Ecotone is a finalist for the 2018 Stack Magazine Awards in Best Original Nonfiction and Best Original Fiction!
Check out the fine company we're in. And subscribe now to receive our upcoming fall/winter issue!

x
Menu

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer

I could have retired after a period in which the biology department of our College of Natural Sciences split into two. I had served as the department secretary for thirty years and had already submitted my retirement papers, but I decided to stay on another year. The head of the newly formed Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Dr. Joseph Fernandes, was instantly likable and cheerfully intelligent. He was quite young and had spent the last five years abroad at Stockholm University. He seemed happy to have escaped the monotonous chill of Scandinavia. Those first few weeks, I often observed him standing by his open window, enjoying the warm, bright days.

On his desk, he kept a picture of his wife, standing in front of a stone wall with a handful of tulips. A liveliness in the photograph caught my attention every time I passed it. I wondered when she would come prancing through the offices to introduce herself. In all my years as a department secretary, the wives always did this, refusing to be forgotten, even at times getting involved in controversies that had nothing to do with them. But his wife, whom he called Kitty, did not come and announce herself, and I soon learned that nothing in this small, fledgling department would happen as expected.

Early one morning, at the end of August, Dr. Fernandes stood by my desk instead of going directly to his office. He was holding a newspaper. “I need your help,” he declared.

He had already made a habit of saying this to me.

“Did you happen to see this editorial in the paper?” He put the news­paper on my desk and pointed to the article in question. It was authored by a Dr. Robert Smith of the Society for Science and Ethics. Dr. Fernandes asked if I’d heard of him.

“I haven’t,” I said truthfully. I never had much interest in reading the newspaper.

He waved his hand over the paper. “He completely mischaracterizes the scientific process. He equates the teaching of evolution with religious dogma.”

I nodded, trying to understand his mood, which I could only describe as a kind of calm panic.

“Everything he presents as the truth is actually an inverse of the truth. I was reading it to Kitty this morning and, suddenly, some things about this place started to make sense. The behavior of the students, for example, and some of the faculty, for that matter.”

“I see. Would you like some coffee, Dr. Fernandes?”

I was relieved that he said yes. I went to fetch the coffee and expected to take it to him in his office, but he had pulled up a chair to my desk and was frowning over the newspaper again.

When I sat back down, he continued to tell me about the myriad falsehoods in Dr. Smith’s editorial, most notably his claim that a legitimate minority of scientists was raising doubts about the age of the earth.

“But is all this really new?” I interjected. Here I felt the advantage of my age. I told Dr. Fernandes that in my thirty years with the department, evolution was one of those topics that had no shortage of detractors.

My word choice concerned him. “Detractors?”

“Yes, you know, a student from a devout family might write a letter of complaint.”

“Is that why the department broke up, because of detractors?”

“There is a pull toward agnosticism among the students that worries me,” Dr. Fernandes continued.

There I hesitated, fearing I had misspoken. I certainly didn’t have the expertise to explain why the department had split. From what I understood, Dr. Elam, who was the dean of the College of Natural Sciences, wanted the biological disciplines to have more of a professional emphasis, to prepare the students for careers in medicine and such. The split into two departments was meant to be a compromise, with the larger Biological and Biomedical Sciences absorbing most of the faculty, and our smaller department emphasizing foundational theory and investigative process.

Dr. Fernandes confessed to me that he hadn’t asked many questions when he was interviewing for this position.

“I don’t know how much they would have told you anyway,” I said. “I believe some of the conflict was personal.”

I was present at some of the meetings to take notes, and had read and filed some of the correspondence, but when he asked me if they had discussed evolution, religion, pedagogy, truth, reality—in other words, if they had mirrored the criticisms in the editorial—I simply couldn’t answer. Ultimately, the decision was made behind closed doors and came as a surprise to everyone. I don’t know what department secretaries were like in Sweden, but his inflated view of my role was somewhat amusing.

“There is a pull toward agnosticism among the students that worries me,” Dr. Fernandes continued. “A weak foundation in scientific thinking and, in my opinion, a fair amount of intellectual laziness.”

That felt a little unkind. After all, he hadn’t been with us very long.

“Perhaps there is a more rigorous style of education in Sweden,” I offered.

He sat back with his coffee, silent for a moment. The halls began to thrum with activity, students going to classes and departments opening their doors. One of our new faculty arrived and commented on the editorial as well, saying he had noticed it but thought it was laughable and poorly written. After a brief exchange with him that left Dr. Fernandes unimpressed, he asked, “Why is this argument in the paper? Why such a call to ignorance now? There’s nothing timely about it that I can see.”

“It does seem rather academic for the general public,” I said.

He nodded. “Something is happening here. Something is happening.” He kept repeating it, convincing himself. I couldn’t have known what he meant. I might have thought he was overreacting.

He asked me to schedule a department meeting. Then he went into his office and stayed there for several hours, refusing any calls. Around midmorning, he came to me with some roughly handwritten paragraphs and asked me to type them. It was a rebuttal to Smith’s editorial, giving short shrift to his philosophical argument, which he called “an empty and bold attempt to deny reality.” He said that apparently, these days, any fool could claim that black was white and up was down and call himself a doctor. I wondered if we ought to get approval from the college, as he was speaking on behalf of our department, but it wasn’t my place to get involved in that. He had the right to publish whatever he wanted. He was defending the discipline, which was ultimately good for everyone. While I worked on getting his letter to the newspaper, Dr. Fernandes found out more about Robert Smith and his organization. These findings disturbed him even more. Hovering over my desk again, he said Smith was dangerously influential, with grand political ambitions, and this would be a disaster not only for science but for all of modern society.

The letter appeared the next day, and to my surprise, it caused an immediate controversy. I don’t know that there was really an order to the incidents. It felt more like the whole ceiling coming down than a series of leaks. Maybe it began with the phones ringing. I took the first angry call as some sort of prank or wrong number. But they kept coming, threats of punishment so incommensurate with the supposed offense that many of us would gather around and laugh in disbelief. After a while, we had to screen the calls and turn over the tapes from our answering machines to the campus police. The letters were easier to sort through. I recruited a student to help me catalogue them, but she began to have nightmares and had to stop.

Instead of coming to our defense, the college reprimanded Dr. Fernandes for publishing the letter without approval. He and I were both called in to Dr. Elam’s office. For a few terrible years I had served Dr. Elam when he headed the biology department. How he made it to the dean’s office was a mystery to me, but I was glad to be rid of him. He complained that Dr. Fernandes had not gone through the proper channels. He said these were not the passions they had hired him for.

I was outraged. “I take full responsibility for this,” I said.

“Yes, you should have known better,” Dr. Elam agreed.

“It doesn’t matter,” Dr. Fernandes said. “Even if she had advised me to take the proper channels, I wouldn’t have complied.”

This was maddening to Dr. Elam. His little mouth puckered and he had nothing to say.

The following week, six students, two boys and four girls, stormed our office to confront Dr. Fernandes. I tried to get them to identify themselves, but they would only say that they were concerned members of the campus community. They wanted to ask Dr. Fernandes some questions about his editorial. Hearing the commotion, Dr. Fernandes came out of his office and offered to speak with them in the conference room, where there was more space and they could talk freely.

They refused to move, beginning their interrogation on the spot. One of the boys, with an intensely serious face and a silly haircut, claimed that everything Dr. Fernandes had said about religion could also apply to science. “In fact, isn’t science just another belief system?” he asked.

Dr. Fernandes answered the question without hesitation, not that he had much choice. “Science is a process for investigating reality, based on evidence.”

I wondered if he should have just hidden in his office. Everything he said prompted a new question, and it seemed we would never get rid of them. They asked him to define reality and he said, “Reality is everything that exists in the material world.” What about the spiritual world, they wanted to know, and he said that wasn’t the realm of science, unless it materialized as part of the natural and physical world, in which case the evidence would be evaluated scientifically. His answers were starting to frustrate them. They asked him why he insisted on lying to students and he said, laughing, “I’m not the one lying to you.”

This they took as the highest order of insult. They all started shouting at once, and the escalating scene attracted a larger crowd, until there was no more space in the office. Soon, the small group of protesters was surrounded by students and faculty who had spilled out from the classrooms and offices on our floor. I could see the situation getting out of hand, and called security to come and help clear the office, before someone got hurt. Perhaps it made things worse. The disrupters were forcefully taken out, and later used their removal as a reason to claim persecution.

During a relatively quiet moment afterward, Dr. Fernandes tried to apologize to me. I didn’t allow him to continue. It wasn’t only that I felt loyal to him. I could easily be disloyal if that was what I deeply felt, but in this public and volatile situation, I felt only pride. It would not have occurred to me to temper or discourage him. I sent him away brusquely, and after that it was always to be taken for granted that I was on his side.

 

In the midst of all this, he had been guarded about his wife, Kitty. I didn’t meet her but by chance one morning in September, at the farmer’s market. Every Saturday, I arrived before dawn to watch the pastel sunrise mist the aisles while the vendors set up their stalls. At the market, I was part of this constant motion of light and sound and people and bounty and voices, experiencing all the layers of life, all of its richness, through all my senses. I was happy there.

I recognized her around midmorning, standing by the flower stall with a handkerchief to her nose. She loved flowers, obviously, but perhaps her constitution did not allow her to enjoy them. She turned away, sneezing repeatedly, and when she was finished, she straightened her posture with a slightly panicked expression. Her dark eyes shimmered with tears. She wiped them dry as she walked down the aisle, away from the flowers. I wanted her to see me, to recognize me in return, but of course she had no reason to know what I looked like.

Her hand moved protectively to her belly, and I noticed then, with her dress pressed against her abdomen, that she was pregnant.

I caught up with her at one of the pastry stalls and touched her arm to get her attention. She turned around, and before I finished introducing myself, she grabbed my hand and cried, “It’s you. I know who you are.”

I blushed, wondering how she could have identified me so quickly. I knew her face well from the photograph on his desk. I couldn’t quite believe I was seeing her now in the flesh, and my disbelief caused me to cackle. Kitty smiled. “I want you to come for dinner one day. I keep telling Joseph to bring me your number but he forgets.”

“He’s dealing with so many important matters,” I said, but I didn’t think she had understood our situation. I was sure Dr. Fernandes was not eager to change the nature of our relationship.

She let go of my hand and reached into her bag. “I don’t have a pen,” she said. As she searched she seemed suddenly distracted. Her hand moved protectively to her belly, and I noticed then, with her dress pressed against her abdomen, that she was pregnant. I was just as distracted by her gesture, by her slender fingers and her nails trimmed all the way down to the fingertips.

“Are you all right?” I asked.

“I can’t find a pen,” she said, recovering. “Would you write your number down for me?”

I rummaged in my purse for a pen and the notepad where I made my shopping list. I wrote down my phone number, ripped off the paper, and gave it to her.

“I know how well you look after my husband,” she said, “I hope you’re happy with him.”

“I feel very lucky to work with him. I say so all the time.”

I don’t know if she heard me. Whereas she’d looked bright and energetic at the beginning of our interaction, now she seemed exhausted and empty. “I should let you go,” I said.

She again said she would have me over for dinner, and I said I would wait eagerly for her invitation. I watched her weave through the crowd and disappear.

On Monday, it was Dr. Fernandes who first mentioned my encounter with his wife. “You saw Kitty at the market,” he said.

“Yes, by the flower stand.”

“I thought it was pastries.”

“Yes, it was the pastries. And you’re . . . she’s pregnant?” I asked.

e smiled a little. “Yes, I guess she’s showing a bit.”

“What good news.”

With some hesitation, he told me that she had been pregnant before. I knew they had no children, but still, it took me a moment to understand what he was trying to tell me. By the time it dawned on me, I was embarrassed and didn’t know how to react. I stumbled and said, “I’ll keep her in my prayers.” It sounded entirely false. I was not an avid atheist, like him, but I hadn’t prayed in years.

“How did she look to you?” he asked.

“I’m sorry?”

Then he was the one who appeared embarrassed. He put his hand up and said, “Never mind.”

 

The students who had been removed from our office circulated a petition demanding an apology from Dr. Fernandes. They gathered a hundred signatures and delivered the petition to Dr. Elam’s office. Naturally, Dr. Fernandes refused to issue an apology, and the college decided to hold a community meeting about the controversy, a misstep on their part. Dr. Fernandes had managed to galvanize some support among the students and faculty, and the group that had invaded our office that day was largely outnumbered. The meeting only highlighted the absurdity of the situation. When Dr. Fernandes was invited to speak, he said, “A powerful group of religious ideologues is convincing our young people that there is no provable reality, that reality is a matter of opinion. Surely, our college would want to dispute that notion.” One of the agitators tried to heckle him during the speech, but was quickly silenced by the audience. One thing was clear. Dr. Fernandes could not be easily deterred.

Yet, despite being in the minority, the agitators didn’t give up. They kept circulating their petitions and making their case. They began disrupting classes, staging demonstrations, and putting flyers up around the campus. They didn’t come back into our office, but they did often gather in the lobby, where their amplified voices made them sound much more numerous than they were. Most troubling was that their numbers did grow, not by many, but enough to make us wonder if there wasn’t a silent majority of them. The students on our side were not as passionate.

Even Dr. Fernandes seemed worn down by the constant activity, but he had other problems. Only a few weeks after I saw Kitty at the market, he called me from the hospital to tell me that she had lost the baby and that he would be out for a few days. He gave me explicit directions about whom to inform, and said they didn’t want any visitors. I spent some time ordering flowers and almost had them delivered, until I remembered her sneezing by the flower stall at the market. I canceled the order and chose a simple card instead, which I circulated within our department and mailed to their home.

When he returned, he was no different than before. I saw people hesitating, wondering if they should offer their condolences, but he managed to discourage us without saying a word. There was no time to mourn anyway. Keeping our department alive was a consuming battle, and after a while, Kitty and her lost pregnancy were all but forgotten, though I thought about her often. Every time I saw her picture in his office, I felt unsatisfied. I wanted to inquire about her, or send her a note. It seemed wrong to treat her loss with so much austerity, but the opportunity to bring it up didn’t present itself.

 

Eventually, some of the disruption fell away, or else we got used to a certain level of conflict and moved on. By November, we were beginning to function more smoothly. Midterm exams were given, grades were entered, and everyone—the students, professors, administrators, and staff—settled into their roles. Dr. Fernandes was invited to give a talk at an important conference and would be away for two days. He told me Kitty would not be going with him. He asked if she could call on me. She had been wanting to invite me ever since she’d met me at the market. He thought this would be a good time.

She called me Saturday morning and invited me over for lunch. Before I left, I took a pill for palpitations. I don’t socialize easily and worried that I wouldn’t say the right things. The medicine stops my thoughts from racing, makes me better able to listen and respond in situations that would otherwise turn me mute. Indeed, I was very calm as I walked among the willows and cherry trees to the faculty apartments, sensing the whole world to be this tranquil. The leaves fluttered against a chalky gray sky. I carried a bottle of wine as a gift.

I paused by the window, thinking of the first time I saw this campus when I was twenty years old. I had thought if I could make a home here, my luck would be unsurpassed.

I had been to the faculty apartments often over the years, to make deliveries and occasionally help set up a luncheon or cocktail reception. They were lovely old dusty apartments. To me the halls smelled like sweet pipe tobacco. Outside of Dr. Fernandes’s apartment, on the third floor, there was a tall cathedral window looking out to the university clock tower. I paused by the window, thinking of the first time I saw this campus when I was twenty years old. I had thought if I could make a home here, my luck would be unsurpassed.

Kitty opened the door before I had a chance to knock. I turned awkwardly, holding the wine bottle up in the air. She took it from me and invited me into the living room, treating me as if I were a frequent guest in her home. She looked much healthier than I expected. The only possible indications of her grief were her black dress and black cardigan.

She set the wine bottle on the coffee table. Mismatched furniture, arranged around a worn Persian rug, cluttered the living room. The walls were lined with overfilled bookshelves. In a corner nook, two leather armchairs flanked an antique end table. I imagined a couple growing old in those chairs, reading side by side when there is nothing left to talk about. It was a sharp contrast to my apartment, which was spare and sunlit, with golden walls and three large, square rooms. I could easily account for the few things I owned. I never had people over.

I accompanied her to the kitchen, where something was simmering on the stove and a pan of dough balls sat readied to go in the oven. We talked about nothing of consequence until the air was thick with the sweet smell of butter rolls. She filled two bowls with a thick beef stew and sat us down at a small table by a window that looked out to the courtyard. I broke open a warm roll and let a bite of it melt on my tongue. I rarely have more than a cup of soup for lunch, but in front of Kitty I could not seem to stop eating. She ate slowly and seized an opportunity to talk more openly.

“I wanted to thank you for the card you sent. People sent me chocolates and stuffed toys. Does that seem strange to you? What would I want with a stuffed toy? Why would I eat a chocolate after losing my baby?”

I dropped my spoon and drank some water, thankful that I hadn’t sent her a stuffed toy or chocolates. “How are you now?” I asked.

Her left hand was strangling her napkin. I reached for another roll.

“My uterus is misshapen. The baby . . . ,” she paused and corrected herself, “the fetus can’t get enough oxygen. It suffocates in my womb. My womb is a death chamber. That’s what the nurse said to me.”

I doubted a nurse would say such a thing. Those had to be Kitty’s words.

“She was right,” Kitty said. “I had to accept that she was right. It kept happening, always at twenty weeks. I thought it was Sweden, the cold, the water, the doctors. Joseph didn’t want to come home, but I was unbearable.”

I had not expected her to be so frank. This spilling-forth of her marital conflicts put me in an awkward position.

“I thought it would be different here, but it isn’t. I was born this way. My body’s no good for having babies.”

These difficult thoughts tumbled out of her one after the other, as if she had no control over their release. “I’m so sorry,” I said.

“I wanted to have my uterus cut out. I mean, what’s the point of keeping it? But they would only tie my tubes.”

“It’s less invasive,” I said.

“See, Joseph was going to have a vasectomy when we were in Sweden. But I kept thinking, what if he could still be a father, with someone else? A Swedish woman! Men can become fathers at any age.”

I took a deep breath. “I’m sure he wouldn’t want that.”

She nudged her bowl, still half filled with stew, away from her. “I’ve made you uncomfortable. Joseph says I should let people get to know me before I start talking about his balls.”

I coughed into my napkin, and when I was finished I could not help laughing, and Kitty also began to laugh, to quake with laughter, at one point covering her face. I was moved by the motion of her hands, a swift caress of her cheeks as her laughter subsided and she revealed herself again, her eyes still bright and playful. I saw her as a husband might see her, an incarnation of pure joy.

After lunch, we went back into the living room, where she eyed the bottle of wine on the coffee table. She picked it up and studied the label. “I forgot all about this,” she said. She went back into the kitchen and returned with two crystal glasses and a corkscrew. She knelt down, freed the cork, and poured wine into our glasses. There was an ashtray on the coffee table. I took out my cigarette case.

“You don’t mind?” I asked.

“Of course not,” she said.

She watched me light my cigarette.

“Joseph tells me you’re not married.”

“It’s true. I’ve never been married.”

“May I ask why?”

“I missed the opportunity, I suppose.” I didn’t feel like telling her that I’d had a chance once, when I first came to work at the college. He was a doctoral student and would have been a good husband, kind and devoted, but hard as I tried I could not love him. After some time, he went away, and that was for the best.

“I wanted to buy you a gift,” Kitty said. “But Joseph couldn’t tell me what you would have liked.”

“A gift? Why?”

“To thank you. For standing by him. It all sounds very difficult and I couldn’t help him. I couldn’t listen.”

I shook my head. “You are both very hard on yourselves.”

She smiled. “He admires you. He said maybe in another life, you would have been a scientist yourself.”

“Oh, good God, no. He’s wrong about that.”

“But someone in your own right.”

I thought this was strange. “I am someone in my own right, Kitty. So are you.”

She demurred, but I could see she wasn’t convinced.

“Tell me what you would like to do with your life now,” I said. “Before you were married, what did you want for yourself?”

“I wanted to be a mother.”

“What else? There must have been something else.”

She stood up, walking back and forth with the cigarette between her fingers as if she were trying out another identity.

She didn’t take long to think. “No. There was nothing. I wanted to be a dancer once, but I wasn’t any good.”

I gave up, realizing she had not invited me here to advise her.

“What about you?” she asked. “I don’t believe it was your dream to become a department secretary.” This didn’t offend me. I was pleased to see this spark in her.

“All I ever wanted was to be able to stand on my own two feet. But for a while, I studied painting.”

Kitty was shocked. “Why did you stop?”

I didn’t have a satisfactory answer. Over time, I might have become good enough to call myself a painter, but I didn’t like being so hungry. “It was expensive. I didn’t want the struggle.”

She looked disappointed. I took out another cigarette. “May I have one of those?” she asked.

I passed her my carton and lit her cigarette for her. She was tentative, but this was not her first time smoking. She stood up, walking back and forth with the cigarette between her fingers as if she were trying out another identity. All I could see now was a dancer. She stopped in front of a gold-framed mirror on the wall next to the sofa where I was sitting. She watched herself inhale, and then she parted her lips, letting the long ribbons of smoke unfurl and drift away. For the first time in many years, I had a desire to paint.

We kept on drinking and smoking. She told me she’d grown up in a strict Catholic household, one of six siblings. She was terrified all her life of hellfire and purgatory, but she had loved being part of a large family. Eloping with Joseph had been her one great rebellion. For her it was like coming out of a dark cellar into the sunlight. No one had ever told her the truth about the world before. When he asked her to marry him, she said she wanted to have many children, and he said he had nothing against children. She was happy to remember this. Her cheeks were flushed and she became animated. Suddenly, she glided to one of the bookshelves and grabbed an old book. I didn’t know what she was up to until she stood in front of the coffee table and asked me if I knew Walt Whitman.

I swallowed some dread. “Oh Captain, My Captain?”

She laughed. “No, this one. It will remind you of Joseph.” She read the title, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” and recited the poem in a clear voice.

When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the
lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

I couldn’t remember the last time I’d listened to a poem. At first, I gathered the poet could not understand the astronomer’s lecture and walked out, but in spite of that, or because of it, he was able to look in amazement at the stars in the night sky. I would have liked to hear the poem again. I didn’t understand the use of the word unaccountable, and I don’t think he actually said he didn’t understand the lecture, but that he felt sick and tired, so perhaps he did comprehend it, more than he wanted to, and his body repelled it, rejected knowledge in favor of awe, insisting on an incomprehensible universe.

After she read the poem, Kitty didn’t look up from the book. Just as quickly as her mood had lifted, it fell again. I told her that I enjoyed the poem, that it did remind me, in a way, of Dr. Fernandes, but she kept holding the book, staring into it.

“It’s not that I can’t be something else. But I wanted to give birth. I wanted to be a part of the wonder.”

My heart broke for her, even if I didn’t understand this compulsion. “You already are, Kitty.” She herself couldn’t see that her vitality, even in this state, was breathtaking.

She tried to smile. “You’re very kind.”

I prepared to leave. It was late in the afternoon and Joseph would be back in a few hours. She walked me to the door and we said good-bye, but she held on to my hand. She took a deep breath and said, quietly, “Joseph doesn’t tell me how he feels. He only tells me what he thinks.” This, I could see, was what she had been waiting all afternoon to tell me. I was grateful that she’d found her courage.

“Maybe he doesn’t have the words, Kitty.”

She nodded, and kissed me on the cheek. It had been a long time since I’d felt anyone’s lips press into my skin, but somehow it was familiar enough. I wanted to return the gesture somehow, but all I could do was smile and take my leave.

 

On Monday, Dr. Fernandes thanked me for spending time with Kitty. He himself looked exhausted, beleaguered by the battles of his private and professional life. I didn’t want to be thanked for spending time with Kitty, any more than I wanted him to apologize for writing his editorial. On that day, after he went into his office and closed the door, I remember feeling a profound sadness that made my skin hurt. There was no relief from it, all the more so because I didn’t know what had caused it.

Then Kitty appeared without warning, only a few days later. She slipped into the department while I was typing and appeared at my desk without a sound, like a ghost. I looked up, startled. She looked sick and disheveled, and was clutching some kind of parcel in her hand, tightly. I went to her right away, and when I was in front of her she fell forward into my arms and wept like a small child. Dr. Fernandes was in a meeting. I couldn’t phone him and console her at the same time, but I didn’t want anyone else to see her like this. I guided her into her husband’s office and sat her in a chair. I knelt down and tried to get her to look at me, but she kept dropping her head. Tears from her eyes fell onto the parcel on her lap. “What happened, Kitty?”

I could see her struggling to speak. A few words came out in gasps, nothing I could understand. I took the parcel away, a thick brown envelope that bulged at the bottom, addressed to their home. There was no return address. I unwrapped her hand from my wrist. “I’ll only be a minute, Kitty,” and as quickly as I could I ran to my desk and called the conference room. I told Dr. Fernandes to come back, that it was urgent, and hung up the phone. I dropped the parcel and went to get a glass of water for Kitty.

I returned to her and held the glass of water to her lips, cradling the back of her head while she drank. She was exhausted, but she cried again when she saw him at the door. I stepped away and let him come. He encapsulated her, swallowed her up in his arms and allowed her, for as long as she wanted it, to disappear. I didn’t realize, until that moment, that I’d never seen them together.

Kitty had opened all of the letters, had read about her body, soul, and marriage, about her sins and those of her husband. The price of the cure was surrender. It must have sounded easy after a while.

It was nearly the end of the work day. I left them alone and emptied the contents of the parcel onto my desk. There were at least twenty items inside, handwritten and typed letters, pamphlets, and one glossy, professionally bound booklet with a picture of a pregnant woman on the cover. It was called Understanding Fertility, but it was all about the three levels of “barrenness”—inability to conceive, miscarriage, and stillbirth—and their causes. Miscarriages, for example, could be caused by heresy and demonic possession, from which a woman who is given to unholiness turns her womb into a death chamber.

Someone had carefully curated this package, included psalm cards and brochures and a stack of letters, all of which were signed by people who saw no crime in sharing God’s love with a grieving woman. Kitty had opened all of the letters, had read about her body, soul, and marriage, about her sins and those of her husband. The price of the cure was surrender. It must have sounded easy after a while.

The sun went down and the office fell dark. I turned on the desk lamp and waited for Dr. Fernandes to come out and tell me to go home. I began to hear Kitty’s muffled voice through the wall, and his, less frequently. As they talked, I started thinking about the things no one knew about me anymore. I was an orphan, but it wasn’t that I’d never known love. I loved very fiercely, and for that I was punished in every way imaginable. Perhaps I had not turned out like my caretakers, as I vowed not to, but still, sometimes, I think they did win.

I don’t know how long it was before he opened and closed his door softly. He came to my desk and stared at the remnants scattered across it. He had aged over the past few months. The lines on his face had hardened, but now, as he watched me gather up the materials and place them back in the envelope, he looked young again, unconfident, confounded. He wasn’t capable of understanding this. He asked me what they wanted. I looked up at him, and as gently as I could, I said, “They want to save her.”

I put the envelope in my drawer. I would make copies and hand them to someone when it mattered. Dr. Fernandes never would ask to see it. Even he had limits to what he wanted to know, and I thought foolishly that it wasn’t necessary for him to understand, that I could understand it for him, and Kitty could understand it, but we didn’t need to impart our understanding to him. I know now that was a mistake.

We sat together, mostly in silence. Kitty had fallen asleep as they talked. He wanted her to rest a little longer before he took her home.

After a while, he told me what Kitty had said. It wasn’t the package that upset her. She said she had been fine when she left the apartment. She was coming to show it to him, and find out what he wanted to do about it.

I thought something must have happened to her on the way. Maybe she was being followed, or saw one of the flyers that had been posted around campus a few weeks back. But it was nothing like that. He explained that as she got closer, she thought about turning back and couldn’t decide. She stood outside the building for a long time, and this was when she became distraught. When something that should have been easy, showing her husband a violation of their private matters, became difficult.

He rubbed tears from his eyes. “When Kitty lost the baby,” he said, “it was a relief to be here. To have this fight. Even if Kitty was alone. Even if she had nothing. I thought it would hurt her more if she knew how much I wanted our children to be born.”

I reached across and took his hand. “You won’t leave her alone again,” I said. I would make sure of it. It was important to me that they not lose each other. I told him how I’d loved a girl like Kitty once. I lost her, and I never recovered.

 

There were months after that, in which I loved and looked after them as well as I could, but still they left me. Joseph gave talks about a war brewing, a war of ideas that we couldn’t afford to lose. He said it was science, not myth, that could best serve our need for revelation. He worked that part out with Kitty. She wanted him to inspire people, not frighten them. I remember hoping it would never go beyond a war of ideas. We weren’t ready for anything else.

The night my telephone rang, I was half-awake, peripherally aware of the physical world, but I knew something terrible had happened. I thought if I didn’t answer it, if it stopped ringing, then reality too would recede into the darkness. But it didn’t stop ringing. As soon as Dr. Elam started talking, I understood that I was alone again. He told me that Joseph was dead, that his car had blown up on the street where they lived. He had left Kitty out of the story, but of course she was with him in the car, and was also gone.

I was taken to the office, where Dr. Elam had a list of tasks for me. I walked away from him. He followed me and watched from the doorway as I took the photograph of Kitty and slipped it into my bag. I closed my eyes, but there was nothing, no memories or thoughts or voices. Only silence. Only stillness. I could have stayed there forever, but Dr. Elam demanded my attention. He had already decided to shut our department down, hoping it would stop the barbarians at the gate. It would not.

I opened my eyes, and in the shock of light I turned to him and said, “I’m ready.”