Cover image for Nectar
Fickett, David.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Forge, [2002]

Physical Description:
318 pages ; 22 cm
General Note:
"A Tom Doherty Associates book."
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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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From the unforgiving farmland of rural Maine comes a story of love and sacrifice, of family tragedies and obligations, and of the mysterious healing power of bees.

David Fickett's Nectar crosses three generations of beekeepers to tell the story of Regina Merritt, a determined woman who is forced at a young age to choose between happiness and survival. Her remarkable life is recounted with the help of the many people affected by that decision: a husband, who fails in every attempt to win her love, and loses everything in the process; a daughter, uncomfortably aware of her mother's weaknesses, who is forced, in her darkest moment, to rely on the empathy of the woman she soughtto hurt; a lover, denied in near-childhood, who never fails to provide protection and hope to the woman who denied him; and a son, left to his own devices by a mother with little love left, who yearns to solve the mysteries of his childhood and of the woman who is both his deepest connection and his worst enemy. Haunting and poignant, Nectar is a novel that will stay with you long after the last page is read.

Author Notes

David Fickett lives in a small lobstering town on the coast of Maine with his wife of seventeen years, his daughter, and his two sons. He has had several short stories appear in Maine journals. Nectar is his first novel.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

If love forbidden and love forsaken lie at the heart of this powerful and poignant family saga, then the resolute but resilient Ginny Gilley is its very soul. Since childhood, Ginny has lusted after hired-hand Duffy, yet she's practical enough to know that her future depends on someone who can provide more financial security. Consigned to a hardscrabble existence on her family's farm, everything Ginny knows about life she has observed tending her father's bees, including, after studying the habits of the queen bee, how to manipulate the men in her life, from her husband to lover, father to son. In less accomplished hands, this "life as a hive" metaphor could be reduced to trite cliche, yet Fickett's sagacious treatment is both sublime and apt, superbly capturing the subtle intricacies of complex relationships. Revealed through flashbacks spanning nearly a half-century, Fickett's formidable characters resonate with clarity and truth that can only be born of the times and traumas that unite them. A tantalizingly seductive debut that promises richly evocative and heartfelt fiction. --Carol Haggas

Publisher's Weekly Review

A backwoods Maine family is ravaged by the fallout from deception and infidelity in Fickett's debut novel, a poignant but overplotted multigenerational saga that begins when young Caleb Gilley returns to the family homestead to bury his mother's lover and his beloved surrogate father, Duffy Pendleton, after the older man dies. Caleb's mother, Regina Merritt, has spent most of her life trying to deal with the mistake she made by not marrying Duffy, her childhood sweetheart. Ginny paid for her error in blood, sweat and tears when she chose instead to cast her lot with Henry Gilley, a high-minded but ineffectual farmer with big dreams who collapsed into alcoholism and deserted his family before Caleb's birth. Fiercely determined to achieve her dreams of prosperity, Ginny scratched out a living by keeping bees, farming and opening a cafe in her small village, but the libidinous arrangement she makes to get the money for the cafe has tragic consequences for her oldest daughter, Edith, who spitefully uses her knowledge of Ginny's sexual bargain to gain the upper hand in a running battle with her mother. Meanwhile, Caleb keeps hoping that Duffy is his real father, and his eventual discovery makes a dramatic climax. Fickett is a fine craftsman whose strength is his character writing and the compassion he displays for his decidedly flawed cast, but the scope of his narrative and the number of subplots he chronicles sometimes makes this book seem a bit like a backwoods soap opera. Despite that busyness, there are stretches that recall the early work of Carolyn Chute (minus the grotesque humor), a reference that bodes well for Fickett's future as a novelist. Agent, Jean Grosjean. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Fickett's bittersweet novel belies its title. Set on a hardscrabble Maine farm in 1907, it's the story of Regina (Ginny) Gilley, a determined girl who becomes a strong woman, destroying the men in her path much as a queen bee does the males in her hive. Smart, worldly, uneducated, but driven, she manipulates first her despicable father and then her true love, the steadfast Duffy, by marrying outsider Henry for his money money to save her beloved farm and hives. But Henry deserts the family, and Ginny is forced to make a devilish deal with discarded suitor Gunnar, while Duffy marries on the rebound. The bargain with Gunnar has far-reaching implications in this disturbing but beautifully told tale, which is sometimes reminiscent of Ethan Frome. Throughout, the bee motif holds; Ginny's restaurant is the Queen Bee, and she bottles honey for the wholesale market. It's up to Caleb, Ginny's youngest child, who is searching for the true identity of his father, to unravel the complex relationships among these farm folk and beekeepers in a dramatic and surprising denouement. This wonderful debut is recommended for all collections. Jo Manning, Barry Univ. Lib., Miami Shores, FL (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



One runs chances in buying bees in full colonies…the bees are not likely to be of pure stock.… -- from First Lessons in Beekeeping by C. P. Dadant, c. 1957 CHAPTER ONE Caleb Gilley 1956 The man I believe to have been my father has died. It's a cool Autumn day and my mother and I sit together on the porch, both of us still hearing his last breath, made only hours ago. Ma's in her rocker and I'm in Duffy's. Duffy lived with us all of my life, guiding me as a father guides a son, and loving my mother when no one else could. His heart has stopped. My mother turns to me, dry eyed, puts her hand on mine and says, "I'll cry when I'm sure I have enough tears to make it worth the effort," and then she takes her hand back from mine. "He was more to you and me than you'll ever know," she says. "We have to git him downstair." She stands and goes into the house. Ma says things like this to me at times, leaving a little mystery behind her as she walks away. I don't know how to take most of what she says. There have always been unspoken words hanging between my mother, Duffy, and me like red apples, too high to reach, and too tempting to forget. Those un-words still swing above my head in gusty winds making me wonder. It seems my mother, a nervous little woman, always sweeping, always fussing, always moving away from me before I can reach her, has been moving to avoid something that follows her, or maybe it's only me she moves away from. Maybe it was her age. She was close to forty when I was born. My sisters and brother were quite a bit older than me. Maybe she'd lost any interest she might have had in raising kids, or my brother's death, when I was still young, ruined her. I don't think I've ever impressed her much. I was never any good at games in school. I was an average student. I couldn't dribble a basketball with any sort of grace. I couldn't bat a ball to save my life. I've been told I have nice eyes, healthy hair, and at about the age of thirteen I started to grow taller than other boys my age, so that I was the tallest in my class. Hair, eyes, height. Those are the few things that make me Caleb, yet they don't make me into anything special. I work on our farm, cut wood, tend to her bees (if she'll allow it) and take other odd jobs to make ends meet. I like collecting insects, and I know there are men out in the world who make a living studying insects, but Ma has told me there's no future in it. I like to think my father, who left us before I was born, would have pushed me to get an education, would have seen to it that I left these desolate Maine woods to be among the living. Ma always said I was foolish to think of going to college, we couldn't afford it. Once, Duffy and I were working on cutting up a spruce that stood out back for more than seventy years. It had come down in a winter ice storm. That spring as we cut and piled up the broken, splintered wood, we noticed the rings inside the tree, a thin ring of a dry summer, a thick one from a wet season, a tough knot of stubbornness. And wedged deep into the core of the tree was a ten-inch spike where once someone had driven it. We had just missed it with our saw. It was lying horizontally through the cross section of the wood. The tree had healed over the wound and swallowed the spike completely until it was a part of it. The hidden history of an old tree. When Ma looks at me during one of our long evenings together, just stares at me, looking for something, I think she looks for the spike that's been wedged into me. Those long looks, and then the shy smile at being caught, have been the only hints that maybe there is a story about me, one she can't tell. * * * I get up from the rocker and follow Ma into the house. Walter, an old friend of Ma's, is coming through the back door. She puts out her hand to him. "Will you help Caleb bring Duffy down here?" she asks. He nods. I go into the parlor and spread an old dark green bedspread over a sheet of plywood on two saw horses. This is where we will lay Duffy out. I go up the stairs with Walter following me. We go into the bedroom and look at Duff. Ma wouldn't let me cover his face, but she closed his eyes. "He was a good man," Walter says, close to tears. "Yes." I swallow hard. "And you know he and your Ma loved each other since grade school," he whispers. I have heard this before. Where Duffy's wife and my father fit into the story I don't know. Ma will never say. Walter puts his hands under Duffy's shoulders as I remove the blankets and take Duffy's white, dry feet in my hands. I can't lift him. I can't move. I can't move. "I don't wanna hear no belly-achin," I can hear my mother saying to me when I was only seven and my brother died. Teddy wasn't right, simple-minded, retarded, but Ma had special feelings for him. He loved her without rules. Still she kept a stiff upper lip as I sat on the hard-packed ground of the drive and cried as the casket was being carried away. She wouldn't go down to the cemetery to see him buried. She blamed herself for his death. He'd died of beestings. "Come on boy, lift him," Walter says. I nod and try again. I try not to think about this old man's feet in my hands. * * * I never knew a dead body could weigh so much. We struggle to keep ahold of Duffy, his body constricted in places like cement. His eyelids open as we near the bottom of the steps. His green eyes, that somehow I seem to have as well. People around Josiahville think Duffy was my father but Duffy said no. I know I should believe him. He was an honest man. Why would he lie? We manage to get Duffy to the green bedspread, the makeshift altar. We close his eyes again, and struggle to remove his nightshirt. Ma wanted to lay him out the way she had laid out her mother, the old-fashioned way. She won't have him go to the funeral home in Milbridge. She covers him with a sheet up to his neck. She won't cover his face. I fetch the basin of warm, soapy water from the kitchen and bring it to her. I set it on the table next to where she stands. "You go on now. I'll do this," she says. She looks at me, parting her lips, about to say something, about to reach into me, pull from me that rusted spike of who I am, but then she stops herself and looks down at Duffy. I back out of the parlor and partially close the door. I watch her slowly fold back the sheet to expose his chest. Her hands shake, but she doesn't cry. Even at the end, when we knew that it would only be hours, she didn't cry. She looks old. I don't think I ever noticed before. Her dark hair is coiled tight in curls, no gray, but her face is old, with the lines she claims she earned, trudging through a hard life that she's only hinted about. I don't know what roads she's taken to bring her here, bathing the silent body of the man she loved. Walter waits behind me. I close the parlor door and turn to him. "Was he my dad?" I ask. "That's somethin' to ask her, not me," Walter says, his face red. He leaves, going out through the kitchen door like he did for years as our hired help. I hear a truck coming toward the house. I go out onto the porch. The sun is setting as the truck comes up the winding dirt road to the farm. The road is pink and the trees beyond are outlined with orange. The old pickup is rusted, and in places, a faded blue color. The passenger door is tied closed with wire. Letters that once spelled out Sorensen's Farm, are only a mottled puzzle of white paint and rust. There are corroding pits on the cab where the boys have shot at it when they were drunk. I see Gunnar, the old man, looking like a bulldog with his face twisted into a frown. One black eyebrow spreads across his forehead and the shadow of his nose hangs over his sunken, toothless mouth. I turn behind me and see my mother's face, expressionless, as she steps out onto the porch and then she goes back into the house. The screen door slaps back against the door frame. The three Sorensen boys are sitting on the truck bed glaring at me. I know what it is they've come for. They stop the truck in front of the porch in a cloud of dry dust. "We just heard. When's the funeral?" the old man asks me, slurring his words. I can't speak. My throat is dry. "Damn fool," the oldest of Gunnar's sons yells and they all laugh. I can see a woman sitting next to the old man. The side of her face is bruised. It plainly brands her as Gunnar's. She's watching the field on the far side of the road. She is pretty and far too young to be Gunnar's woman. His boys were raised without a mother. Noelle died not long after Olaf was born. Gunnar has never remarried but he's somehow always managed to keep a woman around to do the housework, feed the boys, and share his bed. "It's only a graveside service. Just us," I say as Gunnar raises a bottle to his mouth. He and his boys live on a farm down the road. They're mostly drunkards and vandals. Olaf and I went through school together until he dropped out in the ninth grade. Erik and Sven are the older brothers, always in trouble with the law. "We ain't good enough? My dad and Duffy was friends all their lives," Sven, the middle son says. Then Erik, the oldest, laughs and stands up in the truck bed. He points his rifle into the sky and shoots at a bird overhead, missing. The flock of swallows on the roof of the porch swoop up together, startled, they flap and dart in different directions. "Shit," Erik says and lowers his rifle. Gunnar gets out of the truck, slaps at Erik's leg and tells him to put the gun down. "We ain't wanted?" Gunnar asks me. "Duffy and me grew up together. I wanna pay my respects." "I'll tell Ma. But she's not planning a funeral," I say as Gunnar approaches. There are pieces of food in the corners of his mouth. Stains on his torn T-shirt. "Tell that old bitch she can go to hell." He points to the house. "I'll talk to her. Wait out here," I say as I open the door and go inside. "You git rid of them. I won't have them here," Ma says as I come toward her through the hall into the kitchen. "Who's going to help me with Duffy?" I ask. "I will, or ask Abel, git Walter," she says as she turns from me and leans on the sink. Her arms are ropy with veins and coiled hatred for the Sorensens. They aren't the sort of people I like to be with either, but Gunnar was friends with Duffy. Our families have been neighbors for generations. She's indifferent to most of our neighbors, but her feelings are much stronger concerning the Sorensens. "Walter's old, Ma. I won't ask him for more help. I'll ask Olaf to come back later. Just Olaf. He'll help me dig the grave." She turns to face me. She shakes her head slowly, looks at the floor. She understands me less than I understand her. She passes by me and heads into the parlor, closing the door. I go outside. "Olaf, would you be able to help me tomorrow, with the casket and all?" "You won't let us come to the service, but you want my boy's help?" Gunnar's face looms in front of me. "I'll talk to Ma tonight." "Yeah, I can help ya," Olaf says as he dodges a swing from his father. He jumps up onto the truck bed. Gunnar spits on the ground, turns, and gets in his truck. As they drive away I see Ma's face behind the lace curtain in the parlor. * * * She cooks our supper. We eat at the kitchen table and try not to look at the empty chair where Duffy always sat. I look out the kitchen door. Through the screen I can hear the bees coming back to the hives after working all day. They sound softer tonight. They're keeping the excitement of their work to themselves, out of respect to Ma. She has not been to visit them for over a week, but they continue on. I try to think about my new collections of bugs I've been cataloging during Duffy's illness. I've been labeling the stages of a bee's growth in my journal and pinning perfect specimens of workers, drones, and queen, to one of the boards I've covered with burlap. I don't want to think about Duffy's death, or how Ma will cope without him. "What do we do now?" she asks, making me focus on her. She is just finishing up her squash and potato, wiping her plate with a thick slab of bread. She is angry and worried about her days ahead. I've always thought that she has too hard a shell to get hurt by much. Now I'm not so sure. She looks up at me when I don't jump to answer her question. "I don't know," I finally say and quickly look down at my plate. I can't eat. "I'll work harder, get the place in shape." "I've built it up and watched it fall again. There ain't no point," she says. I don't remember this farm ever looking well kept. The barns are dilapidated, and the fields, where the horses and cows had wandered in my mother's day, are choking with poplar and birch. We had a few pigs once but Duffy hated to kill them when the time came, so he sold them and never got any more. Hens were a nuisance, always clucking, squabbling, and shitting. Always burnt-out bulbs in the coops, faulty wiring, fox or weasels raiding them. We rarely got many eggs. Duffy tried his best to take up where my mother's father left off but he'd finally given up. I don't think my mother's disposition helped matters much. It seems like she is always mad about something. "Any bright ideas?" She stands up, with her plate in her hand, and stomps across the kitchen floor. "I can plant," is all I say. "And hire the help and keep them in line? Christ, you ain't even twenty-one yet, still a boy. You don't know nothin' about farmin', or beekeepin', neither." She whirls around at me with a bright glare in her eyes. "I don't know then." "You're right you don't know. If you'd taken more than five minutes away from studyin' them worms and flies, so Duffy could teach you somethin', you might know about hard work. You and your goddamned bugs. Well, mister, you better start looking up the ass of something else, 'stead of those bugs." "I've been reading a lot lately about the bees. I could keep them," I say softly. "We could try to sell honey again, like you used to." She shakes her head, disappointed, and turns to run water in the sink. I wish that my sisters lived at home, or that we still employed Walter and Royce, or Lois, who watched out for my brother. When I was very small we had several farmhands around and they would dote on Ma, knowing how difficult their life could be when she was mad. Some of them were men Ma had grown up with. When she had to let them go, she bawled like a baby and wouldn't speak to Duffy or me for weeks. I'm mad at Henry Gilley. Mad at someone I never knew. The man who is supposed to have been my father. He abandoned us before I was born. Ma did the best she could. When he left, she had three other children to take care of, and me on the way. She built up the honey business, ran her own diner. That was before my brother died, before her arthritis got so bad. Now, with Duffy gone, she must be thinking her life is over. After I help with the dishes, I go into the little room off the hallway at the foot of the stairs, passing by the closed doors of the parlor. This room had once been my grandfather's. It was also where Duffy would come each night to look over the books. It still smells of cherry-cured tobacco. His pipe, carved from bone, still rests on the desk. I open an old cigar box where I keep my latest finds. Earlier today I found a bright red dragonfly. I work, until I hear Ma go upstairs, pinning the insect into a shadowbox. At first it was ants, then butterflies, beetles and dragonflies. I kept them in jars when I was young. They'd last a long time but eventually they would crumble, wings falling away from bodies, legs coming off just by breathing on them. I had a whole bookcase, floor to ceiling filled with jars of bugs. I find them in the gardens, in the fields, in spider's webs. I won't kill them just to have them. I wait to find one. Finding them is the fun, the surprise. I would sit in the schoolroom watching a fly bang and butt its head against a window until I was driven to jump up and open the window to free it. Whenever I saw a fly or a moth trapped in the schoolroom with dull-witted students and a boring teacher I felt letting it free was somehow letting myself free. I've learned I can preserve the bugs by soaking them in glycerin and water, and drying them on screens laid flat. Duffy taught me how to build shadowboxes where I pin the insects to burlap, under glass. I put the boxes on the walls of my bedroom, write down information about the bug, and put the description next to the box, labeling them like in museums. * * * When I'm sure that Ma is in bed for the night, I open the cardboard box where she and Duffy kept the farm accounts. I sort through them, not understanding some of the bills, not sure which are paid and which aren't. In the bottom of the box is a plain, unmarked envelope. It's yellowed and shows signs of being handled many times. I open it. It's my grandfather's will, some of it I don't understand, but the most important part I do. It states that all the land, the house, and the farm are to be left in trust for Eugene Gilley's grandson. Why hasn't my mother ever told me this? I put the document back in the envelope and go out into the hallway. I can think only of the things she has taken from me. * * * She has always lost her patience with me. She criticizes my insect collection, calls me lazy because I'm not as interested in the farm as she thinks I should be, discourages me from seeing the girls I've dated. The bugs bother her the most. Her father also collected moths, bees, and dragonflies and she tells me he was worthless. Once when I was eleven, she opened the window in the pantry and a swarm of wasps that had made a home between the screen and the window chased her out through the kitchen and across the lower field where she threw herself into the frog pond until they left her. She seemed to think I had something to do with them living there even though I never collected live insects. "Caleb, I'm gonna teach you a lesson you'll never forget," she snarled at me after she dragged her soaking body back up the hill to the house. There were ten or more stings on her face. Her lower lip swelled up like a plum. Her black hair was wet, but drying springs were popping back up on her head. "What'd I do?" I asked. "Them bugs didn't get in that window by themselves." she said. I wondered if possibly I was responsible somehow. I had so many things in mustard and peanut-butter jars upstairs that I couldn't be sure. Maybe I'd brought in a live wasp, not realizing. And there was no point in arguing about it, she'd never believe that the wasps had come in on their own. "Goddamn them! They ain't like my bees. They're mean, can't be tamed," she screamed grabbing me by my collar. "Now, what's goin' on?" Duffy asked as he came around the corner of the house. Duffy was the peacemaker in the house, a man I liked to think of as my father. But he wasn't. She'd taken my father too. I was sure she was responsible for him leaving us. "Stay outa this. Caleb's got himself in trouble and he's gonna be punished." She led me into the house and up to my room. "Get every last one of them little bastards and bring them downstair," she said, pointing to my jars. She slammed the door and I started collecting them. I wasn't sure what she was planning but I knew I wouldn't like it. I carried down armloads of bottles, jars, and tins of perfect insects that I'd discovered in dusty corners of the barn or under the porch. I lined them all up on the table. "Why? What are you going to do to them?" I asked. "I oughta turn my bees loose on you," she said as she slammed around the kitchen. "I got a pot of oatmeal on the stove but it needs somethin' for flavorin'," she said. "You like them bugs so much I thought maybe they'd do the trick." She arched one eyebrow up, looking like a pirate. "One at a time, I want you to open each jar and put the little critters in the oatmeal. Stick them down in there good." "But, why?" "Better start. Lot of bugs there. You're gonna have to work slow and careful. You might not be done by sundown." "Why do you want them in the oatmeal?" I asked. "It tastes better that way." She smiled, leaned back in her chair, and opened a magazine. I stood in front of the hot oatmeal trying to think how I could save my collection, at least some of them. I looked at her out of the corner of my eye. Her head was down, quickly I snatched a couple of butterflies and a beetle and slipped them into the neck of my shirt. I felt them crumbling their way down to my belly. With each bug that I pushed into that great big pot of thick glop, I slipped more into my shirt, hoping some would stay intact. Every once in awhile she'd stand up and come to see my progress. When she did I couldn't save the one that was in my palm. Before I put them in I thought of where I'd found them. The large white moth from the chicken coop. The butterfly that Mrs. Gossler found and saved for me. The largest queen bee I'd ever seen. Ma, in one of her calmest moments had brought it to me, uncrushed. Usually, with an old queen, a useless egg-layer, Ma replaces it, killing the old one under her heel. This one, with only a slightly flattened head, had been on my nightstand for well over two years. I begged to keep it. "Just this one?" She shook her head. "This one?" I held a jewel-green dragonfly that I'd found in the swamp. I tasted my salty lips, took my time so that she'd sit back down and I could save more. When I was done she made me sit down at the table, and for a good half hour she kept me believing that I was going to have to eat the whole horrible mess, bowl by bowl. Before I started crying she held my shoulders and said, "I hope you learned a lesson." And I did. Never to show her what mattered to me most. I tipped up the bowl and let it crash to the floor; she lifted her hand to strike me. "Put down your hand, Ginny. No point in hittin' him. He's learned his lesson," Duffy said through the backdoor screen. Ma stomped out of the kitchen, mad at us both, and I got up to clean the mess on the floor. "She didn't get them all," I said. "I still got some." "Then you better hide them like they was gold," Duffy said and bent down to help pick up the broken glass. It was awhile before I let her know I still kept insects. At first I hid them, then Duffy made a shadowbox for me. With him on my side, she held back from saying anything. Some battles she knew she couldn't win. * * * I can't go up the stairs without seeing Duff again. Ma has put out the candles that she'd lit earlier and placed around the room. It's completely dark. I stumble into the leg of a side table and wait to hear if Ma heard the noise. She must be sleeping, her first night in weeks. I thought she might sit by his body until it was in the ground but maybe she is at last at peace. I put my hands out ahead of me, to feel my way across the room. I feel the cold in the air that once was Duffy. I touch his face, putting my hand to his cheek for a long time. Then, in the blackness, I can see his face, the deep lines around his eyes, his smile, his green eyes. I can hear him telling me the things he couldn't before. I can smell his pipe and know that this is the closest I will ever come to what I've been told is love. Copyright © 2002 by David C. Fickett Excerpted from Nectar by David C. Fickett All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.