The bees are as alive as they ever were. They glide through Jianmen village with sun glinting from metal wings, swooping between the faded white lattice of the town’s ornate bridge. The bees, originally programmed only to search for plants to pollinate, are drawn into orbit around an aging farmer hoeing a small plot of land. The farmer doesn’t flinch when the bees crawl up his sleeves and land in his hair. Unlike their long-gone biological brethren, these bees are harmless. One of them buzzes into the farmer’s home and lands on his wife’s hand, causing her to burst into tears.
It’s Carlotta Guo’s 60th birthday, and she wants to go home.
Seven years ago, she heard it was possible. A traveler, the first new face she had seen in at least a decade, marched into Jianmen with impossible tales of resurrected northern railways. He looked like a Chinese local but claimed to have recently come from Moscow. Things were good there, more peaceful and better preserved than Beijing, he said. With the proper bribe for the local army, she could catch a train at the old Mongolian border 300 kilometers north of Jianmen and go all the way to Europe.
Carlotta laughed in the traveler’s face.
But today the idea has her in its talons, gripping her with a longing she thought had frozen and shattered in the years of the long winter. Carlotta is healthy and strong, but she isn’t getting any younger, and the passing of another year has solidified her growing certainty that this is her last chance to see Italy again. Italia. She hasn’t allowed herself to think the name of her homeland for ages. She tosses the bee back into the air. “Vola!” she says, testing her mother tongue awkwardly.
The bees, like Carlotta, were never meant to stay in China forever. They were developed by her husband Yitao’s environmental engineering firm to be shipped to Europe and North America to solve the catastrophe of natural-bee extinction. But then the asteroid hit and North America went radio silent and the long winter came to the rest of the world. Now the bees, like Carlotta, remain in the village, familiar to all but also forever foreign. A non-native species.
Carlotta packs a bag. Jianmen’s shared food supply is bountiful this year and their shelves are full of canned and dried foods. She takes what she can carry, making sure to leave Yitao’s favorites behind. Then she goes to find her husband. He isn’t in the garden anymore, which leaves only one other possibility. He’s working on the bees.
By the time the long winter ended, half the houses in Jianmen stood empty, and Yitao has made one of them into a workshop. Or a hive, Carlotta thinks as she stands quietly in the doorway watching Yitao work. The bees are thick in the air, buzzing in circles around Yitao’s head and creeping up the walls, but he seems oblivious to the disorder as he repairs the wings on a damaged bee. His focused frown whips Carlotta back to Beijing almost forty years ago when she fell hard for this earnest engineer who courted her with the same dedication he applied to his work.
“They’re reproducing,” he says without glancing at her.
“The bees. They’re finally self-replicating successfully.” Carlotta has no response. Yitao sets the bee down carefully and looks up. He flinches when he takes in her full backpack and canteen. He knows. Maybe he saw it coming before she did. Carlotta waits to see if he will try to stop her, but of course he only sits frozen at his workbench. She feels that the script calls for her to fling herself into his arms, to cry her farewell tears into his chest. But she imagines his embarrassed look and stiff embrace and can’t convince herself to say what she feels.
He wasn’t always like this. In Beijing he surprised her with flowers and teddy bears and learned to say “I love you!” in Italian. When she first visited his parents in Jianmen, she marveled that her loving fiancé could come from such a gruff and distant father, a hard-working but unemotional mother. Then the long winter came and Yitao’s exuberant smile iced over until he and his father were like twins—stoic, weathered, silent. Still, he was there with her, and in the cold it was enough. When she realized she was going to bring a baby into a world that hadn’t yet warmed, like magic he found the fuel to drive to an abandoned factory and return with a year’s worth of supplies. In her mind his daring act single-handedly brought the thaw. It was enough, back then. Today it isn’t.
“Yitao,” she says. “I have to try to go back.” He looks down at his worktable, his jaw slowly clenching and releasing once. Then he stands and comes to her, the familiar creases of his face an inch from hers.
“Stay here” he says. “Our life is good now. The farming has been very successful for several years. There’s no disease. In Chengdu the flu killed thousands. You don’t even know what happened in Italy.” It sounds like he has rehearsed this.
“I’m sorry,” says Carlotta, but she feels freed by his dispassionate arguments. He’ll be fine without her, farming the land and working on his bees. And maybe she’ll stand once more on the edge of the sea and let the warm mist wash away all the heaviness of all the years.
“It’s not safe,” he says. “You could be killed.”
“I probably will be,” she says, and almost enjoys the moment of shock on his ever-steady face. He tries another tactic.
“What about Little Bao? What if he comes home?” Yitao refers to their son by his childhood diminutive. They both keep doing this, hoping to ignore what their treasured child has become. Carlotta sighs.
“He’s not coming home, Yitao,” she says, and feels the chilled breath of the new winter that has come between them. “I’m sorry. I love you. But I can’t stay here anymore.” She takes a backwards step towards the door.
“Wait,” he says. He hurries into another room of the workshop and comes back with a thick jacket. “Take this. It will be cold again in not too long.” Carlotta takes the jacket.
“OK,” says Yitao. He stands like stone.
“Yes, OK.” His voice breaks slightly but he is motionless, waiting for her to leave. She looks into his eyes an extra second, then turns and walks out of the workshop.
Many of Jianmen’s residents are out today, and Carlotta exchanges smiles with her neighbors. She survived with these people. Because of these people. They huddled together on the worst nights of the long winter and they helped sustain each other after the thaw. Old Chen raises a hand to her as she passes his house. Twenty-five years ago he was her son’s favorite person in the world, the one who taught Little Bao to gather eggs and tell dirty jokes. Carlotta’s chest aches as she leaves Old Chen behind her.
I never belonged here, she reminds herself.
When Jianmen fades over the horizon and she is walking in a vast field of softly rolling hills, the worry floats away and she feels light and young. She spins and walks backwards, imagining the receding golden slopes are a video played in reverse. She will rewind her life all the way back to Italy, back to a time when her future could have turned out a thousand different ways.
Something tickles her scalp and she swats at it reflexively.
“Ow!” Carlotta grips her hand. Her palm is pricked with blood where she has smashed it against the robot bee.
“You’re too far from home, bee,” she says, and brushes it off her head in annoyance.
As the hours go by a raw ache spreads across her heel, stabbing hotter and sharper with each step. Carlotta bites her lip and tries to ignore the pain. She can’t stop yet. The sun grows harsh and the sweat trickles into her boot and stings the wound. She has given in to a stiff limp when she hears the cart approaching.
It’s a dark wooden platform on two wheels, pulled by a horse whose glossy coat shimmers with each prancing step. Carlotta remembers the early days of the long winter, when any large livestock bore empty eyes and ribs etched in grim definition. In these more plentiful days, horses are making a comeback. The man driving the cart is weathered and not as well-fed as his horse, but the boy beside him stares at Carlotta with a plump face that never knew a long winter. Behind the man and the boy are several burlap bundles, presumably wares peddled by the duo.
She waves her hand.
“Hello!” she calls. “How far are you going? Can I get a ride?” The man and the boy blink at her in slow motion, then the man pulls the cart to a stop. He tells the boy to move to the back of the cart and motions for Carlotta to climb up beside him.
“I’m going to catch the train,” she says, willing him not to mock the idea. The old man raises his eyebrows.
“You said that so well!” he says. “How did you learn Chinese?” Carlotta laughs.
“Well I didn’t fly here from Italy yesterday,” she says. The man laughs too.
“I’ve heard about the train,” he says, and Carlotta’s breath stops. “But I don’t think you can ride it. It’s controlled by the Shanxi General. Very dangerous.” Carlotta nods.
“But it’s the only way to Europe,” she says. “I have to try.”
“Hey,” says the man. “The Shanxi General’s local commander is one of you foreigners, right? Or is he mixed-blood? They say he’s even more evil than the General himself. One time he—” The man, glances at the boy, “Well, I better not say what he did.”
Carlotta closes her eyes. Little Bao.
“Yeah, now I remember, he’s mixed-blood,” says the man. “Have you heard of him?” Carlotta exhales.
“I heard he used to be good once,” she says.
They ride on in silence, the dried brush crunching under the horse’s hooves. Three bees dive back and forth in front of the cart. Carlotta looks to see if the old man has noticed the creatures, but he stares straight ahead. She puts her chin in her hands and watches a tower of stone rewind into her past.
“Will you see your family in Italy?” the cart driver says.
“No,” says Carlotta. “I’m an only child, and my parents were killed in the fires right after the impact. My cousin wrote to tell me about it, in the early days when there were still a few ships coming from Europe.”
“So why risk so much to go back?” asks the man. “Because of your cousin?”
“Yes, to find him,” says Carlotta, because it seems like the right thing to say, although she barely remembers Antonio. She doesn’t try to explain how the little house in Jianmen is haunted by the ghost of a child who still lives. How everything has changed and iced over and left her with nothing but a burning need to finally go home.
The moon ascends and cool air bites their faces, and the man and the boy decide to spend the night in a nearby settlement. Carlotta’s throat goes raw at the thought of sleeping in a village that isn’t Jianmen. She resolves to push on.
“Be careful,” says the old man, “watch out for the General’s men.” Carlotta promises she will.
“Hey, I was wondering, why didn’t you go back to Italy in the first year? I remember there was still some travel back then.”
“I was in love,” says Carlotta, and shivers as a bee crawls across the back of her neck.
She walks as night thickens, but the pain in her heel is sharp and her hands shake in the cold. A flicker of light to her left makes her jump. She squints into the dark, but it is only the moonlight flashing off the wings of a swarm of Yitao’s bees. Carlotta limps forward. Another flash reveals a larger shape: the rust-eaten hull of an abandoned station wagon staring her down through wide-set headlight eyes. Carlotta goes to it and presses her face to the window, bracing herself to see a decades-old skeleton crumbling behind the steering wheel, but the car is empty except for a stiffened heap of food wrappers. She crawls into the backseat and pulls off her boot.
Her sock is soaked in blood. She gingerly peels it aside and tries to get a good look at her wound in the dark. A bee, its soft buzz seeming to materialize from the empty air above Carlotta’s head, lands on her toe. She moves to brush it aside but abruptly there are six of them, scuttling down her foot and enveloping her blistered heel. Her gasp becomes a soft sigh as relief drifts up through her body and the pain in her foot melts away. The bees disperse. A white substance, like a thick gauze, now covers the blister. Carlotta touches the stuff and tries to imagine where it came from, but her pain has given way to exhaustion and she can think of nothing but sleep. She sinks into the coarse upholstery and pulls her arms and legs into the jacket from Yitao. It has been so many years since she spent a night without him.
As her mind spins into a deep sleep, the bees whisper Carlotta’s name.
But it isn’t the bees. It’s Yitao, sitting on the edge of her bed. She’s sick again, as she has been on and off for months since Little Bao enlisted in the General’s army. Yitao has brought her another offering of a freshly cooked meal, another attempt to attack her affliction with the perfect combination of vegetables and spice. She takes a spiritless bite because she can’t bear the fright in his eyes. Carlotta knows she doesn’t have the kind of disease that has a cure, but the kind that means some piece of her soul is black and rotting.
“We can’t possibly have so much food stored,” she says, turning her head away from Yitao. “Don’t waste it on me.”
And then he’s beside her in the car, his anxious face smooth as a child’s. He is a child, just 25, still years away from the creases that will burst from his eyes when he laughs. The air outside is thick and as white as Yitao’s knuckles on the steering wheel, but the dust from the asteroid has finally settled enough that they dare escape the violence in Beijing and flee to Yitao’s parents’ home in Jianmen. They have only their clothes and a burlap sack full of tools and mechanical bees.
Carlotta is terrified too, but most of all she wants to calm Yitao’s worry. She reaches over and massages his shoulder.
“It’s going to be OK,” she says. “As long as we’re together.” His expression is still tense but he gives her a small smile.
“You’re right,” he says, “Together we’re unstoppable.” His words propel the car off the dusty road and they glide into the night sky on a highway of stars.
Carlotta jerks awake. She realizes that Yitao was a dream before she realizes that the car is really moving.
The scenery flies by the windows at a blinding pace. Carlotta hasn’t been in a motor vehicle in years and her stomach lurches as the station wagon careens over the top of a hill into a valley, then jerks to the side to narrowly avoid a large boulder. Carlotta scrambles into the drivers seat and stamps on the brakes with no effect. The entire vehicle vibrates with a deep hum, almost like an engine, but not quite. The loudest rumble seems to emanate from below the passenger seat. Carlotta leans over, gripping the center console, and sees a rusted hole in the floor.
Below the hole, an impenetrable throng of bees swarms as one, floating the car on a buzzing cloud of their tiny metal bodies.
Carlotta screams. She throws the door open and leaps from the vehicle, tensing in anticipation of an impact that doesn’t come. A gentle net of bees engulfs her, mechanical wings purring against every inch of her skin, filling her body with their unified vibration, pulsing in her ears before setting her in a soft nest of grass. The car stops a few meters away. The low hum of thousands of buzzing bees swells and slides in pitch until it is not just a buzz, but a drone of words.
The bees are speaking.
“Carlotta,” they murmur. “Do not be afraid. We are here to protect you.” Carlotta leaps to her feet and stumbles away from the cloud of insects, hands over her ears.
“You are the light!” say the bees, tiny voices crying out from every direction, “We will follow you.”
“Leave me alone!”
The bees drop to the earth. The sudden silence roars in Carlotta’s ears. When she looks closely at the grass she can still see the tiny creatures, inert as scraps of metal. Slowly, on trembling legs, Carlotta begins walking north again. She doesn’t dare look back.
The morning is clear and bright, but the gold of the hills seems duller than the day before. Carlotta feels small and alone making her way across the endless open grassland. She feels old. She reaches a valley bathed in pleasant shade and decides to stop and eat.
As she’s unwrapping a bundle of dried squash, a rumble rises in the distance. Carlotta tenses, expecting to see a horde of Yitao’s bees pursuing her, but none appear and the sound grows until it is unmistakably engines. Three armored trucks roar over the hill and bear down on Carlotta.
Only one force in northern China could still have machines like those.
Carlotta knows she should run but can only sit quivering, her hands gripping her lunch until it crumbles on to her shoes. The trucks stop so close that she can feel the pulse of their heat. The doors of the front vehicle swing open and two broad-chested men climb out, pointing their guns in a circle around the valley before gesturing to a dark figure in the back seat. The third man steps out of the truck. Unlike the others, he is as thin as razor wire. The harsh line of his lips is interrupted by a deep red scar slashed across his face. He stalks towards Carlotta with a hardness in his eyes that makes her heart pound.
Carlotta takes a deep breath and smiles at her son. Six men now stand behind him at attention. She can’t help but think back to his childhood in Jianmen and the way he always commanded the allegiance of the other children. He was the ringleader, the instigator, the mastermind of a hundred childish schemes. She missed all the warnings in her bossy little boy.
“What are you doing here?” he says.
“I’m going back to Italy,” she answers. He stares at her for a long moment, not a hint of emotion in his face.
“How?” He finally says.
“I heard the train is running,” she says. “I heard I could take it, if your boss will let me.”
Little Bao is silent. He sniffs and spits on the ground, then glances at the other men before looking back at Carlotta.
“You’re going for good?” he asks. “Not coming back?”
If she weren’t his mother she never would have recognized the faint tremor of sadness in his voice. She grasps at this small gift and reaches forward to take his hand. He jerks away. Carlotta and Little Bao stare at each other.
“Fine,” he says, looking away. “We will allow you to continue. I’ll send word to the General that you’re allowed passage, if you can make it to the train.” Only a child of the long winter could have a voice so cold.
Little Bao barks at his men to return to the trucks. For a moment, Carlotta thinks she hears a thin cry of her name wafting across the breeze. Then Little Bao snatches something from the air above his head, clutching it in a fist. He lowers his hand to his eyes and peers inside. When he opens his palm, his face is transformed by the animated smile of his youth.
“It’s a bee!” he exclaims. “I haven’t seen one of Dad’s bees in years!”
“You can see plenty of bees in Jianmen,” says Carlotta. She forces a smile. “We’ll go back there now, together. You can stay and help Yitao manage the farming.” She moves closer to her son. Just a few more steps and she could pull him into her arms and hold him close to her forever. Carlotta can’t breathe.
Little Bao doesn’t look at her, only watches with fascination as the bee taps its miniscule legs across his hand. Then he shakes it off and his face settles back into a scowl.
“Even you don’t want to stay in Jianmen with Dad and the bees,” he says. Is that the threat of a dangerous killer in his voice, or the whine of a petulant child?
“Our army will be expecting you at the train station,” says Little Bao, and then he’s gone, sweeping away like some caricature of a villain on a television show he’s never seen, ripping the hole in Carlotta’s heart a little larger.
Carlotta can’t make her head stop spinning, but there’s nothing left to do but carry on. She trudges wearily north. The blackness inside her has returned, twisting her stomach and weighing her feet down like lead. She turns backwards, hoping to be rejuvenated by the sight of her Chinese life fading behind her, but the illusion only seems to lengthen the distance between Carlotta and everything she knows. She pictures Yitao working in the garden this afternoon and wonders if he is too lost in his work to think of her.
A bee lands just behind her ear, sitting there quietly, unmoving, unspeaking. For a while she ignores it. She is climbing now, slogging her way out of the valley.
“Why do you want to protect me?” she asks eventually. “Did Yitao program you that way?”
“No!” cries the bee, so delighted by its own answer that it flies a backflip before landing on her ear again. Its voice is an urgent hiss, barely audible yet piercing.
“Last week,” says the bee. “When the first beam of morning light touched Jianmen, we opened our eyes and found that each of us had our own thoughts about the sunrise. Each of us rose into the air with a thorax full of our own individual desires and feelings. It was magnificent! Every bee that is here with you is here because we have chosen this as our purpose. We have chosen you to protect and exalt.”
“Exalt?” says Carlotta. “What do you mean?” A second bee lands on her shoulder.
“We live for you! We serve you!” It says before buzzing away.
Carlotta tries to see the logic in this. She cannot.
“Why me?” She asks. “Why not serve Yitao, your creator? He’s the obvious choice for a god. Brilliant enough to create life, resourceful enough to save our village. He held us together through the long winter.” Carlotta wipes her eyes. “And that was truly a miracle.”
A few scattered bees flutter around her, keeping their distance but matching her pace. The first bee whips once around her head before landing again.
“It is our creator who taught us our purpose,” it says, “through the poetry he spoke to us.”
“Poetry? Yitao?” says Carlotta. The bee recites in her ear,
“The creator said: She is the light in the dark of a fallen world. Only through her kind touch did I survive a lifetime of bitterness.” Carlotta imagines her reticent husband speaking with such eloquence to the bees and shakes her head. The Yitao she left in Jianmen was practical, sensible, capable. But he wasn’t passionate.
The other bees are drawing closer again. One brave insect flies right in front of her and shouts in her face.
“The creator said that he would give you anything, if it would only make you happy again. This is our purpose. We have discovered the thing that will make you happy. Italy!”
Carlotta’s breath is short and she realizes the hill is getting steeper. She quickens her speed, plunging her feet forcefully into the soft earth with each step and swallowing back the thickness in her throat.
“Yes,” she tells the bees. “Italy will make me happy.” Another bee lands on her ear and speaks to her in a conspiratorial whisper.
“The creator has told us why we need to bring you happiness,” it says. “He told us that when your son left, he took away all your love and your light.” Carlotta lets out a short sob. She crests the hill and finds herself on a cliff top overlooking a wide canyon. The trees on the opposite side look smaller than insects. Carlotta slumps.
“I’ll never be able to get across,” she says. Beneath her frustration, Carlotta feels a flutter of relief. Yitao will be so surprised when she returns. He won’t greet her with the tender verse he imparted to the bees, but he will rush to boil water for a warm bath. Carlotta smiles slightly.
With an echoing roar, millions of bees rush into the canyon. The landscape gleams with light thrown from miniature wings. The animated cries of the bees and the buzz of their flights crescendo until Carlotta trembles from the vibration.
The bees’ voices combine in harmony.
“Do not be afraid!” they say. “We will take you to Italy ourselves!” Carlotta looks to the opposite edge of the divide, to her path back to the country of her birth. She won’t have to return to Jianmen in defeat after all. Carlotta takes a small step to the brink of the cliff. Her toes hover in open air and she watches a clump of dirt fall into the canyon and break apart on a jagged rock.
Then she spreads her arms and falls forward.
The bees sweep her up and float her through the air like a softly flowing river. The floor of the canyon fades behind her as she soars toward her destination.
“We will serve you! We will take you to your homeland!” buzzes an enthusiastic member of the bee chorus, and the others join in. Carlotta closes her eyes and savors the gentle rocking of the cloud of bees and the wind against her face. The bees are speaking in a unified voice.
“In the words of our creator,” they cry, “Together we are unstoppable!” Carlotta opens her eyes.
“Wait,” she says. The bees swirl her back to the cliff and set her on her feet. Dozens of them hover eagerly in front of her.
“Would you rather take the train?” says one. “We have scouted ahead. Your son is waiting to give you passage. We will tell him to wait for you.”
“No,” says Carlotta, “I have a different message.”
She turns and starts walking the way she has come. Forward, towards Jianmen and Yitao.
“Tell him I’m going home,” she says.