Reading Fiction for Flourishing: The Murmur of Bees, by Sofia Segovia
I love stories of resilience, trauma and transformation, and the tenacity of the human heart and spirit. They teach me about how others endure life’s hardships, and lead me to consider how I might follow their examples. It occurred to me that reflecting and writing about my favorite stories might clarify their meaning and power to me, and at the same time, help others to do so. This pondering resulted in the creation of Reading Fiction for Flourishing, a blog I plan to share from time to time to support our common journey into greater wellbeing.
For my first blog post, I am reflecting on The Murmur of Bees, by Sofia Segovia. This story is set in Mexico during the Spanish Flu pandemic, a little more than 100 years ago. I picked up the book just after we had gone into physical distancing for the COVID-19 pandemic, unaware of the backdrop of the Spanish Flu in the story.
It was uncanny and a little eerie to enter into the world of the Morales family on the outskirts of Monterrey in the northeastern region of Mexico, as they retreated to a hacienda in the countryside to avoid infection. I was struck by the family’s reflection that despite all of the hardships they had endured over the years, none were like the quarantine. Life had always continued on, even in the midst of civil war, with parties and celebrations for weddings, births and baptisms, with planting the crops and with daily trips to town for essentials. However, the pandemic meant that life did not go on as it always had; it seemed to stop altogether with the social isolation away from the city. This is so relatable in our circumstance today, especially as we come into the season of graduations and weddings. Rituals like ordering flowers and having dresses altered to mark special occasions have vanished into thin air. Spring and summer events placed on the calendar before the pandemic take on a surreal quality, as if they might be happening in another dimension. And we, like the Morales family, are left to wonder whether life will ever go back to normal. And if and when it does, who will we be in the new normal? We will have two parts of ourselves – the pre-pandemic self and the person who emerged during the pandemic. We want our old selves back, but what will happen to the selves we discovered during physical distancing, along with the wisdom and sometimes better qualities that came with them? Segovia’s prescient observations made in her writing in 2015 echo in my mind.
Beyond the parallel between the Flu of 1918 and our current COVID-19 crisis, I was enchanted by this story, which poetically whispered two themes to me: first, the choices we make about how open we are to our environment and to its messages, and second, the existence of a destiny that we must each fulfill, like it or not. Segovia’s beautiful storytelling reminds us of the powerful impact of being in touch with nature, through which we gain heightened and expanded sensory perception. And with this greater awareness, we are more ready to accept the life tasks that are bestowed upon us, as if they were written in the stars at the time of our birth. Both of these themes are played out by protagonist Simonopio, who is discovered as an infant under a bridge, surrounded by a swarm of bees who will follow him into adulthood. The parents of our narrator Francisco take Simonopio in and raise him as their own, despite his cleft palate, a deformity from which so many children of the time did not survive.
From the start, Simonopio seems to have supernatural abilities deserving of protection. Fortunately for him, Nana Reja, a reclusive and silent widow, is there to watch over him during his childhood. She safeguards what she intuits as his special abilities by making sure that he is not kept inside for book learning, but rather outside, “for reading life.” Without the four walls and narrow instruction of a traditional education, there is nothing to impinge upon Simonopio’s senses. Instead, he roams the hills behind his home, following the bees on their journeys.
As he grows up, Simonopio tries to understand why so few others share his perception. “He would have liked to discuss his bees and ask everyone why they didn’t hear them, given that they spoke to the others, too, as they did to him. Had he been able, he would have talked about the song the bees sang into his willing ear about flowers on the mountain.” (pp. 42 – 43). But since no one but Francisco can understand him, he mostly remains silent. He learns that it is only worth trying to make oneself understood if someone is interested in listening.
Perhaps Simonopio’s attentiveness and contact with nature is in part a compensation for the isolation he experiences due to his cleft palate. Only his brother Francisco can understand his language. The loneliness of not being able to communicate, however, is compensated by the richness of his life made possible by his extrasensory perception – he communes harmoniously with nature, and in particular, with the bees. He is also accepted and loved by Nana Reja, his godparents, and a handful of close household staff members, despite the fact that they cannot understand his attempts at verbal communication. These sincere relationships are an important protective factor for Simonopio, who otherwise might succumb to isolation and loneliness. He has enough love and support to not lose touch with human community, yet finds the deepest connection in nature.
That Simonopio can hear nature speaking to him allows him to anticipate events. He perceives, then he foresees. How many of us would be able to better understand our past and foresee more of the future, if only we paid attention? Just read this eloquence from Segovia on his confusion over why people do not tune into their surroundings:
“Then he would have liked to ask Lupita: Why do you hang out the clothes you washed, when it’s about to rain and you’ll have to rush to take them in?…He would have liked to ask his godfather why he had done nothing to prevent the crops from dying on an icy night last winter; did he not feel the cold coming? And what about the constant impossible images that crossed in front of his closed eyes—or about the events he saw before, after, and while they happened? What did other people see when they closed their eyes? Why did they close their ears, nose, and eyes when there was so much to hear, smell, and see? Was it just him and nobody else who heard and listened?” (p. 43).
Simonopio’s openness and perception of his environment in the here and now give him insight into past and future events. He is able to foresee and influence the major agricultural shift in the region from sugar cane to orange groves and to welcome Francisco into the world, having foreseen his birth. And though he does not know exactly the time or place that he will confront his nemesis, as depicted in his godfather’s fable about the lion and coyote, he is ever vigilant about preparing for the moment, which in due course, does come.
In my own life, as I have opened myself through self-reflection over the last several years, there have been moments when the vibrancy of smells, taste, sounds, sights and feelings have washed over me like tidal waves, both invigorating and scary. I do not think that my experience is unique, and it leads people who have undergone such a change to be deliberate about observing their surroundings, taking in natural beauty in the environment, and paying attention to the messages others are sending, wittingly or not. Simonopio is the perfect inspiration for how and why to do so.
I wonder what we might be able to anticipate and to understand about our lives and about our destinies, if we were as open as Simonopio. Our narrator Francisco tells us that sometimes it takes many years to acknowledge a life truth. He laments that Simonopio tried to teach him to listen carefully and to pay attention “to what life sometimes murmurs into your ear, heart, or gut” (p. 443), but he had no patience for the practice and study required to do so. Only as an old man is he able to perceive clearly the sacrifice that Simonopio made for him and to understand that he is long overdue to reunite with his dearest friend and brother. As Segovia tells us, we have to be ready to learn the lesson, and in doing so, to unlearn much of what made us inured to the lesson in the first place. I don’t want to waste another moment to be ready. How about you?