Most of the village is sitting in this one room, dark except for the lines of cigarette smoke that twist in the projector’s pale white cone. James Whale’s Frankenstein is playing. It’s 1940 on the Castilian plain. The Spanish Civil War has just ended. Two sisters are watching as a man in a tuxedo warns the moviegoers that the story they are watching is not to be taken too seriously. Now there is a man’s face in concentration, just visible behind the grid of his beekeeper mask, as he pumps smoke into his hive. The hum of the bees replaces the clicking projector wheel.
I’m watching Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). A woman, not yet seen before, is writing a letter, presumably to a lost lover: “Something tells me perhaps our ability to really feel life has vanished along with the rest.” She leaves the house for the plain, turns the wheels of her bike down a road and into the sound of the train’s steady approach. It intersects her path. When she turns to walk alongside the train, she moves through the steam it has produced and momentarily disappears. She posts her plaintive letter to a slot on the train, full of soldiers, and then she departs. Now, we watch the man whose face we’ve seen before—beekeeper, poet, husband, father—return to the empty house. We watch him thinking, in his study, as the words from the Frankenstein script overlay the scene: “Haven’t you ever wanted to take a chance … What if we went beyond the limits of the known? Have you never wished to see beyond the clouds and stars or to know what makes trees grow and changes shadow to light?”
He opens the sun-drenched windows, made of pentagonal panes, remaking the hive in the house. The sisters keep watching the movie. Now the monster meets the young Maria and they float flowers at the edge of the lake. That night as the girls go to bed, Ana whispers the three long syllables of her sister’s name, “Is-a-bel.” She asks, “Why did he kill the girl and why did they kill him after that?” But Isabel won’t answer right away, she is falling asleep. When finally she relents, she explains the monster as a spirit you can access pronouncing your own name in the dark. “I’m Ana, I’m Ana,” Isabel whispers to demonstrate. We hear the sound of the father’s footsteps above them, as if offering a response.
The words the father writes in his notebook, like the sound of the hive in his head, describe his glass beehive “with its movement like the main gearwheel of a clock.” Now the woman, again, who cannot sleep. There is no containment—neither night, nor book, nor hive, nor house—that will suffice. In The Life of the Bee (1901), Maurice Maeterlinck describes an “invisible ailment,” as necessary to the bees as honey, that is derived from a bee when it leaves the hive and results in a craving that might “explain the spirit of the laws of the hive.” This movie is like that—like strokes of paint not quite connecting one part of the composition to the next. Eerie flute melodies turn on and off. Wanting to see more, you watch and watch and watch.
Sally Keith is author of River House (Milkweed) as well as three previous collections of poetry. She teaches at George Mason University.
NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings.