top of page

Breath & Shadow

Winter 2019 - Vol. 16, Issue 1

"On the Life of Drones"

written by

Nancy Fagan

When I step up onto the deck, he catches my eye. In the center of one of the sliding
glass doors, there is a large buttery yellow and brown bee. I’ve just returned from an
early spring walk under the bright sunshine though the air is still crisp—curiously cool
for a bee to be flying around. I look up and see another, then another, and soon scores
of them descend around me from the thinner air above.

Stepping back to gain perspective on their intended destination, I edge closer to the
patio table with its chairs still vinyl covered against the winter frost. The honey bees
swarm near the guttered roof and soon, one by one, begin to land silently on the table.
As I watch them, I get it, the connection, between these honeybee drones and the
secret miniature spy planes that sneak through the air quietly photographing enemies
and friendlies alike. Each of the living drones in my yard methodically hovers over the
table with his 4 legs outstretched then carefully lands and tiptoes onto the cold metal

I have learned that these males don’t have stingers and I should not be afraid of them,
however, there are enough of them around me that my adrenaline activates, my heart
pitter pats and my mind starts to buzz. My goal is to get out of the way, into the house,
without any of them hitching a ride. There is one door unlocked and I dash towards it.

My neighbor has an apiary in his backyard and his bees can be seen flying straight up
in a column in the summertime, often arcing to my yard and landing on my flowers. I am
more of a weeder than a gardener and we typically work side by side, the bees and I—
as I try to dislodge intrusive roots from the soil, the bees alight on nearby petals of red
and purple, collecting the nectar and spreading pollen. They have never bothered me,
these worker bees armed with stingers, as they congregate in my yard, yet their
powerless male counterparts intimidate me with their mere numbers and exaggerated

A drone bee serves at the pleasure of his queen, mating with her and dying immediately
after his two-second sex act. The ultimate sky-high club, shared with a dozen of his
cohorts, takes place in midair and results in the queen keeping the head of the drone’s
penis as a souvenir. Without this fatal end, the drone would live a mere 90 days so
perhaps leaving in a blaze of glory is more desirable.

Drones are responsible for continuing a line of bees one identical to the next, in a
curious application of the Fibonacci sequence—the code that trips me up on every
standardized test.  Add the last two numbers and get the next except at the beginning.
Somehow drones use this structure in reverse to organize their ancestry, a fact that
gives rise to suspicion, in my opinion. I just don’t trust them.

The bees in my yard were likely looking for some action—maybe a queen was flying
nearby else they were awakened from winter’s cold and left groggy; confused with the
weather like the rest of us. The surviving drones work hard all winter—they keep their
queen warm by clustering around her, beating their wings and shivering for climate
control. Perhaps, in this swarm, their queen needed a quick flight in the sunshine with
her posse similar to the walk I was taking when I came upon them. 

I continued to watch them from within the safety of my home, perhaps 50 bees walking
atop the table and chairs, as if they were pouring over a new piece of furniture to add to
their hive or shopping for a new house. Perhaps they were looking for just the right
place to start a family.  “Maybe they will stay,” I thought to myself.  “Maybe these will be
my bees.”

My thoughts were cut short by a phone call. I glanced out the window at my new visitors
again and, with an almost imperceptible hum, off they flew just as quickly as they

PCP Parties

It was the last entrance in the left corner of the complex, the top of 2 floors. Three of us,
2 college students and one working girl, cobbled together secondhand furniture and
mismatched Corelle ware dishes to complete our first apartment. It was the place we
learned to become grown-ups.

Its walls were thin and colorless. Walking up the creaky stairs one heard an echo
bounce between the cheaply sprayed popcorn ceilings and the hollow wooden
doors—the flimsy chain lock on them our only protection against invaders.

Across the hall lived a woman and her husband. There was a son—hers not his. Every
moment in that part of the building could be heard throughout. A loud stereo or a lovers’
quarrel became an opportunity to learn about and eavesdrop on strangers’ lives. More
than once we put our ears to the floor and just listened, our breath held tightly.

Our carpet was a dirty brown one made for industry and not décor. We had a record
player, a turntable stereo, and piles of 1970’s LPs strewn around it. America, The
Eagles, Three Dog Night. There was a couch with a gold and maroon thin cotton
madras cover lain over its worn fabric that required smoothing daily. We shared most
everything; we shared housework, dishes, and grocery shopping. Our expenses were
drilled down to the penny so if one person splurged on a package of Celestial
Seasonings herbal tea, Pringles or frozen Clams Casino, she would pay for it in full.

It was a home replete with fun and sisterhood where we entertained our friends drinking
sweet Mateus wine, smoking pot and serving exotic dinners of Campbell’s tomato soup
with Cracker Barrel cheese on Triscuits or Wheat Thins. We tried out applicants for the
position of boyfriend on the weekends and made friends with guys in the bands we
followed. There was usually a guitar laid against the wall, ready to be strummed.

“Could you guys babysit for like a half an hour?” the neighbor mom asked early one
Saturday night. “His dad will be here soon to pick him up and I would really appreciate

His name escapes me now though I believe it was Billy or Bobby—something very
common, something quite forgettable. He played with his toys as that 30 minutes turned
to 40 then 60 and slowly 6 hours passed. There were no cell phones in those days and
nothing to do but cancel our precious Saturday night plans and stay with this forgotten,
now fragile, child.

The mom came home and feigned distress that he was still with us.  A few weeks later,
we heard shouting and screaming coming from their apartment punctuated by the
sound of a body hitting the paper-thin wall.  He was beating her up and we wished we
could have ignored it, so heavy was the grudge we held.  The police came when we
called and he was soon gone, leaving her scars to keep to herself.

“Remember your window looked out at the airport?” my still best friend asked me.
Reminiscing does not always mean remembering, in fact, I don’t remember ever looking
out my back window in the time we lived there. There is some sense of a dull pale
grassy field and a back door that led down rickety gray wooden steps, but it seems to
me that everything worth remembering happened with my back to that window. The way
the laughter of friends resonated against the recycled furniture as we leaned into one
another with familiarity in the living room. The thick inky Valley Advocate that stained
our hands and littered the living room after we poured over the entertainment section
and giggled and smirked at the personal ads.

The time I opened the refrigerator with my Dad standing next to me, and found Ben’s
acid wrapped up in foil on its door. The formica-topped kitchen table we ate at and
calculated our budget on that now sits in my cellar, topped with leftovers.  The time I
crawled into my bed after a ski trip late at night and found someone else asleep there
beneath my freshly washed sheets. The time I looked for my brand-new bra and panties
and found them on Carol’s body, under her clothes, tags unapologetically removed.

It was the apartment where I was stood up for the only time in my life. I met him at a bar
in Springfield, a friend of a friend. He was attentive and handsome, and I was excited to
go out with him again. He never called, and he never showed but my roommates were
there to pick up his slack.

My roommate Carol was the one who would help herself to someone else’s new faded
bell bottoms or baby doll top and wear them first.  Carol was the one whose boyfriend
would keep you awake at night because he talked long and loud and could have cared
less if you needed to get up in the morning. She was the one he cheated on with her
best college friend.

“Are you sure?” I asked her.

“There’s a smell. The smell of sex, the smell of him,” she said, eyes glistening with

She referred to adult females as “women” and not “girls” because she had the foresight
to realize this new term of respect would grow into something more in the decades to

Carol was also the one who would listen to you when you called from work saying you
had the worst day. When you came home there would be a tray laid across a freshly
drawn bath for you. On the tray would be a silk flower in a white bud vase, a glass of
wine, and an unlit Salem menthol perched across a large clamshell ashtray ready to
help you relax as you luxuriated in the tub.

And the PCP Parties?  Those happened on Sundays, lazy and happy times when we
cooked together looking ahead at our whole lives.  Piña Coladas and pancakes, our
own special grown-up Sunday brunch.

Nancy Fagan is a registered nurse, disabled by career-ending rheumatoid arthritis. A
lifelong writer, she is currently attending Mount Holyoke College as Frances Perkins
scholar, majoring in English.

bottom of page