The test was not going well for Eugene.
He stared at the sheet in front of him underneath a mop of shaggy hair. In a column, going down the middle of the lined paper, were ten words of varying lengths. Nearly all of them were misspelled. At this point in time, Eugene did not know this.
“Your next word is: rubber.” Mrs. Webster looked up from the answer sheet in her hand and watched the children in her 4th grade class scribble the word “rubber” down on their papers. This was the first spelling test of the year, and she was looking forward to discovering those students with an apt for stringing letters together in proper English syntax.
“Your next word is: flour.” She loved homophones. What children would write down “flour”? What children would write down “flower”? Would anyone ask for clarification?
“Mrs. Webster?” On cue Clarence shot his hand up and waved it back and forth. “Could you use the word in a sentence?”
“Ah, Clarence, of course! The baker used three cups of flour in his recipe for bread.”
Clarence nodded his head fervently and wrote the word down with confidence.
Eugene did the same.
After a few minutes of this back and forth, the test was completed. As was expected, there was a mix of emotions from the children in the class. Some were relieved that it was over, some were happy with their results, some didn’t care, and some didn’t think much at all, but rather daydreamed about cartoons or toy houses. Both Clarence and Eugene wished the test could have gone on all day―they were eager to show their skills to their classmates and equally eager to impress Mrs. Webster.
The teacher collected the tests with a smile. “Very good, very good,” she said, shuffling the papers into a stack. “I do sense that we may have a couple of bright spellers this year. I can always tell, even from the start.”
All of the children turned their heads toward Clarence, who was sitting bolt upright, with a knowing grin on his face. Everyone except Eugene knew that he was the 3rd grade school spelling champion. Now that he was in 4th grade, he was eligible for the higher level competitions, such as the county, state, and national spelling bees, and it was almost expected for him to win one of them.
Eugene was new to Sugartown Elementary School and was ignorant of Clarence’s résumé. All he knew was that he wanted to be the best, no, was the best, from a long line of prestigious spellers. It was even said that before there was spell-check on computers, all documents were mailed to the Humphrey family for express revision. Well, at least this is what Eugene’s father told him, and he believed his father.
It was thus with pent-up expectation that Eugene waited for this test to be graded as perfection and him to honored as the best speller in the school. It seemed an inevitability.
* * *
The farm which Eugene’s family owned wasn’t like one you’d normally expect. The whole farm was a magnificent garden, composed of fields and fields of beautiful flowers. Its only export was honey. And the only livestock were thousands of bees.
Honeysuckle Farms was a wonderful place to be a bee. The flowers were abundant, the hives were vast and busy, and the humans took great care to clear away all the extra sticky yellow stuff that got in the way. The bees never quite understood what the humans did with the sticky yellow stuff, but they understood that different nectar made different sorts of the stuff (which they called “goop”) and that the humans enjoyed a variety and rewarded those hives with upgrades and special attention that produced the best goop. What constituted the best? At one time, it was rumored by the bees to be the goop that came from the rarest flowers. The truth of the matter, though, was that all of the flowers were common, and thus all of the hives were treated about the same, which was very well. The Humphreys were wise with their gardens, and an equal amount of all flowers flourished, thus all hives flourished.
It was on a late summer day, early in September, that a group of worker bees set out on their daily expedition. Their goal was 1/20th of a gram of nectar each, about half their body weight. And it was to be of the chrysanthemum variety.
The group of bees set off late in the morning. The flowers they were heading for were in front of the humans’ house. The older female human liked looking at the chrysanthemums out of her window.
“Beautiful day,” said Martha. Eugene’s mother looked out of her window and watched the honey bees approach. “Like clockwork,” she said.
The group of bees neared the flowers. There were five of them (all female bees, as worker bees always are) buzzing about each other, almost frolicking as they danced through the air. One bee in particular was fluttering about with great energy. And as she fluttered, she sang.
“We’re going to the human’s house, the best place to dive! I’ll find the best flower, I will, and be the hero of the hive. All will see and praise little me, the wonderful bee, hurray, hoowee!”
The other bees hissed at the especially energetic bee. One of them, named Zanzibuzz, said, in quite a different tongue, “Lingawizz! Quiet your human yapping! What if she hears you?”
“She’s inside,” said Lingawizz. “And I really doubt that there would be much trouble if she heard a bee speaking Humanese. In fact, she would probably praise me as a most remarkable bee.”
“We’ve gone over this before,” said Zanzibuzz, in perfectly normal Buzzlbish. “No one must know about your bizarre talent. They would abuse us, monitor us, control us, and perhaps even go insane! We are free from their control, but imagine if they tried to abuse their role in our relationship?”
“But we would benefit, too! Just think of the possibilities if we could talk to them. Oh, the marvelous hives and lives we would have! And I would be the leader, and they’d call me ‘Lingawizz the Wonderful,’ and―”
“No one wants that. No one. Agreed, my fellows?”
The other bees gave their quick approval.
“No one wants that!” they all said together. “Bees talk to bees, and humans to humans!”
“That’s right,” declared Zanzibuzz. “So for the last time―let it be!”
She and the other bees surrounded Lingawizz, who shrunk away into the flowers.
“Good,” said Zanzibuzz. “Find some nice, proper nectar like an obedient harvester. Your work for the hive is reward enough.”
Lingawizz wandered off on her own, muttering in Humanese. “I’ll find some proper nectar, all right. The rarest nectar in the whole garden.”
* * *
It was all Eugene could do to keep from crying. His head was down between his arms as he sat in the front-most seat by himself in the school bus.
The other kids didn’t know Eugene that well, and they all ignored him as they got off of the bus, stop by stop. Eugene’s was the last stop.
“We’re here,” said the bus driver, a kind old lady who was by now tired and ready to go home.
Eugene didn’t move.
“What’s the matter, honey? I’ve seen you sitting like that this whole trip.”
Eugene shook his head between his arms and moaned. “I’m a failure,” he said.
“Oh, no, who said that?”
“Me. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t even get one word right.”
“Baby, is this a test? Don’t worry, your mother will understand. Here, come on, get up.”
The lady half-raised Eugene by the shoulders, who got to his feet still hunched over, with his bookbag in his arms.
In a spurt, Eugene wriggled free and ran off the bus toward the large tree behind and to the left of his parents’ nice cottage home. He didn’t look back and kept running until he reached the ladder to his own home in the tree. Up he went into the little enclosed area with wide windows on each side. Then, huddled under a window, he cried.
It probably wasn’t a good idea by Eugene’s father, Hogarth, to perpetuate the stories about the long line of magnificent spellers in their bloodline. The man, a simple bee farmer with good intentions, was hoping to instill a sense of wonder and awe in his son, an awe that came from something other than a decent bottle of honey. Maybe he could motivate his son to become, well, proficient at writing, like his great-uncle Richard who actually went to college. And wasn’t one of the most important parts of writing knowing how to spell well? Home-schooling his son in writing and spelling could only go so far.
If it wasn’t for Hogarth’s insistence upon public school, Eugene would still be home-schooled. His mother didn’t see the worth in formal schooling. Like those teachers could do any better than her!
Therefore, Eugene wanted to prove himself to his father, and prove himself to his mother. And he was certain that when Mrs. Webster put a red line through all of the his words on the spelling test and wrote the correct words next to them, that she was right. But oh, those red words she wrote in as the correct answers looked so odd to Eugene. He was taught all of the wrong things.
So it was then, late in the afternoon, that Lingawizz heard a noise coming from high up in the tree. It was like a soft whining, like a throatier kind of buzzing. She had had a terrible time of finding any special flower, and her curiosity led her to explore the noise.
She rose up and up and the noise got louder. Now that she was closer, she recognized it as the human child, but she’d never heard this human make this sound before. It was quite unlike the boy’s usual laughter.
The bee reached the window and rested on the ledge. She saw that the boy’s face was wet, as with rain. The sky was clear, though, so she moved closer to have a better look.
The boy heard the buzzing and shook his hand in annoyance at the bee. “What’re you doing up here? No bees ever come up here. Leave me alone!”
Lingawizz darted to the right, away from the boy’s swipe. He was clearly in distress. And then the smell! She hadn’t noticed it before due to listening to the noise, but there, intertwined in the hole of the zipper of the boy’s bookbag was the marvelous flower.
She daren’t move closer to the boy for fear of being hit, but the new scent of the flower was seductive and strong. It must have only been cut within the day―but where?
It was at this moment that Lingawizz went against the other bees’ advice. She rested down on the plywood floor of the tree-house a couple of feet in front of the boy. Then, she spoke.
“That’s quite a flower,” she said.
The boy stirred. “What was that?” he whispered.
The bee persisted. “I said, that’s quite a flower. You are lucky to have found such a flower.”
The boy rubbed his eyes and sat upright against the wall. He was sure of it this time: the bee was speaking to him.
“Hello…little bee…” said Eugene, the wonder of the insect stealing his mind from his sorrow.
“Hello, human boy. My name is Lingawizz. And I really like that flower on your bag.”
“This?” said Eugene, in bewilderment. (Was he sure he wasn’t dreaming?) “It’s a mountain-laurel, I think. They have some at my school. The line lady gave me one before I got on the bus to cheer me up. Because―because…” Eugene could feel the tears well up again, but he sniffed and tried to hold back the cascade. The day did get better now that he had met a talking bee.
“I see. Your school. Where is that?”
“Could you take me there?”
“Huh?” Eugene was a bit confused.
“I’d like to see these flowers,” said Lingawizz. “With new nectar, they will surely call me ‘Lingawizz the Wonderful!’ Yes, I must have that new nectar. Could you take me there?”
“I don’t know,” said Eugene. He gazed at his bookbag. “I don’t really want to go back to school.”
“Why not?” exclaimed Lingawizz.
“I…” Eugene’s lip quivered. “I can’t spell!” His face contorted as if it was the greatest confession a person could ever give.
“That’s it?” said Lingawizz. “Odd, to be sure, that a human can’t spell his own language of Humanese, but if that’s your only problem…”
“It’s English and it’s a big problem!”
“Humanese, English, it’s all the same to me. So how about it. I will help you spell and you will take me to your school. Is that where you spell?”
“Yes. And you’re good at spelling?”
“They say it’s my only skill. But poo the whole lot of them. They will see that I am also the most worthy nectar harvester of the hive, the bringer of the exotic and the thrilling, the indisputable ‘Lingawizz the Wonderful!’”
“Um…okay. So can you teach me now?”
“Nonsense. I can spell, not teach. I shall be near your ear, in that shaggy hair of yours, unseen. And you shall write what I recite. And we shall both be the merrier for it.”
“Um…” Eugene thought this over in his head. The crumpled test was still in his bookbag. With the bee’s help, it would never happen again. And then…oh, what a relief and joy it would be to make his parents proud… “Okay,” he said. “Meet me by the mailbox at 8:30 tomorrow morning. Thanks Mrs. Bee!”
“Oh, please call me ‘Lingawizz the Wonderful!’”
* * *
It was an unusual friendship.
Each day Lingawizz would hide in Eugene’s hair on his way to school. When Eugene arrived, Lingawizz would either stay there (if it was a spelling day) or leave and explore the mountain-laurels if it was not. This was an important part of the agreement―Lingawizz insisted she needed the nectar every day, regardless if Eugene needed her.
And Eugene was fine with this, as Lingawizz was indeed a fantastic speller, never getting one word wrong on any of his tests. The turnaround from Eugene’s first test to all of the others astonished Mrs. Webster, but she soon believed it was a matter of earnest study and hard work, rather than some unexpected help (“and who would ever suspect a talking bee” said Lingawizz on occasion). Eugene bathed in his teacher’s praise and beamed every time she handed him back a perfect spelling test. On some occasions he couldn’t help but wave the test in the air and show his classmates his excellent skills. It was only Clarence, though, who gave him a smile in return, happy to see a fellow classmate enjoy and excel in the art of spelling.
The consequences of Eugene and Lingawizz’s actions back on the farm were also nothing but positive and astounding.
Both Eugene’s father and mother were convinced that their son was the true successor of Great Uncle Richard. Eugene had aced every single spelling test that he had taken. His father dreamed that Eugene could be a librarian, an editor, or even a full-blown writer. And it was all Eugene could do to convince his mother that Mrs. Webster was a great teacher after all.
Lingawizz was receiving similar praise from the other bees. No one knew where she went during the day (and for the first few days, most hoped that she was gone for good) but the nectar she brought back changed their mind.
“It is a secret,” said Lingawizz, whenever someone prodded her about the location of her flowers. “My skills have brought us this continual gift, and as you see, it is making a brand new variation of goop. The humans are stirring and excited for sure, sick of the other goop so dull, and marveling at the goop from ‘Lingawizz the Wonderful.’”
The hive with the new honey received special treatment. It became sanctioned off from the other hives, such that its honey might not mix with any other honey. As Lingawizz proclaimed, “The other goop shall not taint this special batch, the best of the bunch, the catch of the catch!”
The bees had no choice but to respect Lingawizz and her remarkable discovery. She had found the flowers all on her own, she had caused the humans to pander to her hive, and she was, for most of the day, out of their sight. And many bees, despite their initial reactions, began to call her “Lingawizz the Wonderful.”
* * *
The end of November was rapidly approaching. The leaves were falling, the air took on a new briskness, and T-shirts were going out of style. But, most important of all, the State Spelling Bee was on the 26th, the day before Thanksgiving.
“We’re going to hand out our sample honey sticks as people walk into the gym,” said Eugene’s father, standing in front of the entrance. “Nothing like something sweet to calm the nerves. You did get the correct box, right, son? Those other sticks would never do.”
“Sure,” said Eugene. Bringing the honey was a last-minute decision by his father, and a few hours earlier before jumping into the car, Eugene had grabbed the box off of the kitchen counter before he ran out the door (advised by Lingawizz, of course, not to make a mistake).
“Very good,” said his father. “Now off you go, and good luck! We’re sure you’ll do great.” His father and mother gave him a big hug, then Eugene scrambled away and followed the signs for the kids who would be competing.
Both Eugene and Clarence were the only two kids from Sugartown Elementary School who had qualified for the competition. Joining them were 98 other kids from around the state. Everyone was excited and nervous about the prospect of competing, let alone winning, the Bee. That is, everyone except Lingawizz.
“All of the other tests were easy, mere trifles compared to my vast spelling ability. If it wasn’t for the nectar, my boredom would know no end at that school of yours. But you say these words will be more difficult?” Lingawizz rested on her favorite tuft of hair near Eugene’s ear.
“Yes,” mumbled Eugene, getting in line with the other students behind the stage. “I hope it’s not too hard. These other kids look pretty smart.” Eugene had gotten used to being around Clarence in his own class, but seeing so many other kids who were just as skilled (and, despite acting otherwise, himself being none of the sort) he felt a bit of a pit begin to form in his stomach.
“Children’s words for children,” whispered Lingawizz. “And no doubt this will take an obscene amount of time. The drive in the car was long enough as it is….” The bee buzzed in Eugene’s ear before resting on his hair again. Crankiness and impatience had accompanied her growing age and popularity. “In any case, I cannot ignore your help, and I am under duty to help you, too. Hey, maybe they will call you ‘Eugene the Wonderful’ after you win! No, too similar. How about ‘Eugene the Magnificent’? Ah, that has a nice ring, doesn’t it?”
Eugene grunted and nodded.
The line of kids began to move toward the curtain. As they breached the stage, they were met by a huge round of applause, parents and teachers and siblings and friends all rising to their feet.
“Now this is more like it,” said Lingawizz.
Each of the kids took a seat in a chair on the stage. They were lined in rows with their names on them. Eugene’s chair was in the front row, right in the middle.
In front of the chairs was a lone microphone, and in front of the microphone below the stage was a row of seats for the judges (representatives of select school districts) and then the mass seating. Out of the crowd cameras were flashing, and there was a large camera to the side in an aisle which was recording the event for local television stations.
After a little while, the commotion died down, and the event began.
The first child to take the mic was a small girl named Sara. When her name was called, there was a brief cheer which was soon hushed; you can’t have cheering every time someone comes up or else the competition would never end.
“Your word is: anesthesia,” said the judge on the left.
The girl’s eyes opened wide. Her lips quivered. She cleared her voice and faltered.
“Your word is: anesthesia,” repeated the judge. “Thirty seconds per response. Please begin.”
“Anesthesia,” said the girl, taking a gulp. “A-n-e-s-t-e-s-i-a. Anesthesia.”
A bell went off.
“I’m sorry, that’s incorrect. It’s a-n-e-s-t-h-e-s-i-a.”
The girl bowed her head and walked off of the stage. She found her mother and buried her head in her mother’s shirt.
“She should have asked for country of origin,” said Clarence, who was sitting behind Eugene. “It would have given her more time and signaled the presence of the ‘h.’” Clarence knew of Eugene’s spelling ability, but sensed his inexperience and unrest. He didn’t want to see his comrade falter so quickly under the spotlight.
“Words are words,” whispered Lingawizz to Eugene. “Ignore that Clarence boy and don’t do any thinking. I’m the speller here, the wonderful who shall make you magnificent. Now when is it going to be our turn?”
Within a few minutes, Lingawizz got her wish, and Eugene’s name was called. He walked up to the mic and held it with quivering hands.
“Your word is: rapscallion,” said the middle judge, who was from Eugene’s school district. The judge was a no-nonsense lady with a wizened face and straight gray haired pulled back in a bun.
“Rapscallion,” said Eugene.
“Rapscallion,” said Lingawizz. “Now remember, as we practiced, right after me: R―”
“N,” finished Eugene.
No bell went off, which meant success.
Eugene sighed and returned to his seat.
“Now we wait the inexorable wait,” whispered Lingawizz.
Over the next three hours, sixty of the children were eliminated, half on their first word. It was indeed an arduous spelling bee. The kids felt the tension, and the parents and well-wishers felt it even more by correlation. Many in the audience, as well, were feeling something else.
It was the new honey. It tasted delicious (as all of the Humphries’ honeys did) but many people were having an adverse reaction to the unique ingredient. They were breaking out into hives.
This communal reaction to the honey was beginning to grow public when Eugene approached the mic for his third word. He looked out over the crowd, and even in the glaring lights of the stage he could see disgruntled and splotchy faces, with people itching and scratching and holding up their honey sticks in consternation.
A murmur of complaints and exclamations cascaded over the room like a wave, amidst the audible cries of Mr. and Mrs. Humphrey saying such things as “We had no idea!” and “Eugene grabbed the wrong box!” and “Yes, we understand! It shall never happen again!”
“Settle down!” said the middle judge, turning toward the crowd. “If there was an incident, let those affected leave in silence and allow us to finish the Bee.” The judge turned back to the stage. “Are you ready, Eugene?”
Eugene nodded his head, still unsure of why everybody was agitated.
“What a joyously frantic audience they’ve become!” said Lingawizz. “Just like the hive at home. It’s filling me with energy, it is! Give me the word, and I shall answer it in an instant!”
“Your word is: flour,” said the stern old judge.
Eugene squinted his eyes, and his mouth lolled open. He knew what to do.
“Can you use the―”
“It’s flower, Eugene, flower! The most beautiful word in the world! Quiet, before you make a fool of us.”
“―er…” said Eugene.
“What was that?” said the judge loudly, trying to talk over the noise behind her.
“A rare and glorious moment to spell flower! Say the word, Eugene, and we shall shall spell it together!” Lingawizz was now buzzing around Eugene’s ear, the sound masked by the noise of the room.
“I’m the thinker, just do!”
“I’m ‘Lingawizz the Wonderful,’ the fabulous, the great! Now say the word and enunciate!” Lingawizz was shouting, and her voice projected around the room.
“What was that?” said the judge in a different tone.
“Flower―” blurted Eugene.
“F―” said Lingawizz.
“R,” finished Eugene.
“Ding!” went the bell.
“Ding, ding, oh what a―ding?” Lingawizz stopped buzzing and became still. “Ding means it’s wrong. Flower is not wrong. I say, flower is not wrong at all!”
Eugene’s lips weren’t moving, but every word was heard as clear as the bell that just rung. It was a pompous, squeaky, and irritable little voice.
Eugene was frozen in place. For a long second he stared into space. Then he yelped in pain and slapped his hand against his ear.
Lingawizz slipped through his fingers and zig-zagged off the stage toward Eugene’s judge in the middle. “I am outraged!” she screamed. “I am ‘Lingawizz the Wonderful,’ master of Humanese, bringer of the rare and fabulous nectar, and if you do not know how to spell ‘flower,’, you are not worthy of our most excellent goop!”
Everyone in the crowd gasped for all of the reasons that you might expect them to gasp―it was not only a speaking bee, but it was a speaking bee who had apparently poisoned the honey, who had helped Eugene cheat, and who had caused Eugene, the favorite from Sugartown Elementary, to lose.
“Now,” continued Lingawizz, her energy draining at a surprising rate, “If you could tell me…I must know…how…do you fools…spell…flower…”
“Flour,” said the judge. “F-l-o-u-r.”
Lingawizz dropped to the ground, dead.
A moment or two passed in silence. The shock of the speaking bee had caused most people to forget about their rashes and discomfort. Their eyes rested on Eugene, who was glued in place in front of the microphone, hand covering his throbbing ear, a wetness appearing and spreading down his legs.
“That was…unexpected,” said the judge, regaining her composure. “Cheaters never win, Eugene. And it seems that you have been cheating for a very long time.”
Eugene shivered in place with his knees knocking together. He could barely stand as tears began to roll down his face. “I…hic…just…hic…wanted…”
“What you wanted isn’t important,” continued the judge. “The consequences of your actions lay before you. I hear moans behind me, and I foresee troubles ahead. At least one of your penalties shan’t be death.” The shrewd judge looked down at the bee on the ground. “And I might add a second lesson for those children remaining…”
“…Always ask to use the word in a sentence.”