All Nature seems at work.
Slugs leave their lair —
The bees are stirring —
birds are on the wing —
And Winter slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!
And I the while, the sole unbusy thing,
Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.
“Work without Hope”
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Fourteen-year-old Caitlyn Summer stared, transfixed. She had sucked in a breath three seconds ago but still hadn’t exhaled.
The others kids—sitting packed like sardines on the couch, loveseat, and floor of the Summers’ cozy living room— hadn’t seemed fazed. They continued gazing attentively at the courtship speaker, a young lady whose smiling face radiated joy.
Caitlyn had thoroughly enjoyed the talk. Courtship reminded her of Jane Austen stories, of ladies in frilly gowns and gentlemen on horseback. But then the woman said, “The couple get to know each other by spending time together only in groups or with their families.” And Caitlyn had sucked in that breath.
Groups? Families? No, that wouldn’t work. Caitlyn slunk down in the rocker recliner and twirled a long tress of her red hair in front of her face. Her life flashed before her eyes. No guy would want to practice courtship just to see her, especially not the boy she liked.
She exhaled. She would live out her years alone and die an unmarried woman. What was the word for that? Oh yeah, spinster.
A shadow moved on the wall behind the courtship speaker then someone knocked on the frame of the screen door.
Caitlyn jumped up, the chair squeaking and her eyes snapping to the time displayed on the cable box. The meeting should’ve ended already. She turned to her mother, who sat on a chair pulled from the dining room. “Mom, I’m gonna .
. .” She pointed to the screen door.
Mom glanced at her watch and nodded.
Caitlyn stepped over legs. All eyes swiveled to her. Then kids pulled out their phones, probably checking the time or their latest text message. The speaker stopped talking and turned to Mom. Mom mumbled something about the next meeting.
Caitlyn pushed open the screen door and stumbled out onto the porch, stubbing her toe on the threshold. The fresh air cooled her cheeks and neck, and a grassy smell tickled her nose.
“I thought your meeting would be over by now.” Zoe, in sandals and white shorts that drew attention to her long, tan legs, sat on the porch rail. She turned and glanced at the cars in the driveway, her silky black hair cascading over one shoulder.
“Yeah, me, too.” Caitlyn sighed, admiring Zoe’s grace and beauty, a hint of jealousy flickering inside her. Her shapeless, rail-thin body and wild red hair couldn’t attract a fly.
Voices came from inside, several people talking at once. Someone laughed. Several more laughed. The meeting must be breaking up. Soon the kids, most from the Catholic youth group, would stampede from the house.
“Come on.” Motioning for Zoe to follow, Caitlyn thumped down the steps and cut across a front yard littered with toys.
“So how’d it go?” Zoe came up beside her, taking long steps like a runway model.
“It was nice.” Caitlyn stepped over a green ride-on toy and into a tangle of jump rope. “I wish you would’ve come.” She shook her foot free and sort of staggered into the backyard, heading for the painting area she’d set up this morning.
Upside down cardboard boxes in the freshly-mowed grass, near the flowering turtlehead Chelone, served as tables. A long, low box held tubes of acrylic paint, paintbrushes, a jar of water, and Cool Whip lids that she used as palettes. Her 4-by-6-inch canvas lay out on the bigger box, the crumpled paper towel next to it hopefully hiding it from Zoe.
“What could I possibly learn from your courtship meeting? I’ve had boyfriends since junior high.” Zoe, the only child of professional parents and the most attractive and self-possessed girl Caitlyn knew, did seem to have the boyfriend thing down pat.
“Courtship is not the same as having a boyfriend,” Caitlyn said, “or dating. It’s a different way of doing things.” Eyes on her painting, she doubled her steps. She hated for people to see her unfinished work.
Caitlyn’s heart skipped a beat. She lunged and snatched the miniature canvas then turned to face Zoe, holding the canvas behind her. “What’s what?”
Zoe pointed to another upside down box, a little one that held the model for Caitlyn’s painting . . . a bumble bee corpse that Caitlyn had positioned just-so.
“It’s a bee.” Caitlyn brought the canvas from behind her back and hugged it to her belly. “I thought it would look nice in my picture.”
Zoe wrinkled her nose. “But it’s dead.” She sat in the grass and stretched one leg out, now looking like a model posing for a shoot.
“David found it by the fence when he was trying to sneak into the neighbor’s yard.” Her little brother seemed obsessed with getting into their garden lately.
“And you decided a dead bee would be a good subject for your painting?”
“Well, it’s not dead in my painting. See?” She gave Zoe a glimpse of the painting then sat cross-legged next to her. “It’s hovering by a pink turtlehead Chelone blossom, its little wings fluttering as it tries to get nectar.”
“Okay. I’m sure it’ll look great.” Zoe smiled, her honey brown eyes sparkling in the sunlight. “So tell me about the meeting. Will you have to follow a bunch of rules now? I always thought someday we’d double date.”
“Rules?” Caitlyn sucked in a breath again. “Well, there are certain principles to courtship.” That wasn’t the same thing as rules, was it? “It’s about putting things in the proper perspective, the proper order.”
“Oh, you know.” She neatened the paints and brushes. “Like finding yourself first, thinking about where you’re headed, and knowing how to get there.” It had all made sense to her when the lady explained it. Perfect sense. Except for that one detail.
The screen door slid open. One of Caitlyn’s younger sisters and little David ran out.
“Close the screen door!” Mom screamed.
“My truck!” David toddled toward ten-year-old Priscilla.
Priscilla stood on the back patio holding a muddy yellow truck. “I told you it was in the house . . .” The cold smile and tilt of her head made her resemble Mom in parent mode. “. . . where it’s not supposed to be.”
Caitlyn sighed. A shy boy would never feel comfortable around her family.
“Anyway, I know who I am,” Zoe said. “And I know what I want. Don’t you?”
Caitlyn shrugged. She loved Jesus, her family, and her life. And she knew what she wanted long term: she planned to get married and fill the house with bouncing babies and cuddly children. Short term . . .
She exhaled and allowed herself to think about him. Roland West. The sweetest, most mysterious boy in ninth grade. Dark eyebrows over piercing gray eyes, an unnaturally pale complexion—particularly appealing to the vamp girls, not that she was one of them—and the hint of a smile. He rarely spoke to anyone, yet still managed to grab girls’ attention. He’d gotten her attention the moment she’d laid eyes on him.
School had just begun. Mom had told her she couldn’t attend the annual camping trip with her friends. After screaming her head off in protest, to no avail, Caitlyn had stormed from the house and all the way to the downtown square. There she paced back and forth. Unbeknownst to her, Roland watched from the steps of St. Michael’s Church. She wouldn’t have ever known if she hadn’t been so clumsy. In the middle of questioning God, she flung out an arm, shot a look heavenward, and smacked into a pair of bikers. They all tumbled to the cement. Roland came to her rescue, stopping her heart as he did so.
She brushed her lips with a dry paintbrush, liking the tickly sensation. Could Roland be the one for her . . . her future husband?
Caitlyn’s heart sank. As shy as he was, how would she ever get to know him? Maybe Zoe was right and courtship had too many rules. Could she miss her future husband because she had to practice courtship?
“I’ll tell you one thing I don’t want anymore.” Zoe flipped her hair off one shoulder. Her mouth became a straight line. She had no need to say more. They’d been best friends since kindergarten. Caitlyn could read her.
“You’re kidding,” Caitlyn said in her most sympathetic voice. “You guys broke up?” She wasn’t really worried. Zoe, like every other popular girl in school, would have another boyfriend within the week. With the exceptions of square dancing in the third grade, her brother David, and Peter, who didn’t count, Caitlyn had never even held a boy’s hand.
“We’re taking a break.” Zoe gave a sly smile, stretched her arms out behind her, and leaned back.
“So you’ll go camping with me?” Caitlyn dropped the paintbrush, excitement making her hands fly up and her eyes pop. Zoe had never gone on the annual camping trip. Roughing it was not her thing, she’d always said. This year was different. She’d claimed she wanted to go but that her boyfriend held her back.
“I thought you weren’t going camping,” Zoe said, “that you had to go to a wedding.”
“My cousin backed out, so I’m free to go.” Caitlyn shouldn’t have been smiling. She felt sad for her cousin. Caitlyn had never seen her more bubbly than when she announced the wedding. The break-up probably devastated her. But, boy, this year’s camping trip had Caitlyn excited.
This camping trip might be the answer. If Roland decided to go, they could get to know each other without having to worry about courtship rules. Her friend Peter was supposed to call today and let her know. “What time is it?”
“What?” Zoe pulled a cell phone from a back pocket. “Oh, I have to get going.” She stood. “I’ll call you later, okay?” She sauntered back around the side of the house, her silky black hair billowing out with every step.
Caitlyn sighed. Did she even stand a chance with Roland?
She grabbed her Cool Whip lid palette and lifted the wet paper towel she had put over it to keep the paint blobs from drying. Was she too young to be so interested in a boy? “High school is where you find your bridesmaids,” the courtship woman had said, “not your husband.”
Caitlyn rinsed her brush and reformed the tip, ready to add final touches to the flowers before she started on the bee.
The screen door slid open.
Caitlyn spun to face it. Maybe Peter had phoned.
Stacey, her youngest sister, stepped outside clutching an armful of superhero action figures. She never had liked dolls.
Stacey skipped across the yard, headed for little David, who was burying his truck in the sandbox.
Oh, Peter, hurry up and call.
Caitlyn rolled her brush in pale pink paint then touched it to the canvas with gentle strokes. The flower should appear delicate but irresistible, full of something more than eye could see. Painting the bee, the living, fluttering creature in pursuit of the flower’s alluring nectar, posed a challenge for her. She typically painted still life and landscapes. She had no experience with bees.
Did bees even like turtlehead? She’d seen them come around, but they never seemed to get inside the blooms. Not only did she know nothing about bees, she had little knowledge of flowers.
The screen door screeched open.
Caitlyn jumped, jerking the brush. The flower on the canvas now had a horn that she needed to remove before it dried. She sighed.
“Telephone,” Mom said. “I think it’s Peter.”