"At the Mouth of the River of Bees" by Kij Johnson: An Appreciation by Hannah Wolf Bowen
Only not. I've been reading and rereading the story. Starting and restarting the appreciation. And here I am starting it all over again.
There are science fiction stories that work from the outside in, that tackle the entire world on some grand sweeping scale, and there are stories that have plenty to say, but it's all personal. "At the Mouth of the River of Bees" is a story about love and loyalty and loneliness, and about hope and about when to say when, and about magic sliding sideways into the world, about how something as small as a bee sting can be part of something else.
And "At the Mouth of the River of Bees" is a story about one woman and one aged dog. Part of the beauty of science fiction is not having to choose.
The western states that Linna drives through are as strange and magical as the river of bees. Linna "...drives as fast as the little Subaru will go, the purple highway drawing her east. Late sun floods the car. The honey-colored light flattens the brush and rock of the badlands into abrupt gold and violet, shapes as unreal as a hallucination. It's late May and the air is hot and dry during the day, the nights cold with the memory of winter. She hates the air-conditioner, so she doesn't use it, and the air thrumming in the open window smells like hot dust and metal and, distant as a dream, ozone and rain." It's a strange landscape, and one full of potential, and the river of bees can flow through it as naturally as a river of water might.
Despite all this, the characters know that the river of bees is impossible, and so the only ones to follow it are the ones seeking impossible things. Linna's bee sting draws her on; it's not the thing that's breaking her, but it's a hurt that she can stand to recognize. She chases down the river and her grand old dog is along for the ride. He's dying, and he may be ready, but she's not.
"Back at the car, Linna watches Sam chase something in his sleep, paws twitching in the rhythm of running. Live forever, she thinks, and wills his twisted spine and legs straight and well."
It's a story, in a way, about choice. Because in the center of all this beauty and magic, we still have one woman and her dog, and then we have another woman who can perhaps help that dog and be helped by him in turn, if Linna can bear to let him go. And we have an ending that left me infuriated on first and second read, then thoughtful, and finally a bittersweet kind of glad.
I first met "At the Mouth of the River of Bees" two years and some months ago. I've thought about it since then, read it over and over, talked about it and argued and written my own story in response. And I suppose that part of my trouble in writing this appreciation has been that a few paragraphs aren't nearly enough to explain how well the story stands up to scrutiny and how fine and deep it is.
Link to story.