Ethan hadn’t spotted a single honeybee in two summers. The bee may not have seen a person for some time, either, or maybe ever. It must have thought he was some kind of flower, because it landed on his nose. Ethan couldn’t help crossing his eyes. In Ethan’s doubled vision, the twin fuzzy black-and-yellow-striped insects patrolled the ends of his two noses on six fiddly legs, probing for pollen with wiry antennas. Maybe the bee would get frustrated by Ethan’s un-flower-like face and sting him. Maybe not. Ethan’s surprise and curiosity doused any fear he may have felt. Where there were bees, there were flowers in need of pollination, and where there were blossoming plants, there might be water. Ethan braced himself to spring into action.
The bee buzzed its wings a couple of times. It hopped from one side of his nose to the other. Finally it leapt into the air and skimmed over the fence rails, around the end of the pasture, and across the thatch-dry meadow toward the trees. Ethan hopped over the fences and chased after it.
The bee darted left around one tree and right around the next. Ethan had to run at top speed to keep up. At one moment he thought he’d lost track of the bee. But then its yellow and black banded abdomen flickered in the sunbeams that streamed down through sparse leaves clinging to the treetops.
The bee spiraled up, round and round the stout trunk of a tall maple. If there was a hive up there, then the bees must have had a good reason for choosing this spot.
The lowest branch was just out of reach. Ethan stepped onto the tree’s largest root. Stretching himself to the limits of his skin and bones, he got a grip, swung his legs up, and wrapped them around the branch.
He hoisted himself branch by branch, until he spotted a hole in the tree trunk a little overhead. Bees flew in and out through the opening. From below he couldn’t yet see inside the tree hollow. One thing was for sure: if it held a big thriving colony the bees had found flowering plants nearby full of nectar for making honey, and where there were flowers there must be water. For a better look he crept up branch by branch toward the hive, moving slowly so as not to alarm the hive and get himself stung.
A steady buzzing told him it was a big colony, with thousands of bees. A few circled around him. He remained perfectly still and waited for the bees, like the scout he’d followed back to the hive, to lose interest in him.
From his high perch, Ethan could see for many miles in all directions. There were other trees like the ones around him, small groups of sparsely leafed oaks and maples that had tapped into enough underground moisture to barely survive the drought, but mostly dusty brown expanses dotted with gray mounds where the last of the bison, cattle, and goats had chewed grasses to the nub. A whirling brown column stretched up into the sky like a miniature tornado, a dust devil, gliding along, sweeping up into the air and scattering decayed leaves and stalks. A daytime crescent moon hung overhead, the kind of moon you’re hardly likely to notice on a clear bright day.
In the distance, a brown plume stretched out along the horizon. Although he couldn’t yet make out the shape of the buckboard or draft horse or Father driving, their route was marked by the dust the wagon wheels churned into the air. Father would be home within an hour, with a load of fresh food—maybe even some apples.
While he’d climbed up the tree, Ethan had stretched himself from toes to fingertips to reach branches he could grip well enough to pull himself up. Getting down would be tricky. He looked for a route where he could more easily reach from limb to limb. The old tree had half a dozen stumps from branches lost to windstorms or rot but no longer had the dense growth Ethan needed to safely traverse from crown to ground.
A raven landed in a nearby tree. A startled squirrel scurried out toward the end of a springy branch, which bent under its weight, bringing it close to a branch on Ethan’s tree. The squirrel hopped over and continued on in the same fashion to the next tree, and then darted down the trunk, its tail ribboning behind.
Ethan spotted a pair of reachable branches where he could use the squirrel’s trick. Using three stubby branches as toe- and handholds, he edged his way around the trunk. He straddled the limb and scooted out toward its end. As he’d hoped, the branch began to arch down toward the awaiting target limb on the next tree. He leaned over, grabbed it, and pulled himself onto it. The branch he’d left swept gracefully up and away, rustling its sparse leaves as if whispering farewell. By the fourth tree, Ethan had nearly reached the ground. Not low enough to step off, he prepared to jump. He was looking for a safe place to land, free of rocks, when he saw something odd. The moon appeared below him, peeking through scattered dry leaves. A reflection. A puddle. Water.