by Cooper Shrivastava
The day the last drone of the old generation dies becomes the Feast of the Renewed Eye, and the whole hive comes alive in dance and drumming. They pour from the ziggurat, every last bee tumbling claw over eyecluster, burning their feet on the sun-soaked sand outside. Today is the day the adult generation comes of age, and the youths are assigned houses and castes. Today is the day they drink the honeypus from the back of the Prophet-Queen. Today is the day they see the vision of the afterlife and are rewarded with knowledge of which of the six combs—two of world, two of heaven, two of underworld—will be their eternal home.
Today is Ruzig’s last day as a costumer. After the ritual, he and the other costumer bees of the older generation will become drones, and chosen members of the youngest generation will step into their shoes. Ruzig has never flown under the hot sun to search for pollen and nectar; his life’s work has been the hummingbird costumes arrayed before them, the symbol of Sygyzmur, god of his House. He has been a costumer since he ascended the southernmost side of the ziggurat and joined the House of Red Orb, leaving behind Aurzosh, Oddi, Uhar, his childhood friends.
Ruzig looks at the other costumer of the House of Red Orb, Agba. Together they tie off a costume, while the warrior wearing it sips nectar from Agba’s open mandibles. They move to the next warrior, chitin becoming feathers, exoskeleton becoming endoskeleton, compound eyes becoming simple lenses, mouthparts adapted for chewing and sucking becoming a beak with the tongue torn out, as the warrior becomes an avatar of Sygyzmur, the god of diplomacy, sisterhood, and the six cardinal directions.
Agba goes to the front of the swarm of the House of Red Orb, and Ruzig loses sight of him. He is still tying off a great golden hummingbird skin, which has taken on an almost punishing lustre under the sun’s rays.
To the left of Ruzig, the House of Map begins their dance, their warriors outfitted in the skins of beetles, the avatar of zTriibigzz. The rattle of wings both living and dead shakes each of the tiny hairs that grow on Ruzig’s body until he
can’t feel or hear anything but the House of Map. Ruzig feels as if the ground, the ziggurat, the whole world is vibrating. It has begun.
The bees of the House of Red Orb begin to crawl towards the ziggurat but the holy form is missing one hummingbird: the last costume is still clutched in Ruzig’s front claws, as the warrior meant to wear it has disappeared on ahead
rather than risk missing her one chance to taste honeypus.
Ruzig swivels around in alarm. These rituals are his holy responsibility, and he cannot expose the colony to the disfavor of Sygyzmur by failing to complete the set.
At the base of the structure the bees spin and then smack the ground, and the drumming intensifies. The Prophet-Queen has emerged from the top of the ziggurat and Ruzig is stricken with awe. He has loved her from afar, as all bees do, for his whole life, and the momentousness of this occasion suddenly strikes him, overpowering his fear of being left behind and his worry for the dance and the costumes and sacred geometry, and even overpowering his fear of what vision he will see of his afterlife.
She is gigantic, and the six pimples on Her back are swollen and ripe for bursting. Her antennae are large and pendulous. Her thorax is scarred from the fight with Her sister-Queen when She seized the hive. Her spermathica is full from Her recent mating flight. Soon there will be larvae. She flaps Her wings and the bees vibrate in ecstasy, roll on the ground, wave their antennae, share nectar mouth to mouth with one another.
The pace of the drumming accelerates further, and the bees of the younger generation start to push forward, converging on the ziggurat. Ruzig is left at the outskirts of the staging area trapped by the oncoming flood of younger bees, but unable to move without abandoning the heavy costume of the hummingbird god.
He pulls it along the ground behind him, frantic, allowing the sunset orange and lemon peel yellow feathers to drag on the ground, as the younger bees come racing up behind him. His heart breaks to think each house will reach the top of
the ziggurat with six sets of six dancers except for Red Orb.
The fastest of the younger bees has reached Ruzig, and steps on the wing of the hummingbird costume as he races by. He gets behind the costume and pushes with all his might, but he is no warrior bee, and it merely flops over. The young ones are upon him; Ruzig can’t protect the costume from their furry mass.
But then he sees a single body turning around, a warrior from the House of Orchid. The warrior leaves his swarm and takes to the air, managing for several long seconds to look away from the Prophet-Queen, and to come zipping low over the heads of the assembly to where Ruzig is huddled near his trampled costume.
Aurzosh is immediately recognizable even after all this time; his bony mid-tibial spurs, his slender hind basitarsus, his corbicula clean of flower pollen for the occasion. He nudges Ruzig with his forelegs, but the air is too saturated with odor plumes and pheromones and vibrations for them to communicate.
Aurzosh nudges Ruzig again, grabbing the costume in his mandibles. Ruzig is stunned. He is seeing two wondrous sights today: the Prophet-Queen, and member of the House of Orchid who is willing to take on the costume of the Red
Orb, willing to take it on for Ruzig’s sake.
They heave the costume over Aurzosh’s head and let off prayers of odor plumes from their tarsal glands. They are almost, but not quite, close enough to smell each other. Ruzig vomits nectar from their comb’s collective stomach into
Aurzosh’s mouth, and he can’t imagine it tastes good, he is a poor honey-alchemist, but Aurzosh swallows it and trundles through the crowd of young bees, with Ruzig in his wake.
Aurzosh doggedly pushes bodies out of the way. He will not take flight, for he, like Ruzig, will not destroy the sacred symmetries. Ruzig grabs the tattered tail of the hummingbird costume in his mandibles and lets himself be pulled forward, until his feet hit the waxy steps.
They are getting close, and Ruzig’s tiny heart pounds as he thinks they might make it after all. Aurzosh is climbing faster now, overtop the other bees so his legs land on furry bodies rather than the tacky wax of the ziggurat. He can see the great white pustules on the Prophet-Queen’s back; he is closer to Her than he ever has been before!
Ruzig’s eyes are fixed on the Queen, and that is why he doesn’t notice as fast as the other bees do. Bees take to the air from the sides of the ziggurat, disrupting the sacred geometries. For a moment he is consumed with rage at their
heresy, but then a shadow falls over him and Aurzosh, who have finally reached the middle tier, just steps below their Queen.
The shadow forms the shape of a paw, but with five long fingers and no claws. The warrior caste is fully in the air; even Aurzosh has shed his costume as they attack the intruder, but to no avail. It picks up the Queen in its monstrous grip
and pinches Her holy body upside down over a giant tub.
Ruzig watches on in horror as the pimples express. Six bursts of pus gush from her back, and into the monster’s collection tub, their prophetic power dissipating. The warriors are attacking frantically, and the workers and drones join
them, but it is too late. The Queen is tossed to the ground by the five fingered monster, Her holy body rolling through the dust.
The bees of the six houses swarm and sting, but the monster casually bats them away. Ruzig is in shock. Twelve warrior bees bear the body of the Queen back underground to the safety of the hive. She waves Her limbs in distress, the six burst pustules on Her back still oozing liquid. They are honorable bees and do not try to taste it.
The monster has retreated, taking their future with it in the tub. Ruzig stands on the ziggurat alone. All around him the hive is flying and mourning and moaning; the monster is gone and there is no one left to sting.
He does not know what he will become, only that he will no longer be a costumer. He does not know what he will face in the afterlife. He looks up into the red sun, so hot it burns his eyes, and searches in vain for the face of Sygyzmur.
Cooper Shrivastava is a writer based in New York City. She was a member of the 2019 Clarion Writers Workshop, and her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Clarkesworld, Heavy Feather Review and Tor.com. She is currently working on her first novel.