Bucks County Writers Workshop
The Humming of the Heart by Carolyn Merlini
he laboratory is a miniature world where pixies and witches are dispersed; magic dissolves under the microscope. The cold light of science proposes rational explanation as the scrutiny of the scientist falls upon experiments and tweakings of the natural order. But let not the decorated doctors and professors be consumed by their conceit. They are merely men and women, and as they peer down from the heightened branches of the evolutionary tree, they too are subject to the follies and whims of Nature - creatures whose behaviors cannot always be calculated. An esteemed doctor can dissect the chambers of the heart, but he will not truly know it until he listens to his own heartbeat.
Dr. Clouson poked his Gallic nose over the top of a glass enclosure. There was a hive within, buzzing with the hum and industry of honeybees. This hive was a test, far removed from the natural world. Lights substitute for the sun and special tubes of sugar water for nectar. Dr. Clouson read a thermometer and groaned in alarm. He pounded a buzzer on the wall and paced the room. A man of fifty years, he was a distinguished scientist, and the white peppering his mustache gave him even more distinction.
In came Dr. Mellifera, wearing a white lab coat over her still-slim figure. The bright lights reflected off her dark rimmed glasses, but caught without them it would be revealed she possessed large brown eyes flecked with gold.
"Where's that intern?" Dr. Clouson bellowed.
"Ms. Cubit is transcribing dictation. Can I do anything for you, Doctor?" Even after working together for several years, they'd maintained a professional relationship including the address of formal titles. Dr. Clouson was a world-renowned scientist, and Dr. Mellifera considered herself lucky to work under his guidance.
"Well, look at this," he said gesturing to the glass. "The humidity level is too low."
"I'll add some water," she said.
He nodded and stroked his mustache. "I don't think anyone would care if the whole hive died."
Dr. Mellifera sighed. "Oh, don't say that. The early tests were so amazing. This means more than anyone can know." She lifted the lid and slowly added a few drops of water. But as she moved the top back down, it began to slip and Dr. Clouson put his hand over hers to catch it. To her surprise, his hand lingered there, but when she looked up she could not read the expression on his face. Dr. Clouson's eyes were, for a moment, far away, as if deep in thought.
The lab door pushed open suddenly and in burst the technician, Mr. Cornelius Meeker. He was a tall, angular, lanky young fellow. Pushing his glasses back to the perch upon his nose, he came toward them, a bit breathless. "Is anything wrong? I heard the buzzer. It sounded urgent the way it buzzed so many times."
Dr. Clouson quickly removed his hand from Dr. Mellifera's and wiped around the top of the glass. "Yes, but it is better now. I can see the humidity is improving already. Dr. Mellifera, thank you."
Sensing dismissal, Dr. Mellifera walked to the door, unaware of the lingering stare of Mr. Meeker.
"Ahem," Dr. Clouson cleared his throat. "This experiment requires conscientious attention, Mr. Meeker. The controls must be impeccable."
"Yes sir. I understand."
"It is your responsibility to adhere to the standards in assisting Dr. Mellifera. This is science, not some willy-nilly farm job. Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes, Dr. Clouson," he said, dark locks falling over his contrite forehead as he stared at the tips of his shoes.
"Now tell me, when do you take your vacation?"
"A week from today."
"Let's see if we can keep these bees alive for one more week then." The older man flipped a chart closed and walked out.
Mr. Meeker stood by the tiny window of the lab. He was stung by the doctor's words and stared off into the distance. Then he shook his head and squared his shoulders with resolve. And as his emotions cleared, he took in the pleasant view of a little park across the road. The bright sunshine illuminated yellow, pink and blue flowers almost glowing along the walkways. He gave a small shiver in the chilly, climate-controlled lab, and then he had an idea. The odor of the flowers could not penetrate the closed window, but their happy colors whispered inspiration. The power of spring blossomed in the sunshine of May, and the blossoms themselves called out to the young man's heart.
The next morning Mr. Meeker stepped smiling into a flower shop. There was a young woman at the counter who smiled back at him and took his order. He left with a bouquet and directions for a delivery every day for the next week.
"I'll deliver them myself," she told him.
At noon, Dr. Clouson entered the lab. He was surprised to see Dr. Mellifera arranging a bouquet in a tall glass beaker. And she was humming. "Wh- what's this?" he asked.
"This is an apology from Mr. Meeker. He feels badly about yesterday and thought a gathering of springtime blossoms would aid the experiment."
"What a foolish notion. How could a bunch of lilacs help our experiment? This is a laboratory and careful control of all elements is our aim."
"Yes, and the cold eye of science may be the undoing of it. Mr. Meeker offered a bit of spring and I think it creates a more natural setting. It could even help to increase the bees' productivity." She held the jar aloft and carried it toward the hive. As she passed him, a heavy bough of violet blossoms grazed Dr. Clouson's cheek. Its heady perfume enveloped him like an invisible and potent spell.
Later in the day Mr. Meeker appeared in the doorway of the bee lab. "I came to check the 'budding experiment.'"
Dr. Clouson peered over his spectacles and frowned at the young man. He thought him rather bumbling and coltish. "You seem to have lost your scientific perspective, Mr. Meeker." He turned to Dr. Mellifera and said, "Science cannot be influenced so easily by a gift of flowers."
"That's a hypothesis I could argue with," she said, arching an eyebrow.
Dr. Clouson turned his back and appeared consumed with a report he'd been writing.
Two days later, Dr. Mellifera came into the lab carrying another grand bouquet. Dr. Clouson looked up and sighed. He sat in front of the glass enclosure of the hive with a water dropper poised in midair. All around him were beakers full of flowers: more lilacs, roses, daffodils, and honeysuckle.
Dr. Mellifera stood by his chair and leaned toward him. "Just breathe these in. I don't know what they are, but they're heavenly." She was smiling down at him with such a look of simple - was it pleasure? And then Dr. Clouson noticed something, which made him sit up straight and stare at her.
"Dr. Mellifera, is that...do I see a flower in your hair?"
She blushed and touched the soft purple petals of a flower tucked behind her ear.
"It would seem," he continued, "the springtime is full upon us." She looked about the room and nodded. "I would be remiss, Dr. Mellifera, if I did not address the changes in both the condition of this experiment and your personal attitude. This project is the most important of my career; the culmination of - What the d --?" He stood up abruptly and began waving his hands in the air.
"Dr. Clouson, what is it?"
"Did you see it? A bee flew out of the arrangement," he said pointing to the flowers in her hand.
"Oh, I see it there on your shoulder."
He swatted it and said, "Oh my, I think it went down into my coat."
"Don't move. Hold your arms out and I'll get it off so you don't get stung."
He stood, arms askew as she carefully unbuttoned the white lab coat. He watched her hands as they moved from button to button and said, "You have nice long fingers."
"No one's ever said that to me before."
"Well, I've noticed a great many things lately and - oh dear!" He jumped back and put his hand on his heart. "Dr. Mellifera, I've been stung!"
Dr. Mellifera blushed again and said, "Dr. Clouson, when did you begin to feel this way?"
"Just now." He began to loosen his tie with one hand and unbutton his dress shirt with the other.
"Dr. Clouson," she cried.
"See there, just below the left clavicle?" He stood before her with a red mark blooming on his bare chest.
"Oh, I see! Are, are -- " she stuttered, "Are you allergic to bee stings?"
He shook his head. "I don't think so, but in truth I've never been stung before."
She applied some ice to the spot just above his heart. "Ah, that feels a bit better, but it does have a rather lingering sting," he said, putting his hand on hers. They sat for a few moments, hand over hand over the ice on his heart.
"Do you hear the humming?" he asked, gesturing to the beehive. "Is it louder?"
She shook her head. "It sounds the same to me. You know, I've heard honey is good for bee stings." She went to a shelf and removed a jar containing some of the golden liquid they'd extracted from the hive. When she came back and sat next to him he could swear the humming grew in his ears. He realized it was the sound of his own heart beating, no pounding, in an irregular rhythm. She opened the jar, swirled her finger through the honey, and applied a dab to the red mark on his chest.
"Honey on a sting is an old wives' tale. Now, what would Mr. Meeker say about this?" he asked her.
She smiled and waved her hand. "I spoke to him earlier. He was merely infatuated; you know how in spring a young man's thoughts turn to love. And so I told him he is a sweet young man with much to offer the right girl."
"How did he take it?"
"He made a brave effort to contradict me. And then the flower delivery girl came in and asked him out to lunch!" She laughed and licked the honey from her finger. "Now before the bee interrupted you, sir, you were about to say something."
"Hmm. I can't remember." He leaned over and kissed her, then sat back, licked his lower lip and said, "But you're right, I do believe honey helps the sting."