From the author: On the day of the annual Honey Ball, newcomer Robert Blythe spends his day rubbing elbows with the cream of the crop. But that does not necessarily safeguard him from being judged by the company he keeps.
On the day of the annual Honey Ball, Robert Blythe played the part of dutiful husband, and outfitted himself in the finest white tuxedo rental he could find. He could think of a dozen other ways he preferred to spend his weekend, but attendance at the party was mandatory for every member of the Apiary Estates Social League. No matter how desperately Robert wished he never allowed his wife, Leslie, to coax him into moving to the county’s most prestigious zip code, there was no way he would get out of attending the celebration.
For the past 100 years, the members of the AESL gathered on this first Sunday in spring in this same ancestral grove for the big feast and selection of next year’s Host Family. Sunlight filtered down through the crowding of oak trees overlooking the ravine, and everyone chimed in about how their own ancestors dreamed about a day when their little town would grow into something bigger. Now it had.
Only living at The Estates for 6 months, Robert was not yet schooled in the ceremonies of the day. Taking a cue from Leslie, who’d spent months going over every detail of the AESL’s traditions, Robert followed her lead, and they each drew a garland of perfumed azaleas from one of the overflowing baskets sitting next to the great stage erected by the party’s hostess, Penelope Wilson.
The crowd filed past the front of the stage, each tossing their garland onto a large, white cloth-covered table. A myriad of glass honey decanters decorated the tabletop, and the sunlight filtering through the amber nectar made each one look like liquid gold.
With that first bit of ceremony tended to, the women broke free from the long line of partygoers. Dressed from head to toe in white, the ladies each wore an elaborate beehive hairdo piled precariously on the tops of their heads, and their evening gowns fluttered as they flitted from one conversation to the next. It was a carefully choreographed execution of pure strategy, really, no matter how much each one of them protested. And although this was her first Honey Ball, Leslie circled the grounds in her last available minutes of campaigning like a seasoned pro.
The sun, coupled with the constant scrutiny of The Council during their final tallying of votes, made Robert’s tight-fitting suit feel even more claustrophobic. He wished he’d been allowed to bring his sunglasses, but the risk of receiving an infraction from The Council, not to mention the look of absolute horror on Leslie’s face when he even broached the subject was enough of a deterrent. Still, Robert tugged at his collar, fighting his every urge to turn on his heel, bolt through the crowd and leave The Estates for good.
Robert strode the length of the grounds, picking up snippets of conversation that percolated through the crowd. Comments of “Sounds like the harvest will be an especially big one this year,” and “Didn’t Penelope do a wonderful job” clued him into how everyone agreed that this year’s temperate winter promised a better feast than any they’d known in all the years that the Honey Ball was held.
“There you are, Ol’ Sly!” someone shouted from behind him.
Robert turned to find Jerry Hicock, Harold Simms, and the other men from his block standing next to Leslie. He sighed, waving perfunctorily as he started toward them, not looking forward to another day spent with the neighbors whom he still hadn’t warmed up to yet.
The loudspeakers set around the yard crackled, causing Leslie to lunge through the crowd and pull Robert toward her.
“Pay attention, would you? The Council is about to make their decision!” she seethed through gritted teeth. Reaching up to straighten his tie, she punctuated various words by jerking and wrenching it into place. “All you have to do is stand here and look presentable, darling. I’ve taken care of the rest.”
Alice Krall, the head of the AESL Council, took to the microphone. “Good afternoon, everyone. My, don’t we all look festive!” she chuckled to the adoring crowd as they shuffled forward with anticipation.
“Before we reveal The Council’s decision, I would like to give a special thanks to this year’s Host Family. To Penelope and Jonathan Wilson, and their children, Margie, Jon Jr., and little Danny. The Apiary Estates Social League would like to thank you for your utter dedication and tireless efforts at making this year’s Honey Ball a bona fide success.”
Alice gestured to the side of the stage, where Penelope stood with two pre-teens and a toddler, each of them also dressed head-to-toe in white. The crowd clapped as the two older children smiled down at them, while the youngest Wilson circled his siblings’ legs. Robert craned his neck, searching for the elusive Jonathan Wilson, whom he still had not met. But seeing no man step forward, he turned his attention back to the stage where Alice Krall continued.
“Every year, the task of the AESL Council becomes more difficult. However, because of her dedication to preserving the traditions of the AESL, this year’s winner and hence next year’s Host Family is quite clear!”
Some in the crowd gasped, clapping and spinning around in their places, trying to guess the winning couple, while others eyed Robert and Leslie with suspicion. Oblivious to the chastising glares, Leslie clasped her hands over Robert’s without diverting even the slightest bit of attention from the onstage proceedings.
“It is with the utmost honor that I announce next year’s incumbent Host Family for the 2010 AESL Honey Ball to be....” The crowd hushed. “Robert and Leslie Blythe!”
Leslie squealed. She dropped Robert’s arm, smiling and fawning like the picture-perfect beauty queen as she dragged him toward the stage. The men slapped him on the back, and as he followed, he could hear their wives whispering after them.
Robert staggered onstage toward a beaming Alice Krall. Before he knew what was happening, she ushered he and Leslie next to Penelope Wilson, who coaxed her three children, who stood waiting off to one side, to join her at the head table.
Alice continued. “Despite the resistances faced by Leslie Blythe on a daily basis, her efforts to uphold the history of the AESL made this decision of The Council unanimous. Although Robert here was not raised in our ways like his wife,” Alice shoved Robert, “we were overjoyed when he decided to become a part of our proud community. Although it would have been nice to see you at more events this year, Robert, it was Leslie’s determination which made up for your missteps.”
Alice laughed, while from down in the crowd, Jerry Hicock yelled up to Robert, “It takes friends to make friends, Ol’ Sly!” The men encouraged Jerry with playful booing and hissing.
Robert grew angry now. Seeing darkness in the eyes of the crowd despite their painted smiles, he sensed their jibes were veiled hostility, as though they selected he and Leslie so The Council could make a spectacle of them. He wanted to leave...now.
Trying to calm himself, Robert watched Penelope take her place at the center of the head table. She whispered to her children. The older boy and girl took position, flanking a large framed family photograph, while the youngest child was allowed to wander around the stage, tapping and poking at the white sheet, much to the amusement of the crowd who cooed at his actions.
The moment they settled into position, Penelope nodded to Alice, who lifted the microphone with much fanfare.
“Ladies and gentlemen.” The crowd hushed. “Without further adieu...Dinner is served!”
Excited catcalls rang out in anticipation as the Wilsons pulled back the white sheet. For a moment, there was no sound at all. Then all Robert could hear was the low rumbling of stomachs and the distinct smacking of lips as the crowd stared up at the stage.
Robert turned to see the white sheet pulled back and two rectangular glass cases revealed. The larger one sat empty, while the other was filled with honey. Or at least that was what it looked like upon first glance.
The youngest Wilson placed his hands on the glass, pressing his forehead against the case, his eyebrows raised in excitement as he tapped the glass. “Daddy! Hi, Daddy! Hi, hi!”
“I see you, Daddy! You’re honey!” The child threw his head back in laughter. “Ha, ha, ha! Honey! Daddy’s honey!”
Only then was Robert able to make out a shape inside the case. The fibers of a body were now a goopy mass in the shape of a man. Amber limbs, the tissue translucent, revealed long strands of muscle-turned-sweet-ambrosia. The hair, a tangle of sugar-floss, looked like spun gold as the sunshine filtered through the glass. Drawing closer, Robert fell to his knees, making out the waxen-looking face of the same man in the photograph, his skin now gelatinous, his lips pursed together in two bubbles of sweet honey.
The faces of the crowd distorted as Robert gawked at them through the filled case. As he inched upward, he saw many of the ladies now clutched the edge of the stage with gloved fingertips. He jolted away from the sickly-sweet scene before him, and turned to run, but the men jumped onstage and all at once, they were upon him.
He lashed out, but Jerry caught him by one arm, lifting him and dragging him toward the crowd. As he struggled, Robert glimpsed the backdrop to the stage. A twisted family photo album like no other he had ever seen was displayed in a tall glass case. The photos started out harmless enough, showing The Wilson’s gathered in the backyard smiling and laughing in still-frames of the All-American Family.
But as Robert’s gaze leapt from one photo to the next, the progression of Jonathan Wilson’s painstaking demise was spelled out in picture form.
At first, he seemed to enjoy bathing in the sticky concoction. But as the weeks went on, and his beaming wife and adoring children stood over him pouring huge jugs of amber honey down his gullet, Jonathan’s skin slowly turned into what he was forced to imbibe.
“Why? Why have you done this...horrific thing?” Robert howled as he struggled against Jerry’s grip.
“This is how it has always been done,” Jerry said without pause, nodding toward the crowd.
Alice had taken the microphone from its stand and stood on tiptoes at the front of the stage. “Men! Drink in this rich cocktail that nature provides. Feel it’s life-giving nutrients strengthen you, and replenish your youthful vigor so that you may provide the seed from which our very community shall endure!”
Her words seemed to spur the men on, and she continued as great platters were offered to the throngs. “Women, take in this unspoiled elixir. Feel its golden divinity stoke the fire of your wombs!”
Chunked honeycombs piled high on silver plates, and as they were lowered, men snatched handfuls of the honey-laden combs, biting straight into them, or squeezing them in their fists and catching the elixir in glass goblets before downing them in a single swig. The women wiped the drips from their husbands’ chins, lapping up every last dribble.
Harold Simms stepped forward and now took Robert by his ankles, helping Jerry as he lifted Robert. “The average person sees honey as a simple product of nature. If they simply took the time to think about it, they would realize that almost half of what we consume, in one way or another, is a direct result of the work done by these little marvels.”
Jerry motioned for Harold to help him. Someone had already lifted the lid on the empty glass case, and the men hoisted Robert and deposited him inside despite his thrashing.
“Aren’t you the lucky one?” Jerry snickered down at Robert as he strained against his captors. “You’re the first to try our new glass cases. The wooden ones were well and good for our forefathers. But this should prove to be a much better fit.”
Two men reached through holes bored into either side of the case, scraping Robert’s wrists back out and securing them with metal shackles. His feet, too, were bound the same way through two holes at the base of the case-now-turned-coffin.
Robert shouted, snapping his head from side to side, pleading with his eyes at whomever’s gaze he could catch, but the crowd watched the horror on stage with an insatiable hunger.
He craned his neck, searching for Leslie, and found her through the crowd, surrounded now by women either kissing her on the cheek or placing their hand on hers in congratulations.
Through the commotion, Robert could hear Alice Krall on the microphone again. “I know some of you are dissatisfied with the decision of the AESL,” she announced over the loud speaker. Leslie’s broad smile froze then sunk into confusion as she pushed her hangers-on aside.
“After all, it was Leslie Blythe who brought this non-believer into our fold. And even though we took her in, as a courtesy to her ancestors and everything they did in the founding days of the AESL, we feel, as many of you do, that being a legacy is simply not enough. Especially when one fails at convincing her own husband to adopt our ways.”
“What? What’s going on here?” Leslie cried as she struggled to break free from the group of women now encircling her. “I’ve already been chosen. You said so yourself! I’m the winner this year. You can’t take it back now!”
The crowd shushed one another, some of the ladies now snickering, their congratulatory gestures now evident for what they actually were. They clutched at Leslie’s arms, yanking her to the glass case where Robert helplessly listened to Penelope Wilson’s response.
“We can do whatever we see fit for the Community,” she said through pursed lips, her nose upturned.
“And so, we shall,” Alice agreed.
As the women handed Leslie off to Jerry and Harold, one of the ladies asked, “Are you sure she’ll fit?”
Jerry nodded, overseeing the men as they lifted Leslie’s lithe frame into the glass case. “That’s why it was built for two,” he responded as he helped secure Leslie next to her husband. The remaining men formed a line from the back of the stage and, two-by-two, passed large jugs of honey toward the front.
“You can’t just change the rules like this, after all these years!” Leslie shouted as Jerry fixed the glass cover over the Blythes.
“Genius idea, those,” Harold said, jug in hand, nodding as he leaned over Jerry’s shoulder and motioned to two small funnels fitted to the side of the case, placed so that both Robert and Leslie were forced to breathe through them.
“Tell me about it,” Jerry snorted as he took a jug, uncorked it and flipped it upside down so that the mouth of the bottle slid into place. He nodded at Harold to do the same.
“Come on, kids! Get in here!” Jerry motioned for Penelope and Margie Wilson to stand on one side of the case, while he ushered Jon Jr. and little Danny into position on the other. As outgoing Host Family, the Wilson’s smiled while the AESL’s official photographer captured the moment. Little Danny teetered on tiptoes as he reached up and tried to help his older brother by holding the jar of honey in position, the same way they had done over the course of the past year for their father.
The amber syrup coursed directly into Robert and Leslie’s mouths, their cries for help coming out in bubbles as they tried to lurch their bodies free. As their stomachs filled, the honey spilled over their lips, down onto Robert’s white tuxedo and staining Leslie’s lacy white dress.
“Next year, double the delicacy!” someone shouted, and the crowd bellowed with grunts and moans rather than words.
All at once, they clamoured up the steps, while the Wilson’s continued filling the case. Leslie’s stomach engorged with honey, and she promptly drowned, but Robert remained conscious long enough to watch through an amber-hued haze as the crowd ascended upon Jonathan Wilson’s glass coffin. Two large spigots on the front of the case were released, and twin rivers of Jonathan’s remains flowed through the holes and into the clasped hands, champagne flutes and into the open mouths of those in crowd who leaned their heads directly under the flow. Some of the men hoisted their wives up, and throwing all decorum aside, the women cloyed for the case, leaving long finger-trails in the filmy liquid.
Robert’s final conscious image was that of his neighbors; their mouths pulled back into toothy sneers of orgiastic glee, tributaries of honey dripping from the corners of their mouths, down their chins, and onto their pristine white suits and gowns.
“Next year, that will be me,” Robert thought. “I’ll be dripping down their greedy lips, dribbling down their disgusting maws.”
Then, with one last gasping swill of the sickening elixir, he drowned in a bubbling gurgle of the viscous liquid.
This story originally appeared in Shroud Magazine.