~ D. Thea Baldrick
“Every morning the old woman . . . cried,
‘Hansel, put out your finger, that I may feel
if you are getting fat.’ But Hansel always
stretched out a bone, and the old dame,
whose eyes were dim, could not see it,
thinking always it was Hansel’s finger.”
—Hansel and Gretel, 1887
Deep in the woods, bisected by Route 27, in a house found only by invitation, I have a lab with sixteen avian species and a firebird. One cage on the floor sits empty with the latch undone and the door open. Upstairs I have a room with mice. The aquariums are in the basement.
Gretel came often to sit among the birds and to read or watch. Hansel was too afraid, or too wise, and never returned, but his sister was there on the day I poured agar into petri dishes for the new bacteria. I made hundreds of petri dishes at a time. When they cooled, I put them in the refrigerator. After a few days, I would take them out for inoculation.
“Old woman, old woman, old woman, says I,” Gretel said between bites of the apple I had left for her. She was sitting curled up in my armchair, an open book in her lap, “What does this mean? I don’t understand.”
“Nobody does,” I said, “Probably.” It was a non-answer, but I was busy.
“But you haven’t looked.”
“It doesn’t matter. The level of understanding remains the same.”
“Look,” she insisted.
It was the equation that I was always scribbling down, in margins, on the end leaf, in the condensation on the window, or in the ashes in the fire. Once I amused myself by having an orb weaver incorporate it into his web. It took surprisingly little manipulation of the spider’s brain. “That means,” I told her, “that based on evolutionary theory, what we see is not real and what’s more, cannot be real. Reality, as we see it, is an impossibility.”
There was a long silence. I went back to work.
Finally, she said, “If that is true, what is reality?”
“That would be the right question.”
“And what would be the right answer?”
“I don’t know.”
Exasperated, she shut the book with a clap. The birds fluttered in their cages, the firebird repositioned herself and Gretel came over to watch me pour.
“Stand back,” I said. “It is easy to contaminate this.”
She stepped back. “What are you growing this time?”
“What is it for?”
“It grows on bird feathers. I am adding two genes that I have designed.”
“To the bird feathers?”
“No, no, to the bacteria. It’s too difficult to add them to the bird. I would have to wait too long for the results.”
“So why are you adding the genes?”
“I am, for obvious reasons, interested in aging. The first gene should make the bacteria live longer. The second gene turns the bacteria gold, so I know which bacteria I have tampered with.”
When she left, she had the temerity to hug me, and as she walked through the woods, I could hear her singing, “Old woman, old woman, old woman, says I, oh whither, oh whither, oh wither, so high?”
The next time she came, she was older, and I was not. She gained on time with a remarkable speed, and yet, I know her own perception was that time passed with an excruciating slowness. I hardly aged at all from one point to another and yet time fled from me at a rate I found breathtaking. That observation has kept me up at night, thinking.
“Old woman,” she said as she peered in at the birds, who all had gold feathers, except for the firebird, “Do you think they are happy in the cages?” She was eating another apple. As usual her questions were flavored with apple chunks and saliva. The birds were pecking at their seeds. The aquarium creatures were picking at bloodworms and plankton. The upstairs mice nibbled on pellets. Everything was eating all the time.
“The feathers are infected now with the Staphylococcus stravinski,” I said. “If the birds flew away, what do you think might happen?”
“I suppose the bacteria would end up in the wood and, if conditions were right, they would grow and multiply out in the world.”
“Yes, that is a possibility,” I said.
“So, it is important to keep them in cages until we know more?”
“The doors are unlatched.”
“The birds could leave if they wanted to.”
“Maybe they don’t know they can. Maybe they don’t know what’s real?”
I shrugged, “Maybe. No more than we do.”
“Maybe,” she said, opening the door to the sparrow’s cage, “maybe they just need to be shown.”
I said nothing. I was, in truth, deep in my project. I may or may not know how to turn a blind eye, but I caught a glimmer of gold as the sunlight flashed on the bird as it flew through the door.
“Well, you did it,” I said, glancing up from the microscope.
“Is it OK?” she asked, her hand on the raven’s cage.
“Probably not,” I said, turning back to the microscope.
The raven, too, flashed bright in the sunlight, its delighted caws growing faint as it flew through the wood and over Route 27.
Days, weeks, perhaps a month later, Gretel appeared in the doorway, bringing too much sunlight, disturbing my new collection of birds. She had let all the previous ones loose, all but for the firebird who stubbornly remained in her cage despite the open door. The new lot blinked at the infusion of light, but even as the girl shut the door behind her, the room remained too bright. I realized, as I looked up, that the gold glow was from her hair.
“Oh, dear,” I said, laughing. “Oh, dear, my dear, oh, dear.” I was almost in tears. It was just too funny. “You’re infected.”
“Yes,” she said grimly.
“Serve you right,” I said, smiling, turning back to the centrifuge which had just finished spinning. I opened the lid and took out the microtubule and peered at the pellet that had formed at the bottom.
I took another peep at the girl. “Oh, dear,” I said, chuckling again. The glow was concentrated around her scalp where the bacteria would have formed in thicker quantities near the new growth of the hair follicles.
“Actually,” I said, peering at her more closely, as I put on my strongest pair of glasses. “This is interesting. Cross-species contamination. Do other animals have it? Horses? Deer? Dogs? Cats? Mice?” She was shaking her head. “What about other primates?”
“I don’t know,” she said, “But that’s not the issue.”
“It must have mutated to infect humans,” I mused, “But why? The evolutionary advantage must have been extreme compared to other animals.” I stared at her, thinking.
“My dear old woman, I am trying to tell you—”
“Length of life!” I cried. “The birds didn’t live long enough for the bacteria. With its enhanced lifetime, it needed a host who lived at least as long as it did. And you’re a convenient host, there are so many of you. Mystery solved. Not so interesting anymore.” I went back to the centrifuge.
“You are not listening to me.”
“No,” I muttered as I carefully decanted the microtubule.
“Look at me, please.”
“What do you see?”
“I see a skinny girl, far too serious, with a thin face, a broad nose and really rather lovely skin, with a heavy infestation of genetically modified Staphylococcus stravinski on her head.”
“Well, other people see a halo.”
“A halo!” Oh, dear, I had to sit down.
“Yes, and what’s more, only some people get it. It’s everywhere, all over the world, but some people are immune to it.”
I nodded, still chuckling. “Of course.”
“The problem is that it has become a sign of holiness. Cults are forming. The science people have pointed out that it is microbial, but they’re drowned out by all the furor. Look at it. It is rather dramatic. And things are getting ugly. Elitism. Prejudice. There’s been violence.
“Really?” I said, getting up to return to my project. “So what else is new?”
“Old woman! You have to do something!”
“Why?” The liquid I decanted needed to be put in the thermocycler.
“Because you can!”
“Maybe I could, that’s true, but the stupidity of what is going on out there beyond the wood does not interest me. At the moment, getting this into the thermocycler interests me.”
“But you started the whole thing!”
“Did I?” I said, glancing at her.
The girl cried out with frustration or guilt. As she grabbed her hair, sparks of gold flew out and I stepped back. I did not want to become infected myself. A halo would be even more ludicrous on me. My sisters would enjoy the irony far too much.
“If it matters to you so much, you fix it,” I said.
“Me? How can—”
“What you need to know is here.” I waved at the bookshelf. “What you need to do is here.” I indicated the lab equipment.
“The firebird might help,” I said as the bird changed its position in its sleep. I looked at it thoughtfully. “For some reason, the bacteria dies when I put it on her feathers. It is not without interest. If I weren’t so embroiled with this new project, I would look into it myself.”
I really had to put the liquid in the thermocycler. As I was walking away, I mentioned, “Oh, by the way, the effect probably won’t last forever. I am not sure how the bacteria will work on the different keratin in hair, but it is likely that it has the same effect as on birds. It is a feather-degrading bacteria. Keratin is its food source. Once its food source is gone, the bacteria will die. Probably. Unless of course it adapts to include another source of keratin. Like skin. The extended lifespan has obviously given it enhanced adaptability mechanisms it didn’t have before.”
“You mean that once it’s eaten my hair and I’m bald, then it will start on my skin?”
I shrugged. “Maybe.”
After I ran the thermocycler, I turned to find her sitting cross-legged on the floor, flipping frenetically through books she had pulled from the shelves: Biochemistry, Pathophysiology, Bacterial Pathogenesis.
“You’ve written all over these,” she said.
“You can, too. Just use a different color.”
She may or may not figure out how to remove halos from the world, but what’s more important, by the time she’s done, I’m going to have a nice little lab assistant. If she can’t figure it out and the yellow glow continues to annoy me, I may have to show her how to remove it myself. It’s fairly simple. Everything eats something. It’s just a matter of engineering something to eat the bacteria. A virus would do nicely.
As a professional career changer, D. Thea Baldrick’s experiences are kaleidoscopic. She has two Bachelor’s degrees: a B.A. in Comparative Literature and a B.S. in Biology with a Concentration in Molecular and Cellular Biology. She attended George Washington Law School and spent twenty years homeschooling her children.
Usually residing in Ohio, she lived briefly in Madrid, traveled solo through Europe and occasionally inhabits imaginary landscapes with her grandchildren. She has worked in education, libraries, bookstores, and industries; most recently, as a microbiology technician in a soap company testing for microbial growth. Currently, she writes nonfiction about diseases and poets, and fiction about witches. Sometimes the topics overlap.
Portals to D.Thea’s publications are at dthea.com.