Epigenetics

Two glasses of clouded champagne framed a vase of white flowers and a blue bowl of forgotten cereal in milk that was beginning to smell. There were these things and something else, untold beneath the dust, which grew like mould over the plaid tablecloth. No one would dare disturb it for a long time. Something made the dust untouchable – the ominous feel of varnish on the door to an ancient silver tomb.

Down the hall the corpse of Eli's grandmother was still in her room. Freckles was next to her bed, purring into the carpet below. Eli was sitting on a plane, slicing chicken with a plastic knife.

Last Friday, Eli's taxi dropped him in front of his grandmother's house with a large suitcase and a bouquet of white carnations. The year before, he bought her a birdbath. Some renegade ivy had overtaken the once-white stone swirls: a fairy's toe dipped into brown water. The rest of her had been broken off. The yard was half living half dead – shoots of green and bursts of purple wildflowers among dry grass splinters, sedge skeletons. The birdbath was supposed to make the garden look more like the neighbouring rows of rhododendron and roses, and polished stepping stones on greendrop lawns. Houses so lovely you could eat them. Eli walked briskly up the front stairs and wiped his feet three times on the welcome mat before letting himself in.

"Our flight time today will be one hour and twelve minutes." The aisle seat was empty, and Eli happily declined the headphones. He wanted just to watch the clouds. Eli imagined that the topography of fluff was solid like the ridges on the globe in his new Calgary office. He imagined taking a hand-blender to the sky, then baking the clouds into meringue. He could have gone over the meeting minutes or some draft material from his grad students, but he knew he'd be too distracted to finish anything – two women prattling about men and menopause, behind him a father shushing his crying son, a flight attendant pushing his cart down the aisle, displacing everything like a piston, and thirty thousand feet of air below him. He liked the background music of the safety film, and hummed along as he reviewed the card in the pocket in front of him with drawings so simple it could be a colouring book for Melanie and Sophia.

When the taxi brought him from the Vancouver airport that Friday, Eli's grandmother wanted to know all about Melanie and Sophia.

"Are they still in ballet? And in piano too? You mustn't work them so hard, Eli. Children need their space. It won't fit properly if you force it. You should know that." She closed the oven door. Flour powdered her apron and her hair, pillowed out from her oven mitts when she put them down on the counter.

"What are you making, Grandma?"

"I'm getting some bread ready for tomorrow. I'm going to make your favourite stew. Do you remember, Eli?" She fingered the tie of her apron.

"But I have dinner with some colleagues tomorrow." Her fingers began to jerk more desperately at the knot behind her back.

"Well the next night then."

"I fly back tomorrow."

"Lunch?" Eli shook his head.

"I don't have time, Grandma."

"You're staying here for the weekend and you won't even sit with your grandmother for one meal?"

"I told you I wouldn't have much time. I would have just stayed in a hotel if you hadn't insisted. Remember?"

"You couldn't have stayed in Vancouver a little bit longer?"

"Grandma, I'm sorry, but I need to be back at my lab right away. That's just the way it is."

"No, Eli, that's just the way you're making it." She shoved half her apron through the handle on the stove. It bulged beside the neatly hanging dishtowel with the crochet hook. "These flowers are lovely."

Eli brought down the shutter on the window of the airplane. His fingers flipped through a magazine without conviction, letting his mind drift. There were many things Eli liked to think about, and small things in particular. He thought about the hairs on fruit flies, the pieces of their mouths, their multi-faceted eyes, like the facets of diamonds. Diamonds with facets and faces, diamonds in watches, which also had faces – and hands too. He thought of ladies' hands, gloved hands, soft like his wife's when she was wearing her kimono, posed with a paper crane and a parasol like a cocktail umbrella. He thought of fine bone china, figurines that spun in careful circles while gears below turned in the opposite direction, of neat levers striking strings. He would make music boxes for his daughters for their birthday. Gentle boxes that played rock-a-bye baby. Boxes that would fit closed with a perfect lock. The key would be like the keys to their dollhouses – tiny homes with tiny furniture – tables and shelves that would collect dust and need to be cleaned with a down feather duster, as nimbly as flies clean themselves, smoothing their hairs through the notches in their legs.

Eli had studied fruit flies as an undergrad. They began his fascination with genetics. Drosophila melanogaster: Latin for beautiful machine. Ever since his honour's thesis, Eli had studied epigenetics. Although the primary sequences of DNA are set upon conception, many factors control the expression of DNA. Genes were fated, a holy and unexchangeable gift, crucial to all life - like the sun. Eli studied the shadows, the eclipses and the clouds. Epigenetics was learning to draw curtains over the sun, to control the weather. His studies would change the world from the inside out, like adjusting the gears that made the planet spin.

But when Eli moved on to the dessert – a lemon cake in a bloated package that popped when he broke the wrapper – he didn't think about fruit flies or music boxes. He was thinking about Freckles.

Freckles was a tortoise shell cat and an old cat, and Eli did not understand her at all. When they met, Freckle's head was buried into the shag-hair carpet on the bathroom floor downstairs. She could have been dead. Eli touched her side, and she lifted her head to look at him. She had been purring and her fur was licked into tufts, making Freckles look even more like something from the street. Eli's grandmother had found her one night, crying on the front step. Eli took care to avoid the wet spots when he lifted Freckles upstairs to the living room. The cat squashed her nose into the hard rug and ignored him for the rest of his stay. And yet Freckles bothered him. Eli knew even from his undergrad studies that DNA condensation was the mechanism behind the dappling of her coat. Before she was born, before she looked anything like a cat, each of her cells randomly picked one of two X chromosomes. A coin toss and one shrivelled up, leaving the other to reign over the cell. In Freckle's case, one chromosome coded for black fur colour, and the other for orange. Half her skin cells then shrivelled the black and picked the orange and vice versa. The cells divided into the patches that produced the fur that she left all over the carpets and couches. Eli imagined Freckles as a tiny balloon given tiny orange and black spots of rubber paint that expanded with her, until she was a real cat and full of breath and sucking at her mother's side.

This is what Eli pictured, although he thought newborn kittens to be much pinker – not orange or black. Eli was not the type to swoon over a newborn anything. Once, he fancied himself a premed student. Then he shadowed a doctor on a thirty-hour shift. People were messy – coughing, sneezing, and dribbling out their orifices, as if boiling over from the inside. The smell was war. Encroaching pathogens and the volatile bombs humans dropped, hoping to kill armies they couldn't see. It made Eli's head spin. The delivery room was the worst. Babies were not cherubs. They did not descend through parting curtains, singing of joy or innocence. They were sometimes purple or puffy in places – living bruises. Eli had the privilege of cutting an umbilical cord. He gagged. The thing was screaming, clenching its Lady Macbeth fists, woken into a nightmare. Its movement was double-jointed, and Eli imagined a baby pterodactyl, wings sopping with blood, chunks of eggshell still sticking out like shards of glass. Nothing like a music box.

It was a crying sound that woke Eli that morning. He had been standing in a puddle on the dark ferry deck. Eli did not like the ocean. He liked rivers and lakes – water sandwiched by cottages or farms. He walked through a world of white shapes: giant cylinders and long rectangular boxes that he took to carry life boats and jackets, wet white railings and signs that said 'staff only.' The ship's insides were warm with passengers chit-chatting in the cafeteria, in the massage chairs, in the seats that all faced one way like on a bus. But outside he shivered alone, in weather even the most addicted smokers wouldn't brave. The ferry blended through the water, trailing froth out behind. Tiny lights like scallop eyes lined the humped shadow of the mainland. Eli could still make out the node that was the ferry terminal. The ferry terminal – the beginning of the end.

The other side of the ferry was worse. The army of rain battled in eddies, the gore of the fallen splattering onto the deck. Eli was in a drawing he had found once, an escapee from his wife's cleaning, crumpled between the fridge and the counter. The picture was from one day after ballet, when Melanie and Sophia unwound their slippers and sat down to colour. Wild with dance, they yanked at each other's bobby pins and ripped pages from their colouring books. Crayons in fist, they hurricaned through loose paper, sometimes spiralling over more than one page at once, then streaking the table, drawing tornadoes on the floor, lightning on the walls. The ocean was jagged crayon, black and purple and green. For a while, Eli knew the vessel was approaching a horizon he could not see – he drew it in chalk in his mind, arbitrary across the immensity. Later he wondered if he wasn't in a tunnel – black walls all around him. If he could just bring himself to lean over the railing, he could to touch them. The ferry's horn was so loud, wailing at the dark. Eli didn't have time to recognize the sound. His ossicles shattered.

Eli's sweaty torso swung upright, blood splintering in his ears. It took the alarm seventeen seconds to catch up, trumpeting in the morning with electronic pulses. He listened until his heart rate slowed to match it. Eli expected to find Freckles rumbling into the floor behind the toilet bowl when he brushed his teeth. He changed and carefully folded his pyjamas into snug rolls in his suitcase. He thought about rolling joints in his high school, about how he could feel the ridges and furrows of his fingertips on the paper. About sealing it with saliva. About letting a little tumble out, just for effect. But Eli had always been a top student; He never really got into that kind of mess.

He opened and closed half the cupboards in the kitchen. He considered making waffles – he liked filling the neat little squares with syrup – but decided on corn flakes and coffee. These were the staples of his youth. His university roommates began eating the same breakfast – half joking half hoping it would help them get Eli's grades. He knocked a clay bowl off the shelf while trying to pick another. A broken crescent rocked on the floor. Eli put the piece inside the bowl and tucked it behind the dinner plates. He filled a plastic bowl with shredded wheat. The way his chewing was amplified in the stillness of the house made Eli feel like he was loitering. He listened for the cat. Eli pushed his chair back from the table, needing to investigate the silence, leaving half his cereal adrift in milk.

She was at the foot of his grandmother's bed. Freckles did not lift her head from the carpet to greet him. The door was open like a dropped jaw. Eli hoisted the cat from the wet spot she made, turned to take her back to the living room, and stopped. The wind picked up outside – throwing leaves into spirals down the street.

Eli, Ted and Graeme were going to smoke it down to the roach. Eli liked this expression. As long as they were high, anyone could appreciate the fine engineering that went into the tiniest things – computer chips, watches, and even cockroaches. Eli was especially appreciative as he inhaled, watched embers glow with his breath. He thought of chemicals, letters neatly connected by chalk lines and arrows. He imagined them shooting into the synapses of his brain like a baseball-pitching machine. Eli felt wide, bloated with a sweet peppered lightness. While his herb-stuffed origami was passed around the trio of tenth graders, it occurred to Eli that Mr. Henderson should be honoured to have his office hot-boxed by his students while he was away.

Eli remembered having that thought whenever he watched the smoke from the incense his wife lit in tiny shrines around their home and garden. They looked like little houses, sometimes like an open nativity scene with Japanese shepherds and sometimes closed like a birdcage for fireflies. Rice grains or orange slices were daintily spread along their floors. Her explanation of the shrines was confusing – Eli imagined tiny spirits living in them like sparrows in a birdhouse. He tolerated them, grateful at least for their fragrances – an alternative to the drug-store aerosols or plug-in scenters that made everything smell like a bathroom. Eli's wife set up a shrine in his lab. It sat on the top of his computer monitor and watched him as he worked. He remembered to bow before it just the same way he remembered to turn on and off the lights every day. One night, the shrine spoke:

"Are you quite sure?"

"Of course I'm sure," said Eli.

"Did you check your degrees of freedom?"

"What are you getting at?"

"You may have miscalculated." This was at 3:07am the night before Eli's thesis was due. He was surrounded by towers of pipette tips in plastic boxes sealed with autoclave tape. It stank of freshly brewed culture media.

"This isn't a statistics exam." The numbers wavered on the screen, an oasis in the desert of eyes too tired to blink. These 136 pages of scroll-bar were the endpoint of five years' research. "It's nothing."

"You pooled your variances."

"That's right."

"I think you'll find that conducting the Smith-Satterthwaite formula properly would give you different degrees of freedom."

"The committee said nothing, nothing changes." Eli took a swig of cold coffee. It was down to the grinds, which stuck between his teeth.

"Except that it brings your p value above alpha for trials eight through seventeen."

"You stop right now."

"You haven't lost your significance, Eli. It wasn't in the numbers in the first place."

"Listen, you Shinto bastard. I've already submitted my abstract for the March symposium. I've explained what happened. The mechanisms are true. It doesn't matter. Don't give me this Smith-Satterthwaite bullshit. It's stamped and done."

"Your data is flawed." The shrine did not speak again except for when Eli finally left and shut up the lab. "Henderson's English class, grade ten: He who controls the present, controls the past. Do you remember, Eli?" Eli locked the door.

Ted and Graeme were trying to blow smoke rings around the doorknob in Mr. Henderson's office.

"You have to use your tongue."

"Like this?"

"You look like a fag."

"I could eat one, right about now. Fag stew."

Eli wasn't listening. "Check this out." He unsheathed a pen from its gold holder. "This has got to be worth fifty dollars."

"Can you smoke it?" said Graeme.

"Come off it guys. Look around you. This office is a palace." He swivelled in the leather chair behind the bureau. "I'll bet the big H has champagne in here."

"Yeah, with 'H' engraved on the glasses."

"For celebrating whenever Ted gets an F." They laughed. Their pupils were mouths that swallowed the thickening smoke.

Grandmother's pupils were wider. Eli thought of the first time he dissected an eye, of trying to hold it without squeezing, of nervously sawing through the cow's thick sclera. It looked like his grandmother had been given the wrong eyes, glossy with formaldehyde.

She looked fallen – as if dropped through a hole in the ceiling. Her hair was Vancouver-grey, and wild around her face. The blankets were crumpled into waves at the foot of the bed. Her pillow had burst. Down had settled around the room. White feathers stuck to Freckles' wet fur as she hung from Eli's fingers. The room was so quiet.

Eli sucked on a wet stub as he pawed through Henderson's desk. He was close to giving up his search for champagne or whiskey when he noticed that the room was silent. He straightened. The door was open. Graeme and Ted were gone. The desk had fallen into shadow, and, joint hanging from his lips, Eli looked to see what was blocking the light. Principal Gregg was eating an apple, standing directly outside the office window. His figure was segmented by the Venetian blinds, sawed into slices like a magic trick casualty. The principal looked at Eli. Eli looked at the principal. They looked at the dissected pieces of each other: a moustache indicative of European upbringing, a tie – knotted by his wife – on silk, the pudge above his belt from a lifetime of habits. On the other side of the glass: a button undone for suaveness, a pin on his collar for head boy, hair cut by his mother, chair of the board of education, and a trail of smoke snaking up and dispersing on the ceiling. Gregg puckered at another bite of his apple. He appeared to be adding these fractions together. He turned and walked away. Eli watched the freckles on Gregg's bald spot. He watched until he couldn't tell that Gregg had a bald spot, and the principal disappeared behind the doors of a building across the grass. Eli's friends did not come back. The smoke cleared, and nothing had happened.

His grandmother's hair vined wildly around her face like ivy on marble. Her eyes were moons, eclipsed by dark pupils. Her irises were flecked with yellow – something Eli had never noticed before. Her eyes were bald and freckled and disappearing like Gregg's shiny head.

"They're sunkisses," his grandmother would have said of the freckles. Eli would have called them sun damage, evidence of genetic mutation from exposure to ultraviolet light. He put down the cat. The movement flurried some of the feathers. Eli imagined the room was a snow globe. His grandmother must have died thinking she was in a storm. Her mind wild, rocking in windy tree tops.

Eli watched his grandmother for a while longer. He didn't know just what he expected her to do – mouth and eyes still open and ready. He knew his grandmother wasn't there. She was lost to the untraceable path of twist ties and paperclips, socks and pen lids. A drawer in an attic in a cobwebbed house in a ghost town in a forgotten furrow of the brain. A world muffled by dust. Eli put down the cat. He went back to the kitchen, put two glasses on the table. He ignored the grime and filled them with champagne from above the fridge. Eli grabbed his bags, and left.

"The time is now 11:12am in Calgary. The temperature is two degrees. Thank you for flying, we hope to see you soon." The flight stewards pushed the metal cart back up the plane. The amount of garbage they collected seemed double the amount of food. He crushed his napkin to his lips before throwing it out. The smeared and crumpled paper reminded him of a dream he had once, but had now forgotten.

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