“Nectar” is a stunningly original story that preserves its sense of mystery while also inviting the reader to bring themselves wholly to the page. This story is a gift, an act of generosity and limitless imagination. It’s thematically rich, beautifully written and well-paced, and captivating from beginning to end. A marvel of worldbuilding that bursts with wondrous imagery, this story satisfies and surprises in equal measure. — Guest Judge K-Ming Chang
I stand on the pavement while another Uber drives off. This one barely slowed down. He saw me, saw the swarm trap, then pointed to the sticker on his windshield and sped off.
“That’s not how they look,” I shout after his taillights.
A silly cartoon demon with a tail and a big red ‘X’ through it.
I set the swarm trap down and slump on the pavement next to it, rubbing at my eyes and wincing from the still fresh scabs. The trap is silent. I imagine my daemons burrowed in waxy combs, content in their syrupy slumber. It’s been days and I haven’t opened the trap. Not since the nurse at the clinic brought it to me, hesitating before she set the awkward contraption down. I thought she wanted to ask me a final time if I was absolutely certain I didn’t want the clinic to dispose of them. “Completely routine,” she had assured me. Instead, she set the trap down and passed me a card for the hive farm. “I hear it’s humane,” she said.
Indigo clouds darken the afternoon by the time another Uber arrives, a dark blue microvan. The door slides open as the rain starts to fall. Though I hurry, a few fat drops land on the swarm trap before I can get us in. A plaintive wail rises from the trap, followed by a chorus of groans and shrieks. My hand hovers over the seatbelt. The driver watches me from the rearview mirror. In the overhead light I catch a silver web of scars fanning out beneath her eyes. Still, I wait for the slight nod before I strap them in.
“They get out of hand?” she asks as we leave the maze of city streets behind. Then, “Sorry, none of my business.”
The highway stretches ahead, the drenching rain transforming it into a dark river.
“A bit,” I say, thinking of the mess of daemons, crawling across the grey laminate desks at the office, smeared across screens, dangling from the edge of someone’s mug. I had not needed the warning to book the clinic appointment.
The rain stops as we descend an offramp. The tarmac gives way to macadam and we crunch along until there are only green fields on either side of the road. We stop at the base of a hill rising up toward mauve sky. Gleaming white hives stipple the grassy hillside. A figure moves between them, clad head to foot in a hivekeeper’s suit.
I ascend the path toward the Hivekeeper clutching the bulky trap.
“What have we here?” he says as I set it down between us.
“Daemons,” I say, “Sorry, they’ve been in there a few days. I don’t know …”
He kneels down next to the swarm trap, putting his ear to the lid. His hat is slightly askew and his beard escapes from beneath the net. It glistens with beads of nectar. A daemon clambers down the wiry grey strands. Then he sits up and readjusts the hat, tucking beard and daemon into the suit.
“They’re not too badly off,” he says. “A healthy batch of beasties.”
“Beasties?” I say as he removes the lid of my swarm trap.
He pulls out a frame and it is nearly full of the wild geometry of the daemons’ labors, each cell sagging beneath the weight of the copper-gold nectar. My daemons rise and my head buzzes. I remember how it felt in the clinic to have them extracted, my tear ducts shredded with their struggles. They were not terrifying then.
Each of the trays is full or close to full. The Hivekeeper tells me my beasties have done fine work. They hover around him and the frames. They avoid me.
“Beasties?” I say again, “You mean daemons.”
“Well now,” says the Hivekeeper. “That’s not quite right.” He looks around, considering. “Come here then,” he says, walking toward another hive. He pulls off his gloves as he goes with a sticky suctioning sound.
He shows me where to crouch next to the hive so that I can set my ear to its smooth surface. His own hatted face is inches from mine.
“You hear that?” he whispers.
I hear cries and whimpers, a few screeches. I shrug. The Hivekeeper is undeterred.
“Takes time,” he says. “You’ll hear eventually.”
He replaces the frames and shows me to an empty hive farther up the hill. He begins transferring the frames from my swarm trap.
“They’re not bad, daemons,” he says as he works.
“I know,” I say. “It’s from the Greek. Or Latin maybe. A spirit of some sort.”
He nods. My daemons clamber over him, sticking to the thin coppery film that coats his hands.
“But it’s come to mean something bad,” he says, “Why I prefer beasties. That way if you say daemons. I can say beasties. You can say why? And I can say because there’s angels in there too.”
I smile at this. “Maybe that’s going a little far,” I say.
“Ah you didn’t hear this time,” he says. “But you will.”
“This time?” I say. “I thought …”
I thought I would transfer my swarm to the hive and leave them to the Hivekeeper. He has finished his work and stands aside, watching. The daemons remain, hovering over the empty swarm trap. The Hivekeeper puts his hands on his hips, shakes his head. He mutters something and walks away, pulling off his netted hat as he goes. Gray hair springs free, gleaming in the dusk. A daemon—beastie—lands on my hand. I turn my hand this way and that, bringing it close to my face. Daemon? Beastie? Angel?
The Hivekeeper returns with more frames. “They’re not ready,” he says. “Don’t worry you can still leave them here. They can stay in the swarm trap a while longer though.”
Another of my daemons lands on me. I stay still. Do I hear something? Something different. I shiver. I don’t know.
“Actually,” I say.
The Hivekeeper is amenable to my request. More than amenable. His tongue catches the drops of nectar that slide down from forehead to cheek to grizzly moustache to lips.
Soon I am tramping down the slope toward the path with the swarm trap in my arms, humming and shrieking. Beasties, I think, daemons or angels. I fancy I can smell the nectar and my nose prickles. I tell myself I’m beginning to hear. As I near the base of the hill, I see the same dark blue outline of the Uber that dropped me off. The driver leans against it, smoking, staring up at the hill behind me. I turn to look.
The hives glow like moons against the darkening hillside and there, running between them is the Hivekeeper. He has shed his hive suit and he skips and leaps and whoops, his skin shiny with nectar, colored in twilight shades of magenta, indigo and gold.
The hives vibrate and the first of the swarms take flight, spiraling up into the night air. I feel my own swarm’s restlessness. The driver pinches out her cigarette and slides the door open for me. The scars beneath her eyes ripple like quicksilver. On the drive back she tells me about a remedy for scabs, a paste of nectar and turmeric.
Kerry Anderson is a Singapore-based writer specializing in just about anything that needs words. She has had her work published in Surely Mag, Ink Sweat & Tears, Sad Girl Diaries, Writers.com, Flash Fiction Magazine, Itch Online, and Science Fiction & Fantasy South Africa. She can be found on Instagram @kerryand__