The book on bees informs us that a bee’s life is very short—most worker bees die in less than 4 weeks.
This signals that we’re reading a chapter about death—though whose we don’t know.
Lily sits in the kitchen with August, June, and Rosaleen while May goes to the stone wall. May doesn’t return for a very long time, and eventually the others go out to get her. They look for her, but she’s nowhere to be found. Lily senses that something is very wrong. The group wanders farther and farther from the house, shouting May’s name. June says, “The police are on their way,” indicating that she’s called the police. Suddenly, August calls, “Over here.”
It’s very telling that the Boatwright sisters immediately assume the worst about May: June doesn’t hesitate to call the police, even though we’ve already seen that the police can’t be trusted to fairly handle cases involving black people. The Boatwrights know May well enough to recognize when something is wrong, and since she’s unstable and has a tragic past, they’re right to assume that she’s in danger.
The group rushes toward August’s voice, and find August standing near a stream. They see May lying underwater with a huge river stone on her chest. The stone weighs down her body, preventing her from breathing or floating to the surface. June and August rush into the water and try to lift the stone off May’s body, but they’re too late: as they pull May to the shore, she doesn’t move. August whispers, “We’ve lost her.” Lily imagines May rolling the rock, holding it tight, and then jumping into the water to kill herself. June says, “It’s just like April.” Overwhelmed, Lily vomits.
In the end, May can’t live in a world as depressing as racist America in the 1960s. Although she is happy and content with her sisters, she is incapable of filtering out the tragedies occurring outside their home, as June and August sometimes seem able to do. Instead, May absorbs all the suffering of the outside world, and dies when she can’t take any more.
Lily and Rosaleen sit in the police station, being questioned by Eddie Hazelwurst. After the group discovered May’s suicide, Lily explains, the police arrived and took May’s body for an autopsy. Hazelwurst insisted on talking to everyone, including Lily and Rosaleen. Lily is forced to tell Hazelwurst the same lie she told August: she’s an orphan trying to make it to Virginia. Hazelwurst accepts Lily’s story, though he wonders why she’s staying with black people, and suggests that she find a “white family.” Rosaleen claims that August is her husband’s cousin—Lily is impressed with Rosaleen’s ability to lie under pressure.
Throughout the book, Lily is forced to repeat the lie she told August: i.e., that she’s an orphan trying to get to Virginia. Every time Lily repeats this lie, she seems to come closer to admitting the truth about herself: that she’s desperate for information about Deborah (as we’ll see in the following section). Here we’re also reminded of Southern society’s fear of any “mixing” between blacks and white—segregation is still the norm, even though the Civil Rights Act has just been passed..
In the days following May’s suicide, the police perform an autopsy, and August organizes a public vigil for her sister. August explains to Lily that the vigil will help May get into Heaven as quickly as possible. Leading up to the vigil, the Boatwrights bring May’s body—which is pale, and dressed in blue—into their home. As she stares at May’s lifeless body, Lily thinks that this was the woman who taught her mother how to lure roaches. Lily feels a powerful urge to confess who she really is to August, but keeps this secret hidden for now. She imagines May greeting Deborah in Heaven, and prays that May will convince Deborah to send Lily a sign that Deborah loves her.
Given what we’ve learned from August about the importance of ritual, it’s possible to interpret May’s vigil in a number of different ways. While one could say that the Daughters of Mary are literally trying to get May into Heaven, it seems more likely that they’re performing their vigil to reach spiritual truth; in other words, they’re celebrating May’s memory to reach their own peace. One implication of this is that each person interprets May’s death in a different way. For Lily, May’s death is a powerful reminder of the urgency of her own quest to learn about her own mother.
The next morning, Zach comes home—he’s been released from jail because a witness convinced the police that he hadn’t done anything wrong. Forrest comes to the house to greet Zach and give his condolences to the Boatwrights about May. August embraces Forrest and thanks him for his concern. After Forrest leaves, August murmurs that if she’d told May about Zach’s arrest upfront, May wouldn’t have killed herself—a suggestion that everyone dismisses as foolish.
So far, August has seemed like a completely (and almost unrealistically) confident and calm woman, with a wise saying for every occasion. Here, however, Kidd humanizes August more by showing that she has the same feelings of guilt and self-doubt that beset Lily. It’s suggested that it’s healthier to confront tragedy head-on and try to work through it, rather than denying or avoiding it.
August takes Zach and Lily to “drape the hives”—cover them with a veil in honor to May. The purpose of this tradition, August explains, is to prevent the bees from flying away after a death in the family. She also tells Lily the story of Aristaeus, supposedly the first beekeeper. One day, all of Aristaeus’s bees died—a bad sign from the Greek gods. The gods ordered Aristaeus to sacrifice a bull to apologize. Nine days after Aristaeus sacrificed the bull, a new swarm of bees flew out of the bull’s carcass. As a result, the Greeks built their tombs in the shapes of beehives to symbolize resurrection.
Throughout the novel, bees come to symbolize different things. Here, for instance, they symbolize the constant “migration of souls”—the concepts of resurrection or reincarnation. More abstractly, August’s story about the bees signals that Lily is about to experience a “rebirth” of her own, as she makes the decision to talk through her feelings about Deborah instead of keeping them inside her.
The Daughters of Mary arrive at the Boatwright house with food for May’s vigil. At the vigil, a guest named Queenie jokes that May’s body looks so good they should hang it in a drive-by window at the funeral home. Lily says that they could hang May’s body in a bank window, and the guests reply that banks are for whites only. Later, Lily realizes how important this exchange was: it shows that she’s no longer an alien “white person”—she’s one of the Daughters.
This scene is important but also problematic in several ways. Kidd shows Lily symbolically becoming a Daughter of Mary through her friendship and community with the other women—but this milestone also only takes place in Lily’s own mind. Lily’s only basis for the fact that she’s not considered a “white person” anymore is the fact that the Daughters don’t feel ashamed criticizing other white people in front of her. This certainly shows how comfortable they are with Lily now, and how beloved she is in the house, but it’s still a huge leap to say that because of this, Lily can now truly understand the experience of the Daughters of Mary and become one of them. A white person cannot just “try on” black culture for a few weeks and then consider themselves black (as with any two cultures, particularly those that differ so greatly in terms of historical power and oppression).
On the second morning of the vigil, August finds that May left a suicide note underneath an oak tree. In the note addressed to August and June, May apologizes for leaving, but says that she’ll be with their family very soon. She ends the note, “It’s my time to die, and it’s your time to live.” August and June take the note as a mandate to celebrate life and be happy with their time on earth. August insists that June marry Neil—she explains that June has always been afraid of love.
Here Kidd alludes to the famous verse from the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes: “To everything there is a season … a time to live and a time to die …” By honoring and even celebrating death, the Daughters learn how to embrace life, too. Life is short, meaning that people should make the most of their time and “seize the day.”
The vigil goes on for 4 days. At the end of this time, the funeral home comes to pick up May’s body to be buried, and Lily goes outside to listen to the sound of the bees humming in their hives. She thinks that they sound like “souls flying away.”
Lily demonstrates the principle that August described: even if the bees don’t literally sound like souls (what does a soul sound like, anyway?), there is a spiritual truth to this concept, because Lily privately associates the bees with May’s soul going to Heaven.