|Apr/May 2020 Fiction|
Multimedia painting by Janet Bothne
In her still sunny office, toward evening, a minor crisis awaited Jo Mayhew, the principal investigator of Mayhew Lab, who was already hard hit and had hoped to collect her thoughts. Going through routine emails, she hit an outlier. She reread it, tapping a knuckle against her healthy front teeth. Then she retrieved several records—let no one say she'd suffered a "senior moment"—and her memory matched the records. The thing had to be handled now. It was a FOIA request. Most of these were good faith uses of the Freedom of Information Act, but some were not; some were sneaky attempts by other labs to force her to share information before it was published. This new request, however, did not fall into either category. It was much creepier, and she struck her keyboard as if summoning an exterminator. Then she made a call on the speakerphone and talked her contact through what she'd just sent over.
The request concerned a proposal written by one of her post-docs, Pradeep, for NIH funding. But the request did not give the proposal's correct title; no, it gave the title of an older version, which included the word "evolution." Pradeep had omitted "evolution" from the title of his new proposal—the only one to which the public had access. The older version would have been seen only by NIH personnel. Why, then, was Jo reading a FOIA request referring to the older version? How had the author of this request come by the proposal with "evolution" in its title?
Between Jo's pointed phrases came the bubbling of her office aquarium, where her teaching fish swam. Behind her desk in a blue slab of sky, two palm tree tops rose above the windowsill. Stanford students who came to learn cichlid behaviors found themselves vaguely awed by those palm-tops guarding either side of the small woman with a small gold cross at her throat, resting her arms before her like a sphinx. The students' feelings took the form of a cartoon taped to her office door, affectionately exaggerating Jo's full, lipsticked lips to resemble the cichlids'. Colleagues tended to speak lower in response to her surprising alto voice, which sometimes broke into a dark chuckle. Like the night sounds of a house, Jo's chuckle affected them depending on whether or not they trusted her.
"Mm," said her unruffled contact on the speakerphone. "A mole in NIH. Probably working for some gung-ho congressional staffer."
"That was my conjecture," Jo allowed, by way of venting. "Thanks."
"Oh no problem," chirped the other administrator. "We'll be in touch."
Jo was no stranger to political pressure, having worked for years in a federal agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Coming on top of a worse crisis, though, this attack on her post-doc—on science—made her tip her chair back, shuck off her pumps, and flex her stockinged feet. She massaged her fingers against carpal tunnel and pressed tender points along each ashen eyebrow. Then lying back, a small upthrust jaw stretching the cords of her neck, she exhaled, like a smoker, the fatigue of shielding her lab from the continent-long jaws of the GOP. She'd been raised Republican. Her 92-year-old father, whom she adored, still voted Republican rain or shine. This persecution made no sense to her. What kind of leaders attacked American basic science? Jo woolgathered at these times, missing the world that had made her.
She'd grown up in New Hampshire. Her father, widowed shortly after her birth, had raised her; from his knees, she'd watched the televised funeral cortege of President Kennedy. He'd taught her to pray at bedtime when she was four, and the elements of geometry when she was five. Of course, he'd had help in the person of Mrs. Ida Bogan, his secretary. Mrs. Bogan's bulldog countenance under a veiled hat, Mrs. Bogan's round shoulders on which blouses zipped crookedly, had accompanied Jo to choir practice and skating lessons. Mrs. Bogan had selected her wardrobe and taught her basic cookery. She'd also guided Jo in the question of heaven. Because if Jo's father, an engineer, meant patriotic American science—the tallest skyscrapers and the cars of the future on the longest highways and the atom bomb and beating the Russians to the moon—Jo's mother meant something less understood.
On Sundays, visiting relatives would recall an angel who had played tennis, sailed, and skied. But you couldn't call her a tomboy... she had the face of an angel... she's looking down from heaven and is so proud of you—a worrisome notion.
An uncle's more satisfying picture: "Let me tell you, she could have skied professionally... I never saw a woman take a jump like your mother... she'd hold that perfect V like she was flying up to heaven." This image haunted Jo whenever she was brought, in starched skirts, to lay chrysanthemums on the granite mirror of her mother's cloud-reflecting monument.
When she turned eight it occurred to her to ask a direct question: "What was my mother was really like?"
Mrs. Bogan (who had just lost her spouse to an afterlife as obscure as his retirement) replied, "Your mother was like no other person I've ever known. It wasn't just what she did, it was something about her. I believe there's a piece of music called 'Song Without Words.' That name reminds me of your mother."
"Why did she die?" No one ever named a disease. Her father would not speak of what had been. Mrs. Bogan, making a fiddly face, spoke of the Lord and complications, from which Jo gathered her mother was a superior saint. Unlike other saints, whose stories explained their holiness, her mother caused awe without any story, just by being herself, aloft on her skis. The idea of her mother gave her a breezy, free feeling, and that, she believed for the rest of her life, was the true sign of heaven. At 12, for a confirmation gift, she was given her mother's small gold cross. "Your mother was wearing this when I met her,"said her father. Jo never took it off. As she lay back musing, she fingered it in the slightly pulpy hollow of her throat.
Now she took communion as she did a long-distance run, on needful occasions, for if science was about discovering the universe, then faith was about staying focused on the big picture. Pride was the root of all sins. It meant forgetting your tiny part in the picture, and in Jo's book, trying to censor basic research was prideful. Of course, she knew why the public's ignorance served certain interests. She knew all that. She fought it. She needed a spiritual backstop, found it in the church, and dismissed ironies. All her life, she'd believed that an American mind had claim to science, an American spirit to independence. Such were her values, though her political affiliation had changed in the predictable way for a career conservationist who was also female. She knew what had made her, loved it, and struggled to accept the mutations time had brought. She would tell Papa when she saw him about the FOIA thing. He couldn't accept it any better than she could, though he'd lay the blame on different presidents. Yes, they'd have a nice debate. Then Jo would vote again for Obama, while Papa would go for Romney like a moth to the porch light.
Jo rubbed her lids gingerly, sat straight, and perused her bookshelves. Behind them, through the thin wall separating her office from the laboratory, she heard her lab manager, Ilya, droning some complaint. (He was an obsessive cyber-sleuth, a citizen of the digital world with murky professional antecedents, who'd made himself indispensable while incubating a start-up—and whom she had to chew out, again, tonight.) Covered in glass beads, a little hippopotamus twinkled on the middle shelf, ready to charge into the terrain of her soul-searching. It was nothing less than that, she sensed. Within her groped a larval fear. The crisis confronting her demanded a special order of attention. Not Pradeep: she knew what to do there. This was about Leo, her star post-doc, her collaborator, the young man into whose hands she'd poured riches innumerable. He had compared her to a monster. His words stung like sea-urchin spines in her face. And Jo had had plenty hurled in her face. This stuck. This raised weak, groping fear. It would be necessary to stay late and try to think things through; she did not want the problem following her home and spoiling her sleep.
She knew the monster. The monster was a key to her life. She had believed she had vanquished it, if not gloriously like Saint George, yet effectively. Two years ago, Stanford had hired her to replace a distinguished predecessor, Lewis Everett, after a very hushed scandal. Everett was rich. His Los Altos Hills mansion had a wing devoted to scientific antiquities where he entertained—at his parties, it was said, caterers circulated with tiptoe caution between vitrines displaying pearl-inlaid brass octants, first editions of Galileo, an Edison electric pen, and other arcana. No one questioned Everett's money until Leo became his post-doc.
Jo's first encounter with Leo had been—it struck her, now—about the monster. Then, as the newly-minted PI, she'd seen only a blond boy who'd come by and dropped, crane-legs and all, into a chair and begun the sad tale of how Everett had forbidden him to publish the results of his experiment, the results on which his best hopes hung. Listening, Jo noticed the tapering eyes in his workaday face, the yellow irises, and his accent —the molecular mahdel, the bahdy.
"Ann Arbor," he said. Born there, went to Michigan undergrad and grad. His pale, fine hair shivered in its nimbus. Poor little boy blue. As he leaned forward, his loose lab coat gave a glimpse of a lime T-shirt with a beer logo. Humbly, he explained that he respected the PI's authority, but he'd been forced to fight. Jo reassured him such stories weren't unknown. Relieved, Leo spilled the rest of it in his pleasant tenor. He'd been stunned by Everett's refusal to let him publish, and terrified by Everett's threats. Not knowing where to turn, he'd gone to Ilya.
"You know," Leo added apologetically, and she smiled. She'd taken her lab manager's rather sinister measure very quickly. In fact, what they'd done was bold. Armed with PowerPoint and secrets (they'd even searched microfiche archives), Leo and Ilya had met quietly with officials from the same Stanford office that had copyrighted Google. There they revealed how Lewis Everett, through intimidation, had prevented his post-docs and graduate students from publishing. Over decades, he'd funneled their unpublished results to the tech start-ups on whose boards he served. Ergo, he'd gotten rich by stealing from Stanford. Soon after the meeting, Everett had resigned.
Her memory was in every sense tender; it hurt to recall how Leo had finished his story in a nervous pose, grabbing his side with one hand, and scratching his nape with the other. He'd risked exposing himself as a whistle-blower to the new PI. She'd liked him. She liked risk-takers. On the spot, she had released Leo from the project to which he'd been reassigned—a trivial project kept going as a sort of gulag for Everett's victims—and defunded the thing. That had been one of her most satisfying acts. No one could blame her for thinking the monster dead or at least dealt with.
Really, what had she not done for Leo, her cruel accuser? She'd supported his research, as offbeat as his beer T-shirts. Gene therapy's cutting edge was CRISPR, but Leo was in love with bacterial vectors, so she let him synthesize genes and stick them in bacteria, filling a refrigerator with dubious strains. She'd introduced him to the rare cichlid, M. mowae. No one studied those fish, they were hell to breed, so—she'd urged—take a look. He did... and found a new gene. It was the gene she'd predicted must exist: it caused a fatal hereditary disease in mowae, a disease she had discovered 20 years ago in Africa. Hadn't her work, gladly shared, launched his? Then she'd found the doctor whose deaf, half-paralyzed patients shared a flawed gene with mowae. This breakthrough had turned Leo's project into medical news, because if his gene therapy cured mowae, it could cure men. He'd become a rising star. On top of everything, she'd recruited an angel VC. Hadn't she.
Sighing, Jo levered herself onto feet cooled by the tile floor. Ten steps south brought her to the window, the gesticulating palm tops, and the Life Science roofs congregated in the aqua blue of evening. She could hear buses wheeze on the avenue. Ten steps north, her lab coat hung on the door. A turn brought her opposite the wall-mounted aquarium and her teaching fish, the striped mbunas. Perpetually burbling water flavored the air. Jo stood fists on hips, and on the aquarium wall, a reflected woman drew closer, losing hips and fists, until a ghostly bust leaned toward the green water. Her hair slid in wings alongside the full lips; her eyes twitched, peering through their image to the fish hidden in green shade. She'd done nothing wrong in the lab. She had to think through what had happened in London.
She returned to her seat, reached for her keyboard, and the office filled with insects' stridulations, frogs' creaking, and thunderous bursts of wingflaps. The broadcast came live from a wildlife reservation in South Africa. Jo liked having Africa at hand when she had to think hard. But she thought about London. Had London made her a monster? She and Leo had been standing by a window in the topmost chamber in Greg Kolayeff's guest townhouse, in Mayfair. The lights were out so they could see into the rainbeaten street.
By then, time had stretched and twisted until the night felt scarcely real. They'd flown to London in five hours from San Francisco, aboard the VC's private supersonic jet. They'd tried to focus on their iPads, while the planet dropped farther down the gravity well than they'd ever seen and the clouds turned to flaked eggshell. They'd caught each other staring at the wallpaper and guessed it was Siamese croc. "We're flying," Leo had said, "inside Greg's wallet." After landing at City, they'd been rushed in a limo to Greg's offices, where the day passed in meetings with their VC and his panoply of consultants. Mayhew Lab intrigued Greg because he was afflicted with CMTX6, the degenerative nerve disease Leo had cured in M. mowae. Too old for a cure himself, Greg cherished hope for his future sons (on the strength of which he'd married a Latvian supermodel). But if curing CMTX6 was a great thing, in Greg's book, the greater thing was development. Bacterial DNA could be engineered to make any substance, to treat the microbiome as well as genes—or as Greg put it, "Your bug that's a gene doctor can also be your bug that's a pharmacist." Leo had always seen more applications for his work than gene therapy alone, where CRISPR was dominant. He and Greg were a match.
Jo kept sneaking glances at Leo. She was proud of him. These were deep organizational waters, though not over her head. Greg had flown them here in order to make an impression, which meant she had some leverage. Yet as the hours passed, the two scientists found that sorting out the details of excitingly useful plans from the details of unwieldy, wasteful, restrictive, or dodgy ones, while maintaining tact and aiming for compromise, was like hauling wheelbarrows full of gold bricks. Very inspiring it was, very grateful they were, and it wore them out. When Greg at last bundled them into the Bentley, waving from his wheelchair like FDR, they'd ridden to Mayfair in the silence of travelers whose pained eardrums have not popped.
At the townhouse, Jo had bathed and put on yoga sweats; the guest suite's ivory interior arched its brows at her déshabille. Downstairs, she'd found Leo ferreting through a brushed-steel refrigerator. He wanted good old English stout, he complained loudly, but the only thing in here was this bullshit champagne. Jo wanted to drink it rather than go to a pub. She didn't feel like getting dressed again. (Had that been the first wrong step? Why didn't he go out alone? Had she prevented him?) Krug was James Bond's brand, Jo said. Consulting her iPhone, she announced that one bottle of the stuff cost the same as a new BioRad iCycler. They might as well try. After they drank, Leo suddenly wanted to look from the top floor window for Greg's garage, where the Bentley limo was kept. They'd drunk an iCycler and a half between them.
Upstairs, in the dark by the cold window, between brocade drapes like folding doors, they'd reached a moment of stillness. They were high, not stupidly besotted. The champagne had made them in some way transparent to each other. Outside the street was quiet. Rain sounded like a chorus of sighs and sometimes like the clink of cooling embers. Leo couldn't see the garage; still they stood there and chatted, on and off, about the strangeness of their day, if what they'd just experienced could be called a day. To their relief, the carnival dazzle of their journey had faded, leaving pure wonderment. Jo's hand settled on Leo's upper arm. Yes, she had put her hand on him. She was to blame.
Yet nothing might have happened if he hadn't turned to hold her. She'd scoffed a little, told him to go out and find a girl his own age. He had raised his large hand to her face and traced a circle on her lips. He had asked, "How would you even count the time we've been travelling together? Time doesn't matter, it's just us." (Unsentimental though she was, Jo remembered his voice, with its endearing creak of feeling.) Then she had walked away. He'd followed. She'd come to him, still demurring. He'd promised to go away whenever she sent him. They'd kissed, and after each kiss, Leo had promised to go away whenever she sent him. Like two people giving a hand to each other as they climbed a stairway together, they had helped each other. It turned out to be one of those Escher stairways that seem to climb until they're revealed as descending, only to start climbing again.
Jo had never thought of sex as sin, but always felt at first contact with a man as her mother might have when her skis were airborne. Her lovers, for years, had been men of her own age: astute, grizzled friends in whose lovemaking she strayed not a jot from herself. With Leo, for the first time in years, she'd felt unsure. He had a way of holding her at arm's length, and at such moments under his gaze tugging at itself—as if he could not quite believe he was allowed to gaze, but found it very exciting—she knew that her small breasts drooped, and her thin muscularity was not an angel's. That shift out of herself required her to unmake, as it started to form, the memory of a mirror-paneled bedroom. Which unmade, she was herself again, under Leo's handling eyes that went before his hands. She remembered the sweet shock of a young man's flesh, the grand crouching body all summer-haired, the cheek scraping back and forth against her inner thighs, like a creature scent-marking its range. He'd done nothing unexpected, and she'd enjoyed him completely. Once, she'd opened her eyes and looked past his heavy shoulder. From the porcelain bedside lamp, light washed upward, and at the fringe of it, a spot on the smooth wall seemed deformed. High on the cornice, a protruding mass. Gradually, she perceived it was the cornice itself, ornamentally molded into a grape cluster; in her half-sleep she made out the plaster putti embracing the cluster, kicking their fat feet. She'd struggled suddenly and hauled up Leo's head by its silk roots to search the sleep-drunk face. She was seized by déjà vu: this wall, these thick sheets, this light, this face, and as the echo shimmered on and on, it vanished. Leo scarcely wakened and slid away. They'd settled back to back. And she had fallen into deep sleep, but now she remembered. A déjà vu.
Had she been egoistic, prideful? In judging herself, Jo faltered. Suppose she had behaved like a proper mentor, and sent Leo away for the night. Those hours. It seemed that life's hand had opened, and those hours had sprung from it. Her instinct said she'd been right to accept, that those hours had not made her a monster. Wouldn't sending him away have been spurning life, a kind of prideful rejection? Everything depended on the big picture, however, and on whether she'd betrayed her small part in it. But the big picture kept changing. That was the problem. That was the rub, as Papa would say. The whole episode might not have ruffled her conscience at all—she might not now be hanging around, wracking her brains like this, fear wriggling its eyeless head—if Leo hadn't changed. His change had turned her monstrous in his eyes, somehow. How?
Raw nostalgia gaped in her. He was her bright spot. Literally, at certain angles, Leo's hair outshone the laboratory glassware above his bench, a fuzzy sunspot as he opened a refrigerator and chose among his color-coded tubes of bacterial strains. Precisely because he was such a classic molecular biologist, more at home with data sets than animals, Jo liked to see him there, getting his hands wet. Once, on a local TV show, he'd enthused, "To me, synthesizing DNA is about transcending our evolutionary history." In the weekly lab meeting that followed, he'd been roundly teased for public puffery. Jo had sniffed, "DNA is history, it's millions of years old and nobody invented it. What's to transcend?" He had laughed; he was sweet. The sweetness made itself felt. Now her bright spot was gone, and she was a monster.
She turned to the watering hole in her monitor. The African night wore on in realtime, insects weaving their song into a shining gray environment. Nyalas lay in the grass, turning their deerlike heads. It was quiet: crickets, faint whoops. A cough! or a bark? Quick as piano keys the nyalas turned this way, that way. One rose on her thin legs. Probably a dog, Jo thought. Her aquarium's purling and its mist scent seemed to rise from the water hole. Yes. She must think it through.
She checked her Apple watch, whose sand-pink band was a lucky accident: it matched her lipstick, encouraging her to feel that order might arise spontaneously. First things first. She had to chew out Ilya, who'd made trouble. It had started recently, during the usual crisis that besets all projects just before completion, a crisis so familiar in the lab that it was honored with superstitions. Just as Leo's gene therapy seemed successful, his mowae began, all at once, to sicken. Sick cichlids. It wasn't funny. It was CMTX6. Eventually, the problem was traced to the DNA primers, a routine ingredient Leo bought custom-made from a colleague in Michigan. The primers were replaced, the project was saved, and Mayhew Lab breathed easier without the pong of dissected fish and the fear of a major failure. Then Ilya had cyber-snooped on the Michigan colleague and turned up close ties to Lewis Everett. He'd told Jo, who chose to ignore the possible sabotage—if it was, which she doubted. Jo's way in dealing with monsters was to diminish them. But she had mishandled Ilya. Somehow he'd managed to irritate her unendurably, and she'd snapped, "Will you stop wasting my fucking time?" The lab manager, affronted, had turned his sleety eyes and screen-reddened conjunctiva on her past. He had unearthed certain records she never discussed. Then he'd shared it all with Leo, his best friend; men would bond over perceived bitchery. Such was the price of losing her cool.
She rang up Ilya and heard him over the phone as well as through her wall, which conveyed certain truths the phone didn't always deliver.
"You shared my personal information with Leo," she said calmly, "without even asking, because you were pissed off. That was out of line. And very unhelpful."
"So... I want that you understand," Ilya hedged. "Nothing against you is in these files." Shamed y's slid into his speech. "They're in public archives anyyyone can vyiew, you know?" In the wall, muffled taps betrayed his booted foot's swinging. "So am I fired or what." Jo waited. She rested her mind ten thousand miles away, among the nyalas who slept so lightly. Then she sighed.
"Well, I need your advice. Are the fish rooms as secure as we can get them?" Ilya replied in deep loving tones that the area was under his close supervision and could not be more secure. "Glad to hear it," Jo said, blithe and dry.
"So... how is Leo? Still crazy? He's sent me a lot of ridiculous messages."
"Leo's mental... stress is not your fault, Ilya, but the effect of sharing my information has been to damage his trust. Please take that to heart. He's like a capsized boat in fast water. It may take effort... to get him working again." They were supposed to be preparing for the Society for Neuroscience conference later in the month. A stream of experts would visit the fish rooms to view successfully treated mowae. Since the day that Leo had compared her to a monster and walked out of the lab, Jo had been carrying his workload.
"Whatever you nyeed me for—" Ilya was clipped, then contrite. "I feel not very good. I fucked up, okay, I am sorry, seriously! But Leo imagines security problems that are nonexistent because I am taking appropriate measures."
"Yes, let's check those," Jo agreed, adding grimly, "Thanks for your apology." She went over a checklist with him. Ilya's grasp of detail left nothing to be desired, and she felt better until he asked, husky with nosiness, "Your shorebird research, you know the money it made in the diet industry? You could be lyiving like a queen."
"Mm. I don't approve of diet drugs." Through the wall came an incredulous neigh of laughter, and they rang off.
How did queens live? London's scents came back to her: stone, rain, plaster, heated wool, toast, potpourri, brine of love on thick crisp sheets. As for Leo. As for Leo.
Between her hands, her propped face sagged like a mask.
After returning from London, Leo had stopped coming to meetings at the lab as well as with the VC. She'd let it pass until Greg had invited them both to the Tesla factory in Fremont to watch his new car roll off the line. His fun was their fun, of course, but Leo hadn't shown up. There had been uneasy jokes about forgetful geniuses. Jo had been furious. She dismissed the notion of Leo playing the spoiled lover... or ex-lover. Their night's adventure had been just that, leaving only a residue of warmth. In any case, Leo and slackness could not coexist. Something else was going on. She'd summoned him with an email from which the traces of her wrath had been carefully expunged. The approaching conference had her on edge, she realized; it was time to clear the air.
But when Leo arrived, she was taken aback. He usually wore a lab coat and Crocs for the damp-floored fish rooms. At lab get-togethers, he showed up in beer T-shirts, jeans, and dingy moccasins. For formal occasions he owned a gray suit and dress shoes, which he hated. The first version of Leo was what she expected. He'd breeze in—white coat, drifting hair, clumpy Crocs—deliver his thoughts and breeze out. He should have come in like that.
Instead, he walked in and sat slowly. His T-shirt sagged, the moccasins baring his chalky hindfeet. His cheeks sank under their bone shelf. The hands resting on his thighs looked too wide-knuckled. Jo dismissed her reproaches, estimating that he'd lost 15 pounds too fast. Resting her arms before her, grave and welcoming, she let him speak. But what he said made no sense. The memory of having disrobed before this troubled young man arose and struck her fleetingly as insane. She tried to choose objective phrases, tempered with warmth, that might restore the trust he ought to have. She hoped her care would make itself felt, and she shut irony in the back of her mind, where it usually went.
"Leo, if you need to take a leave, be it medical or personal—and I don't have to know the details—" (she let that sink in) "I'll help you. You get first author regardless. Health comes first." Leo's eyes turned the clear gold with which they viewed a poor result, and a shadowy Y showed on his forehead.
"That bad, huh?"
"You looked rather frayed. We can record part of your presentation and play it at the conference. There are plenty of ways."
"You don't believe me." He'd turned away, a flicker at his heavy jaw's hinge.
Jo mustered her energies, lacing her fingers.
"Let's review, so we're on the same page. A month ago, Ilya said that maybe Everett had sabotaged your project. We fixed the problem. Now you want to go after Everett legally, for scientific misconduct." (Leo nodded once, with vigor.) "Your reason is, you phoned him. You accused him of sabotage, and he denied it and taunted you. You interpret his taunts as threats."
"Jo, he said our problems weren't over, and he got really ugly."
"Those aren't threats—let me finish. Everett is a poker player. If he wanted to mess with you, he'd have been friendly. This is a wild goose chase. I need you to take a leave, or get back on your feet."
Jo's tones were measured, but she knew her manner was full of snap, and when Leo climbed to his feet, it seemed that he was taking her words literally. His hands hovered at belt height, recalling that there were no coat pockets to nestle in. Then one hand went over his head to scratch the broad nape, while the other hugged his ribs. He stood in the sixth-floor window's full morning light. It exposed a loose thread clinging to his sleeve, touched his glassy, working eyebrows, washed his flexed underarm with sun. He seemed to sway and creak, like a tree. Jo watched him with the vexed tenderness and detachment of age. It was too bad, the way the seat of his jeans bagged. She'd seen chimps take a pose like that, rocking slightly. He'd come out of it in a minute. The aquarium hiccupped, and Leo, hearing it, went to the tank and readjusted the filter. The water bubbled freshly on. The cichlids whirled and settled again.
"So what do you say." She sounded harsh to herself, but her star returned without fuss, crossing his ankles, and she had hope.
"I was adopted," Leo announced." I haven't been forthright. I didn't accuse Everett of sabotage, I—we discussed something different. I apologize."
"For..." The PI rapidly shook her head as if clearing water from her ears. "Oh, for the meetings. Yes."
"Everett hates me because I'm his son." Leo regarded the stalled eyes, the frozen body across from him, and went on, the color returning to his sunken cheeks. Jo was monitoring her reactions: a stab of alarm, a flurried question of whether drugs or mental illness was here. She awaited a signal from her judgment. But if Leo had gone off the deep end, he was in lucid waters. This time, the story he told made sense.
It began when he was testing the bad primers. For controls, he had used the lab's human DNA samples. During the test, the computer had insisted that two of the DNA samples were identical, so one must be a duplicate; and it had shut down the program. Pressed for time, Leo had started over but skipped the second sample. Afterwards, he'd been curious about those two samples, because one was his own DNA. He'd racked it himself. So he had run SNPs on both. They weren't duplicates. No! One was Leo, and the other...
He'd never known his mother or his father. His adoptive parents had found him through a church charity, back in the day. The charity was long gone, as were most of its records, and he only knew that he came from overseas. (With this confession, Leo looked more himself; his expression convinced Jo that he was not delusional. He was only desperate, one of those who scramble over the sands of probability after a perfect dream.) The SNPs had shown Leo his, well, probably his father, in an anonymous sample that only had a code number, right? So Leo had worked out—a way—to find the name of whose ever DNA it was.
Jo's hand had risen to her throat, covering her gold cross.
"You do know that identifying human DNA, without the consent of the donor, is against standard research ethics." She paused, viscerally repulsed. "You violated ethics policy, and you used the university's resources to pursue your private interest."
"Can we skip the bureaucratese?" His voice was hard and quiet. She felt the chasm of experience between them, which, it was clear, he scarcely knew existed. He seemed on the verge of an outburst. Instead, he spoke with a sardonic mildness used to skewer people's errors. "I sent Everett the sequences, and he agreed to talk on Facetime.You're the only person who knows, by the way. I thought hard about what to say, right. I said—Hey, we belong to each other, however you want that to be." Leo paused with no familiar muscle-play in his face. Then he brought out his iPhone and offered it to Jo, who unwillingly took it. "Start from there. He's in the parking lot of the casino in San Jose. His choice," Leo breathed, "of venue."
Onscreen: night, neon parapets, and a face. Jo tapped the Play arrow. Lewis bent close, and beneath his split-bulge forehead and tufted brows, tiny agate cabochons peered at Jo. Leo's recorded voice was eager—"discuss the results, reach some understanding." Shrinking, Lewis mumbled, "fabrication." He bobbed in and out of view unnervingly. "Why's that valet taking so long?" Teeth peeped under his mustache as Leo's voice rose. "Why would I fabricate something like that? Why would anyone do that?" Jo saw the face suddenly as an object, doll-like, lolling inside the darkness of Leo's unanswered questions. "Because you're a fucking moron, and so's that pathetic bitch you work with." Jo stopped the recording and handed back the iPhone.
Encouraged by Jo's silence, Leo proposed, once more, a lawsuit against Everett for scientific misconduct.
The PI had removed her hand from her throat, and spoke carefully.
"SNPs can be deceptive; also, you didn't have much coverage. I wouldn't jump to conclusions."
"You don't believe me." The gaze he turned on her was a sick boy's or an innocent old man's. A cup of coffee was at Jo's elbow, gone cold. She took one awful sip.
She began to discuss technical pitfalls to the testing Leo had done, not to prove Leo wrong but to turn him softly away from the Gorgon glare of his disappointment. Her words wound around him, and Leo's attention began to flag; he recrossed his ankles, knuckled the shadowy Y on his brow. Jo did not mention Everett. In the active geometries of her mind, a solid rectangle blocked out the former PI. She merely presented Leo with a plan. He would shelve his personal pursuits, since they were not time-sensitive, and return to his project, which was. He could take over in the fish rooms starting tomorrow, or the day after, if he needed to get up to speed. Which?
Jo gave her best smile. Everything curved upwards from her creaturely lips. Leo was moved, and irresolute. Life might have ups and downs, but the lab was the place to be: that was what Jo's smile had always meant.
"It's like... I tried to wrap up a loose end, right, only I made myself into a loose end. There's a loss of..." He broke off. Jo reflected that Leo had had his share of betrayals. He'd fought to save his work from Everett's chicanery; he'd been dumped by a girlfriend (London had been a bit of rebound); he'd had his project possibly sabotaged. Finally, this—weirdness—of his birth, and behind it, Jo sensed a primal separation that had always defined him. An image of rings widening on water rose to her mind; he wanted truth, the truth that made its movement darkly felt. Maybe it was no wonder he felt afraid.
"Well, Leo," Jo cut in cheerfully, "We've got a few hundred little boys in California who are at risk for CMTX6. Pretty soon, you can tell those kids' families that they won't necessarily go deaf or end up in wheelchairs. I'm looking forward to that. I think it's great. How about you?"
Her star leaned forward and cradled his face in his hands. Her heart was wrung.
"Yeah." He straightened, stained as it were by dry tears. "But, Jo. He's out there getting ready to blow my goddamn work apart. He's personally motivated. It's an issue we have to resolve, right."
The PI had begun to feel terribly tired. Persistence was a great virtue, except when its possessor was achingly irrational and dead wrong.
"Everett is not about to disrupt my lab. I've been over this with Ilya, and it's a non-issue." Saying "issue," Jo grabbed a coffee-stained napkin, blew her nose, and scolded thickly, "You ought to trust me, you know? I've only been doing this for 30 years?" She turned to her computer and rattled the keyboard, mentally juggling schedules. "Okay, my dear, I'm giving you leave to go home to Michigan and visit your family." His parents: a beekeeping father, a mother who wore a Frodo Lives! button to city council meetings. There was nothing to his nonsense about Everett.
"You're throwing me out?" He was quizzical rather than angry.
"No, I need you back at work, but I'm giving you the option... as of... now. There. Sent. You'll let me know."
Dismissed, Leo didn't move while Jo went on with her work. Then his chair scraped. Footsteps shuffled, muted by the aquarium's tuneful bubbling. For his exit, Jo swiveled round with a friendly air of small tasks dispatched.
By now, the sun had risen higher, carrying away its presence and leaving the office in neutral daylight. Leo stood in this shrunken light in the middle of the office. He had always stood in a fluid, irregular sort of way, as if rising through depths. Then, swiftly or deliberately, he'd perform some action that had been gathering momentum. Now he stood slack, holding himself together by the tilt of his head, with a look in the yellow eyes that jarred with his faintly stirring, spectral hair.
"I ought to trust you, right. Why didn't you tell me how Lewis stole your work? You never mentioned it. You never even mentioned you'd been his student. You never even shared that Ilya had come to you with a warning. I had to hear it from Ilya."
Jo reached for her coffee cup, not lifting it. Instead, she held the base of the cup.
"Ilya showed me your paper. Fat metabolism in shorebirds." Leo tossed this out, to shift blame or unsettle her further. Between the two of them opened bottomless uncertainty. Walking to the door, he stooped to the handle, which until now he'd always caught mid-stride. Then he'd said—with that endearing creak in his voice—"I guess you and Lewis have a whole lot in common."
She remembered, after he'd left, turning the wrist that bore her Apple watch toward her, checking its face over and over without recalling what it meant. For nearly two weeks, she'd shoved the memory aside so she could work, while bits of it flared or faded. Only now had she reconstructed it as an ordered whole. Now it was her own humiliation that stole her breath. Remembering herself turned to plaster, clutching the stupid cup—when he'd said what he had said—and checking her watch like a broken doll, Jo felt doubled over with chagrin. She should have said something.
She got up stiffly and stood at the window. The evening sky was weightless stone, still too pale for stars. In the palm treetops, sparrows thrashed, and as the building emptied for dinnertime, the drone of low-temp freezers grew noticeable. From her feet, a sensation began flowing upward along her hamstrings until it took possession of her blood chemistry. She might break a sweat, the way it affected her right now: her nerves screamed to strike back, strike out, defend herself. You and Lewis have a whole lot in common. Outrageous. She should have said something. Leo was wrong. His suspicions about her came from his own ignorance of professional ethics. The PI was under no obligation to dish dirt about the former PI. What did he think—that it would have been seemly to disparage her predecessor, to rake up old misdoings, in the ears of her subordinates? Leo was wrong, and she ought to be cool with that. The office phone rang: a student's long message irritated her until she lifted the receiver and slammed it down as if trying to make phone juice. She cursed aloud and didn't care if Ilya, behind the wall, pricked up his ears. This was why she'd never married. She took men into her life, and their assumptions tripled her stress. Do-it-all Jo! Jo the cheerleader, the picking brain, cook, therapist, maid! Ach. Good luck to you, boys. Glad to have been of service! She was trembling. She left the window.
No, that sad rant wasn't what she meant. Leo wasn't "men." Papa always said that when you're mad, figure out if the other guy has a point. Jo held her breath... and let it hiss away. Leo thought she had a lot in common with Everett. Outrageous. Never mind, did he have a point? On one score, just barely maybe, though Leo could know nothing of it. Yet he might know more than he knew. Unthinkable as it was, she must think it through.
On her monitor, trickling ink: it must be raining. Africa was no help. Slowly and with dread, her mind approached the solid rectangle blocking off the thought of Lewis Everett, and it became transparent. Through it in darkness, the mirror-paneled bedroom; and in each of those tall panels a band of light; and in each band an agile, pale body whose bright hair tangled with another, duller body, repeated from all angles. She did not want to remember this. How attractive she'd been. She winced at the performance that was all tricks and capers, the spectacle that Lewis pursued sweatily and with bulging eyes fixed on his panelling. A spotlit bed? Even then it had struck her as stupid. Though he'd been handsome enough, in rugged middle age, to attract a long line of anorexic Valley realtors. She'd been an outlier. Graduate students weren't his specialty. To this day, she didn't know if he'd bedded her out of lust or research strategy.
To be sure, she'd been, not a beauty, but a hottie (as they said now) who had radiated self-confidence. She hadn't known it, except in the negative way of never fearing a refusal, but she'd put that down to men's availability. She'd spent no time on imagining how she appeared to others—in her jeans and rain gear and rattletrap VW, chasing sandpipers and curlews up and down the coast from San Diego to South Jetty. Everything she'd done then was like the joy of heading into a stiff wind. Now she knew the wind was time. Here she sat in Everett's stead, in a building that hadn't existed when she was his graduate student, in a part of campus that had been fields and live oaks, long before livecams, genomics, and NIH moles going after Charles Darwin. Was there an evil mirror in those long-gone days that had caught not just her body's image but also her future, so that she ended up repeating her past with the seduction of a younger colleague? Leo's words had a symmetry that seemed like truth. That was what fired her nerves with defensive rage. Truth, however, was her bailiwick. You began with the facts.
She'd known the facts so long, it took effort to see them anew. Lewis and she had played poker at a lab Christmas party, and she'd liked his laid-back style. When he'd made his move, she was flattered, and in the few weeks it had lasted, between her trips into the field, she'd hidden her fundamental dislike of the situation (like an idiot), trying to pretend it was sophisticated. Sexual harassment it was not (she knew her Title IX). Yet what went on in the mirror-paneled bedroom had a foul, obliterating stupidity about it—a rudeness to her as God's creature, a rudeness toward the body—that was all the more distasteful for being unintentional, because Lewis (and maybe those realtors) thought he was a stud. He believed she was under his sexual spell, and she'd learned how difficult it was to sever intimate relations with your PI. (Oh, she should not have laid her hand on Leo!) She began to manufacture excuses and stayed away until Lewis let her know that his recreation hours were "permanently booked." For years, Jo had wondered if the course of her career had sprung from her failure, at this news, to burst into tears. Instead she'd been respectful, sweet, and unable to hide her relief as she left his office. Shortly afterwards, he'd summoned her back and told her—as he'd told Leo, and many others—that her new work would not be published.
Jo had reacted like everyone else in that group of some dozen young scientists who, over the decades, had been gagged and robbed and believed themselves alone until Leo had shown otherwise. She'd run the gamut of incredulity, protest, and fear. Through it all, Lewis's poker face had stayed on, though his shaggy eyebrows had indulged in some pantomime. Her revulsion unbearable, she'd accepted almost instantly the need to change course and rid herself of an incubus. Despite Lewis's hints of retaliation should she complain, Jo, like Leo, had confided in best friends. She'd called her father (long distance, when that cost something) and told him all but the dirty parts. Supervisors who suppressed talent weren't news for an engineer, and Papa had been perfect as ever.
"Take my advice, Josie," he'd said. "Don't pick a fight with a skunk. Get going on a new track, and when you need help, let me know."
Molly, an English zoologist from another lab, also heard the expurgated tale of Jo's troubles.
"Oh dear!"—Eau d'yah!—she'd exclaimed, alight with glee. For some time she'd been pressing Jo to join her at the research station, on Lake Malawi, where Molly studied a fish with the gloomy name of Mormyrops. There was easy grant money, Molly urged. Jo felt irked and toyed with. What sense would anyone make of it—since the PI had killed her work on shorebirds, she was going to take a crack at fish?
"You're done with shorebirds," Molly pronounced. "Through! Bollocks to Everett. He's a third-rater. Just put it about that you've contracted an allergy to birds, you know—feathers. You'll love the lake. You'll meet Ad Konings. Come on, you must." Molly was a beauty. Her rosegold hair and startling brown eyes, her height and graceful gait, were the stuff of sonnets. Most admirers failed to note that her small, soft, red lips were compressed, by habitual determination, into the shape of an equal sign. She was married to a UN official who worked part of the year in Lilongwe, and in short, what Molly offered Jo, at that crisis in her life, seemed much more promising than anything else.
For a while, Jo's new life befell her like a lucky accident. She got the Malawi grant. Everyone believed her about the bird allergy. Lewis, finding her compliant, made no obstacles. Jo had never lied systematically before, and her lies' success was so unnerving that she travelled to San Francisco and made an anonymous confession in St. Patrick's Church, whose Latin mass Mrs. Bogan would have liked. She badly needed to make a clean breast of the whole affair, though she took the church's view of premarital sex with a grain of salt. Her confessor, urbane and simpatico, cleared her of malicious intentions, mentioned the Magdalene, and with deadly aim asked her to think of her widowed father. She made her penance in the Yerba Buena garden, a green hilltop among skyscrapers buttressing the blue. Close to the sky, on a fine San Francisco day, she cherished the old, childish dream of her mother aloft in the smiling air. Absolution had restored her to her small part in the big picture, a girl who murmured prayers unnoticed.Returning home a week later, she went to the clinic for a headache and discovered she was pregnant.
Truly, she did not remember much about breaking the news. She'd been sleep-starved, barely able to drive. Lewis was a silhouette in front of a wincing window. She remembered he'd chuckled and called her obscene names, silly insults, by way of denying his fatherhood. Partly, she'd been relieved: the prospect of his rising to embrace her with uxorious ardor had made her cringe. Partly, she'd drifted outside of herself and stood amazed at the man. After all it was his virility she attested to. With caution—Lewis could still damage her career—Jo offered him his baby, no strings attached. She threw into her parched voice the conviction that this was his baby, expecting the old poker hand to know truth from a bluff. Again he returned sneers, and Jo realized that his usual manner, which everyone called cool, was the cold surface of an unfathomed hysteria. It was like outer space chatter. Nodding off for an instant, she'd jerked awake with total focus: she must know exactly where he stood. She asked him what he wanted, what he wanted her to do. Lewis cleared his throat and said something unremembered; what still stuck was the phrase saintly little girl parts—a jeering mention of abortion, but in her woozy state she hardly knew what he meant. Instead, a little girl had pinged into view in starched skirts, wearing a familiar face. Jo had left and gone home, gone to bed, and told herself that when she woke, it would all be a mistake or a miscarriage. Neither came true, but she woke with a plan. It was a half-assed, gonzo plan that had nearly killed her. Yet here she was.
Jo sat in the dark. The rage that had possessed her was gone. It was funny, how she hadn't felt angry about Everett in years and years. When had she felt angry about him? When she'd staggered out of his office on that day, over 30 years ago, she hadn't been angry, she'd been stunned. But she'd found the next step; you survived what was thrown at you by going the next step, and anger was a distraction. You minimized. You kept a certain cortical cool. You dreamed of a glass cliff you tried to climb, that turned into a bedsheet wrapped around and floating you over the ocean where you would fall, sink, and drown unmarked. Waking, you scrubbed in the shower: good morning skin, good hips and knees, good back and belly, good armpits, good strong legs. No greeting for the growth in your flesh, for which you felt nothing so warm as hate, for which you felt nothing and even less. Your soapy hands blessed yourself. The pregnancy you shut out of mind. Wracked by nausea, you dealt with symptoms and ignored the cause, as if you were having a spell of stomach flu. "No," you told the doctor who administered your vaccines and Praziquantel (Lake Malawi swarmed with parasites) and asked per routine if you might be pregnant. You said it without thinking—No. Per routine you were not. Like playing cards, the idea of abortion flashed up in your mind right alongside the picture of a little girl-saint in starched skirts. There was time. You needed time. You packed. You weren't angry, you were busy. Instead of anger, crazy energy drove you all the way to Lake Malawi, and afterwards you'd had other things on your mind.
Your lost anger? For years you'd prided yourself on its absence. As an evolved trait, anger was a message of danger and a spur to action. But you couldn't have taken any action directly from your anger. No one would wish to hear your unsavory story about an established figure who'd done nothing illegal. Your misfortune was no one's bailiwick; it fell into the realm of accident. It was like when a rock stubs your toe. That rock is not a reasonable target for anger. So you'd made Lewis Everett into a rock no higher than your toe, though he'd silenced your research and left his acidic semen to eat your future from inside you. You might have died but took his job instead. Good girl. That's how you had thought of it all these years.
Well, and has your lost anger found you tonight, at last—across the years, through the slowly healed channels? Is your newfound anger the real reason you've become so outraged when a brilliant post-doc has a crisis, hardly an unheard-of event? Then you're not so angry with Leo, after all. Your past is not his fault. No need to be angry with Leo. There, that feels better.
Jo groped in her desk drawer for napkins. The aquarium light was out, and her monitor had switched to Sleep mode. The dark suited her. She really shouldn't take this evening off, with only two weeks till the conference deadline plus having to carry Leo's workload as well—still, she must think things through. In the dark, so night owls wouldn't see her lights on and come knocking with their woes. Pradeep's best gel is irreproducible? Paolo left a mutagen uncapped? Sorry, the PI is not in right now. Jo clasped her hands behind her head and rocked her chair with one pointed toe. Weeping, she chuckled. How deliciously self-indulgent! So many sopped napkins! Makeup be damned. On her monitor, the rain had stopped. Above the water hole flew a rapid something that left white squiggles, likely a free-tailed bat, cute as a button, no bigger than her hand. She wished she could see it. She missed Africa. Funny how she loved the place where she'd made her biggest mistake. Now was the time to think it through at last; now that her whole being felt illuminated and relaxed as if her callused heels shot light like flints, and her temples beamed. Now that her lost anger had come home.
She had often described the field station on Lake Malawi when she taught her undergraduate seminar in evolutionary biology; she'd tell them how it used to be in the '80s. The museum had sent her there to collect, classify, and preserve cichlid specimens and ship them back. Basically a 19th-century job, taking inventory. There were over 650 cichlid species in Lake Malawi, new ones always turning up. This had been going for 160 million years, since cichlids became widespread in the ancient landmass of Gondwana before it split into our modern continents. In the African rift lakes, the cichlids became isolated and begat strangeness upon strangeness. There were cichlids that ate exclusively the eyes of other fish. Cichlids with enormous eyes of their own saw 100 meters down into the abyss. Some played dead to fool their prey or built sandcastles to attract mates. Gastronomically specialized cichlids ate only snails, ate only crabs, ate only parasites off catfish, ate only bits of catfish skin, ate only scales, ate only the eggs of other cichlids. There were males 12 times the weight of conspecific females that lived in snail shells, safely away from their gargantuan mates—though sometimes smaller males swam hopefully into the females' shells. Adaptive radiation meant in practice that the weirder the fish got, the weirder they were going to get. You needed a sense of humor to be a biologist.
You also had to like living rough. The field station was a long, boxy place built not of the local baked mud but of real brick, yet only the workroom and aquarium hall were roofed in tin. The dorm rooms and kitchen were thatched. A generator kept the aquariums running and lights on in the workroom, and an old refrigerator gargled in the kitchen, so-called. The cook, Chisomo, prepared the station's food outside on a clay stove, her famously efficient changu changu moto. Meals were served on a trestle table in the backyard, where gusts of woodsmoke flavored the nsima porridge. Three closet-sized dorm rooms held two cots apiece, swathed in mosquito netting, and were it not for the salubrious green odor of thatch, the cots would have smelled. You bathed in the lake; you relieved yourself hastily in the long drop, alert for scorpions. Living rough, though, wasn't as much about the physical conditions (not so different today) as the intellectual conditions. There was no telephone service. To reach the world beyond the lake, it was necessary to travel uncertain roads to a distant town that boasted a telegraph or post office. There were no computers. The workroom had two manual typewriters: a Smith-Corona (everyone wanted that one) and a Hermes portable. But the greatest difference—the one that irredeemably severed past from present—was the way you went about classifying an animal. You had at your disposal your senses, hands, and basic measuring equipment. You observed the color, weight, body shape, head shape, jaw size, and musculature in respect to conical or tricuspid teeth, and so forth. Then you took your best guess, because, to all intents and purposes, there was no genomics. Today, any researcher could click on a site like Bouilla-Base and consult databases replete with genomic information about cichlids. None of that had existed when Jo had done the foundational studies of M. mowae.
This far into the story, Jo's students didn't quite disbelieve her, yet they couldn't quite believe, either. Their clear young eyes would be mistrustful. The dates they'd learned—Watson & Crick, the Human Genome Project, and so on—did not match their impression of the normal world being one in which DNA was the key to life science. Jo might have been telling them about cutting goose quill pens. Once, one of the bolder ones asked, "Didn't paternity testing start in the '80s?"
Before she could reply, another student chimed in, "She's talking about genomics, not about, like, a couple of, like, totally low-throughput markers."
Smiling, Jo had steered the discussion toward the importance of observing animals first-hand in their habitats. But she'd been about to say, falsely, that paternity testing hadn't begun in the mid-'80s—because the thought of it had never occurred to her then. She'd been about to teach something false. The experience startled her as if her own younger self, the amateur liar, had manipulated her tongue. She'd dismissed the slip, but now recollected it with an irritable gesture. Outside her windows, the night sky was deep into its hyperbolic approach to the true black it never achieved in the Valley. In Malawi the sky was stuffed with stars. Let her remember. Yes, she remembered. Tonight, she could remember it all.
She arrived in the cool, windy season of July. She'd be at the beach cauled in sunrise when the mountains were shadows. Whiffs of Chisomo's cookfire reached her, along with the lake's faint voices; fishermen were out there all night and into dawn. When her snorkel mask went on, she stopped smelling anything but vinyl. The first time she'd swum into the green-lit reaches with their horizon of turquoise mist, she'd been expecting something like Hawaii. Instead, her visual sense went on overload. Her brain didn't work fast enough to sort patterns from the crowds, clouds, and shoals of opalescent fish swimming past, over, and under her, with flashing speed and wriggling movement, or hanging their faces in hers like bug-eyed lamps whose skins crawled with colored lights. She remembered Molly's warning that the lake took some getting used to, and heeded her advice to float over a spot, just watching. Hours passed during which she drifted over algae-furred rocks. The floor was a giant carpet on which the outlines of sunbeams, falling through clear waters, wove an endless tangle. Overhead tumbled the sky of the fish, a silver meniscus in continual upheaval. She hung over her thin-legged shadow, absorbing information, waiting for the critical intellectual mass at which recognition would become instant.
Once, a burst of transparent fry wrapped her neck like a scarf, their tiny spines synchronized in terror of pursuers—and rounding Jo's neck as if it were a rock-shelf, the baby fish sped to their mother (who was hovering in circles) and into her open, working mouth. After which she circled a few more times, scooping up stragglers, a fry or two slipping from between her pewter lips like irrepressible remarks. Jo touched her neck. She'd seen mouth-breeders in aquariums, but now she'd felt the fry's panic, held her breath as they streamed to the safe mouth under their mother's lidless eyes. Jo had resigned herself to missing the operatic drama of avian life. As she learned to read the fish, however, they seemed sheer envelopes of emotion—mercurial with instinct, more powerful for their silence. When she broke her floating vigil to swim home, and batteries of brilliant creatures exploded from her stroking arms, she felt moved to be among them. Lake Malawi's cichlids were expected to be fascinating; she found they were also good company.
How heavy she'd feel ashore, pulling off her flippers. As the mask dropped, in rushed the odors—exhalations of mountain woods, woodsmoke, sardines drying on racks, the lettuce-freshness of the water, diesel fumes from the speedboat belonging to Winton, the station's scuba guru and technician. Her mouth watered at the smell of Chisomo's cooking. How soft the sand was, walking to the station. Not even the whiff of formaldehyde as she passed the workroom's open doors suppressed her appetite; instead, it gave her a craving she tried desperately to ignore. Finally, she'd asked Chisomo for a cup of vinegar with salt. The young cook, elegant in her turquoise head-wrap and floral chitenje, looked at Jo slantwise across her high cheekbones. Softly, regretfully, she said that the vinegar had been put away and might take time to find. Jo confessed her ridiculous craving—"It's either that or drink the formaldehyde!" At which Chisomo broke into peals of dazzling laughter, accompanied by wise looks, trailing off in a long heeeeh! Jo couldn't tell if the cook merely found her funny or guessed at more. In this country, she'd heard, pregnancy went unmentioned except to one's mother. Chisomo gave her a saucer of pickled wild figs, once a day. When Jo came for them, she found Chisomo's eyes meeting hers and never knew what to say.
Jo's condition was sheltered by the lies she'd constructed. Before leaving Stanford, to prevent gossip in scientific circles, Jo had told Molly and her colleagues about an imaginary boyfriend: Charlie, a naval officer with a three-year posting in Okinawa. She'd driven alone to San Diego for the purpose of getting engaged during an imaginary farewell weekend; she'd baulked at buying herself a ring, but went hunting for secondhand men's shirts, which she liked anyway. For her father's benefit, she had cancelled her usual summer visit, saying the vaccinations had made her weak. Her guilt was lessened by the idea of protecting her father. Papa was more sensitive than he let on. It would be impossible to hide her trouble all day, every day, for two weeks, whether or not he heard her retch at odd hours. She imagined presenting options to him. An illegitimate grandchild, by a man who'd hurt his daughter; an abortion, opposed by the church his family had served since the English Civil War; a child given up for adoption, bearing the genes of the angel-wife still mourned by every mirror in his pristine house. These considerations made Jo feel her soul was being squeezed out of her temples in the shape of worms. She'd decided on an abortion, but in her own good time. First, she needed a new life.
For a few weeks, she had one. She'd never felt freer or happier than in those weeks at the lake. She might have flown back to the States on some trumped-up excuse, gone through her procedure, and returned truly free. Yet she delayed. Her new life claimed her. She fell asleep thinking of cichlids that swam in her dreams. Postponement became routine, and she stopped looking at the calendar. The station's researchers came and went—zoologists, ecologists, evo-devo or fisheries people—making a social atmosphere that demanded little and rewarded focus. The rumor of Jo's engagement quelled the men's approaches to a swimsuited blonde, and for this neglect, for the sole time in her life, she felt grateful. The odd gleam of interest made her want to cover herself. Once, when she'd left the side of a very fetching Aussie who'd conversed for an hour through mouthfuls of banana fritters, his big square knees jogging for emphasis, the desire and repulsion churning together in her body made her clearly see an airline ticket. The decision was within reach. She unearthed an appointment calendar from her suitcase to force herself into setting a deadline, but the blank grid of days had the opposite effect. Her belly hardly showed. The nausea of her first trimester had lessened, and in spite of the facts, she didn't, deep down, really believe she'd had a "first trimester." She might have put on a few extra pounds from Chisomo's nsima with pumpkin-leaf sauce. What would she need to do? Find a ride to Lilongwe. There went a whole week in arrangements and the inevitable delays and snafus. Fly to New York, then on to San Francisco. Check with Stanford about her insurance. Rent a room in a hotel, and go through with it. She'd recover in the hotel room. No one would know. There would be gloved hands bearing steel, abdominal cramps, and afterwards a clammy secrecy that would linger forever. She promised herself to set a date soon. Then she discovered M. mowae.
Her first contact happened at night, scuba diving to observe the predator fish, Mormyrops anguilloides, which Molly called by their Malawian name, chisembe. Winton kept guard in the boat while Molly searched for the fish, Jo tagging along as an extra pair of spotter eyes. (It was on one of these searches that Winton had yanked hard on the line connecting Molly to the boat, and on surfacing they'd found themselves chased by an enraged hippo, a spouting mountain of murder, while Jo screamed with laughter like the idiot she was then. "Worst killer in Africa," Winton had said dryly.) The night lake was another world. Jo's lamp showed a shrunken field of drowned rocks, among which cichlids hid for the night. Gray chisembe glided by with small lobed fins and small, dour mouths; when they lunged it was a few beats late. In the dark water, their hunting style was eerie to watch, as if the capture of each thrashing little cichlid (they ate only cichlids) occurred as an afterthought in a profound, morbid reverie. Molly swam ahead, adjusting the mic boom and video camera attached to her with slow touches. The mic recorded a weak electric field surrounding each chisembe, made by an organ in its tail and monitored by its electro-sensitive skin. When prey swam near, their forms interrupted the field, casting a sort of electric shadow over the predator. That was why chisembe seemed so disengaged, until, having felt a fish-shaped shadow pass, they were moved to attack. On that particular night, Jo was enjoying herself. The chisembe had (as she and Molly used to joke) a special magnetism.
She swam in loops parallel to Molly, following up on the recorded fish for anything noteworthy. Beneath her headlamp, a chisembe was hanging out beside a rockpile. A sudden flash below her made Jo snatch at the water, then at her gold cross—she'd been certain it had dropped from her. Relieved, she stared down and saw a long, shining fin twisting in the wake of a small dark cichlid acting in a way she'd never seen before. To her lower left, the cichlid with its shining fin started to swim away but dropped headfirst, plummeting a few inches; the small body yawed and struggled to right itself, while its fin by no means waved erect but billowed and wrapped awkwardly. Then the small fish tried to rise, nose first, and beat the water pitifully before drifting onto its side. Meanwhile, almost under her nose, the chisembe poked along in its electric vigil, fluttering its oyster mushroom fins, and swam into the small cichlid's area. Below the cichlid, the rocks held safety, so near that Jo could have stretched out her foot and toed them. Anticipating, she sank lower, but no small gaudy fish darted to shelter. Instead, the drama played above her, in her headlamp's funnel beam, bubbles streaming past. The cichlid tumbled in its golden shroud; it wriggled free and abruptly swam a little way, enough for Jo to suspect it was a parent fish feigning injury to distract a predator from its offspring. Such feints ended in quick escapes. The chisembe swam nearer to the small fish, which thrashed about and, again, plummeted—this time, right past the chisembe, casting a fateful shadow on its flank. Without delay, a cocoon of sorts jumped about in the chisembe's hooked jaws as it swam off trailing a golden shred. No escape, then. Jo peered and poked about the rockpile, searching for clues, until she became aware of loud bursts of Gurglish, the nickname she and Molly had for yelling underwater. On her periphery, in an oval of rayed light, Molly dangled with the mic boom and camera hanging off her like cherubic attendants on the Ghost of Christmas Scuba. Jo hurried to swim alongside her.
Later, they clambered back into the speedboat and shared a thermos of tea. The starlit lake looked too smooth to be water. Far off, a dugout canoe dispelled the illusion, gliding on a black thread. Winton steered slowly, a bottle of Carlsberg in one hand. In the night sky, stellar traffic was so congested and bright that his bottle was tinged green. Molly talked about the dive, mainly to Winton. A compact man in his 30s, he'd been a guide at a nearby vacation resort but had quit because he couldn't whistle fish eagles out of the sky. Everyone wanted a guide who could whistle for a fish eagle. "I'm the only black man who can't whistle," Winton would explain, waxing ironic, when asked about his former job. He was happier at the field station, where he ran the boat and a troop of assistants, and shared with scientists the lore of the lake, which infinitely interested him. Molly knew none of her words were wasted on his stocky back.
"I saw a chisembe stun a cichlid," Jo ventured. "I think—it stunned it."
"What on earth do you mean, 'stun'?" Molly fluted, toweling her hair. "Their charge is quite weak." Jo described the cichlid's struggle. The wind of their speed raised bracing shivers that they allowed on their skin without troubling to cover up. They'd just agreed the cichlid might have been ailing in some neurological way when Winton cut the throttle and turned towards them. When he smiled, his thin mustache, from nose to chin, circled the curve of his teeth. The effect was like watching ripples widen.
"This fish," he said, "Its name is mwamuna woledzera. Yah!" He broke out laughing with Molly, whose wrists drooped over her slim knees, a wet lock painting her cheek. Conversation in Chichewa added to her irritating perfections.
"It means drunken husband," she translated.
"Says it all," Jo replied. "Funny. I wonder if only the males swim like that?" Both scientists looked at Winton.
"I don't see any females swim like that," he offered. "I don't know, however. This is a fish that is of no value—throwaway catch. It has a disease of some variety." He turned back to the wheel, guzzled, and started them again along their starlit course.
For too long, the grip of hunch had been absent from Jo's life. Rejoicing in it, she combed the station's library and found that her fish had been observed in 1899, and named M. mowae. "M" for Metriaclima, genus of Lake Malawi's haplochromine cichlids; "mowae" from the Chichewa for beer. Mwamuna woledzera appeared in a quaint translation, without comment. Truly, no one else had been interested in this fish. She set herself to investigate. Winton's crew built weirs and ran nets wherever Jo's fish were spotted; paid by the catch, they complained that the species was as rare as it was useless. Jo and Winton raised their pay. By late August, her wild stock were well established in their tank. She nicknamed them "the mwamunas," which was ungrammatical, as Molly didn't fail to point out, and rather sexist toward the females.
The workroom had sunlight by day and stark festooned bulbs at night. During the day, its tall doors opened onto the beach. At night, for fear of wild animals, they were shut. Long rows of aquarium tanks stood parallel to one another all the way to the end of the hall, where a sump sink gurgled and swished. At the other end, a raised alcove held a desk, reference books, a pair of microscopes with basic accoutrements, and the typewriters. Sitting above the moist, babbling hall, Jo sometimes felt she was in a cockpit, flying blind. At night, the hall's windows endured a pattering assault of moths. A tin-framed photograph of Hastings Banda, Malawi's president for life, looked over her activities with the expression of a famous doctor whom a patient has ventured to question.
Jo had a hunch that the drunkard's walk, or swim, of the mwamunas was an inherited neurological problem. Heredity could only be established by breeding the fish and observing the new generations; meanwhile, she experimented to see if the trait were caused by infection from bacteria, fungi, or parasites. Through the logic of isolations, combinations, cultures, and tests, the drunken husbands produced negative results for infection. These results supported her hunch. She could call it an hypothesis and proceed.
Instead of arranging for a ride to Lilongwe and thence to San Francisco for her abortion, Jo embarked on the task of breeding true.
September waned, and the weather warmed. Molly and Jo spread towels on the beach and enjoyed sunsets together with the other four stationers as they came and went on shorter grants. Molly would insist they oughtn't to call it a sundowner as there was no touristy gin, nothing offensively colonial; still, the sunset watchers were usually whites. Malawian, Zambian, Kenyan colleagues went drinking in the village where the chibuku-mama served her fresh brew. The rest sprawled on beach towels in a warm breeze, watching a molten strip on the horizon mass into a fireball, and the deep blue lake, 300 miles long, become a smooth body on whose surface the hues of all its denizens seemed dissolved, from burnt red to cloud blue, like a planet-sized cichlid fanning its fins in endless ripples along the darkening strand. In the dusk, under a lemon sky barred with clouds, they passed around what looked like milk cartons, sucked at fermented maize, and smacked their lips. Jo wouldn't drink because she didn't like beer, and chibuku was a beer that crunched in your teeth.
"A drop won't do you or Junior any harm," said Alex, the big-kneed Australian, in her ear. She could feel his warm breath.
Her face seemed to fall open, and Molly, kicking a pointed foot, said, "Alex, shutup. Oaf."
"Oaf?" Alex's feelings were hurt. "All right then." He rolled to the other side of his towel and contemplated the view. In the amber sky, on high rocks, perched the silhouettes of cormorants. Jo hugged her T-shirt, knotted to conceal the bulge. Her jeans were a little tight. Not "junior" tight.
She went to bed early and lay on the hard cot whose sourness edged the cured-green scent of thatch. Molly came in and undressed, the discreet beam of her flashlight crosshatched with mosquito netting. She lay down and whispered Jo's name. It wasn't unusual for them to talk at night, and when Jo answered, Molly—who didn't want to pry—asked when she planned to return to the States, or would it be Okinawa? Into the darkness erupted the wood-chipper chatter of vervets; a hawk must have gone over the mango tree. Then all was dead quiet except for the insects.
"Soon, I guess. There's so much new work. I hate to leave."
"If Charlie knows..." Molly paused. "He'll surely want you out of Malawi and under the best of care." Jo said nothing. "It's not my place, I know. But you can come back. Your drunken hubbies will wait." Jo didn't laugh. "I'll drive you to Lilongwe myself, in the jeep, when you're ready?" Jo had never heard her friend so gentle. She thanked Molly and pretended sleep, while the shock of her fate rang and rang. From someone managing a private disorder, she'd become something public: an expectant mother. Not only did the idea not describe the knot in her belly, it deeply wronged her; it opposed her intent, it falsified her very breathing. Bolts shot into place on all the lies she'd told to free herself. She was now their prisoner.
Day by day, in their isolation tanks, the mwamunas revealed to her a progressive disorder that went from bad to worse, yet did not kill the fish outright. Instead, it wore them out. They could not keep an even keel in the water. They yawed, pitched, spun like waterlogged tops, and drifted to the bottom, where they lipped at the gravel or lay still and died. Examination showed that their ventral fins became increasingly swollen. Dead mwamunas' fins were like little balloons due to inflammation. One afternoon, when Jo had graphed her measurements of ventral fins and saw the curve of their inflammation against time, she raised her eyes to the portrait of Hastings Banda without seeing him and slammed her fist on the desk in triumph. The problem had looked neurological to her from the getgo, and a nerve disease could cause this kind of damage, couldn't it? Yes. But she had so little information. Like cichlids flickering into underwater view, questions swarmed around her new data. Why were only the mature males affected, why not the juvenile males? Were the females really immune? What percentage of the population was affected? When and how did the disorder start? What about environmental factors? In short, she had no baseline. To get it, she had to breed a few generations.
She had already begun. She had two breeding tanks, each holding a single, healthy male and several females; and she'd prepared special tanks for females who were "holding," brooding fertilized eggs in their mouths. She also knew why the mwamunas had not attracted more researchers. Drunken hubbies! Males in the breeding tanks got sick—a healthy male, at breakfast, was swimming "drunk" by suppertime—and she had to start over with a fresh one from the wild stock tank. Males in the wild stock tank got sick, and the assistants, politely cynical, were sent to get new males. The new males, introduced into the wild stock tank, fell in frenzies on one another and ripped and rammed and bled. Then the wild females, put into the breeding tank, expressed their social stress by spitting out fertilized eggs before Jo could get them to their peaceful "holding" tank. Fuck motherhood in this crazy world, spat the stressed females. Jo took the point but grimly persevered. She had the discipline to envision her desired end: the "holding" tanks filled with mothers and their circling fry, her own lines of true-bred mwamunas, and her questions answered. Inevitably, she wished she could spit out the knot in her belly.
Never again would her mind be so strange. At work, she was filled with joy. You might have shaken her, and stars would have fallen out. But when she sat at the trestle table among her colleagues, all fondly deferential to an expectant mother, she was a nerveless clod. Between what had to be done, and what she felt able to do, rose a prodigious yet indecipherable shadow. "Pre-partum depression," they'd call it now; a fancy name for what happened to a woman whose pregnancy stole her will.
"What does your Charlie look like?" Molly called to her across the table. With a tin fork, Jo was pressing tracks into her sticky kondowole, warding off nausea. Heads turned; the free people of the world, whose bellies held only themselves, waited for her to meet their sticky expectations. "Have you a photograph?" Two bee-eaters plunged between Jo and the others, divine mercy—their fluffy orange heads and green boomeranging rumps distracting everyone but Molly, who, however, desisted.
Summer arrived in December. Thunderheads climbed with terrifying swiftness to the top of the grey sky, and their crashing made everything else inaudible. Fireflies floated in the bush. Jo had entered her third term. In the vanished time—time she'd let slip through her hands as she pursued her work—her own body had become a hostile power. Her bed was a sweltering shelf. Her gut roiled and eructed at both ends over so much as a spoonful of food, yet she was plagued with unsatisfied hunger. Hands, feet, arms, and legs swelled, itched, and dragged. Her back alarmed her with popping sounds and stabbing pains. Her breasts, once small, overflowed her hands when she examined the aureoles of her sore nipples, spreading like bruises. Her body got in the way when she needed to scratch mosquito bites. She suffered from constipation and endured stinking vigils in the long drop, afraid of scorpions, and these vigils were repeated, weirdly embellished, in her sickening dreams. All this, she pitted herself against as if it were a headwind. She bent into the wind and took one step after the next. No abortion would happen now, she knew. She was going to bear a child. What would happen afterwards concerned her less than that the pregnancy would end. When it ended, and the baby began, the baby would be the size of Lake Malawi, and she'd swim or drown in the situation. She'd take it home and adopt it out somehow. Solutions would suggest themselves. Until then, with unthinking ferocity, she refused to abandon—she cleaved to—her work with M. mowae.
Yet a precious balance visited her body at dawn, walking on the sand, the peacock glitter of the water emerging from night. She'd hear Chisomo singing to raise her spirits as she lit the fire in her stove. Then Jo's sense of degradation eased, and it seemed as if another voice were shouting from far off, over a high wind, words she couldn't hear yet whose import struck her heart. She must run for her life. She must take her belly on a plane, go, and make arrangements. She would stand still and listen until the indecipherable shadow rose again between her and the voice of salvation. Then she was left only with blind resistance to letting Lewis Everett stop her work. Besides—besides, she told herself, cherishing the thought—she was on the track of something remarkable.
Not one of her male mwamunas stayed healthy. So far, every one of them succumbed to the drunkard's walk. Many reasons could account for this, but the guesswork would soon be over. Her captivity-bred mwamunas, she saw, matured faster than normal for cichlids. Much faster! Both males and females raced toward adulthood, and especially surprising were the egg spots. Egg-shaped spots on the fins of male Metriaclima induced the females to open their mouths, thinking they'd left some eggs out—at which the males sprayed them with milt, fertilizing all the eggs in the females' mouths. Egg-spotted young mwamunas were a bit like eight-year-old baritones. Jo began to posit a species that only just clung to viability by speeding up maturation, in order to reproduce before the fragile males died. They grew up fast because they wouldn't be here long, perhaps. She would find out, she promised herself, whatever it took. This was her discovery.
Never again was her mind so strange. Remembering it was like watching a foreign film without subtitles: the action was clear, the meaning elusive. As an explanation, "pre-partum depression" didn't go far. Molly, though, had understood. Molly, who had grandchildren, lived in Sussex, punctually sent Christmas cards, and kept Jo on the roster of benefactors of a village school beside Lake Malawi. Molly who had saved her life, after humiliating her so badly.
She remembered it was a bright hot day. She was going to the village to buy the patterned cotton wraps Malawian women wore, since her drawstring pants were threadbare. Molly was driving the station's vintage jeep that had been fun, once, but now felt like sitting in a blender. Molly tried to make her talk. For weeks, Molly had been dangling hints from which Jo inferred her friend's evolving ideas. Charlie and Jo might have split, since he never wrote or telegraphed. Or, Jo might be keeping her pregnancy secret from Charlie. Of course, Molly's intentions were excruciatingly good. Maybe because the jeep jolted it out of her, Jo said outright that she would have the baby in Africa. For a bumpy mile, she listened to Molly develop an impromptu plan to send her to Johannesburg, where Molly had cousins and the hospital was decent. Jo thanked her but said she wasn't going. She would give birth by the lake.
Molly was incredulous.
"Why not?" Jo asked. "The village women do it all the time." The jeep slowed, churned to the edge of the road, and halted. Under her boonie hat, Molly looked pale about the lips, which were flattened in an equal sign.
"This would be your stop?" she chirped. "On your way now." And when Jo, baffled, didn't move—"Not keen to walk in the mud?" Crystallized anger pinged off her consonants. "Chisomo does it when she can't get a lift. Why not? The village women do it all the time. They don't own cars."
"I didn't mean it that way," Jo said limply. With vicious acceleration, Molly got them on the road again.
"Oh, but I think you did mean it that way," she cooed. "Unless you know the rate of maternal death here? I thought not. Twenty-two percent of Malawian women die that way. Chisomo's mother did, you know. That's why she cooks for us, instead of attending school. She has three little sisters to fend for. "
"I'm sorry," Jo said.
"Ohh," Molly groaned. "Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, says she's sorry."
The rest of the trip did not even leave a memory of buying Jo's chitenje. All Jo would remember was how she went back alone to the stuffy thatched room and lay there, ignoring work and meals and the effort of thinking, until she lost track of time. In the darkness she heard Molly whispering. Jo opened her mouth, and no words came. Molly's flashlight stroked through the mosquito netting.
"Are you all right, Jo?" Closing her eyes, she felt Molly touch her forehead, checking for fever. At the officiousness of this, Jo rasped, "Charlie doesn't exist. I don't have a boyfriend. This is my mess, and I'll thank you to stay the hell out of it." There was no reply, and Jo felt she'd fallen into a pit. Some time later, a cool surface brushed her cheek, and she found herself drinking cups of water, sitting up eagerly for them.
"I've been a bear," Molly said. "But I do mean to help. I brought you here, and it's my job to get you home safely."
"It's my job," Jo sighed. Afar off, in a lake of insect song, the plaint of a fisherman could be faintly heard. The air in the room was still. Each breath was like warm salad.
"Was it... the pregnancy..."
"I wasn't raped. I had bad judgment."
"Ah. And you're using the pregnancy to punish yourself. That seems very clear."
"No," Jo objected weakly. "I just procrastinated." (She remembered saying this—it wasn't that she'd ever forgotten, but she'd never paid attention, and as she did, her words seemed those of a girl in a play.)
The discoverer of M. mowae's inherited disorder found her life more bearable after this confession. She'd lied for so long, she'd forgotten what a burden it was to carry walls around herself. Although Molly kept her story secret (and tactfully never asked her to name "the guy"), Jo felt friendlier toward everyone. In return for pickled figs, she made a gift of her spare slide rule to Chisomo's sister, a schoolgirl whose cropped head was the same shape as the cook's, borne more lightly. Family resemblance was no longer a painful topic. Her horror of the pregnancy diminished. She'd find out what the big deal was about childbirth, she told herself. Over Christmas, Molly left to spend a week with her husband in Lilongwe, promising Jo that she'd "sort matters out." Jo, admitting she had no idea what to do, spent Christmas alone, relieved not to have to think about anything except a certain blunt-faced, egg-spotted, mysterious fish that swam again in her dreams, now that their current ran clearer. Observation, measurement, damage control, and maintenance occupied the peaceful days whose rains brought out all the green in the woods and all the birdsong in the trees around the tranquil lake.
Molly returned, softer by a few pounds, rosier, and optimistic about her plan for Jo, which she'd cobbled together with the help of her husband, Ian, and his embassy contacts. She'd found a private clinic run by an expat Austrian doctor who was highly thought of, discreet, and able to deliver a baby. The clinic was, by the standards of Lilongwe, well equipped and staffed. Everyone spoke English. The best part (which Molly called the pièce de résistance) was that Dr. Baeder worked with an evangelical charity that ran an adoption agency; they placed illegitimate Malawian children in rich world families. Jo must come and stay in Lilongwe. They must leave as soon as possible. Anything might happen to the roads, or to Jo herself, if they delayed.
"Who's going to take care of my mwamunas?" Jo fussed, and went to look for Winton. Days, a week, and more time passed as she labored to create routines that the assistants could follow; she felt she would never be satisfied that the wild stock, the true breeds, the mothers and fry, the holding females, the sick males and the healthy, would be cared for and documented adequately during her absence. She made baseline notes on the condition of each tank, physically, socially, and with regard to individual fishes' health, behavior, age, and needs. She begged the assistants to follow her directions to the letter—their gentle promises proved only that Malawians said what pleased as a matter of courtesy. She begged Winton to keep tabs on the assistants, which he said he always did, not looking at her and laughing uncomfortably as she resorted to her miniscule Chichewa and mispronounced chonde, zikomo, and again chonde, on notes of rising anxiety. Chisomo, who'd begun serving Jo a cup of baobab juice at breakfast, took the unusual step of explaining, in halting English, that the baobab bark, put in bathwater, made babies fat and strong. And she smiled, slightly to Jo's side, with warmth. "Zikomo," Jo said. Chisomo forbore to correct her pronunciation; Molly, however, did not.
Day after day, Molly waited and (she confided later) worried. She worried through sundowners on the damp, squeaky beach, when lightning flickered like flashbulbs. At night the sound of waterfalls could be heard through their pillows. Molly foresaw bridges washed away, roads closed, Jo entering labor scandalously in some muddy hole. One clear and windless morning, she resolved to get on the road by means fair or foul, but nature spared her the effort. Jo stood on the beach shouting with wonder. Molly joined her. All else was forgotten. Growing vaster by the second, a smoke plume towered from the broad blue lake, where there was nothing but water, into the vault of the sky. Jo was seeing it for the first time, though she knew what it meant. Lake Malawi was half a mile deep. On its bottom crawled the larvae of mayflies; once a year, they cocooned themselves, floated multitudinously to the surface, hatched all at once, flew into the air—exactly resembling smoke—mated, and died as their fertile eggs sank toward the abyssal floor. Ephemeroptera, things of a day whose cycle endured like the stars. All time rose up before the friends' eyes; all time reproduced itself and fell back to its origin. It looked like a fire, and it was life. Then Molly said what neither of them could ever remember, exactly, but they left without further delay.
Molly and Ian lived in a bungalow belonging to the British embassy in Lilongwe, where Ian did something Jo had since forgotten. She recalled resting on the verandah in a deep chair of creaking cane near the cool brick wall. The tin roof's shadow fanned over the floor, down the steps, and into the garden as the day wore on. Swarms of orange and pink bougainvillea wrapped the front gate. Ian, a brisk yet mild man who treated all humanity as people he'd met somewhere before, would come from the office at four o'clock and stay for tea. Jo's sole duty to her hosts lay in praising their teas, brought from home. The tea steam dissipated slowly, perfuming the verandah until rainshowers swept down and spread the musk of tomato vines and ripening maize. When Molly wasn't busy, she and Jo spent long hours catching up on the literature; an orgy of paging through neglected issues of Cybium, Journal of Ichthyology, Journal of Tropical Zoology, Animal Behavior, et. al. Jo remembered a cover of Time—Steve Jobs!—and how she'd searched in vain for pages sliced from the magazine. The phone was tapped, her hosts offhandedly told her, and their mail opened. Politics were never discussed around the gardener, his gofer nephew, or the glowingly proficient housemaid whose greeting to her was, "You are welcomed." Though the staff lived elsewhere, it was to them that the bungalow clearly belonged, on whom its preservation depended, while foreigners came and went. Yes, Jo had absorbed the change from the paradise of the field station to the fallen world of a government capital. She waddled around the garden but stayed off the street as Hastings Banda objected to women in drawstring pants—or any pants. At night, the staff gone, her hosts moved to the lounge (more of Her Majesty's cane furniture) where Ian smoked and exchanged telling looks with his wife between lines of conversation. For relaxation, they sampled the radio or played backgammon; Jo might be asked to explain Ronald Reagan as straight man to the couple's riffing, or she might yawn and go to bed. She was never lonely yet felt marooned. Her stare, fixed on the garden or on the pages of journals, might have been the proverbial desert island dweller's waiting for a sail.
The formidable Emma Baeder, checking Jo over with gloved claws and chill speculum, pronounced her healthy but in need of breath training that must begin immediately at home. Together with Molly (who thought it practical), Jo learned patterned breathing. They practiced the sustained breath, which reminded them of scuba training; the accelerated breath, which got them high; and the variable breath, also called hee-hee-who, which Baeder dauntingly called "your breath for severe pain." When Jo had Braxton-Hicks contractions, she would lie in her bedroom and practice. The fetus kicked in its airless sleep, and she wondered what it knew. Her effort not to stroke her belly and talk to it, reassure it of its future, strained her sluggish nerves unbearably.
An American family had been found who were ready to adopt a white baby African. At the clinic, Jo had signed the adoption papers, first asking if she could remain unknown to the family, and they to her. She felt shamed before old Baeder, whose caved cheeks, braided rust-and-steel coiffure, medical whites, and the tiny concession of a fine ladies' wristwatch, put her beyond all moral taint.
"Sure!" Baeder gave the American word a scrubbing sound. "This is permitted. Also if you would change your mind when the child is born, it is your legal right." The agency records gave Jo an alias, a protocol used to protect women from the stigma of premarital pregnancy. So far, so good, but the revelation that she could still change her mind about adoption, despite the signed papers, gave Jo a splitting headache. She remembered it. Yes, that part of her life was all about the problem of what she might become. Picturing herself with a fat, smiling babe in arms—a single working mother, doughty, devoted—she'd felt a squeezing in her brains. She would be bound to her enemy and his actions and the mediocrity he wished on her, for life. But imagining herself slipping into jeans and going to observe her mwamunas had brought her the guiltiest of comforts, the breath of freedom.
Out of oblivion flared a conversation—how could she have forgotten! Of course, they had discussed it on the verandah, Molly full of her Chewa proverbs. Two shelters make you get wet. The monkey fell and died while grabbing for two fruits. Don't stick two fingers in one nostril. Which choice Molly favored, she was adamant in not telling; she could not live with having swayed her friend one way or another. Jo was left to her own devices and yearned hopelessly for guidance. Her heart—the vacant heart of the desert island dweller—ached for her mother, dead of unnamed complications.
From childbirth itself, Jo retained some clear memories and some fragmentary glimpses—like the iron bar at the foot of her flat, soaked bed, that came to mean the unbending cruelty of the unendurable. The important memory she'd kept to herself, for 32 years, was of seeing her child before she gave it away. When she'd signed the adoption papers, she'd made clear her wish not to see the newborn; she only wanted her body back and felt, guiltily, that in the circumstances she had no right to see the baby. Labor changed her idea of her rights. To Molly, after it was over, she said just this: "Guess what? I owe you for saving my life." Molly demurred, of course, as to Jo's debt; but later they set up a fund for the village school attended by Chisomo's niece. This sealed their lifelong friendship.
Jo's labor lasted nine hours. She was attended by Dr. Baeder and Grace, a nurse with mighty upper arms and a voice of such melting warmth that at the sound of her saying, "five centi-meet-ahs dilation," the base of Jo's brain felt safe. During the worst, when Grace's voice penetrated Jo's pain saying to push or change position, Jo obeyed her, and when Grace said, "God is helping you," Jo believed her. That was the best of giving birth in Malawi, in an expensive private facility that lacked adjustable beds, wasn't set up for epidurals, reeked of carbolic acid wafted by stuttering fans, and entertained by some hens by the entrance as if to remind her how much safer reproduction was for birds.
She spent the first stage in a ward with three other patients, whom she knew only as a pair of silences and a chatter irrelevant as a monkey's outside her blue mosquito netting. Carbolic acid's timewarpy odor pressed into her pores. As lengthier contractions wrung her spine, she walked, leaning on Grace's bosom, into a room by herself—a luxury of rich world proportions. At the district hospital they gave birth in rows. Here the heavy work began. Dr. Baeder, injecting her with novocaine, performed a deft episiotomy that left Jo hopeful about her pain. In advance, she had declined chloroform and skirmished with Molly, who accused her of craving self-imposed Catholic penances. Jo insisted: she'd gone through hell and wanted the reward of knowing what the big deal was. Now the revelation began. With each contraction, a serrated blade sawed through gut to spine. With each sustained breath, she seized the end of this deadly thing and pushed it down toward the birth canal; pushed, as it ripped and flashed in her entrails, countless times. Each time was a separate life. Each lifetime of pain stretched longer, while Emma Baeder's face, in a spotless cap, popped up past the curve of Jo's belly and glared like a research satellite.
"Push push push push push," ordered Baeder with scrubbing sounds. "Stop! You must stop! Rest!" Each order was echoed in the nurse's warm voice. But there was no rest.
"Faster breathe! Push push push push! Do not stop breathing!" Sweating buckets from her face, Jo felt a cold sponge at her temples. "Knees up!" barked Baeder. Enormous pressure was building in her spine, as if the spine were being rolled aside by a slow explosion. Knees to chest she pushed against the crawling sawblade, countless times. Each time was a separate life. Each lifetime of explosive pain lasted on and on, and in one of them the lovely voice praised her and she gasped, "Give me gin!—"
The tired nurse laughed; the hand on Jo's belly, light as a giant moth, gave her a pat. The other hand tipped a paper cup of water between her lips. Contractions stabbed through the coccyx, water spilled from her mouth, Jo went back on the job. The job suddenly got much harder. Within the cavity of her being, everything was eyes being dragged from their sockets. Black mist filled her sight. Baeder made a sound, and plastic was slapped on her face. She fell out of her mind. The lights were back on, she was in the room, Grace was with her, the pain was, too—but the pain was now a big gray fist making vague motions. She saw it trying to impress her, a big dustball shooed out from under a bed, stinky, too. Jo, who thought it had been about to kill her, gasped and heard her own laughter pealing from above. Grace patted her again. Gradually, the job changed. She entered the ring of fire. She stopped laughing. Her birth canal stretched around a white-hot branding iron the diameter of an infant and her breathing rhythm collapsed.
"Crowning," the doctor reported sharply. "Do not push! Breathe! The baby comes!"
"Head is out, breathe now," said Grace. But the ring of fire, the final pain lasting only a few seconds, stretched. Jo huffed the variable breath of last resort. "Hee-hee-who!" The doctor's head popped up and stared with eyes reflective as copper in deep white sockets. "The right shoulder is stuck," Baeder announced, "on the pelvic bone. Pressure," she ordered. Grace immediately leaned over and dug her fist, wrapped in her other hand, into Jo's pubic skin. While the ultimate pain, the almost end, usurped the next few seconds, and the next few, setting fire to time. Instead of the baby coming out, Baeder's claw went in. Jo howled in anguish. She was told to push.
"God is helping you," called the beautiful voice. "Hee-hee-who!"
"So," grunted Baeder, and stood up, a newborn arm in her right hand and the attached dripping baby in her left, as if the baby had flung out an arm to drag itself from the deep.
Afterwards, Jo awoke in a fog of mosquito netting, unsure of time and place, with a pair of conversations carried on around her. Just out of earshot, two women were murmuring: one a visitor, and the other, in a playful whine, complaining. English syllables dangled at random from the murmur like dewdrops. In the direction of Jo's feet, another pair of women traded remarks in Chewa.
"Hey," Jo called, in a voice whose weakness scared her, but the murmurers heard.
"Nurse! Nurse!" they cried, indignant. "Don't you hear? You're wanted!" Grace thrust her head between the folds of the mosquito netting. Her white cap, and the light behind her, made Jo's eyes creak.
"Where's my baby? I want to see the baby." Speech was an athletic feat. Grace hurriedly took pulse and temperature, explaining as the glass thermometer jarred Jo's teeth that she would ask the doctor. She turned, raising the thermometer to the light outside, and closed the netting. The other conversation had fallen into bossy silence.
"Zimachitika..." sighed Grace, as her footsteps scuffed away. It was what Winton said when equipment broke, or Chisomo, when monkeys raided the fruit. It was the expression on everyone's lips after a death in the village. Molly called it the essence of Malawian fatalism, because it meant, this happens. The visitor made sounds of preparing to leave; there were whispers, then the complainer's bedclothes rustled briefly. The mosquito netting around Jo's bed swelled like the lining of a dark cloud. An epoch stretched. The cloud parted and was swept aside; the swaddled infant, whose head filled Grace's palm, was laid in Jo's reaching arms. Its fists were pink snails, its mouth a tidepool flower. Jo held it to her face, sniffed its crown, and the front of her coarse gown spotted wet. Her nipples were crying or laughing. She thought, I have put my mother back in the world.
"He is healthy," said the lovely voice. Jo looked up at Grace. The nurse's eyes in her full-chinned face were simple and alert. They did not mirror Jo's astonishment that she had produced a male. The spirit figure of a little girl in starched skirts had given way to this, a reality Jo had never bargained for: outsize head, wrapped boy-baby, warmth to die for. She hesitated to speak, but Grace, needing no prompt, said she might wait a few days before the final step. Mothers of newborns sometimes changed their minds. Breast-feeding would help the baby's immunities, the nurse suggested.
Jo bared her breast, and with some assistance the baby latched onto her and suckled. She was as amazed as if a conjuror, whisking away a satin cloak, had changed her into the Madonna. This was what the big deal was. This core of love. Tiered candles elevated her; prayers reached her from the pit of night. Then, as the baby whimpered and squawked, handing him back to Grace to be burped—woozy with love, and appalled with questions—Jo made up her mind.
As it happened, Dr. Baeder had come in to check her stitches, and learning the baby had sucked a dose of colostrum, was not displeased. Unlike her staff, old Baeder showed no more signs of tiring than the elements. She reported the stitches looked good, but since Jo's torn vagina had needed 43 of them, she would have to rest and postpone travel. Both doctor and nurse watched Jo with careful neutrality. Not for the world would they lay a feather's weight on the scale of her decision. Yet she knew that the instant she said aloud "my son," making him hers, both of these impeccable professionals would break into smiles of a very special regard. Then she would forever have another life.
She spoke up in her weak voice. Baeder nodded, took the slightly hiccupping infant from Grace, lifted it onto a bony shoulder and said to it, "Hopla!" She promised to discharge Jo within the next 24 hours if all went well. Jo scarcely heard her. As the doctor took her baby, he'd pulled with him the breast he'd sucked, detaching it with ropy, fat-flocked vessels and lump of heart, now dangling like afterbirth between Jo's open chest and Baeder's shoulder—a crisis, a medical emergency. Baeder left, the baby with her. Jo cried out to Grace, who was rearranging her bedclothes, begging the nurse to unhook the gold cross from around her neck and put it on the baby. Grace tucked her patient in and stood facing her, arms folded, half compassion, half cool reason. To put gold on a baby would invite thieves. But Jo was desperate to send some talisman of love with her son, some part of her he would keep. At last, Grace fetched a comb and scissors. She combed out Jo's tangled hair, her fingers weaving in it. There were two tugs and a snip. Before Jo's eyes, with amused satisfaction, Grace held up the plaited lock, tight as a cornrow, knotted midway and at both ends. Jo calmed down as if by magic. Twirling the slippery hair, so unlikely to be knotted this way, Grace hunted up a coin envelope that the clinic could spare, and the plait, snugly fitting it, was sealed in for its journey. Jo sighed.
"Zikomo kwambiri," she said, the finest thanks she could almost pronounce. "I will remember."
"Zikomo," Grace replied—since it also meant, you're welcome—and wished Jo luck. Her shift was over, and they might not see each other again.
"Am I a monster?" she impulsively asked Dr. Baeder the next day, during her discharge interview, as she drew on her pants and the now oversize man's shirt she'd bought in San Diego. It was an uneasy moment to remember. Baeder had said no—just "No"—as if responding to a literal question about the number of Jo's heads, while slipping a phial of tablets into a take-away bag of sanitary supplies. From the same hand that had reached into Jo's bleeding birth canal, delivered her baby, then carried her baby away, Jo accepted the paper bag. Her stitches looked good, but her brief exposure to nitrous oxide (which Baeder did not deign to call laughing gas) meant she would need a follow-up. Jo shook the veinous hand whose grip was stone. Baeder gave her a look it had taken decades to decipher. The doctor's deep, grizzled sockets held a gaze of copper that seemed to tilt, like fish eyes, as they registered her. In retrospect, it was the assessing look of large experience. Then, having said all she expected Jo to comprehend, Baeder wished her best of luck.
If she'd learned one thing from childbirth, it was that the key to surviving pain was focus. This lesson suited Jo's love of problem-solving; eventually, the episode of her pregnancy had boiled down (as she would say) to being distracted, in the sense of driven to distraction. Never again would her mind be so strange as in that time of madness and sorrow. Over the years, she'd also suspected that if she cared to examine the past, a twinge of unfinished business lurked in it. Truth to tell, though, Jo was much more interested in other animals than in herself. If she'd had more sense of irony, she might have exercised it on the fact that M. mowae, the subject of her early discovery, was now the sine qua non behind her painful self-discovery during the night hours in her office. She had no taste, though, for paradoxes. Having come so far, remembering all that could be remembered, she felt she gripped the unfinished business by its root. She plucked it up. She had started by asking how she could have a lot in common with a monster like Lewis Everett. Face it, she told herself now: in her own mind, rightly or wrongly, their common ground was the rejection of a son. Leo, in all ignorance, had pierced 30 years of defenses against the rage she'd suppressed; it had gushed forth at the prick to her ancient guilt. That was the root she'd plucked up—the problem of being a monster. She had never believed Emma Baeder's no, which was why the doctor, knowingly, hadn't seen fit to elaborate.
Baeder, surely dead, had foreseen the tears Jo shed tonight. Was she done? Could she go home now?
Something still lurked. Near midnight (how near she didn't care) her powers of intuition woke. When she worked hard at a certain level of a problem, only to have her conclusions strike her as preliminary, it was a dead giveaway that they were preliminary. Her mind moved now without help of words or images, in a sphere of logic all its own, dark and clear, like the universe before stars. She was at home here: her true home.
She seemed asleep in her chair: slight, ashen, still. Then, as if a statue jumped into a getaway car, Jo whirled toward her computer monitor, brilliant with wet greens and browns. It was morning at the water hole, and juvenile elephants stroked each other's heads with their trunks. Ordinarily this scene would have delighted her. Jo banished it and looked up Leo Jaeger's birth date.
"Hunh," she exhaled. "Thank God. Thank God." Her voice fell strangely on air expecting to convey only the night sounds of machines. She checked her Apple watch automatically. It was time to go. She rose, stretched disgruntled muscles, discarded the napkins, and without switching on the lights (not to disturb the fish) found her shoes. The chair Leo had occupied, face in his hands, was at a restless angle to her desk. She rolled it straight and held onto the vinyl back, while the bolt of fear she'd just experienced reverberated in simultaneous visions of Leo's grand blond body weighing on her own, sheathed inside her, and the convulsive anguish as her baby was tugged out of her. Thank God not. Thank God not true. Her heart jogged and thumped offbeat. Without a thought, she breathed in the way she'd learned years ago; deep, sustained breaths. On the other end of her breath was the force that had sawed with its serrated sword in her gut, that time—then it had been pain, now it was memory, and now she understood there were no monsters in her life. There was only survival. This was not a heart attack. She was doing fine.
"Okay," Jo whispered, passing a hand over her chest. Luxuriously, she breathed in without the answering pressure. She'd been stressed, that was all. But now she felt free.
Closing her office door behind her, she had an impulse to visit the mowae. She needed a walk, and the fish rooms were in a building not far from the lab. Outside, the campus walkways were adequately lit though the sky was dark and crickets pulsed. Pedestrians were about, some in lab coats, some walking their bicycles toward the avenue. The cool air smelled as if the past day had been wrapped in layers of eucalyptus-scented tissue. Jo felt refreshed, and during the long, steep escalator ride down to the fish rooms, enjoyed her body's balance. On the lowest floor, she shoved open a heavy door and was enveloped in the moist whale's-breath of the fish rooms, much warmer than the lab. Jo made her way through rooms of metal stacks filled not with books but plastic containers in which dark specks swam. A few techs, working late, waved as she passed through. Shrimp churned like meal in the tall incubation tanks, and the air shook with the pumps' rhythm. A hand laid on the fish room walls would feel the vibration of channeled waters. At the threshold of the mowae's room, Jo paused, about to enter and be immersed in acoustic bubbles issuing from the tanks mounted four rows deep around the walls. The cement floor shone in streaks where excess water had been mopped. Jo's full lips parted in something like mute prayer. Index cards were clipped to the tanks along with maintenance checklists, and Leo was reading them, his pale hair astir like anemone in the grayish light. He wore his lab coat and his big brown Crocs.
She was tempted to leave, to change nothing in the scene that fulfilled her wish. But she walked in, and at the sound of her heels, Leo turned, an index card in his blue-gloved hand.
"See," he said when she joined him. "Animal Care's furious because this card wasn't updated. I'm having to double-check all the cards, because the techs don't do their job. Plus, there was water all over the floor. No shit," he stressed mildly. On his nape, a few stars of sweat crawled as he displayed the card for Jo. After a moment's thought, she promised to look into it and suggested they check the tanks' acidity.
It was almost midnight. They worked side by side, Jo taking the lower tanks and Leo the upper. His broad wrist and her thin one executed the selfsame gesture of dipping a paper slip and holding it level as it changed color. Meanwhile, they talked in a desultory way about Leo's idea of putting a ten-foot tank in the middle of the room. The giant tank would be "visually impactful," he said, and in the presence of rivals, the male mowae would display their health with vivid colors and drama. Jo called it a good idea, but, she warned, they'd have to prevent the males from massacring each other while the conference people were viewing them. Territories would have to be accounted for, when the tank was hardscaped.
"See that?" she pointed. Holding a Quick-Dip level in midair, Leo torqued his body to view the tank beneath, where a small male cowered inside a bit of PVC pipe, while a big male flashed between its exits, scowling like a dragon.
"They're mean fish," he agreed. "They love to hate."
The scientists stepped back and surveyed the animals whose genetic doom they had lifted. Each tank held two males swishing darkly around, as if fleeing their trailing fins, and a group of orange-ish females. They weren't at their colorful best in this light, yet the sight of them all at once, ceaselessly circulating, gave Jo a slow thrill of revelation. These were the males doomed to die young, the females doomed to search endlessly for scarce mates—and they could not have looked more energetic. It came to her that their fate, a species' immemorial fate, had been removed from their wonderful bodies. But that's it, she thought, that's the meaning. Nothing is like this. Nothing that is, or has gone before, is like what I see in this room. Her collaborator changed his nitrile gloves, wincing when they pulled hairs.
"Can I assume," she asked, "you're back?" Fluorescent light turned Leo's narrow eyes brown as he caught hers.
"Yeah, I went home and saw my folks," he said. "They keep bees. Eight hives this year. Dad needed to find one of his queens, and since I'm the biologist—but as you know, Jo, I have trouble telling my own fish apart. Mol bio is not fieldwork."
"You do okay." On the tank's glass wall, their reflections blended.
"There was this cloud of smoke and bees," Leo gesticulated. "I got stung twice by the same bee, which doesn't happen?"
"Very rarely if they're stinging a mammal," Jo qualified. "Our skin is too thick."
"Right. We couldn't find the queen," Leo resumed, "because she wasn't marked, and an unmarked queen's hard to spot. But Dad said she was in there, so I kept trying to look with smoke blowing in my face. There were these masses of confused, angry bees crawling around, and one got inside my sleeve and I tried to shake it loose, and it stung me. Twice. Man! All I could think of was how much I wanted my—father, not to go home disappointed." On the tank, through their reflections' shadow, swam and wove the mowae, rust-red, bruise-blue.
"You're a good son," Jo said. "Did you find the queen?"
Leo gave his playful bark of a laugh, which she hadn't heard for centuries. "We did! Let me show you something." From his coat pocket, Leo brought out his iPhone and fiddled with its settings, his vitreous eyebrows working. "It's at home. My folks sent a photo." He offered up the phone, and Jo took it, cocking her head.
"Anything but a sick fish," joked the PI, expecting a long-bellied queen bee. She held the device closer, then farther, squinting. Then she spread the tips of thumb and forefinger on the screen, as if parting closed eyelids, and studied the enlarged image.
"This was sent with my adoption paperwork," Leo explained. "It's from the birth mother. Jo, the whole time I was trying to drag some kind of concession out of Everett, I had this from whoever who gave me my life." Nested in tissue, a knotted silk cord; no, a hair extension in unreal platinum blond. "I think it means, she gave me what she could. And you were right. I need to give what I can."
The fall of Jo's ashen hair hid her expression. Then she coughed, and one hand rose to her throat. The full lips were drawn, the pallor abrupt. The room's bubbling grew louder and louder until she produced in her throat a click, and seemed shocked at her voicelessness. She hissed, "Sorry—" and threw Leo a look like a deep sea anchor, a look no power could dislodge, before heading out of the room at a taut clip.
"Are you okay?" Leo called after her. He sent a text. Then he returned to catching up with routine maintenance, trusting that the PI would check back later. In one of the tanks, he was pleased to see the most telling sign of the mowae's vigor: a mating dance. An orange female circled in iridescent indecision. Below her, a male shivered against the current, face set in a paranoid pout, exhibiting his sunny dorsal fin, his midnight body, his fascinating egg-spots. Leo grinned. Who could ask for more?
There came a moment when her will surrendered, her body doubled over the restroom toilet, just after a keen terror that organ tissues were leaving her mouth. In blackness marbled with green stars, palms against a wall she no longer saw, an image rose. A round metal lid embossed with a dolphin. Her mind rested, recognizing the drain cover of an outlet to the Bay. In that moment, she accepted her body's authority to live or die, continue or dissolve. The eye of time's storm turned around her.
In the first hour of the morning, her body recomposed and her mind witnessed trembling, soreness, stink, bile, tears. The future's weight settled on her, weak though she was. At length, she found water, soap, paper towels, mints, and cleansed herself with wonderment at her skill, as if she were speaking forgotten high school French. In the mirror, finally, she looked kempt and old. Leaving the women's restroom, she entered the L-shaped hallway. Her office was around the corner. She stood in the long hall, facing the shut laboratory door. Someone was in there. She knew by instinct, and what was more, she smelled fresh coffee from the urn outside her office, a few steps away. Sure enough, it was warm. In the pale fluorescence, she filled a paper cup. When she drank, a chemical chord sounded from sole to crown: here I am.
"Ah," Jo said, restored to herself. Her baby was safe. Her duty was to keep the secret of his birth. She must let Leo become, as before, her collaborator and ex-lover: the rest was silence. Was she strong enough? She must be. Sure, or she would have passed out in the fucking women's restroom. She drank a second cup of coffee, stirring into it all the available sugar packets. Having slaked thirst and hunger, the PI went to see which night owl was puttering around in Mayhew Lab.
The lab was divided into five bays, like fingers on a hand, each defined by the parallel benches at which a pair of scientists worked back to back. Connecting all the bay's entrances was a lane where Jo walked, looking into each bay as she passed by the freezers, centrifuges, incubators, and other equipment in common use. The first bay, Ilya's, was empty, as expected. Faint human sounds led her into the third bay, where Pradeep, propped swaybacked between his arms, his fingers splayed, neck lolling, black hair falling forward as if desperate for a pillow, peered into a benchtop transilluminator. Poor Pradeep. He was devoted to the spores of an ancient bacterium discovered inside salt crystals in a core sample from the bed of the Southern Ocean. The spores had inspired him because they were alive. But they were also almost half a billion years old, surrounded by their fossilized relatives. Pradeep had spent over a year vainly trying to grow these beings of time's abyss, while his grant money dwindled and the lab joked about Sleeping Beauty bugs.
"What's up?" Jo asked. "Anything?" Her heels' tapping made her entrance noticeable, but he was oblivious. Then he welcomed her with shimmering anxiety, wanting to show her his latest gel. He poured forth an explanation about a sample from an anaerobic jar—he used several culture methods but only the jars seemed to be taking right now, in low concentrations, that is, fairly low concentrations, but the point is they were there, and this time, contamination was out of the question, absolutely. He had to stop talking when a yawn broke in.
"Where?" Jo asked, bent over the transilluminator, a shallow lightbox. Against the background's blue glow appeared the DNA markers in scuffed lines of neon green. Pradeep's fingertip hovered.
"There, if you look very closely."
"The most overused words in mol bio are, 'if you look very closely.'" Beside her, Pradeep emitted prayerful energies. She blinked hard and looked again at the DNA markers of microscopic life from under the bed of an ocean, from inside salt crystals, from an age when oxygen was unimportant. "Well... yes, I think I see what you're seeing." If it's replicable, she added privately, and not contamination again.
But it was obvious she'd made his (extremely long) day, and they discussed the gel. Pradeep noticed that Jo seemed different: more relaxed, somehow, but under the weather, as if she'd come in with a cold. Her nose and eyes were red. He hoped it wasn't a cold, as the very idea of getting sick at this crucial time exasperated him. Strategically, he inquired after her health and pronounced himself glad to know she was well. She gleamed at him like a terrier that has guessed where the rat is. Embarrassed, he suddenly recalled that he'd wanted to ask her about the FOIA request. He didn't want to get bad news right now, but having thought of it, he couldn't bear the suspense.
"About this, this FOIA situation..."
"No worries!" She could be as graceful as a girl, with a slender-wristed gesture. "It's going right back up the pipeline. Stanford is good at that."
"I wish I understood why our government is not good at it, I mean at protecting scientists from these weird sorts of attacks. One would like to think that America is America," Pradeep said. Jo concurred, and they entertained each other with outrageous tales of public and official ignorance. Pradeep had heard a talk show host who had said that since scientists changed their minds, but the Bible didn't, the Bible was more reliable. They bemoaned talk shows, creationist museums, and Congress. With the happy animation of a man whose fears are flown, Pradeep asked Jo about her gold cross. He was merely curious, with respect, of course, to know, was it hard reconciling her faith and her work...?
She was leaning against his bench, her navy pencil skirt creased between her hip-bones, careful not to brush against the anaerobic jars. As she touched her cross, she looked down, chin nestling in tough folds that told her age. She was a mixture, Pradeep thought, of preserved youthfulness and polished climacteric. Ageless for a moment.
"I'm a pretty bad Catholic, I guess. This belonged to my mother. I always forget I'm wearing it. I suppose by now it's more of a symbol of my mother than God."
"Mothers and gods, who can tell the difference," Pradeep quavered. They laughed, but Jo shook her sleek gray head.
"Mothers are animals like everyone else. I think," she went on, seeing his slight shock, "maybe one reason we're up against this FOIA craziness, and the climate change deniers, and everything you and I have just been complaining about, is that people lose track of that very simple fact."
"I'm not sure what you mean?"
Jo felt tempted to ask this researcher into life's ancestry if he'd ever learned the details of his own birth. But her sense of propriety held, and she returned their conversation to the DNA markers in the bluely lit transilluminator.
Meanwhile, sadness sighed louder than usual in the eaves of her mind; it whispered of how she had learned to imagine her mother as a saint in heaven, and had never guessed what complications meant until she'd been torn and stitched back together, complicating (yes truly) her life with internal scars and a secret son. She would always remember yearning for her mother before the birth. How had her mother encountered the sword in her gut, the force carving out of you the strength you would pass on? That force was natural selection—not an idea, she knew: an experience. Evolution took its course through the experience of trillions of mothers.
Here was memory's core: the sunlit workroom, smelling of mist, formaldehyde, and moist brick; the burbling tanks; and herself, decentered by the heavy unwanted baby, observing the wild females spit out their eggs, curvetting in piscine fury. The fish refused their offspring out of stress. Jo had traded hers for freedom, and both these choices were animal, made by females seeking a way to survive. She'd believed she was a monster when she'd been ridden by shame, guilt, and isolation. She had believed it forever, though less so tonight. Would that her mother had been remembered as a woman struggling for life, not as a skiing angel, but in her childhood, she knew—for her own intended good—the glory of eternal souls had been held up to dazzle and distract from the truth of her animal being. She forgave the church only to spare herself more loss. And she recalled Everett, the collector of scientific antiquities, reviling her sainted little girl parts. Well, she'd taken his job. A few hundred little boys were at risk for CMTX6 in California. They might not be her sons, but they and Leo were the heirs of her discovery.
Jo advised Pradeep to recalibrate the spectrophotometer regularly and said good night. As she left, he thought he heard her odd chuckle. Jo was saying to herself, "zimachitika."