The Weekend Read
By Tania Hershman
6th Oct 2017
Mother Superior agrees to fund Emmylene’s equipment.
“Science is so soothing,” she says, her deep voice making it sound biblical.
Soothing? thinks Emmylene, almost tempted, once again, to blaspheme. Memories of frogs’ bodies slit open for prying fingers and the shrieking of one girl who vomited violently. Not so much, she thinks.
“Pouring from one test tube to the other, the elements of life,” says Mother Superior. Emmylene sees that faraway look in her eyes.
“Yes,” she says. “Soothing. I’ll go and place the order.”
“Thank you, Sister Morris. Bless your endeavours.” Mother Superior sits back behind her desk and Emmylene goes to phone the supplier.
Emmylene used to be a physicist. She had thought that was a calling. Then there was another sort, and here she is in a world of women.
On the phone, she orders test tubes in various sizes, with racks, rockers, a heating bath, a freezer and a fridge. A machine for gel electrophoresis. Several timers and pipettes. Lab coats, tweezers, syringes, a confocal microscope – the most expensive item. And a cage of knockout mice.
“Sister Morris,” she tells the salesgirl and gives the address.
“Convent?” says the salesgirl.
“Yes,” says Emmylene, imagining her bench, her test tube racks, her mice.
She had subscribed to Cell and Nature Biology, with Mother Superior’s permission.
“God glows,” Mother Superior had said when shown images of immune cells lit up in green and red.
Emmylene likes to walk the convent grounds with letters from a biochemist friend who still writes to her about his experiments. “Dear Emmylene,” she reads while sitting on a chair-shaped rock by the river, “I’m coming closer to understanding this pathway. My zebrafish were problematic for a while but now the mutants are breeding well. I’ve been working on the wild type in the meantime.”
She loves the words: Lammelopodia, organelles, green fluorescent protein, mcherry. Sometimes they slip into her prayers: “Blessed are the macrophages,” “Our heavenly lymphocytes”. She opens her eyes, looks around the chapel at her kneeling sisters. I am strange, thinks Emmylene.
When the lab equipment arrives, Emmylene needs Sister John and Sister Immelda’s help to set it up. Sister Immelda giggles every time a new package is opened.
“What does that do?” she asks again and again. Sister John shushes her.
“We will find out,” says Sister John, unwrapping a pipette.
Emmylene is happier than she can remember. She arranges her bench like the first day of school: one bright pink test tube rack, three pipettes in a line. Her lab coat, so white, so unstained.
“Will you wear it over…?” says Sister Immelda, who, Emmylene can see, is on the brink of a “me too” moment.
“Probably,” she says, wanting not to try it on now, but later. On her own.
The knockout mice are coming separately. She isn’t sure how that’s done. And then. She’s watched videos. But Emmylene still isn’t convinced she’ll be able to do it.
When Sister John takes Sister Immelda off to the vegetable garden, Emmylene tries on the lab coat over her habit. She ordered extra large but it feels odd, too bulky to do any work in. She shuts the door, slips out of her habit and puts it on over her underwear. At that instant she remembers the kiss. That kiss. Closing her eyes, there are lips on hers, in a car park, they are sixteen or seventeen. He’s kissing her. More gently than she’d thought, and then he licks her earlobe and the wave that swept through her then floods her again. She lowers her head onto the cool bench.
Emmylene has decided to extract some DNA. She has sent off for a line of HeLa cells, and is following the protocol she printed out. There are so many steps. It has to be done slowly, otherwise she’ll ruin it and she doesn’t have large quantities of anything. She keeps telling herself it’s like a recipe, but really it isn’t. Making a cake, you can see the ingredients: here is flour, these are eggs. But this is all clear liquid, one poured into another, stirred, rocked, frozen, thawed, stirred, left, stirred. It takes hours.
When Emmylene comes up for air, her test tubes set to rock for 90 minutes, she has a stiff neck and her hands are sore from gripping the pipette. She puts her habit back on and goes for a walk, clipping the digital timer to her belt. There hasn’t been a letter for a while, not from anyone. Her mother writes occasionally but prefers email. Emmylene was surprised by the biochemist’s regular correspondence, on paper too. There was never anything between us, she thinks, sitting on the chair-shaped rock. Was there? Is he? But I’m a nun.
“I’m a nun,” she says out loud, to the trees and whoever might be listening. Fuck me, she thinks, then takes hold of her cross and kisses it. The timer beeps. Her cells need her.
It hasn’t worked. Ten hours and nothing happened. Ten hours of following each step as carefully as possible, with brand new equipment. Emmylene is despairing.
“Never mind,” says Sister John, passing the potatoes. “It’s just your first try.”
“Physics wasn’t like this,” says Emmylene. “Physics is so different, there’s more thinking and planning, and you can’t see things either but somehow there’s more knowing. I don’t know.”
“How did you do it?” says Sister Immelda, who is very very young, who became a nun before she had become a woman. Emmylene sometimes wonders what kind of woman Sister Immelda would have been, out there. The word “stripper” comes into her head; Sister Immelda is quite gorgeous. Emmylene will have to ask forgiveness for that later, as she often does. Her thoughts trip her up daily, hourly.
“You’re trained, you learn the language, and really, to be honest, if you don’t get it quite early on, it’s never going to happen,” says Emmylene, spearing a pea. Physics had been neat and tidy, she had been one of the chosen ones who did see, who lived in that country. Damn.
“I don’t think I ever could have,” says Sister Immelda, buttering a piece of bread. “I’m not clever enough.” Emmylene looks up and stares at the girl.
“Don’t say that,” Emmylene says. “Never say that,” and then, for a moment, she thinks she might cry. “Excuse me,” she says, pushing her chair back. Outside in the cold corridor she does cry, without knowing why. No-one hears her. No-one comes out.
Emmylene’s mice arrive. There are four, white with red eyes.
“Hello, my little mutants,” Emmylene whispers to them as she looks around her lab for the right place. They stare back, seemingly stunned by their journey. Emmylene still doesn’t quite know how mice are transported, and it feels callous to just phone up and order animals. How far could it go? Lions, tigers? Monkeys, probably, with the right kind of permits. She imagines a chimpanzee with electrodes sticking from his skull. No. Not that.
She reads the care instructions again and feeds her mice, resisting the urge to pick one up and stroke it. The mice eat, then vanish within the mounds of hay in their cage.
Emmylene sits, fiddling with a pipette’s volume adjuster. When the word “Mendel” comes into her head, she is startled. And then she understands. He had his peas, she has her lab. Father Gregor.
It is as Emmylene is wandering through the woods behind the convent that she wonders if Mother Superior would allow her to take blood. From everyone, it would be easily done. But this might be stepping over some line. This kind of science, she imagines Mother Superior saying, is not as soothing as I had imagined. This is what I had feared, we are all to be your test subjects, Sister Morris. Emmylene rehearses responses in her head, sitting on a flat stone by the river. She tries to conjure the spirit of Mendel, but he cross-bred plants. She suspects that won’t help her argument.
She starts to write to her biochemist friend, while wearing her lab coat, watched by her red-eyed mice. Emmylene wants to ask him. She is not sure what exactly. Something about the essence of it, but then all that is in her head are quarks, bosons, neutrinos, from her old country. She puts her pen down. The mice scurry.
“What are you so busy doing?” she says. Then she undoes the top button of her lab coat, scratches her neck. Emmylene yawns. She thinks again of Mendel and she wonders what her own purpose might be. God? Emmylene makes herself ask the question. She says it aloud: “What would God want me to do?” but then she can’t bring herself to accept that God might want her, as Sister Morris or as Emmylene, to do anything at all. Or anything more than getting up every morning, stretching into the darkness of the day. Just that act. Which still so often feels like an achievement.
Later, Emmylene makes a list in her notebook. She puts down “taking blood” and then a dash, and that space, the one following the dash, seems to scream at her. Why? it shouts. Why blood? What for? What would you do with all that blood? Why would you take needles, look at their arms, look at their skin. Puncture. Puncture. The word rolls around her mind. Sharpness. A stab.
The first experiment that works is one that Emmylene learns from watching a video online. A very simple thing, although even “simple” takes two days, looking for a particular gene that she knows is definitely activated in the mice. Emmylene watches the film – which shows only the researcher’s purple-gloved hands and part of their torso – five times. She watches those hands move, listens to the voice, which is American, which she finds hard to assign a gender to. The flash of the fingers, the pipetting, comforts her. A memory comes of the physics lab, a similar soothing, a falling back towards something that will catch you, always. Emmylene’s stomach, her knees, her earlobes, ache with missing it. She undoes a button of her lab coat while she waits for something to defrost. Swivelling her chair around, she undoes another, rubs underneath her left bra strap. She had thought never to wear one again, here. But she has not been able. To let that go.
When it works, when the results are developed and there is the line, there is the gene, Emmylene notices that she doesn’t feel the way she expected. “Is this how it is for you?” she asks her biochemist friend inside her head. All Emmylene is is tired. She wriggles out of the lab coat and stands for a while in her underwear. The mice scurry.
That night at dinner, Sister Immelda is staring at her. Emmylene keeps eating, then looks up again. Sister Immelda hasn’t touched any of her food. She seems to be trying to send Emmylene an urgent message, her eyes wide. Emmylene raises her eyebrows. Sister Immelda looks around, then leans across the table.
“Can I talk to you? After?” she says, and Emmylene sees that Sister Immelda’s normally pearly skin is pale and under her eyes are patches of darkness. Emmylene nods, looks back down. Peas. Peas. Father Gregor. She doesn’t tell anyone about her result. She doesn’t know what to say.
In the garden behind the convent, by the rose bushes, Sister Immelda cries. Emmylene stands beside her, not touching, unsure. Sister Immelda’s crying is noisy, uncontrolled, and Emmylene stares at a large yellow rose just behind Immelda’s head, a rose which any moment might weep its own petals. Immelda sways and grips onto Emmylene’s arm so suddenly she is shocked, a spasm running through her.
“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” gulps Immelda, gasping.
“It’s okay,” says Emmylene, although it may not be. “Do you want…?” And then she finds that Immelda is hugging her with a strength that Emmylene would never have imagined.
“I can’t,” Immelda whispers into Emmylene’s ear. “I can’t.”
“Neither can I,” thinks Emmylene and then there is that pit and there is only down. She blinks. “Come and see my mice,” she says, and leads Sister Immelda away from the rose bush, from the thorns.
Sister Immelda visits Emmylene in her laboratory often after that. She is still pale, her eyes have dark moons now, but she smiles and she talks to the mice.
“Don’t give them names,” says Emmylene.
“Oh dear,” says Emmylene, knowing anyway that she could never kill them, even though that, she has heard from the biochemist, is an essential part of the job. She watches Immelda stretch towards the cage and slide one finger through to let a curious mouse sniff. She looks at Immelda’s forearm. Emmylene wonders if.
“Would you…?” she says, and when Immelda agrees, Emmylene realises she will have to watch another video to learn how to. This is not peas, she thinks.
Once the needle goes in and Immelda’s blood starts to flow into the tube, Emmylene relaxes.
“Okay?” she says. Immelda grins. She appears to be enjoying this immensely.
“Vampires,” says Immelda. “Always had a bit of a thing for them … I don’t know.” She giggles and then they both do. And then they’re laughing so hard Emmylene thinks she might choke. The mice scrabble.
When it’s done, they sit and look at the four tubes of Immelda’s blood in the test tube rack.
“I’ll take mine too,” says Emmylene.
“What will you do with it all?” says Immelda, pressing the cotton wool onto her arm. Emmylene doesn’t know how to answer. It’s no more than a feeling right now. But the sight of those test tubes makes her happy. “No pressure,” says Immelda, and laughs. They hear the bell for supper. Immelda waves to the mice as they leave.
A letter. From the biochemist. But this time, for the first time, he doesn’t talk about biochemistry, about his work. He seems to be opening his heart to Emmylene. It’s because I’m safe, Emmylene tells herself, sitting on her chair-shaped rock. I’m a nun. And she looks up into the trees, at a bird, who flies off. The biochemist has had his heart broken, mangled, by someone he met at a conference. His sentences are twisted, as if she, this other biochemist, has torn something, wrecked some mechanism. Emmylene has never read a letter that made her feel so uneasy. She has to keep stopping to look out over the river, to breathe. “Everything I study is useless,” writes the biochemist. “Fuck science, fuck scientific enquiry.” I’m a nun, thinks Emmylene, and remembers Immelda’s forearm, the syringe.
Emmylene is testing the blood. She has hers and she has Immelda’s, carefully and separately labelled. She has watched no videos, read no protocols. There are no videos or protocols for this. The mice, bolder, stare at her. Emmylene is looking for. Looking. For.
Emmylene works through two meals. She stops only to stand, to stretch her neck, lift both arms up above her head. No-one comes. Even Immelda doesn’t visit. As if they know what she needs, what she doesn’t need. Emmylene finds herself carrying on past dark, missing prayers. And still no-one comes.
The nuns are sat in rows and she, Emmylene, Sister Morris, is facing them.
“I…,” she says. The sisters beam, nod, encourage.
Emmylene looks to the back wall then up to the ceiling, stretching her stiff neck, her sore hands. She is wearing her lab coat. She thought about putting it on over her habit but when she tried it again as she had that first day, it was even worse, even bulkier. Inauthentic. So she is wearing it next to her skin. She wonders if the nuns can see through it, through her. But they are all still smiling, waiting, and so Emmylene assumes she is not improper. Yet.
“I’ve found…,” she says, and switches on the PowerPoint. There is a gasp. Sister Immelda gives her the thumbs-up, grinning.
On the screen, or rather on the white white convent wall that the computer is projecting onto, is an image of cells. Emmylene tagged them so that what she has discovered is painted red, bright lipstick red.
“Here,” says Emmylene. Sister Morris.
The sisters stare at her. Immelda tilts her head to the side as if to say, Go on. Go on.
“Here,” says Emmylene again. “Right here.” And she moves to the wall, puts her finger up against the pulsing red.
“What are they?” asks Sister John.
“I took…,” says Emmylene, then stops, looks at Mother Superior. Mother Superior’s expression is open, curious. “I took blood. From myself, and Sister Immelda. With her consent, of course.” Mother Superior’s face has not changed. Emmylene feels bolder. “I didn’t know what I was looking for. And that’s not scientific. In science, you need a hypothesis, an idea, a theory, first. Then you test it. Well, you try and disprove it, really. Falsification. Try every way you can to be wrong. To make it wrong. Try to break it.”
“Yes,” says one of the older nuns, who has been in the convent for longer than Emmylene has been alive. “Break it,” murmurs the elderly woman, and Emmylene sees her tap her fingers gently on the arm of the sister sitting next to her.
“I didn’t,” says Emmylene. “I had no theory, no idea what I wanted to search for. So instead, I took blood, our blood, then just looked and looked at it, under the microscope. That’s when I found it.”
“Sister Morris,” says Mother Superior in her deep voice, and Emmylene jumps, feeling as if she has been caught out by a teacher. But Mother Superior is smiling. “You are keeping us most wonderfully in suspense, child. What have you discovered, in the blood?”
“Love,” whispers Emmylene, and her hands find each other, fingers knitting together, and she is crying. And then she is surrounded by nuns, who come up to her, who rise from their seats to encircle her, Sister Immelda closest, arms around her neck.
In the car park, two people are kissing. A boy is kissing a girl. A girl is being kissed. Later, that girl is in a lecture theatre, taking notes on electro-magnetic fields, numbers and Greek letters. Even later still, that girl is standing in a room being held tightly, so tightly, that even if she sways, even if she gets dizzy, her knees buckling, she will not fall.