The soles on Sam’s first pair of shoes are worn and cracked, and she is tired. She craves rest, because the way home is long. Light reflects off tall stained glass windows, and because there were none of those in the research colony, Sam is curious, stops, walks away from the road, and enters the building.
Years and miles ago, when Sam first came to the research colony, she was useful, and being useful helped keep her mind from drifting to the past. Sam knew how to use a microscope, how to navigate a lab, how to read colored graphs and the hues of chemical indicators. She thought she’d never leave the research colony, would live there and find happiness with the other survivors, with all the others who had been uprooted by the silence of loss like herself.
A month before Sam decided to leave, she was told to stay out of the lab, to take care of herself instead, to let others pursue as work what Sam pursues as love. They did not call her redundant, not to her face. To her face, they offered silent compassion. It took Sam a month to realize the research colony was not home, never had been, to realize she was never going back to the lab and would never find the kind of happiness to replace the science, the kind of happiness that warms the skin like touch. To understand in her heart as well as her head that the loss of sight was final. When she left the research colony at the end of that month and had to walk through the fields of silence, the fields where those that never were invited inside still lay as plunder for the ravens, Sam knew she would never return, because some of the silence would always cast an echo into the colony itself.
Much of the glass in the church is broken, but some of the windows still hold their ancient pictures. Sam wipes the dust of disuse from a spot in the pews and sits, looks from her scuffed shoes that were new not too long ago up to the pictures. She doesn’t know what the painted glass is meant to tell her, but the wonder of people, even glass people, is striking. The glass world, the world the windows show, seems full and colorful, as if it stretches, as if you could meet another person around every corner. The light is dyed in colors and spills the images over the dirty church floor, a kaleidoscope copy of the windows themselves. This bright shadow of colored light makes Sam forget that glass worlds, all worlds, are brittle.
The windows make touch look normal, ordinary. The last time Sam was touched by another human was almost three months ago. They took her blood, and they wore gloves. There are antibodies in her blood, just like there should be in those that survived an infection. If Sam concentrates, she can feel her arm grow warm from the touch. Even after all this time, the memory of touch still lingers while the memory of sight has dulled, the faces overexposed by time. Nothing in Sam’s blood is responsible for Sam’s fading vision, that’s genetic. She barely felt the needle rip her skin when they took her blood. It was the touch she felt.
Sam is one of the lucky ones. She was young, barely in school three years, when the diseases spread, two viruses that crossed paths in the bleeding bowels of humanity like two edges of the same sword. Her mother and father were both scientists, her father was a doctor. They understood the need to stay away from where people gathered, malls, playgrounds, fairs, the outside world. Everything Sam knows she owes to her parents, who taught her to read and write, to love math and science.
Many of Sam’s generation only learned reading and writing and science once they settled in the research colony, and most of them never learned to love those things. Back home, before the colony, Sam had seen her parents love them, and so that love came easy to her as well.
A flyer rests under a layer of dust, an arm’s length from where Sam is sitting and staring at the glass. The end is nigh, it warns. The end is already past and done. Sam, like most survivors her age, came to the research colony an orphan.
Sam looks at the windows and the silent shards below them where stories lie scattered; test tubes scattered on the floor, broken, because she didn’t see, that’s how it started. “Glass, like touch, can cut,” Sam says, startled by the echo the building offers. The doctor, when he told Sam of the unavoidable loss of sight, held her hand where the broken test tubes had sliced it open, and of that touch, Sam remembers only pain. Her need for rest smothered by the memory of loss, she picks up the flyer, tears it in two, and leaves the empty room to the play of shadow and light.
It has gotten easier, the walking. Sam is on her second pair of shoes. It is an open garden gate and not the need for rest that pulls her away from the road, because the wrought curls of metal flowers shake a memory loose in Sam’s mind: the garden gate at home where she grew up and learned to love science looks exactly like this. Sam’s father once decorated it with balloons for her birthday, yellow and red and blue ones. Past the gate, the air smells sweet, and a house sits there, shaded by trees.
Sam would have tried the front door, but humming makes her take a garden path overgrown with weeds. When she sees the beekeeper, Sam stops, stunned at the presence of another survivor. The beekeeper turns, sees Sam, but doesn’t stop in her work. Sam approaches.
“I do not get visitors,” the beekeeper says.
Sam nods, uncertain whether the beekeeper’s voice is reproachful or annoyed.
“I’m from the research colony. I was walking by, then I saw the open garden gate.”
The beekeeper examines her, the woman’s strange hat dipping down and going up. “So you walked all the way here? I considered going myself when they broadcast their invitation, but I liked it here. You must have been walking for months.” Constant humming sheathes the beekeeper even more than her bee suit, the hat with the dark veil, the pale overalls. The garden is lush, glossy, a contrast to the almost uncanny guardian of bees.
“I wanted to do it. And I’m used to the walking by now.”
The beekeeper is old. Not old, exactly. Gray age didn’t survive the viruses. Relatively speaking, she is old, Sam’s father would have said. Sam can hardly make out the lines of the beekeeper’s face behind the veil, but what she sees is harsh and hard, and the humming doesn’t hide it.
“You could have taken a car. Surely they have those still running up there in the research colony.”
There is disapproval in the beekeeper’s voice, distaste, when she says research colony. On an intellectual level, Sam understands that not every survivor wishes to come to the colony, that some brave the world alone or in small groups. Sam used to think it an unfathomable choice, the loneliness, the memories lurking around every corner, but seeing the beekeeper now, a part of Sam reconsiders.
After all, I left.
The beekeeper opens a hive and pulls out a wax encrusted slab. Honey trails the frame and falls to the ground. The bees buzz. To Sam, who doesn’t dare come closer, they sound angry, for they have been disturbed.
A bee flies over to Sam’s hand. The bee lands on the knuckle of Sam’s index finger, and Sam holds her breath the way one does before a kiss. She lets the insect explore, taste her summer warm skin. The bee’s colors amaze Sam, so much detail in such a small body, and Sam tries to taste the details with her failing sight as if the yellow and black bands were rare candy. “I don’t know how to drive.”
This makes the beekeeper chuckle, a noise like the humming of her bees. “It’s really not that hard when there’s no traffic. Come, let’s eat.” She carries the honeycombed frame into her house. Inside, the house feels hollow. It makes Sam wonder what a single bee would do with one of the beekeeper’s frames all to herself.
Past the threshold, the house is full of echoes. “Did you always live here?” Sam asks.
The beekeeper takes off her hat. A bee falls to the ground, dead. “No. But it’s a good place. Lots of stairs, though. Did you ever think of just stopping?”
Sam shakes her head. “No. I want to go back home. Not the colony, home before that. And walking isn’t all that bad; you see so much.” So many colors, so many shapes. Sam would never abandon the sights to either side of the road. She wants to see as much of a world she never traveled as she can before her sight is lost.
The beekeeper’s veil also veils her view of the reality outside of her hives and her honey, Sam realizes as the black gauze of it brushes against the floor and settles next to the dead bee.
“I guess that’s true,” says the beekeeper as she slips her pale bee suit off. It is a hiding place, this suit, Sam realizes. More dead bees hit the floor, joining the one next to the hat.
Sam cannot help staring. The way the beekeeper moves reminds Sam of the small insects themselves, of the vibrato of their wings, the strange geometry of their dance. The beekeeper catches her watching and smiles, an expression that seems foreign to her face. The house is full of echoes, even if no bees live inside.
The slickness of the beekeeper’s honey still clings to Sam’s skin, but she had to leave, knew from the moment she heard the echoes that she could not stay in that house and pretend it was a hive. The morning after, the beekeeper left the bed and put on her suit, and Sam felt the touches they had exchanged fade to memory and glass.
The beekeeper had hardly any books in her house, and those that slept on the shelves hadn’t been hers. Sam did not feel bad about taking some of them after she put on shoes to continue her walk.
Rain pours down on Sam. It has done so for about an hour, and the beekeeper’s house, the beekeeper’s bed, would be welcome now that Sam is properly frozen through, even if the beekeeper never shed her suit again. Even the research colony would be welcome.
Sam shakes her head, dislodges raindrops from her hood, memories from her head, and false desires from her heart. No, the beekeeper’s bed would not be welcome, that bed was a lonely frame made to hold only a single bee, and the colony would not be welcome either; without the lab, the research colony is just an empty bed in a small apartment ruled by silence. Not even two thousand people live in the colony.
Sam stops in the downpour. There is no sound but the rain, and the rain does little to mute that looming silence in this largely humanless world. Sam screams at the top of her lungs. Her scream doesn’t scare animals, because they were smart enough to find shelter from the rain, but it feels good, being noisy. Even if no one else knows about it. Even if the scream, like a koan, might be a noise without a sound.
Bruises are a marvel of color. They are a marvel of pain, too, but the colors fascinate Sam. They start with the reds of freshly torn vessels, then fade to purplish hues of blues and blacks before the skin emerges under greenish yellows. Sam’s vision is getting worse, and so the number of bruises she gets to examine increases. She is on her fourth pair of shoes.
Today she stops at a park for food she took off a shelf half a pair of shoes ago. Tearing the plastic gives Sam a moment, just that moment between the plastic being whole and then not, when she can imagine the world never changed. In that moment, there exists the possibility that life so far has been a bad dream, that once the plastic is torn, there will be another plastic-portioned morsel to be grabbed just around the corner.
The food inside tastes like the sacred past of a birthday party and colorful balloons, like an invitation on the garden gate. The taste stirs these memories like glass, stained, broken, and containing a world within: friends from school in pigtails and with chocolate lining their lips. Party hats. Enough candy to fill the largest bowl in the kitchen.
As she eats, Sam distracts herself from crying by tracing the shadows the sunlight casts as it breaks through wild growing trees and grasses that have even conquered half of the bench Sam sits on. She chews slowly and doesn’t think about her friend who laughed and wore a party hat and years later kissed Sam until she blushed, because now, that friend is silent and dead.
“I am eating a museum piece,” Sam tells a red chested bird that has decided to land on the bench next to her, curious. “Would you also like to eat parts of this exhibit?” She breaks off crumbs and places her offering in front of the bird, who tries it, then looks up at her for more. The bird’s eyes and clawed feet are blurry, the colors that dye its feathers unset watercolors. “You can’t be greedy, you have to savor this,” Sam says, but shares with the bird all the same.
After the food, Sam pulls a book from her backpack, the last one she still carries with her from the beekeeper’s house. Her nose almost touches the page, and she squints to make the words come into focus. Sam reads aloud to the bird the story of a girl not unlike Sam, a girl walking a road that promises magic at its end. The bird flies off somewhere in the middle of the last chapter, but Sam reads all of it out loud regardless as if her tongue were trying to cast the letters’ shapes into her memory.
When Sam is done reading, and the girl in the story has reached the end of the road, which is not magic at all, just home, Sam knows she should leave the book there instead of carrying unnecessary weight. She thinks she has learned this, not to carry her losses with her and burden herself with stories that are but silence after the last page is read, but she cannot bear to leave the book.
Sunset would always bring the brightest colors, and Sam loves it best of all the times of day. She can make out the colors still, even if the lines the clouds draw in the fading light have gone blurry. Sam no longer reads, and while she manages not to cry for sunsets, today she is finally crying for books.
It is the first time she has cried since she was told her vision would go; the tears seem to have waited, to have gathered, and now they cannot be stopped.
She sits down on a couch that isn’t hers in a house that isn’t hers, with a book she found there open on her lap. Her eyes just will not let her read it. The pages give her only silence, no more words, and no more stories. And so Sam cries and cries. She falls asleep on the couch, and in the morning she puts the silent book she’ll never read aside, focuses on walking instead.
There are smells of grass and pollen, earth. She tries to feel the ground beneath her feet, soft grass, asphalt, gravel. She has found a stick by the road, and finally resigns herself to using it to navigate the world. When she could still read, Sam did not submit to relying on a stick, but now that her books are gone, she allows herself this crutch.
It will not be long now, not long at all, until darkness falls.
The garden wall is too high to climb, but the gate is still unlocked. For a moment, the touch of the gate’s iron makes Sam remember the beekeeper, who might have forgotten Sam the morning she left; after all, they only shared one night.
The gate opens easily at first, then sticks a little, just like Sam remembers. She had not thought that she would ever return here, to the place where she grew up. When she left this place, she had thought that she would find a new home in the research colony, a home and something meaningful to do, a home filled with shared happiness. When her feet start down the garden path, Sam remembers that she knew happiness here: party hats, balloons, the sour-sweet novelty of her first crush. Learning to love science. She also remembers silence.
That day, the silence had woken her. The painful sounds of hard-won breathing had gone, and outside, the demands of ravens echoed. That day, Sam had found herself an orphan. The proof lay there on soft pillows, blanket-wrapped, and in her memory, Sam’s own cries turned to haunting echoes. She fled from the memory as if it were a weight she shouldn’t carry, but silence cannot be outrun. Like the girl in the story Sam read to the bird, Sam’s own road ends where it started.
The gate creaks, a sharp, bright noise of metal. The garden path echoes back Sam’s footfalls and the regular tapping of her stick. She will find something better than this stick; the attic is full of things, things her father stashed there from his practice. The attic will smell of dust and warmth now, and Sam is already looking forward to being up there. She is looking forward already to taking off her shoes.
As Sam reaches the steps that lead up to the front door, the scent of lilies welcomes her. Her mother planted these, years ago, and on an impulse, Sam turns toward where she knows the flowers grow. Her hands find them even closer than she expects, the heads bobbing toward her in the wind. Sam kneels in the dirt and reaches for them. She doesn’t remember what color they are. The petals are soft, and Sam brushes her lips across them, sure that pollen will line her hands. She kisses the flower, a kiss meant for the woman that planted them.
The vibrato of wings brushes against her lips, and Sam remembers a body banded yellow and black. The insect hums, but does not move to reward Sam’s kiss with a sting.
Sam pulls back, but the hum follows her as she climbs the steps and opens the door, goes inside. There will be no insect bodies scattered in her home, Sam swears, no echoes loud inside the house, and no more shattering silence. She feels around, familiarizing her arms and feet with corners and furniture. Sam remembers easily where things are, and with the bee humming, she realizes that she has already forgotten her tiny, silent apartment back at the colony.
Sam takes off her backpack, places it by the stairs and pulls out the book, the last she ever read. She finds her way to the family room to place the book on the mantel, right next to the picture frames. When she feels light fall inside through the window glass, Sam smiles and begins to hum along with the bee, the melody of home.