It’s always an event when a god comes to your village.
I was the first person to notice him this time. I was in the outer pasture, looking after the sheep. It’s an important job but not an active one. If a wolf threatens the flock I leap into action. If a lamb manages to get trapped in a clear field, it happens, I rescue it. But when that’s not happening there’s not much to do but sit around, staring at the horizon and dreaming of something interesting.
Of course when that interesting thing came along it took a while to recognise it.
He was just a figure on the horizon at first, just another traveller on the road through our village. We get them occasionally, not often but enough that it’s not an event. I idly watched him and it was only as he got closer I realised it wasn’t a cloud of road dust surrounding him.
Have you ever seen a swarm of bees? I’ve seen a lot of pictures of what people think it looks like. Usually they’re depicted as a black cloud. That’s not it at all. There’s no sharp outline to them, no contours. Suddenly there’s a lot more bees in one place then there should be and by the time you realise that they’re almost on you.
Which meant the squat figure in the centre of them could only be one thing.
I called out to the other shepherd, a kid named Steven, and he came running. Like I said there’s not much distractions as a shepherd and it wasn’t like he was doing anything. I pointed out the god immediately.
“The village has to know,” I told him.
“Right.” He nodded determinedly, turned on his heel and took off. I stared after him in disappointment. I’d wanted to be the one to go, to get the accolade and excitement that would come with the news. I suppose I could have raced him back but the sheep needed to be watched.
So instead I gathered the herds together, sat under a tree where I could see them all and waited for the god.
And then, there he was.
It had been a few years since the God of Flowers and Honey had visited our village. It had been a while since any god had been by, honestly. A couple of decades ago the God of Myths and Stories had spent a week here but I think he found it boring as he hasn’t been back since. And Jocelyn swore that she saw The Night Walker once but that was probably just for attention. But that meant I didn’t really know what to do so I just sat watching my sheep.
Apparently that was the right choice. He walked up to me and I braced myself for a painful death. Instead he let out a sigh and sat something down next to me.
“What’s your name, young man?”
“Iwan, your grace.”
He waved away the honorific. It wasn’t his way. “Do you mind if I rest for a spell?” he asked. “It’s been a long road.”
“Of course not,” I replied. “Help yourself.”
I snuck a look at him as he settled himself down. He was wearing loose, white robes stained brown with the dust of the road and yellow with pollen. Beneath them there was the outline of a boxy body that seemed to emit a deep hum. He turned to look back at me and I gazed up into the mask that all gods wore. It was hexagonal, a deep amber colour and had two deep, black eyes that stared right into my soul. Like all god masks it fitted so tightly into the head that it was hard to see the joins. A light brushing of white hair covered the top.
And, of course, he was alive with bees.
Bees crawled out of the collar of his robe and over his face and eyes. Bees buzzed out of his wide sleeves. Bees returned, laden with pollen, passing their brethren in mid-air. I blinked and tried not to flinch away as one flew right by my face.
“Are they disturbing you?” the god asked. “I could quiet them but this is a lovely meadow full of flowers and I would hate for them to miss it.”
I licked my lips nervously then very carefully shook my head. “Nope. I’m fine. This is fine.”
I’m fairly sure he could tell that I was not in any way fine but he said nothing. We sat for a while in silence, him seemingly very comfortable, while I was resisting the urge to leg it. I kept one eye on my sheep and examined the thing he’d set down. It seemed to be a box, wrapped in muslin. The odd wisp of smoke escaped from it from time to time.
“Would you like something to eat?” the god abruptly asked. I wanted to refuse but it’s bad manners to refuse a god so I said I would. He reached within his robes, deeper than I would have thought possible, and withdrew a fist sized chunk of honeycomb. It was oozing with honey and my mouth instantly started watering. I had hazy memories of the god passing out the treat to small kids when he last came through but, as I said, that had been years ago and I hadn’t had anything like it since. It was all I could do to take small bites of it and not just inhale it.
“Bees are a lot like sheep,” he said while I attacked his gift. My mouth was full of the sweet sticky comb so I didn’t reply. “They’re a group, like a flock. Sometimes they have to be guided to new fields to eat, sometimes they have to be protected from predators. Sometimes they stray and have to be brought back. Most of the time though you just stay by and watch them.”
“Bees can sting you,” I said, having finally swallowed in a dignified way. “Sheep can’t.”
“Sheep can attack you, if you threaten them. But allow them to be, guide them gently and they won’t hurt you. Hold out your hands.”
I obeyed and he reached inside himself again but this time he took out a handful of bees. Before I could take my hands back he’d dumped them into the bowl of my palms. I froze, waiting for the pain and the sudden stings but it didn’t come. They swarmed over my fingers but they didn’t hurt me. Suddenly fascinated I raised them to my eye and stared at them. Fuzzy insects though they were I suddenly could see what he had meant.
“So you’re basically a shepherd?” I asked then inwardly winced at my audacity. But the god just laughed and scooped up his bees again.
“Of a kind I suppose.”
We spent the remainder of the time chatting away, talking of the fields and flowers that were nearby. I was no longer scared of the bees that came and went, understanding them better now. Eventually we were interrupted by a murmuring from behind us. From the village a group approached, headed towards us and led by Quinten, the Flower Priest. It was the welcoming party, assembled at last to greet the god.
“I was wondering if you could do me a favour,” he said, getting to his feet while the crowd in the distance got closer.
“Of course,” I replied. “Anything.”
He reached a hand out and laid it gently on the package by his side. “Could you keep an eye on this for me? I’ll need it later but it would be best if it stayed where it is for now.”
“Of course,” I repeated.
“Great. I’ll send someone to get it and you when it’s needed. Don’t unwrap the cloth around it and keep it safe. And please, if you can, talk to it a bit.”
“Talk to it?” I asked but he was already walking towards the crowd. There was a cheer of delight as they met and mingled before disappearing off towards the village.
Leaving me, the box and the sheep.
At first I just stared at the box, alert to any danger. The steady hum was still there so maybe I’d been mistaken about it coming from the god. The smoke that still occasionally worked itself free smelt sharp, like pine sap.
After a while with nothing happening I started to calm down and the box became just another thing to check on. I’ll admit, I even became bored. Usually I could listen to Steven’s inane rambling to pass the time but he hadn’t come back.
The solitude really started to get to me once night had fallen. I was hungry, having only eaten the honeycomb since lunch, but there was nothing around for me to eat. I wandered around to stretch my legs and stared up at the nights sky. The sheep had mostly settled down to sleep and so I was alone in gazing up at the myriad of stars that coasted above me. My eyes followed The Lumberjack’s Trail and settled upon The God-Father’s Eye. Then I cast my gaze back to the village. By now the festival celebrating the god’s arrival would be in full swing and here I was.
It was then I followed my god’s last instruction and started talking to the box.
“I can’t believe they left me here,” I said to it. “I was the first one to stop him. I should be there now. Instead I’m out here, with you.”
It didn’t reply, the humming was more muted if anything, but I felt better, somehow. Like there was something listening and agreeing with me.
I will admit, I spent a lot of time complaining to the box as the night drew on.
Finally, once the nights’ chill was sinking through my woollen cloak, Steven appeared. He staggered a bit as he made his way over to me and sat down a bit harder than he should have. At least he’d enjoyed the night.
“The god wants you,” he said without preamble. “He asked if you could take him the thing.”
“What about the sheep?” I asked.
“I’ll look after them. I’ve had enough of the party anyway.”
I wasn’t fully convinced he was capable but who was I to refuse a god? I walked over to the box and gently picked it up. It was heavy and the humming grew it pitch as it moved.
“Shush, it’s ok,” I told it and it quietened down again as I walked off. Slowly. I don’t know how strong the god was to make carrying it seem effortless but he was clearly stronger than me.
Down the road I went, following in the god’s footsteps hours later, and into the village. I knew where everyone would be without having to ask.
The god’s temple was a huge greenhouse, lit from within by many lanterns and candles. The Flower Priest carefully grew a variety of exotic flowers inside, following the teachings of his profession. There was usually a feeling of warmth and peace when you walked inside. Tonight the heat remained but the peace was shattered by the town celebrating loudly.
I pushed my way past neighbours, still carefully cradling the box. In the centre of the room, surrounded by the village, the god was holding court. He had summoned his swarm back inside himself and was busy handing out honeycomb to the children. Seeing me he straightened up.
“Ah, you’re here! Excellent, it’s time to make the announcement. Put it here, would you?”
He gestured to his side and I put down the box with the same level of care that I had used up until that point. I was about to move away back into the crowd but he laid a gentle hand on my shoulder. The other he raised in the air to get everyone’s attention. It took a while but silence eventually spread across the crowd. Then the god began his pronouncement.
“I come baring good news! There has been a new birth in my hive, a new queen born. The time has come for part of the swarm to go its separate way, to find new flowers. And it is here this swarm will be based, in this village where it will live, to give honey and wax.”
With a flourish he pulled the muslin off the box, revealing a hive within. Then he turned and looked down at me.
“And I put it into your care, young Iwan.”
Have you ever had your life change, irrevocably, in a moment? It’s a heady feeling. One moment I was just Iwan, normal shepherd. The next I was a Honey Priest! It felt unreal, a joke, and so I stammered out an objection.
“I…I am not worthy. You are a god! Where you walk the flowers bloom.”
“And you will do a marvellous job looking after my children, if you show at least half the dedication you have shown to looking after your sheep.”
It was then that I realised. This whole thing, the discussion of bees and the long wait deep into the night, had been a trial. And by waiting patiently and looking after the young hive I’d proven myself worthy of joining his priesthood.
I looked around, as everyone began to congratulate me, until I saw a discordant cord within all the happiness. Quinten looked deeply saddened. He met my eye and smiled weakly but I couldn’t help feeling that something had gone badly wrong, even as I was swept away.
I found out the truth the next morning as I was getting a brief instruction in the care of the bees. The god gave me my new bible, a book on beekeeping and instructions on how to keep them safe. I noticed his swarm was still hidden and asked about it. His mask moved slightly and I could feel him smile at me.
“Well that’s the problem. You see, this isn’t their territory any more. It belongs to your swarm now. When a queen is born the swarm separates and they go their own ways. Two swarms can’t exist in the same place or else they’ll fight. That’s why I have to go away.”
“But you’ll be back, right?” Even if it was years later we would still be here, waiting for him. He had to come back, didn’t he?
He just sadly shook his head. “You and Quinten are my representatives here. Train others in your jobs and, if you have need, come and find me. But this is the last time I will visit your village.”
There were a last few words, both to me and the Flower Priest. There was another speech to the villagers, a few more honeycombs handed out surreptitiously. But then it was the end.
He left as he came, retreating into the distance until he was just a figure surrounded by a cloud of bees. Then he was gone.
It was a happy day, for we had been blessed.
It was a sad day, for the god would not return.