The queen was my job. I had to keep her warm to keep her alive. I hoped my purple fingers could circulate enough heat to supply her sufficiently before she was reunited with her family; their tiny honey-making bodies were full of burning energy designed to keep her warm, unlike my body that was struggling to do its job of keeping me warm, since I denied what it needed day after day.
“You could die. People die from this.” Not until I was eating again and my skin had lost its purple sheen did I feel the shivers of fear, the tip of a cold sewing needle catching across taut skin that came with closeness to death. Actual death. Real-life death. I was too lost in jealousy of those who could be thin without their stomachs being stabbed with hunger, and a wicked satisfaction as my clothes seemed to grow around me. Shirts sagged, I tied my pants up on both sides; they still fell down.
My body buzzed. It was so tired. I imagined this must be how the worker bees felt after spending their lives in service. I read about how they died. If they made it to a ripe old age, their wings simply fell off, worked from their bodies like rubber worn from a tire.
Papa shook fourteen thousand bees from their travel box into an empty hive. They fell in clumps. The buzzing swelled. Legs clung to legs, tiny bodies buzzed against other tiny bodies, antennae wheeled around and around. Pheromones filled the air, smelling of honey and the Main Street antique shops that my grandmother loved. Bees swarmed in clumps over the frames, filling the hive. Their dusty bodies were the color of sunshine, programmed not just to survive but to thrive. I felt them land on me. With velcro legs they stuck to my clothing, ripping themselves away with flight that they had been denied for weeks, locked up in their travel box.
I was the only one binding my wings. I was hoping that the box I had built around myself would take me somewhere. Somewhere that I could be just right. Where I could love my body because it was exactly how I wanted it. I had been effectively starving myself for six months. I was cold and had been for long enough that I couldn’t count on my fingers how many times I had stood so close to the fire that my legs turned red. I was also proud. Every calorie I turned away heightened my rank. My skin was tinted lavender. It peeled like old paint, cold and powdery. I was succeeding. The satisfaction that came when my pen scratched I haven’t eaten in three days into my journal felt worth every second of agony my body put me through as it screamed at me to stop killing myself. I don’t think I knew I was killing myself. Neither do I think that embracing that knowledge would have made me stop.
The queen’s wings were paper thin. They sent tiny currents of air into my cupped hands. Inside her plastic cage, her long, soft body heaved. I felt the tickle of her legs against my palm as her feet slipped on the plastic walls. I felt my own feet slip when I walked, as if maybe I would fall. The world would shift like a pixilated puzzle, sliding, then rearranging itself. All of my strength was locked inside my skull, and it pounded the walls, shouting to be let out. The queen crawled back and forth, searching for an exit.
Labeling her royalty, a purple dot was dabbed onto her shiny thorax. With a single finger of each hand, the beekeeper could lift a frame, and when his eyes swept over a thousand bees and stopped on the purple dot, he would know his queen was well.
I wore the same shade of purple dusted across my skin, showing my ultimate power. Less dignified than the queen’s, perhaps, but just as noticeable. I wrapped it around myself in layers, one cold week after the next, with sick pride. Every night I gave my mother a hug. Every night I felt her fingers focus on my frail body. They ran up and down my spine, a mountain range rising from the sea of my back. Her fingers buzzed, she was mortified. I broke the hugs in two, pushing her away. I was satisfied.
In the depth of my starving insides, I knew I was not the only one. Not the only one who ached unless I slept, who waited and waited and waited … for what to happen? What were we waiting for? We who sacrificed our living moments to look new, fresh. Who turned down the warmth and comfort of a home-prepared meal? Feigned sickness at the dinner table, leaving our families to eat, and to worry. What was it all worth? Feeling good was all I ever wanted.
I opened my fingers to look at the queen. The paint on her back was purple, like my skin, but unlike me she was warm. Warm and alive; living. Not waiting to live. Not like me, held captive by my own mind. I was just one of the people who froze and starved their bodies, halting the motion of their lives in hopes of making themselves worthy of the life that they thought was waiting, only to come to one of two conclusions: life doesn’t wait and they had missed so much, or death.
As I was noticed, the pages of everyone’s stories came flying at me, abrasive insects stinging my pride. I did it too – stopped eating when I was your age … It’s hard, I know how you feel … Let me tell you … I hated everyone who told me they understood, and I hated the worker bees who shoved food down my throat. My sister made me hot chocolate and watched me, prompting me to drink it. My mother made bowls of oatmeal filled with nuts and brown sugar that filled my face with steam. She said I didn’t have a choice – I had to eat it. I dumped it out when she wasn’t looking. I was forced, given, fed, and my pride crumpled as they looked at me with pitying eyes.
The queen in my palm would never turn away a meal. Her bees would feed her special things like they had all her life: royal jelly, a pastel rainbow of pollen, and sweet drops of nectar. They needed her to stay warm and alive. She had to keep the hive going. I didn’t think I had any such responsibilities, but it turns out my life was my hive. Made up of fourteen thousand tiny pieces of energy. I had closed the doors, locked them in a box, and shipped them to somewhere cold. Somewhere with purple evening clouds that tasted like vitamin tablets and had thunder like the rumbling of a hungry stomach.
Their summer had begun. The hive would be warmed by their frantic bodies as they worked – a single organism made up of tiny individuals fueled by nectar. My body would be warmed by the spring sun in my window and later by sustenance as my conflicted hands raised food to my mouth and I forced myself to swallow. Slowly, slower than the bees, my body got back to work, a single organism, fueled by food.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
This piece won the December 2015 Teen Ink Nonfiction Contest.