This man is our home. We tickle his lungs with our wings. The sun always leads us back to him and, on our return, we dance our furred bodies on his tongue.
Home rents a studio flat on the first floor of a Victorian house in Stoke Newington. It is large enough for a single bed against one wall, a kitchen squeezed along the opposite wall with cupboards overhead for his pasta and tins of soup, and a pine clothes chest in the corner.
Balanced on top of the chest: Home’s slippers and both pairs of shoes, a stack of handkerchiefs, a dusty record player, and a framed photograph of a human who looks like a smaller, rounder Home without the grey in his hair.
We have not met this human.
Home’s waistcoat (which he never wears) and his white cotton apron and cap (which he wears every day at the bakery) hang on the back of the door. There is always a small patch of flour on the threshold.
Home’s garden is a tray on the windowsill. If he remembers to water the tray, it makes Home’s flat smell of basil, parsley, and thyme, depending on where we fly.
It is not large enough for Home to build us a wooden hive.
Instead, he invited us into the vestigial hollows that he does not need. There was plenty of room inside Home. Our queen nested in his appendix. This was the first space he gave to us and it was perfect for her: a snug tunnel branching off between his small and large intestines. We made it ready before her arrival, coating it with wax until it felt strong and smooth as the queen cup she hatched in. When it was done, a hush fell: a collective stilling of our wings as we watched her land. She settled in with a sigh. Home barely noticed.
We did not want to start taking ribs but our queen lays two thousand eggs each day and we were forced to build a cone for them to hatch and grow. Only the two uppermost ribs though, so the cone just nudges his throat. Larvae uncoil their chubby white bodies in geometric cells glued to his windpipe. We only take as much as we need.
He needs us too. Home used to make a lot of tears. We watched him before we moved in, scouted him from the crack in the kitchen’s middle cupboard and the pocket of his apron where we hid among the breadcrumbs. One of us followed the curl of his glasses round the back of his ear. One nested in his stack of handkerchiefs, although these always ended up damp and crumpled on the floor, in the gap between bed and fridge. In the evenings, we saw him curl up on the bed, with his hands, still dusted with flour, over his face.
Rent is expensive in this city but we pay him well: he never weeps salt any more. Only sweetness. We take away the sting and fashion it into honey behind his eyes so it trickles down his cheeks, catching in the stubble.
This year, Home has been weeping less. A woman comes to Home’s flat. We do not like her. She makes him smile and she makes him laugh and this means his ribs shake, sending tremors through our foundations. This is not good for our hive. Home still uses his handkerchiefs, but he does not leave them on the floor where the woman would see them; he takes them to the launderette to wash away the crusted honey stains.
The woman does not think we are good for Home. She has swatted at us with rolled-up newspapers and picked our larvae from his throat with her glossy fingernails. One morning, she made a pot of tea and sat on the edge of Home’s bed, waiting for him to flip fried eggs onto two slices of toast. Wrapped round her mug, the woman’s hands were covered in sticking plasters and a pink rash, because each time she touches Home’s chest we sting her fingers.
The first time we did this she just laughed and kissed his cheek with its trace of sweetness and said, I don’t mind. Now there are a pair of tweezers in a teacup next to the bed, where there used to be crumpled handkerchiefs. Home uses them to remove our stings. He is becoming ungrateful.
When Home sat too, settling onto the creaking mattress, they balanced trays on their knees. With her sore fingers, the woman shook pepper onto her eggs. She took a sip of her tea. Still gazing into her mug, she said, tell me how I can help.
Home is loyal to us though, and we value loyalty. He pushed yolk around his plate and stirred his tea even though we know that he doesn’t take sugar. He said, they’re a bit runny in the middle, I hope you don’t mind.
She slid her tray onto the quilt and a hand over his hand and said, what can I do?
We hummed in agreement as he shushed her. Don’t worry about me, said Home. He squeezed her hand and she winced at the pressure on her stings.
Don’t worry, we echoed, at a frequency they do not understand but they do feel. We oil his kneecaps with wax now, and polish his shoulder blades with our footpads. We mind his spine as if it were ours. We live here. You will never know him as well as we do.
I am worried, said the woman.
They don’t nest anywhere important, said Home, tugging down the sleeves of his dressing gown. If you look closely at the thin skin on the inside of wrists, you will see we have tidied his meandering veins into hexagons.
He said, I could smoke them out any time, if I wanted to.
Could you, she said. We felt her mug shaking slightly in her hands. She drew her tray back onto her knees and stabbed at her toast. They finished their eggs in silence.
Before he washed their plates, Home kissed the woman’s fingers one by one. She held them out stiffly as he tweezed another sting and stroked on another plaster. With fingers already careful from rolling croissants and plaiting dough, he is learning to ease out the stinger without spilling our venom. Workers are dying for nothing; we will have to try harder.
Home turned on the hot tap to fill the sink and the gushing of the water covered the sound of our wings as, behind his back, we swarmed the woman’s head. She sighed and got up to put Home’s milk back in his fridge; she is used to shaking us off.
There is a handwritten recipe stuck to the fridge. The recipe is from the time that the woman put on a jazz record and Home’s apron, with a knot in the neck loop to make it fit, and baked honey-orange madeleines. The paper is still sticky with orange juice and honey, but she doesn’t bake with honey any more, not since we took the rest of Home’s ribs.
We only take what we need, but Home’s heart is swelling. Our wax walls are strained by its heat and the shudder of its pulse. They needed reinforcing. Now his ribs are beams.
The woman closed the fridge and rested her head on Home’s shoulder, shifting when one of us crawled onto her neck. Drying his hands on a tea towel, Home remembered the new key.
The woman scratched at her stings while Home fetched the key from a hook on the wall. There are two other, identical keys hanging on the hook and Home has labelled them with question marks because he does not know why they do not let the woman into the flat. We know, because it is our workers who take turns to hover in the keyhole whenever we hear the woman’s soft step and the jangle as she reaches into her pocket.
After the woman kissed Home’s cheek and let herself out, Home sank onto the bed and whispered to us.
I need my heart back, he said, just the heart.
We know this. But we need it. We have moved our queen there. She lounges, massive and serene. Eggs are laid in his atria and honey is pumped through his arteries. Home does not tell the woman this, but she can tell that she is sharing his heart. We shined it with royal jelly so that her fingers slip from it.
That night, Home sat awake past midnight. Reaching into his chest, he held lit matches to all the cavities we nest in. Our columns softened; our perfect tessellations began to sag. Melted wax seeped stinging from his pores. Our feet pattered frantic on his heart as we rushed to tend to our queen. His skin singed. Larvae blistered and burst.
Home fell asleep bleeding flakes of our nest and coughing charcoal. For three days afterwards, we stopped crafting honey while we brushed the crumbled hallways of our Home, buzzing a deep grumble through his bones so he knew he had hurt us. We thought, we have never had to sting him before but we might have to. He cried salt tears again; let him remember how he misses us.
We still watch through the keyhole when the woman arrives, although she has stopped trying the key. The next time she came to our flat, she eased off her gloves at the door and stowed them away in her handbag before ringing the bell — the gloves she has begun to wear so she does not have to explain her puffy, blistered fingers.
I told you, Home swept through the door in his apron and covered the woman in flour, I told you I could make them leave any time.
All of them?
Home stepped back, put his hands in his apron pockets. He said, a few of them won’t do me any harm. Just a small hive. But they’re gone from my heart.
The woman did not speak. She put her arms around Home but she did not look at him. When she put her ear to his chest the beat was faint beneath our buzz.
Home spoke into her ear, told her, there’s room for you here now.
The woman let go. Yes, she said, maybe.
We are leaving soon. The woman’s breath is like smoke in Home’s lungs and our queen deserves better. Home can feel our agitation, a rumble all the way to his toes. Workers are engorging themselves with honey to prepare for our new home and for this, we must feed on him, so he is tired. We are good tenants; it is the least he owes us.
The woman has started to wear netting over her face when she visits. She is tired too. We can hear her treading along the corridor to our flat again; let’s sticky her hair with honey as Home lets her in.
Don’t bother brushing it out, she says.
Home holds her elbows, avoiding her hands. He tells her that we are leaving, really this time, and she smiles beneath her netting but she is shaking her head. When he lifts the netting to kiss her, she brushes his hand away as if it was one of us.
We can tell she is restless too. We can hear what they can’t: the unhappy hum of her wings. There is not room for all of us here. The woman squeezes between the clothes chest and the foot of the bed to open the curtains. She stays gazing out at the snow-capped roofs, slowly shreds a basil leaf from Home’s herb tray. Its fresh scent rises through the sickly sweetness that Home breathes out.
Aren’t they supposed to die in the winter? she says.
Home puts a hand on the woman’s shoulder. He says that they can move somewhere far away, outside the city — somewhere with a field out the back that smells of soil and wildflowers.
There, he says, there I will be able to smoke them out. There will be space.
She says she thinks she needs some space. The next day, the woman leaves the flat before dawn.
Her recipe has been unstuck from beneath its magnet and everything that smelt of the woman and not of honey is gone from the flat. All that is left is a teacup, with a pair of tweezers leaning against its rim.
Home will wake up with a quiet in his chest and the woman will not read the letter he writes, telling her that we have left.