“Pyramid of the Bees” by Charles Haddox

Pyramid of Bees

My brothers and I live with our mother on a hill. A great stone pyramid sleeps under the hill.

Our house stands amid other adobe structures—houses and two-story apartment buildings—all constructed many years ago after bitter wrangling by out-of-town speculators as well as the railroad, who claimed the hill fell within their 200-foot wide right-of-way. Adobe is surprisingly fragile. The plastering material used to cover it must be meticulously maintained or water will destabilize it. One of the apartment buildings on our hill lost an entire wall and had to be demolished, and another is heading toward the same fate.

The lot where the collapsing apartment building stood before it was demolished has been vacant for years. Birds have sown wild grape and trumpet vines and passersby have tossed bottles and cans and used building materials, and now it is a wilderness of plaster slabs and discarded tree branches and old sinks all covered with thick overgrowth that attracts beetles and moths and yellowjackets. There are probably also snakes and rusty nails and poisonous spiders, but we follow the trails through piles of concrete and roof tiles that are shaded by vines and wild amaranth stalks tall as fountains until we come to the ruined staircase that takes us to a secret vault.

My two brothers and I should be in school, but the cool, dark chamber fills us with wonder and dread. There are likely other alcoves hidden deep inside the pyramid, buried with their impenetrable secrets under tons of earth. Potential homes for bats and pale, blind scorpions.

We make ourselves comfortable in the ancient chamber. Darkness dwellers. A limestone bench is built into one of the walls. Bees circle high above it in the tranquil gloom, graceful as tiny angels. They have made a hive in the wall, or perhaps in a chamber that lies behind it. I have never seen the hive, but bees come and go through a crack no wider than a broken finger.

“The temple of flowers, the temple of flowers,” they sing.

My older brother Cris produces a menthol cigarette, and we pass it around.

My young brother Neto coughs a little. He is small and dark like me.

“Quiet,” I say to him, but he continues coughing.

Footsteps. His coughing has revealed our presence in the vacant lot to one of the neighbors. Heavy footsteps. Should we run or stay in the vault?

An old woman stands at the head of the stairs, peering into the darkness. We expect her to call out, “What are you chavos doing down there?” or something like that.

Instead, she calls us by name. I don’t recognize her. Just an old woman, hatless, her long white hair in braids, wearing a black dress embroidered with yellow flowers. We emerge sheepishly from the vault, one by one, and my older brother asks in a tentative voice, “Who are you?”

“Oh, just a neighbor,” she says. She walks away from the stairs and beckons us to her side. As we climb out of the chamber and stand beside her, she points to the grassy earth. Fragments of a pot lie strewn about, as well as the small clay head of a jaguar.

“These things are very old,” she says. “They belong to the dead. Do not touch what belongs to the dead.”

She walks toward the stairs, past piles of broken plaster and lumber, like the moon negotiating a pathway through the clouds, and we trail behind her like newborn stars.

“Are we in trouble?” my little brother asks.

“You may enter the chamber,” she says as we follow her down the stairs, “but never take anything you find in it. And do not harm the bees.”

“Okay,” I say. “Please don’t tell anyone that we’re here, though.”

The old woman smiles. She takes a seat on the stone bench built into the wall below the bees. The alcove is simmering with sour odors of moist lime and adventitious tree roots. 

“Do you know the story of the cat that sleeps on the moon and the Lord of the Dusk?”

My brothers and I shake our heads to let her know we’ve never heard it.

“It may sound like a tall tale, but it’s not. Cats are clever, especially when it comes to food. Clever, very clever . . .

“One cool indigo evening, the jaguar that sleeps on the moon decided to go exploring among the stars. His name was Ocelotl, and he wore a cape encrusted with snail shells and fire agates and black obsidian mirrors. Like all cats, he was lazy and overly fond of eating. He only managed to muster the occasional burst of energy when motivated by food or safety or insatiable curiosity. And it was the latter that roused him as he heard a loud noise in the west like drumming or dancing. Perhaps the evening star, called Lord of the Dusk, was having a party.

“Ocelotl, the cat that sleeps on the moon, cautiously entered Lord of the Dusk’s somber storm cloud sanctuary and found him breaking a roasted pumpkin into bite-sized pieces with a large oak paddle.

“‘Lord of the Dusk, I approach you in friendship,’ Ocelotl said.

“‘Friendship? Or hunger?’ the Lord asked. He had the melancholy face of a dog and wore a splendid turkey-and-parrot-quill headdress. ‘I know that you’re only after something to eat or a feather to play with, you worthless feline.’

“‘We cats are cursed with constant hunger, just as you are cursed with the job of carrying a pine torch across the horizon.’

“‘Without my torch, the sun would lose his way on his daily journey through the sky, and the dead would get confused and wander back to the living.’

“‘I know that you are very important, great Lord of the Dusk.’

“‘Don’t flatter me. And don’t think I’m planning to share my supper with you. I found this calabash on a mountain at the world’s rim. We dog-heads get hungry, too.’

“‘I don’t want to share your supper,’ Ocelotl said. ‘I just hoped to lick the paddle you’re using to prepare it. I’ll even sing for you while you eat. That’s right, I’m a regular Pedro Infante.’

“‘Do you know La Malagueña?’

“‘It’s one of my favorites.’

“‘All the verses?’

“‘As many as you like.’

“‘Just for a lick of the paddle?’

“‘Just for a lick.’

“The Lord of the Dusk, the evening star, commenced his supper of succulent pumpkin flesh. Ocelotl cleared his throat and began to sing.

“‘What is that horrible noise you’re making?’ the Lord asked in horror.

“‘La Malagueña,’ Ocelotl said, and went back to his singing.

“‘It sounds like the screams of a prisoner being tortured. You’re ruining my appetite.’

“‘But I promised to entertain you during your meal, great Lord.’ The cat continued to sing.

“‘Stop! Stop it! My ears are blistering. I can’t bear it.’ The Lord covered his ears, and even his torch began to flicker.

“‘But I promised you all the verses.’ Ocelotl continued singing with a voice like a hurricane in a forest of kapok trees.

“‘Stop! Stop! How can I make you stop?’

“‘Hmm. It would be hard to sing with a mouthful of roasted pumpkin . . .’

“‘Have a bite of pumpkin. Anything to make you stop.’

“‘Aah, that was tasty. How do you like my falsetto?’

“‘Have some more. Take it all. Just stop that shrieking.’

“‘Thank you, Lord of the Dusk,’ Ocelotl said between ravenous bites. ‘You are a worthy host. And just remember,’ he added with mischief in his bright green eyes, ‘I can come back and entertain you at dinner anytime you like.’ ”

My brothers and I laugh politely at the story. The old woman leans her head against the ancient stones and rests her eyes. She seems to have fallen asleep.

I venture back to the spot where the small clay jaguar head lies on the grassy earth. It has long canines and circular ears and is made of tan, high-fired clay. I feel a great desire to pick it up and put it in my pocket, but my thoughts are interrupted by the shouts of my brothers who are still in the vault.

“She’s gone,” they shout.  “She disappeared.”

“Where did she go?” my brother Cris asks with alarm in his voice.

I scramble down the stairs and enter the ancient chamber. The old woman is gone. A bee circles over the spot where she was sitting only a moment earlier.

“Do not touch what belongs to the dead,” it hums in an aged, monotonous bee voice, as it enters the crack in the wall and the impenetrable darkness beyond.

Charles Haddox lives in El Paso, Texas, on the U.S.-Mexico border, and has family roots in both countries. His work has appeared in over seventy journals including Chicago Quarterly Review, The Normal School, Folio, and Stonecoast Review. charleshaddox.wordpress.com.