We hunt for the structure of the universe in its ghosts. – Dr. Michelle Francl
In the beginning
In the beginning was the trigger warning:
- Prepare for insects.
- Prepare for words in Latin and Spanish.
- Prepare for science and other species of the supernatural.
- Prepare for losses that rewire the chemistry of the brain.
- Prepare for aging and the way it flays you back to the first cell.
- Prepare for ghosts.
• • • •
On display, four chambers
1) Melipona beecheii: Stingless bee
I am on a call with my sisters, watching them migrate their method online. Bending the world, but also bending to the world, deep as genuflection.
They are handsome, dark and sweet, and somehow wilder in these years of our third age.
Words are honey in our mouths, these days. Our well-rehearsed fingers coax new pleasure from worn piano keys and old lovers. Our heads fill with the leaping fancies of remembered magic and unexplored science. But we are old, dear ones.
On Zoom we don’t show our years: solid cells turning to sponge invisibly, fractures and leaks that cannot be seen in the mirror of each other’s eyes. We pretend these days are like the ones that brought us together. Our goddess days, filled with crystalline songs of love—in sublimation, in transmutation, in chemical formulation.
“Hold on,” I whisper, my hands flexing over the keyboard.
If I am past my best working—as academic and corporate America seem to believe I am—I can still fill hexes, turn base to gold, and conjure up what would not be here without me.
2) Hypolestes trinitatis: Damselfly
In La Habana, before the revolution, my grandmother’s buñuelos de yuca y malanga and pastelitos de guayaba betrayed the neat and precise method of a born scientist.
It wasn’t only in the kitchen. She also had an encyclopedic understanding of which household tasks could be achieved by reaction rather than action. When she cleaned tarnish from the heavy pieces of colonial silver in the house—there was a lot of it, and the servants weren’t allowed to touch any—she used boiling water, baking soda, and aluminum foil.
The revolution divested her of the family’s canefields and distilleries, of the silver, of the servants, even of the aluminum foil. It turns out a government can nationalize anything and everything.
Except your brain.
My grandmother’s brain held the exact formulation of base, yeast, and congener needed to continue to produce our family’s wildly popular rum off-island. From Miami, she and my grandfather turned the remaining second- and third-rank properties in Puerto Rico to the manufacture of O’Gorman Reserve in exile.
That formula was the basis of their wealth, and my father’s, and, much later, mine. I say this with neither pride nor shame. We don’t choose what we inherit, only what we do with it.
My grandmother always spoke to me in Spanish, though she knew I preferred English. “You don’t get to claim Cuba as patrimony if you can’t speak the words exactly as el prócer y poeta José Martí wrote them,” she would tell me. She never just said José Martí without appending the honorific, all run together and with an emphasis that would have rendered it in all-caps, had she been texting me.
My grandmother wore her hair shellacked into white curls, and despite Miami’s heat and lax dress code, in every memory I have of her she wears a dark, beautifully tailored linen suit of mourning, a strand of pearls stark against the fabric.
I loved those pearls. Every set, every strand—choker- to opera-length—was clasped together by a brightly jeweled damselfly. “Caballitos del diablo,” my grandmother would say, every time she caught me staring. See? Always with the Spanish.
Why would anything as beautiful as a damselfly be called the devil’s pony, I asked. My grandmother didn’t know.
The damselflies fluttered their wings and fanned themselves every time I looked at them. Sometimes their iridescent blue and green needle ends curled and lifted up, as if they were waiting for one of us to grant them permission to stop clutching pearls and fly free.
Was it real? Was it magic? Were they alive?
Science is a process. Sometimes its answer lasts no longer than a wingbeat.
Here’s a secret: My grandmother was made of poetry and flights of attrition, and of chemistry as homely and meaningful as rising bread.
3) Ascalapha odorata: Witch moth
My mother contrived to combine oxides, roots, honey, milk, and lime to make her paints during the needful days of the embargo.
Half by instruction, half by deduction, she learned to heat sulfur, soda, and clay to produce a signature ultramarine blue that found its way into all of her early paintings. Later, after she had fallen out of grace with la revolución and managed to place one size-ten foot on the dry land of the United States, she kept to her make-do chemistry. Art supplies were easier to come by here, sure, but the money to buy them was not.
Even after she married my father, even after the cost of paints was no concern, my mother wasn’t done experimenting. Midway through her career, she perfected a completely biodegradable formulation of her signature ultramarine to suit her new style of work. In most of my memories, she wears flecks of that blue pigment crusted on the red-brown of her neck—like a duplicate of the strand of glass beads always draped there, holding a Lady of Regla pendant between her breasts.
My mother had a magnificent body. It says something about our society that it wasn’t until she decided to make art with it that she found acclaim in the United States. She created full-on reverse impressions of herself in half-cured cement, wet sand, or slow-baking mud. Her poses were always ecstatic or horrific, never anything between (“because all else is noise, amor”). Then, she would splash her proprietary colors onto those ghostly seemings of her missing self, and step away from their predicted senescence—a matter of hours, days, weeks.
My mother never announced where her ephemeral artworks could be found, but a whole listserve was dedicated to tracking them down via the eclipse of large witch moths that suddenly appeared when she was done. Her followers—she amassed thousands, maybe tens of thousands, before her death—called themselves “mariposas brujas” after those moths. Whatever memory I have of my mother’s art is thanks to them.
Here’s another secret: My mother was made of mothlight and grounds that shift underfoot, and of chemistry excited into color.
4) Photinus consimilis: Firefly
Red drupelets dissolved on Emma’s tongue. My gaze, as ever, was on the fireflies that winked on and off above our heads as we lay on our backs in the twilit backyard of my childhood.
This was the moment. The moment we knew our futures.
Yes, we heard both sets of parents on the patio, speaking with each other in Spanish cadenced to their countries of origin. But arguments about despotic regimes of right and left and politics in exile were not our future.
Yes, we heard the sounds of the canal that bounded the yard: liquid, plopping noises where frog or fish or aquatic reptile rose to the air and resubmerged. And farther away, we heard the sound of children along the same green meander, dipping their toes in its water. But neither zoology nor children were our future.
Yes, we heard the sea’s distant roar, too, underpinning it all, the way she underpins everything in seaside cities, with her cycles, her sudden furies and her grandly bounteous whims. But oceanography wasn’t for us either.
We were ten, and chemistry had one of us by the throat, the other by the eye.
When we were called to go back inside, Emma told her parents she wanted to dismantle the components of the raspberry’s flavor so she might reconstruct it again, to her own ends. I never spoke to anybody about what that moment in the backyard meant to me.
Luciferin is the compound responsible for a firefly’s light. When triggered by the enzyme luciferase, it flares into light. The color spectrum of what is emitted depends on microenvironment—and surely that’s why some folktales speak of the flying beetles as fire stolen from the gods, while others call them ghost eyes. Either way, they are a straight-up dose of chemistry, with an alchemy chaser.
Emma and I bought fluorescent glo-sticks in green and yellow, broke them open and tossed the dye into a mixture of hydrogen peroxide, soap, and yeast. Chemical luminescence may be less magical than bioluminescence, but it is every bit as satisfying. Especially on those occasions when the mix would thickly mushroom above the lip of its container and cascade over in slo-mo. It left glowing tracks on every surface it touched.
When we weren’t mixing chemicals, Emma and I held hands—because that is what Latina best friends did back then. Emma wore chartreuse. Emma loved Jules Verne and The Little Prince with a passion bordering on zealotry. Emma liked the night best, and her calls to me (about nothing and everything) came fast and furious from 1 to 3 a.m.—while her parents were sleeping and she had the extension in the family room all to herself.
One time, Emma revealed during one of our calls that she had broken open a glo-stick from a variety pack her mother had picked up for her, and had painted her exposed skin with it. She was glowing blue as we spoke, she told me, as if she were one of those blue ghost fireflies found only in North Carolina, whose light shines more steady than intermittent during their short season. I never actually laid eyes on blue-ghost Emma, but I can still see her.
Like the women on both sides of my family since time immemorial, I am associated with an insect. I’ve worn that insect’s emblem—a small golden bee—on each earlobe since I left the hospital a few days after birth. It is a fine creature by which to be represented, and one whose being is fully enmeshed in a chemistry both useful and delicious. But it is not the insect I love best.
Who would choose to make honey instead of light?
Years later I’d find this quote from chemist and theologian Michelle Francl Donnay: Luminescence is light that comes from within a material, photons shed as atoms and molecules change state. It’s not reflected, it does not consume like a flame. It’s kenotic, releasing what has been hidden within.
Here is my final secret: Emma was the banked fire; Emma was the blaze. Emma was the messenger signaling to me, every night, that there is light hidden in the deepest dark.
• • • •
When I was a child, nobody thought to give girls chemistry sets for Christmas or birthdays, so we improvised.
I carted an empty liter of coke and a roll of my grandmother’s Miami hoard of aluminum foil in my backpack to school. Emma met me outside, between periods, near the dumpster. I knew she had broken into the custodians’ storage room because the toilet bowl cleaner she brought was contained in an industrial-size jug with no-name labeling. Unlike many of the brands sold at the supermarket, this version had enough hydrochloric acid to effortlessly wipe away the scale left by Miami’s hard water.
“Boom,” Emma whispered as she half-filled the coke bottle with toilet bowl cleaner.
“Boom,” as I eased the tight foil balls into the neck and quickly capped it before tipping the bottle back up.
“Boom,” as we ran to what we gauged was a safe distance.
The explosion was tremendous. Bits of garbage made it up into the furthest recesses of the roof. The principal called in our parents and threatened to prosecute us for domestic terrorism. Our parents, peeved by both the threat and our disruption of their routines, reacted in exactly the same way. Maybe they even consulted with each other.
They enrolled us at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School and let the nuns know they should send us to chapel instead of science class.
C18H32O2 is linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid which cockroaches recognize as a necromone. My grandmother would smear a gel of the stuff under the cupboards and along thresholds to keep the palmetto bugs out of our kitchen. None of the insects would venture where the scent of a familial death lingered.
Linoleic acid, when exposed to oxygen, quickly forms a skin. My mother added oils rich in linoleic acid to her paints, to speed drying time whenever she painted on prepared surfaces.
Nudge things just a little—from C18H32O2 to C16H30O2—and you’ve gone from omega 6 to omega 7, the palmitoleic acid that is one of the long-chain fatty acids present in rums like O’Gorman Reserve. It’s a precursor of the esters that lend the five-year-old golden añejo its fruity aroma, and make the 20-year-old amber reserva remind you of wood and toffee. It is part of what gives the rum its elegance, its poetry, my grandmother used to say. Not poetry but prose—my father would counter—willing to get down and dirty in the tawdriest company, and with the least need for occasion.
That wasn’t the only or even the greatest thing mother and son argued about. My father advocated easing the embargo on Cuba to allow investment—because ordinary folks were the ones suffering the rationing and shortages, he would say. My grandmother, genteel but thundering, argued that any rapprochement delayed the discontent required to topple a dictatorship.
But at the heart of everything, chemistry. Useful chemistry. Good chemistry. Chemistry of home and art and family.
One Saturday like many before it, Emma spent the night at our house. We made videos of ourselves dancing and singing along to Abriendo Puertas. My mother came into my room, shook her head and, with the unerring instinct of an artist, popped a collar here, added a color there, and we ended up looking much cooler than we really were.
We still had make-up smeared on our faces and our clothes tightened with strategic knotting when my grandmother woke us to go to Mass the next morning. She made us scrub our faces and laid out proper clothes for us. We lollygagged. We tried on accessory after accessory, hoping to find a way to bring some Gloria to Jesus’s house.
I think they got tired of waiting. My father got in the car first and my mother—having seen my grandmother safely ensconced in the back seat—was stepping away from the open car door when he turned the key in the ignition.
The explosion knocked Emma and me to the floor. The shelves behind us followed, then the light, the books, and the boombox playing Gloria Estefan. The Cuban-in-exile domestic terrorist group Omega 7 never owned up to the car bomb. They had been presumed dormant for about a decade but everyone knew it was them anyway—chemicals have a signature.
Di-iso nonyl adipate (C24H46O4), also known as DINA, is a plasticizer added to cling wrap to keep it flexible and make it easier to handle. Maybe I mentioned this fact to Emma’s parents in the fuzzy days between my family’s death and the funeral. Maybe it was part of our small talk, as they helped me cut through the cling-wrap of hundreds of condolence baskets with smoked and canned delicacies sent by my father’s business associates, my grandmother’s board cronies, my mother’s followers.
DINA is also the acronym for Pinochet’s secret police—the group that had tortured and killed one set of Emma’s grandparents and had driven the rest of the family members into exile. The organization no longer officially existed at the time of my family’s killing, but perhaps fear, like trauma, can linger intergenerationally.
Or maybe DINA’s memory was freshened by the news of a sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway, which played interminably and repeatedly on TV as Emma’s parents helped me with funeral arrangements. Sarin was originally created by a DINA chemist at one of Chile’s colonies where torture and bio-experimentation coexisted.
In any case, Emma’s parents heard me talking about DINA during those days of chattering grief, and I think they came to believe that empirical formulas might also serve as empirical prognosticators.
Emma held my hand through the funeral. Tiny, stingless bees materialized from the substance of my tears, then mapped the geography of my face before lifting into flight above my head.
Emma saw, and held on anyway.
No one else noticed the bees that day. Even today, there are only a few people who can see them, flying in silent figure-eights around me, everywhere I go. Because you need to love someone to see what ties them to the friable earth of their past and the orphan lands of their future.
A week after the funeral, Emma disappeared. I knew then that, even as they comforted me, her parents had been formulating their plan to move Emma as far away from me—and the chemistry of tragedy—as they could manage.
Boom, boom, boom.
• • • •
The one constant in my life has been the search for Emma.
As a kid, I hadn’t much else I would allow myself to think about. The personal and material guardians my parents had appointed when I was born were efficient and kind, but not friends. It didn’t take long for me to find out that though the trust my grandmother had set up for me was vast, spending a chunk of it trying to find a friend whose name had been changed and her location meticulously hidden wasn’t something my guardians could be swayed to approve.
By the time I came of age and could determine for myself what I spent my money on, the ache of Emma’s loss had changed. Her mystery was something I played at solving when I needed distraction from tough research projects in college and grad school, or when I caught a few bars of the Gloria Estefan song we had been listening to when everything literally came crashing down around our ears.
I was certain that, no matter what might have happened to her in the intervening years, she would not have abandoned chemistry. So I scoured scientific citations and journals, foundation and society sites, and dipped into LexisNexis, focused on looking for scientists whose profiles tempted me to believe they could be Emma-in-disguise.
Verna Jules caught my eye because of her name’s similarity to Emma’s favorite childhood author. She turned out to be of Liberian-Barbadian heritage, a second-generation crystallographer, and adept at the most complicated and spectacular head wraps.
Antonia Principito—this time the mash-up of The Little Prince’s author and its title in Spanish prompted my attention—was a Pinay chemical physicist whose strategically timed swearing in Chavacano immediately endeared her to me.
And a week before defending my dissertation, I flew out to meet Anita Clarke—whose research centered on the volatiles in Willamette and Meeker raspberries at the University of California at Irvine—and, no, she wasn’t Emma either.
But they were all funny and earnest and brilliant, so we became friends as well as sisters in vocation. You see how I did that? In vocation, invocation. There is no question each of them is a goddess—the only question is whether I summoned them into my life, or if Emma did.
• • • •
“You all need to come to live and work in the U.K.,” Anita said in one of our virtual hangouts some six months after I developed my first batch of artificial skin as a bench chemist at Nova Pharma.
It had been six years since I bought my brownstone, eight years since I moved from sunny southeast to snowy northeast, and ten years since I had first met the sister scientists on the call.
“Swansea University loves its scientists. Plus, it’s right by the sea, Meche,” Anita said. “Weren’t you saying how much you still miss living close to the ocean? It would be perfect . . . and prudent.”
Antonia and Verna both noisily disagreed at the same time as I did, so the screen filled with our faces before reverting back to a frowning Anita.
“We were born here,” I ventured after an uncomfortable silence. “Even the latest upswing in xenophobia isn’t enough to chase us away.”
Anita turned her head to look at something on the messy second desk behind her. “Science before nationalism, my loves.”
“It’s not so simple,” Verna said.
“Of course it’s simple.” Anita whipped back to face the webcam. “Weren’t all your parents asylees or naturalized citizens? With the proposed National Identity bill threatening to turn citizens into non-citizens on the basis of recent immigration history, you’re all in line. First gens are never as American as they believe they are.”
“There’s plenty of time to turn things around,” Antonia said, exasperated. “The bill hasn’t made it out of committee yet, and those of us who are STEM high skills or influential in other desirable professions have already started enlisting our connections to stand up for us. We’re not powerless. That bill is never going to become law.”
“Get real, sis,” Anita said. “When things get tough, those ‘connections’ are going to start ghosting you. And while Miss Pass-for-white over there may end up in the second or third cohort of the proposed biometric tagging, all the Black and brown immigrant-proximates like you and Verna are going to be at the front of the line, along with the fresh-off-the-boats.”
When we didn’t respond, Anita added, “Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Then she got up abruptly and started rummaging through the papers on her second desk.
“Is turning your back a new form of goodbye?” Antonia asked acidly.
Anita shook her head. “I have something to show you. Talk amongst yourselves while I find it.”
“I thought physicists were supposed to be the messiest scientists,” Verna said after a moment. “That desk belongs in Antonia’s house.”
“So unjustly maligned,” Antonia said, shifting in frame so our view was nothing but clean workspace. “See? Neat as a pin.”
Anita turned back with a clipping in her hand and held it close to the webcam, but since the image was reversed she ended up reading it out to us. The article was from a business journal, not a scientific one. A Swiss start-up had employed a number of scientists to develop new drug-monitoring systems that bypassed the need for full diagnostic analysis at a lab. One of the scientists, M. A. Antes—the only woman scientist the start-up had hired—was working with luciferase to create a sensor.
“Yeah, so?” Verna said. “There are hundreds of chemists playing with fireflies.”
“The name, dummy,” Anita said. “Em A —but pronounce that ‘a’ the Spanish way—like ‘Ah’—and Antes, the Spanish word for before. Emma, before.”
“Too silly,” Antonia and Verna said in almost the same breath.
“Meche?” Anita asked.
“It can’t be that easy,” I said after a moment.
She laughed. “Easy? As soon as I saw this, I tried getting in touch with her. The Swiss law that forbids bankers from disclosing the existence of an account without the account holder’s consent must apply to scientists too. The company wouldn’t even admit she works for them. Even after I read the whole article back to them.”
“Hit up the journalist,” Antonia suggested. “In my experience, they so love to hear themselves talk they don’t even notice when they’re giving up secrets.”
“Already on it.” Anita flashed a smile. “I’ll report back when I know more. But, at the risk of becoming tiresomely repetitive, digging into another scientist’s mysterious life journey would be a lot more fun if we were doing it together, from here.”
I thought back to that virtual conversation a lot in the years that would follow it. The years that proved that some scientists are seers, while others let faith cloud their vision. My notice came by certified mail, as I knew it would—because Verna and Antonia had gotten theirs before I did.
An older woman repossessed my passport at the official tattooing station, and by the time another technician was inking the biometric mark that would thereafter tell my story from birth to death—and curtail my civil liberties between—she had Googled me and remembered who I was. That is, she remembered the public tragedy of my family’s assassination and the small girl who seemed to endure it all so stoically in the news accounts of the day.
“It was horrible what happened to you, to be suddenly orphaned like that,” she said as I passed her again on my way to the station where the biometric tattoo would be scanned to test that all the information would display properly. I nodded at the woman’s words, but didn’t tell her that I was feeling orphaned again, only this time of country.
As my fingers played over the blue lines tattooed on my inner wrist—not my mother’s ultramarine blue, but an equally distinctive shade—I thought about how whatever government chemist had come up with the formulation for the tattoo pigments had earned their keep. As I looked around in line I could see all the marks clearly, no matter the color of skin they were inked on.
I took the subway after getting the tattoo. It was empty in the car, just a few folks staring morosely at their toes. Halfway into my ride, the doors opened between stations and a dark moth—some seven inches from wingtip to wingtip—flew in. It beat its way erratically over to me, then draped itself on my wrist, its velvet soothing the inflamed skin around my tattoo.
“Death in the family,” the woman two seats away from me said in Spanish. Anglos always say I don’t look Latina, but mi gente always know me when they see me.
“That’s what a mariposa bruja symbolizes,” the woman continued. “I haven’t seen one of those since I left Veracruz, where there was lots of death.” She was holding a cloth-wrapped bundle from which a mouthwatering corn aroma emanated. My eyes slid to her wrist. Black tattoo, which meant she was a temporary worker, here on rotation for some company that wanted her labor for a season only. Then I winced—this informal tattoo checking was quickly becoming the new normal.
Like my father and grandmother, I had always been privileged by my light skin. It was only my mother who knew what it was like to have her skin read automatically by strangers. And since racism replicates itself even in reinvention, I bore the tattoo color that conferred the most privilege within this new oppression. Blue was for citizens, if only second-class ones.
“It can’t mean a death in the family, because all of my family is long gone,” I replied finally. The woman held my gaze for so long I had to drop my eyes. They landed, instead, on the strange nipple-like mole on her neck. A third teat, the witch hunters of old would have named it, and by that condemn her to be burned. Every era has its brand of tyranny.
“Maybe the moth is foretelling that I’m going to die,” I said, suddenly very keen on keeping this subway conversation going.
“No. It means something specific to you right now, not in the future,” the woman said. “I could see that in your expression when it flew in here.”
“It reminds me of my mother. I haven’t seen one of these moths since she died.”
She nodded knowingly. “Did she speak your name to a saint when you were born?”
It was such an odd question, but I knew the answer. I had a devotion to Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre all my life for a reason. My mother—artist, santera, and doyenne of la revolú in all its forms—believed in signs. I, a scientist newly tagged by my country, suddenly believed in them too.
By the time the moth finally flew off my wrist—four stops before mine—it left behind a trail of blueish-silver scales that obscured my tattoo, and I had the first inklings of what I would do with the artificial skin I had invented.
• • • •
At first, my routine at Nova Pharma stayed the same. The team of scientists I worked with pretended not to notice the tattoo while we performed tests or ran instruments together. My one woman colleague still joked with me about how lucky I was—to be tall and therefore spared the indignity of standing on a stool to work comfortably at lab benches designed for the greater average height of men.
But as each new regulation tied to the National Identity Law was instituted—geotracking us, psychometrically profiling us, reducing our lives to bodily data to be used for law enforcement or corporate benefit—I started to realize that no matter how valuable an employee I was, Nova Pharma would eventually cut me loose and demand that I hand over my key codes. On that day, I’d lose access not only to the data on the artificial skin I had invented, but also the tools I needed to analyze that data and move forward with experimentation.
I started keeping two sets of documentation—one an electronic logbook of work to be countersigned by corporate reviewers, the other a handwritten notebook nobody but me saw. The fortune I had inherited enabled me to purchase the computers and equipment needed to turn a section of my home into a lab in which to continue with my new vocation—to make low-barrier, redi-mix versions of my “instaskin.” I had plans to distribute those freely to anyone who needed to outwit the surveillance state.
By the time Nova Pharma’s head of HR notified me that I had an hour to gather my things and vacate my post, my homebrewed instaskin was in its fifth version, formulated entirely with components that could be purchased at any of the drugstores and household retailers still open to those of us who had been tagged.
There were thousands of equally personal, small rebellions during the decade the biometric tracking was in use in the United States.
Everyone from low-level municipal bureaucrats to entrepreneurs found ways to counter the civil and human rights violations it ushered in. People offered shelter in spite of housing bans; laborers committed to mutual aid when we became completely unemployable; gang members networked with church ladies to transport those most endangered by deportation to safe spaces. Even high school students took a stand—it was teenagers who broke me out of the internment center where I was held for a time.
Still, there were thousands of families split up, tens of thousands of people deported, hundreds of thousands who would never again feel at home—even after the worst of the legally sanctioned oppression was over. You can read the words of others about that time: some memoir, some academic footnote, some news report. My own testimony is in the visits I make to the gravesites of friends killed in violence; in the PTSD I can’t seem to shake; in the fact that I expended every last cent of my family’s fortune—and every last dreg of scientific inspiration allotted to me—to fight the annihilation and erasure the government intended by its policies.
When the government finally instituted an official tattoo-removal program—the only form of restitution it ever offered—many lined up for the procedure. Still, as anyone who has ever had a voluntary tattoo removed can tell you, you can never unsee its trace on your skin.
“La verdad una vez despierta no vuelve a dormirse,” José Martí wrote. “The truth, once awake, will not go back to sleep.”
The ghost remains. In wound and scar and the molecular basis of memory.
• • • •
“Join me,” Anita urged again, virtually, when my compatriots and I first resurfaced after those of us who had been tagged were again allowed to access the internet.
Verna shook her head. She had turned completely gray during her long stint in one of the internment centers in the Midwest. But her eyes were ageless and filled with the dream of discoveries deferred.
Antonia also declined Anita’s offer. She was looking after some ten children whose parents had been disappeared, and her life’s work was now trying to reunite them with any remaining family members.
And me? Well, in the intervening years I’d fallen in love with a man whose resistance had also permanently marked him, and I had rooted myself on the piece of land he had shared with the tagged. It was the only place I felt at home, and I wasn’t going anywhere.
“Sisters,” Anita tried again. “I’m this close to telling you I’ve found Emma. A Chilean national has accepted a guest post at Swansea, to explain the leap she’s made in genetic reporting—going from firefly luciferase to the much brighter luciferase from deep-sea shrimp for in vivo imaging.”
Verna and Antonia scoured their notes in the Emma dossier we’d built together, and peppered Anita with personal facts to check—as if she didn’t have those same notes in a file (v. 20) open on the laptop in front of her.
“She’s about your age, Meche,” Anita added when she noticed my silence. “And her research abstracts are rife with references to literature, including Jules Verne. Doesn’t that sound like your friend?”
Instead of answering, I thought about an article I’d read just that morning, about ghost imaging that doesn’t actually capture the image of an object. Instead, it reconstructs it, creating a Frankensteined whole from information provided by two streams of light: one that scatters around the object to form a random reference pattern, the other that passes through the object itself.
“I think this investigative caper conclusively shows that flavor chemists are better at solving mysteries than chemical physicists or crystallographers,” Anita said to fill my silence. Predictably, her words threw Verna and Antonia into an orgy of rebuttals.
I said nothing. I pictured dragonflies, witch moths and fireflies joining the bees that were flying lazy lemniscates around my head, just out of view of my laptop’s camera. The composite image was the structure of my universe in ghosts: scatter patterns and brightly shining blade running me through.
• • • •
When we finally connect by phone, we don’t speak of the past. She’s Evangelina now, not Emma, and every time she says this new-to-me name I’m reminded that while she will always be my first love, she is also a stranger.
Her English is no longer slack and loose as it was in Miami. It is beautifully precise, but all the quirks of expression I once lived for are gone. She is a citizen of Chile now, married to another Chilena—a journalism professor—who is staying in Santiago while Evangelina works for a semester from Swansea.
She describes for me how much her work has advanced since she switched from firefly-light to shrimp-light. “It goes more swimmingly now,” she says at the end of her disquisition, then can’t help laughing at her pun. “And your own work, does it revolve around insects, too? I seem to remember . . . ”
“Bees,” I say.
And while I’m gratified she remembers, it’s clear she wants to steer the conversation away from this or any recollection from our past lives. We spend the rest of the call talking about the recent opening of a five-thousand-year old Eastern European tomb where archeologists found sealed vessels filled with honey.
I don’t think the discoverers sat down to snack on cake drizzled with the ancient honey, but they could have—honey’s shelf-life is eternal. It is an inhospitable substance, so hygroscopic it sucks the life out of microorganisms and the mischief out of bacteria. This means it offers perfect recall of time and place. The plants whose nectars were gathered may have vanished; the gathering bees may have been driven into extinction; the land that birthed both may no longer be what it once was—but the honey keeps their ghosts intact.
My ghosts buzz above my head as I hold the phone to my ear. My ghosts beat their paired wings in regular 4/4 time from within the chambers of my heart. My ghosts open and end our conversations with the promise of return.
• • • •
C6 H12 O6
The land we walk through today is filled with remembered history. This boulder, glacial debris from 2.6 million years ago, remembers when there was no woodland around it, just a sheet of ice 2,000 feet thick. A little farther down this path, a 300-year-old eastern hemlock recollects sheltering upstart revolutionaries and their Oneida allies on their way to Fort Stanwix. And farther yet, is the 100-year-old yellow birch my husband, Del, remembers his grandfather tapping for sap to make old-fashioned birch beer.
During the worst of our nation’s period of formalized xenophobia, this woodland hid an unplanned settlement for those at risk for deportation and internment, and though it’s been decades, Del and I can still remember where each homesite stood. But age is without mercy, and it won’t be long before we have to leave this home—and its history of seismic shift, solidarity, and sanctuary—for a more sensible residence.
Still, for today, we are on this sacred ground where our past and our present overlay. Evangelina-Emma is here too, for today, walking beside us. She and I have not become best friends again, but she’s come for this first in-real-life visit because we’ve agreed this is how it should have been—us old and in each other’s company.
Del and Evangelina-Emma are deep in conversation, about a landrace strain of raspberries that grows on a ridge where the woodland meets pasture, when one of the wheels of Del’s chair gets stuck in a deep rut. When he can’t free it by himself, my first love helps my last love get unstuck so that we can keep moving.
It’s almost dusk when we make it to the thicket of raspberries. It is late for bees and early for fireflies, but the whirr of insect wings is in the air anyway. Evangelina-Emma complains about how her dentures have ruined her ability to discern one raspberry strain from another and it’s a good thing she didn’t become a flavor chemist after all—but she climbs halfway into the canes to hunt for the bright red gems, regardless.
I watch her pop berries into her mouth, and hear her humming happily to herself between mouthfuls. I’m almost certain it is a Gloria Estefan song, and when it finally dawns on me which song it is and what it calls back, I reach for my husband’s hand. When I turn to him, his eyes are on the bees flying above my head. When we first met, it took Del less than a day to see the bees and, like the young Emma, he didn’t let go in the face of their incomprehensible being.
Neither belief nor explanation are necessary in the magic of accompaniment—just the will to be present in a spirit of love and community.
When my husband’s gaze moves from the bees to me, he smiles and reminds me that I’ve scheduled a Zoom session a scant twenty minutes from now, so that my sisters in vocation can finally meet the long-lost sister they helped me find.
I nod and start over to where Evangelina-Emma is honest-to-God cavorting in the canes, but my husband’s voice brings me to a stop. “Do you ever wonder whether what you and your sister scientists shared over all those years was less a mystery to be solved than it was a mystery to be prayed?” he asks.
“No,” I answer around the lump that is suddenly in my throat, “I don’t think it was either. I think it was always a shared question about the mysteries that invoke us.”
The bees change the pattern of their flight from waggle to round, tracing increasingly greater orbitals around me, then the three humans (and infinite non humans) here with them, then farther yet—as if they were dancing the shape of an ever-expanding atomic molecule.
But no matter its shape, it is still a bee’s dance—communicating risks and benefits and what can be foraged right here, right now.
My bees dance for friable pasts. For orphaned futures. For the solace and grief of ghosts. For the privilege of growing old. For me and mine and the times. But mostly, for the chemistry of memory and the memory of chemistry.