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By Joanna Scott
PicadorCopyright © 1994 Joanna Scott
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Concerning Mold Upon the skin, Etc.
He was a man distracted by his ignorance, acutely aware of the limits of his knowledge and therefore superior, in his own opinion, to his ignorant and complacent neighbors. He wanted to know what he didn't know and since his youth had devoted himself to the effort of knowing more. Not Faustian ambition but fresh wonder kept him awake at night, caused him to break out in a cold sweat when he held up a finished lens to a candle flame, displaced all other appetites. And even though his neglected wife took to entertaining suitors in her own bedroom and his horns were visible to everyone, he didn't care. He cared only about what was unknown, believed that what the human eye could see or the ideas that the mind could conceive constituted a mere fraction of the world. Most of his contemporaries were satisfied with the dual concepts of substance and spirit. But even as a child he had sensed that the world of substances did not end with man's perception of it. Just as the sky disappeared into the invisible heavens, the material world disappeared into its invisible parts and so could never be examined in its entirety.
The obscurity of minutia thrilled and maddened him — literally drove him mad. When he was a young man of twenty-six he built a laboratory in the back of his dry-goods shop, at first simply a room where he could be alone with his experiments but eventually the room in which he ate, drank, and slept. On the day he dragged his bedding into the laboratory, his wife stopped pleading with him and offered herself to an eager gallant. Too distracted by love and lust ever to give her husband a second thought again, she left it to her eldest daughter Marie to carry in her father's meals, which he hardly touched, and later in his life, to bring him his mail, which he devoured with insane, carnivorous impatience.
Born in 1632, he was a citizen of Delft, a linen-draper by profession as well as an official of the Delft City Council. And it must be said on his behalf that for many years he continued dutifully to measure and cut and sell his bolts of cloth, despite his consuming passion. Every day but Sunday he tended the shop, and he spent three evenings out of the week examining the newest weights and measures in the City Hall. He worked at these jobs that he detested with stoical persistence in order to support his family so that they would leave him alone.
Alone. How he loved the solitude of winter nights, his laboratory lined with candelabra, concave lenses trapping the reflections so the flames seemed buried inside the thin glass discs like fish in ice. He loved the silence, the cold, even the stiffness of his fingers because the discomfort reminded him that he was alive and as long as he remained alive he could extend the perimeter of his knowledge a little further, could know just a little more, could see what he could see, each night something new and utterly astonishing.
He had learned the rudiments of grinding lenses from a spectacle-maker in Amsterdam. He bought his glass from alchemists and apothecaries. He made his mounts of copper and gold himself. While the people of Delft sniggered at him behind his back, he perfected his craft and after years of painstaking experiment found a method for making a magnifying lens less than an eighth of an inch across. It took him three months to grind and polish fine a single tiny lens, which he mounted with great care in a copper oblong. He was twenty-seven when he finished assembling his first microscope, yet his hands shook like an old man's. Even as he bent to look through the lens, he had a suspicion that nothing he'd seen before had prepared him for this.
"So symmetrical, so perfect, that it shows little things to me with a fantastic clear enormousness," he wrote in his diary, in Dutch. Dutch. The language of fishermen, of ditch diggers, of shopkeepers. He couldn't speak Latin, so he could not, would not, tell anyone about how he had invented an instrument far more powerful than Hook's microscope, an instrument that made the invisible world visible. His account would have seemed not only unbelievable but vulgar, too. Better to keep his discoveries to himself, to hoard them with a miser's devotion. He had contrived the microscope for his own use — he would relish his discoveries with a pleasure all the more intoxicating because it was secret.
Entirely on his own, for his own benefit, deriving his own conclusions, he examined shreds of cabbage, ox eyes, chicken livers, beaver hides, fingernail clippings, mustache whiskers, the sting of a flea, the legs of a louse, dry skin scraped from his arm. He took to stalking flies during the day in his dry-goods shop, climbing over counters and up shelves, trapping the insects between cupped hands and closing them in glass jars so that they died from suffocation. At first his customers stared with the scornful delight of a fool's audience, then with increasing impatience, and soon they stopped watching him at all. They left the shop without waiting for their fabric and would never have come back again if it hadn't been for Marie.
Lovely Marie, with ruddy cheeks always aglow, like her father's fine lenses. Marie coaxed the women of Delft to return to the shop, and she gave up her study of French so she could wait on the customers herself. She rescued her father's business, but not because she loved him. More than she loved her father she resented him, along with the rest of Delft believed him to be insane. But she had a strong, seventeenth-century sense of obligation. She was a daughter. Unlike her mother, who had stopped being a proper wife when her husband stopped being a husband, Marie would always be the eldest daughter of the mad lens-grinder of Delft, would cling to the identity through her father's long (sometimes she feared it would be endless) life, until he died at the ripe old age of eighty-one and she, herself an old woman of sixty by then, could close up the shop and with her small inheritance live quietly, reclusively, serving no one.
"Steady elfkin, Papa's dearest." He'd say this not to her nor to her brothers and sisters but to a dead fly as he carefully dissected its head and stuck its brain on the tip of a needle. Papa's dearest. What a mockery of paternal solicitude. Marie would set down his tray with his dinner and turn away in disgust, leaving her crazed father alone with his purposeless instruments.
Deliciously alone in his invisible world.
There is nothing more aesthetically satisfying than form that convinces us of its perfection, Marie's father believed, nothing more incredible than perfection in miniature. So even if he had wanted to tell someone — and gradually, over the years, the urge to tell began to displace the urge to protect his secret — who would believe him? He would have to tell it in Dutch. An incredible story in Dutch! They would laugh at him, and their laughter would seduce him like the Sirens' song until he started laughing, too, laughing along with them, laughing at himself.
But if he couldn't tell them, he could show them. He had to show them before he died. Or show one of them, one man, someone he could trust, a scientist, yes, he knew a worthy man: Regnier de Graaf, the only man in Delft who was a corresponding member of the Royal Society. He was forty-one years old when he invited de Graaf into his laboratory; he felt like a four-year-old child, though, as de Graaf bent down to look through his microscope at the strand of hair — Marie's hair, which she had generously plucked for them. She watched, too, not with her father's anxious anticipation but with an air of disapproval, as though she were the mother of the four-year-old boy, tapping her foot as steadily as a clock's pendulum, waiting for de Graaf to get on with it.
He was slow. Annoyingly slow, in Marie's opinion. Terrifyingly slow, to her father. But when de Graaf finally straightened his stooped back, took off his spectacles, and wiped his rheumy eyes, he said, shaking his head, exactly what Marie's father had hoped to hear.
Yes, God was good. So good that after Marie's father, with de Graaf's recommendation, wrote a rambling eight-page letter to the Royal Society of London, they wrote back. The Royal Society. They had proven false many superstitions of the day, including, most famously, this: that a spider in a circle made of the powder of a unicorn's horn cannot crawl out. Indeed, it can and will crawl out, and very quickly! The Royal Society had performed the experiment themselves. Marvelous men. And these same scientists were not only interested in the lens-grinder of Delft but wanted to know more.
So he told them what he'd seen, told them almost everything. In Dutch, no less! Now when he wasn't looking through his microscope he was answering their questions, describing the "little things" in careful detail. Yet he still refused, despite the repeated requests of the Royal Society, to explain how to assemble his powerful microscope. This could wait. The eminent gentlemen far away in London hadn't earned his trust yet. He didn't trust anything or anyone he hadn't seen.
And then one night a year later, at the end of a fortnight of steady rain, he turned his instrument upon a drop of water from a cistern. Why he hadn't done this before he couldn't say — later in his life he would regret nothing as much as the fact that he'd wasted so many years examining dead and inanimate things. Because what he saw that night was more wonderful than anything else. Yes, it was the nourishment that wonder seeks: life.
He tried to restrain his passion as he wrote to the Royal Society, "I saw, with great amazement, that this material contained many tiny animals which moved about in a most amusing fashion, some spinning around like tops; others, exceedingly tiny, moved so rapidly that they looked like a confused swarm of dancing gnats or flies."
He showed no such restraint, however, when his daughter Marie entered the laboratory. He stood up from his desk with such haste that he knocked over his inkwell, and the dark liquid spread over his unfinished letter until it assumed the shape of a man's boot. Beautiful black liquid. Life in liquid. With his microscope he would examine all kinds of liquid — wine, milk, saliva, perspiration, semen, blood! He would investigate every form of liquid in the world.
He rushed at his daughter, and she managed to set down the tray with the flask of wine before he grabbed her. "Marie!" he sobbed, burying his face in her neck.
Was he weeping? Marie wondered. Had he at long last come to his senses and recognized that he'd been neglecting his family? Was this the anguish of remorse? No, he'd lost what little sense he had left, Marie realized when he lifted up his face. He was a small man and she a tall woman, so in her adult years she towered above him. She looked down on him then. He was laughing, his lips peeled back as though drawn by thread. A puppet's face made of wood and velvet, that's what she was reminded of right then, and the laughter seemed to come from a separate source across the room — from another man, a stranger, the devil hiding in the shadows, laughing for her father, through her father. And if she still fought to recognize her father in that grotesque face, she knew he was lost to her forever as soon as he spoke.
"Marie, dearest Marie. Give me a tear."
Ah, what a plaintive voice, what a pathetic man. He would always be mad — there was no chance of recovery and therefore he would never feel remorse. She despised him right then. He would never feel remorse for what he'd done to her and would never feel gratitude for all that she'd done for him. Yet she was obligated to her father, or to the demon who had taken possession of him. Without her obligation she would have been nothing. She didn't blame him for the obligation, only for his selfishness. His selfishness. Yes, for this she despised him, this mad, cloying, wooden toy of a man. She tried to push him away.
"Marie!" He held her face, brought his lips to hers, kissed her not like a father should kiss a daughter but like the devil kisses. Marie struggled to free herself. He tasted her with his thin, warm tongue and for a few horrible seconds she couldn't stop him. And then they separated with a gasp and stared at each other in amazement and mutual confusion, mirror images, father and daughter.
What had just happened?
It was Marie who understood first. She did not move, only closed her eyes so she would not have to see him. And for a moment her father understood, too. Looking at Marie, he couldn't help but understand and was ashamed. But his shame flickered and went out when he saw — oh, gracious Marie! — the thing he most desired: a large, milky tear that seeped from between her eyelids and slid down her cheek.
He caught the tear on the knuckle of his thumb and transferred it to a specimen slide. He set the slide on the table. While he was adjusting the glass, Marie rushed from the laboratory. He didn't try to stop her, although if he'd been her he would have wanted nothing more than to look at this aspect of himself, this expression of modesty, magnified a hundredfold. Filled with generosity, he decided that if she came back he would let her have a peek at this extraordinary image. He reached for the slide again, noticing that in the candlelight the opaque tear was the inimitable color of fire. He admired it for a moment, then positioned the slide below the metal plates, hardly able to manage even this since his hands were trembling so. Even before he had examined the tear, he started to compose in his head the letter he would write to the Royal Academy: "... an incredible number of little animals of various sorts, which move very prettily, which tumble about and sidewise, this way and that" — words of a man who had neither wealth nor fame but a success far more extraordinary, the freedom to tell the most amazing stories and to be believed. This was the lasting consequence of his invention: he had forever changed the nature of belief. Nothing visible to the naked eye could be trusted anymore, for everything had a secret microscopic life. He, the master of magnification, had made visible the unimaginable.
An incredible number of little animals of various sorts, which move very prettily. Ghosts and sylphs and demons were pale fantasies compared to these thousands of tiny worms alive in a droplet of water. Among all the minute marvels that he had discovered, this universe inside a tear would be the most marvelous of all — no more amazing sight had ever come into focus beneath the glass. To the mad lens-grinder of Delft, there was hardly a difference between discovering life and creating it.CHAPTER 2
BEES BEES BEES
Francis is fifteen years old, ill with a fever. He is asleep, dreaming, and in his dream he is crawling on hands and knees across a narrow bridge. When he reaches the middle of the bridge, he leans over the side, expecting to see his own shadow floating on the creek below. Instead he sees a man's hand and part of the arm stretching toward him — the rest of the body is a formless white mass in the murky water. As the hand glides beneath the bridge, the boy is suddenly afraid that it will rise up from the other side and snatch him from the bridge and drown him. He squeezes his eyes shut, waiting for the worst. Nothing happens. After a minute or so he blinks and peeks at the water, only to discover that he is back in his own bed, his nurse Nanette is mumbling to herself, and the sky outside the window is the flat gray of another November afternoon.
Just then, to his delight, the gray fills with snow, as though someone standing below the window had broken open seedpods and tossed up fistfuls of white puffs. It is snowing. He will not drown. It is snowing in swirls and waves. When he closes his eyes again, he sees the snow in his mind. When he opens his eyes a moment later, he sees nothing.
* * *
Bees are the souls of the dead. They are the tears of Christ. They are the offspring of the nymph Melissa, who was transformed by Zeus into a queen bee. If a bee brushes against an infant's lips, he will grow up with the gift of song. Bees are spontaneously generated in a bull-calf's crooked horn. Bees are good luck. Bees are bad luck. Bees were sent straight from Paradise by God to provide the wax for church candles. During the winter bees neither hibernate nor die — they fly to Barbary and sing the captured Moors to sleep.
* * *
Francis, where are you, Francis? Nanette is not amused. Not in the least is Nanette amused. Come out now, Nanette has something for you. Aha! There you are, you wicked boy, you thought you could hide from your nurse, such a foolish child. Leave it to Nanette to find a needle in hay. Sweet pig, here's a pinch for all the trouble you put me through, here's a pinch for mussing your clothes, and here's a good sharp pinch as a warning.
Excerpted from Various Antidotes by Joanna Scott. Copyright © 1994 Joanna Scott. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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