Offcourse Literary Journal
ISSN 1556-4975 

"How to Find Honey in the Desert", by S.K. Johannesen.



The soda biscuits and the tortillas started the same way. Flour and baking soda sifted onto the oil-cloth-covered table through a piece of wire screen nailed to a wooden frame. Melted lard and sour milk poured a little at a time into a well in the centre of the mound of flour. Then all this worked into dough, sticky and lumpy for the biscuits, floury and smooth for the tortillas.

Twice a week Octavius picked over the pinto beans and put them to soak in one of two enameled pots. While the beans soaked in one, the other held cooked beans, reheated twice a day. He added meat from time to time. Salt pork, or deer or javelina when Pra had shot something. Sometimes they ate just the beans, mashed in a skillet with fat and eaten scooped up in a tortilla. Always the succulent green jalapeño peppers.

Octavius liked the monotony of it all, the subtle shift in the taste of the bean pot, the steady contrast of the peppers, his routine with the biscuits and the tortillas. The biscuits they ate in the morning, with coffee and rancid butter. And then honey. José found the honey.


José had just walked out of the desert one day. From the south, all the way from Durango, he said. Certainly the thirty miles or so from Nogales. He never asked about pay or hours, or even about a job. He started doing things. Neat in his person, with a sparse untrimmed beard, José observed everything with the same sweet and ironical disinterest. He seemed to know about mining, and so fitted in with Daniel and Tamayo, with the drilling and blasting and timbering at the work face, while Octavius and LeRoy shoveled ore and worked the winch, and pushed the ore cars through the tunnels on the narrow-gauge tracks. Pra never worked underground.


The day they got the honey—a Sunday, Pra had taken Daniel and Tamayo across the border to see their families, and LeRoy had gone for the ride—José climbed the hill just above the mine entrance, to a patch of flowering cactus. He lay on the ground alongside this thicket, studying something in the air above his head. Twice he lifted himself on one elbow and squinted in the direction of the ridge high above. Then he moved to another cactus patch, where he repeated the procedure.

When he was satisfied he called to Octavius, who was waiting below, to follow him, and to bring a small satchel of gear José had already prepared, together with a large tin pail and a military-type folding spade.


They climbed slowly for most of the morning, in the crisp, clean air, zigzagging upward on the loose stony soil and over the decayed, sharp edges of the porphyry dikes that extended to right and left at regular intervals across their path. José paused from time to time to fix his bearings on something at the top of the mountain, where a weathered dike, heavily fissured and seamed, formed a final vertical wall.

Just below the summit he found what he was looking for. In one of the narrowest fissures, folded into the rock face, a black hole scarcely visible from more than a few feet away. Octavius could now see the bees coming and going, and hear a steady hum from inside the rock.


José studied the crevice and the rock around it, probing finally with particular interest a small vertical opening, just a crack, about two feet to the left and a little down from the bee cave.

José took the satchel from Octavius and laid out its contents: a stick of dynamite, a couple of blasting caps, three or four feet of black-powder fuse, some matches, a knife, a crimping tool for the blasting caps, a smooth stick about eighteen inches long and, finally, the canteen of water they had brought to drink from.

With the knife he cut the dynamite stick into two unequal pieces. Then he cut off a bit at the end of the length of fuse and stuck the fresh-cut end into a blasting cap and crimped the cap onto the fuse expertly, his hands around to one side and his face averted.

He worked the cap with its tail of fuse gently into the cut end of the smaller piece of dynamite, from which he had scooped out some of the filling, and bent the fuse back along the side of the dynamite, so that when he tamped it into the widest part of the crevice, the open end first, the cap and fuse held snugly in place. He did this slowly and methodically, with great delicacy of touch, pushing with the stick in one hand and feeding the fuse with the other, until the charge reached a depth that satisfied him.

He scraped together a small mound of alkali dust from the base of the cliff, made a crater and poured in enough water to make a thick putty, with which he plastered in the dynamite, filling the crevice around it completely, leaving the black fuse sticking out. An inch back from the free end of the fuse he made a partial cut and bent it on itself, exposing fresh powder that would light readily. He put everything back in the satchel except the matches, one of which he held ready to strike, and motioned to Octavius to pick up the bucket and spade and move along to the shelter of a corner off to the side.


After the thump, which sounded as though it came from somewhere inside the mountain, not at all the ear-splitting crack Octavius had expected, they went back to have a look. The rock between the dynamited crevice and the bee cave had fractured neatly at an angled depth of eight inches to a foot and the slab had fallen away, leaving the hive exposed but undamaged, and the bees, thousands of them, lying dead or stunned, all over the surface of the combs and down the slope.

They made two more trips up and down the mountain, that evening and the next morning, filling the bucket each time with sticky gobs of honey and beeswax. There was even more they left behind, ancient stuff, black and tarry, some of it hard as rock, smelling of long-dead flowers.

There was still honey in the bucket when José drifted off, the way he came, walking across the desert.



Stan Johannesen's work has appeared in Offcourse Issue#34, "The Element of Desire, Issue #25, Winter 2005, Brückenkopfstrasse, and in Issue #7, Summer 2000, Old Photos. He is a native of New York City.  His stories and essays have appeared in Grain, Malahat Review, Descant and Queen's Quarterly, and he has just finished a novel set in Denmark during the war.  He taught courses in cultural criticism in the History Department of the University of Waterloo. His latest book, Luggas Wood, has just come out from Blaurock Press, Kitchener, Ontario (Canada).



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