on forerunner's hind.
The guard nun removed the bottom towel. She crouched, her hands on the door. Lips to the crack, she called, "Daniela!"
"Shake," Selena said.
"Shake!" called the nun.
Daniela shook. Electric, she flung the bees.
Daniela quit the convent school. The convent nuns expelled her. She left, disgraced, in an ambulance, whose siren hollered and cheered.
The convent girls penned her name in the stalls. They yearned to see her again. A few girls tried to mimic her feats. They fled out the windows. They kissed men in the streets.
They wrote her love letters, in which they said please. The nuns, confiscating, eventually quelled.
At home, her mother forced her to bed. Her welts dehydrated. Her room was dark. It smelled of aloe. Balm stuck her sheets to the bed.
When she sat, she asked to see the mute. Her mother wheeled around. She scavenged Daniela for signs of romance: acne, encircled eyes. She checked her fever. She counted her pulse. Daniela was beestung, bored.
The mute had been sent to an institute. He had lately escaped from his ward.
Daniela chewed. She sucked her cheek. She said, "I drove him mad." Her mother said, "It was not you."
"I did it!" Daniela said.
The widower kept the mute boy's room, using formaldehyde. He glazed the beehive and pickled the ants. He hung the showercaps.
He moped: but undirectedly. Without a headstone, he had no facts.
Empirically, he disbelieved. He could not go to church. He thought his prayers: they were measured, precise. He did not pray his thoughts.
At the graveyard he confided. His wife lay bony in ground. Her headstone said she had died at age twelve, but its dates were incorrect.
When Daniela returned, the widower flared. His son was missing and mad. The girl, nonchalant, conveyed no regrets. She hid in her parents' house.
Secretly, he plotted to maim. He staked her kitchen door.
Daniela's scabs cracked. They flaked like old mud. One morning they speckled the bed. She felt herself: she was new but not smooth. False freckles mottled her skin.
With his knives in sheaths, he mounted her steps.
She walked to the kitchen, for milk. She stood at the table, slurping the scum. The widower scratched at the screen.
Daniela turned: she staggered him. He reeled into the room. Her stingscars were red as infatuation, and she wore a mustache, like cream.
Her father pouted. Her mother chastised. Yet she flouted them both.
The widower skulked. He waited in shrubs. He called to her: underhand. He saw her, a blotch, against the room's light. The light was her transparent gown.
She waited past ten, when her mother slept. She stole the extra key. Shoeless, she padded. She slowed in the yard. Crabgrass chewed at her feet.
The widower jumped her. They tumbled; they rolled. They lay among brambles and peat.
They heard her father, who sawed in his shed. Daniela heard bumblebees. When the widower touched her, she bit his ear. He warned her: he carried knives.
She probed his holster. She unswitched a blade. Flirtatious, she pared his tongue.
Sometimes, hectic, he thought that she kissed. But she pruned his lashes and brows.
Most nights, her father froze in his shed. He said he preferred it to home.
Her mother, alone, brewed night pots of coffee. She drank it with honey and milk.
The ceiling fan whirled. One spider crept. The wallpaper fainted and curled.
One night, Daniela did not slink away. She sat in her bedroom instead.
In the kitchen her mother hummed and paced. She was wary of empty beds. At eleven o'clock the lightbulb blew. As fast as a shutter, it popped.
Past two she knocked at Daniela's room. She unlocked the door with her key.
Daniela said, "Well." She straddled her chair. Her nightgown clouded her knees.
Her mother, becalmed, sat on the bed. She plucked at the comforter's fringe. "Romance," she said; but she stopped the words.
Daniela's father stamped on the porch. He fumbled with knob and with key. "How late," his wife sighed. Daniela yawned. Her haircut narrowed her face.
The air in the room was liquid and thick. Amphibious, both women breathed. Daniela woke, though she had not slept. The lamplight harrowed the room. Daniela's complexion was purple and tan, and her mother looked darker than sand.
"I will go," said Daniela. She did not budge.
Her father clattered the pans.
Selena became a bonsai expert. Daniela began to keep bees. They revamped the farm: they painted its trim. They tilled the tomato fields.
By day, they worked. Selena lashed wire. She snipped and whittled roots. Her trees grew briefly, in miniature pots. Their trunks were thinner than stems.
Daniela, meanwhile, zipped her bee suit. Immune, she challenged the bees. When she stole the honey, they fruitlessly chased. She sold from a roadside stand.
By night, Selena rested. She ate paella with wine. The faucet dripped like a timepiece, and insects struck the door. She was alone, heels squeaking on tile floor.
Nights, the widower courted. Daniela slivered his nails. She pierced his lobes with a scissor's end. She studded his tongue with pearls.
The sky was dark. She willed it black. They walked in forests and caves. She wanted primeval, naked, cragged. She wanted bare feet under mud.
The widower fussed. He wore a waistcoat and tie. He pussyfooted the rocks. When they lay, she moved, and he played dead. He let her ravish him.
She concocted herself. She broke taboos. She claimed, and never released. In the dark, she expanded. She leavened like bread. She lengthened her torso and tights.
In her dreams, she even seduced herself. Her face terrified.
She forced the man to love as his son. He was not willing or sound. He dreamed her worse than she dreamed herself, for he dreamed she had several tongues.
He proposed one night, in a cedar wood. She ate nasturtiums and grass. He handed a ring: she licked its rim. She gummed it in her mouth. The ring was gold, with an inscribed date. It circled, unbegun.
Selena hated Daniela's bees. She maddened from constant hum.
At the end of her yard, bees were rife as a plague. They ransacked the zinnias.
Although Selena could not dream, she vividly remembered. Insomniac, she recalled the storm. She saw Daniela, spangled. Lying in bed, she touched herself. She had unscarred skin. Daniela, though, scarred third-degree: Daniela had arms for wings.
When the first bee entered the bonsai lab, Selena determined to kill. She swatted the bee: it flinched toward the door. However, it circled back.
The bonsai perplexed it. It probed the small flowers. It drank at the breadfruit tree.
Selena, sniping, was stealthy and sly. She unlaced her boots from her feet. She crept: no vibration. The bee did not fly. It primped on the breadfruit pot.
Her boot tapped its head, and it tumbled, unbrained. Its stinger wisped on the floor.
At bedtime she said she had murdered a bee. "Intrigue," Daniela said.
In the morning, Selena drank coffee with cream. She sat alone at the table. She plotted her day. She had new seeds. She needed to moisten her soil.
She went to the lab at seven-fifteen. Her coffee mug soaked in the sink.
Upstairs, Daniela snored like a spook. She lisped the breaths of her dream. She imagined Selena, who slept until six, suddenly sleeping past noon.
Daniela ate breakfast, also alone. She preferred honey and toast. Unrushed, she doodled designs in her food. The honey made lances and moons. She read the news: the village was fine. One laundress ingested fumes.
In her beekeeping suit, she trod toward the hives. She was not fully awake. Sleep stunned her head. The drone dulled her ears. The bees were any army of souls.
Selena finished bedding the seeds. She snapped off her plastic gloves. She stood at the sink, scrubbing her wrists. She plotted to read in bed.
Daniela replaced the frames on the hive. She started to move toward the house. The bees pursued her, needlenosed. They stung her unskin suit.
Selena opened the door of the lab. She lounged against the jamb. The sun was thin: but it struck her head. She rolled down her turtleneck throat. She hailed Daniela, who walked in a tumult. "Paella tonight!" she said.
One bee had the widower's face. Daniela dreamed he was dead. Another bee stared like the widower's son. It droned: she dreamed the mute talked. She dreamed that she was a mosquito hawk. Gargantuan, she flew. The bees romanced her plentiful legs. They mounted her slender back. The widower bee bit her jointed mouth. He hung from the base of her jaw. "Kiss me," he said. She hoisted her mask.
Her hair, falling, sleeked to her waist. The scars illumined her face.
Selena tautened. She intended to speak. Her jaws, like flytraps, shut on her teeth.
Jennifer Kelly-Dewitt lives and works in New York City. "Peerless" is an excerpt from her manuscript Less: A Novella in Four Parts.