Talia sat at the edge of Eliza’s bed, her hands clasped. She was new—so was I, but she was newer. I went to her, and stroked her head, careful to avoid the honeycomb on her brow.
“Daughters.” Mother Anam’s face was twisted when she came back from searching the rest of our rooms, her shoes clicking on the hard, pocked floor. It always seemed to us that she was disappointed that we hadn’t broken a rule, that she couldn’t punish us. “Strip down.”
Our clothes were taken to be shaken out. Mother Nala and Mother Bahjat checked our bodies, slipping their fingers into our honeycomb. Their calloused hands jabbed and poked, sending stabs of pain rushing through my abdomen. My honeycomb lay to the left of my bellybutton, spreading out across my stomach. Shallow in some places, where I could feel their fingers wriggling inside me, nails brushing against my flesh, trying to hold back my winces so I wouldn’t be punished. We all had to stand still and straight as it was done, our honeys tainting each other. We may have formed a small colony of hive-eaten girls, but our honey was sacred and not to be mixed like that. They only wiped their hands after they were finished searching each and every one of us.
No contraband was found, no razors like the one Haneen had used to kill herself the night before.
“Very well Daughters, get yourselves ready.”
We had to scrub all over until our skin was pink and our hands wrinkled as old women or newborns. We had sponges, long and thin as pipe cleaners, to clean out our nests. That would stop the hives from growing too large, kept the bees from staking new claim across our bodies.
Then it was out into the enclosed gardens, for our colonies to repopulate us, fill us back up with honey. They came in slowly, lethargic from a day spent without resting at their hive, but they worked quickly once inside, depositing their nectar in us. It tickled, always, and their buzzing reverberated into my spine. As close as we girls felt to each other, there was no intimacy like that between us and our colonies. Some crawled down into my pubic hair, got lost in it. Some came up as far as my collarbone and onto my neck, exploring and dancing their tiny limbs over my skin.
We laid out all night, sleeping close, hands and fingers touching through the cool grass. We shivered awake together, finding ourselves entwined with each other, and we moved to the east of the gardens, to warm ourselves in the sun. We stood until the sun began to set again, talking quietly between ourselves. None of us spoke of Haneen. We joked, as always, that the Mothers hid skin speckled with hives underneath their long dresses, and Eliza suggested that they inflicted pain on us because they were not beautiful enough to be wanted. We were quiet for a while, thinking of that. I think we all wished we were ugly.
We were allowed back into the house by Mother Yunn.
We hurried up the stairways, our voices echoing back at us. In the hall, we pulled apart the tapestries to get back into our rooms, hidden if you didn’t know to look. The tapestries were woven by a man in Alam, showing scenes of battle and triumph. Any time the building was searched, they would be distracted by these glorious images, and would not look behind them. We had to stay quiet when we had visitors, in our own rooms, or the Mothers might deliver on their threats. The Mothers may not have wanted to lose us, but more likely, as we whispered out in the garden, they didn’t want to be put on trial if they were caught holding us. It was precaution, really; everyone must have known what went on upstairs from the Temple, maybe they’d seen us darting around the garden, but nobody said anything. Or, if they did, they were silenced quickly. I preferred to believe the latter.
As night came, the blinds were drawn over the high windows, and the chandeliers’ light bounced off the jewelled ceiling. Below us, we could hear the sounds of the Temple. Men and women from our town, most of whom we would never meet, praying and feasting. Some of them would go home afterwards. Some of them would come upstairs, excusing themselves from their families.
We prepared the Ceremony Room. It was large, and the candles glittered and whirled above our heads as we placed tables in rows of three. The tables were laid heavy with dates and nuts and mint leaves and bottles of whiskey. Small spoons coated in hard sugar by each stikan, the tall glasses painted with golden flowers and falling rain. The water was boiled on the fireplace in one of the backrooms downstairs. Mother Nala watched it, for we couldn’t go into the Temple.
Once the room was set up, we went to stand in front of one of the tapestries, the one depicting a man almost being eaten by a ghoul. At the last minute, the man had jammed his steel sword through its mouth. Only steel could skewer ghouls. It was our favourite scene. We jostled each other, some of us linking elbows, while we waited to hear who would be the first out in the night. We all wanted to be—spending half the night trapped in our rooms, listening to the sounds of men drinking tea and whiskey and laughing loudly, not knowing who would be left by the end of the night. Not knowing if our regular lovers would have gotten bored waiting and taken off with some other girl. At least our regulars had familiar hands and mouths, and were not rough from too much liquor.
Talia and I were some of the first. I smiled at her weakly, but she stared straight ahead. It was only her second Ceremony. She hadn’t been picked by anyone on the first night.
The other girls told me that it was rare for anyone to be removed from the farms that had theirs showing—occasionally, there would be those like Haneen, who had died last night, with the hives running up the insides of her arms, but she could still cover them with long sleeves. Not even a headscarf could conceal Talia’s. It extended from her left eyelid up to her forehead, and then ran down past the temples onto her cheek. It was a shallow nest, not like mine. We all envied that, even though we knew what it might be like to have the bees so close to our eyes, wings and stings fluttering just in view.
The girls suspected that Talia’s father was a rich man, who had paid for her to move here. Most of the women at the farms did not live past twenty-five, their bodies eventually gutted out by the hives, internal organs failing as the bees moved further and deeper into their bodies. The Ceremonies were considered a better life.
The first men entered as half the girls were sent to their rooms, to stew and wait.
My regular was among them. He was a young man, not much older than me, with stumbling, thin hands. He never looked me in the eye once our clothes came off. In the six Ceremonies since he’d been with me the first time, he hadn’t missed one. Tomas. Sometimes they told us their names. We talked about it sometimes, about the type of intimacy some of them tried to foster. It was all an attempt to rid themselves of the guilt of fucking us. He smiled at me when he entered, but sat down to talk with his two friends.
I served tea to the first table, careful to not splash any water on their expensive suits. They were businessmen, clearly, or rich local merchants. I smiled at them, but only one of them met my eyes. He was older, his hair greased back, and the suit he wore was loose around the shoulders.
The night wore on. The first hour was the slowest, as all the men took part in the charade that they weren’t here for sex. They didn’t acknowledge us, they didn’t speak to us. But as they finished their second or third cup of mint tea, and therefore their second or third glass of whiskey, they became louder, and watched us openly, their tea glasses abandoned for the sake of more liquor. Their eyes travelled up and down our bodies, watching us as we leaned over the tables to pour more whiskey or bring more plates filled with dates. The older gentleman caught my arm as I went to turn from his table.
“Where’s yours?” he said.
He nodded. My face was hot. I knew what he meant, but we weren’t supposed to talk about it unless we took them into our rooms.
My hand went to my stomach, as my eyes checked that none of the Mothers were watching. I froze as I felt his hand meet mine, and he rolled up my thin shirt. He drew me closer to him, but I still couldn’t look at him, my eyes fixed on Mother Anam, who was busy talking to one of the men, a rare smile broken out across her face.
I looked down only as I felt his hot mouth around one of the holes in my hive. His tongue was thick and dry from whiskey, and my teeth clenched. I pulled away, gasping for air. Mother Anam’s eyes were now on me now, across the room, her mouth twisted. She moved towards me.
“Please, I’ll get in trouble,” I said to him, as he tried to draw me close again.
I stumbled back and moved onto the next table, where my regular sat.
“Are you okay?” Tomas said. I nodded. There was a softness to his voice that shook some of the grime out of me.
I took his hand. “Are you ready?”
In the second or two he took to answer, I gritted my teeth, waiting for him to refuse me. We hated them, we needed them.
He got up and I led him to my room. Not before he laid a few coins on the table; his payment for me. I breezed past Mother Anam, not looking her in the eyes, knowing she wouldn’t admonish me in front of a client. My punishment would come later.
Once I had him in my room, I could breathe again. It was dark; I had lit candles, like the Mothers made us. He drew me close, kissed me. He always did before we had sex, the only time he would kiss me.
His hands were clumsy getting my clothes off. My hands were better at removing his, though shaking still from the earlier encounter. He laid me on the bed and huffed away.
Fatima told me once of one of her clients, who had used her own honey as lube. Tomas didn’t do that, at least, his hands dancing across my hive for a second here and there, but always careful to pull it back. Two Ceremonies ago, he had forgotten, and plunged two long fingers inside, carelessly crushing one of the walls of my comb. He’d licked the honey dripping down his hand. After he’d finished inside me, he sat on the bed for a long time, his back to me, his face down. I could see him shaking. It wasn’t as if the men before him hadn’t done it, hadn’t relished in it. That’s what they were here for after all; the forbidden girls, the forbidden sweet.
When he finished this time, he lay next to me for longer than usual. Minutes passed, and I stared at the ceiling, watching the jewels studded in the crumbling moulding flicker in the candlelight. His hand was close to mine, and I wondered if I should hold it. Not because I wanted to, but to see what he would do. I smiled.
He sat up and started to fuss with his trousers, searching for something in the pocket. “I got you this,” he said quietly.
I waited for him to say more. He didn’t, and I almost cut my hand as I reached for it.
“Why?” I asked, hearing the hardness of my own voice. I couldn’t remember if I’d ever spoken to him when we were alone before.
His eyes widened, flush on his cheek, as if he hadn’t expected me to ask questions. “I—some of the—someone told me that I should.”
“Did they get one for the other girls?”
He nodded, slowly, as if only just waking up from a long dream. “One of them, one of them asked him for it. Said you weren’t allowed. Said she wanted to stop—stop doing this. I’m sorry, I can take it.”
“No, it’s okay.”
I closed my hand around it, felt it sharp and cold against my palm.
“Do you want me to, you know, do it?” I asked. I didn’t know if I wanted to know, I only knew I wanted to make him answer.
His hands shook too badly for him to button his shirt properly. “No—no, that’s not what I meant. I just—I know, I know . . .”
He trailed off. I felt power bloom under my breasts. It was good to see him stumble.
“You know that this is wrong, what you do to us.”
He didn’t say anything. He managed the last few buttons on his shirt and left, closing the door behind him softly, as if I were sleeping and he didn’t want to disturb me.
Mother Anam would come to me soon, to punish me for letting that man peel my clothes back, for letting him sup from me out in front of all the other clients. I got up, and, quietly as possible, I slipped out of my door and behind the tapestries. I had to shuffle through them, hoping anyone who saw would think the skylights were bringing in a sudden breeze. I knew the way down to the Temple, down the staircase we never took. I risked a look into the dining room before I went, saw the older man, his hand clasped around Talia’s, shoving her towards a room. Bile swam in my saliva.
I was careful on the stairs, the cold marble stinging my bare feet. I hadn’t been down here since I arrived at the Ceremonies. Since the old man who smoked filterless cigarettes and smelt like curdled milk had picked me up from my father’s house and handed me over to the Mothers.
It was cold in the hall. The floor was strewn with rugs, with pews at the back for those who could not stand or kneel. The heavy wooden doors were closed. I was glad of that. I might have run into the night, otherwise, with no plan and no food and no shoes.
On the right was an old wooden door, and I peeked through. It was empty, quiet, but the smell of woodsmoke from the fireplace was pungent still. This must have been where the water for tea was heated, with an old bench covered in pillows for the Mother to sit as she waited. The window was too fogged with condensation for me to see out of.
I crept across to the door opposite that. It was ajar, and I froze as I heard a voice. I hadn’t expected anyone to be here, not this late, not this far into the Ceremonies. But I couldn’t resist, and pulled the door far enough that the sound streamed through like a draft and I could see inside.
It smelt of spiced apples and cardamom. There were three women dressed in normal clothes—dressed how my mother used to.
They were cleaning dishes, and taking a rag over the long wooden table in the centre of the room where the feasting must have happened. They were laughing about something, but I had missed the joke.
How would it be, if I walked in and smiled and began speaking? Would they welcome me? Would one of them take me home as if I were their daughter, and care and cook for me? They laughed again. More likely they would call for one of the Mothers to fetch me and try not to think about the punishment I might receive.
I moved away from the door and out of the hall. It took a few tries, but I found my way through the maze of corridors behind the hall, and finally out into the garden. There were birds muttering softly in their sleep and crickets trying to wake them. How long did I have before Mother Anam sent someone to find me?
I didn’t have long to think about what I wanted to do. The blade was still clenched in my hand, and the cold edge had already pierced my skin.
We sometimes talked about it, the other girls and I. We talked of escape, but we knew what escape meant for us. Sometimes we spoke of other tea rooms, of other girls, and what their lives might be like. I trembled with excitement at the possibilities in my hand.
I wondered if I could slip over the wall and out into the forest beyond. But I would find nothing there. The bees would find me, fill me morning to night, no time for my body to heal or rebel against the hive growth, and they would gut me like a farm girl.
And besides, as I looked down, I saw that my hand was already drawing the blade close to my stomach to cut out my hives, as if my body had already made up its mind.