Fiction by Kelle Schillaci Clarke
Three bees come in on his sleeve. They start small but quickly transform in her mind into the size of calliope hummingbirds, thrashing around in the tent’s thick, humid air, slamming their fuzzy bodies against the canvas walls while she ducks and hides.
“Hey little fella,” he says, gently cupping his hands to catch one, while she cowers beneath a sleeping bag. There aren’t many things she’s afraid of, but bees rank high on the short list. He releases the first bee through the small tear in the screen-window. Same with the second, and the tent goes silent. But she knows the last one is still in there.
He reaches for her hand but it’s tightly clenched, so he pulls her arm instead, his grip leaving round white marks on her skin, but she’s used to that. She pulls away.
“He won’t bother us,” he says, taking a seat on the deflated air mattress.
They’d spent the morning in silence, hiking and bird-watching – ospreys, owls, red tail hawks, all powerful birds of prey, beaks designed to tear flesh. He’d been searching the skies for a California condor, she for fast-moving peregrines, both listening to the warning cries of canyon wrens flooding the canyon bowl before their calls were promptly quieted by thunder.
It had down-poured the entire run back to their campsite. Neither had remembered to grab condoms at the Texaco in Williams the day before; still, they’d rushed for the tent, soaked to bones, lust having somehow replenished itself during their morning silence, drawing them back together, peeling pants and thermals like reptile skins, wrapping bodies in one other. He’d rolled over and his upper thigh came down on the handle of the knife he’d left in the pocket of his shorts. The blade tip plunged deep into the air mattress, a nearly impenetrable thing.
“My god,” she’d said, pulling away from him to examine the gash as the mattress spilled air with a hiss. “You could have been really hurt.” I could have been hurt, she’d also meant to say.
“Shit,” he’d said, tugging a rumpled shirt over his slim chest. It stunk of smoke, sweat, burnt fish and bourbon. “We’ll need a new mattress.” He’d stepped out to have a smoke and throw fresh wood on the dying campfire, and when he’d come back in the tent, the bees came in with him.
“It reeks in here,” she says, standing up and shaking her sleeping bag. No bee. “It’s no wonder we’re attracting insects.” The rain has stopped, but the humidity in the tent is unbearable. She steps out, the air cool and wet with mist. Woodsmoke burns her eyes.
“I bet we’re the only people to visit the Grand Canyon and not take a single picture,” she says. The giant hole had been shrouded in thick fog.
“Not like anyone would recognize it, anyhow,” she goes on, watching as a coyote trots across their site, past the metal-rimmed firepit where they’d fought again the night before, one of their worst so far. Luckily, no one had been around to hear them this time, or try to stop them. They’d needed the hours of trail silence that morning to recalibrate, come back together. “Maybe we can try again later this afternoon.” He is folding the deflated mattress, silent.
They did better in the evenings if they hiked to the point of exhaustion all day, which was why they’d chosen to camp. Both of them, like dogs, needing to be walked, so that by nightfall they wouldn’t completely destroy each other. She perks at the sound of gravel being displaced somewhere just out of sight, and moments later a large white pick-up truck weaves down the narrow path toward the campsites. Attached to its hitch is a small trailer covered with stickers from national parks, white decals of two large and three small stick figure people, a stick figure dog, and a bumper sticker that says “Our Dog Rescued Us,” with a kid-drawn paw print.
“I think it’s time to move on,” he says, stepping out of the tent and glaring at the truck. He likes privacy. He likes no one for miles. He is cupping his hands together, as if in prayer. When he pulls them apart, the final bee escapes into the air, having now in her imagination taken on the size and shape of a goldfinch, her favorite small bird. She watches it spiral upwards like smoke until disappearing safely into the silver sky, and her own tiny bird-bones ache, wondering where they’ll end up next. How and where she’ll fall asleep tonight. The truck and trailer roll on by, a father waving his hand at her through a rolled down window as his heavy tires crunch through gravel.
“Me, too,” she says, waving vaguely into the air then picking up the bucket they’d left out to collect rain water, using it to extinguish the fire he’d just started.