Anna Lea Jancewicz
Once, there was a boy who swallowed a bee. His mother told him not to do it. She wrung her hands like threadbare dishrags and keened, but he didn’t listen because sometimes little boys do not listen to their mothers. The bee didn’t sting his throat or his belly, but it didn’t die either. It buzzed around inside of him and made itself at home. It started building a castle made of wax. The castle got bigger and bigger inside him until there was little room left for anything else. It nudged against his heart and his lungs. Its spires pushed at the roots of his teeth, thrusted them out of his mouth one by one. His mother collected the teeth in the pockets of her kitchen apron and then she saved them in a pretty hatbox she kept on the top of her dresser. The boy cried and had to eat soft foods. His mother made a lot of chocolate pudding for him.
When the bee was finished building the castle, it invited ghosts to come and live in its many rooms. The ghosts brought little things with them. Thimbles, hairpins, lost earring backs. Springs and cogs from inside wristwatches. Shiny pennies. Slowly, the boy’s body began to grow heavier. He wasn’t so good anymore at winning foot-races or hopping fences. Other children made fun of him because they could hear him rattling and jangling inside as he walked. He tried wearing a thick parka to muffle the noise, but it wasn’t that cold out and so it was very uncomfortable. His mother said Enough is enough and she took him to see the doctor. The doctor ordered a lot of x-rays and he looked at all the little things inside of the boy and listened with his stethoscope to the buzzing of the bee and the whispering of the ghosts. Then the doctor sucked his coffee-stained teeth and shook his bald head and said he would not operate on the boy. He said the boy would probably die and then the mother would sue him for a lot of money. The doctor said No way, José. The boy was confused because his name wasn’t José, but his mother explained that it was just a saying. Know what I mean, jellybean? she said. The boy cried some more and his mother made more chocolate pudding.
The mother decided they would go to see the witch who lived on 35th Street. The witch lived in an apartment over top of the laundromat and she had four cats. Her apartment smelled like boiled potatoes. The apartment was also extremely hot, from all the heat of the clothes dryers below, compounded by the fact that all the windows were veiled in thick plastic sheeting sealed with Hello Kitty duct tape. The boy and his mother were damp with sweat right away, but the witch’s skin was matte and dry even though she was wearing a heavy woolen poncho. It had gray and brown fringe, and beads carved from a variety of different woods. When the boy and his mother sat down on the witch’s sofa, its plastic slipcover made a fart noise. The witch turned her head away, but they could tell she was giggling. After the mother had explained their predicament, they all sat in silence for a moment.
Then the witch told them that usually she did things like making love potions out of stolen hair clippings or boiling avocado pits to make a fertility tea, or sometimes making little bags of gross dead things that would curse people who parked in handicapped spots when they weren’t allowed to do it. What you need is going to be very sophisticated she said. The mother asked if the witch would be able to help them. Okay, yeah, she said, but it’s not going to be easy, so for payment I want a flat-screen TV and also the DVD boxed set of WKRP in Cincinnati. The boy looked at his mother. His mother looked at the witch. What? the witch said. I’ve always had the hots for Howard Hesseman.
The first thing the witch did was make it even hotter in her apartment. The idea was to melt the wax of the castle. She bundled the boy up in several musty old fur coats that she’d had stashed away in her attic crawlspace and got out the kerosene space-heater she used in the winter. The boy’s skin turned bright red and he lost consciousness. He had dreams about department store mannequins coming to life and breakdancing in the cafeteria at his school. But it worked. He started weeping wax. Sweating wax. Wax poured from his ears, his nose, his mouth. He pooped wax. It was horrible to behold. His mother had to duck into the witch’s kitchenette and get sick in the sink. The witch rolled her eyes toward the cobwebby ceiling and muttered Gawd. I’m doing it all for you, Howard Hesseman.
To flush the ghosts from the boy’s body, the witch prepared an herbal enema solution. She would not divulge the formula, but it smelled strongly of rosemary. She took the boy into her bathtub and rinsed him out thoroughly. Only one ghost was expelled. The ghost sat on the witch’s shag-carpeted toilet seat with a smirk on his face and a ball cap on his head that read Direct Action Gets the Goods. He explained that the ghosts had organized, and he was their union representative. They’d become Wobblies. Strength in numbers. He was there to negotiate the collective bargaining. The boy’s mother was indignant. She was skeptical about the ghosts’ status as “workers.” The ghost said that they’d started a factory in the wax castle. They’d been producing ghost-shirts. Their means of production had been destroyed. He called the boy’s mother a capitalist stooge. It was not a friendly exchange. The witch called a time-out so they could all cool it. She made a nice pitcher of catnip-spiked lemonade. They all sat on the sofa and sipped. The mother got a chocolate pudding snack-pack out of her handbag for the boy. He ate it with a plastic spoon and eyeballed the ghost timidly.
It was finally decided that the ghosts would vacate the premises, which was to say, the boy, on the condition that they would be provided an adequate space to set up their own ghost-shirt co-op. The witch was kind enough to offer her linen closet, which sounded kind of paltry at first, but was in fact more spacious than an eight-year-old child’s abdominal cavity. The workers’ committee agreed to the provision that they would take their little things with them. The thimbles, the hairpins, the lost earring backs. The springs and cogs. The shiny pennies. The witch offered the ghost-workers two small but very attractive Salvadoran baskets, hand-woven, to store their goods. The baskets would not fit in the linen cabinet, but the workers would enjoy full access to them under the bathroom sink. The ghosts fled the boy’s body in a mass of raveled whispers and clinking communal property, and the boy felt lighter immediately. He got up and bounced on the witch’s sofa, making gleeful juvenescent sounds. The witch said Mellow out, kid.
That left only the bee to deal with. The boy could feel it thrumming behind his rib cage, tickling, although he couldn’t tell which emotion was fueling its activity. He figured maybe if it was really mad about the evictions it would’ve stung him already, pierced some vital organ. The witch burned a bundle of desiccated sage and wafted the smoke up the boy’s nose. He sneezed, and the bee was disgorged through his mouth. The bee settled upon the witch’s coffee table, between the empty lemonade pitcher and an issue of TV Guide. There was a dirty-looking person from a zombie show on the cover. Everybody waited for the bee to speak.
After a few anxious moments, the boy’s mother loosed an exasperated sigh and said Has anybody considered the possibility that the bee can’t talk, because it’s, you know, a bee? The witch frowned and shrugged her shoulders, said, Yeah, okay. You’ve got a point. The boy piped up, I learned in school that bees communicate through dance. Then the boy rose to his feet and performed a sublime, heartbreaking interpretive dance piece that any jerk could obviously understand meant I am sure sorry that I swallowed you and I hope you are okay and that you will go live someplace else besides my insides because I just want to be a normal boy again. The bee quivered. It did a little Gangnam-style horse move. The boy crossed the room and opened up the witch’s front door, and the bee flew off without making a heavy thing out of good-byes. Gawd, said the witch, I’m glad that’s over. The boy and his mother both said, Me too simultaneously. But what about his teeth? the mother then added, the edges of her smile sagging. Yeah, okay, said the witch, that part’s really easy. All he’s got to do is let me eat one of his fingers. You can choose which one. The boy and his mother blanched. No, haha, I’m just fucking with you, said the witch. Just a little witch humor. You kept the teeth, right? Just have him swallow them all and then drink this. She got out a battered bottle with a grubby cork plugging its mouth. It was half-full of sloshy murk. There’s not poop in there, is there? asked the boy. Don’t ask questions, said the witch, and make sure you chug it.
They all got into the mother’s station wagon and drove to Target, where the witch picked out a flat-screen TV. She didn’t choose the top-of-the-line model, but she didn’t choose the cheapest one either. That night, the mother ordered the WKRP in Cincinnati DVD boxed set on Amazon. It was on sale for $84.75, plus shipping. It would be delivered to the witch’s apartment within 7-10 business days. The boy drank the bitter liquid from the bottle after swallowing all of his teeth. They grew back right away, all at once, and it was awfully painful, but he was very glad to have teeth again so he didn’t whine about it.
His mother made his favorites for supper, all things he had missed so much when he’d been a toothless loser. He gnawed on pot roast with no carrots, toasted bagels with blueberry jam, and corn on the cob glossed in butter. His mother told him there was, of course, plenty of chocolate pudding for dessert, but he was sick of chocolate pudding and pretty sure he’d never eat any again as long as he lived. That part didn’t turn out to be true, but it did take a few years before he ate it again. After dinner the boy left his mother to wash up the dirty dishes. He cozied up under his favorite blanket and skimmed happily along the surface of sleep. His mother poked her head into his bedroom a little later and said, Okay, buddy, don’t forget to brush those nice new teeth! The boy nodded drowsily and said that he would, but he didn’t. He was swamped by pleasant dreams. And deep in a cranny of his backmost bottom left molar, the tiny inkling of a cavity was yawning into being, because sometimes little boys do not listen to their mothers.
Anna Lea Jancewicz lives in Norfolk, Virginia, where she homeschools her children and haunts the public libraries. She is an Associate Editor at Night Train, and her writing has appeared or is forthcoming at Atticus Review, Hobart, Necessary Fiction, Phantom Drift, and many other venues. Her flash fiction “Marriage” was chosen for The Best Small Fictions 2015. She is working on her first novel. Yes, you CAN say Jancewicz: Yahnt-SEV-ich. More at: annajancewicz.wordpress.com