Ship Fever Andrea Barrett
For Wendy Weil
Table of Contents
Portions of this book have appeared previously in the following magazines: “The English Pupil” in The Southern Review; “The Littoral Zone” and “Soroche” in Story; “The Marburg Sisters” in New England Review; “The Behavior of the Hawkweeds” in The Missouri Review. My thanks to those magazines and their editors. “Rare Bird” first appeared in The Writing Path: An Anthology of New Writing from Writers’ Conferences and Festivals (University of Iowa Press); my thanks to them as well.
“The Behavior of the Hawkweeds” was selected for Best American Short Stories, 1995 (Jane Smiley, Guest Editor).
Grateful acknowledgment is also made to the National Endowment for the Arts, for its generous support, and to the MacDowell Colony, for its gift of time and space.
Finally, my thanks to Margot Livesey, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Sarah Stone, and Carol Houck Smith, for their insightful reading and thoughtful suggestions.
For thirty years, until he retired, my husband stood each fall in front of his sophomore genetics class and passed out copies of Gregor Mendel’s famous paper on the hybridization of edible peas. This paper was a model of clarity, Richard told his students. It represented everything that science should be.
Richard paced in front of the chalkboard, speaking easily and without notes. Like the minor evolutionist Robert Chambers, he had been born hexadactylic; he was sensitive about his left hand, which was somewhat scarred from the childhood operation that had removed his extra finger. And so, although Richard gestured freely he used only his right hand and kept his left in his pocket. From the back of the room, where I sat when I came each fall to hear him lecture, I could watch the students listen to him.
After he passed out the paper, Richard told the students his first, conventional version of Gregor Mendel’s life. Mendel, he said, grew up in a tiny village in the northwestern corner of Moravia, which was then a part of the Hapsburg Empire and later became part of Czechoslovakia. When he was twenty-one, poor and desperate for further education, he entered the Augustinian monastery in the capital city of Brünn, which is now called Brno. He studied science and later taught at a local high school. In 1856, at the age of thirty-four, he began his experiments in the hybridization of the edible pea. For his laboratory he used a little strip of garden adjoining the monastery wall.
Over the next eight years Mendel performed hundreds of experiments on thousands of plants, tracing the ways in which characteristics were passed through generations. Tall and short plants, with white or violet flowers; peas that were wrinkled or smooth; pods that were arched or constricted around the seeds. He kept meticulous records of his hybridizations in order to write the paper the students now held in their hands. On a clear, cold evening in 1865, he read the first part of this paper to his fellow members of the Brünn Society for the Study of Natural Science. About forty men were present, a few professional scientists and many serious amateurs. Mendel read to them for an hour, describing his experiments and demonstrating the invariable ratios with which traits appeared in his hybrids. A month later, at the Society’s next meeting, he presented the theory he’d formulated to account for his results.
Right there, my husband said, right in that small, crowded room, the science of genetics was born. Mendel knew nothing of genes or chromosomes or DNA, but he’d discovered the principles that made the search for those things possible.
“Was there applause?” Richard always asked at this point. “Was there a great outcry of approval or even a mutter of disagreement?” A rhetorical question; the students knew better than to answer.
“There was not. The minutes of that meeting show that no questions were asked and no discussion took place. Not one person in that room understood the significance of what Mendel had presented. A year later, when the paper was published, no one noticed it.”
The students looked down at their papers and Richard finished his story quickly, describing how Mendel went back to his monastery and busied himself with other things. For a while he continued to teach and to do other experiments; he raised grapes and fruit trees and all kinds of flowers, and he kept bees. Eventually he was elected abbot of his monastery, and from that time until his death he was occupied with his administrative duties. Only in 1900 was his lost paper rediscovered and his work appreciated by a new generation of scientists.
When Richard reached this point, he would look toward the back of the room and catch my eye and smile. He knew that I knew what was in store for the students at the end of the semester. After they’d read the paper and survived the labs where fruit flies bred in tubes and displayed the principles of Mendelian inheritance, Richard would tell them the other Mendel story. The one I told him, in which Mendel is led astray by a condescending fellow scientist and the behavior of the hawkweeds. The one in which science is not just unappreciated, but bent by loneliness and longing.
I had a reason for showing up in that classroom each fall, and it was not just that I was so dutiful, so wifely. Richard was not the one who introduced Mendel into my life.
When I was a girl, during the early years of the Depression, my grandfather, Anton Vaculik, worked at a nursery in Niskayuna, not far from where Richard and I still live in Schenectady. This was not the only job my grandfather had ever had, but it was the one he liked the best. He had left Moravia in 1891 and traveled to the city of Bremen with his pregnant wife. From there he’d taken a boat to New York and then another to Albany. He’d meant to journey on to one of the large Czech settlements in Minnesota or Wisconsin, but when my mother was born six weeks early he settled his family here instead. A few other Czech families lived in the area, and one of those settlers hired my grandfather to work in a small factory that made mother-of-pearl buttons for women’s blouses.
Later, after he learned more English, he found the nursery job that he liked so much. He worked there for thirty years; he was so skilled at propagating plants and grafting trees that his employers kept him on part-time long past the age when he should have retired. Everyone at the nursery called him Tony, which sounded appropriately American. I called him Tati, a corruption of tatínek, which is Czech for “dad” and was what my mother called him. I was named Antonia after him.
We were never hungry when I was young, we were better off than many, but our daily life was a web of small economies. My mother took in sewing, making over jackets and mending pants; when she ironed she saved the flat pieces for last, to be pressed while the iron was cooling and the electricity was off. My father’s wages had been cut at the GE plant and my older brothers tried to help by scrounging for odd jobs. I was the only idle member of the family, and so on weekends and during the summer my mother sometimes let me go with Tati. I loved it when Tati put me to work.
At the nursery there were fields full of fruit trees, peach and apple and pear, and long, low, glass houses full of seedlings. I followed Tati around and helped him as he transplanted plants or worked with his sharp, curved knife and his grafting wax. I sat next to him on a tall, wooden stool, holding his forceps or the jar of methylated spirits as he emasculated flowers. While we worked he talked, which is how I learned about his early days in America.
The only time Tati frowned and went silent was when his new boss appeared. Sheldon Hardy, the old chief horticulturalist, had been our friend; he was Tati’s age and had worked side by side with Tati for years, cutting scions and whip-grafting fruit trees. But in 1931, the year I was ten, Mr. Hardy had a heart attack and went to live with his daughter in Ithaca. Otto Leiniger descended on us shortly after that, spoiling part of our pleasure every day.
Leiniger must have been in his late fifties. He lost no time telling Tati that he had a master’s degree from a university out west, and it was clear from his white lab coat and the books in his office that he thought of himself as a scholar. In his office he sat at a big oak desk, making out lists of tasks for Tati with a fancy pen left over from better days; once he had been the director of an arboretum. He tacked the lists to the propagating benches, where they curled like shavings of wood from the damp, and when we were deep in work he’d drift into the glass house and hover over us. He didn’t complain about my presence, but he treated Tati like a common laborer. One day he caught me alone in a greenhouse filled with small begonias we’d grown from cuttings.
Tati had fitted a misting rose to a pot small enough for me to handle, and I was watering the tiny plants. It was very warm beneath the glass roof. I was wearing shorts and an old white shirt of Tati’s, with nothing beneath it but my damp skin; I was only ten. There were benches against the two side walls and another, narrower, propagating bench running down the center of the house. On one side of this narrow bench I stood on an overturned crate to increase my reach, bending to mist the plants on the far side. When I looked up Leiniger was standing across from me. His face was round and heavy, with dark pouches beneath his eyes.
“You’re a good little helper,” he said. “You help your grandpapa out.” Tati was in the greenhouse next door, examining a new crop of fuchias.
“I like it here,” I told Leiniger. The plants beneath my hands were Rex begonias, grown not for their flowers but for their showy, ruffled leaves. I had helped Tati pin the mother leaves to the moist sand and then transplant the babies that rooted from the ribs.
Leiniger pointed at the row of begonias closest to him, farthest from me. “These seem a little dry,” he said. “Over here.”
I didn’t want to walk around the bench and stand by his side. “You can reach,” he said. “Just lean over a little farther.”
I stood up on my toes and bent across the bench, stretching the watering pot to reach those farthest plants. Leiniger flushed. “That’s right,” he said thickly. “Lean towards me.”
Tati’s old white shirt gaped at the neck and fell away from my body when I bent over. I stretched out my arm and misted the begonias. When I straightened I saw that Leiniger’s face was red and that he was pressed against the wooden bench.
“Here,” he said, and he made a shaky gesture at another group of plants to the right of him. “These here, these are also very dry.”
I was afraid of him, and yet I also wanted to do my job and feared that any sloppiness on my part might get Tati in trouble. I leaned over once again, the watering pot in my hand. This time Leiniger reached for my forearm with his thick fingers. “Not those,” he said, steering my hand closer to the edge of the bench, which he was still pressed against. “These here, these are very dry.”
Just as the pot brushed the front of his lab coat, Tati walked in. I can imagine, now, what that scene must have looked like to him. Me bent over that narrow bench, my toes barely touching the crate and the white shirt hanging down like a sheet to the young begonias below; Leiniger red-faced, sweating, grinding into the wooden bench. And his hand, that guilty hand, forcing me towards him. I dropped the pot when I heard Tati shout my name.
Who can say what Leiniger had in mind? To Tati it must have looked as though Leiniger was dragging me across the begonias to him. But Leiniger was just a lonely old man and it seems possible to me, now, that he wanted only the view down my shirt and that one small contact with the skin of my inner arm. Had Tati not entered the greenhouse just then, nothing more might have happened.
But Tati saw the worst in what was there. He saw that fat hand on my arm and those eyes fixed on my childish chest. He had a small pruning knife in his hand. When he called my name and I dropped the pot, Leiniger clamped down on my arm. As I was tearing myself away, Tati flew over and jabbed his knife into the back of Leiniger’s hand.
“Nêmecky!” he shouted. “Prase!”
Leiniger screamed and stumbled backward. Behind him was the concrete block on which I stood to water the hanging plants, and that block caught Leiniger below the knees. He went down slowly, heavily, one hand clutching the wound on the other and a look of disbelief on his face. Tati was already reaching out to catch him when Leiniger cracked his head against a heating pipe.
But of course this is not what I told Richard. When we met, just after the war, I was working at the GE plant that had once employed my father and Richard was finishing his thesis. After my father died I had dropped out of junior college; Richard had interrupted his Ph.D. program to join the Navy, where he’d worked for three years doing research on tropical fungi. We both had a sense of urgency and a need to make up for lost time. During our brief courtship, I told Richard only the things that I thought would make him love me.
On our second date, over coffee and Italian pastries, I told Richard that my grandfather had taught me a little about plant breeding when I was young, and that I was fascinated by genetics. “Tati lived with us for a while, when I was a girl,” I said. “He used to take me for walks through the empty fields of Niskayuna and tell me about Gregor Mendel. I still know a pistil from a stamen.”
“Mendel’s my hero,” Richard said. “He’s always been my ideal of what a scientist should be. It’s not so often I meet a woman familiar with his work.”
“I know a lot about him,” I said. “What Tati told me—you’d be surprised.” I didn’t say that Tati and I had talked about Mendel because we couldn’t stand to talk about what we’d both lost.
Tati slept in my room during the months before the trial; he was released on bail on the condition that he leave his small house in Rensselaer and stay with us. I slept on the couch in the living room and Leiniger lay unconscious in the Schenectady hospital. We were quiet, Tati and I. No one seemed to want to talk to us. My brothers stayed away from the house as much as possible and my father worked long hours. My mother was around, but she was so upset by what had happened that she could hardly speak to either Tati or myself. The most she could manage to do was to take me aside, a few days after Tati’s arrival, and say, “What happened to Leiniger wasn’t your fault. It’s an old-country thing, what’s between those men.”
She made me sit with her on the porch, where she was turning mushrooms she’d gathered in the woods and laid out to dry on screens. Red, yellow, violet, buff. Some pieces were drier than others. While she spoke she moved from screen to screen, turning the delicate fragments.
“What country?” I said. “What are you talking about?”
“Tati is Czech,” my mother said. “Like me. Mr. Leiniger’s family is German, from a part of Moravia where only Germans live. Tati and Mr. Leiniger don’t like each other because of things that happened in the Czech lands a long time ago.”
“Am I Czech, then?” I said. “This happened because I am Czech?”
“You’re American,” my mother said. “American first. But Tati hates Germans. He and Leiniger would have found some way to quarrel even if you hadn’t been there.” She told me a little about the history of Moravia, enough to help me understand how long the Czechs and Germans had been quarreling. And she told me how thrilled Tati had been during the First World War, when the Czech and Slovak immigrants in America had banded together to contribute funds to help in the formation of an independent Czechoslovak state. When she was a girl, she said, Tati and her mother had argued over the donations Tati made and the meetings he attended.
But none of this seemed important to me. In the greenhouse, a policeman had asked Tati what had happened, and Tati had said, “I stuck his hand with my knife. But the rest was an accident—he tripped over that block and fell.”
“Why?” the policeman had said. “Why did you do that?”
“My granddaughter,” Tati had said. “He was…feeling her.”
The policeman had tipped my chin up with his hand and looked hard at me. “Is that right?” he’d asked. And I had nodded dumbly, feeling both very guilty and very important. Now my mother was telling me that I was of no consequence.
“Am I supposed to hate Germans?” I asked.
A few years later, when Tati was dead and I was in high school and Hitler had dismembered Czechoslovakia, my mother would become loudly anti-German. But now all she said was, “No. Mr. Leiniger shouldn’t have bothered you, but he’s only one man. It’s not right to hate everyone with a German last name.”
“Is that what Tati does?”
I told my mother what Tati had shouted at Leiniger, repeating the foreign sounds as best as I could. My mother blushed. “Nêmecky means ‘German,’ ” she said reluctantly. “Prase means ‘pig.’ You must never tell anyone you heard your grandfather say such things.”
I did not discuss this conversation with Tati. All during that fall, but especially after Leiniger died, I’d come home from school to find Tati waiting for me on the porch, his knobby walking stick in his hands and his cap on his head. He wanted to walk, he was desperate to walk. My mother wouldn’t let him leave the house alone but she seldom found the time to go out with him; my brothers could not be bothered. And so Tati waited for me each afternoon like a restless dog.
While we walked in the fields and woods behind our house, we did not talk about what had happened in the greenhouse. Instead, Tati named the ferns and mosses and flowers we passed. He showed me the hawkweeds—Canada hawkweed, spotted hawkweed, poor-Robin’s hawkweed. Orange hawkweed, also called devil’s paintbrush, creeping into abandoned fields. The plants had long stems, rosettes of leaves at the base, small flowerheads that resembled dandelions. Once Tati opened my eyes to them I realized they were everywhere.
“Hieracium,” Tati said. “That is their real name. It comes from the Greek word for hawk. The juice from the stem is supposed to make your vision very sharp.” They were weeds, he said: extremely hardy. They grew wherever the soil was too poor to support other plants. They were related to asters and daisies and dahlias—all plants I’d seen growing at the nursery—but also to thistles and burdocks. I should remember them, he said. They were important. With his own eyes he had watched the hawkweeds ruin Gregor Mendel’s life.
Even now this seems impossible: how could I have known someone of an age to have known Mendel? And yet it was true: Tati had grown up on the outskirts of Brno, the city where Mendel spent most of his life. In 1866, when they first met, there was cholera in Brno, and Prussian soldiers were passing through after the brief and nasty war. Tati was ten then, and those things didn’t interest him. He had scaled the white walls of the Augustinian monastery of St. Thomas one afternoon, for a lark. As he’d straddled the wall he’d seen a plump, shortlegged man with glasses looking up at him.
“He looked like my mother’s uncle,” Tati said. “A little bit.”
Mendel had held out a hand and helped Tati jump down from the wall. Around him were fruit trees and wild vines; in the distance he saw a clocktower and a long, low building. Where Tati had landed, just where his feet touched ground, there were peas. Not the thousands of plants that would have been there at the height of Mendel’s investigations, but still hundreds of plants clinging to sticks and stretched strings.
The place was magical, Tati said. Mendel showed him the tame fox he tied up during the day but allowed to run free at night, the hedgehogs and the hamsters and the mice he kept, the beehives and the cages full of birds. The two of them, the boy and the middle-aged man, made friends. Mendel taught Tati most of his horticultural secrets and later he was responsible for getting him a scholarship to the school where he taught. But Tati said that the first year of their friendship, before the hawkweed experiments, was the best. He and Mendel, side by side, had opened pea flowers and transferred pollen with a camel-hair brush.
On the last day of 1866, Mendel wrote his first letter to Carl Nägeli of Munich, a powerful and well-known botanist known to be interested in hybridization. He sent a copy of his pea paper along with the letter, hoping Nägeli might help it find the recognition it deserved. But he also, in his letter, mentioned that he had started a few experiments with hawkweeds, which he hoped would confirm his results with peas.
Nägeli was an expert on the hawkweeds, and Tati believed that Mendel had only mentioned them to pique Nägeli’s interest in his work. Nägeli didn’t reply for several months, and when he finally wrote back he said almost nothing about the peas. But he was working on the hawkweeds himself, and he proposed that Mendel turn his experimental skills to them. Mendel, desperate for recognition, ceased to write about his peas and concentrated on the hawkweeds instead.
“Oh, that Nägeli!” Tati said. “Month after month, year after year, I watched Mendel writing his long, patient letters and getting no answer or slow answers or answers off the point. Whenever Nägeli wrote to Mendel, it was always about the hawkweeds. Later, when I learned why Mendel’s experiments with them hadn’t worked, I wanted to cry.”
The experiments that had given such tidy results with peas gave nothing but chaos with hawkweeds, which were very difficult to hybridize. Experiment after experiment failed; years of work were wasted. The inexplicable behavior of the hawkweeds destroyed Mendel’s belief that the laws of heredity he’d worked out with peas would be universally valid. By 1873, Mendel had given up completely. The hawkweeds, and Nägeli behind them, had convinced him that his work was useless.
It was bad luck, Tati said. Bad luck in choosing Nägeli to help him, and in letting Nägeli steer him toward the hawkweeds. Mendel’s experimental technique was fine, and his laws of heredity were perfectly true. He could not have known—no one knew for years—that his hawkweeds didn’t hybridize in rational ways because they frequently formed seeds without fertilization. “Parthenogenesis,” Tati told me—a huge, knobby word that I could hardly get my mouth around. Still, it sounds to me like a disease. “The plants grown from seeds formed this way are exact copies of the mother plant, just like the begonias we make from leaf cuttings.”
Mendel gave up on science and spent his last years, after he was elected abbot, struggling with the government over the taxes levied on his monastery. He quarreled with his fellow monks; he grew bitter and isolated. Some of the monks believed he had gone insane. In his quarters he smoked heavy cigars and gazed at the ceiling, which he’d had painted with scenes of saints and fruit trees, beehives and scientific equipment. When Tati came to visit him, his conversation wandered.
Mendel died in January 1884, on the night of Epiphany, confused about the value of his scientific work. That same year, long after their correspondence had ceased, Nägeli published an enormous book summarizing all his years of work. Although many of his opinions and observations seemed to echo Mendel’s work with peas, Nägeli made no mention of Mendel or his paper.
That was the story I told Richard. Torn from its context, stripped of the reasons why it was told, it became a story about the beginnings of Richard’s discipline. I knew that Richard would have paid money to hear it, but I gave it to him as a gift.
“And your grandfather saw all that?” he said. This was later on in our courtship; we were sitting on a riverbank, drinking Manhattans that Richard had mixed and enjoying the cold spiced beef and marinated vegetables and lemon tart I had brought in a basket. Richard liked my cooking quite a bit. He liked me too, but apparently not enough; I was longing for him to propose but he still hadn’t said a word. “Your grandfather saw the letters,” he said. “He watched Mendel assembling data for Nägeli. That’s remarkable. That’s extraordinary. I can’t believe the things you know.”
There was more, I hinted. What else did I have to offer him? Now it seems to me that I had almost everything: youth and health and an affectionate temperament; the desire to make a family. But then I was more impressed than I should have been by Richard’s education.
“More?” he said.
“There are some papers,” I said. “That Tati left behind.”
Of course I was not allowed in the courtroom, I was much too young. After Leiniger died, the date of the trial was moved forward. I never saw Tati sitting next to the lawyer my father had hired for him; I never saw a judge or a jury and never learned whether my testimony might have helped Tati. I never even learned whether, in that long-ago time, the court would have accepted the testimony of a child, because Tati died on the evening before the first day of the trial.
He had a stroke, my mother said. In the night she heard a loud, garbled cry and when she ran into the room that had once been mine she found Tati tipped over in bed, with his head hanging down and his face dark and swollen. Afterwards, after the funeral, when I came home from school I no longer went on walks through the woods and fields. I did my homework at the kitchen table and then I helped my mother around the house. On weekends I no longer went to the nursery.
Because there had been no trial, no one in town learned of my role in Leiniger’s death. There had been a quarrel between two old men, people thought, and then an accident. No one blamed me or my family. I was able to go through school without people pointing or whispering. I put Tati out of my mind, and with him the nursery and Leiniger, Mendel and Nägeli, and the behavior of the hawkweeds. When the war came I refused to listen to my mother’s rantings. After my father died she went to live with one of my married brothers, and I went off on my own. I loved working in the factory; I felt very independent.
Not until the war was over and I met Richard did I dredge up the hawkweed story. Richard’s family had been in America for generations and seemed to have no history; that was one of the things that drew me to him. But after our picnic on the riverbank I knew for sure that part of what drew him to me was the way I was linked so closely to other times and places. I gave Richard the yellowed sheets of paper that Tati had left in an envelope for me.
This is a draft of one of Mendel’s letters to Nägeli, Tati had written, on a note attached to the manuscript. He showed it to me once, when he was feeling sad. Later he gave it to me. I want you to have it.
Richard’s voice trembled when he read that note out loud. He turned the pages of Mendel’s letter slowly, here and there reading a line to me. The letter was an early one, or perhaps even the first. It was all about peas.
Richard said, “I can’t believe I’m holding this in my hand.”
“I could give it to you,” I said. In my mind this seemed perfectly reasonable. Mendel had given the letter to Tati, the sole friend of his last days; then Tati had passed it to me, when he was no longer around to protect me himself. Now it seemed right that I should give it to the man I wanted to marry.
“To me?” Richard said. “You would give it to me?”
“Someone who appreciates it should have it.”
Richard cherished Tati’s letter like a jewel. We married, we moved to Schenectady, Richard got a good job at the college, and we had our two daughters. During each of my pregnancies Richard worried that our children might inherit his hexadactyly, but Annie and Joan were both born with regulation fingers and toes. I stayed home with them, first in the apartment on Union Street and then later, after Richard’s promotion, in the handsome old house on campus that the college rented to us. Richard wrote papers and served on committees; I gave monthly dinners for the departmental faculty, weekly coffee hours for favored students, picnics for alumni on homecoming weekends. I managed that sort of thing rather well: it was a job, if an unpaid one, and it was expected of me.
Eventually our daughters grew up and moved away. And then, when I was nearly fifty, after Richard had been tenured and won his awards and grown almost unbearably self-satisfied, there came a time when the world went gray on me for the better part of a year.
I still can’t explain what happened to me then. My doctor said it was hormones, the beginning of my change of life. My daughters, newly involved with the women’s movement, said my years as a housewife had stifled me and that I needed a career of my own. Annie, our oldest, hemmed and hawed and finally asked me if her father and I were still sharing a bed; I said we were but didn’t have the heart to tell her that all we did was share it. Richard said I needed more exercise and prescribed daily walks in the college gardens, which were full of exotic specimen trees from every corner of the earth.
He was self-absorbed, but not impossible; he hated to see me suffer. And I suppose he also wanted back the wife who for years had managed his household so well. But I could no longer manage anything. All I knew was that I felt old, and that everything had lost its savor. I lay in the windowseat in our bedroom with an afghan over my legs, watching the students mass and swirl and separate in the quad in front of the library.
This was 1970, when the students seemed to change overnight from pleasant boys into uncouth and hairy men. Every week brought a new protest. Chants and marches and demonstrations; bedsheets hanging like banners from the dormitory windows. The boys who used to come to our house for tea dressed in blue blazers and neatly pressed pants now wore vests with dangling fringes and jeans with holes in them. And when I went to Richard’s genetics class that fall, to listen to his first Mendel lecture, I saw that the students gazed out the window while he spoke or tipped back in their chairs with their feet on the desks: openly bored, insubordinate. A girl encased in sheets of straight blond hair—there were girls in class, the college had started admitting them—interrupted Richard mid-sentence and said, “But what’s the relevance of this? Science confined to the hands of the technocracy produces nothing but destruction.”
Richard didn’t answer her, but he hurried through the rest of his lecture and left the room without looking at me. That year, he didn’t give his other Mendel lecture. The students had refused to do most of the labs; there was no reason, they said, why harmless fruit flies should be condemned to death just to prove a theory that everyone already acknowledged as true. Richard said they didn’t deserve to hear about the hawkweeds. They were so dirty, so destructive, that he feared for the safety of Mendel’s precious letter.
I was relieved, although I didn’t say that; I had no urge to leave my perch on the windowseat and no desire to hear Richard repeat that story again. It seemed to me then that he told it badly. He muddled the dates, compressed the years, identified himself too closely with Mendel, and painted Nägeli as too black a villain. By then I knew that he liked to think of himself as another Mendel, unappreciated and misunderstood. To me he looked more like another Nägeli. I had seen him be less than generous to younger scientists struggling to establish themselves. I had watched him pick, as each year’s favored student, not the brightest or most original but the most agreeable and flattering.
That year all the students seemed to mutate, and so there was no favorite student, no obsequious well-dressed boy to join us for Sunday dinner or cocktails after the Wednesday seminars. As I lay in my windowseat, idly addressing envelopes and stuffing them with reprints of Richard’s papers, I hardly noticed that the house was emptier than usual. But at night, when I couldn’t sleep, I rose from Richard’s side and went down to the couch in the living room, where I lay midway between dream and panic. I heard Tati’s voice then, telling me about Mendel. I heard Mendel, frantic over those hawkweeds, trying out draft after draft of his letters on the ears of an attentive little boy who sat in a garden next to a fox. Highly esteemed sir, your honor, I beg you to allow me to submit for your kind consideration the results of these experiments. How humble Mendel had been in his address, and yet how sure of his science. How kind he had been to Tati.
Some nights I grew very confused. Mendel and Nägeli, Mendel and Tati; Tati and Leiniger, Tati and me. Pairs of men who hated each other and pairs of friends passing papers. A boy I saw pruning shrubs in the college garden turned into a childish Tati, leaping over a white wall. During a nap I dreamed of Leiniger’s wife. I had seen her only once; she had come to Tati’s funeral. She stood in the back of the church in a brown dress flecked with small white leaves, and when my family left after the service she turned her face from us.
That June, after graduation, Sebastian Dunitz came to us from his lab in Frankfurt. He and Richard had been corresponding and they shared common research interests; Richard had arranged for Sebastian to visit the college for a year, working with Richard for the summer on a joint research project and then, during the fall and spring semesters, as a teaching assistant in the departmental laboratories. He stayed with us, in Annie’s old bedroom, but he was little trouble. He did his own laundry and cooked his own meals except when we asked him to join us.
Richard took to Sebastian right away. He was young, bright, very well-educated; although speciation and evolutionary relationships interested him more than the classical Mendelian genetics Richard taught, his manner toward Richard was clearly deferential. Within a month of his arrival, Richard was telling me how, with a bit of luck, a permanent position might open up for his new protege. Within a month of his arrival, I was up and about, dressed in bright colors, busy cleaning the house from basement to attic and working in the garden. It was nice to have some company around.
Richard invited Sebastian to a picnic dinner with us on the evening of the Fourth of July. This was something we’d done every year when the girls were growing up; we’d let the custom lapse but Richard thought Sebastian might enjoy it. I fried chicken in the morning, before the worst heat of the day; I dressed tomatoes with vinegar and olive oil and chopped fresh basil and I made potato salad and a chocolate cake. When dusk fell, Richard and I gathered a blanket and the picnic basket and our foreign guest and walked to the top of a rounded hill not far from the college grounds. In the distance, we could hear the band that preceded the fireworks.
“This is wonderful,” Sebastian said. “Wonderful food, a wonderful night. You have both been very kind to me.”
Richard had set a candle in a hurricane lamp in the center of our blanket, and in the dim light Sebastian’s hair gleamed like a helmet. We all drank a lot of the sweet white wine that Sebastian had brought as his offering. Richard lay back on his elbows and cleared his throat, surprising me when he spoke.
“Did you know,” he said to Sebastian, “that I have an actual draft of a letter that Gregor Mendel wrote to the botanist Nägeli? My dear Antonia gave it to me.”
Sebastian looked from me to Richard and back. “Where did you get such a thing?” he asked. “How…?”
Richard began to talk, but I couldn’t bear to listen to him tell that story badly one more time. “My grandfather gave it to me,” I said, interrupting Richard. “He knew Mendel when he was a little boy.” And without giving Richard a chance to say another word, without even looking at the hurt and puzzlement I knew must be on his face, I told Sebastian all about the behavior of the hawkweeds. I told the story slowly, fully, without skipping any parts. In the gathering darkness I moved my hands and did my best to make Sebastian see the wall and the clocktower and the gardens and the hives, the spectacles on Mendel’s face and Tati’s bare feet. And when I was done, when my words hung in the air and Sebastian murmured appreciatively, I did something I’d never done before, because Richard had never thought to ask the question Sebastian asked.
“How did your grandfather come to tell you that?” he said. “It is perhaps an unusual story to tell a little girl.”
“It gave us something to talk about,” I said. “We spent a lot of time together, the fall that I was ten. He had killed a man—accidentally, but still the man was dead. He lived with us while we were waiting for the trial.”
Overhead, the first fireworks opened into blossoms of red and gold and green. “Antonia,” Richard said, but he caught himself. In front of Sebastian he would not admit that this was something his wife of twenty-five years had never told him before. In the light of the white cascading fountain above us I could see him staring at me, but all he said was, “An amazing story, isn’t it? I used to tell it to my genetics students every year, but this fall everything was so deranged—I left it out, I knew they wouldn’t appreciate it.”
“Things are different,” Sebastian said. “The world is changing.” He did not ask me how it was that my grandfather had killed a man.
The pace and intensity of the fireworks increased, until all of them seemed to be exploding at once; then there was one final crash and then silence and darkness. I had been rude, I knew. I had deprived Richard of one of his great pleasures simply for the sake of hearing that story told well once.
We gathered up our blanket and basket and walked home quietly. The house was dark and empty. In the living room I turned on a single light and then went to the kitchen to make coffee; when I came in with the tray the men were talking quietly about their work. “I believe what we have here is a Rassenkreis,” Sebastian said, and he turned to include me in the conversation. In his short time with us, he had always paid me the compliment of assuming I understood his and Richard’s work. “A German word,” he said. “It means ‘race-circle’—it is what we call it when a species spread over a large area is broken into a chain of subspecies, each of which differs slightly from its neighbors. The neighboring subspecies can interbreed, but the subspecies at the two ends of the chain may be so different that they cannot. In the population that Richard and I are examining…”
“I am very tired,” Richard said abruptly. “If you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go up to bed.”
“No coffee?” I said.
He looked at a spot just beyond my shoulder, as he always did when he was upset. “No,” he said. “Are you coming?”
“Soon,” I said.
And then, in that dim room, Sebastian came and sat in the chair right next to mine. “Is Richard well?” he said. “Is something wrong?”
“He’s fine. Only tired. He’s been working hard.”
“That was a lovely story you told. When I was a boy, at university, our teachers did not talk about Nägeli, except to dismiss him as a Lamarkian. They would skip from Mendel’s paper on the peas to its rediscovery, later. Nägeli’s student, Correns, and Hugo de Vries—do you know about the evening primroses and de Vries?”
I shook my head. We sat at the dark end of the living room, near the stairs and away from the windows. Still, occasionally, came the sound of a renegade firecracker.
“No? You will like this.”
But before he could tell me his anecdote I leaned toward him and rested my hand on his forearm. His skin was as smooth as a flower. “Don’t tell me any more science,” I said. “Tell me about yourself.”
There was a pause. Then Sebastian pulled his arm away abruptly and stood up. “Please,” he said. “You’re an attractive woman, still. And I am flattered. But it’s quite impossible, anything between us.” His accent, usually almost imperceptible, thickened with those words.
I was grateful for the darkness that hid my flush. “You misunderstood,” I said. “I didn’t mean…”
“Don’t be embarrassed,” he said. “I’ve seen the way you watch me when you think I am not looking. I appreciate it.”
A word came back to me, a word I thought I’d forgotten. “Prase,” I muttered.
“What?” he said. Then I heard a noise on the stairs behind me, and a hand fell on my shoulder. I reached up and felt the knob where Richard’s extra finger had once been.
“Antonia,” Richard said. His voice was very gentle. “It’s so late—won’t you come up to bed?” He did not say a word to Sebastian; upstairs, in our quiet room, he neither accused me of anything nor pressed me to explain the mysterious comment I’d made about my grandfather. I don’t know what he said later to Sebastian, or how he arranged things with the Dean. But two days later Sebastian moved into an empty dormitory room, and before the end of the summer he was gone.
Nêmecky, prase; secret words. I have forgotten almost all the rest of Tati’s language, and both he and Leiniger have been dead for sixty years. Sebastian Dunitz is back in Frankfurt, where he has grown very famous. The students study molecules now, spinning models across their computer screens and splicing the genes of one creature into those of another. The science of genetics is utterly changed and Richard has been forgotten by everyone. Sometimes I wonder where we have misplaced our lives.
Of course Richard no longer teaches. The college retired him when he turned sixty-five, despite his protests. Now they trot him out for dedications and graduations and departmental celebrations, along with the other emeritus professors who haunt the library and the halls. Without his class, he has no audience for his treasured stories. Instead he corners people at the dim, sad ends of parties when he’s had too much to drink. Young instructors, too worried about their jobs to risk being impolite, turn their ears to Richard like flowers. He keeps them in place with a knobby hand on a sleeve or knee as he talks.
When I finally told him what had happened to Tati, I didn’t really tell him anything. Two old men had quarreled, I said. An immigrant and an immigrant’s son, arguing over some plants. But Tati and Leiniger, Richard decided, were Mendel and Nägeli all over again; surely Tati identified with Mendel and cast Leiniger as another Nägeli? Although he still doesn’t know of my role in the accident, somehow the equation he’s made between these pairs of men allows him to tell his tale with more sympathy, more balance. As he talks he looks across the room and smiles at me. I nod and smile back at him, thinking of Annie, whose first son was born with six toes on each foot.
Sebastian sent me a letter the summer after he left us, in which he finished the story I’d interrupted on that Fourth of July. The young Dutch botanist Hugo de Vries, he wrote, spent his summers searching the countryside for new species. One day, near Hilversum, he came to an abandoned potato field glowing strangely in the sun. The great evening primrose had been cultivated in a small bed in a nearby park; the plants had run wild and escaped into the field, where they formed a jungle as high as a man. From 1886 through 1888, de Vries made thousands of hybridization experiments with them, tracing the persistence of mutations. During his search for a way to explain his results, he uncovered Mendel’s paper and found that Mendel had anticipated all his theories. Peas and primroses, primroses and peas, passing their traits serenely through generations.
I still have this letter, as Richard still has Mendel’s. I wonder, sometimes, what Tati would have thought of all this. Not the story about Hugo de Vries, which he probably knew, but the way it came to me in a blue airmail envelope, from a scientist who meant to be kind. I think of Tati when I imagine Sebastian composing his answer to me.
Because it was an answer, of sorts; in the months after he left I mailed him several letters. They were, on the surface, about Mendel and Tati, all I recalled of their friendship. But I’m sure Sebastian read them for what they were. In 1906, Sebastian wrote, after Mendel’s work was finally recognized, a small museum was opened in the Augustinian monastery. Sebastian visited it, when he passed through Brno on a family holiday,
“I could find no trace of your Tati,” he wrote. “But the wall is still here, and you can see where the garden was. It’s a lovely place. Perhaps you should visit someday.”
Outside Uppsala, on a late December afternoon in 1777, a figure tucked in a small sleigh ordered his coachman to keep driving.
“Hammarby,” he said. “Please.”
The words were cracked, almost unintelligible. The coachman was afraid. At home he had a wife, two daughters, and a mother-in-law, all dependent on him; his employers had strictly forbidden him to take the sleigh beyond the city limits, and he feared for his job. But his master was dying and these afternoon drives were his only remaining pleasure. He was weak and depressed and it had been months since he’d voiced even such a modest wish.
How could the coachman say no? He grumbled a bit and then drove the few miles across the plain without further complaint.
It was very cold. The air was crisp and dry. The sun, already low in the sky, made the fields glitter. Beneath the sleigh the snow was so smooth that the runners seemed to float. Carl Linnaeus, wrapped in sheepskins, watched the landscape speeding by and thought of Lappland, which he’d explored when he was young. Aspens and alders and birches budding, geese with their tiny yellow goslings. Gadflies longing to lay their eggs chased frantic herds of reindeer. In Jokkmokk, near the Gulf of Bothnia, the local pastor had tried to convince him that the clouds sweeping over the mountains carried off trees and animals. He had learned how to trap ptarmigan, how to shoot wolves with a bow, how to make thread with reindeer tendons, and how to cure chilblains with the fat that exuded from toasted reindeer cheese. At night, under the polar star, the sheer beauty of the natural world had knocked him to the ground. He had been twenty-five then, and wildly energetic. Now he was seventy.
His once-famous memory was nearly gone, eroded by a series of strokes—he forgot where he was and what he was doing; he forgot the names of plants and animals; he forgot faces, places, dates. Sometimes he forgot his own name. His mind, which had once seemed to hold the whole world, had been occupied by a great dark lake that spread farther every day and around which he tiptoed gingerly. When he reached for facts they darted like minnows across the water and could only be captured by cunning and indirection. Pehr Artedi, the friend of his youth, had brought order to the study of fishes, the minnows included. In Amsterdam Artedi had fallen into a canal after a night of beer and conversation and had been found the next morning, drowned.
The sleigh flew through the snowy landscape. His legs were paralyzed, along with one arm and his bladder and part of his face; he could not dress or wash or feed himself. At home, when he tried to rise from his armchair unaided, he fell and lay helpless on the floor until his wife, Sara Lisa, retrieved him. Sara Lisa was busy with other tasks and often he lay there for some time.
But Sara Lisa was back at their house in Uppsala, and he was beyond her reach. The horses pulling him might have been reindeer; the coachman a Lapp dressed in fur and skins. Hammarby, the estate he’d bought as a country retreat years ago, at the height of his fame, was waiting for him. The door leading into the kitchen was wide and the sleigh was small. Linnaeus gestured for the coachman to push the sleigh inside.
The coachman was called Pehr; a common name. There had been Artedi, of course, and then after him all the students named Pehr: Pehr Lofling, Pehr Forskal, Pehr Osbeck, Pehr Kalm. Half of them were dead. This Pehr, the coachman Pehr, lifted Linnaeus out of the sleigh and carried him carefully into the house. The kitchen was clean and almost bare: a rough table, a few straight chairs.
Pehr set Linnaeus on the floor, propped against the wall, and then he went back outside and unhitched the horses and shoved the sleigh through the door and in front of the stone fireplace. He was very worried and feared he had made a mistake. His master’s face was white and drawn and his hand, gesturing from the sleigh to the door again and again, had been curled like a claw.
“Fire?” Linnaeus said, or thought he said. At certain moments, when the lake receded a bit and left a wider path around the shore, he was aware that the words coming out of his mouth bore little resemblance to the words he meant. Often he could only produce a syllable at a time. But he said something and gestured toward the fireplace, and Pehr had a good deal of sense. Pehr lifted Linnaeus back into the sleigh, tucked the sheepskins around his legs and his torso, and then built a fire. Soon the flames began to warm the room. The sky darkened outside; the room was dark except for the glow from the logs. Pehr went out to tend to the horses and Linnaeus, staring into the flames, felt his beloved place around him.
He’d rebuilt this house and added several wings; on the hill he’d built a small museum for his herbarium and his insect collection and his rocks and zoological specimens. In his study and bedroom the walls were papered from ceiling to floor with botanical etchings and prints, and outside, among the elms and beyond the Siberian garden, the glass bells he’d hung sang in the wind. In his youth he had heard the cries of ptarmigan, which had sounded like a kind of laughter. The fire was warm on his face and his hands, and when Pehr returned from the horses Linnaeus gestured toward his tobacco and his pipe.
Pehr filled the pipe, lit it, and placed it in his master’s mouth. “We should go back,” he said. “Your family will be worried.” Worried was a kind word, Pehr knew; his master’s wife would be raging, possibly blaming him. They were an hour late already and the sun was gone.
Linnaeus puffed on his pipe and said nothing. He was very pleased with himself. The fire was warm, his pipe drew well, no one knew where he was but Pehr and Pehr had the rare gift of silence. A dog lying near the hearth would have completed his happiness. Across the dark lake in his mind he saw Pompey, the best of all his dogs, barking at the water. Pompey had walked with him each summer Sunday from here to the parish church and sat in the pew beside him. They’d stayed for an hour, ample time for a sermon; if the parson spoke longer they rose and left anyway. Pompey, so smart and funny, had learned the pattern if not the meaning. When Linnaeus was ill, Pompey left for church at the appropriate time, hopped into the appropriate bench, stayed for an hour and then scampered out. The neighbors had learned to watch for his antics. Now he was dead.
“Sir?” the coachman said.
His name was Pehr, Linnaeus remembered. Like Osbeck and Forskal, Lofling and Kalm. There had been others, too: those he had taught at the university in Uppsala and those he had taught privately here at Hammarby. Germans and Danes, Russians and Swiss, Finns and a few Norwegians; a Frenchman, who had not worked out, and an American, who had; one Englishman, still around. And then there were those he had hardly known, who had come by the hundreds to the great botanic excursions he’d organized around the city. Dressed in loose linen suits, their arms full of nets and jars, they had trailed him in a huge parade, gathering plants and insects and herding around him at resting places to listen to him lecture on the treasures they’d found. They were young, and when he was young he had often kept them out for twelve or thirteen hours at a stretch. On their return to the Botanic Gardens they had sometimes been hailed by a kettledrum and French horns. Outside the garden the band had stopped and cheered: Vivat scientia! Vivat Linnaeus! Lately there were those who attacked his work.
The coachman was worried, Linnaeus could see. He crouched to the right of the sleigh, tapping a bit of kindling on the floor. “They will be looking for you,” he said.
And of course it was true; his family was always looking for him. Always looking, wanting, needing, demanding. He had written and taught and lectured and tutored, traveled and scrabbled and scrambled; and always Sara Lisa said there was not enough money, they needed more, she was worried about Carl Junior and the girls. Carl Junior was lazy, he needed more schooling. The girls needed frocks, the girls needed shoes. The girls needed earrings to wear to a dance where they might meet appropriate husbands.
The three oldest looked and acted like their mother: large-boned, coarse-featured, practical. Sophia seemed to belong to another genus entirely. He thought of her fine straight nose, her beautiful eyes. When she was small he used to take her with him to his lectures, where she would stand between his knees and listen. Now she was engaged. On his tour of Lappland, with the whole world still waiting to be named, he’d believed that he and everyone he loved would live forever.
Now he had named almost everything and everyone knew his name. How clear and simple was the system of his nomenclature! Two names, like human names: a generic name common to all the species of one genus; a specific name distinguishing differences. He liked names that clearly described a feature of the genus: Potamogeton, by the river; Drosera, like a dew. Names that honored botanists also pleased him. In England the King had built a huge garden called Kew, in which wooden labels named each plant according to his system. The King of France had done the same thing at the Trianon. In Spain and Russia and South America plants bore names that he’d devised, and on his coat he wore the ribbon that named him a Knight of the Polar Star. But his monkey Grinn, a present from the Queen, was dead; and also Sjup the raccoon and the parrot who had sat on his shoulder at meals and the weasel who wore a bell on his neck and hunted rats among the rocks.
There was a noise outside. Pehr leapt up and a woman and a man walked through the door. Pehr was all apologies, blushing, shuffling, nervous. The woman touched his arm and said, “It wasn’t your fault.” Then she said, “Papa?”
One of his daughters, Linnaeus thought. She was pretty, she was smiling; she was almost surely Sophia. The man by her side looked familiar, and from the way he held Sophia’s elbow Linnaeus wondered if it might be her husband. Had she married? He remembered no wedding. Her fiancé? Her fiancé, then. Or not: the man bent low, bringing his face down to Linnaeus’s like the moon falling from the sky.
“Sir?” he said. “Sir?”
One of those moments in which no words were possible was upon him. He gazed at the open, handsome face of the young man, aware that this was someone he knew. The man said, “It’s Rotheram, sir.”
Rotheram. Rotheram. The sound was like the wind moving over the Lappland hills. Rotheram, one of his pupils, not a fiancé at all. Human beings had two names, like plants, by which they might be recalled. Nature was a cryptogram and the scientific method a key; nature was a labyrinth and this method the thread of Ariadne. Or the world was an alphabet written in God’s hand, which he, Carl Linnaeus, had been called to decipher. One of his pupils had come to see him, one of the pupils he’d sent to all the corners of the world and called, half-jokingly, his apostles. This one straightened now, a few feet away, most considerately not blocking the fire. What was his name? He was young, vigorous, strongly built. Was he Lofling, then? Or Ternström, Hasselquist, Falck?
The woman frowned. “Papa,” she said. “Can we just sit you up? We’ve been looking everywhere for you.”
Sophia. The man bent over again, sliding his hands beneath Linnaeus’s armpits and gently raising him to a sitting position. He was Hasselquist or Ternström, Lofling or Forskal or Falck. Or he was none of them, because all of them were dead.
Linnaeus’s mind left his body, rose and traveled along the paths his apostles had taken. He was young again, as they had been: twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five, the years he had done his best work. He was Christopher Ternström, that married pastor who’d been such a passionate botanist. Sailing to the East Indies in search of a tea plant and some living goldfish to give to the Queen, mailing letters back to his teacher from Cádiz. On a group of islands off Cambodia he had succumbed to a tropical fever. His wife had berated Linnaeus for luring her husband to his death.
But he was not Linnaeus. He was Fredrik Hasselquist, modest and poor, who had landed in Smyrna and traveled through Palestine and Syria and Cyprus and Rhodes, gathering plants and animals and keeping a diary so precise that it had broken Linnaeus’s heart to edit it. Twice he had performed this task, once for Hasselquist, once for Artedi. After the drowning, he had edited Artedi’s book on the fish. Hasselquist died in a village outside Smyrna, when he was thirty.
Of course there were those who had made it back: Pehr Osbeck, who had returned from China with a huge collection of new plants and a china tea-set decorated with Linnaeus’s own flower; Marten Kahler, who’d returned with nothing. Kahler’s health had been broken by the shipwreck in the North Sea, by the fever that followed the attack in Marseilles, by his endless, grinding poverty. The chest containing his collections had been captured by pirates long before it reached Sweden. Then there was Rolander, Daniel Rolander—was that the man who was with him now?
But he had said Ro…, Ro…Rotheram, that’s who it was, the English pupil. Nomenclature is a mnemonic art. In Surinam the heat had crumpled Rolander’s body and melted his mind. All he brought home was a lone pot of Indian fig covered with cochineal insects, which Linnaeus’s gardener had mistakenly washed away. Lost insects and a handful of gray seeds, which Rolander claimed to be pearls. When Linnaeus gently pointed out the error, Rolander had left in a huff for Denmark, where he was reportedly living on charity. The others were dead: Lofling, Forskal, and Falck.
Sophia said, “Papa, we looked all over—why didn’t you come back?”
Pehr the coachman said, “I’m sorry, he begged me.”
The pupil—Lofling?—said, “How long has he been weeping like this?”
But Pehr wasn’t weeping, Pehr was fine. Someone, not Pehr or Sophia, was laughing. Linnaeus remembered how Lofling had taken dictation from him when his hands were crippled by gout. Lofling was twenty-one, he was only a boy; he had tutored Carl Junior, the lazy son. In Spain Lofling had made a name for himself and had sent letters and plants to Linnaeus; then he’d gone to South America with a Spanish expedition. Venezuela; another place Linnaeus had never been. But he had seen it, through Lofling’s letters and specimens. Birds so brightly colored they seemed to be jeweled and rivers that pulsed, foamy and brown, through ferns the height of a man. The letter from Spain announcing Lofling’s death from fever had come only months after little Johannes had died.
There he sat, in his sleigh in the kitchen, surrounded by the dead. “Are you laughing, Papa?” Sophia said. “Are you happy?”
His apostles had gone out into the world like his own organs: extra eyes and hands and feet, observing, gathering, naming. Someone was stroking his hands. Pehr Forskal, after visiting Marseilles and Malta and Constantinople, reached Alexandria one October and dressed as a peasant to conceal himself from marauding Bedouins. In Cairo he roamed the streets in his disguise and made a fine collection of new plants; then he traveled by Suez and Jedda to Arabia, where he was stricken by plague and died. Months later, a letter arrived containing a stalk and a flower from a tree that Linnaeus had always wanted to see: the evergreen from which the Balm of Gilead was obtained. The smell was spicy and sweet but Forskal, who had also tutored Carl Junior, was gone. And Falck, who had meant to accompany Forskal on his Arabian journey, was gone as well—he had gone to St. Petersburg instead, and then traveled through Turkestan and Mongolia. Lonely and lost and sad in Kazan, he had shot himself in the head.
Outside the weather had changed and now it was raining. The pupil: Falck or Forskal, Osbeck or Rolander—Rotheram, who had fallen ill several years ago, whom Sophia had nursed, who came and went from his house like family—said, “I hate to move you, sir; I know you’re enjoying it here. But the rain is ruining the track. We’ll have a hard time if we don’t leave soon.”
Rolander? There was a story about Rolander, which he had used as the basis for a lecture on medicine and, later, in a paper. Where had it come from? A letter, perhaps. Or maybe Rolander had related it himself, before his mind disintegrated completely. On the ship, on the way to Surinam, he had fallen ill with dysentery. Ever the scientist, trained by his teacher, he’d examined his feces and found thousands of mites in them. He held his magnifying glass to the wooden beaker he’d sipped from in the night, and found a dense white line of flour mites down near the base.
Kahler lashed himself to the mast of his boat, where he remained two days and two nights without food.
Hasselquist died in the village of Bagda.
Pehr Kalm crossed the Great Lakes and walked into Canada.
In Denmark, someone stole Rolander’s gray seeds, almost as if they’d been truly pearls.
Generic names, he had taught these pupils, must be clear and stable and expressive. They should not be vague or confusing; neither should they be primitive, barbarous, lengthy, or difficult to pronounce. They should have significant metaphorical or historical associations with the character of the genus. Another botanist had named the thyme-leaved bell-flower after him: Linnaea borealis. One June, in Lappland, he had seen it flourishing. His apostles had died in this order: Ternström, Hasselquist, Lofling, Forskal, Falck, and then finally Kahler, at home. His second son, Johannes, had died at the age of two, between Hasselquist and Lofling; but that was also the year of Sophia’s birth. Once, when Sophia had dropped a tray full of dishes, he had secretly bought a new set to replace them, to spare her from her mother’s wrath.
His apostles had taken wing like swallows, but they had failed to return. Swallows wintered beneath the lakes, or so he had always believed. During the autumn, he had written, they gather in large groups in the weeds and then dive, resting beneath the ice until spring. An English friend—Collinson, Peter in his own tongue but truly Pehr, and also dead—had argued with him over this and begged him to hold some swallows under water to see if they could live there. Was it so strange to think they might sleep beneath the water above which they hovered in summer? Was it not stranger to think they flew for thousands of miles? He knew another naturalist who believed that swallows wintered on the moon. But always there had been people, like his wife, who criticized his every word.
He had fought off all of them. The Queen had ennobled him: he was Carl von Linné now. But the pupils he’d sent out as his eyes and ears were dead. During his years in Uppsala he had written and lectured about the mud iguana of Carolina and Siberian buckwheat and bearberries; about lemmings and ants and a phosphorescent Chinese grasshopper. Fossils, crystals, the causes of leprosy and intermittent fever—all these things he had known about because of his pupils’ travels. Over his bedroom door he’d inscribed this motto: “Live blamelessly; God is present.”
A group of men had appeared to the left of the fire. Lofling, Forskal, Falck he saw, and also Ternström and Hasselquist. And another, whom he’d forgotten about: Carl Thunberg, his fellow Smalander.
Thunberg was back, then? Thunberg, the last he had heard, was still alive. From Paris Thunberg had gone to Holland. From Holland he had gone to the Cape of Good Hope, and then to Java and finally to Japan. In Japan he had been confined to the tiny island of Deshima, isolated like all the foreigners. So desperate had he been to learn about the Japanese flora that he had picked daily through the fodder the servants brought to feed the swine and cattle. He had begged the Japanese servants to bring him samples from their gardens.
Of all his pupils, Thunberg had been the most faithful about sending letters and herbarium specimens home. He had been scrupulous about spreading his teacher’s methods. “I have met some Japanese doctors,” he’d written. “I have been teaching them botany and Linnaean taxonomy. They welcome your method and sing your praises.” He had also, Linnaeus remembered, introduced into Japan the treatment of syphilis by quicksilver. He had left Japan with crates of specimens; he’d been headed for Ceylon. But here he was, sharp-featured and elegant, leaning on the mantelpiece and trading tales with his predecessors.
“The people are small and dark and suspicious of us,” he was saying. “They find us coarse. But their gardens are magnificent, and they have ways of stunting trees that I have never seen before.”
“In Palestine,” Hasselquist replied; “the land is so dry that the smallest plants send roots down for many feet, searching for buried water.”
“The tropics cannot be described,” Lofling said. “The astonishing fertility, the way the vegetation is layered from the ground to the sky, the epiphytes clumped in the highest branches like lace…”
“Alexandria,” Forskal said. “Everything there is so ancient, so layered with history.”
“My health is broken,” Falck said; and Kahler said, “I walked from Rome almost all the way to Sweden.”
In Lappland, Linnaeus said silently, a gray gnat with striated wings and black legs cruelly tormented me and my most miserable horse. His apostles did not seem to hear him. A very bright and calm day, he said. The great Myrgiolingen was flying in the marshes.
“We’ll go home now, Papa,” the tall woman said. “We’ll put you to bed. Won’t you like that?”
Her face was as radiant as a star. What was her name? Beside her, his apostles held leaves and twigs and scraps of blossoms, all new and named by them with their teacher’s advice. They were trading these among themselves. A leaf from a new succulent for a spray from a never-seen orchid. Two fronds of a miniature fern for a twig from a dwarf evergreen. They were so excited that their voices were rising; they might have been playing cards, laying down plants for bets instead of gold. But the woman and the other pupil didn’t seem to notice them. The woman and the other pupil were wholly focused on helping Pehr the coachman push the sleigh back outside.
The woman opened the doors and held them. Pehr and the pupil pushed and pulled. The crisp, winy air of the afternoon had turned dank and raw, and a light rain was turning the snow to slush. Linnaeus said nothing, but he turned and gazed over his shoulder. The group gathered by the fireplace stepped back, displeased, when Pehr returned and doused the fire. Thunberg looked at Linnaeus and raised an eyebrow. Linnaeus nodded.
In the hands of his lost ones were the plants he had named for them: Artedia, an umbelliferous plant, and Osbeckia, tall and handsome; Loeflingia, a small plant from Spain; Thunbergia with its black eye centered in yellow petals, and the tropical Ternstroemia. There were more, he couldn’t remember them all. He’d named thousands of plants in his life.
Outside, the woman and the pupil separated. Sophia? Sophia, my favorite. Sophia bundled herself into the borrowed sleigh in which she’d arrived; the pupil wedged himself into Pehr’s sleigh, next to Linnaeus. In the dark damp air they formed a line that could hardly be seen: Pehr’s sleigh, and then Sophia’s, and behind them, following the cunning signal Linnaeus had given, the last sleigh filled with his apostles. Pehr huddled into his coat and gave the signal to depart. It was late and he was weary. To their left, the rain and melting snow had turned the low field into a lake. Linnaeus looked up at his pupil—Rotheram? Of course it was him: the English pupil, the last one, the one who would survive him—and tried to say, “The death of many whom I have induced to travel has turned my hair gray, and what have I gained? A few dried plants, accompanied by great anxiety, unrest, and care.”
Rotheram said, “Rest your head on my arm. We will be home before you know it.”
When they met, fifteen years ago, Jonathan had a job teaching botany at a small college near Albany, and Ruby was teaching invertebrate zoology at a college in the Berkshires. Both of them, along with an ornithologist, an ichthyologist, and an oceanographer, had agreed to spend three weeks of their summer break at a marine biology research station on an island off the New Hampshire coast. They had spouses, children, mortgages, bills; they went, they later told each other, because the pay was too good to refuse. Two-thirds of the way through the course, they agreed that the pay was not enough.
How they reached that first agreement is a story they’ve repeated to each other again and again and told, separately, to their closest friends. Ruby thinks they had this conversation on the second Friday of the course, after Frank Kenary’s slide show on the abyssal fish and before Carol Dagliesh’s lecture on the courting behavior of herring gulls. Jonathan maintains that they had it earlier—that Wednesday, maybe, when they were still recovering from Gunnar Erickson’s trawling expedition. The days before they became so aware of each other have blurred in their minds, but they agree that their first real conversation took place on the afternoon devoted to the littoral zone.
The tide was all the way out. The students were clumped on the rocky, pitted apron between the water and the ledges, peering into the tidal pools and listing the species they found. Gunnar was in the equipment room, repairing one of the sampling claws. Frank was setting up dissections in the tiny lab; Carol had gone back to the mainland on the supply boat, hoping to replace the camera one of the students had dropped. And so the two of them, Jonathan and Ruby, were left alone for a little while.
They both remember the granite ledge where they sat, and the raucous quarrels of the nesting gulls. They agree that Ruby was scratching furiously at her calves and that Jonathan said, “Take it easy, okay? You’ll draw blood.”
Her calves were slim and tan, Jonathan remembers. Covered with blotches and scrapes.
I folded my fingers, Ruby remembers. Then I blushed. My throat felt sunburned.
Ruby said, “I know, it’s so embarrassing. But all this salt on my poison ivy—God, what I wouldn’t give for a bath! They never told me there wouldn’t be any water here…”
Jonathan gestured at the ocean surrounding them and then they started laughing. Hysteria, they have told each other since. They were so tired by then, twelve days into the course, and so dirty and overworked and strained by pretending to the students that these things didn’t matter, that neither of them could understand that they were also lonely. Their shared laughter felt like pure relief.
“No water?” Jonathan said. “I haven’t been dry since we got here. My clothes are damp, my sneakers are damp, my hair never dries…”
His hair was beautiful, Ruby remembers. Thick, a little too long. Part blond and part brown.
“I know,” she said. “But you know what I mean. I didn’t realize they’d have to bring our drinking water over on a boat.”
“Or that they’d expect us to wash in the ocean,” Jonathan said. Her forearms were dusted with salt, he remembers. The down along them sparkled in the sun.
“And those cots,” Ruby said. “Does yours have a sag in it like a hammock?”
“Like a slingshot,” Jonathan said.
For half an hour they sat on their ledge and compared their bubbling patches of poison ivy and the barnacle wounds that scored their hands and feet. Nothing healed out here, they told each other. Everything got infected. When one of the students called, “Look what I found!” Jonathan rose and held his hand out to Ruby. She took it easily and hauled herself up and they walked down to the water together. Jonathan’s hand was thick and blunt-fingered, with nails bitten down so far that the skin around them was raw. Odd, Ruby remembers thinking. Those bitten stumps attached to such a good-looking man.
They have always agreed that the worst moment, for each of them, was when they stepped from the boat to the dock on the final day of the course and saw their families waiting in the parking lot. Jonathan’s wife had their four-year-old daughter balanced on her shoulders. Their two older children were leaning perilously over the guardrails and shrieking at the sight of him. Jessie had turned nine in Jonathan’s absence, and Jonathan can’t think of her eager face without remembering the starfish he brought as his sole, guilty gift.
Ruby’s husband had parked their car just a few yards from Jonathan’s family. Her sons were wearing baseball caps, and what Ruby remembers is the way the yellow linings lit their faces. For a minute she saw the children squealing near her sons as faceless, inconsequential; Jonathan later told her that her children had been similarly blurred for him. Then Jonathan said, “That’s my family, there,” and Ruby said, “That’s mine, right next to yours,” and all the faces leapt into focus for both of them.
Nothing that was to come—not the days in court, nor the days they moved, nor the losses of jobs and homes—would ever seem so awful to them as that moment when they first saw their families standing there, unaware and hopeful. Deceitfully, treacherously, Ruby and Jonathan separated and walked to the people awaiting them. They didn’t introduce each other to their spouses. They didn’t look at each other—although, they later admitted, they cast covert looks at each other’s families. They thought they were invisible, that no one could see what had happened between them. They thought their families would not remember how they had stepped off the boat and stood, for an instant, together.
On that boat, sitting dumb and miserable in the litter of nets and equipment, they had each pretended to be resigned to going home. Each foresaw (or so they later told each other) the hysterical phone calls and the frenzied, secret meetings. Neither foresaw how much the sight of each other’s family would hurt. “Sweetie,” Jonathan remembers Ruby’s husband saying. “You’ve lost so much weight.” Ruby remembers staring over her husband’s shoulder and watching Jessie butt her head like a dog under Jonathan’s hand.
For the first twelve days on the island, Jonathan and Ruby were so busy that they hardly noticed each other. For the next few days, after their conversation on the ledge, they sat near each other during faculty lectures and student presentations. These were held in the library, a ramshackle building separated from the bunkhouse and the dining hall by a stretch of wild roses and poison ivy.
Jonathan had talked about algae in there, holding up samples of Fucus and Hildenbrandtia. Ruby had talked about the littoral zone, that space between high and low watermarks where organisms struggled to adapt to the daily rhythm of immersion and exposure. They had drawn on the blackboard in colored chalk while the students, itchy and hot and tired, scratched their arms and legs and feigned attention.
Neither of them, they admitted much later, had focused fully on the other’s lecture. “It was before,” Ruby has said ruefully. “I didn’t know that I was going to want to have listened.” And Jonathan has laughed and confessed that he was studying the shells and skulls on the walls while Ruby was drawing on the board.
The library was exceedingly hot, they agreed, and the chairs remarkably uncomfortable; the only good spot was the sofa in front of the fireplace. That was the spot they commandeered on the evening after their first conversation, when dinner led to a walk and then the walk led them into the library a few minutes before the scheduled lecture.
Erika Moorhead, Ruby remembers. Talking about the tensile strength of byssus threads.
Walter Schank, Jonathan remembers. Something to do with hydrozoans.
They both remember feeling comfortable for the first time since their arrival. And for the next few days—three by Ruby’s accounting; four by Jonathan’s—one of them came early for every lecture and saved a seat on the sofa for the other.
They giggled at Frank Kenary’s slides, which he’d arranged like a creepy fashion show: abyssal fish sporting varied blobs of luminescent flesh. When Gunnar talked for two hours about subduction zones and the calcium carbonate cycle, they amused themselves exchanging doodles. They can’t remember, now, whether Gunnar’s endless lecture came before Carol Dagliesh’s filmstrip on the herring gulls, or which of the students tipped over the dissecting scope and sent the dish of copepods to their deaths. But both of them remember those days and nights as being almost purely happy. They swam in that odd, indefinite zone where they were more than friends, not yet lovers, still able to deny to themselves that they were headed where they were headed.
Ruby made the first phone call, a week after they left the island. At eleven o’clock on a Sunday night, she told her husband she’d left something in her office that she needed to prepare the next day’s class. She drove to campus, unlocked her door, picked up the phone and called Jonathan at his house. One of his children—Jessie, she thinks—answered the phone. Ruby remembers how, even through the turmoil of her emotions, she’d been shocked at the idea of a child staying up so late.
There was a horrible moment while Jessie went to find her father; another when Jonathan, hearing Ruby’s voice, said, “Wait, hang on, I’ll just be a minute,” and then negotiated Jessie into bed. Ruby waited, dreading his anger, knowing she’d been wrong to call him at home. But Jonathan, when he finally returned, said, “Ruby. You got my letter.”
“What letter?” she asked. He wrote to tell me good-bye, she remembers thinking.
“My letter,” he said. “I wrote you, I have to see you. I can’t stand this.”
Ruby released the breath she hadn’t known she was holding.
“You didn’t get it?” he said. “You just called?” It wasn’t only me, he remembers thinking. She feels it too.
“I had to hear your voice,” she said.
Ruby called, but Jonathan wrote. And so when Jonathan’s youngest daughter, Cora, later fell in love and confided in Ruby, and then asked her, “Was it like this with you two? Who started it—you or Dad?” all Ruby could say was, “It happened to both of us.”
Sometimes, when Ruby and Jonathan sit on the patio looking out at the hills above Palmyra, they will turn and see their children watching them through the kitchen window. Before the children went off to college, the house bulged with them on weekends and holidays and seemed empty in between; Jonathan’s wife had custody of Jessie and Gordon and Cora, and Ruby’s husband took her sons, Mickey and Ryan, when he remarried. Now that the children are old enough to come and go as they please, the house is silent almost all the time.
Jessie is twenty-four, and Gordon is twenty-two; Mickey is twenty-one, and Cora and Ryan are both nineteen. When they visit Jonathan and Ruby they spend an unhealthy amount of time talking about their past. In their conversations they seem to split their lives into three epochs: the years when what they think of as their real families were whole; the years right after Jonathan and Ruby met, when their parents were coming and going, fighting and making up, separating and divorcing; and the years since Jonathan and Ruby’s marriage, when they were forced into a reconstituted family. Which epoch they decide to explore depends on who’s visiting and who’s getting along with whom.
“But we were happy,” Mickey may say to Ruby, if he and Ryan are visiting and Jonathan’s children are absent. “We were, we were fine.”
“It wasn’t like you and Mom ever fought,” Cora may say to Jonathan, if Ruby’s sons aren’t around. “You could have worked it out if you’d tried.”
When they are all together, they tend to avoid the first two epochs and to talk about their first strained weekends and holidays together. They’ve learned to tolerate each other, despite their forced introductions; Cora and Ryan, whose birthdays are less than three months apart, seem especially close. Ruby and Jonathan know that much of what draws their youngest children together is shared speculation about what happened on that island.
They look old to their children, they know. Both of them are nearing fifty. Jonathan has grown quite heavy and has lost much of his hair; Ruby’s fine-boned figure has gone gaunt and stringy. They know their children can’t imagine them young and strong and wrung by passion. The children can’t think—can’t stand to think—about what happened on the island, but they can’t stop themselves from asking questions.
“Did you have other girlfriends?” Cora asks Jonathan. “Were you so unhappy with Mom?”
“Did you know him before?” Ryan asks Ruby. “Did you go there to be with him?”
“We met there,” Jonathan and Ruby say. “We had never seen each other before. We fell in love.” That is all they will say, they never give details, they say “yes” or “no” to the easy questions and evade the hard ones. They worry that even the little they offer may be too much.
Jonathan and Ruby tell each other the stories of their talk by the tidal pool, their walks and meals, the sagging sofa, the moment in the parking lot, and the evening Ruby made her call. They tell these to console themselves when their children chide them or when, alone in the house, they sit quietly near each other and struggle to conceal their disappointments.
Of course they have expected some of these. Mickey and Gordon have both had trouble in school, and Jessie has grown much too close to her mother; neither Jonathan nor Ruby has found jobs as good as the ones they lost, and their new home in Palmyra still doesn’t feel quite like home. But all they have lost in order to be together would seem bearable had they continued to feel the way they felt on the island.
They’re sensible people, and very well-mannered; they remind themselves that they were young then and are middle-aged now, and that their fierce attraction would naturally ebb with time. Neither likes to think about how much of the thrill of their early days together came from the obstacles they had to overcome. Some days, when Ruby pulls into the driveway still thinking about her last class and catches sight of Jonathan out in the garden, she can’t believe the heavyset figure pruning shrubs so meticulously is the man for whom she fought such battles. Jonathan, who often wakes very early, sometimes stares at Ruby’s sleeping face and thinks how much more gracefully his ex-wife is aging.
They never reproach each other. When the tension builds in the house and the silence becomes overwhelming, one or the other will say, “Do you remember…?” and then launch into one of the myths on which they have founded their lives. But there is one story they never tell each other, because they can’t bear to talk about what they have lost. This is the one about the evening that has shaped their life together.
Jonathan’s hand on Ruby’s back, Ruby’s hand on Jonathan’s thigh, a shirt unbuttoned, a belt undone. They never mention this moment, or the moments that followed it, because that would mean discussing who seduced whom, and any resolution of that would mean assigning blame. Guilt they can handle; they’ve been living with guilt for fifteen years. But blame? It would be more than either of them could bear, to know the exact moment when one of them precipitated all that has happened to them. The most either of them has ever said is, “How could we have known?”
But the night in the library is what they both think about, when they lie silently next to each other and listen to the wind. It must be summer for them to think about it; the children must be with their other parents and the rain must be falling on the cedar shingles overhead. A candle must be burning on the mantel above the bed and the maple branches outside their window must be tossing against each other. Then they think of the story they know so well and never say out loud.
There was a huge storm three nights before they left the island, the tail end of a hurricane passing farther out to sea. The cedar trees creaked and swayed in the wind beyond the library windows. The students had staggered off to bed, after the visitor from Woods Hole had finished his lecture on the explorations of the Alvin in the Cayman Trough, and Frank and Gunnar and Carol had shrouded themselves in their rain gear and left as well, sheltering the visitor between them. Ruby sat at one end of the long table, preparing bottles of fixative for their expedition the following morning, and Jonathan lay on the sofa writing notes. The boat was leaving just after dawn and they knew they ought to go to bed.
The wind picked up outside, sweeping the branches against the walls. The windows rattled. Jonathan shivered and said, “Do you suppose we could get a fire going in that old fireplace?”
“I bet we could,” said Ruby, which gave both of them the pretext they needed to crouch side by side on the cracked tiles, brushing elbows as they opened the flue and crumpled paper and laid kindling in the form of a grid. The logs Jonathan found near the lobster traps were dry and the fire caught quickly.
Who found the green candle in the drawer below the microscope? Who lit the candle and turned off the lights? And who found the remains of the jug of wine that Frank had brought in honor of the visitor? They sat there side by side, poking at the burning logs and pretending they weren’t doing what they were doing. The wind pushed through the window they’d opened a crack, and the tan window shade lifted and then fell back against the frame. The noise was soothing at first; later it seemed irritating.
Jonathan, whose fingernails were bitten to the quick, admired the long nail on Ruby’s right little finger and then said, half-seriously, how much he’d love to bite a nail like that. When Ruby held her hand to his mouth he took the nail between his teeth and nibbled through the white tip, which days in the water had softened. Ruby slipped her other hand inside his shirt and ran it up his back. Jonathan ran his mouth up her arm and down her neck.
They started in front of the fire and worked their way across the floor, breaking a glass, knocking the table askew. Ruby rubbed her back raw against the rug and Jonathan scraped his knees, and twice they paused and laughed at their wild excesses. They moved across the floor from east to west and later from west to east, and between those two journeys, during the time when they heaped their clothes and the sofa cushions into a nest in front of the fire, they talked.
This was not the kind of conversation they’d had during walks and meals since that first time on the rocks: who they were, where they’d come from, how they’d made it here. This was the talk where they instinctively edited out the daily pleasures of their lives on the mainland and spliced together the hard times, the dark times, until they’d constructed versions of themselves that could make sense of what they’d just done.
For months after this, as they lay in stolen, secret rooms between houses and divorces and jobs and lives, Jonathan would tell Ruby that he swallowed her nail. The nail dissolved in his stomach, he’d say. It passed into his villi and out to his blood and then flowed to bone and muscle and nerve, where the molecules that had once been part of her became part of him. Ruby, who always seemed to know more acutely than Jonathan that they’d have to leave whatever room this was in an hour or a day, would argue with him.
“Nails are keratin,” she’d tell him. “Like hooves and hair. Like wool. We can’t digest wool.”
“Moths can,” Jonathan would tell her. “Moths eat sweaters.”
“Moths have a special enzyme in their saliva,” Ruby would say. This was true, she knew it for a fact. She’d been so taken by Jonathan’s tale that she’d gone to the library to check out the details and discovered he was wrong.
But Jonathan didn’t care what the biochemists said. He held her against his chest and said, “I have an enzyme for you.”
That night, after the fire burned out, they slept for a couple of hours. Ruby woke first and watched Jonathan sleep for a while. He slept like a child, with his knees bent toward his chest and his hands clasped between his thighs. Ruby picked up the tipped-over chair and swept the fragments of broken glass onto a sheet of paper. Then she woke Jonathan and they tiptoed back to the rooms where they were supposed to be.
Imagine an April evening in 1762. A handsome house set in the gently rolling Kent landscape a few miles outside the city of London; the sun just set over blue squill and beech trees newly leafed. Inside the house are a group of men and a single woman: Christopher Billopp, his sister Sarah Anne, and Christopher’s guests from London. Educated and well-bred, they’re used to a certain level of conversation. Just now they’re discussing Linnaeus’s contention that swallows retire under water for the winter—that old belief, stemming from Aristotle, which Linnaeus still upholds.
“He’s hardly alone,” Mr. Miller says. Behind him, a large mirror reflects a pair of portraits: Christopher and Sarah Anne, painted several years earlier as a gift for their father. “Even Klein, Linnaeus’s rival, agrees. He wrote that a friend’s mother saw fishermen bring out a bundle of swallows from a lake near Pilaw. When the swallows were placed near a fire, they revived and flew about.”
Mr. Pennant nods. “Remember the reports of Dr. Colas? Fishermen he talked to in northern parts claimed that when they broke through the ice in winter they took up comatose swallows in their nets as well as fish. And surely you remember reading how Taletini of Cremona swore a Jesuit had told him that the swallows in Poland and Moravia hurled themselves into cisterns and wells come autumn.”
Mr. Collinson laughs at this, although not unkindly, and he looks across the table at his old friend Mr. Ellis. “Hearsay, hearsay,” he says. He has a spot on his waistcoat. Gravy, perhaps. Or cream. “Not one shred of direct evidence. Mothers, fishermen, itinerant Jesuits—this is folklore, my friends. Not science.”
At the foot of the table, Sarah Anne nods but says nothing. Pennant, Ellis, Collinson, Miller: all distinguished. But old, so old. She worries that she and Christopher are growing prematurely old as well. Staid and dull and entirely too comfortable with these admirable men, whom they have known since they were children.
Their father, a brewer by trade but a naturalist by avocation, had educated Christopher and Sarah Anne together after their mother’s death, as if they were brothers. The three of them rambled the grounds of Burdem Place, learning the names of the plants and birds. Collinson lived in Peckham then, just a few miles away, and he often rode over bearing rare plants and seeds sent by naturalist friends in other countries. Peter Kalm, Linnaeus’s famous student, visited the Billopps; Linnaeus himself, before Sarah Anne was born, once stayed for several days.
All these things are part of Sarah Anne’s and Christopher’s common past. And even after Christopher’s return from Cambridge and their father’s death, for a while they continued to enjoy an easy exchange of books and conversation. But now all that has changed. Sarah Anne inherited her father’s brains but Christopher inherited everything else, including his father’s friends. Sarah Anne acts as hostess to these men, at Christopher’s bidding. In part she’s happy for their company, which represents her only intellectual companionship. In part she despises them for their lumbago and thinning hair, their greediness in the presence of good food, the stories they repeat about the scientific triumphs of their youth, and the fact that they refuse to take her seriously. Not one of them has done anything original in years.
There’s another reason, as well, why she holds her tongue on this night. Lately, since Christopher has started courting Miss Juliet Colden, he’s become critical of Sarah Anne’s manners. She does not dress as elegantly as Juliet, or comport herself with such decorum. She’s forward when she ought to be retiring, he has said, and disputatious when she should be agreeable. He’s spoken to her several times already: “You should wear your learning modestly,” he lectures.
She does wear it modestly, or so she believes. She’s careful not to betray in public those subjects she knows more thoroughly than Christopher. Always she reminds herself that her learning is only book-learning; that it hasn’t been tempered, as Christopher’s has, by long discussions after dinner and passionate arguments in coffeehouses with wiser minds.
And so here she is: learned, but not really; and not pretty, and no longer young: last month she turned twenty-nine. Old, old, old. Like her company. She knows that Christopher has begun to worry that she’ll be on his hands for life. And she thinks that perhaps he’s mentioned this worry to his friends.
They’re fond of him, and of Burdem Place. They appreciate the library, the herbarium, the rare trees and shrubs outside, the collections in the specimen cabinets. They appreciate Sarah Anne as well, she knows. Earlier, they complimented the food, her gown, the flowers on the table and her eyes in the candlelight. But what’s the use of that sort of admiration? Collinson, who has known her the longest, was the only one to make a stab at treating her the way they all had when she was a girl: he led her into quoting Pliny and then complimented her on her learning. But she saw the way the other men shifted uneasily as she spoke.
Despite herself, she continues to listen to the men’s conversation. Despite her restlessness, her longing to be outside in the cool damp air, or in some other place entirely, she listens because the subject they’re discussing fascinates her.
“I had a letter last year from Solander,” Ellis says. “Regarding the November meeting of the Royal Society. There, a Reverend Forster said he’d observed large flocks of swallows flying quite high in the autumn, then coming down to sit on reeds and willows before plunging into the water of one of his ponds.”
“More hearsay,” Collinson says.
But Pennant says it might be so; either that or they slept for the winter in their summer nesting holes. “Locke says that there are no chasms or gaps in the great chain of being,” he reminds them. “Rather there is a continuous series in which each step differs very little from the next. There are fishes that have wings, and birds that inhabit the water, whose blood is as cold as that of fishes. Why should not the swallow be one of those animals so near of kin to both birds and fish that it occupies a place between both? As there are mermaids or seamen, perhaps.”
No one objects to the introduction of aquatic anthropoids into the conversation. Reports of them surface every few years—Cingalese fishermen swear they’ve caught them in their nets, a ship’s captain spots two off the coast of Massachusetts. In Paris, only four years ago, a living female of the species was exhibited.
Collinson says, “Our friend Mr. Achard writes me that he has seen them hibernating in the cliffs along the Rhine. But I have my doubts about the whole story.”
“Yes?” Pennant says. “So what do you believe?”
“I think swallows migrate,” Collinson says.
While the servants change plates, replace glasses, and open fresh bottles of wine, Collinson relates a story from Mr. Adanson’s recent History of Senegal. Off the coast of that land in autumn, he says, Adanson reported seeing swallows settling on the decks and rigging of passing ships like bees. Others have reported spring and autumn sightings of swallows in Andalusia and over the Strait of Gibraltar. “Clearly,” Collinson says, “they must be birds of passage.”
Which is what Sarah Anne believes. She opens her mouth and proposes a simple experiment to the men. “The swallow must breathe during winter,” she says, between the soup and the roasted veal. “Respiration and circulation must somehow continue, in some degree. And how is that possible if the birds are under water for so long? Could one not settle this by catching some swallows at the time of their autumn disappearance and confining them under water in a tub for a time? If they are taken out alive, then Linnaeus’s theory is proved. But if not…”
“A reasonable test,” Collinson says. “How would you catch the birds?”
“At night,” she tells him impatiently. Oh, he is so old; he has dribbled more gravy on his waistcoat. How is that he can no longer imagine leaving his world of books and talk for the world outside? Anyone might gather a handful of birds. “With nets, while they roost in the reeds.”
Collinson says, “If they survived, we might dissect one and look for whatever internal structure made possible their underwater sojourn.”
He seems to be waiting for Sarah Anne’s response, but Christopher is glaring at her. She knows what he’s thinking: in his new, middle-aged stodginess, assumed unnecessarily early and worn like a borrowed coat, he judges her harshly. She’s been forward in entering the conversation, unladylike in offering an opinion that contradicts some of her guests, indelicate in suggesting that she might pursue a flock of birds with a net.
What has gotten into him? That pulse she hears inside her ear, the steady swish and hum of her blood, is the sound of time passing. Each minute whirling past her before she can wring any life from it; hours shattered and lost while she defers to her brother’s sense of propriety.
Upstairs, finally. Dismissed while the men, in the library below, drink Christopher’s excellent wine and avail themselves of the chamberpot in the sideboard. Her brother’s friends are grateful for her hospitality, appreciative of her well-run household; but most grateful and appreciative when she disappears.
Her room is dark, the night is cool, the breeze flows through her windows. She sits in her high-ceilinged room, at the fragile desk in the three-windowed bay facing west, over the garden. If it were not dark, she could see the acres leading down to the lake and the low stretch of rushes and willows along the banks.
Her desk is very small, meant to hold a few letters and a vase of flowers: useless for any real work. The books she’s taken from the library spill from it to the floor. Gorgeous books, expensive books. Her brother’s books. But her brother doesn’t use them the way she does. She’s been rooting around in them and composing a letter to Linnaeus, in Uppsala, about the evening’s dinner conversation. Christopher need never know what she writes alone in this room.
Some years ago, after Peter Kalm’s visit, Sarah Anne’s father and Linnaeus corresponded for a while; after expressing admiration for the great doctor’s achievements this visit is what she first mentions. Some flattery, some common ground. She discusses the weather, which has been unusual; she passes on the news of Collinson’s latest botanical acquisitions. Only then does she introduce the subject of the swallows. She writes:
Toward the end of September, I have observed swallows gathering in the reeds along the Thames. And yet, although these reeds are cut down annually, no one has ever discovered swallows sleeping in their roots, nor has any fisherman ever found, in the winter months, swallows sleeping in the water. If all the great flocks seen in theautumn dove beneath the water, how could they not be seen? How could none be found in winter? But perhaps the situation differs in Sweden.
You are so well-known and so revered. Could you not offer the fishermen of your country a reward, if they were to bring to you or your students any swallows they found beneath the ice? Could you not ask them to watch the lakes and streams in spring, and report to you any sightings of swallows emerging from the water? In this fashion you might elucidate the problem.
She pauses and stares at the candle, considering what she observed last fall. After the first killing frosts, the swallows disappeared along with the warblers and flycatchers and other insectivorous birds deprived of food and shelter. Surely it makes sense that they should have gone elsewhere, following their food supply?
She signs the letter “S.A. Billopp,” meaning by this not to deceive the famous scholar but simply to keep him from dismissing her offhand. Then she reads it over, seals it, and snuffs her candle. It is not yet ten but soon the men, who’ve been drinking for hours, will be expecting her to rejoin them for supper. She will not go down, she will send a message that she is indisposed.
She rests her elbows on the windowsill and leans out into the night, dreaming of Andalusia and Senegal and imagining that twice a year she might travel like the swallows. Málaga, Tangier, Marrakech, Dakar. Birds of passage fly from England to the south of France and from there down the Iberian peninsula, where the updrafts from the Rock of Gibraltar ease them over the Strait to Morocco. Then they make the long flight down the coast of Africa.
A bat flies by, on its way to the river. She has seen bats drink on the wing, as swallows do, sipping from the water’s surface. Swallows eat in flight as well, snapping insects from the air. Rain is sure to follow when they fly low; a belief that dates from Virgil, but which she knows to be true. When the air is damp and heavy the insects hover low, and she has seen how the swallows merely follow them.
In the dark she sheds her gown, her corset, her slippers and stockings and complicated underclothes, until she is finally naked. She lies on the floor beside her desk, below the open window. Into her notebook she has copied these lines, written by Olaus Magnus, archbishop of Uppsala, in 1555:
From the northern waters, swallows are often dragged up by fishermen in the form of clustered masses, mouth to mouth, wing to wing, and foot to foot, these having at the beginning of autumn collected amongst the reeds previous to submersion. When young and inexperienced fishermen find such clusters of swallows, they will, by thawing the birds at the fire, bring them indeed to the use of their wings, which will continue but a very short time, as it is a premature and forced revival; but the old, being wiser, throw them away.
A lovely story, but surely wrong. The cool damp air washes over her like water. She folds her arms around her torso and imagines lying at the bottom of the lake, wings wrapped around her body like a kind of chrysalis. It is cold, it is dark, she is barely breathing. How would she breathe? Around her are thousands of bodies. The days lengthen, some signal arrives, she shoots with the rest of her flock to the surface, lifts her head and breathes. Her wings unfold and she soars through the air, miraculously dry and alive.
Is it possible?
Eight months later, Sarah Anne and Christopher stand on London Bridge with Miss Juliet Colden and her brother John, all of them wrapped in enormous cloaks and shivering despite these. They’ve come to gaze at the river, which in this January of remarkable cold is covered with great floes of ice. An odd way, Sarah Anne thinks, to mark the announcement of Christopher and Juliet’s engagement. She wishes she liked Juliet better. Already they’ve been thrown a great deal into each other’s company; soon they’ll be sharing a house.
But not sharing, not really. After the wedding, Juliet will have the household keys; Juliet will be in charge of the servants. Juliet will order the meals, the flowers, the servants’ livery, the evening entertainments. And Sarah Anne will be the extra woman.
The pieces of ice make a grinding noise as they crash against each other and the bridge. Although the tall brick houses that crowded the bridge in Sarah Anne’s childhood were pulled down several years ago and no longer hang precariously over the water, the view remains the same: downriver the Tower and a forest of masts; upriver the Abbey and Somerset House. The floating ice greatly menaces the thousands of ships waiting to be unloaded in the Pool. It is of this that John and Christopher speak. Manly talk: will ships be lost, fortunes destroyed? Meanwhile Juliet chatters and Sarah Anne is silent, scanning the sky for birds.
Wrynecks, white-throats, nightingales, cuckoos, willow-wrens, goatsuckers—none of these are visible, they’ve disappeared for the winter. The swallows are gone as well. An acquaintance of Christopher’s mentioned over a recent dinner that on a remarkably warm December day, he’d seen a small group of swallows huddled under the moldings of a window at Merton College. What were they doing there? She’s seen them, as late as October, gathered in great crowds in the osier-beds along the river—very late for young birds attempting to fly past the equator. In early May she’s seen them clustered on the largest willow at Burdem Place, which hangs over the lake. And in summer swallows swarm the banks of the Thames below this very bridge. It’s clear that they’re attached to water, but attachment doesn’t necessarily imply habitation. Is it possible that they are still around, either below the water or buried somehow in the banks?
If she were alone, and not dressed in these burdensome clothes, and if there were some way she could slip down one of the sets of stairs to the river bank without arousing everyone’s attention, she knows what she would do. She’d mark out a section of bank where the nesting holes are thickest and survey each hole, poking down the burrows until she found the old nests. In the burrows along the river bank at home she’s seen these: a base of straw, then finer grass lined with a little down. Small white eggs in early summer. Now, were she able to look, she believes she’d find only twists of tired grass.
The wind blows her hood over her face. As soon as she gets home, she thinks, she’ll write another letter to Linnaeus and propose that he investigate burrows in Sweden. Four times she’s written him, this past summer and fall; not once has he answered.
Christopher and John’s discussion has shifted to politics, and she would like to join them. But she must talk to Juliet, whose delicate nose has reddened. Juliet’s hands are buried in a huge fur muff; her face is buried in her hood. Well-mannered, she refuses to complain of the cold.
“You’ll be part of the wedding, of course,” Juliet says, and then she describes the music she hopes to have played, the feast that will follow the ceremony. “A big table,” she says. “On the lawn outside the library, when the roses are in bloom—what is that giant vine winding up the porch there?”
“Honeysuckle,” Sarah Anne says gloomily. “The scent is lovely.”
She can picture the wedding only too clearly. The other attendants will be Juliet’s sisters, all three as dainty and pretty as Juliet. Their gowns will be pink or yellow or pink and yellow, with bows down the bodice and too many flounces. The couple will go to Venice and Paris and Rome and when they return they’ll move into Sarah Anne’s large sunny bedroom and she’ll move to a smaller room in the north wing. The first time Juliet saw Sarah Anne’s room, her eyes lit with greed and pleasure. A few days later Christopher said to Sarah Anne, “About your room…” She offered it before he had to ask.
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