Amal El-Mohtar's The Honey Month, with an introduction by Danielle Sucher, ranks among the year's most exquisite treasures. This beautiful volume of short fictions and poems takes as its inspiration the author's tasting of 28 different kinds of honey, one per day. Each tasting leads to a different literary creation, each entry beginning with a description of the honey in terms that will be familiar to wine connoisseurs: "Day 3--Sag Harbor, NY, Early Spring Honey," which has a color "pale and clear as snowmelt" and the smell "cool sugar crystals," but also brings to mind "a stingless jellyfish I once held in my hand in Oman." The taste? "...like the end of winter...[when] you can still see clumps of snow on the ground and the air is heavy with damp..." The differences between the types of honey allow El-Mohtar to move back and forth between the poetic and the more casually contemporary, with the experiment of the tasting as the unifying structure. A perfect gift, a hidden treasure, a delight for the senses.
"Amal El-Mohtar's The Honey Month from Papaveria Press ranks among 2010's most exquisite and overlooked treasures."–Jeff VanderMeer, Omnivoracious
"A delightful debut collection whose poems and short stories are more than just an aesthetic pleasure; they are a rich sensual indulgence."–Andy Humphrey
"I am hopelessly, madly in love with this small book."–Dan Campbell
Smell: Slightly resinous, warm, not very strong.
Colour: Mellow gold, an almost "typical" honey colour—what you'd imagine saying "honey tones" would mean, referring to hair or wood.
Taste: Gentle. Very similar to clover honey, but not quite as sweet: mellow, kind. No unusual notes; all I can think is "mm, honey," but without that extra quality that makes me so keenly understand the line from Romeo and Juliet where honey is "loathsome in its own deliciousness," where the sweetness takes on an added dimension so different from sugar, in a way that scrunches your nose when you're a child but closes your eyes when you're grown up. If I were to attempt to be sophisticated I'd say it was understated. Delicious, all the same.
Come to me, she said, and I will plait fireweed into your hair. When you laugh, it will gleam like wheat in sunlight, and when you weep, it will sweeten your tears until hummingbirds are drawn to sip them. Only come to me, and be my love, for I am so alone, and there is no one to tend the hives with me, no one to tip the moon-water from my well, no one to hold my hand in the dark. The night is cold and the moon is colder, and my sisters have all forgotten me.
So spoke the star-girl, many years fallen, when I dreamed of her that night.
I had gone to bed with my left arm throbbing. I was rooting around in the spice cupboard when I cried out, yanked my hand back in surprise; a bee had been wintering there, had stung me just above the wrist, and now wriggled in her death throes between jars of honey and cinnamon. I had never been stung before, and marvelled at how much it hurt.
It seemed cruel to let her suffer, but I couldn't bring myself to mangle her any further. I scooped her up, dropped her out on the windowsill, and went to find some garlic to rub on the sting.
I thought the dream was the garlic's fault, at first.
There was a mountain in the distance, and a glowing at its foot. I walked towards it, as one does in dreams, and found I could smell heat, a smell like warm water and beeswax candles, that grew stronger the closer I got. Soon I began to see strange bushes all around, a gold-green spread along the mountain's edge, full of rust-red flowers that glowed against the darkness.
It took me a moment to notice the girl by the well. She did not smile at me. She didn't look as if she could.
Her skin was pale as quartz, clear and clouded in the same way; her eyes were like water, and shone painfully. She had no hair, no eyebrows, but her face was perfect, cabochon-smooth, and she was crying.
It is pointless to say she was beautiful. It cannot mean what I want it to mean. When I looked at her I wanted both to touch her and watch her from a distance, to hold her and hide from her, to kiss her and ask her to forgive me—for what, I couldn't say, except that she looked so sad.
She did it, she said. Tears shone against her cheeks. She found someone. Stay longer, next time, please?
Before I could answer her, I woke up.
It was still dark out. I got out of bed, made myself some tea. I couldn't say what it was about the star-lady that had shaken me. It was so hard to remember dreams, usually, but this one followed me from home to work and back again. I crawled into bed early, wanting the dream back, but didn't hope for it too strongly. On the rare occasions I'd dreamed something beautiful—the beginning of an adventure, the opening of a novel beckoning me on to the next chapter—it was impossible, no matter how much I willed it, to pick up the thread I'd dropped.
I had no trouble this time.
You came back, she said, and I melted to see her almost smile, to see hope kindle in her adamantine eyes. She thorned you deep. Will you stay?
I tried to ask her name, who she was, but the dream-speech tangled in my mouth, threatened to wake me if I forced it. She understood.
I fell. We must guard against the slightest fall, against even the thought of it; a fall is never slight to us. Something in us is always wanting the plunge, the speed, the disgrace, and once we taste weightlessness we become gluttons for it.
I was very beautiful, then, with my eight-pointed hair bound up in fireweed. My sisters called me their little opal, though they were all so much lovelier than me. I was playing a chase-game with them when I tripped against this mountain's tip, back when mountains still grew and sought to tickle us in our beds. I tripped, and the falling had me, and all my eight-pointed hair burned behind me, and my fireweed too, except for one bit, one tiny bit I kept clutched in my fist for all that it hurt so sharp.
I planted it. I watered it with kisses and tears and moon-slicked water from this well, and it grew to heat and brightness again. I tried to climb up the mountain, but by the time I was halfway up it had forgotten how to grow, gone drowsy, began to decline. All things seek to fall, in time. It is not nearly tall enough for me now, and I am trapped, and alone, save for my fireweed, my bees, and this well. The bees love the moon-water; it is sweeter than sugar. Will you help me feed them?
How could I not?
I never thought to ask, then, how I could stay with her when I was bound to wake up. I never thought to wonder how I would rearrange my life to live less and sleep more, that I might draw her moon-water and feed her bees, that I might kiss her cool cheeks and tell her stories. I never thought, and I should have, because here I am, still, and I wonder if I can wake up now, wonder if I am laid out in my bed with someone knocking at the door I can't answer, wonder if it will take someone to suck the sting from my wrist before I can leave.
I don't know. It's always night, here, and she is always so beautiful. The hummingbirds, too. They never seem to leave.