Even at four years old, Deborah is a builder of life. Other children create mechanical terrors to wade through their knee-high wooden cities, block towers crashing down as they pass. But Deborah crafts a doll of Lego, alternately cradling it and crafting a menagerie of strange and wondrous siblings that live in her imagination, and then in her hands, too. She hums lullabies as she works.
"Just play with one of your normal baby dolls, honey," says her father. He is using the same voice that he uses when she spills her milk or gets her dress dirty. "We didn't spend all that money so you could ignore them. What kind of a terrible mother are you?" He takes the doll Deborah made with her own hands and breaks her into dozens of parts.
Deborah mourns, as any mother would.
Her own mother comes to her later, bearing the pieces that were once a baby in Deborah's eyes. "It's all right, Debbie, we can fix her." Mother is wearing the face she wears when father yells at her, and her voice is hushed so that father won't hear. Her words, though, bring quiet rebellion. "You just keep playing the way you like," mother says. "It'll be our secret."
Deborah is not good at keeping secrets. Father discovers her dolls. There is an argument after bedtime, as Deborah lies awake, her pillow stuffed around her ears to try to drown the sound. But then Deborah's mother is there in the dark, hugging Deborah tightly, mascara smeared down her cheeks. "We're going to go live in a different house, sweetheart," mother whispers. "Without daddy."
At fourteen years old, Deborah loses her mother to uterine cancer. Her father takes her to Mexico during the summer so they can "become closer." Deborah spends her days on the beach. Sometimes she sifts the sand for tiny shells, marveling at the craftsmanship of their creator. Other times she watches the tumbling waves and despairs at the fragility of life; surely a design flaw. She fills the ocean of her mind's eye with other, better life: the strange and wondrous animals of her imagination, all undying.
When she returns to school, she begins to study biology.
At nineteen, Deborah walks into the sacred halls of the university research lab scrubbed and wide-eyed as any kindergartener on the first day of school. She gawks at the racks of glassware and the rows of refrigerators. She snorts at the computer screens, amber letters on a stark black field; antique equipment, unworthy for such a temple to science as this.
She is studying the curious intersection of physics and chemistry from whence biology was born. She wants to create life in a bottle.
The dream of science is, for her, the dream of a better world for her children, though she is young and yet has none. Deborah imagines a world where there is no hunger, no disease, no death. She dreams of a post-scarcity culture even as she subsists on ramen noodles — ten packs for a dollar — and works under a very important expert in the field who pinches her rear when nobody else is in the room.
“A pretty girl like you doesn't belong here," he says. "You ought to be home giving some nice young man a dozen babies."
She smiles as politely as she can muster and tells him the babies will come in time, but first she has work to do. She watches her schedule carefully so that she is never in the lab with him alone. Still, his eyes weigh her down, make her hands and feet clumsy as though she were made of clay.
The work, though, oh, the work is worth the price of the snowdrift of many small indignities piling around her knees. She labors at creating a primordial soup, trying to replicate that first moment when mere molecules became greater than the sum of their parts. She carefully mixes and measures and records, then mixes again. She dreams at night about the chemical formula of that miracle soup, and trembles when she wakes.
Many of the trials result in deadly poison. She is reverse-engineering the golem, she thinks, trying to find the name of God by misspelling the name of death.
Deborah meets Anthony in the student union one chilly spring day, waiting in line for a cup of coffee. Anthony is awkward of limb and of speech, hiding behind a curtain of dark hair. He buys her the coffee and walks her to the lab. He, too, is a graduate student, in the same program as she. She says that it is surprising they have not met before. Her tongue stumbles over itself, but he seems not to notice.
"I've seen you, but I couldn't think up a way to introduce myself without coming off as... kind of creepy," he says. They laugh together, one nervous at the confession, the other nervous at how it might be received. They drift into safer, easier talk about the research, and self-consciousness melts away. They linger outside the building clutching their paper cups for warmth, talking with spacious gestures and reckless voices about work and science and dreams for the future. She shivers, unprepared for the cool air, and is surprised to discover that today she is reluctant to return to her solitary work.
At last they part, but agree to meet again for coffee the next day. And then the next. Coffee turns into lunches, which turn into working dinners. They sprawl in the lab long after everyone else has gone home, chopsticks shoved into cooling white cartons of lo mein, dreaming out loud of the world they might create.
They are there together when Deborah first spots the result that means success. One test run has resulted in delicate strands of RNA, an organic molecule that means an organic process has taken place. She shrieks and dances. Anthony spins her around and kisses her. He isn’t handsome, precisely, but he is funny, and he’s passionate about the work, and about her. The kiss is just exactly right.
The very important expert in the field rushes a paper to publication. He leaves Deborah uncredited. This cruel betrayal leaves her questioning her future. She considers filing a complaint with the dean; such a move might label her a complainer, a credit-whore, and potentially unemployable. She weighs leaving the university. Ultimately she does neither; Anthony persuades her to labor onward in silence.
This soon proves to be for the best.
The tiny strands of RNA are unreproducible, as it happens; they are contamination from improperly sterile glassware. Their peers in science disapprove with both force and volume. The very important expert in the field retires at this disgrace. Deborah feels some petty measure of joy, despite the blow to her program's credibility, and to her own.
The other result of that test, however — their kiss — proves perfectly reproducible and scientifically sound. It keeps them sane as they conduct further research, write page after page of dissertation, wrestle formatting and data alike until they at last they have both contributed their new bricks for the edifice of science.
As graduation looms, Anthony and Deborah spend a week in Jamaica, lying in the retreating surf with fingers entwined. They speak, as ever, of the future: the careers they might build, their hopes for travel, for hobbies, for children. They see the clouds go by, watcher and watched alike in languor.
“We should be together like this forever,” Anthony says. He squeezes her fingers to show he means it, and then clarifies: “Deborah, will you marry me?”
Her heart pounds. She agrees. The happy couple are cocooned in a tangle of invitations and caterers and inconsequential family squabbles. On the other side of the wedding, they find that their careers are waiting after all, despite the breath of scandal tainting their program. Anthony finds a stable job in a private biopharmacological research facility. Deborah steps into a government-backed nanotechnology program.
Deborah’s new task is repurposing biological processes to create useful nanoscale robots; she holds the same dream of creating life where there was none before, but now by intent rather than chance. She learns the manifold secrets of the carbon atom and its many moods and guises, and dreams at night of its strange geometries.
Deborah and Anthony buy a cozy house in a quiet neighborhood, one with good schools and green parks filled with children playing. They decide the time is right to make a family.
At work, Deborah’s team makes wild leaps of achievement: They create a nanoscale machine that takes graphite and stitches its layers together to make it diamond. She has not created life, but there is nonetheless some satisfaction in creating a novel tool. The process of manufacturing such a robot is terribly inefficient, of course, and there is therefore no practical application in industry; still, this modest success attracts the notice of eyes attached to deep pockets. Grant funds flow toward her program.
The family, however, is not so easy to create as success has been. Deborah bites her lip each month and dreads telling Anthony that they have failed again. Months pass, a whole year. Anthony is unconcerned, because after all sometimes these things take a while. But one morning Deborah finds a gray hair growing just an inch back from her forehead. She is startled to discover another, then another, signs that her body is as traitorous to her will as all mere flesh ultimately is. She decides that time is not on her side, and takes matters into her own hands.
She goes to see her gynecologist, who sends her in turn to a reproductive endocrinologist, who prods her and draws many vials of blood and performs ultrasounds. She returns for her results on a bright, blue-skied Wednesday, hoping that today she will learn which miracle drug could make her into a mother. She returns home red-eyed and overcome by grief for the children she has not had, and now will never bear.
Anthony frowns at her. “Tell me what the doctor said.”
She repeats the tale she has just heard: Asp-like science biting the breast that nestled it close. It is the story of her own mother, once equally desperate to bear a child, and the miracle drug that would keep Deborah safe in her mother’s womb. It is this same drug ensuring that Deborah herself would be forever sterile.
She quietly suggests adoption. There are so many children in the world who need a family to love them.
“We could,” he says. He holds her tightly and strokes her hair. She is comforted that all will be well, after all.
Three months later, she is served with divorce proceedings as she works. She stares at the papers, the type smearing because her eyes are unable to focus. Deborah runs them through the shredder, enjoying the quiet buzz as the machine does its work eating her problems. When she comes home, the house has been stripped bare of all of Anthony’s belongings, and no small number of hers. She lies in the dark on the threadbare carpet in her empty bedroom, staring at the empty ceiling, clutching her empty womb.
She returns to work to do another test run.
Soon Deborah is running her own program, this time with military backing. She is no longer allowed to discuss her work casually, but it hardly matters, as she has nobody to discuss it with. She is made of nothing but work. She stays overnight in her lab very often; but sometimes, rarely, she escapes at night to the beach, and floats in the warm waves like an infant in amniotic fluid.
Her tiny machines grow into ever-more complex shapes, dazzling intellect and investors alike. Gradually, she coaxes them into becoming the devices the military desires: Eaters. She makes dozens of eaters, with dozens of appetites. For plastics, for proteins, even one to consume steel. In a fit of whimsy, she gives them the names she had once thought of bestowing on her children: Jack, Iris, Troy, Ella.
She watches news on the tiny television in the break room. Pakistan and India are strutting and howling at one another, as are China and Taiwan, and there are rumors of old Russian nuclear devices on the loose in Sudan. She wonders that she had ever wanted to bring children into this world, without first tearing the old one down.
At night she dreams of her children — the ones made by her mind, and not her body. Her eaters consume the world and remake it in their image, evolving over time from simple mechanical devices into a new kind of life, one completely apart from any mere human taxonomy. She wakes from these dreams with a sense of desperate purpose.
The problem with her eaters, as with her diamond-weaver, is one of manufacturing. Ideally, her little creatures could build or birth descendants on their own. She muses to herself that such a creature, an eater that breeds, is precisely the life in a bottle she has always wanted to make. Carbon on its own will never do. She calls on her early research with RNA, scouring old data and memory for a beacon to light her way. She finds it. One stunning night, she creates a molecule that eats its neighbors and makes another of itself; and then another, and another.
These creatures are trapped by the glass walls of their container, unable to consume the silica. She tests them for robustness, and for appetite; she feeds them rich syrups made of sugars, or emulsions of algae. She freezes them into ice and heats them into steam; they are at least as hungry and sturdy, she thinks, as any living microbe, and more so than most. Deborah is at last filled with a mother’s joy, the joy of creating life where there was none before.
She feeds her eaters seawater, and they consume that, too, and wait hungrily for more. She thinks about Shiva, Devourer of Worlds, and is proud that her offspring are so mighty. She knows she should report her findings, but she is reluctant to share the news.
She keeps a glass tube full of her children in the pocket of her lab coat. In the light of the moon, she stares at them, swimming in their infinite innocence. They are invisible to her eyes, and would be deadly to her touch, but they are all that she has in the world. It is enough, she thinks.
One day in the early autumn, she receives a visit from the grant supervisor. The lieutenant-colonel, a bony man with a majestic overbite, rubs the end of his nose with a thumb and forefinger and utters his terrible words. “I’m sorry, Deborah, but I’m afraid you didn’t pass the most recent psych evaluation. We’re going to have to remove you from the project.”
Deborah grasps the edge of her desk and sways from the shock. Dark spots swirl in her vision.
The lieutenant-colonel’s glasses focus all of his pity so it glares straight into her eyes, blinding her. A trick of the optics. “I’m sorry,” he says. “It can’t be helped.”
She clears out her desk under the guard of a Marine who does not make eye contact with her. She excuses herself to visit the ladies’ room on her way out, and the Marine kindly obliges her. She leans against the sink and stares at herself in the mirror. She is pale, she thinks, and the dark circles under her eyes speak of exhaustion long ignored. But none of that matters anymore.
She takes a glass test tube out of the pocket of her lab coat. She will surely be searched on her way out, and she would never be permitted to keep her children. She opens it. She drinks.
Deborah stands on the beach, looking out toward the sun. The clouds are stained by the setting sun, peaches and pinks that fill her with easy serenity. The tide comes in and foam swirls all around her ankles, cool and reassuring. When the water retreats, it eats away at the sand under her toes, sinking her deeper and deeper into her own footprints.
She presses her palms against her belly, where her children are growing, dreaming their quiet dream of a new kind of world. She closes her eyes and smiles.
It won’t be long now.
About Shiva's Mother
I posted this story here as the result of a Kickstarter campaign I ran in late October 2011 (more on that here and here.) There is an open thread on my blog to discuss the story, should you feel so inclined. My deepest thanks go out to every one of my altruistic, noble, and extremely attractive supporters.
Daniël van Gool