‘He’s burying something,’ whispered Mal.
Sam pushed through his brother’s legs and peered between the slats of a high fence. Their elderly neighbour, Mr Henry, was kneeling beside a patch of tall corn, his hair wild and un-brushed.
‘Sam and Malcolm Peters! Get yourselves away from there!’
Sam turned to see their mother glaring back at him. ‘Get back to your chores,’ she warned, her finger wagging. ‘I mean it.’
Their chores were vital. Sam knew that. Early every morning, he and Mal hiked up and down the long rows of their vegetable patch hand-pollinating their crops. At the moment it was the turn of the butternuts. It was Sam’s job to pinch out the stamens from the trumpet-shaped male flowers, and hand them gently to Mal. His brother then knelt down to brush the thick orange pollen into the females. It was a long, hot, boring task but one that needed doing if they wanted to taste the sweet flesh of roast pumpkin.
‘We should go,’ he began, but Mal wasn’t listening.
‘There!’ hissed Mal.
Old Mr Henry was clutching something to his chest, and Sam caught the bright glint of gold. ‘We have to go,’ he snapped.
Mal scowled. ‘Not until I know what he’s up to.’
Over the last two months, Mr Henry had been digging holes in amongst his corn and Mal was obsessed with finding out why.
‘Are you crazy?’ Sam whispered. ‘If he catches you, you’re finished.’ Mr Henry was a dangerous lunatic, according to their father, although their mother disagreed. ‘He’s just old and short-tempered,’ she’d say.
‘I bet he’s stealing our chickens,’ Mal said.
Sam rolled his eyes. Twice over the last two months, two of their precious chickens had gone missing. ‘You think he’s burying our chickens?’
‘Not the chickens.’ Mal lowered his voice. ‘Their bones.’
‘What if I’m right?’ demanded Mal. He widened his eyes. ‘What then?’
Sam smelt the rich, wood-smoky aroma of meat on a grill; the kind of smell that fills the mouth with saliva. ‘We need to finish our chores,’ he sighed. ‘Before Dad calls us in for breakfast.’
Mal grabbed his arm. ‘Not until you promise to help. Tonight.’
Sam stared back at his younger brother, stared at the rough callouses on his hands and the dirt ingrained under his nails. Working outdoors was hard, the hours long. He remembered how easy life used to be and how Mal at ten was too young to remember. How Mal had never known anything but hard work. ‘Ok.’ He ruffled his brother’s tangled black curls. ‘Tonight.’
They had to wait until after midnight and the air was still hot when Sam led Mal into a clear night, a bright full moon lighting their way. There was a light on in Mr Henry’s front room, too, a flickering of yellow behind a smudge of curtains.
‘Maybe we shouldn’t,’ began Sam, but Mal had already gone.
The fence felt warm beneath Sam’s fingertips, the smell of hot wood filling his nostrils as he climbed. As soon as his feet touched the ground on the other side, Mal pulled him between the low branches of an apricot. His teeth shone white in the moonlight. Sam wondered how his brother could be so calm. His own heart was beating so loudly he could hardly hear.
Together they crawled to the spot where they’d seen Mr Henry digging. Tiny insects whirred upwards and invisible creatures slithered through the leaves beneath their hands. When they started to dig, Sam felt his fear slide into excitement as a cylindrical object began to emerge. ‘What is it?’ he whispered.
‘THIEVES!’ bellowed a man’s voice.
Sam saw a hand, felt fingers curl around his arm and the world spun.
‘Run!’ he yelled.
Mr Henry grabbed both boys by the shoulder, shoving them firmly towards his back door. ‘Go on!’ he snarled. ‘Get inside!’
Sam sprawled headfirst into Mr Henry’s kitchen. He glimpsed odd black and yellow images; huge beasts with compound eyes and translucent wings.
‘What are they?’ cried out Mal.
The room was filled with bees; paintings and photographs, massive 3D models and delicate paper mobiles. There were thousands of them.
The sight made Sam dizzy. ‘Bees!’
‘Bees?’ repeated Mal.
‘You wouldn’t remember, kid.’ Mr Henry thrust out one hand. ‘Now, hand it over.’
Mal stared at the muddy object he had clasped to his chest. ‘What is it?’
‘Tough kid, huh?’ Mr Henry waggled his fingers, but Sam could see a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. ‘Give it to me and I might just show you.’
Mal reluctantly handed over the muddy lump.
Mr Henry wiped away the dirt to reveal a glass jar that shone like gold.
‘Samuel and Malcolm Peters?’
Sam spun around at the sound of a new voice – a man’s voice.
Sam’s parents were standing at the open back door. They looked half asleep and furious.
‘Could one of you please explain what’s going on?’ exclaimed their mother, but their father was staring open-mouthed at the jar in Mr Henry’s hand. ‘Is that real?’ he gasped.
Mr Henry looked amused. ‘Real, pure honey.’
Sam was stunned. ‘It can’t be. Only bees make honey. People can’t.’
Mal looked confused.
‘Bees are insects,’ explained Sam. He pointed to one of the huge black and yellow models.
‘Were,’ corrected Mr Henry angrily, ‘until humans wiped them out with pesticides and idiocy.’
‘You wouldn’t remember,’ added their mother. ‘You were only three when the last bees died.’
‘That’s when everything changed,’ sighed Sam. He could still remember. ‘When bees died, heaps of flowers died, too. The ones that need bees to spread their pollen.’ He ticked them off his fingers. ‘Raspberries, avocadoes, oranges, almonds, blueberries, apples—’ He thought about strawberries and groaned.
‘But we’ve got oranges—’ cut in Mal.
‘Only because you and Sam pollinate the flowers,’ said Mother.
Sam thought about the long hours he and Mal spent collecting the precious yellow dust. How they never got more than a handful of fruit. ‘Supermarkets used to be full of fruit. You could buy bags of oranges. Now a bag costs more than a television.’
‘That’s why our fences are so high,’ said Mother. ‘Food’s precious.’
‘Which is why I was hiding my honey.’ Mr Henry glared at Sam.
‘We weren’t trying to steal it,’ said Sam. ‘We thought you were burying bones.’ Saying it out loud made him feel foolish, so he explained about their missing chickens.
‘I see,’ chuckled Mr Henry. ‘No, I’m afraid I wasn’t burying bones. I’ve been digging up my honey.’ He pointed to a row of empty jars. ‘I was a beekeeper, once. When my bees started dying, I buried the honey to keep it safe. This is my very last jar.’
There was a quick, sharp pop as Mr Henry undid the lid. A sweet smell filled the room. ‘If I’m honest, I’m rather glad you’re here. I was getting rather tired having to eat it all by myself.’
Sam heard his father splutter.
The old beekeeper held out a teaspoon. On it a large lump of honey glistened like liquid gold. ‘Would you like to try some, Sam?’
Sam’s father let out a long breath. ‘Have you any idea how valuable that is?’
Mr Henry shrugged. ‘Last I heard, it was selling at around five million dollars a jar.’
Sam grinned at the look on his father’s face. He was still smiling as his lips gently slid the honey off the spoon. It was even more delicious than he remembered. He closed his eyes and let the soft mass sit on his tongue. Very gradually, the warm treacly flavours began to dissolve. It was almost unbelievable how something so small could create something so wonderful. And sad that people hadn’t made more of an effort to protect it.
‘If bees were so important, why didn’t someone look after them?’ demanded Mal.
Sam shook his head. ‘I don’t know.’
‘I would have,’ said Mal fiercely.
‘Will bees ever come back?’ asked Mal the following morning. They were standing in a patch of waist-high weeds, helping Mr Henry clear a strip of land; a punishment of sorts.
Mr Henry nodded. ‘In my professional opinion, yes. There are many hidden places in the world and many scientists searching for hidden bees.’ He indicated a white box on four narrow legs. ‘And when they return the world will need hives, and beekeepers to protect them.’
The way he said it made Sam’s heart skip. ‘You want us to become beekeepers?’
‘Would you like that?’ said Mr Henry.
Sam pictured jars filled with rich, golden honey, and his mouth began to water. ‘You could teach us?’ he said.
Mr Henry smiled. ‘If you’d like?’
Sam could think of nothing he’d like more.