At the end of cold, late spring, Jan Knyp left his post at the hospital and withdrew for some peace and reflection to the house in Amsterdam. But there was to be no rest. Political forces contrived to tear apart the fragile peace of the Dutch Republic and in Jan's family war reigned over his father's will. His brother would take the lion's share, that was his right, but his sister-in-law wanted the house in Amsterdam and she'd have Jan thrown into the street with all his possessions. His friends had advised him to find a notary and get his small portion of the inheritance ratified - and sooner rather than later or the divine Clara, his brother's mill-stone, would grind his rights to dust.
But Jan had no head for practical matters. It distressed him, but he could do nothing to save himself and so he watched as the bailiffs threw his boxes of scientific instruments into the street, smashing delicate glass receptacles, heaved a whole bookcase full of leather-bound record books into the canal and stacked a toppling pile of linen on the muddy verge to be trampled by passing horses. He rescued what he could and took refuge with Dunkel, a beekeeper, and his daughter in a village just outside the city.
The mantra of the humming bees in their little straw hives was a salve. He needed not to think, only to observe. The small lives he watched were precise in their mechanics; there were no complicated emotions or concealments, no cruelty, only the necessary violence of daily life and the finality of death. When he sat down with a notebook he became calm.
He recalled at this time what he had first seen of a hive, in his youth: the shock of the twitching white grubs, the pupae entombed in their cavities of wax. The infinitely regulated order and symmetry had frightened him. And something else, the way the bees seemed so aware, milling about his head and clinging to his jacket. The more he tried to shake them off, the more they clung, their hooked feet fastening in his clothing and hair. A bee clung to his finger and, as he raised it to peer more closely, seemed to turn its head and swivel its eyes as if it knew of him as he knew of it. And this sense of being the object of another creature's attention, such a minute entity, disturbed Jan. How could such intelligence be contained in such a tiny frame? Only later did he recognise this order and symmetry as the divine structure imposed by God. His fear became an awe at God's great creation.
* * *
As Dunkel smoked the hive, some of the bees tumbled out to lie quivering in the dusty grass. He counted the insects in groups of five, working down the combs as they were cut away from the straw cone of the hive. As the sun climbed to its zenith and began to decline, Knyp continued to count until all he could see were the trembling golden abdomens of the bees, like clusters of tiny grapes, by now they were so stupefied by the smoke that they made no protest.
He made a note that there were 2,438 mature bees and within the minute cells of wax he began to count the larvae. It took four days to count the 18,966 larvae, ensconced in their cells. He picked out the largest bee, the bee that Aristotle and Pliny had described as the magnificent king of the society, the fertile and hulking monarch of the vast pulsating mass of the swarm. At his brass table, with the tiny body grasped in the ingenious brass arms, Knyp began his dissection, cutting open the abdomen to reveal the intestines and other internal organs.
He sketched the fan shaped organs that were so like the ovaries of other female insects he'd observed and described. His first discovery was that there was no penis. The "king" was a "queen" and the swollen organs were not testes but ovaries containing a succession of eggs in various stages of development.
He made notes on these organs, stripping away the layers of tissue to reveal the trachea which netted the ovarian ducts, like the braided silver hair ornaments of Regency brides. He recorded the positions of the eggs themselves, diminishing in size within the tubes. He noted the heart shaped poison sacs culminating in the barbed sting like the filigreed arrow of a baroque cupid.
There was no time to eat or drink properly. He spent the hours of daylight hunched over his instruments, straining to make use of every ray of light. The hot sun blistered his face and the top of his head, but he gave up the comfort of shade so that he could see the subtleties of gradation, the thicknesses of tissue or the precise viscosity of bodily fluids. A hat would have kept out too much light. In this way he slowly compiled his sketches and notes for the finished drawings which he would complete by candle-light. As well as the minutely detailed sketches he produced copious descriptions and frequently broke off to write poems in praise of the unique creator, the author of all order and symmetry.
As he scrutinised the grain of creation which darkened in the draining light, it was as though some greater power peered in upon Jan. Frustrated with his crude instruments and the clumsy fingers that manipulated them, he feared that he strived for too much, that God did not intend all these secrets to be so intimately unravelled and barred the way to a complete knowledge by placing limitations on his sight. For, if yet smaller structures were present within these visible ones, how much more complex was the universe than he was capable of understanding?
* * *
The beekeeper's cottage was set apart from the rest of the village. A little hut with mud walls - the wattle and daub of the fenlands, bleached to a pale cream by the sun.
Dunkel with his smooth bald head and inquisitive expression in his brown eyes always greeted Jan with an uncertain smile. What a strange man, the beekeeper thought to himself: this small grizzled man who had paid for the destruction of one of his hives, whose object in life was to break open the tiny bodies of the bees, to pore over their intestines and scribble his drawings.
"What is it you want from the hives, if 'tis not the honey?" he asked one evening as they at the table after the meal.
"I wish to understand the society of the bees, to uncover its secrets."
"Oh, ah? Them hives won't get you much."
"But I've made great discoveries. For instance, that the king of the bees, as Pliny described him, is in fact a queen!" Knyp waited for Dunkel's reaction to this revelation. But the beekeeper was impassive.
"The queen is the ruler?"
"She's a powerful creature indeed. In her egg sacs she has the material stored for all future generations."
As they talked, Jan sat hunched over his manuscripts and the beekeeper placidly wove strands of willow to repair his hive, twisting the supple strands with his horny brown hands.
"So, the queen rules. Just like women rule in the home, ha! You know a great deal Master Jan - a deal of everything."
"I have studied the lesser creatures all my life. Once I had the ambition to understand the lives of all insects, but now I begin to think I will never understand everything, even about the world of the bees which is such a small world. I have studied the life of the bee grub from its first stages of growth, and with my lens…"
Dunkel interrupted with a resounding fart. "Bless my soul, do you hear, Gesina?" He nudged his daughter who was nodding by the stove, "the women bees rule the hive just like you boss me around at home."
Gesina looked as though she could box her father round the ears for waking her from her dreams. He began to laugh at something which had occurred to him, "But there's one thing he doesn't understand, isn't there, Gesina?" He grinned at his daughter, a grin that widened with mischievous delight. "There's one important thing he is ignorant of, despite his learning."
"And what is that, Dunkel?" asked Jan in tone of pique.
"Why it's me is King of the Bees!" and Dunkel began to laugh, rocking back in his chair with delight. "That's the truth, is it not, Gesina?"
"So, 'tis, father, 'tis quite true."
"We're so ignorant, Master Jan." Dunkel added hurriedly as Jan got crossly to his feet. "You'll forgive us if we don't understand these things you call mysteries. We understand that the bees give honey and that's our only understanding."
* * *
Often, as he lay in bed after closing his notebooks and arranging his equipment he remembered that he had forgotten to pray. Sometimes he got up in the cold darkness and knelt beside his bed but more often than not he would drift off to sleep. He began to sleep badly, vaguely aware of doubts and anxieties that were like the mice that gnawed through the pantry walls to get at the stores. His bible stayed shut for weeks or months. Once when he opened it, he found that silver fish had consumed the pigments of the illuminated capitals and obliterated several lines of Genesis.
It was then that Jan began to read the religious tracts of Antoinette Bourignon. In the agony of his doubt they seemed to offer a solution. To relinquish all human ambition, all striving for worldly success, to quiet the cravings for wealth and recognition: this was his understanding of those pamphlets. The language was crude, his French was good enough to be aware of the errors in the text, but the meaning was clear: the austerity of prayer, the harsh labour of humility was the hardest lesson. He had to abase all his desires, needs and thoughts before the grandeur of creation. To be occupied with the mere engines of his universe was to diminish the absolute power of God.
On the subject of religion, Dunkel was certain. "Bourignon, she's the one to shed a true light on things. With her you'll find the true light and the true path. She's a mystic above all others, a seer of truths and a speaker of truths." He glanced at the pamphlets Jan had piled up by his bed. These are her words as she's dictated them but it's the woman herself you must meet. My daughter and I will go to her as she is settled nearby on the Island of Nordstrand. You should come with us. It will bring you back your faith if you have lost it.
* * *