Authors: Andrea Barrett
For Wendy Weil
Portions of this book have appeared previously in the following magazines: “The English Pupil” in
The Southern Review;
“The Littoral Zone” and
“The Marburg Sisters” in
New England Review
; “The Behavior of the Hawkweeds” in
The Missouri Review.
My thanks to those magazines and their editors. “Rare Bird” first appeared in
The Writing Path: An Anthology of New Writing from Writers' Conferences and Festivals
(University of Iowa Press); my thanks to them as well.
“The Behavior of the Hawkweeds” was selected for
Best American Short Stories,
1995 (Jane Smiley, Guest Editor).
Grateful acknowledgment is also made to the National Endowment for the Arts, for its generous support, and to the MacDowell Colony, for its gift of time and space.
Finally, my thanks to Margot Livesey, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Sarah Stone, and Carol Houck Smith, for their insightful reading and thoughtful suggestions.
For thirty years, until he retired, my husband stood each fall in front of his sophomore genetics class and passed out copies of Gregor Mendel's famous paper on the hybridization of edible peas. This paper was a model of clarity, Richard told his students. It represented everything that science should be.
Richard paced in front of the chalkboard, speaking easily and without notes. Like the minor evolutionist Robert Chambers, he had been born hexadactylic; he was sensitive about his left hand, which was somewhat scarred from the childhood operation that had removed his extra finger. And so, although Richard gestured freely he used only his right hand and kept his left in his pocket. From the back of the room, where I sat when I came each fall to hear him lecture, I could watch the students listen to him.
After he passed out the paper, Richard told the students his first, conventional version of Gregor Mendel's life. Mendel, he said, grew up in a tiny village in the northwestern corner of Moravia, which was then a part of the Hapsburg Empire and later became part of Czechoslovakia. When he was twenty-one, poor and desperate for further education, he entered the Augustinian monastery in the capital city of BrÃ¼nn, which is now called Brno. He studied science and later taught at a local high school. In 1856, at the age of thirty-four, he began his experiments
in the hybridization of the edible pea. For his laboratory he used a little strip of garden adjoining the monastery wall.
Over the next eight years Mendel performed hundreds of experiments on thousands of plants, tracing the ways in which characteristics were passed through generations. Tall and short plants, with white or violet flowers; peas that were wrinkled or smooth; pods that were arched or constricted around the seeds. He kept meticulous records of his hybridizations in order to write the paper the students now held in their hands. On a clear, cold evening in 1865, he read the first part of this paper to his fellow members of the BrÃ¼nn Society for the Study of Natural Science. About forty men were present, a few professional scientists and many serious amateurs. Mendel read to them for an hour, describing his experiments and demonstrating the invariable ratios with which traits appeared in his hybrids. A month later, at the Society's next meeting, he presented the theory he'd formulated to account for his results.
Right there, my husband said, right in that small, crowded room, the science of genetics was born. Mendel knew nothing of genes or chromosomes or DNA, but he'd discovered the principles that made the search for those things possible.
“Was there applause?” Richard always asked at this point. “Was there a great outcry of approval or even a mutter of disagreement?” A rhetorical question; the students knew better than to answer.
“There was not. The minutes of that meeting show that no questions were asked and no discussion took place. Not one person in that room understood the significance of what Mendel had presented. A year later, when the paper was published, no one noticed it.”
The students looked down at their papers and Richard finished his story quickly, describing how Mendel went back to his monastery and busied himself with other things. For a while he continued to teach and to do other experiments; he raised
grapes and fruit trees and all kinds of flowers, and he kept bees. Eventually he was elected abbot of his monastery, and from that time until his death he was occupied with his administrative duties. Only in 1900 was his lost paper rediscovered and his work appreciated by a new generation of scientists.
When Richard reached this point, he would look toward the back of the room and catch my eye and smile. He knew that I knew what was in store for the students at the end of the semester. After they'd read the paper and survived the labs where fruit flies bred in tubes and displayed the principles of Mendelian inheritance, Richard would tell them the other Mendel story. The one I told him, in which Mendel is led astray by a condescending fellow scientist and the behavior of the hawkweeds. The one in which science is not just unappreciated, but bent by loneliness and longing.
I had a reason for showing up in that classroom each fall, and it was not just that I was so dutiful, so wifely. Richard was not the one who introduced Mendel into my life.
When I was a girl, during the early years of the Depression, my grandfather, Anton Vaculik, worked at a nursery in Niskayuna, not far from where Richard and I still live in Schenectady. This was not the only job my grandfather had ever had, but it was the one he liked the best. He had left Moravia in 1891 and traveled to the city of Bremen with his pregnant wife. From there he'd taken a boat to New York and then another to Albany. He'd meant to journey on to one of the large Czech settlements in Minnesota or Wisconsin, but when my mother was born six weeks early he settled his family here instead. A few other Czech families lived in the area, and one of those settlers hired my grandfather to work in a small factory that made mother-of-pearl buttons for women's blouses.
Later, after he learned more English, he found the nursery
job that he liked so much. He worked there for thirty years; he was so skilled at propagating plants and grafting trees that his employers kept him on part-time long past the age when he should have retired. Everyone at the nursery called him Tony, which sounded appropriately American. I called him Tati, a corruption of
which is Czech for “dad” and was what my mother called him. I was named Antonia after him.
We were never hungry when I was young, we were better off than many, but our daily life was a web of small economies. My mother took in sewing, making over jackets and mending pants; when she ironed she saved the flat pieces for last, to be pressed while the iron was cooling and the electricity was off. My father's wages had been cut at the GE plant and my older brothers tried to help by scrounging for odd jobs. I was the only idle member of the family, and so on weekends and during the summer my mother sometimes let me go with Tati. I loved it when Tati put me to work.
At the nursery there were fields full of fruit trees, peach and apple and pear, and long, low, glass houses full of seedlings. I followed Tati around and helped him as he transplanted plants or worked with his sharp, curved knife and his grafting wax. I sat next to him on a tall, wooden stool, holding his forceps or the jar of methylated spirits as he emasculated flowers. While we worked he talked, which is how I learned about his early days in America.
The only time Tati frowned and went silent was when his new boss appeared. Sheldon Hardy, the old chief horticulturalist, had been our friend; he was Tati's age and had worked side by side with Tati for years, cutting scions and whip-grafting fruit trees. But in 1931, the year I was ten, Mr. Hardy had a heart attack and went to live with his daughter in Ithaca. Otto Leiniger descended on us shortly after that, spoiling part of our pleasure every day.
Leiniger must have been in his late fifties. He lost no time
telling Tati that he had a master's degree from a university out west, and it was clear from his white lab coat and the books in his office that he thought of himself as a scholar. In his office he sat at a big oak desk, making out lists of tasks for Tati with a fancy pen left over from better days; once he had been the director of an arboretum. He tacked the lists to the propagating benches, where they curled like shavings of wood from the damp, and when we were deep in work he'd drift into the glass house and hover over us. He didn't complain about my presence, but he treated Tati like a common laborer. One day he caught me alone in a greenhouse filled with small begonias we'd grown from cuttings.
Tati had fitted a misting rose to a pot small enough for me to handle, and I was watering the tiny plants. It was very warm beneath the glass roof. I was wearing shorts and an old white shirt of Tati's, with nothing beneath it but my damp skin; I was only ten. There were benches against the two side walls and another, narrower, propagating bench running down the center of the house. On one side of this narrow bench I stood on an overturned crate to increase my reach, bending to mist the plants on the far side. When I looked up Leiniger was standing across from me. His face was round and heavy, with dark pouches beneath his eyes.
“You're a good little helper,” he said. “You help your grandpapa out.” Tati was in the greenhouse next door, examining a new crop of fuchias.
“I like it here,” I told Leiniger. The plants beneath my hands were Rex begonias, grown not for their flowers but for their showy, ruffled leaves. I had helped Tati pin the mother leaves to the moist sand and then transplant the babies that rooted from the ribs.
Leiniger pointed at the row of begonias closest to him, farthest from me. “These seem a little dry,” he said. “Over here.”
I didn't want to walk around the bench and stand by his side. “You can reach,” he said. “Just lean over a little farther.”
I stood up on my toes and bent across the bench, stretching the watering pot to reach those farthest plants. Leiniger flushed. “That's right,” he said thickly. “Lean towards me.”
Tati's old white shirt gaped at the neck and fell away from my body when I bent over. I stretched out my arm and misted the begonias. When I straightened I saw that Leiniger's face was red and that he was pressed against the wooden bench.
“Here,” he said, and he made a shaky gesture at another group of plants to the right of him. “These here, these are also very dry.”
I was afraid of him, and yet I also wanted to do my job and feared that any sloppiness on my part might get Tati in trouble. I leaned over once again, the watering pot in my hand. This time Leiniger reached for my forearm with his thick fingers. “Not those,” he said, steering my hand closer to the edge of the bench, which he was still pressed against. “These here, these are very dry.”
Just as the pot brushed the front of his lab coat, Tati walked in. I can imagine, now, what that scene must have looked like to him. Me bent over that narrow bench, my toes barely touching the crate and the white shirt hanging down like a sheet to the young begonias below; Leiniger red-faced, sweating, grinding into the wooden bench. And his hand, that guilty hand, forcing me towards him. I dropped the pot when I heard Tati shout my name.
Who can say what Leiniger had in mind? To Tati it must have looked as though Leiniger was dragging me across the begonias to him. But Leiniger was just a lonely old man and it seems possible to me, now, that he wanted only the view down my shirt and that one small contact with the skin of my inner arm. Had Tati not entered the greenhouse just then, nothing more might have happened.
But Tati saw the worst in what was there. He saw that fat hand on my arm and those eyes fixed on my childish chest. He
had a small pruning knife in his hand. When he called my name and I dropped the pot, Leiniger clamped down on my arm. As I was tearing myself away, Tati flew over and jabbed his knife into the back of Leiniger's hand.
” he shouted. “
Leiniger screamed and stumbled backward. Behind him was the concrete block on which I stood to water the hanging plants, and that block caught Leiniger below the knees. He went down slowly, heavily, one hand clutching the wound on the other and a look of disbelief on his face. Tati was already reaching out to catch him when Leiniger cracked his head against a heating pipe.
But of course this is not what I told Richard. When we met, just after the war, I was working at the GE plant that had once employed my father and Richard was finishing his thesis. After my father died I had dropped out of junior college; Richard had interrupted his Ph.D. program to join the Navy, where he'd worked for three years doing research on tropical fungi. We both had a sense of urgency and a need to make up for lost time. During our brief courtship, I told Richard only the things that I thought would make him love me.
On our second date, over coffee and Italian pastries, I told Richard that my grandfather had taught me a little about plant breeding when I was young, and that I was fascinated by genetics. “Tati lived with us for a while, when I was a girl,” I said. “He used to take me for walks through the empty fields of Niskayuna and tell me about Gregor Mendel. I still know a pistil from a stamen.”
“Mendel's my hero,” Richard said. “He's always been my ideal of what a scientist should be. It's not so often I meet a woman familiar with his work.”
“I know a lot about him,” I said. “What Tati told meâyou'd be surprised.” I didn't say that Tati and I had talked about
Mendel because we couldn't stand to talk about what we'd both lost.
Tati slept in my room during the months before the trial; he was released on bail on the condition that he leave his small house in Rensselaer and stay with us. I slept on the couch in the living room and Leiniger lay unconscious in the Schenectady hospital. We were quiet, Tati and I. No one seemed to want to talk to us. My brothers stayed away from the house as much as possible and my father worked long hours. My mother was around, but she was so upset by what had happened that she could hardly speak to either Tati or myself. The most she could manage to do was to take me aside, a few days after Tati's arrival, and say, “What happened to Leiniger wasn't your fault. It's an old-country thing, what's between those men.”
She made me sit with her on the porch, where she was turning mushrooms she'd gathered in the woods and laid out to dry on screens. Red, yellow, violet, buff. Some pieces were drier than others. While she spoke she moved from screen to screen, turning the delicate fragments.
“What country?” I said. “What are you talking about?”
“Tati is Czech,” my mother said. “Like me. Mr. Leiniger's family is German, from a part of Moravia where only Germans live. Tati and Mr. Leiniger don't like each other because of things that happened in the Czech lands a long time ago.”