Growing up near the Atlantic coast, I liked nothing more than rising early to go down to the beach where I could explore what the waves had brought on shore during the night. My mother, who I knew as Marta Fersoni, always encouraged me to imagine the hidden world below the waves that was home to the alien-looking creatures from the deep that I often found stranded on the sand.
Twenty years later, my daily explorations had shifted from that long sandy beach to the long twisty DNA of the human genome. In the genetics research lab that I had joined, we were trying to solve the mystery of how people long ago spread from the human cradle of Africa to South America. That work, tracing the origins of groups that had migrated by land and sea, still continues its conventional course of discovery.
When my DNA sequence failed to fit into any known human category from Abenaki to Zulu, I quickly decided that I would have to obtain a DNA sample from my mother. In those days I was quite busy with my lab work and for several years I'd felt guilty about how long it had been since I'd gone back for a visit. Now I suddenly had a work-related excuse to go home.
After booking my fight, I called home, but only got an answering machine. This was in the middle of the 1980s and I was surprised that my mother even had an answering machine. She finally called me back a couple of days later, the evening before my flight. She explained that she was busy with one of her projects and that she would not be meeting me at the airport.
Believing that I had made an important discovery in the strange pattern of my family's DNA, I was imagining a quick but splashy publication in Nature and and fantasizing about getting out of my postdoctoral apprenticeship and finally moving on to having my own well-funded research lab. I decided to rent a car and drive myself home from the airport.
The answering machine was an all-digital device, what I later learned was a military communications computer. It had confusing controls of a design I'd never encountered before, but I eventually got it to play an audio recording and so I was able listen to the last words from my mother.
Her voice came out of the machine: "Please don't bother searching for me. You must abandon the idea of sequencing my DNA. I suggest that you forget the silly idea of publishing the sequence data for your own DNA. Even if you are willing to have yourself singled out for scientific investigation of your biological nature, think also of the others who, like me, do not want attention brought to their plight as strangers on this world. None of us asked to be here and we are trying to make the best of things. Don't ruin our lives. If you take my advice and drop this dangerous thread of genetic investigation then I will contact you again. Please carefully consider following my advice Ivory...there's no place like home and your misguided desire to examine my DNA has now deprived us of our home."
I only heard her words once. That digital recording was erased as it played. I could barely believe that those had been my mother's words, so solemn, impersonal and analytical, not at all like the happy and flamboyant woman I knew my mother to be.
I spent the rest of the day searching around my home town, visiting my mother's friends and anyone who I thought might be able to give me a clue about where she had gone. I spoke to several cleaning crews that had emptied and scrubbed clean the house, one of which had been hired to continue tending the yard on a six month pre-paid contract.
My mother had never wanted to talk about my father, but I had the idea that he was from Portugal and had died when I was two years old. What did Marta mean when she had described herself as a stranger on Earth? Marta's words seemed to constitute proof that she shared my unusual DNA pattern, but what about my father? Was he also one of these "strangers"? Such were the questions I pondered that night while I walked.
Shortly after sunrise I arrived at the ocean-side resort that was managed by the family of my closest childhood friend, Gabriela. When I found her, she was still helping a final few drunken guests back to their rooms. When she saw me she smiled and waved to me, then after she was finished with her work she came back and complained to me about my not having given her advanced warning of my visit. I tried to excuse myself by explaining that this was to have been a quick business trip.
We were at a pool-side bar, watching the cleaning staff tidy up after the night of partying. Gabriela reflexively put a drink in front of me. She asked innocently, "Still collecting DNA samples?"
Marta was always saying odd things. On one occasion, while we were watching Dorothy click together the Ruby Slippers, she said to me, "If you ever need some magic, try that." Suddenly, while Gabriela reminisced about our school girl days together, I knew why my mother had arranged for my running shoes to remain in our empty house. I rudely cut off Gabriela and asked her to drive me back into town.
Not wanting Gabriela to see the abandoned house, I pretended that I was staying at a downtown hotel. As soon as Gabriela's car was out of sight I flagged down a taxi and had the driver take me back to Marta's house. Feeling foolish, I put on the red running shoes walked through the empty rooms. Did it matter where I was?
|"Entering the color reality"|
Why had I been so sure that those shoes were magical? I felt it, deep inside me. Later that day I returned to my lab and continued exploring the mystery of my DNA, struggling to reconcile my desire to publish against my mother's wishes that I not reveal our shared secret to the world.
Trysta and Ekcolir is copyright John Schmidt, but the text of the story is licensed for sharing under the Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (CC BY-NC-SA) license.